Destructions 5.1

My eyes took a moment to adjust to the interior. It was exceedingly dark, no light sources aside from the distantly bright cyan down the hallway. My footsteps made no sound, no echoes, as I walked down the pitch corridor towards that light. As I neared, the figure I was expecting slowly became apparent against the light, orange wadji barely registering in comparison.

“You’re a long ways away out of town,” Surgriel noted as I drew close enough for us to casually converse.

“Just checking in on the communion,” I responded calmly. “Is it getting impatient?”

He laughed. “Something this old? Hardly. Just wanted to confirm that I still had our original agreement in mind. Don’t tell me it’s already time for us to leave, though?”

“What, you’ve lost track of time that badly? Yes, we should leave within the next day if we want to actually make it on time.”

“Don’t want to keep Celdan’s new leaders waiting, no. And nothing’s changed so far, right? No new crisis, everything’s going peacefully…?” he inquired, voice bordering on his customary fatigue without crossing over to it. Things had definitely been getting better for him. Sleeping better, by my guess.

“We haven’t heard anything bad happening so far. If anything, quite the opposite. Those of us being welcomed in Palatecan villages say they’re being treated very well, in spite of some initial misunderstandings and rough patches. If it’s not overstepping too much,” I added in, “I think this really could have a good ending for us. All of us.”

“You’re gonna put an eye out with that optimism,” he chuckled. “Well, alright, I’ll wrap things up here and meet you outside. Oh, and make sure the equipment we’re gifting is working right this time!”

I did my best to pull the string back, but wow. I hadn’t thought about how hard this would actually be, once it was in my hands. Was too used to crossbows at this point. I let out a growl of frustration as I tried to prepare the weapon, and the arrow wound up slipping out of my fingers and falling into the grass. Sighing to myself, I bent over to pick it up.

Janus chuckled from behind me. “I told you it was harder to use bows. You sure you want to keep this up, Meisha? Don’t have to work on it right now.” I turned to look at him, raising my eyebrow, and found him gazing skyward. “It’ll probably rain again anyways.”

“I’m gonna figure this out, sir. Rain’ll have to wait.” As I set to steadying my bow again, I saw that one blonde kid walking around off past this little shooting range. Having her called to mind made me freshly wonder who she even was. Of course, I’d be the first to admit that I was pretty young myself, but this kid looked like seven or eight. A seven year old kid got to roam freely while we were confined to the training grounds?

Not to mention how stern her face always was, and whenever I could overhear her, she sounded more like my old schoolteacher than like an actual kid. If she was the child of someone in this camp, they had to be raising the most stuck up brat I’d ever heard of. Shouldn’t someone have stepped in and given the kid some decent education on how to be nice to people or something?

Ended up really distracting me from what I had just resolved to make the rain wait for, huh. Shaking my head, I turned my attention back to the bow in my hand, frowning at the weight I still wasn’t getting used to. I took up the stance Janus had been drilling into me, knocking the arrow and pulling back the string slowly. Thankfully this was just an exercise at this point, because it was still really hard on my arms. After several seconds, I finally got to a ready-to-fire position, and triumphantly… set it all down.

“You’ve pretty much got it,” Janus encouraged, stepping closer. “Just a matter of building up muscle and getting used to it.”

I nodded a few times too many. “I can do it. Right now I’m just wondering who the bratty little kid I keep seeing around the main camp is. You know her, sir? Is she an actual member?

His answer took a second or two too long to come, so I looked back at him. His gaze was focused intently on the entrance to the camp, brows furrowed. Was he… upset or something? I couldn’t tell what could be making him react that way. Then, without even turning back to me, he replied.

“Yes, she is. She’s one of our most senior members, next to Ekkan and Aysa. Bratty is a bit much there.” Ah, well, assumptions sure screwed me over there. I hadn’t even met Aysa yet, but I knew she was the boss for sure, at least. And the kid was right up there with her?

“Uh, ehheheh… you’re not gonna tell her I said that, right? Wait, how’d she even get that spot at her age?!”

“It’s complicated,” he answered, waving a dismissive hand. “I might tell you later. For now, just focus on your exercises.”

He was starting to sound as bothered as he looked. In spite of his command, I couldn’t help but track his gaze, trying to see whatever it could be that he was focused so intently on. All of a sudden, he ordered me to continue practicing, then began walking out of the training grounds towards the direction of the entrance. I was also starting to see what had to be his target. There were two people walking in.

They came close enough to identify a bit, soon enough. One was a tall, pale man with really light hair and a pair of glasses, and the other looked like a tanned girl with short, black hair. I knew I recognized them from the main camp, but had little idea why Janus was so interested in them. Or, what, were these the other two higher-ups that he’d just told me about? Were they gone somewhere previously?

As he walked closer to them, I saw the kid approaching as well. They stopped in front of the newly arrived pair, and that’s about as much detail as I could ascertain about the situation. The training grounds were too far off from the main encampment for me to get much detail beyond general shapes, colors, and movements. Speaking of which, they soon started moving as a group, passing closer by the grounds while not actually coming over here.

I thought about just carrying on like Janus ordered and keep practicing, but he looked so bothered while leaving. What could possibly have been going on that had him like this? I didn’t like seeing that look on his face. Between him being upset and my own curiosity, I couldn’t help wanting to know what was happening. I glanced over towards my fellow initiates further down the range, none of whom seemed to be paying attention to me. They’d be none the wiser.

Feeling sneaky, I set my bow off to the side, where it would be kept safe and dry, and began to walk off the range towards the main camp. Initiates weren’t really allowed around here for whatever reason, at least not on their own. So, it couldn’t be so bad as to be unsafe, right? I didn’t see anything that seemed unsafe. I was fine.

Others, however, looked less fine. Walking into the camp itself, I came across plenty of unpleasant faces. Everyone who wasn’t working had a really dour look to them, and the ones that were working looked like they needed a nap. Each conversation I overheard while walking past seemed to be uttered in monotone, or otherwise in a tone of exhaustion, or sometimes flat out whispering.

Janus and the others had gone into one of the wood lodges, which I probably wouldn’t be able to enter legitimately any time soon, and didn’t feel safe sneaking into. Barring that, I put a good amount of effort into walking around with an air of purpose, if only to look like I actually had a right to be here. Otherwise, I was still utterly absorbed in what I was seeing around here. It was like a different place entirely.

With the initiates, we were always having a good time, it felt like, to the point of developing a bad habit of staying up late. We showed off, we got excited, we couldn’t wait for the real deal, even though that real deal would mean risking our lives. Now… everyone just looks like they aren’t getting enough sleep. Especially the two I’d just walked past. They were seated on a large stump, just hanging out with each other I guessed.

One was a man in a long jacket, with gaunt features and hair that looked like brown straw in both color and almost in texture. The other was a blonde, disheveled woman with a… a missing hand. She was missing a hand. The reality of that hit me straight in the face, and I must’ve been staring as a result, because the man glared daggers at me. I could just imagine what he was thinking about me right then, and that combination drew my gaze away from the sight. The image, though… that stayed. It wasn’t like the stump was visible, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going on underneath those bandages.

Out of nowhere, the loud sounds of wood colliding with wood came from behind me, startling me straight out of all those earlier thoughts. A bunch of shouting immediately proceeded the wooden impacts. I whipped around to see what could possibly be going on, and saw Janus exiting the nearby building, followed by the kid, the tall man, and the tanned girl. Holy crap they were all right here.

If the people around here were having a bad time, then this girl looked like the queen of it right now. Her hair might’ve only been chin-length, but it almost looked like a child cut it for her. All choppy, and looked like it hadn’t been washed in weeks. Her eye sockets were uncomfortably pronounced, and the green blouse she wore was stained with dirt and looked as if it’d been rained on multiple times. Even having seen her before, she never once looked this bad, at least not to me.

In a slight panic, I immediately ducked around the nearest corner of the adjacent structure, which Janus and the others had just exited. The first words I could clearly make out were a woman belligerently yelling, “-n’t do that, Mana! Locking someone up like this, and for what?!”

The response seemed to come from the girl I’d called a brat earlier. “I’m aware it has little precedence, but this wasn’t some benign opinion being held to himself. He was trying to organize a mob against you.”

“Don’t bullshit me! Since when was he the kind of person to do something like that?! I handled his problem myself, before you decided to-”

“Both of you,” an unfamiliar man’s voice interrupted, “this isn’t a constructive way to handle things. Besides, right now we need to focus on the meeting. Aysa, what we discussed-”

“Not now, Dores,” the girl – Mana? – cut in. If she weren’t constantly cold in tone, that would have sounded more venomous, I imagined. “You left me here to maintain order on your behalf. I did that. I ensured that there would be no risk of returning to a riot against your authority.”

The infuriated one, who I had to assume was Aysa, had begun pacing out further beyond the lodge they’d all exited, but Mana’s words prompted her to whip around and face her again.

“You don’t know any of that! Where’s the proof of their conspiracy, of any organization against me?! That’s right, there isn’t any, because all you have is one guy fucking locked away!”

In a huff, she turned to a nearby member in some sort of leather get-up, beckoning him impatiently towards her. Once he was near enough for her to not need to scream orders, she spat at him instructions to release Xander and bring him over here immediately. Ricor was surprisingly unmoved by her tone, nodding obediently before heading towards one of the larger, more distant lodges. Aysa, meanwhile, turned back to Mana with lingering rage on her features.

“This never happens again. Do you hear me?”

“I hear you,” the girl answered in a flat voice. My angle wasn’t good enough to see her face very well, but I felt like I could see a scowl having formed as she took all that in.

In the meantime, Aysa stood there, looking as impatient and aggravated as ever with her arms folded over her chest. It didn’t take too long for Ricor to emerge from the building he’d entered, at least, and he was followed by a darker-skinned man with distinctly short hair. The man, presumably Xander, looked at Aysa with what seemed like a mix of surprise and relief, which again seemed strange given the woman’s demeanor.

Just as that thought crossed my mind, though, Aysa’s furious expression began to relax in reciprocation, before being replaced with a stern gaze. It was piercing and intense, like what you’d expect from a responsible leader, but I couldn’t shake the impression that it’d been at least partially practiced.

“What’s been going on here, Xander?” she asked, kicking things off.

“I honestly don’t know. I’ve pretty much just been talking with people on the latest news, discuss some of our policies, nothing bad. Suddenly, in comes the damn inquisition to burn me at the stake.” He shot a glare at Mana as he said that. “Came out of nowhere like she was watching us the whole damn time as well.”

Aysa glanced back at the girl. “Did you imprison him for trying to spark debate on Ophentum policies? It’s not a crime as long as everyone’s being civil about it, Mana. What is a crime is breaching people’s privacy by monit-”

I wasn’t monitoring anyone,” Mana replied with indignity. “Trigali informed me about it, so I decided to ask around and see if what she told me was actually happening. It seemed potentially risky enough to warrant investigation.”

At the name ‘Trigali’, Xander immediately looked around the growing crowd around us until he found whoever he was looking for. Probably the girl who had apparently snitched on him. I couldn’t see her myself, but I could plainly notice him mouthing the word ‘why’ to her. Then I noticed Aysa glaring in that direction as well, and I more or less pinned down who they were talking about: a fair-skinned woman with long, light-brown hair. Hadn’t seen her before.

“You two need to lock it down, starting today,” she warned the both of them. Felt like I was missing some kinda context here. “And Mana, I’ll repeat myself: This will not happen again. Am I making myself clear?”

I couldn’t see Mana’s reaction from this angle, now that more people had been gathering around. It seemed safe to go out into the open a bit more, so I began to move out of my hiding space, trying to blend in with the new audience. No one seemed to notice me at first, but all too quickly, I saw Janus’ eyes flit towards me, and they narrowed in recognition. Crap, guy had eyes like a hawk. Crap, now he was coming this way. Several people were still discussing something over there, but my attention was forced entirely on my superior as he approached.

“What are you doing here?” he asked me pointedly. “I told you to keep practicing.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” I began answering, eyes coming to rest on the muddy, trampled ground, “I just wanted to know what was making you that upset. It looked like something was wrong, so-”

“-That’s ALL I’M ASKING,” someone shouted, bringing both of our attentions back to the others. That sounded like Xander’s voice. “I just wanted to know why people are being forced to work like this. Seriously! Ask any one of them! How is this right?!”

That was quite a topic change, and also what the hell were people actually being forced to work here? Where was this coming from? Is that how these people did things…?

Who is being forced to work?” Aysa cut in, a dangerous edge to her tone. She didn’t know?

“I’ve had the civilians from Celdan doing some work while staying here,” Mana answered defensively. “Nothing unfair. It was simply a price that made sense for giving them refuge.”

“You told me they were volunteers, Mana.” Aysa was practically growling now, the emotions rising into her expression and voice almost more frightening than earlier.

“This isn’t a charity, Aysa, and this sure as hell isn’t Belenon. We don’t have the luxury of letting them become a drain on our food stockpile without having them at least help us in return. It’s not just logic, either. Everyone earns their keep here.”

Things were getting even more heated, and Janus had tactically placed himself partway between the scene and myself, making it hard for me to tell what was going on. I tried looking over his shoulder, but dang was he tall.

“Sir, please, what’s going on over there?” I asked, though he didn’t have a good opportunity to reply.

“They’re refugees, for Christ’s sake! Why are you insisting on kicking people while they’re down?!” I heard Aysa exclaim, sounding more and more like she did before. From past Janus’ side, I could see Xander stepping backwards, edging himself away from the conflict.

“And why are you insisting on wasting our time?” Mana spat back, obviously starting to lose her cool by now. “We wouldn’t even be having this problem if you weren’t so obsessed with that bounty, with hunting people down! And for what, all the people you lost? You think you’re the only person who’s lost someone here?! We all have!! If you could just grow the fuck up and start acting like the adult you are, you wouldn’t-”

She was entirely cut off by someone practically screaming, wild and unrestrained. A series of shocked gasps and startled cries followed from the surrounding crowd. Whatever was happening, it prompted Janus to take action himself, and once he had rushed forward, I could see the situation plainly. Aysa was… looming over Mana. She was choking her, growls and other guttural sounds of hatred still audible in spite of the flurry of action. Mana was clawing at the woman’s hands, and that guy I think was called ‘Dores’ was trying to peel Aysa off of her. It only worked after a couple of seconds.

Almost directly after Aysa was forced away, Ricor dashed towards her, wrapping his arms around her so as to pin her arms against her sides. In a blind fury, the woman began to flail around, kick her legs, the whole thing, and Ricor was as unmoved as ever as he dragged her back further away from her victim. Then, suddenly, Aysa’s head ducked down. It looked like her mouth clamped down onto the man’s leather bracer.

Despite being ostensibly protected, a cry of agony escaped his lips, and my blood went even colder than before. Forced to be released due to the pain inflicted, Aysa was free to rush at Mana again. Dores had prioritized moving to help Ricor, which meant he wasn’t there to stop Aysa as she lifted the girl full-on into the air, like a doll being held very violently by the neck. This time, though, Janus stepped in himself.

Aysa seemed to yelp outright very soon after Janus’ movement had stopped. Mana fell to the ground, practically kicking at the dirt in her scramble to get away from the larger woman. From the brief glimpses of her face I could get, she seemed to be looking up at Aysa with a mixture of fear and utter bewilderment, hand resting on her own battered throat. Aysa, who I wasn’t able to see due to Janus, stepped out from behind him and into view, wrists clutched and arms shaking.

Before she could do anything further, Janus moved again, coming up behind Aysa and taking hold of her arms solidly. She cried out in some measure of pain as Janus basically manhandled her, then lifted her entirely off the ground, if only by a few inches. Again, her legs began thrashing about. Her previously incoherent wailing soon took the form of a furious, screeched command, apparently aimed at the girl she’d just been trying to choke to death.

“GET OUT OF MY CAMP! GET HER OUT OF HERE!!” she ordered, though I couldn’t tell who she was trying to target with that order. Aysa continued to yell in her frantic rage even as Janus pulled her into the building they had previously been in. Dores had already began hauling Ricor away to another lodge, with the man having gone completely limp and unresponsive. What the hell could she have done to him?

Everyone in the crowd, myself included, stood silently. Had to imagine most were feeling the same way I was, which consisted mostly of being utterly speechless at seeing something like this actually go down. At least that probably meant this was strange, not what I should be expecting, but… I almost wished I hadn’t come over here. Just to get my eyes off Mana, I looked around, instinctually fixating on things that were at least somewhat familiar.

I saw Xander off to the side, looking inscrutably miserable, as he was approached by a woman of similar complexion and features. Almost looked like she could be his sister or something. She wrapped one arm around the man’s shoulder, trying to comfort him for some reason I didn’t have the context to. Further off, I saw Dores running to the building Aysa had been dragged into by Janus. Even now, no one dared moving after that display, not unless they were directly in Dores’ path and needed to step aside.

Mana was still sitting there in the dirt, just as unwilling to move as anyone else. Her stillness was laced with more fear than anyone else’s, as her eyes darted across all the faces present. Time seemed awkwardly frozen. After perhaps a minute, however, the woman I’d learned was ‘Trigali’ walked towards her, a disgusted expression on her face. Mana, turning to view the person suddenly moving towards her, recoiled defensively. Again, the girl was towered over by another.

“It’s time for you to leave.”

Mana stared up at Trigali with incredulity, which I echoed. Was that order actually meant to be taken seriously? She was in a blind fury! I mean, I guessed that was exactly why no one else was really moving until now… but it didn’t seem to matter. Trigali was now acting on it as if it were an official command. Just a few moments after she broke the silence, Xander stepped forward again.

“Teneya, don’t d-”

“Weren’t you a part of this?” Trigali snapped, head turned in his direction. “Aren’t you the reason this happened in the first place?”

Having quieted Xander, she now turned to address the crowd at large. “You all heard Aysa. She wants Mana out, so Mana is leaving. I don’t imagine there’ll be any objections to our leader’s orders?”

At this, Mana finally pushed herself up off the ground, dusting off the black longcoat – it still counted even though it was kid-sized, right? – she wore and straightening out her disheveled hair. Despite being a child, her expressions hadn’t ever seemed the least bit diluted or ineffective, and that held even more true now, as she glared up at the woman with pure, unfiltered hatred.

“Don’t insult me with your faux-authority, Trigali. You don’t have any. None of you have any. I should’ve known this operation was a waste of time from the moment I saw it being headed by an infantile adult.”

After having said her piece, Mana turned with a huff and began walking towards one of the further-off lodges. Trigali followed her. Once that reached the girl’s awareness, she turned back and once again stared her down.

Why are you following me? Are you so incompetent as to expect me to leave without my property, without even so much as some food? I’ll be gone within the hour, and then you’ll be left to your ridiculous-”

Whatever she was about to say was interrupted as the taller woman grabbed her by the collar of her coat. Without even another moment’s hesitation, Trigali yanked her back and hurled her into the dirt, in the vague direction of the camp’s entrance. People in the crowd began parting in the wake of that, not eager to have a little girl thrown directly at them.

“No,” Trigali insisted, voice low and dangerously cold, “you’ll be leaving right now.”

Mana’s defiance up ‘til now had been maintained in spite of the lack of any apparent support, but at the thought of being forced away with none of her belongings and nothing to survive the trip to a nearby settlement, she once again adopted a look of fear. I could feel my own gut wrenching a bit at the thought of these people forcing her to die out there, like this.

“Are you- are you serious?” she asked, voice truly wavering for the first time since I saw her. “With nothing? Are you trying to starve me to death?!”

“I’m sure you can find someone else to order around out there,” said Trigali, scathingly. “Aysa’s word is final.”

Mana’s stare had gone distant, like she was looking at something in the distance far behind Trigali. If she really was looking at something, though, I couldn’t see whatever it was.

“Then I’ll see myself out,” she returned, voice hoarse and small. With that, she turned about to face the entrance slowly, and stood there for a moment. Then, before any further protest, the girl walked forward, pace quickening steadily into a brisk, hurried walk. In mere moments, Mana had begun to walk into the forests of Faenon.

I heard the door behind me open up again, making me jump a little. Also made me realize I hadn’t been breathing during that last exchange. Twisting my neck to see, I caught Janus exiting the building and walking to the center of the crowd, towards Trigali. His eyes did meet mine for a few moments, trepidation plain on his face, and then he turned his attention back to the situation.

“Where’d Miss Corsea go?”

As if suddenly realizing the meaning of the split crowd and its obvious pathway leading out of the camp, Janus dashed toward the forest for a few moments, as futile as it probably was. The crowd continued watching in silence, though several had begun breaking away, likely feeling that everything was over. I almost felt sick.

He turned back towards us. “Where is she?!”

“Aysa told her to leave,” was Trigali’s only answer, spoken in a flat tone.

Janus’ face, filled with apprehension and a sense of trying to desperately piece something together, said it all. Which was good, since he himself said nothing, simply staring in shock at the meaning of Trigali’s words. Then, he began striding past the woman, locking his expression into one of professionality and determination, or so I felt.

“Go out and get Corsea back here,” he ordered to no one in particular before looking at me again. “Meisha, get back to the initiates’ quarters and stay there.”

Not even having paused during that, he continued on towards the building where Ricor had been taken after his… injury? In the wake of a direct order, one far more calm and rational than the previous, several in the crowd finally took to movement. Seemed to be organizing to head off into the forest that Mana had vanished into. Trigali followed along, though she didn’t participate much in the actual organization. Xander, I noted, simply sat on a nearby stump, face buried in his hands.

That man who’d glared at me for staring earlier – what felt like an eternity ago, before that public debacle – was looking towards me now. Had he been staring or something? For how long? …Was that some sorta payback for me staring earlier?

“Initiate, huh?” he noted. I nodded sheepishly, averting my gaze to the dirt for a moment before correcting myself. He smirked, but there was no humor. It felt purely sardonic. “Welcome to the Ophentum, then. Better get going.”

I couldn’t get out. The fucker was crushing me and I couldn’t get out, no matter what I tried. Was almost seeing red as I kicked, pulled, did everything possible, but Janus kept me held. The sudden pain on my arms broke through my anger with a spike of worry, and then a twist in my gut. Were my- were those things seriously breaking here?! The compression wasn’t stopping for-

“Aysa, stop!” he implored, grip tightening for a moment. The pain got worse. I screamed, equally in response to the wounds on my arms and to my own fury. He then started dragging me towards my bed. “Stop and I’ll release you! Please!”

In the midst of Janus’ pleading with me, the door before me opened, and in came Ekkan, looking pale and distressed over some bullshit. Just pissed me off to look at. Without wasting another second of getting compressed, I tried calling out to him.

“Ekkan…” I barely squeezed out, quickly devolving into a snarl, “Help.”

“Janus, let her go,” came his command. “Get to the medical ward. We need to treat Ricor, now. I’ll take care of her.”

Thank fuck, he finally let go of me, god. My knees buckled aggravatingly as I first tried standing on them again, and in spite of the inherent pain in doing so, my lungs sucked in a large, greedy breath. Janus quickly shoved his way past me, meanwhile, moving to the exit. Ekkan had approached me at some point, but for the moment, all I wanted to do was ignore him. Climbing onto my bed, I pressed myself as close to the adjacent wall as I could, just trying to keep steady. My arms still ached with every movement, ever since that shithead attacked me.

Compulsively, I pulled back one of the sleeves of my blouse. Ekkan was saying something… somewhere. It was quiet, now. Distant. Unintelligible. All I could focus on were these- the cracks that had begun to bloom all across them, the blood that slowly oozed out where they met my skin. How could there possibly be cracks in these? I’d been slashed and bitten innumerable times by now, and every single thing I killed was incapable of penetrating these.

Couldn’t look at them. Couldn’t keep steady. I drew myself into a fetal position just to try and shake less. Ekkan’s voice – at least I think that’s what that was – had dissolved into a distant drone, hardly even recognizable as being there. I felt what had to be his hand on my arm, much closer than the rest of him, and I instantly recoiled. Even a touch like that was enough to exacerbate what I was feeling.

Whatever I was feeling. It all felt fuzzy, and incoherent, and aggravating. It made me want to growl, an expression as much aimed at the physical pain as at my mental situation. At the situation in general. That aggravation returned clarity to what I was thinking, but that just made it all worse, and more intense, and horrible in the same way that it was before. Some tiny part of me knew I was slipping, but I couldn’t stop it, didn’t even want to linger on that knowledge.

Of course Mana would do this to me. I fixated on her, I had to, and it fed into everything else. Of course she’d do this to me, just like everyone else was doing. Ekkan did it too, as soon as he tried talking me out of killing her. He wasn’t with me anymore, and neither was Mana, and neither was anyone else. Why would Mana doing this all behind my back even be a surprise, that little bitch; I couldn’t even trust- no, but he said he wasn’t trying to do that, back at the meeting. But what did that matter if it amounted to this?!

And Mana was just the same. Worse, she was worse, and I knew it from day one. I should’ve trusted my gut and kicked that piece of shit out from the very beginning, not let her get into a position of power just to abuse it, abuse me, my trust, that’s all she ever did to me! And Ekkan was-

“Aysa, just keep breathing right now,” he said beside me, tone restrained. Of course he was gonna try to shove this shit on me again. “Everything’s fine right now, okay? It may have been stressful, but it’s over now. Don’t worry about any of the details right now. May I see your arms?”

It’s over now, my ass. Don’t worry about them, my ass. He’s always talking like he knows- well, so maybe he does know sometimes, but he- I let out another involuntary growl, shifting positions to sit up properly. I knew he was right about the breathing, at least. Everything else needed to shut the hell up. Thankfully for him, Ekkan allowed me to right myself and calm down without any further prodding.

After about thirty seconds of this, I stuck my arms out, eyes averted to keep myself from looking at them as Ekkan tended to the damage. I wanted to keep myself as far removed from him as possible right now, but I had enough of myself under control to know that allowing him to help me here was logical. If he kept going on about the same bullshit, though-

“If there’s anything you need to say, I’m here to listen,” he said softly, which somehow made it grate on my ears even more.

“Just- just get my arms done and leave,” I spat out in response, desperately trying to keep myself from slipping into further aggravation at him. Well, I already was, but I just wanted him gone. I wanted him not to see it.

It only took a couple minutes for him to bandage up the wounds on my arms, thankfully. Once he’d finished, Ekkan stood up and gingerly stepped out of the room, leaving me with one last ‘I’m sorry’ before exiting completely. Being left on my own let me actually calm down most of the way again, but the answer spinning around my head still wasn’t changing. It didn’t matter what Ekkan’s intentions were anymore.

Taking one last, steadying breath, I stood up fully. There was a pack in the corner I often used on excursions. Was glad to see it here, in easy reach. Once I’d grabbed it, I began filling it with whatever I would need for survival, and as much money as I could find lying around.

Senna 4.4

The volcanic pain finally began to subside. My body was unchanged, as foreign as it ever was to me, but my mind had altered again, more distinctly than the three previous times this had happened. I knew what this was. It was how I grew. Mom explained it however long ago that was, but it… it all felt equally distant from myself, sitting in this great, still sea. I needed to break to the surface. I could hold my breath forever, but I wanted to see again.

Air poured in through my nostrils, as if I had just woken up from a horrifically painful nightmare, and the reality was almost as bad. Blood caked the dirt beneath me and the walls to either side. My eyes darted haphazardly to and fro, as if my entire body were still in panic from something. Had to make an effort just to keep myself from hyperventilating. Or from breaking down and screaming.

It was all so hazy, indistinct, blurred almost beyond recognition – even the sights in front of my eyes would lose their cohesion if I strayed from concentration. My memories were even worse. He was dead, though. His corpse lay directly in front of me, something I could not ignore no matter where I looked. My lungs wanted to lock up and cease their motions just from that. As I forced myself to keep breathing, I finally tilted my head up, just enough to see her.

Why did she look so shocked? She was smiling earlier, through that fog that cleared away my will. I knew she was smiling. The blood had not even reached her, somehow. As she took her first step towards me, my mind recoiled, as if to banish her elsewhere just by willing it, to banish her memories, her image of me, any part she had in this, in my life, in-

“6iO0–7hg,” spake she. My name. The name she gave me. Forced. It sounded like someone else, but I recognized it, and I heeded. This body still moved as if in a daze. Standing was… it was impossible right now. The best I could give her was tilting my head up further to maintain eye contact as she moved closer.

Her arms wrapped around me. “I’m sorry I couldn’t stop it again. Are you okay?”

That was what she said, that was what she did. Two gears clicked into place, and it sank in, but it still felt dreamlike. No, worse than a dream. It felt fake. The way her arms moved against me, the subtle intonations of her voice, it was all revoltingly fake. Was she always like this? Did I just not notice it? I always wanted her to treat me well, desperately. I yearned for it, craved it, and ignored anything that was too inconvenient in the process.

I understood myself better than before. I understood her better, too. I gained the ability to, rather. It happened like this when I grew before, but this was so much worse. The pain was worse, the realization was worse, the situation was worse. She kept holding me for- how long was it now? How long was I- no, just shut up. Stop.

Those words clicked in my head again, and I felt her pull back somewhat, her motions again at a normal speed. She seemed to think I was shell shocked, and I probably was. There was no way she could fathom exactly what I was thinking, though. The despairing avenues my thoughts took would have prompted nothing short of a panic from her. Perhaps merely a swift correction, if I was wrong.

How long had she been this artificial with me? Everything I remembered could be construed as genuine or as having been a front, and there was no way to tell anymore. Even as she gently pulled me to my feet, though, the phoney care she threw my way made me sick. It was more like she was slapping me in the face than actually caring about how I felt after this. This, something I kept myself from even thinking about, much less saying.

And that smile earlier, just before… before this. It was so brief, but I could not ignore it. Why would she smile there? Why was she pretending to love me, and what could she possibly be feeling otherwise? Needed to know more. What she found while researching with her colleague, perhaps. Wait. Did she lie to me there too? I had no way of knowing whether she was genuinely trying to research what could be causing this to happen to me, and- and that smile, happy, it meant she was not actually surprised, it meant-

It was what she made me drink. It all started after that point. I was sent to a specific town, with a specific request that would have forced me into the one available store that could accommodate it. They not only recognized me there, but had someone waiting to kill me. They knew I was coming. They were given a description of me, furthermore; I tweaked the appearance I was told to use without Mom’s permission, and that was the source of his confusion at seeing me. Then, when I came back, she accepted the events without once leveling blame towards me, or even seeming truly shocked.

She did this to me.

And there it was, my next destination. My feet hurt more than usual with all the walking I’d forced on myself the past several days. Part of me just wanted to rent a room as soon as I got there and sleep ‘til tomorrow, but I knew I had to fight through that urge. Why don’t I get all excited, why don’t I try to be adventurous for once? Famous last words. It was too late to turn back now, though, so with a resolution to stop complaining about my own decisions, I trekked straight into the heart of Prisha.

Animal attacks, with the superstitious fearing something worse – you’d think that would be more reliable to go off of. If this town was the third dud in a row, I’d be very tempted to just give this all up as a figment of my overactive imagination. No, at the very least, I knew something weird happened in Celdan that day. Someone died, someone was traumatized, and someone disappeared. The lattermost, I could recognize, if my little hypothesis was correct.

People talk a lot when they get scared, I’ve found. As long as it didn’t get to the point where outsiders started being shunned and not talked to, it probably wouldn’t take long for me to get to the bottom of whatever happened here to draw my attention. Hell, just tell me what the injuries looked like, that would help more than giving me whatever crackpot theory you’ve been brewing! Almost involuntarily, I reached up to massage my own forehead, trying to soothe away the annoyances I had had to deal with in investigating what was going on.

My steps took me into a village like any other, pretty much. Not even the air felt much different than you’d expect. Made sense, given that to a lot of folks, events like this were mundane. Gross and saddening, but mundane. Hell, maybe it still was, but how could I know that if no one gives me anything good to work with? …Hey, what happened to no complaining? Now I was just giving myself a headache.

Wandering around as inconspicuously as possible was very inefficient in terms of time spent, but I needed to get a decent picture of where it was. Having nothing to go on except the hushed, frightful rumors that distorted their way into nearby villages wasn’t the best situation to be in. Eventually I came across what was a likely candidate, or else something equally worthy of inquiry: an alley with the appearance of having been exposed to shitloads of blood recently, to the point that the obvious cleaning efforts didn’t get rid of all the signs. There was no body to be seen, of course, but that just meant I could more innocently ask questions about it now that I had seen it firsthand.

That was the first step, just making sure I didn’t look either like a dumbass or like someone actively prying into something she shouldn’t. Next step was actively prying into something I shouldn’t, sneakily. The nearest store made sense to go into first, given the proximity; nothing would look unnatural about that. Thankfully, the sight of a recently blood-caked alley was genuinely disturbing enough for me not to have to fake any emotional reactions, because imagine how exhausting that would be.

The door creaked open at my action, and I entered the charming front room. As a carpenter’s shop – exactly what the sign outside implied – there was, well, a lot of wooden furniture inside. It felt less rough and more homey, at least. I really liked it. My entrance rang a crude metal bell attached to the door frame, and soon after, a weathered, middle-aged man came out to greet me. He seemed to have been working in the back, and otherwise, the shop seemed unmanned. It was a pretty small business.

“Howdy, missy,” he said, cracking a restrained, business-like smile. “Pardon my saying so, but I don’t recognize ya from around here. You deciding to settle down nearby?” Ah, I guess that was the best assumption, right? Not like someone just passing through has any need of furniture.

“Well, sorry for the false alarm, but I don’t need to buy anything right now,” I replied with an apologetic tone. “I’m just visiting. What brings me here is the alley just over there,” my thumb jerked in the appropriate direction, “which freaked me out a little.”

He nodded solemnly. “Mm. Seems like we had an animal attack a couple nights ago. Poor Kaill got his torso messed up, and some out-of-town lady was caught up in it too. ‘S’a damn tragedy.”

“His torso was messed up?” I prompted.

“Yeah, almost like it was broken apart or something, from what I heard. Lotta folks around here’ve gotten spooked over it, not wanting to be out at night for fear of whatever mighta done that. Can’t really blame ‘em,” the man shrugged, “though fearmongering ain’t gonna do any good, y’know?”

“Not much to be done about it, I guess. What do you make of all this, though?”

“What do I make of it? Well, I sure think bein’ more on the lookout at night’s a wise decision-”

“I mean like what could have done something like that?” I interrupted him, hoping to seal the deal on my suspicions that this was an identical case. The only abnormality here was that a witness was left in Celdan, but not here.

“Mmmm… well, could be a number of things. Plenty of nasty critters around here, and more than a couple that could do that kind of damage in spite of their size. No one saw anything like that, though. My guess? Pack of ‘em, something smaller but more intelligent. Learnin’ how to operate in villages and stuff. Y’know, I even hear some species of birds can use rudimentary tools – and several are known to be spiteful. That’s my best bet.”

After he finished the thought by concluding that intelligent birds were creepy – which, in the context of that kind of thinking, I definitely understood – I thanked him for his time and insight. I frankly doubted the idea of a pack of birds going around fucking people up, but it was better than random superstition, I guess. Maybe they aren’t so dissimilar, though… people always trying to fit what they see into a worldview that makes sense to them.

The damage inflicted was similar to what I was able to gather in Celdan, and both involved exactly two people. The main difference here was that the second didn’t survive this time. Unfortunately, the survivor in Celdan was refusing to talk by the time I tried speaking with him, but I heard that at first he was insisting it was a human – or looked like one. And then there’s the matter of that constable asking me about some random person that I saw. If I could just have gotten a description from that guy, I’d be so much closer to nailing at least some of this down.

I needed time to think about my next move, so with nothing else to do and a great desire to not be screwed by a lack of room at the inn, I decided to head over there after exiting the carpenter’s shop. Paying up and reserving something for tonight well ahead of time would give me a little peace of mind. At this rate, though, I’d probably end up resting my poor overworked feet and struggling futilely to figure out what I was supposed to do.

Keeping my head in the game was my ongoing priority. Since I walked around so damn much over the course of the day, I already had spotted an inn, so getting there wasn’t difficult. While walking, while speaking to the man at the front, and while inspecting the crude room I had rented, my thoughts were chained haphazardly and unprofessionally to the subject that brought me to Prisha. What I was gonna do about it. I had, at the very least, the sense to set down my pack during all of this.

As dangerous as it was, I allowed myself the luxury of resting on the mildly uncomfortable bed for the moment. Had to be vigilant of not letting myself just fall asleep or otherwise never get up. Oh how I wanted to rest, but this was bigger than me, more important. Would starting with the description of the person I saw that day work? Something about going around searching for ‘em after they went missing? It was potentially the wrong line to be going down, but I had nothing else. If this failed, I was back to square one – or even worse, potentially confirming that my one tiny piece of information to work off of is worthless.

My butt was starting to get way too familiar with sitting down in here, and that’s how I knew it was time to get back out there. Regardless of how determined I was, though, I couldn’t run around on an empty stomach, so I did end up heading down to the bar area again, inquiring about being able to buy meals here. Apparently the attached building held such services, and the barkeep lead me in the right direction. The entrance was rather hard to find on one’s own, I felt. When I pointed this out to him, I got a little lesson about the history of the two buildings, yaddy yaddy yadda, they weren’t always connected, whatever.

The next moments after he waved goodbye to go back to his post made me feel a little guilty for being so impatient, but I was too hungry to dwell deeply on it. Unlike the bar, this place seemed a bit more populated, and service was still quick and friendly in spite of that. I had to go through the motions of how I was newly arrived in town, searching for a friend of mine who went missing – indeed, gave me a good opportunity to actually try that out for the first time – but nothing particular came of it. Except for a meal and some smiles of encouragement, I guess.

From then, the day crawled past me in agonizing stretches of more or less aimless wandering, loaded interactions with locals, and just generally trying to get a complete picture of what happened here and what I should be doing. I was worried my feet would try to mutiny at this rate. Aside from the obvious fact that people were somewhat scared and trying to get through their days normally and safely, I also really wasn’t getting much out of this.

That all changed when some old guy’s bad memory gave me a spark of… something. Hope that I wasn’t wasting my time? The description of my ‘friend’ prompted him to say he thought he saw such a person somewhere, at some point. Yeah, great level of detail there, I know. It was absolutely miniscule and easily written off, but in the state of mind I’d gotten into, it was downright galvanizing. He had absolutely no pointers to give me, yet somehow, just the idea that maybe Prisha was the right target after all got me going again.

Light levels were starting to drop by now, though. It was a little worrying having gotten only this much progress, and more worrying to feel the atmosphere shift as the sun started setting. We were walking about unmolested, but the darker it got, the faster nearly everyone’s paces were encouraged to go, whether by instinct or by those close to them. Well, the effect was a bit more understated than that, but it got to me anyways. A few even tried telling me to get wherever I was going quickly, or some variation of that, as they passed me by.

If Celdan was any indication, then I didn’t think anything similar would happen here again. I felt safe in that assumption. Still, it would be getting way harder to actually do anything once people were off the streets entirely and it was too dark to see well. Even as my feet kept moving, my thoughts wandered to the idea of just heading back to the inn for tonight, and to what tomorrow should look like for me. Didn’t have a hard number on how long I should stay in places like this to begin with, but that brief glimpse I was given, that meant I couldn’t just leave after half a day of being here, right?

More people off to my side talking about needing to get inside somewhere. My momentum had steadily slowed to a crawl by now, and I couldn’t help but overhear. Some older lady, very insistent, very concerned. With no actual interest, my head turned in her direction, absentmindedly surveying the scene as if to delay the decision I had to make.

“Won’t you just say somethin’?” the woman asked, frustration tempered by what felt like her genuine concern. Changing my angle as inconspicuously as I could, I tried to get a look at whoever she was talking to. Call it idle curiosity, I guess.

Someone very familiar came into view. I almost couldn’t believe what I was looking at. They looked a little different than I remembered, but that had to be them, right? As much as I woulda liked some sorta ‘our eyes met, sparks flew, etc’ situation to have happened, it was all without fanfare, as they weren’t even looking up, or in my direction. Being seated numbly against the side of a building would do that, huh.

“Oh my god!” I exclaimed, rushing over past the older woman in a deliberate display. “So this is where you went. You had me way too worried.”

“Miss, what’s-”

“Thank you so much for your kind intentions,” said I in quick interruption. “I’ve been looking all over for my friend, but now that I’m here, I’ll take care of ‘em, alright?”

The relief on her face was evident. “You folks take care, okay? And get somewhere safe!” she couldn’t resist tacking on at the end as she turned to leave. That almost seemed a little too quick for me to believe it. Was she just doing this because her conscience demanded it?

Either way, I was now left with… whoever this was. Had no idea about their name, their personality, their past, whether they even were who I thought. Now that it was just us, at least, their gaze turned upwards. Felt like we both recognized each other, somehow. I kinda thought something would happen here, but the silence continued unopposed. Seemed like that would be falling to me again.

“My name is Frida,” came my introduction, and my extended hand. “What’s yours?”

Their mouth moved as if to answer, but nothing came out; the motion was stopped prematurely. After that hesitation, I simply got the words, “Do not have one now.”

“Well, uh,” I retracted my hand awkwardly, “are you-?”

“What do you want?” they asked. Normally a question like that would take on an annoyed tone, but here, it just sounded tired. Defeated, almost.

“I mean, I did tell that lady the truth, technically. I’ve been trying to find you.” That sparked something in their expression.

“So you are the woman I saw hawking questionable products in Celdan,” they concluded, the accuracy of which took me aback somewhat. Just because you notice doesn’t mean you have to say it, damn it. “You know, then?”

“I know…?”

They struggled with something, and words failed to reach me in the meantime. Getting a proper explanation here might be beyond possibility at the moment, and I had exactly no clue about how to help, or even what was appropriate or helpful to say. Or maybe I should just talk at them, if they’re not capable right now? Having decided that, I continued to speak.

“I don’t know what’s going on here, or what happened in Celdan exactly. I’ve had to piece together a lot of things,” I explained. “I was asked about you, like you’d vanished or were connected to something strange, and then more digging got me a very concerning story. Frankly kinda shocked I didn’t hear about it sooner, but- ugh, no, nevermind that-”

“So, yes, you know,” was all I got again, and it still lacked any semblance of fear or malice. It was still defeat. “You should probably do something about me, then.”

“Do- what? I don’t get what you’re talking about.” Their head tilted back to lean against the wall fully as my confusion became apparent.

“That man spread a description of me, yes? You should know it. People this far away have not seemed to receive rumor of it yet, but now, here you are. Please, just-” their teeth grit together, “-do not make me spell this out.”

“You want someone to catch you?” I barely got out, voice wavering for whatever bastard reasons made these things happen to me.

This was going so far beyond me. It was basically indirect confirmation from the source that this person was involved in that murder, and, by proximity, this double murder in Prisha. It was all but being spelled out for me, and only because they seemed to be incapable of uttering anything more explicit than that. My chest was starting to hurt, this was making me so anxious. Why was I even anxious?

“…Why do you not get anything.” Their voice was even more deadened than before, facial expression practically frozen in its current state. “I. Killed. People. That man. Another. My own-” their voice cracked.

“Okay, tell me the full situation then,” I commanded as convincingly as I could muster in my state. “You want something done about this? Give me my evidence. Let me know everything, even if it’s hard on you. You want justice from this, don’t you?”

“You know enough. I should be dead.”

“Tell me why.”

The ceramic mask their expression had frozen into cracked again into a wide grimace, teeth bared and voice barely restrained. “Go to hell. Are you trying to make this hurt as much as possible?”

“I’m trying to understand the truth,” I insisted, dropping to my knees next to them. “Murderers don’t sit around hoping someone recognizes them and beg to be killed. One was killed in Celdan, but two were killed here. Something went differently. Tell. Me.

I didn’t know what had gotten over me. I almost felt… angry at them. For them. I came all the way searching specifically for this person, for the truth of what was going on; I wasn’t gonna walk away signing their death sentence and be satisfied with it. It wasn’t fucking satisfying at all. I didn’t start this off as a witch hunt or an investigation to try and catch some murderer in the first place, anyways. Nothing about this was normal. If there was something to be legitimately be superstitious about here, then I wanted to know. I deserved to.

After a great deal of silence, I finally started getting the answers I was demanding. They still seemed to be restraining themself from something, but I was told the events both in Celdan and here from their perspective, and it cleared as many things up as it raised new questions. A triggered, uncontrollable killing state, I guess that’s the best label I could put on it. That fully explained why this person was so eager to be dealt with.

Now that I had the info I wanted, my earlier anger started melting away like so much heated butter. It felt awkward between us. At least, it felt like that to me. It was for a good cause or… something, and it was for their benefit too, but the guilt at playing hardball remained. I was never any good at this. Hell, my performance there was almost anomalous compared to every other time I felt like I needed to act strictly.

Exhaling, I asked another question. “And you don’t have any idea why two deaths occurred the second time?”

“Wrong,” they said through gritted teeth. “Do you really need to know this?”

“Don’t make me repeat myself.”

Fine. That was my… my mom. And I-” their body language steadily conveyed instability, and an overall struggle to get out whatever this was, “-her being there caused it the second time. She was- she also did the- the first thing. That town. She made it happen. I figured it out. I figured it out and I just-” Once their muscles started outright shaking, a bit of maternal instinct kicked in and urged me to hug them, or do something, but I restrained myself.

“I killed her,” they finally continued, taking several seconds to control their breathing and keep from breaking apart completely. “Willingly. It was not that thing anymore. I thought she was controlling me to do this.”

“…Was she?”

Their head shook, though seemingly not in dismissal. “I- yeah, I think so. It was the only answer that made sense. Giving me some sort of disgusting liquid to drink that I never had seen before, just before I headed out to that town. And then the people there, they knew I was coming. Warned. By someone. They had a description of me, but-” they suddenly cut themself short.

After another round of increased prodding – efforts made less hostile by a careful tone on my part – I got to perhaps the weirdest part of this whole freaky-ass situation. My head was spinning just trying to keep up, and in no small part due to the fact that if this person wasn’t just utterly delusional, it meant that there were very strange things happening in the world that hardly anyone was aware of. That was horrifying on some deep level that would take a more eloquent woman to put into proper words. All I had was a very concrete sensation of wrongness, and what finally appeared to be the full details of this person’s life.

From what I could gather, their mother had to be a witch of some kind, and somehow produced a kid with weird abilities. Then tried to… intentionally do all this stuff to ‘em? Well, it lost me there for sure, given that neither of us could possibly know the motivation for doing that to someone, much less your own child. At least I could generally follow along with the descriptions of what they could do. Heal themself, take on different appearances, stuff to do with their own body. Like talking to the most self conscious and self hating mythological figure in the world, almost.

With that out of the way, they outlined the full logic that lead them to conclude their own mother was behind all of this, and I could easily infer the emotions they must have felt in that moment. Again, though, this raised another question, but this was about their reaction to the whole thing instead of about some detail or another, and I worried that would be even more difficult to answer than anything else.

“So you were used as a tool to kill people, figured it out, and killed the person who actually effectively murdered them,” I stated bluntly, trying to iron out what these events practically were for both of us. “Why do you still want to die? You’re… free of it now. She’s dead, and that’s a good thing. You couldn’t have done anything else, and can’t be blamed for what she did. You’re fine now.”

I couldn’t tell if I was getting through. They were silent. Sometimes people got to a point where they couldn’t really continue any further, where they just needed time to process what happened, and I had just enough experience to suspect that I’d done my job here. Right now, they probably needed to be allowed to work through this themself. Like hell I’d let ‘em keep sitting around waiting for someone else to figure it out and kill ‘em, though.

“Come on,” I gently tugged on their arm, “the street’s a horrible place to sleep. I already have a room rented, so you may as well take advantage of it, right?”

I didn’t know how much of what I said was even registering for ‘em right now, but I was satisfied that they weren’t resisting as I pulled them along towards what I hoped would be recovery.

Sunlight had broken entirely through the window by the time I woke up. I could tell that I had no dreams the night before, good or bad. Just floated in dormancy, a state I was strangely aware of. The roughspun threads of a bed were my next greeting, gaining me a little more awareness, and I sat up. Frida was still lying on the makeshift cot she put together to allow me the more comfortable sleeping arrangement. I was still just as confused as to why she felt safe enough falling asleep around me as I was last night.

None of it let me actually deny her as being wrong, though. As much as I hated myself for doing it, I should have been… freed now. The problem was solved at its source. It hurt to go on like this, but nothing would stop me from it. And for some reason, Frida thought I should. Keep going. She was encouraging me like there was something of value to be preserved here. At least that part I could contest as much as I wanted.

She inhaled all of a sudden, immediately preceding a series of half-wakeful stretches. Guess she was up now too, or would be soon. I sat up, myself, wanting to just get on with whatever today would throw at me rather than delay it in a haze of early light. My added motions spurred her on. Soon enough, we were both sitting up, looking at each other. She somehow found it in herself to smile at me.

“Good morning,” came her gentle greeting. My eyes averted instinctively, and the best I could do to fix that was bring them back onto her, even if not meeting her gaze. It was hard being treated like this. Stung. She barely even did anything and it still felt undeserved.

“…Hi.”

“Would it be too insulting to ask how you’re feeling?” Even just the concern dripping off her words was too much. It would have been easy to react like I did the other day, but I put effort into restraining that. Frida did not deserve to hear me throw vitriol at her just for being nice.

I shook my head. “No, but please do not.”

She understood, at least well enough, and we both busied ourselves with preparations for the day. I still had no idea what I wanted. In the wake of that indecision, Frida had been imploring me to come with her back to her home village, just to let me have somewhere safe while deciding on things. I was finally in a decent enough state of mind to say yes to that. Thankfully, she skimped on the fanfare.

I still had no real identity for myself, though, and I felt it keenly. Frida wanted a name to call me, and we both wanted something that was mine, totally and utterly. Something a dead murderer did not force me to wear. I would have to walk out of here in the same fake appearance as last night, but maybe out on the road, we could talk about what has been on my mind. I was sure she would like being let in, even just a little.

Once we were both dressed – she in a spare change of clothes she brought along, and me by way of shapeshifting – we exited the inn’s guest house. Frida was still carrying her pack in spite of my offer to do so. Our departure was only delayed by the purchase of a breakfast to start the day with, since not taking the opportunity would be foolish. Given that she would soon be taking more care of me for however long, I convinced her to let me pay with the coins I got a few days ago working.

It was bizarre being waved off as a total stranger by a man who I had talked a decent bit with, but the barkeep had no way of recognizing me like this. From that, the men I had worked with that night crossed my thoughts again briefly, and I wondered what they thought of my seeming disappearance, to little effect. It probably just added fuel to local mystery, another detail they would whisper amongst themselves, and the actual person behind that detail would be forgotten. That was what I liked about it.

Our last door finally opened, and it was brilliantly sunny out, more than was at all typical for the region or the season. Maybe it was an omen for me. Maybe the future I was about to walk towards was this bright, or even a fraction so. It was not an optimistic thought crossing my mind, just trying to find a meaning. What a funny idea, that I could even sound like an optimist after all of that.

Things had dried out just enough to be comfortable, with even the roads taking a solid consistency as far as we could see. Well, things varied under shade, but it was still better than usual. And it was beautiful. One of those scenes that uplifts the spirit, I supposed, in spite of how depressed and stubborn the spirit tried to be. This really was a nice atmosphere for new beginnings, and it gave me more courage.

“Frida, you told me earlier that I should think about… those things. A new name for myself, and stuff.”

I couldn’t tell if it was some sort of inherent shame to the whole process, or just something along the lines of not wanting to be seen while getting dressed, but we’d stopped at the side of the road. A pair of fallen trees made it conveniently hidden from most angles, and all that was left was for me to turn around and wait. Was kinda weird knowing something was happening back there while hearing absolutely no sounds related to it. The whole thing really flared up my curiosity, but a big girl’s gotta know restraint.

“Frida,” a somewhat higher pitched voice called me from where I knew they were working. Still startled me.

“‘S’that the signal to turn around?” I chuckled, aiming to be absolutely sure things were good. Upon hearing a gentle ‘mhm’, I obliged.

It was a striking transformation to genuinely witness, even if it was just a before and after. Cemented the reality of this person, this unnatural situation in general, but for right now, it was fine to simply take in the sight. Almost had to wonder where they got the inspiration to look this beautiful.

A mildly ovular face and universally soft contours were the first shapes my mind registered, as well as the rich, dark brown coloration of their skin. Their hair was about as black as it could get, highly wavy to the point that it bordered on curliness and falling just past their shoulder blades. Strikingly caramel-hued eyes seemed to have been scanning my face the entire time I took this new appearance in, probably looking for a positive reaction.

I smiled. Extending one hand forward, I was able to finally ask the question I’d been wanting to all this time, one that was hopefully interpreted a lot deeper than its mere words implied.

“It’s nice to meet you,” and it genuinely was. “Who are you?”

Maybe they expected a slightly different question, as there were a couple moments of silence. Then, my smile was reciprocated, my hand grasped, and my answer given.

“Senna. A woman who can decide her own life now. And I will.”