“We should go out somewhere,” Lily had suggested to me. “Take our minds off the problem since we can’t seem to do anything about it right now.” It made sense at the time, but a subtly creeping, worrisome feeling pervaded my thoughts. The bookstore she had chosen for this outing was quite pleasant, thick with the smell of old paper and leather, and spending time with her was always soothing. It was not enough to take my mind off the implications of last night, however.
The foremost problem of ours was a complete lack of ideas; we had no idea how to proceed from this point, anymore. More specifically, Lily did not, as I had already known the attempt to cure me would fail. Seeing her face as the realization that my curse was not physical struck her was disheartening.
Even though her father would be unable to directly help, she still insisted on being truthful towards him. They seemed to have a good relationship. After his return to the manor last night, Lily walked him through her situation. The result was one nervous wreck of a man who wanted to trust his beloved daughter but could hardly share a room with me. His reaction made sense, though. Perhaps it was another reason Lily had suggested the bookstore date.
I did not know how far he could be trusted. His familial devotion was evident, but his mental resolve was not. If Lily or myself drew suspicion, it would make sense for the officials who already work with that man to use him as a tool of observation. Even if he did not outwardly reveal me, his jittery nature would surely bleed through if they asked something he would need to lie about. There was-
“What’cha got there?” Lily asked, interrupting my thoughts. I turned the book cover towards her so she might plainly see it. “Oooh, I didn’t know Tera Valan had another series.” She snatched the book from my hand, inspecting the synopsis included on the interior.
“Are you a fan of theirs?”
“Absolutely, I remember The Broken Shoreline being one of the first big books I ever read. I still love it.”
“We should get it then. Maybe we could read it together,” I suggested, giving her a small, but genuine, smile.
She grinned back. “Would you read it to me?”
“I would like that.”
After checking in our acquisition, we left the building, walking side by side down the street. Lily sighed beside me. “My dad told Elva that the wound couldn’t have been caused by a bladed weapon, since he didn’t know about you then. Yesterday she said she was going to contact someone, too, and it’s got me worried. I’m supposed to be at the office for that right now.”
“Contact someone?” I asked, puzzled.
“I don’t even know yet. She said it was ‘need to know basis’, but promised to tell me today.”
“If she waited to do this until after confirmation that it could not have been a human who did it, then she might have a contact who specializes in hunting… things tangentially similar to myself.”
“More curses, or more shapeshifters, you mean?”
“All I know is that there are a lot of things happening that the public is ignorant to.”
Our walk was silent after that, up until we reached some street at which we needed to separate. Lily was off to join the other members of the watch, and hopefully to bring back information and clarity. And a lack of bad news. I ambled back to her manor, expecting the worst for when she came back.
My hand hesitated on the knob. My mind had been working itself into a frenzy on the walk over here, and now that I was on the verge of the very scene I was dreading, I could hardly handle this. As if Elva’s impending reveal was bad enough, Senna just had to add some unnecessarily ominous comment. That wasn’t great of her.
Inhaling sharply, I struck a little pose. As much as I could without making me feel as if everyone within fifty meters was judging me, at least. Just enough to distract myself with my own goofiness. Thusly steeled, I burst through the doorway, moving too quickly for my temporary courage to fade.
All my coworkers were already here, and their rather displeased stares and emotions greeted me upon my entering. I waved at them meekly, hoping they wouldn’t make a big deal out of my lateness. They didn’t, luckily. Jacquir aimed a pair of goofy fingerguns in my direction, an action which I had to strain to not react to. Nods or waves were the default otherwise.
“Busy with your new ladyfriend, eh, Lily?” the asshole teased. Christ.
“Elva, have you been gossiping about me or what?” I groaned, giving her as disappointed an expression as I could.
“Just a bit. I swear I only talked with Lucretia about it, though. Guess she couldn’t keep her lips shut with her brother,” she replied, giving her a very pointed look.
“Come on, Lucy…”
She glanced around, outwardly expressionless but internally quite uncomfortable at being put in the spotlight like this. “He wouldn’t stop asking,” she explained, a diffident quality to her voice. Jerome to her right couldn’t stop silently wheezing.
Elva clapped suddenly, in that painfully loud way she’s good at. “Alright, alright, we can pass blame around later. This is a serious meeting, here.” All at once, everyone straightened out, reminded of the grim topic which we were gathered for. “The recent murder was a rude enough surprise, so I’m sorry I need to deliver more in that vein, but you need to know now that Hateli is becoming involved.”
“I do not like the words you are currently speaking,” Jerome stated clunkily, before continuing with normal diction. “You’re makin’ it sound like this is the least of our problems coming up.”
Elva’s expression tightened. “The capital has been keeping this information from the public on this side of the mountains, but the entire region of Faenon is in a state of crisis.” The shift from unease to shock manifested through everyone in the room, including myself. “It’s on the verge of being overrun with literal monsters, and this recent murder has all the hallmarks of one of the types they’ve identified. Specifically, the most benign of them.”
“You mean there’s something worse than a girl who can just casually rip a dude’s heart out?” Jacquir asked.
“It’s not that uncommon, given how often girls reject you and how dramatic you get over it,” I retorted, placing one hand to my mouth to hide my compulsive grin. In response, he simply clasped his hands and gave me the most level stare I’d seen from him yet. It made me want to laugh, though I knew he wasn’t in a joking mood anymore. Neither was anyone else, it seemed.
“Lily, stop,” Elva commanded. “We’re going to contact the organization which has assembled to deal with the threat over there: the Ophentum. If these creatures,” – I winced at the word – “are spreading to cities in Palateca, the implications are dire. We need to hunt down and destroy it. I hear this type is of particular interest to their leader, as well.”
“The fuck does that mean?” I asked more quickly than I should have. Elva’s gaze practically nailed me down, along with the growing bud of her distrust towards me.
“I don’t know. I haven’t met them,” she baldly lied, her eyes not wavering from mine. She’s trying to see what I’ll do. What was she expecting? Did she have one response or another tied to a conclusion? Which one was the ‘right answer’? She could probably justify further suspicion against me no matter what I did here.
Before I could answer Elva’s challenge, Lucretia stood up suddenly, intentionally placing herself partially between the two of us. It seemed like she noticed something weird with Elva. “What should we do in the meantime, sir?”
Her face lost the subtle quality she was expressing towards me. “There’s not much we can do besides increasing patrols. We don’t know how to track these things – that’s why we’re calling at all.” Grim nods all around. Jacquir moved to leave, saying he was off to the barracks to relay new shifts.
At our captain’s beckoning, the rest of us filed into a small room down the hall from the main reception area. A young lady I had never caught the name of was manning the transmission station. Her feet were crossed, propped up on the desk, and she was passing the time with a magazine. She flailed in surprise at our entering, very nearly falling out of her chair.
“Woah, uh, hey there captain. And y’all. Nothing new came in, but I assume that’s not what yer here for?”
“Send a message to Contact Number 505.”
The girl straightened up in her position, hands hovering over the dial and keys. “What’re we sendin’?”
“‘Your target is in Hateli. We require assistance.’”
I finally had a clear view of the thing. It was some abomination of nature – patches of scales amidst a thick fur coat, it looked like, with twisted hoof-like growths formed from human hands. It was both laughably ugly and easy sport, having little awareness, and may as well have been inviting me to put a bolt through its throat. I reminded myself of what this thing really was, so as to focus on the task, and drew my crossbow.
I lined up my shot as best as I could. I’d shoot the head, avoid a fight if I could help it. Giving a nod to Ekkan, who was poised to help if need be, I let loose the quarrel.
The projectile had deflected from its skull, for which I could only assume scale formations hidden under the fur were responsible. Quicker than should be possible thanks to my instinctive reactions, I dropped the crossbow, darting in towards it.
The beast lunged at me, maw agape, intending to tackle me with all its weight. I made only a slight dodge to the right, allowing it to bite down on my arm. Upon contact, it immediately released its grip and seemingly recoiled, which I used to my advantage to emulate its initial attack.
Pinning it down, my hands flew to its mouth and gripped it by the snout, holding the mouth open as wide as possible. I would not bother with strangling it, given the potential thickness of the neck under all that fur. Instead, I began to pull open the mouth further, beyond its limit. The beast’s snarling grew ever more frenzied, its arms flailing about behind me. It briefly grabbed me by my hair right before a loud snap emitted.
The lower jaw came loose and fell towards its chest, hanging open with unnatural width, blood visible inside the mouth as all movement from the creature ceased. Soon after I had risen from the corpse, Ekkan emerged from the cover of the woods. He returned his weapon to its sheathe on his back as I moved to retrieve my crossbow. I wrapped the sling of the weapon over my shoulder, placing it on my back.
“We’re not exactly in a good environment to dispose of this,” Ekkan pointed out, “Don’t want to cause wildfires here, and there aren’t any nearby areas that would be safe.”
“No, seems not,” I agreed. “I honestly don’t care what happens to it. It can rot, it can be food, doesn’t matter. Leave it.”
Ekkan peered at me through those dark lenses of his. “Are you sure? You always have us dispose of bodies. You have an epiphany?”
“No,” I spat. I felt an extreme agitation on the side of my abdomen and immediately reached to scratch at it. My fingers were an inch away before Ekkan’s hand had gripped me by the wrist.
“Don’t scratch them. You know that,” he calmly reminded me. My hand curled into a fist in frustration, and pounded the irritation in futility. He winced at the sound of it. I looked over at my left arm, where the vile thing had bitten me. Not a scratch. The camouflaging fabric of my blouse had been torn open by the teeth regardless, revealing the green coloration on my arm.
I growled at it and threw my arm down, storming away towards wherever the path was. I didn’t even bother with orientation. I didn’t care. I took the best guess I could get, and made my way there.
“Aysa, are you alright?”
I made a sharp about-face to acknowledge Ekkan, but had no idea why. I had no animosity for him, and no cause to be so furious, yet I was. I stared at him, instinctively giving my best glare before my head dipped down, lowering my gaze to the grass beneath us.
He quietly wrapped one arm around me to hold my shoulder, guiding me back to our destination. I knew where to go and did not need his help, but did not turn away the offer. Our trek to our nearby basecamp was a silent one save for mild conversation. Ekkan tried to reassure me, saying I did well. I asked him about our schedules. Common discussion.
When we returned, my first instinct was to immediately head straight to my personal dwelling, but responsibility kept me in check, and I made my way to our headquarters. Upon entering, I spotted a crowd of low-ranked members gathered around my desk, all chattering amongst themselves. Narrowing my eyes, I approached them.
“Problem?” I inquired, startling all five of them.
“Ah, no ma’am!” one of them replied, “A message was received from…” He checked the report to revise his own. He cleared his throat. “A message was received from one of our contacts: Elva Krasel. It says, ‘Your target is in Hateli. We require assistance.’”
I raised an eyebrow. “Our target? We have lots of targets, and I need details before I even bother making such a long-”
I came to a full mental stop at the realization of what was actually said. This wasn’t ‘our target’, it was my target. She knew full well of my personal interests and my reasons. After months – or even a year, at this point – of nothing resembling a trail, I finally had something.
“Nothing,” I quickly responded, regardless of the lack of a question, “Dismissed.” All but one scattered, leaving me to stand here with only Ekkan as my company. Chills were running along my body as I struggled to remain objective. All I could imagine were the methods of killing at my disposal to finally put an end to that fucking monster.
“Aysa, I know what you’re thinking, and you need to focus. Don’t be reckless, otherwise you’ll lose her just like-”
“Quiet. We can focus on a plan on the way there. In the meantime, get Mana and pack some travel gear, so we can be on the road to Hateli as soon as possible.”
Ekkan stared at me, a frown visible on his face before he turned to carry out my orders. I was shaking in my excitement, and could barely restrain myself from voicing it. I bolted out of the building towards my quarters, ignoring the list of contracts and missions waiting on my desk. Those could wait.
Finding the caravan again was easy enough. From there, though, finding the manager was less so. No one was keeping much track of his whereabouts. The time it took me to finally stumble into him was almost embarrassing. Regardless, it did indeed happen.
I had sought him out to inform him that I would not be regrouping for the departure as I had previously planned. He tried inquiring as to the specifics of my situation, but I brushed him off. The less I said, in general, the better. Thankfully he was not an overly pushy man, and simply wished me well.
With that brief task out of the way, I had nothing on my agenda. I did not know how long Lily would take, so my preference would be to wait for her at the manor, if not for the fact that Krishov was still there on his day off. At the same time, idling about the city aimlessly seemed pointless. Perhaps I could just avoid him.
The door opened as noiselessly as it ever did, but the motion of my entrance seemed to startle someone in the sitting room, based on the noise. Just my luck that I would immediately be forced into the awkwardness of this. The skittish, slightly balding man ahead of me did not seem to be trying to avoid me at the moment, even though he looked clearly uncomfortable.
“You, uh, you’re back already huh? Lily at work?” I nodded in confirmation, avoiding eye contact. “Well that’s a, ah, shame.” A short pause, perhaps to gauge my reaction or perhaps just to steel himself. “I never got to say it but I’m sorry for how it all went. I do trust my daughter, but this is just… such a weird and dangerous” – I frowned – “situation. Would you mind, uh, sitting down for a bit?”
I took the seat opposite him, trying to keep my face more composed. “Do you have something more to say to me?”
“I was… well, I wanted to know what your plan even is here?” he said, his tone rising at the end as if it were a question. “The captain already pulled me aside yesterday and asked me to keep an eye on you and my own damn daughter. I can’t handle this kind of thing. We’ve got a nebulous amount of time until you have one of those episodes again, and I apparently can’t help you in any way.”
“I am aware.”
“So what are you doing? I… I know you’ve tried everything you could think of, but I don’t know how I can just accept that we’ve gotta just lay down and let it happen. Maybe our sciences actually hold something you’ve not been able to try before.”
I exhaled slowly, thinking of a way to phrase it without being unnecessarily hurtful. “I will not stop you if you want to try, but if it could be solved physically, I would have done it already.”
“And it can’t be starved out or anything?”
“It produced a worse result whenever I tried.”
He leaned back into the couch, looking quite exasperated. One hand moved to rub his forehead as he contemplated for a moment. Then, he paused in his motions suddenly. “Does… killing someone in between episodes delay it, perchance?”
“How would I know?!” I snapped. “I never want to hurt someone of my own will. This is bad enough.”
“It’s just that your past descriptions kinda sounded like that’s a hypothesis that should be tested. Could let you have control over it a bit, make sure only the worst kinds of people-”
My standing up without warning interrupted his thought. I felt my mind blanking even as I tried to come up with something I could throw back in his face, yet for all the offense that conjured up, it only made me want to shut down. He did not seem to bother following, offering only a singular, pitiful calling of my name as attempt at dissuasion.
I retreated to my temporary room, practically throwing myself face first into the pillow. It would be better if I could die. What kind of cruel bitch of a parent forces an eternity of this on their child?! I wish I had killed her. I wish I could have killed myself afterwards I should not even exist what the fuck am I just some disgusting evil creature, that is all anyone will ever see me as. That is what I am. Why am I even complaining about this? Pathetic little monster kills so many people and then feels sorry for herself throwing a fucking temper tantrum and crying into my pillow because all I am is garbage. This is not the type of person who deserves to live, let alone be loved by anyone. I should leave. Lily does not deserve to be dealing with something like me.
My feelings reached a tipping point, made manifest in the rigidity of my body. I forced my will on every cell, holding them in place while my fingers took on a sharpened, claw-like appearance. I shifted positions. In spite of myself, I trembled right before they first dug into the meager flesh of my left arm. My power coursed through the nerve endings, preventing their damage and amplifying them as fully as possible. I could hardly keep myself from screaming. I crushed my throat next to prevent that.
With my body forced to cease regeneration, I took my time systematically destroying myself. The blood I released fell to the sheets, evaporating first into a thin, black smoke, and then into nothingness, not leaving even the faintest stain to mark its spilling. I worked only to flood myself with agony, replacing the thoughts I had avoided for so long with unnatural self-torture. This is what garbage like me deserved. The only touch I should ever feel is one that tries to kill me. Lily’s kiss was the opposite of what filth like me are worthy of. It was wrong of me to even let her get attached to me in the first place.
If my heart was beating at the moment, it would have been halted in shock at the sound of the doorknob turning. As it was, I could hardly move as Lily burst into the room. My reaction speed was not set very high at this point, and I could hardly patch my skin up before her eyes fell on me with a desperate tinge to them. Within the next hair’s breadth, a torrent of numbness cascaded through me.
“What the fuck are you doing?!” she practically yelled at me, her voice cracking. “I could feel you all the way from the street!”
She barreled into me. My head hit the wall painlessly with the force of her sudden bear hug. “Don’t you do this to me too,” she begged, sounding as if she were on the verge of tears.
“…Do what?” I asked after a couple seconds of pondering did not produce a possible reason she would have this strong a reaction.
“Are you playing stupid? Weren’t you- weren’t you…” She paused. “You weren’t. Christ, that’s right, you can’t kill yourself.”
“I, uh, no, I cannot.”
“It felt like you were about to. Kinda panicked.”
The obviousness of her statement might have made me chuckle were it not for the circumstances. My natural thoughts kept drifting towards guilt at having hurt her – not like I anticipated I might, but it was pain all the same – but the numbness she had hit me with had not completely dissipated yet. I could hardly hold onto any feelings at all.
“I hurt you,” I said weakly, as if my body was a thousand leagues distant.
“And I hurt you earlier, so don’t feel guilty over it,” she replied, still with hints of instability in her voice. She continued to try and ignore it. “We’re both okay, right? Normal for stuff like this to happen between people.”
“We do not seem normal,” I commented dryly. “Having these… feelings for each other mere days after we met.”
“We’re young, we’re lonely, why not take things fast? Besides, I think it’s kinda exciting, don’t you?”
I could finally start smiling a bit again. “I do like it,” I admitted. She knew that, though. “I almost forgot how nice it was. Not that I can literally forget anything, though.”
“Seem to be a lot of little details about you I need to learn, huh?” she remarked, settling into a cozy position next to me.
“If you want.” I followed her example, resting my cheek against her head. “Sorry. For everything.”
“You don’t have to keep apologizing, y’know. Let’s just put this shit behind us, okay?” I nodded in agreement – as much as I could in that position, anyways. “Didn’t you promise to read me that book we got earlier?”
That would be a good distraction from everything. Even with my episode having passed, the uncertainty of my life persisted. “If you go grab it, I will.”
With an excited smile, she leapt up, brushing hard against my head in her haste. She gave a short apology before leaving the room. I figured I had at most a minute to think of a good position to do this in. I very much wanted to just lay down, but she would probably prefer something like resting on my lap as I sat up. I wondered how long she expected me to read.
Lily returned, a gleeful expression on her face and the book in her hands. As she sat directly before me, I simply asked her what I had been thinking.
“How should we do this?”
“Do what? Just read it,” she said, laughing softly.
“I meant to refer to position.”
“Oho, asking me what positions I like is a bit forward, isn’t it Senna~?”
I stared at her quizzically. There was something I was missing, apparently. “Would you rather just choose it yourself?”
“Uh, heh, guess that joke fell flat.” She moved to my side, this time laying her head down on my lap – I knew it – once she had passed the book off to me. “This good for you?”
I gave her a simple ‘mhm’ as answer. Handling the book carefully, I oriented it so I could begin my oration. Lily, for her part, seemed to settle quite comfortably on me. I did my best to intone the passages for her entertainment, never quite getting into the story itself for greater attention paid to the feeling of her head on my thigh, the slight noises of her breathing, the occasional shift in her body.
After a few chapters were finished, I paused to ask her if we should continue. She, however, had seemed to have fallen asleep by now. Her sleeping face was overly peaceful, given our collective situation as of late. Still, it was cute. It was also annoying in that I did not know how to get out from under her without waking her up now.
It took several minutes of silent, glacial movement before I was able to lay her head gently onto the pillow, still thankfully asleep. Perhaps it was an exaggeration to say I did not know how to extricate myself. Similarly, I now felt like asserting that I did not know where to sleep, even though I had an idea. It was a bad idea.
With little other choice, I tiptoed my way into her empty room. If she would use my bed, it was only fair for me to use hers, I supposed. Better than violating any boundaries. I was not about to stay on the couch where her father would pass me by, either. Not quite resolved but with nothing else satisfactory, I entered.
It was about the same size as the guest room they had lent me, but with a strikingly different interior. Her wallpaper was white with pastel embellishment, and her bed was filled with pillows and stuffed toys to match. I found it fitting, given how sweet her demeanor usually was. She had a tiny little white bookshelf and desk, as well, but I did not bother even looking it over. Just wanted to rest. Careful to not mess up the arrangement of her bedding, I allowed myself to finally sleep under the same covers she had used.