Day 11: A Paladin is Ever Alone
I walk toward the rising sun, shielding my eyes from the glare.
I don't like sand. It's not that it simply gets into clothing; I could stand perfectly well the minor irritation of the coarse grain against skin. Blocking out physical sensations is a skill that I've had hammered into my form years ago. No, I just hate knowing that it's there. The knowledge that I've got dirt somewhere on my body, and that there's nothing I can do about that until I get back to my apartment and shower is the most minor but constant frustration. The knowledge of uncleanliness is almost as unpleasant as the sensation.
Oh well, at least it's not sticky. That's the absolute worst.
My first instinct was to disregard what happens on this beach. Even during summer few people would ever come here for fun. Every few steps elicits a crunch as the sharp edges of shells meet the underside of my boots. It's the beach of what used to be a small fishing village, not a place for people to play. Over the water I can see a few boats where old men still ply the only trade they've ever known. The one seemingly young fisherman has a dozen heads sticking out of the water near his boat, simultaneously scaring away the fish and trying to lure him astray. I suppose it's less that it's a profession for old men as it's a profession for men who've already married.
The long walk across the open beachhead shows only one other monster: a lone crab seated on the inside of a small inlet with the body of a girl sticking out of it. Both sets of eyes stare blankly at me as I walk by. I'd thought that this place wouldn't be a safety hazard, and so far I've seen nothing to convince me otherwise. Rather, it's just a point of intrusion like any other. I'd check with that thing's papers, but it likely doesn't have any. Instead of keeping watch over every single inch of waterway a border, the Megalan government has simply taken the entirety of the surrounding oceans as sovereign territory and accepted as citizens all of the monsters therein. For them, citizenship isn't something sought out or earned, so why are we surprised if they abuse it?
The hot sun bakes down on my skin, stinging everywhere it touches. I knew the sun would be stronger down here, but I hadn't expected the stinging. It's like the surface of my flesh is actually being slowly burned away. I finish the task of walking every inch of the city's border with a much clearer understanding of the reasoning behind the name "sunburn," but with nothing else gained. Oh well, I can't blame a concerned citizen if they thought they saw something and wanted to help.
It's at the corner of the community center that I see it again. Standing at the corner of the street with it signs, shouting at everyone walking or driving by. The large, black sign next to it informs all those passing by that "LOVE IS THE ULTIMATE GOOD" in bright pink text. And best of all it's facing the other direction right now, so I might be able to actually find out what it's doing here.
It barely takes me any longer to think that to find out. "No one has to be alone anymore," it shouts through a speaker so weak that it barely amplifies its voice at all. "With the reconciliation all boundaries between men and mamono have broken down!" It grows even more animated as she shouts "The loneliness that you're feeling doesn't have to last any longer! Tomorrow night is the full moon; don't hide yourselves away from it! Embrace it! True love is out there waiting for you!"
I can't help but laugh. It spins around before dropping the half-functional microphone. "Well, I guess when 'true love' is just a sweaty half hour away, we must all look like idiots. Getting to know each other, finding out likes and dislikes, resolving personality conflicts; how stupid. We just need more sex, and all our problems will be solved, right?"
Once again, it just stares at me. It's not scared or confused, or anything at all as near as I can tell. It just silently stares at me, as though I was supposed to be doing something and I'm being terribly rude for failing my end of the conversation.
After another moment it finally leans down and starts picking up its speaker and signs. I sigh loudly, "And here I was looking forward to hearing more of that propaganda your cult loves so much."
It lifts the last of its props and looks at me again. Then it leaves without saying a word. Since it isn't willing to do this in front of me, I wonder if I followed it if it would refuse to start its proselytizing again. At least this one is harmless.
Ah well, I have better things to do. Let it shout its insanity to the masses.
I set my pen to the paper in front of a cup of herbal tea. "Today was the first time I failed to notice one of the things when it walked past me. It wasn't doing anything else, simply passing me on the street. I'm almost certain that that is why I failed to recognize it beforehand. All the same, I can't help but feel a sudden twinge of paranoia that I'm losing my edge.
I'm sure that this is something that happens to anyone who is stationed in a city thick with the things. To be human is to be extremely adaptable, after all. For once, though, I'd prefer not to be. I don't want to think that I'm getting used to being around the things. I don't want to think of this as the norm. And what's more is, I worry that I am even capable of doing so. One of them attacked me, and was slain by my hands. Am I so easily inured to death that I can then just as quickly ignore the fact?
None of the possible reasons for this are comforting to me. I am a blade to be turned against these things. I cannot afford to become dulled by complacency or comfort. I would like to request the attention of an indoctrinator at their earliest convenience, as I am unable to leave my post.
Assigned under Autocrat Erlinson in the Imperial City of Min"
I look up from my letter to a pair of big, violet eyes. "And that's when the pixie woke up."
I frown in incomprehension.
The little elf laughs, "Sorry, it's a really old joke. It's funnier in Sylvan, see, 'cause 'pixie' and 'pi'harshie' are pronounced the same, and the latter means to fall asleep, so it means to fall asleep and wake up at the same time, and, uh," she stops as she notices that I'm just staring blankly at her. "Yeah. Wordplay."
I nod once. "Interesting."
"It is," she happily insists. "Most people don't bother learning the old tongue anymore, but it's really pretty and most of the first tales can't be translated into Aenglish properly."
"Fair, but you don't need to read those old tomes to know what history we have of the world pre-monster lord."
She goes quiet after this, as though I said something hurtful just now. "History's more than facts. It's people. You can't understand people if you don't know their stories." It's a simplistic way of viewing things, but she has a point. Barebones facts often ignore or outright miss the most important parts of history; how people lived, motivations for wars, or how nations prosper or fail.
She lights up in an instant, breathlessly asking "Would you like to learn-"
"No." I'm not sure her expression would have shifted so quickly if I had just kicked a kitten. "I'm not interested in learning elven history."
Unfortunately, I spend the rest of the time it takes me to finish my drink listening to elven history from a very annoyed teacher.
Yet another call came in about a disturbance on the beach. I wouldn't mind if I hadn't just finished removing the last bit of grit from this morning. Just like this morning, the beach is completely clear of anyone or anything that could've been making any of the shouts that this person heard.
Oh well. I can't blame a concerned citizen for reporting what could have been a rape.
Shells crack and break under each step, and the smell of the ocean is thick in the air. It stings slightly, making me wonder if the monsters living in it don't feel the sting of salt as brine passes through their noses. My inside of my nose stings worse at the thought.
At the same spot as before, I spot the crab-monster sitting in its little inlet on the beach. It seems to have spotted me a while before I spotted it. I'm not surprised; it'd be stranger if it hadn't. The four eyes continue to stare blankly at me as I approach. I stop when I pass by, struck by a very unlikely idea. "Hey." It doesn't react at all. "You haven't been shouting out here, have you?"
It shakes its head without breaking eye contact - with any of its eyes.
"Good." I start to continue my march, then stop again. "What are you waiting for?"
"A date," it answers immediately and quietly.
"And when might this date be?"
"Three days from now."
I stare at it. It stares back at me. I start walking again.
When I first came here I was outraged by the first thing I saw openly trying to seduce a man. That outrage couldn't survive the first day of patrols. It is a rare moment when I can look in any given direction in town and see a man who isn't being fawned over or else clung to by one of the parasites. To their credit, most of them know the proper stance of humanity and how things ought to be. If the things would simply step out of line instead of ogling and making their twisted promises then I could make an example. Perhaps Erlinson was right, though, and I simply need to keep a lower profile before they'll let their guards slip.
My thoughts are interrupted as I spot a small, pink sphere sitting on the edge of the rough beach before it's worn away by the waves. It shines wetly as I turn and approach it, looking around to see who could have left it here. There is no one else. No one but me. Slowly, cautiously I reach out with one hand and slide the slimy ball onto the other, trying to piece together what this thing is while the dying light shines off of the sleek, wet surface. I stare ever closer as I see what looks like a fish's silhouette pass inside.
I almost drop it when I see the tiny hand. It thumps against the inside of the egg, a barely visible shadow about an inch across. Almost the size of an infant.
The bile slowly works its way up my throat as it pulls away and fades back into the murky pink sphere. One of those things out there had a child, left it, and it washed up here. Will it die? Does it need its mother to live?
Does that thing care? Does its father? Horrid, twisted abominations, they create life only to leave it to die.
Of course they would. Why would they care about their children? They're just side effects of satisfying their unnatural hunger. Once it's out of them why would it matter. The things will shout about love until they turn blue in the face but they can't hide their true natures from anyone. They're not people. They're monsters. Anything that isn't themselves or their food dispensers is meaningless to them. If their own children need them, miss them, starve, asphyxiate, die, then why would they care. And this benighted little thing isn't just a casualty that'll grow up to repeat the process all over again. Alone. Forsaken.
I stare at the gnarled, scabrous flesh of the pustule in my hand as the maggot-like creature inside twists and squirms. The texture is twisted and knotted, like old wood.
I stare at the door again. It's almost scary. I don't want to go out there. I want to keep waiting. I'm hungry, though. They said to wait, but it's been two days. I'm sure I could just look around. It's just scary.
I go to my room and put my shoes on. It doesn't take me very long now at all. I can tie them fast.
I take a few steps outside of the house. It's almost scarier now. I won't go far, though. I'll make sure I always know exactly how to get back. I'm smart; dad said so.
There are a lot of people out here, but none of them look like mom or dad. I find another lady who looks a lot like momma. She isn't her, though. This lady's eyes are white on the outside.
I turn from the pink egg to hear a shout over the waves. A figure in the water waves at me before diving down, revealing scales that shine in the last few rays of the sun. The water shifts as the thing swims just barely under the surface, and then the disturbance grows and grows as it approaches. Soon I see at least a dozen bits and pieces of monsters that barely break the surface as they all swim for the shore.
At least thirty heads break the surface, one after the other. Blue-to-green-haired mermaids, all looking up at me. Some appear shocked or afraid. Others look cautiously optimistic. It's obvious why; a paladin in full armor stands holding one of their eggs. A gasp, followed by a cry comes as one last one of them surfaces, pushing its way toward the surface.
I turn and, in spite of my hatred of wet boots, advance on it even as it pushes toward me. Its mouth turns to a smile even as it gasps for breath, reaching out to me with both hands.
"If you are ever this negligent again, you'll suffer for it." I'm not sure whether I meant that as a threat when I said it, but it came out as one. For a moment the thing simply stops, uncertain. I place the egg into its hands, and it moves again, clutching it happily to its chest. I turn and wade out from amongst the smiling, laughing group.
I wonder if I'll ever kill any of them.
I walk toward the setting sun, staring at the beautiful colors of the evening sky.