Upheaval 3.1

We all had had days to acclimate to nothing happening, camping out here in the woods just biding our time. I also had some time to digest the staggering amount of news that Senna had brought back with her after her time away. In reality, though, I was still in a bit of shock over everything. Was shock the right word? Not disbelief, because I knew she wouldn’t lie to me, to us. Lily guaranteed that, at the end of the day. Maybe it was something like information overload, unable to really wrap my brain around all these things I could only hear secondhand.

All this time, and still no obvious decision came into view for me. I had always had a responsibility for the people of Hateli, much moreso lately, and it was practically paralyzing. Senna had a hard time of things too, from what I gathered. The absolute opportunity, the absolute danger at play in the words of Surgriel Sacroline… we could blindly trust neither him nor the other source of information we had. My head spun just trying to parse it. Or trying to parse it while this tired.

The utter absence of any further invasion waves was supposedly due to Surgriel’s presence here, along with something he brought along. The details were hazy, and seemingly intentionally so. Senna just called it an ‘entity’. She seemed pretty confused too. The most to be gleaned there was that it was responsible for their ability to even travel here. That was something – a prime indication that whatever allowed the invaders- no, the Yleini to teleport was not available to these newcomers, for whatever reason.

My finger slipped, accompanied by a sharp pain along the side of my thumb. I didn’t even notice I was scratching it again, and now I had a red mark to show for it. This was such a bad nervous habit, but alchemically toughened skin kept me from giving enough of a shit to ever try to kick it. Lily would surely chastise me for that.

Had to get out of here. Just for a bit. This makeshift office I had spent so much of my time in felt oppressive lately, and I just wanted out right now. Thank fuck I wasn’t on any sort of hard time limit here. Wouldn’t make sense. No way anyone would expect an answer to this kinda offer so quickly. Yet, I needed to provide one relatively soon, and one that would satisfy everyone to the best of my ability.

A bit more energy than I intended went into the action of standing up from my chair, forcing me into a scramble to keep it from tipping backwards onto the ground. I swore audibly, and directed myself straight towards the exit once I had made sure it was steady again. Bright, early sun and friendly faces up and about immediately lessened a bit of that tension, though I briefly hoped no one had heard my outburst there.

With nothing presenting itself except another normal day, I sighed. Exasperatedly, and exhaustedly. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this, for the full-blown leadership that got thrust upon me out of necessity, as much as I was scared of that thought. So much ambition would be wasted if I fell to thinking like that, but just look at me. Was barely keeping myself together just handling bullshit as it came along earlier, and now I had a decision to make, and couldn’t make it. It was probably unfair to use that against myself, though, since I wasn’t sure one person could or even should make that decision in the first place.

I had attracted a few peoples’ attention, standing here lost in my own thoughts and probably with a less than idyllic expression on my face. Waving them away was easy enough. I was desperate for something else to focus myself on, but not desperate enough to make small talk with practical strangers or entertain their inevitable questions about how I was doing. Someone I actually knew a decent amount, please. Getting drunk off my ass with my friends and then face-planting into someone’s lap sounded really nice, in particular.

What I really needed was someone to listen to me, help me sort through everything. Would it be too imposing to ask that of Lucy? Didn’t even really know where she was right now, come to think of it. Doubt anyone else would be helpful in that regard, though, since Lily was probably all sorts of tied up. It didn’t feel right relying on her like that, anyways.

The air felt crisp, walking along and asking to be pointed to wherever she was working at the moment. Or not working. Whatever she was doing. Work would actually be inconvenient. No one seemed to have been paying attention, though, so I was relegated to a bit of aimless wandering through this well established camp of ours. Still, no matter how well established it was, how accustomed we all got to living out here, everyone wanted to to go home. More accurately, everyone wanted things to go back to how they were, but that wasn’t gonna happen.

This was completely stupid, walking around without an actual goal. I was already emotionally tired, and it somehow was making me feel physically tired as well, which was an unusual experience for me. Not so unusual lately.

“Yo, captain, you look lost,” came an unfamiliar voice off on one side. Atop a log, at what was about the edge of our camp’s perimeter, sat a young man, wearing the uniform I was all too used to seeing. I didn’t recognize him, which was somewhat weird at this point. I must be really neglectful to not know everyone under my charge even after this amount of time.

“I was just looking for someone,” I responded, stepping closer towards him to make the distance less awkward. “Sorry, but I’m having trouble placing your name right now.”

“Ah, ahah, that’s fine. I’m Jasz, remember? Well, no, I guess you don’t, since we barely ever interacted. I won’t hold it against you.”

My sense of shame at still not being able to recognize him had grown even further, even though he tried to mitigate it. Better than him being a dick about it, I guess, so I may as well not dwell much more on it.

“Well, thanks. Anyhow, you have any idea where the vice captain is?” I ventured the question.

“Why? Urgent business?”

“Not so much that, really,” I admitted. “I just need some advice. Natural pick, right?”

“Ahah, yeah, makes sense. Last I saw of her she was pretty busy, though. Not sure with what exactly.” Bleh, didn’t wanna interrupt her then. Annoying.

“Y’know,” he continued after a pause, “everyone I’m friends with thinks I’m pretty great at advice and shit. Which is like two people, give or take, but nevermind that.”

“I don’t think this is the kinda thing you seek advice from random people for.”

“Sometimes even complicated problems have a solution hidden just out of sight. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to, but we’re all here for you, y’know? …Ahah, that was cheesy as fuck.”

“It kinda was,” I chuckled in agreement. “Fine, I’ll bite. You got the gist of the latest situation, right?”

“Something something refugees from far far away, same people that kicked the shit out of us except not. And we haven’t given an answer as to whether we’ll let ‘em stick around yet,” he finished, tone getting a bit more serious.

“Yep, that’s the one,” I sighed.

“Well, c’mere, sit down. Log is more comfortable than standing I bet.” One hand of his pat the free space next to him as he scooched over to allow for ample room. I took him up on that offer, moving to sit on the rough surface of the fallen log. From there, we both stared in at the camp and its inhabitants, lazily moving about their day to day lives, as they were out here. Somewhere, a crow cawed out, seemingly alone.

“Should we be giving an answer in the first place?” I asked hesitantly.

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t speak for everyone. Hateli can’t speak for the whole world. That’s what I keep thinking.”

After a few moments of silence, his voice picked up again. “So don’t? Even if their first contact only came back here, we don’t need to be the only ones discussing it. Call a meeting or something with some other survivor enclaves. There are a good few in Faenon alone.”

At that moment, I slightly wanted to slam my head into a desk. Repeatedly. That was the kind of obvious option that physically hurts you to have missed. Whatever this was – anxiety or something else – had been eating at me so much ever since Senna came back, and before then, that I was starting to miss the pragmatic decisions I needed to make. That was more shameful than missing one guy’s name.

“I can’t believe I didn’t decide on that already,” I got out a bit shakily.

“Ahah, don’t be so hard on yourself,” he reassured me, standing up lazily. “Everyone deals with it.”

“I can’t afford to be like everyone.”

I was silent for a few seconds after that, waiting for the typically expected reply of, well, anything. Only distant noises of footsteps or people chatting made it to my ears, though. Turning towards where Jasz had been just a moment ago yielded infinitely more unnerving amounts of nothing. He had completely vanished at some point after I registered him standing up from the corner of my eye. I stood myself up hastily as well, twisting myself this way and that in a search for at least some trace of him, someone walking away from me, so I could think I had just let my mind slip or something. It was as if he was never there.

Breathe in. Breathe out. It was a steadying feeling, ragged as it was, amidst the sharp, continuous pain in my arm. Every several seconds brought another iota of sound as little rivulets of blood gathered together and condensed into a drop heavy enough to fall to the ground beneath me. My fingers trembled briefly, carving another inch downwards, as many as I needed. The whole world behind me was blotted out; much like the leaves only temporarily discolored by the blood that quickly evaporated off them, I refreshed it over and over again with my muscle’s new command.

It hurt. Something made me feel almost dizzy, a haze crawling over my brain attributable to… whatever it was. Maybe blood loss, maybe all the nerve inputs. I did not want to know or think about it, I just wanted it to stay as long as possible. I could make it go away, but I did not want to. It felt good. What did they call it when you think about how, hypothetically, you could do something completely against what you want? It seemed funny to me that I felt the same thing towards the idea of stopping. So many easy ways I could fortify my body beyond this kind of harm, and all I wanted was to feel myself bleed.

My body instantly froze at the sound of a twig snapping somewhere behind me. Energy bubbled up eagerly beneath the skin of my shoulders, my scalp, quickly forming what felt like new eyes to see whatever had startled me. I sprang upwards quietly, more alarmed at my reaction than what was now clearly a deer staring at me. It bounded off in the next moment, leaving me with a rapidly calming potential in the form of several unfinished visual organs retreating back into my flesh. As volatile as before, I compulsively raked across the area, scraping away the feeling of having those there even briefly.

The wounds on my arm had healed while my attention was elsewhere, it seemed. That haze encroaching on my mind was completely gone, too, as if scattered in a moment of instinctual clarity. Everything I tried to keep from thinking about intruded suddenly, all the stronger for my vain efforts. How much I probably hurt Lily last I saw her, pushing her away and leaving to isolate myself out here doing this. How many times was I going to make her forgive me being a piece of shit? All these little specks of failure constituting my existence. Not just with her, with everyone.

Every time I left myself alone with my thoughts – and out here, I very much was alone with them – reality came crashing down onto me. I deserved to hurt more for not saving anyone. For hurting people before. For hurting Lily ever. Habit brought my hand in contact with the other’s wrist subconsciously, wanting to fall back into that comfortable, painful response. Thinking a bit more clearly now, though, I knew it would be wrong to stay out here. On some level, at least. Most of me was too weak.

Maybe that was a mistake, thinking it was wrong. Some logic would say it was more wrong to stay with Lily in the first place, selfishly putting her and her friends in danger simply because I was lonely. She wanted me to stay, and it felt good to think about that, but it was still selfish at the end of the day, right? I did not deserve anyone desiring me like that. God, how much would it hurt her to know what I was feeling and thinking right now…

As much as it sickened me with anxiety to imagine showing my face over there again, I had to. At some point. Soon? Soon was scary. The thought of Soon brought fingernails onto my skin again, just hard enough to cause red marks this time. I was basically completely stalled out, standing here next to some godforsaken tree, staring at the ground awkwardly, and trying to muster up something to let me do the right thing.

It always stemmed from overthinking, or burying myself in something unhealthy so I could not think at all. Obvious. Easier said than done, but I convinced myself it was now a matter of just acting before I could change my mind. Using what little momentum that decision gave me, I broke away from my body and that entire remote area, and in similarly hasty fashion, opted to simply bring myself near Lily and manifest without paying much attention. Thinking too much might make me scared again. It was a little weird how I was able to instinctually recognize her without any normal indications, like a face to look at.

Seemed like we were directly adjacent to the camp, here. Lily was before me, seated on a felled log and staring with some amount of surprise at me. She was not alone, either, as Jerome stood nearby, in the process of chopping some of the available wood. He was in the middle of speaking – a serious topic, even, by his tone – before noticing Lily’s shifted attention and pausing himself. Maybe it would be easier with someone else here, strangely; would have some time to get over the anxiety of being here.

“What is that, firewood?” I asked, legitimately a bit curious since we had not done much in terms of chopping trees before now. Was probably shitty to interrupt whatever their conversation was, though.

“Oh, Senna, hey. When’d you get here?” Jerome questioned me. He seemed hesitant, somehow. Lily, even more inscrutably.

“Just now. I am not interrupting anything private, am I?”

“Not for you, no,” answered Lily. “Are you doing okay?”

That felt a bit like being put on the spot, specifically due to having someone else right there as she asked. Our eyes held in contact, soothing on its own, and I broke that contact briefly to ‘gesture’ towards the other party. Hopefully she would understand what I meant by making a particular point of him being there. Her response was a slow, deliberate blink.

“I am, well, fine,” I lied, blatant to my partner and preferably far less so to Jerome here. “What does ‘not for me’ mean?”

“Was probably because she had brought you up,” he answered for her. “We’re not gossiping behind your back or anything, she’s just been worried about you. Told me a bit about how you’ve been feeling the past couple days.”

My muscles tensed up nervously at the implications. It made me feel guiltier than before, just thinking about making her worry so much that she needed to lean on someone else to deal with it. And how much was she telling him? Rationally, I did not think she was the type of person to betray my trust or anything, but irrationally…

“Do you mind if I tell you a little story?” he continued, words interrupting my worries.

We returned to the central base a couple of hours before noon. Elzebe ran ahead of us and through the gates, apparently no longer exhausted from the trip back. Upon reaching the gate myself, the first thing I registered was just how crowded the place was, which meant we probably hadn’t sent anyone on missions lately. I really had no idea how much recent events impacted things here.

“I’m going to report in to Aysa,” Teneya said to me, prompting me to look in her direction. “You get those to Valler,” referring to the weapons I was able to retrieve from our mission.

“Alright, but remember what we agreed on.” She sighed in response and made her way to Aysa’s quarters. I then turned my eyes back to the crowd, and as the details settled in, I began to realize that not all of these people were Ophentum. Well, they could’ve been, but I didn’t recognize a vast majority of them.

Almost all that I could see were currently working. Some handled basic tasks such as chopping wood and cleaning clothes, while others looked to be transporting food, clothes and weapons in and out of their respective stores. What was going on? There was no way we had this many recruits come in while our unit was gone.

The familiar presence of Silas over near the elites’ quarters drew my attention, hands working over his own personal crossbow. As I made my way over towards him, he noticed me well before I was in range to greet him myself.

“Welcome back.”

“Thanks,” I replied, looking around. “Who are these people?”

“Refugees from Celdan,” he answered, “Kind of crowding things up, messing with our work schedules, but if they want to help out, power to them.”

“Every single one of them wanted to do work?” I inquired further, eyebrow raising. Silas merely shrugged.

“They didn’t ask for my permission, and I didn’t bug them about it. Probably ask one of the big three if you’re so curious.”

The only one of the “big three” I had any fondness of speaking with was Ekkan. Aysa was a pain to socialize with, and Mana just made me uncomfortable. I was fully aware of the latter’s situation, but listening to a kid lecture me like a professor just didn’t sit well at all.

I decided to do a quick once-through of the base to look for Ekkan. Two minutes passed with no luck, so with nowhere else reasonable to look, I made my way towards and peered into the room where Aysa generally did her business. Sure enough, it was occupied by her, Teneya, and Ekkan. I wasn’t about to interrupt that meeting, especially since Aysa actually looked calm for once in there. That left me with Mana to consult.

As it turned out, she was in plain sight elsewhere in our camp, sitting at a desk beneath a temporary canopy that looked as if she herself had set it up, given how low it hung. Apparently she was doing some sort of administrative work, with a line of refugees before her. My stride brought me closer just in time to overhear her mention something about washing clothes, and the person in front gave his acknowledgement before walking off. Her attention then turned to me, causing her to hold up one hand and signal a pause.

“Yes, Omaro?” Exhibit A for why she was so uncomfortable to work with.

“These, uh, these are evacuees from the capital, right?”

“Correct.”

“And… every single one of them is volunteering for work?”

Mana peered up at me from within the shade. “No, we hold them accountable to pull their weight while we grant them refuge here. In the meantime, our members can focus on spreading out even further to address problems while they take up our normal roles.”

I stared at her for a second, still trying to wrap my head around how one could say ‘pull their weight’ and ‘grant them refuge’ in the same sentence. Evidently my expression had communicated just what I was feeling.

“Does this trouble you?”

I looked over at the civilians, who were watching the two of us expectantly. Who knows what they’ve been through lately, and they were being put to work like they hadn’t just survived a fucking war. I turned back to Mana, breathing deeply and deliberately before speaking.

“No. Excuse me.”

If I had done what I initially thought of doing, I probably would have been charged with insubordination. Lying about whether or not this “troubles” me was the best I could do. Jesus fucking Christ, does this trouble me? Trouble? It’s like little more than just stubbing a toe to her. With further deliberation, I let in another set of deep breaths, slowly stepping away from the line of people and removing myself from the source of stress, as Ekkan always suggested.

This was an opportune moment to deal with the armaments I was still hauling around. In my haste to find and speak with Mana, I had temporarily forgotten all the weight I still had slung over my shoulder. The quickly found armory door was kept open just slightly, so that anyone transporting gear could get in and out without fumbling with the handle. That was certainly helpful for me. I slipped inside, taking care not to slam any of this equipment against the frame.

“Just… put it over there. I’ll deal with it later.” Mia’s disgruntled voice appeared to be directed at even more civilians who had been stuck with various tasks. Neither her nor her ‘assistants’ were particularly pleased with the exchange. As they trudged off to carry out her request, she looked over in my direction, and her tired face lit up slightly with a smile.

“Hey there. You guys just get back?” I grimaced unintentionally at her wording. She probably assumed more than three people had made it back.

“Just got here, yeah” I answered. “Only three of us, though.” That caused her smile to vanish, bringing back the same exhausted expression she normally had going.

“Damn, I’m- I’m sorry. Your sister…?”

“She’s good,” I assured her, seemingly eliciting a look of relief from her. “She’s trying to get the whole silver lining thing going. Telling me to take some comfort knowing that we got the job done.”

She sighed. “Well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? Whether or not the number of deaths was really worth the success. Still, I’ve heard nasty things about that particular mark. That it was even capable of taking down ships of the line. Aysa was right to put that on high priority.” After that note, Mia peered over my shoulder at the various weapons I was holding onto.

“Any of my toys you brought back?”

“Just what you see here.” I laid them all out on the table, unrolling the bundle carrying the sword while I was at it.

“One shortsword, two broadswords, a single-bladed double-axe, and a crossbow. All category one… Unmodified… The other two that came back with you, do they have anymore?”

“Only what they brought with them.”

“Damn,” she muttered, “That’s a lot of modded weapons and armor we’ve lost. I imagine they weren’t good enough to salvage, then?”

I shrugged. “I thought so, but that’s not really my prerogative, determining what’s useful after it’s broken. As far as I could tell, everything was either damaged beyond repair, or just too much of a hazard to haul back. Splinters and what not, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. Not an invalid concern. Well, I’ll ask Aysa about sending a team to scope out the place, see if there’s anything worth retrieving.” She paused for a moment. “You and sis probably did your cremation thing, huh? I hope you didn’t burn that.”

Good thing she mentioned that, because I had completely forgotten until now. “Well, most of it was damaged in some way – crushed, dented, split, et cetera – but we decided to stow it in the cave. We couldn’t bring it back ourselves, but I imagine you can always find a use for broken armor at the least.”

“That’s right,” she responded. Her arms folded over her chest as she took a moment to think. “Looks like you lost your axe. I’ll see about replacing that later. Anyhow, if there’s nothing else, I should get to sorting these back into storage. Glad to have you back, Xander.”

“Here’s hoping it’s good to be back.” With that, I exited the armory. Looking around for things to do yielded little other than to head to the elites’ quarters. Silas was still seated by the entrance, peering up at me while simultaneously tampering with his crossbow. Assuming it could still be called that, at this point.

Entering the quarters, I was greeted with a room that had likely surpassed its maximum occupancy. Aside from Teneya and Silas, it seemed as though every member of the elites was currently here, enjoying games and finishing up their breakfast. Where they weren’t playing cards, they would be playing a game of chess, and those who weren’t playing would most definitely be spectating.

I was able to find an open chair near the group surrounding the chess board. Having had my share of rations earlier this morning before the final leg of our return voyage, I decided against pursuing anything edible. Instead, I took this time to watch a bit of the game. Janus versus Virn, with the former having the advantage, as usual.

“Who’s got next game?’ I asked.

“Anyone willing to sit down and play Janus, so far,” someone responded. Sounded alright to me, had to make sure I was the first to sit down then. Was looking forward to go up against Janus again, since it had been a while-

A sudden tapping against my shoulder held my attention then, and craning my head to see who it was revealed Teneya standing just behind me.

“Hey. How’d it go with Aysa?” I asked her.

“Well enough,” she answered, “She wants to speak with you, though.” I gave her a dubious look, wondering if she had gone back on our agreement.

“Care to give me a teaser as to what it’s about?”

“Just checking in, I figure.” Checking in? I never had much expectation for Aysa to give half a crap about me after a mission, especially if I came back in one piece. This was probably a cover for an actual problem, rather than Aysa actually being sympathetic to anyone.

“Alright, I’ll talk to her,” I conceded, standing up to give my chair to anyone who so desired it. Hopefully I’d be back before Janus had won the game, though I doubted it. It took me quite possibly an entire minute to work my way through the crowd to the exit. By the time I got out of the room, I could see across the base that Aysa’s door was still in the process of closing, suggesting someone else had entered. I certainly didn’t see anyone walking away as indication that someone had left.

Taking another precautionary deep breath, I moved forward towards that door. Entering the room proved my little analysis was correct, as Mana had joined the other two leaders here. Great. My plan was to detach myself from the stress, but sure, why not? What could go wrong, me being in the same room as her?

Aysa wasn’t looking like she was about to give a lecture, however. Her expression was serious, and not even the kind that suggested she was angry. Good sign in my book, or it was until she asked me her question.

“Teneya gave me a brief run-down of the mission. Are you and Elzebe doing alright?” The presence of actual empathy in her tone was actually rather off-putting. Why this sudden fixation upon our welfare, fixation that had not existed prior to this?

“Is there a particular reason you’re asking?”

“Empathy. Nothing more, nothing less,” Aysa replied, slightly harder than before.

“Statistically,” Mana interjected, “This has also been our greatest loss on any single mission thus far. It is only sensible to assume you may feel some manner of trauma aft-”

Aysa waved off Mana’s inane gibbering. “The technicalities don’t matter. What matters is whether or not you and your sister are alright.”

“I’d say yes, on both counts.”

“Good,” Aysa said, acknowledging my response. She looked over to Ekkan, who had a rather grim visage on display. Her brow furrowed before turning back to me.

“I also heard there was some dissent between you and Teneya on your return trip.”

I paused for a moment, thinking about the implications of this report. How much had Teneya said? Clearly, she had broken my trust, it was just a question of the extent.

“What exactly have you heard?” I questioned hesitantly.

“That you were unwilling to hunt a priority target that looks human.”

“Maybe I was.”

Aysa narrowed her eyes at me. “Don’t get smart. I’m willing to hear your reasons for your decision, and can reserve judgment until you’ve said your piece. Don’t give me a reason to change my mind.”

That made me consider the possibility of actually telling her what I had been thinking about. Were I more impulsive, I might have, but now I was very much thinking against it. Better to beat around the bush a bit.

“Sorry. It wasn’t really ‘dissent’ per se, just some confusion as to why a monster-hunting militia would ever target a person with maximum level priority. Just seems like misplaced interest.”

She peered at me, thinking for a few seconds. “I suppose it does seem that way. If I were to explain it to you, would you consider it then?”

My inclination was more to just drop it here. I hated making anyone in the Ophentum give their story; it was like picking at a scab. On the other hand, I honestly, legitimately did not want this fight between Aysa and me to go on any further. If there was a chance at understanding here, then it was worth grabbing.

“Alright, I’m listening.”

Lightning 2.11

Clouds parted ominously around the nearly fractal object, that thing descending which I could only imagine to be the source of the growing hum. Its structure was seemingly obscured by the intense blackness of whatever substance that was. The only interruption to that undefined mass was the warped mess of color that occasionally glinted off it when the angle was just right, prismatic flashes in geometric formations which gave an impression of being a mere fact of its material reality, as opposed to some intentional gaudiness.

Several different mental threads wound through my head simultaneously. That Altera was right to use something as nondescript as ‘vessel’ for an object such as this, for one. For another, and for something more unnerving, its approach through the sky rather than across the water started to give new context to that which was lacking contextuality before. The invaders had always seemed otherworldly, like they did not belong even to extra-continental peoples, and this seemed as strong a hint as any that that instinct was true. They originated somewhere beyond Erhia.

So many questions and worries and ponderings that would lead to, begging for answers no matter how resolved I was to just see this ‘war’ – strange as it was – through to the end before anything else. Who was I supposed to ask, anyways? The one I was instructed to bare my teeth toward, the one who instructed such, either or both could wrap me in so many lies as to make me lose track of everything. One already could have done just that. This is the part where it would be extremely convenient to have empathic powers, but like earlier, the convenience was not mine.

My natural disposition towards bitterness would not help me here. Easy to point that out, but I needed to act on it, and just focus my attention. How many times did I need to tell myself that? Here, alone and facing down one of the weirder things I had seen today, I shook my head forcefully. At some point, the noise emanating from the vessel had plateaued as the remaining movement brought it no closer to where I was, just closer to the ground. It had slowed down quite a bit for the final landing.

First big decision was how to approach this. The distance was not even so great as to necessitate losing my body for a bit; I could probably jog over there if I was inclined. No windows that I could discern, but at this distance and with me standing here like an idiot on top of a decent little hill, could I assume I had already been noticed? Surgriel was supposed to act diplomatically to begin with, so that would… probably be fine. Prevented me from considering a stealthy approach, so if I felt like being positive, that was a boon to my indecision.

Well, come to think of it, how dumb would it be to just walk right up to their craft? Considerably dumb, unless I made an effort to not look like I was expecting their arrival. No, even then. Brazen displays like that convey information, and, by my reasoning, not the kind of information I wanted to send. What would they be expecting? Someone they knew was there still making an effort to hide and observe, out of ostensible fear and a dash of amazement? At least in fiction that seemed to be appropriate. I would make an effort to hide, then.

My feet launched themselves downhill, gingerly stepping my way to a more level area and closer to where that thing was going to be landing soon. Weathered stone walls to my left, and some decently thick shrubs between me and my destination. Horrible location in terms of providing cover for onlookers, but maybe there would be a bigger one over there that I could reasonably crouch down behind without needing to make myself shorter.

A question I actually should have thought about was how much they could be observing me from here. With no real exposure to their technologies, I had literally no way to assume their capabilities in that field. Frankly, I was at a loss as to what I could even do except bank on a friendly posture and hope they do not identify me as an enemy or threat. For all my cogitation, the best and only course of action ended up being so simple and so stupid.

I was doing it again, too. Moving a bit too fast for the current design. After discovering it during my battle with Ratheim, and playing around with it while not understanding it, I at least could glean that it seemed to be something letting me directly move parts of myself by applying force without a physical apparatus. Personal biokinesis, maybe? If they could somehow detect that, or whatever lets me construct my body, that would raise red flags. Hopefully it was minor enough the first time.

Now taking deliberate, physical motions along my way, I brought myself to a half-crouched position, head barely peeking above the shrubs around me. The bigger plants here made little sense, with no obvious water source, but their presence was fortuitous even if they required me to stay closer to the ruins than I otherwise would have. This was good enough for observation, anyways. Another moment was taken to keep myself steady, out of habit. It was weird to not be in some kinda panic. Weird but not unwelcome.

In any case, whatever that thing was had seemingly finished landing itself by now. No movement meant that the light refractions had stilled, with one particular diamond of white and green facing my direction. It did not seem like a very large craft, by my reckoning; if I continued on the assumption that comparisons to ocean-bound ships were accurate, then something like this felt more like a considerably larger rowboat-equivalent. It makes sense, since you would never beach your unwieldy main ship like that.

My muscles were tensing up involuntarily at the sounds which crossed the distance clearly, accompanying a view of what had to be this thing opening up. Like many, many other things I had been exposed to recently, there was no easy comparison for what it sounded like. From within poured a small detachment of… well, I was unsure if they were even soldiers. The energy protrusions were there, that was expected, but the garb they wore was just utterly plain. Plainness became more shocking after being accustomed to their typical garish attire. Or, I guess it was not ‘theirs’ if this was a separate faction.

Weapons, they certainly had. In the end, soldiers appearing made sense given what Altera said about their ultimate objectives. One among them particularly seemed to have an air of importance about him, just based on how the others acted and reacted. He seemed to be wearing some sort of officer’s coat – unbuttoned, I might add – but otherwise was as comparatively drab as the rest. Something he could never tone down was the set of four needle-like extrusions, orange in coloration and forming an X behind him. Other miscellaneous details I could gather included his height being a bit below average, and his black hair being trimmed rather short.

I had no idea what they were doing as I studied their seeming leader. There were no immediately obvious efforts such as trying to set up a camp, scout a perimeter, anything I could make sense of. There were several deliberating, and several keeping watch. If I had not already gotten myself worried about the nebulous potential to be identified as a unique threat if I did anything weird, I would have kept my profile even lower and generated something to observe them instead, like I did in Tiecas.

Maybe it made no difference, since the ones keeping watch had neglected this specific direction entirely. That was suspicious in and of itself, though, unless one chalked it up to coincidence or whatever. Their deliberation, one way or another, was over now, resulting in another small group of people leaving the transport. These ones seemed to be noncombatants. Selling a peaceful image with them, or something else?

Whichever it was, they started talking amongst themselves again. This distance was a bit too much to hear across, unfortunately, so all I had to go on was visual info and whatever hints of dialogue were carried through the air. Even using a better auditory design, they were hard to discern. Things were getting even more inconvenient at this point, and events unfolding had done nothing to illuminate an obvious course of action for me to take from here.

The period of indecision and waiting ended abruptly when one of the armed types strode purposefully right towards me. Or, it seemed like it; the distance made me unsure about his actual target, but even if I was not it, he would probably see me. There were multiple context clues indicating that he knew about me already, though. People not looking in my direction before, but now doing so, that was one. The only other one was how it really was starting to look like this guy was trying to appear non-threatening or friendly or something as he made his way over here.

This was getting weirder than I thought it would. The stupidity was squarely on my shoulders for expecting anything anymore, really. And… yeah he was definitely looking right at me now. Was I supposed to run away, or just go with it? I had no idea what they were thinking or expecting in this situation. Normal people probably would run away, specifically out of fear or a need to return with the information, depending on-

“Uh, hello?” the apparent messenger said loudly, interrupting my entire train of thought. Fuck. Well, things looked close enough to what Altera warned me about so far, I guess. No point hiding, no real point in fleeing either, so the only thing left was standing up from my place of concealment.

“…Hi?” I responded after a good three or so seconds of silence. Guess it was a poor choice to spend all my available time going in circles rather than thinking of things to say.

“Sorry, but what the hell are you doing over here?” he asked, his tone bewildered rather than caustic.

“Watching?”

“Yeah, we could tell. Everyone was stressed out wondering if you were gonna try to jump us or something. That was why we were standing around talking, if you were paying attention to that,” he clarified.

“Oh, uh, makes sense. Sorry. How did you know I was even here, though?” I had to ask.

“We looked out the window? You were standing on a hill in plain view.” Well there goes my no-window-vessel hypothesis. “More importantly, why are you even here? The only reason we landed in this area was because we thought it’d be empty.”

Okay, obviously I was not about to come out and say I was expecting their arrival. Unless I came up with some fantastical bullshit, it would point right to me being contacted by one of these peoples’ enemies and informed. Keep getting into these scenarios with no time to think of anything to say, fuck. I could just pass it off as having been in the area, and hope they did not have good enough information to contest-

“Is it normal for you to keep zoning out like this?” he interrupted my thinking again.

“I, uh, well-”

“Look, why don’t you just come with me and explain things- Or, what, are you anxious? You didn’t look anxious standing up out of the bushes just a bit ago.” Christ this guy was pushy. Still, that was exactly the plan, right? Even though this had all gone in a totally different direction than I thought it would, that was perfect in its own way. My actions had seemingly proven to be benign, and an invitation directly to where I needed to be had just been extended. Maybe I had even gotten lucky here.

After what was probably another short moment of ‘zoning out’, I agreed to go along with him and talk to whomever he meant. Probably their leader, Surgriel, assuming that was him there. We set off quietly. Late afternoon would soon progress into early evening, I realized, walking along and turning my gaze up to the sky. It seemed a bit late for them to set up much of a camp. Idle thoughts. A sigh escaped my lips thinking about how I had spent most of the day flitting about the land like a fool.

Getting closer to their bizarre transport made it progressively tougher to stare into the heavens and contemplate things, on account of the shifting prismatic light bouncing off portions of it. My eyes adjusted semi-automatically, with a great deal of annoyance. A wonder any of these people could stand looking at it. Or around it even.

Whatever minuscule activity had been going on before had ceased entirely as we drew nearer. I did not like the thought of this turning into some sort of spectacle, even peacefully. Still, from what he described, it sounded like I caused them all some amount of distress. They were very tense, and not just from that; this atmosphere was not one of leisure. The man who I assumed to be Surgriel only reinforced that impression, on account of his strikingly fatigued countenance.

“What is it?” he asked simply, even his voice sounding a bit weary, before we had even stopped before him. The man who led me here gave me one last look before rejoining his comrades elsewhere. Guess that meant I was supposed to ‘explain things’ now.

“I was told to come over here and explain why I was watching you,” I answered.

“Watching our craft enter through the atmosphere is bizarre enough to warrant it, I can understand. Still, it wasn’t fun having to worry about a potential ambush or spy or something right at the first landing. Am I to take your civility to mean you are a friend?”

Was there some deeper meaning to that word choice? A contact he had set in advance? No, it made no sense, they should have known about specific behaviors to look for if he had contacted someone here beforehand. Weird way of asking if I had no hostile intentions, then?

“Probably, yeah,” I hedged a bit, “depending on what is even going on here. People sailing in from the sky is one thing, but you are not the first of your kind to be seen around here.”

“We assumed so. Makes sense why you’re not visibly shocked about the, uh, differences. More importantly, you’ve survived, right? At least somewhat? Your people, that is.” I could hear several onlookers gather just a bit closer as he said that, voice taking a decidedly urgent tone.

So he definitely knew about how the invaders operated. Wait, that meant they had done this before, right? Why else would he ask about us surviving, after only hearing me mention that we had seen others before? Unless that was a very clever deception, it immediately poked a hole in what I had been told.

“You… know about this? What we have had to deal with?”

“Yes, but please, just answer me, tell me how many have survived,” he pressed, face animated in a way I was not expecting from someone who looked so tired earlier. That same vitality was beginning to almost saturate the air from everyone whose eyes were squarely on me now. This really mattered to them somehow.

“I-I really do not know how I could give an accurate statistic, but there are several isolated pockets of survivors. We can recover, I think.”

From the nearby crowd, one said, “Wait, so…?”

The eyes that had focused on me just previously now honed in on Surgriel, who was now looking off to one side, mouth slightly agape. What was this reaction?

“I think,” he began after several seconds, “this is enough to work with. Call the others down.”

An uproarious cheer resounded from everyone around me, all the anticipation they had been holding within burst by so few words. Plenty of swearing and exclamations of ‘finally’ or the like, almost drowning out the sound of three people frantically racing back into their transport. The rest looked like they had all just heard the greatest news of their lives, and I stood amongst them, absolutely perplexed as to what any of this could possibly mean to them. Maybe things were not as Altera tried to paint them to be, but then, what they hell were they?

No, thinking back on it, the way she talked about this scenario also was beginning to sound as if she had seen similar before. It could be that she used a convenient lie so she did not need to fully explain the history of what was going on. Now I was back to where I started, confused and unsure of who exactly was lying to me the most, except now I had exactly one additional clue. Still needed to be wary about Surgriel’s diplomatic stance, still needed to be wary about everything.

He looked a bit out of it, I noticed, even while everyone else continued their noisy joyousness around him. Initial instincts, the simple desire to be informed would have me leap down his throat at this opportunity so I could get some satisfactory answers for once, but I hesitated. Would he be inclined to answer me like that? Should I let slip this implication of my narrow interest? Etcetera. Though, not being interested in what was happening would seem even more suspicious, come to think of it.

“Excuse me,” I drew his attention, stepping a bit closer as the people around us dispersed and quieted down. “You are bringing more of you? What is going on? Is this another-?”

“Attack?” he finished for me, eyes slowly coming back into focus again. “That would be the reasonable assumption for most people. Why do you think we’re very explicitly arriving in the most deserted place we could find?”

“I do not think I follow.”

“I’m trying really hard to not appear hostile here. We have a common enemy, and frankly we haven’t had as good a chance as this crop up before. Thus the, ah, excitement.”

“Chance for what?” I asked.

“To unite.”