Destructions 5.7

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.

S-E-E-J-A-C-Q-U-I-R

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?

N-O-T-H-I-N-G

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

L-A-T-E-R-S-A-F-E-R

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.

S-O-R-R-Y

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.

Destructions 5.6

“I come to deliver a directive,” the messenger-whore drawled out, as annoying as I always remembered. “God decrees a sibling of ours will be joining us soon. He wants you to rendezvous and deliver them North.”

“And why didn’t I get this oh-so-important directive personally?”

She said nothing. Her damn expression didn’t even change. Guess it was kinda unfair of me to expect anything more out of a tool, though, huh? Fine, that’s fine. I just had to ask questions she could give me some actual information on.

“Ahah, okay,” I sat up off the cot I’d been using, “where am I meeting the new kid?”

“This sibling of ours is an elder,” she replied. That took me aback somewhat, and not just because she actually had something to say for herself. “They will be brought to the pickup point west of Hateli.”

Now, normally, I would have been unbelievably upset at needing to go back down somewhere I’d just been not even a month ago – actually, yeah, I was still kinda pissed off at hearing that – but in this case, the idea of one of us having been cut loose for long enough to be considered an ‘elder’ was overridingly strange. With a huff and a series of stretches, I stood up from this shitty, temporary bed.

“Is there, ah… anything else you can tell me about our new sibling?” I asked, tone unusually tempered.

Her mouth stirred the slightest bit, face upturning slightly. She seemed like she wanted to say something, but it looked like that was the limit. Poor little thing just couldn’t muster much more. It was kinda pathetic to watch. Why the hell was this necessary again? Maybe she’d feel better if she wasn’t breathing anymore… but I’d get in trouble for such a mercy. Oh well.

“Fine fine fine, I really ought to let you go,” I nodded repeatedly, forcibly turning her to the door. “If you end up heading back to the Chamber anytime soon, tell the boys I’ll be heading back as soon as I can. And try not to paraphrase that.” Hah. Little bit of mean humor.

“I will accommodate your request if possib-” she tried – and failed – to acknowledge in time before I finally pushed her out the door and closed it. After a moment, I turned inward to face the room again, my back resting against the wooden portal. Couldn’t help from audibly sighing, just a bit.

What a pit this was. Being kept on call down here rather than at least up at the northern site, and just for this. If they didn’t let me head back after this… I wouldn’t do anything. Sure was meaningful to stew here and whinge about shit I couldn’t change, huh. At least I could try to convince some of the others to furnish these hidden rooms a bit better. Clean it every once in a while, maybe. Was that too much to ask? Pricks.

More importantly, receiving a messenger at all was worrying me. It wasn’t generally unusual, but totally off-protocol for my current position, right? Too easy to notice something amiss if you use a messenger here. Something must have really been occupying the Big Man if I couldn’t have just been sent the directive remotely. What could have possibly been going on out there to warrant it? Not like I’d ever hear the answer, but still.

Whatever. Fuck it. I needed to get my things together and start heading out. Scanning over the absolute dump, I soon located the little leather bag I’d brought with me, and set about repopulating it with all the shit I lugged out here. One of my waterskins got underneath the table somehow, fuck if I knew, but I almost wanted to leave it there. Those, my utterly unnecessary knife, rope and other miscellaneous things, pair of carved dice… and the one book I had. That went into the bag at least a little more gently than the others.

Guess that was all the preparation I needed. The more childish parts of my psyche wanted to kick something, but I was afraid the whole damn place would cave in on me if I tried. Out the same door I’d pushed the little girl not half an hour ago, I emerged, making note of the time of day. Oh yeah, wouldn’t kill ‘em to add in a damn window either. It was solidly afternoon now. As the entrance closed behind me, I turned just in time to see it swallowed up into the vegetation that’d been placed around it.

I was looking forward to seeing what the hell our little brain-damaged errand girl meant by ‘elder’ sibling, here. Whoever it was, if they weren’t as fucked up as usual…

The room I stepped into was filled with people. Murmuring. The looks on their faces were those of concern, and fear, and other sorts of things like that. It was… weird. Something hard to relate to. Even in someplace unfamiliar like this, I had little concern. The woman who’d guided me here, the one directing me here, spoke up again from behind me.

“The mayor’s a bit busy, as you can see, but I’m sure he’ll get to you when he can,” she said with some measure of assuring quality. “Feel free to ask if you’re in need of anything in the meantime.”

She closed the door behind her. My eyes glanced over the room and its contents, given the opportunity, and few people bothered glancing back. It looked mildly aged as a whole. A potted sundew rested on the windowsill, with a much larger adjacent vase on the wooden floor holding some sort of tall shrub. Aside from the obvious pruning, it seemed like a local species. By the windows on either side, there were benches for sitting on whilst waiting. I elected to stand opposite the mayor’s door, instead.

Every once in a while, a woman would open that door and call out a name, or perhaps a pair of names, or perhaps a title here or there. Kelman. Tradesman representatives. This or that. It filtered down into the background, almost taking on a comfortable feeling. A couple times after I’d taken my spot by the wall, another person would be lead into the waiting room, though it was more infrequent than those leaving the mayor’s office. I wondered if they were keeping track of who was in here first. Needing to wait wouldn’t annoy me.

Seeing a man open the door this time, rather than the same woman as before, drew me to full attention. He had a long, heavy-stitched jacket on, and dressed in drab colors. I didn’t recognize his face, but figured it had to be Mayor Hektor. I cracked a little smile at that. His mannerisms were about as foreign to what I knew as the rest of these people’s. Not a hair out of place. Something about that felt cool.

“We have a negotiator from Nothli here?” he asked aloud, eyes meeting mine only briefly. That was my cue. I raised my hand meekly, declining to say anything, and the mayor nodded, gesturing me to step through the door. I pushed off my resting place against the wall and came forward. Having been ushered inside, the mayor closed the door behind me gingerly.

Another couple doors met my eyes first, directly across from where I entered and both adjacent to the far corner of the room. On the left wall was a pair of large windows, which the mayor quickly began shutting. A crude wooden desk and a pair of couches filled much of the remaining space, with bookshelves and more potted plants taking up the rest. It was a rather visually busy room.

“Well, take a seat,” he insisted. “You’ve traveled far, right?”

I sat, as instructed, on one of the available couches. “The journey from here to our northern enclaves is not an objectively great distance.”

As if to purposefully shatter all pretenses of past characterization, the mayor did a little hop and sat himself down on the edge of the desk, crossing his legs in the process. Next, that unfamiliar face was replaced with one I knew. It seemed a little jarring, having Hektor’s appearance mold itself into something else while the body remained. This face was sharp, androgynous, playful. Long brown tresses spilled off their shoulders and down the folds of that plain coat. I liked seeing this look better.

“It was just a courtesy,” they finally responded after getting comfortable with themself again. “Do you need to take it that literally?”

“…How else would I take it?” I tilted my head slightly.

They shook their head. “Nevermind. Am I being recalled?”

“Soon, yes. We are to engineer a situation to cover for this, so as to not invite any unnecessary suspicion. I was also told to congratulate you on an excellent performance the past couple months.”

“Were you informed on the reason for my being recalled? Keeping an agent in a leadership position like this seems advantageous,” they pointed out.

“Yes. Seyasta has been deemed to no longer represent a strategic interest for us,” I promptly explained. “Developments across the sea are requiring additional attention, furthermore.”

“More than whatever that second sun was?”

“We are unconcerned with it at present. I have no further details.”

They laughed. “No one around here’s that carefree about it, that’s for sure. Not gonna miss having to deal with a perpetually terrified populace like this. That’s fine, though. I’m more interested in what we’ll be doing about this ‘engineered situation’ you mentioned.”

“I was given instructions. Allow me to relay them.”

“Please just- I don’t know, take the day off,” I sighed, exasperated and exhausted at something, even if not Nikki. “I’ll handle things for now.”

Her frown didn’t disappear as she looked me over with… I guess it was concern. We were never that close, but we’d worked together for a long time. That’s enough time to develop concern in my book. After a couple seconds, Nikki put her bookmark in its place and stood up, stretching almost to the point that it looked painful. Was she always that stretchy?

“If you’re sure. I think I’ll check in with my folks an’ uncle early. They’re, uh… still kinda shaken up.”

I nodded. “Good to go be with them then.”

“Gotta help take care of Andri too. I think he’s starting to get used to us.”

“Mm.”

The last look she gave me before exiting the room called to mind my own parents, likely intentionally. It was the sort of look that asked ‘why don’t you spend time with yours then?’ but was also happy to be given the opportunity to escape… or something along those lines. Or I could have been full of shit. Who knows.

Her wooden seat was about as warm as expected, and not the comfiest thing to exist. It was, at least, adequately padded; I couldn’t imagine how someone could sit here seven days a week with anything worse. Light fell from the open window behind me, landing brilliantly on the desk and the transmission device it hosted. Little motes of dust were visible in the air now. With a drawn-out sigh, I placed my elbows unceremoniously on the desktop, face soon held in my hands.

At least I was alone for a bit. Another upside to insisting on handling this personally. Hardly got a wink of sleep last night, dear gods I might just fall into a nap right here. No one knocking to ask about the situation or whether they were safe in their own homes, whether we were going to stay put or leave again, whether inviting the refugees was a mistake. I wasn’t supposed to be dealing with any of this anymore.

A couple seconds of trying to compose myself later, I picked my head up out of my hands, staring at the intricate network of sigils and metal strips I’d be operating. Who to contact first? Had to imagine everyone noticed the huge increase in light levels there. Since there was the matter of the fast-moving clouds, maybe I was supposed to explain things to the communities in that path first, then the next biggest group… the Ophentum and Celdan survivors?

With that in mind, I reached out and hit the central activation sigil, muttering the command word as my fingers came into contact with the sun-heated alloy. A nearly imperceptible hum accompanied the activity light, letting me know it was good to go. Next was targeting. I dragged over the notebook from its place halfway across the desk, turning it open to find an enormous list of settlements and numbers, all scrawled in a slightly unprofessional script. Tiecas was there, too, along with a hell of a lot of other empty places.

The entire Aldean region was totally defunct, as far as I knew. Tiecas, of course… Koreli and Tama too, if we’re talking about our very own region. A list like this was totally incapable of encompassing all the minor villages I’d heard were rendered empty over in Faenon, though. Most of them had no way of contacting us over here. However, other people’s lack of transmission equipment wasn’t really relevant right now. We had Fria and a couple others still active in the likely path of that storm.

Fria, contact number 233. Popping off a small latch on the exterior, I proceeded to slide out a tray with several strips of metal organized ‘upwards’ off triplicate numerical ideograms. I slid my fingers across each in turn, changing them off their previous settings with the proper commands before slotting the tray back in and locking it in place.

“Fria Contact, this is the Hatelite community. Please respond.”

After speaking that into the receiver, I stood up from my seat. Where the hell were the transcriptions? As I shuffled through several stacks of well-used note paper, Fria’s operator got back to me, making the search for something to use more frantic. Thankfully I wasn’t under much obligation to be quick about my responses, but it was annoying. Once I’d acquired what I needed – under a pair of leather-bound volumes that should have been filed away already – I sat back down.

“‘Fria Contact’,” I began muttering to myself, transcribing my own initial message and the approximate time I sent it before doing the same for their response. Once that was completed, dialogue could start happening more quickly. Unfortunately, that dialogue was the hard part. Comparatively.

After confirming their sighting of the unusual storm system and its movement, as well as worries over the temporary second sun, I proceeded to detail the events that transpired the other day. I spoke slowly, not just to allow the operator on the other end to record things properly, but also out of a bit of… what was that, amusement? It didn’t sound real when I said any of this. And now here we were with a thriving, totally non-native ecosystem set up all around us. If they didn’t believe it, maybe I’d just invite them over to see the damn fields.

Our conversation ended with their appreciation at having been given the information, as well as offers of aid if we so needed it. Then, cut. I slumped backwards, not looking forward to having to repeat that performance however many times. In any case, that was over, and I had a moment to spare sorting these damn papers and binders a bit. Didn’t need to repeat myself quite yet.

It was telling enough as I was trying to find some usable paper, but Nikki honestly needed to be sat down and lectured on orderliness. Wasn’t even my responsibility to do that, or this, but I still found myself putting things away for her. My fingers lingered on the spine of one such binder, having just slid it into a vacant space on the shelf. I wondered if Lily would say I was stalling unconsciously or something.

That was enough of that. Nikki had to do this on her own, and I needed to do what I actually came here for. Having slapped some sense into myself, I sat down and entered in the next contact number, pen at the ready. It was a little nostalgic, going at it again like this so many times in a row. Felt like it’d already been years now since I had compulsory transmission duty. Focusing on those old memories rather than the actual task at hand helped a bit.

If there was one thing to be thankful for, with respect to the lack of population, it was that I didn’t have too many to deal with before I was done. Just a small handful between Karrian and here, and given the oddities we’d all been subjected to in recent history, no one was expressly doubtful of the events I relayed. Scared as hell, though? Yeah. Who wasn’t. I made sure to add on each time that we were conducting some analysis of the new plant tissues, at least. Maybe we’d be contacting people again soon with some interesting news, if things panned out.

Next up was our next highest priority, huh. Contact 505. It had sorta grown past my previous associations with it recently, what with the Celdan refugees temporarily using the number. Supposedly they were gonna head back and retrieve their previous setup soon, so maybe I’d inquire in that direction as well, given the opportunity. Getting out a fresh sheet, I began.

“Ophentum Contact, this is the Hatelite community. Please respond.”

7 seconds later or so, I got my response. I’d barely finished the last stroke, so whoever they had was quite vigilant. I liked that professionalism.

“Message received, Hateli,” a young man’s voice uttered from the device’s output. “Good timing. We just finished our communication with Seyasta. Go ahead.”

“What was the nature of your prior communication? Related to yesterday’s events?”

“Affirmative. Since you contacted us first, might we ask what Hateli’s status is, and whether you have any further information on the incident?” he asked smoothly. We’d both likely had some practice under our belts today.

I almost wanted to preface my words with ‘You’re not gonna believe this’ or something, but I restrained myself. The others believed it just fine, after further explanation. With an unfortunately audible sigh, I launched into my well-honed summary of the bizarreness of yesterday – the Aichleini’s attack, the stormcloud creature several people including Senna described, the weird pillars, and then the abrupt appearance of new plantlife to replace what was burned away. As usual, I left out any details on Senna herself.

“…That is a lot to take in,” I heard the man chuckle, breaking out of his professional character entirely. “Holy shit. We were in an uproar over here at the mere possibility of Yleinic soldiers returning. Thankfully, we’re just having to treat some people for heat exposure, deal with some ruined gardens, things of that sort.”

“Similar situation over here, all things considered. Good to hear nothing too earthshaking is going on. Oh, and what about the Celdan refugees? Were they still going to retrieve and set up their old equipment at the Ophentum camp?” I asked before forgetting.

“Last I heard, repairs for it were underway. Not sure what damaged it.” He’d apparently returned to his business voice. “As for nothing earthshaking, well… that’s not exactly true.”

That got my attention. “What do you mean?”

“All Ophentum currently engaged in missions have been ordered to pull back,” he explained. “Part of that was due to the possibility of invasion, which I’m sure the higher-ups will still be worried about now that having Surgriel around is proven not to deter them enough. The other part was about a certain… internal problem.”

“Sounds like your leader’s probably too embroiled in all this to get in contact with me ‘til later?” I put forward, secondarily disappointed and primarily concerned at what could possibly going wrong over there.

“That is the internal problem. Aysa’s vanished.”

“Right there is fine,” Krishov said, gesturing to an open space adjacent to one of the large rows of tables. I was forced to set it down unceremoniously, the crate I had hauled over here touching down onto the treated wood floors of the laboratory with a loud thud. It was hard to be as gentle as I should have been with it, with only one arm.

Krishov’s attention hardly even budged at the noise. He looked like he wanted to reacquaint himself with his old equipment, so I took the liberty of removing the crate’s lid and putting our first specimens in easy reach for later. He gave me brief thanks for the courtesy, though asking me to move them over a little so he could set things up completely unimpeded. Of course, I obliged that.

Now, with that out of the way, where had Lily gone? I thought she wanted to be here for this. That was why she tagged along with us, after all. Making sure that Krishov needed no further assistance at the moment, I went to explore deeper into the building, figuring that she had simply wandered off somewhere while I was not looking. At least, I hoped that was the case. If she went outside somewhere then I was about to miss her entirely.

I could definitely see why Krishov wanted to come back here for testing rather than try to make due out there, at least. This room, the second one we stepped into after the foyer, was stocked to the brim with devices and supplies to use with them, and I imagined the storage rooms further in held even more. Every manner of scientific process that I knew of could be handled in here, I figured, along with a multitude I did not know of. Thankfully, none of it seemed worse for the wear, after having spent all this time lying abandoned.

Passing through a door on the far wall, I came into something of a hallway, stretching both to my left and my right a good distance and with numerous doors beckoning me along the way. In contrast to the more sterile and protective materials of the lab itself, these walls were decorated with the same wood paneling that I remember Lily’s manor having been. Warm, unchanging yellow lights pressed their interpretations onto the scene. Either these had been left on this entire time, or Lily had passed through here and lit them.

Come to think of it, not all the lights actually seemed to be active, judging by the distorted glass windows in each door. One, however, blatantly was. Turning right, I passed by a couple darkened rooms before landing myself in front of the one seemingly in use. I was… somewhat unsure of what to expect, other than Lily being there. Maybe she wanted to be alone. Was this the sort of thing to intrude on? I hedged by knocking rather than simply barging in.

“Come in,” invited a muted voice. The exact sentiment in her tone was hard to decipher, so for the moment, I did not try.

Opening the door, I stepped into some sort of office, and a decently sized one at that. A large, artisanal wooden desk dominated the interior, strewn with haphazardly abandoned papers, books, and binders, with a pen and ink well to the right-hand side. Along the left wall was a row of bookshelves all filled to the brim with what at a glance appeared to be academic materials. A large window set against the back wall would normally have allowed for natural sunlight to shine in, but the lateness of the day necessitated otherwise.

And there stood Lily, her thigh pressed against the front edge of the desk, finger tracing lines in the dust that had accumulated on it. Entering had not drawn her gaze away from the object. What little I could see of her facial expression did not help much in determining her actual mood, but at least she was okay with company. I took a tentative step closer, and she finally looked at me, warmth and wistfulness both at play.

“I brought Dad so many meals here,” she laughed gently, eyes straying again to the abandoned seat. “Every time he was too engrossed in something to come home. It was never when he had actual business to do in his office, though. I just made sure he had the good sense not to eat in the lab.”

“I remember you mentioning that at some point.” A pause. My eyes wandered over the desk surface. “What sort of things did you make for him?”

Lily liked going into detail about her cooking. It was probably nostalgic for her, here. Talking about her old favorites, how she has improved them, how her father always said they were they best he ever tasted one way or another, all of it. It was nice to get engrossed in, for both of us. After several minutes, we both seemed to find ourselves in close contact with each other, arms wrapped tightly against the other’s body as we sat on a pair of adjacent chairs across from the desk.

“This sorta makes me curious,” she said out of the blue.

“About what?”

“You don’t like eating now, but what about when you were younger? Was it just always gross for you, or…?”

“Mmm…” I pondered for a moment. “It was more that it became gross as I increasingly avoided it, since I realized I had no need for food.”

Her smile just grew, head tilting to lean against mine. “Kinda sucks for me. I’d love to be showing off all the cool recipes I know.”

“Sorry,” I sighed, more in contentment than anything.

The silence stretched on from that point. It was not awkward. No, very much a simple, pleasant expression of our comfort. Silence was well enough, as was a moderate amount of noise. Quiet times sometimes let slip a low, phantom pain in my missing arm, something so minute now that I wondered if it was even healing at all, or if this was just the new default for me. To be honest, the latter concept was somewhat frightening. It was bad enough to sustain a wound in the first place, but worse yet to, for the first time in my life, have to live with one.

It was good that we still could find moments like this, though. The world was so exhausting. If we had to continue sustaining ourselves against the Aichleini, even if we never outright lost, I was unsure whether I could keep up. And about these new factors threatening to reveal themselves… I really just wished we could stay like this instead. Lily’s breathing, soft and rhythmic, was all I wanted to hear right now.

“Girls!” came Krishov’s distant voice, muffled through the walls as it were. So much for not hearing anything else. He must have stuck his head out into the hall and called for us. That got the both of us to our feet, with Lily taking her time stretching out cutely before joining me by the exit. Opening the door and peeking our heads out revealed an excited Krishov waving us over, saying, “It’s all set up! C’mon, we need to get back with these findings before it gets too late.”

No arguing with that. Our own footsteps laced with enthusiasm, the two of us headed back to the lab. I was fairly interested to see what this sort of procedure looked like, since I never had the opportunity to witness such things before. Not like I had never encountered any alchemical projects in all the years I had wandered around, but this was… I guess official? Official science-doing at work. How eloquent.

As we rejoined Lily’s father, my eyes took quick stock of the changes in the room. Most unnecessary apparatuses and materials were gathered and pushed out of the way to make space for what we needed to do. On the large central table rested two identical assemblies composed of thin ceramic plates; each assembly had a primary operating sigil – zinc or some such, I believed? – with a variety of additional ideographical components wiring it to what seemed to be an upright, transparent object. Like a mirror that had been made non-reflective?

“Alright, so as we can see here,” Krishov began, sounding dangerously academic already, “the sigil of Mailos is available to start the operation. We have our, uh, transitive metals and the actionables here, the viewer, a couple biological textbooks we lifted from the local library, and of course our specimens.” As he listed the objects, he gestured to each in turn, more or less confirming what little I already knew about the assembly.

“Are the diagrams gonna be enough to really know if something weird’s changed in these?” Lily asked with mild skepticism. “No two plants have the exact same internal structures. I mean, not like I have to lecture you, I’m just curious.”

As he picked up and placed a stalk of vibrant grass onto one of the sigils, he replied, “Well, the hypothesis is that since we can use this method to pick up on alchemical alterations in cell structure, we can probably see if these are totally natural or not. It just falls apart if something did alter these, but in a more subtle manner than our modern techniques can discern. So, you know. May as well,” the man shrugged almost comically.

“So ostensibly, the changes are more pronounced than mere genetic variance,” I chimed in, hoping I sounded less than totally uneducated.

“Pretty much.”

Krishov began the process by placing one finger at the highest point of the first sigil, the one hosting the specimen taken from far enough away from the community that it was guaranteed to be natural aside from Belenese engineering. That made it a useful gauge. As he traced part of the design, a mild thrum of power hinted at the assembly’s activation, proceeded almost immediately by a bizarre-looking image manifesting on the viewer.

His other hand immediately leapt to a secondary cluster of ideograms – the ‘actionables’? – and deftly began maneuvering the perspective being shown. He then resumed his scholarly tone, saying, “Here we’ve got a few variables for X, Y, and Z axis coordinates, as well as our magnification level and orientation. Now keep in mind that this setup just converts the data it reads into a light-map for us to view, so it’s technically not real, but it works just fine for what we need.”

Something told me I would really enjoy being taught whatever the hell was up with these forms of alchemy. More importantly, though, Lily had picked up one of the diagram textbooks and selected the proper species, as I, glancing over her shoulder, could easily see the resemblance to what was on the viewer. There was even something like a ‘before & after’, detailing the common alchemical enhancements used for this species.

From what I could tell, this seemed like a textbook case- hah, textbook. A, uh, perfect example of an altered species of grain as documented previously. Krishov was satisfied that nothing had messed with specimens this far away from the community, and that the assembly was functioning perfectly. Keeping that image up, the three of us shifted over to its identical twin, with the stalk of recently manifested grass laid squarely across it.

Repeating the process, we soon came to be looking at a wildly different image than last time. Lily was tasked with finding the closest match, starting with the known grasses, and it took longer than I would have liked. Krishov, meanwhile, was taking interest in several pieces of the specimen’s cellular structure, commenting on unusual elements that still avoided the appearance of artifice.

“Yeah, I give up,” Lily huffed, lightly tossing the closed book onto a nearby surface. “It doesn’t look like any species native to Palateca, altered or otherwise. What the hell is this?”

“It’s marvelous is what it is,” her father retorted. “Look at that weird pseudo-symmetry. I’d really like to conduct some longer-term studies on the differences in how this thing is structured and how that affects the production of proteins and lipids. I mean, I just have some suspicions at this point, but it could be worth following up on.”

“Suspicions?”

“It would take too long to go into detail on what I’m curious about, even for me,” he laughed in response.

So these things definitely had strange structures, even if not properties… I kept thinking back to when they first appeared, all those plants bursting out of the ground and branching out from formless black into true matter. If they looked at my body with this viewer, would they see the same weird structuring? That should have been the sort of thing I would need to go out of my way to do, but I could not help but doubt it a bit.

Should I be bringing up what I saw? Say that they should look at me too? What would we even do, assuming I was somehow the same? I could think of nothing that would change, except there would be even less reason to continue trusting me and letting me live here peacefully. My throat felt tight. No way. Nothing good would come of it.

“Well,” I spoke up again, “this seems too inconvenient to worry about, while we still all live out in the fields.”

His enthusiasm dampened a bit. “Ah, uh, yeah, you’re probably right. There are other things more important to deal with right now anyways. But, soon, hopefully.”

“Well, right now, we just need to compile all this stuff and head back,” Lily pointed out, taking up some of the sketch paper we brought along. “We don’t wanna keep ‘em waiting on this too much longer.”

The door shut behind us with a nice sense of finality. Whatever had been bothering Senna earlier had more or less gone away, so I figured it wasn’t anything too important. The way she carried that crate was as precarious as ever, but at least she had good balance; loading things back up into the back compartments went effortlessly. Once that was done, it really was time to head back and abandon all of this again. I sorta wondered if we’d ever come back here to stay.

With Dad taking the driver’s seat, Senna and I squeezed ourselves in the passenger compartment in the back, mentally cursing these utilitarian designs for their lack of comfort. Or, wait, that was just me, huh? Senna could probably ignore it. In any case, this was a good haul, letting Dad bring back a few extras he didn’t have the ability to previously. More stuff to let him follow up on today’s thread without the full lab.

Really spoke to the importance of figuring this out, though, that we came out here at all, had a group of people waiting back home for the results. That it was even worth tying up one of our two remaining vehicles to get it done in a reasonable time frame, too. To be honest, it sorta got me scared every time we hopped into one of these things, since I really didn’t wanna be the one to wreck it and have us lose the use of one for an unforeseeable amount of time.

Deakri hadn’t even come back to town yet. Still off teaching his apprentices elsewhere or something. It was important, sure, since we distributed as many of the damn things as we could spare, but you’d think he woulda started here, right? Petra wasn’t fully qualified, last I checked. Brilliant girl, but she just couldn’t handle everything at once, so of course I was still gonna be concerned.

That whole train of thought filled the time idly spent as our vehicle pulled out onto Hateli’s desolate streets. Riding through it all, empty and forlorn as it was now, made me miss the times when it was packed with people. When we lived here, and the worst we had to worry about was how to handle Senna’s issues. Well, hey, looking on the bright side, it was a natural way to end up moving in with her and out of Dad’s place, right?

We made the trip out the perpetually open gates in record time, on account of the obvious lack of traffic. From there, the community was immediately visible in the near distance. I mean, it always had been, but now in no small part thanks to the huge, verdant eyesore clustered around it. We’d already made some good progress on clearing a number of paths through the vegetation, and now, as we approached, we began pulling into the largest of them.

Breaking through the ocean of grass into the untouched village itself, we were greeted with several friendly faces, and- oh, hey, that was Ophi’s kid! I pointed him out to Senna, who gave a genuine little smile at the sight of a bunch of kids prancing around. Felt like a near miracle that, no matter how much bullshit we went through, people could keep on working and playing like they always did.

There wasn’t any time for us to go off and have similar amounts of fun, though. And, like, everyone we would do that with was probably off waiting for us anyways, so there was that. As soon as Dad parked the vehicle off to the side of our destination – a secondary storage shed we’d repurposed into being an assembly hall of sorts – the three of filed out and stretched. We’d already agreed to save hauling out most of the stuff we’d brought back ‘til after the meeting, so once I’d scooped up the sketches we had immediate use for, we all made for the entrance.

As Senna slid open the doors to allow us passage, late afternoon light filtered in, mingling with the illumination of our hastily installed artificial sources. Several old couches were aligned with each other in the middle around a central table. My eyes met those of the group gathered within, after that brief examination. Elva and the other members of the old town watch were all there, as was Petra and a handful of elders or experienced tradespeople. With Dad arriving with us, more or less everyone who constituted any sort of authority was now here.

“We were getting worried,” Lucretia shot me a quick, friendly smirk. “Anything hold you up, over there?”

Before I could even tell her to shush, my father replied, “Well, we did bring along quite a number of specimens, for thoroughness’ sake. Sorry for the delays, everyone.”

Just as we were about to start seating ourselves with the others, I guess I unconsciously blinked, and then something changed, suddenly standing out to me. My eyes darted up at it in an instinctual rush, landing squarely on Jacquir. Why was he shrouded in the same ephemeral shadows I’d been seeing around Senna?