A young man takes his first steps into the outside world. Raised without sin, is it possible to survive the cruelties the world can muster or is he doomed to fail?
It was his first taste of fresh air in nearly eight months. It smelled too sweet; the sickly scent caused his nostrils to flare uncomfortably. There was the stinging tang of salt there, not quite buried beneath the swirling confluence of pollen and pollution. A testament to their proximity to an ocean he had seen just once in his life. He was twenty-one years of age. This brief excursion was a birthday treat he had been eagerly awaiting for some time. The open sky terrified him. Miles and miles of nothing swelled above him, suffocating his senses while simultaneously stripping him of any familiar constraint in which he might find comfort. The stars hung distantly; mocking.
He looked to his left. His father strode wordlessly beside him. The ability to reach their destination without detection was a skill the man had acquired after years of expeditions with each and every son he had taken on. Of course, this man was not his biological father. He had no recollection whatsoever of his origins. He knew his parents had released him freely. Within the college every tyro was aware of their fortunate circumstances and the very real fact that every parent who had relinquished them had done so with nothing but love driving their actions.
A crude line of misshapen rocks traced a path before them. They turned silently onto the broken mineral course which led down to the vacant dunes separating them from the peaceful, black mirror of the sea. The sheared obsidian stones sank like negatives of icebergs into the soft sand and were troublesome to navigate in the absence of any illumination. After a shaky descent from the town proper they reached the termination of the trail. He did not know his father’s name. He would never know it. When his companion spoke his name he simply replied,
“I will wait here now,” the older man’s voice was kind and compassionate. “Take your time and enjoy this experience. I’m not sure when we will have the freedom to come here again; after your graduation perhaps.”
His father’s voice trailed off with tinges of uncertainty. The boy nodded his understanding and strode away, compensating for the shifting sand beneath his feet with each tread. He was not a remarkable boy. He was not handsome nor was he unsightly. The light brown of his sensibly trimmed hair matched almost perfectly that of the thin irises which now formed a dull corona around the dead stars of his adjusted pupils.
It was the occluded world which frightened him most. It terrified him with its inescapable presence on the periphery of each day of his life; the lack of windows in the corridors, the hushed discussions with outsiders, the disappearance of unapproved literature.
The beach was awash with ghosts. Those other members of his class now arrived mutely, each accompanied by their own father or mother. A generation of tyros bequeathed with a frightening birthday expedition. The stainless white of their rough cotton shirts and trousers was almost lost in the gloom. The oily waves swallowed the crescent moon’s translucent gleam as soon as it touched the surface, sustaining the blanket of impenetrable night that had wrapped itself around the congregation.
The boy thought carefully about running away. His life within the college was spartan but not without comforts. The older generations cared deeply for each member of their family and would gladly lay down their lives for those children. Compassion and mercy were rife within the tightly spaced walls of that place. Although any form of punishment was forbidden it was entirely unnecessary. Those who committed offensive acts, whether to another member or to Nature would be cast out. There was no place for a tainted soul however trivial that tarnished element. He had no fear of wicked behaviour. It was a fairytale. Something he had heard of in stories but never seen. Never felt.
It was the occluded world which frightened him most. It terrified him with its inescapable presence on the periphery of each day of his life; the lack of windows in the corridors, the hushed discussions with outsiders, the disappearance of unapproved literature. The unspoken pressure weighed heavily on his mind. He was a moral beacon like each of his brothers and sisters. He had committed not a single act of evil in twenty one years.
“Was it truly of my own will though,” he considered. “Was I simply good because I was unable to be bad?”
Perhaps it was an unanswerable question. If he would flee at all it would not be tonight he decided nonchalantly. His feet sent tremors of excitement upwards along his muscled legs as the creeping waves tickled the edges of his soles. He surged forward resolutely now, saturating his garments until they stuck unmoving, plastered wet against his skin. When the water reached his chest he took in a lungful of air and then plunged his head beneath the surface. He forced himself to open his eyes below the swell and saw only the void. He knew well enough he could see nothing. The murky fluid allowed only inches of visibility. Yet it seemed to him as though he were once again staring into the sky. There were no starry buoys to reign in a sense of distance this time, only the infinite possibility of nowhere and nothing. He drifted in soundless suspense through that nullified plane with ever increasing torque building from the wheels of his mind. Was this the price to be paid for forsaking vice? Without the meandering pathways of choice before him how could his life be anything other than a meaningless expanse? What can left mean without a right?
The muted flow around his head had dulled his senses. His open eyes might have been closed for all their use. His ears were heavy with clogged, distorted sound. How long he had remained submerged he could not guess.
He split the undulating skin above him and the air rushed to fill the breach. He stood panting for a few seconds before he registered the chaotic scene he had left so peaceful in the last act. The tyros were scattering wildly, ignoring the hushed pleas for order from the mothers and fathers. The majority had managed to group together on the right side of the beach and were clambering awkwardly double file up the grassy banks, struggling to find purchase in the poor footing. A few were still in the sea, wading against the tide in panicked hyperbolas towards their fellows. He started forward then. The angry orange glow of numerous lanterns was rising above the steep left banks. Now he understood. They had been detected. Those fabled creatures that inhabited the town surrounding the college had discovered them. Fear gripped him keenly. Once the ground began to push back against his feet he felt calmer. He sprinted the remaining length of the shore to the right banks and started to climb hurriedly, grasping at the scraggy stalks of weeds which had somehow flourished there. Where the others were he could not see. He knew he was not the last to emerge from the water. They would wait for him. His father would wait for him.
Cresting the grassy mound he saw no one. Scratching grains of sand clung to his sodden clothing and he shed the weighty hindrance of his shirt. A glance to his left revealed the quickly approaching owners of the lantern light. He hastened into the city hoping to pick up the trail of his family procession. Had he paid more heed to his earlier bearings in the opposite direction he might have speedily intercepted them. However, he found himself moving deeper within the smothering stacks of housing comprising the city centre. It sounded as though his pursuers were approaching along every street he hastened into. Voices seemed to emanate from the walls and houses around him, seemed to creep from each possible course. The laughter and chatter of the advancing lantern bearers felt sinister somehow, tinged with undertones the boy could not name. He stopped abruptly at a crossroads confused and alarmed by the imminent prospect of meeting one of his pursuers. The sounds of amusement and mockery had surrounded him now.
He retreated into a smaller alley hidden in shadow within the diagonal of the crossroads. He hurtled along the cramped passage, his distress peaking violently as he came to the dead end of the alleyway. He collapsed then, his will suddenly stolen from his aching muscles. Shivers of dread shook his body and he waited stricken for the lantern bearers to descend upon him.
He had heard so many stories about the wicked outsiders. They could hurt a person’s body, their mind, even their soul. The harm and pain they inflicted was a deep wound in the mind born of their own suffering, a contagious affliction that if survived would eventually corrupt and rot away the goodness in any and all people they had touched with their malice. He didn’t fear death. Death was not evil. Death held no agenda for the likes of man. It was a necessary part of the natural process and he would welcome it warmly when his time came. No, that was not the genesis of the horror consuming him. More than anything he feared that seeds of evil would take root in his own soul, would force his family to reject and deny him forever. Lachrymal rivulets managed to stream weakly from the pinched corners of his eyes despite the ferocity with which he clenched them shut.
Footsteps rang on the cobbles of the darkened alleyway. The sounds grew steadily louder until, surely within inches of his quivering form they stopped. A minute of silence passed, perhaps longer. A part of the boy desperately wanted to open his eyes, to stare defiantly into the visage of his captor, but he could not bring himself to accept the reality. Like a young pup he kept his gaze shuttered, safe in the knowledge that that which he could not see could not harm him.
A hand landed softly upon his shoulder. Tunnels of liquid darkness spiralled behind his eyelids and his sense of balance quivered nauseatingly. The space within his head seemed filled with nothing but air and all feeling from the rest of his estranged body slipped quietly away. He sensed the air rush around him menacingly and then he dropped into the void once more. The empty nothingness stretched away in every direction before him yet he felt nothing but calm. He released an inner sigh from some forgotten part of his mind and let go of whatever portion of nothing supported him. He fell upwards and he thought no more.
The boy had fainted violently when his father had tried to silently rouse him. Jovial citizens still searched feverishly for any sign of the fabled Purists, now hours after the escape from the beach. The boy had been fortunate. Turning into the obscured alley had secreted him from the roving outsiders long enough for the man to return from the college and find him. He would take the boy back to the college and the doctors would tend to him as best they could. This kind of intrusion could not have been prevented by any measures he or another college member could have suggested. Living within the city meant a constant risk of invasive influences but he wished miserably it could have been a day other than his son’s birthday. He hoped there would be no lasting trauma from the incident. At least he had not suffered an interaction. It was far too early for the boy to meet the world which had spawned him. The tender souls of all those children would be torn apart by the realities which waited ominously to ruin them.
They would continue their training. Eventually they would all hold the strength of will to stand in the face of sin and malevolence and respond only with compassion and mercy. The hope burned brightly in his heart yet he knew many of them would ultimately fail.
He hefted the boy’s dead weight over his shoulder easily and slipped wraith-like back into the black cloak of the night. They would both grow stronger from these events. He would not let his son be spoiled with darkness. Their journey was far from complete and though he could not speak for the other parents of their occult family he believed that this boy would yet emerge in the light of coming days.