Chapter 11: The Voice
“W-wait! Don’t do it!”
Larry was the most surprised of them all. With a yell, he leapt and turned in the direction of the voice.
Meg flinched as well. Natalia protectively stepped before her. Seron and Nick pointed their flashlights at the source of the voice. Jenny did the same, a second later.
“Argh… my eyes…”
A man had leapt out of the red door.
He was slender in build and wore dark green clothes that resembled sweats. He was also wearing sneakers.
He was dressed like a homeless person one might find in the alleys of the Capital District, but he was not particularly unkempt and he did not smell.
Because he was covering his eyes, it was impossible to tell what kind of an expression he was wearing. A beard spread over his face and he was slightly balding. His long hair was black, halfway to grey, and went down all the way to his shoulders. The man was probably in his fifties or sixties.
“My eyes… please…” The man repeated himself. His voice was somewhat androgynous and sounded very soft-spoken.
“I don’t think we’ll need the lights, everyone.” Seron said, turning off his flashlight. Nick and Jenny did the same.
“Oh… thank you…” The man sighed, lowering his hands.
The man’s face emerged in the dim light. Wrinkles dug trenches in his forehead and at the corners of his eyes, making him look very old indeed. He could almost pass for 80.
“It’s on you now, Seron.” Larry said, calming down. He stepped aside.
“Yeah. Seron can speak for us. That all right with everyone?” Asked Natalia.
No one objected.
Seron stepped forward, coming to a stop about 5 meters from the man.
“Good afternoon. My name is Seron Maxwell. I’m a third-year student at this secondary school.”
He began with a greeting and an introduction. The man’s brows twitched.
“Thank you for coming outside. First, I’d like to apologize on everyone’s behalf. My friend and I were not serious when we were raising our voices earlier. We were bluffing, as we believed it would be impossible to bring you out otherwise. I’m terribly sorry.”
Larry and Meg, who finally understood what Seron and Nick had been doing earlier, nodded in understanding.
Several seconds of silence followed.
Would the man say no more, the students wondered, when he finally opened his mouth.
“I’ve been listening to your voices all this time. Ever since you were outside. So I hid. I never thought you’d make it all the way in here. I’m impressed.”
The students had not expected words of praise. They exchanged awkward glances. Seron continued.
“There are other rooms through those doors, yes?”
“That’s right. There are many ancient passageways here.”
“Do you live here?”
“Is there anyone else here?”
“No. It’s just me.”
The man answered Seron’s questions with frank resignation.
“How long have you been here?”
“About two years, I suppose.” The man said awkwardly.
Seron could hear the others gasp behind him. He continued mechanically.
“That’s a very long time, sir. Wasn’t it uncomfortable down here?”
The man shook his head.
“This may be a basement, but it must have been freezing cold during the winter. How did you survive?”
“There are hot water pipes here. I help myself to some when I need it.”
“I see. This place must receive hot water from the boiler room, just like the communal bath in the dormitories. So you can stay warm and even take baths in here. Is there a bathroom behind one of those doors?”
The man nodded.
“What do you do about food?”
“I… can’t answer that.”
“I see. …Let me get to the point. The barred windows in the basement are going to be sealed off soon.”
“I know. Some young men came to do some work yesterday and were talking very loudly about it. As if they were talking to me.”
“…We came all this way to tell you: wouldn’t it be best to leave this place?”
“Where would you have me go?”
Seron was silent.
“I have nowhere else to go. I came out here to tell you: won’t you let me live in peace here?”
“…I can’t presume to say I know what led you here, but this building is part of a school campus. Wouldn’t it be better to receive the protection of the law and its benefits in a publicly-operated facility? They wouldn’t turn you away.”
“I can’t say.”
Seron put the conversation on hold there. Then he turned to Larry without warning.
“All this searching’s making me hungry. You brought the sandwiches, Larry?”
“Huh? Oh, right! Lemme dig them up.”
Larry pulled off his backpack and took out the wisteria lunchbox.
Seron received the lunchbox, took off his gloves, and removed the lid.
“Excuse me. I’m the only one who skipped lunch today.” He said, and sat himself on the floor.
Seron placed the lunchbox on the floor in front of him, took out one of the sandwiches, and took a very big bite.
The man watched Seron through wrinkled eyes.
“Here, help yourself. Our dormitory cafeteria serves the best food around.” Seron said, holding out the lunchbox towards the man.
From behind Larry, Nick whispered to Natalia, “Now I’m even more convinced that Seron should join the drama club.”
For a time, the man stared at the sandwich in Seron’s hand.
“Two’s a little too much for me.” Seron added with a smile.
“Thank you. …I’ll help myself.”
The man finally sat on the floor in front of Seron and took the sandwich with a wrinkled hand. He slowly brought it to his mouth with both hands, stared, and bit down.
His eyes slowly grew wet.
As did Meg’s, as she watched him eat.
For some time, the only sound in the basement was that of two people munching on their sandwiches.
“You know, I’m feeling kinda hungry right about now.”
“Tell me the truth, Lia. You’re actually more than one person, right? You traded places with another Natalia after lunch, right?”
As Natalia and Larry joked around, Meg burst into laughter.
After the meal, the man met Seron’s gaze and finally spoke.
“Why would you go so far for me?”
“We have many reasons, but our biggest reason is that someone here is very concerned about you.” Seron said, turning around.
The man noticed Meg quietly looking at him.
A shadow flitted past his expression. He shook his head.
“I can’t. I can’t leave this place.”
“B-but why is that the case? I do not want to see a person dying in this sort of place!” Meg pleaded.
The man’s eyes flew open. He froze.
Without a word, he stared at Meg. Seron, Meg, and the others could not read his expression.
“Miss… are you from Sou Be-Il?”
He said suddenly.
Natalia, Nick, Larry, and Seron did not understand what he said.
“Yes! I am! My family moved to the Capital District two years ago, but I was born and raised in Sou Be-Il! I was born in Shelestaras, and I grew up in Parselturay after I turned three!” Meg cried ecstatically. But four of the others still did not understand a word. Meg and the man were conversing in Bezelese, the official language of Sou Be-Il.
Jenny spoke up in Roxchean.
“They’re both speaking Bezelese.”
“What?” Larry said, turning to Jenny. “You know Bezelese?”
Jenny was indignant at his disbelief.
“We have Bezelese classes at school, you know. I took it last term.”
“Give me a break. You can’t learn a language in just half a year.” Larry said, still reeling from shock.
“Jenny has quite the intellect, you know. She’s never fallen out of the top ten in our year. I believe she was 8th at the lowest.”
“How’d you know that, princess?”
“It’s common knowledge. Although I don’t believe you’d read about it in any school newspaper.” Nick joked, winking with a smile.
“Hmph.” Jenny looked away grumpily.
Larry’s eyes were wide.
“That’s really impressive. They say the strongest hawk hides his talons, but this is on another level altogether. This is practically inspirational, Jenny!”
“I owe you a punch later, blondie.”
“C’mon, I’m just trying to say you’re not all bad. It was a compliment.”
“Make that two punches.”
“Guys.” Natalia interrupted. “Save the spat for later. I won’t get in your way then.”
“What? You’re supposed to stop people who’re arguing, Lia.”
“Doesn’t matter. Anyway, what did they just say in Bezelese, Jenny?”
“The man asked pigtails where she was from, and she told him where.” Jenny replied.
Meg turned to the man and switched to Roxchean so everyone could understand, calming down.
“Sir, are you a person from Sou Be-Il? Yes? You must be a person from Sou Be-Il, yes? I feel the air of the Kingdom of Iltoa in your speaking. Is there no place for you to be in Roxche, so you are living in this kind of place? Then that is very, very sad!”
The man silently hung his head.
He did not look up for some time, but eventually he squeezed out a feeble voice.
“I can’t go back anymore… not to Sou Be-Il, and not to Roxche… I’m happy here…”
“You cannot be happy to close your life here where no one knows!” Meg pleaded in anguish. Her voice echoed through the room, seemingly reverberating against their eardrums.
Several seconds passed in silence.
“That’s the chorus club for you…” Natalia finally whispered.
“If I tell my father about your situations, he will borrow us his power! My father said that he knows a man at the embassy of our homeland! He will certainly be able to help you!”
Seron waited for Meg to finish before picking up where she left off.
“What do you say? We might be able to help you, if you’ll tell us why you refuse to leave.”
“Please wait, Seron!” Meg cried, running to him. She squatted behind Seron (who was still seated) and reached out with her left hand. And she tightly grabbed his right shoulder.
He came face-to-face with Meg, who was close enough for his breath to reach.
Seron desperately held back his racing heart and asked,
“What is it?” He managed to say.
“May we ask the reasons from him later? This person must be helped! The embassy! We must telephone the embassy and ask for its help!”
Meg’s eyes were brimming with tears. Seron quietly replied,
“We can’t just do that.”
“Why can we not?”
Seron did not answer—instead, he raised his left hand. He gently took Meg’s pale hand from his shoulder and slowly, very slowly, took it off his shoulder.
Meg pulled her hand back and placed it over her stomach, looking away. Then she raised her head and looked Seron in the eye.
Seron cast her a warm look.
“If this man is hiding in here because he committed a crime, we should be contacting the police, not the embassy. When I said ‘publicly-funded facility’ earlier, I was also including the possibility of prison. It doesn’t matter where he’s from, if he’s broken the law.”
Meg trailed off. She could not finish her sentence.
“Man… learn some tact, Seron…” Larry said to himself, cradling his head in his hands.
“He’s being a goody-two-shoes, but he’s right.” Said Natalia. “We can’t exactly help someone out if he’s a criminal.”
The man hung his head. Seron continued.
“I understand that you wish to remain down here. But we can’t let you do that anymore.” He sounded almost cold. “Now that we know you’re living here, we can’t just leave you.”
“…I… I just wanted to stay here forever.” The man said.
“I’m afraid that’s not possible.” Seron replied immediately. The man looked up at him with tears in his eyes.
“Then… then what am I supposed to do?! What would you have me do?”
“It’s simple! Just kill those children!”
The answer came from behind the students.
“Kill them! They are your enemies! Now silence them! Then you can return to your peaceful life, and you won’t have to harm anyone ever again! Erase them!”
It was a man’s voice.
The voice came from down the passage the students had come through. It sounded strangely deep and muffled, like the owner of the voice was holding something in front of his mouth.
Nick turned, but there was no one in his line of sight.
Larry did an about-face and headed for the passage—
The man screamed behind him. Larry turned right back, startled.
The first thing he saw was the man, his hair wild and his stance unsteady as he charged towards Meg.
Meg flinched at the sudden turn of events, and was rooted to the floor. The man reached forward—
Seron stood with a cry, tackling the man. The man flew forward and landed on his shoulder.
Seron was also knocked aside by the impact—
He landed on the floor, holding Meg in his arms.
He was on the verge of crushing her against the floor.
He flipped around, still holding Meg. His back hit the cold, hard floor.
And a second later, Meg’s forehead came crashing down near his mouth, knocking his head against the floor. There were two clear impacts.
Natalia ran over and slowly helped Meg to her feet.
“I am all right. I am—”
“Good to hear.” Natalia nodded, and looked down. Seron was on the floor with a bleeding lip.
“Ouch…” He muttered, putting his hand to his mouth.
“Seron’s still alive, so don’t worry ‘bout him. Make sure to thank him later.” Natalia said to Meg.
“Damn it!” Larry cried, lunging at the fallen man. He put his knee on the man’s back and twisted back his right arm—
“What are you doing? They’re still alive! Kill them! Now! Kill them all!”
The voice cried from the passage again.
“Who the heck?!” Larry looked up, distracted. The man flailed wildly and kicked him in the leg.
Larry fell to the floor. The man scrambled away on all fours like a spider.
“What in the world…?” Larry gasped, slowly getting to his feet. “Fine.” He slowly put his left foot forward and took a fighting stance.
The man also stood. The red door was right behind him, but he did not try to run. He simply glared at Larry, taking a low stance. His wrinkled eyes were concealed by the darkness.
“Quickly! Kill them all! You can do this!” The voice called again.
“Hey! I dunno who you are, but shut up back there!” Natalia snapped.
“Yeah! Enough is enough!” Jenny added. She then looked up at Nick. “Hey, princess! Go take care of that guy out there!”
“I’m afraid I’m not one for hand-to-hand combat, Jenny.”
“Don’t worry! We’ll tell your family that you died honorably in battle!”
“But I…” Nick trailed off, shrugging. That was when Seron spoke.
“No, it’s all right.” He said, wiping his mouth. “You don’t have to go, Nick. Everyone, go over to one of the corners. We need to restrain this man first. —Larry?”
“Yeah?” Larry replied without looking back.
“How is he?”
“Definitely not easy. He’s strong.”
“I see. Then you’ll need some help.”
“I’m not as strong as you are, but I’ll try not to get in your way.”
“Yeah! Thanks, buddy!”
Seron turned to face Meg, whom Natalia was supporting by the shoulders.
“I need your help, Megmica.”
“Yes. Larry and I are going to try and restrain him. But if things don’t work out… I want you to say something in Bezelese to distract him. Say it loudly.”
“B-but what type of words do I speak?”
“It doesn’t really matter, but try to say something that’ll make him nostalgic. That seems to be his weakness.”
“What is the meaning of ‘nostalgic’?”
“Er… well… it’s like the feeling you get when you miss your home.”
“I see. I understand that feeling.”
“I’m counting on you. Natalia, take care of Megmica. And Jenny, stay right where you are. As for Nick…” Seron trailed off.
“I hope you won’t be sending me off unarmed to do single combat.”
“Right. Larry and I will do something about the man, so take care of the girls.”
“I suppose I could manage that.”
Seron turned around.
The man stood with his back to the wall, leaning forward as he glared at Seron and Larry. His skinny arms were slightly bent, like a feral monkey ready to attack.
Seron took several steps forward and stood next to Larry.
“Let me borrow this.” He said, taking the flashlight from Larry’s pocket.
“Kill them! I order you to kill them all! This is an order! An order!”
The mysterious voice filled the basement once more. Larry groaned.
“Whoever that guy is, he’s next.”
“I have a hunch about him.”
“Really? Looking forward to the summation, then. Now let’s work up some sweat.” Larry grinned belligerently.
At that moment—
The man lunged.
Seron dodged to the left, and Larry to the right.
The man chose to charge at Larry. He swung his right arm and attacked, rushing forward.
“He’s fast!” Larry cried, guarding with his left arm and taking a step back. The wall was only 3 meters behind him.
Larry evaded the attack and dodged to the right.
The man passed him by and lunged at the wall, landing on both feet and launching himself back at Larry.
“Duck!” Seron cried.
Larry stopped mid-turn and did as Seron instructed.
The man’s arm cut the air above Larry, where his face would have been had he not ducked.
Larry spun while crouching and stood. The man also took a lunging stance again.
“Over here!” Seron yelled, attacking the man’s face.
The attack had come from 3 meters away.
The moment the man turned to him, two flashlights shone directly into his eyes. Seron was aiming them both into his face.
“Argh!” The man cried, shielding his eyes.
Larry tackled the man in the back.
He tried to take the man down and press him against the floor, but the man managed to remain standing and help up his fists.
Seron kept the lights on the man; but the man simply closed his eyes and swung blindly at Larry.
“Ugh! Damn it!” Larry spat, taking a direct hit to the spine. But he did not end his attack.
The man punched him a second time.
Larry’s knee hit the floor.
Seron cast the flashlights aside and charged at the man. He grabbed the man’s arm before the third attack and desperately tried to restrain him.
“AAAARGH!” The man howled, swinging his arms.
His elbow smashed against Seron’s face several times. Seron’s lip bled again, scattering red droplets against the floor.
“This is crazy… Argh! That hurts!”
Larry, who was also trying to restrain the man, grimaced as the man kicked him in the shin.
“This isn’t good…” Nick whispered, tense.
That was when a song began to echo throughout the basement.
Seron, Larry, Nick, and Natalia did not understand the meaning of the lyrics.
But the song resounded through the room, its beautiful and clear melody reverberating against the walls and floor and ceiling.
Jenny realized that the song was a call of nostalgia.
“Not bad at all. It’s a shame I can’t capture sounds on my camera.”
Strauski Megmica was singing.
With her eyes gently shut and her arms spread wide, she slowly swayed as she sang.
Her soprano voice filled the room and froze everyone in their tracks.
Even Larry and Seron—
And the man between them as well.
The man had his hands raised in an attempt to throw Seron off. But he stood stock-still and closed his eyes, nodding along to the rhythm.
Larry slowly pulled himself away.
“Looks like it’s working.”
The man was smiling like a child, tears running down his face.
Seron also let go of the man. He wiped the blood from his mouth and slowly took off his jacket.
Then he silently signaled Larry, mimicking tying a knot with his jacket. Larry nodded and took off his own.
The song continued.
Layers of echoes wove themselves together into a haunting melody, finally crescendoing into one last high note.
And Meg finally finished the song.
Seron and Larry leapt at once as the man stood in a daze.
Seron began by grabbing the man’s arms from behind. At the same time, Larry leapt at the man’s feet.
Unsurprisingly, in his teary-eyed state the man was taken by surprise. Larry quickly wrapped his jacket around the man’s legs and tied it in a knot.
Then he pulled the man’s legs from under him.
The man fell with ease. Seron cushioned the man’s fall against his own legs, holding him by the hands.
Seron tossed his jacket to Larry, who caught it in midair and quickly tied it around the man’s wrists.
“Done! Good job, Seron.”
Once the man was fully restrained, Seron let the man down on the floor.
The man screamed, sobbing.
“I want to go back… back to Sou Be-Il…” He gasped in Bezelese.
“Sorry, sir. You didn’t give us much of a choice.” Larry said.
“We’re very sorry. We wanted to make sure no one was hurt.” Seron said, clearly injured himself. He looked at Meg.
Meg was watching them with a sad look.
“…Thank you, Megmica. You saved us.” Seron said.
But Meg hung her head in silence.
Seron lowered his head. Then he looked up.
“Larry, check the passage and see if the man’s still around.”
Larry leapt forward and grabbed his still-lit flashlight off the floor. He passed by Natalia, Nick and Jenny, who were standing back, and rushed into the passage.
“Hold it right there, you creep!”
“I’m going too!” Jenny declared, turning on her flashlight and chasing after Larry.
She turned the corner to her left and ran for about 10 meters, then turned the corner to her right. She did not see Larry yet.
Jenny ran through the rest of the passageway and crawled out through the secret entrance. Along the way, she spotted the can of corned beef—it was partly crushed, its contents dribbling out.
When she emerged into the first of the basement rooms,
Larry was loudly clambering up the ladder.
Jenny rushed after him and followed Larry upstairs. Once she was on the first floor filled with sunlight, she saw Larry pushing against the door.
“Damn it! Open!”
Several times Larry tackled the door, his hands turning the knob. But the door only shook in its frame.
Jenny realized that the owner of the mysterious voice must be holding the door shut. She leapt into action.
She sprinted across the room with the energy of a tiny cannonball.
As Larry scrambled away, she kicked down the door with her feet.
The door slammed open, and they heard someone scrambling away. Jenny landed on her rear with her bag held protectively against her stomach.
And she ordered Larry,
“Go get him!”
“Yeah! Thanks, Jenny!”
Seron squatted behind the restrained man and looked at his face.
The man was weeping. Seron slowly looked away.
That was when a pale, slender hand reached out to the man.
When Seron looked up, he saw Meg kneeling on the floor before him.
Meg gently placed her hands on the man’s shoulders.
“It’s all right now, sir. Don’t worry. You don’t have to kill anyone anymore. Relax and get some rest. I’ll do everything I can to help you, I promise. Even if everyone here decides to treat you as an enemy, I’ll help you. So please… calm down.”
She spoke to him gently, kindly.
Seron did not understand what she had said in the language of the West.
But he nonetheless watched the girl from Sou Be-Il, who wore the face of a loving mother.
‘Please.’ Seron’s bloodied lips said silently.
He slowly rose to his feet and turned to Natalia and Nick.
“I think we’ll be all right here now. We can leave the rest to Larry.”
“Right. You think he’s gonna be okay?”
“What if the guy’s stronger than Larry?”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I only told Larry to go see if the man was still around—as long as we can confirm who it was, it doesn’t matter if he gets away. I’ve got a pretty good idea about this mysterious voice, anyway.”
“Are you certain?”
Natalia and Nick were both surprised.
“Who is that man? The man who did something like this? The man who trapped this man in a place like this and evilly ordered to hurt other people!”
Seron slowly turned.
He had never seen such an expression on Meg before. He had never even imagined such a thing.
“Who is that man?!” She demanded like a snarling hound.