“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.
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.
“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?