Chapter 10 - Before the Clouds
This story takes place in the mountains.
Peaks dotted with snow majestically reached into the clear blue sky sky.
On one gently slope of the mountains was a little stream through which flowed melting snow from the mountaintops, and a shallow pond. Bright, colourful alpine plants were growing in the area. Further down was a blanket of clouds. The ground was hidden out of sight.
A long road stretched all the way through the mountains. It was a well-maintained and wide road.
There were people between the road and the pond. There were both adults and children, about thirty in total. Beside them were three trucks laden with travel gear.
There were about ten men, led by a man in his sixties. The rest were women and children.
They were a group dressed uniformly in bright, decadent clothing, many of them grooming their hair or doing their makeup. It was a rather luxurious way of life for a group of travelers.
They smiled and laughed with one another as they went about all sorts of tasks.
It seemed that they had chosen to camp for the night at this spot. They took out tents, cushions, and folding kitchen sets from the canvas-covered trucks.
It was almost nighttime. The woman were busy setting up the large kitchen sets and preparing the dishes for the large quantity of food they were responsible for.
The eldest of the men, however, did not join the other travelers in their work. Instead, he sat perched upon a large rock as he talked with the children. The other men were keeping watch over the area, all armed with persuaders.
But among them was one person who was dressed in an entirely different manner.
It was a person in its late teens. It had unkept, messy hair, and a look a fatigue in its face.
It was wearing long grey pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a ragged pair of shoes covered in holes. Its clothes as they were could not possibly keep it warm.
It was also wearing a necklace of leather, with a lock acting as a pendant. The long, thin chain sticking out of the back of the necklace was tied to the back of one of the trucks.
"Hey, slave! Hurry up and carry this!" A young man watching the truck roared.
The slave struggled to get a heavy wooden crate off the back of the truck. It carried it away as best it could, its chain dragging behind it.
Beside it was a little girl about five years old, who chanted "Slave, slave, slower than a snail~" in a singsong voice.
"I'm sorry. I've brought the utensils." The slave said, putting down the wooden crate. The women in charge of the cooking glared at it.
"You slow, useless slave! Stay here and build a fire, do you understand? If we see you slacking off, we're going straight to the Head."
"Yes." The slave said quietly. The woman left the slave behind and scattered, baskets in hand.
Two men who were watching the area nearby, rifles slung over their shoulders, glanced at the slave as it worked hard to start a fire with coal. One of the men was young, still in his early twenties. The other was a middle-aged man in his forties.
"Why'd you think the Head decided to bring such a useless child from the last country? We've had it for ten days, but it's still terrible at work. And it's not like we even need a slave in the first place…" The young man asked.
"You were off buying supplies when we took it along, weren't you? Let me explain." The older man said.
The slave could hear their conversation clearly. The man enunciated clearly, as if daring it to listen.
"As you know, that country was a theocracy. And there's one strange rule they always live by."
"The rule is 'You must always believe others'."
"Their teachings say, 'All humans are admirable, and therefore must not be distrusted. One day they will do good for you, so you must believe in them', or something to that effect. What a foolishly idealistic way of thinking."
The younger man was still confused.
"So… Why the slave?"
"This is where it gets interesting. We were selling our goods there like we always do, but this time they didn't have quite enough to pay us. I've heard their jewel mining industry hasn't been doing so well this time. The Head demanded that they pay full price for our goods, else he would leave without selling them anything."
"I see. So they paid off the remainder with a person."
The slave listened to the men's conversation, quietly fanning the fire.
"That's right. The head of their religion just handed it over to us, saying, 'This child is an excellent helper. Please take it as your servant'. Ain't it grand to hear?"
The younger man burst into laughter.
"Pfft! Hahaha! Handing it over to us as payment without even knowing what might happen to it? Real 'admirable' of him. What a country!"
"He told us that it's an orphan. In the end he just made things up about it on the fly and got rid of a nuisance. I don't know if the Head was just having fun or humouring the man, but what's the difference? Anyway, the least they could've done for us was give us someone who can actually do some lifting. We can't even use this one as a luggage-carrier." The older man said, and looked back at the slave.
"Hey, what does our little nuisance think, now that it's been sold to us for pocket change?" He asked.
"Pretty shitty place to call a hometown, if you ask me. Don't you agree?"
But the slave did not look up at the men.
It quietly continued fanning the fire.
"Ignoring us, you brat? You've got guts, I'll give you that."
The younger man came up to the slave, grabbed the chain behind it, and violently yanked on it.
The slave choked and got to its feet with a yelp.
"Say something, will you?!"
The man let go of the chain. The slave fell to its knees in tears.
"Wh-what do you want me to say…?" It whimpered. The man grinned.
"Just answer the question. What do you think of us? What do you think of the goons who sold you? I bet you hate us all."
"Oh? And why not?"
"I must never hate anyone, no matter what happens… that is the Truth." The slave whispered, quiet but firm.
The younger man burst into laughter again.
"I don't believe this…" Even the middle-aged man could not hide his astonishment.
"Hey, you're seriously telling me you still believe that guy who sold you to us?"
"I'm sure… I'm sure that our Leader meant for me to go see the outside world." The slave replied. "Or maybe he thought this would lead me to a better life. This is a test for my future."
For a few moments, the men were struck dumb by its reply.
The older man soon snapped out of his shock and glared at the slave.
"What a hopeless idiot. Listen up, slave. Open your eyes! This isn't some dream you're having. You've been sold. You've been sold for chump change. We can hurt you and kill you, and you won't be able to do a thing about it. But you're saying you still don't hate that Leader who sold you or us, your masters? You honestly don't even think about killing us in our sleep?"
The slave shook its head. The lock and chain rattled slightly.
"No. To hate and blame others or to kill people is a sin. I've never thought that way. I mustn't…"
A new look entered the man's eyes. It was no longer cold and sharp, but tinged with sympathy.
"…Let me teach you something. You'd better listen closely. This world is hopelessly rotten to the core. People can betray, hurt, and kill other people without a second thought. Only people who don't live like humans can survive. Someone like you? Will never make it. Right now you've still got your life intact because you're our slave. But you never know if we'll change our minds. If the Head gives the order, we can kill you without even blinking. The young 'un over there can yank on your chain hard, and you'd be dead in seconds."
"No… This world is a wonderful place. I believe people can live while loving and respecting one another. One day, everyone will understand. And the world will be beautiful, full of love."
"What…?" The younger man stuttered, his mouth gaping open.
The older man frowned.
"So you really believe that's the case?"
"Yes. And if it means I can live proudly in a world like that, I'll never hate or blame or kill anyone. I'd rather die before I did. And if that happens, I'll smile at the person who kills me as I pass away. And then I'm sure the one who kills me will understand one day, too." The slave said firmly.
"This brat is hopeless. There's something wrong with its head…" The younger man said from behind the slave, not caring that it could hear.
The older man breathed a long sigh, and gave the younger man an order.
"Hey. Teach this idiot a lesson on reality. Five lashes should do the trick." He said, and returned to keeping watch over the camp.
"Yes, sir!" The younger man said. He pulled a short whip from his belt and joyfully lashed it down at the slave.
"Now do you understand? Do you?!"
"Aack! Guh! Aahhhh!"
As the slave screamed in agony, the women returned.
"What do you think you're doing?!" They said, scolding the younger man. "Stop hitting it! It'll do even less work if it's injured! It's useless enough as it is--we'd have been beating it ages ago if we could!"
The women chased off the younger man and addressed the slave, who trembled and wept with its back covered in blood.
"Stop dawdling and stand up! Go rinse these herbs we picked, and don't waste any water! You're going to have to go draw any extra water you have to use!"
The slave got to its feet, chains rattling.
Beside one of the folding counters was a wisteria basket. It was full of freshly picked herbs.
The slave began rinsing the herbs at a bucket that was set beside it. The water had been drawn from the stream--being freshly melted snow, it was very cold to the touch. None of the women came to help.
"Quickly! At this rate, the sun's going to go down before you finish!"
The slave continued rinsing the herbs, its hands freezing red. The women diced the herbs that had been washed and tossed it all into the large pot hanging over the coals.
The slave stopped washing the herbs. Its hands went still. A flash of recognition was clear in its eyes.
The slave struggled to remember something, wondering what it was that bothered it.
It tilted its head slightly, and narrowed its eyes.
And just before it could remember--
"You useless brat! I told you to keep washing! Do your work, or you'll get no dinner!" One of the women yelled.
"I-I'm sorry…" The slave said, setting aside the strange feeling in its heart as it returned to washing the herbs.
The man who had earlier whipped the slave glanced over at the scene.
"I'd never stand for living like that, if you ask me. I'd probably just shoot myself before that happens. Whaddaya know, just like the slave said. I'd choose to die instead." He said to the older man.
The older man gazed out at the great mountain range below them and the clouds that hung at eye-level.
"That slave has been defeated by fate."
"My late grandfather would explain this to me when I was still a child. 'Humans cannot change their lives by their strength alone'. In other words, there's nothing that can change your life but pure luck. It's because we're lucky what we can live a carefree life, traveling the world making a living as merchants, but that slave never had our good fortune. But then again, it might have been better off staying in its country."
"I see." The younger man shifted the heavy rifle on his shoulder. "Anyway, I'm glad I was born into this life. I'd rather die than become a slave." He said, reiterating himself. He then continued, "If that slave wants to die so badly, I wish it'd just kill itself or something."
The older man chuckled.
"Impossible. Someone stuck in chains can't take their life so easily. Even if it tried to choke itself to death, it'll let go because of the pain. I wonder if it even knows how to take its own life."
"Ah, right. So it can't live or die. Sucks being unfortunate."
"That's the way things are." The older man said.
"Thanks for that lesson from your grandfather. Any other words of wisdom from him you might like to share?"
"Sure, how about this?"
The older man smirked.
"Eat your vegetables."
Once the slave had finished rinsing the herbs, it was ordered to start a coal fire.
The women worked on their dinner, expertly adding in the herbs they picked, along with carrots, potatoes, and smoked meat from the trucks. They boiled all the ingredients in the pot, then seasoned the mixture with spices. A scrumptious smell soon rose into the air.
The slave continued adding coals to the flame, its hands black with soot and sweat running down its cheeks.
"What do you think'd happen if we spilled this whole pot over that filthy slave?"
"I bet it'll start crying like an animal with that disgusting voice. Sounds like fun."
"I'd really love to try… But it wouldn't do to waste food."
The women chattered cheerfully.
Dinner was ready.
The meal began before sunset.
Dinner was announced to the entire camp. All its members, save for several men standing guard, gathered together and took their seats, sitting down on their own cushions laid on stones.
Naturally, at the centre of the gathering was the 60-something year-old Head. On his right side sat a younger wife, a woman in her forties, and a boy about ten years of age.
Deep wooden plates filled with soup, as well as wooden spoons, were placed before each seat. The same meal was also delivered to the men standing guard in the distance.
The slave looked on at the scene, washing its hands in the cold water from the stream.
When it finished washing its hands, the slave took a seat a slight distance from the travelers. A stone-faced woman walked up to it.
"Remember you're only being allowed to eat because you've worked harder than the rest of us. I expect you to get back to work as soon as you're finished."
The woman gave the slave a tiny plate of soup and a broken spoon, then turned away in a huff.
The food had been distributed, but the meal had not yet begun.
"Let us now life up a word of prayer to mother nature." The Head said, bowing his head and muttering quietly. Everyone but the men on guard bowed their heads in silent prayer.
The slave sat on a hard rock, alone in the distance, waiting for the travelers to finish praying.
It caught sight of something in the distance--little plants dancing in the wind. It was the same herb it had rinsed for the meal earlier. The wind rose up from behind the rock the Head sat upon, and animated the little green leaves to look as though they were dancing.
It was as though a switch had been pulled. The slave remembered something it had not been able to think of before.
It breathed through its mouth as it slowly looked down at the plate of soup before it.
Warm steam was rising from it. Inside the broth was the herb it had rinsed, cooked to perfection and mixed in with the carrots and potatoes, highlighting the mixture with streaks of green.
"This is… Poison."
No one could hear the slave's whisper.
It remembered something its grandmother had told it when it was young.
"Listen well, child. This herb tastes magnificent, but you must never pick them in high places where the clouds rest. The ones that grow up high are very poisonous, so you can't boil them like you do with every other herb. In just half an hour you'll turn green, start foaming at the mouth, and pass away."
The slave could clearly remember her warning.
The tears falling from the slave's face began to wash the soot from its face. Through the tears it could see the Head looking up again, his prayer finished.
"Then let us begin the meal!"
It could hear the Head's call. It could hear the sound of plates being picked up.
Soon they would begin their meal.
If the slave didn't say anything, the travelers would feast on the soup and die.
Then the slave could be free. But it would also be an act of leaving them to die.
They would soon step past the point of no return.
But it was not too late.
'You mustn't eat.'
The slave thought, as it took a deep breath to warn the travelers.
Objectively, it was but a single second. For a single second the breath that should have become a voice stopped in its tracks.
And so, it was too late.
"Thank you for the meal!"
The hungry travelers dug into their meal. The slave could clearly hear them happily slurping and gulping down their food.
"Excellent as usual!"
It could also hear voices.
Tears began running down its cheeks.
"No… Why… Why… How could this happen…"
The tears would not stop. The slave continued mumbling to itself in disbelief.
"I… I as good as killed… I… I'm a murderer…"
The slaves eyes wandered onto the dish placed in front of it.
It could clearly see the splotches of green in its meagre portion.
"That's right… If it means I'm going to live as a murderer… I'd rather…"
The slave smiled through its tears as it slowly reached both hands to the plate.
"I will… Follow…"
It gripped the plate in its hands and brought it to its mouth.
The slave opened its mouth to drink down the soup.
A rock flew at it.
A small rock flew into its face.
The shock and pain caused its to lose its grip. The plate fell, hit a jutting stone, and spilled its contents over the ground.
"Bull's eye!" The Head's son cheered. Although everyone was busy bringing their soup to their mouths, the boy alone was standing. He flicked the finger that had sent the rock flying at the slave.
"Did you see that, everyone? Wasn't that great?"
As the slave sat cured up in pain, the Head's son began chattering under the confused gaze of his fellow travelers.
"Why d'you think I did that? I saw it! I saw that filthy slave try to drink the soup like a pig, without even using a spoon! That's bad manners!" He looked around at the adults beside him.
"That's why I threw the rock at it! A barbarian shouldn't get to have dinner! Right, Mother? Father?"
"You're absolutely right, son."
"I'm so proud of you."
The Head and his wife replied promptly. The others voiced their agreement.
"That's the young master for you."
"Serves it right. You don't deserve to eat if you can't keep simple table manners."
The men who were standing on guard returned to their food, having earlier turned towards the commotion when they heard the slave's scream.
The slave cradled its head in its hands and looked up.
Before its eyes was its plate of soup, completely spilled over the ground, the sight of the Head's son looking down at it condescendingly, and the travelers returning to their meal.
"All right! I'm going to eat now, too!" The boy said loudly, noticing the slave's gaze. He lifted his plate and spoon.
"No! Young master! You mustn't eat! You mustn't!"
The Head's son was surprised by the slave's sudden screaming. His hands stopped midway.
"…Wh-what? Someone make it be quiet." The boy said. A man sitting close by put down his plate and spoon, then whipped a rock in the slave's direction. It was the size of a child's fist.
"Please, stop! That herb! It's po-"
The rock made its mark and hit the slave in the forehead before it could say that the herb was poisonous. Its skin was torn. Blood splattered over the earth.
The slave screamed and fell limp, powerlessly landing on the ground. Blood trailed down from its forehead.
The man who threw the rock rushed over to the slave, forced its head upwards, and used a bandanna to fashion a gag.
"Stop trying to interrupt our dinner, you barbarian! Keep your mouth shut!"
He tightly tied the bandanna behind the slave's head. He then used another bandanna to tie the slave's hands behind its back.
By the time the man had returned to his meal, the slave regained its senses.
It raised its head and screamed desperately, blood flowing from its forehead, but no one could understand what it was trying to say.
"What is that barbarian doing? It's driving me crazy." The Head's son said, elegantly bringing a spoonful of soup to his mouth. One. Two. Three spoonfuls. Green leaves went from the spoon into his mouth.
The slave screamed, weeping. Everyone, even the guards could hear its cries, but no one listened to it.
It started sounding vaguely human, but no one could understand.
The slave went quiet, no longer having any strength to scream.
Everyone enjoyed their meal, ignoring the slave. The Head's son suddenly spoke to his father.
"Father, I have a request."
The Head stopped mid-meal and looked at his son kindly.
"What are you going to do with that slave, Father? Surely we won't take it along all the way?"
The Head's son was evidently not the only one interested in the topic. The others all turned to the Head.
The Head thought for a moment.
"I suppose we can't let this go on forever. I think it'd be best to sell it off in the next country. Although I doubt it'll sell for very much."
"Then, Father!" The Head's son chirped. "Would you sell it to me for a cheap price? I've saved up my allowance. I'm sure I can pay for it!"
"Ah. So what do you plan to do with that slave? Son, a slave is tiresome to travel with. It must be fed if you want to take it along." The Head said. His son looked him straight in the eye.
"I will not do such a thing, Father. I am going to kill that slave."
Even the slave, tired out from the screaming, could hear the boy's words clearly.
"Oh? Kill it, you say?" The Head said, pleasantly surprised.
"That's right, Father! I'm not a child anymore. I can't just remain behind the protection of others. I want to become a strong man who can fight, and protect you and Mother and everyone else. I don't want to become someone who is too weak to take a life. So once you sell that slave to me, I will torment it, shot its arms and legs, then slit its belly open! So please, Father!"
The boy waited with bated breath as his father fell into thought.
"Of course, my boy. A man never goes back on his word. I thought you were still a child, but it looks like you've grown into a fine young man. So taking that slave really was worth something after all." The Head said. His wife agreed with a smile.
"Thank you, Father!" His son said, beaming.
"We're counting on you, young master!"
"One of these days we'll put everything on your shoulders!" The men joked.
The entire camp burst into laughter.
At that very moment, the slave broke its silence.
It unmistakably let out a human voice. A voice muted by the gag in its mouth.
It sounded almost like a wolf howling into the distance. The slave knelt on the ground, looking ahead, and screamed with its eyes wide open, spewing blood and fluids all over. It screamed and screamed.
Its voice echoed across the mountains and disturbed the ears of everyone but itself.
"Wh-what the heck? Someone stop that thing! Disgusting!" Someone said. A young man quickly ran up to the slave.
He kicked the slave in the gut.
The slave lost consciousness and went silent.
Things were suddenly quiet again.
The travelers were struck by the dreadful sound.
"What the heck was that…?"
"You can't even call it human…"
"It's an animal!"
"Just kill it already!"
They opened their mouths one by one.
"Settle down, everyone. It may be a mindless creature that does not understand its surroundings, but knowing that it will die soon must have driven it insane. It's useless as a slave, in any event. It doesn't matter." The Head declared. The travelers calmed down.
"Now, let me say this again. I will be handing that slave over to my son tomorrow. Are they any objections?"
Naturally, there was none. No one spoke up.
"Thank you, honoured Father!" The boy said.
After dinner, the pot of soup had just about one plateful left.
"Anyone want seconds?" A middle-aged woman asked. No one answered.
"Then back to nature it goes!" The woman said, and spilled the remaining contents onto the earth.
The sun began falling towards the horizon. It was nearly dusk.
The guards switched shifts, the dishes were washed, and the women began to brew tea they could drink before bedtime.
The man who had tied up the slave took off the bandannas from its ankles and mouth.
He grimaced at the bandanna, stained with blood and saliva.
"What do we do with the slave?" He asked.
"It's the young master's slave now, so why don't we ask him?" One of the women replied, then turned to the Head's son, who had been passing by.
"What should we do, young master? Do you want us to feed it before you kill it?"
"No. Don't let it eat anything but water from now on. I heard that it'll stink if it's still got food in its belly." The boy laughed.
It was a little later that the slave opened its eyes.
The first thing it saw was the bright evening sun and the mass of clouds covering the sky.
And the first thing it heard--or rather, what it heard before opening its eyes--
"Ahhh! Someone help me! Please!"
"It hurts! It hurts!"
"My stomach! It's too painful!"
It was a symphony of shrieks, with about thirty people acting as the instruments.
The slave slowly raised its head.
Before its eyes was the sight of hell itself.
People were writhing in pain as though in a dance, spewing white foam from their mouths. The foam looked orange under the light of duck.
Some were lying on the ground, unmoving.
One stuck his head in the creek, but never came up again.
One clutched her belly in agony and rolled on the ground, not caring that rocks were tearing at her flesh.
Another lay on the ground with his arms and legs in the air, fingers and toes twitching.
One person who seemed to have been in better shape desperately tried to throw up what he had eaten.
Others desperately tried to revive the collapsed Head, while succumbing to the poison themselves.
A woman holding a child foaming at the mouth, while spewing foam herself.
Another person muttered to himself, trying to convince himself that it was all a nightmare by slapping himself on the cheeks.
Yet another person clutched a first-aid kit and downed all the medication she could get her hands on.
The slave lay on the ground and watched in shock.
But the pandemonium did not last long.
The people fell to the ground, one by one, and began twitching with the last of their strength. Soon they grew faint.
And they would never move again.
By the time the evening sun approached the horizon, the slave could hear nothing.
It slowly got to its feet. Its forehead was no longer bleeding.
Dried blood was caked over its head. With its face covered in brownish red, and with no discernible expression on its face, the slave approached the people with its chain trailing behind it.
The slave came across the Head's wife and son, crumpled together on the ground. Their faces were obscured by the white foam.
It found the Head's body a short distance away. The men who had been standing guard were collapsed there as well.
Other guard were collapsed in between their posts and the camp, perhaps in an attempt to return.
The slave shifted, and the chain at its neck rattled in under the twilight.
It heard someone's voice.
The slave hurriedly looked around.
"Where are you? Answer me!"
It approached the owner of the voice--a man laying collapsed on the ground--and crouched beside him.
The man was still alive. His eyes were closed, but what dribbled form his mouth was not foam but saliva. His chest was slowly rising and falling.
He was the middle-aged man who had spoken to the slave as it tried to start the coal fire.
"P-please, wake up…" The slave said, and shook the man's shoulders. His eyes opened.
"Please… get up…"
With the slave's help, the man sat upright. He spat unpleasantly and looked at the slave, sitting to his right.
He slowly looked around, taking in the sight of the corpses of his companions. He turned back to the slave.
"Wh… What happened?" He asked weakly.
"Th-those herbs… The kind that grows in this area are poisonous. I… I didn't remember quickly enough, and… because of me…"
The man understood the situation instantly.
"I see… I… I never liked vegetables… Good thing I was picky, eh…?"
"Is… Is anyone still alive…?"
The man asked feebly, looking for survivors. No one answered.
"It's just you… you're the only one…"
"But… I don't have long… do I?"
The slave was silent.
"Looks like that's it, then… Because… you never had a bite… no…" The man mumbled. He then remembered.
"No…! You… you tried to eat your portion…"
"Yes! I only realized just before everyone started eating. But I never warned them .I never said a thing! I'm a terrible human being! For a second, I thought, 'I don't care if they die'! I couldn't save them! They're all dead because of me! I tried to die with them because I didn't want to live on as a murderer!" The slave cried, its tears slowly washing the blood off its cheeks.
"…I see." The man smiled faintly.
"I'm the only one left now. So please, sir… Please at least give me one thing…"
"Please, kill me."
"Please… Please kill me!"
"Oh… I see. All right…"
The man lay on the ground and looked around. On his left he caught sight of the rifle he had been carrying over his shoulder until not too long ago. The man reached out and weakly pulled on the shoulder strap, and pulled the persuader onto his body with great difficulty. He then undid the safety.
"I… can't. I don't have the strength… You're gonna have to hold it…" He said to the slave.
The slave knelt before him and clumsily took hold of the rifle.
"Wh-what do I do? I don't know how to use it…"
"I'll show you… But before that…"
The man reached into his pocket and took out a small key.
"Come closer… Yeah. Don't move."
The man reached out to the slave with his right hand and opened the lock at its neck.
The lock fell in front of the slave. Its necklace and chain slid down its back. The sound of clattering broke the silence.
"There… Now it'll be easy to shoot… First. hold up the muzzle with your left hand…"
"Yeah… Now take the thinnest section with your right hand… Yes… Your index finger… on the trigger… Don't lose your grip, now… Keep your hand steady… Koff!"
White foam came spewing out of his mouth before he could finish.
"Calm down… I'm not dead yet… Now, lift it up. Easy does it…"
The slave lifted the rifle with its thin arms. The barrel pointed into the air.
"Ah… yes. Perfect…!"
At that very moment, the man used the last of his strength to sit up suddenly.
The slave screamed in fright, just as the man took hold of the barrel with both hands. He quickly pulled the barrel lower, pointing the gun towards his own stomach.
The moment the man pulled the rifle towards him, the trigger was pulled by the slave's finger.
A powerful impact shook them both. The sound of the gunshot echoed through the camp and rang out into the mountains.
The bullet struck the man's stomach, destroyed his organs, shot out his back, and hit the ground.
The slave lost its grip on the rifle because of the recoil.
"Eek!" It screamed.
The man did not cough up foam, but blood.
He slowly fell over to his right. His head hit a stone with a thud.
The slave knelt before the man, its eyes wide and full of tears.
"Just like you said… you'll understand one day…" The man answered.
He closed his eyes and passed away with a smiled.
The sun was setting past the horizon.
On the mountainside were about thirty corpses, a slave who was no longer a slave, and three trucks.
The slave was now truly alone. It stood stock still beside the bleeding corpse, its face covered in tears and dried blood.
"That was amazing! Everyone's dead. You're a smart one, aren't you?" Someone said.
It was a clear, elegant voice, but the tone was reminiscent of that of a delinquent teenager.
The slave stood in silence. About three seconds passed after the voice had spoken.
"Huh?" It finally looked up. "Wh-who's there?"
"Finally. You have to speed up a bit! Over here! Hurry up!"
The voice was coming from one of the trucks parked in a row.
"Are you all right? Are you still alive?!"
The slave broke out running. It stumbled many times before it managed to run up to the three trucks parked by the road.
"Where are you?"
"Over here! Quick!"
It followed the voice to the truck at the very end.
The back of the truck was covered by a canvas. On either side were clear vinyl windows, and at the front was a hole used as a doorway.
"Come in! I hate it when people keep me waiting." The voice said to the slave, who stood hesitating at the opening.
"But… I was orderer not to go inside the trucks carrying their goods…"
"Don't be stupid! They're all dead now."
The slave thought of a possibility.
"Are you a slave too? You must be locked up in there, right?" It asked.
"No way! Quit dawdling. Come on inside!"
The sun had nearly set.
The slave made up its mind. It climbed onto the back of the truck, and entered through the opening in the canvas. Light spilled in from the vinyl window on the west, faintly illuminating the interior.
The slave's eyes soon adjusted to the darkness. It looked around.
The back of the truck was filled with narrow shelves made of metal piping. All kinds of sundry goods were arranged on them, bought by the traveling merchants. They were all secured with ropes so they would not fall off during the drive.
The slave avoided the shelves and stepped further inside. It was just about at the middle of the space, near the vinyl window.
"Where are you?"
"Over here!" Someone answered from right at its feet.
"Eek!" The slave recoiled and hit its back on a shelf behind it. The shelf shook loudly.
"What're you getting scared for? We were talking just fine a second ago, right?"
The slave tentatively looked down at its feet.
In front of it was a narrow shelf in the corner. Several wooden boxed were stacked atop it, and--
"Yeah! Over here!"
It was the delinquent-sounding motorrad that had been raising its voice for some time.
The motorrad was small. Its wheels were about the size of platters, and the chassis was about as big as a bench made for children. There were no handles to be found, and it had almost no protruding parts. In fact, the chassis almost looked like a box.
The little motorrad had been stuffed under the shelf and secured with rope.
"Huh…? Huh? What…?"
As the slave gaped in shock, the motorrad continued without a care in the world.
"What are you, a fish? Aren't you supposed to be human? Never seen a motorrad before, or something? Just to warn you, if you ask me, 'how do you talk', I'll beat you to a pulp. And if you ask me where my mouth is, I'll kick you."
"…Um… How…?" The slave began.
"Ha! Good question! You look a bit slow, but you're actually pretty bright, right? That's good! Otherwise it wouldn't be any fun!"
"…Is no one else here…?"
"Nope! They're all dead! That's right, they're dead. I heard everything! I heard you talking to the guard, I heard the guy whip you, I heard that delusional cheeky brat, I heard them scream, I heard you talking to the guard, and I heard the gunshot right afterwards!"
"They're all dead. Everyone's dead. Everyone's gone. Kaput. Kicked the bucket! Except for you."
"Hey! don't make that face. You're free now. You can do whatever you want now, Missy."
The sun had set. The world quickly lost its colour.
The interior of the truck quickly grew dark. It was impossible to discern the expression of the girl who had once been a slave.
Only her voice carried clear in the darkness.
"I… I… I killed them…"
"Don't be stupid. That last one killed himself. And the rest of 'em should have known better than to use poison for cooking."
"But… But if only I'd told them!"
"Then you think they would've stopped eating? Fat chance! They'd have kept going no matter who tried to warn them. All you'd get in return was a whipping. Am I wrong? You even tried to save that brat, but what did you get in return? Thanks and gratitude? Is that scar on your forehead a thank-you kiss or something?"
"They just had no luck to begin with. They would have died here tonight, whether you were around nor not. And you were lucky. Isn't it amazing? You're free now!"
"Didn't you hear me? I said, you're free!"
"Please… Tell me."
"Yeah, what is it?"
"How do I die?"
"That's simple! You just live. All living creatures die eventually."
"I see… I have to live… until I figure out how to die…"
"That's right. Just keep going, and your life will end before you know it. That's when death happens."
"I get it. So that's all I can do… That's all…"
"Besides, it's better for me that you live, too. Otherwise I'd be stuck here forever! It's really uncomfortable being folded up like this. I mean, we're by the road, so I'm sure someone's gonna come by us eventually, but maybe not. So I need to ask you a favour."
"Huh? What is it?"
"We're saying goodbye to this place! I'll teach you how to drive a truck. This one is an automatic, so it's just a matter of getting used to the controls. But before that, don't forget to carry over all the valuables over here from the other trucks. We can sell persuaders and ammunition, so go collect them from the corpses. Accessories too! And pick out some nice clothes from the trucks and change into something else. No one's gonna complain!"
"…And?" The girl asked.
"'And'? Then we leave together! You can't go back home now, can you? Oh! I forgot! Actually, I have a really awesome name. From now on, you'll call me by that, okay? And what's your name? It's polite to introduce yourself first, so I'll give you the honours." The motorrad said cheerfully.
"I don't have one." The girl replied firmly, her expression veiled by the shadows.
"I don't have a name. Not anymore."
The motorrad was quiet for four seconds.
"In that case… I guess I'll have to make you one. Uh… But I can't really think of anything on the spot. How about I give you a name once I think up something nice?"
"Great! It's only right you name someone who's just been born!"
The next afternoon.
A motorrad arrived at a mountain range, where two trucks and about thirty corpses lay scattered on the ground.
Travel gear was packed on either side of its rear wheel and atop it.
The rider, wearing a brown coat, noticed the trucks and the corpses ahead of them and stopped the motorrad.
The rider took out a sniping scope from a box, hid behind a boulder a slight distance from the motorrad, and quietly looked at the scene.
"What do you see?" The motorrad asked.
"No one's moving." The rider replied honestly.
Continued in the Epilogue.
Continued in the Epilogue.