He was dreaming again; sitting on a warm rock over the mountain stream by his home village, basking in the sunlight filtering through the trees, the snow-capped mountains majestic in the distance. A fishing line was draped over the rock, floating in the stream.
I wonder why? I keep seeing this dream every night though I’m deep underground, and covered in mud.
The river was beautiful as always. The tree branches hung low over the stream, and the leaves, painted in the reds and yellows of the fall, blanketed the surface of the water like a natural, transient brocade. The dead leaves, having lived out their lives, were carried along by the current, casting small shadows on the river bed as they traveled to a destination unknown.
Sooner or later, everything will end up like that.
I wonder if the reason why I keep dreaming of this clear stream is because it’s a reminder of the moment when the revelation of the nature of the world struck my childish mind, as I watched the leaves slowly drift away.
…If that’s the case.
Van’s face twisted.
I am also, unexpectedly worthless.
Strangely he didn’t dream of the events of the battle of Kashna’s Riverside, where they were crushed all too quickly by the Ziol’s overwhelming military forces like ants underfoot. Even though he could vividly recall how those he had loved like siblings were massacred before his very eyes, they never appeared even once in his dreams for some reason.
In the same vein, he never dreamed of the dusty smell of the oily net that had captured and pulled him up like a ragdoll as he stood, alone, surrounded by the corpses of those who had fallen in battle. Nor did he dream of the people who were enslaved with him and brought to the hell that was the Akafah Salt Mine.
However, occasionally he would dream of a face. It was the face of the first man he had killed when the fighting reached the mountains of his home. He had been an officer angrily ordering his soldiers with a shrill voice, even as he sat on a beautiful horse behind them.
From a distance he looked like the very definition of the arrogant Ziol, but beneath the helmet, which fell when the force of the arrow that pierced his chest pushed him back, was – contrary to expectations – a young face.
The face had looked down at the arrow embedded in his chest through a chink in his armor, overcome by surprise. Looking as if he could not comprehend the manner of his own death. And as the man realized his inevitable fate, his face had twisted in fear and anguish. Even now that young face has been burned into his memory.
After that was a war where he took countless lives, and death became nothing more than routine.
And now, death was once again before him. It was his second month in this hell where surviving for three months before you were inevitably reduced to a corpse to be thrown out was a long life. Nothing but mind-numbingly carrying baskets filled with rock salt which dug into his shoulders back and forth between the surface and deep underground, like an ant. And at night sleeping underground, chained to iron stakes embedded in the bedrock. An endless cycle.
When he had first arrived, he thought that he might be able to loosen the base of the iron stakes eventually, if he kicked them enough times, but even after he had kicked and kicked the stakes, they didn’t budge the tiniest bit. Before long even the will to kick the stakes left his body, exhausted by the exploitive work and minimal food.
Catalyzed by his weakening body, his heart had begun to give up on everything before he noticed.
Is this the feeling of a dry leaf on a tree, merely waiting for the inevitable fall?
I’m not young anymore, but I’m still only forty years old. I think I still have it in me to struggle against the yoke of the enemy to the very end, until the last drop of life within me is gone.
Even as he thought so, a feeling, or rather a lack thereof, welled up from within him: a sort of hollowness at the thought that there was nothing in his life significant enough to cling to in order to survive.
Perhaps, this hollowness might become a comfort when this life runs out, like an echo in the mountains.
In short, that was my life.
Having come to this conclusion, he felt his heart ache, like the emptiness was threatening to consume him, and didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry as a result. And yet, he didn’t have the will to choose death by himself. If he so wished, there were probably many ways to pass on, but actively choosing an agonizing death was something he didn’t want to do.
I must live on until what fire remains within me disappears.
A quiet whooshing sound could be heard intermittently. It was the sound of the ventilation blades sending a small amount of air deep underground. An unreliable breeze had been set up through a long row of air boxes connected to the turning ventilation blades, which were rotated by a water wheel in an underground stream. A lifeline, essential for breathing.
Soon the day when I am unable to hear that sound will come.
He saw the thin stream of limpid water behind his closed eyes. He could hear a small voice going whoosh, whoosh. He could hear the turning of toy blades; the water wheel he made with his son. He made that water wheel with guidance from the distant memories of building one with his own father. The water wheel formed out of bamboo grass only created a faint glugging sound, but his son did his very best to imitate the sounds of a real water wheel with his mouth. He could feel his son’s breath tickling his upper arm. A weak, gentle breath…
Sunlight shone through the gaps in the trees on the opposite shore, dancing on the summer’s dry riverbed of white rocks. Birch trees with trunks so white that it dazzled you, and delicate greenery rustled noisily in the wind.
His son raised his eyes, and touched his elbow, pointing deep into the grove of trees.
A deer. There was a Flying Deer
It had already become more of a deep green shadow, melding with the trees. A deer that had already passed its prime. And yet, how big it was. Its antlers stabbed into the sky like burning flames.
Van stood up, and started pulling his son’s hand as he walked towards it. The deer’s body flickered like a heat haze. It looked as if it might disappear at any time.
Grasping his son’s small hand, Van murmured,
Maybe, that is…
Van woke up with a start at the sound of screams. The beautiful light he was watching moments ago had vanished, jolting him back to a gloomy, foul-smelling reality.
He heard it once more. …Quite far away.
The caverns, which had been created in the leftovers of the dug-out rock salt, winded down in many layers like an ant’s nest in this deep mine, but what he was hearing wasn’t the voices of the shackled slaves on those other layers.
Their voices were ceaselessly present. And since he had heard those voices, ranging from sobbing and groaning to beast-like howling with no resemblance to a human voice constantly, day and night, they had long been reduced to background noise that he barely registered as voices anymore.
However, what he heard now was clearly different. It was probably why it caught his attention.
Voices filled with urgency. Lots of them, drowning each other out even while they echoed through the tunnels. Shouting and screaming voices filled with panic. At first it was only noisy in the upper tunnels connected to the outside, but the uproar was gradually spreading downwards, and further downwards.
…What’s going on?
He knitted his brows, lifting his upper body to see another slave, chained closest to the branch in the path to the entrance, standing and pulling at his chains.
The torch illuminating where the main tunnel and branch-off meet reflected the man’s silhouette as he twisted, screaming. In that instant he observed some kind of shadow, slipping in like black water.
Its fur seemed to glisten in the torch’s swaying light, but because it was too dark, he couldn’t make out its appearance fully.
──It resembles a wolf, but it’s too small to be one.
No way, a wild dog?
There were many of them in the mountains of his birthplace, terrifying, fierce, and cruel wild dogs.
It moves like a wild dog, but a wild dog, in such a place? Why…?
The slave at the entrance and the shadow became one, and then a shriek like something being torn apart.
“…Uriya, ki? Ono, rogi?”
The man who had been sleeping next to him spoke in a frightened voice as he peered into the darkness. He was asking something as he looked this way, but Van didn’t understand what he was saying.
The ones being put to work in this salt mine were mostly Ziol criminals condemned to death or slaves brought in from the south as spoils of war. Because of that, he had never encountered anyone who spoke his language. There was probably no one besides Van from Akafah here.
Van shrugged his shoulders at the man next to him, and looked around himself, seeing if there was anything he could possibly use. He might be able to do something with the chain binding his wrists to the bedrock, but he couldn’t do much with the iron shackles at his ankle.
The black beast was slowly getting closer as it took down one slave after the other.
“Oja! Oja! Oja!”
The man next to him waved his hands, trying to drive it away as he screamed, but the beast didn’t stop. The instant a beast jumped the man, Van resolutely kicked the beast’s flank with his unchained left foot. The kicked beast howled curtly in pain, but right before its back collided with the rock wall, it twisted its body, kicked the wall, landing lightly on the ground. Unbelievable agility.
Dumbstruck, Van stared blankly at the beast for a brief moment. Golden eyes that seemed to shine abnormally even within the darkness gazed in his direction as if considering something.
…In the next moment, a black mass engulfed his vision. A tepid breeze blew across his face. A strange, grassy smell like freshly cut green wood escaped the beast’s mouth. Fangs dug into the arms he had instinctively raised to protect his throat. A cornered feeling assailed him, and a sharp pain immediately traveled through his arm as the fangs broke skin.
Groaning, Van grabbed the black mass’ muzzle. He let his hand follow the long nose down to jab a finger into its eye.
The beast released Van’s arm with a single, pained cry, but it just staggered one, then two steps backwards with its crushed eye shut, and then bit the foot of the neighboring man instead of escaping. Attacking one slave after the other, it completely vanished deeper into the tunnel.
Van violently breathed in, holding his injured arm. The pain was excruciating, but it wasn’t bleeding all that much.
The other slaves talked agitatedly with each other, all holding their various injuries. Since none of them were able to escape with their shackles, the fear of suddenly being attacked by beasts was tremendous, but seeing the riot they were kicking up, there didn’t appear to be anyone who suffered life-threatening injuries.
“Ottak, eeze! Rag, logi, geldo, maye!”
Van frowned as he looked down at the man hugging his foot as he groaned and cursed.
Just why…did they attack us?
Except for when trying to protect their turf or young ones, or if they are close to starvation, neither wild dogs nor wolves attack people. Have they taken refuge in the mine after being chased by something? I think they do bite in reflex, in fear or panic. However…
That fellow wasn’t frightened at all.
Those golden eyes definitely stared directly into mine for an instant. There wasn’t even the slightest hint of fear to be found in those eyes. Rather, it even seemed as if it was calmly observing me.
Those were the eyes of a soldier.
A soldier, who indifferently carries out his duty, has such eyes. After that thought crossed his mind, Van shook his head. Thinking about it won’t help.
As he forced his irritation down, Van squeezed his wound, causing blood to fall on the ground beneath him repeatedly.
I’m sure that’ll swell magnificently tomorrow morning.
Yet another worry that wouldn’t lead anywhere.
Probably as result of the sudden rush of fear and adrenaline, his body became sluggish as if packed with melted lead. Van laid down on his side, pushing the chain away so it wouldn’t touch his body, sighed, and shut his eyes.
The next morning, the female slave, who had been bringing them their shabby breakfast, distributed a thin rice porridge with stiff motions, as if injured. When she placed down the bowl with the porridge in front of him, he caught a fleeting glance of a tattered cloth wrapped around her arm. Even the slave overseer, who would usually come down the tunnel with firm and intimidating footsteps, seemed sluggish as he shuffled along with difficulty and ordered them to start working.
On the morning of the fourth day, the female slave’s hands trembled violently as she carried the breakfast, causing her to spill some of the porridge. Even within the dim light, it was obvious that a rash had spread across her arms and face. Van absentmindedly wondered whether she was suffering from rubella.
Unbidden, the medicinal plants his mother made him eat when he was ill with the rubella in his childhood crossed his mind.
“If you have some Tsukki (a medicine made out of cocklebur that has been dried and turned into powder), you should take it,” Van called out to her.
Despite not knowing what the words meant, the female slave seemed to understand the good intentions anyway, lifting her face and smiling weakly. However, it looked as if just smiling requires an enormous amount of effort from her.
On the seventh day, the man next to him didn’t get up even though it was morning. He was curled tightly in the fetal position with a pained expression. Since there was no response even when Van called out to him, he lightly shook him, but his body had already turned cold.
Come to think of it, he’s been coughing in pain since the day before yesterday. He felt like he had heard him groan during the night, but being exhausted himself, he couldn’t be bothered to sit up and just dimly listened to it as he remained lying down.
He faintly thought that it would have been nice if he had gotten up and patted the man as he looked down at the man’s motionless back, but his own body felt strangely feverish and heavy. His momentary thought of kindness flitted away quickly, like a transient dream.
All over the tunnel he could hear rasping coughs.
The next morning, four of the men chained in his tunnel didn’t wake up. As Van left through the tunnel to carry out his work, he saw corpses scattered all over the tunnels. Both the slaves, those who were alive and moving, and the slave overseers, who were standing on the sides with whips, were coughing violently.
Van faintly thought that a disease was spreading, but he paid no heed to it.
Those men don’t have to burden themselves with weights, which dig into their shoulders, tear their skin, and make their bones creak, any longer. The same will likely happen to me soon as well.
On the night of the eighth day after being bitten by the beast, he didn’t dream of sunlight shining through the trees. In exchange, he was visited by a terrifying nightmare.
Suddenly he was assailed with a chill that sent his teeth chattering along with a terrible headache. The intense shivers, which seized his body and made it tremble repeatedly in waves, eventually calmed down little-by-little, only to be replaced by a steadily rising fever. It was such a high fever that it made him wonder whether his own breath was burning.
He saw nightmares as he lapsed into delirium. He dreamed of a tree root growing into his arm through the wound where that beast had bitten him. He tried to hold down his arm as he screamed, but to no avail. The tree root stabbed into his immobile arm with a rasp. It slowly and painfully grew up his arm, splitting off at his shoulder to extend across his collarbone and down towards his chest. Traveling along his veins, the roots branched, and grew through his body. The pain was excruciating.
He kept screaming and screaming soundlessly, long since convinced that he couldn’t endure any longer and earnestly hoping to faint as soon as possible, but remained unwillingly conscious, trapped in his dream. The tree roots, which had taken over the rest of his body, spread towards his head, Van terrifyingly aware of what was happening.
The instant he braced himself for an even more intense pain to assail him, something broke through a point inside his head, and in the next moment, a warm, pleasant feeling spread across his entire body as if he had gone numb.
Van, who was stiff as a board from the torso down, shook uncontrollably in surprise.
The pleasant sensation continued for a long time. His heart throbbed so furiously that it seemed like it would burst. It was painful.
Just as he felt that death would soon come to him, he saw countless lights begin to disperse before his eyes. The pinpoints of lights were then drawn together by an unknown force, swirling together and expanding as more and more lights joined the cluster. As they brushed against his skin, the edges of his body melded with the light.
His own body kept crumbling, turning into small lights. The rock he had been leaning on had also turned into light beads without him noticing.
Everything that makes up my existence has turned into light beads. Everything is falling apart, and forming a chaotic mass.
Van saw himself reflected in each and every single light bead within his disappearing body.
He kept going back through time at a dazzling rate. He saw his wife’s somewhat silly-looking smile, his son’s shy one, and the faces of his father, mother, and elder brother. He saw the door of his house in his hometown, and his hunting dog Wazu as it trotted out the door. He saw the sunlight dancing through the trees, the brilliant crimson of a leaf changing color in the fall, the radiance of the clear stream, and the smell of smoke…
Van frantically tried to pull his body together, instinctively trying to hold onto any scraps he could, feeling as if he was about to lose something important. The power of that wish probably gave him strength, however little it might have been. The light beads, which had spread far and wide, began to slowly gather again ─ mind-bogglingly slowly, beginning to reform into his body once more.