Author's Note: The following story contains spoilers for the plot of Suikoden. If you haven't made it past the whole Warriors' Village/Cave of the Past/Neclord's Castle sequence and don't want to have a certain character's secrets spoiled for you, I suggest you not proceed further. If this doesn't apply to you, feel free to read and comment. ^_^
There was some religious festival or other going on in the city. The residents of the Dead City could tell because of the brightly-colored banners tethered to streetlamps and rooftops, the smell of incense burning in the main streets. It made no difference to the Dead City, except that the main city would be more crowded and begging might be rewarded with a greater turnout. The makeshift huts dotting the barren ground were empty of festivity.
Nobody passed through here unless they were in a hurry to somewhere on the other side. A mother, her flesh pressed taut against slender bones, her cheeks dark hollows, shepherded three children as they wandered up and down the main thoroughfare in search of handouts. Sometimes they got money; more rarely they got food. Usually it was dirty looks. Sometimes they were spat on. Tonight was no different.
A man who had been more lucky in securing nourishment crouched over a smouldering bonfire, holding above it a makeshift pan hewn from scrap metal. Somewhere in the distance, a dog began to bark.
The humid air was redolent with the smell of garbage. The Dead City was used to it; they had no other choice. On some days there would be entire families gathered around the garbage heaps where the rich people dumped the dregs of their existence. Tonight there was only one individual picking his way around it, a small boy, his orange-red hair stringy and his clothes mottled with dirt.
He wore glasses, but one lens was shattered into a spiderweb of fragments; on his right hand was a grimy leather glove with the fingers cut off. His main competition was a spindly cat who pawed and mewed at the garbage heaps in search of a smell it could not reach.
Looking around the deserted yard warily, clenching his right hand tight and stuffing it into the pocket of his shirt out of pure habit, the boy crouched beside the waste heap. Junk spilled onto his patched shoes as he carefully picked aside shattered glass and broken cookware, searching for something edible. He had learned long ago that of all the foods one might be able to purloin from a garbage heap, bread was likely the safest. Meat had an unpleasant tendancy to spoil, attract maggots, or sometimes both. The cat shared no such concerns, however, as it trotted past the boy's tired feet with a rind of bacon in its mouth.
"Hail to the Empire! Glory to the Empire!" The victorious chant had come from blocks away, but the boy bolted to his feet in an instant, right hand drawn tightly against his chest. He had stayed here too long, he knew. Had they discovered his location? Was she with them? His heart pattered in his chest. They wouldn't think to look in such a wretched place as this, would they?
Gnats swarmed at him in the humid twilight, diving at his open eyes. He dispersed the swirling cloud of them with a sweep of his arm, and looked disparagingly at the junk heap. There was nothing remotely edible tonight; nothing, at least, that he was desperate enough to settle for eating. He knew his share of houses in the richer section of the city which happily dispensed excess food to beggars, especially when the beggar in question was a tiny doe-eyed boy. With the Scarlet Moon Empire in town, though, he could not afford to risk such exposure.
If only he felt quite so innocent as the facade he had perfected.
Following in the wake of the cat, he began to make his way out of the dump, shivering despite the ovenlike heat.
There had been times, good times. Earlier times. Things before this. A hot meal every night, a clean bed. He tried not to think about those days too often; he knew if he thought of it too much the tears would come, the ones he beat down in his throat every night. And if he began to cry, he was not entirely certain he would ever stop.
He closed his eyes and saw grass, early-spring-green grass. A place where houses were hewn from logs, not scraps, and where trees stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. No way out, no way in. Always, ever since he could remember, there had been whispers. Whispers playing at the edge of his hearing, the edge of his consciousness: the Treasure, the Hidden Rune. A darkness at the back of an old man's eyes; a darkness he had never understood. Now he knew only that it was connected to the secret he must not tell; the thing he must not use. The thing Grandpa had said would bring him great pain. The reason there was no more village, no more Grandpa.
Biting his lip until it bled, he pressed his hand more tightly against his chest.
"'Ey! Look awt we've found 'ere!"
The boy looked up with a start, instinct screaming in his ears. Run, hide. Beneath the glove, his right hand began to burn like fire. He looked up.
It was not her. He would have known her face anywhere; of that he was certain. No, it was a trio of boys not so much older than himself, their tattered clothes worn to a uniform beige. He was not certain whether the glinting in their eyes was a glint of amusement or of predation, and felt all the more frightened for not knowing.
"Ah, leave 'im alone! 'E's jes' a kid!"
"Aye, an' that jes' makes it easier awn us! D'ya want t' eat tonight, or no?" The boy who had spoken made a motion towards the child, a bucktoothed grin stretching his face. "C'mon, let's go!"
With a shrug, the first speaker stepped past his peers, crouching on the ground before the little boy. The child's body was riveted in icy fear: he was certain that he could not move with full control over his limbs. It was like a dream where he tried to run and faltered as if dragged down into mud, but worse. He gave a quiet whimper and took a step backwards, the fingers of his right hand twining behind his back. Even if they were just boys, he could not allow them to know the secret either.
"'Ave ya got any money fer us, little boy?" the older boy intoned with a syrupy grin. He stepped backwards again, fumbled for words, found his voice at last: "N-no, I haven't." His throat felt clogged with fear and the words came out quavering.
The one who'd coerced the other boys into it now took a step towards the child. "What's that ye've got behind yer back? C'mon, show it ta us!"
"I...I can't!" he blurted. His heart pounded like a mad animal; his face went cold even as his blood ran hot with adrenaline. He had promised not to tell! He could not betray the secret!
"Oh? An' why's that?"
"It's a secret!" He gasped for breath in the reeking air. The fire throbbed again in his right hand, burning in his blood, tingling across his skin.
"C'mon, c'mon," the older boy coaxed, as if speaking to a timid animal. "If ya show us what ye've got, we won't 'ave ta hurt you..."
He took another step back. His right hand began to twitch.
The older boy made a swift grab for the child's right arm; he twisted away and fell onto the ground, hand still balled tight. Clambering to his feet, he ran. He was not certain where he was running to, as the junk yard was hemmed on three sides by a splintering wooden fence; yet he ran anyway. The secret; Grandpa's secret. He had seen what had happened when people knew about the secret. Sweat cooled the back of his neck in the night air. Nobody else could know.
Backed up against the fence, he took a deep, choking breath which nearly became a sob. The boys were encroaching. "Ye're a snot-nosed little brat, aren'tcha...?" sneered one of the three; he could not tell which in the darkening yard. "Give us what ye've got..."
"No!" The word burst from his lungs in a near-shriek. He screamed it over and over, as if it were a magic chant through which he might ward them away. "No, no, no--"
The sudden impact caught the left side of his face; with a cry he staggered aside, blood trickling from one nostril. "Give us it. Give us it," the older boy intoned. Whimpering softly, the child tried to creep away, his back against the fence.
His efforts were rewarded with a firm kick to the stomach.
Bent nearly in half on the ground, he choked, coughed for air. A tight knot of pain burned in his stomach and his right hand began to ache and burn and it grew tighter and tighter like a rope being pulled taut and then with a shriek that echoed inside his head something flew out of the burning hand and into his body.
Something dark as the night, and very, very vast indeed.
He trembled and raised his head from the ground, a thin strand of spit trailing from his lower lip. The boys grinned and sneered in the darkness. One of them kicked again, and this time it caught him in the shoulder.
He scarcely felt the pain at all. He felt only the burning darkness in his body. It strained against him, huge and terrible, fighting for control, much bigger and much more frightening than the leering countenances before him. It was awake and it was hungry. Inside his head he raged against it, trying to beat it back, send it back to where it had come from, and all the while feeling like a sapling tree trying to hold back the force of a hurricane.
It wanted. It needed; it hungered. His body quivered with the effort of restraint. It grew too strong, its thirst was immense. He fought and fought and fought to keep it away and still it grew stronger and stronger and his efforts were good as nothing. He saw the faces of the boys again, predatory, advancing, their hard bony knuckles and the heels of their boots striking against him. And his strength broke.
It screamed into his body with a roar like wind, and then suddenly he was knocked somewhere to the back of his head, somewhere behind his eyes, watching. Watching helplessly as he raised his right hand from the ground-- 'ey, look 'ere, 'e's givin' it t' us!-- and the frayed stained glove tore open as dark fire exploded from his hand in the shape of the Hidden Rune.
A high-pitched keening reached his ears, and then came an expanding burst of darkness.
And then an explosion of something darker than night, into which the three young thieves were swallowed alive; something which was the inverse of life itself. They might have been screaming, but the boy's own terrified shriek overwhelmed any other noise which might have reached his ears.
And this thing, this darkness, it ate. There was no other fitting word. More gluttonous and greedy than any beast of flesh, it feasted on its prey, growing ever larger and stronger than before. On the ground, the boy trembled convulsively as a slender column of light shone over his quivering body, and just for a minute, the Hidden Rune glowed with bloody red light. And then the glow faded away, and, sated at last, it disappeared into somewhere in the back of his mind.
His head hurt, hurt terribly. Night filled his vision and pressed around his body like a thick suffocating blanket. Had he been sleeping? Unconscious? There was no way to tell.
Once again he was in control. But it was there now. It was awake. Like a second heart beating, aware and alert. Curled fetally on the barren ground, he shivered as if the enveloping heat of the night had never touched his skin.
The secret. Grandpa's secret. The secret of the Rune. His mouth formed a little curl of misery as if trying to work a sob out, but no sound came forth.
Dark as the night, the rune now lay innocuously against the pale flesh of his hand. He tucked the horrible secret away under his tattered shirt and, eyes clenched tightly shut, rocked back and forth for a long time, wishing he were dead like the old man who had given it to him.
Oh Soul Eater, rune of life and death, depart from my body and give this child your power. Three souls-- three souls it had devoured so far. And it was still hungry. I'm sorry, Ted. I'm afraid I've passed a sorrowful fate unto you. There would be a next time; would he be able to control it then?
"Grandpa," he whispered in a voice that sounded unlike his own. "Why did you have to die? I don't want it..." His head trembled as he pressed it against his knees. A single tear made a dark bead in the dust of the hard earth beneath him.
His eyes ached with the need to cry. He held it back, with the same measure of power he had tried to exert over the Soul Eater. Far weaker than the ancient rune, his tears retreated into a place deep inside where they formed a cold hard lump. He would have to hide those tears away, from now on. If he felt nothing, no one could ever hope to hurt him. His chest shook; he felt so terribly cold now. Cold and dark as the Rune on his hand, and the night embracing him on all sides.