“-and establishing a greater presence in the area will assuage the locals’ anxieties, on top of that. I did imply we would do this before consultation, though, which was rash of me.” Etrescar argued his points well, but promising things that weren’t necessarily happening seemed unlike him. Perhaps he was rattled by the implications of what he found over there, but that was no excuse.
“Unfortunately,” I had to point out, “you’re well aware of our manpower issues. If this hunch of yours was more substantiated, I’d find it justifiable, but even if we dedicate as many people as you request, there’s no guarantee of anything coming from it.”
“I understand, but there is something substantiating this.” I found myself frowning in the midst of attempts to anticipate exactly what he was getting at. “The creature’s behavior was erratic, but impossible to miss; it never attempted anything resembling stealth. Therefore, the fact that this one was only spotted by one outpost implies it was created near there, yes?”
“…That is a possibility given the circumstances. So you’re saying that the chances of our enemy’s activity being present in the area is high enough to warrant this project?”
“Yes.” The sheer conviction in his tone and expression spoke far more than the one-word reply he gave. He’s always been something of a zealot. Didn’t seem like his conclusion was rendered illogical by it, at least.
“I want you to put together a draft with some team selection for me to-” The office door’s sudden opening interrupted me. That was Miss Trigali stepping in, I believed. Let me guess, she had more irrelevant problems to waste my time on.
“Am I interrupting something important?” she asked, hesitating just within the doorway. “I can step outside for a moment-”
“No no,” Etrescar quickly interjected. “Draft the proposal and get back to you with it, right, Administrator?”
“Yes, please do so.”
“Then I’ll take my leave,” he nodded to the two of us before exiting my office. That just left us. Taking an idle motion to straighten the contents of my desk, I allowed her to begin.
“Ah, so, there’s something very concerning I have to report, Mana, about-”
“That would be Mrs. Corsea or Administrator,” I corrected her on habit. My peers’ lax attitudes came back to annoy me yet again. “Now what exactly has you so concerned?”
“There have been attempts at prompting insubordinate action among the Ophentum. Xander has started going over the line this time. I’m worried about a potential mutiny.” I should have known it would be more of this irrational feud between those two. Still, Trigali never said anything quite like this before.
Still needed to be thorough. “What gives you the impression of insubordination? I’d like you to detail it all.”
“Well, as you know, Xander has a history with borderline behaviors like this, but he’s been trying to sway public opinion against Aysa-” there again with the overtly casual address “-and some people are starting to listen. We can’t just let this happen.”
My initial feelings were to dismiss this out of hand, given how often I’d heard complaints from either of these two about the other, but my job required logical examination of everything. In all honesty, the way she was talking about him – colored though it still was by her dislike – was very different from the trifling matters of the past. Xander Omaro never seemed to be trying to rally anyone around his own dissatisfaction before, which made me worry that this was a legitimate problem for once. And if it was, it needed to be dealt with immediately.
“Go back to your duties, Miss Trigali,” I instructed her, standing up and stretching just a little. “I’ll look into this now. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, I suppose.”
After dismissing her, I set about getting my coat on and otherwise making sure I was ready to head out somewhere. Bundling up this much was becoming increasingly necessary, to my chagrin. Wooden folding step firmly carried under arm, I made to leave the room and contact security, as thinly stretched as it was. An unpleasantly chill breeze greeted me after making my way fully out of the administrative building.
Commissioning some personnel, something I had to limit to just two, was easy enough after visiting the barracks, as was finding Omaro’s schedule for the day. Seemed like he had registered some voluntary work today, maintenance for one of the dormitories. As much as it annoyed me to have him render our civilian labor pointless, that wasn’t what I needed to focus on at the moment. Besides, it was perfect for me, letting him be found easily rather than forcing us to run around like idiots.
It had gotten even colder during the brief time I was inside, and the contrast between heated and natural air made me shiver immediately. It was even starting to drizzle a bit. Our pace was forcibly hastened out of a desire to find that man before it got worse, since there was no way they’d keep working on the exteriors during the rain. As the precipitation slowly intensified, more and more people started hustling to escape it, ourselves included. Thankfully, the dormitories came into view well before it became unbearable.
A couple tarps that the workers seemed to have been using were now functioning as temporary shelter from the rain, I noticed, probably out of the hope that this not last very long. They chatted amongst themselves, including Omaro, as expected. Not like anyone could be faulted for idle discussion, but after Trigali’s report, the first thing going through my head was that he could be trying to pull something with them too. Of course, I still needed to confirm that anything was happening in the first place, which I kept in mind.
Our approach was nothing subtle, and the worker group turned their full attention to me as I stepped forward, joining them under the shelter of the tarp. I recognized the man well enough, after all the minor incidents I’ve had to deal with before, but I still addressed the entire group asking for him in particular. Several faces turned toward him, and he dutifully came forward to speak as I waved the others away.
“Good morning, Administrator,” he greeted, already bearing a thinly veiled tone of exasperation. “What can I do for you?”
“I’d like you to explain something that’s come to my attention. Have you been discussing a specific topic with multiple people sequentially, first off?”
He couldn’t refrain from giving me a puzzled look. “Um… no? I mean, I don’t know what you mean by ‘sequentially’ but it’s not like I’ve been sticking to the same topic in each conversation I’m involved with.”
“Are you playing smart with me?” I couldn’t restrain myself from saying. “I’ve already been informed about concerning behavior from you, and am asking for an explanation. What do you keep talking to people about?”
“Calm down. I’m not doing anything more than what I already do. What could possibly be concerning about that, and why is it concerning now, of all times?” Telling me to calm down and avoiding the actual question was insubordinate enough, regardless of the truth of this situation. There went the rest of today’s decent mood.
“I don’t recall when telling a direct superior to calm down was considered professional behavior, Mr. Omaro,” I chastised him, not bothering to filter the vitriol from my voice. “Miss Trigali has had her petty grievances with you in the past, but that alone won’t make me ignore her when she comes to me with news that you’re trying to align people against the Ophentum’s leader. I’m going to have to request that you come with us now.”
He raised one eyebrow in that infuriating fashion of his, and behind him, some of the civilians were grinning at the situation. One of them even began laughing as I eyed their aggravatingly amused expressions. Omaro’s smart-ass response, undeterred by what was going on behind him, drew all my attention and ire back to him.
“What makes you think I need to go anywhere in particular?”
“I don’t enjoy playing hardball, but I take issues of dissent very seriously. Ricor, Lee, would you please escort Mr. Omaro to the barracks? I intend to get to the bottom of what’s been going on, regardless of how juvenile your behavior becomes.”
“Oh, you’ve gotta be fucking with me! Do you honestly think Aysa is going to be okay with this kind of thing? Hell, she’s the person I usually complain about, and she takes it like a champ! So why are you trying to play the jailor?”
There was no point stooping to his provocations anymore. With a gesture, the officers I had brought along stepped toward him, requesting that he cooperate. In contrast to his continued protests, he indeed went along with them, trudging to the barracks with childish stubbornness evident in his posture. As it happened, I seemingly needed to go find Trigali again if I wanted to make any headway with this. That, or I could try to grab random people he’d interacted with and ask what he was doing, but that could come later.
The last time we were in Belenon, it was whole, populated, and looked like the thriving community that it had always been. Now, having overlooked the whole thing not an hour before and seeing massive swathes of city reduced to little more than rubble, the experience was grim. Secondhand reports from Xander indicated that Tiecas had been ‘cleared out’ and was even devoid of bodies. It shouldn’t have surprised me now, but the fact that we couldn’t even find a corpse amidst the ruins as we walked through one destroyed section was unsettling. The contrast between our last visit and now just called to memory how intent I had once been on returning here.
Ekkan stood up from the pavement where he had been sitting, one of the few spots in this area where the unnecessary covering remained intact. Assuming Belenon was to be rebuilt at some point, I couldn’t resist wondering whether or not the luxury of fully paved streets would be counted among the priorities. It was strange, given where I grew up, but in spite of how miserable a muddy road can sometimes be, I found myself preferring grass and dirt over cobblestone.
“You ready?” I asked him, thinking his respite from the hike had been satisfied by now. He nodded to confirm that.
“Don’t suppose you remember where we were supposed to meet?” he sheepishly asked in turn. He seriously forgot?
“I do,” I answered simply, “though exactly how we should get there is another question. I have no idea which roads are still passable.” The best we could do would be to set out on the path we remembered, improvising along the way as needed. At least, that was the best I could think of, given our resources. We seemed to be getting fairly lucky, with pathways discernible enough to be unproblematic for us.
Along the way, Ekkan was determined to engage in some distracting small talk, but I couldn’t really commit myself to the idle chatter. The entire way here, something bothered me, and I had yet to develop a conclusion on the matter. It was difficult to understand under these circumstances, where we had no idea about our enemies’ points of origin, where they were even coming from.
Before the invasion of the Yleini, a monster appeared that terrorized a number of coastal hamlets, chiefly Seyasta. It would block off their ports and make it impossible for ships to enter or exit. We went to kill it, like any other mission, and that single monster somehow managed to do more damage to our ranks than we usually suffered in entire months of work. Death was always an uncomfortably close possibility for us, but had become uncommon enough with better tactics and equipment that it came as a shock.
The last creature we encountered that was even remotely normal was the still-absurd hybrid that I killed. Ripped its jaw open. That was how the usual work was: threatening enough to scare civilians but not enough to scare us. Our opponents weren’t usually prone to enacting full blown blockades on harbors or raiding entire villages. What the hell could have changed? I couldn’t rest easy without knowing, but it sure didn’t seem like I would be getting an answer to that anytime soon.
At any rate, there was something Mana didn’t put on her list that I had been wondering. The Yleini that we fought might not be the same as this splinter faction coming to us, but our brief conflicts with them proved that they had unique capabilities, on more levels than just their bizarre tendency to appear out of nowhere. They were strong, durable, and could recuperate very quickly from most injuries. Even Ekkan’s mutation was put to shame by that.
Maybe these monsters were getting stronger as a whole, maybe we just didn’t notice these ones before the Yleini arrived. Either way, we needed to get stronger in response. Twelve people dead in the course of one mission was a wake-up call that our alchemy was starting to become eclipsed, even with how far we’ve had to push it out of necessity. We needed more than just potent mutations, we needed more powerful recruits. These Yleini could potentially be a game changer, something we desperately needed.
“Ekkan,” I interrupted the banter which was mostly coming from his side of this conversation. “What do you think of trying to recruit some of these Yleini into the Ophentum, take advantage of their advanced physical abilities?”
His brow furrowed above those lenses. “I can’t really make an informed judgment right now. Seeing as how we haven’t even met them yet, it’d be best to hold off expectations.”
“Yeah, I know, I know. I just can’t ignore what happened those times we fought, how much it took to keep them at bay or take them down. And considering Xander’s report from his most recent mission…”
“I see where you’re going with this,” he nodded in emphasis of his understanding. “I agree with the premise, but again, we need to wait until the meeting to actually decide on anything right now.” Fair enough. A proposal like this, or the one to force them to pay us somehow, needed to wait until we actually got acquainted with these people.
“Agreed. On a similar note, Janus had been wanting to push for some more recruitment in general. Before the attack, that is. Even going so far as to talk about appealing outside Faenon entirely, as much of a mess as that would have been.”
“Like here in Belenon?” Ekkan frowned. “It wouldn’t have been a good move to circumvent their government’s decision like that. Either way, as it is, we can appeal much more to the civilians we’re actively taking care of. Objectively, it’s not a bad time to recruit. People are hurting and may be open to things they wouldn’t normally agree to. They’ll want to seek employment again.”
“I wouldn’t put any of it past him,” I sighed. “He wants a bigger Ophentum.”
“Big enough to protect people without having to receive requests for most missions, by the looks of things.”
“That’s not something I can really argue with, I suppose,” he shrugged in concession. “Even if the way to get there is questionable.”
“Mhm. There’s a reason why we usually just act on response, whether to a request or a sighting from one of our outposts,” I elaborated, probably unnecessarily. “We just don’t have the manpower to station more of those, let alone go actively searching.”
“I have to point out the food issue, though. If Ambros was right, we’re barely feeding ourselves right now, much less having anything like a surplus. Recruitment would probably be a bad idea at the moment.”
“That’s another thing I was going to ask about at the meeting, so yeah, we’ll just see where it all takes us before we do anything like recruit more people.
We resumed our idle talk, which I know fully assented to, for maybe fifteen minutes before our meeting location entered line of sight. It was probably on the opposite end of the city, compared to where we entered it; there, a large tent had been established just outside one of the main gates facing the plains. A handful of smaller tents seemed to surround it as well, but it was hard to gauge any numbers at a distance.
As we approached, it became clear that we were relatively early in arrival. There were only a few groups who preceded us, and I could hazard a guess as to where they’d come from, namely Fria, Dejall, or both. Considering their distance in relation to Belenon, it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s who they were.
“Hey! You’re here pretty quick,” came a voice I recognized. Elva Krasel. She was approaching the two of us from another area of this little temporary encampment, which, remembering the last part of her message to me, made me think that whatever it was had to be relatively important or urgent.
I put on a brief smile for her. “I tried to be. I’d rather wait an extra hour for the meeting than be late for it. You wanted to speak to me?”
“Well, not like we’re dealing with timelines in hours, but I catch your meaning,” she replied. “And yes, I did. Would your traveling companion mind giving us a moment?” In response to that, Ekkan looked at me expectantly, one eyebrow raised, and I shook my head.
“No, Ekkan’s my advisor. I’d like him to be present.”
“Even for matters that aren’t for other people’s ears?” The vague nature of that question called to mind a very narrow range of possibilities for what she meant.
“Yes, even for that. He can be trusted.”
Her arms raised in half a shrugging motion before she lead the way into the main tent. Seemed like it was set up but with little inside at the moment, people or otherwise. At least she was paying mind to discretion, though it just made me worry more about what the hell was happening.
“We never touched base with each other after our brief communication… before the Yleini arrived,” she began.
“I’m not surprised,” I replied, eyes still wandering over the place, “We probably had a full plate on both ends. My people have been busy taking care of refugees from Celdan and juggling it with the normal work. Wasn’t much room for communicating unless it was important.”
“So that’s what happened with Celdan, huh. How many are left?”
“Unfortunately, enough that we’ve had to pull out all of our mission gear just to give them somewhere to sleep. I’m pretty sure it’s under a hundred, but it’s too many people either way.”
She grimaced somewhat. “How’s the food situation over there?”
“Well, if the quartermaster is to be believed, we have enough left for two weeks before we have nothing left in our stores.”
“Christ,” she exclaimed quietly, tilting her head to one side for a couple seconds. “We’re still getting back to a place where we can settle in. That’s probably true for a lot of communities, too. It’s been hard to adjust to such a big shock, but we need to set up regional production again, get some trades going.”
I nodded in agreement. “My quartermaster actually wanted me to propose that the Yleini be involved in the trading, that they supply us with resources. He suggested that it would be a reasonable ‘price’ for whatever they want. I’m not entirely certain about the motive, but if they’re open to it, it might be not be an awful idea to do mutual trade.”
“Well, I don’t know how well they’d be able to supply anything we demanded, but compensation is worth talking about. There’s the concern over whether they’d feel like we were blaming them for other people’s actions, though.” Her eyes danced over to Ekkan briefly. “But that’s not the main thing I wanted to discuss.”
“Right, right. What was it?”
“I don’t know what plans you still had, but all the same, I’d like to formally retract the information I provided on your target in Hateli.”
I had to pause for a moment to recall what she was referring to, and upon realizing it, my mind went vacant. A handful of seconds passed before I allowed myself to consciously process what she’d just said, and the implications behind it all. Retracting information on a monster, what could ever prompt that? The way I stared at her had to convey at least some of my incredulity.
“What the hell does that mean?” I ended up snapping at her, which sounded weird even to my own ears after the noticeable silence. She, too, didn’t seem to expect that reaction.
“Well, it’s awkward wording, but I just mean there’s no point in continuing along that line,” she tried explaining. “The person you were tracking helped repel the Yleini, and we had an opportunity to learn about the situation. She’s not a monster doing this inten-”
“Shut up.” My voice sounded weak. Annoying. Impulsively, I wanted to pace, vent off the sudden feeling in my muscles, but it would be unsightly. That was also annoying. A cold sensation slowly creeped over me as my hands clenched. Speaking of venting, I could take her right now if I wanted. It would be easy. My right arm was closest to her. Maybe half a second. I could do it.
Ekkan had to be paying attention to me, and he was. He came up to my side, which I saw out of the corner of my eye. As he reached for my left arm, I jerked it forward, well out of his reach. My teeth ground together for a moment. This wasn’t the time for him to chastise me. The motion of my arm just made me think about hurting this bitch again, just watching me silently there. Probably mocking me in her own head for not wanting to listen to her bullshit about a monster being innocent.
“Where. Is. She.” It was hard to compose my voice for that. Harder still to force my eyes to lock with hers while asking.
“Where is she? Where is this coming from? You only told me that she was a stealthier but not unusual target. How does this not change things?”
“Are you deaf? Where IS she?!” My body was moving now, marching much closer to her with violent intent. Something took hold of my wrist while I wasn’t paying attention, and then, Ekkan was in front of me. Standing between us, between me and the lying bitch who was covering for that thing that didn’t deserve it. He held both my arms now, firm but not painful in the least, a grip which I tried to wrest myself out of all the same. He simply stared at me with that honest look in his eyes, like he always gets.
“Aysa, you should sit down,” he said, with that same honest voice. The sight of him, occupying my vision in place of her, did what he was hoping for, and I slowly ceased my efforts at escaping him. It was legitimately calming. Seeing this, my wrists were freed, and he guided me by the shoulder to a nearby chair he’d sighted at some point. One of the few things adorning this interior, huh. Given this reprieve, I refused to shatter it by looking at her again.
“…I seem to be missing something here, and I’m sorry, but I’ll answer your question now,” she announced, sounding nothing if not grim. “She’s escorting the Yleinic delegation to this meeting as we speak. I wanted to talk to you before you saw her, tell you what we learned so far so that nothing went wrong. I didn’t mean anything else by this.”
I said nothing. Ekkan continued eyeing me the whole time, probably concerned for how I’d take that garbage, and seeing my lack of response, he deigned to respond for me.
“We understand,” he turned towards Elva, who I still kept my eyes away from. “Thank you for giving us the opportunity to be prepared. We can discuss everything in more detail later.”
“I- uh, you can just set up basically anywhere around here. There’s extra equipment in the vehicle behind this tent if you didn’t bring what you need.” Her speech faltered for a couple seconds. “…I should probably give you some space now. I’m sorry.” The sound of footsteps indicated her departure from the empty meeting pavilion.
Ekkan kneeled in front of me, seated as I still was. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. My initially attempts to form words were stifled by what felt like hyperventilation. Quiet, if nothing else I wanted to stay quiet for it, damn it. After forcing my breathing to regulate, I was able to speak properly again, barely.
“She’s so close, and… why…” I felt both my voice and fingers trembling in tandem, and the sheer irritation it generated caused me to growl and clench my hands into fists, just to make it fucking stop. His hand found my shoulder again, like he was trying to comfort me or apologize wordlessly or some other worthless thing. I didn’t want to be touched, but I didn’t want to bat him aside right now either.
My breathing was getting bad again. I couldn’t wrap my brain around this in the slightest, I couldn’t let my brain understand it. Accept it. I’d rather kill myself than accept that load of bullshit. And Elva, to think I actually thought she was my ally, guess I was wrong. She turned her back on me at the first opportunity. As if that abomination could be innocent, after everything it’s done. It lied to her, or she lied to me, I don’t care. One of them is a liar. That was the only answer available, the only thing that made sense.
The distinction was important, though. Which one was the liar? Was it Elva? If it was, that had bad implications. Very bad. Why would she side with it? Was she evil? Insane? Was she the only one? What if they’re all in on it, all lying for that thing’s sake? I couldn’t just leave it alone now, not after Elva revealed how dire this was for me now. For everyone who could be affected by that monster, that is. It needed to be dealt with.
“Aysa.” His voice cut through the sea of emotions and thoughts that I had been swept away in. At least my clarity let me look at him this time. His face showed such raw concern on it that there was no doubt about his feelings.
“Aysa,” he continued, sounding as strained as he looked, “I haven’t wanted to go here before, but I can’t keep watching you tear yourself apart over this. Can’t you see what’s happening to you?”
“What’s happening to me doesn’t matter,” I insisted. A growl was trying to sneak into that, but I kept it down just for him.
“Like hell it doesn’t! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You have people who care about you. You have a whole organization that’s depending on your leadership, now more than ever. You’re needed right now, Aysa. And you need to be good to yourself. And I need to see you healthy. That’s what I’ve wanted most, all the years I’ve known you.” His impassioned speech struck me silent, and my eyes wandered down to the ground again. Seemed like he wasn’t done, either.
“Please, just let yourself start healing. You don’t need to make any promises or renounce any quests, but please, give yourself the time and care you need to be healthy. Even if you get exactly what you want, if you can’t reconcile things in your own heart, you’ll be miserable forever.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that. I didn’t like that. What he said. It felt… scary. The idea of even temporarily dropping this from my mind scared me, but I didn’t know why. Even if it was hurting me, I didn’t want to let go, not for a second. With anyone else, I would have probably lost it at the very idea, but he was calming even during lectures like these. And I knew he wasn’t a fake ally. Of anyone, I could know that about him for sure. Maybe that’s why it was so scary, coming from exactly that one person.
“…Can we just get through this meeting first?”
“We sure can,” he smiled exhaustedly. I followed suit.