Staring at my palm, I wonder if it's really mine. I can't be sure.
My head swirls with unreliable thoughts and sensations, memories as hazy as a half-forgotten dream.
One thing alone seems certain:
My name is Pepropé.
It's the name of a man once hailed a hero by the people of Prah.
Terra Battle: A Tangential Tale
- Lost Time -
- [After 25 trades]
They threw me in the dungeons the other day.
My crime? Treason. I've bloodied my hands with the murder of the king himself...allegedly.
I say "allegedly" because I remember almost nothing.
Either way, I had no chance to confirm whether I was truly guilty as charged. I found myself condemned for regicide--and then I awoke here.
- [After 50 trades]
The dungeons were a desolate sight, a sprawling maze of debris and decay.
Walls and bars had collapsed into rubble. The place was scattered with remains of the dead. Monstrous predators prowled about, eyes glinting dangerously in the dark.
The sole source of illumination was the dying glow of phosphorus. I found that I could see surprisingly well once my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, though.
- [After 75 trades]
"It happened just the other day. A bizarre red light swept through and razed the place..."
A grimy-faced inmate had approached and struck up a conversation. He called himself Bebeya.
He was a brawny fellow sporting warlike tattoos and a gleaming, shaven head. Yet despite his fierce appearance, he was a soft-spoken man, his voice geniality itself.
- [After 100 trades]
Bebeya was kind enough to explain a few things.
Torrents of red light had decimated the dungeons, leaving the surrounding devastation in their wake. Word had it that that light, writhing and raging like monstrous serpents, had ravaged the overworld as well.
"It's a blessing that we stonefolk survived--sinners though some of us may be."
His account of Prah's situation was sobering. It was painfully clear that this was the end of an era.
- [After 125 trades]
"He's lost his memory," Bebeya explained, flicking his thumb at me.
He had introduced me to his friends, but I could find nothing to talk about. Any memories of life before the day I awoke in this dungeon were a fog.
Hell, I wasn't even sure the clothes I wore were mine.
I wondered what I should do.
If they found any use for me in this dark, dank place, I supposed the answer was simply: whatever they ask.
- [After 150 trades]
The girl with melancholy eyes was Pleia. The fellow who'd probably kill in cold blood without a second thought was Xeba. The woman who seemed a little too friendly was Pourd. And Bebeya was their leader.
These four welcomed me into their ranks when I had nowhere else to go.
"What should we call you?" asked Pourd.
The answer took only a moment's thought.
"Call me Pepropé."
- [After 175 trades]
Though I'd lost my memory, one thing lingered: the name Pepropé.
In the stonefolk kingdom of Prah, it was the name of a celebrated hero.
Without a smile or even a glance in my direction, Xeba remarked dryly, "Well, now. That's a mighty gallant name for a criminal."
They had no idea what my crime was.
- [After 200 trades]
It turned out my companions were plotting an escape. It explained why they had been so welcoming.
With no memory and no prospects, I had no reason to refuse. It would at least give me a purpose.
I had a feeling that the harder it drove me, the better I'd be able to figure out who and what I was.
- [After 225 trades]
This jailbreak wasn't to be a typical escape to the outside world of fresh air and sunshine.
A being known as the Maker allegedly dwells in the subterranean depths of this world.
And the Maker's domain is said to be paradise.
- [After 250 trades]
"They say it's a paradise where nothing is impossible and anyone can live on their own terms!"
Pleia was buoyant, voice brimming with excitement and hope. It all sounded too good to be true, but she fervently believed with all her heart.
- [After 275 trades]
"Paradise, huh? I've never heard anyone on the surface mention it. What do you think, Pepropé?"
Xeba was skeptical it existed. On the other hand, why not find out? It beat rotting away in the dungeons.
Thoroughly sick of monotonous days in the dark, Xeba pledged Bebeya his cooperation.
- [After 300 trades]
"This place has already been abandoned."
I looked at Xeba. He was glaring at the dark, high ceiling.
"Why did you say your name was Pepropé?"
I really don't think I have an answer that will satisfy him. How would an amnesiac be able to answer with confidence, anyway?
The only thing I can say is that I am called Pepropé, and the people of Prah called me a hero.
Just then, Xeba turned to me and fixed me with a sharp, piercing gaze.
"Penduloma. That was the name of the last man to obtain the title of the Hero Pepropé."
- [After 325 trades]
Xeba fixed me in his piercing gaze, waiting for a reaction. I could see he was trying to get a measure of me.
"Then I suppose my name used to be Penduloma, too. That helps confirm one of my memories."
Xeba laughed dryly and closed his eyes.
"I can't tell if you're stupid, or a bigshot, or the real deal..."
Why does Xeba care so much?
- [After 350 trades]
"It doesn't matter who I am. It doesn't change the situation we're in. As of this moment, I'm just another prisoner."
"Maybe so, but in this world, only the strong survive. Lip service won't pay the bills. I want to know if you understand that."
I locked eyes with Xeba, and he gestured with his chin, a silent command to look in that direction. There, I found an exhausted old man.
- [After 375 trades]
Perhaps he was once well known for his power and ambition. A myriad of scars covered his body.
His tattoo, which I imagine once had a meaningful design, was now overwritten with laceration scars to the point that the original pattern was a mystery.
His stone wings were cracked, his skin deteriorated, and the fossilization process had already begun. In a few days, he would become just another Forlorn Stone. The color of his eyes had already faded beyond recognition, so he was beyond recovery.
"He used up all his life energy."
Said Xeba, walking unceremoniously into the old man's quarters.
- [After 400 trades]
"Xeba, what are you doing?"
"Looking for things I can sell."
Xeba answered without glancing back. He then proceeded to ransack the dying man's quarters.
Seeing this, the old man weakly stretched out his hand, but it was all in vain.
Xeba didn't pay him any mind, and instead simply kept picking things up, murmuring to himself, and then either pocketing the item or chucking it.
- [After 425 trades]
"Stop it, Xeba."
But Xeba didn't stop. He didn't care at all.
"Xeba! Please, stop!"
Finally, Xeba's hands fell still.
"What, you're begging me now?"
"It can wait until after he's gone, can't it? He doesn't have much time. Let him die in peace, at least."
"Who would have thought a moron like you could earn the title of hero."
Before I could even react, we were surrounded.
- [After 450 trades]
The monsters, Stonefolk, and machines had all formed cliques in order to survive in this world... Anything to increase their chances of survival. And now we were under attack.
"Let's see your power, hero."
Xeba was laughing.
Was he scoffing at me, or was he happy that a fight was about to break out?
But just then, as the fight was upon us, I realized that I didn't have a single weapon.
Meanwhile, they had swords and spears... No archers though, from the looks of it. That's a relief.
The machines would probably be the most difficult to deal with. They looked to be altered security drones, because they were outfitted with sturdy-looking cannons perfect for use during a riot.
"It's for show. They don't have any bullets. Don't panic."
The instant Xeba said that, I was blinded by an explosion.
- [After 475 trades]
"No bullets! Good one!"
Everything went white. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't tell how Xeba was doing, or even where he was.
It was all too sudden and too intense. I was rooted to the spot. I couldn't even tell up from down.
But I could tell one thing for sure: I was being beaten, kicked and burned from all directions.
Even then, part of me was still thinking rationally. The pain confirmed that I was still alive. I found this rational part of me kind of ridiculous.
- [After 500 trades]
By the time my sight returned, my whole body ached, and all I wanted was to lie down wherever I could.
But it was good that I looked down at the ground, because right there by my feet was a forgotten sword... No, a sword-like piece of scrap wood.
I picked it up and found it to be unexpectedly light. When I held the weapon, my muscle memory kicked in, and I felt something welling up inside me.
The heat from all the scars carved into my body, and the raging life force feeding off it.
I had a strong urge to destroy anything in my way in order to escape this predicament.
This is what it means to live...
A golden glow began to pour out from the palm gripping the weapon.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that Xeba had been caught off guard for once.
- [After 525 trades]
We were surrounded, with nowhere to run... but I saw this as an opportunity.
This was my only chance to take them out in one fell swoop.
The light took hold of the weapon in my hand, and it transformed into a glowing sword which I then brandished confidently.
That motion required no forethought, as if I was on autopilot. That was just how naturally it came to me.
A thousand rays pierced the rogues.
- [After 550 trades]
Xeba looted the bodies of the fallen rogues for valuables.
He assessed all sorts of random items, mumbling to himself as he went. His rucksack was soon filled.
I went over to the old man, who was at death's door.
His faded eyes evaluated me without wavering, and he began to open and close his mouth, as if trying to speak.
"Do you have a message for someone?"
- [After 575 trades]
The old man gave up on trying to speak and instead pointed to his bed with a shaky hand. Xeba was not far away.
"Xeba, is there something over there?"
He didn't respond, but he must have been listening. He began to carefully examine the bedding area.
His expression changed almost instantly.
Whatever it was, Xeba tossed it over to me. I caught it easily and looked down at it.
It was faded and timeworn. The place where its face should have been was nearly blank.
"Is this it?"
The old man looked at it and seemed to liven up ever so slightly.
- [After 600 trades]
"Take... memento... please..."
After forcing the words out, he collapsed once more.
Memento? Whose memento was it?
Would the original owner be happy about me simply taking it?
As I puzzled over what to say, Xeba took the doll from my hands and spoke.
"Don't worry. If this is the proof that you once lived, we'll gladly carry it with us."
The old man seemed relieved at these words. He smiled faintly and turned to stone.
- [After 625 trades]
He was actually trying to protect the old man from those hyenas... I almost said it out loud, then thought better of it.
Because the moment Xeba was sure the man was dead, he carelessly dropped the doll to the floor.
"Did you forget what you just said?"
"It's just worthless junk!"
"Junk? He treasured that thing! Wasn't it 'proof that he existed'?"
"Who cares if anyone in this trash heap ever existed? There's a reason we're all here. What reason is that? Because we're criminals. Committing a crime is the same as trampling on another person. We don't deserve kindness. We deserve to be stabbed in the back."
"You don't think a criminal's life has value?"
"Show me proof that it does. You're in here because of your crimes, right?"
"...So are you."
The conversation ended there.
- [After 650 trades]
Not a word was spoken on the way back.
But a thought occurred to me.
The old man surely must have died happily. He believed Xeba, felt reassured, and smiled.
That's the last thing he ever saw.
Isn't that kindness enough?
Unable to abandon the old, faded doll, I secretly brought it back with me. Unfortunately, it had no answers for me.
- [After 675 trades]
I awoke in darkness.
I couldn't tell what time it was, but if I trusted my circadian rhythms, then it was likely morning. Everyone goes to bed at the same time and starts working at the same time.
I stretched, and my body made a series of pleasant popping sounds. Enjoying the sensation, I yawned and wondered at how these actions all felt very normal. Even though I had no memory of anything, my body still seemed to know what to do.
"God gave us certain behavior patterns. Humans call them 'habits'."
A voice lapped at my ears, like ripples on the water's surface. It was Pleia.
- [After 700 trades]
"God has given us a mission. Therefore, we have to live. Deep down somewhere, our bodies are programmed with all the behaviors we need. It's different from memory. Memories are too vague."
"That just makes me want to fight against it. My body is my own."
"That reaction counts, too, you know. Your 'mind' is just a bunch of little switches flipping on and off."
Pleia looked smug as she chattered on. She could clearly tell that she'd lost me. Before I could stop myself, my face twisted with skepticism. She probably saw that, too.
- [After 725 trades]
"Even without your memories, you're still capable of so much... all of it predetermined by God."
"Such as? I really doubt I'd attempt to do something I don't know anything about."
"Hehe! Well... for example... mating and such."
Pleia smirked, and I realized she was toying with me. Is this how she entertains herself? Still, she's right. There are some things people can instinctively figure out without being taught. But who did it first? I can only imagine what the first stonefolk must have thought at the time.
- [After 750 trades]
"God created everything for us, you see."
"It's a fun idea to think about, sure, but I'm not likely to actually accept it as fact."
"But all those 'facts' had to be created by SOMEONE, don't you think?" Pleia's tone implied that this was somehow proof that God was real. She continued, "God just didn't want us to learn of His goals."
Apparently she was a passionate believer... but at the same time, it certainly appeared to be a little more than simple devotion. Either way, it didn't make her any less mysterious...
- [After 775 trades]
"Bebeya told you about where we're headed, right?"
Paradise. That was the destination they told me was waiting at the end of this jailbreak scheme. Supposedly, it was a sprawling expanse at the center of the world, a land of freedom and infinite possibilities. I don't know who first decided it, but seeing as they were no longer permitted to return to the surface, it was the last remaining thread of hope they had. And what an appealing hope it was.
- [After 800 trades]
"Aht Ulaga. That's what someone called it. I don't know what it means specifically, but they said our Creator watches us from there."
"Well, say you put a bug into a little box. Wouldn't you want to watch and see what it does?"
"Are you trying to tell me that my life's purpose is to be God's plaything?"
- [After 825 trades]
"That's right. We satisfy Him."
It didn't feel right. If she believed in God so strongly, then why did she commit a crime? Surely such a misdeed would anger Him. I can't imagine she would want to risk that. I decided to ask her these burgeoning questions directly.
"You want to know?" she replied, meeting my gaze. "Sins against God and crimes against humanity are two very different things. And I cannot defy God..."
It was nothing more than an excuse, and I was admittedly a little disappointed.
- [After 850 trades]
"There's a demon in the food storage...?"
Apparently, somewhere in this prison is a veritable treasure trove of food called "The Ranch." After the gates to Prah were sealed, it became their main food source, the crucial key to their survival... or so I was told.
A 'treasure trove,' they said... I suppose it must have food in large quantities, then. We can't allow demons to ransack it.
"Pleia, can I count on you tomorrow?" Bebeya entrusted the matter to Pleia, and she agreed... or so I thought. But I was wrong.
"Only if Pepropé comes with me."
That was... unexpected.
- [After 875 trades]
It was night. Suppertime. The room in which we dined was strangely clean. Apparently Bebeya insisted on it.
In the middle of the room was a large, oval-shaped table. In its center was a pile of gently glowing phosphorus, casting long, soft shadows on the walls. As we ate, our shadows undulated, overlapping at times to transform into the shapes of bizarre life forms.
Our meal was larger and more extravagant than usual. Like Pourd had said, if we're going to lose it anyway, might as well use up as much as possible.
Personally, I would have taken the opposite stance, but the food had already been cooked by then. This kind of thing must have happened several times in the past. No one breathed a word of complaint.
- [After 900 trades]
Honestly, considering we're trapped inside this underground prison, it's something of a miracle that we've never had to go hungry. Why didn't I notice sooner?
As I was lost in thought...
"You should hurry up and eat before it gets cold," I heard Pourd say in a disapproving tone.
The meat had been cut into medium-sized chunks. I ate a bite. It was melt-in-the-mouth tender, the savory flavor a pure delight. I could tell intuitively that it was of superb quality.
- [After 925 trades]
"By the way, Pepropé..." Pourd said, her cheeks stuffed with food like a chipmunk.
"Did you kill someone?"
"So I hear, yeah."
It must have been a serious felony for me to wind up in this underground prison. Was there any crime greater than regicide? For a moment, I lowered my head in thought, but then I felt someone's gaze on me and looked up.
"Then why didn't you kill them last time?"
- [After 950 trades]
"Xeba told me. You two were ambushed, right?" The voice - and gaze - belonged to Pleia.
It's true that Xeba and I fought off bandits that attacked a dying old man.
"I heard you used some strange ability. Were you intentionally trying to avoid killing them by making them pass out instead?"
"I just wasn't able to reach my full potential, that's all. It takes time to remember how to fight. And I didn't have any familiar weapons at my disposal."
Xeba had a weapon, though. It would have been all too easy to deliver the final blow once they passed out... but he didn't. It wasn't like him... but then again, I haven't actually known him that long. Still, I mean, his gaze is sharp like a blade, piercing through his surroundings... I can practically see him doing it.
- [After 975 trades]
"Xeba doesn't like to finish off someone that can't fight back, just so you know."
"How merciful of him."
"I'm sure the families of the nobles he killed would be furious to hear that. To them, he's a monster."
Pleia's words were strikingly sharp, and I hated myself for my carelessness.
"That's enough chitchat for now... listening to you two is making even the food taste bitter," Bebeya scolded us, and our conversation ended. Only the sound of clinking silverware remained.
- [After 1000 trades]
The next morning... We had finished our preparations and were ready to go to the Ranch. Our task: to slay the demons. And this time, I was armed. I'd borrowed a sword that someone had apparently found somewhere.
"Alright, let's go."
We'd barely taken a dozen steps when all of a sudden, Pleia stopped short.
"If you're really Pepropé, then you've been to this underground prison before. Do you remember your pilgrimage?"
I attempted to comb through the sludge that was my memory, but to no avail.
- [After 1025 trades]
"Pepropé... or rather, the man named Penduloma... failed the last pilgrimage."
"If that was me... well... that'd be kind of embarrassing, I suppose."
"On the contrary. You see, I don't trust anyone who claims they're perfect."
"But Pleia, what about the God you believe in? Is he not perfect?"
Actually, wait. Would creating sinners like us not count as a failure for her god?
- [After 1050 trades]
The more I talked to Pleia, the more questions I had... It was kind of fun, actually.
"...Sorry," she said, in a small voice.
"I think I went too far yesterday."
Did she go out of her way to set this up just so she'd have an opportunity to apologize? The thought made me feel pathetic for always being my snarky self.
- [After 1075 trades]
The trip to the Ranch was quite uneventful, with no challenging foes in our way. All we had in the way of killing time was our conversations.
Everything she talked about was utterly ordinary. The plaza she played in as a child... The entertainers she saw back in Prah, back in the old days... The gentle warmth of large hands clutching hers as she shook, bedridden with illness... Though I'd lost my memories, I hadn't lost my compassion. As she recounted her memories, sometimes she would grimace, as if remembering something unpleasant, all the while continuing to tell her stories one by one... and I was completely drawn in.
- [After 1100 trades]
First impressions can be misleading.
Pleia had seemed to me like someone with skeletons in her closet, but now that she's opened up, I know she's really a good person… er… Stonefolk. Of course, the fact that she's here implies she must have committed some crime in the past...
"Pepropé? Are you listening?"
I snapped back to reality. As we were walking, my gaze had drifted to her lips as she carried on entertaining me with her stories, and then I had completely lost myself in thought.
"Sorry, what were you saying?"
"You know, I don't think being overly honest is a virtue. Was I boring you or what?"
"Of course not, Pleia. Your anecdotes are interesting, but I'm more interested in you as a person."
"...Okay, I take it back. Honesty is a good thing."
After that, Pleia was in noticeably higher spirits.
- [After 1125 trades]
The trek to the Ranch was surprisingly peaceful. There were hardly any monsters around. I guess someone set up some minimal amount of fortifications, this being our food stores and all. Still, this was WAY too quiet, considering the Ranch had supposedly been under attack.
Suddenly, Pleia spoke, as if remembering something. "The pilgrimage route went through this area."
"You don't remember that either?"
Pilgrimage. Quietly, I sounded it out. I have no recollection of such a thing, and yet the word feels so familiar on my tongue.
I must have known about pilgrimages. I'm sure of it.
- [After 1150 trades]
Apparently Pleia had seen a pilgrimage, just once.
She told me how thousands of warriors formed a line and steadily marched underground. To young Pleia, the massive gates were akin to a monster's maw, swallowing the people whole. To her, it was a scene of pure horror.
It was so traumatizing for her that she refused to bear witness to any more pilgrimages after that. Instead, she would squeeze her eyes shut and cover her ears.
"Maybe it's a good thing I grew up in New Prah."
She explained that she was born in New Prah, and the pilgrimages would embark from Old Prah, so there was a physical distance separating her from the object of her fear.
- [After 1175 trades]
"I always wondered how they could possibly do something so scary… Maybe that's what led me to question the things that other people never did. Then, after a while… I decided I wanted to learn Prah's history. I wanted to know if it was right to just blindly follow along with everyone else."
Her tone became more heated as she explained further.
In New Prah, there were many buildings and paths that didn't quite "fit" - that didn't seem to have been constructed with any sense of logic. In particular, there was a place just beyond New Prah that was scattered with churches that seemed a little too tidy for being abandoned... A vast plateau that was off limits for no reason... There were so many strange things that didn't make sense.
And Pleia investigated them all one by one.
- [After 1200 trades]
"I came to the conclusion that God must have made them. When you think about how it all began, there's simply no other possibility."
And so her investigations led her to theism. She became convinced that God was real. That he made Prah and created order within it.
"I was skeptical at first, but it made the most logical sense. Prah is a cog in the machine that is the world, and God created it."
"What made you decide to believe in him?"
"I just wanted to. It felt nice to believe in a mysterious force secretly working behind the scenes. A truth people can never attain."
Pleia had always seemed to me like an intellectual, so I was surprised to learn she was an idealist. Her ambiguity spurred me on.
"I mean, look at that. Don't you think God had to have made it?"
She pointed to something in the distance, lurking in the dark. It was the Ranch.
"Let's stop here for today and head in first thing tomorrow."
- [After 1225 trades]
Setting up camp went very swiftly, and it wasn't only because we've become so well-practiced at it. At her request, I had only prepared one tent. She claimed it was just so that we could talk more before going to sleep, but it gave me pause. I couldn't help but recall what she said a few days ago.
"Even if you have amnesia, there are still plenty of things you can do just as fine... For example..."
She's not innocent, and she's not dense, so she must have known it sounded like a come-on. Besides, every living, breathing creature feels desire now and then. I don't think it's wrong to pursue such things.
Pleia and I sat on opposite sides of the campfire and idled the time away.
The popping and crackling created an off-beat melody that filled the silence.
The undulating flames flickered and changed shape, illuminating Pleia's face.
Was it the fire's glow that made her look so flushed?
- [After 1250 trades]
"Listen, Pepropé… It's unfortunate you lost your memory, but I think this is God's blessing in disguise."
"Yeah. You're here because you committed a crime. But nobody here knows you, and you'll never return to Prah. You get to start back at zero."
"And is that a good thing?"
"Think about it. You get to start over from scratch. You're a blank slate. God has given you the opportunity to be reborn. You can be somebody new."
"Like reincarnation, huh..."
"Yeah. If you don't have any memories, then you can just make new ones. Leave the past in the past. You're living in the present, and there's no going back."
Pleia's words filled my mind. They poured into my empty heart like a warm liquid, sealing the cracks.
This is the present. There's no going back. Then, eventually, my present will become my past, and that will form the new me. What kind of person was I in the past? If I can't remember, then there's no point in needlessly searching for it. I can decide who I am going forward.
Ignoring the pain deep in my chest, I succumbed to her charms.
She wrapped her slender, supple arms around my neck down to my chest, clinging to me from behind. Then she tightened her grip slightly, pulling me close. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see our two shadows slowly merge into one.
I stayed in her tight embrace until morning.
- [After 1275 trades]
We were headed to a place called the ranch, but I heard they didn't keep animals there.
Somehow, at regular intervals of time, provisions just appeared there, ready to be carried off.
I remembered being surprised that nobody's bothered to find out what was going on. Wouldn't people normally be curious? Pleia didn't think so.
"None of the countless citizens of Prah know the truth. Only the people preparing those provisions know what's going on."
Pleia said it matter-of-factly but it continued to nag at me.
I felt embarrassed by being so ignorant, and indignant at being left in the dark.
- [After 1300 trades]
We looked down on the ranch from a distance. The wind carried a hint of something ominous.
"Just like they said, looks like someone's home."
"But, I cannot sense their presence. It is too faint..."
When I said that, Pleia muttered about how veterans of many battles become finely attuned to an aura of bloodlust, to traces of ill-intent.
She continued. "And you seem to have trodden the thin line between life and death quite a few times."
I wasn't so sure of that, but I had this vague feeling that I must have lived an extraordinary life indeed.
How else could I explain the strange calmness which descended on me when surrounded by foes keen on taking my life?
"First things first, we need to investigate. Let's go."
We entered the ranch, and started looking for clues as to the identity of the attackers. Finding out what are up against is the first step when preparing for battle.
- [After 1325 trades]
For an underground facility, it was too clean. That was my first impression.
"Most of these machines are unlike anything you can see in Prah. Nobody knows how they've been made, nor how they work."
There was a rounded silhouette. Spotless, slightly gleaming. It wasn't too glossy, but the surface seemed smooth, that much I could tell.
The way started to get narrow, with fences on both sides. The pathway seemed to pulsate, as a multitude of wriggling, pipe-like things crawled all over.
Every door we came across opened before we even touched it. I had a sense that I'd been somewhere like this before.
"Makes you uncomfortable, doesn't it? It's like we're being watched. Still, this is a pretty useful place. Once you think of it that way, it'll seem less threatening."
- [After 1350 trades]
A ranch that stockpiles provisions without a single farmhand in sight.
You'd think people would get suspicious, or at least curious about where their food came from, but no.
"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, that's what we always say."
Only a small number of people ever really knew what this place was. And the people who found out by accident?
They could be split into those who gave a damn, and those who couldn't care less.
Those who cared would grow despondent. No matter how much they talked about how unnatural this ranch was, nobody would listen. People had been taught not to ask questions.
Those who never cared in the first place? They tended to be the poor ones, the needy. For them the only truth that mattered was that there was another meal waiting for them. Beyond that they couldn't afford to care.
Once I heard that, I had to ask.
"Pleia, you know a lot about this place, don't you?"
"You spend enough time underground and you start to hear things, whether you want to or not. You must've started to notice that?"
There are two worlds: The surface, and what lies beneath. They might exist within a hair's breadth of one another, but the denizens of those realms know nothing of each other, they can't. They're worlds apart.
My curiosity was piqued.
- [After 1375 trades]
We continued to be assaulted by these wraith-like foes, barely clinging to existence. There were a lot of them at the ranch.
Pleia told me they were leftovers of consumed souls. She also said that they weren't what we were after.
It seems creatures like this are common in the area. The prisoners liken slaying them to whacking weeds. I can see what they mean, they hardly presented a challenge.
But then, what were the monsters that plundered the ranch? The further in we went, the more burning my curiosity was.
"We call them dream-eaters."
Who gave them such a fanciful name, I wonder? Apparently, they were repulsive foes, showing up at the ranch every now and again. No one knew where they came from, they'd just appear.
Every time that happened, someone would come here and hunt them down.
"Dream-eaters never take the same shape twice, so there's no point trying to plan an attack. Sometimes they're as big as a mountain, other times you'd mistake them for people."
You cannot tell what they are until you see them. What we were tracking down were indescribable, yet deadly foes.
- [After 1400 trades]
The floor, made from some light-weight metal, clanged loudly as we ran. We were being chased.
The ranch. Dream-eaters. We'd been talking about what was known about them, when they appeared. Speak of the devil.
They looked like giant butterflies. They swiftly detected prey, which was us, and were hot on our heels. To make matters worse, they showed up in a group.
The worst part? The powdery scales on their wings which they scattered with every wing-flap, contained a neuro-toxin which would get into your body at the lightest touch.
Pleia and I were no longer the hunters. Now it was us who were being hunted.
We might have had a chance against a few of them, but we were overwhelmed.
They were persistent, and crafty. They were slowly closing in on us, trying to cut off our line of retreat.
Still, what could we do but run?
- [After 1425 trades]
Meanwhile, Bebeya and the other inmates were doing their best to play their part while they waited for Pepropé and Pleia's return.
Bebeya said they should break out and set on the journey to paradise as soon as they got back.
"Weren't we supposed to wait a bit longer?" Xeba asked. Bebeya whispered back.
"There are things coming our way. I don't think they're supposed to be here."
Just as Xeba's body tensed, sensing bloodlust in the air, they heard a scream. It was Pourd. "Bebeya! Xeba! AAARGH!"
- [After 1450 trades]
We were desperately trying to escape, but got chased into a dead end.
There was a two-wing door. There were no handles, and it wouldn't budge.
I heard something...squeak. It was the dream-eaters. They could sense where we were. They were coming at us faster than I ever thought possible. We had nowhere to run. "Are they going to run us down?!"
We had to get this door open. I managed to wedge my fingers into the space between the two wings and prise them apart. I tried again and again, until my fingernails broke, blood staining my hands, all in vain.
The dream-eaters were getting closer and closer, looking as if they were mocking us.
The scraping noise of their approach intensified.
We were about to get slaughtered.
They came ever closer.
I shouted at Pleia to run. Of course she ignored me. I was reminded of the night before. She looked beautiful illuminated by the fire. Her body seemed to glow in the darkness. When I held her in my arms, I felt fulfilled.
Down here, I'm the novice. I have no memories. Bebeya was kind enough to approach me, clueless as I was. During my short time here, I haven't been alone. Xeba, Pourd, and Pleia became my companions. Even in this dark place, they never lost their spirit.
I, who had nothing, could not help but be jealous. At the same time, I thought what they had was worth protecting.
The enemy was approaching and we had nowhere to run. Here I was, nothing but an empty vessel, while my friends were so full of aspiration. Every one of them so dear to me.
We were out of options.
"I said, RUN!"
I pushed her. "Gah!"
As Pleia went head over heels, something flew past right in front of her, and she narrowly missed being hit. At the same time a gut-wrenching sound pierced the air. A sickening splat.
Pleia turned her head and saw the dream-eaters hard-pressed right up against the door.
Her trembling voice was barely audible.
- [After 1475 trades]
They heard a sound. It was faint, but unmistakable. Footsteps.
Then it was quiet again. With bated breath, Bebeya and Xeba hid behind a half-broken pillar and strained their ears, looking in the direction of the footsteps.
How many foes could be lurking there? They couldn't be sure, but it seemed like a medium-size troop.
"They're well-organized," whispered Bebeya. "You wait here. I've got to check on Pourd."
"Okay. Go around the left side. I'll take the right and distract them," replied Xeba. They quickly agreed on the course of action.
- [After 1500 trades]
The dungeon's central corridor branched off into rooms on either side. It formed a large square, creating plenty of blind spots.
The rooms were the old prison cells, as dilapidated as the corridor, with many of them missing doors. There were crumbling pillars here and there, and gaping holes in the walls. The ceiling, with a spider-web of cracks, threatened to cave in.
Much of it was the effect of the recent earthquake which accompanied a mysterious flash of red light.
"How ironic. We've got that darn quake to thank for creating so many hidey holes for us," muttered Xeba.
- [After 1525 trades]
A number of shadowy figures combed through the dungeon passageways in search of something. They turned up suddenly and proceeded to attack the inmates. Who were these intruders?
Bebeya and Xeba were safe for now, but other prisoners were not so lucky.
"They're methodical and focused. These guys aren't some demons. They're people, and they've been trained for this."
"I don't know, Xeba, it sounds like a conspiracy theory."
"Just look at how efficient and emotionless they are, slaughtering one after another like it's their bread and butter. See how they're checking each corpse as if looking for something? These are no amateurs, I'm telling you. But there's one thing we can be sure about..."
"They're here for a specific reason. Otherwise they wouldn't bother checking the bodies--"
Bebeya silenced Xeba as one of the dark silhouettes approached the pillar they were hiding behind. They tensed up, cold sweat running down their backs. If they were found, they were as good as dead.
The shadow drew closer and closer, until it was almost within an arm's reach...
- [After 1550 trades]
And then, the footsteps stopped, right on the other side of the pillar. Bebeya and Xeba determinedly held their breath, eyes becoming bloodshot from the adrenaline rush.
There was some shuffling and a rustle.
"Found another over here! ...Tsk, that's not the right one either."
There must have been a body on the other side of the pillar. The shadowy figure inspected it and left.
With the danger at bay, Xeba and Bebeya finally let their breaths out and gulped for air.
"They're gone now?"
"Looks like it. Xeba, can you tell me whereabouts Pourd got attacked?"
"The scream came from somewhere nearby, I think."
Bebeya half-rose to his feet, as if ready to sprint wherever Xeba pointed him to.
"Calm down, Bebeya. We don't even know how many we're up against. I want to help Pourd as much as you, but we've got to keep our heads cool."
"My head IS cool!" growled Bebeya in response.
"Let me go instead. Sneaking about is my specialty."
- [After 1575 trades]
Pleia's anguished scream reverberated throughout the Ranch.
Pleia had suffered a mild concussion when she fell, but as soon as she came to, she sprang to her feet.
She turned to the door that the dream-eaters had smashed in. She expected it to be covered in bloody bits of torn flesh, but it was perfectly clean, not a speck on it. A special coating appeared to protect its surface. Glinting faintly just as it had before, the door seemed to exist in a different reality, where time stood still.
The faint moans came from the pile of dream-eaters' remains before the door. Pleia waited with baited breath for the sound to come again.
"Pepropé...?" she gasped, filled with hesitant hope.
- [After 1600 trades]
Without a second thought, Pleia thrust her arms into the bloody mess on the floor, frantically digging through oozing chunks of flesh and sharp shards of bone until she felt a body that was still alive.
"Help me up, my legs are done for."
She grasped my hands firmly and sat me up. I was covered in gore, but it made no difference to Pleia, who embraced me tightly as if that was the most natural thing to do.
"Why did you have to do that? You nearly died!"
"That was the only way."
Cornered by dream-eaters, I hadn't had time to think. My body had moved on its own, something deep in my consciousness guiding it into action. That's why even now I could not properly explain myself to Pleia. But I remembered what had flashed through my mind at the time.
"I thought that...you have a future waiting for you."
Pleia did not know what to say to this. She swallowed back her tears and hugged me again.
- [After 1625 trades]
My face contorted in intense pain. Pleia gently pulled away and looked me up and down. Her eyes opened wide when she saw the state of my legs. The right one was crushed into a pulp.
When the dream-eaters charged at me, I spun on the right leg to avoid the brunt of the attack, but could not move out of the way fast enough...
"You'll have to head back to the dungeon without me."
"I can't do that! I can't leave you here to die, Pepropé!"
"What else could you do? Carry me? I'd be just dead weight. The dream-eaters would catch you and kill us both."
"Be quiet now. Let me heal you."
"This is no use, Pleia..." I protested despondently, but my expression soon changed to that of utter astonishment.
My body was regenerating. Pleia cast a healing spell on me, and it was no ordinary magic. The arcane sorcery was mending me, restoring every damaged cell in my body.
Even though I had lost my memory and knew little of the world, I could tell that what was happening was nothing short of a miracle.
- [After 1650 trades]
Silence descended on the dungeon again as the shadowy assailants moved on to another area.
Xeba did find Pourd. And she was alive...but probably not for much longer. Her right side was cut open, the lips of the wound singed. Her attacker had wielded a blade enchanted with fire. Xeba sucked his breath in, noticing a pool of blood around her even in the semi-darkness.
She was unconscious. Mistaken for dead, she had been left alone. But that was little consolation, considering her state.
Xeba clenched his teeth. The girl had one foot in the grave already. What would he tell Bebeya? He was aware that the two of them had secretly been in love...
- [After 1675 trades]
Bebeya exclaimed in horror when he saw Pourd, the life draining out of her. But this was not the time to despair, no, he had to suppress his grief and stay sharp, for the shadowy intruders had returned.
Pourd could not fight, of course. She was barely able to walk. But to Xeba and Bebeya, leaving her behind was not an option.
They had to get out of there before they were noticed.
At the thought of their impending doom, each of them was gradually overcome with a sense of hopelessness.
"Xeba, we can't stay here any longer. We've got to go."
"How much farther is it to the paradise?"
"I don't know, but it's deeper underground. We've got to keep going."
"What about Pleia and Pepropé?"
Just then there was a movement among the shadows. They assembled and conferred in silence, communicating with hand gestures, before splitting up into several groups.
- [After 1700 trades]
The shadowy figures were slinking off to the lower levels of the dungeon, disappearing from view as one after another they were engulfed by darkness.
"They're going the same way as us..."
"In that case, it's safer for us to stay here. They'll have to come back this way, but at least we'll have some time to prepare--"
"No," Bebeya cut Xeba off. "We're going after them."
"You said earlier they seemed to be searching for something. What do you think it is?"
"It's foolish to follow after them just to find out!"
"But what if they're also trying to find the paradise?"
That made Xeba's blood boil.
"And you think it wise to risk our lives to reach a place you don't even know for sure exists?!"
- [After 1725 trades]
The atmosphere at the Ranch changed. Bloodlust was replaced with tranquility, and a pleasant breeze gently cooled them off. Was this also an effect of Pleia’s magic?
Her spell reconstructed my crushed leg. A phantom pain remained, but the limb was fully functional.
When the dream-eaters smashed into me, I didn't fully realized how seriously I had been hurt. In response to the sudden, acute pain, my brain had shut down the pain receptors. It did not even cross my mind that I might lose a leg.
All that was on my mind at the time was that I had to save Pleia. Now, after the ordeal, for the first time it dawned on me how recklessly I had acted, and what the consequences could have been. Yet, I had no regrets. I saved Pleia’s life, and that vindicated my rash decision.
The last thing I expected was that Pleia would in turn rescue me, healing me with her magic. The spell took a toll on her, and she lay down to rest. I sat up behind her, touching her back but facing away. She was deep in thought, and I did not want to disturb her.
But as the usually talkative Pleia remained quiet, the silence began to make me uncomfortable. I felt I had to fill it, and spoke of the first thing that came to my mind.
"We’ve resolved the problem with the Ranch, then?"
"Let’s rest a while before we head back."
"Or we could spend the night here. There’s no need to rush."
Pleia did not respond.
"Are you okay?" I became concerned.
"I’m fine. It’s just that... Can I ask you a favor?"
"What is it?"
"There’s somewhere I’d like to go with you."
The serious tone of her voice made me turn to look at her. Her eyes glinted with resolve.
- [After 1750 trades]
Xeba and Bebeya stood facing one another. Bebeya's gaze was steady, but Xeba was trying to avoid his eyes. How he wished he could have taken his harsh words back!
Xeba was very skeptical about this so-called paradise. Things that sound too good to be true usually are. But what else did they have to live for in this place? It was better to have an objective, even if it was but a fantasy. He thought they'd probably squander a lot of time searching for it, never finding this promised land before they die. And that was fine as far as he was concerned. But when forced to make a choice between relative safety and taking a great risk to pursue this dream, he spoke his mind without thinking.
"Bebeya... It's not that I don't trust you, or that I think we've been wasting our time. But... I don't really believe in this paradise," Xeba was picking his words carefully. "But I don't think staying here forever is the answer, either."
Noticing the contradiction in what he said, he had to admit to himself that he was confused about what he wanted to do.
- [After 1775 trades]
"I'm sorry, Bebeya. Forget what I said. There's no way to know whether this paradise is real or not. So it all comes down to whether we try to find it, or do nothing. But even this place is no longer safe for us. So, we don't have any other choice but to give this a go. Right?"
Xeba was calming down as he spoke quickly, drowning out the doubts in his mind with a torrent of words.
Bebeya didn't interrupt Xeba's monologue. Rather than try to argue his point, he patiently waited for the other man to do it for him. This careful judgement was one of the things that made him a leader of the inmates.
Xeba took a deep breath and made up his mind.
"Let's go then."
Without missing a beat, Bebeya started to lay out his plan.
- [After 1800 trades]
"First, we'll have to rejoin Pleia and Pepropé. Pleia has the power to heal Pourd. But we won't all be going, not like this, with one of us heavily wounded."
"If you need me to distract the intruders..."
"No, I want you to go ahead and warn Pleia and Pepropé of the situation here. They need to be on their guard. I trust you can make it to the Ranch without being detected."
"What will you and Pourd do?"
"We'll keep moving down."
"You're not worried I'll double-cross you?"
"If you were the type, you'd have done that already."
"Heh, fair enough."
Xeba had never before actually trusted his fellow inmates. He was utilitarian in his approach to them. Cooperation made it easier to survive, so he teamed up with the others. When they had a common goal, he lent his hand. But he had no intention of staying with the others if it were to his disadvantage.
But despite himself, he had begun to bond with the other inmates who had lived with him in the dark dungeons. They gave him a sense of security and belonging, the closest he'd ever had to a family.
When Bebeya placed his trust in him, a new feeling arose in Xeba, an urge to prove that this trust was not misplaced. But much like a rebellious teenager, he also had the impulse to test the limits of Bebeya's confidence in him.
He flashed a smile, turned on his heel and ran towards the Ranch.
- [After 1825 trades]
Pleia fixed me with a serious stare and I felt as if she could see right into my soul. I remembered something that was on my mind earlier, and took this opportunity to ask her about it.
"What exactly is this paradise anyway?"
She threw a question at me in response.
"What do you remember about the royal family?"
That caught me off guard. I replied I had no memories of them.
The rulers of Prah were treated like living gods, for they possessed extraordinary amounts of life energy. It was said to be the result of careful breeding.
It is possible to increase one's life energy through training and willpower, but the innate potential is predetermined. The royals were simply born with immense resources of energy.
"What do you think they need that much energy for?"
"To be stronger than anyone else?"
"That's a typical response you might get from a man!" Pleia snorted, amused. Unable to think of any other answer, I grunted with mild frustration.
"To make an offering."
"An offering of themselves."
Pleia was evidently enjoying having the upper hand, her with all the answers and me ignorant and confused. I thought it was a bad habit of hers to tease me about it.
- [After 1850 trades]
I felt pathetic, asking Pleia who was acting smug to please carry on with her explanations. Being in no position to complain, I kept quiet and let her lecture me.
"My theory is that the royals use their vast energy to keep Prah, and even this dungeon, functioning. They make a sacrifice of their own life energy for this. It would explain so much, for example how the Ranch works. The royals pour their life energy into it, and in turn it produces food for the citizens of Prah. It would make sense, wouldn't it?"
I suppose there was some logic to it, but nevertheless, it seemed very far-fetched to me.
"Right now it's all conjecture, but I am about to verify it. Ah, found it."
She was pointing at something. A keyhole? There was a small hole in the wall, with a patterned border. As I was staring at it, Pleia took a step away from me.
"I hope you'll forgive me... When I heard you were calling yourself Pepropé, it stirred my curiosity and I tried to find out more about you. To see if you really were THE Pepropé."
"I'm not sure I'm following..."
"I discovered this in your waist pouch."
She was holding a key.
- [After 1875 trades]
Her tone was apologetic, but also tinged with excitement. She was doing her best to hide it, but could not. This impulsive side of her seemed child-like to me. Somehow I could not bring myself to reproach her for going through my belongings without my permission.
"You may be a criminal, but there is more to you than that. I wonder if there was another reason you were sent here."
"I'm sorry, but I don't remember anything."
Oh. It dawned on me why I couldn't quite find fault with Pleia's intrusion on my privacy. I kept telling everyone that I had amnesia, but how could they tell whether that was true? I might have been lying for all they knew. Pleia must have been suspecting that I had something to hide.
Had she been doubting me, all this time?
As I struggled with this thought, Pleia said something very strange indeed...
"This world hides a big secret. Let's see what it is. And if it proves to be more than we can handle, let's not tell anyone else of what we see."
She inserted the key she had appropriated from me into the keyhole and turned it.
The pattern decorating the lock lit up and tendrils of light snaked their way towards the keyhole, disappearing inside.
The next moment a monstrous, squirming creature appeared before us. It wriggled its many tentacles, and its body quivered with the jerkiness of a clockwork contraption.
"Hmph. We triggered the trap, which means I was right."
"You were expecting this?"
I thought I glimpsed a satisfied smile on Pleia’s face, but before I had the time to take a better look, she lunged at the beast.