The flowers wilted and rotted from the bloodbath, the streets dulled from their colors. Dead bodies that used to lie on the cobblestone and elsewhere had disappeared; the Holy Army had cleaned it up a while ago. Although the casualty count was quite high, the soldiers were able to bury all of them in the cemetery near the northern gate. It was a grim job to do, and some of the soldiers cried their eyes out upon the realization that their loved ones had died. Nothing could surpass the pain they were facing. During the time of the cleanup, they washed away the filth, blood, and ruins that the invaders had left. The battle ended in an unconvincing victory for them; slaying the enemies, the entirety of them, was difficult. They were tough to strike down, and even if they succumbed to injuries, the adversaries fought off until their dying breath. The efforts of the Holy Army, although people felt grateful to them, changed little of the scourge of violence that made its mark. It put the village in uncertainty.
This morning, days after the onslaught, the High Order of the Celestials called for an assembly. Everybody had to participate. Soon the villagers arrived at the temple, and they spoke and thought of nothing. They kept their glances towards the ground, trying to exorcise from themselves the recall of severed limbs, stray bullets, and the fury of the enemies. To good fortunes, they had survived; but it left them to suffer. Forming a line, they went into the building. The abbots and clergymen sung no hymns at this time. Silence they emphasized, all that one could hear were the footsteps of the masses.
Going inside, the villagers perched on their seats, and they stared at the stage with blank faces. Many of them sat alongside their families.
Some of them preferred to be alone. For Neha and Sachen, they were an aisle away from each other. Neha followed her mother, and Sachen settled with her family. In briefness did they they exchange eye contact, nothing more than that. Like the others, they were quiet; as memories of their ordeal were forming, they balked and mewled. They wished to talk to each other, but at this time, it was painful for them to utter a single word between their sides.
Neha’s mother crossed her arms and folded her legs. She hissed at her daughter when the latter started to shake. From the sharpness of her tone, Neha jumped.
“Act proper Neha, we’re at temple service, so please stay calm for a bit.”
“No buts. You should be at least grateful that you have survived, and so did I! I locked myself in the house when those evil minions came to the village, and I even tried to beat one of them up. But sadly, they had hurt as many people as possible, and it saddens me to the fullest. If your father were here, then he’d kept us to safety – but he’s not here.”
“I want him to come back. Please mother…” Neha wiped her palms upon her pants. She almost cried the moment Aijin mentioned her father. She dreamed that he would save his family from the terror of the enemies, and such a dream warmed her heart for a terse period. With his perseverance and might, anything was possible. But far away he was, Neha sentenced herself into whimpers. The frequency of her father in her memories and daydreams throbbed her, ignoring them all together was not a choice that she could make.
“That’s why should become stronger than your parents!” Aijin said.
“When Tulisen brought you home right after the pillage, you came crying to my arms, begging for me to sleep with you in the bedroom. That, my little girl, shows nothing but your unwillingness to tough it out.”
“Mother, why must you say that? Sachen and me were the ones attacked by the enemies. What were we supposed to do other than to run away?”
All the sudden, Aijin’s lips swiveled around. She blinked until she got herself dizzy. Her voice cracked. “I-I… If I were in your position, then I would have stolen a rifle from the armory, and would have shot those cockroaches. Oh my dear, I commend your friend for protecting you by using a dang umbrella; although I have to say that it’s somewhat laughable.” She chuckled, before shedding tears. She dug her nails along her cheeks. “I’m sorry that you had to go through that! I should have been there for you. I am a coward am I? You should call me that from now on.”
“I cannot do so, that’s not polite.”
“No. After all, if I am a coward, then you are too. No no, that’s not true; you are a brave young girl, so brave that you want to be, what was it? A charity worker? Yes, you want to help the unfortunate and needy; and most likely, you will spend your own time with them more than me!”
Twitches distorted Aijin’s face, and she started to ramble meaningless things, as though the train of her thoughts had no destination. Neha clamped her hands and loosened her jaws. What was her capability at this point, to stop her mother from hurting herself? As a daughter, Neha could have helped her, but her mother continued to agonize. Neha wanted to cry for her, she wanted to fix her problems once and for all.
The people of the village sat frozen and lifeless. They were melting on their seats, about to fade away from the pain. At the stage, the abbots and clergymen came from the back door, and they encircled the jade statue. Rubbing their hands against it, they strung chants and hums in a low volume. The officials then walked around the structure, and soon did their simple movements mesmerized a few villagers. At the moment, Neha’s mother and Sachen’s parents teetered and perspired.
They said nothing. Neha and Sachen squirmed, they wanted this to be over.
As the officials lifted their hands from the statue, they rolled their tongues. Although it might seem strange to some, such an action was soothing the villagers into a lull. The people nodded and brushed their hairs, they felt nothing but their heartbeats. Running out of breath, the abbots and clergymen concluded the introduction of the service. With dreary faces, they sat down and waited for the Lama to show up.
Meanwhile, Sachen’s parents frowned, they wanted to hear more of the tongue rolling. Next to Sachen, her brother was hammering his hands against the chair in front of him, much to the disturbance of a man sitting there.
“Monkhuba, don’t that!” Restraining his hands, Sachen scowled at him; he was about to cry. “You’ll hurt yourself, you know? And you are in service, so act appropriately! Are you shaking your head? Then I ought to give you a spanking. Mother, father, please help him.”
“No, leave him be,” the father said, he slouched his back. “He’s just a kid.”
Sachen then recalled something. After the end of the raid, Tulisen took the girl home, and when she opened the door to her house, she saw her family shaking from the bottom of their feet. Her mother, Saraji, kissing her daughter, she told her that before her return, two soldiers broke into their home. They threatened them to give them money or else they would take Saraji. In defiance, Monkhuba picked up a kitchen knife and tried to fend off the intruders; they simply pushed him aside.
They were about to kill the parents, but in time, the Holy Army swept them. It left Monkhuba in tears. The day before the service, he was scratching and biting his skin, and avoided anything that resembled a piece of armor. It was apparent that he could make it into a compulsion, but Sachen was there to monitor him. She had to manage his behavior.
In the midst of the dread, the back door opened. There emerged the Lama, the one that the villagers had been waiting for. Yebuka sashayed to the podium, with his hand holding onto his stomach. His lips flattened and his skin paled. There was tranquility in his eyes, which came as a surprise to the villagers. It put them in discomfort; but to see him in this manner was something divine. Upon the Lama being at the podium, the villagers muttered gibberish and choked from the awe of their ruler. Some of them wanted to offer condolences for the Lama about the losses his land had compiled.
Straying away from the silence that had overshadowed the carnage, the Lama ejected a cough. Clearing his throat, he spoke.
“Come hither to the dove, young and old, for these times are filled with hopelessness and sadness. We have experienced a lot of things… but the incident days ago showed that we are still vulnerable to the wraths of the gods. The gods above our heads, they had punished us for our sins by sending the tribes from the east to attack us. Bloodshed, devastation, and madness, they all incurred us to the breaking point. From the estimate based on a report taken by Tulisen and his men, about two-hundred out of one-hundred fifty-thousand villagers had died. To us, that is a significant number, no matter how small it is. From the plight, the High Order of the Celestials placed ourselves into great consideration – about our future, our livelihood, and our happiness. Will we remain stable? Or will we fall into the pages of history? Whatever our future will become, there is no doubt that we must secure ourselves for the sake of our children, our next generation. For now, the clergy and abbots have no proposal to change or improve anything – however, we must strengthen our soldiers later on in order for them to protect us. That requires rigorous training, upgrades of equipment, and emphasis on strategy. We are a small community, but with the might and power of our men, we shall not fall easily.”
His words loosened the tension of the populace. They nodded and grunted among themselves, their bodies remaining stiff.
“Praise the Lord of Lords.” Neha’s mother rattled her hands and pouted. “I love you. Please protect us from the evildoers.”
An aisle opposite of Aijin, Saraji toted her fist and bulged her eyes.
“Kill those who stand in our way! Do what is right for all of us!”
Following that, the people elevated themselves into action. They jumped up and down, they clapped, and they said their thanks for Yebuka. The atmosphere transforming, the Lama smiled and waved at the crowd; the gradual fervor of the people extinguished the pallor in his face. He cracked a grin. Leaning forward, he enlarged his pupils and huffed his breath. By looking at him, it electrified the villagers more than ever. They desired to go up there and kiss the feet of their leader.
“All of you, have you finally realized the extent of the gods’ anger upon our civilization? For us to witness blood being spilled everywhere, to hear the shouts and bellows of our enemies, and to lose our loved ones, it brings us to realization that there is no remedy to cure the gods of their turbulence! As long as we commit our hearts to wrongdoings, we cannot satisfy them! The incident leaves us with despair, and it will be eternal if we don’t do anything about it! The gods are not happy with the first sacrifice we have made a while ago, so it must mean that we should do more – by God, we need more sacrifices in order to fill their bellies! Lucky for us, we have found something that led to the tribe attacking us.” Everybody gagged on their own breaths as soon as Yebuka said this. “Yes, there is a direct cause… and many of you will not like hearing it, but it is time to disclose it: there is a perpetrator that had collaborated with the barbarians! Bring her out!”
Upon that order, the abbots hustled to the back door. The anticipation of the upcoming reveal of the perpetrator paralyzed the villagers, so much so that they could not fathom to what was about to happen. Who was her? What did the Lama hope to gain from this? Such questions suffocated their heads, and the more they pondered about them, the more curious they were becoming. Also, a few started to think that the criminal might be themselves. In light of this, their hearts raced, their chests tingled.
For the two girls, they had no idea. Paleness invaded their faces, leaving them to feel ill about the matter. Who could it be from the stage? Perhaps that it was a foreigner, or a spy within their own civilization.
“What is going to happen?” Neha flushed, and she couldn’t help but pick the scalp from her head. “I don’t even know.”
“I hope that this perpetrator would be arrested right away,” Sachen uttered, sweat from her neck simmered.
The back door then slammed shut. The abbots returned to the stage, beaming smiles. They walked in front of the jade statue, and conversed with Lama for a brief time. Widening his grin, Yebuka clasped his hands together and called for them to bring the criminal to light. The whole world, along with the heavens, waited to witness this. And now the gods could conjure the right punishment under the crimes of the person that had supposedly contributed to the madness.
From there, the abbots brought out the culprit. In handcuffs, along with a sack that concealed the face, the person clamored in cries. There was a rope that wrapped itself around the sack, so as to prevent him/her from speaking out. In the wake of the situation, he/she attempted to rip apart the handcuffs and to gnaw on the rope. Under the muffles, the person barraged curses, the abbots hushing the words every time. It came to be that the presentation of the accused lured the whole temple into interest. The villagers shrilled their voices and hooted for the identity of the criminal to show right now, and they couldn’t wait any longer. Soon, some people ran towards the stage and mocked the unknown individual for committing to evil. They spat, stomped, and poked at him/her. The officials moped them back to their seats, but they remained resilient. They started to bang their fists on the chairs, tears from their eyes compelled them to scream. Maddening as it was at this moment, Neha and Sachen curled back and covered their ears.
Once the crowd repressed their animosity, it was the for the High Order to disclose the identity. The shouts and insults from the populace clotted their mouths, they could not speak for a while. The kids rocked back and forth, thrilling themselves for the results. Coughs and sneezes flung about. The abbots then encircled the criminal and untangled the rope. The object slithered alongside the person’s body. It dropped to the floor. With the pinch of their fingers, they removed slowly the sack.
Hair sparkling, eyes clouding, and cheeks sinking within the face, it couldn’t be anymore shocking. What had been a head scratcher for a while, turned the tides of everybody’s expectations. To the villagers, they regretted that they should have known earlier of this person coming up in the spotlight. Nonetheless, the spectacle aroused them.
Bouncing around the stage, the accused stepped on the feet of the abbots and spewed saliva towards the clergymen. They managed to restrain the person.
“Let go of me this instant! What the hell am I here for?! You dragged me out of my home, put me in handcuffs, and charged me with a crime that I did not even commit! This is madness, injustice, and cruelty! I demand an explanation!”
The Lama chortled, he leered at the individual. “Injustice? Clearly you were the one that helped the enemies didn’t you? Of course you would do: you are willing to conspire against us and to kill us all. Your misfortunes led you to this point.”
“Conspire against you guys? That’d be the last thing I’d do! Do not accuse me of such falsehood!”
“The Lama does not tell lies. All that comes from my words are truth, and the gods always know that I am speaking the truth. If I were to lie, then I wouldn’t be here in the first place.”
“S-shut up!” Seething in anger, the accused headbutted one of the clergymen. The fellow men saved their kind from falling, and they began to badger the criminal for being reckless. Not more than a second in the spotlight, the villagers jeered and threatened to fight against the accused. Blood they desired, clobbering and crushing criminals might be the norm.
The moment they saw this happening, Neha and Sachen welled in tears. The two couldn’t believe their eyes. Why was this person here, out of everybody? Innocent or guilty, what led the Lama to bring this?
The girls stuttered, they turned blue, for they had nothing to say.
With his trademark smile, Yebuka turned forth to the criminal and cackled. The latter glared at him, about to throw her fists towards his face.
“Let us commence everything that we know in regards to this malicious, black-hearted person,” Yebuka said. “No worries, no accusations from us shall go to waste, for this offender had done enough damage to warrant the people’s rage into a full-blown frenzy. You have hurt everybody here.”
The Lama whistled and flicked his sleeves. Countless eyes watching the stage, the people could not afford to miss the whole indictment. By gluing their bottoms onto their seats, there was no purpose in leaving now. All their anticipation and dread were going to pay off, and indeed, they were willing to put the accused to justice and punishment.
Seconds fleeted, the Lama turned red. He tilted his head.
“Isn’t that right… Usheniko Ganshipe?”