Aran had been stuck in the same nightmare for so long that he had been convinced that he had been condemned by some random God to keep enduring it for eternity, just for kicks.
Well, if that was true, then he was determined to spit at that God in his face, as he wouldn’t give in and break no matter how many times he had to go through it.
It wasn’t like he didn’t dream about it, and even spend many waking moments trying not to let it creep into his mind on almost every day that he had lived after that incident that had changed everything.
The only thing he wished was that he could laugh through it, but he didn’t, as he wasn’t sure whether it would come out as a bout of laughter, or something much more dark and creepy.
Even though it was a memory, he did not want to scare those around him with the kind of laughter that always succeeded in casing away those he did not want to talk to.
If a woman walked up to him and tried to court him because she thought he was handsome for some odd reason, he would give her that laugh, and she would run as if the very hounds of hell were after her.
If a shopkeeper refused to sell him a trinket for a price that matched with the coins he had, he would give him that laugh, and the man would even sometimes just throw in a few extra trinkets for free if Aran promised that he would never return to that shop.
He couldn’t go to many shops right now in Lanthanor because of that, and he had just been planning to go try this tactic in other kingdoms, too, now that they were in an alliance where he could go wherever he wished without worrying about stepping down from his duty.
It was thoughts like these that helped him to keep his sanity, even though in the forefront of his mind, he kept reliving what had happened on that day.
He knew that he had the power to step in and change that, but he didn’t know what to change, so he just let it play out while talking to himself in the back of his mind.
At one point, it had gotten quite strange, as it had felt as if someone was looking in, almost as if he were some maiden who was bathing and was being peeped on by a pervy mage who had learned magic only so that he could cast a see-through spell.
For some reason, Aran had known that these personal thoughts of his were not being spied on, so, as he was idle, he kept making plans about how he would give ‘special care’ to the one who was both peeping in and responsible for what he was going through.
Something told him that these two were one and the same, and for some reason, in many of his plans, there was a special focus given to the two special objects that men treasured the most.
As he always said, if you want to hit someone where it hurts, hit them where it REALLY hurts.
It wasn’t very profound, but it sounded good, so he said it, which was the case with most of the things he said.
Again, this was a self rumination, but this was the last one, is something suddenly changed.
He had just been through another round, and he had just begun to prepare to brace himself for a new one, which was when he heard someone whispering something into his ears.
‘What the hell? This is creepy, disgusting and definitely pervy, man, just stop! I promise I’ll take you to someone who is very close to me who loves stuff like this, for sure! He is called Luther, and he’s harmless!’
This was his first reaction, but as he listened to the contents of what was being whispered to him, he realized that it was actually… A technique.
‘Mindhunter’. It sounded impressive, even though he didn’t know why it had been named so.
But he was in the body of a little kid! What use could any technique be?
Soon, this question was answered as he realized that this technique had to do with the most mysterious thing in the continent, both now and in times of old – the consciousness.
This technique started and ended with the consciousness, and unless someone satisfied some sort of prerequisites that were being referred to but never stated, then it was possible that anyone trying to train in it would go mad and kill all those around them.
Was it a sick joke to leave out the prerequisites? Was this a ploy by whoever was responsible for all this to see him try and use the technique to suffer even more?
One thing was true, though – if this technique was really capable of making him do what it promised, then it was definitely a way out.
Yet… Could he trust it?
This was the main question now, and after the recital of the technique was done, he hoped that whoever was the one speaking would find some way to tell him whether it was friend or foe. It was not that he would believe him, as a foe would mask themselves as a friend anyway, but it would still give him some important clues from the way they tried to do so.
Sadly… As soon as the recital of the technique was done, the voice faded away, even though it looked like it was trying to say something more.
Feeling like he had been reading an action thriller before reaching the end and finding that the climax had been ripped away, Aran considered seriously just what the hell he was supposed to do.
First, he began studying the technique, all while the other part of his mind went through everything in the vision, just like he had been doing so far.
The skill of partitioning his mind was also something he had learned over the long years of pain that he had had to endure. Basically, that part was the one which did the hard job, and his other part was the one that laughed.
The more he studied the technique, the more he loved it. Even though it had been stripped to only let him know of its aspect which helped him, it felt as if it could accomplish so much more, and that it led to, possibly, a Champion Path.
With each loop that occurred, the temptation to train in the technique grew stronger and stronger, and Aran realized that he had to face the reality: even though he had so much bravado, this was something that his mind might not be able to go through for much longer. Soon, it might become eroded so much that he would not even be able to train in the technique even if he wanted to, and this was not something he wanted to see.
If that started happening, it would all be for naught anyway, as it did not look like there was any chance of the king, or that short-tempered Cassandra somehow coming to save him.
So… He decided to throw the dice.
The technique was basically one which worked on the principle that someone who had endured great difficulties in their life and had still been able to get through them with their sanity intact were those who could touch upon the consciousness and wield it like a weapon, even if they didn’t understand it too much.
The concept was that anyone capable of such endurance could only be so if they got in touch with their inner self, and found solace within that knowledge that enabled them to withstand anything.
Of course, all of it sounded like a bunch of crap written by scholars sitting in closed rooms, sipping chilled wine while hair grew of the ears, so Aran disregarded it all and focused on what he was supposed to do.
According to the technique, if he succeeded, he would be able to strengthen his mind to such an extent that no illusions would ever be able to affect him.
This was all an illusion, which was something Aran had figured out the moment he got here.
And if he succeeded, he could leave.
In fact, Aran even had a vague feeling that the way to break out of the illusion was to somehow find something that he could do to overcome the trauma of going through something like this, but the truth that no one knew was that that… Was basically not possible.
Initially, he had always used to get a little bit angry when those who saw him in pain just told him to try and forget it.
How could anyone forget something of this scale? That was the worst possible advice that could be given to anyone who was in a state similar to him.
He had already figured out, with time, that he wasn’t actually to blame. There was nothing he could do to control the situation, and things had played out in that manner due to the unpredictability and sheer bad luck that graced quite a few random souls in life.
That didn’t mean that he could let go of that blame, though.
And he didn’t want to, either.
Perhaps he had been at fault. Perhaps he shouldn’t have rushed forward like that for revenge. Perhaps he should have listened.
These questions always kept him on his toes, and drove him towards his goal – to follow the footsteps of his father, and follow the ways of the Lanthanorians of old. Unlike Cassandra who told a few people about her objectives, no one else but him knew about this goal of his.
The ways of the Lanthanorians were simple – save all those you can save, give all the love you can give, and live all the life you can live.
He had found this in an obscure book in the library when he had gone to research what his father had meant, and because it was like all of his sayings which sounded good but made almost no sense and weren’t very profound, he had adopted it and made it his instantly.
It was this which had led him to see all the atrocities being done by the army and the government, and decide to enter them even though there was a risk of him dying because of the oath or being bound forever, with the intention of changing what he could and saving those whom he might be capable of saving.
Of course, they had succeeded a lot, and each and every success brought him a little more happiness that kept the darkness inside away.
Over time, he had even begun to realize that the festering wound inside him had begun to heal, slowly, but he knew that it was a long, long process, and that it could not be hastened by anything or anyone.
This was also the reason why he had let the loop repeat itself, as he had believed that he might be able to hold on for as long as needed due to all the progress he had made.
Alas, he had been wrong.
‘I’m supposed to do what, now?’
Going through the technique again, Aran used it, and in the first try, itself… He felt what it referred to as the ‘inner self’.
And the most shocking thing… Was that it was where this inner voice of his, which was partitioned and completely different from the other, always came from.
He… Had always been in touch with his innate self? With his consciousness? And it was what had allowed him to stay sane?
The damn concept was right?!
No sooner had these thoughts gone through his mind, did he realize that the world around him had begun to shatter, which was actually something quite therapeutic and satisfying to see.
As he fluttered his eyes and opened them, he saw the King waiting for him, and he immediately sprang decided to do his duty first.
He had to let him know about who had kidnapped him.
Hastily, the king spoke up, almost as if he was afraid that Aran would say something.
“Before you say anything, you should know that I am the one who abducted you. It was just so that you could break through, and because I didn’t know that you had been through such trauma that could not be overcome easily, unlike in the case of normal people, I would not have subjected you to anything like this. I…”
The first part was said hastily, but the second was uttered in a sincere tone, and this stood out to Aran.
It seemed that the technique had even accelerated his thinking, as he instantly understood everything, and realized what the king was going to do.
He also understood whom the technique had come from, and who the peeping tom was.
Instantly, all jokes and intentions to jest flew out of his mind, and he did the thing that he knew would make the king pause.
Getting off the bed he had been laying on, he knelt on one knee and said, “My King, do not apologize. If I may, I would like to say that your plan failed grandly, as I broke through the formation, instead of my barrier. Alas, it seems I am a student who will somehow make a test get canceled instead of passing it normally. However, I understand why you did it, and I wish it would have worked.”
Daneel couldn’t help but burst out laughing when he heard this.
Now, this… Was the commander he knew, and was proud of.
More than ever, he felt happy that he had taken that risk in order to help his subordinate, without caring that, so far, he had been one of the weakest and least impressive among the others. If he really did adopt the attitude of forgetting those who followed him just because they weren’t very powerful, then what kind of a king would he turn out to be? One who only cared about power, and nothing else? That had never been Daneel, and it would never be him.
Flicking his fingers, he made one of the Warriors that were still in captivity appear in the room, which startled Aran a bit.
Walking forward, Daneel raised the man by his shoulders and proudly said, “Use the technique with him as the target. And then, I dare you to say that it was a failure again.”
Not really understanding, Aran went ahead and did it, as the technique that had been transmitted to him did not contain any details regarding the effect it would cause. It had been as if they were cut out, and he realized that that had probably been the case as the king might have been strapped for time.
The next moment, though… His jaw dropped, as the thoughts of someone foreign appeared in his mind.
The technique stated that he should overlap his own consciousness, that he could feel and manipulate, with that of the target, and as he did so, the man began screaming out loud while clutching his head and looking in different directions around him, as if he was surrounded by invisible beings the two of them couldn’t see.
As these screams echoed in the chamber, Aran understood the true purpose behind the name of the technique, and took a step back in shock.
“NO! I DIDN’T CAUSE YOUR DEATH! DON’T KILL ME! I WASN’T RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR DAUGHTER RUNNING AWAY! LEAVE ME ALONE! I DIDN’T KNOW THAT STEALING WOULD MAKE YOU GO BANKRUPT AND COMMIT SUICIDE! FORGIVE ME!”