Destructions 5.5

There it was, finally. They actually managed to get it to move out into the open, and now they were all at such delicious risk. If I let Tyronus calculate it at this point, I might just end up giving him an aneurysm. Ah, it would have been child’s play to pluck them out of such misfortune, but no, no. Neglecting to show my hand would be the smart course of action, as it always had been. My kitten already had enough suspicion planted in her from our first encounter.

Now, if she and I really were of kindred being, then this entity would be…

Nothing moved. The impending threat of Nykorosk’s blade had been suspended mid-motion, but that was hardly the only thing halted. Every sensation I received from the world around me had been locked in place, a contrast the mere presence of which enhances one’s understanding of the constant changes otherwise present in one’s environment. I was being held, too, but this force was less binding for me somehow; instinctively, it felt as if I could move, but I feared what would happen were I to break whatever spell this was.

It was all entirely unsettling to look at. Just having Nykorosk’s unpleasant, masked face leering down at me with all the murderous intent in the world was bad enough on its own. The heat from the wildfires and the second sun, the stagnant pillow of air embracing my skin, even the grass beneath my feet that refused to bend stalk in the slightest – everything that my body felt gave the absolute impression of stasis.

Yet I felt something more. The very moment before the world froze, I was touched, and even while that particular perception retreated, a sense of being watched remained. That was the source of my fear over breaking this spell, like the slightest motion might invite even more outlandish things than this. On top of all that, there was a minute impression of… almost a sort of alien bemusement from the hidden corners of my awareness.

Oh, if it were only a distantly amused sensation. My body instinctively shrinked at the realization that whatever was looking at me was getting closer, and without Lily’s calming touch, panic began encroaching upon me with equal speed. Then, the first seemingly-physical signs appeared. From the edges of my static vision, color slowly muted, as if some great shadow was passing by. First, on the right. Then, on the left. Then, from below. Aspects of the scene were drained piece by piece, replaced by a facsimile which served only to hide whatever was getting closer.

Like the first time, it reached out to touch my arm, but the feeling decided not to retreat this time. It practically enveloped the remaining limb, and in spite of the stillness and my own desperate desire not to break it, I outright shivered. It was so cold and dreadful that my chest started hurting. I had gotten used to the sheer sense of malice dripping off of Nykorosk’s every word, but this was so fundamentally divorced from that, it was as if this existence was incapable of feeling quite the same emotions as us.

The phantom sensation of chill was suddenly, inexplicably replaced with an all-too-familiar heat as the shadow began digging into the flesh of my arm, a heat which signalled not pain, but transformation. It was the same simmering energy that I felt every time I changed my body, or created new flesh. Having been initially spread out, it soon concentrated itself on the arm-blade currently imbedded in Nykorosk’s sternum. My eyes were forced to do nothing but glacially track the process, unwilling as I was to do anything but watch.

Whatever I was looking at caused me pain in the act of observation, like the muscles and optic nerves were constantly trying to adjust to something impossible. There was motion, too, or at least a sense of it, physically imperceptible. Yes, and there was something else, I could feel it – like this extension of my limb had grown in a way I never conceived of as being possible. At the basest, most primal level, I could understand what it was, even while words utterly escaped me. And to my eyes… the appearance of one structure being composed of two overlapping images superimposed over each other.

The shadows began retreating, pulling grotesquely out of my violated flesh. Their source, that which had shown only mere amusement before, now impressed into my mind a singular desire. Somehow, my will remained my own, even as this one truth was etched into me.

It wanted me to kill Nykorosk.

The airborne leviathan hastened in its attempts to completely reform its own structure, but I knew with utter certainty that the time for such attempts had passed. Ounirok’s position above the atmosphere meant it would take a certain amount of time for the entity to get close enough to affect them, and with us having baited it into splitting its body to combat us, there was no mathematical possibility remaining for its victory. Thankfully, the three of us were protected from the effects of inundation by Gheira’s consumption aura, and Nykorosk-

All current trains of thought running through my head abruptly halted, and my heart nearly along with them. Something changed. My gift began frantically recalculating, first running the original scenario with this fresh variable injected into it, then simply trying to output a method of survival. That was when true horror dawned upon me. More than just the fear of this sudden change or the situation it directly portended…

It was because, at this very instant, I was already too late.

“Louri!” I shouted uncharacteristically, turning back to her. There was no time to do this, to utilize her abilities and salvage things. In the sparse breaths between my orders and her brain registering them, that which I dreaded was coming to pass.

I blinked instinctively, and the world sprung once again into motion, extremely jarring after having gotten used to the previous stillness. Whatever had just happened hardly felt like it mattered now, because at this very moment, I had been handed the key to turning everything around. It was hope, the animus of my renewed action, and of the anger at myself for having so easily lost my grip on life, even briefly. More than any of that, though, it was the torrent of pain suddenly radiating off Nykorosk.

There were no vocal indications of his anguish even now, but that was unnecessary to know the effects this wound was having on him. His body convulsed disgustingly, several brittle bones snapping from the violence of it, and the weapon he had been summoning to his right hand vanished from whence it came. This was it now, the end. I had to make it the end. Scowling with this determination, I took a step forward, leveraging more force into the blade and starting to drag it upwards.

His left hand gripped my arm in unstable desperation. I kept forcing the edge through more of his flesh, the exceeding strength he had previously displayed now unable to prevent me from having my way. Nykorosk’s right hand joined the other, and in response, I focused my mental energy on forcing this arm to continue. Phantom growls accompanied my movement as I continued making headway, growls which soon transitioned into shrieks and screams as the sternum parted fully.

My blade continued up to the throat inexorably, even as he began to haphazardly barrage my mind with his powers. It hurt. My teeth grit together at the sheer pain and disorientation, but I refused to stop. The combined efforts of both his arms and these desperate psychological attacks were just barely proving insufficient. I nearly collapsed under the weight of those mental blows several times, holding on just enough to continue carving into him.

Just before it felt like I might be unable to keep even that much up, something snapped, and I knew I had to act. With a great heave of both physical and telekinetic strength, I forced this new weapon of mine to slide unimpeded through what remained of his neck, then jaw, then skull, until it exited out the top of his partially bifurcated body. The shock of all that released force nearly staggered me, sending me backwards several steps as Nykorosk collapsed backwards with a sickening slosh.

The pressure against my consciousness was gone. Simply gone. He died. I had just killed him, and the act was every bit as repulsive as he himself was. As the realization of his demise sunk in, my heart soared, not just at the possibility for survival that it represented, but at the sheer pleasure of finally ridding myself of that fucking scumbag. It downright frightened me how good it felt to know he was dead. It was never supposed to feel good.

My reveling in these feelings was immediately interrupted by another mental assault of some kind, something totally unfamiliar and sobering. Every physical sense I possessed roared into a cacophony all at once. Colors flared dazzlingly, sounds erupted against my ears, the world’s textures jostled and mutated, my sense of balance was destroyed, and time itself seemed to randomly extend and compress. Then, just as quickly as the attack started, it vanished.

My disorientation only continued to grow with each addition to this sense of mental whiplash. There were too many things going on in such a short span of time for me to properly process anything, much less keep track of it all, but at least the world was- was back to normal? With my head clearing, I realized that the effects of the second sun had started diminishing. Were they retreating now that I had killed Nykorosk?

Any optimism that idea might have engendered, however, was immediately quashed. The same shadows I had witnessed while the world was frozen were causing this dampening of light, and the second sun still rested in the sky. Whipping my head around to face the village again caused my gaze to meet one of the Aichleini, the youthful-looking girl. She was staring directly into me, her expression shell-shocked. I guess she was the one who tried interfering with me just now?

The other two looked downright terrified, with the one who seemed to be their mission leader in a full-blown panic. All eyes were concentrated on me only for a second, after which a mythical sight drew all our attentions away: a rising tower of tenebrous, quasi-solid substance rose up out of the ground somewhere between us and the prismatic behemoth hovering in the distance. The awe this scene inspired only grew as the first tower was joined by another much further off, then another, and another.

“Full retreat!” the man shouted, placing a hand to his ear. “Ounirok as well – pull back all assets immediately!” I almost wished I could join them in escaping whatever had just been unleashed.

Those signature flares of light erupted both before and behind me, and in the next moment, our invaders had disappeared, along with the overbearing radiance of the second sun. The pillars did not immediately follow suit, instead continuing to claw higher and higher into the sky, as if whatever created them was proudly demonstrating its own existence. The Aichleini were gone now, so what was it-

Horrendously loud, grinding noises rent both the air and my thought process. The source seemed to be the flying serpent-thing, which was only barely easier to lay eyes on now that the light was back to normal. It seemed to have just assembled itself back to a state of wholeness, judging by previous glimpses of its body being separated into pieces. And to that noise, the immense shadows… responded, I believed, in some esoteric and inhuman way. The pillars had stopped advancing upwards, too.

From within the quickly gathering clouds the leviathan was once again sheathing itself in, a soothing tone emitted, and the air around me began to cool noticeably. No, it was even more than that, I realized upon glancing around me. The myriad, dangerous wildfires that had been ravaging the area seemed to be reacting to the peaceful melody, dying down before being extinguished entirely.

One by one, the caliginous monoliths began retreating back into the earth. Their substance, however, remained, spreading out along the soil and dead remnants of foliage ruined by titanic conflict. Stepping away from the patch that once held Nykorosk’s destroyed flesh, I beheld in disbelief innumerable masses of black material seeping up out of the ground, pools of the substance ebbing and flowing along the surface.

Initially there were only scant shapes to any of it, a standing network of blank nerves emerging from the congealed night. Then, branching out from those strands, more matter seemed to spring into existence, soon taking on more lively colors – vibrant greens and humble, arboreal browns. Soon, the sea of darkness had given birth to an entire landscape of fully formed grasses, shrubs, even entire trees, all in a process that looked identical to how I create my own body, just on a massively larger scale.

As if acknowledging the end of a successful cooperation, one final sonance echoed through the sky, and the cloud-cloaked entity… rose straight upwards. Watching it depart the world entirely was almost solely stranger than anything else I witnessed today, and indeed, soon enough it had disappeared entirely from view without so much as an explanation for its existence or for how any of this could possibly make sense.

The temporary vigor of the imperiled departed me nearly as quickly. In an exhaustion more mental than physical, I dropped to my knees, then to an uncomfortable sitting position on the vivacious flora beneath me. Systematically, everything I had adapted myself with peeled away at my will. The arm-blade was the last thing I got rid of, my mind lingering on its hitherto unseen properties just long enough to memorize the feeling of it.

Here I was. It felt necessary to ground myself in that most basic of facts, after what I had just experienced. With my free hand- no, that… that was my only hand, now- with my only remaining hand, I clutched at various parts of my body in some mundane act of comfort. It felt stupendously good just confirming that I was still here, all myself, all human again. Brief amusement fired through my thoughts at the image of me looking like the shell-shocked one now. I probably did.

Raw, deep-seated, aching pain still pulsed along the left side of my body, though it slowly concentrated itself entirely on the shoulder with a missing limb. It was infinitely more glaring now that there were no life- or world-ending threats right in front of me, and every motion down to the tiniest twitch caused a twinge of additional pain. I did not want to move. I wanted to find Lily and make sure everyone was safe, but I did not want to move for it.

I sat there silently, hardly breathing. Images of today’s utter aberrance cycled through my head over and over again. What the hell kind of world did we live in?

The silence was deafening now, after all that. Even when the suffocating heat and horrible noises receded, I didn’t want to open my eyes and see any of it. Part of me almost thought we were all dead for a moment there, but I was still breathing. It felt like a cool, early autumn day, same as any other. The sweat dripping off my skin disappeared quickly in the delicious chill, which I was so grateful for.

There should have been more people than just me around though, what was- no, yeah, there were. Apparently I’d just retreated into myself way too much, so reaching out and feeling a bunch of people nearby gave me a start. It was relieving though, it was good. Across the way were Elva and the others, going through similarly shocked motions yet feeling otherwise unharmed. Mostly.

It took me a solid minute just to stand up. Keeping myself upright when I felt this faint was an endeavor unto itself, so maybe something was wrong with me after that. Narrowly avoiding a fall whilst standing perfectly still got me even more worried, so as a compromise, I leaned my shoulder against the nearby building. My eyes were still hardly functional, locked onto the dusty ground at my feet as I centered on the act of breathing.

I needed to ground myself in something. Clear my thoughts a little. Focus and stay alert, all that jazz. What was the type of injury where it was bad to let the patient fall asleep again? I don’t think it was heatstroke or… whatever this was. Dad would have known. Ah, shit, I was letting him down, huh? Not like it was my- no, gods, what was I doing, wasting my time like this? Briefly check that people are still alive, and I’m satisfied? Shaking my head, I decided to definitively look around and assess the state of things.

The village didn’t look as bad as I was expecting, really. Was mostly normal aside from the apparent emptiness of it, with everyone having gone and hidden. I could palpably feel everyone even from this distance, though it was hard to pick through all the noise with people who weren’t- Senna. Oh gods. Stomach tying itself in knots, I cast myself out in the direction I last remembered her being, and found her, thank fuck. My slowly calming nerves left a mild, sickly feeling in their wake.

Something was wrong though. I didn’t know what, but I just needed to get to her. Fighting through a haze that would rather see me faceplant in the dirt than lift one finger, I turned to go find her and came face to face with a perplexing amount of greenery. It stopped me dead in my tracks. Were we… all dreaming earlier? Were we dreaming right now? Maybe I really did die. This was a weird afterlife, then.

No, come on, where the hell did all these plants come from? The fields were all burning to shit last I checked. I ran up – at peril of making my head swim – and physically inspected the closest one, a blade of grass nearly as tall as myself. Grass like this didn’t even grow here as far as I knew, or at least, I never saw them get this big before. Beyond the horizon of flora I could even see a fully matured tree of some species I didn’t recognize. And I think that was right in the middle of the crop, too. Former crop, at this rate.

None of this bullshit or how dumbfounded it made me changed my situation, though. I needed to get to Senna. Something about this felt increasingly bad to me. Concentrating on the tug of her emotions, I let it guide me through the overgrown mess, taking care not to cut myself as I parted blades of grass from my path. I was fairly sure I’d started getting pretty close, but there were no responses coming from her direction. Could she not hear me? Drawing nearer caused me to call her name out, with no audible response.

Just as that silence started to ratchet my worries for her further up, I stumbled into a relative clearing, a sudden switch in the dominant flora from tall, strong grasses to a mixture of mosses and late-blooming flowers. The distant view of mountains and forest-painted hills was blocked by a much closer copse of trees, and in the center of the whole picture sat Senna, as unmoving as a painting… and shaded in an unearthly, inky blackness.

It didn’t look real, even while I was staring right at it. Was this related to the strange shadows I’d been catching glimpses of around Senna recently? Or were they exactly the same, and not just related? Fuck if I knew what that was, either, but now it seemed like a nearly physical manifestation, and it kept my eyes glued on her. What was I even looking at, here? It almost hurt to stare at it.

I wanted to hypothesize something, but I had so little to go off of, anything I tried would just be a shot in the dark. Something to do with the invaders… no; something to do with her ‘curse’… maybe. Did it look like this? Did things like that even have an appearance? And why the hell would I be starting to see it now? Earlier I thought that maybe it would start getting more visible the closer it was to triggering, but that shouldn’t have had anything to do with today’s events.

Taking a couple steps forward, nothing seemed to be happening. It was just silent, and still, and ridiculously unnerving. She didn’t react to my movement, and neither did the shadowy film surrounding her. Just as I was about to try and say her name again, I blinked unconsciously, and the shadow suddenly vanished, leaving me a clear image of Senna in its place. She was missing an entire limb.

“Senna! Talk to me here!”

Apparently she didn’t like being touched, because rushing up and jostling her elicited a grimace and a groan of genuine pain. I mean, it was better than nothing, but what the hell was going on? Gods, how many times would I think that to myself today? Too many. Taking a deep breath, Senna seemed to pull herself out of her stupor and lock eyes with me. Beneath her general bewilderment, she was surpassingly relieved that I was here with her, and my panic melted away.

“I’d give you a hug, but that seems no good right now, huh?” I put forward with a self-conscious chuckle.

She cracked a weak little smile. “It kinda hurts to be moved, yeah.”

“What, uh, happened with your arm? Are you… doing that?” She shook her head with the smallest motion possible, an answer which perplexed me. “How the hell can you lose an arm when you can just- you know, make a new body and all?”

“I have no idea.” Very helpful. She knew something on it, but it genuinely wasn’t enough to say she had any good idea about what was going on. Probably was just picking up on the fact that she witnessed it happen.

I moved around to inspect the cleanly healed stump, the edge of her self-created shirt stopping right where the rest of her flesh did. “Is that… so it’s a wound? I guess? Is it gonna heal? I mean I guess neither of us can really know but- wait, yeah, this is what’s putting you in so much pain right?”

“Yeah.”

Was I supposed to ask about what I’d seen covering her? I didn’t even know if the damn thing was real or just a hallucination of some kind. People could see all kinds of weird shit when stressed out, or sleep deprived for that matter. I was definitely one of those two. Even if it was real, though, she probably had no clues about it either. I unintentionally let out a groan of frustration at how many inexplicable things were happening that I couldn’t even hope to solve.

“…Are you okay?” she asked, breaking me out of that train of thought. I blinked twice.

“Yeah, yeah, sorry,” I nodded, deciding to keep things to myself right now. She needed to recover. “Can you stand on your own? D’you think we should get you back inside somewhere?”

She sighed. “I suppose I should refrain from just sitting out here, yes. I am not looking forward to getting up though.”

With plenty of deliberation and consideration, I slowly helped my girl to her feet.

The muscles of my face had unconsciously tightened into an unpleasant grimace, watching those servants entrusted to our care take in the news of what happened. It was likely spreading throughout the Temple now, like a ripple on the water. The Gatework’s facility had been in an uproar as we returned, but the somber silence now felt worse. It was affecting me, too, as much as I didn’t like the kid. This was always a horrible affair.

Tyronus had taken off the moment we came back, refusing all contact and isolating himself in his chambers. No one was exactly surprised at that, but all methods of handling this were starting to slip through our fingers, not the least cause of which was our inability to rely on his gift now. Neither he nor the Gatework could get any in-depth readings on the entity that appeared, but Ditroph made it clear that it had to be a Tier III, and a monstrous one at that.

The one upside here was that the entity Surgriel had allied himself with had seemingly left the planet of its own accord afterwards. We were still no closer to figuring out whether these things were simply territorial, or if there was some bizarre, abyssal pact between all of them to keep their numbers at one per planet, but here it was. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we’d just traded a known threat for an unknown – and likely much worse – one.

Explanations for what caused Nykorosk’s demise were also rather tenuous. It appeared to be delivered by what was previously considered a minor factor, the shapeshifter that he’d defeated earlier, though was unable to kill. It- she? hadn’t displayed the capacity to actually injure us before. That was also concerning. Best guess seemed to be that she was able to copy the weaponry Altera had supplied for the venture, used the design against him.

How exhausting, that recent events had more or less shorn me of the optimism I preferred. What was that saying about how under every pessimist hides a disappointed idealist? Hopefully that wasn’t about to be me. I needed to get out of here, in any case. The others were starting to organize themselves in discussion or analysis, and I didn’t really have a place amongst them. Giving the excuse that I would begin preparations for Nykorosk’s funeral procession, I took my leave and exited the facility.

I said that, but for the moment, I just needed to give myself a breather. What a disgrace. Our typical processes had almost entirely halted, and rather than work to overcome this system shock, here I was, weaseling my way out of the picture. No, honestly, that was unfair. It’s good to give myself recovery time after things like this. I needed it. With that in mind, I resumed walking to my personal chambers, thinking of starting things off with my own attendants. Give some orders, get the ball rolling from there, that was the plan.

A short time passed, and the entrance to my chambers came into view, putting an extra little spring in my step. Before I could actually enter, though, I was interrupted. The soft sounds of bare feet touching stone echoed out behind me, hardly more than a whisper which preceded her words.

“Where are you going, Gheira?” a very familiar voice called from behind me. I turned to face her, Altera, whose tone and expression impressed a sense of concern into me, or maybe sympathy. Sterile light played against her form as we stared at each other from across the ornate stone hallway, and I gave her a mild smile.

“Was gonna handle the procession, like I said.”

“From your bedroom?” she chuckled, casting a glance at the set of doors I was about to open before she stopped me.

“Hey, we’ve all got messengers. I’ll be getting things started while unwinding is all,” came my defense. “We probably all need it.”

Her eyes roved across me. “Mm, no objections there.”

“Is that why you followed me?” It was my turn to laugh this time. “I would’ve figured you wanted to be down there with Ditroph, looking over the data we picked up. You know, assuming you could stomach the interaction.”

“I wouldn’t want that,” she stated flatly, taking a few steps towards me. “Not with you here, that is.”

“Not sure I follow.”

Her head craned to the side for a moment, a sly look about her as she continued to close the gap between us. “What distasteful times we live in, as you’d probably say. Nothing makes sense anymore, does it? These latest excursions have had the most dangerous anomalies in centuries, at a time when it risks allowing Surgriel to return at that, and the stubborn pride of that system we call ‘The Aichleini’ might just pay for it. But then again, it might not. It’s all so uncertain now.”

The way she spoke, the way she moved, the way she looked at me, it all transitioned away from the Altera I knew into… something else. Something equal parts seductive and predatory. I was struck speechless. I couldn’t help but back up as she came closer, practically allowing her to position me between her body and the wall, which she pressed me against with one hand. What the hell had gotten into her?

“You don’t want to be uncertain anymore, do you, Gheira?”

“…What do you mean?”

She leaned in closer, almost ‘til our foreheads met, gaze unwavering against my eyes.

“Would you like me to show you something more?”

Destructions 5.4

I was glad to be clear of the ruins of Belenon already, with our party now making our way up into the nearby foothills. A sense of irrational guilt washed over me each time I saw what my former comrades wrought on this planet. Whether it was just my mood filtering down or the sight having similar effects on the rest of the party, the air felt incredibly somber all day. Thinking about it like that actually made me chuckle at my own silliness. Was it necessary to wax poetic about how looking at a destroyed city can make someone depressed?

“Good thing at least one of us is enjoying himself,” Henda huffed in response to my apparent amusement, leaning against a tree in exhaustion. Was this part of the journey really this hard on him?

“Why wouldn’t he be?” retorted Kirienne in her usual monotone. “Nothing quite gives you the same sense of joy as seeing death and destruction all around you. Don’t you think?”

“Yes, yes, very funny you two. At least try to appear more professional once we arrive at New Celdan, alright?”

“Of course, sir.”

Gazing up the imposing scale of the mountains ahead of us, it was noticeable where the pass we needed to traverse was, but not so obvious that we weren’t happy to have a guide from Hateli with us on the way. By now, our diplomatic procession had more or less halted for a midday meal. I decided to take this brief respite as an opportunity to check back in with said guide, walking past Henda to join those already setting up.

An informal half-circle of bodies had been arranged by the time I got there, with a couple picking through our supplies, another getting a fire started, and our guide on one edge. The sight of it all, especially in contrast to the level of technology we’d gotten used to, was strange. And quaint. With an involuntary sigh, I took seat in a vacant spot of grass next to her.

“Everyone been faring alright so far?” I asked the group.

“All but a certain someone, I think,” quipped one of the delegation. It elicited a select few chuckles. While they waved over Henda and Kirienne, I turned to our guide, the tradeswoman Mara, hoping to make this as natural as possible.

“While we have some free time, could you tell me a bit more about this area?” I requested. “You’ve made this crossing multiple times before, I recall.”

She nodded in a rather meek way. “Used to live down there, in Belenon. Made a lot of trips back and forth for- well, y’know, business. Mostly normal trade deals.”

“Mostly?” I raised an eyebrow. She seemed to like the interest I took, as her face became a bit more animated at the question.

“Well~” she drew the word out, glancing around before moving a bit closer, “there’s a militia group on the other side of the mountains, I heard. It was all kept kinda secret over here, so I don’t know most of what was going on, but I’d sometimes get asked by an official to stow a crate or two here or there, meet someone up outside Celdan for it.”

“A militia group?” The Ophentum? From what I’d been told, they’d been keeping people safe from a variety of creatures in the region. Their leader even attended that meeting I was invited to. Didn’t seem like Mara was up to anything immoral, then.

“Yup. Never looked inside the crates, so I’m not sure what they were having me transport, but I don’t think it was anything bad.” After a moment of quiet, she started up again. “Oh, uh, sorry, that’s just what I think of every time I come here now. Better than other memories, and all.”

“…I’m sorry if this is insensitive, but were you here when Belenon was attacked?”

The way Mara slowly inhaled made me regret asking, but she answered my question all the same. “I was just coming into Celdan when all that happened. Had to drop all my things and run out into the woods after hearing that they were under attack there too. I’m- I guess I’m just happy I got out okay.”

Conversation slowed to a halt as everyone, eyes united in fixation, stared up at the rapidly darkening portions of the sky. Long trails of storm clouds breezed a path through the air, mostly inert aside from their motion. It all seemed to be moving northeast. Mara voiced her confusion over what could possibly be causing clouds to form like that, but the rest of us had uncomfortable suspicions, and I caught a few glancing amongst themselves.

If this was abnormal for this world, then the next best guess was that our ally had been stirred to action over something. What could even do that? The tiniest, most abused part of myself wanted to assume it was something benign, because it technically could be, but none of us felt at ease over a simple possibility like that.

Kirienne hastily walked over to me about as fast as she’s ever moved. “Is this cause for us to change plans? If we don’t know what’s going on-”

“No, just look,” I interrupted her, nodding my head in the direction of the stormfront which had already begun disappearing over the horizon. “If that’s our ally, then wherever it’s going, we aren’t able to follow in any reasonable amount of time.”

She, and the others who heard my reasoning, took pause. It was the sort of conclusion that was correct in the strictest sense, but no one felt good acknowledging, I knew. Such was betrayed on all their faces. After a few seconds of frowning, Kirienne turned back to look at me with an increasingly intense stare.

“Are we going to continue on to New Celdan, then?”

“…I don’t see what else we can be expected to do.”

A tense nod. As she moved to announce our intentions to the others, as well as an order to start packing up again and end our break early, I found it hard to even think about the task lying ahead of me. Each thought circled around until it composed of nothing but fear and preemptive regret. Was it a mistake to handle diplomacy personally all this time? Was I supposed to just sit around with it in the event of something going drastically wrong?

More concerningly, if that was our ally and if it was responding to something, it had to have been dire enough to not allow for it to come find me. A pit slowly formed in my stomach as I contemplated what could be going wrong, and where, but I forced it down in time to join the rest of the party and continue onwards. It was all any of us could do. Poor Mara, too, having to expose her to such a tense atmosphere.

The activity of hiking uphill with our supplies was thankfully engaging enough for the mood to slowly bleed away, tension draining off as more and more of the path ahead fell under the shade of an increasingly thick canopy. The atmosphere was almost enough to calm my worries over the situation, too. Certainly didn’t seem like this world was coming to an end or anything. Mara and I, now walking beside each other at the head of the march, had even resumed discussion of the region and her experiences – much more pleasant ones this time.

Several minutes passed before the worst possible sight came to be. The light filtering down through the trees and reaching our skin suddenly flared up in intensity and heat, stopping everyone’s tongues briefly. The pit in my stomach returned, and while everyone else looked to each other in surprise or confusion as to what was going on, I turned my eye to the heavens. The canopy was too dense to confirm my fears, however.

Gritting my teeth painfully, I twisted my neck around to look for something to serve as a clearing, ignoring Mara’s desperate pleas to know what was going on. My legs carried me off before I even consciously ordered it, and I left the others behind. Sunlight beat down brutally on a patch of open grass ahead of me; that was it. I stopped all my momentum as soon as I’d reached it, breath heavy and knees shaking from something other than physical exertion.

Again, I looked skyward. Two suns. This wasn’t a binary star system when we entered it. I knew there was really only one possibility for what was going on. I knew it, but I desperately didn’t want it to be that, of all things. It shouldn’t have even been happening in the first place, it couldn’t– none of them should have taken this risk! And they actually approved the final option?!

They never attacked us before, not directly. They only tried to interfere before we could do anything. They weren’t willing to engage us – that was the answer, right? Then why were they HERE?! Were they monitoring me specifically, waiting for us to split up? If some number of Aichleini have landed, if that’s what drew our ally’s attention away… they were trying to distract it in order to give Ounirok this opportunity.

My hands reached up to frame my own face as I steadily severed contact with the increasingly heated air around me. I would survive this. I, alone. I shouldn’t have ever left it alone. I killed everyone. My mistake, my self-assuredness, killed everyone. Buckling under the weight of that one thought, my knees gave out from under me.

I started screaming.

The tension in the air of the medical lodge was silently broken as Warden Landra DeVry’s expression shifted from her usual determination, to looking dumbfounded, to finally becoming resigned. Unbelievable. Whatever Aysa did there was… it was effective, to say the least. Ricor’s lifeless eyes were now staring past me, utterly vacant. All present were utterly quiet save for the medics who were slowly catching their breath after the subdued frenzy of their attempts. With the result so evident, the others began leaving to attend to their responsibilities.

I still held Ricor’s leather bracer in my hand, having removed it from his person before the medics started operating. It neither folded nor flattened in my hands, remaining a consistently durable and rounded shape, still quite firm. Nothing told me this was anything but a well-crafted piece of equipment, yet right there, a pair of holes had been punctured through them like it was nothing.

Warden DeVry leaned back in her seat with an exhausted sigh, her defeat apparent. “I- I don’t… okay. Janus, what happened out there exactly?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, stalling for a bit of time to collect my thoughts. Landra, in response, leaned her head against against one palm, obscuring most of her face. In contrast to that, her tone had become colder, more clinical.

“It, ah… it was venomous, obviously. Possibly a neurotoxin, given the effects. What caused it?”

It took me a second just to say, “Aysa did.”

“Aysa?” she repeated, looking up at me with visible surprise. “I’m… not sure I understand. It wasn’t her her, right? None of our augmentations or mutations are listed as including this powerful a toxic element. And the wound?”

“She bit him,” I answered again, like it was the simplest thing in the world. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Landra’s expression shift to dumbfoundedness for the second time today. As morbid as it was, though, my eyes were locked on Ricor.

It almost made sense. This was why she always wore a scarf, wasn’t it? No matter the temperature, she always wore something that just conveniently covered her mouth. She was hiding those fangs. How long had she been keeping this hidden from us? From the beginning? Why? For as long as we in the Ophentum had been practicing alchemy, we understood the risks we took just in doing so. We understood that many of us would become different in the process, and we accepted that.

Yet Aysa opted to lie. Concealed a trait we never even conceived as being possible. A lethal trump card that just killed a man- no, more than just some random man. One of her own people! Someone who just wanted to help her! I knew she was prone to losing her temper, but she’d never done something like this before.

Landra cleared her throat at length to finally speak. “Janus, what exactly do you mean? She bit him with… what, fangs? That seems consistent with the holes, but- I mean, how could she even pierce that? It’s alchemically treated. Even if we approach this like, uh… I don’t know, some sort of oversized snake bite, it shouldn’t have been able to penetrate this.”

“Except she’s not actually a snake,” I had to point out. “Her scales aren’t exactly like a normal reptile’s. She’s been saved from injuries that normal snake scales would’ve been powerless to stop. Why wouldn’t other parts of her be the same?”

“I- yeah, I mean, you’re right, but it’s not as if we have anything else to go off of. I’ve personally never seen a toxin exactly like this before. What was used to augment her? Mana was the one to administer the procedures back then, wasn’t she?”

“Yes, I will… speak with her when she gets back,” I assured her, beginning to move towards the door. I was still mentally reeling from the situation as a whole. Ricor was dead, one among how many in the past two months or so, now? The twelve sent with Xander and Teneya… Gannen… and now Ricor. Naora could have easily joined them, too. None of us were strangers to death, but this was starting to take a toll on everyone, with so many dying in such a short span of time. And now Aysa was among the culprits.

At the same time, what I saw Aysa do… it wasn’t intentional, it felt like. I was not convinced that she’d done this out of a cognizant desire to harm or kill Ricor. The look on her face, the way she moved, it all felt like a reflex to me. Thinking of it like that, as nothing more than a sudden, instinctual movement causing Aysa to abandon all sense in favor of a primal response, made it at least a bit easier to swallow.

Mana always said that our alchemical practices were reckless from the start. That we were misusing it, as necessary as it was in all our minds. How else were we to combat the threats we were faced with? Even while accepting that rationale, however, Mana’s words remained. Was this event just a confirmation of her warning?

Aysa’s venomous bite was one thing; even if we didn’t think it was possible to mutate such a toxin, it was understandable. But such animalistic behavior was… well, I didn’t want to contradict my earlier words, but it did feel far too much like a feral snake. She snapped forward, bit down, and snapped back with all the haste of a legitimate reptile, like it was a fundamentally reflexive behavior. Never had our enhancements changed our very behavior to the extent that it felt less than human.

“I’m going to speak to Ekkan,” I, having long paused by the doorframe, announced to Landra.

“Janus, wait a moment, we should-” she began before suddenly going quiet. Her gaze was drawn to the nearby window, which seemed to be letting in an unnatural amount of light from outside. Scowling in confusion, I craned my neck to try and peer outside, and was forced to squint against the brightness.

This wasn’t right. I preemptively raised a hand above my eyes, hoping to shade myself against such intensity as I opened the door and hastily exited the lodge. Stepping out, I could make out the figures of other members from the view beneath my hand, and all of them seemed to trying to shelter themselves from the rising temperatures.

“Get the civilians inside!” I shouted, hoping to organize them into usefulness, and in response, several began to act on my command. “And someone get Aysa out here!”

I could at least hazard a guess as to what this was, even if it wasn’t exactly the same as before. My best guess was that this had to be related to the invaders, since they’d been associated with spontaneous flashes of light in the past. This was sustained, like the sun had intensified its own light somehow, but what else could we assume? Nothing good was to be had of this.

We needed to prepare for the possibility of their return, immediately. Leaving the men I’d ordered to help the civilians to their task, I took off in a sprint towards Valler’s armory. Several others had the same idea, apparently, and were filing inside to arm themselves accordingly. I would have joined them, but before I could step past the threshold, I was interrupted.

“Sir!” a young man, utterly out of breath, hastily addressed me. “Aysa’s not in her quarters! A couple of us are trying to find her, but we don’t know where she is!”

What a time for her to disappear. It’s practically criminal; people need to have their leader at times like this. If she was no longer mentally capable of filling that role… I shook my head, as much to dismiss those thoughts as to respond to the man before me.

“Leave her. Our priority now is protecting people and repelling any possible attacks.”

With that, I turned to arm myself against whatever threat the sun portended.

Fibrous plant skin met my fingertip as it traced a gentle path along the stem. It was coming along so beautifully on the windowsill, but the contact imparted its impressions of trepidation even stronger than before. I was always careful to listen, and today, there seemed to be so much more to listen to. It had me concerned, even with the anticipation of its blooming within the next week. After making sure it was properly watered for the day, I retrieved a pair of thick leather gloves and my gardening tools, looking to tend to the ones outside next.

Absolutely lovely day for this sort of activity, at least. Highly defined shafts of light pierced the canopy above and found homes on the leaves strewn about on the ground. Wind faintly rustled through the trees and shifted those sunbeams in tune. On one level, I wanted to say the sight was simply breathtaking and peaceful, but I knew better. Anxiety ran taut on invisible strings all throughout the forest.

My eyes closed. I stretched beyond my own skin, across those strings and over all the little flames of light that made up a woodland. This was such a different sensation than the mundane danger of a group of loggers, or even a forest fire spreading nearby, that it befuddled me. At least nothing was being harmed right now, as far as I could tell. Satisfied with at least that much, I kept my eyes closed and navigated around the cottage to my garden, using the opportunity for a bit of practice.

Once I was there, I realized the sunlight would be just hitting it, at this angle. Opening my eyes again confirmed the picturesque view of my garden, about half the sprouts illumined by starkly contrasted sunlight and the others resting in peaceful shade next to them. Perhaps a bit of tender care would help ease their worries. Slipping on the gloves, I got on my knees and started inspecting the thornier specimens first.

Then, things got brighter. I blinked in both puzzlement and strain against the sudden discomfort. Were it not for the unmitigated sunshine already being there, I might have simply dismissed it as a cloud moving out from blocking the light, but that was impossible. All around me, the plants almost wilted in retreat from the new radiance, something in their nature wanting to escape from whatever this was.

I gazed upwards through the trees, hoping and failing to catch a glimpse of the cause. In spite of the steadily rising heat, my blood ran cold.

What would Lamine make of this if she were still here?

Anxious mutterings surrounded me, long having engulfed the entire camp. This was no time to be distracted by them, though. Pushing aside the bead stringing before me, I stepped into the tent, greeted by the sight of the other clan leaders and elders. It felt unpleasant entering a space like this, with the tension hanging heavy over us all. There seemed to be a space set aside for me. Ondye gestured me over, inviting me to seat myself there beside him, and I did so.

“You’re late,” a gruff voice admonished me. Tatralan, my father, was staring at me, but neither his gaze nor tone felt truly angry. “…Is your family well this day?”

“As well as any of us,” I replied, mostly motionless. Silence reigned for a few terse seconds before someone else broke it.

“Tatralan, we need to move already,” our cousin implored, face etched with fear. “The beast from the air departing after having settled into the earth was no coincidence. No, even if it was, the people are frightened by it. They require action to know we’re still watching out for them.”

Murmurs of approval. Agreement. My father, turning towards the man, said, “Where would you have us move? This close to the sea, it would take weeks to reach the Old Caves. We would be safe there, but would we make it in time?”

“That’s assuming whatever the beast portends would affect us down here,” a youthful voice pointed out. Several eyes, mine included, turned towards her.

“We can’t take such an optimistic chance, Shaya,” our cousin argued.

“We also can’t exactly afford to uproot ourselves this time of the season,” I finally spoke up. “We haven’t caught enough to last us yet. The flocks could perhaps sustain us, but I’m worried about diminishing them too greatly.”

“Especially if we needed to hide in the Old Caves for too long a time,” my father chipped in, nodding slowly.

Fear and contemplation both played across most of the faces gathered here as we discussed this. Some argued for staying another day or two, have everyone who was able help with fishing, then pack up and head for the Caves. Shaya and her husband were too optimistic to think we even needed to do anything in the first place – I told Ondye they were a dangerous couple – but thankfully no one else was willing to share that opinion.

In truth, I had little idea what to do myself. Our people needed to be protected, but that included protection from starvation, didn’t it? Either we allow our food stocks to run dry in our journey to safety, or we stay and risk running foul of that omen, by my assessment. It was suggested that we could encounter another clan along the way and trade for food, but my father wisely pointed out that relying on two layers of luck would leave you disappointed.

Conversation halted at my father’s gesture, apprehension suddenly carved along the lines of his face. All present were silent, allowing for sounds of panic from outside to filter within. I rushed to my feet, brushing past my fellows and reaching the open air in time to see our people cowering in fear or running to hide. It was brighter than I’d ever seen, brighter than before I entered the tent, and, partially covering my eyes, I craned my neck in search of the source. Several footsteps soon joined me out here.

The world was slowly heating up, I realized with a sense of horror. My thoughts went immediately to my wife and child, about whether they were under cover, whether I should go to them… whether it would make any difference. A panicked voice from behind me was screeching that we needed to leave for the Caves lest we all die, but I hardly registered it above the sight of water vapor rising off the distant waves of the ocean.

“Look,” said my father, “up in the sky. A second sun.”

The world rushed back into existence all around me, and immediately I squeezed my eyes shut at the overbearing light. In spite of my attempted vigilance, the abrupt return of my senses was too much of a shock for me to do much. After several seconds of rubbing my own forehead and trying to get my eyes back open without hurting myself more, I realized how hot things were getting. What the actual hell was going on?

Turning my attention back to Senna for the moment- yeah, she was still there, if rather far away. Actually, further away than I should have been able to feel her. The stranglehold I’d been maintaining on her must have fluctuated or something in my surprise, because she immediately started panicking, seemingly over me. I conveyed my reassurance as best I could. She at least seemed to be okay again, even after something buckled her resolve before my senses came back.

Everything seemed to be contributing to making me as disoriented as possible, and Elva and the others had to be going through something similar. Through parted fingers, I made out one of them – looked like Jerome? – desperately scramble out of direct sunlight and into the minor respite of the shade. The rest of us were already ‘safe’… as far as I could currently tell. No one felt very safe right now though. The sheer panic radiating from them, hell, from the entire village, made it hard to keep focused on Senna. Took me a couple seconds just to filter it all out again.

The worst part of it all was realizing that our enemies were still here, and seemingly completely unharmed. Maybe aside from the one Senna fought? Too hard to tell, with everyone so far away. Stealing a squinted glance in their direction nearly took my breath away, with the distance beyond them dominated by a massive… thing, just covered in rainbow lights. My gaze averted instantly; whatever that was, I found it practically impossible to directly look at it.

While my own empathic sense and sight were predominantly what I paid attention to at first, they weren’t the only senses returned to me by now. The smell of burning plants was thick in the air, slowly building up to the point of overwhelming everything else. Rumbles and metallic shrieks began splitting the air, alternating in freakish patterns, almost more inexplicable than the intense light until I realized that they were accompanying actions taken by the huge rainbow-thing that I could still hardly look at.

Everything was overwhelming and painful. Nothing made sense anymore. I was starting to burn up in the hot air even while protected by the shade of this building, eyes drying uncomfortably and lips beginning to crack and bleed. And it showed no signs of stopping. We were all going to die here, boiled alive in our own utter confusion. I wished I had Senna here to comfort me. She was so far away, and I was so scared.

Nykorosk took another step toward me. The movement and slowly clearing smoke contributing to revealing exactly how damaged he was in the wake of the entity’s attack, and it was gruesome. Whole portions of flesh had been destroyed, rendered black or nonexistent, and much of the remnant was sloughing off the bone. None of that seemed to be impeding his movement, though, much less have actually finished him off. I took an impulsive step backwards, reeling in frustration – if not disbelief – at his durability.

“You had the same questions last time,” he noted dryly, not even a hint of pain marking his telepathic voice. “Must be unpleasant to be faced with someone as unkillable as yourself. Or, perhaps not anymore, considering how easily I carved you up.”

The way he brought that up was obviously intended to be insidious or something. Trying to unsettle me by saying… could he actually kill me now? That was never a possibility before. It felt so weird to even think about. Not even a year ago, my heart would have leapt for joy at the realization that I could finally die, but now I felt genuine resistance towards it. I did not want to leave her. As if to add onto that, Lily’s presence pressed in harder against me, though I had little idea what exactly she was trying to say.

Another step from the walking half-corpse ahead of me pulled my eyes back onto him. Now that he mentioned it, the weapon he bragged about ‘carving me up’ with was nowhere to be seen. Lost in the explosion? Destroyed? Was him bringing it up at all some sort of bluff? As I contemplated that, I felt his gaze take a mocking quality, faint impressions of laughter teasing against my ears. Bastard. Bluff or not, he was enjoying this.

Then, he took an action I was not expecting. His tattered arms stretched widely to either side, as if inviting me into an embrace, or performing an ostentatious ceremony.

And the world was cast into demonic light.

“The spectacle has begun.”

A thousand branching thoughts wracked my brain all at once, leading in uselessly divergent directions. As foolish as it was while directly in front of an enemy, I was helpless but to glance around, scouring the surroundings for an answer to what the hell had just happened. It soon became obvious that the light was not truly due to any action of Nykorosk’s, unless he was inexplicably able to call another sun into the sky. That meant he was just timing his performance to mess with me.

As comforting as that was, it still answered nothing, and stacking it up on top of everything else was enough to make anyone start panicking, if they had not already. I might have been fine myself, but worse yet, Lily’s connection waned a few moments after this ‘spectacle’ started. The absence instantly cracked my resolve. Did they hurt her? Was the light related to that? What was I supposed to do?!

After a brief delay, she seemed to notice my state of mind, and quickly sent a reassuring feeling – at least, I think that was the intention – in response. Momentarily reassuring, but the steady loss of contact was unmistakable, and I was becoming increasingly undone. Was she even paying attention anymore? A tiny piece of me recognized that I was losing control and might need to resort to old measures to deal with this, but that contributed to my fear even more.

That, and the continually rising heat. No way the wildfires alone were causing that, right? It had to be the second sun, which meant it had to be happening at least over… some huge area. Lily, and the others back there, they were all probably feeling this too, and were far less equipped than I was. Should I try to save them? Keep attacking? What could I even do in either of those situations?!

Another chorus of laughter, more than mocking; it was gleeful. “There, it slips away. She’ll be gone soon, along with everyone and everything else. Everything but us. And you.”

That got me to turn around again, the very implication nearly blanking my thoughts. They were killing her- everyone. Every inch of my body was screaming, the flesh underneath my skin bubbling from a force other than temperature. Nothing crossed my mind. Blank. White-hot. Nykorosk was still in front of me. I registered it. I registered cackling. I sat there for a millenium and more, and boiled.

And exploded.

Snapping back into furious clarity, I felt the tug of endless, blossoming heat pouring out from inside me. It wanted to kill him just as much as I consciously did. I wanted to stop them, to force their retreat by injuring Nykorosk, but part of me knew it was over anyways. Cut or stab or destroy him all I liked, he never seemed to stop moving. Maybe I would incapacitate him, and the others would turn their attention to me and keep me from saving Lily.

My body was reshaped in an instant, fire and fury and fluidity conforming to the vision in my mind. I cared nothing for the futility of the action. Feeling stronger than ever in the face of an end to your whole world was paradoxical – pathetic, even – but I cared little for that, either. Just this one, last little tribute I could give to her in this act of defiance. I might have cried out of accepting what was about to happen, but I kept it from sullying my last performance.

I forced myself straight at him, pushed to a greater speed and strength than I ever used before. His arms had once again spread to welcome me, accepting of this final, hopeless attempt at staying alive. The one I had remaining was adorned with the same arm-blade design that I first used to fight their invasion, and I punctured his ruined torso with it. Nykorosk’s spine bent inwards a bit in response to the force, but the only feeling radiating off him was disgustingly palpable enjoyment.

His left hand reached towards what constituted my face. Stroked it. I hardly felt anything, either physically or emotionally. His right hand took a position of grasping something, though only air rested between his fingers at first. Then, the weapon that I thought lost began materializing in his grip.

“You look so beautiful like this, dear little monster,” he sneered. “I will miss playing with you.”

Motivation, anger, protectiveness, the raw instinct to stay alive – it had all slowly drained out of me even before the scant moments of Nykorosk retrieving his blade. He was going to kill me. Without the emotional baggage of before, that thought received simple acceptance. Lily would be following soon, huh. Or maybe she already died. I wanted to be enraged at the thought, wanted to keep clinging to something, but it all may as well have been gone already. Maybe this was merciful. Maybe…

A sudden sensation overwhelmed my acceptance. It was the same feeling of being watched that I experienced back at the meeting Elva organized. All else was pushed aside by this utterly dwarfing dread reaching out from every angle at once and touching my arm.