The Red and the Black
A "daily life" gained by sacrificing everything. Colors seen in the shade tell of courage and madness.
A bird chirped at a distance. Maybe today's weather will be fine. Picking up an egg from the grassfields wet with dew, Nier looked at the sky. This is the last one. Chickens lay one egg per day, so it's not easy to miss one.
"Are you done?"
The hen owner called out to him just as Nier finished counting the eggs in the basket. Nier nodded and handed over the basket.
"Oh, good work."
One, two... the man confirmed the number of eggs, and smiled.
"My wife had just gotten better, so you don't have to come anymore. You were a great help."
The man's wife had a fever five days ago and slept in. Gathering the eggs in the mornings used to be her job.
"Here's the payment I promised, but are you sure that you don't need money or food?"
While the man's wife recovered, Nier woke up earlier than anyone in the village and gathered the eggs. What he wanted as payment for his job was a freshly hatched chick.
"It's fine. Yonah will be happy with this."
"I see. Well, just take one from the basket over there."
All of them hatched yesterday. Nier couldn't really tell apart the chicks, but he chose the one that looked the healthiest. The chick struggled - maybe it didn't want to leave its companions. Nier held it in his hands, taking great care to not drop it or squeeze it too tightly, and ran towards his house.
The village woke up fast. No one was on the roads when he left home, but now it was filled with criss-crossing villagers. While he was returning their greetings, a voice called out to him. It was the female owner of the food shop. "You came at the right time. Nier, I heard that Popola asked you to pick up some herbs today, so can you please get me some mushrooms on the way as well?"
People don't really want to go out of the village - they find it dangerous and troublesome. They have to take great care when walking outside - they can't provoke the short-tempered wild animals nor go near shadows of any kind. They can only go outside in midday - and even then it's only for a few hours. In the morning or evening, they have to be close to a village or a city...
"How about I give you pumpkins as payment? I just got some big and sweet ones. Yonah likes them, doesn't she?"
Thanks, Nier answered, and took off again. Everyone in this village is nice. If they were not... then it wouldn't be surprising for a pair of orphaned siblings like them to die out in the wild, even if they had the house left behind by their parents.
Once he ran past the fountain plaza, Nier began to see their house. Someone's silhouette was shown on the window - it was Yonah. She disappeared the next moment - maybe she became aware of Nier's presence.
"Brother, welcome back."
Before Nier even opened the door, Yonah jumped out. Her breath was labored from running down the stairs.
"I'm back, Yonah. I told you not to run in the mornings or evenings."
Yonah had a very weak body. She was bound to get sick with the flu whenever the seasons changed, and she would get a fever if she just slept a little later than usual. She couldn't even get too excited without developing coughs. Her stomach wasn't very strong either - she'd either get stomach cramps or throw everything up.
"I'm sorry. Will I begin to cough unstoppably again?"
"You'll be fine if you eat a good breakfast. Let's go in, it's rather cold and windy today."
"I brought something for you," Nier said while closing the door, and Yonah's face lit up.
"What is it?"
He brought his hands close to Yonah's ear. The chick enclasped in them chirped quietly, but that was more than enough.
"You're right. Here, hold out your hand."
He put the chick on top of Yonah's hands. It was surprised at the sudden brightness, so it shrunk into itself and began shaking.
"It's so fluffy and warm!"
"It's still small, so you can keep it inside the house."
"We kept some when mother was still alive."
It was Nier's job to feed the chickens they kept in their frontyard. Their mother was busy with keeping the family up and running by herself, and didn't have time to spare for that.
Their father worked in a faraway city, and was rarely at home. Sometime after Yonah's birth, he died outside. That was why Nier didn't remember much about his father.
Living or dead, his father didn't change their everyday lives much. His mother grew vegetables in a small field made in the garden, tailored clothes at the request of the villagers, and repaired clothing. As far as he knew, his mother never stopped her hands.
When they finally did stop, so did his mother's time. That was five years ago. Nier had just turned ten, and Yonah was one and half years old.
It came without any warning. In a completely normal evening, Nier's mother turned around and told him to 'bring her the plate from the shelves' while stirring the pot. She fell while keeping her posture.
Not knowing what was going on, Nier ran out of his house and towards Popola's library. Being a manager of so many books, she'd be bound to enlighten him on that issue. Not only Nier, but everyone in the village believed that.
However, throwing one look at his fallen mother, Popola shook her head sadly. The abruptness of her death was unbelievable. She died as suddenly as an object breaking.
Even after Popola's older twin, Devola came to help with moving his mother into a coffin, and even after the villagers began preparing for the funeral, he did not comprehend the reality of things. He didn't even cry.
No, during the funeral, he felt like crying once. The inside of his throat tightened painfully, and his vision became blurry. But he stopped his tears immediately, because Yonah cried out first.
Yonah wasn't old enough to understand her mother's death yet. She probably became uneasy when she saw Nier about to cry. When Nier smiled at her, she immediately stopped her tears. She was already smiling when Nier wiped her tear-streaked face.
He understood when he saw that smile. Now that both his father and mother were dead, he was the only one who could protect little Yonah.
After a meager breakfast of the leftovers from the day before yesterday, Nier prepared to go out.
"Brother, can't I come as well?"
Though some herbs were seen throughout the village, the greatest number of herbs grew outside the eastern door in this season. Yonah was brought there once.
"I want to help..."
She began to say, but was stopped by coughs. It was not a serious cough, and when Nier put his hand on her forehead, he didn't feel a fever coming up. However...
"Not today. You're going to have a hard time if you get ill at night."
A week ago, she had a fever and slept in. The fever had gone down now, and she regained her appetite, but a worrying fact remained - her slight cough continued.
"In exchange, you can go out for a bit."
Out of pity for the crestfallen Yonah, he gave her this suggestion. As expected, Yonah was back into bright spirits and said that she wanted to go on errands.
"Well then, one onion and one ginseng."
"Can I get the smallest ginseng?"
"Nope. Didn't Popola tell you that ginseng is good for your body?"
"Okay. I'll eat ginseng. Then, both my fever and my cough will get better, right?"
Instead of answering, Nier patted her head and put a bronze coin into her hand. He'd get payment for herb-picking today, so he could afford to spare a bronze coin.
The weather outside was good. Yonah was overjoyed at her first outing in a long time, and tried to run out with basket in hand. However, her cough could have gotten worse if she ran around that much. Nier gripped Yonah's hand tightly.
"Brother, the eastern door isn't this way..."
"I'll walk you to the fountain."
A gentle slope led from their house to the fountain, so they might have been tempted to run. However, traffic increased further down, and Yonah probably wouldn't be so rash as to run. He thought that he might be a bit overprotective, but he couldn't bear to watch Yonah suffer from a fever.
"Brother! I just heard a splash in the waterway! Was that a fish?"
"The fish in the waterway don't jump out."
He had heard that there were fish in the sea that flew, but the fish in the village's waterway were comparatively quiet.
"I want to go draw some water too."
"Not yet. A bucket of water is quite heavy, and it's dangerous - you could fall into the waterways."
The village's waterway provided water instrumental to everyday life. To keep the water from pollution, there were designated places for fishing, and the children were forbidden to play in the water. That's why Nier, Yonah, and most of the villagers couldn't swim. If they fell into the water ways, they wouldn't be able to expect help from anyone.
"If only I could help you more..."
"Yonah, you're going on an errand now, aren't you? You're helping me alright."
Yonah nodded happily in response.
Eventually, they heard a singing voice from the fountain backed by the gentle sounds of plucked strings.
During sunny days, Devola sat in front of the fountain and sang to the plucking of her favorite instrument. Just like a library without Popola, Nier found a village without Devola's voice hard to imagine.
Yonah's hand slipped out of his grasp, but Nier didn't try to stop her. The sisters Devola and Popola were both a motherly and sisterly figure to Yonah, and she admired them very much.
"Good morning. Yonah, has your fever gone down?"
Devola lightly nudged Yonah's cheeks and ruffled her hair.
"Yeah. Right now, I am going on..."
Her words were cut off by a dry cough. Devola looked up at Nier, who had just arrived.
"Her fever receded three days ago, but she still has a cough."
"I see. It doesn't seem to be serious though."
It's not the kind of cough accompanied by phlegm, nor the kind that makes a whooshing sound whenever you breathe. It's a dry cough that seems almost unreliable. It's not that painful, but Yonah has never had this kind of cough before. That fact worried Nier.
"After you're done with your errand, go and see Popola for a bit. Yesterday night, she made some cough medicine for the old lady in the weapons shop. There should still be some left."
Remembering the bitter taste of Popola's medicine, Yonah frowned. Seeing her face, Devola said,
"If you drink your medicine like a good girl, I think Popola will read you a book as a reward."
"Really? She'll read me the story about that big tree?"
"I will see Popola, drink my medicine like a good girl and have a book read to me."
"You still have an errand to run before that, right?"
I'm off, said Yonah and turned on her heels. Thanking a happily smiling Devola, Nier took off for the eastern door.
After passing through his house again and running up the demanding slope, Nier saw the eastern door before his eyes. A familiar and sleepy-looking guard was stretching.
"Ah, mornin'. Take care if you're going outside. Apparently someone spotted some Shades near the village."
Shades. They're much, much more dangerous than beasts in the wilderness. They are black enemies that attack people without discrimination, and are the prime reason that the villagers don't want to go out.
"Today's weather is fine, so they'll probably behave themselves as well."
Shades are weak to sunlight. That's why they're rarely spotted during sunny days or midday. However, during cloudy days or evenings with weak sunlight, shadows or dark places within the bushes became dangerous.
Shades are weak to sunlight and sunlight only. So no matter how bright, a torchlight won't have any effect on them. The reason for that is unknown. Much about the Shades is unknown in the first place. Are they living beings? What do they eat? How do they multiply? How much reasoning do they have?
Luckily, there has been no rumors of Shades dwelling about the eastern door - but in their place were wild goats. They're about as short-tempered as the sheep in the plains and just as dangerous. If you don't take great care in approaching them, you'll either be gutted by their horns or kicked by their hooves. To avoid provoking the grass-eating goats, Nier began picking herbs at a great distance.
He heard that people tamed sheep and goats a long time ago, but he doubted its genuineness. It's nigh impossible to make them behave without resorting to magic, at least that's what he believed.
Speaking of which, he also heard that there was once a time when nights were pitch black. It was hard to believe, but if it was true, then Shades probably didn't exist back then. If the sun sank below the horizon and left the world in the dark, then the Shades could do as they wished. Humans would probably die out in the blink of an eye.
The prospect of complete darkness arriving every day is a bit scary, but it must've been much easier to live in a world without Shades.
But Nier stopped that line of thought. It's useless to think about how people lived before. It's not going to make their life any easier, and it's not going to make Yonah any better.
Having gathered a bagful of herbs and a whole basket of mushrooms, he looked down at his feet. He finished earlier than expected. There's still sometime before evening arrives.
The trees with Yonah's favorite red fruit were just a bit ahead. He had more than enough time to get them, but changed his mind and headed straight towards the eastern door. Let's go home soon, I want to be there for Yonah today. Somehow, that's what he thought.
"You were a bit too late. Yonah went back a few moments ago."
Popola smiled calmly while accepting the bag of herbs.
"I'll be happy to read her one more book, but a letter came, and..."
"It's fine. I'm sorry to impose on you when you're busy with your own work."
Popola's work includes many things. Although her main job was to manage the library, she often took care of business related to the villagers' life and death along with her sister Devola. Devola and Popola helped deliver many babies that were born in the villages around here, and would bury the dead as well.
Being the knowledgeable person she is, Popola was also relied on by many of the village elders around. Whenever trouble stirred in their own villages, they would often send for Popola's knowledge by way of mail or a messenger.
"Yonah's cough is slightly different from her usual ones."
So my fears were valid... but if Popola noticed it, then it'd be alright. Conflicting feelings of anxiety and relief stirred within Nier.
"That's why I didn't let her drink the medicine. It'd be better to wait and see."
"Then I'll have to tuck her in earlier."
Maybe it'd be better to have dinner earlier as well. Keep her bed warm, let her stay in bed for tomorrow... while Nier worked out plans in his head, Popola laughed lightly.
"With all the worrying you do, you'll end up on the bed yourself."
"It's alright. You're doing fine."
Relief washed over him at hearing Popola's comment. Us siblings were indebted to these sisters more than anyone else in this village, he thought.
After leaving the library, he delivered the mushrooms and took a pumpkin home. He'll make a boiled sweet pumpkin for dinner. Surely Yonah will be happy.
With those thoughts occupying his mind, Nier looked up at the second floor window. However, Yonah was nowhere to be seen. Usually, by the time Nier came back, she'd have attached herself to the window, looking out. He had a bad feeling about this.
Kicking open the door, he rushed into his house.
Holding a chick in her hands, Yonah looked up at Nier with a blank face. Overcame with relief, Nier almost sat down on the spot. Yonah wasn't on the second floor because she was looking after the chick.
"What is it?"
Just a few moments ago, images of Yonah fainting or stumbling from painful coughs tormented his mind. Now he just laughed at the absurdity of it all.
"He ate a lot!"
After patting the chick happily, she put the chick back to its cage. She took great care in handling it, as if dealing with a broken object.
"Popola said that I don't need to drink the cough medicine. Instead, I should sleep early in a warm bed. After that, um..."
That's how Yonah always was. Following Nier around after he came home, she'd talk about what she did during the day at great lengths, trying to make up for the time they spent apart.
Relieved, Nier put down his bag. Listening to Yonah talk behind him, he lit a fire in the kitchen. Her words stopped abruptly, accompanied by a dry cough. It got worse after a few moments.
"You talk too much, Yonah. Don't push yourself too hard, stay quiet for a bit."
The moment Nier tried to turn around, he heard a retching sound. It seems like she coughed too much and ended up throwing up. He immediately tried to rush to her side, but was frozen in place. Yonah's two hands covering her mouth were stained black. The oppressive stench was distinctly different from that of vomit. He later realized that it was the stench of blood.
"Bro...ther.... it... hurts..."
Yonah looked like she's about to cry. She tried to stand up, but started coughing again. Black puddles of blood slipped between her fingertips and splashed onto the floor. They looked like they had a life of their own.
An ominous term floated in his mind. The so-called black reaper - the Black Scrawl virus.
"Anyways, she should be okay for now."
Popola caught Nier's eye and motioned for them to leave the room. Devola, who stayed by Yonah's side, nodded.
He can't quite remember what happened after that. He recalled Yonah saying that her back hurts, himself carrying her outside and meeting Devola, who told them to go back.
When he came back to himself, Popola had already given Yonah some medicine, and Devola was helping him clean up the blood-stained bed. No, he really didn't do anything. Devola and Popola were the ones that took over.
When his father died, he still had his mother. When she died, he had Yonah. But what if Yonah died? He felt himself being drawn into a black hole, and stopped thinking further.
"Why... why would Yonah..."
Coming down the stairs, he faced Popola alone, and couldn't stop himself from asking.
"She's still so young. Is it because I didn't take good care of her? Did she have bad food?"
"No. It's not because of you nor the food. The Black Scrawl is simply that kind of disease."
Even Popola couldn't figure out the cause for the much feared Black Scrawl. It's not something transferred from animals to humans, nor a genetic disease transferred between parent and child. There's no relationship between health or living habits. A healthy person could easily get sick as well.
"Apparently the symptoms start out as coughs and fevers. That's why it's so easily confused with normal flu."
"Did you know this?"
Maybe even Devola knew. After all, she told Yonah to go to Popola after hearing her coughs. And Popola didn't give her any medicine, but told him to wait and see. Maybe they knew that the usual medicine won't take effect.
"I hoped that I was wrong. But we both saw victims of the Black Scrawl before, so..."
Popola's voice faded out to a whisper, and she cast her eyes downwards.
"What... will become of Yonah?"
He didn't ask how much time she had. Nier knew that the Black Scrawl is incurable, and will inevitably lead to death. Everyone feared this disease, so it's natural for everyone to have a passing knowledge of it.
"It differs from person to person, but the fever, the cough and the pain will continue. Yonah said her back hurts, but the pain actually comes from her bone. Some people have leg pains, some have arm pains."
As the disease progresses, the pain will spread throughout the body. Eventually the victim will be rendered motionless, and can only lie down and suffer. Also, coughing up blood will weaken their bodies significantly, and maybe speed up the symptoms.
"When black letters show up on their bodies, they won't have much longer to live..."
"Is there anything I can do?"
He knew that it was a foolish question. He knew, but couldn't stop himself from asking.
"If you give her some medicine, it could lessen her pains at least. But there's nothing you can do to completely eradicate the disease."
"You could stop the pains at least, right? Then..."
He wouldn't want Yonah to suffer more than she has to. The least he could do was lessen her pain. But Popola shook her head slightly.
"The medicine that could ease the pain of the Black Scrawl has to be obtained from somewhere else. It's not like your standard cough or fever medicine where all the materials can be found around the village."
In other words, it was expensive medication. Nier was the one who always picked up herbs for cough and fever medicines, so he simply got them from Popola whenever he needed them. However, it's not that simple with medicine that has be gotten elsewhere.
"Still... if it's for Yonah."
Popola looked upon him sadly, and spoke no more.
He'll do anything for Yonah. His feelings as a brother were completely truthful, but reality simply wasn't that nice.
It's not like he didn't have savings. After his mother's death, he found a few of his father's letters along with a certain amount of money carefully kept. Nier didn't use them, wanting to save them for times of need. His mother probably thought the same thing and stored them.
The amount isn't anything to be proud of, but it's reassuring nonetheless to know that he has financial backup for emergencies. That's why, when he heard the expensive price for the medicine, he thought he could do something about it.
The medicine worked very well. Yonah still coughed and had light fevers, but the coughs caused by the Black Scrawl were never very serious to begin with. Compared to the coughs that made Yonah lose sleep whenever the seasons changed, this was nothing. As long as the pain is lessened, so is the burden on her body.
But here comes the problem - she had to keep drinking the same medicine. If she stops, the pain returns full force. That's why he had to keep spending money to get a continuous supply of medicine for Yonah. His savings quickly saw their bottom.
"Brother... you're going already?"
Yonah sleepily got up while rubbing her eyes. Nier tried to move around without making a sound, but Yonah probably sensed his presence and woke up.
"I'm picking some fern today, so I have to go out early. You can still sleep, Yonah."
"Are you going to the place with scary sheep?"
Yonah's expression darkened. Fern grew on the northern plains. Home to not only shades, but also a plethora of wild sheep.
"Sorry. I'm sick, so you have to..."
Speaking over her words, Nier smiled at her.
"Your brother won't lose to pesky sheep. I got some of their meat last year, didn't I?"
He didn't exactly lie to reassure Yonah. He was stronger than he was last year, and became faster as well. As long as he had a proper weapon, he could probably hunt down sheep. Still, getting his hands on that proper weapon is going to prove to be a difficult task.
"Well, I'm off then."
Take care, Yonah tried to wave at him but was once again stopped by her coughs.
Before he headed into the plains, he went to the south gate. More than half of the villagers were asleep at this hour, and no one could be seen at shops or on the main street. Only his lone footsteps resounded through the quiet street.
Soon, he heard the sound of the waterwheel turning and the squawking of hens. He was right in thinking that the hen-keeper's wife was gathering the eggs.
Nier called out to her at a distance in fear of stepping onto any eggs hidden by the grass.
"Good morning, Nier. Up early today, huh?"
"Erm... if there's anything I can do..."
Even one extra job would count towards getting enough money for Yonah's medicine. That's how he got into the habit of asking villagers for a job.
"I'm sorry, but we have enough helpers right now. There's nothing I can ask of you."
The hen-keeper's wife said apologetically. In the first place, the couple only kept a number of chickens that they could deal with. Grass and bugs couldn't feed that many chickens. If they increase in numbers, the couple would have to buy food specifically for them. They weren't prosperous enough to afford that.
"Oh, if something ever comes up in Seafront, please pick up a few seashells along the way."
"Apparently the hens lay better eggs if you feed them crushed seashells."
"I'll be sure to pick up some if I go there, but not now."
"Of course. I'm not in a rush, so just do it whenever you want."
Seafront is too far for just one job, and Nier didn't really like that place. He went there just once, but for him, that place held nothing but bad memories...
Picking up his pace, he once again went through the street full of shops and headed towards the northern gate. No sign of the villagers yet. There were usually two guards at the northern gate, but only one was present. As was his habit, Nier asked the guard for jobs, but the guard just shook his head.
"I'll ask everyone who pass by for jobs, so come by again sometime."
"Don't expect too much."
His blunt statement was quite understandable. Everyone in this village is gentle, but at the same time, they're poor. In another city, the wheat and fish in this village may be treated as chicken feed and lures, but to this village they're precious sources of food.
Food wasn't the only thing they were lacking in. There's also a severe shortage of workforce. Nobody here had enough money to actually hire people. Even the comparatively rich people are stretching themselves thin just by paying for tailoring. Except the shopkeepers and guards, all adult males had to go outside to work. Nier's father was once among them.
That's why the "jobs" the villagers gave to Nier were closer to charity. They were going out of their way to think of jobs that they can make Nier do in exchange for food or money. Nier knew that it'd be hard to get more money in this village.
However, Nier is only fifteen, not old enough to be hired in other cities. He really wanted to grow up quicker. He wanted to earn enough money. If this keeps up, he might not even have enough for tomorrow's food... much less for Yonah's medicine.
He returned to the village after half a day spent picking up ferns in the plains. True to his word, the guard called out to people who passed by the northern gate, but no one needed Nier's help.
He went to talk with Devola. Since she sang at the bar, she knew the ins and outs of the village quite well. Just like how people went to Popola for her knowledge, they went to Devola for someone to listen to their complaints and troubles. She should know if anyone wanted help. However, even Devola shook her head today.
"Hey, Nier. There's this old lady looking for a house. Her son is coming back with a wife or something."
"Devola, you mean..."
"If you sell your house, you should be able to get by for the moment. There are a few spare rooms in the library, so there's plenty of space for you two to sleep in."
He never thought about selling his house. It's an old and small home, so he didn't know how much it'd sell for, but it could cover for Yonah's medicine cost. At least he didn't have to worry about not being able to buy her medicine anymore.
"Are you going to think about it?"
He knew that he should nod. There are barely any savings left. Selling his house and asking Popola to let them into one of her library rooms is the best choice.
His brain understood that, but he couldn't bring himself to nod. Their house must've been a special place to Yonah, who spent most of her life at home due to her weak body. It's also the last thing connecting them to their mother. He sold all of his mother's clothing and personal belongings to cover medicine costs. Nothing is left to remind them of her - except for the house itself. There's no way he could let go of that.
Nier couldn't finish his sentence, and merely cast his eyes downwards. But Devola understood.
"I'm sorry. You told me this for my sake..."
"No worries. I kinda expected that answer from you anyways. I should be the one apologizing."
Pushing open the heavy doors, Nier left the bar. No jobs for today, and he still had no idea what to do for tomorrow. That line of thought depressed Nier.
His bad mood only worsened on the way home when he saw a young mother pulling her children away, telling them to "not go there". He was aware that the mothers in the village forbid their children from playing near his house. They feared that their children will be infected with Yonah's Black Scrawl.
Of course, everyone in the village knew that the Black Scrawl wasn't contagious. That's why they never went out of their way to avoid Nier, and interacted with him as they normally would.
However, the villagers were still nervous. What if the Black Scrawl is actually contagious, but only rarely so? Even if most people don't get infected, maybe some people do get infected. As long as they remained in the dark about its cause, nothing could be set in stone.
Dragging his feet over the pavement, Nier suddenly realized something. He forgot to water the fields before he left this morning.
What little money he had went into Yonah's medicine. He wanted to get by without buying food, and it should be possible with the fields his mother made when she was alive. Pulling out the wild grass and digging through the soil, he planted the small number of seeds he had gotten.
Please let me make it, Nier prayed in his heart while running. He jumped over the broken fence with all his might, but immediately sunk down to his knees at the sight of his garden. The sprouts that just began to grow leaves were all withered. He heard that it's not easy to grow plants on this piece of ground, but never thought that everything would wither simply because he to forgot to water them once.
Now that he thought about it, his mother was ridiculously uptight about watering. Although she let Nier take care of the chickens, she forbade him to touch the fields. Even his mother had plenty of plants die on her before harvest.
In the end, it was impossible for two children to live in this poor village alone. Maybe he really has to sell his house. There was nothing in his house that he could trade for money...
Just as he believed himself to be on the brink of despair, a certain idea entered his mind. There's still something he could sell. Yes, one last thing.
He tried to stand up, but failed. He felt like a heavy weight was placed on him. He has to get home quickly, make food for Yonah, prepare for tomorrow... he thought of tons and tons of things he had to do, but still Nier could not move.
"Brother, where are you going today?"
Yonah looked up at him with worry in her eyes. She probably realized that he was going far away by the way he moved.
"I'm going to Seafront to take care of some business."
Yonah silently gripped Nier's sleeve. Maybe she noticed something.
"Someone wanted me to pick up some seashells. Apparently hens lay better eggs if you feed them that. She did say that it had to be crushed, but I wonder if chickens actually eat that."
That wasn't a lie. He was glad that he talked to the hen-keeper's wife yesterday. All of this is true. Still, Yonah didn't let go of his sleeve yet.
"Of course not, there are other things as well. It's not worth it if I'm only going there to pick up some seashells."
He lied just now. He wasn't asked to do anything else.
"The old lady in the flower shop asked me to buy some bulbs for her. They only sell tulip bulbs in Seafront, you see."
Maybe he talked too much. Nevertheless, he couldn't stop. If he didn't keep lying, he wouldn't be able to hide it any longer, and Yonah would see through everything.
"There's also the man from the material store..."
"Will I be alone tonight?"
Relief washed over him as he looked upon Yonah who looked down. She didn't see through anything, she was just lonely. She probably remembered his absence half a year ago and became anxious.
Seafront is far away. Moreover, he has to pass through the Shade infested southern plains, so he has to move while the sun is bright. It's impossible to make it back within the day no matter how much he rushed.
"I have lots of things to do, so I won't be able to come back immediately."
"You stayed home alone before, right? And you're much older than you were then."
He convinced her that staying home was a big help to him, and she finally let go of his sleeve.
Turning his back on the worried Yonah, Nier closed the door behind him. He ran without looking back. He feared that if he stopped here, he wouldn't be able to proceed.
He ran till he was out of breath and stopped. By then he's lost the village behind him. He walked on and controlled his breathing. He needed to keep his stamina - the Shades are quick. If he doesn't spot them from a distance and run with all his might, he wouldn't be able to escape them.
The southern plains, where huge Shades roam, is right in front of him. He knew which path to take and where to rest better than before, but somehow, his footsteps were a lot heavier than before.
The first time he went to Seafront to take care of business was half a year ago - to deliver an emergency letter to someone in the city, to buy tulip bulbs at the flower shop and natural rubber at the materials shop.
Feeling anxious at leaving Yonah behind, he gradually put distance between him and the village. He saw the silhouette of a huge Shade from afar, and ran with all his might across the plains. His first view of the ocean was beautiful, but he immediately shut his mouth against the smell of fish that prevailed over the whole city. While he walked around, both his hair and skin became disgustingly sticky. The lady at the flower shop told him it was due to the wind from the sea.
After buying the bulbs and materials, he walked into an area with huge houses. The paths were complicated, and the poor vision caused by the buildings only made it worse. He somehow delivered the letter, but he got lost on the way back.
Is it due to the time? Or do people here not like walking outside to begin with? Nier couldn't find anyone to ask for directions. He had no idea where he walked and how he walked there, and was left with no choice. Tired from all the walking, he took a rest before the front door of an unknown household.
"What are you doing there?"
A voice called to him out of the blue, and Nier hurried away from the door.
"You're not one of the kids from around here. Are you lost?"
Maybe he'll point me in the right way, Nier was relieved. That's why he wasn't alert when the man opened the door and came out. Even when asked whether he was alone or not, he nodded honestly.
The man smiled. Nier began to back off, but the man grabbed his arm, covered his mouth and attempted to drag him inside his home. Nier tried to run but couldn't move - the man was strong.
"Don't you want money?"
He whispered into Nier's ear, giving him goosebumps. Nier used all his strength and flung away the man's arm. The man laughed behind him.
"Come by whenever you want money."
He ran with all his might, hoping to escape that voice. He ran and ran, and he was out of Seafront before he even realized it. The man's voice still seemed to be following him, so Nier ran on.
Luckily, not many villagers wanted things done in Seafront. Even if they did, they told him to do it at his convenience. Thanks to that, he forgot everything within the span of half a year - that unfortunate encounter, and the man's laughter.
However, here he was again. His footsteps naturally became heavier as Seafront loomed into his sight. He wished that he'd get lost again, that he'd never reach his destination. However, the house was close to the entrance. Ironically, he didn't get lost this time.
Now that he looked at it, it was a grand house. The man was probably wealthy. Hearing that laughter in his ears again, his feet shook. If he stepped in, he wouldn't be able to go back.
He realized that he was searching for excuses to go back. Just give up on it, it's okay now, you can't hope to bear anything more, a voice resounded within himself.
No. If he turns back now, what will happen to Yonah?
Yonah was his heart's support during these five years. When he thought of what food to make her for tomorrow, he could avert his eyes from the anxiety for the future. When he was busy looking after her, he could forget his mother's absence. The fact that he, as a child, was able to make it thus far is a testament to Yonah's importance.
"It's for Yonah."
When he spoke these words out loud, his heart was set. Nier pushed open the door silently.
Yonah was kept relatively healthy. With the pain lessened, she regained somewhat of an appetite, and could feed the chickens in the garden or go to the library. The coughs continued, but luckily she wasn't coughing up blood.
Yonah felt nervous when Nier went to Seafront every few days, but was otherwise content. That's why he thought this was good enough. Even when he felt something slowly breaking within himself to cover for Yonah's medicine costs.
He made Yonah regain her smile. Even now, he's protecting her like this. That's fine. As long as that holds true, he could forgive himself...
Nier walked with those thoughts filling his head. He was tired. He wanted to sleep without thinking of anything. That was always the case when he came back from Seafront. When was it... that the way back became harder to bear than the way forward?
He felt someone calling his name and stopped. It was Devola. He reached the fountain without realizing it.
"What is it? Are you feeling bad?"
"I'm just thinking."
"That's fine then. Huh... you tied up your hair at the back."
"It... gets in the way."
He had gotten into the habit of tying up his hair despite giving it free roam before. Ever since then.
"I see. You're quite skilled, huh."
Devola said, impressed, and reached out to his hair. It was an innocent gesture. He knew that, he really did.
He swatted away Devola's hand before he even realized it. The moment she touched his hair, memories of last night replayed themselves in his mind. Devola would probably scold him if he doesn't say anything, but he couldn't bring himself to speak.
Ever since he frequented Seafront, he hated people touching his hair. Not only that - he couldn't stand his own hair touching his shoulders. He can't help but remember. How the man roughly grabbed his hair, and what he was forced into after that. He tried to forget, but those experiences seem to have been deeply engraved within his five senses, and would revive at the most inopportune times to torment Nier.
He thought about cutting his hair off, but he'd probably be asked about that. He didn't think he could respond properly, and he would definitely remember that man whenever asked. That's why he merely tied it up so that it doesn't touch his neck or shoulders.
"My bad, my bad. Nobody likes their hard work undone."
I'm sorry, the words that he was finally able to utter sounded alien to himself.
Devola made to pluck her instrument's strings again, but remembered something at the last moment.
"Popola called for you. Go see her before you go home. And..."
"Don't push yourself too hard."
Nier smiled noncommittally. Devola didn't know anything. She was probably just worried at his tired state. If she knew, she wouldn't care for him this much. She would probably look down on him as something filthy.
He thought that Popola would say something similar, but he was wrong. Popola didn't ask him how he as, nor did she tell him to "not push himself".
"There's a job I want you to do."
He found salvation in her matter of fact tone. He preferred straightforwardness over worry and pity.
"But it's a very dangerous job. Should I even give this job to you...?"
Popola hesitated and cut off her words.
"What kind of job is it?"
He thought of the huge black Shade he saw on the southern plains. He probably couldn't even stop its movements, much less defeat it. Still, the thought of rejecting this offer didn't even cross his mind.
"Of course, you're not alone in this. There should be around three people coming from the cities around here."
Four people, including Nier. They're supposed to exterminate the Shade's den with just those numbers. There's a high possibility that the Shades in the northern plains come from there. Luckily they're all small ones, and a normal person could probably exterminate them successfully, or so Popola said.
"You'll be going with adults, and the Shades aren't that strong, but..."
Popola seemed a lot more undecided than Nier was. As long as Shades are involved, his safety wasn't guaranteed. He must be prepared to be injured, and if he ran out of luck, he could die.
"But there's no way I could leave this alone, right?"
If the Shades in the northern plains increase, then the village would be endangered as well.
"I'll go. And I have to pay for Yonah's medicine anyways."
He doesn't mind the danger. As long as the job doesn't require him to go to Seafront.
"I'll leave it to you then. It's a dangerous job, but the pay is good."
Nier doubted his ears when he heard the amount. If he wanted to earn that much money, how many times would he have to drag himself to that man's house? How many times would he have to endure that kind of humiliation? He was shocked at the difference in value between the pay for Shade slaying and his own body.
"I'll do it. I don't care if it's dangerous or not."
"Please, do take care."
Popola's eyes weren't filled with sadness or pain, nor were they filled with pity or sympathy. They were filled with another kind of darkness. Nier realized it when he saw those eyes.
Popola, and maybe even Devola knew. How he earned enough money to buy the expensive medicine, and the price he had to pay. They knew, and that's why he was referred to a high paying job despite its dangers...
The moment his secrets were revealed, his face burnt with shame. At the same time, he was thankful for Devola and Popola who treated him no differently. Why did he even think that he would be looked down upon? There's no way that they would do it.
"Thank you, Popola."
However, the darkness in Popola's eyes did not disappear.
The rendezvous point was at the northern gate. Not many people dally around in this village, so Nier knew that the two men were hired for the same job as he was.
However, they never expected to be accompanied by such a young boy. They frowned when they saw Nier, and told him to go back.
"Kids like you should get the hell outta here. We're not here for fun, y'know."
"I know. So..."
"Get out. I'm not gonna sleep well if a random kid dies in front of me."
How could he convince them to let him go with them? He didn't want to lose this opportune job. When Nier tried to stand his ground, a voice resounded.
"The hell are you guys arguing about?"
He knew this voice, but it's one that he didn't want to remember. He knew who it was without even turning around for confirmation.
"Why are you here? Oh, you're from this village, huh."
It's the man from Seafront. Nier's questions about his presence were answered the moment he saw the man's sword. A large number of swords were on display in his house. He bought them all for collecting purposes, and all of them told of murder. People who have twisted sexual preferences have eccentric collections as well.
The two men seemed to know the man from Seafront. Nier could tell from their conversation that they often met each other on jobs like these. The man probably took on Shade slaying jobs for a chance to put his collections to practice.
"You know this kid?"
"Ah, I know him very well. Right?"
The man from Seafront smiled meaningfully at Nier.
"This kid won't be a burden. He's strong enough to fling away a grown man, and not that shabby in speed either."
He was talking about their first meeting. Nier turned his face away, but the man still looked upon him out of interest.
"Don't be fooled by his womanly face. He's quite stubborn... very good endurance as well."
Nier's hands and feet froze out of their own accord. He couldn't even fling away the hand placed on his shoulder.
"He might be surprisingly useful. Well, I'm also quite interested in seeing him cry in fear at the sight of Shades."
"If you say so... I guess we could take him along."
His hatred of that man could not be put into words. However, it was thanks to his words that Nier was able to keep his job. How humiliating.
It's for Yonah's sake, everything is to protect her...
He gripped his fists tightly and repeated the mantra in his heart. He felt a pressure at the back of his head.
"What's with that stare, huh?"
No, it wasn't even strong enough to be called a pressure, but Nier couldn't move.
"Don't think of trying anything funny. I taught you that, didn't I?"
The man whispered in a deep voice that the other two couldn't hope to catch. His voice and breath flowed into Nier's ears like poison. Nier clenched his mouth tightly.
The man's fingers were intertwined in Nier's tied up hair. They pulled, and his hair fell loose. The man left while laughing.
Nier wanted to retie his hair as soon as possible, but he couldn't do it. As he picked up the fallen hair tie, he realized that his hands were shaking uncontrollably.
The Shade's nest was near the mountain ranges in the plains. He knew that the twisting narrow paths led to a cave. It's not far-fetched for sunlight fearing shades to take up residence there.
As they came close to entering the mountain paths, his hands tightened with anxiety. This was the first time he held a sword since he went hunting for sheep with the village adults. Back then, he held a blunt sword to bludgeon the animals, but it's different this time. Popola lent him an old sword from the library's storage room for this job.
Nier didn't know what a sword looked like after cutting humans, but the moment he saw the darkly lit blade, he instinctively knew that it shed blood once. Despite being such a dangerous weapon, the sword felt natural in his hands. Almost as if it was waiting for him to pick it up.
"The wind feels strangely wet."
The man in the front turned his head. Now that he mentioned it, the air's coldness and heaviness seem to foreshadow rain. However, the sky above is blue and unobstructed by any clouds.
"Let's get this over quickly and go back. We'll be in trouble if it rains."
There's still some distance before the cave. They increased their pace. Though there were no clouds, the weather could still change without warning. However, they thought wrong. What became worse wasn't the weather, but their vision.
The wet wind seemed to be the harbinger of fog. Before they even realized it, the fog thickened until they couldn't see the sky's color anymore.
"What do we do now? Go back for now and come back later?"
"The fog's not gonna matter if we're in the cave."
Let's just go, the man began. A few black shadows appeared on the other side of the mist.
When they turned around, black shadows were closing in from the back. They were surrounded.
"I see! They weren't just living in the caves! This whole area is their nest!"
The Shades weren't confined to the caves, they could move anywhere as long as the sunlight was dim. The sun doesn't shine that long on the mountain ranges to begin with. Narrow paths and frequent fogs provided great living conditions for the Shades.
They're coming! a voice shouted. The black shadows were right before his eyes. Nier swung down the sword he held.
What he felt through the blade was blunt and heavy. He felt like he was killing a sheep - the moment he thought that, he saw crimson. He was showered in a warm fluid - it was blood. It stunk the same way as the black blood that Yonah coughed up. The first time he saw the Shade's blood, Nier hesitated.
Though the Shades look like mere shadows, cutting them feels like cutting animals, and they bleed crimson. However, they don't leave a corpse when defeated. The Shades he slew became black mists and lost their shape - only a pile of crimson black blood remained.
What are Shades?
His question was quickly filed into the back of his mind. Now's not the time for that. What the Shades lacked in size, they made up for in number. He couldn't afford to think.
He swung his sword as if in a trance, and repeatedly bathed in their shed blood. No matter how many he killed, black shadows kept appearing from the fog. Their silhouette strangely resembled that of a human. They have a head, they have limbs, they move while standing upright...
After sometime, he couldn't tell whether he was killing humans or not. Maybe he hasn't been killing Shades, but humans all along? Is this sticky crimson fluid human blood?
He saw familiar clothing in front of him. It was the man from Seafront. He was too focused on testing out his favorite sword, and took no heed of Nier's presence.
He saw the man's thin smile. His head was repeatedly showered in blood - he resembled a monster more than a human.
Maybe he himself had the same expression. He must've been killing these Shades wearing the same expression as this man. Somewhere in his heart, he enjoyed slaughter. Three, four... he must've been proud of himself for killing all these Shades.
Who are the real monsters? The Shades? Or themselves?
The fog thickened.
He had no idea how many Shades he slew. His head was still numb, and he couldn't think straight. But he was confident that he took out most of them in this area. Nier breathed deeply, and went back the way he came.
He didn't suffer any major injuries, but scratches and bruises couldn't be avoided. A numb pain filled his entire body. The Shades' shed blood on his hands and feet dried up, and he felt strange whenever his movements tore into the blood. Maybe his sense of smell got used to it, but he must be stinking to the untrained nose.
Anyways, he had to wash himself soon. He didn't have enough stamina left to run, but he tried to walk as fast as he could.
Eventually the fog dissipated from his vision, and he caught up with the two men. They're the two who tried to chase Nier back in the northern gate. One of them was dragging his feet, and the other's left arm was bent at a weird angle. I must've been extremely lucky to get away with only these injuries, Nier thought after looking at them.
When they saw Nier, the two men widened their eyes. They probably thought that the Shades had killed him.
Nier silently nodded.
"It's just as he said, huh. You're far from a burden - heck, you're the liveliest out of all of us."
I'm impressed, the man began, but changed his expression when he remember something.
"What happened to him? Wasn't he with you?"
This time Nier shook his head.
"True. We never thought that there'd be that many. It's a miracle that we even survived."
The man sighed, and apologized to Nier.
"We really shouldn't have brought you along. It must've been hard on a child."
With this, he could buy the medicine. Yonah would be released from her suffering.
"It's for my sister, so."
Yes, he would do anything for Yonah. Anything. No matter how great the danger, or how dirty its nature.
"I see. Well, I'm glad that you're fine."
The man with his left arm injured patted Nier on his back with his right arm, and said "Let's go back." Carrying the man with a leg injury on his back, Nier walked silently for a while.
They walked through the mountain paths and crossed the northern plains on high alert. They can't afford to be attacked here, but luckily the sky was clear, and no Shades could be seen on the plains. Nier recalled the huge Shade he saw in the southern plains. It had limbs, and stood on its hind-legs as well.
"I never thought that humans and Shades were so alike..."
He called them "black monsters" when he was small. When he first saw the real thing, he thought that they were like shadows. But he never thought of them in connection to humans.
"Really? Are they that alike?"
The two men tilted their heads.
"They bleed when you cut them, and they feel the same..."
"Then the same applies to sheep and goats. They bleed, and they feel like Shades when you cut them."
What a weird kid, the two men laughed. It seems like they never thought about the difference between Shades and humans.
"Well, if you actually kill a human, it might feel different from a Shade or a sheep. But you can't just put it into practice."
"Put it into practice..."
He looked upon his blood stained hands. His palms dried in a dark crimson color. A color ambiguous about its nature, human blood or Shade blood. The man from Seafront was dead. He didn't have to go to his house ever again.
"What's wrong? You're hurting somewhere?"
Nier came back to himself after hearing the worried tone. Nier brought his eyes away from his hands, and shook his head.
"Just thinking that I have to go home quickly."
The image of Yonah waiting by the second floor window floated in his mind. She'll probably greet him with a smile today, just like all other days.
He doesn't have to think any more than that. Nothing more than protecting Yonah. Such a simple thing...
He felt something being lifted from his shoulders, and looked up at the sky. Within the same vast expanse of blue, a single cloud drifted along, carried by the wind.