Beginnings 6.2

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…?”

Beginnings 6.1

I blinked twice. It was… still there. Even rubbing my eyes for good measure didn’t get rid of it. After days of the same trackless, golden-brown fields and overbearing sun, an oasis of pure greenery was enough to make me doubt my senses. I knew I was at the right place, though; Hateli’s walls were visible a good distance away. This had to be it.

Getting closer over the course of the next couple hours did little to alleviate my confusion. By the looks of it, this growth was being dealt with, not cultivated on purpose. I mean, why else would there be hastily cleared portions cut through the grass like this? It being unintentional fit in with the fact that signs of a previous local crop were sheared off abruptly as the verdancy began.

Pulling my scarf tighter, I picked my way in, hoping to find someone to start things off with. Still had a decent set of provisions from Dejall, so it wasn’t like I was in danger of dropping dead out here, but fuck could I use a decent rest finally. That said, I might not be able to make myself rest as much as I should. Not while I was this close.

The sea of stalks quickly gave way to an otherwise entirely normal and mundane sight. Didn’t seem too much different from the previous villages here, in spite of the proximity to a former city. The air was rather lively, incredibly so even. Distant hammering, voices, laughter, everything it should have been. And it felt weird. What, was I expecting her to have terrorized the place or something?

The first passerby anywhere near me caught my attention just as I caught his, it seemed. Once he noticed me, it wasn’t long before the two of us came closer. By the look of things, he was hauling a simple crate somewhere before getting sidetracked by my appearance. Once we were close enough for casual conversation, he set his load down and spoke.

“You a traveler? Fairly certain I haven’t seen you around here before,” the man noted, wiping his brow. I nodded in turn.

“Yeah, just arrived after a stop in Dejall,” said I. “Would it be too much of a bother to ask where I could find someplace to stay, a decent meal, all that?”

He hummed in thought for a moment. “Don’t have the old city-run lodgings working anymore, unfortunately. I’d invite you to stay with us, but I haven’t gotten all the attachments finished so the place is a travesty, really. Uh… think my wife’s sister has a spare room still. Wanna come along to ask her?”

“Is that gonna take much time?”

“Not too much,” he replied, hefting his cargo back up with both arms. “Just gotta drop off some metal tools we recently got at the storehouse, then we’ll swing by. That alright?”

“Sounds good to me.”

It felt wrong to just watch him carry that along without offering my help, but I couldn’t afford to extend that offer. Would be too apparent that I was enhanced if he took me up on it, and that would lead to conversations I wanted to avoid. Still, I’d probably be able to find a way to help out this sister while staying with her – and optimally, I wouldn’t be here long.

Given that the chances of being spotted by her while just walking around weren’t zero, I maintained a bit of caution. As much as I could without looking incredibly blatant, that is. Aside from her, there would be Elva… and maybe one more that could potentially recognize me. I didn’t want to get pulled into anything before I could approach them.

“By the way,” I soon brought up, “I, uh, couldn’t help but notice the vegetation around here. What’s going on with that?”

He made a noise of disgruntlement. “Nothing good. We were attacked again a few weeks ago. No one really knows what they were after this time since they didn’t come after the populace, and by the time we came out of hiding, everything nearby got replaced with… all that. Was a good thing we’d already harvested the crops by then.”

“Was this what they were trying to do?” I put forward, glancing back at the nearest stalk.

“Who knows. We did get it tested by our resident specialist, Mr. Trischam, and he concluded that there’s nothing dangerous with ‘em. Kinda a mystery he’s still workin’ on, at this point, but at least we can probably say they weren’t tryin’ to passively kill us all with grass.”

Another attack… The way he spoke, it had to be the Yleini – who else would he be referring to, after all? – but the result was downright perplexing. What could they have possibly been doing? Did they succeed at it? A good portion of me wished I could have been there to do something, could keep being there, stopping all this bullshit from happening. The rest of me dismissed that as a stupid feeling.

I didn’t have the Ophentum anymore. I practically gave them up, and I needed to accept that already. They would keep going with or without me now. Losing track of what I sacrificed them to pursue would render my actions, all of them, meaningless. Couldn’t let that happen, not in a million damn years.

As we moved through the village, small handfuls of people tending to their own business would greet us- well, no, mainly him I guess. Sometimes I’d get a look as well, sometimes a short acknowledgement, and thankfully no suspicious looks or recognitions. Repurposing my scarf to also cover my head probably saved me from looking like I traveled from half a continent away, too, even if I was still obviously not one of the locals.

The building we eventually came to looked about as old as the other originals of the area, from what I deemed. I slid open the door for my benefactor as he, thanking me, moved to deposit the crate he’d been hauling somewhere within. Once he emerged, he turned to freshly address me, extending his hand.

“The name’s Teram,” he introduced himself. “Just realized I totally blanked on that.”

I reached out to shake hands. “Aysa.”

“You’ve got a pretty name there. Alright, let’s pay a little visit, shall we?”

Wasn’t very long before we’d picked through the sparse structures of the village center and made our way to the outskirts, as they were. Our apparent destination was a building of meager size, not much bigger than what you could find in a typical village of Faenon. However, the quality of materials and its general construction seemed higher, potentially standardized if I had to guess. There was a twin of it some tens of meters off to our right, beyond some fencing and flora.

Habit compelled me to readjust my sweater as Teram knocked on the door. An olive-skinned woman several years my senior answered, brown hair tied up into a haphazard bun. Her eyes flickered between the two of us with something resembling pleasant surprise. Even at me? Maybe she liked visitors.

“Teram! What brings you by?” she asked, still standing in the doorway. “Not time for dinner for several hours yet. And who’s this?”

Shifting his body, Teram gestured toward me. “Ah, this is Aysa. She just popped into town today. Aysa, this is Meg.”

“Pleasure to meet you, Meg,” I extended my hand to her. “Teram told me you had a spare room. Would you consider letting me stay a short while? I’ll help out with whatever I can, in return.”

Saying that, I’d definitely need to be careful about what sort of physical activity I got wrangled into. Keeping myself properly covered was perpetually on my mind. So annoying. Disgusting. No one- Ah, she was returning the handshake. Her grip was quite firm.

“Nice to meet you too, but you don’t gotta be that formal about it. Come on in, you must be tired if you’ve been traveling all morning. Where’d you drift in from?”

“I’ll let you two get to know each other,” said Teram, giving his brief goodbye before heading off for whatever it was he next had to or wanted to do.

Before even answering, I was ushered within, the cooled air chilling my skin as it embraced me. Her home was quite well maintained, with a certain charm I hadn’t had the luxury of experiencing for… for years now, it felt like. And it was a hell of a lot cleaner than I ever kept my places. Definitely would have to try not to annoy her with my messiness while staying here.

“I just came from Dejall,” I answered at length, eyes raking over sunlit potted plants and a wooden rocking chair, “but I’ve been wandering a bit before that.”

“Here, sit.” Meg gestured to a worn couch of sorts opposite the rocking chair. “You hungry?”

Moving around to take her up on her suggestion, I gingerly placed my pack of supplies onto the floor beside me. This thing was more comfortable than it looked, too. Here, again, before Meg had my answer, she began making her way into the adjacent kitchen. This sort of hospitality was almost exhausting.

“I, uh, I do still have some food packed away, but I wouldn’t mind something more substantial,” I admitted.

“You could join us for dinner tonight as well. Teram and my sister Morgan will be coming by too.” The creak of a cupboard opening. “Oh, and you can take off your head-dress, hon.”

“I’d rather not, if that’s okay? It’s just, you know, a comfort thing?”

“Suit yourself.”

Looked like my day was more or less covered now. I’d inquire about work after this, stick around ‘til dinner, maybe start searching tomorrow? And once I found Elva, everything would start rolling along. It all had to, no matter what sort of lies I had to make in the process. I would do what I set out to do, however many years ago it was now.

I would kill the monster that killed my parents.

“What do you think happened over there?” the man beside me pondered aloud. His voice was strained, rough after the last few hours of frequent speaking, I imagined. As he spoke, Surgriel shifted his position against the makeshift wooden railing, and I turned back to the expanse of green before us.

It was like a sea of trees – of life – stretching all the way to the distant peaks, peaks which only carried snow at their highest points. The air was more humid than I’d become accustomed to whilst living in space. A bit hotter, too. I knew it was even worse on the other side of that range though. My mind traced over each of these details in turn, drinking in the personality of this world just as I had been since we landed. I loved all of it.

I turned to him again. “We all saw it. We all heard that report. As far as can be told, our ally repelled an Aichleinic incursion, right?”

“Perhaps,” he replied. He didn’t look convinced. “It’s possible, depending on who they chose, but I can’t imagine Tyronus opting to stay behind if they were going to descend personally.”

“…There is also the matter of our lack of communication since the incident. None of our links, yourself included, have been contacted yet. Furthermore the report simply stated that the entity was no longer there by the time the battle had ended.”

“It didn’t contact any of us when it first decided to move either,” Surgriel noted, his gaze finally meeting mine, “but the possibility remains that it’s left the planet entirely.”

Leaving without us… it felt like a blanket being tugged off you in the cold deadness of night, only in a much grander and dreadful sense. Maybe it made me feel a bit better to think about it in childish terms like that. I loved finally having a place to call home again, some solid ground beneath my feet, but I’d spent half my life with the protection of our ally. This felt so utterly wrong.

“What would make it leave like that?” I asked in spite of my apprehension at the likely answers.

“It might have encountered one of its own kind,” answered Surgriel, voice low and inscrutable. “That even makes sense if you think about how the Aichleini were actually pushed back. The report contained practically no details of the battle itself. It… received help.”

I took a long, deep breath. “What do we do now, then? We can’t follow through on our promises to provide technological aid without our ally here, and there’s no guarantee the owner of this territory is similarly cooperative.”

“We need to accelerate the second purpose of our coming here. We need to find people who can fight the Aichleini.”

I was still in shock, in all honesty, and I felt firsthand how easy it would have been to simply drag my feet and wallow in my powerlessness. I refused to. From the very moment I was left alone, I knew what I had to do, who I had to do it for. There were no chances I was willing to take anymore. Not when it came to Lily’s life. What was she thinking, back there? That I abandoned her? That something horrible happened to me? I hoped she could still be happy, somehow.

Seemed sort of ironic, when I thought about it all. That day when Lily proposed to me, when I found a new source of determination for myself in the words of a long-dead woman… I truly believed I was able to make Frida proud, finally, after all this time. And then I was forced to discard everything just to preserve the most vital piece of my life.

There was no use in letting myself linger on that any further. There was someplace I had to be. After a superbly brief trip out-of-body, I restructured myself a good distance away from the incredibly vague starting point I had been given. Everything would have been faster if I was familiar enough with the terrain and my destination, but as it was, I needed to proceed on foot.

The valley that greeted my eyes as they formed was merely a starting point. No, not even that; it was a signifier for my starting point. Chorazom said something about a marked path, but I had no idea what sort of mark I was looking for. One of those things you recognize when you see it? Either way, it soon left me at the base of the hills, scanning slowly from one side to the other in search of it.

It took several hours – I did say slowly, after all – but I did eventually find my first candidate: a deer trail with a small stone sitting beside a gnarled old tree. Such a thing was so humble as to be nearly overlooked at first glance. If I had been going any faster, I probably would have. Thankfully, I gave myself the time to inspect anything that caught even the most minute portion of my attention.

The stone I noticed was upright and, upon closer scrutiny, obviously chiseled, though the weathering on the cuts suggested it to be the work of an earlier age. At least, in my totally uneducated opinion. Indeed, this was the first object of its kind that I had seen… well, anywhere, really. Given how much I wandered about over the years, that struck me as strange.

I was leery both of wasting time following the wrong trail and of wasting time looking for something after I had already found it. In the end, however, my haste won out – down the deer trail it was. At least it seemed like it would not be a boring venture, if I got to see more bizarrely inscribed stonework.

Now that I was proceeding with the one, singular instruction I had been given, my mind allowed itself to wander a bit, mostly into worries about why I was even here. Chorazom gave not even the slightest indication of what I might be needed here for. My thoughts were quickly troubled with the general notion of what sorts of things that entity expected from his- his-

No, I was not going there.

With bizarre timing, my mental resolution was punctuated by a turning of the corner and a revealing of another, similar stone. This one was nestled amongst the roots of an even older conifer. I needed to peel some moss away to get a good view of it, which then let me confirm that there were at least several similarities between what I saw at the start of the path and here.

As I continued onward, I kept seeing them. Every several hundred steps, another carved stone would be situated somewhere just off the path. Sometimes they were so worn as to simply look like an upright, oddly shaped rock, sometimes shrubs and vines obfuscated their presence, but they were there. Maybe they would have had a story to tell if I could understand whatever was sculpted onto their faces.

This was taking too long. In spite of it not quite yet reaching true dusk, sunlight slowly began creeping out of view due to the intervening hills. How much time was I expected to take just getting wherever Chorazom wanted me? Would I be… punished or something, if I was late? How would I even know? How would he, for that matter?

Far too many questions for me to even think about right now. I rushed on ahead and found the next stone marker; it was just more of the same. I did not seem to be close, from what I could tell. How much further could it have been? As the path twisted, the elevation began sharply increasing as well, which meant it was leading me up the hill now.

After several minutes of hurried movement, I found myself in a portion of landscape that had more or less leveled itself off along the hillside. The trees grew less precariously here. This new, higher perspective also gave the sun a bit more time visible for me, though I could tell night was not too far off.

The deer path continued onwards, but I refrained from following it. In the grassy clearing ahead of me, something had jarringly inserted itself into the otherwise-natural scenery, something I had to imagine was my target. Distant bird calls and other signs of native life that had just been dominating the air seemed to deaden upon stepping closer, into the meadow itself.

It was a circle of upright stones, all varying in size and contour. Obviously none were chiseled out of a quarry, given the natural shape and tone of each one, but they bore the same inscriptions as the stones that marked the path leading here. Almost felt like some of those were sigils of a sort, though I had no idea if whoever built this even had such a concept.

My first reaction, after a few moments of awe-struck and intrigued silence, was to get in among those stones and investigate. Perhaps for my curiosity, perhaps to see what I was meant to be doing here. What I was not expecting was for the shift in perspective to bring an entire person into view – I almost jumped in my skin at the sight.

It seemed to be a teenage boy, standing and leaning against one of the inner stones. His skin was generally fair, with a fair amount of freckles to go with it. His messy chestnut hair fell an inch above his chin, framing eyes an even lighter shade of the same color. While I might have expected something arcane, mysterious, even antediluvian given the setting, his attire seemed sorely modern, with a thick, well-worn jacket and traveler’s pants.

“Took you long enough,” he said, already sounding somewhat vitriolic. “So you’re a girl, huh. I was told we had someone a bit older than normal joining up, so I guess you fit the bill. What’s your name?”

“Senna… Trischam.” I could guess what he meant by ‘joining up’; all this put together meant that Chorazom had been planning on forcing me into this for at least a while now. It might have even been before the Aichleini attacked. The question remained as to what he intended to do with me, though.

“Hah, you have a surname huh? Okay, Miss Trischam, before we do anything, I’d just like a little proof I’ve got the right woman here.”

“What sort of proof?”

“Just do whatever it is you do,” he insisted without budging an inch. “I’ll know.”

This, too, was fairly easy to guess the answer to. Considering that I had no idea how much to trust him yet, I opted for the simplest possible demonstration. The oldest trick in my book, or at least one of them… it actually threw me for a bit of a loop that this was the first thing to come to mind for me. It had been years since I used it in exactly this manner.

I raised my hand up to cover my face, making a bit of a show out of it in the process. Ever-familiar heat blossomed beneath my eyes, my lips, my cheeks, freshly and strangely unpleasant for some reason. Then, as my hand pulled away, I revealed his own features in place of mine, and the acknowledgement from him was instantaneous.

“Well, that just about drops the chance you were some random passerby who happened to stumble upon me and decided to play along with things to… zero-ish,” the boy declared, pushing off against the stone he had just been leaning against.

As he moved, I took the liberty of returning my face to me, and a palpable sense of relief washed over me. I never liked using other people’s appearances; it was mildly uncomfortable back when I first learned how, and grew only moreso over time. Perhaps my latest situation was also contributing to the sense of aversion.

“What now?” asked I.

“Nothing much to it except to get moving.” As he spoke, he bent down to pick up a generously sized traveling pack. “C’mon, let’s do this already. Haven’t had a good place to sleep in months.”

“Ah, wait-”

What?”

“…What is your name? You never gave it.” That seemed like a good place to start, if he was in so much of a rush that he became averse to just talking. I needed some sort of ‘in’ here, and I definitely needed to take any opportunity to figure things out from here on out.

“Jasz. That all? I’m seriously not eager to waste a bunch of time I could be spending getting out of here.”

His words forced me into silence for a moment, and not merely out of their mundane flippancy and disregard. Out of the chaotic swirl of emotions I had been trying to keep under control all day, fear was obviously not absent. I kept it down by focusing on how I could navigate my immediate future, and Jasz represented my best bet at deriving context now. It was pathetic, but, without that, it felt like I was at risk of drowning.

“…Look, why don’t we take a break instead?” Jasz offered at length, apparently responding to my lack of speech with a tiny bit of empathy. “I’m not eager to extend this out any further than I have to, but you’ve probably been walking a hell of a lot today. Did you bring anything along with you?”

“Ah, uh… no. No time.”

He seemed understanding of what that meant. “Alright, go fetch us some firewood then. And if you’ve got any more questions afterwards, just ask ‘em in the least annoying way possible, okay?”

And that was that. He did seem to have a pretty sizeable pack of supplies at hand, which he began rifling through to find whatever he was needing. Wanting to prepare for a meal for the night? With no further protest, I set off in the opposite direction, intent on fulfilling what he asked of me.

Jasz, huh. My first impressions of him were not the best by any means. He was obviously here to meet me, and, by context, escort me somewhere as well. This was the start of me falling into his control, beyond the threat against Lily. Did that mean I had to be suspicious of Jasz too? My instincts told me that if he wanted me to let my guard down around him, he would act like less of an inconsiderate asshole, so maybe…

The sun began slipping down beneath the less-impeded horizon as I worked. Probably for the best that we refrained from setting off immediately, then. Once I had a good haul of dead branches and fallen leaves, I traced my path back to the stone circle and found a decently set up campsite in the midst of it, lacking only a proper fire.

Apparently Jasz heard me approaching, as he quickly turned my way and waved me over. Eager, yes, but his expression was anything but chummy. He was likely just cold. With a retrieved flint-and-steel, he soon got a roaring blaze going, safely separated from the grass with a circle of neatly placed stones. I liked that attention to detail.

“There’s another tent in there,” he said, gesturing to the pack. “Lucky those shitheads keep these well stocked.”

“Thank you, but I will be fine,” I declined, sitting down and leaning my head back against one of the more perfectly vertical stones. My response garnered a weird look from him, which he eventually gave up on.

“So, you’re a shapeshifter type, huh.”

I frowned in brief puzzlement. “A type?”

“You know, the thing you can do. Shapeshifting, or creating other bodies, or fucking with existing stuff, those sorts of things. You’re the first one, right?”

“Ah,” I slowly nodded, “I suppose I am.”

That was a mildly horrifying piece of context. Chorazom implied he had something to do with why I was like this, especially if he knew and worked with my mother. Did this mean he did the same thing to others, too? No, not exactly, since it seemed like it was unusual for me to have been left alone for so long. He was more direct with them?

I needed to learn as much as I could now. At the same time, though, playing it cool and not looking like I was desperate for an edge would be wise. That meant limiting how many topics I pursued, at least tonight. At least until I knew more about Jasz himself.

“And, uh, what about you?”

“Number Three,” he replied with a sharp exhale, taking out a carefully measured portion of his food, “not that that’s any business of yours. I’m just here to make sure you get where the Big Guy wants you to be. That’s what you’re here for, right?”

“I suppose so. And even if it is none of my business, would you dislike it if I wanted more of a dialogue like this?”

“Dialogue?” he glanced up at me, taking a bite out of some sort of ration as his main meal began sizzling atop the small pan. “Sure, let’s have a dialogue. I’ll start. What the hell’s up with your arm?”

“That is… a complicated situation.”

“Not great at regenerating, I take it?”

I shook my head. “Something weird happened. Not entirely sure what it was, myself, but, well… here it is, I guess. Sorry.” That felt way too vague and meaningless to have even been a proper answer, but I felt like I had to say something.

“Sorry? The hell’re you apologizing for, dumbass,” Jasz scoffed. Neither of us spoke up again after that. Was that explanation actually satisfying for him?

The rest of the night passed relatively quickly. Once he finished eating, he declared that he might as well get to sleep now so we could travel as early as possible the next day. I agreed, unmoving, and he went to bed. That night was spent on something of a lazy watch, as much as it felt like neither of us needed it to be safe. It was more for my benefit, come to think of it; putting all my senses to work concentrating on the environment was relaxing.

Morning eventually came, long after I stopped bothering to keep track of the hours. Jasz was up with the first rays of sunlight. I offered to help him pack up again, and he quietly accepted. Before long, the two of us were ready to set off together. Jasz, of course, was leading the way, our path still obscure to me in spite of my curiosity.

That was all a matter of weeks ago.

In the time that followed, the two of us traveled north. A bit of prodding got him to mention that we would be passing through the Aldean region, crossing the mountains there and ending up in a previously unknown – to me, at least – settlement on the ocean’s edge. Such details were all well and good, but he never made it clear exactly how far we would be traveling.

There were reasons so many people lived in the southern half of the continent. The further north you traveled, the more choked the land was under increasingly strange and hostile vegetation, or so it was said. I was curious about it at one point in my youth, and could at least confirm that the terrain got pretty hard to navigate pretty quickly, so I gave up after that.

Yet as Jasz’s guidance took us to the boundary line beyond which no one bothered trying to settle – a line conveniently marked on this side of the mountains via a small river which ran into the sea – there was no sign of our stopping. Even before we reached the river itself, it was starting to become annoying just trudging through the undergrowth, an annoyance made all the worse by the fact that no one bothered making roads up this far.

It all made sense, of a sort. The way he talked made it sound like there were more people like us, whose lives Chorazom had tinkered with. Perhaps many more. In spite of that, I never encountered him nor anyone like Jasz ‘til now. What if they were operating up here? Or maybe on the second continent, even? And I was about to be thrust directly into that vast unknown.

Once it became downright impassable for the two of us, Jasz suddenly started doing… something. He utterly declined any explanation, and I refrained from pushing it, so all I had to go off of was the observation that the greatest impediments simply began moving themselves out of the way before us. Must have been what he hinted at before, that night we first met each other. He was doing something to force the flora aside.

Eventually we came to something of a rocky outcropping overlooking the sea. Before us curved a bit of an inlet, and while the clear view highlighted exactly how stifled and overgrown the land had become up here, there was something else making itself known in the dim twilight of the hour: the twinkling of distant lights near and along the shore.

Again, I had to wonder what I could possibly have been getting myself into.

Interlude 3

So it was, our fathers told

Lush and green and hushed below

In times before the shadows breathed

In times before our cities fell

 

Mountain peaks scrape ‘cross the sky

Near forests where we chopped and prayed

Envied long were all our works

Carved from quarries, dragged ‘cross the earth

 

Illustrious, fair Kathus shone

Jewel of Man, estranged from war

The pride of Karrian that day

And each day hence, our fathers say

 

Fair Kathus stood four thousand years

And seasons passed to constant feast

There were no threats of mortal make

That dared to strike the Jewel of Man

 

For who would tear the temples down?

Great graven stones, great pious works

The roads were each a marvel, then

Each home a villa, a palace grand

 

Clear and blue, our waters ran

Rivers tamed and bent to Man

Our power waxed, our caution waned

And sins, mistakes, were on parade

 

Hubris worms and roots in strong

The temples made no prayers ‘fore long

Assured as we were of our worth

The world itself had lost its spark

 

For what surpassed the works of Man,

When even mighty mountains quake?

The great of aspect labored long

Our righteous will lifted to song

 

Our scholars pondered nature’s depths

‘Til all was known and none was left

Great masters, weary, turned within

And thought was all, then, known to them

 

So it was, our fathers wept

Fair Kathus stood against the gods

And one day, cursed, to ever mourn

Did the gods come down to earth

 

A shadow rose beyond the night

Great pillar, ‘fast, defied our worth

One for every city thus

And one for Kathus, fair and lost

 

The crops, once molded to our will

Twisted black and bent the knee

Their ruler true had come at last

And we were as the ants to He

 

Then Kathus, lost, was filled and held

By whispered fiends, long labeled myth

And from the walls, our fathers cry

Our brothers and our sisters, thrown

 

‘Til few, the hid’, made break for North

And left our shrieking kin behind

In storied Caves, we sought relief

In bosom of the land herself

 

A time and more was spent within

‘Til shadows passed and hatred cooled

‘Til all calamity had fled

And Man could safely see the sun

 

Great mountains might have sheltered us

And plains did welcome back our herds

 

But Kathus cannot shine again

 

And for these sins our fathers wrought

We can’t undo the consequence

-Satho Clan historical poem

Date and author unknown

Destructions 5.8

We both seemed in fairly positive moods as we reached Elva’s dwelling, positive in the sense that it felt good to finally be taking a shot at what was on both of our minds the past two days rather than sit around and wait for it to happen. Seeing Lily so determined lately was really appealing, too, in some way. Was that weird?

In any case, she took the initiative, and her knocking on the door was met after half a moment with a woman’s muffled voice promising to be out in a minute. I gave myself a steadying breath and self-conscious stretch in preparation for the outing to really begin, and just in time too. Her footsteps approached the door just as I settled back into a comfortable demeanor.

“Hey guys,” greeted Elva, who cracked a big smile as soon as she saw us. She shut the door behind her in the same fluid motion that it was opened. “Got some bad news. Lucy’s gonna be staying home today.”

“Is everything alright?” I asked.

“I talked to her earlier today to see if she was ready to come along and she said she didn’t feel well enough for it.”

Lily’s lips quirked to the side. “She’s not sick is she? That’d be weird.”

“Well, uh,” I awkwardly added, “I… hope Lucy gets well soon. Should we go pick up the other two now? It is their day, after all.”

Oh gods I hoped it was not overly transparent, calling her by that nickname. It probably sounded weird from me. Getting the vernacular down so as to not sound horribly out of place just ended up making the words sit clumsily on my tongue. Worse was how it made me still sound like an outsider to the rest of them, even if I hoped that had been steadily changed over time. It probably had been, and I was just worrying myself into the ground.

In any case, the three of us agreed to stop by Jerome’s place next. If I had it correct, both of them would be waiting there for us. That gave a good bit of time for small talk. I was glad that, out of everyone, it was Lucretia who happened to feel ill today. Or, rather, I was glad it was not Jacquir with a convenient excuse to stay out of sight. We would need to worry about whether he suspected something, then.

Apparently Lucretia was considering a visit to Mr. Trischam if the symptoms persisted. The least serious sorts of diseases were rendered toothless in modern Belenese society, I gathered, but Elva was worried that this sort of thing popping up again could be a bad sign. Declining health, or maybe treatments were needing to be refreshed, or something.

Actually talking to the resident biological alchemist about the possibilities was obviously the smarter option than getting our opinions, of course. Not like I had any educated statements to butt in with. Apparently Elva was intending on setting up something exactly along those lines later, so I offered to help in case they needed to haul anything else back from Hateli. She seemed to appreciate that.

Jerome’s place was not too distant, all things considered. Again, we had only one person answering the door, though he seemed just as happy to see us. My thoughts immediately went to the worst case scenario about Jacquir avoiding us, but our inquiries revealed that he had simply gone up ahead. I really, really needed to stop overthinking it. Lily reached over to briefly stroke the back of my hand, too, in well-timed reinforcement.

Now, with four of us together and walking to join up with the fifth, we headed out to our destination: a certain hearty tree on the outskirts of the village. As we turned the corner around these last few houses, it came into view, along with Jacquir bent down beside it. From the tree’s strongest branch hung a carved wooden bench, so fresh as to not even be treated yet. It was obviously no ornate masterpiece, but it looked quite sturdy.

“Hey~!” Jerome called out, waving at the other as we approached. Jacquir took notice and stood back up, returning the wave. He seemed visibly unhappy at something, though, which was clarified as we got within speaking distance.

“Is my sister not coming?” he asked, frowning. “Man, you’d really think she’d care enough to come see how we did.”

“She’s just not feeling well today,” Elva assured him.

“Huh, really? I’ll go stop by her place later then, see if she needs anything. Hope it’s nothing serious.”

“Did you two do this all by yourselves?” I asked, as much on the spur of the moment as anything. Being invited out even to something small like this felt too nice to ruin by being unengaged and distant. Then again, Lily and I were sorta ruining it with our ulterior motives anyways. If genuine connectedness had to be sacrificed, then let it be for some greater purpose.

“Yeah we did! I mean, everyone here knows we’ve been helping Teram out here or there on the side, right?” said Jerome as his partner began moving away. That got my attention. “Well, we thought it’d be fun to try our hand at some of this stuff ourselves, you know. So… this!”

“…I don’t think you’ve been helping him long enough to learn this much,” Elva pointed out with a chuckle.

Just as I was wondering whether we should be asking about Jacquir or even potentially going after him, he came back into view, hefting a package over to us. I guess he had that stowed away back there beforehand? That looked like alcohol, too. He seriously hid away drinks? Last I heard, he was trying to avoid that.

“C’mon, Jay,” he said with a bit of a huff, “we got helped big time. Anyone want some?”

“I mean, yeah, okay, maybe we got a little help, but you heard him! He said we’ve got some real talent, too. And of course.”

Elva stepped closer, prompting the two of us to join in as well. “Are we just gonna ignore the fact that you apparently hauled an entire thing of alcohol out of what had to be Hateli just for this?”

“Hey, I was bored,” he replied with a bit of a sheepish laugh. “And don’t worry, I haven’t had any on my own. I’m keeping my promise. Now, er, where should we be sitting?”

“Probably not on the actual bench.”

As we all situated ourselves in a lazy circle near the tree, Elva started asking them about whether Teram had a new full-time apprentice yet and whether either of them were considering it themselves. Taking the opportunity, I turned to Lily, lowering my voice to the point that I hoped only she would hear. Her expression seemed calculating, as if it were meant to give the impression that we were sharing nothing more than a lover’s whisper.

“Drinking is not going to interfere with what we wanted to do, right?”

“If anything, it helps,” she responded, her head tilting towards me. “Do we wanna try to talk to Jay right after this, like we were thinking?”

“I think so. We should start now, before the first sip is taken.”

“Agreed.”

Just like we had been planning, Lily’s hand moved subtly to my leg, an action intended to be seen as purely idle. I was still not entirely confident in myself. Several hours spent over the past couple days all to practice expanding what I can sense without totally shutting down all physical awareness, and I did not have as much to show for it as I would have liked. At least it was enough to likely make this work.

Lily’s forefinger began tapping against my thigh, the pace steady and deliberated. It kept me grounded as I turned my attention inward. Had to remember to keep myself from looking like I was staring at someone, too, without closing my eyes entirely. Gazing down at the empty bottle set with a preoccupied expression would probably do it. I could get to work now.

Going out of my way to physically disable my sense of sight was still… a little disconcerting sometimes, I had to admit. Smell took a minute to join it, and as for the rest, I needed only make them feel more distant. All this fine-tuning did eventually get me there, though, and soon there was a vast field of muddy lights stretched before me, blending each other with each motion before winding back into themselves.

The tree was easily visible like this. Each brush of the wind against its leaves caused a tremendous swirling dance in the air above us, all anchored to that great pillar which ran down into the ground, where more muted tones obscured the rest. Our companions were here, too, postures difficult to discern against the backdrop. And, of course, I could still feel the pace Lily set against my skin, even if it seemed a bit distant.

My concentration came to rest squarely on Jacquir, who was easy to pick out from the rest on account of that massive blight coiled around him. The goal now was to keep an eye on any fluctuations in it, anything at all that could give us a hint about it could be connecting to, whether that was his emotional state, verbal inputs, movement, anything. The tapping allowed us to normalize time between us and make sure what I saw could be matched up to anything Lily did. It seemed fairly well thought out, to me.

“…goes the…-stination…heard you were…” Lily’s voice, sounding unfathomably far away, only partially broke through to my consciousness from here. This was probably the first thing we thought to test, seeing how emotional reactions influence it.

“…’s not full abst-…-ut it’s alr-…” I think that was Jacquir responding.

As the pace of that conversation continued, I was transfixed on what amounted to nothing. If he was having any sort of emotional reaction to the topic, I sure as hell could not see it. We did plan for this ahead of time, though, and- yes, right there, a quick double-tap from Lily. She was going to introduce some mild irritation. Temporary, of course. Just enough to gauge this interaction and make sure it was not simply due to a lack of natural response.

Based off what I could see, it seemed like he was a bit more restless than usual. Maybe took a longer swig of his drink in direct response to her tampering, but unsure. Her normal rhythm had been continuing, which meant she was still going at it for the moment, and the result was a whole lot of nothing. As unsettling as it was to stare at the dark veil covering Jacquir, its total inertness was starting to make things feel almost mundane now.

Another double-tap told me that Lily had stopped directly tampering with him. Again, nothing I could perceive was changing in response. Seemed like it was unnecessary trying to keep time between us, then, given the lack of anything to report. What was really worrying here was the fact that easy avenues for investigation were quickly closing off. Unraveling more of this mystery we had only barely glimpsed – this one, out of how many others? – might require crossing into more morally ambiguous territory, and if he presented a threat, we might have to do so.

With a small sigh, I pulled myself back into the comfortable familiarity of physical connection. The world’s cloudy mess etched itself into so many degrees of separation, until my eyes were working again, all senses as they were before. Voices that were once distant now came through with jarring clarity, right in the midst of one’s speech. Seemed like Jerome had brought the topic back to talk excitedly about the sort of things he had been picking up from Teram lately.

Glancing over at me, Lily’s finger faltered, then ceased its motion altogether. It was obvious now that our first plan was not working for us. However, before being forced into an unpleasant line of action, there was one last thread I could try to follow. It was a longshot, but at this point there were so many oddities in my life that finding even the tiniest hint of interconnectedness would make it worthwhile.

At the first sign of opportunity, I inserted myself into the conversation. “Pretty random question, but do any of us have any tattoos? I was just thinking about, uh, how Lily mentioned she had thoughts about one a few years ago,” I lied out my ass. Just banking on her ability to play along with it at this point.

“Awh, hey, they didn’t need to know that,” Lily giggled a little, pressing against my side playfully. Perfect. She seemed like a pretty good actor.

“Hey, nothing embarrassing about considering that. Probably,” Jerome said, making a dorky face right before polishing off the rest of his glass. “I don’t think any of us actually got any, though, right? Elva didn’t follow through on that dare-”

“Who the hell would?!” she laughed, kicking halfheartedly over in his direction.

“Yeah, can’t blame her. I wouldn’t have either… at least not there,” Jacquir noted dryly, setting his own drink aside. Then, for the first time today, he seemed to pay a bit of attention to me. Ostensibly it was because of my sudden participation, but it still got me worried until he spoke up again.

“How’ve you been feeling lately, Senna? With the, uh, injury and all.”

Things quickly became a lot more quiet, I guess out of awkwardness. Not everyone here was being kept apprised of the details of what had been going on – namely, the shadow spires and the extent of my battle with Nykorosk were both being hidden from everyone but Elva and, of course, Lily. Unfortunately, a wound like this was impossible to miss.

“It has been quite, ah, difficult to get used to functioning without it,” I admitted. “Healing decently at least, I guess. The pain is mostly gone.”

“Still fucked up that one of our two best fighters got an injury like that,” lamented Jerome, placing his head in one hand, “and our other best was chumped like the rest of us.”

“Better than any noncombatants coming to harm,” Lily quietly interjected.

Elva reached over to add her own empty bottle to the stack. “In any case, we’re going to need to wait until Surgriel’s party arrives at the Ophentum camp before we can launch any inquiries about the second attack or why they suddenly left.”

“That was the name of that group we were trying to call in on Senna, right? Boy am I glad we were late on that.”

Some unhealthy corner of my mind wanted to know whether he was just happy that they had me as an ally, that they had someone useful, or if he was saying he liked having me around as a friend. It felt like people were moving away from seeing me like that, at least. There was still the question of whether that would last if my curse came back into the spotlight, but for now, I did not want this ruined.

As it was, the air grew quiet around us. Only the faintest noises reached us here from the village, and our own conversation had been stifled by awkwardness, by shift from the trivial and pleasant to the weightier. Maybe it was time to call it a night. Lily and I needed to figure out our next course of action, after we got Jerome alone and exhausted that avenue. Perhaps we could-

Wait. It was not supposed to be this still. We were already quiet, but this was purely motionless; none of them were even breathing, I noticed upon tuning up my hearing a bit. I twisted my neck to look at Lily, whose expression was stuck in a state of mild discomfort. The gentle breeze that was just rustling against my hair had stopped. Light was utterly frozen in my eyes. It was the same stilling of the world that preceded that entity’s arrival.

The sound of a heavy leather boot pressing down into dusty earth spread like a thunderclap through the otherwise subdued air, and I hardly kept myself from twitching in fright. It was coming from the direction of the village, just the slightest bit out of vision. Another footstep. Agonizingly slowly, I edged my line of sight to the left until, however many eons later, something came into view. Where before the illusion of color and life was maintained, now stood there a blatant rejection of it.

The arrival looked like a man, easily a full head taller than myself, who wore a large greatcoat that obscured most of his form. What few body parts I caught glimpses of beneath it seemed to be wrapped in strips of black leather, or something close to that. On his head sat a hat, wide-brimmed yet of too heavy a material to be meant purely for shade. In its shadow was obscured the upper portion of his face, giving the impression of a lack of eyes; the remainder was gruff, wrinkled, unshaven, and wearing an utterly neutral expression.

If any portion of this sight was meant to have a palette beyond grayscale, it was impossible to tell. It was as if all semblance of color had forcefully bled out of the world around him, with even the distant mountains and the sky itself taking on an unnaturally lifeless hue. This barren halo moved with him as he stepped closer and closer to us. No, it was… to me. I knew what being seen by this thing felt like.

It was paralyzing. Beyond paralyzing. Where survival instincts might have kicked in and demanded the body to fight or flee, there was simply nothing. His presence precluded either concept. I was relegated to sitting there, trying not to overtly tremble as he passed by our group entirely. My eyes could only barely move to follow his progress, out of fear even that amount of movement might invite something worse.

He moved to seat himself on the bench. The very act was uncomfortably physical, registering to me as less an aspect of normalcy and more like a mockery of it. Everything about this form felt like a mockery of one thing or another, a flagrant show of domination over whatever I saw. Even over the forward march of time.

“Come sit.” In spite of the fact that two words were accompanied by the proper mouth movements and everything, it seemed totally unreal to me. The words were run through with electrical distortion, as if played across a faulty transceiver.

If his presence was paralyzing before, then this direct command was a slight, intentional unraveling of the effect, as little sense as that made. Without a pretense of defiance, I was allowed muscles that cooperated with me perfectly, and with them, I moved to obey. Even still, getting closer – on purpose no less – was overwhelming. It felt like taking my place on that wooden seat would lead to me being smothered out of existence.

It creaked just the slightest bit as I rested my weight on it, beside him. I was… not dead yet, for all that that said. If Nykorosk presented a threat that could kill me, then there was no doubt this entity was much more threatening. Thankfully there was ample room on the bench for us to sit together without my flesh coming into contact with him. That fact afforded me no safety, but it still gave some intrinsic peace of mind.

Once I was seated, his head tilted skyward. “Did you enjoy my gift?”

Being addressed again reinforced the earlier effect, and I felt just a bit more functional as a result. Enough to speak at least. For the moment, though, I stayed silent. I had practically no information about him other than the fact he had something to gain by driving the Aichleini away. Answering stupidly or swiftly could be disastrous for me.

Needed to figure out what his intention was in asking this question. Why this? Was it a trick of some kind? I already knew with great certainty that he was the entity who helped me kill Nykorosk, which meant that there was one very obvious candidate for what he meant by ‘gift’, but what did he want from me by asking about it?

Mind still racing, I lifted my hand to stare at it. If he wanted me to demonstrate some measure of understanding, then just answering ‘yes’ would be insufficient. Asking what he meant was too bold. Or maybe it was more that I wanted to avoid whatever might follow if I finally opened my mouth and responded.

I still remembered what it looked like, felt like, on every level and through every cell. The design was burned into my memory. Yes, if he wanted me to demonstrate some measure of understanding, then…

As I stared down at my remaining arm, I felt along each cell and the essence of myself that outlined them. And then I pulled. Every speck of flesh slowly warped along an axis impossible to see, moving yet staying still, singular in one sense and duplicated in another, until my entire arm gave off the impression of overlapping images.

“I see you did,” he noted aloud without seeming to turn or pay any real attention to what I just did. Was there a hidden meaning in that wording as well? I chanced a glance at his face again, and in spite of the continuing lack of expression, it felt like I was being smiled at.

“Who are you?” I tentatively asked, only barely overcoming inertia to get my lips moving.

“Chorazom.” That should not have been spoken out loud. It felt wrong to hear. His words were already unnatural, but that one forced his voice to modulate itself even more strangely as the syllables left his lips. I shuddered involuntarily. At least now I had the name of what I kept finding, or what kept finding me.

“Was this what you wanted from me? To- to say thank you for this ‘gift’?”

The reaction was immediate, not in movement or change in expression but in the intangible. If he was smiling earlier, then I might have imagined him almost chuckling at me now. And it was anything but friendly.

“Hardly. I want to make a deal. For my part, I am offering something I know you want.”

I went quiet again. That was too narrow an implication, given the circumstances. More worryingly, depending on how specific it was, it meant he knew something about me, which would mean he had been watching me. How? Since when? The encounter outside Belenon? Anxiety spiking, it took several seconds for me to finally continue.

“What are you offering? What do you want?”

“I will remove that little killing compulsion your mother-” my chest tightened, “-planted in you.”

No, no way. That had to mean it was so much further back than Belenon. There should have been no one who knew about her anymore, but it did, and it knew what she did to me, how was that possible?! My thoughts lost all coherency as they tried to parse how this thing could possibly have any sort of history with me, or what that history even was. Until he spoke again.

“And in exchange, you will serve me.”

All thoughts froze, for a moment. Each and every idle motion of my body, too. I almost could not register the sort of situation I had just been put into. By something like this. This was not happening. No way this was happening.

“…Excuse me?”

“I said you will serve me.”

“Like-…” I choked up, the tendrils invisibly coiling around my body tightening again in response to my change in attitude. “…like hell. I am going nowhere. Gaining freedom from that curse, just to lose it again-”

“It seems I spoke too generously,” he cut me off, rising off the bench in one steady motion. “Removing the compulsion is not giving you freedom. It is not putting forward a bargain, even. It is taking care of an aberration in my property.”

All decent notion of resistance to him was steadily squeezed out of me. I could hardly even move my eyes to watch him as he began to tower over me, something in his mask-like expression still managing to convey coldness and contempt. A black pit had already formed in my stomach, and it pulsed in withering tones at the word ‘property’.

“If you want an actual deal, then let me put this forward: Lily Trischam will not be harmed so long as you obey.”

There was nothing left in me. As soon as I worked up the ability to speak again, I responded with a simple, “Okay.”

“Now this is strange.” His hand moved to grip my collar, lifting me up off the bench entirely. “You have been so willing to sacrifice the lives of others to preserve a semblance of your own happiness. Did we finally find a limit to your selfishness?”

“I- I was never-”

“Oh, but you were. And, whether implicitly or explicitly, so was everyone who supported you. A woman obsessed with safeguarding her community; a man who wanted nothing but his daughter’s happiness; a girl who would destroy the world if it meant a happy ending for herself; they were all complicit. And they are all behind you now.”

Familiar shadows began to bleed off Chorazom’s body. They filled my vision. The light from my eyes sputtered and vanished, plunging me deep into a great expanse of… something. I think it hurt. Tremendously. My mind never lingered on it enough to be sure, though. Every inch of my body was being utterly violated, but not here, not at this distance. Here, I was just tired.

My eyes snapped open again, the transition even quicker than whatever he did to incapacitate me the first time. A rush of agony that had already thrust itself into every inch of skin followed in the next moment, dulled as it was by retreat of its source. This was just the aftermath. No wonder I blacked out so heavily.

His hand shoved me back, forcing me roughly into my old seat. I was already empty of strength, and with the pain quickly abating as well, I was left with gaping numbness. Something was lost to me. The edges ached. He just… removed it, right? I never imagined it would feel like this to have that curse finally removed.

“Out of respect for my last influence, the one I just carved out of you, I will refrain from implanting these instructions directly,” Chorazom’s voice came to me again. “There is a certain location due west of here, a valley between the two largest hills. At its mouth is a marked path. Follow it.”

The footsteps that earlier heralded his arrival struck up again. He was just… walking away. After all that. Every little lamentation and bewilderment spinning around my head simply went nowhere. They spun and died, unacknowledged. It had to sink in, though, in the end. My long independence was over. My life was over.

Creaking wood split the awkward tension of the last moment out of nowhere. The unexpected noise made me jump in my skin too, that and the jolt of bafflement that ran through everyone present. The others had turned to stare at the inexplicably moving bench behind them. It was weird enough on its own, sure, but… Senna was gone.

“I, uh…” Jay started, turning back to look at each of us, “…did she get up and leave while I wasn’t looking?”

“What I wanna know is, why’d the bench start moving? There’s no wind or anything,” Jacquir puzzled aloud as he moved to stand.

A few short seconds of us exchanging looks in the vein of ‘am I crazy, or is everyone else seeing this too?’ soon gave way to active questioning and looking around. I stayed in place as two of them got up and deliberated on searching nearby for her, or perhaps going back into the village instead.

Elva and I exchanged a more meaningful glance, meanwhile. She probably thought it was an intentional departure, which we both knew of, but it couldn’t have been. I should have been able to feel her if she felt the need to suddenly leave, and- wait, she couldn’t even disappear that quickly, right? It was never instantaneous, yet somehow all four of us missed that?

I brought myself to my feet slowly. “Okay, uh, let’s just handle this one step at a time. I can- I’ll go home and see if she’s there, and…”

“We’ll ask around,” Elva finished for me. “I’ll check in with you later, okay?”

This was starting to get under my skin in a really bad way. In the moments before turning and leaving, I at least had the presence of mind to check in on Jacquir again. He was just as confused as the rest of us, and it seemed genuine, but… something was different now. What the hell was it? Its presence was obvious, but the difference was not. It was even more vague than the little impressions I’d been picking up on before.

Was he related to it, in spite of the seeming confusion? More to the point, did Senna leave legitimately, and how would she have? Was I just missing something? She felt totally normal the moment before, or at least normal for her. I would have felt her make a decision to disappear. She vanished, and something subtly changed in Jacquir that I couldn’t see, and now here we were.

My feet picked up the pace as I cycled through all those thoughts, leaving the others behind near the tree for the moment. No avenue of logic that I followed lead me anywhere useful. The more I deliberated, the more frustrated I became, even uncharacteristically so. Weird to recognize. I was… upset. How the hell was I supposed to be able to piece things together like this, it was bad enough before, fucking hell.

Still had a vague hope she’d just be there, waiting for me. Waiting with an easy answer to everything that had happened. I was overexerting myself even in the simple actions of walking home. By the time my hands pushed open our front door, I was flat-out panting, sweating from far more than just the exercise. And it got worse the longer I lingered in the silence of the doorway.

Just as we left it. No lights on – and thus, quickly darkening in the advancing dusk – and no temperature controls. Nothing was so much as touched, from what I could tell. Not physically anyways. It would have been trivial to reach out and feel for myself if anyone was in here, if she was, but I was too afraid. Instead, I forced myself to put one foot in front of the other, steadily moving myself towards the bedroom.

The door opened so slowly. I trembled a bit at that slightest sliver of revealed interior. Too dark to see inside. I didn’t want to reveal this answer, either, but I had to. About four seconds of fumbling along the wall finally brought my fingers against a sigil, and warm light sparked into existence. The bed was still neatly made, sheets pressed against each corner and a blanket folded up at the end.

She just wasn’t here. She was gone. They were kidding themselves if they thought they could find her by asking around or whatever bullshit they were trying. She was gone. What could have possibly made her leave without telling me? Or- or saying goodbye at least, christ… No way she wouldn’t have, right?

My vision started blurring as I stepped forward to rest against the frame of the bed. Now I was annoying myself. Out of all the reactions I could’ve had, I just- I had to start crying about it? What was I crying about? Maybe she couldn’t. Say goodbye. Maybe it was something sudden and I couldn’t know about it. There were so many reasons that didn’t end with- with that. That.

Logically, there was so much here I didn’t know about. There were innumerable scenarios that could possibly be at play here. There were so many details that seemed off, and I should have been focused on them, on Jacquir, on her abnormal vanishing, on anything else.

Logically, I should have known she loved me. She was happy with me.

Why couldn’t I stop imagining her not wanting me.