How many hours had it been by now? Or longer, even. Time was obscenely hard to gauge in this state of being. No matter how many times I looked, the area was empty of anything truly abnormal. There were absolutely no hints as to what could have made me so fearful earlier, even as I scanned further and further outwards in useless circles. A couple travelers here or there, ample amounts of flora, and nothing else. There really was just nothing. Lily got no impressions either, but I knew there was no way I could have imagined it.
Air brushed against my cheeks as they newly formed, and in the next few seconds, I could open my eyes again. Camp looked to be a few hundred meters away, and it looked exactly the same as it did earlier. By the fact that I could see people milling about, it seemed like their recess was still going. That, or not everyone was bothering to attend the follow-up? I obviously had not spent that long looking around, in any case. The sun made that clear too. I had not wasted much time, but a waste of time it certainly ended up being.
I had to admit that. There were no clues as to what I felt earlier and whether it meant anything. Wasting time like that so close to… to that deadline was potentially disastrous, but here I was. And Elva was even expecting me to be completely gone by now, right? With Lily telling her just as much. They were fine as far as I could tell, so there was no reason for me to stick around any longer.
There were no more excuses readily pulled out for me anymore. No more distractions, no more freak coincidences that made me lose my nerve. No monsters coming out of nowhere, even though it felt like that just might happen again. The deadline was staring me in the face, and it still felt scary. I thought I was prepared to do it that night, but… I never did this willingly before. Maybe I have been less prepared than I hoped, all this time. Even now, all I did was stall for time by mulling everything over far more than necessary.
So pathetic. I was always like this, or worse. It was time I took that first, real step.
The past… hour? half an hour? had been spent just staring up at the afternoon sky or the ground beneath my feet, refraining from contact with the other representatives entirely. It was all I could do just to try and gather myself. Ekkan opted to focus on the bureaucracy, wrapping up any final discussions in my stead, before we departed. Just in case I still didn’t feel up to it if we got called in again. It should have been my responsibility, but he understood. He always did.
In retrospect, Ekkan was completely right, at least in a certain way, and I had to be thankful for him. What if he wasn’t here? I might’ve struck out against Elva, cost the Ophentum the position it direly needed. Could’ve even compromised the entire thing, if I had blown up further and attacked that… attacked Senna. I was never going to get used to that. To having a name for this… woman. Or even viewing her as a woman.
Her face had already been burned into my memory, and she still looked exactly as I remembered her. For the most part. That pitch-black substance she formed out of, before her actual face had even been revealed to me, let me believe for years that it had to just be some sort of mindless monster, an abomination like anything else I’ve grown used to killing recently. That was the easiest conclusion.
And yet, somehow, she just participated in a diplomatic meeting, in whatever minor way she did. A meeting that concerned what was possibly the future of our species’ civilization. She had the trust of others, enough so that Elva even vouched for her, tried explaining away her actions. She had friends. Mindless monsters shouldn’t have those, not as I ever understood them.
I found myself leaning even further forward in my seated position, entrenched as I was in these thoughts. My breathing quickened, which I was quick to notice and less quick to get under control. This thing didn’t deserve friends, deserve to be defended. She didn’t deserve having people around who were willing to turn a blind eye to murder, to excuse the acts. Whether she was somehow some sort of pawn on Senna’s behalf or a genuine ally, Elva wanted me to believe that Senna wasn’t to be blamed, that she should be forgiven.
Who knows, maybe she wasn’t the utterly monstrous creature that I thought she was. Maybe I’d been chasing down a person, as Xander had said. So WHAT?! Then she was just a murderer, and murderers still answered to justice, last I checked. What about her victim in Hateli that Elva sent me a transmission on? His friends, his family? My family? Was I supposed to just forget everything and let her go?
In a fit of aggravated energy, I stood myself up with a jerky motion. I needed to walk. Somewhere, anywhere. Didn’t matter. This just… I didn’t understand. Elva tried to excuse her. Ekkan wanted me to stop worrying about it. Xander argued against my search entirely. In such a short time, everyone was turning their backs on me, again. For the second time, the people I trusted with this have threatened to abandon me.
No, no no no no, shut up. Not Ekkan. He just said he was worried about my health, wanted me to focus on my people. He didn’t tell me to stop, right? No promises, that’s what he said. I just needed to get better. Even I knew that. He could be trusted. He understood what I had to do. He knew that she couldn’t be allowed to just walk away after everything she’s done, let alone live a happy fucking life with a bunch of undeserved friends.
Shit. My breathing. Again. I instinctively moved to lean against the nearest object for support, let me focus my mind, but the only things around were a bunch of tents and other shit that wasn’t worth pushing my weight on. It’s fine, I was fine. No one was betraying me. That was absurd, paranoid. The reality was nothing to be scared of. What was Elva saying about her earlier? Or, trying to say, at least. That Senna wasn’t doing this intentionally, I think. What could she possibly mean by that?
It was bullshit. It had to be. I’ve seen what she can do, what she very well has done. There was nothing unintentional about it. Or what, was she coerced? Then she was still conscious of the deed. Was it some sort of arbitrary compulsion? Then she was still a menace to everyone around her. The answer didn’t change no matter what the circumstances were. I wasn’t wrong.
God damn it all. Too many questions had no answers, and that left me with no idea what to even think anymore. I wasn’t wrong, but I definitely wasn’t sure of myself on any other front. It would be so easy to just dump the issue and leave her as another bullet point on the list of marks, but I couldn’t do that. For all my assurances, I needed to truly know what was going on before I could do this, and if anyone was able to give me the answers I needed, it was the culprit herself.
She was here, wasn’t she? I had no idea if I was ready for this. My encroaching hyperventilation made me think I wasn’t. The meeting itself was murder, but in the end, it was all just posturing. It was relatively easy. But face to face, alone… I could finish everything today. I could just make it end. My fingers ended up stroking the hilt of the dagger I kept on my belt, tempting me to wrap around the handle. To unsheathe it.
Launching out of my brief respite, I took to walking again, this time in an active search for that woman. It seemed like very few people had left yet, and she was supposed to be with Elva, rather than the Yleini she had escorted. And Elva was still here, to my knowledge. They’d probably leave together, wouldn’t they? Yet I could find no sign of her, even after glimpsing the Hatelite party. Where the hell was she?
My frustration was interrupted by someone completely unrelated approaching me. I think he was standing by the Seyasta representative? At his obvious attention, I tugged up my scarf on impulse, silently cursing myself in the next moment at possibly drawing attention to it. He, having already gestured to his colleagues and given some excuse to leave, very soon closed the gap between us.
“Excuse me, do you have a minute?”
I did my best to nod without disrupting the position of my scarf, which was about as awkward as it sounds. Shit, I was still holding onto it too. So much for not calling attention to it. I immediately folded my arms down to my side, holding down the right with the left.
“What’s, um, on your mind?” I asked, struggling momentarily to even find the right words. My attempts at speaking without opening my mouth too widely came out as a pathetic mumble, moreover.
“…Are you alright?” he returned with another question, rather than answering me. Or was that what was on his mind? He had that curious look, with narrowed eyes and a hint of a frown, that just irritated the hell out of me. Conversation was never this difficult among the Ophentum. After a moment of mental grumbling, I gave him a closed smile.
“I’m fine,” was all that came out at first, though, and I ended up looking away in the process too. “Again, what’s on your mind?”
He nodded to himself, as if in affirmation of something. “Well, I’m with Mayor Hektor, from Seyasta. We never got the chance to thank the Ophentum for your help. Your people really do go above and beyond the call of duty. I mean, we only asked for you to kill the beast, but then helping us afterwards? Those three deserve a raise.”
I felt a pang in my chest at the mention of ‘those three’ when weighed against the memory of the fifteen I’d sent out on that mission, but that was soon shoved aside by a sense of pride at knowing how much they were appreciated. That was good to latch onto. Make myself sound more pleasant.
“Thank you. Um, I’m sorry, but have you seen Senna here lately? I’ve been looking to, er, catch up with her.”
His look became puzzled. “I don’t believe I recall the name.”
“Surgriel’s guide. She was at the meeting,” I clarified. With that, he seemed to realize who I meant, and gave me one of those apologetic smiles.
“Sorry, I haven’t. I’d like to help, but we’re probably going to wrap things up and head back. Good luck, and give those three my personal thanks, would you?” Without much more fanfare than a brief wave, he began to walk away.
Well, I wasn’t really expecting him to conveniently know, so that was fine. With him and his social interaction out of the way, I started practically patrolling the area, though with pains taken to not appear like some kinda vulture. It seemed like just another act of futility, though. Unless she had gone off to inexplicably hide somewhere in Belenon, or left earlier without her party, she had to be here. I knew Elva and her aid were still here. Should I just speak to her? Bah, no, I almost certainly alienated myself from her entirely at that one point. Asking to see Senna would come across as highly suspicious. She wouldn’t help me.
I felt so tired at this point. Despite not even remotely exerting myself to be physically fatigued, my knees felt weak. I had hoped for answers from Senna herself, but everything pointed to her being gone for whatever reason. Maybe if I hadn’t sat on my ass for an hour, I would’ve found her somewhere, damn it all.
Ekkan found me. He was by himself, staring in my direction with a careful look in his eyes. With my mind half-blanked, I instinctively shuffled towards him, and he sprung into action as if he’d been waiting for that. Even before he fully closed the distance, my gaze drifted to the ground beneath us. His arms wrapped themselves around me.
“You doin’ alright?” he asked, to which I could only sigh shakily.
“No, I’m not,” I had to admit. “All the public speaking, and Senna…”
He placed his hands on my shoulders. “I know.”
I could hear her heartbeat. Every subtle shifting of the world was made painfully obvious when my ears were this sensitive. Hers was not the only motion evident to me, though, thankfully. If she were left alone here, then nothing would need to happen to her tonight. As it was, trying to sate this disgusting compulsion without following all the normal steps would be too great a risk. It might not register if she were alone. It might trigger and everything would be wasted. She needed to die perfectly – it made me shiver just thinking a sentence like that.
Disguising myself would have been possible this time around, since I was still in control. Hypothetically. The same risk was inherent here, though. I was very clearly identifiable in every triggered event, but was that simply a side effect, or a requirement for this to work? It already made me feel limited to looking in villages I had not been to in a long time out of… what was it, shame? Being recognized felt unbearable even as an idea.
She moved. Getting something from behind their house. Now her husband was no longer in the same room as her. Shit. Not finished with the meal she was making though, which was promising. Yeah, she was coming back inside within the minute. They were both right there. It was exactly what I needed. Do it. Move. It was so hard to move. The temptation to shut myself down emotionally just for this was strong, but I knew it was just a crutch I had been using. I needed to be able to do the right thing without relying on that.
Having waited until the sun set at least gave me some more confidence, on top of not having been anywhere near here in quite a long while. Steeling my nerves, I stepped out from the shadowed hallway I had been lurking in. That put me directly between the two of them. At the moment, I still held onto my usual dusky disguise, not bothering to dampen my footfalls, all to provoke the right initial reaction. Letting this fail by not drawing the husband’s attention would be inexcusable. If I had to kill someone, it had to be for a reason.
Horrified expressions and at least one scream were the response to my sudden presence, both of which I expected. Being regarded as a monster briefly was better than people recognizing me as some sort of cold blooded killer. I could never be that. Already a sense of nausea was coming over me, something which I had to force down whilst revealing my actual face to them. That only briefly gave them pause. Just as the man approaching from behind me raised his voice, I stepped towards the woman, preempting both his words and my own withering resolve equally.
I remembered how it felt, every time. Thrusting my hand into someone’s chest. Emulating that in this moment would have made me vomit if I physically could. Now he was screaming from behind me, too, knowing exactly what I just did even if I partially blocked the view. This needed to happen. This needed to happen. Needed to find her heart next. The trembling made that very, very, very difficult, but it happened. And I pulled. My own torso nearly retched involuntarily at the sensation.
Something impacted the back of my head. Wooden. Cooking implement maybe. He picked up the nearest object and swung, it seemed. I barely budged. It sounded like he was crying, desperately trying to hurt me however he could. All that while, my body would not move. After several long seconds of my inaction, the man decided to ignore me and rush past my side to the corpse of his wife. He was asking why. Aloud. Frequently. To me? To whatever he believed in, maybe. Begging now.
He saw my face. I made sure of that, of everything. This should have been perfect. It should work, we should be safe. As long as this hypothesis was correct. Please let Krishov have been right. Please let this not have happened needlessly. Please stop crying.
I know she said that it was I who was accompanying her here, not the other way around, but the entire time we walked – my lord in the fore, of course – I couldn’t piece together anything substantial for why she was even coming along. The foundry was in sight, at least. How much time I had left to ponder the question would be limited from here on out. Our procession was not interrupted once, in spite of the reverence our Aichlein garnered. At least that spoke to her singular focus.
As we passed between the yawning arches of the foundry’s entrance, we both turned our gazes towards finding the person I had originally been dispatched to receive an update from. Naturally, she was not in the initial lobby, but plenty of her assistants were. A work break? They, equally naturally, rose and greeted Aichlein Meneura at her entrance, their formalities crisp and well rehearsed. She took the initiative and inquired around as to their lord’s location. Silly as it was in the face of one of the Twelve, I was starting to feel a bit overshadowed in my job.
Instructions would be difficult to convey properly for this place, so one of the lounging assistants offered to direct us through to the correct room. All the facilities we passed were intriguing even with the barest glimpses I caught on the walk past them. Not all were on their break here, it seemed. In truth, our lord hardly needed any of these people, given her proven genius, but their inclusion was traditional, I understood. Maybe I would pull one or two of them aside after my business was concluded, see what their work was like.
Here was the transition to the primary foundry. The air even from a greater distance than this was rent with a great cacophony, which grew to become deafening as I passed over that threshold. My lord was unaffected, or seemingly so. Aichlein Altera could be seen amongst the great crystalline works, directing these arcane efforts manually. Encased within several rectangular crystals of various dimensions were similarly varied martial weapons, their mass formed of a material somehow… unnerving to look at. It was weird. There wasn’t even anything particularly strange about their shape or composition, aside from two of them being somewhat oversized from my perspective.
“Heyyyy~” Meneura called out with an exaggerated wave, not paying heed to how loud it was or the fact that Altera wasn’t even facing her. The sound levels seemingly heeded her voice and lowered. “It got really boring over in the Temple with you being the one swamped in work rather than Tyronus for once.”
“Don’t tell me you decided to skip too, since I couldn’t make it this time?” she chuckled in response, not bothering to look our way. One hand of hers flitted out and made a sweeping motion as she spoke, moving a pair of empty crystal formations in place against some enormous apparatus.
“Eh, I can make up for it.” The shrug that followed also seemed unnecessary given Altera’s eyes being focused elsewhere.
“Whatever you mean would have to wait,” Altera declared, almost sounding like someone was being chastised here. That would probably be me. Her eyes, indeed, finally left her work and settled on my presence here. “Servant, supply designation and purpose. I don’t recognize you.”
I almost instinctively stepped back a fraction. “Weykal, fourth messenger under my lord Aichlein Ounirok,” came my answer. “An update on your progress has been requested.”
“Ah, that’s why,” she muttered, again motioning with her hand, but this time in my direction. The apparatus she was interacting with formed a thin rectangular data crystal on one side-facet, which immediately deposited itself in my hands. If I had slower reactions, that whole process would have ended very embarrassingly for me. Altera continued with an explanation.
“There’s all the results we’ve produced so far. The initial problems have been trivialized, but mass production remains annoying. Facility requires some overhauling to accommodate the requirements. I’ll have it done well before the next greater cycle ticks over.”
With a bow, I turned and took my leave to deliver this information to my lord.
With the little sycophant gone, both Meneura and I could relax a bit more. Even if there wasn’t anything to fear in having someone like him present, you just can’t speak or hold yourself the same way with everyone. Just as I was thinking about that, though, she again took the initiative by continuing our conversation.
“Looks like your work is turning out stellar,” said she, hand flicking to one side. “That pair’s the special request Nykorosk put in, right?”
I nodded. “Little creep had some very specific design details in mind when we spoke. At least it doesn’t seem like they’re turning out bad, but-”
“They look about as melodramatic and unnecessary as the rest of his style,” Meneura laughed as she interrupted me. Well, couldn’t exactly disagree with her there.
Since, according to these processes, Nykorosk’s weapons still needed some incubation time, I sorted them along with the other items against my machine and left them. Nothing more I could reasonably do except let them continue growing as per my assistants’ projections. After putting most of the foundry on maintenance mode for the time being, I finally turned and gave Meneura my undivided attention.
“Do you have any updates yourself?” I asked her, needing to keep up appearances. “Last I bothered checking, Surgriel made contact but nothing had developed yet.”
“Mm,” her mouth screwed to one side, “it looked like some sort of meeting was convened very recently. Ounirok has been concerned.”
“Thus his request for the status of the specialized weapons?”
Of course, I already knew all of that. They would all be quaking in their boots at the possibility that Surgriel actually successfully contacted such a consistently solid gestalt. Meanwhile, the only reason Nykorosk put in the special request was because he had thoughts about genuinely killing the little kitten I ran into, vulgar cretin that he was. All the same, if she actually died by his hand, she’d simply prove herself to be unworthy of my interest, and of even that barest association with me through the mark on her neck.
Back on topic. “Well, it won’t take too long to install the automation we need. Specific commissions aside, that means I’ll be free pretty soon. Maybe a couple fractions until I’m done for the day? Since I’m not doing all this at once.”
“Not too long,” came Meneura’s response, and her cordial smile. “I’ll stick around and accompany you back to the Temple, if that’s not gonna trouble you.”
“Hope you don’t mind the noise, then.”