Upheaval 3.10

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.”

“Interesting.”

“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.

Upheaval 3.9

The time it took to finally arrive at our destination was about an hour after we actually spotted it, cresting one of the few non-flat landforms in the area. There seemed to be a good deal already set up, and Surgriel seemed intrigued at whatever he was looking at over there. The number of possibilities for why his attention had been so captivated was too high for me to bother thinking about it. By now, the questions had long since died down, and that silence between us persisted even as we approached closer. The only recent words exchanged had been a confirmation that what we sighted was indeed where we were headed.

First thing I was interested in finding out was how many people had made it there before us. Based on distance alone, it was possible we were the last, but our pace had been unexpectedly quick the past few days. Still slower than what I had gotten used to, after having been forced by circumstance to rely on an unsettling, bodiless traversing of space. I certainly was not eager to be reminded of the chaos that necessitated it, though, so a change of pace was nice. Nicer still would be not having to deal with the aftermath.

I could easily make out the din of activity as we got closer, and soon enough, we three were entering what may have been considered the perimeter of the meeting grounds. Due to the nature of the participants, there were not exactly a great number of people milling about, but those on their way to some other place within had their attentions drawn to the other members of our little party. People dressed in all the various customs I had seen in my life united to stare at their visitants. There was a measure of unease there as well, probably born from the unpleasant association anyone would now have with the Yleini.

One of the men was familiar to me. Though I never actually met him or knew his name, that face was imbedded somewhere in my memory… One of the community leaders of Fria, right? I must have seen him during my last- no, second to last visit to the place. It only made sense that he would be attending, given that he apparently survived the attacks. When we were last there, I must have assumed otherwise.

“Look,” I gestured over towards him, which I felt safe doing given that he had already started moving on. “Delegation from the town we visited on the way over here.”

The information was uninteresting to my traveling companions, who simply took stock of him and left it at that. I wagered that Surgriel was affected by the wholly unwelcoming atmosphere; if it were not, I should have imagined him to be much more openly intrigued at meeting even more new people. Kirienne, of course, had no changes in demeanor, looking thoroughly professional this whole time.

First stop on the list was Elva, regardless of any other priority. After requesting that the two of them continue following me, I set out in the direction of the primary pavilion, a location confirmed for me by the third person I asked. Seemed as though she was finishing preparations, with the meeting so close to beginning. Based off that, we were probably either the last ones here, or close to it. Trivial to think about.

Pushing aside the oversized entrance flap, we all in turn left the glare of the midday sun in favor of the tent’s shade, a shade which only Elva and a pair of volunteer workers shared. The latter were setting chairs in place around a great wooden table, a piece of furniture that was noticeably constructed in piecemeal fashion, while the former seemed to be reading over some papers much closer to where we entered. Our advent called her attention, which involved a similar appraisal of the two I had brought. She seemed quicker to take it in stride, at least.

“You must be Surgriel Sacroline,” she deduced, homing in on the man just behind me. I stepped aside to allow them to speak more readily. Taking that opportunity, she stepped forward and extended a hand. “My name is Elva Krasel. I’m currently the leader of the Hatelite survivors, and the organizer of this meeting. I’d like to formally greet you on my people’s behalf.” She really was acting it out like a proper representative. Sure outdid my own clumsy attempts at something similar.

“Indeed, this is a pleasure,” he replied, having accepted the offer of a handshake. Seems like the custom was not foreign to them.

“Should we wait elsewhere, sir?” Kirienne asked from the side. ‘We’? Lumping me in with her, huh. Not like our jobs were anything similar.

“I don’t think that will be necessary, but do you agree, Miss Krasel?”

“No, this is fine,” she responded, taking a moment to turn back and make sure the volunteers were either still working or finished. Seemed to be the former. “You’re one of the last arrivals. We’re just waiting on those from Seyasta now, and depending on timing, we might have the meeting begin tomorrow, or the day after.”

“I suppose we should set up a place to stay in the meantime. Kirienne, would you go find an available spot and get started?” After a brief acknowledgement, she left to do exactly that. The supplies they brought along obviously included tents of their own, which I had noticed were fashioned similarly to the packs themselves. All appearances made me think that the entire set of items they had chosen to bring along had been created on the spot back when we first set out, and it was still weird to think about how that was possible.

“Senna.” Hearing my name spoken jolted me out of that train of thought. Elva continued, “We need to discuss something after this is finished, but in the meantime, you probably want to see Lily, right? Her tent’s northwards, the darkest blue one.”

“Ah, uh… thank you, I suppose.” Did she actually care, or just want me out of the way for whatever she needed to talk about with Surgriel? Our last big conversation actually did give the impression that she cared, but this was stupid to think about. Rationally, the distinction did not matter here, but the one possibility would bother me even while it had no effect on the outcome.

With the two of them taking a pair of seats, my cue to exit had come. Transition from the cool shade to direct sunlight was noticeable to me in spite of my tolerance, but the breeze was picking up a bit. That was nice. Moreover, the small size of this encampment made navigating it trivial, which was also nice. A spectrum of rather bold colors used made picking out the dark blue of the lot come quickly once I was in the right place. Aside from some people dealing with the minutiae of day-to-day living, it was quiet here.

Yes, it seemed like Elva was right; I was missing Lily. Almost made me feel nervous somehow, which I could only chalk up to this having been the longest stretch of time I had been away from her ever since we met. It was more boring than anything, too, given that practically nothing had happened during it. The most excitement we had was a brief stop in Fria, after Surgriel noted its existence and wanted to take the opportunity to restock some of their food. Said excitement was nonexistent after both Kirienne and I insisted that no one but myself go in there, for obvious reasons.

Getting barreled over before I even entered or made myself known was not on the list of expected events, but Lily had located me via extra sensory input before, so having her know to come out and tackle me to the ground was little mystery. Well, why she was so physically exuberant about it still was, but having my loved one suddenly on top of me, smiling down with the light filtering through her messy hair, was nothing short of rapturous. Guess it worked perfectly for sharing her mood with me.

“Missed you,” came her brief statement of motive. The next moment was filled with her entirely as she leaned down to kiss me, blocking out any sight or scent other than her’s. My arms wrapped around her body eagerly – too eagerly for the public nature of the venue, come to think of it. We both sat back up the next moment, as if both sheepishly retreating from the same thing.

“I missed you too,” I giggled quietly. “You sure seem to be in a good mood. Are you well?” I liked it when she was well.

“Well, now that you’re here,” she made clear, standing up and taking my hand to prompt me to do the same. “And Elva’s not being unbearable or anything, which is really good since just thinking about what we’re gonna do if the warning’s true is stressing me the hell out.”

“About Surgriel?”

“Mhm.” Lily pulled me into the privacy of her tent – indeed, Elva called it her’s, so they seemed to have brought two separate ones? – before speaking any further on the subject. “He’s here, right?”

I nodded. “He also brought one assistant, but no one else. Overall, he seems to have a very humble attitude, or perhaps just very grateful.”

“Which is good to see,” she sat herself down on her bedroll, “but could just be an act. Well, you knew that. Did you get to talk to Elva alone?”

“Not yet,” I answered, taking a seat comfortably beside her.

“We’re probably going to make a final decision on how to handle this once she’s done talking to our new guests, then. She mentioned wanting to wait for you to come back before she did that.”

“So I should hold my questions on this, too,” I chuckled with the bare tinge of something to my tone. Not sarcasm, but I was certainly recalling all the questions I had to stifle on the journey over here.

“Hm? Is it annoying to have to wait on it?”

“I would just like to get all of this over with already,” I sighed, pressing my face into her neck gently. We both certainly felt that way. She simply pulled me into a gentle hug, with an implicit message of understanding in it. That made me feel a twinge of guilt, which in turn caused me to pull away from her. She told me before that feeling the duty to babysit other people emotionally was draining on her, and she was already feeling stressed right now. I should not have been adding to that, not in a million years.

Normally, I imagine she would have tried to stifle what I was feeling herself. Empath though I was not, it almost felt palpable beneath her expression, which was fixated on mine. Lily was still silent, though. Wanting to see what I did? Not sure what to do, herself? With my eyes wandering somewhat over her face during my contemplation, a new fact struck my awareness.

“You are starting to tan a bit,” I pointed out aloud, utterly uselessly. That broke through the moment and brought her laughter to my ears.

“You’re right,” she agreed, voice containing nothing of whatever possessed us the moment before. “Never spent so much time in the sunlight until recently. But I’m sure that was obvious to anyone. There’s really not many people as pale as- well, as I used to be, huh?”

“No, but I always thought it suited you. I like how you look, paleness and freckles all.” My hand reached over to stroke her now-flushed face. That was a cute response, very very cute. Wanting to cap off my prior feelings without exposing whatever that was again, I simply asked her, “Is there anything I can do for you right now?”

“There is, in fact,” she said with a devilish little grin. Taking hold of the hand which was just in contact with her cheek, she pulled me into another kiss, this one unrestrained thanks to our privacy. We really, really missed each other. It did not take long for this activity to bloom into something even more intimate, in spite of half-hearted worries over whether Elva would finish her tasks and look for us before we were done.

As it turned out, we had ample time to spend on each other, which I was greatly appreciative of. Every opportunity to be with her just made me happier, especially when I could help get her mind off less pleasant things. Lily was unused to this amount of heat at first, what with the lack of cooling sigils in place and our proximity to each other, but cooling my own body down a ways seemed to mostly relieve the issue. Granted, she also expressed a preference for when my skin was warm whilst availing herself of the opposite. I could just warm up for her again if she wanted it.

By the time Elva asked to enter, we were simply cuddling together and passing between various conversations of no import. Of course, we had also forgotten to bother getting dressed in the meantime, again. Luckily she was fine waiting for the half a minute or so that it took for Lily to slip into whatever she had lying around. Once we were both presentable, Elva entered and took everything in an altogether too serious direction, however necessary it was.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to touch bases with you before,” she apologized, clearly directing it at myself. “Couldn’t really get a good opportunity since it really wasn’t something I wanted anyone else hearing.”

“I understand. It was nice being able to unwind for a while, on the bright side.” In spite of that not being a lie, it never sounded genuine even to my own ears when I tried sounding that chipper. Lily wrapped an arm lazily around me in response before speaking.

“Let’s not waste any more time here,” she said with a starkly different tone than just a bit ago. “We need to figure out exactly how we want to go about this, now.”

Elva’s mouth quirked to one side. “Obviously. Now, we didn’t have you, Lily, involved in the initial conversations because it’d be way too obvious to introduce him to someone and then pry about his intentions immediately after. The only way I’ve been able to come up with thus far is to wait for the meeting to start, at which point he’s expected to tell us as much as he can. Lily will be attending at my side, so it won’t look like anything more.”

“How am I supposed to convey what I find out in the midst of the meeting, though?” Lily wondered, sounding increasingly annoyed. “We kinda need to have the verdict immediately so we can actually make a decision on whether or not to go along with him.”

“Did you not tell me that I would need to testify about my experiences here?” I interjected somewhat hesitantly. Indeed I recalled her mentioning that to me a while ago, but we seemed to be operating under a different assumption now.

“If we can know for sure without spreading unnecessary information,” came Elva’s reply, “then that’s the better option. I’d prefer Surgriel not to learn about your contact with one of the other Aichleini; it might change his behavior or attitude unfavorably.”

Lily put a hand to her mouth. “I have an idea for it.”

“Oh? Lay it on us.”

Her expression was quite clearly reluctant in some way, for some reason. After a few seconds spent mulling everything over, she shook her head and backpedaled from the question.

“Do we have any knowledge about the other people attending this?” she asked us instead of answering. “Like if there’s anyone like me among the two Yleini here, or any of the leaders or their helpers.”

“Surgriel was mentioned as having some sort of overwhelming defensive power, but nothing else. He did not seem empathic. Neither did Kirienne,” I laid out for her, or for both of them really. It was relevant information.

“Mutations like yours are much more esoteric than even superbly strong physical qualities like mine,” Elva mused aloud, shifting her weight slightly. “There might not even be another person who possesses something similar alive right now, after the Yleini attacked. Plus, remember history class? The, uh… Right, the First Imalpa Conference?”

Whatever that meant, Lily seemed to gather Elva’s implication immediately. Unfortunately I was never exactly educated in history, at least not at a time when I would have heard of this. If nothing else, I could recognize the name Imalpa as belonging to a city on the continent of Taimont; from what I understood, it was one of very few contact points between peoples of the two landmasses.

“Yeah, I know, no one wants a repeat of that,” she finished the captain’s train of thought, “ourselves included. That’s why we’re keeping the purpose of my presence here a secret from everyone rather than just the Yleini. I already figured that much, which is why we needed a way to covertly convey my findings.”

“Right.”

“Are you prepared to tell everyone the entire truth if it turns out that Surgriel is holding hostile intentions, Elva?”

She took an eternal handful of seconds to compose her answer to that question, during which we both just watched her face. Lily seemed very quick to expand into another line of thinking when asked what her idea was, and I imagine we both went along with it for the same reason – that she needed a bit more information to form it fully, and would elaborate afterwards – but now she was continuing along this divergence. Was she not wanting to disclose it to her? Or to me?

“If Surgriel holds hostile intentions and public opinion seems to shift towards accepting his proposal irrecoverably, then yes, we’d have no other choice,” she responded at length, obviously disliking the taste of that option.

I felt the same way, in all honesty, though not for the same reason as her. This was a messy situation, and all we had were messy ways to go about dealing with it. Certainly there was a better course of action we could have taken somewhere down the line, but we did not have access to it now. We had to deal with the situation as it was, and because of that, simply allowing for the public vote to happen with the intent of sabotaging it if necessary seemed altogether too spineless for me. My instincts told me that we could not afford trying to rely on that, not if the threat Surgriel posed was real.

“Anyways,” Elva continued after that short pause, “where are you going with this? Is your idea compatible with what we’ve laid out, or…?” Again, Lily seemed to have something preventing her from being comfortable coming out and saying it.

“I might, but it involves Senna, and I’d need to discuss it privately with her,” was all she offered. Elva was not exactly jumping for joy over this, but neither was she throwing a fit.

“Alright, fine, I guess I’ll step outside? Just please figure this out quickly. We really need a gameplan.” With that, she excused herself, and I could hear her taking several more steps than was needed to simply clear herself from the tent; she was definitely respectful of our privacy. I would have let Lily know that, but she probably felt the very intentions that lead to what I heard.

Now was my turn to begin asking. “What are you thinking, love? It seemed like you were uncomfortable telling her for some reason, so I wanted to refrain from bringing it up myself.”

“She doesn’t actually know everything that you do,” she hurriedly explained, tension suddenly radiating from her voice. “About my mutation, I mean. I kept things hidden because it seemed like something they might be scared of, or want to use immorally, or stuff along those lines I guess. I don’t know.”

That was enough context for me to guess which part she was referring to. Thus far, the manipulation component of her abilities was always used beneficially and with consent – though she might have used it just to calm someone down without them knowing at some point – but that was certainly something that would end up downright terrifying in the hands of someone who cared for neither morals nor ethics. Given that, and how long the withholding of information has likely gone on for, she might be starting to feel trapped in it.

“Well, I… certainly understand why you felt like you had to hide it, but- oh!” I exclaimed, interrupting my own thoughts for once. “And that is why you asked about other people’s capabilities. You wanted to know if we would be caught, had you tried to use a specific emotional input as a signal to me. Right?”

“Huh, you got it right,” she grinned.

“You say that as if it were surprising for me to get something right,” I teased in a most obvious fashion. Definitely for her.

“You know what I mean,” Lily feigned a grumpy frown, just barely able to make herself appear sullen. It was only for a moment, though. “It’s just neat that you connected the dots and I didn’t have to say anything. Usually I’m the one who connects things easily, and then everyone else needs way more explaining.”

“I still needed some. More importantly, though, I think this can work, as long as Elva trusts that the information was delivered and does not try to pry into it.” After a few seconds musing, I laid out the scene. “So we start the meeting, you and Elva are beside each other, I am on the other side near Surgriel under pretenses of being his guide over here. You give me the signal; if he is actually hostile, I use the opportunity to kill him before he can be aware of-”

“No, no.” Okay, there was the mandatory outside interruption. “Elva wanted to try sabotaging the vote, remember?”

“That seems silly when we do not even have any indication that people will be inclined to agree under the best circumstances, if you think about it.”

“My point stands.”

“Alright, so if sabotaging the vote fails, then do I take him out?” I asked insistently. “We are talking about a hypothetical situation in which he is a horrific threat so dangerous that the invaders who nearly eradicated our civilization and completely destabilized our way of life are unwilling to even get near him and the entity he is allied with. He is also functionally unkillable without a total surprise, in this scenario. If not during the meeting, while I am directly adjacent to him, outside his line of sight, and in an event that will keep him fully occupied, then when?”

In spite of all the doubts raised even from the very beginning, I could never simply dismiss what Altera said, not until we got to this point and confirmed it one way or another. In spite of those doubts, I still found myself on edge during this topic. My reactions and tone would have been much more reserved, or even laid back, if I could ignore what was likely to be the lie in all of this. Then again, even in that likely event, there were so many mysteries at play here. Even if he was benevolent towards us, it was clear that the other Aichleini were completely unwilling to engage him. That was just flat out disconcerting. He had implied that he would clear everything up during this upcoming meeting, but until then, my judgment was incomplete.

“…I don’t know,” she finally conceded. “Let’s just get Elva back in here.”

Having concluded the private portion of the conversation, Elva was brought back in, and we filled her in on everything that Lily was willing to disclose. That is, everything except exactly how I would get her message; the captain seemed fine accepting that after a moment of thought. She seemed quite trusting of her. The more important business was the matter of which hypothetical way to deal with Surgriel we should fall back on. Elva even said it was a good assessment after I laid out my logic for her. Good and dissatisfactory seemed to not be mutually exclusive here, unfortunately for me.

“Surgriel’s threat in the hypothetical scenario can’t be understated, of course,” she agreed, “but killing him at the drop of a hat would leave us with such an unstable environment, I’m worried. With regards to the others in the meeting that is. I don’t know how our credibility can be maintained with how much we’re hiding, and it’d be horrible to try and use you as a scapegoat for it.” Was I to interpret that as the thought having crossed her mind?

“I mean, I know that it’s still good to consider the worst case scenario, but we shouldn’t forget the fact that he could legitimately be our friend,” Lily pointed out. Indeed, I had to agree, since I already thought that was more likely.

“And either way,” I sighed, standing up to stretch, “I believe we have hit the limit on how much we can simply plan for future actions. We need to get in there and do it now. Well, not now, but whenever the last people get here.”

Elva perked up at the mention of that. “Speaking of which, we sighted a small group heading over here just before I came to speak with you two; they’re not here yet, but that’s probably them. If that’s so, they’ll probably set up here and get a good night’s rest, and we’ll call the meeting to finally begin on the morrow.”

Lily’s and my eyes met fleetingly at the mention of it finally commencing so soon, even though we had a bit of time between then and now. More accurately, that was how I felt, and I imagined the same for her. The two of us decided to leave for the moment and try to see if they were indeed the people we were expecting, since it was implied they could reach us by the end of the day. Elva, however, asked to have a moment to speak to me in private, saying that it would not take long. Lily’s reaction conveyed the idea that whatever this was held some measure of unpleasantness, but she agreed to go on ahead.

“I wanted to warn you about something before tomorrow,” Elva began to explain once Lily had taken off. “Do you know who Aysa Retinim is?”

“The name is unfamiliar to me.”

“She’s the leader of the Ophentum, and thus attending this meeting. I spoke to her privately a couple days ago, and in the process seemed to learn that there’s more going on here than I previously knew.” That was some exceedingly strange wording. What was she implying? Her sigh preempted any questions on my part. “Was really hoping you’d know her, because I have no clue how to figure any of this out otherwise.”

“Figure what out?” I asked, brows furrowed with appropriate confusion. “Did she tell you something about me?” That was the only conclusion I could come to at the moment. In response, her head shook almost exasperatedly.

“I don’t know. I thought you were considered to be a mostly normal case for them, but she was so volatile that it seemed like a personal vendetta, rather than normal business. She wanted to know where you were.”

Having direct confirmation that the leader of the Ophentum herself seemingly wanted me dead was hard to process. I knew they as an organization would have wanted me dealt with due to what I could not control, but this had to be more than that. She had a full on grudge against me… and if I had done something to her, I legitimately would not know at this point. It was just another reminder that everything would have been better if I could die, just like I would be a direct reminder of whatever event made her hate me.

“What am I supposed to do about this? Is she going to try and attack me, or what?”

“I don’t know,” her head shook again, “but I think she’s at least going to be civil about it for the meeting. I don’t know what’s going to happen afterwards. Just… try not to interact with her at all. Best way to avoid it would be to have you skip the meeting entirely, but I don’t think we can afford that, either.”

As unsatisfying as it was, this was all we could get. At least I was probably not about to get jumped by someone I did not know. Now that we were finally, actually finished with all the discussions, I could move out to rejoin Lily. Elva said that she wanted to spend this time on unfinished work, so I simply gave her a farewell and a wave before she left.

Having her as an ally was still bizarre to me. Having anyone, even Lily, felt unearned on my part, like I was unworthy of it. This woman would probably say that was the case, right? I… almost certainly killed someone close to her. I knew that was not me, it never was, but something inside constantly whispered about how no one should even tolerate me, much less actively be my friend, my ally, my lover. I never knew why any of them cared about me in the first place. At least with Aysa, I could understand her wanting me dead.

Looking to banish those kinds of thoughts, I set myself to rejoining Lily. Walking amongst tents and scattered, small groupings of people had become the norm for me recently, for all of us, given that that was the constant state of our own survivor camp. I guess it really was mine, too, if I was settling down with Lily. If I was being allowed to. That camp would soon move away and transition into a more permanent settlement, but in the meantime, it did not feel out of place for me to have a repeat of that scenery here, making my way between the sleeping quarters of everyone who had gathered.

We already knew where they would be approaching from – the logical direction, given Seyasta’s location – so I had a good idea of where I would be finding Lily, as well. Once I caught up with her, she expressed curiosity about what Elva had kept me for, and asked if it was too private to share. My emotional state probably had something to do with why she wanted to be involved. I gave in and relayed to her the news that the Ophentum leader had a personal grudge against me, and she seemed to understand.

The topic very purposefully swung around back to the reason we were standing here: the approaching arrivals. That was better to dwell on. I had to wonder if it would be the same man I met back at their own survivor camp, when I went there on Elva’s behalf. The mayor of that quaint little place. If he was still alive, it would certainly be him coming all this way, I believed. He might very well recognize me, and no matter which way I sliced it, it did not seem like that presented a complication, so all was well.

As it turned out, they were closer than predicted. By the time Lily and I had gotten clear of the camp perimeter – something she saved til I rejoined her – they were well within line of sight, and probably aware of us as well. We had to look like some kind of welcoming committee. Eh. That was not exactly why we were here, but since we were, why not expedite getting them in? With Lily shrugging and agreeing, we decided to handle the introductory speech about having them set up shelter somewhere nearby. Should be an easy enough task, after all.

“They should be close now, yes,” I answered, more mentally than vocally. The trees seemed to shift around me in punctuation of the response that resonated through my body. God was pleased. God wanted us to continue monitoring the agent as they entered the camp. It would be done as God wanted.

Heat flared beneath the skin of my outstretched palm, and as the space within overlapped onto the space without, a seed of blackness sprouted from nothing, growing into the yet-twisted form of what would become my next set of eyes. The crows would be inappropriate in this environment. I ended up hesitating for a moment, my mind filtering through the designs I had memorized for whichever was best to use here. Eventually I decided on a hardy species of flying insect, with some alterations to make it worthwhile as a spying device. All my tools needed to be changed like that, after all. I was getting quite good at it.

The amount of mass that had manifested was far too much for just one specimen, which was good; redundancy was a virtue here. A veritable swarm, minor though it was, had soon been fully formed, and I thereafter spread it out through the air in as natural a manner as possible. It took several seconds of my full concentration just to adjust how much sensory input I received from the new eyes, as well as how I parsed the data. This was also something I had long practiced for, long mastered even.

“Ahahah, you have that look on your face again,” came an irritating voice off to one side. I didn’t bother looking in his direction.

“Why are you here?” I simply asked him. “God had not assigned you to this. Or if He did, I was not told.”

“Not my fault if you’re being left out of the loop. Surgriel Sacroline’s presence warrants having me nearby, in case something happens that we’re not expecting.” It was as if he possessed a gift for wording things in such a way as to rankle me to no end. Even still, the rationale he provided was sound, so I had to accept it.

“So long as that is not implying your own judgment was used, rather than God’s,” I acquiesced, shrugging in spirit if not in action. He took that as invitation to close the rest of the gap and sit directly beside me. I almost physically bristled.

“What?”

“What are you doing.”

Now I could see him frown out the corner of my eye. “Sitting down, asshole. Tell me when this shit starts and then give me the play by play.”

“I believe they will not begin their meeting until the following day,” I responded, still unable to filter the displeasure from my words.

“Then wake me up for it.” With that, he leaned back and made as if to nap. God only knew whether he actually intended to sleep all the way through til the meeting, but I didn’t care enough to clarify that. Taking stock of the camp and the people within it took precedence.