There wasn't a soul in sight.
Not a single sound to be heard, no smell to be perceived.
An illusion within an illusion, or maybe - truth.
"What do you mean, friend of friends? Oh, never mind, I got it. Don't worry about it too much, it's nothing worth getting hung up on. I've decided to, uhhh... I guess make your life easier?"
"How... What... Huh?"
"You don't need to ask too much. In fact, I forbid you from asking. I don't feel like explaining yet. All I'll say is, having all those nuisances removed will make this proceed much more smoothly."
"Proceed... Smoothly... But what about all those people?! What did you do to them, Ellie?!"
"Hey, hey! Calm down, big boy! Nothing happened to them, okay? They weren't even there in the first place. It's all in your mind after all. This world..."
I stood with my mouth hanging open, unable to reply.
This... A dream?
It just couldn't be true.
It couldn't -
"Oh, come ONNNNNN! Don't start with the overacting already! We haven't even started this game yet. I just thought I'd make the walk a bit more pleasing to you, is all. That's how you're thanking me? If I'd known, I would just have brought you here in silence."
Dream world. Ellie controls it. This is her "game".
I understood so far.
However hard to believe this all was, and no matter how afraid of the mere idea of being in a world controlled by Ellie I was, I had no choice but to accept it.
Remaining stuck here would only hurt me.
Getting terrified, reacting violently, struggling like a cornered prey seconds away from its death-
That's exactly what would give Ellie an advantage.
The moment I stopped thinking and let empty preconceptions and assumptions take control over my actions, I had already lost.
That much was fact, undoubtedly proven before.
During our last confrontation...
During my second battle with her.
Two fights, two losses.
Would the third time be the charm? Or...
"Okay. Okay, Ellie, I understand. So what's the game about this time? What are your rules?"
"Oh! Right to the point, I see! Good, good. It looks like last time's beating finally got the message through, hahahaha!"
She laughed, evidently pleased. I was trying my damned hardest to play long, so that I could get this game of hers over with.
Going bad to my peaceful life was my top priority.
"Yes, I've been working on controlling my temper a bit. Can you explain the game already?"
I lied to speed up the process. I still didn't like talking to her at all - some things I can't change no matter how much willpower I put in.
"Yes, yes. Coming right up. So, do you know what place we're in right now?"
I looked around once more, devoid of my initial shock from mere moments ago.
Of course I knew this place. I could never forget it.
"Yes. This is the park two streets behind the school."
"Ding-ding! You are, of course, correct. So then, I'm sure explaining the importance of this place would only be redundant."
"In that case, I will tell you what the setup is and what the objective of this game is. First off-"
She pointed at someone far away in the distance. I hadn't seen them before when I looked - though that meant little in this world.
That person, whose head appeared hidden behind the park's trees, was sitting completely still. So much so that I wondered if Ellie had frozen them in place on purpose.
"That person right there - is dead."
She said it like it was no big deal. And it really wasn't. I'm sure she'd resurrect them when the time came, or just make them vanish into thin air.
"And your objective," she continued, "is to uncover the events that lead to their death. I don't care how or what methods you use, as long as you can unveil the truth behind their passing. Because only when you do- only then will you be able to reach them."
I walked towards that person behind the tree. What did she mean by 'reach them'? Figuring out her metaphors would take me a whi-
That one hurt.
Right as I was walking towards that person I couldn't fully see, an invisible wall had suddenly come in my way - or, to be fair to the wall, I had inadvertedly slammed myself head-first into it.
"See what I was saying? It wasn't some metaphorical bullshit. I literally meant you'll have to uncover the truth to physically become able to reach that dead body over there. And I think that about covers it for my part. Any questions?"
"... Am I allowed to know anything at all about that person?"
"Hm? Ah, yeah, I guess you'd want that kind of information beforehand. And sure, you can know anything about them except their name."
"... So you gonna tell me or...?"
"I only know their name. Tee-hee."
I felt disappointed at myself for even hoping I'd get anything helpful out of Ellie.
“So then, should I just go ahead and start investigating, or…?”
“Yeah, sure. The faster you reach the truth, the sooner we can end this pointless battle between us.”
It really was. But hearing it from her lips, from her that had started it in the first place, made my blood boil.
If it really was so pointless, why did she have to keep it going for this long…?
Why not end it during our first ever confrontation…?
… Oh, never mind.
Forget I mentioned that.
It couldn’t have happened like that.
So in that case, yes, I finally understood why she had come back to drag me into here… ruining the Tale of the Painless Porcupine in the process.
She really would have ended appearing anyway… so at least, in a sense, it’s good that she did it this early. This way, and just like she’d say-
It can be settled quickly and effectively, without wasting time on needless junk.
… I still couldn’t believe how much I had been agreeing with her since I entered this world. Though I’d say it isn’t strange, since she can possibly control my thoughts to a certain extent.
“Anyway, friend of friends. I’ll stay here doing nothing for the majority of the time you spend investigating, so please feel free to do whatever, okay? You can explore any areas you want in the whole world except that section blocked off by the transparent wall. Oh, also, don’t worry about laws of physics or anything. This IS a dream world, after all. So just do whatever.”
She said, directly telling me to discard common sense whenever needed…
So, right at that moment. Though, in fact, I had already done it quite a while before, so I didn’t have to worry about it much. All this meant was that my investigation was unrestricted except for that small amount of space I could not reach.
And so, with the whole known universe at my disposal, I knew exactly where I needed to start.
After all, it was no coincidence that the place I couldn’t access was-
Just by learning that detail, I instinctively knew that it had to be related to that incident.
An incident- which was completely my fault.
So much my fault, in fact, that you might even wonder if anyone else was involved – which they definitely were.
I guess it’s time to revisit that incident, I thought to myself.