S1| Ep22: Awakening (下)
March 15, 2013
(A/N: All I’m gonna say is — I am not looking forward to editing this. 😛 Lots of stuff I kinda wish I’d handled differently or set up better earlier on…)
There was the sound of a scuffle. Hadil peeked around the corner again, unable to resist her curiosity — just in time to see two men pulling Tuyet back away from the bearded man. Something glinted at her feet. The bearded man kicked it away, and Hadil realized it had been a knife.
“What’s going on?” she whispered.
Kikue, who had joined her again in watching as well, shook her head slowly and said only, “That’s Mok.”
The leader of the rebels, whose name had been plastered all over the papers for weeks. Hadil had guessed as much. But what on earth were they doing here? And Tuyet? Hadil hadn’t known her well, of course, being in different years and divisions. But the one time they’d spoken at length, right before the new year, after the kerfluffle in the mountains, the older girl had struck her as friendly and intelligent, betraying neither sympathy with the rebels nor any particular grudge against them. Very professional, Hadil had thought at the time, and no doubt well on her way to a nice position once she graduated.
“Shouldn’t we — I don’t know — do something?”
“What would you suggest?” Kikue replied drily.
“How should I know? You’re the one who’s being trained for this kind of thing, not me!”
“Yes. I suppose.”
“And here I thought you’d be raring to rush right in and blow some heads off…”
But they fell silent as Mok suddenly leaned forward with a hiss and wrenched something away from around Tuyet’s neck.
“This. This is it.”
The rebels around them broke out into a murmur.
“So,” Tuyet said loudly, pitching her voice above the crowd. “You’ve got your dumb rock at last. Aren’t you going to celebrate?”
Mok frowned. “The knowledge of thousands of generations is embedded in this ‘dumb rock’, as you so eloquently put it.”
“Doesn’t change the fact that it’s just a rock.”
“A rock for which thousands of lives have been sacrificed.”
Tuyet continued to glare at him, but Hadil thought her shoulders seemed to slump just the slightest bit.
“I am surprised, I must confess,” said Mok. “That you were able to find this place, and in such a timely manner.”
“Why, expecting someone else?” spat Tuyet.
Mok, to Hadil’s surprise, laughed. “Does it matter? That coward Gushiken himself could come now for all I care! I’d invite him in for a drink. A toast to our old friendship!”
“That creepy hermit was friends with this guy?” Hadil muttered, incredulous. “Is he lying out of his ass or what?”
Kikue shushed her.
“What do you plan to do now?” demanded Tuyet.
“Oh, you’ll see. You’ll see soon enough.”
A large cracking noise split through the air.
Hadil and Kikue exchanged a glance. Hadil shrugged and shook her head, bewildered.
“What was that?” demanded one of the men in the cavern beyond.
It grew quiet again, suspiciously so. Hadil held herself perfectly still, not daring to move lest she made some noise that gave away their presence. Not even with Kikue making a funny frantic face at her and gesturing wildly with her hands. Why was she doing that anyway? Didn’t she see how dangerous the situation had become?
Behind her, a voice exclaimed.
Hadil yelped, understanding too late that Mok had signaled for his men to check the tunnels without saying a word, and made a run for it, managing to throw a few pursuers to the ground when they reached out to grab her. All those hours of Grandfather’s harsh training were paying off after all, she thought in a floaty distant panic. Behind her, she heard a man scream, howling something about a bitten arm.
But there were simply too many men, and nowhere to flee. Hadil was soon captured, and a quick glance to her right confirmed that Kikue had fared little better.
They were dragged into the cavern. Tuyet looked at them blankly, without any hint of surprise whatsoever, as if she neither recognized them nor cared. Hadil noted for the first time that the older girl’s clothes were stained dark with blood, and that her face was unnaturally pale.
She was hurt.
The man named Mok shook his head, almost sadly.
“More of Bea’s kids snooping around?” he said.
“What should we do with them, sir?”
“Let them join the audience for now. Too late for them to pull anything now, but I’ll not take those chances. We’ll deal with them all later.”
He held out his arm. A strange jade carving dangled from its chain before him, its circular form etched with markings that seemed to resemble writing, but not any characters Hadil could recognize.
“It is time.”
* * *
Rusli slumped against a wall.
“I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault. I should have stopped her –”
No one spoke up to offer words of reassurance. Rusli and Tuyet had charged on ahead, making sure at first to pause every now and then to wait for Intan and the others. But those halts had grown fewer and fewer, and shorter and shorter. This time, when Intan and the boys caught up, Rusli was alone.
“If she’s got a death wish,” Eguzki said at last, “it’s none of our concern.”
But Intan heard the renewed rage simmering beneath his impassive surface, and knew that he was still frustrated with Tuyet’s recklessness, both earlier and now.
“She insisted on going ahead,” Rusli explained. “She’s confronted Mok before already, after all. Even so…”
“What now?” asked the Hibiscus boy.
Rusli closed his eyes briefly. “We must be nearing the surface again. The texture of the rock’s changed. There must be an exit nearby — but if there is, it must be one the rebels are aware of. Still, if you want to back out now, it’s your last chance to escape.”
“I suppose you have a death wish as well?” growled Eguzki.
“You must have had a plan,” said the Hibiscus boy, with something approaching sharpness in his tone.
Rusli looked surprised. “I did. But now that Dugu’s run off –” He shook his head. “You must think me terribly indecisive. I’m sorry. I… we have to stop them. That remains unchanged. But the truth is, I don’t want you three to throw away your lives here, now. Especially you, Kaneshiro. It isn’t right — that you’ve been dragged into this all over again.”
Intan chose to speak up then for the first time. “Are they still hiding?” she asked, addressing Eguzki.
“They do not like the darkness,” she murmured. “These spaces without wind, without growing things.”
“They? Who are you talking about, Aghavni? Surely not the rebels?”
Listening to Rusli weave his net of half-truths and wild suppositions was very tiresome indeed. Intan held back a sigh and pressed her cheek against the wall, cupping a hand to her ear. A look of understanding spread across Eguzki’s face, but he hesitated, made no move to join her.
She straightened again with a frown. “Roots. And… something else?”
“Is that good or bad?” Eguzki asked quietly.
“I don’t know.” Until now they had been too far from the surface for her to hear anything. Not even the sound of worms burrowing through soil. Roots meant Rusli was right. They meant that any sprites, if willing, were now capable of showing themselves once more.
But there was something else. Something… familiar. Uncomfortably so.
She glanced down the stretch of tunnel before them. Broke out into a run. Skidded to a stop at a ledge overlooking a cavernous maw lit dimly from some unseen source.
It could be no natural cavern, however. The floor was smooth and flat as glass, and marked with the faded emblem of the royal family: a ring of suns against a deep blue setting. But in the center, where the final sun ought to be, a column or raised platform sprouted from the ground.
The boys caught up to her, but she paid them no heed. She had heard voices from below. Human voices, and the whisperings of something far older…
Into the cavern walked a bearded man, flanked by others, their footsteps echoing through the empty space.
Mok, Intan thought.
But he was not the one she sought.
Mok strode alone to the central platform. A chain dangled from his outstretched hand, a pendant or disc of some sort. He placed the pendant on top of the column, fitting it into some invisible slot on its surface.
For a moment nothing happened. Then the pendant began to glow. The glow snaked down the fluted sides of the column, down to the floor, tracing the edges of the suns. Mok backed away unsteadily, pulling the pendant away.
The column cracked in two, pierced through by what seemed to be a long, twisted horn.
The ring of suns burst open. A large mass emerged from the rubble.
A head. A giant Doll’s head, at least twice the radius of any usual model.
But there was something off about it other than its size.
The head swiveled around. Painted eyes glowed bright. Blinked. Its horned mask contorted, revealing a jagged, toothy grin.
The watching men cried out in alarm.
“Is this… AUSOS?”
“But didn’t the project fail?”
“Oh gods. That story. The monster –”
“No,” Intan whispered to herself. “It’s distorted.”
Rusli grabbed her arm. “What do you mean? Are you saying this is a fake?”
“No,” she moaned. “No…”
Eguzki shoved the older boy away with a glare, furious but laced with panic.
Below, Mok dropped to his knees, body folding into a crouch, ghostly flames dancing along his back. Someone was screaming. Mok was screaming.
“Ah,” said Intan. The boys looked at her in concern. She clawed at her head. Her ears rang with a horrible oscillating note. “Ah.”
Eguzki’s lips moved, but she could not hear the words he spoke. She could feel the earth rumbling beneath her feet, and some part of her recognized that the floor was continuing to crack, crumbling away into dust.
But she had eyes only for the giant as it rose steadily through the cavern, revealing a torso in parts gleaming like scales, in parts layered with dust. Two flexible arms twisted out from below, prying away the rock that pinned them in place.
Noise continued to ring through Intan’s skull. An answering note hovered at the tip of her tongue. She sang, her voice struggling against that single dischordant tone.
“Come! O, come to me, ye of water and forest, ye of earth and skies!”
The earth roiled again. For a moment it seemed as if the giant hesitated, staring at Intan with a cruel gleam in its blue, blue eyes. Then it continued barreling upward, breaking through solid rock into clear skies.
Sunlight, for the first time in days.
A howl of despair erupted from Intan’s mouth. Rubble rained down, crushing the men beneath.
She could not bring herself to move.
It was the Hibiscus boy who stepped forward first.
“Lady,” he said, quiet, hesitant, but with underlying resolve, “They whom you call for have not come. There is nothing more you can do. We must flee.”
“Ah,” she replied, slumping to the ground, tears in her eyes. “They will not come, for one is lost. The seal is broken. Three alone remain.” She shook her head fiercely. “Still, I cannot leave. Do you not hear them? They mourn for their lost brethren.”
“The Guardians,” said Eguzki, joining them. “You speak of the Guardians. The Four you tried to tell me about. The one from that day, when they held the rites –”
The Hibiscus boy looked over. “… Guardians?”
Eguzki ignored him. “It’s better that they don’t come, then! If they come, they’ll just be — killed, like the other! If that’s the case, let them hide! Let them mourn! At least then they’ll be safe!”
“But they will not mourn forever. And there are fates far worse than death…”
“What are you doing?” exclaimed Rusli then, staring wild-eyed at them all. “Run for it! All of you! Now!”
His words seemed to snap them all out of some trance. Intan became aware of men scurrying about in seeming disarray. Of air transports hovering overhead, some of them evidently military. Gunfire flashing.
Eguzki pulled her toward the closest transports, following swiftly behind Rusli and the Hibiscus boy. They climbed up. Intan blinked, recognizing the pilot as Rusli’s friend. Then she looked out the windows, seeking desperately for a glimpse of the giant Doll, and instead noticed that the scenery seemed oddly familiar. A gaping crater. The wreckage of buildings. Black-robed masses running toward a glimmering body of water.
She realized then, for the first time, just how far they had wandered through the underground tunnels.
It was the Academy that lay in ruins below.
As the transport bore them further and further away, veering sharply now and then to avoid enemy fire, Intan watched as the last of her fellow students reached the floating walkway. The rebels, rather than pursuing, were beginning to regroup at the edges of the crater.
Around the lake, a ring of Dolls had formed, seemingly out of nowhere. On the shore between the submerging dormitories and the fractured campus the awakened giant had shuddered to a stop and towered now above the rest like a lord overseeing his court — a single point of stillness amid the chaos it had unleashed.