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?”
“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.
“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?”
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.