The school being empty after the dismissal of the students, Sachen stood by the stables. She hummed to herself and held her gaze to the ground. She had sent a paper message to the doorsteps of Neha’s house, to which it stated that she needed Neha right away to discuss some important matter. The matter perhaps, that Sachen had picked up last night, became all so terrifying for her to remember. As much as she wanted to forget about the conversations of the soldiers, it continued to cross her mind every second. Sachen couldn’t deny that soon, danger would erupt the village into chaos once again.
She took a gander inside the stables. The animals were rolling around their haystack, they slept and wailed. The horses had clouds in their eyes, they let out a faint neigh. Sachen wanted to comfort them; only a few of the animals in the stables had survived the onslaught of the first raid, and the unfortunate deaths of some afflicted almost everybody in school. It felt to them that they had lost great friends, as such creatures would always provide the kids solace and peace in times of uncertainty.
Sachen stopped her tunes. She saw somebody in the hallway hallway. The person arriving at the back door, Sachen called out for her.
“Neha! Over here!” Her friend approached her slowly. Neha’s eyes were in a daze, her cheeks sunk into her face.
“What is wrong Neha? Did you fell asleep when you arrived home?”
Shaking her head, Neha slipped her tongue. “N-no… it’s nothing. I’m fine, that’s all.”
“By the way. Why did you send me a message? Do you have something urgent in mind? Like homework or projects? You better tell me. Tulisen gave me a curfew.” Neha twiddled her fingers. She looked at Sachen’s head, then her tunic, and then her feet.
“It’s very important, and I want you to hear it clearly.”
“And you must cooperate with me in this matter. If you-”
Sachen bit her lips. Before she could say anything more, Neha grabbed onto Sachen’s hands. Sachen sprang back, she gasped for breath. As soon as Neha eclipsed her eyes with gloom, Sachen calmed herself down.
“What is the matter? You are definitely not okay.”
“I just want to tell you something first… something that might surprise you.”
“Well? What is it?” Sachen asked. Neha came close to her right ear, and she let out a puff. The hair on the back of Sachen’s neck stood up, a crimson hue bloated her face. Her chest ached.
“D-don’t do that so much!”
In a whisper did Neha tell Sachen right away about something in her mind. Sachen had anticipated that Neha was dealing with some petty, foolish problem, that it might be that Neha wanted to depend on Sachen after keeping herself in a distance from her friend for some time.
Sachen would have burst into elation, feeling that she could help Neha once and for all. She held her chest, and listened to everything her friend was saying.
But alas, it didn’t seem the way that Sachen had expected. The words coming out of Neha’s mouth, with quivers of her voice occurring every time she stopped, all came to be so heartbreaking, so sad, that Sachen didn’t know what to say back. Neha’s voice fluctuated, then it descended into a low tone. Her fists rattled her lips and her lips went cold, Neha scowled. Sachen looked at her friend in the eyes – she hugged her. With the tightness of her arms, she squeezed Neha and suffocated her for a brief moment. It must have been that Neha had witnessed and experienced so many things that Sachen herself could never imagine.
As Neha told her that she had met Azukunika, Sachen grunted and nodded. Sachen briefly described her encounter with the woman, and both of them agreed that she was dangerous to be around. More than that, they dismissed Azukunika as a fool.
Sachen’s cheeks constricted, her lips shriveled. She fanned her face and loosened her arms. She took her time to digest the broken words of her companion.
“I didn’t know Neha, that Usheniko… was part of the spiritual mission by Ozughen. I didn’t know this at all. No wonder she told us to go find Kuraizang. It must be that she knew everything about it.”
“Y-yeah, though Tulisen didn’t go through it in depth.”
Sachen blushed. “And I’m so sorry about your dad! He did the right thing for Usheniko, only for him to get killed… how horrible! How unfortunate! I can’t believe it! Why did they do such a thing?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know at all.” Neha buried her face on Neha’s chest, and infused herself with her warmth. “B-but it hurt to know all of that. Tulisen is a meanie. He should have kept his mouth shut, he made me cry. But it’s okay. Besides, you have your mom right? I bet she will understand your pain-”
Neha stiffened her face. Her pupils rusted. A fleeting giggle from Neha, Sachen stroked her cheeks and could not help but worry even more. She wanted to cry for her.
“You don’t have to say anymore if you’re uncomfortable,” Sachen said. “It’s all right, I understand.”
“S-Sachen…” Neha groveled her face on her own palms.
“Don’t worry about it for now. More importantly, I should say sorry for pushing you away these days. I didn’t want you to feel my burden, because I was so focused on Kuraizang’s disappearance and Usheniko’s death, that I couldn’t say anything much. I thought it would be better if I dealt with those things myself – clearly, it was hard.”
Neha nodded, she folded her hands and peered at her feet. The daze of her eyes had yet to go away. She seemed to be in more of low spirits than ever before, even when she spoke about the topic to Sachen. To further the topic might hurt the both of them, so it was better to keep it away for now. Having nothing more to add about the matter, Sachen apologized. She then switched the subject.
“Well Neha, the reason that I called you here, is that during my attempt at finding Kuraizang throughout the village yesterday night, I overheard some soldiers talking at school. They didn’t catch me – but I caught their words. Would you believe it, that the soldiers were going to plan something heinous? That was true however – they said that they would conduct a surprise to the school!”
“What does that mean?”
Sachen gritted her teeth. She put her hands on her hips. “They will plan to attack this place! It will happen in the afternoon, when the students will still be in class! I do not know what date they will commence… but I feel that it will come soon!”
“A-attack the school? No way that can be valid! What evidence do you have?”
“Um, I kind of have evidence. But it’s not what you think. They said that the operation will be led by some fat officer with a moustache. That guy is located in the northern gates, currently patrolling and talking about his plans to his comrades. We can go there, and find more of the evidence, haha.”
“Sachen, I cannot believe you much if you are giving me scant details. Have you listened to all the things they were talking about?”
“Of course! I wasn’t dozing off or anything, you know! Anyways, that is why I want you to come along with me to the gates, so that we may find out more about the man himself! Hopefully, we can get more of the details. We will arrive there by going through the cemetery.”
Sachen pulled Neha away to the school gate. Neha kicked her heels on the ground and moaned.
“Eh? Neha? What are you doing?”
Neha looked away. “I-I… just don’t feel like going.”
“Why is that?” Sachen stopped. “Could it be that you are scared of the cemetery?”
“No! It’s not that… well, that place is a small concern to me. But, I don’t know if we can get anything out of this. Even if we do learn about their plan, then what can we do from there? Tell everybody? That would be impossible, since nobody have the brains to believe us.”
“Haha, that last part is funny. Well, I don’t actually have something in mind regarding to that. But we can think of a proposal as we go, okay? Come on, let us embark on this quest!”
“Ah! Sachen, wait!”
Unwilling to let Neha go, Sachen took herself and her friend out of the school. Sachen was willing to solve this problem right here and now, before it would be too late to fix anything. She could tell that, at any moment, the soldiers would commit to another act of terror. Being the first one to act granted her more excitement than anxiety, and at least Sachen had the opportunity to get the bits and pieces immediately.
Such was her disposition.
The girls turned left from the school and journeyed the street.
Taverns and liquor stores from both sides polluted a foul, alcohol odor.
People crowded the area, and bumped to one another with a scowl.
Redness fleshed their faces, and their limbs jittered in an uncontrollable manner. In their drunkenness, they formed a circle; in the middle of the circle, two drunkards were at odds. The short one raised his fists and hacked saliva, while the tall one cracked his knuckles. Getting close to each other’s noses, sparks flew in an exchange of eye contact. They were in for a nasty fight. The villagers screeched and clapped, none of them begged for the two to stop, for they wanted to see the spilling of blood as much as possible.
The pair zigzagged through the left side of the crowd and headed to the alleyway next to them. They aerated their faces with their hands, they managed to ward off the smell in the air. Right as they trudged deep into the narrow space, stray cats and dogs flocked the ground. The cats purred and licked their paws, and the dogs whimpered upon the sight of the duo. Their stomachs constantly groaning, the animals ate the rotten scraps of food, they took no account of the health hazards. As the girls passed by, they showed beady eyes, and some of them yelped.
They seemed to want company in the midst of this condition. Sachen wanted to save them all – but the priority in her plan was too important to ignore. For the best of her interest, Sachen walked forth. She kept her eyes straight, and shook off the strays that clung onto her legs.
All came to bliss when the two girls headed towards the end of the corridor. Across from them, hills sloped and tilted above the ground.
The flowers flourished, their petals sparkled and brightened the landscape. Before the hills was a flat tract of land. There, countless graves cultivated the earth with the chambers of the dead; most of the dead originated from the villagers who had died in the first raid. On the tombstones, birds pecked the inscriptions and names.
“It’s the cemetery.” Neha wrapped herself around Sachen’s arm, she shivered. “W-whoa, there’s an open ditch in front of us.”
“Be careful not to fall,” Sachen said with a smirk, “or else you’ll turn into a skeleton!”
“N-no, anything but that!”
“Haha. Somebody must have been careless in forgetting to prepare a grave. Anyways, let us continue going.”
They walked and kept their eyes at the graves, and the tombstones gave them chills. Neha whimpered, she attached herself to her friend like a lost infant. Gradually along the cemetery, the girls picked up the pace and skipped their steps. Arriving at the hills, they frolicked through the flowers. The petals tickled their legs. Up close, veins, hairs, and bugs radiated the flowers with life; it was as if the heavens had taken their time to paint the landscape in painstaking details. Lavenders, roses, lilacs, tulips, and much more of their kind, such things flooded the girls with wonder. They considered that they would pluck them for Usheniko’s mound.
After they regained their breaths, the girls went forward through the hills. Around them, the land seemed to never end. How much could they journey here until they would reach their destination? Sachen was tired, so was Neha. But even if Sachen collapsed in exhaustion, she would sleep on the hills and wait until the next day to resume her mission. She had to finish this today. Idling about the landscape did no good, it might create inertia. Thus, with Sachen helping Neha get a move on, the duo made their way to the end of the hills. When they reached the top, they slipped and tumbled down to the other side.
Sachen rubbed her backside, it stung. “Ouch, my butt. Neha, are you all right?”
“Yeah…” Neha scratched her skin, and she stood up. “Ah, look over there.”
Picking themselves up, the girls gazed at the place before them. The northern gate were in sight. Foliage covered most of the area, and it obscured the soldiers who were at the moment, guarding the gate. Far away from there, and a couple of inches in front of the pair, there was a shed. The shed had one door with a flat roof. The wooden structure rotted, about to fall into pieces. Holes and crickets infested the place.
One second from the looks of it, and Sachen and Neha scratched their necks and faces. Perhaps this was the wrong place, or worse, it might be an entrance to hell.
“Maybe we can more evidence in that weird building,” Sachen said.
“I am quite suspicious though. What could they be hiding?”
“Don’t assume too much,” Neha replied. “I’m sure that it’s only their equipment and such.”
“I have to start making doubts. Otherwise, there would be no purpose in coming here. Right now, we should eavesdrop… ah, people are coming! Let’s stay quiet!”
Sachen took Neha to one of the trees. The girls cowered, they drew their eyes to an incoming pair of soldiers. A grunt with a slim figure bumped his helmet on a tree bark. The person next to him castigated his clumsiness, he seemed to be sober.
“Hey hey, don’t tell me that you are drinking again!” said the fat companion. “I might have to throw you over to the northern gates, if you want that! Keep your head straight, and continue your duty!”
“Well I’m sorry sir,” the slim soldier responded, “but I can’t help it. The beer that we had from the tavern tasted good as heck, that I drank five pints of them.”
“You should drop dead by now.” The companion snickered, then he pushed the soldier with his sides. “By the way, have you heard about my promotion to senior officer?”
“Promotion? You were actually promoted? What a joke.”
“Don’t even start! But anyways, my superiors decided to upgrade my rank, because I did so well in my command of the company, that I couldn’t contain my gratitude to them. I was leading a great force, and I gained their trust when we were training in the forest quite a while ago, near that strange cave. For some reason, the High Order wanted all the soldiers to hurry up their training, so that we could commence the operation. The Lama, when he issued that, went into a fiery tirade, like he was mad at someone.”
“It could be that he was irritated by our lack of strength. Heh, our men must have wetted their pants when the Lama got angry.”
“Surely they did, some of them perhaps.” The chubby soldier coughed to himself. “The High Order told us to keep our identities secret during the operation – and they also said that we should be willing to die for the sake of the gods, which I took with fervor within my guts! I was ready for death, I was ready for anything! Then it was one rainy day, when the operation happened. I led my men out of the forest, and became successful in my part. Sadly, some of my soldiers died, but we kept on moving until the end! The officers then ordered us that we had to fall back with low numbers! With my display of heroism, my superior granted me a boost, and the next thing I knew it, I became a senior officer! That’s why I can boss you around anytime I want!”
The slim one froze. “I wish I was there too… I have heard from the High Order that we will do another operation – this time with the school.”
“Interesting isn’t it? I wonder what’s it going to be.”
“You didn’t hear from them? They want us to strike in the afternoon somewhere around next week.”
“Hmm…” The fat soldier rubbed his chin. “I remember now. Since I got promoted, the Lama entrusted me with holding the documents containing his approval. That’s how much he and the others love me! I keep on flaunting them towards my lackeys, and since I’ll be in charge of the operation, I must prepare for whatever compromise there will be. Geez, are you still drunk?!” He snatched his companion’s ears. “Come on, let’s get you washed up!”
“Wait, you forgot to take the documents from the building!”
“As a senior, I order for you to go with me!”
The slim soldier flailed his arms. “Somebody help me!” His superior chucked his companion’s body onto his shoulders, and he hoisted him back to the northern gate.
Theconversationfromthesoldiers couldn’t get anymore nerve-wracking. With trembling pupils, Neha and Sachen twisted their wrists and shuddered their shoulders. Sachen bit her nails. Several times did Sachen ask herself if the things she had heard were real. She picked her nose.
“A-are you thinking what I am thinking?” Sachen asked. “The fat guy who was there, he can’t be-”
“He must have been present in the school back then,” Neha said, clawing her knees. “And he led his force… and tried to kill us!”
“Eek! No no no, this guy is bad news! I don’t know what to do about him, but he sounds determined to hurt us again. And also, they’re really going to strike the school!”
“Indeed. But I don’t think it’s enough to lead us to the truth.”
Sachen pounded her chest. “We will finish our mission in no time, so that we can go home. Are you with me?”
“Are you with me?” Sachen lunged her hands onto Neha’s shoulders, the latter twitched her eyes.
“Y-yes Sachen. I am with you.”
“Good! Then we shall resume!” Sachen lifted herself up. She then glanced at the trees around her, from the branches to the birds to the leaves. Nothing aroused suspicion. But soon enough did Sachen’s eyes bulged. She saw from afar, a figure with long hair, and it seemed to be floating above the soil. The hood from the figure’s clothes concealed its face, and it spoke nothing and noticed nothing. Sachen derided it as a phantom.
Sachen confirmed that the coast was clear, and the duo dashed to the shed. Sachen twisted the knob of the front door counterclockwise, she then yanked the door open. They headed inside. Not much to their captivation at first, a row of rifles stood on the right wall, patches of blood and deep cuts were everywhere on the firearms. On the left wall, hooks hung pieces of metal armors, and the armors contained carvings of the dove. The blood stains on them corroded their luster, and in addition to that, there were ash-covered holes small enough for a bullet to fit through. Sachen walked to the upper-left corner of the shed, and stumbled upon a basket. It held a supply of flagpoles; at the end of the poles were green flags, all of them were preserved in pristine conditions.
“Neha, look at these flags. They are green, just like the ones we saw from the forest a while ago, where the enemies were carrying it.”
Neha stared at the objects. She winced and shrugged. “Maybe it could be that the Holy Army took the enemies’ stuff and stored them here.”
“I can’t disagree with that. But if you mean by that, then these flags should be dirty and ripped.”
“I guess the soldiers must have cleaned and stitched them back into their normal states.” A huge sigh from Neha, she walked to the door.
Sachen jumped forward.
“What are you doing Neha?!”
“I want us to go home. This is a waste of our time after all. We won’t find anything useful here.”
“What are you talking about? We haven’t even looked fully in depth in this shed!”
Neha rubbed her forehead. “I understand that you are committed to this. But there is no way we can solve this. We should go home before nightfall, so that we can put this situation aside. You must have misheard things when you were eavesdropping the soldiers last night.”
“Ugh!” Sachen balled her fists, and punched the armors. She seethed.
“This is important for you and me, to know everything that we have to know! I just want to keep us all safe, okay? To see more people dying, I wouldn’t have the guts to move on from it any longer. Plus, with all the problems that are piling up on us, can we afford to ignore those things? Please Neha, please stay here for a couple more minutes.”
“I cannot. Sachen, I am quite tired, and I need to take a rest. Understand that we have enough time to find the truth.”
“Why you little… there is no time! They can attack us right now, or tomorrow, or any time else!”
Neha contracted her lips and pushed her eyebrows inwards. From the ennui in her eyes, Neha jutted her foot to the door. She stopped all the sudden – she slapped herself. There was a brief instance of silence.
Sachen wanted to say something to her, but no words could form in her head. To see Neha like this, what could she do? Irritated Sachen was, she thrashed her arms and legs around. Sachen sulked. A hissing from her mouth, Sachen plunged to the floor.
“Fine then! Go home, I’ll do this alone! Scram!”
Neha turned around. “S-Sachen.”
“Shoo! If you want to go to sleep, then go do so! I ain’t going to stop you.”
Sachen tossed herself to the corner, she crossed her arms. Staying forever was not a viable option, but it seemed apparent that Sachen needed to station here. She felt confidence that she could get the job done faster alone, and that without Neha, she could fix the problems with her own efforts. One head was better than two, at least to the girl.
She rocked her body back and forth while she scowled at her friend.
The latter watched the flowers from afar.
Sachen continued to be like this. She hit her head on the wall, scratched her legs, and growled. She eyed on the flags, the armors, and the guns, she seemed to have driven herself to a dead end. Turning her attention to the basket again, she found something underneath it. Sachen crawled there and retrieved two slips of papers. Both of them had a red seal at the bottom-right corner, a sign of significance. The scribbles on the papers bleeded red, they curved and stroked all over the place.
“What in blazes are these?! Hmm… I can barely read this baloney.”
Going to the front door, she showed them to Neha. “can you read these things for me please?”
Neha frowned, and shifted her eyes away. “No I will not.”
“I will do it if you apologize for your behavior.”
“A-apologize?! Haha, the great Sachen should not bow down to some insignificant trouble!” Sachen laughed and broke into a sweat.
Neha poked her forehead. The narrowing of her eyes tied Sachen into a bind.
“Say sorry. Say it now.”
“Whoa, what’s with the look on your face? I-I have never seen you this way Neha! Oww, don’t pinch my forehead so hard!”
“Say it or I will not give you anymore pencils.”
“No… not that… not that! Okay Neha, I am very sorry for my outburst, I really mean it! Please have mercy on my soul!”
Neha turned her frown upside down. She giggled and patted Sachen’s head. “It’s okay, I accept your apology.” Neha said. Sachen gave her the papers, and her friend delved into the text. Complex as it seemed, Neha figured out the words to the very end. As she read them, her hands swung up and down, and her face pallored.
“Oh my goodness…” Silence brewed. Neha lifted her eyes away, and she stared at the walls. There was one thing for sure – Sachen had a bad feeling about this. From the looks of Neha’s face, the juvenile braced herself.
“Do you mind if I read it out loud?” Neha asked.
“N-Not at all.”
“Well then, I shall read the first paper.” Neha cleared her throat. She stopped the trembling of her hands. Her fingernails dug through the text. They were ready, at least, they were hanging on in nervousness.
‘Date: August 22nd. The gods have arisen in full anger and hatred for humankind, in particular our village that have been blessed by their grace. For the reasons that we have sinned and corrupted our hearts so much into the darkness, it is best as the leader of the whole community, that I should authorize an important operation in order to quell such corruption among our own people. This is to be, the landmark of redemption and salvation for us, and I entrust within my own powers, that the Holy Army will do everything it takes to ensure the affliction upon the sinners. By the deployment of four companies, I shall issue a private, strict training in the forest of the east, near the cave to where holiness resides, where you all will resort to enduring the harshest discipline. For the sake of employing deception]and self-perseverance in]order to make this operation viable, the companies shall bear the green standard to show yourself as foreigners. Soon, the gods will approve of our plans, and we shall make preparations hence this day forth. Signed by the Lord of Lords, the 28th Lama, Yebuka.’
Neha’s jaw dropped. Her pupils dimmed.
“What the… what am I reading here?”
By then, the recitation of the first message shocked Sachen. She raised her head and pinched her ears as to find out what they meant by those words; at once when she fully realized it, it stunned her to the fullest. Too much for her to respond, Sachen hissed. She could have wanted to ignore such things, but soon it bothered her. Neha then flipped to the second paper.
‘Date: September 4th. The operation has been successful – with the utmost gratitude and happiness, I am proud that our men had sacrificed themselves for the sake of bringing punishment for the sinners. It is clear to us that there is more to be done – the darkness is still lingering about the village, and clearly even with the sacrifices of the pig and that witch herself, the gods are still not satisfied. I shall order another military exercise, this time deep into the mountains, so that you can strike again the vulnerables. For this second operation, I want you guys to target the institution housing the education of the youth, so that we can witness the performances of the students, to how well they will be able to defend themselves with their own lives. Surely, this will garner support for my reign, and I hope that people will continue to love me forever. Signed by the Lord of Lords, the 28th Lama, Yebuka.’
Neha crumpled the corners of the paper. She sashayed in a circle and wiped the sweat off her cheeks.
“Oh my goodness! So it is true. I’m sorry for doubting you Sachen. I just can’t believe this. How can the Lama approve of these operations? Surely it must be a forgery… no, it cannot be. There’s a seal that indicates his ratification. No no no.”
From there, Sachen raised herself, snatched the documents, and flicked them. She denied that any of this pertained to the truth from the conversations of the gate guards and the soldiers at school, but all of that overmastered her.
Sachen held Neha by her arms and stopped her from stumbling her steps. She stared at her dead in the eyes. Neha stitched her lips and loosened her eyebrows. Within her surprise did Sachen grumble; by this point, Sachen had connected the all the information accumulated, it was more so unbearable than enticing to learn these things.
“Let us keep these papers… I have another plan that we can execute in a couple of days.”
“Another one. I will tell you some time tomorrow. Let us go home, Neha. You must be exhausted by my antics. I apologize again. I didn’t mean to make you stressed out.”
“All right. Let’s go together, before our parents will scold us.”
The girls left the shed. Upon the canvas of the sky, the sun was setting, it illuminated a scarlet blaze that lifted the colors of the flowers into flashing beads. The both of them gave themselves up to the menace of the words, and carried nothing on their heads but constant shivers.
Now they knew so much about it.