Lightning 2.10

“Excuse me,” I spoke up to draw the woman’s attention before she could get further. In response, she paused, just standing there for a second before turning towards me. Her expression betrayed no hints of surprise at my presence.

“I was wondering what this was, but if you are approaching me amidst so many other people, it must not be anything disgusting,” she spoke, her tone strangely flat. Obviously my potential for sneaking was sorely lacking. As much as I had accepted that, it was still rather embarrassing to hear it from her in this kinda tone. And what the hell did she mean by ‘disgusting’?

“Yeah, I’m sorry for any inconvenience,” I replied in a haphazard attempt to clean up the obvious stalking. “I just heard that you came from Hateli, as well as about what happened to Tiecas. Was wondering if I could ask you about that.” My request gave her a moment’s pause.

“Tiecas is empty. What more do you need to know?” came her answer, hushed in awareness of the people all around us. At her prompting, I considered what questions I could even have, and found there was only one.

“Do you mean that literally? How would it have been emptied?”

“Have you been living under a rock the past few weeks?” she asked in return, something of a frown spreading across her cheeks.

“Metaphorically? Sure, that’s fairly accurate.” Her previous expression broke completely as she outright laughed at my response.

“Yes, metaphorically, what else?” She seemed to return to her serious demeanor all of a sudden, as if realizing what the topic actually was. “Er, well, at least you know about the invasion, right?”

“I heard about an invasion and this evacuation from Seyasta. That’s about all I know of it,” I had to admit.

She began to brief me on what she had experienced thus far. If Tiecas being “emptied” was hard to believe, this was just purely fictitious. I stood there for a moment, nodding every now and then to indicate I was processing the information and wasn’t just staring blankly at the ground. Nevertheless, if this was all true, then it made sense that Tiecas could be empty in a literal sense. Teleport in, grab someone, teleport out.

“Okay,” I said, informing her that I had my time to think on the matter, “I think I understand everything. What was Hateli planning to do? Seeing as they held out, it seems.”

“Planning? We were just trying to outlast whatever the hell this situation actually was. Seems like we had an equipment malfunction, though, so someone had to go out and check on things. Confirmed what happened in Tiecas thanks to that.”

Another acknowledging nod from me. Guess with that, I had an adequate understanding of what had happened while we were off hunting a giant octopus. It was important to know what was going on in the world, no matter how strange everything was. At this point, I had no relevant questions to ask her, and no reason to put stock in Teneya’s suspicion. Satisfied might have been the word there, a strange satisfaction given the nature of what was being discussed.

“I think that’s about all I need to get up to speed,” I informed her. “Thanks for your time.”

“You are welcome,” was all she said, tone cordial enough, before turning again to leave. As she departed, I briefly considered whether or not she was just one hell of a liar and I fell for her niceties. That train of thought was quickly dispelled, however, when it occurred to me just what happened here.

While I technically only spoke to her because of the Tiecas issue, I essentially stalked her and pulled her over because she “looked” suspicious. We literally just looked at this woman and thought she might be a murderer. The shame that brought was not something that I’d shake off anytime soon. Teneya’s profiling of this woman as a suspect was a warning of something troubling with the Ophentum.

I began walking towards where we had settled ourselves. At this point, most of the refugees had been given their share of rations. Elzebe would either be back with Teneya or would’ve found something else to help with. The latter was most likely.

There was something at the core of Teneya’s worries that needed to be addressed. She was never one to look at someone and think they were suspicious on a whim. That said, she was also someone who held Aysa in high esteem and was diligent about following her orders. And who was it that told us that a dark skinned woman with black hair might be a murderer?

This was a dangerous habit for anyone to start getting into. And it wasn’t even something we had a right to. So what if that woman was a guilty killer? We were monster hunters, weren’t we? We weren’t hitmen. We weren’t vigilantes. We couldn’t be told to keep our eye out for a woman that had no relation whatsoever to the things we killed for a living. And yet, we were being held to an expectation to do just that, and the only one with anything to gain from it was Aysa herself.

Teneya probably wouldn’t want to hear my theory that our leader was abusing the need for a militia against the rapid rise of monsters to use people as her own eyes and ears. Fine, I could keep it to myself, or tell Elzebe if she was in a good mood. The other Ophentum deserved to hear my reasoning, at any rate. We couldn’t let even our leader do something as manipulative and dangerous as this.

By the time I reached my destination, Elzebe was sitting on a stool while Teneya laid down on the grass beside her. As soon as they sighted my approach, the latter stood up with an annoyed and expectant look on her face.

“Well?”

I shrugged at her implied question. The firewood I had offered to chop was still sitting there, so without speaking, I moved to continue that task. A glance to the corner of my eye confirmed that Elzebe had stood up and was walking towards me.

“She said you were tailing a mark. What’s that all about?”

“She wanted to tail a woman who came into the camp. I did it so she’d leave it alone. Apparently the ‘target’ was just checking on communications due to equipment malfunction back in Hateli.”

“Hateli? God damn, that’s a long trip.”

“Yeah. I’ll tell you what she told me in a bit.”

“Well?” Teneya repeated behind me in an angry tone. “What happened?”

I gave her an annoyed look before turning back to my responsibility. “Not our target.”

The rain, light as it already was, had abated completely by the time I stepped out of the open air and into the shadow of the canopy. My fingers combed through my hair absentmindedly, back pressed against the first tree to offer me shelter from the camp’s line of sight. I had attracted little enough attention aside from the man who had followed me out of seeming curiosity, which was nice with how on-edge the interaction had made me. Feeling like I was getting interrogated was unpleasant even if it ended just fine.

Out of curiosity, hm. He admitted to having been somewhere completely removed from the events of the world at large for at least a couple weeks, perhaps more. He did not even remotely look like a hermit of any kind, and his presence there made the possibility slim. Sociable, but has been very busy. And inclined towards wearing specialist belts with empty slots. What was that even for, tools? Knives, maybe?

Did not have much to go off on, but everything added together almost gave the impression of having been sighted by the Ophentum here. I had no idea what their policy would be for… for me, so who knew how much they suspected me at this point? If nothing else, I gave no information the organization in general would not have already had. Just helped one guy out.

There was a good possibility that I had been watched, though, during that very interaction. Might even have been watched as I left, as I ducked behind this tree; that possibility is the only reason why I had not left my body already. If one of the Ophentum noticed me vanish into thin air, or even that I seemed to, it brought unnecessary suspicion onto me. Whatever good it did to try and avoid it at this point, I knew not, but I tried all the same.

Very deliberately, I stepped away from the tree I had been leaning against, into what could have been their vision. Taking a nice little walk in the woods would be nice, even though I was starting to ache with a desire to get back to Lily, as well as pass along what I had gathered to everyone. Soon. Being careful was good. Leaves and the occasional branch crunched beneath every step I took, each distance they bore me deliberately measured out.

I heard nothing. Nothing outstanding, anyways. An unintentional sigh left my lips, my mind now satisfied that I almost certainly was not being followed. Could not help being so perpetually paranoid at the idea. I had been justified in it before, but right now, everything was okay. Relatively okay. My movement stalled as much as the forest around me, just collecting myself fully.

Recognizing that mentally took a moment, but it was astonishingly apparent afterwards that every noise and motion I had been tracking in the back of my mind was gone, leaving only a sudden subconscious void. It was the type of situation, of sensation, to be wholly unsettling even while most would be unable to pinpoint what was happening.

My eyes had been closed. For how long? I did not remember closing them, and upon their opening, the world looked as uncomfortable as it sounded just previously. This aspect was nigh unto impossible for me to ascertain; all I had to go on was that something was deeply wrong, compounded by my own fear due to never having felt exactly this type of wrongness before. Turning my gaze this way and that offered me no further information at first glance, until I brought to mind the path I had just taken to get here, and found it to have disappeared as well.

In fact, while my immediate surroundings were… I cannot say they were unchanged, honestly, but while I seemed to be in the same place, the place itself seemed to be somewhere entirely foreign. Neither in my recent nor longstanding memories did I recognize the woodlands stretching out in every direction. Everything inside me screamed, simultaneously, to run and yet that running was pointless.

Light more powerful and piercing than the sun itself washed through the forest, peeling back tree and suffusing leaf and branch, as if everything in this world held within its nature a deference for this radiance. Every wisp and wave flowing against my skin burned, painful and comforting at once. With dreamlike quality, every plant which surrounded me began to yield, and a path to the heavens was opened. Indeed, Atre’s place as the greatest light in our planet’s sky had been completely usurped by the majesty before me.

A single footstep resounded, thunderous and mighty and ever the stronger for a lack of all other noise. Then, its twin. Then, a full advancement of what seemed to be one person, the light itself cascading and falling around them as they descended towards me from the firmament above. For all my desire to flee earlier, I was bound, helpless but to observe the most breathtaking event I had ever witnessed.

This inexorable approach brought the figure closer, closer, and though my eyes declared a distance between us, it felt as if they were nearer me than my own skin. The understory was breached, or it would have been had it not long parted before this magnificent accession, and from there, a few final steps gave the individual purchase on the forest floor. All at once, a motion was issued, invisible yet unable to be missed, and the environment was cleared of that luminous energy. Its absence on my skin somehow felt regrettable.

Vision unobstructed, I drank in the view, in all its clarity, of a woman robed in white standing a scant few meters from me. In contrast to the dominant white of her attire, her skin, and the light she had employed, her primary color was a striking electric blue. The first and most prominent example of this was a set of six flickering constructs of energy, unfolding from her back as a pair of wings might. Their shape, angling, and pointed ends left some confusion as to whether they were more analogous to limbs or to blades, but they framed her sides all the same.

Her hair, too, exhibited that stunning hue, with her bangs framing her face and the rest pulled back to some sort of point. Short, but appealing. In fact, the more I appraised her – and I somehow found plenty of time to do so – the more minutiae seemed infused with that color. Her eyes, her lips, her fingernails, nothing unnatural but everything compelling. Unnatural, that was a funny word for me to have used there. There was nothing about this situation that was natural to begin with.

Those eyes had been locked onto mine, even as my gaze roamed across her form unabashedly. It had to be intentional, this obscene draw her mere presence had on every corner of my mind. I knew exactly what she was, thanks to those wings, and had a pretty good guess on her importance otherwise, but my thoughts scattered whenever I tried to acknowledge it. The last detail I could register before being pulled back to her face was something on the back of her left hand.

“What is your name, girl?” she asked me, her voice akin to a temptingly golden honey which I felt unable to ignore.

“Senna. I am Senna.” It was simultaneously my answer and a way to ground myself. “Who… who are you?”

“Senna,” she repeated, seemingly to herself rather than to address me. “You may call me Altera. More importantly, though, I come here to warn you.”

Warn me? That was actually quite unexpected. She was an… we were… not on the same side. Warn me, why warn an… why warn someone who is not an ally? My mind felt as hazy as the situation itself, but I still managed to sputter out that question, to which she responded.

“Why? You’ll understand in a moment,” she assured me. “In essence, there is an old foe of ours traveling to your world even as we speak. Surgriel Sacroline. He betrayed our peaceful nation and rallied his followers to destroy others, rather than coexist as we would desire.

You must have noticed our soldiers having been merely kidnapping your civilians. Ever since we confirmed Surgriel to be on a trajectory here, we prepared to try and save as many as we could. Time was of the essence, so we felt we needed to take more swift action than was allowed by informing your governments or whatnot.”

She paused for a moment. “Well, I think that was everything. Or did I miss something you might have a question about?”

What was she saying? What was this? There cannot possibly be more. How can I do this. My brain felt like it stalled completely there, unwilling to even start thinking about something new, something bigger on the horizon. I had enough of that already. I had enough. I had enough.

“Uh…” I tried to start saying something, anything. Wasting time. “That is a lot to digest at once.”

“Anything coming from such an outside context would be,” she retorted.

“How do I know this is true?” Her expression shifted briefly to something approaching annoyance at my words, only to compose itself after.

“As I said, we have retreated entirely now. You may verify that yourself, after we finish talking. From there, though, it is your choice whether or not to believe me.”

“Okay, fine,” I acquiesced, “but what do you even expect me to do? Why talk to me at all, this late?”

“Late indeed. After seeing someone who could potentially rival us in ability, I thought there was still a chance for you to live, even after my peers had already given up.”

One thing after another, it was enough to make me want to give up too. Even after her explanation, everything felt weird, and there was more than a little bitterness at the thought of those with the luxury to merely give up doing so rather than helping us. This Altera, though, I guess she felt the same way. No, what was I thinking?! They kidnapped so many people, all in the name of helping? How could I just so casually think about wishing for more from them, them of all people?

“Again, what am I supposed to do?” I pressed her, desperate to become a little less lost in this whole thing.

“His first actions will seem peaceable and diplomatic,” she began to explain. “You need to be there when he touches down. Get him somewhere far away from the vessel he’s using.” Vessel? A boat? “Then, kill him.”

“It cannot be that simple, if you have not already done so yourselves,” I pointed out. Part of me wanted to doubt the simplicity of everything being presented here, on top of that. The fog was still present, even if I was adapting well enough to be able to speak coherently around it. Hard to determine if anything makes sense in a state like this.

“His abilities can flat out ignore any means we would have of destroying him. That’s why the only chance is for you to bring his guard down beforehand.” Well, she had an answer for everything, huh.

“Is there anything else I need to answer?” she then asked, making a bit of a dismissive hand gesture. By the nature of such things, my eyes were drawn to that left hand for an instant, and that thing I had caught only a glimpse of earlier chilled my heart upon a full revelation.

“What. Is. That?” I barely stuttered out.

“Excuse me?”

“Your- the back of your hand.”

She stared right through me for a handful of seconds, eyes narrowed. With one very deliberate, very fluid motion, her arm raised until the symbol she had tattooed at that place was eye level with me. Three slashes, the outer pair curving inwards to cross in the middle.

“You recognize this.” A statement, not a question, and rightfully so. I hesitated, unsure whether I should come out and confirm that at all, or how much honesty I should use even if I did.

Something shifted in the air, like some sort of ripple passing by me as it came off Altera’s body, and in the very next instant, her face was mere inches from mine. There was no air displacement, no movement I could sense, yet out of nowhere she filled the space before me, and within me. Just like before, she felt closer than my own skin. Her arm, too, was already in place, reaching around to my back, and my hair moved away even before her fingers reached it. They settled just beyond the point of touching my neck, presence felt all the same.

“So this is why,” she mused aloud, eyes locked on what must have been the marking, even if it was on the other side. “What evil fortune that I had taken interest in you already. This little mystery more than justifies it.”

“Mystery? Do you not know what it is, either?”

“Surgriel will be landing somewhere in the far south of this continent,” came her abrupt redirection. “I suggest you prepare.”

Before I had any opportunity to reply, the world changed itself once again. Altera herself was gone just as quickly as her last ‘movement’, but the light which once filled this entire area had returned in full, scorching force. With obvious, intentional contrast to the last event, this illumination was already saturating my surroundings, and each second showed it to reverse unnaturally back through the foliage – which by now was righting itself after its strange movements – and up into the sky.

Then, after a singularly brilliant and conclusive flash, the whole scene was ended, and the areas around me returned again to the known territory between Seyasta and their camp. All was as if nothing had happened at all. Truly, the only thing that had seemed to change between the before and after was myself, coming out of the experience shaky and unsure of it all.

She had obviously done something to me during all that; that was indisputable even while under the effect itself, and infinitely moreso as the haze began lifting. It seemed like she was determined to have me listen in spite of what a normal person’s reaction would be, generally to that sort of extravagance and specifically to an apparent enemy telling you so much out of the blue. And it worked. I heard her out.

The scenario she presented me seemed incredibly convenient. If she was willing to invite me to check personally that their soldiers had retreated, then I had little doubt that I would find exactly that, but what about the rest of it? As bizarre a picture as she painted, no rational reason seemed to exist for why it would be a deception. She, no, their entire side held all the cards, every single advantage over us. They flat out did not need to do anything like this to win.

Something in all of this mess was wrong, but the idea of trying to piece together what it could be was giving me a metaphorical headache. Her warning sounded urgent, and whatever destructive threat this Surgriel presented was too dangerous for me to ignore. I might not even have time to confer with others on what to do. Fuck, why did she have to leave out so many details? Was her suggestion to ‘prepare’ meant to imply I had time?

What she did inform me of, however, was a general location. Southern Taikos. That would be the Karrian region, almost certainly. Rather bad for me. With how unfamiliar I was with the area in general, and with no guaranteed time table, it seemed like I would not be able to afford those preparations she recommended. What would I have done, anyways? I guess ask others if something about the situation as presented was fishy, like it seemed to me.

Light and sound mutated into the cacophonous, messy splashes that dominated non-physical sensation as I rushed to destroy my body and work my way south. It would need to be slower, without memory to send me anywhere directly, and every perceived fraction of time felt like a wasted moment, such was the need for haste. The mountain range would guide me to begin with, as soon as I had identified south; the Cindurns were the spine of the continent, stretching generally north to south along its middle.

How the snow differentiated itself from the bare rocky faces of the mountainside was pretty bizarre to look at, but at least once did determining the passing of a specific peak help me along. There were not many tall enough to even maintain snow, after all, and the closer to the equator, the fewer there were. Why was I thinking about something like that? Kept getting wrapped up in the scenery wherever I go, with it looking so alien. That was kinda funny.

It was not long before another great expanse opened up before me, rivaling Palateca in size but not in flatness. Although, pointing out an area being technically more rocky and whatnot than probably the flattest plains on the continent does not speak for much. I paused atop the southernmost mountain, faced with not much of anything and not much to go off of. There had to be something less stupid for me to do than run around the entire region until something happened.

There was one thing narrowing the field even further, though. This enemy was supposed to be arriving in a ‘vessel’, which meant landing on the coast somewhere down here was a certainty. I had someplace to start. Though, that was just the start of looking out for this event to take place. Kicking about with no other actions available held its own special kind of helplessness, even if I tried to diminish it with plan and process.

Another moment, and sea air filled my senses for the second time today, being quite the different experience on the opposite side here. Karrian was so empty. Ahead of me was a placid ocean, beneath me the much finer grained sands, and behind was a large space with inversely tiny flora. There was little time to sit and admire things, though. Neither physically nor otherwise could I detect anything on the distant horizon, and that meant leaving this location for the next.

Rarely did these intermittent stops along the shore produce any potential meetings, and always was it a simple camp of nomads. I avoided them as best I could, for multiple and obvious reasons. Meanwhile, wherever I looked, the sea was still and devoid of anything resembling a vessel. At this rate it would take me a good while to check everywhere, or enough of everywhere even, and it still would not guarantee that I had not somehow missed something. I could be here far too early, with no way to know until days had passed, or however long it took.

A deliberate expression of frustration had me kicking a small rock off into a nearby bush, causing a loud and slightly worrisome snapping sound. The action also helped me very, very little. Even if I dealt with this – alone, again – was it going to get fixed? Was I just being used for something? Again and again, it becomes more clear and more annoying exactly how much I needed to know but had no guarantees for. If those invaders simply thanked me for taking care of their problem without paying back for everything they had done…

One of the ancient port cities was close by, I realized upon cresting this minor hill. Bunch of empty, half-buried ruins giving off an even lonelier impression than the two sets of expanses bordering it. Maybe it was because of the sense of a long abandoned home, lifeless where life should flourish, or maybe it was simply due to the natives’ aversion to all these locations. The thought had not crossed my mind initially, but this was an interesting little sight to see while passing through the area. Morbidly, I wondered if everything would end up like this soon. Belenon was on the fast track to that exact fate.

I was prepared to leave after taking that much in, but a single unnatural sound delayed me. A low drone, barely able to be perceived as yet even by my generally good senses, filtered through the air in many directions. It was certainly physical; tuning my ears a bit further let me pick it up more cleanly, although the quality of it was something I had not heard before, and aided me little in understanding. It was also a bit unnecessary, my action, considering that the sound was growing steadily louder.

The hum had a definite direction to it, something to be triangulated. It seemed quite distant still, too. Angled somewhere across these ruins, and… coming from above the cloud cover?

Lightning 2.9

“Are we sure this is gonna work? This whole thing feels strange somehow.”

“Christ, don’t jinx it Menny,” I slapped against her arm in punctuation. “Everything shall go as we planned.” Ooh, sounded a bit awkward on that delivery. Shit.

I really could not see what Meneura, sulking beside me in stark contrast to her usually optimistic self, thought could go wrong. All the monitors looked great, just as ol’ Ty’ said they would. Things were gonna get tight at the end, but one way or another it would end up fine for us. Which was weird, because usually I wasn’t the one thinking this cheerily. Maybe I stole it all from Menny via osmosis.

“To be fair, Louri, we had to cut a lot of corners,” said Tyronus in response to our banter. “This should be perfectly timed, though, if nothing else.”

Numbers, numbers. 2,450 units deployed across that wet little dustball, breakdowns of their vitals, positions, and actions all displayed in detail. This room always made me feel a bit claustrophobic when we had everyone packed in here, but we all needed to be paying attention. Now more than ever, really. Surgriel was approaching.

Alerts echoed blaringly, damn near scaring me out of my skin. The Gatework highlighted a group suddenly coming under attack in one of the heathens’ cities, soldiers dropping rapidly. That was instant brain death. Who the hell figured out our soldiers’ weakness without actually killing ‘em before now? Others were having the same or similar thoughts, and their sudden shouts and conversations made following along pretty hard.

“Tyronus!” roared the meathead. “What is the meaning of this aberrant situation?!”

“Who is even doing this? The same creature you two encountered?”
“Nykorosk should have disabled it,” another pointed out.

“Hey don’t fuckin’ look at me,” came a defense, most certainly from the kiddo himself. “I did the best I could there.”

“How did it divine the nature of our soldiers’ defenses? We recorded combat encounters, but no casualties.”

One voice cut through the uproar. “Looks like she took the bait.”

“What does that-”

-Numbers, numbers. 2,430 units deployed across that wet little dustball, breakdowns of their vitals, positions, and actions all displayed in detail. This room always made me feel a bit claustrophobic when we had everyone packed in here, but we all needed to be paying attention. Now more than ever, really. Surgriel was approaching.

Every single moment in this bizarrely quiet room – quiet aside from the typical noises of servants flitting about, anyways – made that fact more apparent. Little was being said now, although some hushed conversations were being carried out, a few on the topics of present business and a few on personal trivialities. I really didn’t like being stuck in here with nothing to do except watch a screen.

In spite of our resident calculator’s repeated assurances that the timing would be perfect, the tension in this air was thick enough to cut with a knife. Don’t think any of us were very pleased with having to leave such an unfinished job. Even retreating before Surgriel could act against us at all left some slight potential for him to use what was left behind. After all this, I was sure I had a shitload of meetings to sit through just to figure out what we were gonna do. Looking like a bored asshole was so bad for my aesthetic, I could weep in advance.

One last blow among many, and I finally managed to kill it, the axe buried deep into the head of the beast. I was forced to release the weapon as the creature’s mass fell, trying to avoid any damage dealt by its collapse. With our quarry down, my attention immediately turned to Elzebe.

The tentacle that held her hostage had little time to inflict any damage, it seemed. In spite of having loosened considerably, it still functioned as a thick wall that completely overshadowed her own height. While she was hauling herself out of that situation, I moved to retrieve my weapon from the monster’s skull. As I walked, the aftermath of our battle and the state of this ruined cave we had entered became apparent, and I mentally cursed just about everything, including myself.

Fifteen people had been sent on this particular hunt, and the boss back home didn’t want to take risks on such a high priority target. Fifteen? A head count now left me with… two. Including myself. Christ.

To tack on more problems to the casualties, the man in charge of the operation had apparently gotten his head crushed in the grip of another one of our foe’s tentacles. Actually, most people apparently died that way. Squeezed to death, smashed from above, or thrown into the walls. This enemy didn’t do much else other than flail around.

I got around to reaching the head and taking hold of my axe. The creature stared upwards with empty eyes, giving no indication of still being alive. What a comfort. My hands tugged on the weapon, more than ready to ditch this place.

The initial effort was a waste, as the damn axe didn’t even budge. I could hear Elzebe approaching me as I prepared a second attempt.

“It’s actually dead this time, right?”

“Dunno.” I pulled again. No dice.

My arms were sore from the fight, to the point that it hurt just to grip the weapon. After a third attempt even more feeble than the last, I let out a groan and decided to sit down. Elzebe followed suit, and we spent half a minute in silence before she finally decided to speak up.

“Just us?” came her simple question. I guess the silence was to listen for signs of survivors, whether it be someone announcing the fact or simply breathing. Or just that we were both exhausted.

Checking for survivors was worth putting some effort towards, though, so I forced my legs to move. Pained as they were, I got around to standing up and began to inspect the bodies.

“We should check.”

I heard a quiet “yeah” and the sound of her shuffling her feet.

So many weapons strewn across the floor that I had no interest in cleaning up after, forcing me to take care not to ram my foot into any sharp metal. A lot of our tools had been broken; snapped crossbows, bent swords, shattered armor and shields, all sorts of hazards littered the area. If I hadn’t kept such a slow pace, I would’ve hurt myself. Even more, that is.

Each body, I took my time with, desperate and determined for there to be more survivors than this. I checked their pulse, their breathing, their pulse again, and had no luck each time. Maybe when my arms didn’t hurt like hell, I’d start taking them outside, set up for some proper service.

“Teneya is alive over here!” Elzebe’s report delivered the burst of energy I needed to rush over to her and confirm what she said. Sure enough, Teneya was still breathing, but her eyes were closed and she made no sign of reacting to our presence. I took a moment to monitor her breathing and her pulse.

“Nothing scary,” I concluded. “Should just be unconscious. How many have you checked?”

“Seven, including her.”

“Then that leaves us with three, already counted the rest.” I picked up Teneya in both of my arms. “Start taking everyone else out, we’ll set up for cremation and then get out of here.”

The process of honoring the dead took longer than it normally would have as it was frequently interrupted with breaks to recuperate, and soon the darkness of the cave merged with that of the night. As the bodies burned nearby, we relished the opportunity to just lie on the ground for the next hour or three.

By the time Elzebe confirmed that our work was done, the sun had risen well above the horizon. While she began collecting the ashes, I decided to gather whatever viable tools we had left. Renewed as my strength was, the axe still wasn’t coming out. At least I still had my knives. By the time I was done, I had gathered three swords, a crossbow, and a different axe.

“Any idea how we’ll carry those?” Elzebe asked as I walked out of the cave.

“Very carefully. You got a cloth? Like a blanket or anything?”

“Got our sheets back at the camp.”

“Get me a couple, would you? I think I have a way to carry these.” With that, she started jogging in the direction of our camp. We’d set up fairly close by, roughly three or four minutes away. In the meantime, best to keep an eye on Teneya.

Initially, nothing changed, but after I had given up again and spent a minute analyzing cloud structure, I could hear her waking up. Her first action was a rushed attempt at sitting up, which did little except to make her grimace. I hustled over to offer support.

“Easy. Take it easy.”

She looked around the area with a furrowed brow, probably trying to piece together our situation, before turning to me with a rather worried expression.

“Where is everyone?”

“Elzebe’s back at the camp. The rest, well… cremated.” She stared at me for several seconds before looking down at the ground. I wasn’t ideal for consolation, unfortunately. Would’ve been better to hear it from pretty much anyone other than me.

The sounds of nearby footsteps alerted me. She’d come back with a pair of sheets in tow, ones we used for sleeping when we were out and about. I gave my thanks as she passed them to me, then worked to figure out how I was going to carry everything.

“Can you walk?” Elzebe asked.

“I think so.”

The axe I could sheathe where I normally kept mine. They were the same design, two handed weapons that we wore specific armor for. I held it over my back until I felt the axe head click into the sheath, and then covered it with the strap that held it in place.

The crossbow’s sling was intact, so I could just carry that over my shoulder, or have one of the others do it. The swords would be annoying, since I wasn’t equipped to use those normally. Still, I figured I would just make a bundle with the sheets and carry them that way. Easy. By my imagination, I could only think that I looked ready to fight a one-man war.

“How’re you doing?” I asked, glancing over at the girls.

“I’m alright,” Teneya responded, “Bit feeble, but I can walk.”

“Good to hear. Let me know if you need a break. Anything we need back at the camp?”

“Just the tents.”

“Not worth it,” I replied, almost in the form of a sigh. “Let’s just head back. If the boss has a problem with it, I’ll fucking come back myself.”

Wouldn’t put it past her to get worked up over something like that. Honestly though, I just wanted to get what people we had left back home. Considering my options, we could either go straight back home, or stop in at the nearest bit of civilization.

I did remember there was some evacuation thing issued, and that Seyasta might be empty by the time we finished. There was no guarantee they would be gone, though. It would be best to stop by. If they were still working on evacuating, we could probably lend a hand or two, and if they were gone, we could probably just find them. We weren’t going to make the trek with weapons alone, and we needed to resupply.

“Hey, guys. I’m thinking we should check on Seyasta before we head back home.”

Elzebe looked rather puzzled. “They’re supposed to be keeping themselves safe outside the village.”

“Yeah, but we really need to resupply, and they might need some more help,” I reasoned. “We can just find ‘em, wherever they went.”

“I guess. I mean, it makes sense, and I agree. I just don’t think Aysa will be happy when we come home late.”

I let out a dismissive scoff before even thinking to restrain myself. “I bet. Not much point in doing these jobs if we can’t be asked to help people out with anything else, though.”

Elzebe didn’t look particularly impressed with my sentiments. “Not disputing that. Just saying she won’t be happy is all.” She stood up, proceeding to assist Teneya. “Guess you’re leading then.”

We carried the ashes of our fallen team to the largest tree we could find. Once we made our selection, Elzebe began to carefully spread the cremated remains over the roots, circling the base of the tree. It was the custom we both grew up with, understanding how to treat our dead. Least we could do for the people we fought and died alongside, though they might have had other ideas on what was proper. Hopefully they wouldn’t mind.

We ran through a final check of what we needed before leaving. Weapons were accounted for, as were our people, and we made the best of our time to mourn. Now was as good a time as any to make the trip to Seyasta.

Nothing. Nothing anymore. Just an empty arrangement of rock and wood, like Belenon. That was the product of my desperate slaughter. They all screamed so painfully, while I kept telling myself how much they needed to die. Why did they have to be so human? They needed to die, but they were so scared.

How long had I been stumbling down the street here? I think I started walking after the last ones fell. Not even the wind or the sounds of the sea were kind enough to present themselves alongside my footsteps, much less anything resembling what this enormous city used to be like. The air was so still as to even render the occasional hanging signs I passed utterly silent.

I wanted to stop thinking, for the first time since I met Lily. Let everything end, as it already had, and stop doing anything painful. If no one was left to save, then butchering people made no difference and held no great purpose, nothing to justify about it. Me repeating ‘they needed to die’ cannot change that.

Wait. No one left? Maybe not here, but somewhere. Hateli had survivors, and… well, but we should have heard from others, right? Did something happen or not? What if this was a fluke, and in fact our transceiver was faulty? That could be it. Things get broken. Yes, yes, and the nomads, they should still be around. We never got found after leaving the settlement, so the logic makes sense. The world is still pretty close to being ended, but all is not lost. Probably.

Needed to check more than just one city, confirm the logic and the situation. Well, how much would that help if they had evacuated already? I had little to no practice with moving myself in that form, so if it was not a big landmark or somewhere I had specifically been already, frankly, I was unsure of myself. Come to think of it, I could just look on foot, same way I found everyone in Tiecas. Yeah, that should work.

Well, I had my plan. Just had to focus on the plan, and nothing else. A bit more hurried than usual, I left my body behind to disappear as I rose again through the air. This was becoming more natural for me, out of necessity. Okay, next was Faenon’s regional capital, that was Elva’s recommendation. I… guess I would enjoy seeing the area again.

This time, the flashing scenery of jagged peaks passed me by almost instantly, and with that, the bed of life below me transitioned from mostly flat and miniscule to a sprawling, vibrant expanse, occasionally interrupted by stagnant collections which themselves held that omnipresent light within. Moving through this considerably different ecosystem was even more entrancing than I thought, causing me to linger more than appropriate.

Being easily distractible was a good thing when I was a couple steps away from breaking down, admittedly, but ascertaining out the situation was vital, both to my mental state and in general. Come on, just focus on the plan. City, find people, be happy, done. The checklist would help.

It was even easier than usual to discern the human settlements scattered through this area than usual, given the greater contrast. So many little pockets of safety cut out of the woodlands, all of them probably empty and lifeless. My attention pulled me down into one, just briefly, and the pang of guilt at potentially wasting more time pulled me out again. I knew exactly where I should have been going, but had no desire except to find an alternative.

Was there someplace nearby that we had definitely received a message from recently? By my recollection, yes. That little fishing hamlet to the north. Seyasta. So isolated in its little inlet, but I still had an idea about what I would probably find. Last time I was there, the militia forces were just starting to set up, though I had little understanding of the situation. I still do not have much, aside from the common knowledge. Never really involved myself in things before recently. Still, that place worked better for me, so I rushed over there before I got distracted again, the location in my mind’s eye spreading out before me within moments.

The Ophentum were here somewhere… and that was who Elva contacted, what felt like a long time ago. I knew that was the only likely option from the beginning. They were almost certainly lumping me in with all those monsters popping up, and the very thought irked me with its unfairness. I have existed longer than the problem has even been around, so it was obvious I had nothing to do with it. Could not tell if this bitterness was really out of injustice, or just a reaction to keep me from spiraling again.

One way or another, I was feeling considerably less great even as I worked to construct myself again. The moist chill permeating the air was the first thing I could feel, a light drizzle washing over my newly forming body. Definitely the right area at least. My eyes opened, soft grey light illuminating a scene I remembered well enough. As dreary as it was, I really liked this weather, with the smell of saltwater drifting off the ocean wind. Had me feeling a bit better already.

It was about as empty as I would have expected, a trait greatly enhanced by the rolling fogs which had yet to disperse from this morning. The borders of places like Seyasta were always rather difficult to define – decentralization was certainly the word for our paradigm – but I figured this was just about on the edge of it.

To my right was the quaintest little homestead you ever might see, something I remember having been standing back then too. Most, if not all, of these buildings were well old enough. Decently maintained, but the creep of nature was omnipresent, appealing in its own way, and not at all mitigating the obvious signs of recent occupancy I could see all around. Moss beneath my feet, vines clinging to wood, everything was so nostalgic in a way, even though I spent relatively little time here. Most villages in Faenon would probably have a similar effect on me.

All of this being taken in as I strode along those ill-defined borders, with the greater and central purpose of looking for signs of a mass exodus. None, and I could start worrying. Just having one confirmation meant that a second invasion wave was not ending us, that Elva had been heard in time. None of us could afford more repeats of Tiecas, and Belenon before it, though who knew how many were safe and how many took too long?

Actually, since it seemed like our transmission equipment was malfunctioning, the people who left Seyasta, if they still have theirs functional, should be able to tell me that. Bringing such info back to Elva would be even better. Though, for what purpose, I had little idea anymore. One would like to think one’s efforts held meaning, but every action seemed to meet either in another failure or another problem. It was frustrating, but there was no other course than to continue doing as I always have been.

Tracks. Wheels, shoes, hooves. The evidence of a rather large convoy practically slapped me in the face for all its surprise, thanks to my increasingly preoccupied mind. Tracing them only a bit further back, they were obviously joining from various parts of the hamlet, all moving towards the same direction. That was my cue, then, deftly punctuated by a shifting of the wind, leaves and grass rustling in tandem. Nice touch.

All I had to do was follow these, and make my way to the survivors. The villagers, the Ophentum militia. How likely was it for me to be recognized by anyone? I could not even begin to piece together a probability for it, but my instincts told me to jump to the comfort of a lie again. What lie even was that, the lie of another face? Equally strong was my disgust at the concept of throwing away my own self image for the sake of deception.

I had already decided to stop approaching that territory, the very moment Lily gave me that courage. My fears would have to adapt to that. The first step forward, then, towards people I had no right shying away from. What a short-lived whim that turned out to be, trying to avoid the region and all its people. Cruel circumstance cut it short, like so many things.

Moving under the forest canopy itself was a bit jolting, the sudden interjection of leaves and branches between my face and the sky’s offerings. Drier, but not dry. I could change that. The moisture soaking through my hair, through the fake clothing I created, running over my skin, every drop was a sensation that I mindfully kept intact. It felt nice. Besides, how unnatural it would seem for me to appear wholly dry in this weather, even under the woodland’s cover.

They would see me, the person. They had to. The snapping of a twig underfoot, the pressing down of damp earth, everything was crystal clear to me. Felt like I was working myself up into something unpleasant, hyper-aware of every motion I forced myself into and every motion in the world around me. Moreover, this overly focused perception brought to my awareness a set of sounds ahead, specifically something above the constant background noise which one tends to filter out. Aside from when one is frightened, that is.

Yes, the noise, the light, the motion, the heat. Every fiber of my body and soul recognized what I was stepping into as I cleared the entrance into that glade, back into the soft embrace of the rain.

By the time we caught up to the Seyastans, they had begun setting up a campsite and were quick to take us up on our offer of help. It was afternoon now, and Elzebe occupied herself with passing out rations or keeping their records or something. Other than construction, I had little to do other than polish up the quality of their tools and chop wood. Important tasks, still.

Teneya was taking a break from all the busy work after her efforts to set up a tent rewarded her with sudden back pains. Probably an injury from our fight. She was laying down on a thick blanket beneath a nearby tree while I evaluated the condition of a lumberjack’s axe.

“How long are you planning on staying here again?” she asked from behind me.

“Till we have what we need and they’re good to go. Seriously.”

“Seriously,” she repeated in a mockingly deep tone. “Who are you trying to convince? I already believe you.”

“Just take your nap.”

“I’m not gonna nap.”

I shrugged in response. “Your loss then. You’re not getting up anytime soon anyway.”

The axe looked to be in a semi-decent condition. Good enough to chop a bit of wood, at least. Having evaluated that much, I placed the firewood into position and held my axe over it. Before I could raise it, however, Teneya got my attention again.

“Hey, uh, Xander, is that who Aysa was lookin’ for?”

“The hell? What are you talking about?” She was pointing in a fairly discreet manner towards the entrance of the camp. I followed the direction of her gesture and saw the woman she had to be pointing at.

“She looks just like the drawing and description that the boss provided.” She wasn’t wrong. The dark skin and wavy hair, as well as the facial structure, all added up to match my interpretation of the details Aysa had given. Not that it proved anything.

“So do a dozen other people I’ve met,” I replied, resuming my task. “Not gonna give her flak because she looks like someone else.”

“Well, Aysa said to contact her if we came across anyone who matched the description.”

“I know, and it’s bull. That’s dangerously close to a damn witch hunt. Whoever this is, they have their own modus operandi as well. Try not to base this solely on looks.”

“You’re suggesting we wait until something happens?” Sounded like she was beginning to sit up. “It’d be safer to just do what Aysa says, rather than put people up as bait.”

“Who’s safe if we equate some rather common looks with a murderer? Here’s what we have in terms of appearance: dark skin and black, wavy hair. And a face, kinda. I guarantee there’s more than one person in the world who looks like that.”

Now it sounded like she was standing. I set the axe down and turned towards her, partially to see if she was straining herself and partially to pay full attention to this little argument. Sure enough, Teneya had stood up, clutching her back.

“And this isn’t just to prove a point?” she asked pointedly.

“I mean, if my point is that you can’t just assume who someone is based on looks, I imagine it is.”

“I’m asking if you’re not just doing this to spite Aysa.” She gave me a frustrated look. “I get what you’re saying, but we have our orders. Besides, nothing bad will happen if we’re wrong. We won’t be punished and she won’t be hurt.”

“Physically, maybe. I’d rather not take guesses on this.”

“Then you keep chopping wood. I’ll keep an eye on her.” She started to walk in the woman’s direction. I took hold of her shoulder before she could move more than a step.

“Christ, will you just rest? You’ll hurt your back even more.” Her expression didn’t look satisfied. Resigned, I added, “Fine. I’ll keep track of her. But you stay put.”

She still looked doubtful, but after a few seconds she sat back down. “Don’t go shirking your duties.”

My head shook in annoyance as I put the loaned axe down and headed towards where everyone else was. I could still identify the woman making her way towards the crowd of people waiting to receive that night’s food, most huddled away from the light rain. Elzebe hadn’t come back, so she was probably helping with her endeavors there.

I began to mingle in with the others, to the best of my ability anyways. Not having my weapons on me helped me appear less conspicuous, but the belts for my knives and my axe sheathe were still present. Best to avoid being in the open.

Contrary to that principle, she moved around the crowd to interact with people who weren’t packed together. These were predominantly individuals who had gotten their food already, but also included some people who were still working.

She was close enough to a tent that I could stay on the other side of it and hear what she had to say. As I moved over to my destination, Elzebe and I saw each other, and she began waving to me from the distribution area. I made a gesture with my hand to signal her not to attract attention, and she promptly stopped, looking slightly confused.

By the time I got to the tent, their conversation was underway. I sat down on a stool at the entrance, listening as best as I could to the discussion while trying to not look like a total snoop.

“-I don’t know, she might be able to tell you.” The voice was some man that she had been speaking to. I heard the sound of the woman moving on and craned my head over to see where she was headed next.

There wasn’t a crowd to blend into this time, so I’d need to just mind my own business. My pace was kept close to the tents as she approached her next person of interest. This time I took cover soon enough to hear the interaction start.

“I was told you could point me to whoever is in charge at the moment?”

There was a pause in the other woman’s response. “Is there a particular reason why you need to find him?”

“From Hateli,” she began to explain. “We stopped receiving any messages, and Tiecas is confirmed to have been lost in a second wave. Since we have no way of hearing anything right now, I planned on asking which groups still seem active.”

Holy shit. Tiecas was gone? I heard about the attacks and that they were rough, but the notion of a city being conquered was just… incomprehensible. I guess I just never expected there to be a war in my time. It was easier to think the only things out to kill people were brainless monsters from nowhere. Suddenly, killing that big octopus thing was feeling less like an accomplishment than I thought it was.

There was no immediate reply from the other woman. When she did speak, it sounded quiet and in disbelief. “We heard nothing from Tiecas, but we did get reports of isolated attacks from other settlements. You can head to that big tent over there. That’s where we’ve set up communications. The mayor should be there right now.”

I took a quick look to see if she was pointing anywhere, and could see her arm stretched towards the ‘big tent’ that she spoke of. “Don’t know how busy he’ll be, but if you tell them what you told me, he’ll probably speak with you.”

With that, she thanked the woman and began walking toward the mayor’s tent. I continued to tail her until she stopped right outside the entrance to speak to a man who was armed with a weapon at his side. As I continued to approach the tent, he stepped to the side and allowed her to enter.

Odds are the mayor had this man guarding him, and I definitely didn’t have reasonable cause to enter. I also had neither the weapons nor the interest to start a fight if I couldn’t be subtle in my approach. Honestly, the best I could do was watch the guard and wait for her to come out. To that end, I took a seat outside. Depending on what happened next, I was thinking of speaking to her myself.

I didn’t keep track of how long their unheard conversation lasted, only that it was long enough for me to start falling asleep. Thankfully I didn’t, because eventually she walked out. I didn’t realize it earlier, but the guard was actually looking right at me. What the hell did I do? Was simply sitting on a chair suspicious? Or was it my proximity to the mayor’s position?

Like I cared. I stood up with clear intent to go somewhere other than toward the mayor’s tent, hoping to satisfy his guard. It looked like the woman was prepared to leave the campsite already, and I followed closely. Convincing Teneya was no longer my primary concern. I needed to know the details of what was happening out there.