Another day, another end to school. Typical to everybody, the children and teenagers swelled the building with their sighs and giggles.
They had again, endured the torment of their classes. As for the fourth graders, they remained in the classroom.
Writing an endless river of words on the chalkboard, Ms. Laozina lectured about the recent history of the village. Strands of white hair fell out of her scalp as she was staggering her steps, her bones creaked and squeaked. Gloss sparkled her large lips, and the teacher kept on rubbing it with her fingers. Wearing a belt, she wore a black dress that reached to her shins, and in modesty that the dress concealed her entire body, it revealed nothing but her hands, collarbone, and neck.
Ms. Laozina then faced her pupils. She scratched her head.
“Okay class, you must understand this time period that is presented on the chalkboard. Yes yes, we have gone over it a million times. Ozughen was a radicalist Lama that wanted to implement a lot of crazy reforms in the village. He garnered the support of the Ganshipe family, who bribed him with a mountain of gold so that he could keep himself in power, so that he would legalize witchcraft, prostitution, gambling, et cetera.” The teacher began to look around the room, her lips tingling and her chest puffing. She tapped her right foot, to which the students rattled their chairs. They stared dead center at the chalkboard, begging to the clock to run its course.
Zeroing in on a certain child, Ms. Laozina snapped her fingers. “Ah! Neha! Do you mind telling the class of what we have just covered for today? I’m sure you know it quite well.”
Neha stood up. With a blank state in her mind, she left herself in sweats and jitters. Her fingers twitching upon the sides of her hips, she strained her voice. When Ms. Laozina hacked a cough, Neha let out a squawk. It put her in a spotlight. By now, the students questioned and sympathized such a state from the girl. A few of them offered to answer on her behalf, but Neha felt that it was her responsibility to reply right away. Then random, incomprehensible thoughts flooded her head, she was unable to find the correct words. The teacher hawked at her, she showed a frown. Neha started to look at the door, in hopes of escaping from this situation.
In great concern, Sachen acted. She slammed her hands and raised herself. The kids drew their attention, and they gasped. Sachen smirked, she borrowed the spotlight from her friend.
“Um teacher, I have the answer! We have learned in class today, about the absurdity and uselessness of education!”
“My words Sachen! I did not call upon you-”
“Let me finish! As far as I can tell you, much to my knowledge, the education system of this village needs a reform; the teachers are brutally slaughtering us with their boring stream of information and random facts, so that they can teach us for the exams. What is the use of learning in such manner, when in the end, we won’t even learn anything?! We are kids after all, we need to thrive and live as children, instead of having people like you confining us to a lifeless, dull environment eight hours a day! Happiness is more important to us than just mere numbers! So give us recess all day, and cook some good-quality food! White-haired hags you all are, I’d rather have a dragon control this school as principal!” Her words, as silly as they were, polluted the classroom; the students proceeded to cackle and cry their eyes out. Sachen maintained her smirk, she gave that answer with something else in mind. Even with that, the kids could not fathom her ramble, it seemed more spurious than true.
“What in God’s name are you blabbering about?” Ms. Laozina asked, she returned herself to Neha, who was snickering. Her jitters vanished, the crimson of her face paled. Her thoughts turned into clouds, lifting away the burden from her head. She felt light as a feather.
Neha patted her chest. She stiffened her neck and arms.
“Ms. Laozina, I should answer your question right away. What we have learned in class today is… the revolt of Ozughen’s administration instigated by the glorious revolutionaries. Two years before Yebuka’s rule, Ozughen was controlling our village with malpractice and dishonesty. He was so bad that he caused a famine and an economic downturn. In response, Yebuka and his companions molded a desire to overthrow the administration; they waged war against Ozughen, to which they were successful! They kicked the radical and his posse out of the village, and Yebuka claimed the right to rule as the 28th Lama!”
“Splendid Neha! Splendid!” Along with the teacher, the students gave kudos. Neha coiled a smile, and she sat down. “That is indeed, glorious and more so remarkable, that the current Lama was able to defeat the devils, and was able to drive them out! Oh goodness, time is up! Class is over kids, have a good day.”
The teacher wiped the contents off the chalkboard. When she withdrew to the corner where her desk was, the students packed up and left the classroom.
Neha and Sachen rallied in the hallways. Due to the congestion of the place, to which the kids were jamming every inch of the area, it almost managed to wash the two girls to the side. They reached the front door and went outside. Before they took themselves to the flagpole area, Sachen sprang in front of her buddy.
“That was a great answer you gave,” Sachen said. “I don’t have enough brain capacity to absorb everything the teacher was lecturing about throughout the day.”
Neha exhaled strongly. “You should start paying attention more. I wonder why you’d give such an irrelevant answer at the classroom when the teacher asked us a question about history.”
“I don’t know… I was trying to pump up the atmosphere, I guess! No, the real reason was that I wanted you to loosen up. Every time Ms. Laozina call upon you, you’d get so nervous. That’s why I shouted something dumb, so that you could laugh a little bit.”
“Y-you didn’t have to do that!”
“I had to, there was no choice. I did it anyway in order to waste time. You should thank me though.” Sachen grinned, she crossed her arms and placed them at the back of her head. “Say Neha…”
“What is it?”
Shaking her head, Sachen took off to the flagpole, and Neha trailed her. Sachen tightened her eyes and growled with the slightest jerks from her arms. It baffled Neha, it must have been that her friend was readying herself to pounce on anybody in sight. Neha pulled her sleeves, trying to stop her. Still, Sachen continued. There was no telling of what she wanted to do.
The daily ceremony was over. During the duration of the event, Sachen’s eyes held an accumulation of pollen and dust. She growled under her breath, and there came nothing in her composure but the continuance of her agitation. For the whole time, Neha constantly nudged at her friend, trying to get her back to normal; but as it was so, Sachen left her silent. Their peers leaving the school, the girls passed through the gates. Upon the streets, they bisected numerous villagers.
Neha then caught up to her friend; the next thing she knew, the duo arrived at the northern district.
All the sudden, Sachen relaxed herself. A long sigh from her, she tapped Neha.
“What’s the matter?” Neha asked. “Something is bothering you?”
“Yeah…” Sachen gazed at her feet. She wrapped her hand around her chin. “It’s just that Kuraizang has not been here for a while.”
“He’s on a spiritual mission right? Are you concerned about him?”
“Kind of. It’s only that since the service, we have heard nothing of Kuraizang. I’m starting to feel really suspicious. It must be that the teachers and clergymen are ordering him to do something out of his own conduct.”
“How can you assume that? I mean, the High Order likes him for his determination, and for his efforts in being part of the Young Guards; so of course they wouldn’t make him do bad things. Yebuka and the others are good-hearted, there’s no way otherwise.”
“Hmm…” Sachen began to brood on it. Walking around in circles and ignoring the pushing of the villagers, she delved deeply on this matter. The more she did, the more uncertain she felt. As of now, her classmatesgaveno mentions of Kuraizang and his current circumstances, and in fact, nobody in the entire school shredded a single concern about him. To have that happening itched Sachen to the fullest, she decided before then that she needed to respond to the problem. But where could she start from here? What did she have to do? Hanging in square one, the lack of ideas stranded her.
Something flicked her nerves. Sachen then clutched onto Neha as to not let her slip away. Her mouth gaping, she showed her teeth.
“I have something in mind!”
“H-huh? You do?”
“Yep! As of this time, with my plan, we are going to find Kuraizang. We must retrieve him as soon as possible, before the bad guys will eat him alive! We are going to get a rope, so that it will be easier to stow him back to the village; that way, he will not try to succumb to the enemies.”
“Whoa! Where are you getting this idea from? We should leave Kuraizang alone, he must be busy now. And also, we have no idea of where to start, or where to find him.”
“Hmph!” Sachen yanked Neha’s hands and swung her friend about the cobblestone. When her eyes glowed, Neha squirmed.
“A-are you with me? Say yes, say yes, say yes.”
Sachen hypnotized herself in repeating her words. Beads of sweat emerged from the shoulders of Neha, she stammered and lurched her gaze around the buildings.
Someone’s hand landed on Sachen’s head. Pale and slender, the hand buttered her scalp; the moment she felt it, Sachen hopped away. Her heart racing, she was about to pray for forgiveness due to her assumption that the hand came from a spirit. Then along with her, Neha turned around and stared at the person. It couldn’t be anybody else unusual to them, if one might say that.
“My my, what is this plan you are scheming?”
Sachen leaped, she almost sprained her legs. “It’s the witch! What is your business with us now? Actually… have you been hearing us the whole time?”
“Well duh, like only a minute or so. But right now, I am ever so inquisitive about your plan. What might it be? Are you searching for the holy grail? Or maybe for your first, and true love? Oh, if so, then I might be able to help your throbbing heart! Please tell me, quickly!”
Suppressing her stammers, Neha calmed herself. “Sachen and me are trying to ponder about where Kuraizang is. You see, he has not gone to school for a while, and we are starting to feel troubled by it. Sachen wants to find him, and she is willing to drag me into this.”
With the pursing of her lips, fog occupied Usheniko’s eyes. She fell quiet. She raised her eyebrows and scowled at the ground. It made the duo flutter, they tilted their heads.
“Kuraizang. Isn’t that the boy who was summoned by the High Order? Indeed, he is on that mission.” While she was tugging her necklace, Usheniko muttered to herself. She hissed from her voice, and her face wrenched; it told the girls that they shouldn’t mention anymore of their plan. As such, Usheniko frowned, her heart throbbed faster than she could count. Tears glittered, conquering the fog in her eyes.
“He shouldn’t be doing it… A while back, I was also… that’s why I ran off and returned here…”
Neha stroked Usheniko’s right arm. “A-are you all right?”
“Huh? Oh, yes, I am fine, totally one-hundred percent!” She smiled, and patted Neha’s head; she rejuvenated her entire spirit. “Don’t mind me, I’m just thinking about something. Anyways! Well Sachen, what will you do if your plan fails? I cannot guarantee, based on my belief, that you will be successful in it; perhaps you will hurt yourself in the end!”
“I-I’m a strong girl, I won’t even let anything hurt me!”
“Oh ho? Are you sure about that?”
“Yes! It will not fail under any circumstances. We just need a lot of time and patience.”
Usheniko chuckled, she held her stomach. “Patience? Sachen, you really need one at this time! Poor you.”
“W-whatever! By the way, Ms. Witch, what are you doing now? Are you busy?”
“Quite so. Actually, I am about to be busy. I intend to go to the mountains and gather some edible herbs – however, if rain is to occur, then I’m afraid I have to come home early, and you know that I don’t like rainy weather, for it will ruin my dazzling, shiny robe!”
“M-maybe we can run an errand for you perhaps?” Neha asked.
“Sachen, we can pick herbs for Usheniko, instead of hunting down for your friend! You are good at finding the right plants!”
“Huh? No way Neha, I want to catch him right now!”
“Don’t be stubborn. We can do something better in our spare time.”
Sachen moaned, Neha dropped her arms. Both of them pouted and hurled words that made no sense. Usheniko butted in.
“You don’t have to do it for me girls! I am all right – I might do it tomorrow. Plus, the herbs I will be gathering can be quite perilous.”
“How so?” Neha inquired.
“Ugh, I don’t want to even explain it, for it might corrupt your innocent minds; but I will explain it. Well, the herbs usually have four leaves, and they are purple all around. Also, they are in nature, hallucinogenic, meaning that if you eat them, then you’re in for a pretty wicked rainbow trip. You will vomit, you will feel dizzy, and worst of all, you might go crazy and lose everything in your mind. Of course, kids cannot try it, because it will turn their brains into a piece of sponge!”
“Eek! Never mind, I don’t want to participate in your quest!”
“Ha, such herbs are rare, so there’s little chance that I will even find them. I need some of them because of her…”
Sachen squinted. “Her?”
“I mean my daughter. Lately, she has been acting strange, and she is not quite her usual self. I felt shocked when I first saw her hair – unkempt and full of oil! Usually, she doesn’t have hair in such fashion, she’d always tie it up in a braid. Her right hand is in bandages, so she could barely write with her dominant hand. Most important of all, she is acting rude and disrespectful to me, and she won’t listen to anything I have to say. Maybe she got this act when she was in her cell; but for goodness sake, at least talk properly to your mother! I am the one who raised her! Heck, there was this one time that she was mumbling something about skipping service, which she actually did last Sunday! I asked her what was her reason, and she only slapped my hand and walked away; her eyes were as fiery as a dragon! It was so scary, that I wanted to avoid her for the rest of that day; but I couldn’t.”
“I’m terribly sorry about that,” Neha said, she whimpered. “I hope you can mend your relationship with her.”
“Aw sweetie, you don’t have to apologize. But regardless, I am so furious? Is she all right? Is her body and mind okay? Is she experiencing cramps under ‘here’? She is not willing to answer my questions, it’s frustrating. This morning, she ordered me to get some herbs in the mountains for her ‘occupation’ – yet she never tells me her intentions. She is going to be in big trouble, I should bring out my whip!” Usheniko, catching her breath, turned around. “I feel like she is not the same anymore. I want my old darling back. As much as I beg for more time, she is due to go back to prison in a month.”
“Where is the prison by the way?” asked Sachen. “We can even appealed to the guards about letting her free.”
“Haha, Sachen, you are very much brave in what you are saying. I do not have knowledge of the place – as a matter of fact, nobody in this village knows where it is!”
“You can use your magical powers of yours! Like flying on a magic carpet, or instantly teleporting to there!”
“I will most likely get sued by the clergy. Woe is me. But it’s okay, at least my daughter does not depend much on me like when she was a toddler. I am already happy, being alone and such. To make myself more gutted, my family is somewhere in the grasslands of the south. I heard that they migrated there after experiencing some bad times in the revolution two years back; I was absent at that time, I went somewhere… They must be making millions based on their business, and I can feel the weight of their profits on my shoulders! Oh whatever, at least I have you guys!”
Usheniko squeezed the duo. Her heartbeat resonated their bodies, it led them to offer themselves to hang out with their friend for the rest of the day. But Usheniko declined.
“By the way guys,” Usheniko said, letting them go, “if you want to get a head start on your plan for that Kuraizang boy, then I advise you to start going to the forest beyond the river.”
“Yes! On the other side, it is most likely that the High Order is keeping the boy there. Since there are little to no predators around there, the place hits home run in terms of safety, so you guys don’t have to worry much except for the river itself!”
Sachen jumped and clapped. “Thank you! Now we can start on square one!”
“No problem dear. Well, you go on my little sparrows, go commit to your plan! But be cautious, for you might accidentally stumble upon something weird or odd along the way. Toodles!” Usheniko then departed. She immersed her presence among the crowd of the people, disappearing from the girls’ sight. Sachen shrugged, she laid her elbow on her friend’s shoulder.
“So are you going to come with me Neha? It’s going to be interesting.”
Neha’s hands went cold. She jerked her head a little. The proposal of the plan irritated her; but she felt it was wrong to reject it. She then nodded.
“Um… actually, I have decided to accompany you in the plan…”
“Yes. But you have to agree that we will go home before sundown. Besides, I feel like leaving you alone in this will be a bad idea; you might end up getting kidnapped or something.”
“Don’t worry about that, there’s nothing that can stop us. But thanks for accepting the plan Neha, I appreciate it.”
Before Neha could repeat herself again about her caution, Sachen ran off. In a spur of a moment did Neha follow her. They went all the way to the eastern gate; and strangely enough, much to their surprise, no guards were present at the area. Their weapons and armor lied near the wall.
“That’s odd,” Neha said. “The soldiers must be doing something important.”
“I think they’re hanging out at a bar, drinking to themselves and fighting each other. Well whatever, let’s get going.”
Sachen then led Neha to the doors. She pushed them; they opened in an instant. The locks plunged to the grass. “A lazy job coming from them, don’t you think?” Sachen remarked. “They should have locked the dang door! Let’s get going Neha, we can’t stay here for too long.”
The girls going through the doors and leaving the gate, they entered the forest again. Soon their eyes inspected every corner, every space of the environment. As it came to be, they familiarized themselves with the ocean of twigs, branches, dragonflies, and other critters. With Sachen running ahead, Neha sped up her pace, exerting bits of her breath. There was no use going back. Once the plan set itself in stone, they had to execute it.
During the course of their trek, the branches and trees lashed at them, they received scratches and rashes. Despite such injuries, they kept going. They finally reached the river, where the fishes twirled along the surface and the leaves sunk. The pair submerged their legs upon the water; the familiar feeling, it glaciated their bones and muscles. Going to dry ground at the other side, the river left them numb, they felt nothing but pins and needles all over their bodies. The cold funneled up their stomachs, they rolled around the pile of leaves.
“I am about to sneeze…” Neha said to herself. They got up, and continued onwards.
The arrival of the unexplored part of the forest crept upon them.
There were no animals roaming about the place, not even bugs. The barks of the trees gave off a rotting, corpse-like stench, as if something had died here long ago. It sickened their guts; they held onto their lungs and picked up the pace. As they went deeper, burns flared up their knees, expelling the cold. Not more than a few seconds into this area, that they sizzled, burst in dryness, and panted for water. Sachen’s eyes hazed with clouds, her heartbeat became shallow. Neha nodded back and forth, she was about to collapse.
The foliage settled in lifelessness. The branches exposed its nakedness, revealing their knives and thorns that pierced the air. With the closeness of the trees, they connected and twisted each other, and the sight held a resemblance to the patterns on the girls’ school uniforms. To the girls, it seemed that Mother Nature was weaving a web that could protect them from the likes of thunderstorms, rain, and hail.
After a while of walking, Neha leaned against the tree besides her.
She crouched, and her heart permeated to the lining of her chest; it might break out of her body. Neha gasped for air.
“I’m so tired. Maybe we should do this for another day.”
“No no no, we have made it this far,” said Sachen. “We cannot give up now.”
“But my legs hurt. I don’t want to get injured again, you know?”
“Fine. Neha, you can wait here, while I’ll go even deeper in the forest.”
“Y-you can’t!” Neha stood up and snagged her friend. “You’ll get lost! Please don’t put yourself in danger-”
Sachen hushed Neha’s lips. Wagging her hands, the both of them lowered themselves. The foul stench evaporated.
“We must keep silent.”
“Eh? Silent? What’s happening?”
Ignoring that inquiry, Sachen dragged Neha to the bushes in front of them. Prostrating, their eyes protruded through the leaves.
“Look way over there.”
Sachen pointed her finger to an area opposite from them. Leading herself there, Neha narrowed her vision; she suspended her breathing when glancing at a particular spot. At first, the two thought it was a large rock. But discovering a ‘giant hole’ on the front end, along with the many steps of boulders and rocks, they realized that they were looking at a cave. Darkness annexed the entrance. The structure stretched long, much so than anything they expected. Clicks and drips echoed the area, creeping them out.
The girls began to think on how to carry out the plan without putting their lives in peril. If the vice-president were to come out, then the girls would make a rope out of flexible twigs, and would lasso him out of the area. It was ridiculous, but they believed that it could work. Sachen chuckled upon such a thought; she might boast about her efforts. She grinned, her body shaking the bushes. As for Neha, she was unsure of the plan as a whole.
Neha and Sachen waited – and waited. Minutes passed, and the sky was about to pour the tears of the heavens. The girls still had their faces stuck on the bushes, the leaves tickling their noses. Sneezing they could suppress, but their laughter they spilled out. But soon enough, much to their expectation, the cave roared. They froze. Footsteps boomed the place and made their way outside. The girls fathomed that it was part of their imagination, since they were exhausted from the expenditure of their energy. The sound jolted them, they shooed for it to go away.
Still, they preserved their awareness. Outside of the cave, a battalion of men strode, their armor rattling, and their head bobbing as if they were puppets. A closer look at their armor, there was an emblem of a bird; the animal’s shape, the spears on its talons, its grooves, and its beak, the pair found something similar about it, but they couldn’t place their tongues to how.
Meanwhile, the troops held among their faces, flat lips and scowling eyebrows. They hollered while holding onto their rifles. In front of the formation, a soldier was carrying a green flag, and alongside him, two people were banging on their drums.
Then they halted. Ahead, an officer with ribbons on his breastplate yelled his orders. Everybody solidified themselves, they moved nothing, not even their eyes. The officer walked around the battalion, he rubbed his swollen belly as he set his gaze at all the troops. No ideas in mind, Neha and Sachen winced.
“Who are these people?” Sachen asked.
Neha scanned the green flag. She grunted. “Definitely, they are not our friends. I think they are the tribes from the forest. I wonder why they are marching at this time of the day, given that rain will happen in a matter of time.”
“I can’t disagree with that. But, whatever they are doing, we are going to be in danger if we stay here. They might attack us.”
“Shall we turn back? I feel uncomfortable staying here.”
“To be honest… yeah. And about the plan; I say we can hold it off for today. I’m sorry Neha, by the way, for dragging you here. I didn’t know this was going to happen.”
“It’s all right. Now we must go home.”
Crawling away from the bushes and zipping their lips, the duo ambled on the tip of their toes. Behind them, the soldiers clamored and deafened the atmosphere with cries in their languages; it was as if they were provoking the village from the distance. Regardless of their intent at this moment, being in the cave and drilling themselves, Neha and Sachen figured little of it. The presence of the battalion had thwarted their plan, they needed to retreat for now. But who knew that those soldiers, those mysterious ones, would come early in the most unexpected time?