4. The Boy Who Fell From The Sky

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At first, all he felt was cold. His eyes fluttered open, shattering the frost that had formed across his face, and a glaring white blinded him. The sound of a howling gale filled his frigid ears. He struggled to rise, but his right arm was numb and unresponsive, as if it had been submerged in a river of ice.

A shadow hovered over him. He could barely make out a humanoid figure, it's face concealed by cloth and goggles, then his consciousness slipped away once more.

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The next time he awoke, the world rushed in all at once.

The boy bolted upright in bed, finding himself in a wood-hewed room with simple furnishings. He gasped for breath, feeling warm air fill his lungs for what felt like the first time in ages. His head burned, and he tried to raise his right arm to cradle it, only to discover it was bound in a sling against his chest. He stared at the limb in confusion, turning it over to inspect the thick bandages that concealed his hand. With his free fingers, he curiously pinched a corner of the cloth and tried to peel them back.

"Don't touch it," a voice suddenly commanded. "You'll just make it worse."

He jumped in startlement, then turned warily to the speaker. He was shocked to discover a young woman smiling back, her genial expression an odd contrast to the sternness in her tone. Her features were alien, with light-blue skin and large yellow eyes. Her nose had numerous folds across the bridge, which fluttered as she drew breath, and her ears were hidden beneath the dark-green hair that framed her face.

"Who are you?" the boy asked, his voice creaking from his raw throat.

"My name's Katjin." The luminous eyes constantly drifted over his face, studying it with unabashed interest. "What... Sorry, I mean... Who are you?"

The boy stared around again, and his eyes fell upon a snow-blotted window. He remembered being caught in the blizzard, but before that... "How did I get here?"

"My brother brought you here. He found you out over the ridge." She narrowed her eyes, and the boy was unnerved as second pair of lids closed sideways across her cornea. "What were you doing out there, anyways? There's nothing over there but glaciers..."

He struggled to find an answer. "I... I don't know. I can't remember..."

Katjin frowned, and for a moment, her pointed ears flapped from behind her locks. "Your head did look pretty banged up... Maybe you got amnesia? Can't you remember anything at all?"

The boy stared into nothing, his brow straining with effort. "I... I don't know... I don't know how I got here. I don't know where I was..."

"What about your name?"

His face twisted in pain, an unknown fear creeping through his nerves. Then, it softened, and a glimmer of recognition lit his eyes. "Troka," he replied confidently. "My name is Troka."

The woman grinned, sharing his relief. "Well, at least you have that. Nice to meet you, Troka."

He smiled back weakly, but soon, his eyes glazed over once more. After a moment of silence, Katjin rose quietly and broke the spell.

"Well, I'm sure you need your rest." She made her way to the door, which opened with a simple metal latch. "When you're feeling better I'll introduce you to the others. Remember, don't touch that sling. It took me parcycles to wrap it."

The boy removed his hand, not realizing he had been toying with the bandages, then frowned in puzzlement. "The others?"

Katjin smiled through the doorframe. "You didn't think I could survive out here alone, did you?"

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A delicious aroma woke him from his slumber, and a nightmare faded from sight. Troka eventually recalled where he was, then struggled to stand, as each step shook with uncertainty. He was worried he might fall, with only one arm to catch himself, but he managed to reach the door and leaned against it with a sigh. His head had stopped pounding, but his memory had yet to return, and his arm was still numb. He suspected it was broken, but with the bandages so tight, it was hard to tell for certain.

His left hand rested hesitantly on the latch. Troka had no idea what lay beyond, and for some reason, the unknown terrified him. Even so, the scent of food became irresistible, and he finally found the resolve to move forward.

He entered into a larger room, and immediately found himself the center of attention. Katjin was seated at a table with four others, two of which were children, their tiny mouths agape at the sight of him. Another was a male, towering tall even as he sat, and possibly the same age as Katjin. He studied Troka with a calculated look, his expression unreadable. At the head of the table was an older man with weathered grey, but his eyes shone with alertness. He stood as their guest wavered in place.

"Hello, there," their elder addressed him with a warm smile. "I thought our feast might draw you out of hiding. Please, join us."

The term 'feast' was pure exaggeration. Despite the wonderful smells, each figure had only a small bowl of stew before them, a mixture of plants and meats. Katjin promptly rose from her seat and moved to a large pot, scooping a new serving for Troka and placing it at the other end of the table. She flashed him another smile before resuming her place, opposite the taller male, who continued to stare coldly.

Troka slid into the seat between them with a nervous glance. "Thank you," he bowed to the elder, who nodded in approval.

"See, children? Even this stranger knows to respect the man of the house."

"The old man!" the girl immediately responded with a giggle.

"Hush, Verra!" Katjin scolded, though Troka caught her wink with a sideways eyelid.

"My daughter tells me your name is Troka?" The boy silently nodded in response. "Well, it's only polite to introduce ourselves as well. My name is Objorn, and these little rascals are Verra and Henselt." The girl looked timidly at Troka with a soft smile, while the boy grinned widely, showing his triangular teeth.

"You've already met Katjin, of course, and this is Nerius. He's the one who saved you from beyond the ridge. You're lucky he did, or you'd have been buried out there." Troka nodded in thanks to the stoic man, but he offered none in response.

"I don't know where you came from," Objorn continued, "But it's apparent you haven't had an easy time. My daughter tells me you're having trouble remembering things?" Troka nodded again, his spoon resting halfway to his mouth. "Well, I'm sure it will return in time. Until then, you're welcome to rest here and gather your thoughts. There's not really anywhere else to go, anyways."

"Where is here?" Troka finally spoke up.

"This is our village, Saulus. It's not much to look at, but it's better than being out there. I'm afraid you picked a rather rough time to visit."

Troka stared out the window to his left, and once again saw nothing but a thick layer of snow. His focus sharpened on his reflection, and he was suddenly taken aback by his alien appearance. The reddish-brown leathery hide and hairless head stood in stark contrast to the others' blue-tinged skin. His eyes were nothing more than black slits resting high above his prominent cheekbones, as were his slanted nostrils. He had no ears, just rounded ridges curving behind his skull.

Even to himself, he looked like a monster.

Still, the old man and his daughter smiled warmly, while the children stared in shameless curiosity. They were not put off by his appearance, and it seemed only the male, Nerius, shared his disgust at his physical appearance.

"Well, anyways," Objorn finished as he returned to his seat, "Please eat up. You must be famished after all you've been through."

With that, they returned to eating, and Troka finally took a sip of the broth. As soon as the taste touched his tongue, his insecurities faded, and he shoveled more into his mouth, ignoring how it burned. He hadn't realized how hungry he was until then, and the children giggled as he devoured his bowl's contents with newfound enthusiasm.

"Stop staring and eat!" Katjin scolded her siblings. "If he finishes first, you have to wash all the dishes!" At that, the children turned their attention to their food and began racing their strange guest. As the broth dribbled from their grins, Troka felt his own mouth lift in amusement, and his fears finally began to fade.

Suddenly, Nerius stood with a scratch from the chair, his soup left unfinished. "I'm going out again," he informed them flatly. "I'll be back later."

"Nerius, it's freezing outside," Objorn protested. "You can go scouting tomorrow, there's no need to..." He was cut off as his son flung open the front door, letting in a turbulent wind before dragging it shut behind him.

The father turned to Troka with an apologetic smile. "Forgive his manners. It's been a long time since an outsider visited us, and the last time was... Well, it's no matter. Let us enjoy the present, and our food, yes?"

Troka resumed his meal after an encouraging look from Katjin, but even then, the uneasiness returned. He could not help but repeat the word in his head — outsider — and wondered just where he came from.

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After their humble fare, the family went outside to battle the blizzard. They insisted that Troka continue to rest, but he wanted to witness this new environment for himself, so Katjin offered extra clothes and boots and suggested he bundle up. However, he struggled to dress himself with his arm bandaged, so she aided his efforts. They barely spoke as she worked, though their eyes met more than once, and her smile warmed him much more than the wrappings.

Despite her foreign features, Troka couldn't deny that she was pretty. As soon as the notion entered his head, though, he recalled his own reflection in shame, and Katjin recognized the emotion.

"Don't let Nerius get you down," she reassured him. "It's not you, believe me. He's just protective, is all. He's wary of anyone not from the village."

Despite her encouragement, Troka's scaly brows tightened. "Katjin... does everyone in the village look like you?"

The girl continued to smile, but paused before answering. "Yes. Like father said, it's been a while since anyone from the outside visited."

"How did I get here?" he wondered again.

Katjin's smile finally faltered. "I don't know. But we'll figure it out, I promise." With that, she led him out the door and into the storm.

Once again, the harsh glare blinded him, and the boy shielded his eyes until they adjusted. The colorless sun sat far above, casting its light through the blizzard but offering no warmth. Slanted roofs peered over the walls of snow, practically buried from sight. The family members were pushing machines through a path ahead, their squat contraptions sucking up the snow and spitting it out the sides, gradually revealing the rocky ground hidden beneath.

Their tunnel connected with another ahead, where other villagers dug out their walkways. They shared greetings as they passed, and some even waved to Troka. He returned the gesture until one of them paused, giving him a closer look, then pushed the machine with greater haste. The boy's self-awareness returned at once, and he tried his best to hide under the heavy clothing.

A clump of snow exploded over his shoulder, and he jumped at the unexpected attack. He turned to find the boy, Henselt, laughing mischievously, already forming another ball in his hands. Troka watched in puzzlement as the child flung the projectile, which broke harmlessly over his belly and prompted Henselt to burst into laughter.

"Gotcha!" he cackled between spacious teeth. "Gotcha! You're dead now!"

Troka stared in horror, as if the boy's threat was serious. Just then, a snowball struck the little kid's head, and he blinked away the flakes in surprise.

"Pick on someone your own size!" Katjin teased. Her little brother retorted, "No, you!" as he prepared a counterattack, and Verra joined his side with a stream of giggles. Katjin cowered in mock terror as the twins pummeled her with snowballs, crying, "Troka, save me!"

The boy stood frozen with fear, but the sensation gradually melted as he realized it was only a game. Hesitantly, he reached down and formed his own snowball, then gently lobbed it towards the smaller boy. Henselt chopped it out of the air before it hit him, boasting, "Hah you missed!"

Troka allowed himself to smile, and immediately began to make another. Soon, the kids were battling the adults as snowballs whizzed back and forth, and they forgot all about their chores.

A passing family saw their play-fight, and allowed their own children to join in the fun. Troka grinned behind his mask as laughter filled the air, and he started tossing the missiles with more vigor. Suddenly, Henselt and Verra tackled his legs head-on, toppling him into a wall of snow. A genuine peal of enjoyment escaped him as the children piled on, grasping at his arms and face, all giggling and yelling.

One of the other kids climbed atop him with a roar, his little fingers catching the corners of Troka's facemask. As the cloth gave way, the boy's laughter cut short, and he gaped at the red skin beneath. All at once, his joy turned to terror, and he scampered back to his parents.

"Mom!" he cried, "It's a monster!"

The couple stared in alarm as Troka quickly fixed his mask, but they too had seen his alien features. "Children, get off him now!" they demanded, their golden eyes wide with fear. Sensing their parents' revulsion, the others scattered, suddenly regarding the stranger in distress. Even Henselt and Verra stepped back, as if realizing just how hideous their guest truly was.

"Wait!" Katjin cut in. "It's alright, he's not dangerous. He didn't mean to..." She trailed off as the parents ushered their little ones away, disappearing behind the walls of snow.

Katjin turned to Troka with a sympathetic look. "I'm so sorry," she apologized for her neighbors, "They just haven't seen an outsider in many cycles. Give them some time, they'll see..."

Again, she trailed off, leaving her sentence unfinished. She eventually restarted the noisy machine as her siblings snuck inside, and Troka stared silently at his left hand, an unthrown snowball resting in his palm. His eyes widened as the sphere crumbled, as if he were reliving some horrible memory.

Eventually, the pieces fell from his grasp, and he too ran inside to hide from himself.

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That night, Troka heard muffled voices from the room beyond. Sleep had proven elusive, and he tossed the blanket over his head in an attempt to shut out the noise. Then, he caught his name mentioned, and curiosity got the better of him. He cautiously rose from the bed and crept to the crack of light between the planks.

"...how I raised you!" Objorn whispered harshly. "We help those in need, that's how we survive! We wouldn't be here if not for the kindness of others."

"Stop preaching and listen to me!" came the stifled response. "He knows exactly what happened, he's just too afraid to tell us! You don't really buy his story, do you? He forgets everything but his name? It's nonsense!"

"We have no idea what he's been through, Nerius. For all we know he..."

"Exactly! For all we know he caused his ship to crash! There were two meteors that night, you didn't see..."

"And you don't know for certain what you saw!" Objorn's voice rose. "It could have been a part of his ship breaking up. And until we learn otherwise, we will not treat him like an enemy! He's lost and alone, what are we supposed to do? Send him out to die in the storm?"

Nerius breathed heavily in frustration. "Of course not, father. I'm just saying we need to be cautious. Don't you think it's strange? I found him alone, no ship in sight. You want me to believe he walked all that way? And what about his arm? How do we know that's even his blood?"

At that, Troka stepped back, and the floor creaked beneath his weight. "Quiet," Objorn whispered, and the boy held his breath, expecting them to tear open the door at any moment. He was too scared to move, though he desperately wanted to leap back into bed.

"We'll speak later," the elder finally continued, "But for now, you will respect my wishes. Don't make this any harder for the poor boy, you hear?"

The only response Nerius gave was another deep sigh, nearly a growl, then their footsteps faded to their respective rooms. Troka climbed back into bed and slid under the blankets, wrapping them tight over his arm. Still, no matter how he tossed and turned, the injured limb left him in discomfort.

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A knock at the door woke him. Troka did not recall falling asleep, but thankfully, had not suffered any more nightmares. He rubbed his eyes with his good hand as Objorn called through the door.

"Troka? Are you awake? The day grows late, I was getting worried."

"One moment." The boy went to open the door, but accidentally reached with his right arm. He discovered the sling had fallen loose and paused, expecting it to hurt, but his elbow straightened with ease. However, the bandages were still wrapped tight, so he used his free hand to greet the elder.

When Objorn saw the loose sling, he seemed startled. "My boy, your arm... I'll get Katjin to fix that up. You shouldn't be..."

"No, it's okay," Troka shook his head groggily. "It doesn't hurt, honest."

The old man looked unconvinced. "Very well. We should still change the bandages, make sure it's healing properly. Wouldn't want it to get infected, right?"

For some reason, the boy winced at that word. "Sure. Maybe later."

Objorn finally nodded in acceptance. "Listen, Troka... I heard about what happened yesterday, with the little ones. I think it'd be best to plough this problem before it builds. You understand?"

"I think so..." He suddenly felt uneasy about the conversation's direction. "What do you think I should do?"

"Well, we've called a town meeting tonight, what with the storm calming down. I was planning on addressing your arrival either way, but it would help if you were there, so the villagers can see for themselves that you mean us no harm."

Despite his nagging reluctance, Troka did not want to be rude to his host. "Well, if you think it would help..."

Objorn smiled in approval. "Don't worry, my boy. There's good people in our town, they just need to warm up to you. It's not every day somebody falls out of the sky."

Confusion seeped in. "The sky? What... what do you mean?"

The elder's smile quickly faded. "Oh, I thought... I thought you realized. I don't believe you're from this planet, Troka. We've had visitors from the sky before, it's just uncommon... but it's nothing to worry yourself over. You're safe here, believe me."

Troka only nodded, at a loss for words. The old man frowned in sympathy, but did not press the matter. "Well, I'll leave you be. The meeting's in a few parcycles, I'll send Katjin when it's time." With that, he turned away, and the boy let the door fall shut behind him.

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Something was touching his hand. Someone was revealing him.

Troka bolted upright, ripping his arm back and causing Katjin to jump in alarm. Strips of fresh cloth lay torn in her hands, and the boy realized what he had done. "I... I'm sorry..." was all he could say.

Katjin released her breath, causing her nose to ripple. "No, it's okay. I shouldn't have startled you. Father just wanted me to change your bandages before the meeting. You should look your best for the others, right?"

She raised a new strip, and Troka hesitantly allowed her to continue. He watched her slender fingers wrap the bandage around his forearm, moving with care between the odd protrusions. He had not noticed them before, and stared curiously at the points jutting beneath the thick material.

"What happened to it?" he finally ventured, never taking his eyes off the limb.

Katjin looked up, surprised. "I don't really know," she admitted. "I thought you'd tell us, but... do you forget?"

It took him a while to answer. "Yes."

"Well, no matter. I've patched up plenty of wounds before. You'll be your old self in no time." She flashed him another smile, and the boy struggled to return it. Despite her certainty, his arm still tingled in discomfort.

At last, his bandages were replaced, and he joined the family in the outer room. The kids were grinning at him once more, but Nerius still stared warily. Troka tried not to look at the taller male as they departed and made their way to the meeting.

They weaved along the paths in the snow — which had thankfully stopped falling — and occasionally crossed other groups heading in their direction. Troka kept his head low as they arrived at a larger cabin sporting a tall steepled roof, which broke through the crests of white. Its doors lay wide open, welcoming the townsfolk who poured from various passages, and their growing numbers made the boy anxious. He had not realized the buried village contained so many people.

They worked their way inside and seated themselves midway down the aisles. Troka found the long wooden bench stiff and unyielding, but the others seemed to pay it no mind. As the crowd settled, an older villager took a stand at the front of the great hall, and his bulbous eyes drifted across his audience until they stopped on the boy. His features darkened in displeasure, and Troka knew he could spot the foreigner even with the layers of cloth concealing him.

"Thank you all for coming," the elder began, finally pulling his gaze away. "I'm sure most of you have heard the news by now, so I'll get right to it. We have a stranger in our midsts."

Whispers rippled through the crowd. "It's been cycles since we last had a visitor," the speaker continued, "And I know many of you still remember how unpleasant that was. Even so, we will handle this situation as we always have... Together, as a whole. Our good friend Objorn has asked to speak on the matter, as he has taken responsibility for this visitor, and wants to personally assure us that he means no harm." The speaker's stern demeanor revealed his doubts on this very subject. "Objorn, if you please?"

The old man stood with a steadying breath, and signaled Troka to do the same. Hesitantly, the boy rose, feeling countless eyes upon him. He tried to ignore their concern and, in some cases, outright hostility as he approached the stand.

Objorn faced the crowd, hands spread placatingly at his side. "Friends, thank you for coming here tonight, and for listening. For many cycles, we have lived peacefully on our own, without any need for outside assistance. We pride ourselves on our independence. We earned it, the hard way.

"But, at the same time, not one of us could have done it alone. It took all our strength and courage to build this humble village. It took all of us, together, to achieve the impossible. Before I introduce our guest, I would remind you of this. He may not look like us, but underneath, we are all the same, struggling to overcome our harsh environments. If we do not help him, who will? If he cannot stay here, then where? Our empathy for one another brought us this far. I implore you, do not let our greatest strength falter now."

His speech concluded, Objorn turned to the nervous boy beside him and nodded. Slowly, Troka realized he was supposed to reveal himself. Hands shaking, he reached to his mask and pulled the cloths aside.

Upon seeing his exposed face, an audible gasp ran through the audience. They stared aghast at his leathery red skin and dark eyes, nearly the polar opposite of their own features. Villagers turned to one another, whispering disparaging remarks, which Troka thankfully could not hear. He kept his gaze to the floor as the din settled, and an uneasy quiet filled the great hall.

Finally, a man from the audience spoke up. "Did the Federation send you?"

The question was not what Troka had expected. "The Federation? No... I've never..." He trailed off as something tickled his vacant memory, and he desperately tried to ignore it. "I don't know what that is."

"The Federation," the man repeated, voice taut with repressed anger. "Those Universal Peace hypocrites. You never heard of 'em?"

Even as Troka shook his head, another question was fired at him. "Where did you come from, then? Why are you here?"

Before he could answer, Objorn thankfully stepped in. "We believe he's here on accident. My boy Nerrian spotted a meteor, probably his ship, shortly before finding him nearly frozen to death. He was badly injured, as you can see, and would have surely perished."

"Can't he speak for himself?" came a sudden retort, but Objorn remained calm.

"Unfortunately, he has suffered some memory loss. All he can remember is his name. He is called Troka, and he means us no harm. I assure you, he is more afraid of us than we are of him, yet he has shown nothing but gratitude for our generosity. I will personally vouch for the boy. He is a good person."

The audience was silent, as if daring Troka to prove otherwise. It was true, he was absolutely terrified, but he knew he should say something. "I... I really don't know how I got here," he started shakily, "But... I don't want to cause any trouble, and I'm sorry if I have. I want to know where I came from, too, and I'd like to go back, but I have no idea if it's possible. If you let me stay here, at least until I remember what happened, I'll do anything I can to help in return. I don't want to be a burden to anyone..."

He trailed off, feeling his words were empty, but Objorn smiled proudly at him. After another bout of silence, the previous elder interrupted with a cough.

"Well, we appreciate the offer, Troka. If there's nothing else to say?" He directed the question to Objorn, who shook his head. "Then let us decide as we always have... with a vote."

Without speaking, the front rows stood and formed a line, while a pair of attendants wheeled out a massive object. Troka stares at the contraption in alarm, but eventually recognized it as a type of measuring device of antiquated design. Two wicker baskets hung from ropes, with a thin metal bar balancing them above a wooden frame. The aides rolled it before Troka, shooting him suspicious glances before moving aside.

One by one, the villagers stepped up to place a square chip in one of the baskets. Most stared at Troka with blank faces, but few offered faint smiles, and others glared accusingly. By their expressions alone, he soon realized that the left was in his favor, while the right stood against him.

When the front row was seated, the second row stood and repeated the process. Time dragged by as the chips fell, gradually filling the wicker bowls with weighty judgment. Then, it was Katjin's turn. She snuck in a sideways wink as she tossed her chip into the left basket. Her little siblings followed her example, then the stoic Nerius approached, standing motionless for a tense moment before dropping his chip. To Troka's surprise, he too chose the left.

After what felt like a parcycle, every row had cast their vote. Objorn produced his own chip and placed it in the left bowl, then finally, the first speaker stepped forward. He too had a chip, and for a moment, Troka thought it seemed just a little thicker than the others. This he threw into the right basket, letting it fall onto the pile that had formed. With a grim look, he turned back to his audience.

"Now for the moment of truth," he announced, and motioned to his aides. One of them approached the scale, and with a flourish, removed a wooden block from the center. The bowls wobbled up and down as they settled, and Troka felt his balance go with it. He steadied himself as the scale finally came to a halt.

The left side hung no less than a finger's width below the right.

The speaker stood silent, and it seemed like the entire congregation held its breath. At last, the elder released a sigh and nodded. "Troka," he spoke without facing him, "Welcome to Saulus."

With that, he abandoned the stage, and the assembly slowly shuffled out the double doors in silence. Even when Objorn patted the boy's shoulder with a reassuring smile, Troka felt anything but welcomed.

.


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The atmosphere eased once they returned to the cabin. Objorn threw aside his overcoat with an exhausted groan, and the children immediately began inquiring about dinner. Troka tried to slip into his bedroom, but Katjin caught him before he could disappear.

"Would you mind helping me with the food?" she asked. "We're already behind schedule, I could use the extra hands... er, hand." As Troka wavered uncertainly, she reminded him, "You said you wanted to help, right? Come on, it's easy."

After washing his hand in a bucket of warm water, Katjin instructed him to start chopping a pile of raw vegetables. Troka gripped the knife unsteadily in his left hand and cut the food into lopsided chunks.

"I'll be back later," Nerius suddenly announced, still in his winter wrappings. "Save me a bowl, would you?"

Objorn watched his son depart with an exasperated look, but said nothing. Instead, he sat down wearily and rubbed his wrinkled eyes. "That boy..."

Troka slowed his chopping as he stared after the young man. "Where does he go?" he asked, feeling unusually curious.

"Oh, he's going out to hunt," the father waved a hand. "He's great at it, but never satisfied with his catch. Always going back for more."

The blade slid easily through the oblong shapes. "He also goes scouting, right? Is he looking for something?"

Objorn took a moment to answer. "Ah yes, that too. As I said, we believe you came from the sky. It seems likely that your ship is out there, somewhere. Nerius thinks he may be close to finding it." The elderly man smiled. "If we find it, we'll be one step closer to getting you home."

"I see." Troka thought the news would inspire him, but it only unnerved him further. He ignored Katjin's sideways glances as the knife quickened its strokes.

.


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The days passed into nights, and the family continued to push Troka into the open. As the weather began to warm, and the snow gradually melted, so too did the villagers' apprehension towards him. He was startled when someone shouted "Good morning!" over the noisy plough-machines, wondering if they had mistaken him for another. However, the pleasant greetings continued to come, and soon, Troka returned them without question.

He still received the occasional scowl of disapproval, reminding him that he was still an outsider, though Troka did his best to ignore these. However, he could not rid himself of that nagging sensation, especially when he caught his reflection in the windows. Even to himself, he appeared grossly alien.

As he adjusted to life in the village, his responsibilities grew. He continued to help prepare meals, digging up snow-covered plants and cooking the peculiar meats that Nerius delivered. Katjin even showed him the nearby hot springs that they drew their water from, though the process was complicated by his injury. Despite the passing time, his arm still stung, and he declined Katjin's repeated attempts to inspect it.

One day, he took a trip to the hot springs alone, using it as an excuse to escape the constant attention. The uphill climb was taxing, but the walk back was even worse, and Troka struggled to balance the pole across his shoulders, his bandaged arm offering little support. The buckets of water at each end seemed ready to spill at any moment. The boy cursed the outdated method, thinking it would be much more efficient with proper technology. He was realizing that Saulus was incredibly archaic compared to elsewhere.

However, elsewhere was still shrouded in mystery, and he was stranded in the present. Troka caught himself as his foot slipped off an ice-slicked stone, and steaming droplets hissed in the snow. "Stars!" he swore instinctively, trying to shift the burden to a more comfortable position.

A sudden yelp drew his attention, and the boy glanced around the barren woods in alarm. He spotted movement through the stripped trees, but just then, he lost his balance and fell flat on his back. The boiling water gushed from the buckets, instantly melting the snow around him, and Troka flung the pole away as he scrambled from being boiled. He glared at his failure in frustration, and bared his sharp teeth with a seething breath.

The cry echoed a second time, and he searched again for its source. He imagined the children pranking him, rage flooding his veins, but then he saw an unusual shape in the distance. The boy's anger gave way to nausea as he beheld a disturbing image.

An animal, one he had never seen before, was caught in a trap. The beast was all fangs and fur, with sharp quills spiking from its thick mane. Its front paw was clamped in a jagged metal vice, splintering bone and spilling bright blood across the snow. The creature struggled helplessly against its fate, gnawing at its own limb in desperation, howling with each strip of meat it tore off. Still, the beast dug deeper, its muzzle soaked in red.

Troka stared aghast at the gruesome scene, then promptly fled, trying to block the sight from memory.

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As he burst into the cabin, Katjin spun in surprise. "Troka, what is it?" she asked, but the boy would not respond. "Did something happen? Are you hurt?"

He gripped his pounding skull. "Katjin, what's wrong with me? Tell me! What did I do wrong!?"

The girl's pointed ears flapped in worry. "Hey, it's all right. You did nothing wrong, you're safe. Did someone say something? You can't let those idiots get to you."

Troka shook his head violently. "No! This isn't right. I'm... I shouldn't be here, I need to get out! I need to..."

"Shh, relax. Sit down, just try to breathe..."

Suddenly, the door flew open again, and Nerius entered with a flurry of snow. As soon as he spotted Troka, he glared in accusation. "You! Come with me, now!" He closed the distance with his long stride, and grabbed the boy by his injured arm.

"Nerius! What are you doing!?" Katjin cried out as her brother dragged their guest into the falling twilight. Troka heard her calling to Objorn, but Nerius moved too quickly for either of them. Before he knew what was happening, the boy was thrown to the ground in the midst of the village.

"I know what you've done!" Nerius shouted, drawing looks of concern from the villagers around them. "I found your ship! I found your crew!"

Troka gasped for breath. "What? My crew... What happened to them? Are they..."

"Enough games!" the man barked. "They're dead and you knew it! You killed them! You killed them all!"

Something snapped in the boy's mind. "Wha... Dead? No... No, no, no..."

"Yes, dead! And their blood is on your hands! Show them!" He pointed to the gathering crowd. "Show them what you really are!"

"Nerius!" someone shouted. Objorn approached hastily, with the little ones hiding close behind Katjin. "What are you doing!? Stop this at once!"

"He's lying, father! He's deceived us all along! There was no accident, it was all his fault!"

Troka shrunk into a ball, trying to hide his injured arm. "No, it wasn't... It couldn't be me... I wouldn't..."

Nerius lunged forward, grasping at the outsider. "Show them! They need to see the truth! They need to see the monster that you..."

All at once, the bandages burst apart, and the boy clenched his eyes in agony. Something jerked against his searing arm, and a wave of screams filled his ears.

Then, there was a deafening silence, and he dared to open his eyes.

It took a moment for the scene to register. Troka stared in disbelief at the bone-white material encasing his arm, and followed its length to the nightmare at the other end. In place of a hand, a narrow blade extended from his plated wrist, traveling straight through the center of Nerius's chest. The hunter's yellow eyes bulged, a mixture of shock, pain, and animosity flooding their complexion.

Slowly, the blade retracted from his body, and a gout of green blood sprayed across Troka's face. The emotions drained as Nerius fell forward, his head landing on the boy's shoulder as if to embrace him. However, his arms hung limp, and a final breath escaped him.

A single scream shattered the stillness. It was Katjin. "Nerius! Nooo!"

Her dismal wail incited the crowd into action. Men charged forward as the others scattered; mothers tore their children from the horrific scene and fled to their homes. Troka saw flashes of metal as knives and sickles were drawn, and his hand responded reflexively. He curled into a ball as the fingers expanded, stretching above his head to form a solid shell around his body. The nearest villagers thrust and stabbed, but their crude weapons could not mar the ivory wall.

Suddenly, spikes exploded from its surface, piercing the crowd without resistance and retracting just as quickly. The assailants crashed to the ground, screaming in agony, and the snow instantly darkened with spilled blood. As others tried to retreat, the shell mutated into spiraling tendrils, slicing through their numbers like a blender.

Within moments, the quiet town had become a massacre.

As the hand resumed its natural form, Troka gaped at the atrocities he had wrought. Another brave villager rushed forward, his bare hands reaching for the outsider's throat, and a flash of white severed his arms at the elbows. Troka stammered an apology as the man screamed in pain, collapsing onto the bodies of his neighbors.

"I'm sorry..." the boy whispered. "I didn't mean to... I don't want this..."

It's happening... all over again...

I can't stop it...

A lone cry drifted above the dying. Troka's tearful eyes fell on Katjin again, kneeling beside Objorn, a single hole bored into his side. She struggled to stop the bleeding, and behind her, the twins Henselt and Verra stood with vacant expressions.

"Why!?" she was screaming, watching the life seep from her father. "Why, Troka!? We helped you! We never did anything to hurt you! Why would you do this to us!?"

Troka opened his mouth, but there were no words. He simply gazed into Objorn's damning glare, and felt himself crumble.

Then, another voice reached him. "There you are..." came the familiar, rasping hiss. "I thought I'd lost you again."

A penetrating cold seeped through his veins. Slowly, tentatively, Troka turned to see a row of gleaming fangs shadowed beneath a saucer-shaped dome. All at once, the past came flooding back to haunt him.

You... Not you. Anyone but you...

The sinewy creature grinned wickedly as it surveyed the death around them. "You started the games without me?" it admonished the shivering boy. "Tsk, what a shame. There's hardly anyone left for me to kill."

Its sightless gaze drifted over the bodies, until it noticed the dying Objorn and his kin. Troka paled as its mouth stretched hungrily. He knew what came next. "No, please..." he begged hopelessly. "Don't... Dorobou, don't hurt them..."

It's happening... over and over... I can't stop it...

"Is that all you have left?" the mushroom-headed monster cackled. "A pathetic plea? Why don't you try and save them?"

Tears streamed down the boy's face. "I can't... I can't do it..."

"Sure you can," Dorobou sneered. "Save them, like you saved your friends. Save them from the suffering..."

A spindly finger pointed towards the family, threatening Troka to take action. Shivering with remorse, he raised his right hand and sobbed as it transformed into a glowing funnel.

Katjin's eyes widened in fear as she stared down the gleaming barrel. "Troka, what are you doing!?" she screamed. "Stop!"

I can't stop it... I can only...

"I can't," the boy cried. "He'll just hurt you... and the children..." He turned away in shame as black veins crept across the ivory, and the shimmering light burned a deep crimson. "I'm sorry... It's better this way..."

I can't stop it. I can only make it easier for them.

Katjin gathered her brother and sister as they burst into tears. "Troka, please! Stop!"

"Do it," Dorobou urged him, "or I will..."

The boy howled in despair as the darkness consumed him.

Over and over and over...

.


.

As one nightmare ends, another begins. The boy is thrown through time and space, witnessing endless calamities wrought by his own hand. He watches as countless lives are lost in an instant, entire planets erased by his uncontrollable nature. He does not know why he must endure such horrors, and he cannot stop them. All he can do is suffer in "Purgatory."