It was right here, the sharp bend in the road that stood out in my memories of local maps. Dense clusters of trees and clumps of vine growth parted to reveal a destitute little village down at the foot of the hill – Naidan. Its sight gave my legs a minute shock of energy, all that could be mustered after the last day of nonstop walking, and it immediately led to me tripping over myself in my haste to get closer.
It should have been long abandoned, by all counts. Last we- no, they checked, it’d been cleared out entirely in the midst of the Ylein invasion. That was the only reason to even go this direction. With any luck, I could scavenge some food and water that had been left behind. The wind was getting colder lately, too, so a coat would be nice. In the form of cruel punctuation to that thought, my body shivered.
Damn this small body. Damn Aysa. Damn all of it. I couldn’t retain any heat like this, and she threw me out without so much as my favorite cloak. Maybe having this regressed body was good, in the sense of avoiding the arthritis I might otherwise have had, but little else. Either way, in this age or another, to cast me out like this was nothing short of inhumane, infuriating. How Aysa singularly possessed the authority to exile a physical child was completely beyond me.
What a dismal sight this was, too. An overcast sky hung over what was essentially a run-down settlement, and what once passed for overly-muddy roads were now covered in a bed of fallen leaves and blowing weeds, completely untended and wild. I could only hope that this lifeless impression of the place was accurate. My survival probably depended on the supplies within being untouched.
The closest structure in the center itself looked like some sort of shop, but with the sign missing, I’d need to look inside to know what kind. My best bet for actual food would be a family home, at this point, since I figured any produce left to the open markets would have been picked off by the animals by now. Water would require a well… but maybe I could get something to keep warm in there.
It was deathly quiet. As much as I wasn’t a superstitious woman, this sort of thing was still unnerving to be in the center of. Banishing that sort of thinking, I walked up to the nearest shop’s front entrance, stretching my arms up to the handle. Somehow, only at this distance did my mind register the central window had been broken, and I froze. Was that the Yleini, or something after? Please don’t let this have been looted already.
At least the lock wasn’t working. Broken? Either way, the door steadily opened inward at my insistence, old hinges creaking against the frame. Dusty air slammed against my sensitive nose, but that was entirely less irritating than the interior’s utter lack of substance. I couldn’t even tell what the hell this shop was supposed to be before, on account of all the shelves having been emptied and left to rot. It felt just as dead as the rest of this place.
Fine, not going to bother with the village center itself. At this rate, it’d all have been looted long ago. I needed food. I was barely keeping myself upright as it was, and that was probably just due to adrenaline and survival instincts. Pushing myself out the door again, I turned to the direction of what I thought was the nearest homestead that I’d seen. My legs felt like they were on fire, but I didn’t give myself another break, not while this close to a potential meal. Can’t believe I was reduced to this, by her.
By the time I reached the property’s well, I wasn’t sure whether I had the strength to lift the bucket and actually get water from it. My arms were shaking in the action, every little slip of the rope against my skin hurting more than it should have, but eventually I retrieved my first proper drink in an entire day. It wasn’t nearly as clean as I was used to, but oh how little that mattered right then.
My body wanted to collapse on the spot, but I picked myself up again. If this was how I had to act, then I would at least succeed in the process. Another several seconds of tramping across dew-laden grass and muddy earth brought me up against the walls of the cabin, covered in vines and steadily creeping moss. I ended up partially circling the house, and soon, I found my ingress: a slowly rotting wooden door, taken off one hinge entirely.
Slipping through the opened spaces, I entered what turned out to be yet another ransacked building, even more dilapidated than what I saw in the village proper. It was hard to tell what exactly happened here, even as I scoured every space I could to see what was left behind. No cabinets seemed to have anything edible in them anymore, nor did their dedicated pantry. There was nothing worthwhile whatsoever aside from a bunch of rotting memories and the thought was depressing, except not really, because I was starving.
I think I was getting a little delirious. Was that possible after not eating for a day, or was I just working myself into a frenzy? It couldn’t have been good for a child’s biology one way or another. As hard as it was to fight through, that realization helped me keep myself a bit more calm. Needed to think rationally here, now more than ever.
Alright, so this homestead was no good, as far as I could tell, and neither was the shop. It was like this entire place had been picked clean. If I kept looking around here, I could potentially find some food, but I might also end up wasting time that could have been used to get me closer to actual civilization. It didn’t seem like my chances were good if I stayed, though I at least wouldn’t die of thirst.
The next village over, that’s what I needed to head towards. I didn’t even remember if it was still inhabited, but… what else was there? If I tried to fend for myself here, I’d die. Thinking that made me shiver again. How long could people go without eating? A matter of weeks, right? I had considerably less time, but enough to stay the night here, at least. Going out there immediately would be a horrible mistake, I was sure.
Slinking away into a deeper room in the house – easy enough when there weren’t many to begin with – I found what had to have once been a bedroom. A small locker rested at the foot of the wooden frame, obviously already looted given the blatantly broken lock. The bed itself, meanwhile, had been stripped of any blankets, but… it was softer than the floor.
Curling up on barren straw, I slowly allowed myself to drift off to sleep between fits of shivering and bouts of wondering whether I was going to make it out of this.
“Lily?” A couple people were looking at me. I was staring, and now suddenly broken from the brief occupation by their concern. Senna was paying attention now, too. I don’t think she knew about it, and it needed to stay that way, at least for the moment.
“Sorry, sorry,” I flashed a quick smile at those present. “Got caught up in my own thoughts all of a sudden. Let’s get this show started, huh?”
“No worries,” one of the tradesmen assured me.
Proceeding from my brief distraction, I gingerly set the sketch sheets down on that central table, spread to better allow people to see. Several were taken up immediately, viewed with low murmurs. When it came to things other than the macro images, though, only Petra seemed to actually know what she was looking at, which made sense. Her gaze was focused down to an intense stare at the pair of papers she’d selected, those detailing the unusual specimens.
She, however, was the least of my concerns right now. Just like before, out in the fields with Senna, the shadows around Jacquir had vanished from my field of view while the sense of disquiet remained. I knew there was something off about him for quite a while now, ever since that weird little incident a while back where we thought he was missing briefly. I knew it, but I did nothing- I mean, well, what was there to do? That sort of justification didn’t feel good enough now, though.
“Mr. Trischam, I assume there’s an explanation forthwith?” asked an elder, his confusion and concern evident on his weathered face. Not like I needed to go off that usually, but it was hard to concentrate on such things now. Hey, wait, this was one of the old civil servants, right? I really should have learned his name already.
Dad, just as eager as he was back in his lab, asked everyone to reassemble the various papers and hand them over to him, so long as they were satisfied by now. Elva chimed in strongly urging us to stifle our individual curiosities and just allow him to provide further details, so everyone promptly obliged. In the meantime, Senna and I had taken to standing behind one of the couches, up against the left wall from the entrance. We just wanted to let him do his thing, and that definitely worked for me right now.
Even as my father launched into the explanations we’d already gone over amongst ourselves, I knew I needed to take this opportunity to communicate. It also needed to be without calling even the slightest bit of attention to myself. Jacquir might have noticed something awkward with myself or Senna the first time we had suspicions, so staging a repeat was out of the question. To start things off, I impressed into her a sensation of…
Okay, I’d have been lying if I acted like I knew what I was doing. Plenty of experience calming people down or making them feel better, yes; anything else, not so much, aside from the bare-bones confirmations I gave Senna at that one meeting. I ended up awkwardly trying to convey some wordless amalgamation of deception and communication to her heart, and I could tell it was just confusing her. Getting frustration, I slowly edged one hand over towards her, pressing my fingers into the skin somewhat firmly.
C-A-N-Y-O-U-F-E-E-L-T-H-I-S, I traced out onto the skin of her back, hoping she was perceptive enough to read the message. Her eyes flitted over to mine briefly.
“-which is how we captured these images before sketching them,” my father said, concluding the technical explanation for what these people were actually looking at. “Now, about what it means: as you can see from the notes there-”
Senna’s hand brushed against my butt briefly as she tried to position her hand similarly against my back. From there, her fingers deftly traced out what had to be a response to my previous message, though it was quite a bit harder to decipher from this end.
W-H-A-T-I-S-W-R-O-N-G, I think that was? She was definitely curious now. Not quite concerned yet, but I think from my behavior thus far, she was starting to get the impression that I wasn’t just being playful. This method of communication was clumsily slow and would be made practically impossible to use if I tried to convey anything too complex, but I still needed to find out what she could discern here.
Senna’s eyes, while I momentarily glanced at them, seemed to flit from Dad’s energetic discussion to the back of Jacquir’s head as he faced away from us on the couch. Her fingers quickly traced the reply Y-E-S, along with an increased sense of worry. Was she actually seeing something, or not? Maybe just remembering the first time I was suspicious about him?
“And we’re sure nothing was faulty?” Petra spoke up, voice a notch louder than everyone else in the room. “You said they were identical setups, but you used one for the normal plants and one for this weird shit, right?”
“Initially, yes, but we accounted for that afterwards. Both assemblies retrieved the same images of the unusual specimens,” he replied.
W-H-A-T-D-O-Y-O-U-S-E-E, came my continuation, traced during that brief exchange between the two of them. By now, I’d fully worried Senna, and this wasn’t something I was about to push out of her. I mean, shit, I was worried too, and I needed to know what to make of all this. Of him. What if he was a threat?
Well that was no great surprise right now. Whatever it was, it sure didn’t seem to be genuinely solid like it sometimes appeared. I couldn’t actually have been seeing it with my eyes, then, right? So what the hell was I seeing it with? Why only temporarily? I was utterly, rigidly still, back pressed against the wall and hand still resting against Senna. My eyes were ahead, focused on nothing in particular.
I would have probably kept uselessly thinking myself in circles if Senna didn’t suddenly spell, H-A-V-E-I-D-E-A, which prompted me to look up at her for a second. Stretching her neck a bit, she closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the wooden wall behind us. I wasn’t… immediately sure what her idea was, just based on this.
“-uctures of which might have some unknown effect on typical cellular functions,” Dad said, or had been saying. Gave me a good excuse to look away again. “We retrieved some extra equipment so as to follow up on this, and we’ll want to conduct some field studies in the next couple days.”
Just as someone started asking, “Okay, so what does all of this mean for us now?”, my attention was pulled back to Senna, though I refrained from actually looking at her. She was surprised, confused, hell pretty much everything I was without the benefit of context. Even that tiny amount of context that really didn’t satisfy anything. The way her body shifted after a moment told me that she’d probably finished whatever she was doing there.
Her fingers moved again. W-H-A-T-I-S-T-H-A-T
Senna had no idea what I was getting at here, not yet, but my mention of safety had her taking this truly seriously. That, and the fact that she probably directly witnessed the same thing that had me frightened, though I had no idea how exactly she could. All the same, we had our confirmation: this was real, whatever it was. Uncomfortably, distressingly real. At least it was kinda relieving to know I wasn’t hallucinating this. At the same time, though, if that was related to what I saw around Senna-
“Okay,” Elva’s voice cut into my thoughts like a razor, “we can save most of this for later, when we have more information. Right now, we’ve at least determined that none of these have any likely detrimental effects.”
“Otherwise the volunteers clearing paths probably would have exhibited something by now,” the tradesman pointed out.
“Right. We’ve pretty much finished harvesting the crops that used to be here, too, so our stores are doing well. Mr. Trischam, you and as many trained alchemists as possible need to use this time to learn everything you can about these new plants, preferably in time for us to know whether we can or should clear them to make way for new crops.”
That seemed pretty conclusive. Everyone agreed this was reasonable, and Petra expressed enthusiasm over working on a problem that didn’t directly relate to the new townsfolk not being able to turn on a light. That drew a few laughs, as well as an apology from Dad, just as everyone started packing up and getting ready to leave. We had our course of action, after all. Senna went out of her way to offer my father her help with the retrieved equipment, but it felt like a front. Picking up on that, I volunteered as well.
“Well thank you both, but we’ve had a fairly full day already. Aren’t you two ready to take some time off yet? I can get some of these people to help,” he responded to our offers. “I mean, probably.”
“Definitely,” Lucy corrected, elbowing her brother pointedly.
“Ah, no, that’s quite alright, uh-”
“I prefer to finish what I start,” Senna asserted, just in time to avert suspicion. “Plus, well… spending more time together seems appealing. After all, we are going to be family soon.” Oh my god did she just say-
“Oh my god,” came Elva’s excited voice. As soon as she heard those words, she became a little beacon of energy, turning away from the door she’d been about to exit through and rushing back over to us. “When did this happen? Who popped the question?”
I sighed. “Me, that was me. It just-”
“Congrats, you two,” Jerome grinned, coming over and giving me a hard pat on the back. Jacquir followed suit, and I had to suppress my instinctual reaction to him getting closer.
Gods I almost wish she hadn’t done that. Almost. It worked perfectly for what we needed, though, and after spending a couple minutes navigating that mess and promising we’d be inviting all of them to the festivities – whenever they ended up happening at least – we were finally able to leave. Dad seemed to be in quite a cheery mode as we all hopped back into the vehicle. I assured him that he’d be invited too, which he simply laughed and thanked me for.
And we were off. I let out a long, groaning sigh as we crossed the short distance over to my father’s makeshift alchemical workshop. Could finally let myself feel things more strongly, now that it was just Senna and Dad around. She gave my back a knowing stroke, seemingly able to intuit what I’d been feeling. Then, using the opportunity, her fingers began to make a familiar set of motions.
I turned to smile at her.
A louder thud than necessary accompanied the last box hauled back as Lily and I dropped it unceremoniously in an empty corner of the room, one of the last after all that. All the samples we took, plus everything Krishov thought he could get away with taking along, and it was painfully obvious that this little workshop was not meant to house so many objects. Could they even get any work done under these conditions?
Seemed like Krishov was right, earlier. I found myself really wanting this day to have ended already. By the time we three had hauled everything into the workshop, Lily seemed outright weary, and I was continuing to internally deliberate over what we had both seen earlier. It called to mind the first time something about Jacquir seemed unnatural to her, so I could only imagine that she was worried about giving off the impression of suspicion. Seeing how it went, I guess I made the right call in playing along.
“Alright, you two,” Krishov declared upon making sure everything was settled – and that a man could still physically walk through this pile of supplies, “now I’m serious. Go take the rest of the day off or something. I’ll start sorting through all this with my assistants, and uh… probably figure out what we can just put in storage for right now. Might need to build an attachment to the building at this rate…”
“Thanks, Dad. See you tomorrow, okay?”
“Yeah, uh… see you. Dad?” I tacked on with great uncertainty. “Am I supposed to be calling you that now?”
“Hey now, no need to strain yourself.” He was laughing now, really quite hard actually. Was that a no then?
Either way, it was not long before she and I were relatively alone, walking out into the late afternoon sun. The vehicle was left parked in its space, a makeshift tarp overhead to keep it from being weathered by chance rains. Lily made it clear that she wanted us to go straight home, and I got the feeling we were waiting to discuss what we saw ‘til then. Our words strayed from work to idle topics, but I was still left to hypothesize in my own head.
Assuming the more simple solution, I had to imagine that whatever that dark shroud around Jacquir was, it was related in some way to what Lily picked up on back then. Why could she suddenly see it now? Even I had to completely shut off my physical senses to start perceiving it. That was… so weird to think about. Not like I ever had any real pride in myself, but someone else being better at this sort of thing, the only area I had any claim to talent in…
We could see the little house we picked out for ourselves a good ways before reaching it. Grasses and hardy shrubs had nestled up against the stone foundation, almost looking intentional in their placement. I mean, I guess it was intentional if they were placed by something sentient, inhuman or not. If we had not gone out of our way to assure ourselves of their safety, that thought would be much more actively frightening.
“You think we should try to clear some of this out?” I put forward casually, eyes still roving across the stark greenery. “You know, give the garden another shot. That was fun to do together.”
Her eyes twinkled a bit. “It really was! Cooking stuff you’ve grown yourself is the best, I’ve always thought. It’s, like, strangely satisfying. Like you’ve been there with it all the way, and then-”
“And then you get to tear it out of the ground, chop it up, and eat its flesh.”
“…Not necessarily in that order.”
Before I could compose anything witty or even ask what other possible order existed, Lily was pushing open the door to the one place we had real privacy these days. She quietly slipped her shoes off by the entrance, and I followed suit, unraveling the simply designed boots I made for myself this morning. There was a sense of awkwardness in even the mundane action of coming home, in how we both knew there was something more we needed to discuss, but that other things might come first.
The interior was only partially lit as we entered, with sunlight piercing through the kitchen window as the only source of illumination. As Lily moved towards it, my fingers brushed against a familiar portion of the wall. It was probably a bit too warm in here for Lily to relax, so I made sure to set the temperature lower after turning on some more lights.
“Thanks,” she called back to me. “We’ve got stuff for dinner, right? I can’t remember whether we restocked three or four days ago.
“It was three days ago, and we have plenty,” I raised my voice a bit to reply.
Made sense that she wanted to deal with her hunger before anything else, given how long of a day we both had. I wished I could handle it myself. She deserved more of a break than this. Maybe learning how to cook from her would be nice, if only so I could handle that when she was tired. Seemed like a nice thought. Just as I was starting to wonder what I should be occupying myself with in the meantime, though, she addressed me.
“Come over here. We can talk while I prep.”
My eyes were drawn towards her in full. Putting everything else in the house, and otherwise, behind me, I moved closer, past an out-of-place marble countertop – hah, that was fun to haul out here while trying to avoid looking freakishly strong. The opened window directly across from her let in a light breeze which played against her hair, which was even more striking in its colors with fresh sun shining onto it. Lily must have put on her cooking apron while I was not looking, humbly stitched and stained as it was.
“Were you going to stare, or help?” she teased gently, her voice not betraying our shared concerns. I made a little hop to close the rest of the distance, landing squarely in front of our water basin and a small number of dishes which Lily abandoned in favor of the pantry.
“Want me to clean these up while you cook?”
“If that’s not too much trouble for you,” she said, wooden hinges grating against each other as the cheap door bent open.
I was… actually not sure how well I could do this one-handed, to be honest. Just another task I was finding it hard to adapt to, being so used to having another piece of me available to work with. Not like the answer could be so simple as to make a replacement somewhere else, as grotesque as that would be; whatever this injury really was, it prevented me from replacing my left arm’s function in the slightest.
Having brought over a basketful of ingredients, Lily eyed me, saying, “Ehhhh, maybe you should sit this one out, actually. I’d understand if you needed to.”
“Probably so,” I frowned, hopping up onto the yet-unused countertop and feeling somewhat useless. She quickly began scrubbing the crude dishes. “In the meantime, we need to talk about whatever that was back there.”
“Mm. Just so we’re on the same page, what’d you see?”
How exactly was I supposed to answer that? We both saw the same thing, ostensibly, but she did not have the same experience with… whatever the hell I could do. Seeing, but without eyes, however that worked. Even worse if she started trying to draw comparisons to the entity that touched me yesterday, and those shadow spires. It scared me how many little details felt similar between myself and that.
My eyes drifted away from her, slowly edging along wooden features with only the first hints of aging, along various touches of personalization she and I had adorned this space with in the short time we lived here together. Even now, seeing her old attempt at a self portrait, or the painting I watched her make at that art workshop that one time, or gifts from friends of hers, made me feel a little warmer. After several moments, I finally found good enough wording to answer her with.
“It was… like a strangely flat plane of murky substance coiling around Jacquir’s form, smothering and in some places affecting him, I think, though I know not why or in what way,” I slowly described. In spite of the serious topic, she started giggling.
“What, did you take all that time just to make it sound fancier?”
“I- uh, no?” I stammered, idly scratching the back of my head. “This is just how I think, in my own head.”
“Ah, well, you can be quite eloquent sometimes, babe. And, uh, sorry for the interruption, let’s get back on topic.” Her hand reached up from its work to gently slap herself back into focus. “Okay. Seems like we basically saw the same thing.”
“What was the full story?”
She proceeded to describe the events from her perspective, how she briefly glimpsed the shadow wrapped around Jacquir, how it disappeared after a short time, all that. She also clarified her efforts to figure things out without alerting him, informed by our much older suspicions towards him. Those events had been practically forgotten in the buzz of everything else that had been happening, but there was no room for forgetfulness now. We needed to figure this out.
The silence that proceeded was tense, laden with worrisome measurement of the situation and how to proceed. At least, I imagined so. For my part, though, it was more about the information I was keeping back, how I worried about how interconnected this all was… what it meant about me. Maybe it was just projection, but I also worried she was holding her words back, too.
“You can talk to me, you know.” My chest felt tighter. Not like it was a surprise she could tell what was going on.
“…Are you keeping any information held back?”
Her hands, occupied as they were in chopping up the first couple vegetables, halted briefly before resuming. I could hear her exhale softly, too. Guess that answered that. Why, though? What could it possibly be? Was it even smart to go asking about it? I probably would not like what she had to say. I did not even like what I had to say.
“Well, are you?” she returned, tone well calculated. Her hands deposited a small pile of freshly diced plants into the bowl she cleaned out, all while I thought of how to respond.
“Maybe,” I croaked out. “Maybe I’m scared of what’s been going on.”
“We’re all scared. Even the people we didn’t tell all the details to,” her voice came softly.
“Maybe I’m scared about what those details mean. About me.”
She stopped working. Her hands slowed to a halt, and with another little exhale, she set the knife down and turned towards me. I felt her presence edging around my heart for the first time this whole conversation, making herself known even if not doing anything with it. That, she saved for the physical, taking my lone hand into both of hers gently.
Lily finally spoke again. “I’ve been scared of that too, for you. None of us are going to abandon you now, certainly least of all me.”
“I’m-” my eyes averted, “I saw the way those plants grew. It looked like how I create matter, almost identical. And now, this thing with Jacquir… the timing was too close.”
Her heat pressed in against the sides of my chest, closer and closer. She was here. She wanted me to know that. Her hands, too, their fingers stroking delicately against mine. It would be so easy to just get lost in that and forget my worries, were my worries not so uniquely tenacious, so existentially threatening.
“I don’t know whether honesty is worth aggravating your fears,” she admitted. Out the corner of my eye, I could see a frown forming on her lips. “Senna… when I found you in the field after yesterday’s attack, I saw the same shadow enveloping you as we saw around Jacquir.”
My stomach turned.