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.
“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?”
“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.”