One of the abbots slapped Usheniko, it left the woman in tears.
Collapsing to the floor, everybody hounded and cursed at her. Usheniko curled her body, then covering her ears. The people couldn’t get anymore animalistic.
“Kill the witch!” Aijin said, turning to Neha. “This is the woman you are friends with, right? You cannot go near her anymore, do you understand? She is dangerous, evil, and demonic; what more can I say!”
“M-mother, she isn’t like that!” Neha shook her fists and glared at her mother. “She has not done anything wrong!”
“Oh how would you know that? Perhaps that she has brainwashed you with her psychic powers; no wonder you say such a thing. Oh honey, don’t be like this, you should know better than to not associate with her! Now she is on stage, arrested for her crimes; it is absolutely right for the High Order to lock her up, so that she will not pose much threats any longer!” Aijin resumed hurling insults. She stood up and pointed her finger, the enthusiasm in her eyes inflicted pain upon her daughter. Neha could not help but call for Usheniko. She raised herself and was about to go to the aisle, but Aijin dragged her back to her seat.
Sullen and shocked, Neha trembled.
While that was happening, Sachen’s parents threw themselves in the air. Their faces burning and their voices thundering, they fueled the fire.
Sachen seethed, she thrust her parents back to their seats. But they persisted. Due to the aisle next to her clogging up with people, she couldn’t rush to the stage and save Usheniko from this madness. She could only watch.
“Cut her head off!” said Datai, a buildup of sweat glossed his forehead. “Do it right now, I don’t want her in my sight!”
“Throw her in the grasslands and finish her off, just like what you did to them!” Saraji said. She let out a giggle. “Hurry up, hurry up!”
“Mother, father, are you mad?!” Sachen grabbed her father’s tunics and reeled him to his seat. She did the same to her mother. The parents then reddened their faces more, and they hacked on their saliva.
“What the hell are you doing Sachen?!” Datai said. “Can’t you see that we are expressing ourselves against the reincarnation of the devil right there?!”
“Yeah!” Saraji clicked her teeth, she folded her arms. “And I wonder Sachen, if Usheniko has managed to trick you into her so-called friendship? Maybe she was planning to chop you up and cook you for her very own consumption. Isn’t that terrifying? She is a witch after all, so of course she would do the same to anybody that come in her home!”
“You are talking nonsense mother,” Sachen said, “and I don’t even know where you get those beliefs from! Don’t act so stupid in front of Monkhuba and me!”
“‘Stupid?’ You dare call me that? Why I ought to give you-” Going to her daughter, Saraji raised her hand and swooshed it to Sachen’s side.
Datai snatched his wife, and brought her to her seat. Sachen grumbled, the commotion was hammering her head. It became more painful when Monkhuba began to wail. Sachen comforted him, but he was unable to stop. From there, Neha and Sachen sat with a scowl on their faces and a loss for words. They felt powerless to do anything.
Ten minutes flew by, and the people settled down. Their voices hurting, they came to a calm. Once they sat down, the Lama resumed the service. He pursed his lips, his facial muscles stinging. For the whole time did he keep his eyes wide open. Despite his scleras being red, he persevered.
“Now, as my people continue to examine this decadent, horrifying person, I shall tell you all the accusations that some of our informers gave to the clergymen – all in details, and one must pay attention! This woman right here is arrested for many charges – from witchcraft, treason against the state, the failure to pay taxes, and worse of all… oh yes, she had leaked details of our village to the enemies from the east! Yes, you have heard me! All those things that she had done, and she got away with it! Since last year, she has been living in this village, with the intent of corrupting the youth and destroying our civilization as we know it. Maniacal she is, there is no doubt that she must be put under handcuffs, for the safety of our children. In regards to your collaboration with the enemies, we have a single witness to prove that.”
Yebuka glared at Usheniko, who trembled and coughed. With the narrowing of his pupils, he stared at her for a while. It was suffocating Usheniko, tearing her alive. Who was the witness? It riddled her mind.
In spite of being innocent, she could not come up with a reason of why the Lama would summon a witness if she had not done anything wrong.
The Lama turned himself away. He slammed his hands on the podium and snapped his fingers. It revived the people into another wave of uproar. Soon they were quiet again.
“My people, you are waiting for me to tell you all who the witness is. Well now it’s the time to reveal the person; and the mad woman is not going to like it one bit. Usheniko Ganshipe.” When he looked at her again, the Lama snickered. There was something dark forming in his eyes.
Gulping a stockpile of saliva down her throat, she rubbed her cheeks against her shoulders. She then glanced at the furthest left part of the aisle. Her heart stopped. Behind the shadows, no denial served the fact that the person there was present before her. Words she couldn’t spill out, tears she could barely shed, Usheniko sulked. The witness walked through the aisle and arrived on stage. Usheniko then howled.
“No no, it cannot be her! Why must you bring her here?! She cannot be the witness!”
Yebuka laughed. “You are oblivious to the one closest to you, madam. Behold my fellow villagers, this is the one that you are hungry for. It is none other than her daughter… Azukunika Ganshipe.”
The people applauded upon Azukunika’s presence. Always wearing the same robes, always holding a cold expression, the young lady sneered at Usheniko. She crouched towards her, and stabbed the woman with her grin. Why would she show up against her mother’s behalf?
“Azukunika. My dear, I demand an explanation. Tell me that the High Order is deceiving you to do this. You must be doing this because of the money, that’s all, right? I shall provide you my profits, for whatever you might buy for yourself, okay? Please be a good girl, and walk away. Please please, I beg you, or else I’ll give you a punishment.”
Azukunika retracted her lips. She stood up and kicked her heels against the floor. “Punishment? If you only knew that things are not what they seem, then you would not do such a thing to me.”
“W-what are you talking about?”
“I have something to prove to you.” Rummaging her pockets, Azukunika presented a parchment. There was a red seal at the bottom corner of the paper. She giggled for a bit. “This is the document that I have signed before I confessed my sightings to the High Order, to confirm that I uphold the truth to all things. I have done the right thing, and I don’t regret it.”
Usheniko’s lips stiffened. Her eyes watered. At once did she gasp for breath.
“N-no… how could you do this?! This must be a fake! Somebody must have deceived you, I can tell right away!”
Yebuka arched his eyebrows. “How so? Do you have any rebuttals to back that claim up? I guess not. Anyways, Ms. Azukunika Ganshipe, do you mind telling us what you saw during your mother’s wrongdoings?”
“I will.” Tapping her chest and breathing slowly, Azukunika drew herself to the audience. The people beamed interest, they were shaking their legs. Once her face was clear, almost everybody shrilled. They looked forward to hearing her testimony.
“Ever since I arrived at this village, I have kept a close watch of her, with all intents to make sure that she was all right. One day, she was not home, which perhaps I must have thought that she was gathering some herbs for me in order to make me medicine, since I contracted the stomach flu. It was then that I looked everywhere, but I couldn’t find her. At the eastern gate, a couple of guards approached me. They stated that Usheniko wandered off into the forest, under the premise that she was picking more of the herbs. I went in there, and found that she was traversing through the river; she made it to the other side, and from that point, I eavesdropped on her actions. She walked near the cave, which is supposed to be off-limits to the commoners; and she came rushing when she saw the enemies coming forth. With her evil, disgusting mind, she conversed with them about the plans to attack the village; she told that they had to strike on a rainy day to create the most devastation upon us. This was from one of her fortunes in fact. She also told them to kill anybody in their way, as to create terror and smash the hearts within our chests. Goodness were they excited! Usheniko did not show a face of regret when doing that; in fact, she laughed the whole time! She said to the officer with a mustache that her intention was to take vengeance, because the High Order of the Celestials have offended her generation, her bloodline, and her occupation! I am ashamed to be part of her family.”
Azukunika panted, she then coughed. After her testimony, the audience whispered to themselves. They sunk their bodies into their chairs and their faces melt. Their ears went hot. The witness’s account was so compelling that the people had no questions for her.
The Lama thrilled himself, he stretched his arms. “Thank you, thank you Azukunika. As always, you are loyal to the cause; I shall reward you later on before you go back to prison.”
“You’re welcome my Lord. Now I will take my leave.” Lifting the lower part of her robes, Azukunika bowed to the ruler. She then picked up her feet. Usheniko, seething, seized one of Azukunika’s legs. Her eyes staggered.
“Why, why must you tell lies to your own mother like that? I didn’t do it… don’t be making things up! Do you have something resentful within you that led you to this? Tell me, please, for I am here for you.”
Azukunika scoffed and shrugged. She wagged her hand. Bringing her legs away, she lowered herself again. She latched onto the woman’s necklace, and choked her until she turned blue. The glimmers on the emerald struck Azukunika’s nerves. She remembered something from looking at it, but warded it off. She then released her grip.
“You killed him. You killed the one that I cherished.”
With a frown, Azukunika left the stage. Usheniko choked, her eyes were rolling as her daughter disappeared from her view. Darkness shrouded her face. For a lack of better words, it began to drown her.
Whatever Azukunika meant by that, Usheniko could not find an answer.
Yebuka fanned his face with his sleeves. He sighed. “What a pity for her to do that. But the dove of salvation will surely save Ms. Azukunika Ganshipe from her sins by serving her remaining time in prison. At least when she is in her cell, she will stray away from the corruption of her mother. I’m so sorry, that you had to see your daughter telling the truth. Now my villagers… who wants to hear more?”
Once more, the cheers of the people stormed the stage again. The people at the front rows thrashed themselves and begged and shrieked.
Neha and Sachen, they remained lifeless. With their parents contributing to the clamor, they clammed their mouths and sweated. If only there was a good opportunity that could allow them to speak up, then it might have been a game changer. But from this circumstance, it bred them nothing but the trembling of their hearts. So as it was, it pained them to even look at their friend.
By the swaying of his hands did the Lama lull the audience. They sketched smiles.
“I must say that indeed, Azukunika provided as much to her capability regarding her position as the witness. However, I feel like we have not grasp the whole story of the criminal. But now it is the right time to discuss something more unnerving: her deep reasons for committing the crime. We already knew that Usheniko had settled in the village for a while; she was alone without her family, and she had to fend for herself. She started up a business of her own, and she’d give advice to people about almost everything; it is as if she is a counselor of some sort. She got a lot of customers, and she was generally happy with her life; that is, until bad news came to her doorstep. The Holy Army brought a message to her that Azukunika will remain in prison for the rest of her life, due to acts of treason and attempted murder.” Yebuka patted his stomach, and for a glimpse of the moment, his eyes swelled into clouds. Wiping them away, he retained his focus on the audience.
“Because of her daughter’s imprisonment, it motivated Usheniko to commit to vengeance. She was so angry that she entirely set a different course for her business; she transitioned from counseling to the occult. From psychic visions, to palm readings, to astrology, to witchcraft, which those things are illegal under the constitution, she made more money than before; the villagers really appreciate her services! Her fortunes were always true to them… I hope that her fortune of her fate is correct right now. As I was saying, with her business successful, she felt that she needed to take drastic measure in order to start her vengeance: according to reports, she allegedly kidnapped children and would drain them of blood in order to make a poisonous potions for her customers, so that slowly, she could annihilate our existences! But she wanted to take things even further: she wanted to destroy the whole village itself, and from my statement about her interaction with the enemies in the forest, there is absolute validity that she deserves to be punished!”
Everybody bolted. They rubbed their ears and gasped. Neha and Sachen’s parents embraced their daughters, tears were flowing.
“I didn’t know Neha, I didn’t know!” Aijin said. “You were hurt by that devil? I should have saved you earlier!”
“What are you talking about mother? She’d never do that-”
“My goodness, I guess this must be the effect of her spells! Don’t let her get into your head, please!”
“Mother!” Despite Neha imploring her parent to stop, Aijin continued. Letting go of her child, the mother sobbed. Neha turned to the side and looked the aisle.
Datai squeezed Sachen, while Saraji pestered her daughter not to approach the so-called witch.
“And if I hear a rejection from you, then I have to lock you up in your bedroom!” said Saraji. Sachen pushed her father away and growled. Monkhuba giggled, making her feel worse.
Yebuka continued to speak. His eyes were twitching. “Black-hearted, isn’t it? All of that, because of her daughter! Can you imagine how stupid that is? Yet, nobody caught her red-handed, and it is my fault for not catching her earlier. Even when her daughter returned to the village, of which I had allowed Azukunika to visit her parent for a short time, she still wanted to hurt us. Along the time in her job, Usheniko raked in a lot of profit, and she had the intention to see her family again far south of the village. She thought that they’d come back from the hard times that we have experienced two years ago. It turned out otherwise.”
Yebuka ripped a piece of dead skin from his chin. He loosened his collar. “She does not know at all doesn’t she? How laughable, how naive. She hasn’t realized it! Now we can tell her… is that right, Usheniko?”
Usheniko lurched her gaze to the podium. She wanted to ask about it, but the glaring eyes of the ruler congested her head. What did he know about her family, that she didn’t?
Clutching onto the edges of the podium, Yebuka snickered to himself. He then lifted his head and coughed a little. His demeanor hinted a small sparkle that disappeared in a blink of an eye. The sight of the figure buried Usheniko alive. Little could she listen anymore to his words, little could she bear the weight of the outrage from the villagers.
From this point, her heart snapped in half. Now, her whole world was about to fall apart.
No hope for the woman, Yebuka delivered the final blow. He laughed, before composing himself. He leered at the ceiling.
“Your family, is in fact, had been arrested for conspiracy and corruption. For a long time, they had supported the venal regime of Ozughen, the 27th Lama with money and valuables. After the revolution, my associates and I arrested all your blood relations. We deported them to the grasslands, and killed them.”
All in a flash, the revelation destroyed Usheniko from within.
“No, no! It cannot be!”
Usheniko languished in tears and slapped her hands on the floor. She wailed so loud that the people on the balcony shook themselves and rocketed to the ceiling. Nothing in her mind, nothing that could help her from this turmoil. She then fainted. Neha and Sachen stood up and called out for her. Then the audience, all together, clapped and screamed, overshadowing the girls.
After the Lama’s lengthy statement, he formed a circle with his associates. They deliberated for a short time regarding the verdict, all of them were nodding and heaving their breaths. They then broke away from the circle, and Yebuka’s smile grew larger than before. He stared down at the ones in the front rows, which shivered the villagers. A gasp coming from him, he then lured his eyes to Neha and her mother; he winked. Neha could not help but bite her nails and look away. What was the purpose of him doing that?
The Lama bit his lips. A sliver of hair fell to his foot. He clicked his teeth.
“For Usheniko Ganshipe, the verdict is death by execution.”
It was the day after the declaration of the verdict. The High Order was preparing for the event this warm night. The Lama had sent one detachment from the administration to do the job, along with a section of the Holy Army. In the domain, a hundred villagers gathered around a bundle of stakes that were propped up in a circle. They laughed and chatted about how their days had been so far. It seemed mundane enough. But inside, they were ravenous for justice and blood. They were waiting for the very moment that they could see the punishment coming to the accused.
From the back part of the temple, a group of abbots carried the criminal with a pair of chains wrapped around the latter’s wrists. In a complete loss of energy and heart, Usheniko cast her eyes downward and ignored the endless insults from the people. No more strength, nothing left to live for her daughter, she gave up. To struggle meant to make herself more vulnerable, and for sure, doing so might cause the village to boil. After all, everybody wanted her gone.
With the order to stand still, the villagers poisoned the air with their words. Some of them wished death upon her entire family. Some of them wanted to cut her head and drain her blood upon the ground for the gods to consume. Nasty they were, Usheniko held herself.
Usheniko then dropped to her knees. Running her fingers through the blades of grass, the touch of nature reminded her well of Azukunika.
She missed the good times with her daughter before the revolution.
Braiding her hair, helping her pick the right herbs, and giving fortunes to each other, she yearned for such times to last forever. As cruel as reality was, those memories started to fade away, leaving room for the despair she was going through. She had no answers to why her daughter nowadays was acting rude and callous towards her. There must have been something that she should have known. But now it was too late to ponder about it.
From the crowd, Neha and Sachen pushed themselves to Usheniko’s side. The moment the woman saw them, she bawled. The duo whimpered.
“My little sparrows, you shouldn’t be here. Where are your parents?”
“T-they let us go out for this occasion,” said Neha. “And I don’t want to leave you behind.”
Sachen pinched her own elbows. “Me neither. But Usheniko, how can they do this to you?! They are telling lies! We believe you, that you were not there in the forest back! Perhaps that they have mistaken us for you! But why must they hurt you like this… just why?! And for them to accuse you of vengeance, it’s ridiculous! A good person like you is incapable of doing that!”
“My dear, please don’t worry about it. Everything is my fault, I led myself to this point. Even if they found out it was you, they would use me as a scapegoat anyway, since I held so much suspicion to the people. Sure, you’re right on the vengeance part; I don’t even have the will to do so, for I never think of defending anybody by inciting maliciousness. But still, I don’t know what to think or to say anymore – my heart is completely broken.”
Neha stroked the woman’s head. “U-Usheniko, I think that your daughter needs to apologize to you. There’s no way that you have committed the accusations that the Lama stated yesterday. But most importantly, for your daughter to betray you, it’s so despicable. I don’t want to imagine what her reasons might be.”
“I don’t know either,” Usheniko said. “But for certain, she hates me since the day she arrived here. Her being aloof and cold towards me, it seems that I am a bad parent to her, isn’t that right?”
“N-no, not at all!”
“Haha. Neha, it’s okay. I’m not a good person. I shouldn’t have given you the chance to go to the forest and find Kuraizang right away.”
Out of surprise, Sachen grabbed Usheniko’s hands and rubbed them against her cheeks. Usheniko pouted, before returning to her gloom.
Then Sachen letting go of her hands and scratching herself, went close to Usheniko’s face. Her eyes drooped.
“You must know something about the cave, if I may ask? What is Kuraizang dealing with as of now? I remember when you approached us before our search for him; your face seemed distressed and sad. I didn’t want to point it out right away, but if you don’t mind, can you please tell us? Even if you don’t know much, then you should have something.”
All the sudden, Usheniko glanced away. She stammered and grimaced. The chains around her wrists itched her, causing her to get goosebumps. At first, she hesitated, for she thought that her answer might scare the girls. She returned her eyes to them.
“Listen to me girls, and listen very well. Your classmate, Kuraizang, is in danger. Whether he is in the cave or not, there is no guarantee that he will survive.” Usheniko lowered her voice as the abbots were getting impatient at her. “Heck, he might not be in the forest, but don’t let that discourage you. The cave in which he is supposed to be in will soon be his prison. The boy might lose something that is a part of him, mentally or physically, and for that alone, the High Order holds it as a way to make the gods happy. The purpose of the spiritual mission is to let go of a person’s soul, and everything within it, in the most painful manner known to nobody but a few. Most of the time, people who are assigned to the missions did not return alive.” Usheniko hissed, her mouth ached.
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore, my apologies.”
An abbot jabbing her back, Usheniko walked forth. Neha and Sachen followed her trails until they reached the stakes. Usheniko winced and expelled a sigh. The voices of the villagers drowned in her ears. She closed her eyes.
“I know this, because I was-” Usheniko shoved the words down her throat. Her face turned crimson, her jaws stiffened. Memories flooded her mind, it was then that she became too nervous to finish her sentence. She turned to the girls.
The chains weighing her down, Usheniko with her dying strength lifted her hands and loosened her emerald necklace. The jewel reflected her face, and she could see the girls through it.
“Before I go, I want to give you this. Take it as a little present.”
Usheniko gave it to Sachen. It left the girl puzzled. “Huh? Your necklace? B-but why?”
The woman smiled. “Because you remind me of Azukunika, a tenacious and strong-hearted girl. In fact, this necklace is a replica that I have made a long time ago. Azukunika has the real one, but she does not wear it anymore. I’m sorry Neha, that I don’t have a spare. The necklace is designed to give you blessings and happiness, in case that you would experience some harsh times. Please wear it Sachen, so that I can see it.”
Neha going to Sachen’s back, she attached both ends of the strand around her friend’s neck. The emerald dragged Sachen, it clinked upon her chest.
Usheniko slowed her breathing, and gasped. “You look stunning, just like my daughter before then. I wish that the necklace will be with you forever, so that you will remember me always, although that is a selfish wish coming from me, haha.”
Not much time left, Usheniko strode to the stakes and headed inside the circle. The air thickened, it began to overwhelm the woman. Her chest swelled and her head throbbed. In the wake of her coming doom, she smiled at the two girls one more time. Eternity to oblivion was about to unfold within her. She wished them to lead good lives, so that they could find happiness.
“Well guys, I guess this is goodbye. Oh please don’t cry for me, for you are beautiful little ones. Please preserve your everlasting beauty. I am thankful that you guys are my friends. I will forever hold you in my heart. I love you both.”
She said no more. Neha and Sachen collapsed into tears and wails.
In desperation did they try to yank the chains and retrieve their friend.
But heavy they were, the girls exhausted themselves in a matter of minutes. Their heads shook.
As Sachen was going to attempt the endeavor again, the soldiers came into the domain and pulled the girls away. They tossed them into the crowd. The soldiers then approached the circle and brandished the rifles from their hips. A fellow soldier from the side was bearing a torch. The heat from it scorched the faces of the villagers. Neha and Sachen hugged each other, they shut their eyes and quivered. They hoped nothing but the worst of things. The last visible stars fell from the portrait of the night sky, and it became a blank canvas. The world materialized into solid darkness.
Gunshots rang. The soldier threw the torch in the circle. The wings of inferno led Usheniko to the realm of nothingness. Peace soon extinguished her.