Scrambling back up from my foetal position on the ground, I call out for help. Hyo! Hyo, help me!
Don’t yell. You’ll give me a headache.
I don’t know what is happening to me.
Calm down, Taeyeon. First, tell me. Do you possess the Pratikan?
At this question, I hesitate. What is Hyo’s position in this? Can I trust her? What if trusting her means leading Ms Pink back to me?
What? You mean she’s got the Pratikan? Oh no, we’re royally screwed.
No, no. She doesn’t have it. I think.
Then what did you say that for? You nearly gave me a heart attack!
I didn’t mean to. I was just thinking about her.
Put your cheesy disgusting love goo down and tell me if you have the Pratikan.
If the Pratikan is a rock that looks like magic then I have it.
Good. At least we can all live in anxiety for another day.
Never mind that. Taeyeon, listen to me. You need to destroy the Pratikan before your beloved takes it from you.
Your beloved Ms Pink is working Ttrowtos’s orders now. If she gets the Pratikan from you, she’ll bring it to them. You can’t trust her right now.
Has she . . . has she really . . .? I choke at the thought that Ms Pink might really have turned against what is good and joined the dark side.
Haven’t you figured it out by now? The big bad red ass infused his essence into hers and she’s been under his control ever since you found her in his castle.
I . . . I suspected it but I wasn’t sure if she was pretending or . . . I—I also thought she might have . . .
I nod, forgetting that Hyo can’t see me. The guilt of failing to have enough trust in Ms Pink is crushing me right now.
You can’t be blamed for thinking that. Ms Pink is fond of putting herself in the grey.
I sense the change in speech immediately. There is only one other super I know who refers to Ms Pink as Ms Pink.
Yes, it’s me, Seo.
How are you speaking to me?
We are bonded.
Bonded? But how?
I will explain it all to you. But first, you have to destroy the Pratikan.
Why do I have to destroy it? I don’t even know how to destroy it.
You are the Erika. According to Shubbenyiddi, your energy is strong enough to counter the force that caused the Black Death. Based on the spat of blue murders lately, we believe that Ttrowtos is feeding on the blood of humans to increase his strength. At this present time, Ttrowtos can be defeated if all of us fight him. But if he consumes the Pratikan’s energy, he will be powerful enough to inflict a second Black Death on us, humans or not.
Oh my God.
That is why you must destroy it.
But I don’t know how . . .
Shubbenyiddi doesn’t mention how it can be destroyed.
Hugging the stone to my chest, I am filled with determination to find a way to destroy it.
I will destroy it. Somehow.
Good. We trust you will find a way.
Ms Pink became more human after meeting you. I just wanted to tell you that.
Tears fill my eyes and overflow instantly.
Thank you, Seo. I . . . I didn’t realise how much I needed to hear that.
All the best, Taeyeon. We’ll hold the fort here for you.
I set the stone on the ground and look at it. The molten, fluid bluish-purple moves from side to side, a lot like how waves come onto shore. It glows so beautifully that I find it hard to believe it can be harnessed into immense power that threatens the lives of all of us. It would be a pity to destroy something this beautiful, but I know I have to. The question is, how?
Looking up at the ceiling by instinct, I don’t see any ‘stars’. They are not here for me right now. Desperation seeps in slowly but surely. How am I to find the answer when the most ancient of books doesn’t even have the information? I’m doubtful if Gerant would know either. Gerant. Is he still lying in the crater? I really hope he hasn’t died. Or taken away by Ms Pink and Ttrowtos’s mangy uglies. Or both.
At least I’m not feeling as weak and ill as before. Getting up on my feet, I look around. I had obviously taken a different route from the one Gerant brought me through so I am unlikely to find my way out if I go on this way. The other option is to find my way back return to the crater. With that strategy decided on, I pick up a sharp rock and scratch a mark on the exit. I carry the rock in my hand and hug the Pratikan with the other arm and begin walking.
I remind myself not to lose hope and calm when I end up in the same cavern as before. There must be a way to go back to the crater. There must be. So I make a mark on the second exit and this time, I scratch arrows near the bottom of the walls to mark my path. It slows me down but based on what little I know about getting lost, this is the one thing I can do right now.
The secondary fork is so dark that I almost walk past it. But when I find myself pressing the rock against nothing, I realise it is actually another path. I must have missed it the first time. Stepping into the pitch darkness, I feel my way along the wall. Is it safe for me to go through? What if this is a trap?
As I stand there undecided, squeaks resound in the tunnel of darkness. Squeaks like . . . rats?
“Leave this way.”
It’s too dark to see the creature that is speaking to me but I can recognise the voice as the ones I heard back in the sewers with the rats.
“Is it dangerous?”
“We rats know the tunnels well. This one leads you out. You were lucky to stumble in here.”
“Have you been watching me all this time?”
A squeaky chuckle tells me he or she had heard my silent accusation. “We have been following you for a while. Here in this darkness, it is safe to show ourselves but it was not earlier. We are on your side, Erika. But we are rats after all.”
Remembering how they huddled in the sewers, I nod. Then, realizing the rat is probably unable to see me, I reply out loud, “I understand and I appreciate your help.”
“This is where I leave you.”
“Follow this path. It is safe.”
After what feels like a hundred metres or so, the tunnel suddenly brightens up in the glow of the Pratikan. How strange. I’m not sure what might come ahead so I resume marking my path along the bottom of the wall.
The tunnel winds left and right but there aren’t any other forks along the way. And based on the increasing tiredness in my legs, I deduce that I am going upslope. Upslope means I am heading towards the surface, just as the rat said. In my heart, I thank the rat again and hurry on as quickly as I can.
I don’t know how long I’ve walked, rested and walked again but by some miracle, I see sunlight streaming in ahead and my strides quicken. I’m out! I’m out! I crumble onto the green, green grass and slump on my back. The Pratikan in my arm has lost its molten lava-like glow in the light of day. In fact, it doesn’t even look anything like the Pratikan that I’ve come to know. This is really weird.
And what is weirder is the exit I came out from. When I finally get back on my feet and look around, it is gone. Hidden from sight somehow. Nothing makes any sense and my mind is too tired to handle anymore unexplainable oddities. Now that I’m back in the open. I need to get help. Help for Gerant. Help for this powerful stone that looks more like an ordinary rock right now. I sincerely hope I haven’t been fooled by some trolling magical rock . . .
“Who might you be? Announce your name.”
Turning around, I don’t see anyone and my arms tighten around the Pratikan. “W-Where are you? Who are you?”
“You dare trespass my land and ask me who I am?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to trespass. I would gladly get out of here but I just got out of the cave and I’m quite lost.”
“Cave?” The neutral husky voice turns hostile. “What’s that you’re holding?”
“What is your name?”
“Taeyeon.” The voice doesn’t sound any friendlier than before. “Taeyeon.”
My mind feels a little weird for a moment. Like jelly. Still on my feet turning round to find the owner of the voice, I hear a gasp.
“You are not affected by my powers. You are no ordinary being. What are you?”
There is only one answer left to give.
“I am the Erika.”
I am brought to a dark clearing in the Dark Thicket by invisible hands. The hands are impossibly strong and I did not resist partly because I had a feeling this invisible creature isn’t on Ttrowtos’s side. Sure enough, in the dark clearing, luminous eyes appear all around me and out step the creatures and beasts of the Dark Thicket.
“She is the Erika,” says one of the biggest vanguards in the crowd. He steps out to the front and eyes the Pratikan. “And she carries a terrible treasure.”
“Where is Gerant?” asks another vanguard.
I hang my head. “The last time I saw him, he was in the crater.”
“It’s the big hole he dug to get to this stone,” I tell them, holding the stone out a little.
“This stone is the reason why the Dark Thicket is under attack.”
“What happened to Gerant after finding this?”
With a shudder, I lift my head and say, “He collapsed.”
A collective gasp buzzes from the crowd of vanguards and other beasts. “Is he alive?”
I shake my head. “I don’t know. He didn’t wake when I tried to call him. And there were others who came for this stone so I had to run away with it.”
I nod as my heart sinks. Ms Pink is part of Ttrowtos’s army now. But she’s under his control! I must find a way to save her from him.
“This means they have slipped past us and gained entry to our most sacred land.” Turning to the other vanguards, the biggest one says, “Vans, we must hunt them down now. And send for a rat’s ass immediately.” To the other cluster of beasts, the big vanguard says, “Bring the Erika to safety. She must not be found. The stone must stay with her.”
No one questions the big vanguard’s orders. Each group of beasts snaps into action and I am brought deeper into the Dark Thicket.
“Erika, you must be tired. You must get some rest. The road ahead is long. We will keep watch outside,” says a gentle, motherly yenew—something I never thought I would see.
“Thank you,” I say with immense gratitude. The tiredness sets in right after the yenew mentions it and I can’t help but yawn as I settle down onto the natural bedding of thick grass. I’m off to slumber land as soon as my eyes close but my arms are still wrapped around the Pratikan.
I flinch as the pain strikes deep inside. Deeper than bones, right into the very core. It is pain that is designed to drive the sane insane. Pain that makes one wish for death to escape it.
The pain is in her soul. From the pits of her mind. But it is also in her blood.
Human. S-Stupid . . . h-human . . .
Ms Pink . . .
I cannot bear it anymore. And my eyes fly open, blinking in the utter darkness. The Pratikan is still in my arms, emitting a dim glow. Does it only come to life in the dark? Or does it have something to do with my pain? No, it’s not my pain. It’s Ms Pink’s pain. I understand it now. It is the pain of having Ttrowtos’s essence inside her, controlling her, warring against her free will. For someone who is used to being in control, it must be far worse than any torture.
Ms Pink . . . where are you?
I lie there, still and listening, but Ms Pink does not reply. And soon, my fatigue takes over again, despite the worries plaguing me.
I am sorry I failed you. Please, kill me.
Evil laughter deafens. Death is easy for you.
We will go to the Dark Thicket. You will take it from the human.
Yes, my Lord.
More pain, like a giant parasite eating up all my insides. I cry out in pain. Help.
A gentle hand wakes me from my horrible dream.
“Erika, you had a nightmare.”
My eyes are open but I can still see everything in my mind’s eye. I know without doubt that it isn’t a nightmare. “I can sense something bad coming here,” I begin. “I know it looks like a nightmare but it’s not. I can feel it. In my blood.”
The warm eyes of the yenew look into mine for a moment, then she nods. “I understand. I will warn the others and raise the alarm. Meanwhile, you get more rest. We are in one of the safest corners of the Dark Thicket. So put your mind to rest. You will need your strength later.”
“Thank you . . .”
“My name is Yeri.” The yenew smiles. “I’ll be back soon.”
The noise wakes me up. And not a moment later, Yeri bursts into my little corner and hauls me up.
“We must go,” she whispers urgently.
“The bad you mentioned is here.”
“You mean . . .”
“Ttrowtos and his army. They are here.”
I stand up with the help of Yeri, Pratikan permanently glued to my stiff arms. My heart is pounding and so is my head but my soul is calm. Everything I’ve heard, everything I’ve seen, everything I’ve experienced . . . everything is about to come together.
“Pratikan,” I say to the glowing stone, “you and I, we’re in this together. You are my match. I’ll keep you away from the wrong hands.” I think the stone glowed a little brighter than before just then, but I might have imagined it.
“Let’s go, Erika.”
With a nod, I follow, ready for the inevitable confrontation.