Upheaval 3.5

More clearly than any one time before, my Senna disapparated into a deeper blackness than the encroaching night, leaving me alone with my father. The two of us were struck silent now, he by her emotional outburst and me by the implication of her departure. It was enough to freeze my heart, the combination of everything that was going wrong right now. I’d misjudged how she would react, and failed to do anything about it. This was the one thing I was supposed to be able to do, and I fucked it up. And the consequence was Senna hurting herself and someone else dying before it was at all necessary.

Her action of leaving was sudden enough to prompt me to stand and move towards her – or, rather, where she had just been – vain as the attempt was. The only result had been me completely spilling the bit of stew I had remaining, staining my leggings. I could hardly even register that much, though, with the guilty thoughts that kept hammering into my brain. I was too reticent about tampering with her emotions when I figured she wouldn’t want it, and I couldn’t help but feel like that made this fall squarely on my shoulders. Logically, I knew that was just a gut reaction, but it was hard to dismiss it with that thought alone.

I wasn’t alone in having bad feelings over this, either. Dad was… incredibly conflicted, at the most basic level, and I could guess why. Rather, it was pretty obvious. Must’ve looked pretty stupid at that moment, just standing here lost in my own thoughts, but I kept thinking. I wanted to comfort him, make him feel better. I also wanted, somewhere inside me, to chastise him and externalize the blame for this happening. He had a hand in it, you know? Misunderstanding what she wanted and then refusing to hear otherwise. Even still, I couldn’t bring myself to talk like that to him, not while his heart was shifting between a few different states of guilt, indignation, and confusion at breakneck speeds.

“I didn’t-” a pause, “-didn’t want to make this happen.” His voice sounded small, like he was trying to convince someone even though I already knew. I heard the sound of an empty bowl being set down, more because of how quiet it was tonight than because I’m good at hearing things, and that, of all things, is what got me to finally turn around to face him. He refused to look at me. Expecting me to blame him here? I was just about to for a bit there, wasn’t I? Nothing would be better if I did that. He didn’t need that.

I wanted to help him. That was my natural reaction to this kind of situation. It always was. How many times did I try to comfort him over the years, now? He made me reassure him over and over again that it wasn’t his fault my mom killed herself, and now he probably expected me to assure him that whatever Senna does isn’t his fault either. In spite of myself, I knew now and I knew all along that he wasn’t intentionally doing this, and I wanted to hate him anyways. I couldn’t say anything. I was just staring at him, not even sure what my expression looked like.

“I should wash the dishes now.” That was all that came out of my mouth after all that time. It hurt him, somewhere in there. I didn’t want to care. Just wash the dishes.

“…Thanks for the meal,” he finally replied, voice strained under the weight of his emotions. Mostly the ones I caused just now. He stood and left for his tent without another word, and I, equally silent, collected our bowls and utensils for washing. It was too late for this, but it would bother me knowing these went uncleaned overnight, so I had little choice with myself.

I had really been banking on Senna offering to help with this, since these would be inconvenient to carry over to the stream all by myself. Luckily only inconvenient, because there was no one I was about to ask for help, and there was no way my father wanted to be around me any more right now. I didn’t want it either. Just taking care of this and being alone would be best for me, and that was important, right? Thinking about how I felt for once. Sure seemed like he wasn’t used to being catered to for once. Why was I so bitter all of a sudden?

God this was such bullshit. Not just the precarious balance of these items being carried around while walking, something that had always made me nervous in spite of the fact that my balance had gotten a lot better thanks to training. Having more things screwed up, whether at my fault or my father’s fault or no one’s, wasn’t what I needed right now. Senna not being here wasn’t what I needed. More and more, lately, I found myself growing to hate those times when I was alone in my thoughts. It was like being forced to do nothing but stare into myself, and right now, all I saw was directionless anger trying to find purchase, drowning out even my worry over her, worry over both what she was about to do and her general situation.

If this was someone else, it’d be easier. If I had kept shoving down every bad thing I kept thinking about the people close to me, it’d be easier. Would just calm them, help them be mindful, all the usual things I did. Now I was the one needing to be reminded of that. Which, I guess I did, just now. Deliberately keeping my breathing steady also helped make me less nervous over my balance, which was still doing fine as I neared my destination. The sounds of a brooke bubbling on its way were pleasant. All the little sounds of nature I was hearing, further from the camp’s ambience, were pleasant and relaxing.

A few people seemed to be clumsily washing clothing very close to where I emerged, which was initially unexpected, given the hour. A second thought made me imagine that everyone’s preparations for leaving again must have them needing to do jobs like this at inopportune times, though. Without even a word of acknowledgement or greeting between us, I consciously positioned myself a ways downstream from everyone else and set to the task of washing out the dishes we used.

Thinking about Senna, hoping for her to come back before the night progressed too far, practically filled my head in spite of every scrubbing motion I fixed my attention on. It only got worse once the job was done. Most of the people near me seemed to have more on their plates – hah, accidental pun – than I did, so I was there and gone again before any but one had left. On the way out, I made sure to tell them not to take much longer, though I doubted they needed me to tell them that. Felt like a necessary part of my job anyways, I guess.

It was getting obvious that I was just a few steps away from spiraling somewhere very unpleasant. Being aware of that didn’t seem to help, either. I just needed to be here, waiting for her to come back and things to be okay again.

I had at least some of my wits about me, regardless of the emotional state that made me do this in the first place. My heart said ‘somewhere, anywhere’, and that impetus is what got me such a great distance in the first conscious moments of my flight. Next came the actual thinking, the part that I never figured out how to choose for. It would take me too long to find survivors that I had not already encountered before, which biased me towards someplace like Seyasta again. They had seen my face there recently, though. I could probably avoid making that a problem, but with my nerves as they were, I just wanted to avoid anything that would make my… my job, I guess, harder than it needed to be.

Somewhere else, then. Celdan was still out, and it would always be out. It was uncomfortable to think about, which just fed into the tangled mess of emotions I had. There were a couple villages I had noticed the last time I aimlessly sped around Faenon, villages with names I had never bothered learning and probably still would not learn. Communities that small were unlikely to have anything resembling transmission capabilities, so I neglected even registering them last time, but now, that was favorable. I supposed it was more favorable for them to continue being so unimportant that even the Yleini had not the time to deal with them, though.

Night was blooming wildly in all the corners of the forest, amplified by the deep cloud cover which my eyes could barely discern as they were. These were the furthest outskirts of the village I had pseudo-randomly selected, and whether it was distance or the rapidly approaching gloom, something had contributed to making things feel preternaturally quiet tonight. Part of that was likely my nerves, forcibly calmed though they were. They had to be, for this.

Now that I was here, I had to make a decision. Thinking that one line got me to stall out again for a brief moment, a state which I recognized and worked to dispel by taking an action. No matter what I chose, I needed to move around unseen, so that was what I started with. As the dark shroud replaced my skin, I idly noted that it had been quite a while since I last used the design. It never was under good circumstances, either. Still… there it was, I guess. Had to adjust my eyes even further just to visually distinguish my body from most of the surroundings.

Slowly, silently, I drifted along, on currents of mutest breeze and between dunes of dark expanse, each location chosen with deliberation out of my present inability to know at a glance whether I would be fully hidden within. Indecision brought me between many huts within a short time frame, an ever riskier activity with the apparent watchfulness of a few would-be guards. Seemed the village was not as sleepy as it first appeared. Isolating one of them for… the thing would be one of the easier options, probably. It might also be one of the more damaging options, at the same time.

A man illuminated by meager lamplight strode past my present hiding spot, a movement easily heard beforehand and giving me more than enough time to simply press myself down behind a nearby pair of barrels. The convenience of open sheds was quite high in these circumstances. Peeking out to stare at him with some presently inert mixture of wondering and trepidation rewarded me with nothing as he turned another corner, vanishing behind the wood of that house with only a speck of light tracing backwards to my field of view, then further, further, and gone.

I did not want to make life harder for these people. Was it too callous and inhuman a train of thought to prefer using someone who was not as useful as others for this? I just wanted to minimize my own impact, however contemptuously it might end up looking. I wanted that to be the case, but every time I thought about it, my heart wavered from one direction to the next, unwilling to decide on a specific course of action or ethical stance on this. Every step of the way, I had wavered and faltered and failed at taking action when everyone and everything said I needed to. Needed to stop being useless.

It was cold tonight. Little indications of the end of summer days approaching, huh. Even the ground was cold. Well, cold and muddy could be typified by several places around here regardless of the time of year. A desire to not step in muck forced me to basically leapfrog over to patches of safe grass as gently and quietly as- and then I laughed inwardly, as the first word I was thinking to use was “humanly” possible. Using a weird, ill-defined kinetic ability to move myself without making noise, that was not exactly normal for people. At least, I had never heard of a normal human mutating something like that. Did I count for making things “humanly” possible still?

Before I could bring myself back to focusing my attention on my problem, a pair of approaching footsteps drew every ounce of my awareness elsewhere. Something as simple as footsteps would have just been cause to evaluate my current location if these were not definitively coming from the direction of the woods’ edge, where I had spied no one prior. Though, of course, I did still check to make sure I would not be seen by whoever that was.

Eyes already adjusted sufficiently, my sight swept over in that direction, showing confirmation for two people marching with evident purpose. They looked decently well armed. My first thoughts were of the Ophentum, but there was no way they were looking for me here, right? Something else had to be happening. Keeping to the shadows and observing whatever their goal was, then, would be best. Yes, yes, it was distracting from what I came here to do, but there was no overt rush. I knew I still had to do it. I knew that.

They had been intercepted by a couple of patrolling villagers, lanterns and dingy swords at hand but not threatened. They all seemed at least passingly familiar with each other, and wasted no words on formalities. Hearing those words required minor tuning, which left off the beginning of one sentence.

“-cial really, but we’ve got a sighting pretty close by. Came here from the outpost to warn y’all,” explained one of the visitants, maintaining a professional air to his slightly effeminate voice.

“Nothing special? So it’s not dangerous?”

“We just don’t know,” answered his companion this time. “Alternates docile and aggressive behavior, and we’re not sure what’s causing it. Since it’s heading this way, we’d like to ask everyone to leave for a while, just until a response team can show up.”

All four of them left after a few last words were exchanged, splitting up and reasonably impatient to take people out of harm’s way. My position behind the nearest structure was uncompromised, and I was quickly left ‘alone’, if one could consider me less alone before. What I certainly was was screwed, when it came to what I had to do. It was hard enough dragging myself out here even with- no, just, fuck it. Could not afford letting myself feel how upset everything was making me. Just needed to shut myself up and look for another equally convenient village, if one still even existed.

I could hear gradually more and more people rushing about, more unintelligible words that must have been those of leaving home. Depressing to think about how they avoided the event that forced almost everyone else to leave their homes, only to be subjected to this kind of constant environment. That line of thought, and the act of leaving the scene entirely, they were both delayed by something similar to what distracted me earlier.

Something else was coming out of the woods. Its bald, pinkish flesh stood out starkly from the surroundings, completely indistinguishable as to whether that was weird skin or legitimate muscle. Not much was easily discernible at this distance, excepting that it was more or less a tall, overly muscular humanoid. It hunched itself somewhat, too, and the motions of its head as it turned this way and that all contributed to the impression of base intellect.

This thing made me uneasy on several different levels. I had not seen anything like it before, for the first and most basic level. Thinking more on it, though, if this thing was so close behind, why were the messengers not more panicked? Or at least alacritous? Did they not know? They had to be the Ophentum, as my first instincts told me, so there was no way they would treat this less seriously than it deserved. At least, I should hope so. They mentioned being unable to pin down its exact behavior and temperament, though, so its movements might also have come as a surprise to them.

Its very next actions worked to confirm my little working hypothesis, as it sprinted madly towards one of the outlying sheds with a speed belied by its hulking frame and awkward stance. There was no perceptible emotion or cause to what it did, and upon arrival, it simply examined the unfortunate remains of the shed it had just demolished by barreling into it with the same feral intelligence as before. I could understand intimately why it would have confused them. Just watching this thing had somewhat captivated me, and I decided on staying longer, at risk of losing even more of my nerve.

The noise it had made crashing down the shed obviously did not go unnoticed, and it was immediately proceeded by sounds from the other direct, of some surprise and at least one audible order to check what that was. If there was going to be more of a scene over here, with light and whatnot, then I needed to evaluate where to move to, yet again. As I did so, the increasing din of movement and terrified voices seemed to draw the attention of the creature, an attention that was indeed terrifying to see leveled at anyone.

Somewhere, a split-second decision was made, and a quarrel lodged itself firmly within the muscle of the beast’s shoulder, prompting a chilling lack of the vocal response one would expect from an injured creature. It worked its intended purpose, though, as its attention shifted from the frightened villagers who were now backing away quickly to the Ophentum members, who had positioned themselves almost directly opposite me.

They were doing exactly their job. Maybe more than their job, since they were not considered a proper response team, but still theirs. Why would I expect myself to jump in first? Why would I feel guilty over it? I was too used to trying to play the hero, even though I kept failing at it. I would just fuck this up too. Let them handle it, their own job. Let them. That would be better than anything I could do.

It charged again, only as loud as the sound of its footfalls for lack of anything resembling a bestial cry. Both of the Ophentum ducked and rolled to the side, decently well coordinated whether it was intentional or not, and they had managed to regain their steady footing in time to let loose another pair of quarrels into their quarry. It was difficult to see at this angle, but it almost appeared as if it had tilted itself just enough so as to guarantee the bolts had hit its arms specifically.

That time they had used to shoot it again turned out to only have been afforded by the thing pausing to extricate the missiles from its own flesh, an effort punctuated by a brutal little tearing sound and something much softer as the discarded bolts fell to the earth. Its nigh-unphased behavior would normally give any opponent pause, but probably owing to their training, the two fighting it did not let that happen. Reloading and firing again happened fluidly, and the speed was just enough to keep it occupied with obsessively clearing its musculature of the projectiles.

Ammunition was not limitless, though. Even if they had reached a sort of weird equilibrium in this situation, it would end as soon as there were no more quarrels to reach for. Both of them had to be wracking their brains for another course of action, as was I. The only reason they would keep doing this would be to stall. They must not have had much in the way of good alternatives, and attempts to hit any particular body part were either unsuccessful randomly or were actively thwarted. Meanwhile, all I could opt to do was edge myself closer, closer, as close as felt safe. Just to keep observing.

More details became apparent as I approached. Of greatest importance was the undeniable fact that the wounds they were inflicting upon it were regenerating as soon as the bolts were taken out. Much more minor were the details concerning its heavy, bony, clawed hands and the fact that it almost looked as if it lacked most of a face, from what I glimpsed during one of its silent turning motions. Only a mouth bristling with predator’s teeth was visible; eye sockets and nose both seemed to have been filled in with the same fleshy skin that covered the rest of it, and its ears were little more than tiny holes in the sides of its head.

With heart-stopping abruptness, one of them ran out of ammo. On the next beat, the other did too, as their total shots equalized. The one nearer the forest immediately began shouting and waving his arms frantically, probably to try and lure its attention away from the village. Instantly understanding her own role, the other promptly drew her dagger to approach from behind. This was a horrifically dangerous game they were playing.

The monster was not playing it with them. Its next charge was faster than anything it had displayed before, catching both of them off guard, and with the momentum, it raked its claws across his chest wickedly, thereafter positioning itself behind him. He stumbled, clutching at the wounds, seemingly staggered but not doomed. Yet. Even while his partner shouted a name, losing her composure to rush over there, another attack was made. He soon sported what had to be a similar wound across his back, painful enough to cause his collapse.

Charging recklessly towards it, the woman aimed her dirk between its eyes, looking for a decisive wound to be struck. Her judgment was obviously impaired. Watching things go down like this was wrenching. With similar speed and similar silence, the creature lunged directly into her attack, jaws opening wide before closing down on her forearm. She screamed sickeningly. Its teeth had separated the two parts of her limb without so much as an ounce of tearing effort, relying entirely on absurd sharpness and strength of bite. Did it swallow that whole?

They were both guaranteed to bleed out and die soon without medical attention, at this point. There was- no, with the way the creature was approaching her, having stumbled back in a panicked frenzy, it was going to kill her before she had a chance to bleed out. The scene had gradually slowed down somehow, as if my mind wanted more time to drink in every horrific detail, while my thoughts were inversely racing. I had no intentions of intervening for something like this originally. It felt like I would just mess everything up somehow if I tried. Something would go wrong, some weird consequence would be wrought, and I would be made into a failure again. That was what made me unable to act, before.

Again, a split-second decision was made, but this time, I was the one who jumped into action without sparing any more of a thought for it. There was not much time for fancy maneuvering in this situation, and I was unsure how exactly to hurt it at the moment anyways, so the biggest priority was getting it away from the two wounded militia. Heat flared beneath my skin, concentrated somehow both within me and within the space directly ahead of me at the same time, and my body was pulled forward surprisingly quickly. Slowly heightening my awareness of what was happening made it work better?

I gracelessly ended up slamming into the side of its body mere moments before it would have slashed at the woman’s throat. Inelegant as it was, the sheer force knocked it off its feet and left me in a very awkward position. Reversing what I did earlier in a way, I tried stabilizing myself by reversing my momentum, but it would have just ended with me falling on my ass if I had not ceased using it and instead planted one foot behind me. There seemed to be very little finesse in moving myself like that, to the point that I wondered how I had been pulling this off at all before.

“Get up and get your friend somewhere else!” I yelled, voice somewhat raw with no attention allocated to correct it. Only a glance was spared to see if she had registered what I said; she seemed almost entirely out of it, likely due to shock, and the result was a blank stare directly at my face. I needed to either disable the creature before going back and bringing these two to into the village so someone could treat them, or I needed to kill this thing very, very quickly. The problem was that if I tried to disable it and it proved ineffective, I would have wasted precious time in the process.

Both options had bad potentialities, and if I spent enough time weighing exactly which one was more likely to work out, they would die. Had to pick something, now, and stick with it. I had no idea what this thing’s vulnerabilities could be, but crushed limbs should impair anything, and that logic was what made me decide my course of action. By now, the creature had righted itself and was appraising me with the same unnerving demeanor as before. Rather than give it any opportunities, I needed to act.

Over this much shorter distance, the same method of accelerating myself towards it was even harder to control; my best bet was clumsily putting that momentum to use by hitting it directly during said movement. At least the result was undeniably, sickeningly potent, the beast’s arm which had been raised in self defense cracking and quivering under that force. Attempting to stop myself in place at the conclusion of my attack caused the grass below us some havoc, though, as the dirt was kicked up madly by my reckless use of strength.

This thing was well reinforced. With as much effort as I put in just then, I expected a more total debilitation of that limb, as unpleasant as that would have been to feel. Letting up on it now would be a waste of my effort and, more importantly, my invaluable time, so I sprung for a second hit, using my leg this time. I had already gauged that I needed to hit it even harder. With that in mind, I swept a kick towards the side of its shin, focusing as much of that energy as I could on just moving that part of my body. One could argue that this was not the time for me to try getting used to this relatively new ability, since I still had ones that were far more familiar to me available, but this was the only ‘training’ I ever knew.

Fuck. It was not time for my mind to wander, if anything. This result was the same as last time: obviously damaged but not disabled. I had not put enough force into it? Maybe it could heal its bones slower than its muscles, though. Just as the creature was staggering from the blow to its left leg, I sent an uppercut straight into its jaw, hopefully culminating in stunning it for long enough to do something. That one, at least, was just using a stronger design rather than toying around with this weird energy, if only so I could stop thinking about it and focus.

The girl needed to get helped first, I believed. Turning on a dime, I rushed back to where the two of them were located, this time refraining from overdoing it so I did not accidentally harm them just by moving. She seemed to have passed out due to some combination of blood loss and shock already, which meant I was right to be faster about this. I scooped her into my arms as gingerly as I could, trying not to jostle her too much, and my subsequent scramble into the village proper was tempered by the same worry. Unfortunately but not unsurprisingly, it looked like everyone was hiding. Or, wait, did they leave as commanded while we fought that thing?

No, thankfully not, as someone opened their door to me after a few moments of looking around. The aged man and what was probably his family behind him all stared at me with something like fear and concern, concern very firmly directed at the bleeding woman I carried.

“W-we have bandages, and-”
“Thank you,” I cut him off, passing the girl to them as hastily as I felt I could before turning and speeding back whence I came. Rude or not, there was still someone to save there.

Blurred movement passed in the space ahead of me, past the village structures, and worry strangulated me in that moment. It was already recovered fully enough to move at its former speed. And it got there before me. No matter how fast I wanted to move, it was there. All I could do was behold, in perfect clarity, the moment it sunk its oversized teeth into the flesh of the man I was unable to save in time. It. Feasted. Ravenous, or desperate. My body was boiling alive, the energy screaming for me to use it as it bubbled up into and out through my skin.

Somehow, I had reached it in the intervening time, and I could not call to mind deciding to go there. Not consciously. Something slashed at it through my skin, dozens of spines in a wave that tore into the flesh of its presently-hunched back. Though my arm aided the attempt, there was the distinct movement of those spines apart from that of my body, as if they were directly, independently moved. Another type of instinct kicked in as the thing reached back to swipe at its sudden assailant, and I broke its arm inwards at the elbow with time to spare. I wanted it dead.

Stop. Look. Its back was healing at the same speed as before, which I had not expected. Eating for fresh material to regrow with made sense, but did it have no effect? I had to think like that right now. I would have lost it completely at this point if some part of me were not used to trying – vainly, in the end – to keep my emotions suppressed. What had become an inferno in my chest just a moment ago had quieted down to healthy embers, now, and with it went the bizarre side effects it had on my powers. Shut up. Half a second or more wasted thinking about that.

With a surge of inhuman vigor, the thing pushed itself backwards, directly into me. Trying to knock me over? I could feel a reaction from the energy, an itch to sprout a multitude of spines to impale it on during its own action, but it was left alone. Wasting more time on something I obviously had insufficient experience with would irritate me. The sidestep that followed was entirely under a rational, physical apparatus, and I was left beside the creature with perfect opportunity. Peeling back the layers of muscle in my arms and legs, I reconstructed them as strong as this frame could handle – no innovation in this design – before delivering as brutal a kick as possible to the thing’s torso. It was sent flying.

The angle of attack left its impact dangerously close to the village, a fact I wanted to curse myself for. Thankfully, if anyone was watching this display, they seemed to be doing so from the relative safety of one of the buildings; no one was visible outside, at the moment. As the creature slammed uncontrollably into the edge of another exterior shed, rendering the entire thing slanted and barely standing, I leapt at it. Its short-lived attempt at righting itself was cut down by another blow, one that finally collapsed the entirety of the shed beside us.

I could feel several bones in its shoulder break under the force. Disgustingly resilient skeleton. Now I stood over it properly, able to keep it pinned down and incapacitated through its high recovery speed. Even as I constructed a pair of bone-blades extending from my wrists with which to carve into it, I had to wonder how it kept going like this. No, focus; it was more important to think about a possible weak point, like the Yleini soldiers ended up having. Wait…

Taking no chances, I sent my foot crushing downwards onto the side of its head, cracking the skull in several places and likely causing some brain damage. Minor damage was not enough for this, though, and with the skull’s structural integrity more or less out of the way, I slashed clean through the monster’s brain, leaving the head in two grisly sections. Unpleasantly morbid though it was, I took to observing the body, still keeping myself in position to restrain it if it somehow recovered from this too.

Just as I suspected and feared, the regenerative effect had completely ceased once its brain had been destroyed. As far as I could tell, it was identical to the Yleinic ability, and that is what was so worrisome about my suspicion. I had never seen anything except myself capable of regrowing biomass regardless of whether it had a source or not before the invasion happened. There was no way this was simply some astronomical coincidence. Okay, there was some way it could be, but that would be stupid to assume.

There were a few possibilities for this. This particular creature could have some way of assimilating traits like that into itself, and it consumed an Ylein at some point? I had no idea how this ability worked, though, so that was a weak option. The more logical option was downright chilling. If it was not due to action on this beast’s part that it obtained this, then it was due to something or someone else’s. It was infused with Yleinic regeneration deliberately.

An alchemist was making these monsters, and whoever they were, they had access to Ylein corpses. That was the only other option I could come up with, the only one that made sense with how much information I had, and one that I dreaded the implications of. The Ophentum had to have considered the possibility already, but I had no idea what, if anything, they were doing about it. I had no idea what they could do about it. If this was an experiment, then it probably meant much more dangerous creatures were on the horizon.

A door creaked open slowly, somewhere in the village. I barely heard it. Someone was moving outside. Finally figured that the threat was dealt with? I mean, they would be correct, but I dreaded that, too. Had no desire to be seen any more than I already had been. As it was, there might be unforeseen consequences from this, and I just had no idea how to handle all the possible reactions and questions they might have.

They would probably ask why I failed. I killed that man, basically. Let him die, chose to half-ass it and get the other one out of harm’s way while he was left to bleed. They would be right to hate me for that. Every time I try to do anything, I fuck it up in some way, and people die. People die no matter what I do. They would have died quicker if I had done nothing, though. The girl would not still be alive. Was she still alive? She was bleeding a lot. I might have fucked up and gotten her killed too. Probably did.

On top of all that, I had gotten completely distracted from the original reason I came here. I was supposed to… to deal with the curse. Before it became more of a problem. I failed and could not even accomplish that much. Now there was no way I was doing anything more in this village. That thing I killed looked pretty humanoid, but banking on that of all things counting would be a critically dangerous bet to make. I needed to leave.

Upheaval 3.4

“This is a message from the leader of the Hatelite survivors, Elva Krasel. The mysterious invaders we have all encountered are called ‘Yleini’. A faction of Yleini separate from and opposed to our antagonists have recently arrived and are currently camped in an empty portion of Karrian. They are requesting something of us that no single leader can give a rightful answer to. Therefore, I am proposing a meeting of all free leaders to discuss the matter. The meeting will be held in the ruins of Belenon, at a date at which all representatives may soonest arrive. This message is to inform you of the meeting as well as to ask how soon the Ophentum delegation can set out. I also will need to speak to you privately before this meeting.”

What bullshit. This had to come in just before I left? The timing was annoying as all hell, and the message itself? These ‘Yleini’ come in after entire cities are wiped clean, decide to just sit in their own little camp and have the audacity to go making requests to us? The refugees here aren’t even back in their own fucking homes after the damage.

I had gotten almost irrationally aggravated at that, and the realization made me take a moment to pause, keep my breathing slower. Just like Ekkan always said. Needed to focus, keep an objective approach, not fly off the handle. He always said that. After a shake of my head, I set down the crossbow I had been carrying onto the table next to the transceiver, sitting down beside it to think about it, hopefully more logically.

“What do you think?” Ekkan asked, stepping closer to me. He seemed to have waited for me to get to this point before saying anything. In spite of everything, I let out an exasperated sigh in response.

“It’s inconvenient, to say the least. Anyone else we can spare to take on the assignments in my place?”

“I’ll sort it out,” Mana offered. “In the meantime, I would encourage addressing this as soon as possible.” I peered at her, looking for an explanation, and she continued.

“Honestly, the situation makes little sense. In a short span of time, there were attacks all over, including that massive humanoid we saw, then it all stops. Now, people of the same species of our attackers are settled in Karrian looking to request something. All the while, we have no insight to why we were attacked, or where they came from.”

“So you want to use this as an opportunity to piece the details together,” I concluded. She nodded in confirmation. “And we never arrived in Hateli as Elva requested.”

“Right,” Mana said. “There’s much to be gained from attending this meeting.”

I could see that much as a plain fact. Objectively, the only reason I shouldn’t go would be for my current task, and any others I had to deal with in the time that I’d be gone. That could be adjusted easily enough. Literally no way to deny that. Exhaling suddenly, I turned to address my advisors.

“Fine, I’ll go. Ekkan, think you can come with me?” There was no disputing that. I needed him right now.

“Of course,” he answered with a soft nod. Good to hear that.

And that left me with… Mana. Despite the passage of time, our last cooperative venture would’ve ended in a fight had the Yleini not appeared. She insulted me to my damn face, and the thought of that repeating was enough to dissuade me from bringing her. Besides, she had administrative experience. There was even more preparation to be had if I brought her with me, due to having to find a substitute capable of keeping things together in my absence. It was most optimal to just leave her.

“Mana, I’m going to need you to keep tabs here while I’m gone,” I stated, to quite the displeased reaction. Even with the face and stature of a child, she could give a stern look.

“Is there a purpose to me being left here after I just gave you one of our most important reasons for attending this meeting?” she asked, indignant. “There are a number of other questions I have regarding the issue, should I be allowed to come.”

“Because the time I’ll be gone is long enough that a substitute needs to be someone with the skill to command authority. It’s more than just supervision, it’s actually taking charge. I’m certain you can do that. I’d appreciate it, though, if you could provide a list of points to bring up.”

She still looked reluctant, but her glare eased. “I suppose that’s as good a reason as any. I’ll stay then. And the list will be ready before you go.” Having just taken it off, she put that black jacket back on, making an obvious move to leave the building.

“I’ll be in my quarters,” she continued before parting with us. “Please ask the questions I offer. Remember that this is bigger than you, or the rest of us, for that matter.” With that, she finally stepped outside.

For fuck’s sake, she just had to have the last laugh, didn’t she? Couldn’t even take responsibility for her task without bringing out some veiled insult. No shit this is bigger than me. If I didn’t know that already, we would never have left Belenon, and we’d have resolved Elva’s problem a long while ago. Jesus, I was already starting to regret this, just like I regret any interaction I end up having with her.

“Send a reply,” I ordered the transmissions officer whilst picking my crossbow back up, “tell Elva we’ll be heading out today. Ekkan, I’m gonna take this back to Valler real quick. Anything you need me to do while I’m there?”

“Nope,” he answered curtly, “I’ll just get packing. Need to have some excess, too, since we’ll probably be the first ones there; waiting on other arrivals and all.”

Worked for me. With that, we both left the building and headed our separate ways. As I proceeded to the armory, I took the opportunity to survey the camp around me. Plenty of refugees still working their asses off with various duties. Their diligence had surprised me, but it was welcome nonetheless. More power to ‘em if they put everyone’s well being over their own comfort. I had to admit a few of them had looked quite spent, which worried me, but as much as I didn’t want any of them working themselves to death, resting was their prerogative to manage. At least, that’s how I think.

Entering the armory, I could hear the sound of Mia’s voice, but not the actual details of what she said. She spoke from the opposite end of the room at a reasonable volume, apparently interacting with Silas. The sound of the door opening must have caught their attention, considering Silas looked my way and interrupted their conversation just to greet me.

“Hey boss. Need something else?”

“Hey. Valler, anywhere in particular you want this?” I asked, gesturing with the crossbow in my hand. She took only a brief look at the weapon in question.

“Uh, you can just put that on the counter, thanks. Did something come up?”

“Yeah, meeting in Belenon that I need to go to,” I answered simply. “Won’t be able to do the assignment.”

“Oh, hm, hope that goes well. Since I have you here again, though, do you have a moment? I wanted you to look at something.” She seemed more eager than usual about this one, so my instincts told me this had to be some new project she was thinking about. Luckily, I did have time.

“Sure, what is it?” I inquired in turn, walking over to where she was standing. As I passed the counter she had pointed out, I set the crossbow down gingerly, pausing to also unstrap the ammunition I had on my belt and set that down next to it.

“Well, Janus came to me yesterday with a bit of a… unique request. Apparently he’s thinking of a pretty heavily modified set of armor intended to mitigate crushing damage specifically. Falling debris, getting grabbed, that kind of thing.”

“Sounds like someone had a bad experience recently.”

She walked over to a workstation and pulled out a sheet of paper. Unrolling it, the thing was mostly a lot of notes, bullet points listing ideas and how they could be implemented, with some sketches to serve as visual aid. She then set it down on the table and began to explain the basic gist of the whole thing.

“For the most part, it’s no different from our usual brand of heavier armor except how we use the material for it. Unless we can get something really amazing for armor that’s light in weight, we’re probably looking at something too heavy to wear without appropriate enhancements to strength and stamina. Janus could wear it just fine, but yeah.”

“How would this be using our normal material?” Silas had wandered closer by as I asked my question, seemingly out of interest in the topic.

“Well, it’d need some kind of internal reinforcement, but Janus apparently also wants these to be a bit more dense than usual, specifically because of that mark down south from a week ago. You know, with the really bad teeth? I looked at the armor that came back from that, and the thing actually pierced our current set. Like, one giant bite mark.”

“Damn,” Silas commented from behind me, “How bad were those teeth?”

“Probably not just the teeth, but pretty terrifying. Anyhow, from the internal support to adjusting density to be a bit stronger, it’s going to be really heavy. Wasn’t confident enough to make the call on my own. Is that a go, or nah?”

“Well, we’ve never had anything pierce our armor that badly, and Trigali made it sound like their last mark had a lot of casualties purely because of getting caught in its grip, or by falling rocks,” I said in explanation of my thought process. She raised an eyebrow at the latter point, to which I clarified, “They ended up in a cave.”

“Anyways,” I continued, “these two things are unprecedented, and probably worth testing this idea, but how’s our stock doing?”

“Oh boy, well, the stores should still have some leftover, but the list is piling up. Teneya’s team had a lot of armaments broken and in need of replacement, which is probably going to take up a lot of our current stock. And making arrows, quarrels, and spears is still a must.

“Either way, whatever we prioritize, I’m not going to be able to start this armor today. Still gonna need to wait for income to start back up again. If you wanna test it, I’ll let you know if we get to a point where we’ve got enough to work with.”

I nodded in acknowledgement. “Makes sense. Alright, I’ll let you get back to what you were doing, thanks.”

“Sorry, boss, but, quick question. Did Teneya’s team set up a cache at all? There was mention of a lot of broken equipment left behind, but I don’t think Xander said anything about a place to retrieve it all. Broken as they might be, I’d still like to salvage what I can, especially considering current state of affairs.”

“She said they didn’t, but they might be at the location where they fought with the mark,” I replied.

“Not as tidy as a cache, but good enough for me. Thanks, and have a nice day or whatnot.”

“You too,” came my parting wave as I turned to exit, leaving her with Silas again. With my business in the armory done, the next thing to take care of was picking up the list of questions Mana wanted me to ask at the meeting, which hopefully would be finished by now. Ekkan said he would prepare supplies in the meantime, too; taking the weather into account would be important. Being overcast was a year-long standard this side of the Cindurns, and you could never really tell when rainfall was approaching for sure. Considering the past few days, though? Really hoped he was packing coats for us.

On my way over to Mana’s quarters, I could see practically from across the camp that someone was making a beeline towards me. Looked like… Warden Ambros? I stopped and gave him ample time to reach me. When he came within about a meter of my position, he threw me a brief but not curt wave and smile as his greeting.

“How’re you doing, boss?” he started off, clearly looking to lead this somewhere else.

“I’m fine. What do you need?” To that, he frowned slightly, glancing over at my previous destination: Mana’s dwelling.

“Saw you headin’ for her place. Something goin’ on?”

“I need to leave for a meeting in Belenon soon, and she’s got a list of questions for me to use that I need to pick up,” I explained, trying to keep it short.

He nodded in acknowledgement. “Mind if I come with? I’ll wanna see what’s on the list before I say anything, make sure I’m not wastin’ your time. Could just be sayin’ exactly what she’s got in store for ya.”

Nothing much to do with that but shrug in response before continuing on to the building. Soon enough, we arrived, Ambros two steps behind me as I knocked solidly on the door. Quiet footsteps echoed from within, and a couple seconds later, we were gestured inside by Mana, who had given my unexpected company something of a look. As she walked gingerly back to her writing desk, pressed up against the wall right beside her meager bookcase, she addressed us.

“This mostly covers what I could think of,” she began, gathering up her papers with a look of distress that I had rarely ever seen from her, a look I could hardly even place. As if remembering the third party, she immediately snapped out of it, directing a question at Ambros.

“Is there anything you have to suggest, quartermaster?”

“I’m in the dark here, to be honest,” he began. “I hear something about you goin’ to a meeting before I even hear it was a thing. Kinda wondering why you didn’t even mention it to the wardens.”

“That’s because it’s not up for debate, Ambros,” Mana answered sternly, just like her usual self. “The importance of the meeting in question is too great for us to have the luxury of declining.”

“Who’s goin’? All three of you, or-?”

“She and Ekkan. I am going to stay behind and manage operations until their return,” she clarified for me. Meanwhile, she had long since collected her notes, and now remembered to hand them off to me.

As the two of them held their conversation, I read over the list she had given me. There weren’t a lot of questions to ask, overall, but the ones she picked were certainly as important as they were tricky. Apparently she wanted me to bring up with the other leaders specifically the topic of the Celdan refugees, whether there was somewhere suitable to send them. Earlier, Mana had argued rather convincingly that Celdan wasn’t an option for anyone to live in anymore due to the fact that comfortable conditions were far less important than protection, among other things.

While them living here couldn’t be a permanent solution as far as I knew, it still wasn’t as simple as just shrugging off the problem and passing it onto someone else. Whoever took in the refugees needed to offer them not only sufficient protection, but a stable living situation, one that included work and food, the ability to reconstruct a life there.

“Boss, mind if I make a quick amendment on this?” Ambros asked.

“Go ahead,” I replied, handing off the papers to him. With that, he moved himself over to Mana’s desk, picking up a pen and beginning to make said amendment.

“Part of why I came over here was to address the food situation,” he explained as he wrote. “We’ve got nothing much in the way of suppliers right now, since Belenon was our major import and they’re more or less toast. We’re living off stockpile. Accounting for the refugees on top of everything else, we’ll be out in a lil’ under two weeks. Well, rough estimate. I’m thinkin’ that while you’re at that meeting, you might ask around about that situation? See about getting our supply back up?” He was about to get back up before Mana interjected something.

“A second amendment, actually. The ‘Yleini’ that were mentioned in the transmission, whatever it is that they’re requesting, we could establish a price for it. Perhaps ask that, in return for whatever they need from us, they provide assistance in stabilizing the various messes around here, however we need it.”

“The fuck’s a yih-lay-nee?” Ambros asked, brow furrowed. I couldn’t tell if his exaggerated pronunciation was out of confusion for the term or as an insult to it, but likely just confusion.

“They’re the people responsible for the attacks in the past week. Well, more accurately, the people we’re addressing are a faction separate from those who invaded,” Mana again answered for me.

“Great, I’d love to see what happens if we refuse ‘em,” he nearly sneered.

“I said they’re a separate faction. Even if they were to be hostile for any reason, we’ve no reason to believe they have the exact same capabilities as our enemy.”

“Enough,” I interrupted, aiming to defuse any debate that might arise here. “I’m not sure how they’ll take to the request, but I’ll put it down anyways.”

One of these questions caught my eye. She wanted to know what the Yleini do to prisoners of war, and it didn’t exactly come with any other context here. I hadn’t put much thought into this before, but I suppose it could be a highly important concern. Though, I couldn’t help but worry that whatever it was, it wouldn’t end up being relevant to those left here ever again. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Mana watching me expectantly. How long had she been doing that?

“…Are you alright?” I asked her, rather out of the blue. Her face scrunched up in response.

“Yes, I’m fine. Why?”

“Just… never mind.” While that look she had on her face earlier was a troubling one for someone who was just writing a list of questions, I wasn’t going to impose. “Thanks. I’ll make sure they hear these.”

“Any of the other wardens know about this?” Ambros queried after making sure neither of us were continuing down that line.

“Only Valler.”

“Well, guess I’ll go inform the rest. Have fun.”

He turned sharply, exiting the room, and I followed suit. I had originally planned on informing them myself, but it seemed that was unnecessary. All that was left was the remainder of my preparations.

“You’re kidding me, right?” Elzebe gave me a stern look before I even had a chance to finish my sentence.

“No, I’m not. What’s your problem?” asked I in return, getting pretty defensive.

She rolled her eyes. “You do realize I haven’t even sat down since we got back? I’m busy and you want to pull me over to discuss this again?”

“Firstly, no one at fault for that but yourself. You don’t have to actively seek out back-breaking labor, you know. Secondly, all you said was, ‘When we get back,’ and, would you believe it, we’re back.”

Her eyes narrowed even further, but I continued. “I know, that’s kind of a silly way to put it. But trust me, this is important. The kind of stuff you care about. I think you deserve to be in the know and have a say for yourself.”

“I am in the know,” She cried out in exasperation. Once she finished hammering down the stake for the tent she was working on, she stood up from her kneeling position and sighed. “But that doesn’t mean you need some big posse to make an argument for it.”

“A posse? The hell are you on about?”

“Come on, Xander. Don’t play dumb. Before now, if you had something to say, you took it right to Aysa. Sure, it pissed her off to no end, but you didn’t beat around the bush. Now that you’ve got your latest in controversy, you’re coming to me. That usually comes after you deliver your weekly review on the leadership.

“My point is, the fact that you’re coming to me wanting to talk about this rather than take it up with Aysa isn’t right. It doesn’t feel normal that you’re trying to persuade me into something here.”

I raised an eyebrow. “How do you know I didn’t speak with Aysa?”

“Did you?”

“Yeah, I did.” She shrugged in concession.

“Good for you. Still, you’re here to persuade me. Why?” Jesus, I swear, she always did this whenever I dared to present an opinion to her.

“Does it really have to be about that? Look, all I’m asking is that you listen to me. Take a moment, think it over. Does the ‘intent to persuade’ really have to get in the way of us just talking?” She stood there for a moment, hands on her hips in frustration, before she sat back down on the ground.

“Fine. Is it something different, at least?”

I crouched to meet her eye to eye. “Well, I did get some kind of background behind why Aysa wants this… person… dead. Basically a vendetta. But even if her story does give it some justification, I can’t shake the feeling that this has deeper consequences. Like harassing random people on the streets.”

“The Ophentum aren’t stupid or bloodthirsty enough to attack everyone that looks the part.”

“Tell that to the woman I spoke to back at the Seyasta refugee camp,” I countered, “She was trying to make sure that Seyasta had working communications, and Teneya would’ve tried some crap like arresting her. Picking a fight, god forbid.”

“Doesn’t that sound like a problem you should take up with her, then?”

“No, no. I mean, this isn’t just her though. We’ve got people here that are actively looking for this person, and some of them are real diligent about it. They’d probably pull the same thing Teneya did.”

“You really have that little faith in them?”

“Look, the most we have for finding this person is some descriptors. Dark skin, wavy hair, right? We have, like, nothing else. We don’t even have a clear idea of what her face looks like. You might have more curl to you, but if you weren’t part of the Ophentum, you’d fall right into that ballpark, and they’d pull the same crap on you. Doesn’t that seem unfair?”

“Of course that’s unfair,” she agreed, still sounding exasperated. “But searching for a person? That’s a whole lot more than just looking for monsters. It’s easy to look for monsters, ask the local villagers to tell us where that giant fucking bear ran off to and we get on it. But people? That’s a lot more complex. Not everyone is going to be as distinct as a giant monster, so it’s expected to end up hazier than normal.”

“…Right.”

“Mmm… I think I can see what your problem here is. Your problem shouldn’t be with Aysa. Your problem should be with the fact that we’re not cut out for this.” I thought about it for a moment, then asked for clarification.

“Meaning?”

“Meaning that we’re not detectives, and we’re not police. We’re not trained to fight people, let alone investigate them. It’s only natural that, when asked to track down a culprit based on looks, we start jumping on wrong targets everywhere.”

“Are you suddenly agreeing with me that the Ophentum might actually harass random people?” I asked almost dubiously.

“It’s not entirely random; there is a selection process. But, well, yeah. I think I can see it.” I must’ve flashed a pleased expression, because she continued. “Don’t get too excited. That doesn’t mean I’m gonna just stand behind you while you talk to Aysa.”

“What, you can see a problem but you can’t bring yourself to solve it?”

“No, you twit, it’s because she’s got enough to deal with without a mob knocking on her door. I might not have a weekly audience with her, but I can tell. She looks stressed out, exhausted, almost every day. I don’t know why that is, but the last thing she needs is a union of dissenting voices. You think one person getting in your face is scary, try staring down a group of people looking ready for a mutiny.”

“It’s not a mutiny,” I quickly corrected, “Stressed or not, this needs to stop. Or at least put on hold for a while.”

“Maybe. But pick a better time? Maybe not right now? I’m not going to back you up because I can trust you to deal with it yourself. Don’t need to make this any more daunting for her than it already is. Just wait until she actually looks healthy for once.” She looked at me expectantly, waiting for my agreement to her request, an agreement I reluctantly gave a couple seconds later.

I couldn’t lie, even in the relatively short time Elzebe and I had been part of the Ophentum, I knew Aysa had seen better days. Her hair, which always looked rushed and half-assed whenever she cut it short, seemed as if it had gone without much treatment for the past few days, and while we had been talking, she kept putting on the occasional grimace. I had no idea what she was in pain over, but it didn’t make conversation any easier.

Thinking about it created a pathetic image in which I had to wonder just how much Aysa may have been suffering, both mentally and physically. It all made the argument to put a cap on her hatred too difficult to decide on. Nothing pleasant about going off on someone who’s in too much pain to even look like they disagree.

I caught myself in the middle of this bullshit thought process, and began fuming. God damn it, that was just it, wasn’t it? Manipulation 101, right there. The only thing Aysa was missing was literally breaking down into tears and telling me how great I am for listening. All the guilt, all of this, feeling like I was an asshole for the things I said? That was just it, the perfect emotional trap, and I was falling for it. One of the best ways to completely sidestep the problems and debates.

I stood up. Elzebe made a good point, at least. The real problem was the people she expected to find this woman. At least that might be more approachable to Aysa than straight up telling her she was wrong. She was, though, and even if she wasn’t outright manipulative like I was thinking, people’s safety was far more important than her. I wasn’t going to let this shit get in my way, no matter how many times something tried to dissuade me.

From what I could tell, her aim was improving slowly, steadily. She had yet to land a bullseye, but Meisha was at least getting the bolts within three rings of it. With her last quarrel expended, she looked up at me, expecting something. My response was a simple nod, indication to go and retrieve them.

“I still want to learn proper archery at some point,” she grumbled before marching across the field. I started following her so as to continue talking without straining my voice.

“I know, but for practicality’s sake, we need to start with the crossbow,” I replied softly. “Takes much less time to master, and that’s imperative for us. I’ll be sure to introduce you to the bow later, if you’re still up for it.

The prospect of that made her smile, and she proceeded to rush over to collect her spent ammunition so as to continue practice. It was nice to see such vibrance. Soon, we were back at our former position, Meisha repeating the task of loading the quarrel, taking aim, firing, and repeating. Once her shots were depleted, she silently retrieved them and continued. As another half-hour passed us by, the lateness of the day caught up to us, and I gestured for her to stop.

“We’re gonna take a break for tonight. Get some sleep; we can continue in the morning.” Her expression was somewhat petulant in response, but she nodded all the same.

“Good night, sir. Thank you for the help.” She handed off her crossbow and quiver to me before leaving for the initiates’ lodge. After returning the equipment to its proper place at the armory, I strode towards the elites’ lodge to retire. The central room where we typically convened for anything, serious or not, was empty save for Virn and Xander, playing one game or another with a set of cards.

“What’re you two up to?”

“48 Straight, two to one in my favor,” Xander replied, staring at his hand. “No way I’m winning this one though. Where’ve you been, training with that initiate again? Forgot her name.”

“Meisha, and yes. She’s diligent like that.” I appreciated seeing such extensive training, especially in a recruit. Why she came was her own business, but there were many who came to us that did not do as much to commit.

We were silent for roughly a dozen seconds before Virn frowned at his hand, which was strange, because I could see it from my vantage point, and it looked solid. Especially given that Xander held such little confidence. Or was he a better bluff than I thought? Regardless, the reason for his displeased expression was hinted at as soon as he spoke.

“You wanna ask him or should I?” he asked, directed squarely at the man across the table from him. I raised an eyebrow as I peered over at Xander. At that, he shrugged, setting his hand down and pausing the game.

“Sure, why not. Janus, we were wondering if you had a moment to discuss something about, er, policy.”

“What are you referring to?”

He leaned back in his chair. “Well, during the time I was out on a mission with Elzebe, I had an encounter that brought to light a problem with how we’re doing things. You know the woman we’re looking for, right?”

“The one human-looking target we have? Yes.”

“Well, Teneya thought she saw her, over in Seyasta. She was wrong, but I had to actually confront the woman to confirm that.” He stopped for a moment as if waiting for my acknowledgement, then continued. “I couldn’t tell you if she was scared or anything, but I imagine that any other person might leave that encounter traumatized.”

“And we’ve got some people that are real gung ho about taking care of jobs or following orders,” Virn added, “Some of which might not think twice about harassing people without definite proof.”

“So that’s what this is about? Harassing people?” I sought to confirm.

“Essentially, yes,” Xander answered. “I’ve spoken with Aysa and my sister, gotten some insight into the matter. Aysa’s got her reasons, for sure, but we’re not the people who should be conducting an investigation or delivering justice. Otherwise we get a mess where we grab anyone who fits the bill.”

Typically, I would have openly disagreed with the stance he presented regarding justice. After all, we had long since determined that a malicious alchemist of some kind is likely responsible for all the various aberrations popping up that have terrorized Faenon, and we all agreed that there was no excuse to let someone evil like that go free, even without legal authority. Nevertheless, talking about all that would only steer the conversation down an undesirable tangent.

“That sounds reasonable,” I eventually agreed, “but what are you proposing to do about it?”

He took a deep breath. “It’s nothing conclusive. I’m not entirely sure, all things considered. The most ideal situation is that I bounce the idea off people, get some perspectives on it, and when I’m done, have a talk with her about it. That way, it’s not just me talking.”

“That’s a good habit to build,” said I, “but while I agree with the assertion that we are not trained to investigate cases, I don’t think I can truthfully agree with the sentiment that people here would thoughtlessly confront people. We may have some members guilty of that, but it’s conjecture at best.

“When Aysa gets back, a lack of qualification would be best to mention. But I’d save the rest until you have definitive proof.” Xander and Virn looked to each and exchanged frowns.

“Well, like I said, nothing conclusive. Thanks for the advice,” Xander nodded somewhat appreciatively. As he spoke, I heard the door behind me opening, and all three of us turned to find one of the administrators poking her head through the door.

“Is Rathman around?” she asked us in a rush.

“He’s asleep,” Xander answered. “Why?”

“Got a mark, 1-3-0-1, somewhere northeast.”

Terrestrial, bigger than the average human, unknown threat level, alone. This kind of thing was my niche of field work, and sending someone like Rathman, who was currently sleeping, would not be ideal. Fatigue could not be erased on a whim. After a moment of taking myself under consideration, I decided that I’d be able to handle this. Though, preferably, we’d find out how far away it was and make first camp sooner rather than later.

“I’ll go if you don’t have someone else lined up,” I volunteered. “Do you have the rest of the team ready?”

“Still need to select a tracker, but otherwise, yeah, two general units up and ready. Thanks for covering this one. Good luck.”

And so it was that I ignored the lateness of the hour to prepare for another trek outside. Could only hope that whatever this thing was, it wasn’t related to that thing that could apparently bite clean through metal armor.