BECKONED BACK TOGETHER
He didn’t know how long has he lain bare in this mouth of madness, his skin having already peeled halfway through, blasted away by the burning, unrelenting sun far above. He didn’t know how many cries, howls and roars beckoned at his mind, some his own, some not. Perchance it be a number he wasn’t even familiar with. So high, so mighty, so long that it would take him weeks to recite it. He had already forgotten the world outside his own tiny corner, world beyond these iron bars, world beyond a hanging cage in the middle of the sky. He’d already forgotten what it felt like not to look down and see a sea of fire and thunder, forgotten the shape of a tree, of a flower, or the sounds of the river.
Memories are fickle, and they vanish. No matter how hard one clings onto them, they turn into shifty blurs until, one day, they are replaced with something else entirely as to preserve a faint trace of sanity in one’s mind. It was the same sort of a tale for him. He believed he once had a family, yet doubted it; he believed he once believed in happiness, yet he questioned it; he believed his name once mattered to at least someone, yet he wondered; he believed he once had a name...
His crimson eyes trembled underneath his thick, bushy brows. Looking outside was the same. Cries were the same. Angry roars filled with curses of the newcomers were the same. Scent was the same. Just as yesterday. Just as the day before. Just as always, as far back as his dented memories go. How far back? He couldn’t say. Time was difficult to hold onto when one is being clutched at with searing iron, branded like a dog, whipped and lashed like a toy, mocked, beaten, tortured, driveled into insanity. He, too, had gone mad. Just last night, he presumed, he’d woken from a nightmare within which he was eating fresh food, drinking fresh water, living outside the forlorn bars.
Twitching, he crawled over to the other end of the cage and dumped his head into a small bowl. It was worms, water and grass again -- a feast! He nearly cried out in joy, heaving the bowl over his head and devouring its contents in one go. He didn’t seem to care that the worms were still alive, wiggling down his throat and into his abdomen. Rather, he enjoyed the sensation. Among many he’d experienced here, it was the least painful one.
After finishing, he retreated back into the solitary corner, glancing out of the cage into the open sky where, from the falling chains reaching into the above nothingness, thousands, tens of thousands of cages hung. And that was all he could see; perhaps, this was merely a tiny corner, like the one he hung onto in his cage, and there was a whole new sea of them somewhere out there.
The newer ones still refused to eat, he mused. They were filled with strength and energy, in vain delusion that their Qi would keep them satisfied till the end of time. He wanted to shout at their stupidity, but didn’t wish to waste his energy; next meal wouldn’t be for a while, after all. He’d done it before, many times, trying to warn the newcomers... but none ever listened. Hardly a soul thrown into this place wasn’t an ego-maniac, a proud creature believing nothing and no one can reign them in. But, one day, all of them break. One by one they would fall onto their knees, and one by one they would die. Yet, he lived on. He didn’t know how or why, but he did. Perhaps it was in his bones to live, perhaps he merely desired to see the outside world one more time, and perhaps it was something else entirely.
He didn’t truly care; soon enough, he’d already realized, he would cease believing there was a world out there in the first place. Perhaps he’d imagined there was, and he was here since his birth. Innumerable opportunities were there and his nigh-broken mind wasn’t shy over indulging in any one of them.
He closed his eyes for a moment, wishing to rest. Thinking didn’t do him any good; he’d expend too much energy on stressing himself out, which would in turn expend even more energy. It was a vicious loop that he had fallen a victim to many times before, one which would no doubt exhaust him to death if he wasn’t careful.
He looked out once more, just for a moment to settle himself, yet his sight had changed. No longer was there a sea of chained cages hanging from the sky in front of him. No longer was there a sea of fire and thunder beneath his feet. No longer were there festering gargoyles eyeing their potential prey from above. Instead there was a quaint stretch of land leading outside what appeared to be a round, rugged cave. Fire lit it up dimly, casting strange shadows over the wet, coarse walls. He didn’t recognize it. Ah, must have already fallen asleep..., he thought. Oh well...
He sat down squarely, too worried he might expend too much energy by moving around in a dream a lot.
“... wow, I did not expect this reaction.” a cheery, woman’s voice called out from behind him, startling him greatly as he cried out and fell over, crawling to the other end of the cave before turning around to look. His body trembled, his eyes widened into saucers. However, as his eyes landed on one of the two figures standing, his restlessness ceased. Her golden hair fell over her back like a waterfall, lean and smooth, her piercing, blue eyes driving straight through his condemning walls and into his soul. She had a worried expression on her face, her lips leaned down slightly, eyes blinking.
“Is he alright?” Alison asked, glancing at Lucky.
“Of course not,” Lucky shrugged, walking over slowly. “Even I would need years to bring someone so far down. Hey, mate, look at me.” she snapped her fingers as she crouched in front of him, finally forcing him to tear his gaze away from Alison and focus onto her. “Do you know where you are?”
“...” the man remained mute, his lips parting slightly with only a whizz blasting out. Lucky frowned and quickly backed off as his breath stank... really, really stank.
“Hello,” Alison walked over slowly and sat down in front of the man, smiling brightly as she grabbed his hand gently and caressed it. “My name is Alison, and this is my friend, Lucky. What is your name?”
“... I--I... don’t...” the man stuttered in a broken, coarse voice, looking down at his hand. For countless years now, every time someone would touch him, he would feel a soul-deep urge to run away -- yet, now, he only felt... calm and peace.
“It’s alright,” Alison added. “Just take it slow. Here,” she whipped out a bowl of water and put it in front of the man as well as a loaf of bread, slowly backing away right after. “Take your time. We aren’t going anywhere.”
“....” Lucky watched from side in wonder and sighed; she certainly couldn’t have done what Alison did -- not even close. “You really are amazing.” she said as Alison joined her, the two of them sitting in the other corner as the man gorged himself on that single loaf of bread and a bowl of water as though nothing else existed in the world.
“I’m not,” Alison shook her head, her cheeks flushing slightly. “You’re the amazing one. I can’t believe you got us so close without being discovered.”
“Well, not to brag, but breaking people out of prison is kind of one of my things,” Lucky said. “So I fit right into this place.”
“You don’t,” Alison replied sternly, glaring at Lucky with a frown. “Have you seen what they do to people here?! I don’t believe for a second you are anything like them!”
“...” Lucky’s surprised expression quickly mellowed into a warm smile as she patted Alison’s head. “It’s sweet you think that. Anyway, are you sure we shouldn’t have waited at the entrance? Will your friend be able to find us?”
“S-she’s not my friend!”
“... alright, sheesh. What is she? Your ex-girlfriend? Did she cheat on you or something?” Lucky asked.
“Oh, wow, can’t believe I was spot on!”
“No... she’s... ugh, I don’t want to talk about it. She will find us, I know it.” Alison said, her mood souring.
“... alright,” Lucky said, deciding not to probe any further. “So, what are we going to do about him? He doesn’t seem in any shape to be our guide.”
“My Master recommended we find him,” Alison said. “He wouldn’t have said so without a reason. But, he must have been in here a long time... perhaps there’s little of him left inside. We just need to be patient. Was your Master really okay with you following me here?” Alison asked, thinking back to the blazing night when she got to meet Lucky’s mysterious master; the man appeared entirely unassuming, yet she couldn’t rip his image out of her heart.
“Oh, please,” Lucky rolled her eyes. “As if I have to ask him. The base principle of our relationship stems from the fact that we allow each other to do stupid and crazy stuff all the time.”
“Heh, really? What was the last crazy thing he did?” though Lucky wanted to scream ‘fight a freaking Dragon’, she held back as that might have given away Lino’s actual identity.
“He decided to have a kid.” Lucky said.
“... eh? Well, that doesn’t sound too bad.”
“If you knew him and his yet-to-be-actual-wife wife, you’d know it is.”
“He he, if you say so.” Alison chuckled, glancing at the man who had managed to slow down his feast, as though to enjoy the sensation of bread for a little while longer. A swirl of pain broke out in her heart; though she couldn’t understand his situation entirely, she knew all-too-well what it felt like to eat proper food for the first time in a while.
“Hello Ally,” a familiar yet distant voice drowned the small cave as Alison and Lucky turned around and faced the newcomer; Lucky nearly screamed out yet, meeting Hannah’s gaze briefly, managed to hold back while Alison immediately bit her lower lip, preventing herself from screaming out as well, though for completely different reasons. “It’s been a long time...”