In a monster-filled world, Vali, monster hunter, wonders what it means to have a 'friend'.
| A hero. Vali is a hero. He knows that, knows the feeling of a knife in his hand, the feeling of victory after victory after victory. He has seen the putrid black liquid monsters call blood gushing from slashes he had inflicted, has cut down those disgusting creatures disguised as humans. It’s funny, he thinks, that despite all that, he has never seen a human bleed, but he is sure that the blood of a human is a beautiful, pure and warm shade of red, like the nectar of the angels.
Vali’s blood? It is as black as the blood of the monsters he slays, a curse, he thinks. After all, Vali is not an angel, not a human.
Vali is a monster.
Born to monster parents, Vali is no different. His mother had bled on the ground, surrounded by her bottles of moonshine, and her blood was as black as the night, contrasting the clear liquid of the alcohol surrounding her. His father had screamed as he faded away, his own black blood gurgling up his throat. Vali is glad to be rid of them, even if he can still feel their tainted liquid flowing through his veins. Monsters don’t deserve friends, don’t deserve companions.
Vali pulls himself back to reality, to the sweet peasant children crowding around him in thanks for saving their town. He smiles, kind, charming, and he shakes his head, no, he doesn’t mind țuică, even if it is a bit old. Yes, he does think it is amazing their parents can still make the alcohol so well, even though the art is nearly lost. They are cheerful, celebrating the safety of their town, celebrating the fact that they can run through the streets without fear, not so much celebrating his victory than their newfound freedom. The adults are moving tables, dancing, cooking, preparing a feast in honor of the hero that had saved their town, and Vali, who has no other job than to watch, is contented to enjoy their humanness, their soft, vulnerable lives and souls flickering like a candle under his gaze. His own life is different, but he thinks he hides the bright, solid mass and flickering red pupils well under his peach-coloured human flesh and dulled brown human eyes.
He is happy that for once, he can be worthy of their presence.
The humans are curious, joyful and so pure and angelic, and he wishes, regretfully, that he could stay here, amongst the villagers and their innocence, forever, but he knows full well how impossible that is. He is a hero. He has a duty.
Perhaps he hopes to speak to them truthfully. Perhaps he wants to find a friend in them. Vali dismisses that thought before it even begins its journey across his mind.
That night, after the alcohol, after the lemon soup and the savoury dishes of local pork, when the town is quiet and asleep, Vali leaves the bed provided to him under the cloak of darkness.
The path from the village leading to the next one is a long, winding thing. Vali is weary, even after the good food and rest, but he pushes onwards. His job as a hero, after all, is to save those that are in need until his inevitable death.
Vali is grateful that the useless him can serve humans and be needed, even if it kills him.
The path is dusty, even though it is in the midst of a large forest. It’s nothing Vali isn't used to, nothing he can’t take, but Vali can feel his throat begin to itch, his eyes begin to water. He coughs, hacking up brownish liquid from his breakfast of cold soup, taken from the village the night before, and he grimaces as he wipes his lips, the sour taste of bile lingering on his tongue, through the breath of his nose. He frowns. Disgusting. Vali is sure that a human, a celestial being, would have behaved far more gracefully, but his status as a monster is inevitable, Vali cannot change, no matter how much he tries. Just as he straightens to go forward, a small voice, hesitant, calls out to him.
“H-hello?” Vali is silent, cautious, and the voice rings out again, light and boyish.
“Hello?” Vali turns slowly, tentatively reaching towards his knife.
“U-um, sir, c-can you hear me? I, you just came to our village, and I was watching, no, when you fought the monster, um, so, if you could tech me...!” There is a pause. “Sir-”
“I can hear you.” Vali relaxes, it’s a boy, around fifteen or sixteen, from the village he had just left. He emerges from behind Vali, obviously out of breath, panting, a slight, pale figure in a loose blue coat two sizes two big over the traditional white shirt and black paints. He looks younger than he sounds, Vali thinks.
“There’s no need for the sir, we’re the same age.” Vali stops the smile from breaking out across his face, he needs to be responsible. "It’s dangerous for a human. Go back.” The boy looks insulted, but before he speaks, Vali continues, “I don’t want to be responsible when you die or get injured. Where are your parents?” An angry blush crosses the youth’s face.
“I’ll have you know, I am an adult!”
“Right.” Vali must look amused, because the boy doesn’t stop there.
“I’m twenty one! Besides, I know the area better than you do, you’ve never been around here before, and I have!”
“...Oh.” Vali bites back his embarrassment, partially at the fact that the boy is spot on with his prediction of Vali’s lack of knowledge, and whirls around, suppressing that voice within him that is eager, almost needy, wanting a companion, a friend, someone to fight with and travel with, someone to talk to, anyone at all. But the youth, Vali corrects himself, the human, doesn’t leave, and as he follows Vali, matching Vali’s longer strides with his own quick, small steps, Vali doesn’t say anything more.
The boy’s name is Ion. He is, in fact, only twenty, turning twenty one soon, but twenty, he’ll have Vali know, is a perfectly respectable age. He’d also like to have Vali know that he, despite being a human, is a perfectly good fighter, and by no means would he ever lose in a fight against some low-level monster. At the time of the attack, he was simply tending to his sister, he has five of them, who was ill, and could not leave her side. He is happy Vali helped out, and yes, his sister is in a much better state now, thank you for your concern. He enjoys reading and throwing rocks at passing animals, and he swears that he will not do it in Vali’s presence
On the more serious topics, his mother died giving birth to his youngest sister, and his father, bless his soul, does his best for their family. There are frequent attacks at the village, and Ion hopes he can defend his family properly so his father can properly work without much stress. For that reason, he wants to train under Vali, who he thinks is a strong hunter with a good eye for weaknesses.
“What exactly do you want to learn?” Ion thinks for a second.
“I want to learn to fight! Monsters!” Vali can a headache beginning. “Yes, I gathered. What exactly do you want to learn, what techniques, anything you don’t know?” Ion pauses, stops walking, and Vali doesn’t notice until he is a good ten feet away. He stops, waits for Ion to catch up, and continues walking.
“Well, I thought I…” There’s more silence, and Vali sighs. “Well, whatever. If you insist on coming, you can watch and learn, can’t you?” Ion brightens at that.
“Yes, of course!”
Vali wants to say Ion is a valuable asset, he really does, but when the boy stumbles over his own feet and falls flat on his face for the umpteenth time, Vali begins to question his own decisions, mainly that moment of stupidity that made him decide to let this clumsy, awkward human go with him. Ion has no idea how to cook over an open fire, doesn’t know how to patch up even small wounds, and is an absolute failure as a merchant. Vali can say that the one good thing that comes out of allowing Ion to tag along is that it ensures that Ion will never try to pursue the path of a doctor or a merchant.
Ion is cheerful, though, and eager to please. He knows how to hunt, and unlike the Vali who had cried hours over killing the innocent animals to feed himself, Ion can hunt down, kill and clean and gut within minutes. His prefered weapon is a slingshot, which Vali can safely say he had never seen up close until he witnessed Ion making one. Ion is, despite his clumsiness in walking, a fast runner and nimble with his fingers, flexible, and physically stronger than Vali, easily lifting what Vali had to drag, despite his small stature. Vali frowns as Ion eagerly takes his new, heavy, rock-weighted pack away from him, muttering a small thanks under his breath.
Ion is a surprisingly fast learner, and he is so loud and bright and cheerful when he finally manages to make an edible meal over the fire, Vali can’t help but smile along.
“Where are we going?” Vali looks at Ion. “You’ve waited this long to ask?” Ion shrugs, hiding his embarrassment with nonchalance.
“Anyways, there’s no we. I am travelling to the next town to deal with a problem with a beast there, and you are returning as soon as I finish in that town.” Ion seems put off by that, and he remains quiet for a long time, until nightfall.
The forested area has given way to a large expanse of plains, and Vali knows too well both the good and the ill of setting up camp in the plains. Seeing as the sky is almost completely obscured by the ominous rain clouds overhead, Vali is careful to take out the tarp, forming a small shelter in the endless grasslands.
Ion watches, curious as Vali takes out his knife, sharpening it under the red fire of the setting sun. The bedrolls are set up, the tarp forming a small shelter in the endless plains. The forest is still visible, stark against the sky.
Ion doesn’t ask anymore thoughtless questions, and in turn, Vali no longer mentions Ion returning to his town. They sit in a companionable silence.
Ion smiles as he watches, widely, brightly as if he had just been given the best present in the world. He is excited, Vali supposes, and as they lie down to sleep, the stars hidden by the tarp, he swears he can hear Ion whisper a soft thank you.
Ion is energetic the next day, quickly rolling up his bedroll and practically skipping ahead of Vali in his eagerness to get to the next town. He carries his and Vali’s bags both, seemingly weightless in his grip. He wildly swings them around in arcs, and laughs, embarrassed and giddy when Vali tells him to stop. His entire face lights up as the next city approaches, running forwards. Vali does his best to catch up. He thinks that Ion’s back is so beautiful, he is so human, a celestial being Vali has no business interacting with, so when Ion stops on the outskirts of the town, turning with a wide, sunny smile, he can’t help but hesitate.
“C’mon! It’s so close!” Vali is still, for a moment, his hands dangling uselessly at his sides, before he moves forward, blinking back tears.
“We’re here!” Ion crows, running into the town, going from store to store, before he stops, abrupt. The entire town is completely still, nothing is destroyed, but nothing seems alive or working either. Vali follows not long after, frowning at the lack of people. Ion reaches out to brush his fingers against a window of some toy store, before jerking his hand back.
“It’s… dusty.” His finger is stained with brownish rust, and he sounds confused. Vali follows him as he goes from place to place, touching to check for dust and peering through the windows.
“This isn’t possible, a trader from this town had just come a few weeks ago, and he reported nothing out of ordinary… What happened?”
Vali shrugs, not answering, and he remains quiet until he senses something… strange. He reaches out, grabbing Ion’s arm with a quiet hiss of ‘get back!’, and ignores Ion’s indignant yelp of surprise.
“Don’t move.” He whispers it, glancing around wildly as he tries to pin down the source. Nothing seems off, and he relaxes, when something sounds behind them. Laughter, harsh and grating to Vali’s ears. He whips around, eyes narrowed, searching for the source, and beside him, Ion is confused, but stays blessedly silent. His eyes lock onto a man with hands stained with fire. Not a man. Monster. Vali sees it as he sees himself in the mirror on those lucky mornings, ones where he had found an inn to stay at.
The monster stops, cocks its head to the side, and then strikes without warning, fire-stained hand raised and eyes feral, and the dustiness, the rust all seems to make sense. Vali grabs his knife, ready to strike, when a blur moves past him, in front of him.
I can fight perfectly well, enough to defend myself. I wouldn’t let a monster get me, ya know!
Ion is bright, a blazing bonfire of cheerful eagerness and energy to the end. He is eager to prove himself, and perhaps to defend his new teacher and companion, but his knife never even reaches the monster. What a fitting way to go, Vali thinks, for such a bright spark of a person.
The job is easy, the monster is weak, even with his fire, and Vali cuts him down easily. The villagers, hidden in their homes, trembling, hear the commotion, they hear the monster’s scream as it dies, and they come out, eager, relieved, congratulating. Vali looks down. Ion is still, his death was quick and painless, far better than being brutally burned to death, or so Vali tells himself. Vali’s knife is stained with blood. Red blood.
Vali kneels, wipes it on the grass, and sheathes it, going with the happy villagers. Ion’s body is left behind with the monsters, assumed to be another beast. Vali thinks of how ironic it is, that a human would be seen as a monster and a monster seen as a human, as a saviour. He smiles until he gets to the room they offer him in the inn, and he takes out his knife, cutting into his own skin. The blood that drips onto the floor is black, and he sits down, laughing until he can feel tears come out of his eyes.
Never again, though, does Vali want a friend. Never again does he feel lonely.