Destructions 5.3

“Senna… will you marry me?”

My breath caught in my throat. Things were already hard to process, how intense this all was, and then she dropped that on me. Shit, I think I was staring, not reacting, what would she- no, no, it was okay. She could tell… what, exactly? That I was frozen in something akin to a panic? Was I panicking? Why? This was supposed to be happy, that should have been what I felt, why was I so

I was quiet again, all of a sudden, hush pressing down against the top of my head… I think that was Lily. As always, she very pointedly refrained from directly making me feel happy. My gaze averted out of some instinctual sense of shame, but I took the opportunity to steady myself nonetheless. Why was she allowed to be this patient? Or why was I allowed to have someone like her, rather. Lily’s expression had not betrayed any feelings of hurt or offense this entire time, but having someone have that reaction seemed horrifically rude.

“It’s fine,” she assured me in response to my silent guilt. “But other than that, I need to hear what you’re thinking. I can’t get all the way in there, after all.” That made me crack a little bit of a smile – which she returned – in spite of myself.

“I am thinking that… my reaction must have been hurtful,” I started off, not able to get my voice much above a mutter. And still not looking right at her.

“There are plenty of reasons to be anxious over the concept of marriage. It’s understandable. But I would like to know what specifically is wrong, if you can tell me?”

Good thing she specified if, because I had no idea how to answer that. Knowing yourself was not exactly easy, but it always seemed like a much more simple proposition when you were not in the moment, dealing with your own reactions to things and unable to even say what caused them. Admitting to that would be overly convenient and unsatisfying, too. For the second time in so many minutes, I found it hard to say anything again.

Lily was patient. Her presence against my heart was constant, if mostly inactive now. I think she was just trying to let me ponder without falling into another anxiety attack? Her hand extended slowly towards mine, testing the waters, and I pulled back just a tiny bit, silently communicating that touching would be… I did not even know what it would be, but it felt like I needed more space than that, just for right now.

Just asking myself why I felt that way was getting me nothing. The thought of marrying Lily did turn up plenty of other questions lurking in the back of my head, though. Maybe these were the reason? Or if not, then at the very least, they spoke to deeper worries that would need to be addressed sooner or later, as unpleasant as the idea was. It was not exactly a question, but one thing did stand out to me, now that I was open to broaching these things.

“…You know I do not age, right? Not like you, at least,” I began after having met her gaze. She glanced to the side instinctively for a moment before responding.

“I- yeah, I kinda figured that.”

“Things like this do not usually… end well,” came my blunt, awkward conclusion. For all the nervousness it imparted, I could hardly provide better wording than this.

Her eyes left mine again. The delay between my statement and her response probably would have amplified my anxiety had she not been preventing it. Even still, what remained was the sort of feeling that could not be quelled so easily, that nagging sort born of legitimate concerns that neither general logic nor a mere lack of panic can resolve. This was the first time the problem of our ages had come up, too, so I had no idea what her thoughts were, or if the thought had even crossed her mind before. Would she really want to marry me like this?

“…Why are you bringing this up, Senna?” was all she asked after all that time. Pings of distress knocked against my chest as I realized that this was probably not even something she wanted to acknowledge. I mean, that was why we never talked about it before… at the same time, she also sounded like she was genuinely asking me why.

“I just- we never stopped to acknowledge it, before,” I stammered out, in spite of becoming increasingly aware that this was the wrong thing to talk about. “I was unsure if you would still… you know, really want to marry me, if you had thought of it.”

Lily’s expression hardened as I said that, ever more resolved as she locked eyes with me again. This time, she did not seek permission for her hand to grasp mine. Her presence felt utterly resolute as it grazed against me, paradoxically ironclad while not losing its gentleness. The breadth of sensations I could get from her was sometimes surprising.

“I wouldn’t propose to you if I didn’t want to have you in my life as long as possible. And I know you don’t want to leave me just because of the fear of what will happen years from now.” I nodded quickly. “Then let’s not allow it to make us miserable in the here and now.” After a short pause, I nodded again.

She was right. She was inarguably right – or perhaps, more to the fact, I did not care to argue against it in the first place. I wanted to embrace that mindset, that we should enjoy being together and work to maintain it without regard for anything else. It was like everything today was coming together to bring me to this conclusion, to the point that it almost felt eerie. But in a good way.

I was fully decided by now. Lily grinned widely, practically beaming as she felt that conclusion click into place within me. That look was enough to warm the heart even without weird empathy powers. I reached out to cup her cheek, beginning to muse aloud.

“Marriage, huh… I do not have a family to involve in this, so I guess I am fully marrying into yours, like you said. Does that make me Senna Trischam?”

That brought a noticeable little blush to her cheeks, her torso wiggling side to side in probably a mixture of joy and sheepishness at her own reaction. If I had to assume. It was somehow even cuter than her unaccompanied smiles, which was impressive. Tugging on the hand she still grasped, Lily pulled me into a wonderfully tight hug.

“Sure does, once you’re my wife,” she agreed, tongue practically tasting the last word as it left her lips. “As long as this means your answer is ‘yes’, that is.”

That was such a nice thought. “Yes, I would love to-”

A brief, horrific screech and flash of light from directly in front of me froze the blood in my veins. It caught Lily’s attention, too, and in the brief instants of her turning- Nykorosk. In that form again. Dead, flaking, withered grey skin stretched over an emaciated form, pristine porcelain mask with nothing but a pair of narrow eye slits, and… clutching a large, wickedly curved blade in one of his pseudo-talons, material darker than I thought possible. And it was… doubled? Like I was looking at two of the same object overlaid on each other.

He was exactly as I remembered him, plus a new, bizarre weapon. With instinctual alacrity, I heightened my senses tremendously, allowing me to hear Lily’s heart beat once. Nykorosk began moving, shifting his posture towards us. Me. No discernible eyes, but I could still feel that gaze, and immediately, the same gnawing instability that eroded my mind the last time we fought.

“How touching,” a disgustingly familiar voice roiled just beyond my ears, like it was coming from somewhere, anywhere but its true source. Lily reacted as if she heard it too, and her heart’s next beat faltered for a moment once she’d finally turned to beheld him. “A monster and its enabler, sharing a tender moment. Did you forget what I taught you?”

My mind was almost a blank, grey fuzz, and not just because of what Nykorosk was doing to me. He took a step closer, movements more animal than human. Each thought – why did he come here, how did he find me, I thought Surgriel was keeping them away, please don’t hurt her – cycled into the next, almost too quickly to put into words. Another heartbeat. I needed her to get out of here. Opening my throat was almost impossible, but I did.

“Run,” I barely squeezed out, unsure if it would have even been audible for her.

Too late. He was moving, his arm- at us- I pulled down, tearing Lily from her upright posture in a desperate move to keep her out of the path of that weapon. It whizzed dangerously through the air as Lily was practically thrown to the ground, while I stopped my own momentum, keeping myself horizontal for a moment with my knees bent.

This was too much all at once. It felt like there was no time to strengthen my body enough to deal with this, and thinking of a design was too hard with this mental interference, something he was thankfully not increasing just yet. Focused on the new weapon as his way of dealing with me? Something about it had to be important. Needed to be paying attention, to it and to him. Needed to be going faster. After half a moment of precarious balance, I tugged my own body upright again, just in time to see his free talon swiping towards my face.

The amount of force behind that hit was obscene; before I had any time to react, the whole world went dark, then suddenly ignited into a field of muddy splashes of light. A rapidly moving field. By the time I reconstructed my head and halted my own backwards momentum, Nykorosk was surging after me, intentions of again swinging with that weapon evident in his posture.

Well before I was able to start evading, something slammed into me mentally. Everything hurt, and those thoughts were coming back in, drawing every scrap of my awareness into a panic. He was getting closer. Closer but I could hardly see him. My vision was getting increasingly blurry, even as his arm flexed and brought that superimposed blade closer. It was so close, and my legs would not move.

Something else assailed me in that moment, and this time, it was not Nykorosk. Like a spear of heat and light stabbing through my head, painfully violent, clearing away the fog that he was drawing over me. I clumsily pulled myself even further backwards, tumbling just out of his reach, and righted myself. What the hell was that?! Whatever it was, the feeling was lodged firmly in my being, not retreating in the slightest. On the contrary, it was taking agonizing root.

Nykorosk had stopped. His head cocked to the side with an audible crack, and the voice returned. “How did you move, little rodent?”

Not like I was about to answer him. However brief it was, this was a reprieve, and I took the opportunity to start replacing my body, one part at a time. I needed something that could at least try to hold up against the amount of physical force Nykorosk was capable of casually throwing around. Rather than pay attention to my efforts, his head swiveled back in the direction of the village, which we were now a good distance away from.

“Oh, I see it,” his voice noted, slithering around first one ear, then the other. “Something in that village is touching you. Trying to help?” At the word ‘help’, a chorus of deep, mocking chuckles echoed in my head. “You delude not just yourself, but everyone around you. Making them think you’re worthy of help in the first place, selfish little creature that you are.”

Bursts of light and sound more numerous than that which preceded Nykorosk’s appearance came from behind him, between us and the village. More enemies. Were it not for the tendrils coiling around my heart, I might have been paralyzed at their arrival, what it meant for us. Thankfully, I was still alert, still looking for an opportunity to at least incapacitate Nykorosk. He was keeping himself from being distracted, though. His gaze returned to me.

One of the newcomers spoke.

The vantage I took after Senna was knocked away by that- creature? person? let me keep her in line of sight. By now, several people had noticed something going on and tried coming closer to see it, some sitting in awe at the appearance of whatever that was and some screaming to run in the opposite direction. I needed to get these people away, but it would be too hard to do that while maintaining concentration on Senna, and fuck if she didn’t need it.

Whatever that thing was, it and I could do similar things, or at least that was the only impression I got so far. The fact that I could counteract what it was trying to do evinced that as well, but the strain required to actually overcome it was exhausting me. I could tell I was hurting Senna, too, but she couldn’t function like that, much less competently fight this off. With no other good course of action, I simply dug my way into her and kept myself there as steadily as possible.

“Everyone, return to your homes and stay there!” a woman ordered, quickly approaching my position at the corner of the building. That sounded like Elva. Someone else seemed to be taking over the task of getting people out of here afterwards, all of which lessened my own worries at least a little.

Elva’s footsteps stopped just behind me. “What’s going on?”

“That thing appeared out of nowhere and attacked Senna,” I described as briefly as I could, trying to avoid breaking my concentration. “Seemed like the same transportation that brought the Yleini invaders.”

What? Surgriel said-” she stopped herself, realizing the futility of saying something like that. After a pause, she apparently composed herself. “Okay, closest thing we have to an armory is right over here. I’ll be right back. Stay safe.”

She ran off, shouting an order to the other woman who’d been getting people back to their homes in the process. I’d never been in the business of shooting people down by saying something was impossible, but this nearly changed that. The strength that enemy showed in batting Senna aside was… terrifying. Hopefully Elva was smart enough to grab ranged weapons, rather than expect to fight it in close-

More lights flaring up between my position and the fight, which had already paused for some reason. Another three people appeared in that space, none of them looking like monsters yet all engendering the same sense of terrifying awe. My eyes swept over them, trying to gather as many details as possible while still keeping Senna safe.

One was a tall, well-built, dark skinned man with what looked like a shaved head, some facial piercings, and a pair of short prismatic wings extending from the back of his neck. The second looked like a lighter skinned teenage girl with frilly black clothing and… weird pink things jutting out of the top of her head. Ears of some sort? And the third was a rather short woman with neatly braided hair, bright emerald feathers adorning her scalp, and some kind of well-crafted fur-lined coat.

The man spoke. “Nykorosk,” he voice pierced through the air, volume even and well controlled. “That was dangerous. It doesn’t change anything to lure it here instead, but I shouldn’t have to remind you not to go alone.”

“Aw, save it,” the teenager dismissed. “He never listens.”

Something pinged against the edge of my awareness, now that Senna wasn’t being directly assaulted like before. I didn’t want to leave her open again, but I could still spare a moment to register what it was: four people approaching the area. Elva with reinforcements? If these enemies had special abilities but were seemingly normal people otherwise, then taking them out at a distance before they can register an attack would be tremendous. I’m sure Elva was thinking along the same lines.

“Yes, we three are enough otherwise, but stay close,” the man said, seemingly replying to nothing – or nothing I could hear. “It will target you if it determines you to be sufficiently isolated.”

The quick whir of several quarrels streaking through the air reached my ears just as they hit their marks, but whatever hope I might have had was instantly quashed. The man caught one mid-air, holding it in place; the teenager was seemingly hit, but rather than being physically impacted by the bolt striking her skull, her entire body flickered briefly; the older woman, meanwhile, had seemingly done nothing at all, and was unscathed. Did they just miss, or-?

“Louri, neutralize the combatants,” came another command from the man, who had to be their leader or something. He never once looked in our direction this entire time. Right now, his gaze seemed to be fixated on the distant horizon, where unusually dark clouds were gathering. “We have about two minutes until it gets here, thanks to Nykorosk.”

“Not like it makes a difference, but whatever,” the girl – Louri, I guess – acquiesced. Then, everything went black.

“Yes, we three are enough otherwise, but stay close. It will target you if it determines you to be sufficiently isolated.”

Even having paused to respect his input, Nykorosk was not motionless for long. As soon as he had more or less obtained permission to continue, he bolted towards me as if propelled by more than muscular force. Wanting to give me as little time to react as possible? Or just keep me away from his allies? I similarly flung myself to the side, hoping that he would overshoot my position due to his momentum, but his maneuverability was more than just speed. The way he immediately stopped and changed course was too much for me to do anything about.

This was getting bad. Nykorosk had to be one of the ‘Aichleini’ that Surgriel spoke of, but were the rest of them Aichleini as well? Those three had yet to assume another form, but that indicated nothing. If there were four of these overpowering individuals right here, and I could not even get over there to kill the defenseless ones, then we would all be at their mercy. So far, only Nykorosk was engaging me, but there were no guarantees of it staying that way.

“Louri, neutralize the combatants,” the same man ordered, drawing my attention back over there. Someone is engaging them?! Kept from a full-blown panic, I nonetheless redoubled my efforts at reaching the others, only to have it result in dropping my guard and allowing Nykorosk to knock me away again. At least I was able to stand upright more quickly this time.

“You insult me,” Nykorosk chuckled from seemingly behind me, illusion though it was. “I always thought we had fun together. Why leave?”

It was a credit to whatever was causing this sensation that I was still relatively level-headed after all this. In spite of feeling so much more violent than anything she had done before, this had to be Lily, right? Was she the one being ‘neutralized’? And what did that even mean? Something to do with their abilities, or…

“-fference, but whatever,” I heard someone respond, sentence mostly drowned out by the impacts of Nykorosk’s talon and whiz of that malicious-looking weapon cutting through the air. Now that he started using it again, I felt unable to even try to disengage from him. I had to assume that if he acquired it between our first conflict and now, it was made for me. That meant I did not want to give him an opportunity to connect with it, even if I could hardly imagine how it would be able to harm me.

The sensation lodged inside me faltered for a few moments. It allowed the first motes of fear back into my consciousness, all directed at whether Lily was still okay. Somehow, though, those stabilizing thorns reasserted themselves almost immediately after. Based on the timing, I think that had to be Lily, since whatever Louri did interrupted it momentarily. That meant she was still alive. That realization was nearly as great a relief as the emotional manipulation itself. It also meant that they had a way of taking someone out of the fight without harming them, which maybe meant that they would feel no need to do anything more about her.

Sidestepping Nykorosk’s tremendous downswing, the sheer dust it kicked up was annoying. Even a hit like that had no effect on my ability to hear him. “Don’t think I didn’t catch that. One of the mice Louri’s holding down is aiding you. That’s very helpful to know.”

The fact that he caught onto the same thing I did made my blood run cold. I needed to kill him before he did something about that. Just before I was able to launch myself forward, though, a peal of thunder in the distance drew both Nykorosk’s and my attention away, if only for a split second. The sky further off was practically overflowing with dark clouds, and in the brief time I glanced at it, it seemed to be advancing way too quickly.

His attention returned to the battle just a moment before mine did. Still had time to react. He moved to stretch his arm towards me, which I could only interpret as him trying to bat me away again – getting an opening to attack Lily? I braced myself for another impact, reinforcing my skin and moving to ground as much force as possible into the ground. I had no intentions of being forced away this time.

I was not forced away, because he refrained from hitting me. The talon gripped my shoulder instead, sparking a flash of understanding inside me. I needed to block, now. In my rush, I practically shredded any semblance of a working left arm, simply throwing as much overly dense material between myself and that blade as possible. His weapon, clanging against the disgusting growths of chitinous black material, stopped briefly. Then it moved.

Pain seared along the furthest edges of my being as one of the two superimposed images edged further into my defense than the other. Rather than being carved through with physical force, it was like the matter I created was being forcibly evaporated away- or, no, I was?! Just the slightest bit more effort caused my defense to yield entirely, a streak of unbelievable agony being written across the left side of my exposed body.

My vocal cords strained against the urge to scream, to vocalize the torture worse than anything I had ever done to myself, regardless of how sensitive I made my nerves. And they were deadened right now. At what felt like a glacial pace, my eyes moved to look at my left arm being carved off my torso, dissolving into black wisps before its ultimate unmaking. Nykorosk’s talon released its grip, and I stumbled backwards.

I felt nothing from it now. It was like I had no left arm to begin with, never had one, and never could. Crippling agony continued to pulse along the wound, and none of my efforts abated the pain or reconstructed my arm. I could hardly even visualize the process through all this pain, but when it came to my left side, it was like I had been blocked entirely. There was just no room for my body to expand in that direction anymore. No matter how strongly Lily was helping, I was finally in genuine shock.

“Too bad,” Nykorosk’s voice, accentuated by a chorus of laughter, began taunting me again. “I thought that if I didn’t place too much emphasis on hitting you with this, you’d assume it wasn’t effective against you. It was almost cute how panicked you got just now, though.”

It felt like he wanted to continue speaking, but the ominous dip in light levels prevented that. Thunder and lightning were increasingly resounding through the air, and… was something moving up there? My head was too blinded by shrieks of pain to be able to pay enough attention to it. Was getting harder and harder to differentiate these blotches of light in my vision from the electrical discharges, too.

Something gripped me around the neck. “You don’t have the luxury of sitting back and watching the fireworks.”

I was tossed backwards unceremoniously, the jolt of which was barely registered over everything else. It was too hard to move. After several seconds of laying there worthlessly, I started trying to push myself to my feet, the difficulty of which was massively daunting with one arm and this level of torment. My efforts got me a swift kick to the stomach, and I was sent rolling again. The storm was getting louder. So much louder.

He really did play with his food too much. Not like that was ever a controversial opinion to hold, but it gave me some misgivings. On at least a couple levels. Watching him kick some poor kid around was plainly distasteful, but neither of my companions seemed to even be paying much attention to it.

“Are we worried about Nykorosk at all here?” I asked, turning towards Tyronus. “He’s getting really into it now.”

“Nothing’s changed there,” he replied, eyes fixated on the massive thunderhead looming a relatively short distance away. Guess it made sense why Nykorosk was the least of anyone’s concerns right now. “Everyone, get ready.”

“Will I be able to affect that thing properly?” Louri asked from behind us, attention still focused on the villagers she’d pinned down.

“Not fully. Maintain concentration and refrain from attempting it unless I say otherwise.”

That was that. His suggestion to ‘get ready’ got me in the right mindset, and just in time too, as those lightning strikes started hitting more than just empty air. The flow of electrons beneath our feet rose to meet the oncoming attack, and in one blazing instant, a channel was formed, with us lying directly in its path. Energy flooded down from the cloud, but rather than being grounded into the earth after blasting us to pieces, each individual particle was caught in my net, siphoned out of the channel and into my body.

The next instant, and the light from that attack disappeared again, though the aftermath of ozone and rapidly-cooling plasma was still present. I could thankfully filter out the hottest particles of air before they reached us. Meanwhile, what I suspected I saw earlier was confirmed; there was definitely movement up there, and it was huge, like the shadows of an amorphous leviathan playing against the clouds it resided in. Hey, that sounded pretty poetic in my head.

Before I could start imagining it as an actual work of prose, though, my job became necessary again. From that great distance, several sparks flashed into existence from somewhere within the cloud itself, growing into veritable bolts of what was likely plasma as they streaked towards us. A couple slammed into the fields ahead of us, igniting nearby plants and utterly vaporizing whatever was unlucky enough to be accidentally hit. The ones that would have landed on us, however, were siphoned off as well, during which I confirmed their consistency: plasmatic nitrogen and carbon dioxide.

“Maintain concentration,” Tyronus continued instructing us, “and all three move as a group closer to the village. The entity is limiting its attacks due to our proximity.”

With muscles tensed, I took the first step backwards, as my being closest to the entity meant that I needed to set the pace of movement. Louri and Tyronus followed my lead. The closeness of not only highly flammable buildings but also several incapacitated people right here must have triggered something, because the colossal shadow began moving again, almost seeming to turn away from us. Another series of flashes erupted from the cloud, prompting me to ready my defenses again, but this time, the bolts of plasma were aimed somewhere totally different. Wait, that had to have been Ny-

“He’s fine, Gheira,” interrupted Tyronus, responding as if he could read my thoughts. “The entity is currently testing his durability. Keep moving.”

Several more impacts resounded from that distance, impacts we were not privy to seeing due to this building now being in the way. If Tyronus said it was fine, though, then it was fine. Everything was going exactly as we wanted it to, tasteless or not.

My vision was getting clearer. I could see, in spite of the remnants of blinding pain. It felt like adapting to it all took centuries, but when I came back to my senses, it seemed like nothing had really changed, except that I was being held in the air by my neck. The texture of Nykorosk’s skin was even more disconcerting to the touch than to the eyes, imparting an impression of witheredness and disease. His attention palpably focused back onto me after a moment or two.

“My, that was quick,” he remarked bemusedly, sounding as if he had something else to segue into. He was not given the opportunity, though. Both of our gazes were pulled to the thunderhead in the distance suddenly, an enormous, quasi-real eye slowly fixating on our location from it. Whatever I was seeing winked out immediately, being replaced with a barrage of flares rapidly closing in on us.

Making a split second decision, I voluntarily evaporated my own head and neck, freeing myself from both Nykorosk’s grip and my own physical senses at once. In the eternally extended instant that followed, my attention was drawn to the singularly enormous mass of shimmering, prismatic light in the sky, almost in the shape of a disjointed serpent or mythical sea creature. If that was what was inside the thunderhead, then I had no idea what was going on anymore. It was far more alien than the Aichleini were.

Before those approaching flares reached us, and before Nykorosk had much of an opportunity to react to my escape, I molded the flesh of my leg into something workable as a weapon – hard, sharp, and uncomplicated. There was no time for anything fancier. Dragging my leg upwards, I carved a deep gash into his flesh, then used the contact as a way to push off of him. If the need was dire, I could have moved away entirely bodiless, but reforming would take precious moments I felt unable to spare.

Just as I remade my head and regained eyesight, I witnessed several huge globules of what felt like overheated mass slam into Nykorosk and the surrounding area. One scraped dangerously close to my head, as well, and the damage it was able to inflict without needing to touch me was concerning, even if I felt no pain from it. As I regenerated the charred portion of my skull, I was forced to note the huge spike in air temperature, as well as the numerous fires breaking out around us.

The smoke had yet to start clearing before whatever was in that thunderhead sent out another attack. Several solidly contained spheres of orange radiance erupted from the center, spreading out before launching at us with a dizzyingly loud screech. Not wanting to be caught on the other end of that, I leapt away as quickly as possible, by now relying entirely on that self-telekinesis I seemed to have to get the momentum I needed. At least I had the clarity of mind to move in the direction of the village, given this opportunity.

This time, the projectiles did not simply land with a scorching brilliance, but instead flat out exploded upon contact. The shockwaves from those multiple detonations were enough to damage my eardrums, which I immediately repaired and fortified as best I could. Never before had I seen a display of force on this level before, and it was more than a little terrifying, even beyond the simple fear of what would happen if those wildfires continued to spread. That thing could level everything nearby if it wanted to.

Out of some morbid curiosity, my eyes were locked on the place Nykorosk had been standing before being enveloped in flame and smoke. What was I even waiting for? Whether he was alive or not, I needed to stop the others before they could do whatever it was they came here to do. Needed to get them away from the village, from Lily. Just as I was about to turn and make my way towards them, however, Nykorosk took a step closer.

Not much time left at this point. With its failure at killing Nykorosk just now, the entity would start exploring different tactics for combating us, just as I’d planned. Now was the point where we needed to encourage the result. Carried by a foundational assurance, I began walking forward, away from Gheira and Louri. Both of their reactions were made clear to me, without needing to look or intuit any of it. I paused in my motion.

“We need to start engaging it directly,” I explained hastily. “We can’t let it reach the point where it finds a way to bypass your consumption aura. Gheira, once the time arrives, you know what you’ll need to do. Louri, start trying to interfere with it – minimal effectiveness, but giving the impression of trying to bolster our chances in combat.”

“Make us look desperate?” she simplified in asking, cracking her neck idly. “Yeah, alright.”

The way the entity’s attention turned from Nykorosk back to us was unmistakable. Ignoring vertical distance, it was not that far from our position now, and the cloak of cumulus it’d been using to hide its form was being partially stripped away at the bottom. Unearthly refractions of light played off the deepest shadows, with the former belying all shape and the latter suggesting some sort of massive, segmented serpent. On some level, I could understand its formation, though the barest physical level yielded only its typical awe and confusion. I kept it suppressed as usual.

It continued moving, the details of which further cemented my impression of its bizarre biology. Then, blurring the lines between solid and liquid, portions of itself dripped off the entity’s underbelly, cut away and glistening off every sunbeam. Entirely unlike a drop of any other fluid, however, the sacrifices contorted through various geometries during their short trip to the earth. Splitting. First there were few, then there were many, and they grew.

The entity was going to assault us with proxies formed of its own body. This was exactly the result we had been aiming for. Returning to the action of stepping forward, I began assessing tactics on the off chance that this needed to continue for any length of time. It would require using my other body in order to even briefly fend these off successfully, as well as to properly convey that sense of desperation.

In the few moments I considered these things, the entity’s proxy soldiers assumed a myriad of shapes, inhuman to the extreme and dazzlingly difficult to behold with the eye. It was obvious why this thing covered itself with clouds. The way light played off its fractal surfaces was unnatural, and everyone still present was captivated by the sight.

Before I could take any further action, the world around me was illuminated tremendously, prompting all to freeze in place. Entity and children both were shrouded in crystalline prismata as a result of the ambient light, and as a collective, its and our eyes all turned to the sky, to the sudden appearance of a second sun. The time of inundation had arrived.

Destructions 5.2

“Thanks again for the help, miss,” my client sighed defeatedly. At this point, we were both fairly peeved at the fact that nothing we’d – I’d – tried had worked so far. Packing up my things, I forced out an apology for the difficulties before leaving the same way as each earlier day: manually adjusting the temperature for him, with instructions to open or close windows if he needed a different light level.

No one, least of all me, wanted to just accept the apparent reality that none of these newcomers could use our sigils, but hell if anyone knew what the problem was. As I left the cottage in a huff, I got a faceful of hot breeze, freshly reminding me why I didn’t like going outside as well as adding onto my bad mood. Running back and forth the past week-plus wasn’t a job I normally wanted to be saddled with in the first place, but this was too aggravating to delegate to someone else. I was best qualified for it anyways.

The sound of someone running my direction reached my ears just before my brother’s voice did, greeting me as he came into view. Oh boy. Was he waiting for me without wanting to look like he was? Or maybe I was just incredibly unlucky and he happened to be ditching work at the exact time I was walking by. Either way, I didn’t bother filtering the annoyance from my expression as he got close enough to speak normally.

“Yo! Any luck with this one?” No way he didn’t know what I was doing, then.

“No,” I sighed, hoping to get him to stop wasting his time on me by getting this over with, “still can’t find a workaround for it. The tutoring attempts aren’t yielding much, either.”

“Which means it’s back to the drawing board,” he noted with utter dullness, still not going anywhere.

“Wow, what an astute observation. Don’t you have something better to do than make small talk with someone trying to work?” From there, I tried to let that be a conclusive end to the conversation, turning and walking back to the workshop. Cree, unfortunately for me, didn’t get the hint.

“Aw, I thought it always cheered you up when I came around to visit you after work, Patty~,” came his reply, drawing out that shitty nickname. Was it fair for him to be intentionally egging me on after I blatantly tried to get rid of him? Maybe.

“Not when you call me that instead of just Petra.”

“You know you like it,” came his smugly juvenile retort.

“What I know is that this is smack-dab in the middle of your shift, and you already got chewed out for last time. Don’t think Mom doesn’t tell me when you get punished for being a goof-off.” As much as I was chastising him, I couldn’t help but let out a little laugh. Cree took it as well as ever.

“Yeah, well, you know me,” he shrugged, chuckling along with me. “Fine, fine, I’ll get back to it. Just try to make it to dinner tonight for once, yeah? And say hi to Mr. Trischam for me.”

After agreeing to do so, he finally went back the way he came, leaving me to continue onwards to my place of work alone. Well, only technically alone in that no one was walking hand in hand with me or anything; still passed plenty of people on the way over. Most of them recognized me, too. It wasn’t unusual given the small size of our community and the fact that I’d been helping as many of the Yleini immigrants as I could, but it still felt good being acknowledged like this.

Enough of the nearby fields had been cleared out, their yield brought in, that the place had finally started feeling less claustrophobic to me. Now you could actually see worth a damn in most directions, including to Hateli’s huge, useless-ass walls over in the northwest. It was… fairly impressive, overall, how well people pulled together on this. And credit where credit’s due, these Yleini were nothing if not cordial and willing to help.

Our workshop came into view after another few minutes of walking. I wasn’t looking forward to reporting in on how much of a dud this latest effort was, even though no one would be chastising me for it. All our collective attempts were weird and unsuccessful, in the end. Still, having something I just flat out couldn’t solve at all got me… was I bitter about it? That sounded stupid. It just annoyed me is all.

Once I reached the door, I knocked firmly, calling out, “Y’all still here?”

“Yeah, come in,” came a muffled response from Nakite. And no one else, conspicuously. I took a bit of care in opening the door, quite aware of how to keep my mood from coming out physically, and quickly scanned the interior. None of the senior alchemists were here, which added to my annoyance. Thought they were supposed to stay for at least another couple of hours.

“Where’s Krishov? Thought he was still gonna be working on the test results. And why answer ‘yeah’ when y’all weren’t still here, come to think of it?”

She laughed self-consciously. “Uh, my bad I guess. Mr. Trischam got called out for something, didn’t catch what it was. How’d it go at the Ikasta’s?”

“No luck. Another waste of time,” I groaned, sitting down at one of the free desks. Its wooden frame creaked as I leaned my elbow against it and put some weight onto it. Was this thing actually good to hold weighty materials?

“Seriously?” she practically groaned along with me, evidently as exasperated as any of us at this point. That was somewhat validating. “This shit has me stumped. I mean, I guess it has us all stumped, but-”

“Yeah, thanks, I get it,” I waved her off a little more annoyedly than I intended. “Uh, well… like hell I’m gonna try to go out and find him now. I’ll just wait for him to get back. Everything been going well here?”

“I mean- eh, it’s goin’ fine, I guess,” she shrugged. Yeah, I think I was too abrasive just now. No way I was gonna embarrass myself by backpedaling into an apology or anything, though. Instead, I simply tried to move us both past it with some more technical dialogue, and she seemed to appreciate it.

My fingers continued sliding impatiently against the pages of the book in my hands, one out of the small stack we had taken from the Trischam manor during our last visit to keep out here. It was plenty interesting, considering Lily had good tastes, but my focus never actually stuck on it. Same with everything else around here. Sitting cooped up in our new home – our, such an exciting word – was not helping me much, I had to admit.

What else was I supposed to do, though? Aside from simple manual labor that I already was helping with when needed. I refused to just follow Lily around while she pursued her passions, among all the other little ways she was a boon to others. I felt practically useless in comparison. Seemed like everyone else had some sort of trade they were either learning or already specialized in, to say nothing about actual hobbies. All I had was sitting in a house trying to keep myself from going crazy.

This was what I… went out of my way to preserve. Living peacefully with Lily here. Even if I was worthless otherwise, it was worth it to stay and keep her happy, right? It needed to be, or I needed to make it be. Or I needed to stop being so pathetic. Setting the book down onto the nearby table gently, I took a moment to try and clear my mind, let me think properly. Constantly thinking about how shitty I was would just get in the way of figuring out what to do, as much as it would feel comfortable to stay nestled in that line of thinking.

Doing nothing seemed bad. Books seemed to count as ‘nothing’ here. Helping move things from Hateli, bring in crops, etcetera, also seemed to count as ‘nothing’, in spite of the fact that I rationally knew other people would consider that to be contribution. So I… needed to find something fulfilling, I guess? All that for such an obvious conclusion. As far as I knew, though, all the specialists we still had around here already had younger apprentices. I also did not feel particularly attracted to any of the options in the first place.

Some past feelings of dissatisfaction at only copying other people’s clothing designs came to mind suddenly, along with a recollection that that was one of the professions not well established here yet. Miss Straley did mention receiving word from Dejall about apprenticeship exchanges, but that was a few days ago, I believed. Was there still time for me to try something? Or… should I be asking what the community needs instead? I was unsure whether that would be seen as selfless or like I was unable to make decisions for myself.

I pushed myself to my feet in a huff, irritated again. I needed more time to iron my thoughts out, or some advice, and the fact that I needed anything was what irritated me. Even while trying to not be a useless waste of space, I ended up being useless in the process. Really needed to get out of the house right now. It was a romantic idea to think of viewing the sunlight and the fields around me in an effort to spur myself to action, but the basic truth was just that sitting still was grating on me again.

After double checking that everything would be left in order, I filtered those internal embers down into my skin, allowing them to flare up again. My relatively loose tunic and trousers were replaced with more sturdy outdoor-fare, and of lighter white and brown shades, while my feet and ankles were wrapped in a pair of basic leather boots. Then I felt prepared enough to step towards and through the front door.

At least it was a nice day out, I noted upon stepping outside. Sunbeams heated my face as I crossed into them, interrupted only briefly as I turned to close the door. Then, I paused. It was frequently sunny in this region; I’d seen innumerable days like this over the years as I traveled. Frankly, it was entirely average, even if pleasant to look at. I had no idea why I paused in sudden retrospection, but for whatever reason, I did. The way the sun lit motes through the air, the dreamlike quality of it all, triggered some very old memories.

Moreover, looking back at the house I just exited gave me a very strange feeling. That everything was different now, and weird… and exciting. I remembered how I felt what seemed to be an eternity ago, where I could imagine no other fate than to be trapped in that hell of my mother’s design, forever. I still was, technically, but it was slowly becoming less and less of a hell every day. Not just because of Lily’s love, but because of my concerted efforts to make something good and happy with her. Maybe that was what triggered these memories.

Memories of the moment I resolved to keep living, to choose my own life, to be my own person, all in spite of what my mother wanted. I thought my resolution was hopeless, once I realized that her curse had lingered after her death, but… had I not completed it, in a way? Here I was, with my own life and personhood and future. With her. All I needed to do was work it into existence.

Thinking about it like that, what I was getting worked up over earlier felt well within reach. This was something I could work to resolve as well, just another piece of the life I wanted to build. Another resolution, and the effort put in to make it real.

The sun, the same sun, was shining in the sky overhead, silent witness to both my promises.

I was not feeling very confident with how this game was progressing. Ending on a loss always felt like a shame, but there was little I could do about it with a low-strength double pair in hand and nothing else. As we went around placing bets, Jay’s smug-ass face made my confidence waver even further. He never went for huge bluffs in the past. Grimacing at the situation I found myself in, I reached down to take another sip of liquor as the game carried on.

By the time it got around to Lucy, I’d almost stopped paying attention, but seeing her huge raise got me back in it. Despairingly. Girl always had a great poker face, too. Now it was basically a set up for Jerome and her to duke it out, and I didn’t feel like sticking it out. Soon after I folded, Jacquir followed suite. Kita looked hesitant, but refrained for the moment.

In spite of the streak of misfortune, days like this made me really happy. Letting off stress was important so that I didn’t feel like bashing my head into a wall, too. Drinking and playing cards in the middle of the day for stress relief seemed typically indolent, which pinged at my stomach even though a few of us had scheduling issues that required moving the session here. Sometimes it was still hard to get my mind off of the nebulous idea of there being work I had to do, too. I knew I spent time off in the past, but aside from that, I must have been some kind of workaholic-

“You’ve gotta be joking me!” Jerome suddenly exclaimed at something I wasn’t paying attention to.

“Mono-red, 2-3-4-5,” Lucy announced in a comedic near-monotone, “read ‘em and weep.”

That hand, exactly one step removed from mathematical perfection, slaughtered Jay and brought all his tokens into Lucretia’s greedy clutches. Her poker face finally cracked as well, so the overall scene just struck me as cute. Probably helped that I wasn’t the one losing out so massively.

Jerome, in his dissatisfaction, turned to the drink as well. “That’s all your luck for the next week used up there, I swear.”

“Yeah, too bad we didn’t bet actual favors or something instead,” she mused in response.

“Betting favors rather than meaningless tokens is how you get times like that one night during our ‘academic visit’ to-”

“Oh, god, don’t bring that up,” she quickly cut back in, now laughing outright, if gently.

“Hey, bud,” Jay said across the table to Jacquir, “you alright?”

Kita’s the one who cut in this time, saying, “I think we’ve been rubbing alcohol in his face too much tonight.”

“Ah, uh, no, it’s fine, really,” Jacquir tried assuring us, though it was obvious something had to be eating at him. “I’ve been finding it easier than expected, you know? Plus, with this kinda work, drinking mostly water is way better for you. Not like Sis over here needs to worry about that though,” he elbowed her in punctuation.

“Hey,” Lucy exclaimed, still smiling, “no betrayals! I was all proud of you, too!”

While their banter continued, I got up – a task less mindless than usual – and went to the window to check on how late it was getting. Still solidly afternoon, but we couldn’t hang around too much longer. Actually, I probably needed to start setting up for their visit right now. Ugh. And here I was, thoughtlessly getting drunk. Or just about.

“Kita,” I called out, turning to face the table again, “we probably need to be getting back soon. Set things up, then have Nikki send back that they arrived just fine. Y’all keep having fun for us, okay?”

“Mhm. See you later,” Lucy responded, having returned to a more typical reservedness.

“Yeah,” Jacq pitched in as Kita stepped around him, “next week at least.”

So much for stepping down. Here I was, not holding any official position of leadership except head of a much-downsized town watch, and I was still having to organize stuff like this. No one else had the leadership experience, though, as much as I was trying to create opportunities for them.

Along with Kita, I stepped out into the sunlight.

“-Right, just like that. Preparing it this way keeps the sauce from getting too thick later,” I nodded with satisfaction. “Just something you have to keep in mind with ekreia.”

It was kinda hard to keep myself from going overboard on the explanations. Ophi was an experienced family cook herself, as had been demonstrated for me, but that just made working with her even weirder, as she knew plenty of fundamentals while being totally unfamiliar with our ingredients. I didn’t need to retread the basics for her, especially not when each little slip-up on my part resulted in a ping against her pride. She was very understanding of it, at least.

I was getting better about it, and she was getting better at handling these new materials. A good several minutes after putting our creation to heat, we had a finished dish, something to be proud of. It came out quite well, and made a nice reward for our couple hours of practice today. Neither of us actually ate much of it right away; Ophi wanted to save the majority for when her husband and child came home, and I had someplace to be in a little bit.

Didn’t stop me from sticking around long enough to watch her sample her own work, though. I think those were her… wadji, near the back of her neck, kinda wiggling contentedly. That motion would be downright adorable if the whole thing wasn’t something I was still getting used to. As it was, moving onto normal conversation again after she’d determined everything to be to her satisfaction was quite welcome.

“Thank you again for taking the time to help us out like this,” Ophi began, genuine gratefulness the only thing on her mind. She was a very open person, I noticed. “You won’t mind if I go out and pass these along to some of my other friends, right?”

I think she just implied we were friends? It sort of felt that way, though not entirely intentional on her part. It was sweet of her, all the same. Well, if Ophi wanted us to be friends, it felt safe enough for me to try. We hit it off decently well to begin with, and I wasn’t in a position to force myself into exhaustion just trying to comfort her. Yet, at least. Still, just bonding over some shared interests, I could definitely do that.

With a smile, I replied, “Go right ahead. Think these recipes suit you well?”

“Definitely,” she nodded, deciding to start cleaning dishes as we spoke. “Just gonna take some time to get used to… well, everything, now. Lidian and I have been cooped up in artificial environments for far too long, to say nothing of our son. He never even- it’s all he’s known, you know? With how young he is. Sometimes I get worried it messed with him in some way I can’t see…”

“Have you noticed anything weird with him?” I inquired, starting to get concerned myself. It was hard feeling her maternal instincts so directly, too, but I wanted to stick with it for some reason. Even if it felt dangerously close to what I wanted to avoid.

Ophi shook her head. “No, not… not really. Just call it a mother’s fretting. Could you put this dish up in the cabinet behind you?”

“Well, from what I hear, he’s been quite playful,” I noted, trying to inject some optimism into it whilst carrying out her request. The cabinet was very clean; recently dusted, by my guess. “Your son, that is. Making friends and all.”

“Yes, that’s been such a relief to see. We had to split him up from his best friend, when we decided to come up here from the little camp we had set up down in- what was that region, Karrian, right?”

“Mhm. And this one’s Palateca.” The time I had available to spend was quickly running out, I realized, so I continued, “By the way, I hate to do this, but is there anything else you need help with, or…?”

“Oh, no- oh! You have to leave!” laughed Ophi at her own slip of the mind. “Don’t worry about it, hon. Could you just turn the heat up a tiny bit on your way out? Thanks again!”

And with that, we quickly and warmly bid each other farewell and a good rest of the day. I was a little hasty getting my shoes back on by the door, what with the inherent excitement of what I had planned out for today. Even through the excitement, though, I was pretty happy. Feeling good for myself, I guess. It was kinda gratifying to be doing my own specific part to help the newcomers adjust.

I’d been spending a lot of my time like this, recently. It was something between work and socializing, and it suited me better than what I used to think was a good job for me. Or maybe all my adolescent ambition just bled out over time? That all made me think again about the people I used to be in daily contact with, Elva and Jerome and the others. I told Senna that I didn’t really care about them, back then, didn’t I. Couldn’t quite say I was wrong.

It wasn’t like we were shunning each other or anything, but recent circumstances and my own lack of impetus to overcome them meant that we just didn’t actively spend time together anymore. That wasn’t something to feel bad for. So why did I? Or was I just preoccupied with the idea that they might think poorly of me for some reason? Not like I could psychoanalyze myself out of nowhere, here. If I really wanted to know, I could go over and find out from them directly…

More importantly, I had a discussion with Dad ahead of me, along with something else very important, if all went well. Between helping to manage the storehouse this morning and teaching recipes for the past couple hours, I’d been away from my girl pretty much all day. Hopefully this would make it up to her. Gave me tingles of excitement just picturing her reaction, which more or less dispelled the anxieties I was feeling earlier, at least temporarily.

In any event, I was probably running a little late, comparatively. Picking out the direction towards the place where I asked him to wait for me took only another second, after which I began walking. The urge to hurry over there was tempered by my wanting to avoid getting too sweaty before seeing her again. Maybe I should have brought some water along, given how warm it was? Too late now.

After a couple brief greetings on my way over, the pair of further-out buildings the community used for ‘official business’ – for lack of anything better – came into view, as did my father, sitting on a bench at the end of a seemingly pointless path. This was usually the least active area on any given day, and not too far removed from Dad’s workplace, so it seemed convenient enough for this.

He still felt as curious as the first time I told him about the serious topic I wanted to bring up, I noticed. Nothing negative tinting it, though. Optimistic. Or just with me? Good that he didn’t assume anything horrible, either way.

“Hey, sweetie,” he said as I joined him on the seat, “how’d things go with Mrs. Leshera?”

“Really well, she’s a quick learner,” I replied, stretching my legs out a bit.

“Good, good.” An awkward little silence reigned for the briefest time. “Well, enough of that. You had something pretty important to run by me or ask me about or…?”

I nodded, working up the courage to actually say the words aloud. “It’s… it’s about Senna.”

There they were, the buildings I’d been told were used for administrative purposes in lieu of anything more proper. Given that not much actually went on around here except for updates from other communities and organizing things with the closest ones, I guess it made sense to me. Not needing to deal with a ton of people right now suited me just fine, anyways. Just wanted to find someone who knew what the situation was, and bring up the subject at hand.

As I stepped past the corner of an adjacent building, the fields off to my right came fully into view, along with a pair of people sitting on a lonely bench. A pair of people I recognized. It looked like they had just been talking, but stopped far enough in advance to give the impression that they were expecting me. This was Lily, though; she probably just felt me coming. And that was Krishov. Hopefully I had not interrupted anything horrendously important?

Lily started waving me over. Was it inconsequential? Or, what, were they talking about me to begin with? Krishov was not leaving either, so it was not like they had finished. Was something wrong? What else would they both be talking about, and then involving me with? No, no, stop. She looked anything but upset. Nothing was wrong. Shoving aside my brief bout of anxiety, I decided to join them.

One step. Three. Eight. “Hi,” I said, meekly waving to the two of them in return. “How are, uh… things going?”

The two of them looked at each other. It sent sparks of worry flashing across my chest, ones I willfully forced quiet with the observation that neither of them looked the slightest bit unhappy or upset. It was entirely the opposite, to a confusing degree. Ridiculous anticipations of what could be the reason for their very minor set of behaviors dominated my thoughts in the few instants between words.

“I was thinking about coming home to see you,” Lily commented as she stood, voice incredibly serene in that moment, “but it’s good that you’re up and about.”

Krishov stood up as well. “I should let you two have some time to yourselves. They’re probably annoyed at me back at the workship anyways.”

Chuckling at his own comment, Krishov walked past me. I could audibly track his footsteps as he continued elsewhere, but Lily’s face, graced with a radiant smile as it was, demanded my full attention. Every part of me felt warm, and not in the sense of physical temperature. She was staring straight into me. Her presence was as gentle as ever, but it felt insistent this time, unyielding. Not in the sense of something she was trying to impress onto me, but I could definitely feel her all the same.

“I was just- well, a bit moody recently, I guess,” I replied in a rather small tone, “decided to take a walk and clear my head, figure out something to do with my time now.”

She nodded. “I understand the feeling. If you have the time, though, there’s- there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”

The moment almost felt too fragile for me to even respond. Locking my eyes with hers, I kept my heart open as a wordless invitation for her to continue. She inhaled slowly.

“Senna…”

“Senna…”

This was it. I’d been working up the courage to actually do this for days, and now Dad had given me his blessings. He’d been subjected to the same weirdness that we all had, made his share of mistakes, but he cared about me. Wanted me to be happy. I could always rely on that fact, and now, it was helping me feel confident enough to get through this.

I took another breath, deep and shakier than I’d have liked. There was no way she didn’t notice it, but her heart barely registered anything. She was transfixed on me before I even started talking. Somehow, every little nuance of it was clearer now than anything had ever been for me. It entirely blotted out the shadow I could steadily see more of, wrapped around her, constricting… but it was barely there right now. Just her. My Senna.

There were no rehearsed lines bouncing around in my head, in spite of how long I’d been working up to this. I didn’t want to insult her even the slightest bit with insincerity. Instead, unfiltered, from the furthest depths of my heart, I wanted to tell her what she meant to me, what she’s been for me ever since we met. One more breath, and I began.

“Things were a blur, right after we met. A messy, stressful, chaotic blur. It was hard to truly understand your situation, even with the utter assurance that you were telling me the truth, even with being able to directly feel you. In spite of that, though… you were exciting. You were someone new, someone who struck me with the sheer strength of your emotions, even if they were entirely negative at first.

“But then I felt the barest hints of yearning in you, and that struck me, too. That we both wanted the same thing. That you hoped somewhere inside you that I could give you what you needed. And that made me wonder the same thing about you. Honestly, I’m not the healthiest person, in terms of my interpersonal relationships. Weird and ironic for someone like me to be admitting to that, but it’s true. I can get closer to people than anyone else, but there’s always another kind of distance there.

“I don’t know whether it’s just because I’m stupidly and blindly in love, or if there’s something else about you, but I could always eliminate that distance, even if you reacted poorly to my immature attempts at pushing help on you. Even if everyone saw you as dangerous, and the world went to hell right after we met.

“Maybe I just wanted to finally have a relationship with someone where I wasn’t faking everything constantly. Faking how I treated them, or how I felt on the inside. Maybe I really was just that self centered and recklessly needy. But all the same, that’s exactly what you’ve given me, Senna. What we’ve given each other. That’s why I promised to follow you wherever you went, to be someone who accepts you regardless of whether anyone else does. Kinda seems like an unnecessary promise now, huh?

“So… I want to give you a new one, if you’ll accept it. I want to promise you a place in our family. I want it to be your family too. Senna… will you marry me?”

Oh, I think they were done arguing finally. Turning my attention to the simulacrum of myself I set up in the council chambers, it indeed seemed like all opposition to the last tactic available had been worn away. Hardly even had to prod any of them to make it happen, they were just that desperate. I was desperate too, after all – desperate to see more of my little kitten and whatever power existed behind her.

That unfortunately meant that my simulacrum would have to continue standing in for me. Not only did it allow me to skip all the inane bullshit associated with publicly debating courses of action, but it also allowed me a freedom of action that would be… harder to maintain in a group. Still, it was prudent to keep an eye on how things developed in there. Instead of simple descriptions, I decided to briefly establish a sensory link between myself and my simulacrum.

Tyronus had just been asked to run his final, ever-accurate calculations for the upcoming operation. Now this was requiring a bit of finesse on my part, as I had to feed him the right inputs to allow this to even proceed in the first place. After a moment’s delay, he received his conclusion and addressed the others.

“There’s no more time,” he announced. “We need the Gatework activating in less than ten minutes for this to succeed, and at least four Aichleini present to begin with. The best choices are myself, Louri, Gheira, and Nykorosk. We all know what’s happening after we draw the entity towards us.”

Yes, yes, ever the uninspired strategist. Or maybe that was unfair, given that this was directly inspired, in a way. Before anyone got to moving, he was asked about the odds of risk in the proposed engagement with these proposed pieces. I’d already given him that answer.

“Done properly, there should be minimal risk,” came his assurance, voice untainted by even the slightest misgiving. “It requires my presence on-site, but that’s all.”

And that was good enough for all of them. Though there had been oddities surrounding his gift in the past – ones I erased, and ones I preserved – no one thought to question their continued reliance on him. As far as they all remembered, there had simply been complications that allowed Surgriel to arrive before the assimilations had finished. Letting them remember anything else would be so annoying.

Aside from the four selected by Tyronus and the fifth assumed player, everyone else would be observing from the Gatework itself. That meant all Aichleini would be descending to the lowest level. With an unearthly serenity, their – our? – procession commenced, out through the grandly carved doors of the chamber and onto the path that eventually lead beneath the Temple. The sheer sense of awe it drew from the servants they all passed made me feel like laughing.

Once they were all in position, they began setting up to monitor things on that inferior dustball. It was a good idea, which was why I’d already been doing so. Pulling my awareness back out of the simulacrum, I turned my gaze to their – his – likely target. Nykorosk was too impatient to resist this treat, and I’d armed him to the point that he would have no inhibitions. One way or another, I’d finally see what I’d been aiming to see.

Beginning my final stretch of observation, I willed the scene around my target into vision and beheld the quaintest little marriage proposal.