Same as it always did, the entrance to my private chambers opened nearly noiselessly, and I stepped within. Another long day of playing pretend was finally over with. Now I had more exciting things to contemplate than the analysis of Gatework data or the debates over whether my trivial designs got Nykorosk killed inadvertently. Of course, his failure to deal with his opponent quickly enough was no fault of mine, and he was the one who requested those weapons in the first place.
Enough of that. Why act like it bothered me? More bothering were the attendants dutifully rushing to my side, now that I’d returned. I was hardly in the mood for company at the moment. A brief mental gesture removed both their memory of my arrival and their continued awareness at my presence. I then troubled myself to reverse their footsteps ‘til the moment before either heard me come in.
I was blissfully alone again. As if the relief itself had coalesced and flowed off my skin, light began warping near me, spreading out until the room itself was twisting to better suit my whims. The simple act of sitting in my favorite chair prompted it to morph into a throne more suitable for myself. Even as the chamber shifted from its former, smoother, more brightly lit designs to a dark, more fantastical setting, I took the time to set up a glamor around it all. Oh, the lengths I go to just to save myself from a slight inconvenience.
Faint eddies of will brushed up against me at my next realization, that I myself was yet untouched, and my clothing responded by spiraling outwards. The relatively humble white robe and accessories I’d been wearing had disappeared, replaced with something far more extravagant and queenly. Its collar was fur-lined, white and pristine, and the redness of blood spilled out over the rest of my body.
None but the highest fantasy conjured such an image as I had just weaved for myself. I reveled in it. Typical Yleinic architecture and interior design felt so sterile in comparison. Maybe what I’d just replaced it with was a little tacky, but one cannot be expected to go through the effort of more unique imaginings every day, right? Now, certainly, if I had my darling Gheira as a guest, I’d have put more effort into the specifics.
T’was not to be, unfortunately. She was still handling her own affairs, though with admittedly less stress and a much more… upbeat outlook, shall we say? As much as I would have liked to claim that to be my doing, it was more her natural state. I just gave her the assurance needed to bring her back.
The others were not doing nearly so well lately. By her own words, Tyronus was still inconsolable, being left to his solitude for the time being in favor of other matters. Not only were we all scrambling to figure out our next course of action and the levels of risk involved in either dealing with the newly realized threat or staying put, but we had a funerary procession to look forward to soon. I was considering just sending a simulacrum to it.
Then there was the matter of Tyronus’ gift. Thanks to my meddlings, there had been mutterings of his unreliability amongst a number of the Aichleini. Ounirok even approached me the other day to bring my attention to the problem. That amused me at the time. I still hadn’t decided what I was going to do about that, and frankly, it wasn’t something I even cared much about to begin with. Was that bad? Should I have felt bad for potentially ruining him?
My cheek slowly came to rest against the palm of my hand. No point in mulling over any of that, especially not now. There were thoughts far more engaging to me that I’d originally intended to focus on. This briefest return pulled against my eyes an image of those two things which had so dearly captured my attention recently: the little kitten, yet to grow up, and the predator who had recently contacted her.
I had my suspicions, going into it, but the scene ended far too quickly, and I was still left with too little information to really work off of. Only she and I as data points. Looking back into her history made it clear that the predator had a direct hand in making her. Already, a difference between us, a difference I had no idea how to interpret. Was I misreading the situation?
Figuring out all the similarities between us and what they actually meant felt like it would be arduous. It necessitated that I continue watching her. More vexingly, having her fail along the way wouldn’t prove anything, one way or another. Should I interfere further? How much could I afford to? Corrupting my only chance to learn more about what’s going on here would be a relative disaster.
I needed a way to plan this out more properly. Still didn’t feel comfortable distorting the world so flagrantly, regardless of the fact that I could. Hm… perhaps Tyronus’ ill fortune presented an opportunity for me.
“You really don’t have to-” Mom began, her voice faltering as I looked up at her, “-to do this, you know. There’ll be plenty of opportunities for you even if you stay.” Dad was still quiet. I’d pretty much finished fastening my borrowed leather boots by now, but inertia kept me sitting down even while I wanted to be going.
“Look, you know I’ve been looking forward to this-”
“Yes, yes, I know, but I don’t want you to get hurt out there! This isn’t some sort of game, Hoda!”
And there it was. A game. Like that’s all my dreams ever were. Like I could be happy just rotting in a town like this rather than going out and taking steps to the future I really wanted. Maybe the Mayor’s plans would result in some opportunities cropping up around here, but I wanted to be there to actually see it. I wanted to help make it happen.
No one was talking anymore, and I didn’t bother offering up any defense this time. She’d heard it all before. She just didn’t care. Taking up and slinging across my back the bag of supplies I’d assembled over the past few days, I walked over to the door of the one house I’d known my entire life. That was… a pretty sad thought. Maybe I shouldn’t leave it like this.
Turning back to the two of them, expression unknown even to me, I gave them both a somber little, “I’ll be back before you know it. Promise,” before exiting.
I really hoped I wouldn’t end up making her cry. I hoped, but at the same time, it wasn’t gonna stop me either way. I had my mind made up. After all this time, all these days of waiting and preparing and being excited for once in my life, we were finally meant to set out for the Ophentum encampment today. I’d be traveling with the real deal. It was still sorta unbelievable.
Honestly, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect if I’d planned it, I mused whilst traversing the muddy, well-beaten path from our family dwelling to the main road leading into Seyasta. The other townsfolk were starting to actually take me seriously more and more – I mean, how else could I have even landed myself a spot in the group? – and that was forcing my Mom to restrain herself at least a bit. It was like everything lined up to give me this.
Gods willing, this would be my ‘in’. As far as I knew, the Ophentum didn’t exactly require a sponsorship to join, but actually making it somewhere rather than being relegated to the grunt ranks forever? I didn’t wanna take my chances. Proving myself here would be key, and I’d already spent the past few days preparing myself to give 110% for the entire journey. I could do this, I could.
Marching my way through the outskirts of the town gave me plenty of time to get lost in my own thoughts, but now that I was getting close, I had to stay focused. Turning the bend past Mr. Iwan’s shop brought the haphazard arrangement I’d been looking for squarely into view. Tents and other shelters from the wind and rain occupied nearly all the free space here, along with a row of half-stocked hand carts.
Looked like I was on time… more or less. Would have been nice to have made it just before anyone started, but that simply meant I needed to up the effort. Slipping in amongst the various Ophentum members and locals, I scanned for the presiding officer, dutifully waiting for a moment of his attention once I got near. He seemed to be finishing off a bit of paperwork of some sort?
After signing and handing off a small stack of the material to an older woman who proceeded to step away, his attention turned to me. My posture instinctually tightened under said scrutiny. Still wasn’t exactly sure how much I needed to work to gain the man’s approval, but at least this much shouldn’t hurt.
“Ah, your name was,” he snapped his fingers, “Hestrian, right?”
“My family name, yes sir.”
“I take it you’ve memorized the formations and shifts we’ll be using on this trip?”
I nodded swiftly. “Yes, sir. I’ll perform them to the best of my ability.”
“Good kid. You’ll make your parents proud. Now,” he moved around the makeshift desk he’d been using, “I’d like you to go help load up the carts. Every crate marked with red cloth is slated to be taken along. Once that’s done, find the quartermaster and get suited up. We have to be prepared for encounters with monsters at any and all times.”
Again, I nodded in response. This was no news to me. Keeping the Mayor’s convoy safe was just one expression of the greater purpose of keeping the Faenon region safe from such creatures. That’s another thing Mom never understood, that I wanted to accept the risk of it. I… I couldn’t even imagine letting them get close to her. Upsetting her to keep our family just a little bit safer made plenty of sense to me.
As the officer passed me by, he placed a hand gently on my shoulder and said, “We can talk about more formal enlistment once we’re there.”
And then I was alone, relatively speaking. Alone in a crowd? The excitement of the assignment ahead of me faded into the background as I got to the work he instructed. A few familiar faces gave me comment as I worked with them, and a couple members asked if I was joining up. Making small talk was given just as much energy and vivaciousness from me as the task of loading these crates was.
More and more minutes past, and the hand carts we’d set aside for the trip steadily filled to their capacity. Had to admit I was a little worried about how long I’d be able to pull one of these, but it couldn’t be too bad. The schedule I memorized had very fair shifts. Once this was all complete, a loud voice called through the air instructing us to see to our equipment needs next.
Luckily for me, I’d already spoken ahead of time with one and arranged to borrow the boots specifically, so I was already wearing them. That meant I could skip needing to change footwear now. After a brief word with the closest quartermaster, I was greeted with the sight of my treated armor, ready and waiting for me. We made sure I had something decently fitted beforehand, too, so getting into it wasn’t that bad a hassle.
The last thing I obtained was a very familiar weapon: a shortsword that’d kept me company over several late nights of ill-fated practicing. Just as I placed it in its sheath, another voice addressed us, pulling our attentions to the front of the train. Mayor Hektor had taken to the back of one of the carts and stood on it to… make a speech, I guess?
“I’m glad to see everyone hard at work once again, and so early too,” the Mayor began, gesturing to the audience in his own particular fashion as those of us who’d already finished began making our way over. “You all have my deepest appreciations for making this possible, especially our friends in the Ophentum who will be making this trip for at least the second time now. Our hopes for a stable and bright future rest in our ability to come to an agreement which benefits both us here in Seyasta and those in the recently christened New Celdan. Once you are all suited up, let’s be setting off!”
A minor round of applause formed our response to his words, which was warranted I supposed. After all, he wasn’t nearly as long-winded as we all knew he could be. Hah, got myself chuckling at my own little joke there. Seemed like I was still in a pretty alright mood. Said mood continued unabated as the increasingly-high numbers of ready individuals began assuming the formation we’d be taking along the trip.
To start with, I’d be on the right-middle flank. My shift on Cart #4 would be a few hours from afternoon to dusk, today. I made sure to keep these details somewhere in mind the entire time, though thankfully we’d be having changes in shifts announced each time, so I wouldn’t have to be overly vigilant about that. Just about the wilderness on my side of things.
Time over the next few days passed by somewhat quickly, at least for me. Switching between keeping watch and hauling supplies along the well-beaten dirt roads of the countryside would have kept me plenty busy on their own, but that wasn’t even the half of it. At least not by any measure other than raw time spent.
Stopping to hunt some game or gather from a particularly late-blooming crop of wild fruits and berries – shoring up our food supplies, in other words – meant that I had even more things to watch out for. Learning as much as I could from the veterans in the process was also a given, as was forming bonds with my current comrades. I basically never ran out of something I needed or wanted to do.
More than that, it was such a beautiful trip too. I never imagined the varieties of lush glades and tangled growths that could form inland, away from the harsher coastal soil and the constant smell of salt in the air. As much as I was always an adventurous kid, I’d never strayed enough from home to run into shifts in the plants themselves.
Tonight was looking to be a night like any other, especially since I’d gotten used to the routine of setting camp each night, how each of us fulfilled our roles for it. At the same time, though, something felt a little… off? The air was chill, quiet, almost fragile somehow as we stopped in a suitable clearing to the side of the road. Shouted orders for arranging carts and positioning tents felt just a tiny bit further away than they should have been.
Maybe I was just starting to get homesick or something. No one else seemed to be ill-at-ease tonight, and I shouldn’t let it stop me. My role took precedence anyways. While a couple of the guys closest to me in the formation had already started wandering off to find dry underbrush to use for the campfires. I busied myself by unpacking the tents and getting them set up for our micro-unit.
“Need some help, Hoda?” one of my recently acquainted friends, a guy named Laigo, asked as he approached.
“Sure,” came my reply, “you can finish this one off. I’m gonna get stuff for our dinner out, I guess.”
“You handling that this time?”
“Yeah, I think I’m pretty decent at it. I haven’t had a turn yet, either, so it’s just fair,” I reasoned.
As always, there were enough things to take care of that both of us had our hands full. Similar efforts were underway along the rest of the train, with a small handful taking up their guard posts. By the time things were looking serviceable on our end, with an appropriate number of tents and such set up, the others started to return. Numerous flames soon began burning away in the nightfallen clearing.
As promised, I was the one to handle the meal this time. Everyone was pretty eager to get fed and start cycling through our night shifts. I believed I was first in line to rest, and my shift would be… well, I’d be woken up for it, anyways. You’d think I’d have been more trepidatious about standing watch at night in supposedly monster-infested woods, but the past few days had soothed my nerves of any of that.
At first, things seemed to indeed be going identically to the last few nights, save for my role as a cook this time. Something still seemed to be nagging at me, though, and I wasn’t the only one. As time passed, the strain of conversation and long stretches of silence became more apparent. Was it some sort of random awkwardness, or the same strangeness I’d picked up on before?
“Yo, uh,” one of the ladies suddenly spoke up, twisting her neck to better view the forest around us, “I didn’t really think anything of it earlier, but did anyone actually see or hear any animals while we were gathering firewood and shit?”
“I heard a crow,” the man next to me – Geirit, I think? – noted plainly.
“It just seemed really damn quiet out there.”
A couple other voices around the campfire chimed in to express agreement, which prompted me to do the same. Discussion quickly petered out, however, likely due to the fact that there wasn’t much to do about it. That and… I think we were all listening. Not much could be heard aside from speech from the other groups. It honestly sapped a lot of the creepiness out of what might have just been a self-inflicted fear. There probably wasn’t more to it than-
A scream rang out through the air. What the fuck was that, someone just screamed? Everyone’s eyes darted between each other in shocked confirmation of the noise, a distraction only momentarily maintained before we all, in unison, scooped up our equipment and moved towards the source of the disturbance. It felt like my heart was about to explode.
Other groups were moving in the same direction as well, and we all converged on a single campfire. Things seemed… quiet, again. Empty. If there was a monster here, I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see much, with the other members blocking my view, but there were obviously corpses over there. Watching the blood gently pool from a source just out of sight sent me even more on edge.
Given the lack of visible threat, Laigo rushed forward and shouted at one of the two apparent survivors to explain what happened. A couple others took to circling around the adjacent cart, scanning the surroundings for anything unusual, and yet another moved to kneel down next to the bodies.
The woman who screamed was little help. She was clutching her sword, eyes darting about manically as she insisted that she didn’t know what happened. Our other witness was also obviously shaken, but not quite to the same extent. Laigo was still trying in vain to get something useful out of the two of them anyways.
My eyes stayed clear of the corpses even as I tried to mentally work through this scenario. Just seeing that much made my stomach twist, but I knew better than to show weakness like that. This was why I was here, why we were all here. We knew there was potential danger on this voyage. We just- wait, we needed to make sure the Mayor was safe here.
“Where is Mayor Hektor right now?” I asked in the strongest, most assertive voice I could muster at the moment. “If something dangerous is in the area, we need to secure his safety.”
“I’m right here!” Hektor’s voice reached us, his hand waving frantically through the air as he came closer. Seemed like he was accompanied by a single escort. At least one person didn’t rush over here immediately. “What’s going on over here? Did we get attacked?”
“We’re not sure at the moment, but we’ve got this under control,” came the voice of the commanding officer, who’d apparently made his way over without me noticing ‘til now. After that briefest assurance, the man turned towards his subordinates and began giving orders, his voice calm with the experience of who-knows-how-many previous missions.
“Kye, Reed, stay with the Mayor and within line of sight. Everyone else, tight patrol, don’t wander more than a few steps beyond the perimeter and do not let us lose track of you. Uh, second pattern, first phase, at least one person on each side of each cart so we keep maximum vision. Yell if you see anything so much as sneeze.”
Second pattern, first phase… that meant I wasn’t up yet, thank fuck. With an assortment of expressions from firm to fearful, the members who had first phase moved out into the correct pattern around our encampment. Laigo stepped aside to make room for the commander as he moved in to assess things more closely.
I knew I couldn’t just keep averting my eyes from this. This was real, and I needed to be able to handle it. So, I looked. One of the victims was a man laying stomach-down, an absurdly deep pair of gashes carved horizontally into his back. It looked like he had been sitting and facing inwards when he was killed. The other had similar looking wounds going vertically, more to the side, with her right arm hanging on by a mere thread of flesh. She’d been killed on watch.
The officer probably came to the same conclusions I did, as he only spent a handful of seconds inspecting the corpses and general situation. From what I could tell, there wasn’t much more to even go off of here, not in terms of raw physical evidence. The witnesses were apparently bewildered too. What the hell could do this without even being seen?!
“Alright, you two,” our commander spoke up again, turning back to the witnesses, “you’re the only ones who were there at the moment this happened. Tell me everything, no matter how small or meaningless it seems to you.”
“I’m- I’m not sure,” the lady responded, slowly calming down. “There didn’t seem to be any lead up to- to the thing. Well, there was no thing, I mean…”
“The one on guard got torn through first, I think,” our other witness finally spoke up. “But it was all too quick.”
“And neither of you even saw anything, not so much as a shadow or a blur?”
Two shaking heads. Seemed like we hit a wall pretty quickly there. I honestly couldn’t think of a way to proceed, but the officer wasn’t so quick to give up. He turned to look at the still-idle Laigo and myself briefly.
“Check the grass around here for any form of tracks.”
“Yes, sir,” we both reflexively responded.
Half a second of steadying myself let me slip past the two dead bodies – this time without looking at them in sickening detail – and Laigo followed close behind me. My mind wasn’t entirely in on it yet, though. The commander’s voice clearly radiated from behind us as we started leaving.
“I hope you two will be able to pick up your duties again, after this,” said he. “We need to start regrouping soon. I don’t think we can stay here for much-”
His voice cut off, accompanied by the infinitely brief sound of what had to be bones snapping and flesh tearing. The noise sent a jolt of adrenaline through my limbs as I hurriedly turned to see what was going on, and my eyes were met with a spray of gore. His head was gone. The adjacent cart took a sudden, visible impact which sent me stumbling backwards. Somewhere in the back of my mind I could tell I was yelling uncontrollably.
Chaos. Laigo, himself shouting something unintelligible, was rushing forward with his weapon drawn. The others were scrambling away. More noises. Our collective outbursts must have alerted everyone else, because I could hear footsteps approaching us from several directions. And one unnaturally loud source of motion.
There was no sense of order anymore, no adherence to the tactics that had been drilled into everyone here through hours of training. Just panic, and desperate attempts to bring people together into something resembling a coherent response to the threat. It was failing.
“What the HELL is this?!” one shouted.
“Something’s growling over here,” observed another, “get ready!”
More exclamations followed, and more screams. My eyes could barely track what was going on. Another soldier was torn apart right in front of my eyes, his armor looking as fragile as paper in the face of that raw strength. I was starting to be able to see… something. Something was moving. The briefest glimpse of its hulking frame sent chills down my spine, sent me clawing along in the grass before righting myself and running.
Trees. Had to get to the trees. Run. Run. Every time I tripped, my body screamed at me to run faster. My throat had become so hoarse now. My legs burned. I could hardly think, let alone think clearly. I blinked and saw it ripping someone apart, or removing the commander’s head again, or looming over me, and I wanted to scream again. I was too hoarse to.
My foot caught on something, and the sudden drop in momentum stopped my heart for a second. Humid air rushed past my face as it swiftly met the ground. My nose hurt. Warmth seeped out onto my cheek as I lay there, heaving and sucking in short, desperate gasps. I could still hear them trying to fight it. I could still hear people dying.
The sound of leaves being crunched underfoot reached my ears, coming from somewhere deeper into the forest… but close by. A fresh wave of panic rushed into my limbs, but I still couldn’t pick myself up. Was that a person? Monster? Animal? Did they escape too? I tried to raise my head and at least look at whatever was there, but my vision was blurring.
They were getting closer. Definitely looked like a person, but I couldn’t make out any details in the darkness, even after my vision began clearing a bit. They were getting closer. That wasn’t another fleeing survivor, no way. I needed to escape, but that was probably impossible. What was I going to do, what was I going to do, what what wh-
They made a gesture, and my heart stopped in my chest for the second time. Prodigious, shadowy forms bled off from behind the trees, shifting forwards horribly. This time, the sight was enough to get my arms moving, but not quickly enough. Before I could so much as stand, the creatures began sprinting towards me. Past me. Ignoring me. Towards the camp.
Distant shouts, screams, sounds of battle, all choked to silence in a matter of seconds.
It was… hard, whatever I was laying on. Cold and uncomfortable. It didn’t feel like the ground. My eyes snapped open at the realization. Only after a brief moment of panicked struggle did my body begin registering the sensations of rough leather binding me to the surface of whatever this was. My wrists, my ankles, my waist, my head – impossible to even sit up.
Looking around presented me with the interior of some sort of wooden shack, and it was filled with recognition for me. Not the sort of recognition that comes with having been somewhere, though. I didn’t know where I was, and I certainly couldn’t call it normal, but I knew what this place was meant for: alchemy.
A desk against the right-hand wall held several vials within which were suspended… what looked like wildlife samples, like we’d used in the Ophentum. Part of the desk space was dedicated entirely to a permanently etched sigil, another one I could recognize. That was an elder spirit of animal strength. Very local. This wasn’t your typical practice, hastily translated from Belenese tradition.
More than that, too. This place was bare-bones in a lot of ways, but incredibly well equipped in others. Shelves that might have hosted books in any other dwelling were dedicated here to various oddities – rough metal tools of special purpose I couldn’t currently imagine, stacked atop each other on the bottom; leather cords wrapped into a circle; an unlit candle.
And just across from me, standing still amidst the flickering shadows cast by the light of an unseen torch, stood a man. I didn’t see him before. I’d been scanning the room in practically every other direction, drawn by my curiosity, and it- was he just waiting for me? I could swear he was staring. My chest felt like it was in a vice grip.
Think, think, how did I get here? Who was this? No, no, where was I last… out on some gods-forsaken forest road, yes. Thirsty, so obscenely thirsty, then I got offered a drink by someone, and- and then I couldn’t remember. His face didn’t even stick in my mind, but there was only one likelihood here.
But I wasn’t dead. I wasn’t being harmed. The man in the shadows continued to wait, and I returned his gaze.
“Who are you…?”