My fingers tapped with seeming impatience against the arm of the third throne, yet their rhythm was carefully timed. Even in my annoyance, I did not like making the slightest mess. The bickering of my peers around me was more of a frustration than a messenger being slightly late, but it seemed most were intently focused on that inanity. Nykorosk on his twelfth throne commented on what tortures he might inflict on the servant for his ineptitude, and this caused even more dispute. If nothing else, I could agree that the child was overly sadistic, but I kept my thoughts to myself.
The immense doors to our council chambers slid open noiselessly. Through them strode meekly the man we had been waiting on a report from. The sense of sheer anxiety radiating from him was impossible to ignore, as was his shying backwards as twelve pairs of eyes came to rest on him.
“Fucking finally,” muttered a woman to my left. Louri? A quick mental check confirmed it was her. As usual, she was impatient.
“My Lords,” the messenger began, gulping softly before continuing, “cosmic scanning and course projection algorithms have been run thoroughly. We are sure of the results this time. The planet we suspected is confirmed as to showing distinct signs of a gestalt field in place, one that is considerably less fractured than normal. Furthermore, the enemy’s trajectory indicates that it is indeed his destination.”
Silence for a few precious seconds as the news registered in everyone’s minds. Before long, though, the unpleasant sounds of multiple people trying to talk over each other reached my ears. I sighed, closing my eyes and beginning to tap my fingers once again.
“We cannot allow that bastard even the chance to retaliate against us! I say we launch an assimilation immediately,” boomed the voice of Ratheim, beside me.
Two separate voices responded, such that I could not designate their sources.
“Of course the meathead wants another chance to fight,” complained one.
“We don’t even know if Surgriel’s scientists could find a way around the Gatework by just using a bigger field,” said the other.
Their discussion on the topic carried on for a long while. Deliberation over how big of a threat this constituted and how best to approach it dragged on and on. Eventually, someone reached the proper conclusion, and asked me to run the calculations on an assimilation of the planet through my power. It was Altera Aixiullon. I was not surprised, as I already knew her to be of admirable intellect.
I nodded in her direction before shutting my eyes again, this time to concentrate on my power. I mentally directed it toward the planet in question, with the task of calculating the proper actions to ensure as perfect a victory for our cause as possible. The results came through instantly, and the sheer scope of casualty was astounding. This was the most perfect battle plan?!
“Even with all twelve of us Aichleini participating, my power projects enormous casualties on our side. It is almost certain that a Tier III entity exists on the planet, one that is more powerful than usual. I recommend that we do not take action h–”
–Eventually, someone reached the proper conclusion, and asked me to run the calculations on an assimilation of the planet through my power. It was Altera Aixiullon. I was not surprised, as I already knew her to be of admirable intellect.
I nodded in her direction before shutting my eyes again, this time to concentrate on my power. I mentally directed it toward the planet in question, with the task of calculating the proper actions to ensure as perfect a victory for our cause as possible. The results came through after a moment’s delay, which surprised me. However, the results it gave were promising. A proper blitz of our soldiers supplemented by the standard deployment of two Aichleini would be enough to carry out the assimilation in time with no loss of life.
I relayed this result to my peers, and it seemed to satisfy them. Altera in particular gave me a pleasant smile, though I was not sure why. I didn’t think she was capable of such an expression, especially not towards a man.
“Thank you, Tyronus,” she said, before turning her attention towards the messenger, who had been standing attentively this entire time. “Send out the orders to prepare for an assimilation. Standard procedures. I assume the usual volunteers are going this time as well?”
Enthusiastic confirmations sounded from the two most bloodthirsty members, Ratheim and Nykorosk. It was always those two.
“Meeting adjourned,” announced Ounirok in their utter monotone, rising up from the first throne. “Nykorosk and Ratheim will prepare for combat deployment. Tyronus and Mazante will prepare home-side logistics. Altera and Ditroph, be ready to monitor the Gatework when the time comes.”
We departed at our own paces, looking forward to the beginning of our next conquest.
I stepped out from the doorway and into the blistering sun, trailing somewhat behind my friends. Quickly pulling the cloth over my head, I moved to take my place on the wall beside the other two, whom I had joined for people-watching. This vantage point offered a good view to observe the caravan which was just now arriving from Tiecas.
Jacquir, as usual, started off by hogging the binoculars – the only pair of them. Given that, there wasn’t really anything to do for the moment besides stare at things, so my first instinct was to cure my boredom through eating. I unpacked the lunches I had brought for everyone, nibbling a bit on my sandwich idly.
“What, you’re eating already, Lily? I thought those were for later,” Elva remarked dryly.
“Not like I have anything else to do,” I replied. “Couldn’t find my pair at home, so we only have the one.”
“You only have yourself to blame,” quipped Jacquir with a faux judgmental tone.
“Don’t make me steal those,” I threatened jokingly, my fingers clenching in a grabby gesture towards him. Not like he could see.
“Hey hey hey, not yet; I just spotted a total babe!” he exclaimed. “Kinda a straggler. She’s hanging pretty far back from the rest of the caravan.”
“Don’t be a pig,” Elva said with distaste, elbowing him in the side. Jacquir reflexively avoided it.
“No, I’m serious, she’s like actor-level hot.”
“Can I look for once?” I interjected at that point. Couldn’t help but be curious myself, both because of her supposed attractiveness and because of her hanging back so much.
“See? I’m not the only one here who has a healthy appreciation for the ladies,” he smugly asserted, handing off the binoculars to me.
“Don’t… Don’t even compare us.”
My attention turned to the rear of the caravan, where it wasn’t difficult to find the person Jacquir talked about, as she was the only one separate from the crowd at the moment. Long, wavy black hair and rich dark skin did make for an appealing combo, so I could definitely understand the comments on her being a beauty.
Something seemed off about her, though, and I couldn’t immediately identify what it was like this. Had to admit a certain abnormal curiosity found within myself, as well. With all that in mind, I extended my mental reach to the woman, trying to get a solid grasp on her emotional state. What I felt wasn’t pretty. Her heart was a roiling mass of unpleasant feelings, too many to even pick apart and identify.
Retracting myself from her, I grimaced in contemplation of one of my more reckless recent ideas. I allowed myself only a moment of deliberation before deciding that I wanted to try, potential for regret and all.
“Here, Elva, your turn,” I said as casually as possible, handing off the binoculars as I passed her by. “I’m heading home early today. See ya.” That drew some stares. Two stares, actually. Maybe I should have come up with an actual excuse to use before saying that.
“We just got here, and you already wanna leave? What’s with you?” asked Elva, concern and a noticeable hint of her usual suspicion coloring her tone.
“You didn’t even finish the poor sandwich,” lamented Jacquir, again confusing exaggerated statements for jokes.
“It’s just hotter than I was expecting, so I don’t feel well. I’ll finish my sandwich at home, Jacq’, I promise.” At that, he gave me a cheesy smile and thumbs-up. Why must I humor him?
Elva didn’t seem to buy it. “Guess you’d better head right back then, huh?” she said, looking straight through me. Sometimes it felt like she knew me a bit too well.
“Yeah, don’t worry about me. See y’all tomorrow at the office.”
Turning my back to them, I set off for the central street.
Everything was dusty. With no wind to stir the plains at the moment, the air was stagnant and unpleasant. The other travelers in the caravan ahead of me had seemed hampered by the oppressive heat, but now the promise of Hateli’s respite invigorated them. I kept my automated pace up all the same, resulting in my falling behind somewhat as we reached the gates. I allowed myself only a brief moment of wistful desire for the cool breezes and cloudy weather of my homeland before quelling it again.
Another thought I did not entertain for long was the infinitely more brief temptation to quiet my consciousness again. Certain lines within myself I do not ever want to cross, even ones as minor as this. Luckily for me, the shadow of the approaching gate served to distract me from going down a train of thought I would regret.
Deliberately turning my attention to the environment, I took in the scene behind me, which I had ignored in my robotic march. Dense stretches of wheat surrounded the city, provided for it. While there were not any pastures in my immediate vision, I was sure that they had to exist, as the climate was suitable for several of the hardier grazing species.
More immediate than the distant farmlands and closer neighborhoods, however, was the overbearing wall that separated the city proper from its rural outskirts. Immense in height and thickness, so dense it should be seen as an impossibility, the pristine white stone of the fortification would have stood out from miles away. Now that I was close, I decided to spare several glances taking in the scene, but ultimate it was not the most impressive thing. I had seen better.
I passed beneath the widened maw of Hateli’s gate. The trodden dirt path immediately gave way to crisp cobblestone road, a work of stone-masonry far more primitive than the walls surrounding it. Ahead of me I heard the unpleasant screech of wheel against rock as the caravan’s primary vehicle turned sharply, pulling itself into the docking station for imports. A majority of the passengers left in one direction – towards the visitor accommodations area, it seemed – while a sparse few stayed with the vehicle to unload.
As I made my way further into the city, I glanced quickly at the signs indicating major locations within. Selecting the path towards the market as my route, I once again trudged along. The tarps which had been hung up to block the early evening sunlight from hitting the streets were quite appreciable. More appreciable would be the time to finally sit and think alone.
Something suddenly pierced into my awareness, an impression of being watched or followed, bold only in that it lacked subtlety entirely. I continued onward without even breaking my stride, mostly because I did not care about prevention. If anything actually posed me a threat, I would deserve it.
My gaze raked across the wooden exteriors of the various buildings along the street, searching for alleyways or similar locations where I could rest uninterrupted. Hopefully. With luck, a suitable spot appeared to me soon enough, and I slinked towards it. After entering, I leaned my back against one wall, sinking to a sitting position. The noise of peoples rushing to and fro was entirely dominant, yet my attention remained focused on any which seemed to be heading more in my direction than mere passers-by, in spite of my attempts at remaining aloof.
It would be convenient for me if whoever was apparently stalking me had vile intentions. I almost found myself hoping for it, even, just so I could use them to… Well, in any case, I was expecting to either see myself approaching at night, or not at all. Broad daylight, less so. Hiding my surprise at the approaching footsteps, I kept my eyes closed for the moment.
“Why’re you sleeping there?” a soft voice asked me. That was another surprise. I opened my eyes slowly, tilting my head up to get a good look at this nosy person.
Immediately noticeable was the standardized uniform of the town watch, similar in style to that of Tiecas. Probably regular patrol. Looking upwards a bit further, her face was surprisingly delicate and light, not even a hint of tan. Okay, definitely not regular patrol. Her scarlet hair was covered partially by a white cloth wrapped around her head, and her vivid emerald eyes bore straight into mine. We looked at each other like that for several moments, and I somehow felt my mood lighten the tiniest bit.
“…Uh, you know we have dedicated housing for travelers, right?” she prompted after I had completely forgotten to answer her.
“Too many people. Too noisy,” I stated dismissively, a slight frown reaching my lips. She responded with one of her own.
“What’s your name?”
“Lily Trischam. Well, Senna, I’m sorry, but I can’t let you just stay in the streets when there’s adequate housing. It’s policy,” she offered a shrug. I tilted my head back to rest against the wall as she continued. “If you don’t want to use it, I guess you’ll have to stay with me until you’re done in Hateli.”
“What, are you jailing me?”
She burst into sudden laughter at my words. “How did you come to that conclusion? You don’t want to stay somewhere noisy, so I’m offering you better. Not to brag,” she bragged, an obvious hint of pride in her voice, “but my dad’s one of the most highly renowned alchemists Belenon has. We got a manor house from ‘em in recognition, or something. Plenty of rooms.”
My face remained static, uncompromising as I considered what she had just said. Staying at someone’s house would be an enormous risk, but I could not simply reject a member of the watch with no apparent reason. Maybe I could pull this off. She seemed like a sweet girl. Hopefully-
“Senna? You okay? You’re zoning out a lot.”
“Yes, I am,” I replied, perhaps for once being able to say I was honestly. That strange feeling of peace still lingered. “I accept.”
“Don’t need to be so formal about it,” she said, yanking on my hand suddenly and pulling me to my feet. “C’mon, let’s get you back to my place. God, Jacq’ would be having a field day if he heard me say that.”
“Just, uh, this friend of mine. Not really important. He’s an ass.”
I decided not to comment. Moving on from that, Lily seemed determined to make small talk as she led me through Hateli by the hand, but I had little energy to engage with her. If that was annoying, she did not show it. Eventually the topics ran dry, and we walked together in silence, bands of light which had slipped between the tarps passing over first her body, then mine.
The scenery changed somewhat as we traveled. Crowded streets and bustling shops gave way to decorated pathing and spacious manors. The residential district, it seemed. Though the sky was transitioning through the evening, sunset approaching soon, I felt much more light falling on my skin than before due to a lack of tarps in this area. Infeasible due to low density, perhaps.
Before long, she pulled me towards one in particular, with what appeared to be a walled garden to the side. It was as unnecessarily ostentatious as the rest of the buildings in this area. Still, such luxuries are tolerable when they don’t come at the expense of others, I suppose.
Opening the door for me, Lily gestured inside with a verbal invitation. I stepped in wordlessly, and she followed. A rush of cool air greeted me, as did the soft light of the heatless lamps after she had pressed her palm to a sigil on the wall. It seemed she defaulted to closed curtains, relying entirely on those devices to illuminate the interior. I did not mind, as after so much walking under the sun, its light had grown tiresome to me as well.
“Well, here we are. Do you wanna be shown to your room now, or should we get some refreshments first?”
“I will pass on the refreshments. A tour would be nice, though,” I offered, hoping to appear interested.
She took me by the hand again, giving me a sweet smile before starting her tour. The first room on the right as we stepped further in was some sort of sitting room, with windows overlooking what was indeed a walled garden, as I thought. The room housed a couple of quaint bookshelves and sofas, with a short table in between them. Directly across from the sitting room was a door, and to the left of the door was a flight of stairs going up to the second floor. Lily led me up them.
As we passed by closed doors, she would announce what room was located there. Many were spare bedrooms, or otherwise infrequently used, such as what she termed a ‘crafts room’. Soon enough, she arrived at one in particular, opening the door and once again gesturing me inside. She plainly stated that this would be mine for the time being. It was cozy enough.
Pulling me out again, she simply pointed down the rest of the hall to announce that her room was directly next to mine, and her father’s on the far end. We then backtracked down the stairs through the first floor door. From there, several more interesting rooms were shown, including the bathing room, dining room, and a spacious kitchen, pantry, and scullery. It was in the kitchen that we finally stopped.
“Convenient to show this off last, since now I can get us something. Any preference?” she asked me as she retrieved a water jug from the nearby cooling box. Such pushy hospitality.
“No, I really am fine. Get yourself something,” I said, just a bit too quickly.
“You don’t think I’m trying to poison you or something, do you?”
“Of course not. I have simply never have had much of an appetite. I will… get to it in my own time,” I stubbornly insisted.
Lily’s face scrunched up a bit in her confusion. I somehow had not thought of a lie for this situation beforehand. Stupid. Regardless, she turned to walk towards the pantry, saying I should still join her. So long as she did not push it, I was happy to.
“Well, uh, if you’re not hungry or anything,” she continued, picking out a loaf of bread, “then how about a bath and a change of clothes? Good way to relax after traveling, y’know.”
“I am unsure… you want to give me clothes now, too?”
“Yeah, you can borrow mine until we visit a tailor, since it seems like you don’t have anything to your name really. No offense.”
I paused in contemplation, something of a frown spreading across my face. “Why are you doing all this for me?” I could not help but ask, sheepish and wary both. Her generosity seemed entirely foreign to me. Approaching strangers to ask if they wanted to stay with you was not the norm in this town, was it?
“Because I think we’re both a bit lonely.” Her giving me that honest of an answer was surprising. “And to tell you the truth, I’ve always been too impulsive for my own good. That’s why I went after you in the first place.”
“Not like I can criticize that. Having someone take care of me a bit is nice.” As she had forgotten to continue preparing her food, I gave the bread loaf in her hand a pointed stare. “I will go make use of that bath. Try not to forget your meal now.”
She giggled awkwardly at that. “Woops, you’re right. I mean, it was your fault for asking me something like that, anyways. Have a, uh, nice bath, Senna. I’ll get some of my clothes for when you get out, so uh, don’t lock the door or anything.”
With a meek nod and a wave, I turned back towards the bathing room which she had pointed out earlier. My hands brought the door to a close as softly as possible, not wanting to come off as too oafish. It was good that she had offered to let me use her bath. The opportunity to be alone was desperately needed.
Pulling aside the heavy partition, I looked over the bath apparatus. Easy enough to operate. A realization accompanied the water rushing into the tub, and I found myself grimacing. I would need an excuse for why my clothing suddenly disappeared. Maybe she would fail to notice when she entered, and I could carry them later while exiting?
Seeing the bath nearly full, I pulled the partition back into place, then allowed the clothing I had used evaporate into nothingness. Once that was taken care of, I stepped gingerly into the heated water, its warmth against my skin pleasant rather than overbearing like that of the sun. Easier on me to clean off like this, instead of reshaping myself again.
The time available to think freely did not help my stability. I could trigger at any time, and rather than being prepared in that alley, here I was, right next to someone who actually cares the slightest bit about me. It would be unforgivable if I hurt her after her kindness. I felt a growing sense of anxiety, deep-seated and paralyzing. At this rate, I would slip into a full-blown panic attack, unsure if the anxiety I felt was due to overthinking or a precursor to… the thing I did not want to think about.
A flash of red colored my vision suddenly. Association compounded by my fear made me nauseous, forcing me to double over when the second flash came. How had this been brought on so quickly?! My thoughts began to fill with images of me tearing into some featureless human, and my best efforts to dispel the scene were futile, as they always were. When that human’s face started twisting to resemble Lily’s, I nearly screamed.
I could neither allow me to get close to her nor allow her to see me. On top of that, the possibility of her having a housekeeper or some similar help was too great; I had to leave immediately. Like my clothing earlier, I separated myself from my body, forcing it to crumble and disappear without a trace. Picking its location out from my memory, I willed myself towards the alley I had intended to use earlier. The near-instant speed was convenient – no, necessary right now – yet the stress of existing without a body still made me feel somewhat ill, even as I reformed myself.
The sun had set. I covered my skin in an inky black material, a shroud I had not even bothered trying to cover my tracks with before. Only now did it matter that a description of my face would make it back to someone. To Lily. It was excruciating to maintain while the intrusive thoughts ravaged my consciousness, but I held on for the moment. Hopefully long enough to begin searching for someone, anyone who might deserve this. Please, please, please-
The sound of people nearby prompted my posture to straighten. My eyes locked onto the sight of three young adults chattering away down the otherwise empty street, bottles in hand. The midnight covering I had attempted to preserve peeled off me, disintegrating into the air without a whisper. A crisp night breeze caressed my skin as I stepped from the shadow of the alley, and I did not shiver. The drunkards, though surprised at my appearance, shifted effortlessly into jeering at me. It lasted only as long as it took for me to reach their location and thrust my hand into the nearest one’s chest.
A moment of silence before the other two began screaming. They turned and ran, abandoning their erstwhile friend to me. I felt the life slowly draining from his body, his heart held firmly in one hand. It departed much more rapidly as I began pulling. His corpse dropped to the stones below, leaving me with only the organ I had grasped and separated from the rest. With little regard, it was cast aside.
I blinked. Another wave of sickness hit me, with no efforts made to mitigate it. Stumbling into the alley, I destroyed and reformed my right hand simply to get the blood off it. The liquid impacted the ground chillingly, an immediate auditory reminder of what I was turning my back on. The black shroud once again formed over my skin, and for a time I merely lay there, blending into the darkness just beyond the golden lanterns’ reach. I felt like crying.
The sandwich wasn’t bad. Wasn’t great either. About as good as my sandwiches ever get. After taking a bit of time to clean up after myself, I realized I should probably pick out some clothes for Senna to wear once she’s out of the bath. Good thing I’m not a slow eater. I skipped past the bath, heading up towards my bedroom. We weren’t exactly the same size, but close enough to be workable. Browsing my wardrobe, I found a cute little combo I’d worn before myself. Her butt would look pretty great in these.
That train of thought caused me to shake my head somewhat roughly. Senna was my guest, and I barely knew her, and- and… I stood still for a moment, embarrassed at myself. At least I’m not like that lecher Jacquir. He never knew how to keep it in his pants, and I always hated it. Don’t even know why Elva’s friends with him. Just ‘cause of Lucy, maybe. At least she had my back when he tried hitting on me.
God, what a waste of time. Senna might have gotten out already. I folded the clothes neatly, then turned and headed down to check on my company. Without meaning to, I ended up humming a tune as I traversed the steps, wondering what she might be doing at that exact moment. Soon enough, I was in a position to ask.
“Hello~” I called out to her, knocking on the door firmly. “How’s it going in there? I brought you the clothes.” After a moment of silence, my voice raised a bit, “Uh, is the curtain drawn in there? …I’m coming in, okay?”
The door opened smoothly, and, apprehensive due to a lack of response, I rushed over and pulled aside the curtains without pause. The scene was complete with everything indicating someone had been using the bath except that someone actually bathing. Glancing around hastily, I also noticed her previous clothes were nowhere to be seen.
She’d left? And she’d apparently taken her outfit with her. The floor hadn’t gotten wet, so that meant she didn’t even get in the bath to begin with. Why? Did she hate me for some reason? So much that she’d go to the trouble of tricking me with the bath just to get away?
I mentally slapped myself. That wasn’t a good way to think, didn’t even make any sense. I of all people would have known if she actually detested me. Thinking back to what I did feel from her, I tried to come up with some reason why she might act like this, but nothing was forthcoming. Plenty of illogical leaps to potentially make, but nothing substantive. All I could glean up til now was that she was extremely depressed.
Given that there wasn’t a timepiece near me, the light outside was my only source for checking how late it was, and to my mild surprise it was already dark. The anxiety I felt grew even further as I imagined her in a dark alley somewhere rather than safe with me. Even without checking the rest of the house, I could feel that she was not here. No way to miss that.
I paced the floor nervously, biting my fingers compulsively as I deliberated on what to do. It seemed just a bit too late to try going out and searching, and I didn’t even know where I would start. Maybe it’d be best to just wait it out tonight. Could always report her as a missing person later, if she didn’t come back soon enough, but I didn’t want it to come to that.
My feet dragged along the hard wood of the floor. Pausing at one of the bookshelves of the sitting room, I selected something to attempt to read. Couldn’t just pass the time doing nothing, after all. After pulling open the curtains of the front window, I took seat in the couch opposite it so I could see if Senna came back. Hopefully she would.
Hours passed by silently. My house, and the entire city, had an air of unearthly calm some nights, and this seemed to be one of ’em. I could hardly invest my attention into the pages I held in front of me, so for all these factors, my sense of time’s passing was stretched agonizingly long. The worry and confusion over Senna compounded it all. What would I even say if she came back now, like I’d been hoping?
Motion. My eyes shot up from their lazy position on the book at the sudden movement in my field of vision. I could feel my heart virtually leap from some cruel combination of surprise and hope. The figure left my eyesight too quickly to identify, but just as quickly did I hear a restrained knock on my front door. Tense from anticipation, I moved to answer.
Her face greeted me, a few scant inches higher than my own. Though the expression was a stoic mask, her emotions were even more raw and destructive than before underneath it. If I had to guess, I’d say she’d been recently crying or something. As for me, I felt as if I too could tear up out of sheer relief. Once that was all established, though, it transitioned to a sort of anger mere moments after.
“What the fuck was that?!” I burst out. “You disappeared like a ghost and came back hours later! That was fucking scary, both with the whole ‘your guest just flat out disappeared right under your nose’ thing and with the creepiness of how you did it! You better have some kinda explanation for me.”
Her face tightened slightly at that, a hint of a frown spreading. “I am sorry. It was… an heirloom I carry. Suddenly realized I had dropped it somewhere. Rushed out to find it without remembering to inform you.”
“Did you find it?”
“I… no. Someone must have picked it up.”
“We could put up posters for it, and hope that whoever found it can return it to you. Could even get the watch to help out, since nothing usually happens around here.”
My suggestion gave her quite the pause, making her spend several seconds in silence looking for something to say. Before she could land on that next response, I struck.
“Seems like you didn’t plan your lies out this far ahead.”