Finally, Endon was within sight, and while the sun still sat within the sky, too. Or so I imagined it had to, behind that cloud cover. I had quite obviously miscalculated the time it would take to reach this place, because my expectations suggested little over half an hour of walking, not three whole hours. The hound seemed no worse for wear, though she would’ve recklessly continued down the trail had I not given a tug on her leash.
Contradictory to my other expectations and to Endon’s status as a podunk-village with hardly enough capital to form a piddling militia, let alone hire actual military forces, there was some sort of armed guard present in front of the town. They might’ve been as inconspicuous as any other civilian in their nondescript leather garb, if they weren’t also hauling what appeared to be a quality sword strapped across their back.
I wasn’t even aware Endon had guards, let alone needed any in a backwater area like this. Unless it meant that my creature’s trail didn’t just lead here, but in fact was here. The question then was whether or not it met an untimely end. Everything I released turned up dead sooner or later, that much was expected, but I never really had anything to attribute it to. Villagers with a little backbone, I suspected at first.
However, ever since the death of one of my kraken near Seyasta, I knew this had to be more than just a stereotypical mob of torches and pitchforks. Something was being organized, or had been organized. And then, after I loose my recent project into the wild, I follow its trail, and find not only an intact village in its path, but an armed guard? They were not armed enough to be part of an official military – not unless Celdan was really down on its luck lately – but their equipment was more than expensive enough to not be from here. What were the odds they were responsible? High, probably.
I know, I know, it’s all circumstantial. For all I knew, Endon had at least one decent weapon on hand. Maybe this was all just a response to that bizarre invasion that was over before it even started. That held plenty of plausibility, unfortunately for me. Thanks to them, I wasn’t exactly the center of attention anymore. An undesirable hiccup in the overall plan, that was, but at least they left me some nice souvenirs.
Sorry, I digress. Back to the guard. From where I was standing, this person made it their duty to keep a watchful eye on the vicinity. There probably wasn’t any way to walk into this village without getting someone’s attention, if this was the norm. Fair enough, I was prepared for something like this. I eased my grip on the leash and began to step out of the woods into the clearing, prompting the guard to look straight my way.
“I’m sorry, but this village is being kept under lockdown,” he announced as I approached. “No one is allowed to enter or leave the area.” Thinking quick, I began to feign exhaustion, leaning on my walking stick for visual aid.
“I understand, I just need some time to recuperate. Something to eat, perhaps? I’ve been on the road for a long time.”
“As I said, no one may enter.” At his words, I furrowed my brow, expression contorting into an exaggerated grimace.
“I understand,” I said again with a wince. “I suppose these aching feet can carry me for the next few kilometers…” If there was one thing I could count on, it was an obliging sympathy for white hair.
The guard’s expression became troubled as I worked my magic, his arms folding over his chest. He seemed to try in vain for several seconds to adhere to his duty, so I began to turn, managing to make only one more pained sound before he suddenly spoke again.
“Alright, alright, I’m sorry. I’ll let you in, but you’ll need to be supervised while you’re here.” Success, as predicted. This might not be Belenon, but you can always count on others to pity the people seemingly beneath them.
He had me wait another moment while he called over a fellow guard. The one who came wore the same leather vest as him, but underneath it she wore her own sense of fashion. Only the equipment was uniform, and they didn’t have much of it. Maybe this was local after all?
She then escorted me through the village. The few civilians I could see were busy working, nothing idle about it. If spare time and entertainment were a thing here, it must’ve been spent indoors. Still, everyone took a moment to look at me like I was some kind of anomaly. I guess the principle of ‘no one enters or leaves the area’ was something they took quite seriously, and here I was, exempt from the rules.
My tour guide brought me to what looked like the closest thing this place had to a tavern. I suppose even Endon could afford to have such a lodge. She demanded that my companion be left outside, as expected, so I tied the dog’s leash to one of the pillars supporting the overhang of the roof. Of course, upon entering the building, my suspicion that all entertainment was kept indoors was suddenly confirmed.
The main room was surprisingly populated, contrasting the generally subdued nature of the crowd. Only a rambunctious few clustered around a game table and a lone musician in a chair, strumming along, made any appreciable amount of noise. Before I walked in, while surveying the establishment, a young man at the bar seemed to take a particular interest. Upon looking his way, he raised his hand as if to indicate greeting.
“You’ll have to remain here for the duration of your stay,” my escort told me. “Should be able to rest up as much as you need, but for the safety of the village, you need to be supervised.” Fair enough, inquisitor. Besides, taverns always had plenty of loose tongues, and that’s all I needed right now.
While she stood at the doorway like the unwavering sentinel that she is, I approached the bar. It was fairly crowded here too, but not without open seats. The man who had greeted me gestured for me to sit by his side. Sure, what the hell. The best start would be with someone who actually wanted to talk, after all.
“You new here too, old timer?” he asked as I sat down. Ugh. Like I said, there was always sympathy for folks with white hair, but come on. I was pushing sixty, not ninety. Admittedly I had more wrinkles that I’d like, but… come on.
“I am,” I calmly replied, concealing my annoyance.
“Same here. Bren.” He extended one hand towards me. I suppose Bren was his name, then. I gave him a firm shake and flashed him as charming a smile as I could muster.
“Sven,” came my fake introduction. If he wanted to operate on a first name basis alone, that was fine by me.
“So, Sven, you’re not from around here. Where you from?”
“Just came from Seyasta,” I answered, giving Bren a partial truth this time. “Was on my way to Laisom, thought I’d stop here for a rest.”
“No kidding,” he laughed. “I’m from Laisom myself. Was on my way out after it got hit. Went from village to village trying to find a place to settle down. Came here on the road south, didn’t expect to get stuck.” By the pantheons, I didn’t ask for your life story. Given that he was on a roll now, I supposed the best I could do was feign interest.
“What were you heading south for?” I asked.
“Well, like I said, Laisom got hit. First it was a detachment of those creepy invaders, then one of those monsters terrorizing everyone lately. After that bullshit, I got sick of it, figured I’d try to help out the cause, you know?” The cause, hm? As in the organized effort against my work? Interesting.
“I’ve considered it myself, but I imagine they don’t have much use for someone as old as me,” I replied, hoping to goad him into further exposition.
“Oh they certainly do. I hear one of their leaders is pretty old himself- er, well, old enough to be my dad, at any rate. Name’s Dores, or something like that. They’ve got an alchemy program and everything, if you’d believe it! Laisom didn’t have anything like that.”
“It is,” he agreed, pausing to take another draught. A welcome respite, however short it was. “Never thought they’d be here, though. Makes my trip all the more convenient.”
I raised an eyebrow in interest. “They’re here? You mean the guards?”
“Of course,” said Bren, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. Well, it probably was. “Not like Endon has soldiers of its own. No, something tried to attack the place recently, another monster, and wouldn’t you believe it, the Ophentum were here to put a stop to it.”
Somehow, I kept myself from doing some sort of spit take. In the interest of restraining myself, I had to physically look away from the man, pushing down the urge to laugh aloud just so the illusion I had going wouldn’t be shredded by my own disposition. How could anyone with any measure of education actually take that name seriously?
The Ophentum, really now? As in a mythological force dedicated to wholesale slaughter meant to maintain balance? As in Ophen, a literal god of destruction? And it was Belenese even. What pretentious idiot proposed such a name? At least when I tried to recreate creatures of myth and legend, they held up to the name. My kraken may be dead, but it did everything that made sailors fear the open water to begin with. I actually did the name justice. These Ophentum were holding down martial law in a village nobody cared about, wearing nothing but leather vests over simple shirts and blouses, acting all dignified like this was some great honor.
Ah, again I get off topic. At least there was a viable thread to pull on here, once I had fully collected myself. After a second or two of unfortunate silence, I turned again towards Bren with a look of manufactured concern and curiosity.
“You say a monster attacked recently? What did it do?” My question brought a grimace to his naive little face.
“Well, one of the Ophentum died, and another was wounded. Goes to show the price of security, huh? I couldn’t see it well, but it looked like some big… fleshy… thing. On two legs. Big teeth, from the sound of it.”
And just like that, I had all the information I came for. Bren turned out to be obscenely convenient. My most recent creation indeed came here, and it was put down. Good. From here, all I had to do was find the body and conduct my analysis, so it was time to ask in that direction.
“I imagine they disposed of that thing, then,” I nodded, leaning back in my seat. “Wouldn’t want it stinking up to high heaven.”
“Yeah, heard they burned it somewhere. The guy in charge was real pissy about the whole thing too. Which… brings us to here, stuck in the village until they let us out. I guess I can understand, since they don’t want any more attacks, but still…”
He began to drone on, and at this point, I no longer cared. I got my answer, as frustrating as it was. Destroyed, of all things. Now it was worthless. My first experiment using the healing factor of the invaders, and I had nothing to show for it? Damn it all. Credit to them, at least the Ophentum had the competence to dispose of the body rather than leave it to rot.
Speaking of which… hm. Arrogant as they seem to be, this was exactly what I was hoping to happen. Or close enough. Wreaking havoc and terrorizing the region on their own merits were hardly worthwhile, but with someone to know my name, to finally remember it… and to finally fight back in earnest, it was perfect. Yes, I think these people were exactly what I needed.
Morning light once again suffused the tent in that unearthly way that surprises you no matter how many times you see it. I made sure that Lily was greeted warmly as she first stirred into wakefulness, planting a little kiss on her nose. She seemed to like that. With the arrival of the mayor of Seyasta and his delegation, the meeting had been set for relatively early today, so as much as I would have liked to stay in bed with her, we needed to get up. It took little time for her to be persuaded to join me, especially once I yanked the blanket off her.
Both of us spent a bit of extra time making sure we would look our best for the event, but my preparations were tinged with lingering thoughts from yesterday’s revelation. That I had to be in the same room as someone who wanted me dead, for rightful reasons. Lily had tried assuring me that it was not my fault, that she would try to help if a situation developed, but it was still hard to think about. And I still needed to deal with it very soon.
Was avoiding her really the right course of action? It would probably prevent things from getting out of control, sure, but I did not think I could handle just leaving her in a state of hating me without any closure. It would gnaw at me forever, knowing I was hated rather than simply worrying about the possibility. Hell, it was very obviously gnawing at me already. Would trying to apologize or reconcile even help? I would probably end up frozen with indecision if this were the only thing I had to focus on.
The two of us – all of us, rather – had a big day ahead. If she was not about to attack me, then it only made sense to put that situation on lower priority for the time being. What was rational did not always happen, or happen easily, but having someone else right there to keep me on track was very helpful. Before long, Lily and I were completely ready, though unsure about how exactly things were going to proceed. There was nothing else to do about it but head outside and look for ourselves.
The whole camp had a very different sort of liveliness to it as we stepped out into the full force of the early sun. Definitely seemed like the meeting was well on its way to beginning. As if everyone’s reactions built off each other, people seemed to be making their way into the central pavilion without any overt organization in place. Or maybe an announcement happened and we missed it? Either way, Lily and I followed the crowd, so to speak. From what I understood, the leaders of each represented area would take seats, and everyone else would be standing behind their respective leaders. As their guide, I was meant to stand behind Surgriel.
Given that he would be the center of attention for a majority of this conference, I had to wonder if it was wise for me to be anywhere near him. Aysa seeing me at the same time as him was likely to inflame her further. On the other hand, it would take basically banishing me from an event I needed to attend to completely remove the possibility, and that was not happening. We would have to rely on Lily calming her down in the worst case scenario, even if Elva had no idea that she was planning on or capable of doing so.
It looked like a lot of people were seated already, and Surgriel was punctually standing at one end of the pavilion, nearest which there were no chairs set. After a moment scanning the room, I found Elva directly opposite him, probably owing to her organization of the event. Idle chatter filled the air in absence of the upcoming proceedings. Once we entered, Lily and I gave brief partings before striding towards our respective positions on separate sides of the table.
“You’re standing with us?” Surgriel asked, having turned one inquisitive eye towards me as I stepped closer. Kirienne’s gaze was drawn as well, though only for a few seconds.
“As the one who guided you both here, yes.”
“If that is customary,” he acceded with a slight shrug. “I must admit to feeling somewhat nervous. It’s not exactly the most welcoming atmosphere.”
As he spoke, I moved to take my place symmetrically to Kirienne, and used the opportunity to find and make eye contact with Lily, who was already standing properly. She, of course, made no visible acknowledgement, but it was certain that her full attention was focused here, on the man I conversed with.
“Tensions are simply high due to various circumstances,” I replied in a half-hearted attempt at reassurance, the majority of my own attention diverted to the last attendants filing in and beginning to take their seats. “It seems like it will be starting soon.”
As the last seats were filled, hush spread itself over the occupants of its own accord, and Elva struck in that reprieve. Voice raised, she addressed everyone present, calling the meeting into its starting phase. The first order of business was basically roll call. Names were not being listed off, but represented groups or settlements were. Hateli, of course, was there, as were some other familiar names, like Seyasta and Fria. Apparently the Ophentum’s leader also came here representing the Celdan refugees, interestingly.
While was not exactly surprising, it still struck me as unfortunate how few settlements in Faenon had been invited due to a lack of transmission equipment. Even some travelers from Karrian were attending, though not many. They had avoided being attacked in the first place, but there still were not very many of them to even represent here. Just two leaders, of the Japthi and Satho clans. It was not long after them that Elva had finished labeling everyone here, including Surgriel’s faction of Yleini. Perhaps it was due to a shared maturity that no one shot any dirty looks at that particular announcement.
“There are several items that should be addressed today due to the convenience of having everyone at one table,” Elva said, beginning our transition into the next phase, “but the primary purpose for calling this meeting was to decide on an answer to one proposal, extended by the leader of the remaining Yleini on our world, Surgriel Sacroline. Would he please describe the request, along with any relevant context?”
“May I begin with the latter?” he requested in appropriately similar tone. Most at the table nodded to each other or to him, so with a subtle shift in his posture, he launched into something he probably rehearsed just for this moment.
“Yleinic society has always relied on one instance of impregnable stratification between all common citizens and the members of the ruling class called the Aichleini. I was formerly a member of this class, and lead a movement to try changing these unjust circumstances, as well as their imperialist policies. For this heresy, I was exiled, along with all who followed me, and we were barred from returning. We have been wandering from world to world trying to find people who have not yet been conquered and assimilated by them. Now that we are here, our request is simply to be allowed to settle here peacefully in some form.”
Amidst the low murmuring of everyone’s reactions to these words, my eyes looked to find Lily’s again. As our gazes locked, a conspicuously artificial feeling radiated through my chest, that of… what felt like hesitant optimism? If I had to extrapolate the meaning of that hesitancy, I would guess that she felt no indications of a lie yet, but wanted a little more to be sure. Whether reading that necessity herself or simply voicing it as a matter of procedure, Elva spoke up again.
“And your intentions for doing so are benign? There are no ulterior motives to the request?”
“Yes, and yes.” At the first ‘yes’, Lily sent me a wholehearted confirmation, but the second gave her pause. Again, hesitant optimism, but there was something else at play there. Did he have reasons he was keeping hidden but that were not malicious towards us? Oh how much simpler this would be if she could just stick entire words in my head.
Elva’s eyes darted to look at me for the briefest moment, and she must have been satisfied with what she extrapolated from my expression. I probably looked rather relieved at this point, though words like that fell short. All mysteries aside, this one confirmation was an enormous weight off my mind. Now I could focus more on the smaller details and less on whether we were entertaining a genocidal madman or some such.
“How are you wanting to settle here?” came a man’s stern voice. “Forming some village of your own? Integrating into our societies? Or both?”
“There’s also the matter of compensation. Not just for granting this request, but as reparation for what your people have done to ours,” a woman followed up, voice sounding strained in some nebulous way. It could have just been pragmatism, but my first instinct was to assume that anyone talking about compensation was probably from Faenon. Not even Celdan had grown out of relying on barter and currency. Just another reason to avoid visiting.
Curiously, she was wearing a scarf in spite of the heat. More curiously, I noticed her eyes were dead set on the center of the table, rather than on Surgriel or the people around her. That was when I counted her position and realized that this was the Ophentum’s leader, Aysa Retinim. That explained her averted gaze, then, and the realization made my heart sink a bit. I was making it that much harder on her.
“Frankly,” Surgriel replied to each in turn, “we were willing to accommodate your preferences on whether we would keep to ourselves or not. We are in no ethical position to be making demands. And what sort of compensation would you have in mind?”
“Food. Perhaps other supplies. Perhaps information.”
“Food exports from Palateca have stopped entirely,” said one in agreement, and several others followed suit, evidently worried about feeding everyone in their respective groups.
“That was one of the secondary matters of business,” Elva stated, trying to steer the conversation back on track. “I’m not sure how appropriate it is to demand people pay just to be allowed to live somewhere.”
“Then just frame it differently,” one exasperatedly replied. “If they’re going to live here, they’d need to share resources with us, right? Belenon has always agreed with such policy.”
“Belenon doesn’t even exist anymore thanks to them.” It was not immediately clear who made the remark, but it prompted a flurry of verbal activity from many others. Concerted effort from Elva and a few reasonable people brought the room back down to a manageable level soon afterwards, though. Surgriel, appropriately, offered himself no defense there.
“We needn’t remind everyone that Surgriel and his faction are not responsible for what our mutual enemies have done to us,” she stated harshly, capping off the matter.
“We are deeply sympathetic for what atrocities have been committed here, and are willing to do what we can to set things right,” was all Surgriel said, after Elva’s last statement. “On the subject of what we have available, our various material resources are not exactly stored and accessible in what is typical fashion for you, but we could provide food aid if needed. As for information, was there something in particular you wanted to know?”
“First, elaborate on what you just implied, about your materials.”
“Ah…” He hesitated there, seemingly more due to a struggle to convey his thoughts properly than an unwillingness to do so at all. “Our capability of doing so is limited, but we rely on converting one form of matter into another, rather than keeping bulky stocks of what we need. I am not sure how to explain it in any further detail.”
This was not the most foreign concept likely to be discussed today, given that such things as the transmutation he seemed to cite were hypothesized by various alchemists in the past. All the same, to be able to rely on it to that degree highlighted their technological level, and again a wave of hushed conversation rippled around the table. A good deal of it was centered on the possibility of obtaining transmutation from their people as part of the compensation that Aysa proposed, and it was an idea equal parts tempting and frightening, I felt.
“Do you know what the other Yleini do when they capture prisoners?” Aysa blurted out amidst the murmurs. She might have been holding onto that with the intention of asking it from the very beginning, which made sense. We all wanted to know on one level, and on another… and that was even more scary than their technology.
“Unfortunately yes,” he grimaced, clearly not eager to say it. “The Aichleini mandate forced assimilation of ‘heretical people’ into their own culture. Their memories are… stripped in the process. Replaced.”
That was nearly as good as death to some people, or worse than death for others, and plenty were making their opinions on this revelation known. At least a couple began demanding to know why they had not been forewarned by Surgriel if he knew about this, but the only answer he had to give was relating to having no way to know how to contact us. Even the people most committed to steering this meeting towards productivity were having a hard time not simply wading through the reality of what he revealed to us.
I could not tell what was harder to accept. Forced assimilation through what amounted to brainwashing, that had to be as good as death. They practically did not exist anymore, all the people they stole from our cities. Elva still had her parents, but many in the town watch were not so lucky. That was such a distant fact before, with how little contact I had with most of them, but it felt distinctly personal now. Who did Kita lose that she was never getting back? Or Nikki, or Lucretia and Jacquir? I never even tried learning or being there for any of them.
Maybe none of us even wanted to treat it like they were truly, permanently gone. Leaving it nebulous let us ignore it most of the time, allowed the assumption that they were prisoners of war that could potentially be released one day or some bullshit. But that was just self serving on my part to think about. I could have still been there for them. I never even tried for anyone but Lily. Even Elva, who has been trying to accept me more than she ever reasonably should, I just blew off basically. What if she lost her parents and I made things worse by being callous and distant constantly?
“This has been a shock to all of us,” Elva’s voice cut through my thoughts, sounding quite shaken herself, “but we need to continue on. Surgriel, do you have an explanation for why their invasion suddenly halted as soon as you were about to arrive?”
That would certainly be another test for him, though we hardly needed any further verifications of his honesty. Elva and I both had the information that Altera gave, so at the very least, this presented an opportunity to compare narratives and try to piece together more truths.
“As far as we can tell, they’re just unwilling to engage us, potentially for similar reasons to whyever we were exiled in the first place rather than executed. We have a benefactor who’s been helping us travel from world to world, which is another factor.” That had to be referring to the ‘entity’ I had heard cited several times before. If it was strong enough to be relevant there, then that was potentially concerning on its own. Several voices seemed to echo that sentiment.
“Elaborate on this benefactor? Is this someone we’re going to need to deal with as well, in terms of your request?”
“I don’t think so,” he answered hesitantly. “I really don’t know how to describe it in understandable terms, but the entity that’s been helping us isn’t exactly going to be making mundane demands like that. We used parts of its body as our vessels – consensually – since it’s sympathetic to our cause. That is the scale we’re talking about.”
People were more confused or flabbergasted at this information than anything, with several different lines of inquiry being voiced at once, not even all directed at Surgriel himself. In general, most people’s opinions were favorable in terms of something strange providing extra insurance against the invasion happening again, though lifeforms on that scale were terrifyingly alien. The closest analogues anyone could think of were the ocean-going species, since nothing on land got very big at all, but they certainly were not intelligent enough to be referred to as sentient entities as far as anyone knew.
From what I could see, it seemed like all the biggest questions had been addressed suitably enough, along with some extras. Elva announced, to general agreement, that they had enough information to start coming to a consensus on whether to grant the request in the first place. Nothing could ever be that simple, though. The matter of whether they would be segregated or not was basically intertwined, and some people were staunchly opposed to one or the other, or both.
One very strong line of reasoning was on the matter of security that both Surgriel and potentially the entity were providing if the other Yleini were just not willing to attack at all if they were involved. The idea of turning them away and opening everyone up to a second invasion was hard to argue for. That did not stop people from trying, though. The main counter argument was the possibility that this was set up somehow, even with how little sense that made. Their invasion did not seem to have gone poorly enough to need a strategy like that. We also knew for certain that he was genuine, but asserting that would lead to a bad situation, obviously.
Even with emotions running as high as they were, with several obstinate members of the opposition not seeming to budge and a particularly energetic performance from Hektor of Seyasta, things seemed to be moving along. My eyes kept glancing over at Aysa out of some morbid need, and she looked as retracted and uncomfortable as ever. It was like a minor punch to the gut each time. I wish I could have been literally anywhere else than here, looking at her. Not like I was needed around anymore, or in the first place even. If only I could have left without drawing attention. How long had this been going on for? They had to call a recess soon.
It became apparent to most people here that things had devolved into repetitions of the same arguments over and over again. There was very much a lack of consensus still, but without any actual likelihood for one to be reached, various attendees began calling to just start the vote already. Of course, even that was contested by the opposition, who felt that the advantage lay squarely against them and that it was unfair. Their concerns were batted aside as the voting process began.
As it started, the tension in the air became so thick you could cut it with a knife, as they say. Lily might not even be able to stomach using her powers at all in an environment like this, since it was bad enough for me. It was possible our continued independent existences rode on this, and while that same thing made the outcome likely to go in Surgriel’s favor, it was still an unpleasant precipice to stand over.
Within minutes, it was time for Elva’s declaration, though anyone could already see the result. She finally confirmed that a majority had voted in favor of allowing this faction of Yleini to settle on the condition of integration – a condition forced by necessity on our parts, with such an enormous lack of manpower. No one exactly felt like cheering at such an outcome, but a collective sigh of relief was breathed by those who felt like this was a necessary decision, a sigh which was echoed by Surgriel at my side.
Mercifully, the recess I had wondered about was also announced, with the final details on Yleinic settling and integration to be handled immediately, then matters of trade and stability after that. Only once some people began filing out for their break did I feel comfortable doing the same. Having Aysa out of the edges of my eyesight took some weight off my mind, but not all of it. Every time I thought I was clear of it, her nearly pained expression came back in full mental view, along with self-accusations. I knew I did that to her, so why did I have to keep saying it, over and over and over and over?!
She would hate seeing me with what I had now. How unfair it would seem to her, after all, that the monster who took someone away from her should taste anything resembling happiness. I knew that. No one actually thought I deserved this, certainly no one harmed by the fact that I still live. Lily and Elva and the others could pity me all they wanted but the world would objectively be better without me around to kill people constantly. I knew that, Aysa knew that, and I still spat in her face.
“Exactly as God intended,” came the stuck up asshole’s voice, bringing my attention back on him, “the vote went through. Integration was their decision.” Seemed like it was time to sit back up.
“Ahah, but did our agent actually influence that appreciably? Oh, and speaking of which-” I stretched, “-how long until they’re coming back? Don’t tell me this is an extended operation, like the guy we have up north.” Boy would that annoy me. Well, it’d probably annoy me less if I wasn’t needed for the full duration, at least.
“Enough. It was actually a nice performance.”
“As interesting as it is to hear you actually give a compliment for once, I’m more interested in the latter question,” I said with some noticeable measure of sarcasm.
“Ask Him yourself,” he spat back, standing up from his position for some reason. “My orders are sufficient for me. I will begin retracting my tools and prepare to return to the stronghold. Dare I ask what further instructions you were given, Jasz?”
Couldn’t hold myself back from giving a shit-eating grin. “Ask Him yourself.”
The pause that elicited told me that he was definitely holding back a reaction to it, but in the end, hold it back he did. With quite the tested exhale, he stretched himself out and started gathering up all the gear he’d carried out here. The flies he sent off yesterday were probably evaporated on-site, and with his experience, it was certainly done out of sight. Much as I hated the jackass, at least he wasn’t an idiot. For myself, I was sitting tight, not stopping his preparations until he looked just about ready to leave.
“By the way,” I started asking, “you didn’t mean to imply He’s still here, did you?”
A shiver running down my spine froze me from the continuation of those thoughts, something that might have been a blessing were the sensation not so terrible. Several tiny eyes sprouted across my back in uncontrolled panic, as if my body could not leave the feeling unanswered, even instinctually. That on its own added to my hysteria, real eyes darting left and right to see if anyone was witness to the brief outburst that I already worked to suppress. No one seemed to be paying attention.
That just left me with this horrific sense of something behind me, even as I turned about to face whatever it was. Nothing. The pavilion entrance was the only thing there, that and the people within it. Nothing that I could see, smell, hear, anything indicated that something had changed, but I knew it had. Where the hell was it? I had no definite sense of direction for the feeling, so I was unsure whether it was an actual thing in the first place. Just as I thought to disable my normal senses and look for the source of the thing through alternative means, the sensations began slipping away.
A hand on my shoulder startled me, with my nerves already rattled, and I abruptly turned to see the concerned expression of Lily. Seemed like I had gotten turned around enough to not see where she would have come from or something. If she called out to me prior, then it seemed to have been in the short duration when I stopped myself from hearing anything.
“Senna, what the hell’s wrong?” she asked, sounding nearly as unnerved as me.
“Did you feel that too?”
“Feel what?” Her brows furrowed. “All I felt is you panicking as I went to catch up with you, and then you didn’t respond when I tried to get your attention. What’s going on?”
“How did you not feel that?! You- no one is reacting at all to-” I stammered, thoughts fraying into several different threads at once. The sensation was gone, but I still felt compelled to look out in all directions and make sure it was not coming back. Not like I could even see it if it were to return.
“Shh,” she commanded, placing her hands firmly on either side of my face. At the same time, I felt her heart calming mine forcefully, chest filling with a warm, gentle feeling to completely replace any lingering fragments of the terror that gripped me so recently. “Okay, now tell me what happened. It wasn’t the compulsion yet, right?”
I shook my head in response, now that it was released. “No, but that needs to be dealt with very soon. It was… I do not know what it was. It just felt like something was nearby that I could not see.”
Neither of our eyes stayed on each other. She said that she had not felt anything herself, but the idea must have unsettled her a bit, because we were both now scanning in various directions. Or had she finally felt it herself? Well, she seemed calm, more or less. Still not looking back to me, Lily changed the conversation.
“It felt like you wanted to get out of here even before this,” she observed shrewdly. “Seems like there are three reasons to skip out on the rest of the meeting, now. Unless you feel like whatever the anomaly was just now could be dangerous?”
“I… really have no idea how to tell,” I had to admit. Her face scrunched in annoyance, likely at the situation rather than at myself.
“Okay, Elva should probably hear about this. Should I also tell her that you’re leaving to take care of the compulsion ahead of time, or are you going to stick around?”
“Good idea,” I nodded, eyes still not fixing on her. “And I- yeah, I guess. That I will leave soon.”
Lily left me with a warm little peck on the lips, accompanied by another pulse of heat in my chest. By now, my nerves had calmed entirely from the weird incident, but in an unstable way; it felt like the sort of thing I would start worrying over intensely if I did not keep it far below the surface, which was an impossible task. The sensation beggared description, for simply describing it in my own head sounded like something one could write off, yet I knew it was significant, in some instinctive corner of my consciousness.
The closest analogue I had to this was the thing I fought after Ratheim pulled back, the unsettling creature that utterly defeated me. Or, it was a person, right? Nykorosk. Hard to keep that in mind when my strongest memory was turning around to see his rent, malformed body still standing. Yet there was no Nykorosk here, and certainly no voice taunting me no matter what I did. It was quiet and the world was as it should be, except that momentary aberration. It might not have even noticed me, whatever it was.
Remembering the events that happened in Belenon made me recall something more specific that I wished not to. In spite of everything, his words got caught in the forefront of my mind again, stronger for all the efforts to suppress it. My knowledge that Aysa would agree with calling me a villain fueled it even more. Any classic narrative would feature me as, at best, something to be put down, and how I wished I could be.
Shut up. Need to shut up. I clung to those two words by mentally repeating them to myself, like I had no other defense against my constant, intrusive thoughts. The urge to hurt myself was there, too, and recognizing it scared me into finally acting. I had to put my mind to something before I tore myself apart, figuratively or otherwise. Lily would prefer that, and I would prefer not hurting her again in the exact same way.
Even if the thing I felt just a minute ago had left, it might be wise to investigate before I ditch everyone. With that decided, I moved out of any potential witness’ line of sight and stepped out of physicality.