Looming 1.3

“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.

“I’m fine.”

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.

“Ma’am?”

“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!”

“Lily-”

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.

Looming 1.2

I froze, mind nearly blanking at the implications. How could she have known I was lying? Regardless, I had no answer for her to begin with. I had even less now that she was staring into me with such an intense expression, practically demanding an explanation. How much would she hate me if she knew? Maybe she would try to kill me. That would be unpleasant.

Her face seemed to be softening. “Whatever it is, you can’t hide it now. I know it’s killing you on the inside. Why don’t you just tell me?”

“Convenient,” I commented, trying desperately to keep my voice flat. “What are you, empathic?”

“Don’t dodge my point; I’m not letting you out of this. But, yes, I am.”

The one person who takes such interest in my well-being, and she just happens to have mutated something that renders lying useless. Irritation at my misfortune might have influenced me if I was not practically overcome with dread. She must have sensed that as well, as she started talking again without my input.

“Since you’re, uh, having a hard time talking right now, I’ll just keep cheating. You’re paralyzed due to a fear of consequences, but it feels like those feelings are focused entirely on me, rather than on yourself. That sound right?”

All my effort went into simply nodding as a reply. It was helpful that she did not need me to say things in return at the moment. From here, though, she was sure to lead into the question of what I was doing earlier. No, even if she did not, as soon as her office received the murder report, I would be doomed with her. Really was just fucked, huh.

“You’re giving up before even letting me react to whatever it is. Come on, it might not play out like you’re worrying it will. Even if the chance is low because your secret is so horrible, isn’t taking a minuscule chance better than failing guaranteed?”

Her attempts at reassurance helped me recover enough to speak. “You would hear about it soon even if I did not tell you.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I know very, very well how far-fetched it sounds, but you should be able to tell that I am not lying when I say this.”

“Yeah I can, so what is it?” she pushed, sounding impatient.

Taking a deep breath, I answered. “I have some sort of curse on me. Forces me to… kill people. I left so suddenly because I felt it approaching and did not want you dead.”

She moved as if to take a step back, her eyes widening at the revelation. She did not leave, though. Nor did she scream, or become enraged, or anything else I could have expected. Just a length of five torturous seconds as she deliberated on something. Perhaps simply soaking it in. Then, subtly, her eyes left mine, instead resting further down.

“That’s dangerous,” was her only response.

“Seems like it.”

“How long has it been like this for you?” came her next question, along with an almost imperceptible shift in posture.

“Longer than you would imagine.”

“And you can’t… fight it off or anything?” That was an offensive notion, and it showed on my face this time.

“Do you think I would let innocent people die if I could help it?” I asked, only slightly raising my voice. I could hear a tightness in it, too. Unintentional.

She backed off from it. “No, I know. Unfortunately you’re telling the truth.” She turned sideways, crossing her arms. “My first instinct is to try and force you out of the city so this doesn’t happen here again, but I don’t want this happening anywhere. Worst part is that I can’t even decide to do it anyways out of hatred,” she sighed, “not with all that guilt and self loathing pouring off you.”

I turned away as well. This was marginally better than expected, but the prospects of an actual friendship seemed to have disappeared. They usually do not exist to begin with, so I guess having a taste was nice.

“What will you do, then?” I prompted.

“Really quick, how often does this happen?” She wanted to know about that? Well, I guess it made sense.

“Anywhere from twelve to thirty-six days between, uh… incidents.”

“Oh, that’s better than I thought. I’m gonna make you a deal, Senna,” she stated, turning again towards me. “You’ll stay here in Hateli with me. In return for my, eh, discretion, you’re going to let my father examine you. I don’t really know what your so-called curse could be, but there’s been nothing my dad couldn’t figure out how to cure,” she finished with the same hint of pride as before. It was still cute.

“Well, that is better than expected for me too, honestly,” I stated in a bit of a subdued tone. “So, when should we-?”

“Tomorrow,” she interrupted. “He’s not here tonight because he likes sleeping in some dingy little room he got set up in the lab. At least, between work days. Sometimes I worry he’ll work himself to death.”

“He has food there, right?” I queried, giving her an appropriate and soft frown.

“Yeah, yeah, packs a bunch of unhealthy stuff he can snack on all day.” She seemed to drift off in thought for a moment before snapping back. “It’s late. I’m going to bed. You should too.”

I nodded my agreement, and she turned inside sharply. With neither of us conversing further, there was little to do other than follow as she stepped softly to her room. The one she had given me was dark, but that mattered very little. Once the door had closed, I was left alone to plunk myself down onto the bed and think in silence. I really did not look forward to her learning that my curse is not physically curable.

A soft step echoed off the walls of the expansive room before me as I brought myself through its threshold. Monitors and interfaces adorned the walls and lined their bases, while in the center of the cylindrical room towered a great mechanical device, reaching to the ceiling. The Gatework’s various workers were relaxing at the moment, only a couple screens being actively watched. Ditroph sat still at the far end of the room, probably to keep himself removed from interaction with the servants on this side. His attention seemed raptly focused on the display before him, but even then his grasp on that dull green tome didn’t waver. Obsessive little creep.

I strode past the sycophants on either side who rose to an instant salute, each of them acknowledging me with a simple, rehearsed “My Lord!”. They were ignored. Meanwhile, if Ditroph even heard me approaching, he didn’t show it.

“I thought we were doing a diagnostic, yet the workers have been slacking off rather than preparing for it. I don’t like my time being wasted,” I complained, stepping to his side.

“Y-you w-were late,” he replied in that infuriating voice of his.

“Hardly an excuse,” came my retort. “They should be kept attentive and ready regardless.”

He spoke again, and I had to make a conscious effort to follow along with his words, due to the stuttering and the fact that his voice barely exceeded a whisper. Asserting briefly that I should be the one taking charge if I care that much, he reached out – hell, even his movements were timid – and briefly pressed down on the button I had previously installed for him. A keening tone filled the room for less than a second, calling all the workers to attention. At least the little system was working well enough for him.

I called out to them as they rushed towards their stations, ordering their complete focus. Ditroph, meanwhile, stood up and made his way to a series of switches further to my left, his sickly green wadji fluttering behind him at the movement. I felt my own twitch in distaste on my back. Would definitely need some help to get my mind off how uncomfortable that man is.

My countdown began, and a few short seconds later, finished. Ditroph flipped a set of four switches, and several monitors either blacked out or went into standby mode. The sounds of multiple sets of fingers racing across screens, interfaces, and keys echoed around me. I could not directly probe the Gatework with my powers, even with my… unique strength, but what I could do was observe the responses of the various terminals that gave us access to this enigmatic machine.

It took a scant few minutes to cycle through every operation, but it passed by quickly with no inconsistencies, exactly as I had made sure of. As it was, it felt like an unnecessary waste of my time. If only Ditroph was able to handle it himself.

“I’ll be back in a couple cycles,” I announced, orienting myself to the exit again. Ditroph didn’t offer anything in reply, and I didn’t wait around in anticipation of it to begin with. My feet were already carrying me back down the hall I had entered through.

I took the long-memorized path upwards, ascending the Temple slowly. Singulars or troops of our various servants flitted about on their errands, pleasing to see but annoying in that it prevented me from just teleporting myself around. Surely they would notice. They were certainly good at noticing me as I walked, only to give me more of their practiced salutes. They weren’t worth my time.

Though I enjoyed admiring the architecture and engravings of the Temple whenever I could, I didn’t let this slow my stride. Gracefully soon, I arrived at the threshold of my little slice of heaven. The door slide open as I approached, and entering brought me to the sight of Gheira, alone with a few of both her and my attendants. She was getting her hands massaged at the moment.

“Tyronus is still working?” I queried, stepping gently to a position at her side. Contrary to those on the lower levels, our attendants simply nodded as I sat, cooing a soft acknowledgement that was nothing but pleasant to hear.

“Seems like it, haven’t seen him all day. Not like I mind, though,” she smirked, “since I’m mainly here for you.”

“You could at least try to be more interested in his company,” I replied, my mood already improving. “I don’t have many intellectual peers or those who explicitly share my interests, after all. Besides, I spend more time with you than anyone else as-is. We can afford some dalliance with others on occasion.”

She pulled her hand away from our servants’ ministrations, stretching it out to brush against my cheek. Her usual expression, a smile of ambiguity, let me know that she had already accepted my logic, even as she tried to hide it for appearance’s sake. then, her head tilted back suddenly, smile breaking into a full grin even as she groaned. The hand at my face departed painfully.

“I’m not the type to let people walk in on me, so I guess we have to find something to fill our time while we wait on the hard worker, huh,” she complained, her featherine wadji bending slightly as her head pressed against the soft surface which she was reclined against. I always found it appreciable, their bright jade glow a beautiful contrast to her dark skin. I smiled wider with her as I realized how engrossed I had become with just taking her in.

I folded my own up, letting them rest to the side so as to take up as little room as possible. Aesthetically, I appreciated what I had been born with, but they sometimes became inconvenient. Only now that I had settled in did a pair of my escorts take place next to me. I leaned forward, indicating where I wanted it, and one obediently moved to massage my neck. Almost was enough to make me purr.

“So,” I began, “I assume you’ll be joining me down at the Gatework while the deployment is out, as usual?”

“Yeah, may as well. Fun to watch the action.”

“Fun if you’re not the one having to pay attention maybe,” I grumbled.

“You can’t tell me you don’t find it at least a bit entertaining. It’s not maintenance at least.”

I waved my hand dismissively, causing the attendant who had been kissing it devotedly to back off for the moment. Barely paid attention to that until the movement and sudden lack. Not wanting to deprive her of anything, I set my hand down before her again, prompting her lips to return to it. She seemed to intentionally trace the edges of the symbol tattooed there.

“I guess it’s something,” I finally replied to my partner. “Better than being down there with the savages.”

“Truly,” she agreed.

The soft sliding of the door caught our attention suddenly. Tyronus and one of his company stepped through the opened space with visibly calculated motion. As he moved to an available seat, he unclasped that deep purple cloak of his and handed it off to the servant. Unlike us, Tyronus didn’t ever seem to request the more hedonistic services of our personal entourages. He simply sat alone, hands clasped together in front of him.

“I see the two of you are rather engaged,” he commented, the baritone of his voice not wavering in the slightest as he spoke. I could swear that was meant to be humorous, though.

“We had to find something to occupy our time while you were off working. You know this was reserved time for the four- er, three of us,” Gheira griped at him. I let out a drawn out ‘mhm’ to express my agreement, to which he gave a bit of a chuckle.

“I know, I know, but we have our hands full down there. Allocating new living space and calculating resource distribution is no walk in the park, after all,” he returned, sounding apologetic.

The one Tyronus had brought along took a step forward, drawing my attention. It was that one girl with the ugly little stumps behind her shoulders. What unfortunate placement, and unfortunate everything. Seeing a momentary lapse in our dialogue, she spoke.

“My Lords, shall we begin the program?” In response, all three of us nodded. Gheira, of course, accompanied it with a minor vulgarity. The ugly-wings girl bowed before moving to the other room.

“I picked out something one of mine suggested earlier,” I explained, “a play released very recently titled The Whims of Marrus. The critics haven’t even gotten to it yet.”

“I get the feeling Ty’ will be critical enough to make up for that,” teased Gheira.

He simply rolled his eyes. “There is nothing wrong with having high standards.”

“Well, I agree with that sentiment,” I added. “Too bad Meneura said she was skipping this time; she probably would have loved this.”

The ugly-wings girl came back at this point, data crystal in hand. With a swipe of her hand, a screen materialized on the far wall, in good view of all three of us. She gently placed the crystal into the slot which had opened adjacent to the screen, and the program started.

A knock on my door. I had heard when she got up, and when she opened her door, and when she walked to mine. I only bothered moving at the sound of that knock, though. One unnecessarily alacritous motion brought me directly in front of it, and another, much slower motion brought it open. Lily’s face greeted me, looking much more serious than I liked.

“Good morning.” A beat. “Oh, you’re wearing your old clothes? I guess I forgot to give you the ones I picked out. Do you wanna wash up really quick and then try ‘em on?”

“I suppose I should, given that I neglected to last night.”

As per the new usual, I found myself trailing behind her as we both headed downstairs. Lily’s pace was more brisk than yesterday, though. Without comment, I moved to enter the bathroom, while Lily paused and turned towards me.

“I’ll get you something for when you get out. The clothes should still be in there.” With that, she turned again towards the kitchen area.

The bath was as pleasant as last night, but I found myself enjoying it much less. I took more time than was necessary, delaying the moment when I would see Lily devoid of her normal cheer again. She was not overtly judging or harming me, but I found it unbearable to imagine what she must be thinking of me, how much she must be preparing to retreat from me at all times… and I could not blame her for it.

Lily’s clothing turned out to fit well enough, not requiring me to alter myself much to get it perfect. Unless she had unnatural memory as well, she should not notice any discrepancy. Now for the matter of forcing myself to stomach something, since it seemed as if I could not weasel my way out of it this time.

With these unpleasant thoughts in mind, I made my way to the dining room. Lily was sitting in a chair, empty plate before her, idling away with a book. At my entrance, she put the book down, gesturing for me to take the seat opposite hers. A bowl of soup was waiting for me there. Maybe I could get that down without feeling disgusted.

As I took the seat, Lily launched into something she must have prepared for. “Alright, here’s how it goes. I need to go to the town watch’s office for my day job, and I’ll probably be informed about a mysterious, brutal murder when I get there, or soon after. We’re going to investigate it. Is there anything you can think of that’ll lead us back to you?”

“Well, uh, there are the two witnesses who saw my face.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” she exclaimed, burying her face in one palm. “Elva – er, my captain – has probably already seen your face from afar. She knows I’ve associated with you at least once, too.”

“You can provide an alibi by saying that I have stayed with you the entire time,” I offered. “Elva is not an empath as well, right?”

“No, she isn’t. I’m the interrogator for a reason.” She seemed to be calming down a bit. I took a very deliberate sip of my soup as she continued. “This is really shaky ground though. We need to get to Dad quickly, and without anyone important noticing.”

“What should I do?”

“Stay here until I come back for you. We’ll need to head up to the lab before his work day ends, since he’ll be coming home tonight.”

She stood, hurrying towards the front door without another word. I quietly took another sip.

I heard another person enter the reception area. My attention turned away from the poor kids in front of me towards the arrival, who turned out to be Lily. She gave me her standard smile and cutesy little wave.

“You’re late on the worst possible day, Lily. We had a homicide last night,” I informed her.

Her eyebrows raised. “You’re kidding me. These guys see it, or what?”

“Yep. Why don’t you talk to ‘em?” I invited. “See what you make of it.”

She pulled a free chair into position in front of the two for her to use. I crossed my arms idly as she opened up on them with her usual routine. They seemed to be calming down more quickly now that she was here, and finally one of them starting talking again.

“Well, it- it was this, uh, this woman right? She just walked out from some alley completely nude, and… fucking, shoved her hand into Decin’s chest. We booked it. I already told the captain where it happened and she sent someone out. We- we aren’t lying, fuck…”

Lily rose. “Well, yeah, they aren’t consciously lying. Did you confirm a body?”

“Given the multiple reports of a corpse on the street they named, I just had a stretcher sent out. My only disbelief is how this happened.”

“Same, that’s a really weird story. Were you three drunk?” she prodded, turning back towards them.

“Yeah, so?” he spat, seeming to get more defensive. “We were drunk, not fucking hallucinating.”

I snapped my fingers twice, signalling them to drop it. The boy hid his face in his hands, and the other was still nervously tapping his foot, staring up at the ceiling. Jerome, who had been dutifully jotting down the details of the witnesses’ account for the essential paperwork, set down his pencil in response to his apparent reprieve. I nodded to him, then motioned for Lily to join me in my private office.

“We did get the woman’s description before you came in. If they weren’t lying there, I assume this should be accurate as well. This,” I said as I selected and pushed the paper towards her, “is what the sketch artist came up with.”

I could swear her face twitched the moment she laid eyes on the paper. After staring at it for a few short seconds, she asked, “You know that girl I went after yesterday?”

“Yeah. Never did hear how it went. Why?”

“Really funny, but this looks exactly like her. Only thing is, she’s been staying at my place this entire time. Did they mention about how late it was when this happened?”

“Three hours or so before midnight, just about,” I answered.

“Mm, she was with me at that time. We didn’t actually go to bed for quite a while.”

I couldn’t help but break into a bit of a laugh at that implication. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying? Oh, honey, Jacq’ is gonna be so proud when he hears.”

Her face reddened visibly. “Don’t tease me about that! And don’t compare me to that lecher. The answer is no to your question, by the way.”

“Sorry, that was thoughtless of me,” I admitted. “I know you don’t like him.”

She nodded once. My arms compulsively crossed again, a scowl making its way onto my face. I decided to move back on topic. “Told the guys I sent out to just take the corpse straight to Trischam’s laboratory. He should be able to confirm what was used to kill their friend. Depending on what he finds, I might need to be sending out a transmission.”

She almost imperceptibly tensed up at that. “You’re contacting someone? Who?”

“Need to know basis,” I sighed. “If it turns out that what I’m fearing is the case, I’ll tell everyone what’s going on. Trust me, you don’t want to know if at all possible.”

“Well, uh, alright. Is there anything else you need me for here?” she asked, sounding uneasy. I replied to the negative, and with that, she requested, “Mind if I go home early? Would rather not leave my guest without lunch and whatnot. Forgot to make anything before I left.”

“Knock yourself out. Was really hoping you’d be there for the results, though,” I added. “Can I expect you in tomorrow for the update? I’ll hold off the call until you can make it, if that’s the way things turn out.”

Her face made an unpleasant expression again. “This whole thing has me really concerned. Yeah, I’ll see you then.”

I practically flopped down into my chair as soon as she left the room. What horrendous timing that my most useful member was being bogged down with a guest right as I needed her. Even worse, though, was the slim possibility implied by the strange hints in her behavior, and how convenient that the very night this guest of hers arrives, someone is murdered by a seeming doppelganger.

I might need to watch Lily more closely.

A key turning in its lock greeted my ears after a long stretch of near-silence. Lily must have returned from the office. I put down the book I was reading, the same one she had been earlier, being careful to save both of our places in it. The door slammed open, and immediately slammed shut again. She was definitely here, and her mood was nothing short of anxiety-inducing for me.

“You didn’t even hide the body or anything. They have it already. My dad’s probably examining it now, and Elva will be there. We can’t go today.”

“I… do not tend to think clearly in those situations,” I tried explaining. A weak defense, so obscure it verged on a lie. “You should probably just abandon me, since this is already going so poorly. Not like you are obligated to do anything.”

“Don’t give me that,” she replied weakly, sounding as if she was trying to keep her voice from trembling. “Our association is concrete now. It’s too late for me to just wash my hands of the situation. We’re in this together. Besides…” she sighed, stepping closer to me in order to sit down.

“Besides?”

“It’s just that I’m sounding very cold, like I’m only doing this out of self interest now. Sorry for that. I really do want to help you, in any case. For your sake, as well as others’.”

That gave me pause. Was she warming up to me again? Her moods were difficult to interpret, but maybe I should reciprocate if she actually starts extending friendliness. Or maybe I should stop getting my hopes up over the tiniest things. How pathetic can I be?

“I… appreciate that,” I murmured. “Still, I just hope you are not harmed while trying.”

“You won’t, because we’re gonna get through this, and you’re gonna be able to live a normal life. I’ll make sure of it.” The determination in her voice and expression was incredibly sudden. Where was this even coming from? My confusion did not stop me from liking it a bit, though.

“Why do you care so much?” I had to ask. She smiled again, for the first time since yesterday, I think. Just a bit of that earlier light that pulled me in.

“Like I said, I get attached and make decisions way too quickly. I’m impulsive. And you,” she added, booping my nose, “are too afraid to let yourself get attached at all, even though you really want to.” Cheating again.

“Sorry,” I said sheepishly, my gaze turning downwards. “I should not keep asking this.”

“It’s okay to be insecure. Lots of people feel that way with a hell of a lot less on their plates than you have, y’know?” she pointed out, pulling me into a tight embrace. I almost froze again, but somehow found the courage to wrap my arms around her in return. The warmth of another person was so comforting.

Her arms lingered a bit longer than I expected, but no sooner did the thought cross my mind than she suddenly let go, as if only just then becoming aware of how long she had been touching me. My skin almost ached to feel that pressure again, something I had gone without for a long time. Part of me wanted to pull her back towards my body, but I could not even dream of being forward like that.

“Uh, anyways, I said I’d take you to a tailor later, didn’t I?” she offered, awkwardly changing the subject. “I bet it’ll be good to get some more clothes of your own. Speaking of which, what’d you do with your old set?” I grimaced a bit just thinking about needing to talk about myself now, since she brought it up in a roundabout way.

“I will just tell you the truth from now on, since you would just know instantly if I tried lying about something.”

“Yes, go on,” she ordered. That seemed to have gotten her attention.

“That clothing was part of my body, in a manner of speaking. So, it disappeared when I stopped using it.” Her face scrunched up in confusion. “The curse I talked about is not the only abnormal thing about me. To put it bluntly and in a single, fictional term, I guess I would be a shapeshifter.” It took her a second to process that, coming out of the blue so abruptly.

“So, when you disappeared last night, you changed your appearance and sneaked out, or something?” she asked slowly.

“Er, well, no. Shapeshifter is downplaying it. I kinda make bodies for myself manually when I need to. Last night, I destroyed and recreated my body to move, more or less. It was not very fun.”

“Are you… not even human?” That hurt. I expected it, but it hurt.

“I suppose not,” I agreed bitterly, not bothering to filter the pain from my tone. My body turned away from hers in an intentional act. If this was being childish, I had little room to care at the moment.

“Senna-”

“You know,” I interrupted, “I genuinely hoped you would be the one person who could see me for who I am rather than for all this bullshit, but that comment proves it was too much to expect. If this was how it was going to end up-”

At that point, I was standing up to leave, swept up in all these negative feelings, before Lily preempted me. She placed her hands firmly on my shoulders, pushing me back onto the couch. Concurrently, the strangest feeling of calm rolled through me. I was becoming increasingly convinced that she had not told me every facet of her powers. Either she neglected to tell me she could influence emotions too – as it seemed she had done a few times to me now – or I am simply so pathetic that she calms me down randomly.

“I’m sorry. You don’t need to leave. You’d regret it, anyways.” Her eyes bored into mine again. Some part of me knew she was right, but that was just because of how tired I was of being alone. So very tired. Like a dam soon before bursting, I felt myself yearning to have this ambiguity removed between us, of her acceptance and my need for it. It was too tiring to dance like this.

“Just tell me what I should do, Lily,” I pleaded softly. “Tell me you see me for who I am. Let me rest for once.”

From its place on my shoulder, her right hand moved. She cupped my face gently, another rush of feeling entering me for a moment before her next movement distracted me. That loathsome ambiguity was destroyed in the single action of her lips pressing against mine. My heart burned in my chest. To my disappointment, she withdrew slightly, only to press our foreheads together.

“Again, I’m so sorry for hurting you like that. I don’t know what you’ve gone through during your life, but I can feel how much you’ve been beaten down by it. It’s killing me. I promise you’re so much more than that ‘curse’, or your abilities. That’s how I see you.”

This time, the peace I felt was natural. My lip trembled slightly, the phantom feeling of her kiss still lingering. Tears began welling up uncontrollably, that dam finally being allowed to break apart. My arms clung to the woman who had finally given me a shred of hope for a bearable future. In response, Lily began petting my hair softly, comforting me as I sobbed into her shoulder.