Upheaval 3.8

“-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.”

“How big?”

“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.

Upheaval 3.7

“Thanks for coming so quickly,” I greeted the two as they approached. There was nothing much resembling an office available now, so I had met them well outside the still-erect tent.

“Is something going on?” Lily spoke next.

“Yeah, well, a couple things,” I answered her. “We’ve gotten confirmation from everyone we’ve talked to that they’ll be leaving for Belenon immediately. It’s closer to us than most everyone else, though, and we have those vehicles left over still. I don’t need to leave for the meeting quite yet is what I’m saying. I trust you know you’ll be joining me, Lily?”

“You never spelled that out before, but yeah, it only makes sense.” Ah, shit. I needed to communicate more properly. Well, the fact that I wasn’t sure about bringing her along until sorta recently didn’t help things. Whatever image that sent to the other leaders, we needed the information she could give us about Surgriel’s intentions. That should have been obvious.

“It does make sense. I expect, then, that you need to send me to escort Surgriel immediately?” Senna looked to confirm.

I nodded. “Please do so as soon as you’re ready.”

“Why did you call us out just for that?” Lily questioned me suddenly. She’d probably picked up on the fact that I wanted to talk to her privately, but I wish she hadn’t called attention to it like that. Senna’s expression changed a little in response, though I couldn’t pin down what that was.

“I suppose I will see you both at the meeting,” she said to the two of us, giving her goodbyes. That felt like it came out of nowhere. Was she trying to give me room by leaving so quickly? I didn’t want her to feel unwanted or anything, so having her pick up on that made me a little anxious.

Once Senna had turned toward the forest and left us behind – to be out of anyone’s sight, I had to imagine – Lily gave me something of a look.

“Okay, I know you had something you wanted to say to me, so out with it.” I sighed inwardly. How easily she was able to discern things was usually really convenient, but she didn’t seem to be in a good mood today.

“Let’s walk,” I suggested, gesturing in the general direction that I knew everyone else was moving toward.

This part of the camp was mostly empty now, on account of people slowly congregating in an adjacent open space. There wasn’t very much room, if you counted how many people would probably end up pressed against trees or whatnot, but it worked. There were a handful still on their way over, mostly from the town watch, as they had been the ones asking everyone to gather up before setting out later today.

“You’re going to address everyone before leaving for the meeting?” she observed, and from her tone, it felt like she wanted to know if this was the thing I didn’t want to talk about before Senna left.

“Mhm. Once we got all our responses, we could safely pack up the transmission equipment, and I want to minimize the time it’s not active,” I explained my logic. My pace had unintentionally slowed as I talked. “And I need to ask you something before I leave.”

“What’s that?” Her face was one of no surprise, and all expectation.

With a sharp exhale, I began, “I need to know Senna’s plans for the future.”

“You could have asked her,” she retorted, our previously slow pace stopping entirely. Lily had to know that I felt like I couldn’t do that, or at least that there was a reason I asked her first, so she must have wanted to know the why of it. I wasn’t sure how to explain that.

“Please, I just need to know right now,” I pressed her. “Is she going to stay with us for the foreseeable future? With you?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Of course we’re staying together. What kind of question is that?” I couldn’t help but wonder if her wording, the way she only answered as to her continued relationship, was indicative of something she didn’t want me to know. Either way, this was obviously not a fruitful path to take.

“I’m sorry for prying,” I let it drop. “I just need to have some measure of certainty for the future. I’m not really sure how better to describe it.” Her face seemed to lose a touch of its earlier defensiveness.

“You shouldn’t keep them waiting.”

I was ushered into what I reasoned to be one of their original landfall vessels, though I could not be sure of that since ‘shards’ from the things seemed to have been used to construct other temporary structures. Certainly seemed necessary with how many more people there were now. I realized then that no one was kept here to watch me after indicating places to sit. Wonder if that was supposed to be some sign of trust? Or a matter of politeness in their culture, maybe? The interior was too fascinating for me to think about it much, though. My initial impression of the bizarre exterior was one thing, but material with strange visible properties paled in comparison to this.

Beyond the apertures that seemed to provide a focused view of the outside at places in the structure where no windows could be seen from outside, and beyond the formations that most closely resembled seating room, it was hard to discern what purpose most elements of the vessel held. Was this typical Yleinic design, or something to do with their beneficent ‘entity’? Cold blue light flickered in geometric patterns from several expanses on the far end of this room, barely reflecting off the surfaces of the dominantly black material they used in this construction. Its architecture was sinister, with many surfaces exhibiting an unnatural smoothness uncharacteristic of their metallic texture.

Footsteps, distorted due to the equally odd acoustics in here, pulled my attention away from appraising my surroundings. Surgriel had arrived, alone. Those streaks of orange energy were more than enough to distinguish him, even if one had no ability to remember a face. Come to think of it, would they lose the ability to discern faces if they would grow up relying on their unique energy wings – actually, that girl told me they were called wadji – to identify each other?

“Too fascinated to sit down?” he asked after having approached to a diplomatic distance. I suppose I was implicitly expected to sit and wait, huh.

I took another second to respond. “This ship is quite alien to anything on Erhia. Curiosity for such things is natural.” Composing my responses felt like a more important task here than ever before. Their first impressions of me were probably not the best, given my earlier lack of preparedness, but moving forward, dealing with them needed to be taken seriously.

“Is that the name of this planet? Or just this landmass?”

“The whole world, yes. This continent is named Taikos,” I explained, unsure of whether his curiosity held a double meaning to it, or if it was simple and genuine. “It has been called other names, though.”

“Oh, just a local title, then?” He took a seat in the meantime, gesturing for me to do the same. I joined him.

“Forgive me, but I do not think now is the best time for me to elaborate on the various names given by different cultural groups.” Why was he so interested in this, anyways? Or was it just small talk? Anything he did could be cast under a suspicious light thanks to the nagging doubt Altera planted in me.

“Mm, that’s true,” he agreed, voice briefly taking the same tired aspect that it had the first time we met, almost a week ago. “It’s taken a while, but do you have an answer to our proposal?”

“Not… exactly.” Again, I found myself slowing down to make sure I made no mistakes in my speech.

“Hm?”

“A meeting has been arranged with the various leaders of our surviving people, to which you are invited to present your request in person. They will make the decision after hearing you out. I am here to lead you to the meeting’s location.” Phew. Giving a stately summation of everything I needed to tell him without having been handed a script or even walked through what to say was kinda stressful.

The news seemed to relieve him somehow. He leaned back slowly in his seat, looking the picture of a man who had just had a literal weight removed from his shoulders. Well, it was probably too dramatic a way to look at it, but it was noticeable to me. Out of the corner of my eyes, his wadji seemed to contort a bit against the wall as he shifted positions, but I paid little attention to their properties.

“I was afraid we would be summarily rejected because of what our mutual enemies had done to you,” came an explanation to what I had silently observed. “Sticking it out down here with no guarantees has been unpleasant.”

The way he said it was so matter-of-fact that I could not interpret it as passive-aggressive in the slightest. In fact, my general impression of him was that of someone who made a point of not hiding his emotions to others. In a word, trustworthy. Impressions can be misleading, but without Lily here, I had nothing else to go off of except my impressions and the warning I had been given. No, the assignment, if anything. Once he got close to Lily, we would know whether he actually had the hostile intentions Altera claimed he had.

“Would you be able to leave immediately?” I inquired, trying to let an apologetic hint filter through.

“We’re the ones making a request of you in the first place,” he replied rather humbly. “I’m not going to begrudge the circumstances of being heard out, especially since it seems like it was planned as soon as possible.” Elva would probably feel guilty hearing those words, since several days’ delay was caused because she did not think to call a meeting like this – unprecedented as it was – until such time had passed.

With everything seemingly agreed upon, he stood and bade me to wait elsewhere, perhaps talk to some of his people while he underwent preparation. The obvious desire to foster good relations and a sense of understanding was present, but that did not mean it was a bad idea. We both exited the vessel and emerged into the late morning light, the refractions of which danced distortedly along the ground near their ‘shards’. Surgriel paid his attention to one of a few who came to greet him upon our exit, with him providing a basic rundown of what I told him. As soon as the part came where his information was lacking, he gestured me over.

I was asked about the general distance we would need to travel and over what terrain it would be. When I described the path from the Karrian heartlands to Belenon, several faces frowned. One mentioned the need to “preserve energy”, which others agreed with; context clues suggested the distance was too great for whatever they had in mind. In the end, they seemed to settle on walking the entire journey, which Surgriel felt the need to assure me would be plausible for them. That confused me somewhat, since it seemed normal enough, given how many people had alchemically enhanced physiologies here. I assumed the Yleini had to be the same way.

Surgriel seemed to select one other to accompany him as a representative – a stern-faced woman looking half-again as old as her superior did – and the two of them made their way to one specific structure of theirs. If it could even be called that. The remainder, however, made introductions to me, every bit the spirit of diplomacy that their leader was. The luminescence coming off parts of their own bodies combined with the ambient distortion from their freakish building material would be overwhelming to me under normal circumstances, to the point where I wondered why they seemed completely unaffected. Had to just be acclimation.

Once I had been given all their full names, as excessive as that seemed, I introduced myself in kind, with only one name to give. That sparked a series of questions as to the naming conventions of my people, and whether family names existed or if some other system distinguished us, on and on. I could see now that Surgriel practically embodied the main characteristics of at least these people, from the diplomatic to the curious. Granted, only two of them were hounding me with such questions, with the rest content to just listen and one even having wandered off at some point during.

These were Yleini. What an obvious-sounding revelation on the surface, but it struck me in sudden realization. These were the same as those people I killed en masse. Would all of them have seemed as lively and curious as this? Or at least as diverse and… human? I knew that answer, ever since Tiecas. They acted so differently than when I first saw them. I still did not understand, and the confusion I felt just made me remember those events more clearly. Mentally replaying the voice of a man begging not to die made me feel sick.

Things were finally broken up by Surgriel’s return, mercifully bringing me out of my own thoughts. Both he and the one other person he chose to accompany us carried what looked like backpacks, which would have been nothing noteworthy aside from the perplexing material they were made out of. Or, rather, the fact that it was not perplexing at all; those two backpacks made out of what appeared to be local grasses or similar plant-matter, weaved to perfection, were unexpected after all their uses of more extraordinary materials. Those had to have been made here, right? When did they do that?

Once their leader had relayed one last set of instructions, including the delegation of higher tasks to those remaining, everyone finally dispersed, leaving me with the two I would be traveling with. The woman gave a curt introduction – Kirienne Paschrike, again a full name – before Surgriel informed me of the obvious fact that they were ready to leave. It would have probably been rude to ask if this was actually alright, so I kept my mouth shut.

As it were, Kirienne decided to make a point about my own comparative lack of travel gear, asking how I even got as far as I purportedly did with nothing but the clothes off my back. During my first conversation with Surgriel, I had avoided the topic by pointing out that he would be less than inclined to divulge his capabilities right after meeting someone, so we both agreed to keep a respectful distance on that front. Of course, since I had forewarning that he possessed some sort of astonishing defense, my logic was that doing so held an advantage for me.

“I would prefer not to answer that without reciprocation,” I replied to her, though the statement was aimed entirely at Surgriel. There was no way he missed that.

“We should save full disclosure for once the situation between us all has settled.” And that was that. His subordinate still had some measure of dissatisfaction written on her face, but it was not the childish type born from a lack of understanding. If anything, it just let me know a little bit more what type of person she was. With that last impediment cleared through, we began our trek to the meeting location.

The mountains visible in the distance were enough to let me be sure of our direction in spite of having relatively little experience in this geographical area. Well, as sure as I needed to be. At least there would be no accidental crossing into Faenon, the exact opposite of where we were going. Our first few minutes of travel had my mind occupied with observing what speed they were comfortable at, mostly out of curiosity and the remainder out of wanting to adjust my own speed accordingly. They definitely seemed to be physically able.

“What do you call those?” Surgriel’s voice came suddenly from behind me. Back to his own curiosity, it seemed. At least things like this were safe to talk about, at the moment. With nothing more than a passing hunch as to what he could possibly mean without more info, I turned back to see him pointing at the mountains far ahead of us. Kirienne seemed to be paying more attention to her own footing, meanwhile.

“The southernmost end of the Cindurn range,” I answered. “Why all the geographical interest?”

He shrugged exaggeratedly. “It’s really nothing special. Just interesting to learn about new people and new places, I guess. Are you sick of answering questions?”

“Not sick of it, really,” I assured him, cracking something of an awkward smile before turning to face forward again. “Well, it does get a bit overwhelming sometimes.”

“You looked like you were about ready to fall over and die, earlier,” Kirienne cut in with an utter monotone. Surgriel, after half a second probably spent connecting what she said to the moment she was talking about, burst out laughing at the thought.

“…Did I really look that bad?”

“I wouldn’t go quite so far,” came his meager attempt at consolation, skipping over one of the stray rocks in our path. It made him look kinda goofy, in that moment. Turning back to catch that glimpse also resulted in me slamming my foot into a similar rock due to lack of attention. Not like it hurt. It would be more appropriate to worry about the rock, typically, but it was just nudged slightly.

We spent another few minutes in relative silence, without much conversation on our minds. Everyone, myself included, took in the admittedly desolate sights of the region since we had the opportunity. To think this place was more of a breadbasket, however many thousands of years ago that one civilization lived here. I never bothered memorizing that. Still, with ground this rocky and unpleasant, things must really have changed over the years.

I again recalled my first encounter with Surgriel and his faction, from a week ago. Neither of us thought it was worth wasting time on more in depth explanations of everything that needed explaining, not when it was more important for me to return with that information. As a result, what I got had been unfortunately brief. Barely any revelation as to why the schism between factions had occurred or what had happened, and I still had no idea what they were referring to whenever they cited an ‘entity’ helping them travel, among other things.

“My assumption had been that you would give fully detailed explanations to everyone at the meeting,” I spoke up at length, “so it would be unnecessary to ask you beforehand, yes?”

“Well, I suppose it would be,” he agreed, with his inner shrug evident tonally even if he made no physical approximation. “Not like I’d be averse to answering any burning questions you have that you’d rather not wait on, though. You already answered mine.”

“I somehow doubt local geography constitutes a burning question.” Was that a quip, or bitterness at my response to the only question she had asked me? Kirienne’s voice made it hard to tell if she was trying to be scathing or funny.

Burning questions, hm. It would be more accurate to say that this would be the opportunity to ask about subjects that I did not want shared with others, if anything. And there was one of those. The mark found both on the back of my neck and on Altera’s left hand, that thing that just came out of nowhere and seemed to have no bearing on or connection to anything else – would he have a clue on it? He had mentioned previously being one of that woman’s peers, one of their ruling council or something. At best, though, that meant he would know about as much as she herself did, and my impression was that she seemed mystified by it as well. Or maybe it was just because I was the only other person she had seen with it?

No way to know any of that until I tried asking, but I was hesitant. Did I actually want to reveal this? At best, if I feigned utter ignorance and made no mention of Altera approaching me- no, that would just be stupid. If I was truly ignorant, why would I expect him to be able to give me an answer on it in the first place? The only reason I am even considering asking him is because it seems connected to the Yleini somehow, or to both of us, or something. Anyone taking half a second to think about it would realize that. He would become suspicious. No way.

Something innocuous, then. “Is it typical in your culture to always introduce yourselves with your full names? It just seemed to be a trend.”

“Oh… I suppose it is, yes,” he answered, sounding as if he had never paid it much thought before. “Not so for you?”

“Mm. At least, most people here consider it formal.”

“Ah.”

Again, things tapered off towards silence. Although it had been quite delayed, back then, Surgriel had introduced himself with the surname Sacroline before his cursory explanations, and everyone else I had met did similarly. Except for one woman, come to think of it.

“I will be formally abdicating from my position of leadership after returning from this meeting.”

My statement didn’t even take a moment to draw raised voices from all around me. I was expecting that, as was Lucretia, still standing behind me. Could practically feel her eyes drilling into the back of my head with that “You should have listened to me” sentiment. Someone calling me a coward for the decision seemed to draw her attention away, but I ignored them. There was no decent answer to an accusation like that.

Several questions as to what system I would propose to replace my loss – or, more accurately, the loss of everything that I could only attempt to fill in for – warranted responses instead. It took a couple minutes, but people finally quieted down enough for me to give them those answers, and from there, I detailed a bit what I had had bouncing around in my head on this topic. It was hardly worthy of the word ‘plan’.

Decentralized authority relying on whatever persons were educated or experienced on a given topic for each respective issue that could crop up, along with continuing in the spirit of free resource distribution. It would be messy at first, maybe even uncomfortable, but regressing into some sort of dictatorship or stagnating as a citizen council that wouldn’t be able to make decisions properly had to be avoided. I remember Lucretia seeming pretty amused at how anarchist the fundamentals were, when we talked last.

Lily was hearing this for the first time, same as most everyone else here. I wondered how much she would approve of it. Sometimes I really couldn’t get a lock on her, even though the other half of the time, I knew her like the back of my hand. That just got more evident ever since she started… dating? Senna. She’d certainly never been quite like her earlier demeanor, but thankfully we still seemed okay. Probably just hit a nerve or something.

One of the family heads asked if I was still going to command the town watch moving forward, which was a topic I hadn’t reached a proper conclusion on yet. The very existence of the town watch was something that wouldn’t continue the same as it had back when we were patrolling a large city with the main intent on helping people resolve things, keep the streets safe, or otherwise just serve the citizenry. I explained that aloud, too, more or less just meandering through my thought processes on the matter. Whatever group fulfilled similar functions now would probably still be called the town watch, but focus had to shift. There was also the matter of the only group of armed people potentially creating a power imbalance in the community.

If nothing else, the fact that I was actively worried about that when I was the one who would benefit did give me an element of trust again, after the general gut reaction of feeling betrayed or otherwise angry at me for stepping down. Or maybe it was just assurance that I was still thinking of other people. Well, that was the entire reason to step down in the first place. Even if no one else saw it, or preferred glossing over it, it had already become painfully obvious that I wasn’t ready for the responsibilities I had taken on. Had been forced to take on. My first, despairing thoughts after admitting that to myself in full were of completely dropping any political involvement, and I had to stifle that.

Discussion had been fostered in the wake of the issues I outlined, with several notable faces like Krishov, Petra, or Deakri taking enthusiastic part. Well, enthusiastic to varying degrees, at least. Several were very staunchly against anything resembling a fracture of the community into factions, and building off that, people seemed to be approving of the idea that anyone in the town watch had to have other primary jobs. In other words, more of the community volunteering in the watch, with no one aside from the experienced officers having it as a main occupation. The concrete position of said officers was somewhat contentious in that context, but no one could come up with a solution to that.

In the end, public opinion gradually came to its various conclusions without further input from myself, which I felt was more proper than stepping in to debate at all. I was still in a position of authority for the moment. Lucretia had really gotten into things, though. She was even proposing to take up a secondary apprenticeship somewhere if people thought her focusing entirely on the watch would be a problem. Even if it wasn’t a political problem, it would probably be a smart move with a smaller population like this.

“Different main jobs, huh,” Lily commented, strolling back up to me. “Do you think you’d be able to handle something else while continuing to organize the watch, Elva?”

“It… well, things will be different. If it’s not all on my shoulders, then I think so,” I shrugged rather awkwardly. There was no point posturing about my mental state with her.

“Mm. Wonder if I should focus on cooking or something,” she mused aloud, probably not wanting to tread on something sensitive. I had to laugh a little at where she was going, though, which made her ask, “What’s so funny?”

“I just never figured you really liked cooking, I guess. I mean, it was probably stupid, but I just figured you’d try to push for a job relying on your empathic thing.” Stupid because, as I realized mid-laugh, someone having aptitude in an area doesn’t necessarily mean they enjoy using it. Plus-

“No thank you,” she grimaced. “Dealing with other people’s emotions can sometimes be really unpleasant, you know? Like, god, if I couldn’t turn it off or direct it or anything, I’d be literally incapacitated in a crowd like this. Making that into a job would probably end up killing me.” -yeah, that. I felt kinda like an ass for not even thinking from that angle before.

“Excuse me?” someone cut in. I turned towards the direction of that voice, which was necessarily close due to how much ambient conversation was still going on. Petra had approached me, apologizing for the interruption.

“Don’t worry about it,” I assured her as Lily silently took her leave. “Is there something you need?”

“You’ve been avoiding giving input on things, I’ve noticed.”

“I don’t feel very comfortable with that since I’m still in a position of authority, and I’m not the smartest person for this exact job anyways,” I explained. She didn’t seem to appreciate the humility.

“Yeah, sure, whatever. Not like we should be telling people they’re not smart enough to have an opinion on policy that affects everyone, but sure.” Jesus, I did not miss her sarcastic streak since our last conversation. “That’s not the main thing, though.”

“What is it?” came my irritated question, snappier than either of us really liked, I imagined. Whatever the case, she seemed to ignore it.

“I’m planning on organizing some salvage operations as soon as possible,” she explained, without a trace of her typical vitriol. “Some people still have kids that need treatment. Immunization, baseline enhancement, that stuff. It also really hurts not having proper metal access in general. Deakri was talking to me about how it was lucky we haven’t needed to do any maintenance on the vehicles yet, since he’s not confident in keeping them up to par without our former resources.”

“Mm, I’ve heard some people express those concerns before, about the children. Deakri never mentioned this lack of confidence to me, though,” I frowned. Did he not trust me for some reason? “Anyways, I’m hoping the meeting can be used to discuss more than just the Yleini. Everyone’s been rather narrowly focused on stabilizing their communities in the aftermath, but this could be an opportunity to re-establish more specialized operations again. That would relieve our metal shortage once we ran out of salvage, yeah?”

She nodded curtly. “Guess that’s everything, then, as long as you can find us afterwards.” I guess that was a vaguely potential issue, if, for whatever reason, the areas I pre-selected were unusable and they had to make due elsewhere. Still, they could leave a message for me to see if needed, so it didn’t seem worrisome to me. Petra didn’t actually seem concerned about it either, as she turned to leave in the direction of the vehicle procession everyone had started setting up beforehand. Several people other than her were already on their way, while many were still embroiled in conversation here or leaving to the tents.

“Looks like you’re done, then,” Lily’s voice came suddenly from behind me, causing me to jump a little in place. Turning back to look at her revealed a barely suppressed snickering. “Sorry. Had to pay attention to you since we were leaving together after you finished, that’s all.”

Didn’t need to scare me in the process, though. I would have said that if I wasn’t sure she could already tell I felt that way. “You didn’t also happen to be paying attention to Lucy, did you? I wanted to say goodbye before leaving.”

“Ah, no, didn’t bother tracking where she went,” she replied with a tilt of the head. “It looks like she’s not still debating around here. Probably organizing getting everything packed up again? Speaking of which, might be a bit of a squeeze since we need to commandeer one of the caravan for our trip.”

“That’s why I addressed it earlier. One should be set aside for that.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll go wait in it if you want to find your Vice Captain,” she offered dismissively, already starting to move in that direction. I gave her my approval before proceeding with the attempts to find Lucretia. Asking around made it easy to learn where she’d gone, luckily; her attentions would apparently be focused on load organization. Guess it would have been fine to just head right over to the vehicle line myself.

After giving and receiving plentiful goodbyes for the little trip, I made my way over to where I expected Lucretia to be, near the first ones being loaded. She seemed to be keeping an eye out, as my approach did not go unnoticed. Upon stepping closer, she motioned for me to join her somewhere a bit further separated from others, and I obliged.

“Lily spotted me,” she explained as we walked together, “told me to expect you coming along. You wanted to talk to me?”

“Ah, uh, I just said I wanted to say goodbye to you before we left for the meeting, that’s all.” Messages really did get distorted the more they’re repeated, didn’t they.

“Oh. I wanted to say something to you, though.” By now, we were firmly tucked between two as-yet empty vehicles, well away from the few who had already started working. She didn’t seem very happy.

“Is something wrong?” I had to ask.

“Even if you’re feeling like a failure recently, I don’t want you to throw away your leadership experience entirely,” she submitted with that same air of displeasure around her. “I can accept this much, just not wanting to be staying solely in charge of everyone when it was a temporary measure in the first place. It just fell to you once everything else we could rely on was destroyed by those Yleini.

“But I don’t want to see you give up on everything, and I don’t want to see you in pain over not performing like you wanted to. It hurts me too.” It almost felt like getting scolded by Lily again, in a way. Wasn’t exactly like her, though. Maybe that was a bad way to think in the first place. Lucretia’s been pretty overshadowed here since we have an empathic friend, but she’s always been very emotionally intelligent. It wasn’t fair to compare that to Lily.

“…I’m sorry for hurting you,” seemed like a safe place to start, “and I promise I won’t give everything up. Just been kinda hard to cope with the realization that I’m not all I thought I was. Or could be. I really thought I could go the distance, back before all this happened.”

“You were very good at your job, and you still can be,” she insisted. Things like that just felt hollow at this point, but it was certainly genuine from her. The conversation would probably become unpleasant if I didn’t just accept it, in any case.

“I hope so. Then, I guess I’ll see you later, Lucy,” I smiled, or tried my best to. Her response was to give me a full-blown hug.

After wrapping that up and letting Lucretia get back to the task at hand, it was time to rejoin Lily and set out. I had a number of very interesting events ahead of me, I suspected. Not least of which was placating one potential problem before Senna triggered it.

Upheaval 3.6

“Yes, thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

With that dismissal, my aid departed the room and retired for the night. By this time the next day, we would hopefully be fully prepared for our departure, or perhaps even be able to set out early. I didn’t want to leave Seyasta in the exact condition it was in; obviously it needed strong leadership now more than ever. It had been weighing on me since well before the notice Elva of Hateli sent. All I could ask was that whatever came from this meeting would outweigh the possible negatives of leaving the village for that length of time.

The old town house we’d always used for our office felt so much more lonely these days. Once I had finished closing up the place and extinguishing the lights, everything took on a surreal, murky quality to it, as you might only see in a piece of particularly inspired art. The full moon contributed its ethereal glow quite nicely to that scene. I never was one to find the night unpleasant, much less dreadful or scary. The floorboards beneath my feet creaked with each shifting of weight atop them, noisily marking my passage from the interior of the structure out to the front door.

A quiet turning of the key, a simple click, and everything was done. The air was so brisk, tonight, and so quiet. Maybe it was just a psychological effect, but ever since the attacks, nothing felt quite as lively as before, even late at night when it shouldn’t have been lively to begin with. That previous spirit had been dominated by a widespread fear this whole time, hushed but impossible to miss. The roads were still the same, though. Muddy and objectively unpleasant, even though I wouldn’t trade them for anything. The houses all looked the same, too, just with fewer lights shining through the windows sometimes. The world hadn’t ended.

Mm, here. My home would be coming up right here. There. My pace quickened the slightest bit as it came into view, humble and lovely as it was, and I reached into my pockets for the other set of keys I kept on me. Less well oiled hinges than the town house’s squeaked as I entered, the darkness of the interior making it occur to me that I had left the windows firmly shut before leaving. Wouldn’t need to leave a fire going for very long, then.

The candle was by the door, right where it always was. Lighting it required leaving my door open halfway, just so I could see where the matches were, but once the flame had been struck, I turned and gently pressed the entrance shut. Having fastened the lock again, I made my way through the night-caked hallways towards my bedroom, not quite hungry enough to get out a loaf of bread or anything before resting. I believed I still had plentiful firewood in there for the stove. If not, well, I guess I wouldn’t be very lucky.

My bedroom window had apparently been left open partially? Moonlight streaming in through the aperture illuminated my bed on the far side of the room in aesthetically pleasing detail. Meant nothing good for how much wood I’d need to use to heat it back up, though. With a sigh, I crossed the empty space, moving to shut firmly the errant wood piece.

A flash of white-hot pain struck like lightning through my chest, paralyzing me completely. I could barely think. I could barely see. Over the course of the next hundred years, my eyes slowly came to rest on the hand protruding from my sternum, whose fingers grasped a twitching human heart.

My eyes were barely keeping themselves open at this point, and they were practically the only part still rebelling against the sleep that encroached on me. The rough blankets and roll I had to sleep on were unbearably vacant still. I wanted to hug myself to something, but keeping cold air out was a higher priority, so my arms were forced to squeeze around my own person just to fight off the sensation of emptiness between them. Falling asleep alone was uncomfortable. I’d been used to it for a vast majority of my life, and it was still uncomfortable.

At least I had mostly calmed down now. Or was calm not appropriate, since it wasn’t like I was rampaging and enraged earlier? Well, agitated, calm, maybe they were opposite enough to work. I don’t know. I wasn’t agitated anymore; that was the point and that was nice. Mostly I was tired now, and lonely, and not wanting to think about why I was lonely. Wanted to think about other things instead.

Life had gotten very unpleasant lately. Even at the simplest levels, so many things just didn’t work like before, and it made a lot of people unhappy. I could just imagine how much everyone must have wished for things to be able to recover and go back to before we got attacked, but as time went on, that wish started looking incredibly silly. We didn’t bring along materials for the usual types of alchemical convenience that everyone was used to, and the unfamiliarity might have doomed us if we were just a bit more reliant on such things. Imagine if we couldn’t cook food except through some weird kinda alchemy. How the hell would we know how to eat now? Thankfully, fire was relatively simple and long-mastered, even if imparting heat alchemically was the favored method.

I simply wondered, sometimes at random times during the day, sometimes in the dead of night like now, what things would look like a day from now. A week. How we would cope, how we would adapt. It worried me. It worried a lot of people around me, and they made me feel that worry all the stronger. Elva wanted to break down and stop dealing with it sometimes, because she didn’t know how to fix all the problems we had and the stress of that fact was weighing on her, but she kept going. Right now, it seemed like everyone needed to have a leader who could just make those decisions and let people not worry about quite as much.

Hm, on the topic of leadership, I wondered if it would stay this way forever. Seemed very doubtful. Maybe she’d move us to something directly democratic. Or a council, to work better once time had passed and there were more people around? Normally I would ask her at some point, but it seemed like asking random questions about what she’s going to institute for this or that when it wasn’t immediately necessary would just make her even more stressed out. No matter what, though, something needed to fill the void that had been left behind. People needed some kind of system to sustain the lives they had grown comfortable with. Even if it couldn’t be the same anymore- no, exactly because of that, they needed the assurance even more.

The topic of my thoughts seemed to be provocative enough to dispel my drowsiness, bringing me into a more alert state, which probably made thinking about it a mistake. If I woke myself up entirely at this time of night, my sleep schedule might end up totally fucked. Exasperated, a drawn-out, throaty growl of a sigh escaped into my pathetic excuse for a pillow. Tomorrow was gonna be important, too. All Elva wanted to delay the move back for was confirmation from everyone she contacted, and as far as I knew, she got that already.

Saying that, though, it’s not like she told us exactly what she was planning on doing yet. Going off how she liked to update everyone at once in a meeting, maybe she’d do the same here. Had to wonder what the order of- shit, that was intensive thinking, too. I mentally cursed myself for acknowledging that this was probably detrimental and then going right ahead and continuing anyways. Really needed to just make a concerted effort to sleep, for my own damn benefit.

I would have done just that if a slight noise had not interrupted me. It sounded like my name, soft enough that I couldn’t tell immediately if it was a product of a tired brain or a legitimate auditory hallucination. Most people would think like that in this situation I had to imagine, but I wanted it to be something else, so I cast my heart into the darkness in front of me, the place that voice seemed to originate from. At least, that was the flowery and metaphorical way of describing something that was hard to put into words.

Someone was there now, on the other side of the tent. My instincts wanted to say it was Senna – or was that just wishful thinking? – but I had no actual way of learning someone’s identity through their emotions. No, powers or not, Senna was the most logical assumption anyways. Who the hell else would get in here so quietly? Examining what I could glean from her, she was feeling… guilty, mostly. Was she having regrets over what she had to do? Almost seemed like there was something else.

Sitting up slowly prompted her to speak at a more normal, if still hushed, volume this time, quipping, “I was about to ask if you were awake or not, but it seems I have my answer now.” Maybe it was inaccurate to call it a quip, since she didn’t sound or feel like she was saying that to be humorous.

“What happened?” I asked, getting straight to the point. I wasn’t trying to sound accusatory towards her, but she bristled inwardly at the question regardless. I wanted to help her feel better about it, but after the lows of my emotions earlier, I wanted more to have her show some trust in me without needing to coax it out more. Some part of me knew that this wasn’t the time for that kind of selfishness, but I wanted it all the same.

“If you are wondering about the… about what I implied earlier, then nothing happened,” she answered, actually surprising me. “I tried to, but was interrupted by weird circumstances, and in the end, I… lost my nerve, I guess. It also hit me how stupid I was being, since it’s still several days until the absolute minimum time.”

The word ‘stupid’ was laced with noticeable self-deprecation. I guess that boiled down to feeling ashamed at an emotional outburst, then. Not like I hadn’t felt the same on several occasions before, but I didn’t like it when she talked like that. I felt too tired to articulate myself properly at that point, though, and that plus my own prior emotional reaction was making it hard for me to navigate this like I would at any other moment. At least I didn’t resent her. Out of anyone, she’d be the one I actually wanted to keep giving of myself to help.

“Come here,” I ordered her sleepily, slumping back down onto my pillow. She got a little confused by the display, but joined me anyways.

“You seem tired,” she observed, sounding almost apologetic. Her voice was very close now. “Were you still awake because of me?”

“Couldn’t stop thinking about the future, and if everyone’s gonna be okay,” I answered, giving her half the truth. There was no way I was telling her the other half since it would literally do nothing except make her feel worse about herself.

“We are not in danger anymore,” came her assurance, voice smooth and low. I could feel her right next to me now, and my body shifted in response as if to welcome her closer. Her arm found its way around me in that next moment. Even with that assurance, though, I knew her mind was on other things that perhaps invalidated the statement, even if I couldn’t directly tell what she was thinking of. I didn’t have the energy to keep parsing things one way or another.

“I need to sleep.” My eyes had long since closed, and Senna simply settled in under the blankets with me. Having her there was comfortable. “We’ll talk more tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay,” she breathed, pressing in against my cheek. I felt kinda bad leaving it like this for now, since she still had a lot going through her heart, but I just couldn’t function well enough to do anything about that. Senna understood.

“Unbelievable,” I shook my head in exasperation. Listening to the basic report this civilian just delivered us was testing me in so many ways.

“Stay calm, Rennir.”

“Like hell I will!” I shouted, glaring up at Janus. The damn hypocrite had yet to remove his helmet. “In case you didn’t notice, this makes thirteen recorded deaths in the course of two missions. Two! I don’t know how, but-”

Janus interrupted me with his hand, which he placed mere inches away from my face as some juvenile indication to stop. Against my better judgment and how much it pissed me off, though, I did. Only after lowering his hand again did he reply.

“They did everything they could. The fault lies with… that. No one else.”

“I’m not an idiot,” I spat at him, “I know that much. Just- it doesn’t make me feel any better.”

“Fair enough,” he muttered with an indiscernible tone to his voice as he looked over at the corpse of the monster. Because of the nature of his combat armor, I couldn’t see shit under that helmet, not even his eyes. Maybe he was just as angry as I was, but not showing it. Not like I’d be able to tell in such a case. Either way, he stared at the thing with what I had to imagine was hatred. It laid there since the moment it fell last night; the civilians hadn’t even touched the thing, it seemed like. Probably scared shitless.

The man who gave us that meager report looked like he wanted to speak, specifically with Janus, who was still lost in his thoughts. Guess that big, mutated abomination of everything a sane human could consider to be worth existing was really thought provoking. After a moment’s consideration, the civilian began to stammer in a feeble attempt at resuming conversation.

“I’m sorry for what happened here,” Janus preempted him, at least mostly. “We’ll dispose of this thing ourselves, and make sure to station a stronger presence in the area from now on.” That civilian had an apprehensive smile, as if he were doubtful in some way yet still relieved to hear that. Clearly he had more to say, too, but Janus had already begun walking towards the dead bastard.

“You got something else?” I asked him, a hard edge to my tone. His eyes flitted to me.

“No. No, why?” he answered.

“If you don’t, then tell me where the deceased is.” He paled somewhat at my mention of it, the coward.

“We, ah, buried him. We thought he deserved that much, since you probably couldn’t-”

“Then dig him back out, and we’ll deal with him,” I slowly ordered him.

He blinked in surprise. “Doesn’t that seem disrespectful?”

“If you want to talk disrespectful, I’d say that hoarding our dead would fit the bill.” I began to close the gap between us. He nodded almost furiously, quickly picking up on the inherent threat in my words.

“I understand, of course, of course, I didn’t- I mean, we didn’t mean any offense by it.” He stopped, as if waiting for a sign that I had been appeased. “Follow me, I’ll take you to- uh, to there.”

The arrogant prick took me out to a small field, which featured plants of varying sizes. Most seemed to be young trees, and all were grown in rows. I could guess the reason for that even before seeing the fresh grave. It was carefully placed in line, with nothing yet growing from it. I hadn’t actually thought about what we would do with the body, or at least what we would do that was any different. I guess it just came down to who was responsible.

“Is something wrong here?” I heard Janus say from behind us, his voice as clear as normal. I turned to address him, and saw that he had indeed removed his helmet, revealing an inquisitive look that first took in the grave, then myself.

“Gannen’s just… buried, right there. It’s not right.” I knew it wasn’t right, but my ability to articulate it was completely gone. I didn’t know how to explain anything. Janus went quiet, frowning as he thought to himself.

“What exactly would we do that’s any different?” he finally asked me. “The Ophentum doesn’t exactly have a standard procedure for honoring the dead.”

“It’s not about how, it’s about who. Doesn’t it bother you that some random civilians decided to bury our people? That it wasn’t us?”

“All I need in order to honor the dead is to remember them, Rennir. They’re in good hands here,” he said softly. As my eyes wandered over to the mound that marked Gannen’s resting place, he continued.

“Have you ever seen Teneya’s shrine work? It’s something she made for the Ophentum. It’s not an obligation or anything, but it’s something we could try instead.” I was not familiar with this shrine business, but it’s not like I had my own plan for this.

“How does that change the fact that they did it instead of us?” I asked, clinging onto some measure of bitterness.

“It doesn’t,” he replied with a shrug, “but the way I see it, this way, he’ll be remembered by more than just the Ophentum.”

I honestly couldn’t argue with that. To be remembered by more than our own comrades in battle, to be recognized by the people that felt so far removed from us now, it was a good thing. It was something I felt like we didn’t get enough of, as little sense as that made. The very thought was enough to make me sigh.

“Alright, you got a point there.”

“I’m sorry for any trouble he may have caused,” Janus said to the civilian, “but I’m sure you understand his feelings.”

The latter nodded. “I do, don’t worry. Is there anything you’ll need while you’re waiting for her recovery?”

Janus shook his head. “No. I’m going to dispose of the aberration and check in with our scouts. Rennir, I want you to be at Naora’s side until she awakens. I’ll try to be with you two as soon as possible.”

I had no objections to that assignment. The civilian – who felt the need to introduce himself as ‘Dalros’ – led me to the building where Naora was being tended to, which was apparently some kind of family home. Did they not have any kind of dedicated medical area? I knew this place would be too small to have anything resembling a hospital, so maybe it was just like this.

Inside, Naora was taking up one of their beds, and beside her was a lady who seemed to be monitoring her. Her complexion was understandably pale, but she looked more or less healthy, otherwise. The woman, who was probably some kind of nurse, looked up at us as we entered. Her expectant expression gave me the feeling she wanted introductions.

“This is a man from the Ophentum,” Dalros provided her. “They’re here with a group to take care of the situation.”

“Rennir Branbar,” I added. “Thank you very much for taking care of Naora for us.”

She responded with an optimistic smile that belied her fatigue. “It’s what I’m here for. I’m sorry for the loss of your other comrade, though.”

“Thank you for your sympathies, and… your village’s treatment of him.” A part of me was still uncertain about leaving Gannen here, but I could- no, needed to get over it. Naora was what mattered now. “Our commander wants me to be here in case she wakes up. How’s she looking? Is she alright?”

“Her injuries are all treated to the best of my abilities, and she’s stable enough that she can sleep peacefully. You can stay here, but I’ll need to insist on the same, in case something unexpected happens and her condition worsens.”

“Works for me,” I agreed, taking a seat next to Naora myself. I remembered the initial summary we got from Dalros about the fight that had transpired, and my curiosity was too much for me to prevent lifting up the covers. I could see the nurse grimacing out of the corner of my eye as I revealed her arm, resting on her stomach, and the cauterized stump at the end of it. She probably didn’t like me doing that.

Shaking my head, I covered her back up. The sight of what that thing did to her left me silent, and there was no conversation between me and Naora’s caretaker. I sat there for a little over an hour before I could hear her beginning to stir. Indeed, Naora’s eyes slowly opened, and she glanced around the room with a glazed look in her eyes before finally registering my presence.

I leaned in closer to her as her eyes opened further. “Hey there.”

“Hey yourself,” she smiled weakly. Naora’s gaze continued to move around the room a bit longer before her body moved in an effort to sit up. The nurse was immediately at the scene, urging her to be more cautious with herself. In what was likely some sort of medical procedure, the nurse quizzed her on simplistic topics like her name and identity, as well as my own. I couldn’t tell how much of that was really necessary, but she would know better than me.

“While you’re doing that, I’m going to get Janus,” I stated as I turned towards the exit. Naora’s alertness seemed to go up at the mention of that name, prompting further attempts at sitting herself all the way up. The nurse seemed very adamant on personally helping her do so.

Upon stepping out of the house, it was blatantly obvious that following Janus meant following that disgusting burning smell coming from somewhere near the woods. He seemed to remain within line of sight of the village, and the selected area was conveniently clear of most anything but dirt for the sake of burning that thing’s body. One of our team members glimpsed my approach and nudged Janus’ arm, who paid me his full attention now. Once we had met in the middle, he spoke first.

“She’s awake?” His question came more hurriedly than expected, and my nod of confirmation practically lit up his expression. Asking the rest of the party to stay behind for the time being, the two of us made our way back to the private house.

Naora now had a beaming smile at the sight of both of us entering the room. Sitting up had caused a mess of blonde to cover part of her face, but even through that, I could see that the color was returning to her cheeks slowly. The nurse looked up at Janus with the same expectation I had received earlier, to which he was introduced. With that out of the way, she listed off a brief description of how she treated her, deliberately neglecting to mention the amputation in favor of referring to it as a ‘wound’.

“I’ll give you three some privacy,” she said, moving towards the door. When she reached the two of us, she paused so as to say, “I didn’t want to discuss the amputation right after she woke up, but…” in a hushed tone.

“Don’t worry. We’ll handle it.” We had to do that much.
Janus didn’t take a seat, which made sense considering the armor he was still wearing for some reason. Instead, he took a knee at Naora’s bedside, and I resumed sitting next to her.

“How are you feeling?” Janus asked softly.

“Fine, I guess,” she said, and began to frown. “My arm hurts though.”

Neither of us said anything for one awkward moment, after which Janus took the initiative by saying, “Just take it easy. Do you remember what happened?” I think I could piece together what he was intending here. She looked puzzled for a while, probably trying to recall the details.

“I was… yeah,” she opened with. “Gannen and I headed over here after observing that weird creature and sending a signal back to base. We tried warning people to leave, but it arrived sooner than we expected, so we had to fight it, keep it away from everyone, and…”

As she trailed off, her eyes wandered downward, and with what looked like an idle motion, she brought her right arm out from beneath the covers. She locked onto the sight of it with a shocked expression, before either of us could advise her otherwise. Janus just looked down at the floor as she stared, mouth slightly agape, as if seeing this injury for the first time. No, by the way the nurse spoke, she really was seeing it for the first time. After several futile attempts at speaking, she finally formed a word.

“Gannen,” she stammered out, “Did… is he here? He was…” Janus’ averted eyes and my own dismal expression must have been all the answer she needed. Her breathing escalated, becoming drawn and ragged before she burst into loud, uncontrolled weeping. Janus made as if to leave entirely, drawing a somewhat outraged expression from me until I saw him leaning against the doorway. The sound of his gauntlet suddenly pounding against the wall broke through Naora’s sobbing. I didn’t need to see his face to know he was seething.

Naora had stopped sitting up at some point during her grieving, instead lying on her side, facing away from us. I wanted to say something, desperately wanted to be able to relieve her of this feeling, but no words came to mind. Nothing was going to change the end result, and nothing was going to make her feel better except time to heal. Situations like this really make you miss having Ekkan around.

“She killed it,” Naora’s voice finally came, her crying having slowly calmed down a bit. “Came out of nowhere, just to… to save us, I think…”

“Who did?” I pressed. Getting all the details of that night was important, but with the way things were progressing earlier, there was no easy way to broach it, so this was convenient.

She moved a bit, as if trying to emulate shaking her head while still lying down. “I didn’t re- recognize her. It was so dark out. She… blended into it somehow. I think she was wearing all black? And I couldn’t see much else either. I think her hair and skin were both pretty dark too.”

Janus ran a hand through his chestnut hair, pushing it out of his face. “So potentially… black hair and dark skin. That’s becoming a convenient combination.”

“Convenient?” I turned towards him with my curiosity bared. “What are you getting at?”

“Xander’s been bringing up a contract of ours rather frequently lately, for which we don’t have much description other than those qualifiers,” he answered me.

“…What contract?” I legitimately had no recollection of some kind of contract on a woman. In fact, as far as I knew, we didn’t even really have ‘contracts’ unless that was somehow referring to monsters that escaped our teams. What could a person have done to land on our list?

He waved a dismissive hand at my question. “I’ll tell you later. Whatever the case, this person was described as having no obvious weapons – Naora, did you see if she was armed?”

“I, uh- no, she didn’t look like she was holding anything,” she answered, turning over again out of interest in where this was going.

“So,” Janus continued, “unarmed, yet this person was able to crush and split apart that creature’s skull. From what we know from a previous encounter with something similar, their bones are heavily reinforced, too.”

“What the hell? Even among the Ophentum you’re the only person that can pull that off. What kind of civilian could possibly have that kind of strength?”

“An alchemically enhanced one, for starters,” he said grimly. “I’m going to make some inquiries about this. You two, keep each other company.”

There was a lot of free time to think with every night. Not needing to sleep naturally did that. Even when I tried to imitate the action, some part of me was as aware as ever, so it spoiled most of the appeal. That appeal being the prospect of a time when I could shield myself from everything that ate at my conscience. At least it was only hypothetical in the first place, so it stung less than it might otherwise… No, there was a point where sleeping was something I could do, too. And eating. I had no idea how things had gotten to this point after so long.

As the sun shifts its position through the sky, from the very first hints of its rays cresting over the horizon, one can feel nature responding to it. It felt very palpable to me sometimes, like now, when all was quiet and I could listen very closely. Things like birds waking up and beginning their and our day with song were as good an indicator of morning as seeing the first light yourself. Being so close to natural surroundings almost seemed to make the dawn itself seem closer too, and the way Lily has gotten used to waking up earlier here than she would in her family manor reinforced that. She would probably be stirring soon.

I still could not take my eyes off her face after however many hours I spent just laying here uselessly. She would chastise me for that, I imagined, for applying that term to anything related to myself, and perhaps she would be right to. Easy to point out that I comforted her by being here throughout the night. Well, I probably did not need to be there the whole time, but waking up alone when you did not expect to was an unhappy affair, in my mind. What would I even do? Had little idea of what work I needed to or could do, and work usually made some amount of noise. People did not tend to be legitimately nocturnal, so.

She breathed in suddenly, in that telltale way when someone is surfacing from their dreams. Her body shifted next, just a little. It was still unclear whether she was fully awake yet. Moving my body close and angling my face, I pressed a soft kiss to her lips, enough to make her stir again. I could feel her smile underneath that kiss.

“Are you awake, my… my love?” I asked softly, faltering out of a general sense of being unused to pet names. Not being used to it very much yet had no impact on wanting to use it, though, and maybe wanting that reciprocated. Definitely hoped she liked that kind of thing, cheesy as it actually was.

“Mhmmmm,” came her drawn-out answer, eyes still firmly shut. Only after another peck on the lips did they flutter open, proceeded by a groan as she stretched herself out. She was so cute like this. That messy splash of ginger hair covering half her face, the little dimples she made while smiling like this, the way her shirt had slipped off one shoulder at some point during the night, all of it made such a beautiful image.

Since she still seemed to be working towards waking all the way up and getting out of bed, I decided to get up before her, maybe incentivize her to go that little bit more quickly. I had gone the night naked, since the moderately chill air did not bother me, so the first thing to do was remake my clothing. My first choice was the town watch uniform that I had been using regularly ever since Elva had instructed me to start doing so out of simple convenience, but a thought crossed my mind that made me pause.

Using a uniform all the time was not very creative. Before I started wearing that all the time, I had a small memorized list of designs that I swapped between, but those were all copied from genuine articles I had seen on someone else. Again, not creative at all. I had always been horrendously bad when it came to most kinds of creativity; even for something as simple as that art workshop Lily took me to shortly after we met, I had absolutely no confidence in my ability to make anything that looked remotely good.

I knew that, but it bothered me more than usual for some reason. Well, it always bothered me, but this was a more acute desire for it to be otherwise than I normally felt. Could I make my own clothes at some point? Worthwhile ones, that is. I could, just in terms of the ability to do so in the first place, but could I refrain from revealing a poor sense of fashion in the process? Was my sense of fashion bad, even? I had no idea. Maybe it would be wise to ask someone for help.

With my mind wandering away from its previously intense focus on that topic, I realized with a bit of a start that Lily was staring at me. At a few different areas. Turned out that standing up only to get immediately distracted in my own thoughts lead to me giving her something of an unintended show. It felt nice to have her looking at me with those kinds of eyes, in all honesty. By now, of course, she had noticed that I was aware, and with a sheepish expression, she rose to get dressed as well.

“Enjoy yourself?” I teased her with a cruel little grin, though her back was mostly turned to me already. Feeling so mischievous was also pretty rare for me, I thought. Maybe I was getting more comfortable with her.

“Shut up,” she giggled, obviously playful rather than hostile. “I’m still sleepy.”

“Suuuuure, that was it. Consider me convinced.”

At the moment, Lily still faced away from me, going through the few sets of clothes she brought out here. Once she selected some, she hurriedly stripped out of her pajamas, seemingly not eager to deal with the cold. Still bare myself, I stepped towards her on the spur of the moment, wrapping my arms tightly around her torso. The feeling of her skin against mine was very pleasant.

“You look cold,” I flatly stated. She felt cold, too, but that was just because I was heating myself up a little bit for her.

“I appreciate the gesture, but there’s one flaw in your perfect scheme.”

“What would that be?”

“I can’t put my shirt on like this.” Indeed, her movement was stopped with the shirt still in her hands, as if she were only a few seconds away from slipping it over her head.

“Implying that keeping you shirtless is anything resembling a flaw?” I scoffed jokingly, bending down the slightest bit to rest my chin on her shoulder. “It is still early yet.”

“You seem to be feeling well this morning,” she changed the subject. Normally that would make the other party feel pretty awkward in this situation, but it did not feel like she was snubbing me with it. Her tone was too genuine and happy for that.

“Yeah. Better than last night, I guess.”

“…You don’t need to keep feeling ashamed over that,” Lily pointed out in response to my mood. “Everyone has times when they can’t control how they feel.”

“I-…” My reply cut itself short. She was obviously correct about that, and she had asked me before to let myself share what was hurting me with her rather than stuff it inside all the time. That kinda thing probably made her feel unwelcome, huh. All that in mind, apologizing just for this would be counterproductive. I wanted to work with her, not just acquiesce and go nowhere anytime this happened.

“I know,” I said instead. “I will try to keep thinking more like that. Thank you.”

Having freed her from my cunning embrace midway through speaking, she turned to give me a warm little smile before getting herself properly dressed for the day. Seemed like tight brown pants, a vibrant green shirt, and her uniform jacket on top. While she pulled these various articles on, she took the opportunity for more conversation.

“Do you wanna keep talking? From earlier, I mean. Since I said we would.”

“About what?” I asked her, in spite of knowing full well the probable topic.

“Well, I’m actually kinda curious about something you said.” That was a surprise. Good thing I hedged with ‘probable topic’, since I was expecting her to just ask me for more details on what happened after I left.

“Hm?”

“You’re, uh… you’re older than my dad?” she restrainedly inquired, peeking out in my direction as she spoke.

Fuck. Right. I said that. Might have just been really lucky that the topic of my age never came up before, but fuck. There was no way to get out of this situation now. Maybe if I was in a comedy rather than real life, there would be a conveniently placed window for me to throw myself out of, for bizarre and speedy escape.

“…Mhm.” That was all I could get out. My lips were pursed into a line as I bored my gaze straight into the vacant pillow on the ground. No way she would miss how utterly I wanted to be talking about anything other than this. Okay, no, there were worse things, there were always worse things you could talk about, but shush, me.

“I’m not gonna press you on a number or anything,” she assured me, slipping on the first of her jacket’s sleeves. “I probably coulda guessed, but do you just not age?”

“I did at one point,” was my honest answer. “It was really strange, though.”

“Your aging was strange? Like, in some way other than the fact that it stopped happening?” She sounded a little incredulous, but that quality was mostly drowned out by a pure curiosity.

“It, ah… That would be a long story. I think I said I would tell you everything at some point, but preferably not on a day when I am most likely soon to be assigned elsewhere.”

Her brows furrowed somewhat. “I can’t remember if you promised that or not, but yeah, I guess if it’ll take too long then now’s not a good time. Wait, you’re still not dressed?”

“Oh, yeah. I was going to earlier,” I admitted, “but thinking of something made me stop. You still do not mind seeing me-?”

“I never mind seeing you, babe,” she purred, checking me out in exaggerated fashion. That was what I got for cutting myself ambiguously short.

“I meant seeing my ability active,” I corrected her, feeling just a tad hot in the face. “Always looks rather grotesque.” It was embarrassing having to refer to it like a superpower out of some third-rate action novel, which made me talk more cryptically than I should sometimes, but there was no getting around it now.

“Yeah, I know, I know~” she smirked deviously, practically prancing over to me and embracing me just loosely enough that her arms were around me. Then, her eyes locked with mine.

“What is it?” I asked, wondering if there was something on her mind. Something like that usually sounded far too curt for this occasion, but Lily had no issues discerning a person’s actual meaning, so there was no anxiety over it on my part. Then again, it would be a bad habit to make if I started neglecting to speak nicely to her just because she could tell I meant nothing by it.

“I’m preventing you from putting a shirt on,” she replied, barely keeping a straight face. “Masterful plan, if I do say so myself.”

“And what are you going to do with this opening?” I challenged, meeting her now-blossoming grin in kind.

“I think you’ll see-” her face suddenly drawing much nearer, “-in a second here.”

“Hello!” a voice called from just outside the tent, giving Lily quite a start and making me extremely grateful to not currently be in line of sight of the exterior. “Are you two up? Captain Elva is calling for you both.”

I was unable to pin the voice to a name, but was sure that was one of her few assistants. Lily was quick to answer in the affirmative, simultaneously giving me a sharp look that could only be interpreted to mean ‘Now is the time to put some clothes on’. Or something like that. She would probably say it differently. Regardless, I quickly complied with the perceived order, weaving a pattern outward from several specific points on my skin to soon result in the typical uniform I always defaulted to.

The assistant left us after verifying that we would be heading over sooner rather than later. Lily seemed pretty grumpy over having been interrupted there, but there was nothing to do about it, we both agreed. We knew there would be important things happening today, so looking at it from another angle, it was nice to have gotten up early enough to have some time together before things really started up. She agreed, and we shared one more kiss before exiting our tent.

This would likely be the time for my extended assignment over to Surgriel’s camp. After last night, I was unsure how prepared I felt for it, both emotionally and in terms of safety, but it seemed like I would have to just deal with it as it came. Besides, this opportunity was too important to pass up. There were some questions for Surgriel that I had found no time for, the first time we met.