Lightning 2.8

For the fourth time that day, I was grateful to be back in Lily’s arms. More specifically, having her all to myself again and with no responsibilities to deal with. We had both earned this bit of time off, and with things seeming to settle down, there would probably not be much else to deal with unless it was decided that we needed to stay out here for so long that our food supplies dwindled. Elva already had some people hunting and foraging with restraint, while having us use the most vulnerable of our perishables first, so I doubted it would be an issue.

Having what seemed to be a great deal of nothing aside from radio silence was worrying for all of us, but I guess old habits died hard, because Elva was still just a bit too reticent to order action to be taken at the moment. Well, action that made her lose me, even temporarily. We had nothing but intuition to spur us towards doing something here, though, and the logic that previous attacks still allowed for reports to come out had stalled discussion for the moment. I got the feeling that Elva was dissatisfied with the whole situation, but at least for now, she wanted to wait.

Better for me, since it let us be together more. The times Lily got this affectionate were cherishable, truly so. A small gesture of love, sure, but her offering to massage me felt so sweet. I would never turn down the opportunity to get a little pampering. She had me practically purring, a state which she outright admitted to enjoy seeing me in. Got her quite daring, hands exploring more bold areas, lips gently brushing against one exposed shoulder. I wanted to encourage her further in some way, but found the simple experience far too enjoyable to do anything.

Her hands brushed aside my hair, exposing the back of my neck for her obvious purpose, yet the kiss I expected was delayed by her pausing. Not a lengthy pause, but noticeable, and after she had finished pressing her lips to me for the moment, I learned what had caused it.

“Didn’t know you had a tattoo back here,” she commented quite nonchalantly. “Strange, but looks pretty cool. What is it?”

“…Excuse me?” was all I could ask, confused beyond all belief at what just came out of nowhere here.

“What? The tattoo?”

“I did not mark my skin purposefully,” I asserted. “What the hell are you seeing?”

She proceeded to describe something that I, too, was completely unfamiliar with: a vertical symbol composed of three slashes, the two outer pairs curving inwards to cross each other in the middle. It was rather difficult to visualize, and actually seeing such a thing was better than not, anyways, so we dug through what we had brought to our shelter, looking for a mirror. Technically I could have made some unnatural design to let me see my own back directly, but if you have a mirror, why freak out the people around you like that?

We did have one, indeed, and what it revealed to me was as puzzling as I had expected it to be. Lily had described it accurately, with all the look of a tattoo that would not be out of place on anyone aside from the fact that neither of us could place it, and that I had no idea how it got there. From that position, I asked Lily if she minded watching something that might be gross, or if she would prefer I make do by myself. She and I both wanted to know more, so she was going nowhere for this.

One core ability I always seemed to possess was an intrinsic knowledge of my own body – which just made sense; how could my powers work otherwise? – and the marking’s presence was completely invisible to that. It had to have been, or else I would have known it was there. This fact only begged the question of how long it had been back there, and neither of us could answer something like that.

We needed to see if I could affect it. Again held back by mild concern over unnecessarily disturbing Lily, I asked her to hold my hair out of the way so she could see anything happening. Without getting into the more visceral possibilities for testing, I tried several different alterations to that portion of my skin, flesh, etc. and none interrupted the existence of that image. At least Lily was just as unaffected seeing the application of my powers as the damn thing was. Maybe that could get my anxiety to shut up about it.

Everything about this was unsettling. The idea of perhaps not knowing as much about myself as I liked to think I did was disconcerting on its own, and a symbol unknown to both of us was just more mystery. While briefly trying to imagine something this might be related to, the first and only thought to come to mind was that it symbolized whatever killing curse had been put on me back then. There was no indication of that yet, though.

It would eat at me all day if we did not figure out what it was, so to avoid that, I suggested that we do some dedicated research and try to find a match for it. Lily cheekily reminded me that anything resembling a library would be out of reach for the moment, though.

“Okay, yeah, obviously we need to do that part later,” I corrected my previous suggestion.

“In the meantime, should we ask around, see if anyone happens to recognize it? Bound to be people more educated on this sorta thing than us,” she pointed out.

“I do not know,” I hesitated. “Drawing attention to myself is unpleasant.”

“We could just sketch it out and ask about it without implying we found it on your neck, babe.”

“…Oh. Right.” That was embarrassingly obvious. I agreed after that, as the feeling of unease and unknown surrounding everything was tiresome.

There were too many mysteries flitting about just outside our reach. Invaders from out of nowhere, whatever happened to me in Belenon, now this; minor as an unrecognized tattoo might seem in the grand scheme of things, it was still just another thing to weigh on my mind. Not to mention all the shit we were having to deal with before. Hell, whatever happened to the backup Elva had originally called in to deal with me? Who knew anymore.

Let me just solve one thing, one tiny little thing. We needed pieces falling into place, problems being resolved. I needed that. All this stress would be bound to give me a heart attack if that were possible. Lily hated seeing me like this, too, same as every other time I ran my thoughts to unhealthy places. Luckily the task ahead gave us something to focus on, something minor and mostly harmless.

We had nothing to write on immediately, but picking something up while we were going out anyways was easy. The supply distribution site was a lot less busy now than it was even the day before, though it was still easily the most frequented spot, so paper was a quick snag. Lily being confident in her memory, we did not even bother going back to sketch the item, instead finding the nearest flat surface to use. She was pretty decent at this sort of thing, too, and no one paid us much mind.

From there, it was a matter of having the right people to ask. His field was pretty far removed from history or anthropology or anything, but Krishov should have more knowledge about esoteric symbology than the uneducated person, so he was an obvious candidate. Optimally there would be a specialist to ask, but I doubt whoever filled that role made it through til now. Was pretty late to be thinking about this, in a way, since if Krishov was the only person who made sense to ask about it, then it probably did not make sense to use a sketch at all.

Both of us had a bit of a laugh together after realizing that. Oh well, no harm done by using a bit of sketch paper, and we might figure out someone else to ask, so it was kept with us as we headed over towards her father’s tent. He was predictably sitting within, working with the meager few textbooks that he had brought along. Eager as ever to help whenever his daughter was involved, we were gestured inside.

One brief rundown and a quick inspection of my neck later, and we were back to square one; Krishov was exactly as perplexed as we had been. While he did admit that he could easily have had something slip his mind since he had a very specialized knowledge set, his lack of familiarity with the symbol made us worry. The next best bet would be the engineer, but that would just be another person with relatively limited knowledge on sigils as a full topic. In other words, not much more likely to figure out what the hell this was.

Krishov, meanwhile, started speculating all sorts of things – he seemed inclined to that sort of activity. He proposed a possibility that the mark relates to my ‘curse’ if further research shows either no matches or a match that relates to me in some way. Whatever he was thinking of in terms of what could even possibly relate to me, he neglected to expand upon. Maybe he had no idea himself. Regardless, we gave him our thanks, turning and walking out of his presence into the open.

This was all beginning to feel like one enormous waste of time to me. Something could have been happening to the other towns, and we were gallivanting around chasing something relatively inconsequential. After everything that had happened today, both on the topic of Elva’s orders and this new development, I had become quite restless.

“You seem quite restless,” Lily pointed out, mirroring my own thoughts.

“I am wondering if I should disobey our captain again,” I said in explanation. “Got a nagging feeling about this whole thing.”

“That seems kinda sudden. Well, I knew you had things on your mind, but still.” After that, she hesitated. “Do you really want to go out there again?”

“What?”

“I don’t… want to see you leave again. Especially after scaring me so much last time, in Belenon. Do you really need to take so much responsibility, Senna?” Her words, the simple idea of causing her that much worry, hit me pretty hard. Taking one step closer, her hand reached out to grasp mine gently, and the feeling lessened.

“I wish a mysterious tattoo was the only thing we needed to worry about, but it is not. It would be healthier to forget about everything, about the entire world, and just lose myself with you…”

“But we can’t do that,” she inserted for me. “I know. Neither of us could accept that, even though we wish for a break.”

I could not restrain the sigh that followed. “I am so tired, Lily.”

“I’m sorry,” was all she could manage to say.

“Do you ever feel like life itself needs to just stop moving? There’s always something else to deal with, or the same thing plaguing you day after day after day. I barely have the energy to get up and consider doing anything about my problems anymore, but that just feeds into my discomfort, my sense of not doing as much as I should be.”

She was silent for a time, staring off to one side while still firmly holding my hand. “Is there anything I can do to help you?” she finally asked.

Her question prompted me to freeze up in hesitation rather than answer as I should. At this rate I was gonna get into a self-sustained feedback loop of feeling shitty for myself, then feeling ashamed and annoyed for how I felt, then feeling shittier about myself due to that, ad infinitum. Pushing her away would hurt her and leave me stuck in that. I knew that very well. I knew I needed to talk about it and stop letting this bullshit happen.

“Just… should I really not go?” I managed to start with. “If you think it is a bad idea then-”

“No, no, sorry,” came her interruption. “Bleh, I shouldn’t have said anything like that. Been extremely worried about you, and I don’t know how to deal with it. Still don’t know, really.”

“Well, knowing what your feelings even are is a good place to be, right? Or rather, why you feel what you feel. That was pretty tough for me to figure out how to stay on top of for myself.”

Immediately after I had finished that thought, both of our attentions were drawn to the sounds of a pair of people conversing and moving by us. A silent agreement was reached to move somewhere more private than where we had ended up standing thoughtlessly, and once we had reached a place of some seclusion behind the trees, she picked things back up.

“I can’t stop you from doing what you know is right. I don’t want to. Although,” she had to add, “maybe we should actually talk to Elva first this time.”

“Are we going to make it a trend to not listen when she says to sit back?” I asked, chuckling. Her tone just now was jovial enough that I felt comfortable returning it.

I had to admit I was even more fearful about the possibilities now than I was the first time I was considering running off to help others. Elva and Lily both wanting me standing back added onto that, too. At the same time, none of that was changing the increasing feelings of duty that had developed. And that was good, right? Something to be encouraged. What kind of person would I be if I felt no obligation for others when I could help them?

Stressing Lily out in the process was inexcusable. It was obvious, without an obvious solution; stopping would just put that stress onto me instead, like it has been. At least there was no guarantee of anything having gone wrong. I very well could go check, find everything to be just fine, and come back with their reasonable explanation for the strangeness, never having to do this again. That sounded good to me.

By now, she had me pulled into a tight embrace. Spiraling in on myself like that just worried her more, but it would keep happening until I changed things.

“Sitting around not doing anything will just keep making this happen,” I said, confident that she would know what I was referring to. “Still agree that being open with Elva is good, but I truly need to go. I am sorry.”

She gave me an understanding nod, probably burying her own nervousness at the prospects. “Should we go see her real quick then?”

With my confirmation, we moved at a somewhat hurried pace over towards Elva would probably be working today. It seemed to be a slow day for a lot of people; plenty to be seen taking it easy and ambling about with their friends or families. Would be nice to feel content being that slow, myself. No matter how much I told myself that my fixations were virtuous or admirable, the feeling of unhealthiness was unmistakable.

Elva was actually taking a break for once at the time we arrived, which was convenient. Did not like interrupting her much. After the typical greetings and inquiries into what was ‘up’, I explained the basic gist of things, finally stating quite adamantly my need to go check on the others. She took it better than I expected.

“Not like I can or should really stop you,” she assented, sighing. “Actually should have probably ordered this to begin with, since we’re most likely safe here. Need to fucking get over this on my own. Did you have an idea of where to go first, or what?”

“Uh… I guess I was thinking that you could provide advice?” By that, I meant that I had not even given it any thought before she pointed it out. Lily’s chuckle from beside me made that even more obvious.

“Try Tiecas first. Bit concerned about their ability to get somewhere safe in any reasonable amount of time. If that’s all good, then I dunno, somewhere in Faenon probably. Whatever the capital city over there is called,” she grumbled, flapping one hand annoyedly.

“Very professional,” teased Lily.

“Shush, you.”

“While I am gone, you could speak to the engineer, follow up on what we were doing earlier?” I suggested, turning back towards my love. It felt nice thinking of her with a title like that. “And maybe lay it on Elva too, who knows.”

“Well I sure fuckin’ wanna hear about it now that you’ve teased me like that,” she laughed.

“It’s really not much,” Lily responded. “Just a lil mystery. Come back soon, okay babe?”

“I will.”

Tiecas, huh. Having been there before – specifically right before stopping in Hateli – would make returning to the place trivial. No need to consult a map this time. Just wanted to get this all over with and out of my system, anyways.

With no further thought, I was gone. The relief I felt at finally taking action made the discomfort almost unnoticeable this time. Putting myself, all my effort towards a purpose took such a burden off my heart, the very burden that had been bothering me this whole day. Only after I had completely destroyed that body did I think about whether Elva would be unsettled by it, but at that point one could only hope she was made of sterner stuff. She would be that kind of woman, by expectation.

The stark sensations of physicality had washed away entirely, leaving me only with those ever-present splashes of color and vibration. If nothing else, this was always interesting to ‘see’. My sense of time felt distorted too, and only now when I could directly compare this speed to what I was used to did it become obvious. Or, Lily could just be taking a seat really really slowly, but I doubted that. At some point, putting in some dedicated effort to learning more about whatever this all was about would be fruitful, I imagined.

A brief consideration overtook me, and whatever essence now composed my being clumsily enveloped Lily’s muted radiance in an attempted hug. Her pause gave reason to think she felt that somehow, too; another aspect for later intrigue. This was not at all the time to be playing around like this, though. Withdrawing at last, the blazing landscape all around us met my awareness, only a moment in gathering the sight before pulling myself to my destination. It all seemed just a bit clearer this time, somehow.

And… there. An unmistakable vista. Elephantine masses of altered stone encased the innumerable sparks of life throughout the entirety of the city, which itself was situated just before the vast tumult of what had to be the ocean. I could almost make out the port I had planned on leaving through before changing my mind, too. Weird memories to be brought to mind.

The presence of so many people here meant that my job in finding them was already done, but the fact of their not having left yet as per Elva’s recommendations felt puzzling, or perhaps just annoying. Purportedly this city had fended for itself well, but it was still a big target – the biggest, actually, given that Belenon is likely completely abandoned now.

Instinctively, something seemed off. Some inscrutably minute detail in how the various shearing lights danced amongst themselves here, compared to my past experience. My perspective shifted suddenly to the far side of the city, still atop the walls, still looking in. I made a few similar jumps, just trying to get more of a feel for things. Just stalling a bit. With good reason, at least; I actually was not familiar enough to know exactly where best to manifest myself, or what sort of game plan I should even have going into this.

Was I going to just hop in and ask someone what the deal was? Imaginably such a line of inquiry coming from a stranger would invite even more questions. Even more if someone somehow recognized me from the caravan’s departure and was curious how I got here from Hateli. Believable lies existed for the scenario, but any contrary testimony would be irrefutable.

Jesus, have I always been such a chronic liar? Merely stating that I was sent from Hateli’s group and have an ability which lets me travel easily would be close enough to the truth. Not too much of a stretch from typical mutations, right? I did not need to jump to lying here. Still, might be a bad idea to reconstruct myself right in the middle of a crowd. Also might be getting a bit too familiar with alleys after all this time, but that was natural given the situations.

The best thing to come to mind was to rematerialize just out of sight of anyone, but still close to what seemed to be the largest group of people. Increased my chances of immediately talking to someone useful and whatnot. Quick as thought, as soon as I had come to that decision, I found myself taking in those physical sensations I was so accustomed to. Was not exactly sure what to expect beyond the standard empty lane, but sounds of marching was the last thing I wanted to hear.

Freezing up out of dread would do me no good here. Not as overboard as last time, but I needed to disable just a bit of emotion for now. Nothing like those killing states. Just keeping myself calm. Calm. Right. First thing to do would be to confirm the situation without giving myself away, like before. Better than before. Using my powers might carry some sort of risk, if my battle with Ratheim was any indication, but I wanted to try something.

Pressing up against the wall closer to the origin of those sounds – which thankfully were not advancing towards me or anything – I speared outwards towards the mouth of the alley, a tendril of inky mass snaking along the foundational stones. Once it had just reached the corner, I paused. The idea here was to construct a light-receiving sensory organ that would be hopefully unnoticeable, or at least far less likely to be spotted than an entire head sticking out from here. It took one moment of thought, another few to run proper nerves through the tendril and connect them to my spinal cord, but soon the design was complete.

It certainly worked. Whatever pride at that minor accomplishment I should have felt was overshadowed by direct visual confirmation of the invaders having returned. Their movement certainly was odd, as I had noticed; it was not consistent with the earlier sweeping tactics they had employed. Potentially indicates that they had finished doing so already, though to what results I could only speculate. From my position, I saw no way to verify whether this was behavior caused by completion of a full abduction, or out of confusion that no one was here when they arrived. Please let it have been the latter.

No time for that right now. Mysteries yet to be dealt with took a backseat to the glaring problem staring me in the face. They… they needed to die. For everyone who could still be hiding in Tiecas, for their safety. For Lily’s safety. I could never forget why this needed to happen, if only so I could live with myself afterwards. Stay calm. Let us get a plan going first, something to deal with them.

My first instinct was to fall back on the previous tactic, making a show of myself to break their morale and scatter them. I had hoped that it would let me minimize their losses while still preventing them from wanting to fight further, but upon further reflection, it was obvious that that had been an abject failure. They had returned all the same, or perhaps even stronger, given these numbers that surpassed what I had seen that first day in Hateli. Dispersing their ranks could easily work again, unless something changed, but it was undeniable now that it would be a band-aid solution. Nothing I could think of allowed me to avoid that.

Time compressed so easily while I turned inwards in thought, but even with that, seeing a change in their movements spurred me to action. Enough stalling. They would not be allowed to do whatever it was they were thinking of.

Tearing away from the wall suddenly caused the tendril to come off along with me, after which I manually destroyed it and moved myself out of the alley. I was a bit wary of going overboard, but a design strong enough to outclass these soldiers was easy to implement. Once again, my body was pulled forward by that force I could barely understand, pausing only a moment to change directions, and then again once I had reached the nearest enemy.

Imparting my momentum into a blow was efficient, as messy as it made things; the first opponent’s skull split apart instantly. Unlike those earlier engagements, though, I had no intention of giving them time to fear. Here, this first group, forty-four of them exactly, congregating outside a rather large shop which held signs of their trademarked assault. Most seemed utterly surprised by my sudden appearance, with only a minority immediately drawing their weapons. Those, I ignored in favor of dispatching the ones who looked ready to run.

To increase my range – potentially unnecessary, but a minor convenience all the same – I reused the previous arm-blades design. Being able to carry the energy through one deadly motion and into the next felt much less clunky, and soon another six had fallen, all by the same organ’s destruction. Turns out that their subdermal armor and regeneration gimmicks mean little if they are otherwise completely outclassed and unable to even fight back.

This, right here, was the first time I had heard any of them speak up until now. Their panicked and surprised exclamations were confusing in multiple ways, giving me an undue pause. Pausing was dangerous. Those fleeing from my onslaught were given no chance to capitalize on it once I had cut them down as well, and soon enough, the last soldier died, screaming pitifully for mercy right up until I bisected his brain.

Why did they all sound like they had no clue who or what I was? The only conclusion to be drawn there was that this relatively delayed second wave of soldiers was not briefed at all about what had happened to the first. That made no sense. There was no tactical reason for it, unless they had a morale issue and did not want their troops to be too scared to go in. Something was increasingly strange about the leadership of these people, something I could not even begin to put my finger on but had been growing ever since my encounter in Belenon.

I shook my head in an attempt to clear these thoughts. Kept getting distracted when I needed to just finish the job. Letting myself waver would be potentially disastrous; I still needed to save everyone. A momentary lamentation of my lack of practice with my own abilities preceded the necessary self-deprivation of senses. With nothing else getting in the way, the locations of my next targets were made clear.

Even though I would like to be able to do that passively, this would suffice. They were close enough that I could just sprint to the destination, so my choice between that and dismantling myself again was obvious. Well, perhaps it is not a sprint when one is being carried along tremendously, with each stride covering more distance than conventionally possible for any flesh to achieve. Sigh, more idle thoughts. I had arrived already.

These were still sweeping the buildings along this street, it seemed. My brief glimpses of the surroundings did not reveal anyone hiding here, but I would remove them in case I had missed something. I really hoped I was just missing people who were hiding.

One by one, I broke apart these combatants too. Their horrific screams were starting to burn into my mind, each face beneath those masks, a visage plastered with a fear of which I could only imagine. They still needed to die. Thirty more soldiers… thirty more people lying broken in the street, and I spared them not even a moment’s grief before moving onward.

No matter where I looked, I saw only those wretched invaders, never even the faintest glimmer of life hiding itself in some basement or another. Only a few seemed to actively be searching further, so ostensibly they had almost cleared Tiecas already and were just making sure no one remained. By my own observations, I had to acknowledge that as the greatest likelihood, but I did not want to.

More absurd behavior. Unlike before, it did not seem like these groups were ever catching on to the fact that their fellows were being attacked elsewhere in the city. At some point, the ones sent to Hateli all pulled back together, but nothing of the sort was happening here. What the hell was going on?

Some sort of sabotage? The idea of someone on our side having figured out their long-distance communication tech at all, much less enough to sabotage it, held little credence to me, since it was obvious that our transmissions and theirs operated very differently. Come to think of it, if their communications were cut, they would be much less casual than this, right? Nothing about this situation made any sense to me.

So much time began blurring together as I forced myself around the city, constantly checking for the next targets and praying for any signs of survivors. Soon, nothing remained that even resembled a living person in Tiecas, and not one individual was saved by my hand.

Lightning 2.7

Lily got to drive herself this time, and thankfully I got to ride with her. She did not seem overly familiar with the controls, but given that this was rather new tech, as far as I knew, that was to be expected. I doubt many people were downright skilled with these clunky things yet. Having already confirmed that the cargo was secured, we joined the others who were similarly on their way out of the city. Her hand hovered diligently over the turning apparatus, though we were mostly traveling in a straight line at the moment.

The bronze and copper ideograms were not exactly foreign to me, but I had to admit the use here was quite clever. Force, momentum, speed, direction – everything necessary for a moving vehicle, along with the proper design to house it in. Apparently one of the engineers here was working on improving the steering speed specifically, tinkering with one design or another to allow the imparted force to move them in multiple directions with more finesse. I may or may not have eavesdropped a bit on some of his conversations earlier, just out of simple interest.

By nature of such a mass exodus, the air felt alive with noise, in spite of the relatively soundless procession of these vehicles aside from whatever sounds the rubber-treaded wheels made against the earth. The mere idea of safety, of a safety that we were actively bringing ourselves, had lifted everyone’s spirits, brought us all together. The sense of not being welcomed had almost entirely vanished for me, too, but I wondered how temporary that truly was.

If Lily’s hopeful assumption that there would be no more attacks was true, then I was not really sure how things would proceed from here. They were an easy target for… taking care of my problem, and without that, I was back right where I started. Where we started. With no direction to move in, and no way to cure me. Lily did not even know that yet, for how could I just come out and tell her? Especially when there were much more pressing matters.

“What’re you thinking about?” her words cut through to my awareness, bringing me back to the present. Even just thinking about those topics was enough to alert her.

“I would prefer not talking about it.” Telling her would make her worry, and we did not need to worry quite yet.

“Well, alright,” she acquiesced, “wanna talk about something else instead? Distracting always helps me.”

Sticking my head out the window, I looked back towards the slowly disappearing walls of Hateli behind our little caravan. Or, large caravan, rather. We were still a few hours away from our planned destination; the goal had been reaching a place that would not be within eyesight of any previous settlements, for the obvious reason.

“Babe?”

“Yeah, sorry, uh… I dunno,” I fumbled. “Wonder how long we will be out here.”

“Probably a couple days or something. Don’t think there’s a hard science on how long we should wait to feel reasonably sure that we aren’t gonna get fucked if we go back, y’know.”

“Which is why I wonder about it. I guess it is Elva’s call, though.”

“Yep! And in the meantime,” she said, nudging me with her nearer elbow, “we get to spend some more quality time together.”

“Along with your dad,” I added, more than a slight hint of distaste coloring my tone.

“Is that what you were thinking about?”

“Well, no,” I had to admit, “but the way he looks at me… no, at us still bothers me. No way you missed it, right?”

She sighed quietly. “I didn’t wanna point it out and make you feel worse if you didn’t notice, yourself.”

The procession of vehicles started slowly turning at this point, or at least the turning had finally reached our position in the line. Lily’s fingers slowly traced to the right, gently following the bend of the land, and the force shifted ever so slightly, bringing us around. We were still well within line of sight of Hateli, but the wooded foothills we were venturing towards crept closer each minute. It was an obvious choice for us, even though this was a considerable distance.

“We’re, uh, we’re getting closer,” she commented rather awkwardly.

I decided to switch gears rather abruptly. “What are you going to do if your father just flat out hates me?”

“He- he doesn’t, though,” she stuttered in response. “I’m not like 100% on what’s with him, but he just feels kinda bitter. Probably, like, resenting how little time he’s been able to spend with me, so seeing me with someone else isn’t fun, y’know?”

“I… okay, yeah, I guess that makes sense. Sorry.”

“It’s fine babe. Should have just told you what was going on. That’s my fault.”

I still did not feel up to confronting Lily with the much more pressing subject on my mind yet. Krishov and everything else was going to end up being trivial unless I figured out how to avoid ruining what we have together, and the idea was scaring me. Scenery passed us by peacefully as I stared out into nothing, the thoughts and worries growing to encompass all of my attention again.

Everything would be simple if I was less of a complete freak. I really cannot be the hero, huh? Even if they have to make hard choices or sacrifices, heroes always work things out… and villains never win. Well, unless the author is a sadist, which mine certainly was. I deserve having the writer of my little story be so enormously cruel, but no one else deserves to suffer for it. Fuck, why did she not just let me die alone if she hated me this much? Fuck her.

“Senna.” Lily’s hand reached over to my thigh, grounding me a bit. “I can’t make you talk about it, but please, tell me what’s going on. Let me help.”

“You should not have to keep helping me,” I replied through clenched teeth. “If you were not reading me all the time, you would be unaware. Just keep it like that.”

“Christ, why does everyone resent me so much?! I just want to help people and everyone keeps giving me shit for it. Do you legitimately just want me to fuck off and stop caring?”

“…No. I really do not.”

“Well, good, because I wasn’t going to anyways,” she snarked.

It took me a couple minutes of calming down again, helped subtly by Lily after she confirmed it was okay, before I could even continue the conversation. My fingers idly massaged my own forehead, which helped at least a tiny bit. I have been so very, very tired. It was hard to keep going even when things were simple and not turned completely upside-down by the magic invaders from out of nowhere. Being honest with myself, I could not keep doing this.

“Please forgive me,” I began, “I hate lashing out at you like this. The stress is just getting to me, I guess. Was tough even before all this began.”

“I know, it’s not fair. I wish things were more simple for us.” Her hand continued rubbing against my thigh softly as she spoke. Several moments passed between us before she once again broached the earlier subject, with much more hesitance in her voice. “I know there’s something else hurting you. You don’t need to tell me right now… or ever. But if you feel like it’ll help, then I’m always gonna be here for you.”

“I will tell you. At some point. Once we are sure of this storm having passed, at least. Promise.”

By now, she deserved to hear more than just about how I was anxious and incurable, but trying to unload anything lately felt like it might break me apart, and every time she asks me, I feel cornered. She understood now, thankfully, and just tried to soothe me as unintrusively as she could. Still felt pathetic how much I was needing to rely on her just to function, even though I was unable to tell why I felt like that.

My life was all very repetitive, was it not? Even in this time of greatest upheaval, I find myself nearly breaking down and hurting others in the exact same way each time, although quite different than how other people near me usually get hurt. At least this is actually me, being an asshole unable to work through anything permanently. Oh, that part is also the same.

I just wanted to know how to stop. Everything. Everything should just stop already. We were moving, and I wanted it to be static. My eyes closed, and the minute vibrations of our motion irked in the back of my mind. Even the most miniscule annoyances can get blown out of proportion while emotionally volatile, so I obviously have lots of experience with that. Needed something to occupy my attention better than this.

“Hey,” I turned towards Lily, “could I take you up on that, uh, offer? The distraction thing. If you have stuff to talk about, I mean.”

Her assiduously fixed attention on the act of driving continued, but she agreed all the same, giving me another little squeeze. In the time that followed, we engaged each other on all manner of trivialities, particularly literature, which we both enjoyed. Turns out avoiding your problems makes things all better for a while. After a while, though, we got a signal from up ahead, letting us know we were settling in this area. Indeed, it was impossible to see the city from here now, thanks to the distance and the forest we had reached.

Our interactions were quite interrupted by now, and would be until we had set up everything we needed to. Work was good distraction, though. At one of the watch’s behest, the various members of the caravan were instructed towards places to park themselves, and it was not long until Lily’s and mine found its home too. From here, we had a few people specifically going around to help direct efforts and organize where things got planted, trying to stem the sheer chaos this sort of effort caused. Others, meanwhile, immediately got to erecting the tents and shelters we had brought.

The two of us had our hands full just taking everything off the vehicle we had been assigned, but with the occasional helping hand from elsewhere, it got taken care of soon enough. The real problem was distributing everything properly. Luckily, Elva’s management was quite professional. She even had that Straley girl back at the transmission station, which was all set up and functional again. Some things never change, I guess. How many shifts did she even cover?

“Yo, anything buzzing around out there?” asked our captain, popping in shortly after I did, having noticed that everything was finally in place here like she wanted.

“Jeez, uh, no actually,” she replied. “Haven’t exactly been listening in very long, but there’s been nothing.”

“The other groups could have yet to set up fully,” I offered.

“Probably. Keep us posted, though.” With that, Elva ducked back out, and I turned towards the one who remained.

“Is there anything else you need, Straley?”

“Uh, could you just call me Nikki? Kinda weird to hear my surname.”

“Oh, sorry, never heard your name before,” I admitted. “Could I ask something?”

One eyebrow of hers raised at me in response. “Yeah, what’s up?”

“To be honest, I was just wondering why you always seem to be on shift when I come in.” I made sure to keep the tone jovial so she knew it was not particularly serious.

“Well, I volunteered for all the day shifts is why. Honestly not a very hard job. Can pay just enough attention while reading or playing something to not fuck up, so it’s basically like free time anyways.”

Did not expect that, but if she was willing to use her free time like that because it worked, then good on her. After some short farewells, I stepped back out into the open air, a ray of warm sunlight falling over my skin through a gap in the trees. Almost had forgotten how much I missed being in forests. It was still much warmer here than in Faenon, but that was good in its own way, too. The way every little breeze caused the leaves around our encampment to dance was entrancing, both for me and for the others I noticed taking their breaks.

A faint tune drifted through the air. Seemed like someone was spending their time practicing on whatever string instrument that was. The notes provided a pleasant backdrop to my survey of all the work done so far, which was substantial indeed. Having so much life surrounding me, both from the community and the environment itself, was downright refreshing. I found myself wondering if Lily felt the same way right now, or even stronger.

The little whore had finally exhausted herself out of that last screaming fit; took her long enough. Christ, now she was back to the weeping. At this point, I was getting tired of hearing her, and that shit usually just makes my day. The energy welled up beneath my skin instinctively, responding to what I felt like doing in response to a situation like this, but I still managed to restrain myself into merely paralyzing her. Well, more than before. I had already long disabled her limbs, of course, because tying people up is kinda plebeian, ain’t it?

I could feel her muscles aching to tremble, only to be denied. She was almost cute like that. My arm stretched out towards her, though I wasn’t letting her see it, and the fingers traced a soft pattern on her cheek, the skin reacting even to this light contact. Every little reminder of the power I readily held over this slut got me a bit hotter. The urges to tremble got stronger in her, and this time I let her body react as it would.

“Ahah, now that we’ve got you calm again,” I murmured into her ear, “maybe you can be a little more helpful, dear. I believe I asked where you and the other trash came from.” At the conclusion of my words, the constriction around her vocal chords was loosened, causing a choking sob to emit rather than anything useful. Maybe just give her a bit to recover.

“I-I-I just- it’s- I said it’s u-useless,” she sputtered out, defiant to the end.

My tone dropped suddenly. “Ah, that’s not what I asked, is it?”

Her only response now was another shriek of pain. Oops. She really shoulda known by now that I didn’t do well with girls playing hard to get – just can’t contain myself. Probably should contain myself, though, since making her scream and then either sitting through that or needing to shut her up was annoying the hell out of me.

“Fine, then, maybe you can give me a lil insight into what you freaks actually are, instead.” As I spoke, I circled back around her, brushing my hand against the asymmetrical energy wing thrusting outwards from her lower back. That shimmering structure was the closest thing to ‘unnatural’ I’d ever seen. And yes, I know how hypocritical it is for something like me to call anything else unnatural.

“Hah,” she almost choked, “heretic g-garbage like you- you’re-” and then she actually choked, coughing up a bit of blood. I definitely went overboard somewhere. Luckily, that was as easy to fix as it was to cause. Didn’t really like making her feel any better, but I liked the idea of her up and dying on me even less.

She continued, the vitriol thick in her voice. “Y-you’re all the same. Too ignorant to r-really get what- what’s going on. You’ll learn, though.”

I had really run out of patience now. A flash-fire ignited under my fingertips, and every single organ in that whore’s body burst like a bunch of balloons. She ended up being just as useless and annoying as all the other corpses I had scattered around the room, it seemed. With a great amount of irritation in my step, I exited the abandoned shack I had been using, not even bothering to dump her with the others.

The idea of lighting the whole place up briefly crossed my mind. Didn’t wanna cause a big mess, though. Besides, half the fun was leaving something for those dumbasses to find later, right? Had no choice but to scrap the stupid plan, and luckily my outburst a bit ago did wonders for current me’s moderation. Maybe too little too late, but she was gonna die one way or another, so fuck it.

Going back empty handed like this was gonna be such a bitch, though. Had no idea how many of ‘em they’d possibly send, so even killing one little team might not be worth anything. At least the honest truth was that they’re all way too resilient to torture for me to get much out of ‘em, so I wouldn’t even need to lie.

No, I guess I wasn’t really empty handed here. If nothing else, there was one tiny piece of information we could be sure of, now. ‘You’ll learn’. It was quiet for the moment, but we seemingly weren’t done with this yet. That was a mildly depressing thought.

Here it was, the moment I really was not looking forward to: talking to Krishov again. Needed to get used to it, though. It would be unfair to both of them if I summarily deprived him of Lily’s company. Hopefully, whatever his problem with me was, we could just resolve it and have that be over with. What a sickeningly optimistic idea that was. With Lily involved, though, there had to be a chance.

“If it isn’t too much trouble,” he began, hopping right into it, “I’ve honestly been pretty worried about your condition. Never got the opportunity to examine you or anything, and I guess that’s still on hold for a while yet.”

“Are you still wanting to try and, uh, cure me?”

“Of course. More immediately, though, I think you’ve had the time to test my earlier hypothesis.”

“What hypothesis, again?” Lily butted in, showing a bit of confusion.

“He conjectured that killing voluntarily would postpone the next trigger,” I answered her. My voice was a bit harder than intended, thanks to the unpleasant memories of that day. “And there really has not been enough time to be sure yet. To be fair, I have not felt it encroaching at all so far.”

“Well, that’s cause for some optimism, I think!” God, it runs in the family. He still seemed to be holding something back, though.

Lily leaned back a bit, groaning. “The whole thing kinda just slipped my mind, what with the invasion deal and then almost thinking you were dead.”

“Wait, you almost died?”

“No, just- ugh, forget that,” I flapped my hand in dismissal. “I am not comfortable acting as if nothing is wrong between us simply by not saying anything. Can we talk about that?”

Neither of them seemed particularly happy at my bringing it up. Lily might have taken it as me not trusting her judgment of her own father, and maybe she would have a point there, but I needed to hear him tell me what his deal was himself. I needed to know. I needed her to understand, too.

“Not much use for white lies, so uh, sure,” he finally responded. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t wanna hurt you by being a jackass about it, but you noticed how I was anyways. Truth be told… I’m pretty bitter about how little time I’ve ended up spending with her. And, well, just a bit worried over her too, y’know?”

“Worried about something in particular?” I pressed.

His eyes flitted over to Lily momentarily, which I could only interpret as him wanting to just lie about whatever it was, but being unable to. “Having my daughter in close proximity to… any sort of potential threat, well- I mean, look, you’re not just some threat, obviously, but can’t you understand how it’d make me feel?”

It was a natural feeling, I suppose. Rationally, it made sense, absolute sense. Rationally, it seemed ridiculous to react to that with anger, or another bout of self-loathing, but those were the only two directions my heart felt like taking me. He seemed very careful to not word things in a way that implied that I was only a threat, only a monster, but that meant little when my mind refused to hear otherwise.

Him hearing any of that would just make things worse, though. I just wanted to be done with this now, was a mistake to even try bringing anything up. Lily was my ally here, right? She obviously made her own father become used to constant forced honesty, but she would be kinder on me. Now it was my eyes that flitted to hers, as if to express that which I feared was insufficient if left alone. Probably an irrational feeling there too.

All this in a mere second. “I understand. Neither of us want… anything bad happening,” came my response, flat and without a genuine quality to it, and a neutral-at-best expression as accompaniment. Better than nothing. He either did not notice or did not want to press things, thank god.

“Are you gonna have something to do, Senna?” she asked, concern veiled yet present all the same. “We’re just gonna get everything tidy around here and back at his tent, and probably talk a lot. Really haven’t been keeping in touch as much as we should.”

“I’m sorry I always get so caught up in my work,” said Krishov.

“Yeah, I should be spending more time with the other members anyways,” I replied to Lily. “Maybe bond with the captain or something, I dunno. She seemed okay with me.”

After the two of them expressed their approval of the idea, I left their company. Was starting to get late, yet even now, that sense of community bled through the atmosphere. Distant music and laughter drifted through the air, nigh unto heartwarming if not for the mind’s recollection of recent events. Everyone was certainly enjoying being able to maintain a mood so much lighter than even the previous day, but it felt like a fragile experience to me.

I could very easily imagine the other members of the watch in a picturesque scene like the ones just out of reach of me. Good chance some, or all, of them were off having fun like that even as I thought about it. Most of my free time was spent with Lily, but I still had to fear reasons why I might never be invited. Or, I felt like I needed to. I always felt like this. Like a constant argument in my own head, partly thinking that my suspicions are unfair and partly acknowledging that it seems to have been justified already.

Was very unpleasant being this bitter and anxious all the time. I really needed to unwind, and Lily was gonna be unavailable for a good chunk of time here. Guess the idea of spending some time with the others was actually… good? Decent? Best I had? Best I had. Avoiding the topic of how other people view me would probably be wise, as hard as that had always been for me.

All of that circled around in my mind as I ambled in a general direction through the extensive encampment, vaguely aware of where Elva and potentially the others should be. By now, it seemed people were starting to become more familiar with me, as I had a noteworthy handful of greetings as I made my way past others. No one who actually knew anything about me, of course, but the recognition was nice in spite of that.

The realization of standing before Elva’s impromptu office made me pause, simply due to the thought suddenly striking me of how strange it was to be this used to interacting entirely through work. Knowing her, though, the instinct was accurate; I doubt she was about to be spending her time drinking and playing cards at a time like this. Might not be inclined to spend that time with me, either, but I do not think I am usually too demanding in these circumstances. Not a hard to entertain guest, I mean.

My hand brushed aside the drape in the entrance, revealing a very much present Elva, sitting at the desk with her head in her hands. The sound of my entering was enough to alert her, at which point she gave me her attention. Kinda felt like I was seeing something I should not have. Not so much because of me, but because of her, if that made sense. The way she slightly hurried her question as to my presence was key there.

“I, uh, do not mean to intrude. Just… had nowhere else to be, I guess,” I admitted to her. “Everything okay?”

“No, yeah, it’s fine. Just here to relax?”

“Mhm. You never seem to spend enough time relaxing, yourself, so I was unsure about, er, this whole thing. Still wanted to try though.”

Her eyes scrutinized me subtly. “Not the first time I’ve heard someone say that of me, ya know. I mean, not trying to be rude saying that,” she shook her head tiredly, “I just know that’s a thing with me. Everyone else has their own things goin’ on tonight too, aside from Lily. Dunno where she’s at really.”

“Catching up with Krishov, thus my not being there,” I offered in response to the implicit question.

“Right, right, he mentioned wanting to to me earlier. So, yeah, everyone except us three is out having a good time. And I’m in here working.”

“Seems like a lot to manage, dealing with everyone’s supplies and whatnot.”

“Yeah, thanks.” Her hand moved to allow her cheek to rest on it. “Are you, uh, gonna sit? Making me tired just looking at you,” she quipped.

I moved to one of the available chairs, moving it so as to seat myself as close to her as seemed appropriate. Nothing seemed to be immediately happening. She was not working, or striking up a conversation, or anything. All I seemed to get was a sigh and an impression of exhaustion. Really seemed like I picked a bad time for this, but she was not pushing me away, so maybe she needed someone around right now?

Hopefully not, because I had no idea how to start without making things awkward, and I was not even sure if I should be trying. If she was uncomfortable showing a vulnerable side to others, then I might just make things worse. But, again, she did not ask me to leave, so I probably should try? Indecisive thoughts had me completely stalled until Elva spoke up again.

“Did I make things awkward or something?” she asked me wearily.

“No, sorry, I just do not know what I should be doing.”

“We’re just, y’know, hanging out. C’mon, tell me how it’s going or whatever, make that small talk.”

Definitely sounded like she needed someone around now, so I did my best to oblige regardless of my pretty bad social skills. Such mundane topics as how well setting up had been going and how everyone’s spirits had been picking up a bit in response seemed to make things better for her. At first.

“Kinda feels like everyone other than me’s having a great old time, doesn’t it?” she asked, a slight taste of resentment showing through her otherwise exhausted tone. “They didn’t even bother inviting me. I mean, sure, I woulda declined, because work is more important right now, but…”

“But it still hurts,” I finished for her. “Out of anyone, I think I know how that feels best. I am sorry.”

“Well it’s not fair for you either. Not like we’re incorrigible bitches who ruin the mood every time, are we?”

“I do not think you are, not at all. I doubt anyone can be comfortable around me, though,” I could not help but tack on. Seemed like we both had things to be bitter about.

She gave me a nearly pitying look. “Like I said, it’s not fair for you. Not fair on others either. Nothing about this situation is fair or good or desirable, but that’s not your fault.”

“How is it not my fault? I could just-”

“No, nah, you already briefed me on how it works, so you can’t play that shit with me,” she interrupted firmly. “You can’t avoid being around others. No one should be expected to forcefully isolate themselves, either.”

My eyes cast themselves downward after she spoke. “Sorry. I always end up making people console me.”

“Does that annoy you?”

“Does it not annoy you? And everyone else?”

“I mean, we’ve never really talked like this together, you and I,” she pointed out, cracking a bit of a smile. “If it’s annoying Lily, then I guess you’ve gotta talk to her and work it out. As for me, I don’t mind the distraction from my own shit.”

“Well, you know how Lily is. She does not seem to mind it either. I just feel like I annoy everyone around me by being emotionally taxing,” I confessed, voice showing more strain than I was hoping for.

“I guess neither of us really like throwing that onto other people, though for different reasons.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “and you seem to resist the urge much better than I do.”

Her smile turned into a bit of a chuckle once I said that. “Does it really count as resisting if it’s basically being neurotic about it?”

That little conversation of ours petered out, helpful as it seemed to be for both of us, but the air between us still had a nice feeling to it. Elva and I seemed to have some things we could very well understand each other on. After a few moments of silence, she asked if we should go get a couple of drinks together and wind down, just the two of us. I eagerly accepted, practically drinking in the experience of having someone else express any amount of interest in me as a person. Both Lily and Lucretia had, as well, but I was still in such need of it, it seemed.

Now it was the two of us out here, walking together in the crisp night air – for the sun had set sometime while I was inside – and occasionally speaking, with the intermediate silences being more comfortable than awkward as time passed. The sounds of other people enjoying themselves had tapered off as well, but its faint presence lingered. This really was nice. Our roam at some point brought us past the tent wherein the transmissions device was set up, which prompted Elva to ask me something offhandedly.

“Did we ever get a response from anyone?”