The villagers flocked around the southern district, where the temple was the only building in the area. Being large and spacious, it provided enough room for the whole population to gather; from a bird’s eye view, the area looked like an ocean of flowers. To the sides of the temple, the towers stood and intruded the clouds, the ornaments of stars and rings hanging on top with its glimmers. A trio of arches structured the front part, concealing the giant, wooden pair of doors. On the corners of the roof erected miniature spires, which the people went down on their knees and prayed upon them. Soon, all of them entered inside. The voices of the abbots and clergymen resonated their ears, they sung a hymn that got the people shrieking their lungs out.
Inside, there were sections of velvet chairs, separated in countless aisles, allowing the people to find and claim their seats at ease. Around the interior, between the floor and the ceiling, boxes of balconies clung onto the walls. Those places only held special, upper-class members of the village, such as philosophers, businessmen, and other people with well-paying occupations.
At the center, to which the sea of chairs surrounded it like a half-circle, the stage bore the place reserved for the High Order. Upon the place was a statue of a monk. The jade color was wearing and melting away, baring the sculpture naked in pale yellow. Its eyes shut, its legs crossed, and its hands on its laps, the statue meditated amidst the cacophony of the villagers. Not many people knew where the statue came from, or who built it; but they inferred that the gods had bequeathed the object as a gift of gratitude.
The villagers occupied their seats, the Young Guards sat near the center, where they perused the statue. For the young ones, they went with their mothers and fathers. Neha and Sachen were next to each other, their parents situated themselves in front of the duo.
From the pain that was still on the wound, Neha trembled.
“What is it?” Sachen asked. “Your foot still hurting?”
“My foot has already healed, thanks for asking. But… this place is so creepy.” Neha stretched her feet, jitters spread throughout her toes.
“Creepy? Well I can’t argue with that. There’s barely any sunlight coming through here. I wonder who made this place though? It seems out of our time and capabilities.”
“I don’t know.” Neha snuggled her head next to Sachen’s arm, and Sachen giggled in light of her discomfort. “But please hold onto me Sachen. I’m starting to feel a bit weird.”
“Don’t you worry! It’ll be over in an hour.”
Her eyes widening, Sachen stared at the blank space of the stage.
From this point, going to sleep was a better option than to listen to the droning voices of the High Order officials. But like everybody else, she had to power through the day. After all, she woke up early for this.
Sachen then glanced at the edges of the balconies, which held portraits. They all depicted the Lamas that had ruled this village, about twenty-eight in total if one count the current ruler. In every of the painting, the Lamas displayed drooping eyes with soft lips, their right leg crossed over their left. Their robes, being red and yellow, brightened the entire canvas, in contrast to the dullness of the individuals. It seemed that the painters of such illustrations wanted to present the rulers in that way, so as to bring the villagers into gratefulness for their hard works. Indeed, most of them reigned for an assigned limit of four years.
From Sachen’s side, Neha shivered from the gazes of the Lamas in the portraits. She cowered.
“Neha, the service is about to begin.”
“O-okay.” Neha straightened her back and brought her gaze towards the stage.
From the door behind the statue, a line of abbots and clergymen arrived. They stopped their hymns as they went in front of the stage.
There was a clear hierarchy in the High Order; the abbots were the lowest, with them abiding to every order of their superiors, and the clergymen were the second-highest in the ladder. They tend to associate themselves with the Lama in regards to religious matters. The Lama of course, was the top dog; he controlled and watched over everything.
From the hands of the abbots, the clergymen grabbed incense sticks and lighted it with a spark from a match. Once the flames settled on the incenses, a bitter smell lingered throughout the space of the temple.
They soon funneled out of a small hole at the ceiling. The villagers at the front rows rushed to the stage and kissed the ashes from the sticks; the ones at the balconies laughed their hearts out. The abbots shooed them back to their seats. It was then that the clergymen placed the sticks on the ash bowl before the statue. When they were done, the officials occupied the chairs next to them.
The door remaining ajar, a figure emerged. The crowd roared and shrilled in tears upon his presence. Holding his stomach with his right hand as he walked to the statue, he nodded and waved at the populace.
“Praise the Lama, the Lord of Lords, the one who is all holy to the glory of the dove and salvation!” Everybody chanted this without catching their breaths. Neha and Sachen hushed their lips, they winced at the hysteria. Shrugging and rolling their eyes seemed to be safe for them, so that they didn’t have to strain themselves.
The crowd went silent. The Lama ambled to the podium that teetered near the edge of the stage. It was now his time to speak. He narrowed his eyes, lowered his shoulders, and flicked his robes to remove the dust. He let out a sigh.
“I hereby bless every single of you here today, and by being here, you are devoting yourself to the heavens for salvation. Now, although today is Sunday, and all of you are required to go to this temple, today will be very important. You must listen carefully of what I have to say, or else you will slip under the cracks.”
Neha’s expression blanked for a moment. “What does he mean by important?”
“Surely, it must be trouble with money or something… I don’t know.” Sachen tilted her head down. “Regardless, I could care less.”
“You shouldn’t. Maybe we will have to participate in their troubles.”
“But we are kids. We don’t know much. It’s their jobs, not ours, to deal with their own stuff, you know? All we can worry about is school.”
“I can’t argue with that.” Neha returned her attention to the altar, Sachen did the same.
While the Lama was about to resume speaking, the people at the balconies smiled at each other and gave compliments. Among the upper class, somebody was lurking. With tattered robes and long hair, a woman lurched the edge of the balcony, her eyes drawing towards a person with an emerald necklace and a pointed hat. Below, a woman blabbered to the people around her about how her daughter was not attending service due to excuses. She remarked that she’d drag her with a leash if she had to. The female at the balcony then said something to herself, something that made her hands slam at the railings. She seethed, and retreated into the crowd.
Upon the podium, the ruler cleared his throat and spoke again, this time raising his voice.
“It is imperative, and I should remind you all, that we have received grave news from the gods themselves. We, as a little village, are surrounded by the wonders of nature and earth – but soon, we will be surrounded by the ones we are scared of the most – that is, the tribes! The ones from the north, the south, the east, and the west have all conspired to attack us, they have broken our twenty-year peace treaty! We have done nothing wrong, and yet, they are willing to start a war against us – such a thing makes us so scared, that it seems like we can’t do anything about it! Our forefathers and ancestors had fought against these types of enemies, with sweat, tears, and blood! And miraculously, they had survived long enough to create this community! Our peace treaty is now null – and here we are, defenseless and unprepared, with little hope left. Worst of all, from the callings and beckoning of the gods, they are angry and wrathful at us! With that, we are soon to hurl ourselves into the darkness. We have clearly done something wrong, and all of you know what that is! That is right, we have failed to appease the gods, even though we have toiled and broke our bones in working hard for them! Despite the fact that about two years ago, we have suffered from famine, flash floods, and economic destitution from the corruption of the previous administration, we are still here today. But our survival is costing our livelihood and happiness; we are beginning to lose the power to maintain this village. However, now, it is our job to reclaim our glory, by participating in this war, and by crushing our foes! It is clear that we need to exert more effort to make the gods happy, so that they can support us in the upcoming war!”
The Lama wheezed at the end of his words. Then all around him, the officials and the villagers clapped and cried; his words touched their hearts, leading them to support the village as a whole in the awakening of war. They had no doubts that the enemies could unleash ferocity, but their reliance of the High Order and the gods assured them of victory.
It was the second time that the people in the front rows invaded the stage again. With watering eyes, the Lama replied that they should not worry, as the Holy Army was there for them. The abbots then stowed the people away from the stage.
Hearing the matter about war, the kids knocked their heads against the chairs, and they attached themselves onto their parents. As for Neha and Sachen, chills sprouted from the layer of their skin, and they had little words to express how they feel about this.
Neha latched herself onto Sachen again, not willing to let go of her.
“W-war? Why must it be this way?”
“It’s okay, it’s okay.” Sachen stroked her friend’s head. “Maybe the bad guys will be wiped out in time, and all things will come to peace again. We are strong after all!”
“Hehe, I like the way you think.”
“Yep! Maybe, they will let us fight against the enemies! With sticks and stones, we can stop them!”
“Ah, I’m not sure about that! But regardless, I am still scared about the war. I don’t know what it will be like, but for sure, it will hurt all of us.”
Sachen nodded, and Neha released her embrace. They had no clue to what might happen later on. All they wanted was to live their everyday lives, with little worries and sadness. With such a thought, they became uncertain of the near future.
The Lama, who was quiet among the shock of the villagers, recomposed himself. His hands gripped onto the woodwork of the podium, and he creaked his mouth. Not a single shred of sweat and quivers showed on his face.
“The fact that the tribes have the audacity to go against our kind is despicable! As a community, we shall support the Holy Army, for they have the experience and the capabilities to defeat the devils of the frontiers, once and for all! The farmers, the quarry workers, even the accountants, you all shall rise up and acknowledge our struggles. No matter how frail and poor you are, how haughty and prideful you may be, there is no denial that even the tiniest bit of your support will help us tremendously. We are the backbone of this village after all, and we shall continue to be one for as long as the gods will allow us to live. You shall listen to our battle cries, you shall walk a mile in our shoes just to feel our struggles, and you shall be happy and joyful that the military will be fighting for the preservation of our existence. The hordes from the outside world will burn into the scourges of their own sins – even if we aren’t in the battlefield, we shall hear from afar, the cries and moans of the ones who have caused the gods to stray away from us! Once they are eliminated, we shall relish in our glory! Long live the village!”
“Hurrah, hurrah! Praise Yebuka, the Lord of Lords!” The people spurred their words into a whirlwind, and it blasted the officials off their seats. Yebuka raised his right hand and motioned it up and down.
“But before we can do anything, before we can raise our hands for the gods, we must appeal to the heavens first and foremost! In order to do so, we must perform… sacrifices! Yes, you heard me! As you can tell, the gods are hungry for flesh blood, so to have us perform them under the sky and above the earth will be considered a test of loyalty! By the heavens and their presence alone, we will, without any questions or meandering, do what it takes to make our actions meaningful. New flesh, a new beginning. The village has awoken into a new hour, one that will determine our fate for the future. If we shall die, then let us die by pushing ourselves into the fight at the last possible moment. If we shall live, then let us destroy them! Also, along with our sacrifices, we shall reinstate the tradition that we have all followed since the old times: that is, the spiritual missions. As always, the High Order requires two candidates, a male and a female, regardless of age and weakness. He and she will go far away from here – and it will be something that requires them to endure suffering, to lose their patience, and to persevere throughout the mission. This is so that the gods will pay heed to their causes, showing that we are still devoted to salvation!”
Yebuka then brought his head forward, his eyes began to scan at almost every villager in the temple. The kids, along with Neha and Sachen, shuddered and clacked their legs. They feared much of what the Lama was going to do from here.
Silence then ensued. The pupils of the ruler grew large. He gulped saliva down his throat. When he saw Neha and Sachen, he winked at them; and it left them shaking even more. His presence alone drove most people into begging to become candidates. They desired it, they were willing to serve him at all costs. Such enthusiasm they had, and their glowing faces satisfied the Lama.
When Yebuka glanced at the Young Guards, he released a smile. He exhaled and tapped his stomach. His eyes narrowed towards a particular person.
“I have finally found a boy that can help us. Vice-President of the Young Guards… Kuraizang, will you please come over?”
“Yes I will, my Lord,” Kuraizang said, he walked to the stage. “I shall help you in any way you can.” Stepping into the altar, Kuraizang bowed before the officials. They gave a round of applause, and chanted his name a million times. Kuraizang then shook hands with the Lama.
In turn, the villagers hollered more and more, causing the building to shake. They considered such a gesture from the leader to be a touch of the gods.
Sachen wiggled her eyebrows, she hummed to herself as she looked at Kuraizang. “I guess it makes sense now, from the words of our classmates about Kuraizang and his impressions.”
Moving Kuraizang’s bangs aside, the Lama traced a triangle on his forehead and chanted a short hymn. He turned to the audience.
“This young man is distinguished for his honors and achievements at school. It is now time for Kuraizang to make the next step. My abbots, escort him to the back door. Change his clothes and train him until next week.” The vice-president walked to the back side of the statue, and the abbots led him to the door. With the support of his classmates, including the president of the elementary section, Kuraizang then departed from the Young Guards.
The clergymen announced that service was over for today. They also said that the Lama needed to meet one of the kids afterwards, for which the ruler was leaning on the podium. Although his speeches dissipated into the air, many villagers still remained in their zeal. Them unable to stop crying over his words, the clergymen started to escort the people from their seats. Some of them fought, they yearned to hear more. With the cooperation of the Young Guards, the people left the building. In a matter of minutes, the place was empty.
Neha and Sachen were also about to depart; but the president of their section stopped them. Telling that the Lama had called for Neha, the latter refused at first. Sachen suggested for herself to accompany her friend, to which Neha accepted the offer. They walked along the aisle, and reached the stage. The Lama brought both his arms, the girls gave them a handshake. Sachen retreated to the steps leading back to the aisle, scowling at the ruler.
“Hello little one,” Yebuka said. “You caught me in interest when I gazed at you, for you hold very special eyes. What is your name by the way?”
Squeaking and rubbing her cheeks, Neha clammed her eyes.
“N-Neha is my name!”
Sachen bit her lips, and she brushed her long hair. “Sachen.”
“Splendid! Now Neha, I presume that your father is in the military right?”
“He is working very hard at the moment, in the campaign against the enemies in the desert. He leads his troops well and hearty, and there are no instances that he has lost a battle, not a single one! He has a brave heart, and an assertive voice; his troops love him so, that they don’t want him to be gone! Isn’t that fabulous?”
Neha nodded and stood firm. “When will my dad come back? I miss him so much, and I worry about him every day.”
“Why need to ask my dear? He will come back soon. At best, with the war looming, I estimate that he will return in two months. Since the barbarians have decided to wage war against us, he will have a lot of busy work.” Neha curled a smiled from hearing that. “Say Neha, to change the subject, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Well… I want to be a charity worker, so that I can help the poor. This nice woman named Usheniko gave me the advice to become one, and I feel grateful about it.” Neha said that with a chuckle.
Dark clouds then filled the eyes of the Lama. The gap between his eyebrows burrowed a hole, and he heaved his stomach as though he was developing nausea. Spinning his heels and facing the other side, he sighed many times.
“What’s the matter?” Neha asked.
Yebuka patted his stomach, he groaned and made his posture rigid.
One of the clergymen nudged at him.
“O-oh, it’s nothing, nothing at all. Well Neha, it’s been nice chatting with you. Not to be off-beat, but I can sense that you hold grace and potential to become a useful person – and maybe someday you might help us. Have a nice day.”
“Let’s go!” Sachen said, dragging Neha to the end of the stage and bringing her back to the aisle. “That guy is so creepy! Did you see the look on his face a moment ago? Ugh!”
“Yeah, but I’m not really concerned. I just want to know when my father will come back to our side. Out of all people, I asked the Lama about the matter; goodness me, I was so nervous!”
“I’m sure he will come home soon! He’s a good person, he will never leave you and your mother!”
Sachen slapped the back of her friend’s shoulders, and Neha did the same thing to her. The girls left the temple, reuniting with their families.
Today’s service commanded a considerable impression on the masses.
Even so, the duo spun their heads when trying to understand what Yebuka’s speech meant for everybody. Perhaps there was a meaning deep in the mere surface of his oratory.