Lightning 2.6

Seemed like the barkeep was really struggling today. The place was packed with more than it was meant to hold, probably all people with the same idea I had, or close to it. Most of them were new faces, at least to this scene; some didn’t even seem to be drinking. The ones that were had thrown etiquette out the window, with wild dancing, raucous laughter, and some desperately engaging with ‘prospective partners’.

Not a bad idea, I figured. During the past half hour I’d spent here, I’d noticed this one girl in particular, sitting by herself with nothing to do but drink. Looked very nice, too, from what I could glean from my occasional glances in her direction. No one seemed to be bothering her, so I figured I might emulate the others, provide her some company for the night.

My seat was occupied the moment I stood up from it. Wasn’t going to need it anyway. As I made my way over to where she was sitting, the door opened once again. Christ, doesn’t anyone look through a window anymore? It was too packed as it was. She, meanwhile, looked up from her drink and straight towards me, seeming entirely indifferent to the crowd and only mostly indifferent to myself. Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

“Hey.” Not the best opening I could come up with, but who cares about how I were to say hello to someone? Didn’t bother me in the least if I was lacking pretentious flair and eloquent introductions, such as those who included words like “milady” in their feeble attempts at flattery.

Her response was a half-hearted smile, simply acknowledging that I had greeted her before returning her attention to the beverage before her. I could hazard a guess towards what had her down, along with everyone else here. There’s a reason the whole ‘drown your sorrows’ trick was, well, a thing.

“What’s wrong? You’re looking a little glum.”

She didn’t respond for several seconds, but eventually her voice was heard. “I was out of the city for a week. Came back yesterday, and my friends and family are gone. Like… gone. Vanished.”

That wasn’t all, though. Soon she was talking all about what the scene was like when she got here, how she learned the news, all that jazz. All the while, I didn’t even notice how much my hand was starting to ache. Eventually I had to just set my drink down due to the unintentionally strong grip I was holding on it.

“Well, you know, I’m with the town watch,” I replied afterwards, trying to provide some sort of relief for her, “and we found that the only people we could label as missing had disappeared without a trace of violence, like you said. My point being that there’s no immediate proof that anyone’s dead or hurt, you know?”

She smiled somewhat. Couldn’t be certain if she was happy to hear that or simply indulging me. “Yeah, I guess. By the way, uh, can I ask you a question?”

“Shoot.”

“If you’re with the town watch… do you have any idea what to do about this?”

My response was an awkward, “Um…” that did little to assuage her worries. Even having already put some thought into this question, there still didn’t seem to be a good answer. I took a moment to wipe away the collection of sweat on my face as I determined what to say.

“You alright? You seem kinda-”

“Yeah, no, don’t worry,” I replied with the best confidence I could muster, “To answer your question, well, uh… the captain was heading to Belenon to see how things are over there. I’m certain she’ll have a plan or something when she gets back.”

Out of nowhere, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and subsequently craned my head back to see who was trying to grab my attention.

“Oh, hey.”

“Hey,” Lucy greeted me in a notably flat tone, “Am I interrupting something?”

I looked over at the girl I had been speaking with. She had returned to sulking by herself, no attention paid to me anymore. “Not at the moment, I guess. What’s up?”

“Jay and I got back from Aldi like an hour ago. What are you doing here?”

“What does it look like?”

“Well, drinking, fairly typical,” she answered, “You doing alright?”

“Oh, I’m perfect,” I shrugged. “Just wasn’t much happening around here, so I figured I’d get a drink, you know?’

“Right,” she responded, a bit drawn out. “Just making sure you’re well, that’s all.”

“Trust me, I’m fine.”

“I see. Well, Elva’s left for somewhere, I hear?”

“Yeah, she was heading out to Belenon, took Lily with her.”

“Figures. Well, I’m gonna head home, recoup after the trip and all.”

“Sounds good to me,” I replied rather dismissively, starting to turn away from her.

“What, you haven’t spent enough time relaxing?” My eyes narrowed in response to her suddenly abrasive tone, and her face took on an apologetic look as a result. “Sorry. Really tired after all this. Still, I think you’ve had enough time to sort yourself out, you know.”

“Is that right?”

“Yeah, I’d say it is.” She stared at me for a while as though expecting a response, but as I had provided none, she continued. “Look, this shit has me shaken up too, but we all have jobs to do. It’s alright to get some stress relief every once in a while, but don’t forget your duties. You’re the only officer who can work at the moment.”

“Hey, I hear you. Don’t need to start repeating yourself over one message. But I wasn’t forgetting anything, I was just getting a drink.”

Her expression of displeasure worsened in answer. “Not sure you do hear me; not like this is anything new. I’ve had to say this before, because I’ve seen it happen plenty of times. No shit you’d head to a bar and take it easy, again.”

“I was just trying to enjoy myself, that’s all.”

“I’m aware of that, the problem is that you always do this when you’re scared.”

“Oh, bullshit, c’mon-”

“It’s not bullshit, Jacq’,” she interrupted, “Stop acting like there isn’t an issue here. I’m really tired of telling you not to run away from your job.”

“Alright! Look, you’re right, you’re right. I didn’t think there was a problem with getting a drink, but I’m sorry-”

“No, you’re not, because you also do this every time I get on your case! You just tell me you agree so that I get off your back!”

I wasn’t going to win this. She was relentless, couldn’t even apologize without crossing the line. I figured she wanted proof of action now, rather than my word, so I gave her that. “Fine. What do you want me to do, right now?”

She let out a sigh of what seemed like exhaustion rather than frustration. “I… don’t know. Check in at the office, I guess. You’ve probably missed something that needs doing, if the other two have been gone any amount of time.”

“Right, right… Well, see you whenever I do get home, then.”

“Yeah, see you.”

With Lucy making her way home to recover, I took that as my cue to depart to the office. Disappointing that I didn’t get much out of my time at the bar, was only tipsy at best and didn’t even come close to a good night with that woman back there. Could’ve at least made getting yelled at a tolerable experience if I got something out of it all, but instead even I had to agree I just wasted my time.

My arrival at the office was pretty lonely, only one secretary whose name I could barely remember greeting me. “Well, you’re actually back. How’s it goin’?”

“Eh, it’s been fine. Could’ve been better though. Any reports need to be dealt with?”

“Hah, yeah. Got quite a few here, having ‘em dropped off all day with no one to sort ‘em,” she responded as she began moving to the left side of her desk. I noticed a massive stack of files, and began hoping that wasn’t seriously the accumulation of work that I had on my hands. There couldn’t have been that many after just one day, right?

With a foreboding grunt of exertion, she began hauling the monolith of paper my way, and set them down in front of me in great relief. I stared at it for a moment before remarking upon the obvious. “That’s a lot of papers.”

“Ayup,” she said, returning to her original task, “Been coming in since yesterday, but no one’s been available, so I had to stack them over there.” Oh, that makes sense, Elva and Lily being too busy with prep to deal with it. I gave her my thanks and began to lift the mountain of paperwork, but her side of the conversation hadn’t finished.

“By the way,” she continued, “Do you mind if I ask where you were? Thought it’d make sense to have the last officer around be a bit more on top of things. But, if I’m prying, I can just drop it. No worries.”

“Wasn’t feeling well, had a bit of a drink. Figured it was time to get stuff done though.”

“Sounds about right to me. Well, let me know if you need anything.”

I nodded and commenced with my effort to carry the reports to my work area. Having set them down, I cursed myself knowing that the load I had been saddled with would not nearly be as troublesome if I had been working on this before. Yet another consequence of shirking duties. Probably would take an hour tops if I just sat down and did this, like I was now.

We knew it was not completely deserted – last we checked, at least – but hearing so little life in a city still felt wrong, no matter how much time we had to get used to it. Too similar to the ghost city we had just left. The tone was somber between us, awkward and unwilling to let itself disappear harmlessly in spite of all the good. Elva’s plan was good, being with Lily again was good, not having died was good. Being back was good.

The day was already quite late, such that we did not expect anyone in the office except the night shift. Even still, that was our first destination, a now-familiar sight to me pulling up into view as the vehicle found its way through the streets and into its place. As soon as we had parked, everyone simultaneously exitted, heading towards one of the few places we could reasonably expect to be around other people in.

“I think Lucy and Jay should have come back from Aldi by now, assuming nothing weird happened,” Lily remarked, the hush in her voice pronounced in this night. “We probably just missed ‘em.”

Footsteps resounded through the air, punctuating Elva’s agreement. She still wanted to check, just on the off-chance they had been waiting, and I was unsure whether I would prefer seeing them right through that door or not. We did not know each other well, but seeing them safely at home again still felt like a comforting prospect to me. That was a good sign, probably. Maybe they would even feel the same by now?

We received quite the excited greeting from the lady at the desk as soon as we had entered, making some remark about us having missed the others by a matter of a few hours. Far as she could tell, everything was fine.

“What was their report?” Always down to business with her.

“Just that Aldi was… empty. You could, uh, actually read what they filed,” she offered, shifting through a few papers on the desk before extending one in her captain’s direction, “but it’s pretty much just that.”

She took the report anyways, eyes skimming through with uncharacteristically low diligence. Meanwhile, Lily and I simply stood to one side as Elva wrapped her business up. I think both of us were itching to get some alone time right then, having our bodies so close as to brush against each other with the slightest shift in posture. After an hours-long trip doing the exact same, it was starting to get unbearable.

“Any transmissions?” Elva asked, finally, handing back the report for the secretary to file away.

“Mhm. Everything seems, well, calm. Nothing’s happening. That’s what people are saying.”

After a brief huff, our captain turned to address the both of us. “Might just be a calm before the storm kinda deal, but we can’t really do anything tonight anyways. We’re having a full staff meeting tomorrow. Be prepared to have a busy day.”

“Oooh, saucy,” the secretary commented. “Gotta love actually being able to take action.”

“Speaking of which – sorry to ask for this much, but we’ll need even those on night duty helping. I’ll see you tomorrow, Kita.”

While briefly wondering if she had all her subordinates’ names memorized, I felt Lily’s hand grasp mine, pulling me back towards the door. We all exchanged our goodbyes and promised to meet back up at the right time before heading our different ways. It was not long before Lily and I were alone, walking to her family manor on a street that would probably have been just as quiet before all of this happened. She did not let go of my hand for the duration.

At some point, she spoke up, breaking the few minutes of silence without even turning back to look at me. “What’re you gonna do?”

“What?”

“I can’t tell if you’re going to give up after that loss,” she clarified, sounding slightly more worried than before. Or maybe pitying.

“Thought you were supposed to be able to know things like that.”

It took her several seconds to compose her thoughts enough for her next reply. “You want to, but you can’t.” Her hand squeezed mine comfortingly after I neglected to respond to that. “At some point, we can’t really do anything except keep going in spite of everything. And hey, no one’s even under attack right now, that’s really good!” I could practically hear the dopey grin in her voice now.

“Good to have time to undertake Elva’s plan,” I agreed.

“I mean, who knows, they might have gotten everything they wanted. More refreshing to think optimistically in a time like this, don’t you think?”

“Not really. If anything, it sounds like a setup to disappointing yourself.”

She sighed. “Maybe, but I can’t just let the mood get pulled down every time.”

“You always do that,” I remarked, an unpleasant, accusatory tone to my voice, “picking apart everyone’s feelings and putting it on yourself to make things perfect.”

The sound of the door opening interrupted me slightly, us having finally returned to her home, and we stepped through, causing my anxiety to freshly flair. Was starting to feel kinda horrible about being so insensitive, especially over how she tries to help other people, and her lack of a response made things feel even worse. I should just apologize for it, hope she is okay, and move on.

“Um… I am sorry for probably hurting you with that. Are you-”

Her sudden action shut me up quite effectively, shoving me into the wall adjacent to the entrance. She made the appearance of her hands pinning my shoulders, but with no actual weight behind it, I was just supposed to get the idea. Her piercing gaze was more than enough to convey what she wanted, though. It was more depressing than intimidating for me, if anything; a rather pained expression emphasized what I had already guessed was the case.

“Look,” she almost pleaded, “I’ve been very deliberate all this time, trying to help everyone in the only way I’m fucking useful, and I’m very deliberately trying to keep myself from thinking it’s all meaningless and that we’re all dead, okay? I. Need. You. Supporting me.” Her face was getting closer, voice a mere few steps away from breaking as she spoke.

My eyes averted instinctively. God, I really fucked up again. Impressively so. Apparently getting too comfortable around people made me say stupid shit without thinking, and she was the last person I wanted to hurt like that. All I could do, and did, was promise to try supporting her as best I could, and she thankfully seemed to accept that. After a brief pause, her face softened, and our lips met briefly in reconciliation.

It was much less over-the-top, but she smiled at me again after pulling back, a smile that felt more genuine than anything she had shown to other people. That was my favorite thing to see, ever prompting me to return the gesture for her. She always made me feel so nice. I think she knew that, too, with her smile growing into a full-blown grin right before kissing me again.

“Speaking of supporting me, I’ve thought of something else you could do to, mm, help,” she murmured, low and sultry as one hand of hers found its place on my hip. My nervousness was back now, for an entirely different reason.

“I thought you did not want, uh… that.”

Her face scrunched up a bit in apparent confusion. “Why d’you say that?”

“Just… you certainly knew how I felt earlier,” I reasoned, frowning slightly, “and did not act on it. That usually means you do not share the desire, right?”

“Now you’re the one picking apart my feelings, and you can’t even know for sure that you’re right.” Almost felt like I was being scolded. “I just didn’t want our first time together to be because we felt like we needed to – like, feeling rushed because of the situation.”

“That is a nice sentiment,” I had to admit. “Could have told me earlier, though.”

“That’s fair. I’m sorry.”

“So, is it going to be more special now that we have not died and things seem quiet, or what?”

At that, she gave me quite the coy smile, pulling away from our previous closeness in favor of beckoning me towards the stairs. “Well, guess we’ll need to see about that, huh?” she teased, leaving with an obvious invitation for me to follow. Both my face and my heart were burning in the wake of her sudden forwardness. Even having been getting used to this kind of intimacy lately seemed insufficient, for so many reasons.

My footsteps echoed behind hers. I think she was intentionally swaying her hips at this point, just hoping I would be looking so she could tease me some more. It worked very well, too. By the time she turned to pass through the door into her bedroom, I was tensing up and aching to be held by her again. Just those brief few moments where I was unable to directly see her, before I had turned that same corner, was enough to give me a pang of unhappiness. I was like some sort of lovestruck teenager all over again.

By her utterly smug and self-pleased expression, I knew she was very proud of that fact, of how much of an effect she always had on me, even without her powers. She could probably make anyone fall for her just with that, but we were both here of our own free wills. We were here, together, in a way I have craved for such a long time, from before I allowed myself to think about such a thing with her, or with anyone at all.

There Lily was, seated on that pristine little bed of hers with one hand patting a place by her side. Opposite where I was, in fact, closer to her pillow. Upon taking the offer, she gently turned me, pushed me down til my head was resting against her pillow. I felt her touching my heart, a seeping comfort emphasizing the sensations of being kissed deeply. Everything, every iota of my being wanted to submit to her in that moment.

My wrist being pinned down gently was such a simple gesture on her part, but at this point it was enough to drive me crazy. Or, to just cause a pitiful little whine to escape my throat. I felt her mouth curl up into another smirk in response even as she kept kissing me. I was all hers, and she knew it, and she loved it. Hell, I loved it too.

My free arm wrapped around Lily’s waist, pulling her closer encouragingly and causing her to giggle a little. Her mouth moved lower, nipping at the tender skin of my neck. Every little gasp and moan I gave her just prodded her further, her hands now starting to roam along my skin wherever it was exposed, or even where it was not. She moved back up to kissing me, pulling at my clothes and venturing into more intimate areas.

I asked her hesitantly if I should just get rid of the clothes entirely, since I had made them to begin with, and she seemed a bit disappointed in the idea. One could easily imagine that she wanted to take her time teasing me with that, too, but it is a bit of a hassle to try and manually remove clothing that technically is attached to you, so she acquiesced. Her disappointment did not last long, once her gaze was occupied by my newly exposed body. The attention was at once gratifying and making me nervous.

That, too, failed to last, my nerves being washed away under a warm bloom of peace and sheer love. The effect faltered for a moment, as did her previously confident facial expression, and culminated in a pause.

“It’s okay for me to use my powers for this, right?” she asked, the concern evident in her features. “I just wanna make you feel good, that’s all.”

“I trust you,” was all that needed to be said.

The warmth entered me again, deeper and more intense than I had felt from her before. Above me, she had sat up, hastily working to remove most of her own clothing before moving back and pressing her bare skin against mine. Lily’s hands found the places I was most sensitive, and she continued delighting in every minute reaction I gave her as she played with me. It felt like heaven, to be there with her.

Once she had gotten her fill of the slow pace, she bent down to give me a decisive little peck, then shifted her position atop me in a way that left no doubts as to what we were doing now. Her eyes locked with mine the entire time, even as we trembled together in unison. My hips moved in tandem with hers, careful to preserve the rhythm we were building together as one. I was determined to keep going until she was satisfied.

Soon enough, I heard the sweet sounds of her climax, and she gently collapsed back onto me. After getting into a better position than that, we settled in together for the night, occasionally whispering sweet little words to each other. There was nothing more peaceful in the world than lying with her here, right now, making her feel warm and loved as she drifted off to sleep.

This meeting would be the first time I’d seen my own daughter in, well, days, probably. The exact time always escaped me, but she was always in the back of my mind, even as I worked. And now, here she was, on the arm of that… girl, standing there like nothing in the world was wrong. At least, that’s sure what it looked like. It helped that I knew about this little situation beforehand, but having someone like that so casually accepted among us felt wrong. Especially with Lily.

“Looks like we’re all present,” Elva began, “so let’s cut right to it. We’ve been a bunch of sitting ducks ever since this invasion began, and we need to change that before their next wave arrives.”

If it arrives,” my daughter corrected.

“Sure, but the fact of it being an ‘if’ doesn’t change what we have to do.” Lily shrugged at that, apparently conceding the point. “I have an idea for something proactive, something to protect those who remain in Hateli. No, potentially everywhere else, too.

“From what we’ve gathered,” she continued, “the nomadic peoples of Karrian, far in the south, haven’t been attacked at all. Meanwhile, every settlement has. It’s not much, but we can get some kinda correlation there, and if it’s right, we could all be much safer if we evacuated from the safety of the walls.”

“Not like they gave us much safety in this situation anyways,” Jacquir pointed out.

“Sure didn’t seem like it,” agreed another.

“We’ll just take the supplies we need for survival, as well as our transmission sets. Sorry, Krishov, but your work needs to be put on hold for the time being.”

“Oh, that should be fine,” I replied. “The invaders aren’t actually destroying anything, right? Except in Belenon, but that was a special case. I don’t think anything bad will happen if we just leave it there. Plus, more time to spend with the, uh… family, right?” Lily shot me a glance at that, along with her reassuring smile.

“Right. You’ll be able to help with some packing, I hope.”

“We’ll all pull our weight,” Jerome interjected, “but I think the town watch should mostly be spreading the word of what we’re doing, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, to start. We’ll also have transmissions sent out advising others to do the same, so there’ll be plenty of word-spreading. In the meantime, though, we just gotta do what we can for this city.” A round of agreements echoed through the meeting room.

Once that bit had been settled, Elva went on to divide Hateli’s sections and assign them to various members, instructing them to meet back up at the office once they had informed all the surviving households and whatnot. I was apparently to start helping with the packing immediately, which made sense, given that I would not be as fast as the younger ones. Still, having to wait for some actual time to spend with Lily was a bit sad.

It was several hours before people started returning, despite how few people there were to inform anymore. By then, we’d had a few carts and vehicles fully loaded, and our speed at that would just get faster with more people working. Some time later, the first families started arriving, too. Most looked utterly broken – if not physically broken apart by a missing member, then broken in spirit. Was almost too depressing to look at.

A few had brought their own vehicles to load up, too, and everyone had quite the busy day. In spite of these families bringing everything they could think of from their own homes, there was still so much we needed to extricate from the storehouses before we could leave, and every moment felt like we might just be getting closer to another onslaught. Not like this is something you can or should rush, though. Or maybe it was? Better to be without some supplies out on the plains or in the hills than to be taken by those people, that’s what I’d say. But, wasn’t my call, in the end.

Honestly, it felt good to be working so hard. I always got engrossed in whatever I was putting my mind to, and even though this was a far cry from screwing around with bioalchemical processes, it still filled that need in me. Occasionally seeing my daughter out and about working just as hard lifted my spirits, too, gave me even more drive to see us all safe. Seemed she in particular was already safe, though, at least from what I’d heard. As much as I should just be grateful and happy, I couldn’t help but feel some bitterness alongside that. Didn’t want to let it get me down, in any case.

As the sun started dipping towards the horizon – or at least I knew it was, since it had already dropped below what the walls obscured by now – it became apparent that we weren’t going to be finished in a day. As usual, a binary of emotions surfaced; the usual anxiety over possibly imminent attack being one half, and the other composed of a certain somber relief. Relief, specifically, at the fact that we still had enough people to make this evacuation take such a long time to prepare at all.

One could only hope that this would be an ultimately unnecessary endeavor.

Lightning 2.5

This was getting out of control. Some were scared, some were angry, but most were simply confused. We should have become used to this sort of bullshit, given our usual line of work, but this blitzkrieg from out of nowhere was not even close to the usual. Ekkan was outside, apparently dealing with people who couldn’t pay attention to the fucking rules. Mana was probably working with communications, or handling any wounded. Both trying to manage the situation as best as they could, but they weren’t miracle workers. According to them, I should be out there, giving the rest of the Ophentum some kind of confidence or direction.

Hell with that. Hell with them. I was more interested in the fact some literal, mythological colossus appeared in Belenon, and our first action was to abandon the city. Even though I had made the call myself, it burned in my memory, fixation overcoming me. The mere idea of fleeing from any sort of monster made me seethe, much moreso since it also resulted in a complete abandonment of our initial hunt.

Nothing I could’ve done, they said. We couldn’t help it, they said. It was something no one predicted. Fuck all of that, and fuck all those people. I didn’t even have a proper count of how many years I’ve been waiting, anymore. More than a decade? And after all that time, to come this close to catching her, only to have some pieces of shit come out of nowhere and set everything back.

My name was spoken outside, interrupting me before I could brood more over this. The possibility of distraction was tantalizing, causing me to stand up and begin to make my way to the exit of my quarters. As I approached, I could hear more clearly the words being spoken on the other side.

“-the one who preaches to us about not hiding or running away, so why is she the only one not doing anything? She should be out here, helping us! Instead, she’s scared out of her wits!”

Something snapped inside me, every ounce of frustration that had been building up now exploding outwards. I spun around, hands flying to the back of the chair I had just been sitting in; a single, thoughtless action, and the chair was tossed to the side, impacting the wall violently due to my misjudgment of force. Everyone went quiet, including myself. A moment was spent attempting to compose myself before opening the door.

A veritable crowd of the Ophentum members were before me. Ekkan was between us, and I pushed him aside to reach the rest. None of them looked upset or angry, rather scared or worried. That fear only seemed to intensify as I surveyed them.

“What were you, uh, doing in there?” I looked over to the man who spoke up. Judging by his voice, he was the one accusing me of being frightened. Judging by his tone, he lacked the spine to stand by what he said.

“More importantly,” I retorted, “What are you doing out here? You’re supposed to ask for my presence, not barge into my fucking home.”

“We’ve been trying to determine at least something about what’s happened,” a voice interrupted. It was the woman I had put in charge of communications. “Between a lot of settlements going dark and reports of skirmishes all over between our targets and the attackers, this invasion of theirs seems widespread enough to cover even more than just Belenon.”

I compulsively scratched at the side of my abdomen. Fuck these things. “There’s no way this is coming from human civilization. Alchemy can’t teleport entire armies, and no one’s interested in starting a war over here.” The notion of anyone coming up with this power of teleportation and an army out of nowhere was bullshit. Just as bullshit was the notion of this coming from somewhere else, like some kind of dimension or another planet.

To be fair, in a world where human-beast hybrids and monstrous entities were common enough that a group could be formed around killing them, few things could come off as unreal. Despite that, however, I was reluctant to believe that entities from another planet would notice us and come here, much less to attack us. Another dimension was less of a stretch… who am I kidding, even that is absolutely absurd. There’s alchemy, and then there’s outright magic. Of course, some could also call the capabilities of alchemy “magic” and I was not the most informed on these subjects.

I ran a hand through my hair, deciding for now to focus on something we could manage. “Our marks. Anything on their condition? Dead? Hiding? Kidnapped? Anything?”

“A lot of them were killed off; only the most deadly that we’ve registered still give reason to appear alive. We have reports of groups of invaders that were killed, but in areas completely separate from where our usual targets are located.”

“Anything on what caused it?”

“Nothing. Most of them identified the expected injury to the head, but whatever did it either managed to kill them by blunt force trauma or piercing that didn’t require going through the eyes.”

“So you’re telling me they’re competent enough to figure out the regenerative abilities and the only means of killing them? We’ve never encountered a creature with that level of intelligence, or strength for that matter.” Strong like a monster, smart like us. Please tell me it wasn’t another-

“Yes, apparently so. The probability is high that this is something we haven’t encountered before.”

I let loose an expletive louder than intended, causing more than a handful of individuals to flinch in response. My gaze wandered throughout the mob in supreme irritation. Fucking dickholes can’t handle something like this, but are expected to deal with life-threatening creatures? My ass.

“You all think I’m overreacting or some shit, right?” I snarled. “We’re beset by something with an origin we can’t even determine, with only the worst of the worst surviving its assault, and now you’re suspecting some monsters that we completely overlooked. In case you haven’t noticed, the key detail to these monsters is that they’re monstrous.

“We have eyes everywhere, and somehow we don’t notice these. That means they hide particularly well, and I’ll be fucking damned if it’s even more of this bullshit of monsters pretending to be humans again.”

“Again?”

“What are you talking about?”

“What I’m talking about,” I spat back at them, “is that I’m sick of things regularly going from bad to worse, and right now it can’t get any worse. Never mind that we lost one of our top priority targets because we had to leave Belenon, never mind that we were attacked by a fucking goliath, NEVER MIND that we’re apparently too fucking inept to see threats on our own fucking planet, you’re more concerned about what I’m doing in the closest thing I have to a house.”

I looked over at Ekkan for some kind of backup. He had that same look of worry, of pity and superiority that he always had. This fucking asshole. I strode up to him, staring up into his lenses.

“And what about you, huh? Am I the scared little pissant that everyone seems to think I am? I’m not, and you more than anyone should know that!” I furiously paced between him and the crowd. “Do you know how long I’ve been dealing with this kinda shit? Don’t think for a second I’m scared, because I’ve seen more than any of you have in your entire lives!”

At this, Ekkan finally moved forward, moving me back towards my living quarters. My attempts to resist were ultimately futile. The door closed behind him, and I found myself released with a slight shove at the same time his eyes scrutinized mine.

“That was all uncalled for.”

“Like hell. Those people had the audacity to think I’m fucking frightened by this, because I dare take a moment to myself to think. If they didn’t want a lecture, they shouldn’t have come knocking.”

“Which is precisely why I wasn’t about to let them even start knocking,” he replied, “You opened the door without them even requesting entry.”

“Implying that at all changes the fact that they would have.”

“It doesn’t, but we both know that when things go wrong, you’re… not exactly the inspiring figure they look to. You need time alone, and I can’t help you if you force your way past me regardless of what I do.”

He was right, kinda, but I really needed to calm myself down after that. I took a few seconds of deep breaths before responding. “You’re right. I’m sorry. It’s just… they have the wrong idea. You know why I was upset.”

“I do,” he agreed, “but I don’t think they all share your conviction. There are only so many people among the Ophentum who are here for the same reason you are. For the past several years, our ranks have been formed predominantly by people who are doing this out of goodwill, not out of personal need. Still, we get a fair number of people who come in with nothing because of the things we hunt.

“Aysa, what’s wrong with what you said out there isn’t about your temper or what progress we’ve made. It’s about treating anything they’ve suffered – or anything anyone’s suffered – as being unquestionably less horrible than your own past experiences. We formed this group for the sake of helping each other, not for tearing each other down.”

He paused for a moment. I wasn’t sure if he wanted me to respond, or if he was thinking, but he then continued. “There’s something I think should be said, but it could be stressful for you. It’s about the Ophentum. Do you want to hear it?”

I simply nodded, and thus he continued. “They’re scared of you, and of what you can do. I don’t know how long they’ll continue to accept that in a leader.”

“Maybe they should focus on the actual monsters instead,” I retorted thoughtlessly.

They’re scared of you, and of what you can do.’ The implications of that felt like enough to stop my heart, now that my gut reaction to the words had faded. A chill spread over my body, dull, cold fog winding along my muscles.

The things I can do. My eyes were drawn towards my side, where they had been growing recently. It was shit like this, and what it meant for me. Another impulsive decision had me grasping for that disgusting mess of scales in what should have been a brief outburst, yet I found myself scratching at them relentlessly, unable or unwilling to stop in spite of how much pain it caused me.

I could barely register Ekkan yelling my name, now, though his firm grip on my hand and loud commands to let go were easier to pay attention to. He guided me into releasing the death grip I held on it, after which he immediately lifted my shirt up enough to inspect the area. For my part, I couldn’t bring myself to look at it now.

“God damn it, you’re bleeding. Keep it held up for a second.” I complied as he tore a section of cloth off from who knows what. He wrapped it expertly around my abdomen, uncomfortably tight, taking several seconds before he had finally finished. I got the okay on letting go after that. He seemed to be expecting a reply which I didn’t give him, prompting a sigh.

“Aysa, guarding your door and binding your wounds, there’s only so much I can do. I need you to stop this compulsive self harm and start taking care of yourself, and your men. You keep getting these infections, and your people are either scared on the field or scared at home.

“I know more about you than anyone else here, and I’m not about to leave you alone. But you must, and I mean must, start keeping things in good condition. If you’re sick of everything going from bad to worse, then there’s never been a more important time to start fixing the situation. Do you understand me, Aysa?”

With a drawn-out exhale, I finally worked up to move my eyes from their fixation on the ceiling to meet Ekkan’s stare. Another handful of carefully measured breaths, and I was able to return to a sort of calm. At least, the best I could ever muster in terms of calm. “Yeah, and you’re right. Where am I needed?”

“Mana was thinking of organizing scouting parties after the giant’s attack. Wanted to see if there were similar attacks elsewhere, or if it has left. See what’s happened to Belenon. Might want to talk to her about that.”

All I could do, or felt like I could do, was provide my acknowledgement before leaving and putting this behind me for the moment. Opening the door made me hesitate a bit, unsure of exactly what would be greeting me out here. The crowd had mostly dispersed since, with only a few eyes glancing over towards me before continuing their work. Those who remained still seemed as wary as before.

My efforts to compose myself had yet to dispel this lingering scowl, but I did what I could to provide them a reassuring expression. It was the most they were gonna get as far as apologies were concerned. If they wanted a reason to follow me, then begging for their forgiveness was the last thing I should do. They wanted results, strong leadership, not petty pleas for clemency. Still, I couldn’t help but hasten my movement to the medical offices, where Mana should be.

Scouting parties towards areas of interest seemed like a risk due to the nature of the attacks, but it was important for us to fully grasp the scope of the situation. We need to know where this was coming from and who was responsible. I need to know what happened to Belenon and Hateli.

I almost expected something worse than this. There was no indication of what the city itself looked like, but the walls were as pristine as ever. It was a stark and disquieting reminder of our powerlessness, that they stood there as proudly as ever before. Almost felt like poor taste.

There had been no way to maintain a stealthy approach on these open plains and farmlands, and we couldn’t afford the lost time even if the option existed, so we had been using the fastest method. A four-person vehicle was available, thanks to our resources and the fact that there was practically no one else who was gonna occupy it now; much faster than the variants used in caravan trains, it allowed us to reach Belenon by late afternoon.

The gate was open, much more inviting than the ravaged city that greeted us just beyond. Only the clumsy rolling of wheels against stone resounded through the air as we pulled in, poignant and chilling against a backdrop like this. There had obviously been some sort of fire, but it was entirely extinguished by now, not even any rising columns of smoke to signal their former existence. Elva commented on it, perceptive as ever, and we agreed as to the strangeness. It was a small detail, but easy to focus on compared to the obvious implications of everything else.

Here we were, anxious to resolve the one thing plaguing both of our thoughts, and we had no clear course of action. Our choices seemed to be combing through the entire damn place, or trying to make some sense of the destruction in the hopes that it’d lead us to her. Neither seemed reliable or quick enough for us. We couldn’t split up either, as we had exactly one vehicle – the sparse few not used to evacuate the city seemed trashed – and no way of communicating when we found her. In spite of the emptiness of the place, we also didn’t like the idea of fighting alone, unlikely as that situation cropping up seemed.

Whatever could cause destruction like this was terrifying in mere prospect, yet like everything else, it seemed to vanish as if it were as insubstantial as the sky. The broadcast had referred to a giant, I believe. Couldn’t say I held any regret in missing a sight like that. We continued at a crawl, barely able to do anything except behold the city as it was and try to think of something. How many people had died here?

“You don’t feel anything, right?” she asked, murmuring as if our surroundings would chastise her for breaking the quiet more than the vehicle already was. I confirmed the negative, matching her hushed tone. To someone like me, living in a city my entire life and with an entirely separate sense, the amount of sheer void I had encountered so much of recently was frightening. The feelings never really stood out to me before, but now, the utter absence of any emotion in the air was depressing.

“Well,” she continued, after a few moments, “we need to start with something. Your range is, what, 130 feet right?”

“At absolute maximum, yeah. I mean, I guess it helps that I’m, uh, familiar with who we’re looking for. Definitely helps. Couldn’t have anywhere near that amount of coverage without-”

“Yeah, no, I get it,” she cut me off. Nerves were getting to her. “If we just drive around the whole place, and Senna gets within 130 feet, would you be able to feel it?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “We never really tested something like this.”

“God, yeah, really wish we had done that, now. We were all embarrassingly complacent before this shit happened. It was a time of peace, but…” she trailed off.

“…But it still feels like it’s kinda our fault,” I finished for her.

She didn’t reply after that. Her eyes locked themselves on the roads, navigating the debris strewn about the streets as best she could. For my part, I just kept my focus, straining my sense to its limit as we put the only plan of action we had into effect. At least, I thought it was strained, because I sure felt strained. The fact of the matter was that I flat out couldn’t tell, though, so I just found myself hoping. What an annoying trend.

We turned to the right, starting on one branch for this section of the city, and Elva was immediately compelled to slam the brakes. Some sort of huge crater had formed just beyond the obscuring line of houses, buildings and dirt both blown away with inequal ease. My first instinct was to assume this was just another impact crater from whatever titanic battle had overtaken the capital, but my eyes, primed with an anxious tension, picked up something I both did and did not want to see.

It might not have been her, but I needed to check. Elva was about to start reversing before I shoved myself out of the seat, only a hasty phrase given as explanation for my sudden movement. Behind me, I couldn’t see her eyes lock onto what I had seen, but I felt the flash of recognition in her, too. Still the only thing I could feel here.

Stumbling forward, I practically tripped over myself and the debris just to get to the center of this crater. My heart had never been pounding this hard, not that I could ever remember. The pain, the concerningly erratic rhythm, all receiving but a dull acknowledgement in my mind, pushed aside in the face of the woman lying on the ground before me.

Exposed stones and other detritus scraped painfully against my poorly protected knees as I fell to them, not paying much consideration in my haste to turn her over. To see her face. Why could I still not feel her? She was right here. Senna, eyes closed in a peaceful sleep, was right here, head now resting in my arm. She was right here, and I still couldn’t feel it.

Maybe she was just comatose. That’d happened before, right? Not being able to feel people in comas. I don’t remember if they ever woke up, in those cases. She would, though. She’s completely uninjured, like she always is, just not awake. Yes. Should still check for vitals, but she probably doesn’t have any. Right, if I don’t feel a pulse, it just means she didn’t need one. I think her powers can work like that.

I could barely place my fingers in the correct position on her neck; somehow my arm kept trembling. That was really really really weird. Ah. No pulse. I knew she wouldn’t have one though, since she doesn’t need one to begin with. No breathing either. I couldn’t see any way to determine that she was alive, but she had to be. My fingers found their way up the side of her face, placid and motionless. I really missed touching her.

Elva had been standing behind me for a while now, and I already knew that. She didn’t seem to be prompting anything, but I could feel her gaze alternating between myself and Senna nonetheless. Her heart felt confused. Probably wanting, aching, dying to learn if everything was okay, and I wasn’t offering her any context clues she could figure out how to interpret. Very, very simple.

“Guess we found her,” I stated flatly, turning my head towards her. That didn’t come out right. “She’s, um… I think she’s comatose. No injuries. No signs of life either, but that could just be due to her powers.”

Giving no opportunity for a reply, my arms slid underneath her body, and with more effort than I wanted to admit, I stood, carrying her bridal-style. It would make more sense for Elva to hold her, but this was fine. She still wasn’t saying anything as I walked back to our transport, simply following behind. At the first hints of pity stirring in her heart, I pulled myself away entirely. She didn’t need to be feeling anything like that.

Senna had been laid in the back set of seats, and I was intent on joining her for the return trip. Her head was resting against my lap, my hands taking care that her hair wasn’t getting caught on anything.. I wanted her comfortable for when she woke up. Surely Elva would too. I heard her, saw her out of the corners of my vision as she circled around the vehicle to enter on the driver’s side. It was nice of her to drive the way back too. She understood.

So much was distant. Sound, light, touch, smell, gravity, my body, my heart, my memories, even time itself. They existed at one point, I was sure. They probably still did, but were far away from me, wherever I was. Every once in a timeless interval, I would find myself wondering how I got here, only to forget my own line of inquiry.

There was a flicker of something, occasionally. Something I used to have would brush against it, or used to be able to brush against it. Sometimes, it seemed wise to reach out, but its ephemeral nature frustrated my attempts. Well, perhaps my wording of that was silly. It didn’t linger in my mind long enough afterwards for me to find frustration in its passing, one way or another.

Oh. Something was lingering. How long had it been doing that? It was so far away, like a looming shape presenting itself above the surface of the water. If the water was your entire world, something large might still seem infinitely distant. Hmm. I could remember the concept of water, apparently, but not whatever was resonating with me, or even what it was resonating with. Maybe I could just start with that, though. My feeling.

Touching it, whatever it was, felt good. Feeling at all was good. I should have known what this was – at least, that was the only impression I received – yet all I knew was that it was good. I could remember enough useless details to make a comparison to water, but was unable to recall anything about a feeling this important. Just thinking that thought made me feel even more, a slight tinge of… bitterness, I think.

As time went on, the continuous contact started changing, awakening things in me; concepts beyond my earlier comprehension slowly dawned in my thoughts. I decided to fully embrace this foreign sensation, eager and desperate for more of it. Not like that was a hard decision for me, though. She was so comfortable.

My eyes snapped open suddenly, as abrupt as the realization that I had eyelids, or eyes, or a body at all. The pale blue sky was illuminated above me, colored beautifully as the world approached evening, but my interest was much, much closer. Lily’s face, a mixture of surprise and concern, stared down at me as I laid in her lap. Without thinking, I sat up, almost bumping my head into her nose in the process.

“Ah! You’re up!” she exclaimed, ignoring my near blunder. I could feel her arms wrap tightly around me, along with an almost palpable sensation of relief from her, and I could hardly understand why.

These were the fields of Palateca, if I was not mistaken, stretching almost endlessly in every direction except the west. In particular, this was farmland, which meant we were relatively close to a city, though I could not tell which one yet.

“She’s finally awake?” asked Elva, whom I just noticed driving the vehicle we were all in. Jeez, this was disorienting. How the hell did I get in a transport with these two?

“I guess so,” I answered her. “Where are we?”

“Half an hour outside Belenon. More importantly, why did we find you naked?” she reluctantly inquired.

“Uhhh…” Well, no clothes on indeed. A moment’s effort rectified the problem, my typical outfit sprouting directly over the skin.“I am unsure of what even happened. You found me in there?”

“Yeah, asleep and seemingly unharmed in the center of a big crater,” Lily spoke up. “You don’t have any clues about that, babe?”

“Sorry to be anticlimactic, but no, not really. Just remember fighting up to a certain point, then blacking out.” It was more mysterious why I was still there at all, if I was so thoroughly beaten. They did not seem to be worrying over that detail, though, so I was not about to bring it up.

“I’m gonna want that combat report, by the way.” Seemed just like the captain to say that. “But, seriously, no idea on the clothing?”

“Why’re you so hung up on her-”

“No no no, it’s fine,” I cut Lily off, causing her to make a bit of a face at me. “My best guess is just that I was left in my default form while I was unconscious. Default forms do not usually include clothing.”

“Don’t think there’s enough of a sample size to definitively state that,” spoke the woman at my side, holding one finger in the air.

“Are you aware of how incredibly obvious it is that you’re a fucking nerd?”

“Oh shush.”

The banter between them was nice, but insufficient to pull my thoughts away from the actual situation. The fact of the matter was that I had lost. Belenon has likely been cleared out now, either mostly or entirely, thanks to that. What a worthless ‘hero’, killing and destroying property without even the excuse of saving people’s lives.

Lily’s arm pulled me closer to her suddenly, jolting me out of that brief contemplation before I had the chance to keep brooding over it. As usual, I could feel her presence soothing my heart, a sensation I had grown quite comfortable with, but as time went on, I knew more and more that wasn’t the only reason for the peace I felt.

“Don’t blame yourself anymore,” she almost pleaded, voice lower than normal. “We’re all doing what we can in these circumstances, even if it can’t amount to much.”

Elva piped up in agreement. “Yeah, like, hell, I’m the one who told you not to go, but blaming you for that decision and its outcome would be stupid. I’m glad you tried.”

“Mostly because we got her back in the end, huh.”

“Look, it’s okay to be defensively minded. We gotta start planning once we get back, by the way,” she tacked on.

“For what?”

“Something proactive I’m thinking we could do.”

The data was conclusive. We took too long, wasting time with preparations for the influx of new citizens. Too many days spent, now.

“He’s suddenly accelerating much faster than we thought that entity capable of.”

“How much time are we lookin’ at now?”

“Seems like a matter of days.”

One of the most disorderly meetings I had attended in my entire career. How unpleasant, to listen to everyone talking over themselves and each other to reach a conclusion. I continued in my efforts, silently running the numbers with my power over and over, but the specifics continued to vex me. Not only was the strange delay still present, but I was receiving much more vague information than before.

“What’s the course of action from here, Tyronus?”

“There is no possible method to deplete the planet aside from inundation, now,” I answered. “We may hasten our efforts to capture more, but it will not result in a complete victory.”

“Inundation flies in the face of the Creator’s will!” exclaimed Ratheim, as energetic as ever. Several voices joined his in agreement.

“I’m aware, I just answered the question.”

“Christ, you losers really botched it up this time,” Louri complained, shooting glares in the directions of both Aichleini who had been personally involved. In a lower, mocking tone, she continued, “Durrrrr, let’s just pair up two brain-dead assholes who can’t die and see how they like fighting each other for a few hours.”

“Mature as ever,” I barely heard Altera mutter. Sitting much closer, the comment was not lost on Louri, who glared at her in turn. The wadji atop her head visibly twitched in annoyance, which apparently caused her even more frustration. I knew she hated being reminded of them.

“Come now,” Zarkesa spoke up, “are we not the Aichleini? This behavior is an embarrassment.”

Ounirok stood from the first throne, prompting the silence of everyone gathered presently. “We will hasten the assimilation, as per Tyronus’ new calculation. Inundation is out of the question.” That on its own was enough to quell the bickering.

Lightning 2.4

Dead silence filled the air, as if to punctuate the vacuity offered by the sudden dispersal of both that terrible light and the smoke that had previously permeated the area. The fires which had begun rampaging through the very streets, sustained by a blaze strong enough to ignite even stone, had also been stilled. It was anyone’s guess whether that was due to Ratheim’s retreat, or if it related to the seeming disappearance of the child just now. Regardless, I had a strong feeling he was simply hiding himself at the moment, and I needed to figure it out.

Analyze. Ratheim seemed to lack the glowing appendages that the child exhibited, which made me think the latter to be more akin to the soldiers I had previously killed, but that also felt wrong. His level of strength was entirely different, and the attire unique, rather than the standard – if gaudy – uniform. They spoke to each other as equals, as well; the enemy had at least two leaders? It left the possibility for more. Worse, either or both of them could merely be the equivalent of a general, with someone greater above even them.

I was getting myself sidetracked, which was a bad thing in spite of the present calm permeating this desolate city. There was a good enough chance that Ratheim and the child were the same or similar. It might not be as titanic in scale, but I could definitely identify something so distinctive if I was out-of-body again. Difficult, but the sensations were something I was getting steadily used to, at least. That had to be my next-

An ice-cold claw thrust itself through my chest, clutching at the heart and… no, it had not. Instinct brought my hand to my chest, raking across my skin in a panic, only to find it entirely whole. The only evidence of anything resembling that attack was a lingering sense of sickness somewhere within me. My current design lacked a heart entirely, and I still felt that?

I had never felt so truly sick. No, no, it was entirely unaffected by altering my body, could not be sickness. The closest sensation was dread of such intensity that one could feel it physically. I knew that feeling, at least. Was he tampering with my emotions? Another fucking empath, like that is what I really needed to be up against.

My feet landed softly on the ruined cobblestone, after which I immediately ducked behind a nearby building. Probably insufficient to actually hide against something so god-damn strong and apparently just built to fuck me over like everything else, useless me unable to even function. I was, I… why was I like this suddenly? Wait, I was being messed with by the kid, right?

Something flared directly behind me, the frigid radiance not even seeming to move before suddenly blazing a hair’s breadth from my skin. I turned hurriedly, expecting to see the child, a new figure, anything other than the empty alley. The sensation had faded just as quickly as it had begun, and I was left seemingly alone again, save for the pseudo-nausea I had been imparted.

“You really shouldn’t be trying so hard,” spake a low voice, the subtle qualities distorting just such that it eluded identification. I heard it right beside me, murmuring into my ear as a lover might. And I felt it. The faint vibration of air, the warmth of breath on my skin, these all told me the voice was not a hallucination, and yet casting my gaze about revealed the same specious absence as before.

My eyes darted to the side once more, prompted by the brief movement they had caught out of the corner of my vision, and this time, the phantasm did not disappear immediately. Something lingered there, the location shadowed in a way that should not have been possible at this time of day. The moment after I was able to set my sight fully on the form, it melted away, as if composed of nothing more substantial than the air.

“I know you want to pretend to be a good person, but it’s rather pointless,” the same voice continued, this time in the other ear. I tensed up, standing in place for lack of any other apparent option. “You’re neither good nor a person.”

“Fuck off,” I snarled, completely abandoning the idea of reining in my feelings at this point. Seemed like it would be meaningless against this kind of manipulation, anyways. My mind raced for a handful of seconds – or what felt like such – and came to its conclusion. First, my eardrums, the design preserved while the function was temporarily suspended. I did similarly to my eyes, as well, and after a moment’s hesitation, the rest of my senses.

This tactic should have left him unable to manipulate me further, and served the second, even more important goal of trying to find his location. Being in a body which could not interact with the world might leave me able to focus entirely on what I had taken to thinking of as a spiritual sense, one which I was apparently not alone in possessing. At least, all of this was my reasoning for making a decision that, in a normal combat situation, would have been unbelievably stupid.

The colors entered my mind’s eye more quickly than before; as I hoped, the bizarre impressions were coming more readily to me. It all even started giving me a sense of calm, seemingly cut off from the force that was wreaking havoc on my senses before. I mentally searched, as that is the only possible word to describe my action with, trying to identify whoever was assailing me.

“That’s cute.” The words sent a jolt up my spine. How was I hearing him?! Like every other sensation, the particulars were muddied, each note washing into the next as if this were completely alien information that my brain could only make sense of auditorily. The realization was a piece of the puzzle that arrived far too late.

His fingers slid down the length of my arm, skin the texture of a dessicated corpse, as he continued to converse one-sidedly. My reaction was akin to that of prey having been thoroughly caught, holding still out of an unwillingness to do anything that might invite death. It was pathetic. A brief lament at my lack of valor flittered through my consciousness, and was extinguished by the words I was unable to escape.

“You can’t blame your mother for this, you know. Somewhere inside you, you wanted this, chose to turn yourself into this subhuman beast. Didn’t you see yourself doing that earlier? Deep in your heart, the lives of others mean less than your-”

Like a piece of twine snapping suddenly, I screamed, with no plan and no desire other than pushing everything away. The energy which had silently pooled beneath my skin burst forth aimlessly, manifesting countless black spines which erupted outwards. I could feel something, a body impaled on the ones which had sprouted off my back. It was not moving, it was not disappearing. The feeling, visceral as it was, grounded me. Feeling? Right, sensory input. I was regaining my use of them slowly, faster the more I calmed down. Even that hand gripping my heart had faded now. The spines began evaporating of their own accord, their cover peeling aside to show the world as it should be.

There was no noise from behind me. The body should have fallen. It should be dead. It should be dead it should be dead it should be dead why will nothing DIE?! My head turned, glacially, not wanting to see what was behind me now, or ever.

“Sorry,” he almost purred, with no throat to speak and no mouth to enunciate, “but villains don’t get to win. Didn’t you ever learn that?”

Radio silence. I could see Elva holding her head in her hands, a concoction of anxious fear and frustration stirring within. Even the rather emotionally clumsy girl we had manning the station for us at the moment was easily able to pick up on the situation, and refrained from speaking. She was worried about making it worse. I was too.

My captain had a bit of a bad habit, slicing across the side of her thumb with her fingernail when she had too much energy and no way to vent it. It gave her little cuts, sometimes, after a misjudgment of force. She’d been doing it for a while now. I worried over it, filled my mind with the thought. It was a simple worry. Solvable, perhaps. Wouldn’t be hard. A few steps towards her, then taking her hand gently, prompting her to be more careful.

It was worse without Lucy here, with no one wanting to be around Elva suddenly. The inertia compelling me to continue sitting still was overcome, and with a deliberate touch, I did as I had thought to do for her. She was looking at me more kindly than previous days, lately, and for whatever reason there was none of her usual facade in place; I received simple thanks. Something twinged inside her immediately afterwards, perhaps a realization that she wasn’t showing vulnerability only to me. Whether this was prudence or distraction, the cadet was obviously not paying attention here.

Seeing her like this was unbearable. That same inertia kept me stilled, a looming topic threatening to show itself if I offered to talk to her. She was prideful, though – I needed to prompt her. Did I? If I wanted to help her, I guess. I did want to, but I could imagine that, somehow, she’d find a way to level blame at me for encouraging this to happen. Thinking about it like that sounded bitter, even to myself.

My hand gently took grasp of hers, herculean in the amount of effort it was taking for me to even take the first step towards her. All I needed to do was get her out of the room right now. We’d spent too much time in here lately, too many bad revelations. I didn’t quite know if she’d be better served by time alone, or just being able to vent one-on-one, but I definitely knew it needed to not involve other people at the moment. She was that type of woman.

Her hand jerked away from mine as soon as we had entered the lobby, which was conveniently empty at the time. Someone was slacking off. Elva wasn’t looking at me now, her foot tapping and scraping along with that same feeling of an energy you can’t vent properly. At least this was healthier that cutting her own thumb up. It seemed like she was starting to get her thoughts together, though, and I barely had to do anything. Barely had any use.

“Well, uh, Elva, you-”

“Could you just cut the psychoanalysis this time?” she interrupted, misinterpreting what I was about to say. She almost looked confused and exasperated at the same time, glancing around the room awkwardly before crossing her arms and letting out a hasty puff. “I’m not gonna lecture you. It’s really easy to say, ‘See, look, she failed, so you shouldn’t have encouraged her!’, but hindsight’s a sneaky bitch. A bitch that most people don’t even know is one. Or something.”

“Uh, sure, I think I get it,” I tried assuring her. The awkwardness of it would probably have made me laugh, under normal circumstances.

“It’s just, you know, I could whine about the situation and sit on my ass like I have been, or we could actually do something about this, so I’m choosing the latter. We need to get her back.”

“Even without any guarantees of what the situation will be like when we get there?” I asked, slightly uncertain. Regardless of her opinion, I would have wanted to go, but getting her thoughts on the tactical soundness of it would feel reassuring, if only slightly.

“We either get her back and find some measure of safety, even if it’s not enough, or we lose the instant they look our way,” she reasoned.

“…Even if she’s not there?” Fuck. Voice cracked.

“We still. Need. To try,” she almost growled, not liking the thought anymore than I was. Her conclusion was easily agreeable, even if I knew her reasons were callous. At least neither of us wanted to delay this venture if at all possible. After expressing my agreement, she tacked on that again we’d need to just send out two people. The prospect of leaving so few people at home caused her nervousness, and I couldn’t fault that at all.

“Hopefully Lucy and Jay come back soon so we can feel a little better about it,” I offered. She still had too much pent-up energy to give me more than a simple ‘yeah, mhm’ before asking me to be ready sometime tomorrow. Had no idea what she was gonna do to de-stress, if anything, but she left in a huff before I could ask. If I even would have asked.

It wasn’t the end of the day, but I left work anyways. Nothing much was left to do except wait on results from my father, the process of which was apparently taking much less time than he initially thought it would. Aside from the instances of obvious artifice – on both our parts – their biology seemed to be identical to ours. Thus stated his reports, and little else.

Must be nice having something you can really pour your heart into and see results. I should have taken up a hobby that didn’t consist entirely of fondling my girlfriend, considering she’s gone and I’m short on anything to distract me from how little I can ever do. Christ, I’m always so whiny, too. Maybe I should be reading more books, if I can find the peace of mind to read in the first place.

Before I knew it, I found myself standing in the front doorway. It was still quite bright out, but the closed curtains would help. The quietness of the scene rang in my ears, unpleasant after I had gotten used to sharing the house with someone else. It felt so strange to me. Not just this calm that I was unused to, but how the strongest way I felt Senna’s absence was in that stillness, and in the lack of her distracting me, rather than being wracked with panic attacks or something. That’s what normal people have, I thought. I thought I was more normal.

The door slammed shut, my action unintentionally more forceful than it needed to be. Every little footstep felt just as loud, even while my surroundings started feeling more and more distant. I managed to get myself up the stairs and into bed without running into walls carelessly; at least I had that much of my wit about me. Just wanted to sleep, at least for a while. Reading would be too hard.

Where was she right now? Still in Belenon, or… No. No, she wouldn’t get taken. Even if she couldn’t stop them there, she’s okay. She has to be, right? You can’t kill her. I’ll see her soon, and it’ll be okay again. I’ll have the love back.

Nykorosk had returned, looking as casually bored as ever. Almost embarrassing in how obviously intentional it was on his part. He had suffered more damage than was proper for one of our station – disgraceful, as this was the true embarrassment of his action, and yet he seemed unaffected as he stepped from the regeneration chamber. It had taken quite some time for the process to complete.

Altera entered the room at this point, her demeanor also being exactly what I expected to see: arrogance and pretentiousness oozing from her every motion. How she managed to be so infuriating simply by showing her presence, I will never understand. In any case, she had arrived, looking to chastise the boy by my guess.

“Nykorosk,” she called out after waiting until he had exited the chamber and fully dressed himself. “Why did you order the continued assimilation of the inferiors’ capital?” Like I thought.

His irritation at this was palpable. “Are you seriously asking that? Gotta take the opportunity after I incapacitated the top baddie.”

“If you’re referring to the creature you and Ratheim fought, I’m not sure why you think that’s the ‘top baddie’.” The look of exasperated confusion on the boy’s face was almost enough to make me laugh. “It exhibits all the traits of a Tier II entity. Something else is down there.”

“Consider me an optimist, I guess.”

“I can’t even tell if that’s supposed to be sarcasm anymore. Still, that’s not the only reason. You’ve been updated, yes?”

“Yeah, yeah, something with the Gatework fucked up. I just figured we could still get something done while investigating it.”

She audibly sighed. “In the future, err on the side of caution.”

Nykorosk pushed past her, giving little more than a token acknowledgement before leaving completely. I couldn’t tell if his frustration was more aimed at Altera or at himself, but either way, he was quite unhappy after hearing those words. Too bad he wasn’t the type of person to engender sympathy. Only strange thing here was how she-

“Zarkesa,” she spoke suddenly, addressing me. The surprise stopped my train of thought instantly. “Deactivate your gift. I know you’re there.”

Well, didn’t expect that. I could imagine Altera’s ability potentially superseding mine, if she thought to use it that way; what I didn’t get was what prompted her suspicion in the first place. Still, I acquiesced, and lowered the effect keeping my presence shrouded. She turned fully towards me at that point.

“You’re creeping me out,” she stated flatly, typical bitch face in full swing.

“There’s nothing wrong with some casual observation,” I retorted, “and privacy is not a luxury of ours, as you well know.”

“Easy for you to say when you can egregiously break our agreement to not use our gifts against each other without suffering the consequences of it.”

“Watching you two bitch at each other over tactical choices on a matter we’re all privy to sounds less severe than actually violating something meant to be kept from others’ eyes and ears, wouldn’t you say?”

“I’m not about to waste my time dealing with your sophistry,” she scorned. Her arms crossed beneath her breasts while continuing. “You stop this behavior, or I expose you. Simple.”

A sigh was all that escaped my lips for a few seconds after her threat. “No need to go so far. We ought to be more united in purpose than this, no?” As I spoke, I moved past her to leave the room, as Nykorosk had, since she was quite stationary this entire time. “I trust you’ll be at the ceremony? It’s starting soon, I think.”

With no forthcoming response, I simply left her to whatever devices she had.

“What are the pillars of our faith?” asked the elderly, yet vivacious man who had been tasked with the duties of the speaker at this event, his voice booming artificially through the building. “These three pillars are taught to us all as we grow and learn, the wondrous truths of the cosmos that we, above all, know. I’m sure everyone here but the heretics are familiar with them.

“They have been impressed upon you, yes, but have they truly sunk into your heart? Oftentimes we can rationally accept a fact without actually grasping the depth of what it means, and no concept can more easily show this than the pillars of our faith. You have heard many times the logic which conclusively justifies our belief in the one, true Creator, but in my experience, it’s rare for any of us to understand and feel the full ramifications of it. Instead, we wrap ourselves up in our day to day lives, paying respects to the deity we know exists, all while being unable to wrap our minds around it.

“We Yleini are truly a blessed people. The heretics we rescue cling to superstition or false pretenses of a materialistic rationality, completely blind to the cosmic truths our civilization has discovered. In contrast, we have that which supersedes belief in gods which don’t exist or physical mechanisms which hold no intrinsic meaning: the undeniable proof of our Creator not only existing, but favoring us most highly. Somehow, this is still not enough to impress upon all of you the true beauty of our collective existences here.

“To emphasize my message to you all today, and to bring those heretics among us up to speed before the closing of the ceremony, I will be briefly covering each of the three pillars in turn, perhaps with a perspective new to some of you who do little of your own research or philosophical study.” After saying this, the device situated in the center of the room was activated, and the first supplementary visual aid was provided, filling the empty space above the speaker’s head as he paced around the circular apparatus. His gaze turned to various parts of the audience, all of whom were seated around him.

This set of images was largely textual, a linguistics analysis. Of course, I knew the subject matter most intimately, as we all did. “The first pillar of our faith is what we have termed the Divine Tongue, or for a more scientific label, the universal language. A gift shared to all the Creator’s children, it’s something all of you – even you heretics – have known instinctively since birth. Indeed, there is no other form of intelligent communication in this or any other world, as our studies and expeditions have long since proven.

“Not only do we all understand each other verbally, but the exact symbols used to represent each sound are consistent across all examples – a fact which only facilitates the divine mandate thrust upon us. I digress. Not only are these words all shared universally, but their uses are kept in stasis as well, as if the Tongue prevents its various speakers from desynchronizing with each other through cultural drift.

“The second pillar,” he continued, the text being replaced with biological diagrams, “is found within our very bodies: the genetic code of all the Creator’s children. The simple reality of our sharing such similar appearances with the peoples of various planets is itself astounding, a mark of artifice if ever there was one.

“By the grace of the Aichleini, our advances in genetics proceeded, and this truth, too, was investigated. The species of each planet we visited were decoded, archived, and compared. While gene similarities were relatively high amongst any single planet’s species, and the genetic differences were much more severe when comparing two different planets, only one remained static, unchanging, unyielding throughout them all. That one species was us, and you.

“Yes, although your former culture was primitive, barbaric, and utterly backwards, the fundamental fact remains that we are cut from the same cloth. We Yleini were blessed with enlightenment before any others, and rather than seclude ourselves in pride, we strive to share this enlightenment with our siblings amongst the cosmos, for we know that to be the will of the Creator.

“I digress again. The third, final, and most central of our pillars is, in fact, the Aichleini themselves. If you were raised in a more secular household, you might still be holding some doubts as to the soundness of our logic in concluding a Creator God exists through the previous two facts. In a way, the final pillar exists to mock what you previously held as absolute.

“Contrary to what you might believe, we do not spurn knowledge of the physical realm simply due to our fascination with and respect for that which is beyond it. In fact, there’s no doubt that we hold far greater knowledge of that which the materialist holds in reverence than the materialists themselves. The laws of nature have long been studied, contemplated on, and experimented with.

“Yet though we all have a certain fascination with and curiosity for such matters, the Creator is wise to our predispositions, and from the very beginning had gifted to us an eternal assurance that Their power exists far beyond mere physical systems which themselves are creations. This assurance is the Aichleini, our ruling council of twelve Yleini chosen directly to be empowered and lead our civilization.

“Each is given a unique Gift, one which is transferred to a new user by the Creator whenever an Aichlein dies. These Gifts spit in the face of the idea that physical laws are absolute, that no power can violate or overrule them. The legitimate creation of new matter and energy, effects which have no cause, and all other sorts of miracles are possible thanks to them. This is the most concrete proof possible, the final nail in the materialist’s coffin.

“At the end of the day, though, just having someone talk you through these things does nothing. It’s the epitome of the sort of action which leads only to a rational acknowledgement, rather than an understanding in your very soul. I’m sure no one, myself most of all, wants things to end with such an anticlimax as that. Luckily for all of us, especially the heretics we’ve had join us today, there’s one last presentation for you.”

At these words, Mazante stood from her seat beside me, striding mechanically onto the stage as she had many times before. As usual, her attention was entirely diverted from the current situation, always the introspective type. At least she didn’t let it interfere at times like this. She stopped herself directly before the section where all the captured inferiors had been gathered, turning towards them as the speaker’s voice resonated throughout once again.

“We will not require blind faith of you! By the will of the Creator, by the compassion of the Aichleini and of Mazante Nakfolge, we will show you all salvation!”

Her hands rose, and a thousand people earned their wings.