Lightning 2.1

The sound of moderately distant screams assailed us from multiple directions. Others on the same street as us had halted entirely, casting their eyes to and fro in attempts to discern what could possibly be going on. I was unsure how much Lily was able to divine at the moment, but after a moment spent adjusting my own ears, it seemed as if there were two groups of screams: those that were moving away from specific locations, and those that ceased before being able to do so. The nearest was merely the adjacent street, it seemed. Perhaps more important was that there did not appear to be any safe direction to head in.

Marching. The creaking of door hinges. Battering of wood. Breaking of glass. Difficulty rose in trying to gather any further information auditorily, so I turned my attention towards my companion. Her expression was steeled, which I should have expected given her vocation.

“You were focusing. Can you tell where it’s coming from?”
“Next street over, at least the closest one is,” I answered, jerking a thumb in the proper direction.

She pulled me by the arm suddenly, leading me into an alley which would take us to the road I had specified, yet not in the exact direction. Smart to not run headlong into whatever was going on, since we had no idea what it was. Some types of disasters I could potentially help with, but I was unsure whether I should. Lily, for her part, was completely ready, minus her lack of any sort of equipment. Even the painting she made and had been carrying was discarded now.

The couple of seconds spent running through the alley gave us a plain vision of quite a number of people fleeing something, as I thought. Most disasters would not elicit that response, and we neither saw nor smelled any smoke. This was obviously tied to the high-pitched pulse we heard, but what was it?

Lily’s arm shot up to signal our pause once we reached the end. The sounds of heavy boots on stone was obvious, now. Far too many boots. We both peered around the corner, though I probably should have suggested something that did not come with the risk of being seen by someone.

What appeared to be a sort of battalion was dominating the avenue, with several individuals breaking off to enter the various buildings to either side. These were soldiers; an attack? From where? What were they doing here? It seemed as though the ones that entered the buildings would emerge a short time later, not bloodstained, not even carrying any sort of plunder.

Perhaps even more unbelievable than this circumstance was exactly what they looked like. These invaders seemed to have some kind of luminescent protrusions, emerging from various parts of their bodies but most commonly the spine. Each individual had a unique, or at least mostly unique, set. All wore ornate, priestly garb, predominantly white and gold. One appeared to be some sort of leader, with much more garish decoration. Finally, their faces were all obscured by a pure black veil which stretched from the forehead to the jaw, attached firmly to their berets and the rest of their uniforms, all a single elegant piece.

I stepped back, partially so I might not be seen and partially out of sheer disbelief. Lily turned towards me as well, her earlier resolve quite shaken now.

“That’s a fucking army. In our city. The walls weren’t breached or anything, we’re nowhere near them, so that sound we heard must have been whatever method they used to get in here.” That made sense. She peeked her head out again briefly. “They’re advancing this way slowly. I dunno if they saw us and are ignoring us, or what.”

“That is not something your town watch could handle, is it?” I murmured, moving closer to her side and the wall. This time my voice held a very apparent, anxious tone.

“…Not even a little bit, I don’t think. Too many. We don’t know what they can really do, either. Those things at their waists looked like swords, though, so maybe we’d be able to fight them,” she reasoned. “I’m sure you could easily.”

My response was not forthcoming. The mere thought of what she had suggested made me feel ill, but at the same time… I needed something to atone with. Maybe Krishov was right. No, beyond just that, if someone can save another person’s life, do they not have a duty to do so? Did that mean I had a duty to do this? Would I even be able to? My brief crisis of decision was not enough to even begin seeing more killing as anything approaching penance, but how could I just-

“Senna!” she snapped. “Don’t push it. Let’s get out of here.” A brief nod, and we turned back towards the street we had left. Given our increasing distance, I decided to tune my ears again to try and navigate us without running into another one of those squads, a threat I was sure existed.

It seemed that I had arrived at that idea one second too late. Just as we stepped from our cover, motion caught my attention from the corner of my eye, punctuated by the steps I had only then thought to let myself hear again. My distraction prevented me from noticing that this avenue, too, was beginning to be swept, and we were now in direct line-of-sight of a throng of invaders, with the sounds of another squad approaching the intersection to our left. We could not escape that way, now.

Four of them broke away from the mass – which seemed to hold its pace – and moved to pursue us. They had not drawn their weapons, instead two seemed to grasp some small object in their hands. This time I was the one to take action, tugging Lily back into the alley with me. She obeyed, probably assuming that I had information she did not at the moment. Which I did.

“Two each?” she asked hurriedly. I knew she would be prepared for a combat situation, in spite of lacking a weapon. To be honest, I even trusted her in that. It felt as if her question had two meanings, though. She wanted to know if I could do this.

I could. If they were holding devices of some kind rather than their weapons, that was the key to their intentions for us. Break those, incapacitate them somehow. I could do it. I could do this. There was a way to get through this without killing them.

The four assailants turned the corner. It seemed they were not prepared for their desired victims to have been waiting in ambush for them, but the window of surprise was incredibly short. They were well trained. Lily launched herself at one, going straight for a knockout blow. I felt myself hesitate, and in spite of a brief guilt at doing so, it turned out to have been a godsend. One of the device holders was extending their reach towards her. As quickly as my current reactions allowed, I lashed out, striking their wrist with unmitigated force. A painfully human scream emitted as bone was crushed, and a small metallic chip clattered to the ground. At the instant of contact, I felt something strange about their skin, but did not have the time to examine it.

One neutralized for the moment. Another fraction of a second to identify the remaining devicer, another careful blow to the wrist. If they wanted Lily to come into contact with that, then I did not want it touching me, no matter what. Due to my sheer speed, I had the time to land a much more restrained punch to the third’s jaw, hopefully enough to daze or knock them out. Lily seemed to have handily dispatched hers after a couple seconds.

Congratulate Lily, restrain or perhaps reason with the two whose wrists I broke, these were what I was considering. Those two nursing the damaged areas for only a brief few seconds, then moving to draw their weapons, that, I had not considered. Meanwhile, the ones we had attempted to knock out recovered more slowly, but recover they did. Lily leapt backwards from the undiminished threat, leaving me well between her and they. I might have considered that cowardice, or some kind of betrayal – wanting to use me as a meatshield – but she had no weapon, and it honestly made sense to put the more expendable one in more danger.

A set of coordinated swings from the both of them, something challenging for even a master duelist to deal with if not for the lack of commitment. They were not extending too far towards me; whether they were buying time for their compatriots’ recovery, or were simply frightened of the strength I used on them earlier, I could not tell.

Allowing one to impact my hardened skin without effect, I focused my effort on the other’s blade, intending to shatter it. I met its trajectory with my fist, causing a strange reverberation in the metal. It bent utterly at the force I had thrown at it, but, much like its annoyingly resilient wielder, the thing simply straightened into its original shape soon after I had pulled back.

This was not working. My frankly clumsy attempts at combat kept being thwarted, and I was acutely aware of Lily standing behind me, infinitely more helpless at this moment than I. This situation needed to be resolved, and fast, before the rest of their unit caught up. It was already conveniently arrogant of them that they did not pay attention to how much time these particular soldiers were taking.

Thankfully, due to the narrowness of the alley, I was able to block their advance, but all four were fully recovered and armed now. I could not meaningfully disarm them or knock them out, and while we were technically at an impasse, time was much more on their side, assuming that Hateli could not deal with these squads. Their efforts were becoming emboldened, as well, seeing plainly that I was unwilling to actually kill them. I could almost physically feel time pressing in on me, the constant thought of what might happen when this relatively safe situation changed an even greater worry than the four invaders before me.

Again my ears warned me later than I wanted. The first unit we spied had made its way down the street such that it began passing by our location. My heart figuratively leapt into my throat as they not only sent another four soldiers to assist, but the entire company also halted. The one who I speculated to be an officer was watching. Did they think the situation unusual enough to change protocols?

Lily turned to face them, fists raised in front of her. A handful of painfully frozen moments, the ones I had been holding off making a sudden play to push through me due to my distraction, the new arrivals all brandishing their weapons save for one, who held another chip. They were going to do something to her. To Lily. She’s going to die, something worse what if it’s something worse, what the hell am I supposed to do I need to save her I-

The soldier nearest me tried and failed to squeeze past my shoulder. More accurately, they were stopped, as a short push with my left hand sent them another couple steps backwards. Without giving a moment of opportunity, I twisted my torso, driving a backhand into the side of their skull. It splattered over the wall as an overly ripened fruit might. The atmosphere was suddenly one of shock, nearly palpable as it emanated from the comrades of the fresh corpse.

The hesitation on all their parts helped, though I likely did not need it to deal with the ones on this side of the alley. With the momentum I had built with the first attack, I shoved my arm towards a second target, extending what amounted to a makeshift arm-blade I was creating on the spot. The impact sent them sprawling awkwardly, rather than piercing their torso as I wanted. That thing I noticed when I broke their wrist earlier was… dermal armor?

It was absurdly resistant, but I knew exactly how resistant it was, now. I would pierce it with the next thrust, if this alley was not so inconvenient for using a proper weapon to do so. Instead, simply crushing each of their heads would work. They did not seem to get back up from that kind of damage.

By now the four nearer Lily had begun a charge, maybe out of desperation, maybe because they thought they could use the person I was protecting against me. I willed myself forward, feet practically scraping against the dirt before planting them firmly in place. The air itself had heated up due to the speed of my movement, but the ground was somehow still intact. Less intact was the victim I casually impacted using the rest of my momentum.

They were starting to wisen up. After I had finishing disposing of the ones in the alley itself, the cohesion of their units broke down slightly, with some turning to flee. Again, their discipline was downright surprising in the number who did not do so. There was a bit of a decision for me to make here, as to whether I wanted to simply butcher them all, or break their spirits so I could rout them. I would feel worse about this later if I did not minimize casualties now.

A simultaneous action of stepping forward tremendously to place myself within range, a coiling of body, and the fashioning of a more proper weapon, a sleek, curved blade the sharpness and density of which I tailored to my impression of their armor. It extended outwards from the back of my wrist, reaching another full forearms length. All this culminated in one lithe movement, an ostentatious display of my ability as the unnatural weapon slid through their officer’s head.

It succeeded in increasing how many fled my presence, but with the majority who remained, it felt as though they were the type to offer their lives to a cause without question. Moronic. I would need to accept this number of casualties, then. Knowing both their weakness and the strength of their defense, on top of holding an immense physical advantage over them, I obliterated the rest of the unit without much trouble.

I did, however, take the opportunity to confirm my hypothesis that organ damage was regenerated while their brains were intact. Now that I had had some time to experiment, it seemed that brain damage was the only viable solution. Most interestingly, the luminous protuberances each of these sported seemed to entirely dissipate once this condition had been met. That was an easy gauge of when they were dead, then.

Meanwhile, the adjacent squadron seemed much more intelligent than this one. They had disappeared, not even making an ill-fated move on the unprotected woman. Convenient for me, as the alley would have made for an unpleasant chokepoint if I was forced to simultaneously quash both groups. I was unaware as to whether they had fully retreated, or had merely moved locations to continue their original objective in the hopes that I would be too slow.

Lily’s footsteps echoed softly behind me, now that the combat had ceased. Would she be concerned? Frightened? The latter seemed unlikely. I turned partially, just enough to catch her eye with mine. By her expression, my looking at her caused… something. She shrunk back? It took me a moment to realize that my gaze would look more like a glare right now. That was difficult to pay attention to. I deliberately tried to soften my expression, but had no idea how effective the effort was.

“Thank you,” she finally spoke up. “For saving me. I want to say we should get to the armory so I don’t repeat that useless performance, but it’d take some time. I don’t know-” she halted herself. Her hand hesitantly reached for me, before that was retracted as well. “Are you, uh, okay? I can’t really tell.”

“Irrelevant.” She visibly wilted at the word. My tone needed to be restrained as well, it seemed. “…Ask me later. It seems that brain damage is the only thing that works. They also possess armored skin under those clothes.”

“So I just need to aim for their eyes, right?”

“Think so. Can you do it?”

A grim nod. “I need to,” she asserted, to my inner confusion.

“Lead us, then,” I requested. Clarification could wait. “If I am going to sweep the town anyways, we may as well start with the areas between us and your armory.”

She seemed to accept the logic, and held a sort of grisly fervor about her now. If I had to guess, I would say her pride had been hurt or something. Being honest with myself, I had to acknowledge that I had no idea how much that played into it, though, so once again I decided to leave everything to the side until we had gotten through this sudden nightmare.

It was much more quiet than one would expect for an invaded city, but those telltale sounds still resounded through the air. Compared to previously, there were fewer. At least one unit that I had not dealt with – directly or indirectly – had been pulled out. Perhaps as a result of this, we made it to the building, which Lily informed me was our destination, without another incident. It seemed to be attached to a barracks of some sort, and their sturdy locks were as-yet uncontested. By my partner’s request, I broke us a way in.

“You don’t need anything, right?” she asked as we stepped into the darkened interior. I gave confirmation for her as my eyes adjusted. Sighting a sigil of Atre on the nearby wall, I asked her to wait a moment and stepped nearer. The gentle touch of my hand activated it, and warm alchemical light illuminated the area for us. “I knew where that was, but thanks anyways,” she said. Lacking any sort of laughter or even an amused tone, it came off as dismissive.

The room seemed much more like an office of some kind than an armory. Lily moved with purpose towards the back, where I imagined there must be a door to her goal. I had only enough curiosity to peer in that direction to confirm that was the case, which it was. Beyond that, she did not request me to join her, and I defaulted to idling by the desk, taking in the crisp and utterly boring decor.

She emerged shortly, grasping a single slender blade in her hand and another at her waist. As she rejoined me, she spoke with a worrisome tone, “I don’t like how few weapons were taken, and how no one’s around.”

“They were probably dealt with before being able to offer any resistance.”

Her expression tightened. “This is horrific,” she muttered. Maybe I should have kept the comment to myself. I could hardly find it within myself to apologize or comfort her, either, though I presumed it would have been proper in this situation.

My attention turned sharply towards the sounds coming from outside. Another unit, very hurried, its distance and direction not exactly discernible from inside this building. We would need to expose ourselves to find out, but another battle would likely turn out well for me. Given their earlier behavior, they would not even attempt to use those devices until we were neutralized as active threats.

I quietly informed Lily of the likelihood of others approaching soon, to which she nodded. Her earlier resolve seemed to have returned, but I knew she was not doing well underneath that shell. I would be worse off than her right now, had I not done something about it. After a short discussion, we concluded that sticking together rather than attempting to divide their attention would be safer. Thusly inclined, we stepped out.

The clarity of unrestricted air helped immediately locate their position, but was largely unnecessary given that they were within direct line of sight and close enough to have spotted us instantly. Annoying that I could not just have arbitrary, magical awareness when I needed it. As we moved to engage, another, much fainter set of footsteps from further away entered my perception. A single person was unlikely to be an issue, so I tuned down again and focused on the task directly before me.

A blitz from myself to the center of enemy ranks disrupted them, another tactic more for showmanship than anything, though this time with a secondary purpose. Lily caught up within a few seconds, completely unnoticed now, and tripped one of the soldiers, bringing them into a favorable position for her to slip one of her weapons through where – I assume – she guessed the eye socket must be. By the looks of things, she guessed correctly, as the body did not rise again.

These individuals did not last as long as the others had. Their morale had been ground down by something else before, and our assault seemed to splinter it. Good. It would be most preferable to have their faction – whoever, whatever, and wherever it might be – lose interest in this. Though their soldiers felt quite human at the core, the trappings and strategy they employed were wholly alien. Not even origination on the other continent could explain that. It seemed like we truly had no idea what we could be dealing with here.

My self-absorbed contemplation was short lived, as that solo set of footsteps I had dismissed earlier became apparent in its closeness. I turned my attention towards one of the nearby alley entrances moments before some woman stepped forth. Dark skin, a split afro, the uniform of the town watch. This was certainly a peer of Lily’s, which meant that she could very well be aware of my existence already. On top of that, the unnatural weapons I had adorned myself with were completely exposed. I made a split-second decision to try and hide them, but it was far too late, as she wasted no time looking in our direction. She most likely caught them half-disintegrated, turning into smoke and disappearing before her eyes.

I imagined that could I feel panic at that moment, I would. Lily’s reaction was exactly that, her body placed hastily between myself and the woman who had just arrived. That one’s eyes were widened as she took in the scene.

“Elva!” So this was her. “You’re still alive! Where are the others?” The question Lily put forward lingered in the air a moment before her captain answered.

“I, uh, I only know that Jay and Jacq’ should be hiding right now. I told them to. Can’t fight without their weapons like I can. We both had the same idea, huh?” Her eyes flitted briefly to mine, something inscrutable nestled within some aspect of her face. That brief facade she had worn to allow for a normal greeting dropped. “I suggest you explain yourselves now.”

“Explain what?” Lily asked in response. I could practically hear the strain in her voice.

“Why you’ve betrayed my trust like this,” she spat accusatorily. Despite how objectively poorly this was starting out, I admired her lack of fear. This, along with her survival so far, gave me a rather strong impression.

“What the hell are you even talking about? There’s nothing-”

“Oh come off it, I’m not stupid. You two are fighting together, and before you came to this armory you couldn’t have had any weapons, which means you’d need to be relying on her to get here. Or are you gonna try to tell me that the very person I have every reason to suspect of tearing a man’s heart out of his chest bare handedly is just coincidentally strong enough to do it? Or maybe that she isn’t, and you just somehow avoided the death squads all over the place? Because either one would be real fuckin’ rich.”

Lily seemed to accept that she would not be able to lie her way out of this now. “Okay, fine, but I promise I wasn’t betraying you.”

“Hah, yeah, sure, you’re just fine with hiding and sheltering a monster. What’d she do, flutter her big doey eyes at you? Make you feel all sorry for her murderous ass?”

“Fuck off! You asked me to explain myself, so let me.”

Elva’s face contorted towards even more heavy disdain than before. “And what could there possibly be to explain this?”

I found my eyes instinctively averting from that look of hers as Lily went on to explain her understanding of my ‘condition’. A few points I would have worded differently, but she conveyed the important details well enough. One could only guess as to whether her contemptuous captain would listen, though. For my part, I hardly expected anything positive.

Elva looked as if she was being forced to swallow an uncomfortably large pill. I suppose that would be an accurate euphemism for what she was being told. She collected herself again quickly, seeming to steel herself for what she was about to say.

“That-… she is still a danger to my city,” she asserted. Go figure.

“No; right now, she’s at worst an asset to help us out of this sudden mess we’re in,” Lily countered. A subtle texture to her voice made me think she was proud of where she was bringing the argument. “Especially since she won’t be forced into hurting innocents as long as there are other things to kill. Like, say, all these invaders inside our walls.”

I hid my mild surprise. I had not told her about Krishov’s hypothesis, and we certainly had not proved it ourselves. She must have independently come to the concept, and to the conclusion that, if not assuredly true, it at least sounds reasonable. As reasonable as anything related to me possibly could.

Elva seemed to be buying it somewhat, yet she still offered her observation for Lily to provide an answer to. “We aren’t always going to be invaded from out of thin air by barely human freaks. She’ll go back to being a danger as soon as this is taken care of.”

“And we can deal with that when the time comes,” Lily bargained. Quite the skilled negotiator when it came down to it. “Right now we just need to survive whatever the hell is happening.”

“Fine,” she acquiesced, sounding about as displeased as possible. “The weapons are still in there I assume? Let’s get some and meet back up with the others. We need to find out who all’s not dead and clear Hateli out.” She turned her attention to me now, giving me a downright withering look. “You’re helping. Don’t even think I’m gonna keep your little secret, either. No public statements, but at least the officers of the town watch deserve to know the full situation now.”

The ‘full situation’ was more tenuous than anything. I was keeping myself from falling apart at the moment, but I did not exactly trust myself in such a state to interact tactfully. Preserving a positive status quo was important, so I gave Elva a seemingly humble acknowledgement of her words. Hopefully that would appease her well enough.

If nothing else, it got her to look away from me again. She marched in through the very apparent hole through the front door of the armory, making something almost akin to a skip as she crossed in. Lily surprised me again, taking hold of my forearm gently, seemingly just to secure my attention.

“You have the right idea; we need to earn Elva’s trust. Both of us,” she said with a slight frown. “You still okay?”

“Yes.”

“Sorry, I- I’m just worried, babe. About all of this… about you.” She seemed to be defaulting to a nervous fidget, with nothing else to do but wait for Elva to emerge. I very much did not want her to feel this way. Putting aside the risk of messing up again, I pulled her into my embrace in an attempt at comforting. Hers wrapped around my body in return.

Elva stepped from the armory soon after, several weapons all strapped to her belt while her hands were curiously empty. “Spare me the sight, would you?” she scorned, seeming to avoid looking at us now. Was it seriously offensive to see me hugging Lily? We both pulled away awkwardly, not bothering to question her on that. There were more important things.

The captain gestured, leading us through the streets towards where her comrades last were. Whether ominous or hopeful, we neither saw nor heard any invaders on our trek. Hateli feeling more like a ghost town than anything was certainly on the ominous side, but people could just have been in hiding, waiting for this storm to pass. The likelihood of that being the case was unclear to the three of us, though.

We arrived at a mostly unremarkable domicile, save for the lack of forced entry here compared to many of the other buildings. Elva continued leading the way, unlocking the door and calling out two names as we entered. A faint shuffling, the creaking of metal hinges, these met my ears just before a pair of young men joined us. One was fairly light skinned, with a prominent nose and curly brown hair, while the other had more of an olive tone and straight, black hair falling to his shoulders. I was introduced to them as Jacquir and Jerome, respectively, after which the former asked me my name.

“So yer Lily’s gal pal. Senna, huh? Pretty cute-” Jacquir began, before cutting himself off. A quick glance at Lily gave me the reason. “Fine, fine. God, can’t even cope with a little banter nowadays?”

“Cope?” Elva’s voice dripped with vitriol as she spoke. “You two did nothing but hide while I went out alone to get your weapons. Don’t act like you’ve been traumatized.” Seemed she was irritable towards everyone right now. The response was unfair, but not unexpected under such stress.

She went on to give them a detailed run-down of what was going on, as far as any of us knew. Information we picked up observing the invaders’ actions and persons, of which Lily and I were invited to share whatever we had gleaned as well. I mentioned their dermal armor specifically, and Lily added that those with weapons could still fight if they aimed for where their eyes should be. Jerome seemed to grimace slightly at the gory details of it, rather quiet as he and his friend equipped themselves with what Elva brought. Just as I thought that, though, he glanced over to me and spoke.

“Pardon my asking, but how are you talking as if you’ve been fighting ‘em? Seems weird for a traveler to have mutations as strong as our captain.”

“Oh, my bad, I was gonna get to that,” Elva replied in my stead, giving me an extremely deliberate look. “Y’see, she’s our friendly neighborhood murderer. Funny story.”

Looming 1.4

A stack of reports landed with a thud onto my desk. The rookie, who had dropped them off more literally than I would have liked, gave the most casual of goodbyes as he left. I, for my part, just rubbed my forehead a bit as I looked over the papers before me. Rumors had gotten out, thanks to those loudmouth witnesses no doubt, and now I had to clean up the mess. Half a dozen false sightings of the thing, all at night with bad visibility conditions and with nothing happening. Nothing more than hysteria. I knew what this thing was like.

It was very good, indeed, that I knew. If Aysa didn’t trust me, I wouldn’t be able to protect my people at all right now. No, that was probably incorrect. If Aysa wasn’t desperate enough, I should say. Thankfully she was quite desperate; her response had arrived punctually, and her arrival would be certain. Now if only I could get anything meaningful out of Krishov.

Lucretia entered shortly after I had finished looking over the papers, as I had asked. She seemed a bit nervous beneath that placid countenance she always wore. We always seemed to be in sync, she and I, so I wasn’t surprised that my mood as of late was affecting her. She twirled her locks with one hand as she waited for me to initiate.

“Please sit,” I gestured to one of the free chairs before me. She complied wordlessly. “I’ll just be frank with you; I’m assigning you to remote observation on Lily and her houseguest.”

Her face scrunched up slightly. “So I wasn’t imagining it.”

“If you mean my suspicion, then unfortunately no. Lily’s been acting strangely ever since the incident, and her new friend’s the only potential lead we have. We’re not gonna act on this until the Ophentum arrive, obviously, but sitting here with our thumbs up our asses would be inexcusable.”

At that, she nodded. “You think Lily was lying about them having stayed with her that night?”

“Not necessarily. We don’t exactly know what this individual can do. Still, Lily’s behavior is troubling, and you deserve to hear my real thoughts.”

Her posture relaxed a bit, the tightness in her face lessening. “Appreciated. When do I start, sir?” Unnecessary addition. I wish she wouldn’t do that.

“As soon as you can. Get a team together, too. This is full-day surveillance.”

“As in constantly, rather than only during the day, I assume.”

I nodded, slightly exasperated. “Uh, yeah.”

She stood up, assuring me that she would get everything prepared by tonight as she left. I trusted in her competence. Given the potential nature of the target, though, I doubted anything would come of this. I hated how little it seemed I could do. My fingernails scratched along the desk in frustration before I finally resolved to get through the paperwork.

After perhaps half an hour of filing and other drudgery, the number of things to do had basically vanished. I wondered if the boys would be up for some cards later. I really needed a diversion from the problem and my own antsiness. Not like it’d let me completely get my mind off it, though.

Idling away at solitaire until the first one came back from patrol or the barracks or wherever the hell they were, I passed a good hour’s time. The occasional watcher came through, depositing a report or just announcing their work day to be done. Was good to touch base with everyone.

Soon enough, Jerome returned to the office. He stopped by for the usual reasons, and I took the opportunity to ask if he and Jacquir would be free after work.

“Well, I got nothin’ planned. Jacky-boy said he’d be swingin’ around my place anyways. We gonna be inviting anyone else?”

“Don’t think so,” I answered. “I would have invited Lily, but she said she had plans for today. Art gallery or workshop or something.”

He laughed. “Look at her, all cultured and shit. Too bad. You done with everything?” A nod from me. “Then let’s just head over. Can get you something resembling a healthy meal

for once in your life,” he nudged. An awkward smile from me, and we set off.

“Come on!” she prompted me. “No one’s expecting you to be a master or anything, it’s just supposed to be fun.”

I shied away from her a bit. My experience with creative pursuits like painting had always ended before they began, as I simply did not know what actions to take to produce anything. I tried explaining it to her again, but she did not seem to understand very well. Rather than push me further, though, she offered to try it out first.

Before she could continue, an instructor stopped by us as he made his rounds through the workshop. “Just starting up? You two need any help?” he asked.

“Yeah, my gal here’s really clueless,” Lily answered with a bit of a laugh. I shrunk back again at being focused on.

“Well, we’re always here to help out beginners, after all. You look pretty uncomfortable though, miss,” he said, addressing me this time.

“I have no natural aptitude,” I stated. “Would rather just watch.”

He nodded understandingly, asking instead if Lily would like some instruction. Seeing as she did, the teacher brought over a spare easel and supplies, and began demonstrating some of his personal techniques. He even kept me included, seeming to try and make a point about this style of art being usable by anyone, though not in a pushy way. Certainly it seemed like Lily was able to grasp the idea, though mastering the motions of executing it would take more time for her. In the end, she had a rough but very appreciable mountain on the canvas.

About half an hour passed as he walked us through various kinds of natural scenery. Once her first painting seemed to be done, I suggested that we take a walk through the attached gallery to look for inspiration. Both Lily and the instructor thought it was a good idea, and as the latter walked off to welcome another group of newcomers, Lily and I set off in the opposite direction. We would bring her painting with us on the way back.

“This has been nice,” she prompted after a few seconds spent paused in front of the first artwork that caught our eyes. She turned towards me a bit, which I mirrored. “Sorry for earlier. Didn’t mean to make you anxious like that.”

I shook my head. “Forget it. Was minor.”

“Maybe, but I really should be better about this,” she pressed. With no words I could really think of to make her feel better, I just wrapped an arm around her and squeezed a bit. She seemed to understand my intent, giving me an appreciative smile. She turned, placing our bodies such that she could hug me closely.

Or, rather, she used the position to stretch up ever so slightly and plant another kiss on my lips. I still was not used to someone doing that in the first place, much less twice now. She did not pull away quickly as I had expected, either. Her lips lingered, moving softly against me. I may as well have been stunned. A handful of breathless seconds later, she finally pulled back.

“Lily-” I began, more quickly than I had thought of something to actually say. She waited patiently, and the only event to waver her calm gaze was the passing of another gallery viewer, which she glanced at. “…Thank you for caring about me in spite of how horrible-”

“You’re not.”

“I, well, you know what I mean.”

“Will I never convince you otherwise?” she asked, sounding somewhat defeated. A spike of guilt in my chest. Overcoming my nerves, I brought her back into an embrace.

“Maybe not, but I like that you try,” I admitted, staring at the floor once we had disconnected. Surely she could feel the anxiety that gripped my heart, right alongside this other feeling. As if in response, she placed one hand on my cheek, prompting a soothing feeling to creep in just as the blush crept where she touched.

“Don’t worry, I’ll reassure you whenever you need it, okay?” I nodded, keeping myself from tearing up. The sheer frequency of my emotional moods was embarrassing me again. “Now, weren’t we searching for inspiration?”

“We should return to the Temple, then. Nothing more we need to do until they pull the trigger.” Tyronus’ words came off as distant to my mind, but I registered them well enough, and turned to acknowledge him. “Do you need me to repeat it?”

My expression must have conveyed puzzlement. “No, thank you. To answer your suggestion, yes, we should,” I agreed, “If I am not needed here, I will be in the garden to meditate.”

His brows furrowed in response to my words. “I’d prefer that we begin this immediately, but I imagine you will have time. We’ll send someone your way when we are ready.”

I nodded to him as I began making my way to my destination, greeted by the artwork of statues and murals along the walls that preserved their beauty no matter how often I passed them. I took a moment to review the details of a particular figure, one which bore the likeness of my predecessor. The craftsmanship was impeccable, an almost perfect representation save for the natural marble coloration. I ran my hand along the pedestal as I looked up at her visage. As always, my time spent with her prepared my focus and put me at ease.

Taking a calming breath, I moved on. There was no need to stop for the rest; they did not have the same importance or effect. Favoring expedience, I kept a brisk pace even as I entered the location. It was a garden that was seemingly empty save for the common wildlife that called such areas their home. Unfortunate. I had been hoping to come across Altera at least once before I secluded myself, and I knew she enjoyed this spot as well.

I walked past a tree that evidently hidden another guest from my sight, and was briefly hopeful before realizing that I was only accompanied by a pair of Yleini intently discussing some topic. Upon noticing my presence, they supplied reverent gestures, to which I responded with a small smile.

I reached my favored place of meditation and sat myself on the stone bench, lying down on my back and positioning my legs upward, one crossing over the other, with feet pressed against a marble pillar and hands resting on my stomach. Having settled into a position, I closed my eyes to begin meditation.

Tyronus’ report, however, was far more troubling than was seemingly acknowledged, to the point that I had difficulty concentrating. Despite often being accurate, the existence of a prediction without casualties was one to be cautious of nonetheless. Such was an instance of something being “too good to be true”. Granted, that is my skepticism of the matter, even though past endeavors of similar reports had promising results.

What concerned me most was the delay in Tyronus’ conveyance of the details. It was not characteristic of him to take so long to either use his ability or register the results. I had only ever witnessed one of these types of predictions, but nothing about it had been different from any other time he used his power. No other prediction of an assimilation event’s outcomes ever had this delay, which brought up several questions of possibilities.

For a moment I became skeptical of my own suspicions. My power as an Aichlein was obviously nothing like Tyronus’ or his predecessors, and I had no reason to presume its factors. The delay could have been tied to his focus, his interest, his energy, numerous personal matters I could not judge.

Possible. But that simply meant that it would be worth asking more questions elsewhere. In the event that it was not a personal factor for Tyronus, there was plausibility for an anomaly. It was not beyond the realm of possibility for outside entities to interfere with any Aichlein’s powers, and with Surgriel having defected, there was at least one such entity of our caliber with plenty of motive to shroud our vision. Despite that, though, I had no reason to think Surgriel had that capability. The only Aichlein I could think of with the power to actually hamper one of our own would be Meneura, but she had never expressed interest in assimilation events before, and she did not start now.

What if it was something else entirely? It would be ludicrous to think nothing would approach or antagonize us. Either something new or something we’ve already encountered could have spotted us and begun tampering with us… but how would they know of Tyronus? No, that was out of the question…

I felt my brow furrow as I became increasingly aware of how disorganized my thoughts were, and that I was not meditating at all. I was troubling myself with hypothetical accusations and suppositions, one after the other, which would never benefit me or my peers. Frustrated, I lowered my legs from the column and sat up.

The subject was far too bothersome for me to engage in this practice. I stood up, adjusting my robes slightly to provide a modicum of cover for my exposed legs as I began to leave the garden with no acknowledgement of the Yleini. Tyronus would be informed of my canceled session personally when I arrived, perhaps followed by the pursuit of my questions. Perhaps.

Within minutes I knew I had neared the Temple, but had yet to answer the question of whether or not to bring up the delay in his report. I pondered it once more, and ultimately decided to favor silence. I knew that, despite how concerning it may have been to me, at this moment I had nothing but supposition, and baseless suspicion would be a waste of time for everyone involved. Resolved, yet not entirely quieted, I entered the Temple of Paradise.

I had expected to need to ask for their exact whereabouts, but it seemed I did not have to. Tyronus stood to the “right” side of the circular room which served as the primary vestibule of the structure, directly beside one of the twelve doorways. He entertained the minimal, yet significant, company of two of the most enigmatic Aichleini, Ounirok and Ditroph. Ditroph briefly glanced in my direction before immediately averting his eyes towards the floor. As Ounirok acknowledged my presence, I bowed my head slightly in deference towards them.

“Mazante? Were you not meditating?” Tyronus inquired.

A shake of my head. “No, I found myself far too distracted to do so,” I clarified, a slight scowl touching my features. “You know my skepticism. Regardless of what your report promises, we should still exercise caution.”

“A fine sentiment,” Ounirok interjected before the other could give a reply. “Insufficient, however, to alter our course of action. Mere caution would also have little effect on the outcome if something unknown occurs. Caution enough to delay our timing, meanwhile, could give our enemy an opportunity.”

My eyes met Ounirok’s faceless gaze, and I instinctively bowed my head in apology, despite lack of intention. “I understand. I will defer to your rationale.”

“Your arrival was timed well. We were about to summon the others,” Tyronus spoke again.

“Very convenient.” My gaze turned towards the ceiling. It was unfortunate that the invasion would begin now, but there was nothing I could do to adjust the approach or the timing. I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated as I imagined the worst of hypotheticals that could be prevented if I simply had more to work off of. Knowing history and reading expressions only took me so far. I restrained myself from releasing a sigh, deciding to simply hope that my suspicions were indeed baseless and inaccurate.

“The business had been concluded,” agreed the other, interrupting my reverie. “Servants, gather the Aichleini down below. We launch now.”

“Aysa, stop. We need to evaluate our situation and take a moment to rest.”

I paused at Mana’s words and turned, looking down at her. She had a stern glare, one she always threw my way when she was disappointed with me. I looked around the city in frustration before turning my gaze back to her.

“Alright, we can do that. What do we need to do?” I asked, knowing she could handle the logistics better than I could.

She pointed at the backpack I was carrying. “For starters, we need to inventory everything we still have. Since we’ve reached Belenon, we’re in an excellent spot to restock whatever we’ve already gone through.” I nodded as she continued.

“Furthermore, we need to take time to use what Belenon has to offer. Supplies, information, perhaps a place to rest for the day?”

“We packed what we needed for the trip, and we have camping gear. We don’t need to waste time on luxuries like sleeping in beds and picking out extra crap to burden ourselves with,” I replied with an unintentional tone of derision.

“We packed the minimal amount of supplies which relies on the assumption we have an exact time of arrival without unnecessary interruptions along the road, which cannot be guaranteed. We agreed with the risk of running short, but as long as we’re here, there’s no reason not to stock up.

“As for beds,” Mana continued with a small sigh, “It’s optional, and it does potentially set us back. It’s just a convenience that we don’t need to take. If you don’t want to, and Ekkan doesn’t want to, then we can skip that bit.”

I looked up at him. An eyebrow rose up past his circular lenses. “I don’t need a bed to sleep. Your call, Aysa.”

“Then that’s it,” I answered in a curt fashion, “We’re not renting out any rooms. We… fine, we’ll get some more supplies. Then we move on.” I paused. “Wait, Mana, what did you mean by information?”

She shrugged. “We have no idea what Hateli’s current state is like. We’re being called in due to the appearance of a monster that the region is complete unfamiliar with. For all we know, the officials panicked and went full lockdown on the place or something. We need to be ready for what we’re running into.”

I narrowed my eyes. “That’s wasting a lot of time on an assumption. Look, the amount of time we’re spending here is time we could be better off on the road. We could be a lot closer to Hateli by now, but you want to trade off our pacing for something that might not even be a problem.”

She gave me a matching stare, mirroring my impatience. “Safe is better than close, Aysa. Your negligence for your own welfare and your need for haste will hurt you even more if we get slowed down by something you didn’t account for.”

I impulsively began moving forward towards her, fuming. Ekkan darted in between us, planting a gloved hand on my chest. Just as I grabbed his wrist, intending to throw him off me, I found myself blinded by a spontaneous flash of light.

Jerome seemed barely fit to stand already, a fact which I teased him mercilessly over. He was still just as insistent now as he was before as to his ability to drink. At one point he almost rammed his face into the wall, and it got Jacquir and myself to finally keep him seated for his own damn safety. The fool pouted a bit over it, but with all of us sitting and joking with him, that mood didn’t persist.

What did persist, though, was my nature as a giggly drunk. The face he made just tickled me somehow, and I ended up with some very sore cheeks. Jacq’ went from teasing his clumsiness to teasing my inability to stop laughing, which just made me laugh even more. Holding my mouth and eyes desperately shut seemed to calm me down, at least, but god was I embarassing sometimes.

“The sun isn’t even down and we’re already smashed to shit-”

“HEY speak for yourself huh??” a suddenly displeased Jay interrupted

“No, see, that’s just… proving my point. The yelling thing.”

“…Maybe so!” he replied, again louder than necessary. Jacq’ even made an exaggerated wince to it, though the angle meant Jay didn’t fully see.

I rubbed my forehead a bit. “God I should go rest soon, we need to be up early again tomorrow.” The two agreed begrudgingly with that, so I stood to leave.

“We’ll probably chill a while longer,” Jacq’ said offhandedly. “We have more, right?”

“Ayup.”

“You do whatever the hell, I’ll just be getting a good night’s rest,” I gestured dismissively. “See ya tomorrow.”

The dual goodbyes that responded, punctuated by my opening of the front door, were all I heard before an obscenely bright and loud flash dominated my senses.

The laughter in my ear rang as sweetly as it ever had, continuing to work Lily’s magic of dispelling my unhappiness. Granted, calling it ‘magic’ might have been more literal than poetic. With the realization that I had never even confirmed my suspicion, I changed the topic from its lighthearted banter.

“You do this on purpose, right? Making me happier?” I asked, unsure how to word something like this.

“I mean, that’s a pretty normal thing to do for, uh… whatever we are, ain’t it?” she responded with a hint of a giggle still lingering in it.

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, okay, yeah. I promise I don’t usually mess with people this much – Elva and the others don’t even know I can – I just, I dunno, I wanted to help you more.”

“I would say that we should just be honest with each other, but I have no right to ask that, really,” I commented flatly, again putting in effort to keep my tone from sounding too pathetic.

“Plus you have no choice with me,” she said with the most smug of grins. It was a cute look for her. I could not help but stare a little at the sight of her face, hair gently moving with the breeze. She had such a softness to her.

“You look cute,” I stammered, far less eloquent than the thoughts which prompted it.

Deftly wrapping an arm around my waist, she retorted, “If I’m cute, you’re downright adorable.” Having given me a goofy little wink as she said this, I was unsure whether I was more inclined to roll my eyes at that or swoon at her direct compliment.

Before I could make that decision, though, an oppressive, screeching noise pierced the air, lasting only an instant. We both turned our attentions to the surroundings, confused.

“You heard that too, right?”