Senna 4.3

It was first visible as we turned the latest bend, this intervening copse of trees parting to one side to allow us vision of the place. Mom’s initial choice of destination yielded little fruit, I was told, but I was just happy nothing horrific happened so far. Of course, neither of us were satisfied leaving this unsettled. Every step I took at her side presented a fresh wave of anxiety over what might happen, either here or, even worse, at our next stop.

“Prisha,” she announced, a subtle hint of displeasure coloring her voice. “I have a colleague here who I’m fairly certain can provide some help. In fact, more sure of it than Seyasta.”

“Why come here second, then?” I asked. There obviously had to be a specific reason to that. It was probably far too prying of me to look into things like that, but other worries had dominated my consideration all this time. Being scolded by her felt a little less scary in the wake of that.

Mom resumed walking, prompting me to follow. “I’ve had some bad experiences here. I’m going to need some help from you, but keep an eye out for a guy named Kaill, okay? Uh, about a head taller than you, short brown hair, will probably reek of alcohol. Can’t miss that.”

Okay, she was not mad at me, points there. Who the hell was this ‘Kaill’ guy, though? And how was I supposed to know what alcohol smelled like? I knew what it was, but Mom said she was never much of a drinker, and I never got exposed otherwise. I guess it was supposed to be his behavior giving him away? And the hair. In spite of how utterly vague a description it all was. In any case, I wanted to know more, but it was not like I could just come out and ask what he did. Not when it would be even more blatantly prying into bad experiences.

“Got it,” I said with a soft nod. “Well, what did you need me to do?”

“I’ll be heading out of town soon after we get there,” she began explaining, “or rather as soon as I find where she’s been staying recently. In the meantime, it’d be helpful to know more about our general situation, so if you could scope out what rumors are floating around…” she trailed off, allowing me to finish.

“That would let us see how cautious we need to be, at least?” There was probably more to it than just that, but if so, the specifics did not come to mind immediately. It was another reason to have changed my appearance for this foray, though. Beyond the obvious one. This one was a little more tolerable, too.

“Give us a good grasp of the situation in general,” she corrected. “I’ll keep tabs on you, so don’t worry too much. Once your job’s done, we’ll probably be able to leave.” After my own acknowledgement of that, she fell silent for the remainder of our walk towards Prisha.

Just as we had done the first time, we split up before actually entering the village, trying to remove association between ourselves in case something went wrong. It was a necessary measure, we both knew very well. It made sense in spite of my emotions. In any case, she was well out of sight by the time I entered Prisha; it had probably been several minutes, and given that we were not the only ones coming in at this hour, nothing looked suspicious. At least to me.

Almost made me feel genuinely guilty, how we had to skulk around like this and act dishonestly. Certainly would look guilty to anyone else. Not like that was the only thing to feel guilty over… Right now, though, all I had to worry about was doing the job Mom gave me: collect some rumors. The quaint little tavern at the settlement’s heart was a natural place to start, I imagined.

Compared to- to that one place, though, Prisha was not laid out very logically. Few signs existed to point out general directions to places. Sure, the blacksmith had a sign above their shop or whatever, but that helped me little in actually getting to the right place when it was not in immediate line of sight. Seemingly had no other choice than to ask someone about it, unless I wanted to wander around like an idiot all day.

A deep breath, and I had my social face back on. Needed to keep myself looking composed and pleasant, and looking frustratedly in all directions was not that. Hopefully no one really noticed. Next step was finding someone who looked like they actually lived here so I could get some useful information on where an inn or tavern or something equivalent was located.

Second man I tried proved more helpful than the random traveler I accidentally selected the first time, and it was not horrendously awkward? Only kinda awkward. I really was not doing my best lately, and I could only curse that fact. To cap off the conversation in an equally embarrassing fashion, I thanked him with exaggerated body motions and left. At least my haste meant I did not have to see his reaction to that.

With his directions, getting to the right place was actually feasible, and soon the decorated entrance to Prisha’s main tavern came into view. It had a sign themed after a tree in bloom – one of the local species? It was a nice image. Well carved. After another moment spent idly tracing my eyes over its details, it struck me that I was seriously letting myself waste time by standing outside admiring a wooden sign. It made me more somber than upset at myself, though, because I could guess what was throwing me off. Maybe more accurately, what was making me crave distraction more than anything.

As I stepped over the dirty threshold, my thoughts wandered briefly to where Mom had gone exactly, but it was crowded out in the next moment by a concerted effort to actually do my job. A brief inspection of the interior revealed that it was not very clean. I guess it was normal otherwise, though, and I had nowhere else to work with yet, so it would do.

Several tables were available, but only one was occupied, for a total of two entire people occupying the room. The other person, who I could only imagine was the barkeep, seemed far more promising than a slumped over drunkard. I trudged across the dirt floor towards them and the bar itself, more than a little aware of being one of very few people in here. Seemed very weird to me. Really, there were not enough people in here to warrant my efforts, now that I thought about it. Who was I even going to ask, the barkeep himself?

As I neared, he gestured to one of the roughly shaped wooden chairs, and I seated myself. The natural daylight filtering in through the windows contributed to making it feel nicer. Several generously sized barrels took up the space directly behind him, stacked on their sides against the back wall of the room. Did they trade for all this stuff, or grow the plants nearby? If there was not something more important to aim for, I might have asked.

“Need a drink?” he asked, voice gruff even in its cordiality. “Or is there something else on your mind?”

“Mmmm… something cheap?” I requested after a moment’s thought. It would look weird to not get anything, but I had literally no experience with this stuff, and did not want Mom chastising me for spending more of her money than I needed to.

Without offering any comment, the man turned and counted down to one of the further barrels and filled a cup. It was swiftly offered to me, the liquid within appearing dark and smooth. Well, my first draught of alcohol, it certainly did not look bad. Here I had the idea for a rather smooth motion, and decided to take the opportunity. Gripping the cup offered to me, I pulled it closer and attempted to spark a conversation rather than immediately drink. I bet that looked plenty natural.

“I do have something on my mind, too,” I admitted, as it was as good a place to start as any. “Well, frankly, I wanted to get some socializing in since I have time to kill before, er- before I need to get to work. But, uh, not many people around, are there? Ehm.” Great job there. I only sounded mostly stupid.

He laughed. More of a chuckle, really. “Socializin’? It’s midday, friend. Not sure what you expected.”

That just made me feel even more stupid. This could not be what Mom was expecting from me- well, on that note, what was she expecting? I had little idea of where to go other than relying on a cliche like this. She did need me to perform admirably here, though. Maybe looking for some minor work around here would do better, since that is what everyone would be doing? Even if there was no time to look for gossip during that, I could get invited somewhere.

“I- uh, that is very true,” I laughed stiltedly, trying and failing to appear decently natural. “I guess I just have some time to kill, then. Do you know of anyone needing help around here?”

“What, a little work on the side? I thought you were waiting on some other job you had to do?” Shit, I forgot I implied that. Or directly said it, actually.

“I may not look it, but I have… quite good endurance?” Nice save.

Another chuckle. “And quite the need for some spare coin, I’d wager. Look, my friend’s got a lumber yard, and he’s shorthanded this time of year. You help him out, come back here together, maybe I help you out, eh? Oh, and the drink’s on the house if you agree.”

How the hell did this end up going decently? It made me want to laugh from relief. His next words were directions to his friend’s place of work – someplace a good half-hour’s walk out of town – as well as instructions to greet him on his behalf. ‘Tell him I sent you’, to be exact. Thanking him for the partially finished drink and the pointers, I made my way past the mostly empty seating and out to my next job. First job? First real job, I guess.

“Been too long,” I smirked at her, she who was walking into my home like she owned the place. That was just like her. I set the book I had been reading aside just as she made the first comment I’d heard from her in years.

“Are you still collecting those things? How much have you paid importing so many books? I still don’t get your infatuation with something so expensive.” Oh, great, she was laughing at me. That was just like her, too.

“Scribes deserve to be paid properly for such polished work,” I retorted, “but you seem too obsessed with your own little knick knacks to be able to appreciate it. You didn’t come all the way up here just to insult my choices in knowledge acquisition, did you?”

Without invitation – and granted, she didn’t really need one with me – Lamine took the available chair and sat down across from me, elbow unceremoniously gracing the table in the process. I cleared away several items, moving to stow them where they ostensibly belonged and make my guest feel more comfortable. Not like she looked ill at ease, hah.

“Tea?” I asked.

“Eh, sure. Make it quickly, though.” Lamine’s devilish grin punctuated the sentence in just the way that let me know she had gotten up to something good while we were out of contact. Oh that really brought some memories back. When was the last time she looked at me like that? We might only have been in our older teens then-

Right, right. Tea. Once everything was stashed away, I stepped over into my little kitchen area and started preparing things. Even from this distance, Lamine’s excited energy practically danced through the air over towards me. It might have even been palpable to the spiritually inert rats we both had to deal with. That spoke more to her mood than to their worth, though. In any event, why wasn’t she talking yet?

“You know I’m right here, right?” I raised my voice towards her somewhat. “I can listen to you. What’s got you so delighted?”

“Hah, is that what I am?” she laughed again. At least this time it wasn’t aimed at me. “Well, yes, I guess it is. I’m fucking delighted, Lamora. Listen. I’ve got a kid now.”

“…And? I know that’s not the type of thing to make you happy,” I pointed out, taking the moment to bring the water to its proper temperature.

“It’s not,” she agreed, “it’s about how it happened. In all those books you buy and read, you ever come across the name ‘Chorazom’ by chance?”

“What, that folklore demon-god-thing? Some recorded testimony and oral tradition from Karrian, some of our brothers’ experiments over on Taimont, sure,” I shrugged. The motion only briefly interrupted me from pouring both of our already-finished cups of tea.

“Christ, you got imported books all the way from the other continent?” Lamine groaned unnecessarily, eyes rolling so hard it had to have been painful. Should have known she’d take issue with that, stupid as it was. All the same, that sparkle in her eyes hadn’t diminished as I offered her her drink.

“Hey, don’t change the subject back to me,” came my irritated reply as I sat down. “Why exactly are you mentioning an entity like that right after talking about your kid? Because I don’t like what that’s implying.”

One eyebrow of hers quirked upwards. “You don’t like what that’s implying? Don’t tell me you’re-”

“No, I know,” I sighed in interruption. “I still can’t find it within myself to be surprised at anything you end up doing. Just tell me what happened, or better yet, how.”

“That’s more like it,” Lamine grinned again, adjusting her position against the table. It looked like she was about to start immediately, so her taking a sudden sip of her tea felt almost jarring, but she soon continued, “Anyways, it all started about a decade ago, during a trip to the far south…”

Quite good endurance, my ass. Even if I had an uncanny ability to push through physical fatigue, the day left me feeling drained in more than one way. How many hours was that, working to the bone alongside a bunch of sweaty men? Way more sweaty men than I had ever encountered in one place before. Oh they were nice, plenty nice, but I never wanted to do this again, ever.

Chop. Eli still had to finish that last batch, right. Chop. Most everyone else already set their down by now, including chop myself. Their banter made it apparent how familiar they were with each other, and contrasted my own utter strangeness. I chop was sure none of them missed my discomfort, given how garbage I was at acting. Chop. You know, that was actually very distracting.

The lack of further chopping was finalized by the very faint sound of an axe being set aside – something I was surprised to have picked up on – and a deep, contented sigh from Eli. A quick sweep of my eyes confirmed that everything we had laid out for the day was done, with the only remaining task being to haul this stuff in for storage. That meant I had to come into play again. All of us, actually, but the rest seemed to be enjoying their social break still.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, s3Du/ik[[44-,” he called out, making me wince at the name in spite of his amiable tone. Wait, keep me waiting? Was he taking pity on the ‘new kid’, as it were, or just wanted to avoid interrupting his friends? Either way, Eli had now made his way over toward me, seemingly intent on saving the rest of the labor for today as well.

“Ah, uh, no need to worry.” Good start, ruined by a couple seconds of silence as I mentally grappled with what to follow up on it with. It would sound weird to say I was fine being left alone, right? Like, it would sound insulting probably. So would asking why he was talking to me instead of his buddies. I assumed they were his buddies at least.

“…Mm, well, mind if we sit down? We’ve been at it for a few hours now.” Shit, he really was keeping at this interaction thing. No way to turn that down and not look- no, more importantly, I only came here in the first place to try and feel for any rumors that might have been spreading. This was not the time for anxious bullshit.

We took our seats on a log a ways away from the main group of workers, close enough to still hear them laughing amongst themselves – and it was only as I sat that it dawned on me how weird it was for me to have been waiting by myself without even sitting down for the duration. It was still fine, though, it was fine. Eli was just getting out some food he packed- wait, yeah, food. That stuff I forgot. How many times was I messing up in a row, now?

“Since I have not been in Prisha very long at all,” I suddenly began, trying to move past my general incompetence and distract both Eli and myself from it, “is this pretty normal for you all?”

“Hm?”

“Well, you know, just coming out here and hanging out. Pretty casual,” I shrugged. “And your boss’ friend back at the bar, he was pretty casual about it too.”

His nod came accompanied by a bit of a laugh. “Yeah, well, we all know each other, especially around this season. Don’t have a lot of extra help, aside from you this time. Speaking of which, I hope it’s not too prying, but what brought you this way?”

I had rehearsed this in my head already. Blundering my way through things at the tavern made it something of a focus, so I could only be thankful to be better equipped for this one. While it still had to be vague, I was more confident in telling Eli that I had work that brought me up this way, and that something unexpected meant I had both extra time and a lack of coin on my hands.

“I see, I see,” he nodded again, declining to pursue further information. His discretion was the most appreciable aspect thus far. “Well we sure don’t mind the extra company. How long will you be staying in Prisha?”

“Not sure yet, but I will know soon, probably,” I hedged in just about the vaguest way possible. More importantly, I had to present myself as open as possible to later socializing, so I continued, “In the meantime, I am still free all this evening.”

Apparently once everyone had finished eating, and then some, we would actually start bringing all this stuff in. The others had a bit of a head start on that end. With how much they were having fun together, though, it hardly felt like Eli was holding anything up. I did try to minimize talking so he was not slowed down, but he was fairly insistant. At least it was in a good way. We also got called over halfway through, which greatly increased my acting workload.

More time passed. I even started getting worried about the hour, to little effect. Things seamlessly progressed from sitting around joking with each other to doing the same whilst bundling up and carrying our cargo; it was barely ten minutes before the lumber yard was emptied and we had taken to the mildly muddy roads. The sun was no longer visible in the sky, but maybe that was not saying much, considering the tree cover.

This was sorta nice. The day went slowly, and was as exhausting as I thought it would be – and that part was not even over yet – but this was more genuine interaction than I had really ever had before. Even if I was operating here under false pretenses. Even if I hated the identity I had to wear for everything to work, for my Mom. Hearing the people all around me gave me a sense of comfort I never had being alone or with just one person in that homey little shack.

Our imminent return to Prisha was noted by a couple in our party even before the village properly came into view, out of sheer familiarity I had to assume. As we entered, things seemed more abuzz now, likely due to most people’s work days having ended. Lights twinkled both near and in the distance, signalling further off cottages that still belonged to the community. This was also something that I only rarely had the chance to experience.

The leader of our group, Obenai, steered us all towards one building in particular – or, rather, the storage shed adjacent to it. This would be where we met back up with the man who hired us, who returned several hours before us to attend to business. Indeed, we were waved over once he noticed our return. Obenai went into the larger structure with him while the rest of us busied ourselves storing and arranging the few different kinds of wood we had gathered. This was easy enough, after Eli briefly laid out for me how things were meant to be placed.

“Alright folks,” Obenai began announcing after his return, “we got our day’s pay. Y’all keep that up; I’ll start handing it out.”

Hand it out he did. Once he got around to me and delivered my share, he took the opportunity to officially ask whether I would want to join them at the tavern afterwards. That was exactly what I had been hoping for this entire time, so I obviously accepted, pocketing the coins carefully and stretching my arms and spine somewhat unnecessarily. They were not particularly tired or achy, but I was cognizant of the need to keep up that appearance.

“Not a bad first day at all,” Eli commented with a smile, having brought himself to my side again. He really was dedicated to this ‘making friends’ thing, huh. “Do you have somewhere you need to be, check in on things?”

I shook my head. “Just told Obenai that I would be joining everyone tonight. Tomorrow, we will have to see. I might stop by again.”

“Well,” he chuckled, “I doubt we’ll be doing that again quite yet. It’s not exactly a full-time job or anything. If you’re staying the night, though, do you have somewhere to, er, actually sleep?”

“I was probably just going to use some of today’s pay on a room somewhere… I mean, there has to be an inn, right?”

“You walked into one earlier, didn’t you?” Oh yeah, that- well, I was dumb. And did not bother inspecting the building very closely. Suppressing the urge to shake my head in distaste, I simply followed along with everyone else as they began filing over towards the other end of the village, hearts seemingly lifted by the additional spending money. At my lack of response, he continued.

“I mean, you can spend your money how you want, but it’d be a shame to waste it. I have plenty of room at my family home,” he said with some measure of friendly insistence.

My biggest concern was the complete lack of contact with Mom, or specifically, how that meant I was unaware of her intentions, whether she had anything planned. Staying with someone else might mess something up, but I had no way to know that. Realistically, though, I had to conclude that there was little practical difference between staying at an inn and staying at someone’s house – in fact, the practical difference was that the latter did not waste money, which she would certainly berate me for under most circumstances.

“Alright, I see your point,” I sighed. Hopefully that did not register as an annoyed reaction. “After this, uh, gathering? I guess I will stay at your home.”

That answer definitely made him a bit happier, and more importantly, ended that particular conversation just as the tavern’s sign came into view. This signalled the others to get rather excited, our pace increasing as we neared it, and it also signalled my real job as being about to begin.

The interior was as I expected it to be: natural sunlight replaced by candlelight, and occupied by more people than just one guy and the barkeep. How things progressed from there was about as expected, too, to the point that it all started blurring together. I drank along with the rest of them, one cup leading into the next all too easily. My utter lack of experience here did cause me some worry, but the alcohol was not affecting me that badly. Come to think of it, would I have been able to ignore its effects completely if I had some time to practice that?

I felt each and every minute as it passed, especially as they collectively ticked over into what must have been the first hour, and my efforts still yielded little. What effort it was safe to expend, that is. My boldness steadily increased as people become more drunk, but Eli’s presence was a continuous inhibition. Even if he was not sober, it was possible for him to piece something together about my intentions if he was paying attention. Frequent excuses or requests were needed to pry him from my side, and during those intervening times, leading questions towards others were my tools.

No matter how much I tried, nothing relevant seemed to be coming up. Got plenty of local gossip and recent events, but none of that was necessary, even if it interested me somewhat. Was Prisha just too far north for word of it to have spread yet, or was something staunching the flow of rumors? Not like I had a way to answer that question, really. All the same, I spent the entire day and a good portion of the night trying to scrape this together; Mom had to be satisfied with my efforts.

Things definitely started to quiet down after the second hour had passed, particularly when a large group decided to all turn in for the night. Other than the guys I came in with, no one seemed to spend too long in here, which was probably the healthy decision to make. Only one person was really going overboard, but I could avoid him pretty easily. Eli constantly being around was actually beneficial there.

“Ya know,” Eli said, eyeing another pair of people leaving the tavern, “it really is getting late now. And what, that’s your fifth drink, right? You sure you’re okay?”

“I am very fine,” I assured him, focusing on keeping down the growing buzz.

“Is there anything else you need to do before the day’s over, then?” he asked, sounding more like he was wondering whether I would be going home with him now. Or was that too cynical of me? Taking advantage of it could let me get some time to myself, if just for a bit, though.

“Yeah, let me just, uh, check in on something. Where do you live? I can head over there after I finish up,” I lightly suggested. If I sounded casual enough, maybe he would not ask what I was doing.

His mouth scrunched in dissatisfaction. “It’s kinda out in the country. Don’t know if that’s something you could just find on your own, at night, y’know?” That was a good point, but I still needed this opportunity. Had to think. For a noticeable pair of seconds, apparently.

“Tell me where to meet up with you, then,” I conceded, hoping that would be good enough. I really had nothing else.

He gave me a brief set of instructions to a tree along the main road going north out of town, one that more or less marked where the path split off towards his family property. With one last request for me to be both swift and safe, he headed off, leaving me graciously alone. As alone as one can be in the heart of a village, anyway. It somehow always felt like there was someone tangibly close in these.

I made myself this opportunity, but I was no less lost in terms of how to actively reconnect with Mom and see what she wanted to do next. I did have the info she wanted, after all. As much as I could possibly have gotten. And if she was keeping tabs on me – whatever that meant – then would making sure I was alone after finishing my assignment be enough? That would make sense, right? I just wish I knew where she was.

Even my footsteps were unsure, bringing me hardly anywhere while these thoughts circled around in my head. On top of it all, the feeling of not being alone was getting stronger. I might have wanted to assume it had something to do with Mom if it did not feel so… unpleasant? Dangerous? No idea what was even making me feel this, much less how I could be in genuine danger, but I resolved to at least try to hide myself. It amounted to little distance before I heard someone behind me.

“Hey, kid,” an obviously inebriated voice slurred out, making me jump a little, “you’re all alone. Boyfriend leave you dry?”

Boy- was that referring to Eli? I turned around to face the voice, already disliking where this was going, and inspected the man’s features. My first worry, the one implanted by Mom’s earlier words, was realized: he stood about a head taller than me, with short, brown hair. And was obviously drunk. If this was who she-

“Oi, I’m talking to you, shithead,” he snapped at my apparent lack of response. As the man spoke, he stepped closer, and not even remotely in a friendly way. “Where do you get off coming into town and instantly getting buddy-buddy with my old mates? It pissed me off just watching you tonight, especially around Eli. People just traipsing into our community acting like they belong here, fucking little- Hey!”

I was certainly in no real danger here, but how the hell was I supposed to resolve this? Absolutely no clue. I could not even begin to fathom what had him so upset in the first place, but it seemed like this was getting out of hand, fast. So, I started leaving, equally fast. Avoiding a violent escalation was about the best I could come up with in a panic, so I simply ran into the nearest alley. Easier to lose him like that, and it would put me in a position to have Mom come back – those were my thoughts.

He was not as slow as I expected, given his intoxication, but that on its own should have been fine. What was worse was the massive wooden wall blocking off the end of the alley, something I had not been able to see before turning and taking these vital steps into this space. Could I scale that? More importantly, in time? I did not want to get confronted again, or really learn anything more about why that guy was acting like this, fuck all of it.

“HEY, jackass!” came his somewhat worn exclamation from directly behind me. Probably thinking me cornered, he took several slow steps forward whilst speaking. “Who the hell bolts it into an alley when someone just tries talking to you? At least give me a fucking explanation for why…”

His words stopped reaching my ears, slowly fading out. Mom was there, at the mouth of the alley. My thoughts stopped, and in the next moment, I suddenly had no idea why I was bothering to run away from this man. Why I was bothering not to kill him. Why Mom was smiling at me from such a distance.

Senna 4.2

“…What is this?”

For whatever reason, Mom was holding an unpleasant looking liquid out to me in one of our wooden cups. Fairly certain not even any sort of tea looked this shade of green. Her posture and expression, however, were as insistant as her words.

“Before you go out to Celdan today, I want you to drink this,” she said, words sounding very much like an order. “Just, uh, think of it as a precaution, or maybe a gift. I want you staying safe out there, after all.”

I hardly felt like pressing her on what it was, given that she would likely not give me much of an answer. It was obviously a formula of hers, anyways; asking what something mundane was would probably just cause her to chastise me. Whatever. It annoyed me sometimes, but I could do this much… and it was for my own benefit too, in whatever it did. She loved me, at the end of the day. I had to remind myself of it.

“It looks like the description we got was a little off,” said the first man, “but there’s no mistaking it. This is the witch that’s been abducting people.” What?!

“No! No, I- I am not anything like that, on either count,” I insisted, bare-faced desperation tinging my voice. The armed man taking another step in my direction made me almost trip over myself trying to keep distant.

“Yeah, I’m sure someone we’ve never seen before coming in here asking for an obvious reagent right after we’d been warned about someone with that exact- er, well, near enough description being a known witch up north is gonna be totally innocent.”

Shit, he- that- he was not listening at all, even though that was ridiculous. What was I supposed to do?! I thought I did it like Mom would have wanted, but this still happened. Why was I so stupid. No, how the hell did they even get this information about me to begin with? This could not be happening. Were they seriously- was I going to die for this?

White-hot pain was driven through my my stomach in the next moment, like it was only appropriate for him to stab me once that thought crossed my mind. That was… funny. I could not move. Why. Some disgusting sliding sound reached my ears, and then something trickling onto the wooden floor. More than trickling. I could hardly see it, though. Mom would… want me to heal myself, right? Stay alive? It was so hard to focus on that.

Someone was saying something a few miles away. I think he called me a witch again, or… something about danger… and another streak of agony flashes across my skin, my throat. It was way more than a trickle now. Some deeper part of my mind started panicking, but it hardly mustered the strength to agitate me, much less allow me to move. It kept screaming that I needed to breathe, but I could not. Breathe. Can. Not. Breathe. Or see.

Mom-

I could move my hand again, and hear so well as to pinpoint where the man’s weapon was located, after he pulled it out of me. That seemed unusual, but it was irrelevant now. Ah. I had been on my knees, somehow. It was time to stand up. They were shocked, but there was no time to be shocked. My hand was guided towards the man who hurt me, familiar heat flaring beneath my skin. I was stronger. Something else changed too, but I did not care at the moment.

His sternum was crushed in the process of my following through on the motion. I was clumsy, though, so he simply fell backwards. This was a more convenient position at least. My next movement brought me to a standing position over his broken torso. Oh, I think he was screaming or something. I reached down to my initial, instinctual target and tore the man’s heart from his chest.

-I was better? Nothing hurt anymore. After blinking twice, my attention came to rest on what lay directly in front of me, and what I still had in my hand. I was only barely able to suppress the urge to vomit. Even bringing my other, still-bloodspattered hand to my face in that attempt compounded my nausea. Bad idea. His… his heart fell to the ground, once I let go of it. That was the last motion I could bring myself to perform.

The shopkeep was deathly still, not even daring to scream like his partner had. What was even going on? There was… no way that was actually me. I do not do that. I did not do that. No. Stop fucking looking at me. I wanted to scream that, but my throat was closed, in spite of feeling perfectly healthy in that moment. What the hell had just happened?! What did that? Not me, it was not me, it was not me, it-

“Please don’t kill me,” a man’s voice squeaked off to the side. He was- yes, finally speaking, and he sounded like a mouse. I felt even smaller. I was not even looking at him, or in front of me, or anywhere. My eyes had screwed shut already, because unless I turned my head a great number of degrees, there was no looking away. And I had so little energy.

He was still again. Silent. Even when barely squeezing out the words to beg for his life, he did not move. Well… neither did I. I needed to. Gods I needed to get out of here. Leave, go anywhere, fucking move. Maybe he fainted already, so I could stand without feeling the weight of a petrified pair of eyes on me. Why did someone have to faint because of me at all, or fear me, or beg not to die.

I was bloodsoaked; there was no way I could be seen in public like this, but staying here would be disastrous. Thinking about options in the moment let me calm my breathing a little, gave me something to focus on other than- than things I should not mentally acknowledge right now. Did he even faint? I could not hear him do much but breathe…

After making sure my head was pointed in a safe direction, I finally forced my eyes open. The action somehow legitimately hurt my muscles, probably out of how much I was straining myself. It was in his direction, he- yes, fainted. I had no idea what I would have done if his terrified eyes had met mine just then.

Unthinkingly, not letting myself think, I pushed myself to stand again. My mind had not even registered falling to my knees earlier, not until it was contrasted by the need to get up and walk out. The front door was not an option. Squeezing myself past tables and various kinds of plant-life, I made my way to the back of the store. There had to be a back entrance to this thing, something I could slip out of without being seen.

It was almost too distracting, looking at how many exotic – to me – species of plants this man had collected and cultivated in his shop. Aside from my own interests, though, the backdoor was easy to spot, thank fuck. My hand trembled noticeably as it gripped the handle. Nothing could be heard aside from my own breathing right now, at least. No one was out there. No one would see me. That had to be.

Once my suitably cautious peeking had determined that no one was around, not even in sight, I stepped out into the alley, closing the door behind me as quietly as I could manage. Hearing it shut made me wince, but the situation was the same. It was… mostly silent. As silent as it could be when directly adjacent to the most busy portion of the most busy village in Faenon. This left me only one path to take, the one that did not lead me directly through the market avenues. What even was the alternative?

There were houses over that way, opposite the crowded main roads. There were no people there at the moment, but I could definitely see dwellings. How was I supposed to get over there unseen? It would be tremendously lucky. Maybe I was better off stripping out of these bloodstained clothes or something? Rationally, yes, that would probably give me better chances, but that image compounded my anxiety.

Sitting here stupefied by what I had to do would lead only to being found like this. With an assertive little growl that did little to steel myself, I tore at the garments Mom chose for me, caring little for any damage they suffered aside from how much noise it might make. As it turned out, the noise was inconsequential. Soon, they were folded up to keep as little blood showing as possible and unceremoniously tossed somewhere dirty, out of the way.

I might have tried disguising myself, since I did not like the idea of any face I had already used being associated with- with- no, stop it. The man who fainted inside knows what I looked like on this errand, anyways. Useless line of thought. Making sure I had a tight grip on the only belongings I would be taking with me – the strapped pouch that held coins and the idol I had already picked up – I sprinted out into the open.

There were definitely people around, but whether they were paying attention in the first place or how much they could see were beyond me right now. All I wanted to see was the approaching alley between these houses that I would slip through, and from there, out of Celdan entirely. My legs were barely functional. I even stumbled about half a meter from the cool shade of safety, prompting a mental curse from me, and even more desperate movement.

No one seemed to be following me. Nothing seemed to be happening. Next thing I knew, I had broken past the last structures of Celdan proper and into the surrounding underbrush, the cover it offered soothing for multiple reasons. It felt like I was unable to really breathe before I made it here, and my chest gasped in greedy lungfuls of air once I was safe. Palms leaning heavily against my own knees, it was all I could do just to breathe, and shake.

This was too much. I wanted to cry. Every time an errant thought brought me back to earlier events, my mind recoiled with an almost physical sensation of pain. And I could not stop trembling. It was barely sustainable just keeping myself standing like this. I knew this was no place to stay, though, in the back of my head. The sheer terror at the possibility of being found here, by anyone, under any context, made my legs start moving again.

Mom had to know why this happened, had to know what just happened. She always knew. She could help identify what was going on, and we could get through it, and it would be a… a learning experience, like all the other ones. It would be okay.

Excuse me, miss!”

Ah, shit, that was aimed at me, wasn’t it? It only dawned on me with that extra volume and obvious annoyance directed my way from behind. Well, not entirely behind, but entirely outside my field of view. Could he really blame me?

“Y’ello!” I greeted, turning towards the unhappy voice. I would have launched into another sales pitch from that point if I wasn’t greeted by the sight of a local constable. That very nearly gave me a panic attack. “I- uh, ahahah, what business might ya have, sir?”

“You’ve been here for a couple days, right? I seem to recall you’ve been hawkin’ your wares at this very spot for a while now,” he said, sounding less accusatory than I was expecting.

“Ah, mm… yeah,” I answered him with some lingering amount of worry, “why?”

“Do you mind if I ask you a few questions? Nothing to be anxious over, I promise.”

As much as that phrase always tickled me – yes, in fact, you’ve asked me a few questions already – I agreed without trying to be funny about it. He seemed kinda evasive about further details, but I did hear a description that rang a bell. Faintly. I thought that was a girl, though. Either way, admitting that I recalled seeing someone who looked like that the other day didn’t seem to lead to me finding out why I was suddenly getting questioned.

After I provided what meagre information I had, he turned to walk away, and I didn’t figure stopping him would do me much good. Plus, better not to push my luck. More importantly, I just had to wonder whether something happened with that person. Maybe they went missing under mysterious circumstances, and people are looking to piece together whatever evidence they can to try and find a lead?! Oh I always loved hearing those kinds of stories.

In any case, the constable’s assurances really didn’t leave me feeling any peachier. There was no doubting that they knew I was here. Well, yeah, obviously, but having my presence paid attention to always ended badly. Like that time I had to sprint off down the road in the middle of the night after I really pissed off that one housewife… It was for a good cause, lady, give me a break. A girl’s gotta eat.

Yeesh, there I go again. The point was that I honestly didn’t see myself staying here too much longer, one way or another, so getting started on the packing would be good soon. Maybe I could even try a little private detective work, some super sleuthing – and by that, I just mean keeping an eye out in case I see ‘em again or hear any rumors.

Getting approached by the constable didn’t seem to do me any favors on the business end of things, meanwhile. Did I think about starting to pack soon? I meant immediately.

A lot of time was spent walking today, and yesterday, and the day before that. It helped little that I felt obligated to avoid the beaten paths and stay hidden long past when it was rational. Aside from the fact that I had no clothes still, I guess. It was embarrassing. The more I kept walking, though, the more something felt strained inside me, like something I could not identify pushing against my skin, wanting to get out. That was the best I could describe it as, anyways.

My hysterical need to stay distracted and focused on anything but the events of- that place, it gave me plenty of excuse and motivation to investigate. Even while trudging through bushes and between tree trunks, I was concentrating entirely on whatever the hell I was feeling, and with more than a little trepidation. It did not feel related to what happened, but irrational worries are harder to dismiss than that.

My answer came about half a day’s travel from home – which I could determine only by staying somewhat close to the roads I refused to directly utilize – after several attempts at applying Mom’s past advice. This was fairly unique, so of course, nothing immediately worked, but it did not take too long for something to finally click.

The end result was weird. Exciting. Like an entirely new dimension opening up for my… what, would you call them my power? Ability? Whatever the hell I can do. It could go beyond my skin. Realizing that made me dive even further into it, and by the time I had gotten to this point, I had a decent idea of how to cover myself so I was at least not naked anymore. Granted, this could hardly be considered clothing, but it was better than nothing. Maybe I should study a bit once I get back, see if I can make real clothes with this?

With that little mystery more or less solved, minus the ever-present question of why I can do any of this, my mind had more or less run out of things to distract itself with. I was getting closer, too. Mom would need to find out about it. I already knew that all this time, so why did I feel so- no, stupid question. Shut up. Just keep walking home. That was what I had to do.

I somehow managed to get all the way back, after all that time. If anything, this would be a little early for when she was expecting me, but that was fine. Not like that would be the most concerning thing about the situation for either of us.

That woman, what game was she trying to play? Or did she just not know the truth? That thing was more than a witch. It was a monster. I wouldn’t even be able to set foot in this shop anymore if it weren’t for the little mouths I still had to feed motivating me. Gotta keep pushing forward, gotta make a living, even at the expense of being constantly reminded of…

…of something no one was willing to believe. I swore beneath my breath, barely avoiding swinging my fist into the brambles of the plant currently on my desk. God damn it all. I was supposed to be stronger than this – I needed to be, for my family. Friegedd needed me to be stronger, too, but too late for that, huh? I fucking fainted on him. Why didn’t I prepare something more- or should I instead be asking why I can’t stop obsessing over it?

Most of the people I talked to tried dismissing me about it, said it had to be some sort of animal attack. That I hallucinated things. Yeah, right. Even while trying to shove that bullshit on me, I could see none of them actually believed it. They’re just terrified. I was more terrified than any of them, though, and it still didn’t change jack shit.

Oh, ugh, I needed to get less worked up on the job. The branch I was working on got a little damaged just now. Using it as an opportunity to steady myself, to get my head back in the game, I combed my eyes across the injured area. Poor plant didn’t deserve this. I had a salve for it, at least. After a moment’s thought, I turned and walked to one of my drawers, looking to put together the right ingredients for this species.

It was obvious that no one was willing to do anything about this, not even a continued investigation after their first, perfunctory attempt at it. Well, maybe I was being unfair. The description I provided was corroborated by a few other people in Celdan, but the trail ended there. No one knew who the hell that person was, or where they went.

Honestly, what even were we meant to do? Spread the word about it with an attached description? No one who didn’t live here would genuinely believe it – it just sounds like some sorta urban legend, at best. News of it would spread naturally, though. Couldn’t stop word of mouth. I just hoped that would be enough for something good to happen. I also hoped that I would have nothing more to do with it.

Mom was right. It was bizarre, but she was still right about them. That man- both of them, they were willing to kill me with only faulty information to guide them. This was tragic and warranted further study, but she was insistent on trying to console me, my conscience, that those kinds of people were better off gone anyways, so they didn’t hurt more people. That thought stung a little, but it was… it was somewhat comforting too. At least they weren’t someone random, truly innocent.

It would have killed me inside. It still did, somewhat. Mom knew that. Feeling her hand on my shoulder, even as lightly as this, was nice. She did not touch me very often. I wish it was under better circumstances, though. Ugh, gods, I was being so shitty, just- how was I expecting anything better after what happened? I should have been glad for Mom to even listen to me, stay on my side, right? Even if they did not have the right information, she does. What if I really was this kind of threat, I should be stopped, right? Even though it was not really me.

I was being stupid again. She was going to stop this. With me. She still loved me, like I knew she had to. Even if she didn’t know what was going on much better than me, she was still on my side, and made sure to let me know that. It was embarrassing how many mental circles I had to run around in just to calm down about it. Now, though, she spoke up again after a bit of a contemplative silence on both our parts.

“Like I said, we’ll need to do this together,” she repeated. “It’s somewhat dangerous given what’s happened, but we can’t slow down out of caution. Do you think you’d be able to head out on another errand soon?”

I nodded slowly. “We need to find out what this is, and how to deal with it. Sitting here will do no good, right?”

“Right, exactly. We’ll both be heading out, but for research purposes rather than collection this time. And I’ll be right there with you-”

“No-!” I interjected loudly, far too loudly, and the sudden shame gripped my stomach. Fuck. “I- what if it happens again when you are right there? What if it targets you?” Her expression softened the tiniest bit at that, but it was still hard to discern exactly what she was feeling.

“There’s no need to worry about that,” she tried assuring me, “or, well, at least logically. Based off what we’ve seen, the effect triggered when someone tried to kill you, and you retaliated, but left a technically innocent bystander alone. That sounds fairly clear-cut to me.”

It hurt to have her word it like I was the one doing any of it, but even putting that aside, it was the most logical thing to conclude from what we knew so far. Actually, given those parameters, it almost seemed protective of me, whatever that… entire thing was. I preferred thinking of it like that over the idea that it was drawing off my own survival instincts or something. I would not kill people to survive.

Did it have something to do with what Mom had me drink before heading out? She said that it was supposed to protect me, more or less… No, what am I even thinking?! If that was the intended purpose, she would not be so confused about what happened to me, not need to go out and research the problem. How could I even think that of her?

“Plus,” she continued after I neglected to respond, “I think this’ll be a nice opportunity to start stretching your legs with that new ability you discovered on your own. I’m very proud of you for that one.” My heart practically fluttered.

“Yeah!” I agreed, having gotten to a point of enthusiasm on the back of even that amount of praise. “I will try not to let you down.”

The hand that gently pat my hair down signalled that we should start preparing to leave. I knew she trusted me, but I still worried about keeping her safe during this. Plus, as little as it really mattered in comparison, I wished I would not have to go with the appearances she wanted. No way to avoid it, though. Just had to bear with it while we were out together, until we found out what could have possibly caused this to happen.

Senna 4.1

Everything was assembled perfectly. Proper sigil work, plenty of gathered materials – my typical ritual set-up. I would not be ignored here. I knew that thing was out there; I did my homework. With all symbolic items in place at the four corners of the room, I lit the incense and took my place at the center.

With this, I would take on Rizuko’s visage.

I began my mantra. With well-practiced mental steps, my eyes closed, mind filling with the familiar words that brought me where I wanted to be. By now, I was so used to it that results came within moments, and soon I felt myself expanding out across the breadth of the room. I could feel every speck of plant-life around my home, the insects scurrying across the ground or buzzing through the air. That let me know it was working, and I allowed the sensations to wash against my consciousness calmly.

That inner voice that had been cultivated over years of experience shouted out from my position, a call attuned to one specific entity. I had learned enough about this thing from second-hand knowledge and recalled encounters to have a fairly high chance of homing in properly. Besides, if something tried faking me out, I would know. This thing was unique above all others.

As if some massive eye were turned in my direction from places unknown, I could instinctually sense an attention being focused on me. It blew everything else I knew out of proportion. Beautiful. Amazing. Perfect. It almost crushed me into the dirt I stood on just by arriving. After a mere moment, the sensation faded to tolerable levels, but I was still winded and forced to my knees by the experience.

That was no blustering attempt at intimidation. It wasn’t even bothering trying to hide its intentions. That was simply its unmitigated presence, and I could feel it calculate a desire to see what I wanted rather than squeeze me into nonexistence. I almost felt like laughing, cackling after encountering something this enormously strong. It could give me so many things, and it didn’t matter what the price would be. Not to me.

Once I had regained a bit of my pride and stood back up, I named myself to the entity, asking for reciprocation. Somehow it found that amusing. I had to bite down my usual reactions in the face of something this powerful. Finally, though, I got a name to pin onto this thing I had read so much about: Chorazom.

I wanted information. Knowledge. That would translate into power, naturally. More than just power, though, I wanted to know what it was… and what I was, too. This all I laid bare for Chorazom, trying to keep up a modicum of dignity as I requested things I honestly held no claim to. As small as I felt, I had to try, or doing all of this to call it in the first place would be for naught. Honestly would be better to get killed than waste everything like that.

Of course, I was constantly communicating my willingness to pay the price for what I was requesting. The strangeness just continued, however. Chorazom’s immediate reaction wasn’t to scorn me for hubris or leave me as a waste of time, like it very well could have. My final requests made it pause. Made it feel… it almost seemed like it was a sense of similarity. No, there was no similarity between us, but-

All sensation I was receiving retreated; Chorazom was still here, but I wasn’t allowed as far in anymore. My body tensed in primal terror at the worry that I had inadvertently crossed some sort of line. Honestly, I was only so bold in the first place because Chorazom didn’t seem to need or want to hide anything. Now it did. And it still didn’t seem to want me dead. I didn’t understand anything at this point.

Some new sensation breached my awareness. It agreed to my request, and it had a very specific price. I had no idea why it would want this or how it could even happen, but… it wanted a child.

The first movement twinged across my senses as Chorazom, presence lightened to a comfortable degree, passed through the roof of my dwelling. It was late. Going beyond lateness, even. Being put on hold for an entire week after the baby was born irritated me, but as always, I needed to rein myself in. Slipping up and getting myself killed here, now, would do me no good.

In any case, greetings were in order. We exchanged the usual silent, wordless pleasantries before I updated it on everything that had transpired. In spite of the irritation I was dominated by only moments before, this topic brought me back to near excitement – the same excitement that I felt when I first confirmed it for myself. I informed Chorazom that the child indeed matched one of the three expected types that it laid out for me. Its growth had stabilized at its current size and stopped. So bizarre to watch happen.

I made sure to convey that, as well as my emphatic appreciation of the knowledge it had thus far shared with me. That would be enough to appease it, right? Well, yes, seemed so. Then, I could afford to act a bit more boldly. Next came my line of inquiry about why Chorazom made me wait an entire week – and try as I might, I don’t think I filtered out all my previous annoyance from the question.

It simply… well, I would say it chuckled, but nothing so mundane could describe the feeling properly. It certainly felt this was humorous, though. The next implications it gave were hard to keep myself from bristling at. That I was not as important a priority as I thought I was… did it mean to provoke a reaction now? After telling me not to contact it first, no less. Just as a spark of anger rose in my chest, the feelings of provocation vanished from my interface with Chorazom. It was cold again.

No matter. If it wanted to screw around like that, then so be it. I still had work to do. Though it would be a long time until I used it, I was eager for Chorazom’s final contribution to this little project of ours.

“Look, here’s one,” Mom announced from a short distance away. I ran over to look at it, not bothering to waste time in shame at not having been able to find one first.

Her outstretched finger was pointed at a really funny looking thing. Just like she said, it looked more like goo than like an animal. It was longer than the finger being pointed at it, from what I could gauge, and looked… well, really slimy. It just rained, so this one was moving about freely. It was almost kinda cute, especially when it started munching on a fallen leaf it came across. So this was a ‘slug’.

“Slugs like this go around on the ground and eat plantstuff when it falls, like leaves or berries, or sometimes flowers. Some of them also like to eat the types of fungi on the gr-”

“Which is the, uh, ‘fungi’?”

“…Oh,” she said after a pause. “I forgot that one. Uhhh, here.”

We had to move over a bit for this one, but after a couple moments, she was pointing again. Ah, it was this stuff. The weird green or yellow thingies that grow on trees or rocks. Lichen, I think. Mom was quick to point out that this was only one type of it, though. Apparently mushrooms were… similar? I did not see how. They looked completely different.

“Here’s a fun idea,” Mom suddenly perked up. “Why don’t you go out and find another thing that you think could also be a type of fungus, and we’ll see if you’re right?”

She was right! That sounded fun. With two still-distinct mental images of what these weird things can possibly look like, I turned around and skipped off. There was no particular place I had in mind when I did that, but it would be fine. I think she was following me from a ways back, anyhow.

Several steps into my adventure, and I realized that I was actually supposed to be looking for something. Right. Ummm, other things that were probably fungi… Needed to get on my hands and knees for this. Hopefully Mom would not scold me for getting dirty. The foliage was getting pretty dense over here as I went further, and while I could see plenty of mushrooms around, I had no idea where to start on what else could be like them.

Maybe the moss I was crawling on half the time? It was… vaguely similar to lichen. It covered stuff. And was green. Lichen was only sometimes green, though. After poking my head up and looking back at my mom, who was further away than I imagined she would be, I gestured her over. In the end, though, the moss was a dud. How was I supposed to know what counted and what did not? It felt unfair.

This time I was even more impatient than before. Rather than continue crawling around looking for stuff, I decided to try and expand to a different area. Maybe have more luck there, or something. Even getting up and breaking into a sudden run prompted little reaction from Mom, but I guess that was expected at this point. I hoped she would praise me a little once I found something. Give me something to-

Crap, caught my foot on something. My face ended up accelerating scarily fast towards the ground, making me desperately shoot my arms out to try and stop my fall. I succeeded, except that my arms now really hurt. And I still ended up scraping several parts of myself. And there was a sharp pain in the palm of my right hand that was not immediately going away. The last thing was more worrisome than the scrapes that were easy to ignore.

There was no way I was quiet about that, but Mom was still a ways back it seemed. Did she not hear me somehow? I brought myself to a standing position again, wincing at the attempted use of my right hand. There was a big splinter of wood sticking right into it. It made me kinda sick to look at, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do with it. The thought of trying to pull it out made me more sick. And it just kept hurting.

“Mom! Are you still here?” I called out whilst trudging back the way I came. She entered my view after a couple seconds, and quickly put on a stern look.

“You got yourself hurt, hm,” she said, tone matching her expression. “Bring it here.”

By ‘it’, she had to mean my hand. I obediently stretched it out towards her, trying to avoid looking too closely at the hurt bit. Mom’s hands both grasped mine in response, keeping that area firmly in view, and after only a few seconds, she took the splintered fragment between one thumb and forefinger. Before I could protest, it was yanked out.

I could feel blood exit along with it, and the pain was much worse for a moment. Much, much worse. I practically doubled over, clutching the limb in an attempt to stop from screaming or crying or anything else that she would dislike. Even with my efforts, Mom still found something to chastise me on.

“You don’t need to be such a baby about it. Look, just try to concentrate on it, think about what your hand is like when completely healthy. You remember, right?”

I did remember. She always told me to do this when something hurt me. That got me to calm back down a little, even though I was not used to doing this yet. Especially when it hurt this badly. I tried, though, I really really did. And it worked. After several seconds and a couple near-gasps of pain. The heat spread, my hand filled itself in again, and the hurting stopped. Mom had to be proud of me for that one. It was the biggest one I fixed so far.

She did not seem very proud, once I looked up toward her.

“The heat underneath my skin, yes, I’m concentrating on it. But I’m not hurt-”

“It’s not about injuries this time,” Mom interrupted me. “I just wanted you to be able to maintain an awareness of that sensation. It’s supposed to make things easier.”

There she went again, talking as if it were second-hand knowledge. And confusing me. I still had little idea what she was alluding to half the time, but I was used to that by now. The point seemed to just be that I needed to pay attention to this heat to do things properly, or easily, or whatever. How would she even know this much about me, anyways? Mom was different than I was. Disturbingly different.

“Alright,” I acknowledged flatly, banishing that train of thought, “what should I be doing next? And are we at the pond for a reason?”

She nodded to herself. “You’ve done fairly well at healing yourself, thanks to me. I felt like it might be time for another type of training. Did you ever think about the possibility of being able to do more than just repair your own wounds?”

“…Sometimes,” came my answer, one only partially true. In reality, I was just confused. My very existence felt unreal when compared to everything else she taught me about the world, and I had no answers for why. Why and how could it even be possible to grow like I do. And why she never answered me when I asked that.

Seemingly satisfied, Mom simply glossed over that and continued with an order to look at myself in the water. There was no point in doing anything but going along with it, so I obeyed. There I was, I guess. Looking as gross as ever. She knew how much I hated my face, so it made me feel worse to have her ignore that and still tell me to look. Needed to let it slide, though. Swallowing that, I tried to keep my attention focused on whatever the hell she could be trying to show me with this. Other than how wrong my face was.

“If you close your eyes, can you imagine yourself? Hold a mental image of your face?”

She had that restrained tone in her voice again, which I had learned to associate with her feeling like I would not be able to understand things without her dumbing it down. And more shit about my face. I hated seeing it in the water enough, now she was going to make me see it in my head too? Other faces were better. Prettier. Still, I was not inept.

“Yes, of course I can,” I replied pointedly. Where was she going with this? It had to be about training.

“Close your eyes,” Mom ordered me. Knowing it would go more quickly this way, I promptly shut them. “Visualize your face. Got it solidly there?”

“Yes.”

“Feel the heat still?”

“…Yes.” I knew it was related. The thought that she might know what the sensation actually is briefly flitted across my mind just before she proceeded with the instructions.

“Try changing your face in your mind. Don’t just imagine something else; try-” Her words seemed to fail her for a moment, or maybe she just felt like I would be too ignorant to understand again. “-yeah, try to morph it in a way that’s more than just a fleeting thought. Try putting your willpower into that change. Feel the mental image changing as you’re forcing it. Does that make sense to you?”

Frankly, no, it did not. Mostly. It felt like one of those concepts that had no proper words one could say to describe it, something I could feel hints of grasping but… well, I obviously could not tell you what it was. I was not about to admit my deficiency, though.

“Makes enough sense,” I shot at her impulsively before restraining my voice again. “Er, well, I just mean that I can understand. Well enough, that is. I got it.”

That felt really awkward and more than a little anxiety-inducing, but Mom’s only response was to tell me to try my hand at it. Her tone made it clear that she had taken notice of the outburst, though. Fine, it was fine. Not angry at me right now at least. I just needed to concentrate on what she was trying to teach me, like always. Granted, this seemed like it would be more challenging that any of the previous topics, but the whole thing was compelling at the same time.

Being compelled quickly gave way to being frustrated after those first few attempts. It happened just like Mom must have imagined – fleeting thoughts that held no weight. It felt slippery, almost, trying to grasp onto a mental image of something and not have it just wash away meaninglessly. Maybe it was just my own anxiety, but I almost felt like Mom was silently scolding me even with my eyes closed and no way to know what she was thinking or feeling.

What the hell was it supposed to mean to put my willpower into it?! I was trying as hard as my brain could even handle and it seemed to do nothing. The effort of bringing the image of my own disgusting face up over and over again just to have it mush away the next moment was becoming tiring, too. I wanted to stop. No, I probably just wanted to succeed already.

Fine, pause for a bit. Think about it more rationally. Mom always hammered in an emphasis on awareness, like the heat from earlier. She also talked about feeling my own… changes? It was just a glimmer of a ‘maybe’, but there was nothing else for me to go on right now. With a deep breath, something I was unsure how Mom would interpret, I tried something.

Rather than just think about my shitty face and then imagine it as something else, maybe I was meant to tie it to something. The heat itself made no sense, though, since it was always just a side effect, a sensation associated with whatever I was actually doing at the time. Which, before, has always just been patching up my own injuries. She referred to it, but I figured it had to be something else.

The results finally changed, unexpected to the point that I nearly jumped at that familiar blaze suddenly spreading up through my face, just beneath the skin. I barely even did anything, but linking the intention of change to my own proprioception caused an immediate and strong reaction. It was almost frightening. My eyes had shot open, and by now I was aware of Mom staring straight at me. Smiling.

Well, here we were. The big leagues, or so Mom would have me believe. Finally moving on up from supply runs to this or that village all the way up to… something marginally bigger, and busier than anything near our place. According to Mom, it was the fastest growing settlement in the region, very prosperous. It was apparently quickly distinguishing itself, this Celdan, though I had no idea about the dynamics at play here. Maybe she would teach me later.

Relatively bigger or not, Celdan did not seem to be breaking any molds. Still as naturalistic as anything. Trees woven in between structures and visible, extensive gardening were a very familiar sight to me by now. I liked it. The lake off to the south and the streams feeding into it probably made this a great location for it anyways; I had to wonder if that contributed to the explosive growth I had heard about.

Practice seemed to be going well, in any case. Several hours since Mom told me to assume this altered face, and I was maintaining it pretty easily. Far more easily than she anticipated. I had a sneaking suspicion as to why, but no way to know for sure. The mechanics of how this worked for me were still… opaque, somewhat. Or a lot. Either way, the heat was gone, and I felt stable.

This would be the largest village I ever had to operate independently within, but she had been as insistent as ever. Fine. I could do this. That is exactly what I told her, after all. Just a matter of looking around, making a friend here or there, coming back with some specific items – all without letting anyone know where I came from. Or the fact that I could change how I looked, obviously.

On top of keeping that hidden, I also had to admit to a sense of fear as I stepped closer and closer to my destination, passing by other travelers on the muddy dirt road. Mom was very adamant about wariness, about evil people being a very real threat. It made me constantly nervous even though I never saw one. And why would she send me out like this if it was so dangerous? Ostensibly because she had confidence in me… or in her ‘gift’.

Ah god, there was someone hawking wares just inside the village entrance too. What a great start to my arrival, needing to beat off some aggressive salesperson- or not, thank fuck. She got distracted with someone else. With the given opportunity, I took a peek at what she was trying to sell before moving on. At first glance, the various herbal extracts and remedies seemed promising, but nothing on Mom’s list was immediately visible. Plus, lingering to look more could be dangerous with this one. Before she could interpret my gaze as interest, I hustled past her and the unfortunate victim toward better places.

This was definitely bigger than the last places I visited. Very busy. Whether I was paused in the street or moving, people felt the need to bump into or past me all too frequently. Thankfully there was little other attention given me than that. Mom coached me a little on making myself look unassuming, and it felt like that was still working even after I tweaked my features to be as androgynous as I could get away with. That was after she helped me with choosing some decent clothes for this job, of course. In the end, nothing about me should really have attracted any attention, either positive or negative.

Then again, everyone was granted some measure of attention here, I realized as the flow of persons took me into what seemed to be a market square. Just like at the entrance, people were desperate to make any sales they could. That seemed funny to me, given that even these stalls seemed to be of sturdier make than some of the more unfortunate dwellings I had seen elsewhere; it scarcely seemed like they needed more money in here.

Now was the time for some very deliberate browsing. I was not being particularly watched here, but looking indecisive was better than looking like I was on a mission. Mom said that was good for keeping myself safe around other people. Give them no reason to pay heed. Markets like this were better for browsing than searching for one particular thing anyways; if you needed something specific, why not go to a dedicated store? That logic made sense to me.

The press of humanity from every direction was more stifling than ever, unfortunately for me. The more popular stalls were hell to try and show or feign any interest in. Usually it was the latter, but after ten odd minutes, I came across something. These were some novelty wooden carvings, something innocuous enough on the surface, but a couple innocent questions on my part revealed the exotic material Mom was wanting to get her hands on.

It fit her parameters on all counts. Good enough to spend some of the coins she sent me here with, by my reckoning. One very pleased smile later, and the idol passed into my hands. This thing looked like… Yaklia, right? I thought I recognized it from the sketches Mom taught me with. In a way, it was exciting to see some direct connection between the theoreticals she exposed me to and something in the real world, something I could hold in my hand.

And hold it I did. The carved wood felt neat, but not neat enough to take more than a few seconds of my attention. Thanking the man I just handed off those coins to – words he immediately reciprocated – I deposited the idol in my little satchel and turned away.

Here was where it got harder for me. After all of that, I was fairly certain that nothing else on Mom’s list would be found in the bazaar. That meant I would need to go out and look for some specialist shops, and ‘there were none’ would be unacceptable here. Some villages, sure, that made sense, that was fine, but Celdan was further south, and larger. Well, if I was willing to ask around and be blatant about it, it would be easier, but that was exactly what Mom said needed to be avoided. One of many things.

Alright, first thing was getting out of this crowd. Back the way I came would probably be easiest, and from there I could get my bearings. Thankfully, a bulky wooden object was harder to steal off my person than simple coinage, so I could feel a bit less anxious. It would be nice if people just avoided bothering me at all. Well, I had not had anything bad happen yet, but Mom’s caution always got me paranoid.

Once I shoved past the next dozen people or so, I found myself relatively free in the midst of the street intersection I passed through to get there. It was not as crowded as when I first entered, at least. Now that it was down to it, though, I had to do more than just follow traffic. This was still a commercial area, given the signs and the fact that nothing looked like just a house here. The place was big, but not inexhaustible. There probably was not much aside from these streets and the bazaar I just combed through.

My next step was to start looking for likely locations for the rest of Mom’s items. To cover more ground, I decided to head the opposite direction from where I came in. Remembering the woman hawking things over there also helped me decide on that. Thus, I began walking again, eyes fixated on the rows of signs informing me what these buildings were. Out of everything left – a couple strips of zinc, some bread, and a very specifically treated tuber – the first place to strike me as promising was a little herbalist’s boutique for the third item.

Here it was, then. The door. With a quick inhale and a practiced routine, I put on my best social face and stepped inside. Please just be nice. At my entrance, a man’s voice called out in greetings, though the source was obscured behind a rather large, potted shrub. Never saw one of these indoors before. Within the next few seconds, the owner of that voice made to stand up and walk around the various plants, tables, cabinets, and pieces of equipment to greet his customer. Honestly was kinda humorous to watch.

“Yes, hello! What can I do for you t-” he began, pausing for some reason I could not discern as soon as his eyes finally got around to landing on me. “Er, well, yes, what might you be looking for… uh… sir?” Was he confused about that? It seemed too mundane, but I guess that just meant I did a good job.

“You do some custom work on request, right?” I looked to confirm. He nodded briefly, so I continued, “A, uh, friend of mine needs some wrennid-root treated a certain way. Needs a specialized process or something, I don’t really-”

I interrupted myself at his next action, rapping his knuckles loudly against the nearby table in a deliberate pattern. His expression was a worrying mixture of fear and anger. Not the next second did I hear someone approaching from behind, prompting me to turn in surprise. No one was there before; where the hell could they have hidden?! The figure drawing a disturbingly long knife made my heart stop cold.