Day 12: (A Paladin is Merciful)
The world spins and it finds itself hanging over the ground, inches off the surface. The shadows are clear and crisp in the alleyway, and yet it can see everything within them. It wills itself toward one of them, and moves effortlessly forward. It isn't long until it spots its prey. It doesn't stop or even slow, not bothering to stalk the ignorant target. In seconds it bolts forward, tackling the hapless victim to the ground. It doesn't violate the screaming innocent. Not sexually, anyway.
It leans forward, opens its mouth wide, and tears out the monster's throat. Then it looks up and stares at me through my own eyes.
Stunned and confused, I only have a second to draw my blade to protect myself. My bloodied reflection crashes against it, and tremors run through the old iron making me fear that it will shatter. Flecks of blood spread from its throat as it grips the edge of my blade and lets out a bestial, inhuman roar mere inches from my face. The flesh around its mouth rips open as he continues to open his mouth further and wider, causing tendon and bone to shred themselves apart. Finally, I twist and throw the thing off of me, where it slumps onto the ground twitching violently.
I ready myself to destroy the thing, when my sword begins to faintly glow a pale white. A soft whisper echoes from it, as though from far away.
"Much was lost that you will know." The thing lurches onto its feet in mockery of both gravity and physiology. "Noble scion, cruelty's foe." A sickening crack fills the air as it turns its head far too quickly to face me, deformed and mutilated and bloodied, but still bearing my own appearance. Without turning to face me it leaps, and the world slows.
I lift my sword, but it isn't a sword anymore. It's hard and round, with rough edges that press into my skin. All the same, driven by some ineffable certainty, I hold it up to the thing. "Defy the child and save a friend." A crack forms in the thing I hold, spilling out light. It pours over the creature like water washing away ink, and in seconds it's gone.
"Righteous warden, evil's end."
I jerk upright, already clutching my sword tightly in one hand. The first hint of morning light suffuses my bedroom with an eerie blue tinge. It's not much light, but it's enough to see that I'm alone in my room. I collapse back against the mattress and stare at my clock.
5:59. 6:00. It begins its tinny chime, pointlessly informing me that I need to wake up.
I don't hit the button. That wasn't the voice in the alley. That was a new voice telling me something weird. I finally hit the button telling the clock to shut up, get ready, and fail to head out. Instead I stop in front of a small plastic grocery bag tied up in front of my door. A note, tied to the top, informs me that Samuels' sister worked a new field of walnuts and gave him far too many for him to eat.
I reach down, open the bag, and pull out one of the walnuts. It rests uncomfortably in my palm; rough edges press into my skin leaving tiny red indentations.
I put the nut into my pocket, toss the bag onto my bed, and head out. I need to cover more ground. I need to find whatever's doing this.
I pause when I see the figure clopping toward me. The "police mare," as the autocrat called it. Officer Cartwright. I stop and turn to watch. I don't have a reason to do so. I simply feel like it.
It doesn't take long for it to get close enough for me to see the look of dour discomfort on its face. "So, they started calling paladins, too," it asks when it gets close enough.
"Not 'too,' first. We started getting calls yesterday that there were screams coming from this beach."
It just huffs and looks away at that. We both set off and, bizarrely, end up walking the beach together. It keeps to a quick pace, I think to try to exhaust me. An idiotic gesture, considering my training.
"So tell me," it starts suddenly, "when you hear about a disturbance like this, do you smile at the idea that you'll get to kill someone?"
"I'm curious," I respond, "when the full moon comes out tonight, will you head out and 'protect' some single, male civilians?"
"I'll be staying indoors," it angrily snaps.
"I look forward to seeing if that's true on my rounds tonight."
The horse's head whips around, mouth agape. "You're not," it starts. A pause forms, in which I slowly turn and smile.
"Not going to spend the night patrolling to ensure that no one is breaking the law?" I watch its expression turn more severe before turning away. "Oddly enough, I am."
We walk in silence for a time. Well, I walk while it trots. After a while it asks "What are they looking at?"
I look out to the sea and spot a pair of mermaids watching us. "How should I know?" Things live in the water, effectively jobless and homeless, without anything better to do with themselves than reproduce. They're like wild dogs; you wouldn't wonder why one of those was staring at you.
We march in relative silence, ignoring the waves and the constant crunch of scattered shells under boot and hoof. My unfortunate companion even remains silent as we pass by the crab-thing that has perched itself on the beach. Only afterward does the officer pause and wonder "Do you think she might be-"
"No, that's just a trap waiting for some unfortunate fool. Either that, or it's an idiot who has been fed a lie. It doesn't concern us either way."
The thing huffs loudly, "She's a 'she,' not an 'it."
"If it were the female of a species, you'd be right. Unfortunately, it's not."
"Well by that logic I'm an 'it,' too."
"Oh look," I say happily, "it learns."
We walk in stony silence the rest of the way across the shoreline. I'm almost entirely certain that I'm being glared at even as I depart to report, once again, that the beach is still and silent.
"So I want you to picture this, Bob," the succubus states, smiling and leaning provocatively toward the elderly gentleman.
"All right. I'm picturing," he says, smiling back.
"First, picture a world in which food - all food - costs fifteen-point-six times as much as it does right now-"
"And that's," he starts to ask before being cut off.
"That's the average increase in cost-of-living for food alone for mamono who need spirit energy to grow or live." He nods gravely. "Now, I want you to picture that there are cupcakes - floating cupcakes - everywhere you go."
He laughs. The audience laughs. Everyone laughs.
"But it's illegal to eat the cupcakes!"
"Illegal," he states, eyebrows raised and eyes wide with feigned shock at the moronically simplistic analogy.
"That's right, Bob. You can't touch them at all. If you do, you're exiled for life."
"I see. So I'm guessing this is a point you've made in your book, 'Hungry and Alone: How Megalos Has Ended Hunger for Humans and Vastly Expanded it for Mamono,' which is out in stores."
"As a matter of fact, it is, Bob. I'm talking about an issue which greatly effects up to twenty percent of the population." The audience gasps, apparently completely unaware that the thing is using only the most overblown and unlikely statistics, and using our ignorance of what goes on below the waves as justification to further blow them out of proportion.
"Well, you have to know that there are a couple problems with your analogy between cupcakes and human beings." Oh wow, I think to myself. Are you actually going to provide some resistance?
"Of course, Bob. Cupcakes don't simply reappear on their own. Spirit energy does." False alarm, that was rehearsed to the hells and back.
"But these are people we're talking about. Free people."
it laughs at this, "I'm not some sort of crazy zealot, Bob, I'm not advocating a system of slavery, here." Not directly. "No one's advocating those 'make masturbation illegal' provisions that get floated by and shot down every other year or so."
It repositions itself to stare earnestly at the camera. "One of the major solutions that has so intensely impacted rates of hunger in the human populous is the concept of civic duty. Megalans are one of the most civic-minded people in the world." Applause. "It's true! But there's a sense - most likely a holdover from before the Reconciliation - of mamono as still being 'monsters,' and so that sense of duty has never turned toward us. We're left high and dry as a minority whose issues are not the concern of most citizens. We're the subaltern of this country."
And now it begins the painfully obvious invective to artlessly wrench pity from its audience. I swear, it really could be starving to death and it would do nothing but manipulate everyone around it. I get up from my chair and set down the glass of water. I nod my thanks to the restaurant owner - a somewhat portly but handsome woman in her mid-thirties, and make my exit.
I stop at the sidewalk, mirroring the many other people who've come to a stop to look at the passing car. It's an old police broadcast car, oversized horns sitting on top of it. They blare out an old, crackly audio recording that informs everyone around it: "Full moon tonight, all citizens are advised to adhere to an eight P.M. curfew. This is not a legal advisory, but it is suggested for your safety and comfort. That is all." It slowly, stutteringly continues down the road, coughing up blue-grey smoke all the while.
It takes me a moment, but I smile as it goes. It seems that the police mare is worried about my patrolling tonight. Are you trying to save them?
My thoughts are disrupted by the sound of an old bell chime. I hit the button on the phone to silence its stirrings and place it to my ear. "Sir?"
"Heya, Victor. You know that beach? The one a little south'a here?"
"Got another report."
"Does Megalos wish to pay me to lazily stroll the beach for the rest of my life?"
"Megalos wishes to pay you to deal with disturbances to the peace."
"The only disturbance here is that someone's wasting our time reporting disturbances, sir."
"All the same."
"I just happen to be the one sent to investigate the beaches," it huffs, one hoof pawing restlessly at the ground.
"Benefits of rank, I suppose."
It's expression gets even angrier as it stares down at me. "I cover ground the fastest. It makes sense."
I'd mock it further, but its radio chirps into life on its unnaturally large chest. "Attention, all officers. A female misper is has been reported as of noon today. For-mon is suspected. Search Advisor is en route, return to station-house immediately."
It looks at me, and I know that it's wondering if I now know what it knows. I turn and pull out my phone.
"I know, Victor, just heard. You're at the beach now, so you'll be in charge of-"
"The beach is clear, sir. It has been for days, but someone keeps telling us - and the police - that it isn't."
There's barely any pause. "I'll have the phone records checked. Meanwhile, head to the northern wall area. If you're right, you're at the wrong side of the city."
The mare is already gone, galloping away down the beach. That's fine. Let the thing run.
I head north at a marching pace.
I turn the corner of the old brick building to see him again, looking just as tired and frustrated as before. "Any new intel, sir?"
"None. No one's seen anything. Hells, even the phone lines are quiet."
"She's a five-foot-seven, mid-twenties brunette wearing jeans and a pink t-shirt, sir. If someone called for every one of those spotted, the phone service would go down."
His lips pull taut. "Don't make me laugh about this, Victor."
He stares at a nearby wall for a moment. "All right, continue the sweep between Friedrickson and Orrick Street, then head back southwest toward downtown. If we have to keep this whole damned city on lockdown until we find her then so be it."
I stand and salute, and am dismissed.
In spite of my training my feet are actually starting to get somewhat sore at this point. The sun is setting, which means that I've been out here for six hours without luck. At this point we're more likely to find two monsters than one. The seething hatred that that thought inspires spurs me forward just a bit faster than before.
I turn onto my street, passing between closed-down shops and a handful of older houses. Most people have returned to their homes, either because of the curfew or because they've seen both police and paladins on the march. The police force has slimmed down, though, as the monsters among their ranks have returned home due to the full moon. Fewer police, misleading both forms of law enforcement by dragging them around for days on end; this monster came prepared for its crime.
I turn again, and a woman behind me says "Lost, are we?"
I turn to look at her, but no one's there. An uncomfortable thought begins to form at the edge of consciousness, and is thrust forward when the same disembodied voice notes "You seem to be in quite the rush."
Gods damnit. They're multiplying.
"Are you the voice from before?"
"The voice-" it fails to echo. Then there's laughter. Loud, delighted laughter. "Oh wow, the more things stay the same, the more they change!"
"I don't think that's how that goes."
"Well," the voice starts, suddenly from behind me again, "it hardly matters how it goes, only how you go." The voice shifts again, this time to my left. "And you want to go here."
I look toward where voice last originated, but all I see is an old house. There are no lights on inside, and a sign outside informs anyone interested that it's for sale. I turn and, once again worried that I'm listening to voices, march.
The front of the house is dominated on one side by the garage, and on the other by the path leading to the front door. I advance toward the front door, but stop moving when I hear a scratching sound from the garage.
I start moving again when I hear a gasp of pain. I don't bother announcing my presence or shout at her to hold on. I draw my blade, and in a few cuts I create a door where once there were only wooden slats.
I almost recoil when I do. On an unadorned mattress lay the woman we were looking for, naked and holding herself rigid as she touches herself. Her expression is blank and her mouth hangs open.
Beyond her is the thing responsible. A horrid, horned, childlike form dressed in the manner typical of monsters: barely. It wields a scythe that stands taller than itself, with a blade of demon realm silver. It glares at me and speak with a small and childish voice, "Damn. I wasn't done yet."
Sabbath. Baphomet. The terms horrify, but they don't provoke fear. I stride forward, stepping over the slowly relaxing form of the victim and call out "You won't be."
Its lips twitch, before curling into a smile. "Well, it hardly matters, mister paladin. She still looks disgustingly adult, but she's already a witch, and nothing you can do will change that."
The options run through my head.
If I charge the thing, I will fail, and if its scythe touches me then I'm dead.
If I run with the victim, it will charge me, I will fail, and if its scythe touches me then I'm dead.
If I call for reinforcements, it will take the victim and run.
The victim isn't human anymore, though. It's over. We failed. This infernal child has already-
I stop, my thoughts silenced while my memory tries to dredge up information. The thing at the far end of the garage grins further, stretching its arms over its head and idly paces in a circle. "Well, I guess if you want to, you can try to fight me for her. Who knows, you might win." It continues to gloat, but I'm too busy with my thoughts. I clench my breeches in frustration, trying to figure out how to deal with this. I have to stop this thing. I can't let anyone else be turned.
My fist squeezes around something hard and round in my pocket, and its rough edges press into my skin.
A plan almost seems to appear in my mind, as though it had always been there.
"Of course, you could just leave her to me. I'll make her beautiful, unlike all of those huge, ugly pigs that human women look like-"
It stops as the garage is filled with a sickening, organic crack. I turn to look at it just as it turns to look at me, staring somewhere between me and the limp figure whose head I obscure. Its voice is soft and its face is slack as it asks "What did you do?"
I smile my brightest, most benign smile. "I 'saved' her. If she'd lived, she would have been a monster. I couldn't allow that. Paladins 'save' people from monsters, you know." I stare at it straight in the eyes and let my smile fade into something altogether more menacing. "And I'll 'save' anyone else you turn, too."
It moves, and I don't get the opportunity to do likewise. In an instant it's standing before me, barely up to my chest yet wielding a scythe that curves around the back of my neck. Intense, hate-filled eyes stare coldly into my own. Its breathing is deep, yet erratic.
I lean forward. "Go on. Kill a man, monster. I want to see you do it."
It bares its fangs and growls, "You'll suffer for this." It kicks back, and disappears as a circle of violet magic consumes it and fades in an instant.
I take a deep breath, and shakily release it. It takes a number of them before my lungs stop burning and the spots fade from my vision. I reach up and wipe the sweat from my brow as I turn to the limp figure behind me. Right. I scan the garage, find a tarpaulin laying against the wall, and use it to wrap up the sleeping figure. The walnut cracks further under my boot as I step off of it.
I step out of the garage, hoisting the figure over a shoulder and holding my phone in the other hand. "Anything to report, Victor?"
"Sir. I have the victim. It will have to remain in the branch hall until further notice."
"I'll explain everything, sir."
My legs feel weak as I set off, and yet there's an ease to my breathing. My stomach turns at the idea that my actions are now dictated by voices in my head, but my chest feels light somehow, as though my armor were not weighing me down.