I'm staring down at the thing, its eyes bloodshot and its hair in another mess. Tufts of feather cling together and stick out from its hair as it molts. I snapped at it a second ago.
I don't remember opening the door.
“You stopped eating again.”
I know that. My body won't stop reminding me. “I'm busy.”
“You're stressed,” it states, staring up at me. Its eyes are watering. The manipulation makes my blood boil.
“Call me a liar again.”
It doesn't shrink back from the threat. It doesn't so much as blink. “You're in pain.”
I slam the door in its face. It's the easiest way to be done with it. The march back down the hall to my room, to my bed, seems so much longer than it does on a full stomach. No, it's not the hunger that's getting to me – I could go longer without. It's James. It's me.
It's figuring out what I'm going to do now.
I collapse onto the still-wrinkled white sheets and let the morning sun warm me. Winter has come, but it's no colder than usual inside my apartment, and yet I can't seem to stay warm anymore. I always get like that when I'm missing sleep. My body won't stop shivering in spite of myself, and no amount of rest makes me feel less fatigued.
I don't want to go out into the cold. I don't want to handle today. I don't want to do my rounds.
But if I don't, who will?
“Fear not, and rest. All will be attended to.”
I look down on the fresh, crisp hospital corners. All is well, there. I turn and reach for the armor from my closet. There's no need to hide what I am. All should be aware that a paladin is watching over them.
“He isn't yours,” a deep, feminine voice tells me.
“Nor is he yours, and yet here you are.”
“He will succumb.”
“Your kind have always been blind.” It is silent after that.
I open my door set out into the light of the dawn with purpose. “James,” I speak into the machine, “I would like to meet with you at the northern gate. Bring supplies for a trip.”
“Sure thing, man. I should be there in an hour.”
I turn the other way from where I usually go. I have a girl to apologize to, and, if she's kind, perhaps breakfast to eat.
The side of the church is hidden when you pass it on the street. The turn of the road keeps one from peering down it no matter which direction you're going, and the fence not five feet from the brick wall leaves a short enough window in which to do so. For someone who knows where to look, though, it's obvious that someone has taken residence here.
I approach, seeking the woman, and finding her under a small collection of apparently discarded cloth used to keep the cold at bay.
“This isn't safe.”
She bolts upright with a start, staring at me with wide eyes. It's the first time I've seen her without her habit – or rather, the first time I've seen any dark priestess without such. She tries to cover herself and her coat with her arms. “I'll leave,” she starts, before I raise my hands.
“My apologies, I didn't mean that as a threat.” After a pause I add “I meant that the cold is dangerous, even to mamono.”
Those violet eyes stare at me for the longest moment. She looks away as she refocuses on hiding her form. “I'm decent.”
“Ah.” I about-face. “Again, my apologies.” I hear the rustling of cloth behind me, and ahead of me see a handful of her signs. There are dozens of them, each apparently made with little more than marker and whatever flat materials she could get her hands on. She must do something else with them when it rains. “There are places where you can stay. You'll receive food, bedding, and a roof over your head.”
“I don't want to be a burden on anyone.”
“I didn't expect us to have anything in common.” I take a deep breath, before stating “Well, that's all I came here to say. Have a good day, miss. Stay warm.”
I see him before he sees me. Standing next to the chainlink boundary between Min and the rest of the world. James hefts the backpack strapped to her armor, and then offers an ungainly wave in spite of it.
I wave back.
“Where's your pack,” he calls out.
“Don't need one.” As I get closer I gesture to the guard to open the gate, and it begins the noisy, clinking process. “Your scores in survivalism were pretty good, weren't they?”
“Third in the class. Why, need me to use 'em?” He widens his ever-present smile.
“Yes. You stand exiled, James the Tower, for your crimes against innocent citizens of Megalos. For the use of magic to commit murder. You are not to set foot in a city, town, or other holding of Megalos ever again.”
He stands there for a long moment, uncomprehending. He's looking at me, but he doesn't see me. It takes even longer for comprehension to become something else, and for his smile to turn sad. “I see. They've gotten to you, too. I almost couldn't believe it when I saw the autocrat.”
“I'm only changing as I ought to. You misunderstand why I'm doing this.”
“Oh, I understand.”
In an instant our hands are on our swords, ready to unsheathe them and begin the fight. “Don't do this,” I warn, but he draws it.
There's an intense hum of vibration in my hand as I find that my arm is extended. After a second's pause the grip of confusion releases him, and he looks to the fragment of a sword he's still holding. A second later, the rest of the blade clatters onto the road some fifteen feet away.
He releases a puff of air, quiet and joyless. “All of that skill. All of that strength, and yet you'd protect them? Over me?” His face contorts, and finally the smile is gone from it. “Why?”
“When you killed those mothers, I felt it, you know. I know what it is to lose one.”
He drops the shattered piece of a sword to the ground. “They're not people, Victor. You know that.”
I point the tip of my blade at him. “Out.”
He takes a few short breaths, and then his smile returns, as though it had always been there. “We'll meet again, you damned traitor.”
And with that, he turns and is gone.
“You look tired.”
“I'm not,” I tell the pink-haired fey. “Not as much as I'd expected to be.”
“Yes. The hard part is over, though.”
“And the letter?”
I take some time to consider the letter I'm writing to Erlinson. “A small weakness on my part, I suppose. I'd rather explain to someone what I've done through a letter than in person.”
“Mister paladin, were you crying?”
I turn to look at her inquisitive face. “No. I won't shed tears for my duties.”
At the end of my meal there's a honey-soaked bread treat that I didn't pay for on my plate.
I finish my ablutions, place my sword against my nightstand, and lay to rest in my bed. The little worries of tomorrow can wait until then.
And for the suffering that the scion will face then, I'm sorry. Perhaps this little rest will be sufficient for him to handle them better.
I lift my head with a start.
Slowly, I turn to look at the sword resting against my nightstand.
What did I do?
What in the Hells just happened to me?