Beginnings 6.4

Neither of us said another word after she spoke. For my part, it was out of fear. That one piece of information, the fact that she knew I was lying, told me I was basically in checkmate here. It felt like the whole world went quiet for the time it took me to process my situation. Didn’t even dare breathe during it. Lily sitting there observing me just made it worse.

What was this from her? Trying to give me an opportunity to leave peacefully? Was there a threat of violence implied here? I didn’t even have any idea how she figured me out in the first place, but- no, wait, it could have been a bluff right? Trying to catch me off guard and see if I slip up afterwards? That seemed a hell of a lot more likely than anything else. I just needed to-

“Don’t start getting the wrong impression there,” Lily chastised me, making my heart skip a beat as she shifted her posture. “You’re not going to trick me by trying to stay consistent with it. I’m simply informing you that this is unnecessary.”

My mind was already reeling at being toyed with. The sheer confusion of it all overruled my instincts – to get angry, to deal with it somehow – and left me frozen. There shouldn’t have been any way for her to divine my intentions and the minutiae of my mood via cold reading, let alone simply guessing it. There had to be something I was missing here.

What was it that she said? She was informing me, huh? That wording might be key here. My best guess was that she wanted to lead me down a certain line of thinking or inquiry. Was it really just to avoid the inconvenience of correcting me, like her words implied? Meanwhile, her tone, body language, the words themselves, none of it was soft but neither was it antagonistic.

Fine. I’d play.

“What’s the deal with you? Either you’re the best cold reader I’ve ever seen or there’s something more happening here. You were picked to accompany Elva at that meeting, too. I already have my suspicions, so if we’re playing honest time, how about you go first?”

“Yes, I was picked to accompany her and ascertain whether Surgriel was telling the truth about his intentions. He was, so I said nothing.”

On the surface, that seemed like no more information than I already had… it probably was no more information, actually. The deadness in her voice and expression was starting to become unsettling too. It was only after a couple seconds of thought that I made the connection, and it was enough to almost get me standing up out of sheer surprise.

You– you’re empathic!” I exclaimed at a volume I wish I’d controlled. “What the hell! Elva really went behind everyone’s backs there and brought someone like you?! What were you even going to do if he was lying, start another scandal and get yourselves ostracized?”

Lily, frowning and drawing her gaze to one side, replied, “Could you try not to give Elva a reason to come back in early? And yes, another scandal like Imalpa would have been preferable to opening up every survivor on the continent to-”

“She- no one even told me,” I hissed. “There, happy? I’m quiet now.”

She was looking at me again. My shoulders adjusted in the space between one awkward moment and the next, continuously unsure of what any of this girl’s behaviors signified. I mean, what, was she just incredibly sleep deprived? Didn’t give her the right to be creepy about it though, yet here she was, staring like she could see my damn soul. And like we weren’t a species with social conventions.

“I wasn’t told much. What are you here for, Aysa?”

“…To see Senna,” was all I said. It wasn’t a lie. She went out of her way to make clear to me that lying was a waste of time. If I was going to get caught here over this, then there was no avoiding it anyways.

The way her eyes narrowed at me told me plenty. Rather than lead into the expected question of what I wanted to do once I saw her, though, or even asking who that was, she simply said, “Senna’s gone.”

“What does that mean?”

Lily exhaled, and I got the sense that she didn’t want to elaborate on it, or maybe she couldn’t. My lack of context here was critical and getting worse the deeper into this I got, especially when it came to her. I didn’t care about her, though; I wanted to know what the hell was going on with the thing I abandoned everyone I knew just to chase.

“Elva!” she spoke up suddenly, my blood freezing in my veins at the rush of panicked postulation over what she would say. “You can come back in now!”

Once again, I put every ounce of mental effort I had into just keeping myself from fucking this up. No guarantees, no guarantees, I just needed to look okay and maybe this would all blow over. I couldn’t think of what I would do if it didn’t. Couldn’t. I was at least able to make my eyes move with some amount of normalcy, to glance at the door Elva would be coming through just as it opened.

“What’s the verdict?” she asked. Didn’t seem overly concerned, even with the tint of displeasure in her voice when it came to me. That was good, though, that was good.

“Nothing to worry about here.” If I was alone, I probably would have exhaled in such tremendous relief at hearing those words. “I feel like I should show her our ‘lead’. I was going to head over there soon anyways, and it seems like this all concerns Aysa as well, in a certain way.”

Elva’s face had visibly softened as her former subordinate spoke, and it at least made it easier to look at her now that I wasn’t staring down a wall of mistrust. They really must have trusted each other. And Lily was willing to betray that, to lie to her, just for me? I didn’t know what to make of that. No, more importantly, what was this about a lead?

As the former captain nodded her acknowledgement at Lily’s words, she stepped closer, more to me than to the other. I decided it would be appropriate to stand back up now. Our eyes now met more or less at-level, as much as it killed me to pretend I wasn’t deceiving her even more now than before.

“I’m sorry for, you know, earlier. Distrusting you.”

“It was still a wise move, I think,” I responded, glancing over at my now-silent accomplice. “You didn’t tell me about her before.”

“Mm, yeah, sorry for that too,” Elva smiled. Gods that was nostalgic to see. “I didn’t want to freak anyone out if it wasn’t necessary, and there was already a lot you were dealing with then.”

“How’d it… happen?”

“As far as we can tell,” answered Lily this time, “it was just a typical minor mutation. We’ve kept it under wraps for the most part, and promise, we haven’t abused it or anything. Except to help with investigations and such.”

The less diplomatically inclined parts of my brain wanted to make a comment to the tune of ‘hardly seems minor to me’, but I stifled that. It was a stroke of huge, inexplicable luck for me that I wasn’t getting totally fucked over right now, so I really wanted to avoid pushing it for the time being. Just nodded instead.

More important to think about was what Lily mentioned. A ‘lead’? Her words were… generous, in a sense; on their own, they seemed soft and sympathetic, but the tone she spoke them with was as dead as anything up ‘til this point. It was starting to freak me out. Even moreso since Elva seemed to be completely ignoring it.

After that, it all happened more quickly than I really wanted to keep up with. Elva didn’t put up really any resistance to the idea of letting me in on their ‘lead’ once Lily brought it up again. A shift in her body and a step or two towards the door, a look at me, everything performed in sequence. Elva wanted to stay behind. She had business to attend to, of course, but it seemed weird. Why did it seem so weird?

Lily took it upon herself to escort me a short distance, to one of the closer buildings here. From the exterior, I couldn’t tell what it was used for, but no one came or went from it that I saw. Actually, aside from a couple distant figures, maybe an Ylein here or there, I couldn’t see anyone coming and going through this area.

As much as it would have been neat to say there was some sort of eerie silence over the village, though, it simply wasn’t true. I could hear the sounds of activity in several directions, all to my ears the signs of a normal day, all a constant relief. Was it coincidence? I really needed to stop freaking myself out; I was way too on edge after all that.

By the time I’d pulled back into something of a normal headspace, Lily was gesturing me inside. It was… dusty. More than the last place at least. Even still, it did seem like it was inhabited at least somewhat recently. The front door here opened up into a small living room of sorts, furniture of various sorts covered in large white sheets of cloth to protect from the omnipresent particles in the air.

Directly ahead of us, directly in our path, was a long, dim hallway. Lily wordlessly moved down it. Brief wondering about the size of even minor village buildings over here was cut through by the sound of door hinges creaking open, weary at their age and likely disrepair. It was on our first right, and Lily briefly tilted her head to indicate I should follow. Still no explanations?

She slipped inside. With how the door opened, I was restricted from seeing within until I moved around and began entering. This whole situation suddenly set me back on edge. Our footsteps pressing down into the old, cheap floorboards rang in my ears, slight shifting of breath within either of our chests only momentarily audible between motions. I wasn’t even sure what I was expecting to see in here.

It wasn’t that. Bile rose to the back of my throat at the sight of a young man, bound and gagged on a solitary chair in the otherwise empty room before me. His clothes- no, everything about him was dirty, tears in the cloth and scrapes on the skin where abuse had been heaped upon him. Or was that from some sort of violent capture?

Lily circled around him, past the point where his eyes could easily track her. His eyes, gods, he looked nearly broken. The man looked up at me silently, only the slow, irregular inhaling and exhaling to let me know that someone still lived in that. Out of mere expectation, I turned briefly to close the door behind me, then turned to the woman who brought me here.

“Lily,” my voice hardened, “what’s going on here? I need to know.” I needed to know. Needed it before casting judgment. Anxious threads traced numerous paths for how I could fuck this up and ruin what good luck had fallen into my lap with her, but that only barely kept me restrained in the face of a situation like this.

Her eyes regarded me again, hardly a spark registering within. “My talents have always lended themselves towards interrogation. I’ve been handling it with-”

“I mean what’s going on, Lily! Who is this poor son of a bitch you’re keeping in here, what’s he have to do with any of it, what the hell is going on around here, with you, with thather?!”

A bit of a crack. Her features pulled softly downwards into a distant frown, shoulder shifting just enough to lean her weight against the back wall of the room. Why did I have to explode like that. It didn’t even make sense, I was- I’d resolved to try and make it through this rationally, right?

“This,” she placed a hand on the back of the chair, “is the only lead we have towards something much bigger than us, Aysa.”

An arrow hissed through the air, the twang of string and wood at first in lockstep with the sound of my boot hitting the dirt. It was only a temporary state. I continued walking, and Meisha, at the moment oblivious, seemed to check how accurate she was before pulling her arm back for the next shot. Definitely seemed to be taking to the shortbow more quickly than I expected.

As much as I loved watching her practice and refine herself, there was more to do here. Just seeing me would pull all her attention onto that topic I’d put off ‘til now. Taking a deep, quiet breath, I closed the rest of this distance, announcing myself to her verbally well ahead of time. No use in scaring her.

A slight jolt through her shoulders told me she heard. The muscles gripping her bow relaxed. Twisting her body and head to face me, Meisha gave greetings with barely restrained emotion behind them.

“Janus. Sir.”

“No need. I’m off duty now. Are you alright?”

“…I’ve just been, uh, focusing. I guess.” Her eyes left mine again, head turning partially towards the field. “I think I’m making good progress.”

“From what I’ve seen, you are,” I agreed.

“Is this just to see how I’m practicing, or…?”

I shook my head. “Not like I’ve been avoiding it. Like I said, I’m off duty now. Do you have some time to take away from your practicing?”

Rather than give her answer verbally, Meisha simply began packing her things up as she normally would. Guess it made some amount of sense to treat this like an end to the day’s practices, but I still felt a pang of guilt at interrupting her in the midst of such fruitful practice. Even worse given what I was avoiding just to accommodate her.

I shouldn’t have even been doing this in the first place, what with the mounds of official reports and arrangements that had piled up in the chaos of our upper management being decapitated. I was the upper management now, or at least a large portion of it, and that damnable desk was still filled to the brim with items needing my attention. One could say I was doing this as much for myself as I was giving her preferential treatment.

That was a weird thought. I’d already tried to figure out why I went to the trouble of accommodating Meisha so consistently, why she sought me out just as often for it. She wasn’t the type of person to simply see me as exploitable. I didn’t want to think of her that way. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but I liked the idea that I’d become a bit of a father figure in her life.

I liked it, and it scared me. Made me think about people that were better off left in the past now. I didn’t get where I was by clinging to phantoms… or by replacing them. Even when my heart wanted to. Even when I logically thought it could help me heal. Thankfully I had something more immediate to focus on than that.

The two of us began walking together, parallel to the field’s demarcations and towards a rather humble shack nearer the road. It was slow goings, and no words passed between us for a while. Just good to put one foot in front of the other. Every time I stole a glance to her girlish face, I convinced myself again she was simply building up to speaking, and eventually she proved me correct.

“…She had fangs.”

“Mhm.”

“Why do we have a vampire for a-”

“She’s not,” my stilted laughter interrupted her more than my words, “a vampire.”

Meisha smiled only briefly in return. “Okay, then what about you?”

“I’m not a vampire either. I’m pretty sure they don’t exist.”

We found ourselves stopped now, along a set of old, damp logs that unofficially marked the end of this stretch of field. Beyond were a tangled mess of thorny brush and terrifyingly stubborn flower-knots, and just up this incline to our left would be the closest thing to a front entrance our camp had.

“You held her back without even breaking a sweat,” she continued, staring ahead now with little variance. “Actually, scratch that, you held her without budging afterwards. It looked unnatural.”

For the moment, I kept myself silent. She wasn’t exactly asking any questions here, after all. Just processing things out loud? I mean, it was no wonder at this point. Having several different recruitment and training programs and differing levels of transparency with each has caused more problems than this.

We liked to think of ourselves as something of a community, helping each other and shielding from judgment those of us who were disfigured in the process of becoming strong enough to protect our loved ones. That was the entire point. Keeping Meisha’s generation in the dark until they were in too deep to just bail was an insult. No, it was flat-out immoral. I’d be changing this.

“There have been some… things the Ophentum have recently been keeping hidden from you recruits,” came my explanation. “From what’s filtered down to me, it was desperation. They… didn’t want to maintain the number of recruits walking out due to not wanting to take the risks.”

“Not wanting to take the risks? What risks? There’s no way anyone would sign up for this without knowing what we were-”

“I don’t mean that.”

“I-” her head shook the barest bit, “I don’t understand.”

I took a deep breath, eyes wandering further from her face. “We couldn’t combat the threat normally. That’s what we were all thinking back then, at least, and it wasn’t exactly wrong, but, ah…”

We made so many mistakes. Our former chief administrator only lasted long enough to be thrown out by Aysa on the back of frantic compensation for what we did to her. And she was moderately lucky. Of course, we’d all learned plenty of lessons as time went on, but I hated the thought of seeing Meisha go through the worst case scenario. I hated the thought of her doing it without knowing what she was getting into.

“…We’ve been reckless, Meisha. People died because we were too eager for the results we needed. And when people started balking, we decided to stop being as transparent about it. We would have exposed you to dangerous levels of enhancement without so much as informing your consent.”

This was disgusting me even as the words left my mouth, and bile slowly rose in my throat to accompany it. I didn’t care what sort of consequences came of this. If Meisha left in abject horror and fear, that’d be justified. If she tried telling as many other people as she could, I wouldn’t be able to blame her for it. It’d make up for what we almost did to her.

“Was that really your decision?” she asked at length, voice down to a restrained flatness. “You keep saying ‘we’.”

“I’m not going to pass off all responsibility for it onto others. Especially not now that I’m in a position to do something about it.”

I could see some small amount of movement from her out of the corner of my eye. Meisha had turned to face me, and it prompted me to turn in kind. Her expression was steeled. I didn’t know what I was expecting after baring our collective sins like that, but the fact that she was still here gave me at least some measure of hope.

“Janus.”

“Yes?”

“You went through this process too?”

“Yes.”

“What made you want it?”

I paused for a moment, uselessly. There was no point in holding something back after all that. “I didn’t want the same thing that happened to my family to happen to others. And I… didn’t really have anything left to lose.”

“Are you going to stop me from doing the same, then?” she muttered, vocals lowering seemingly out of a restrained emotion. It was hard maintaining eye contact as she continued, “I don’t have anything to lose either, and you telling me all this just makes me trust that you, at least, will do the right thing for me. I don’t want to turn away in the face of danger.”

“Meisha, I- I understand that determination, but-”

“But what? I could die?”

There was no way I could think of to get across my feelings properly here, especially not in the face of knowing how much of a hypocrite I was turning into. Someone with nothing to go back to and nothing they feel like they have to live for isn’t exactly easy to rationalize with, and I knew that from multiple angles of experience.

Another spat of motion, this time from back whence we came, caught my attention. I had to admit I felt brief relief at the idea of someone coming to find me and saving me from having to answer Meisha’s persistence. Indeed, someone seemed to be marching straight over towards us. Maybe my sense of relief was premature – I wasn’t supposed to be out here, after all.

My eyes shot back to Meisha momentarily. “I’m sorry, I should see if there’s something going on.”

I mostly wanted to keep hidden the fact that I wasn’t actually off duty, here. Moving away from her before meeting up with the arriving man would let me keep pretenses up better. Had a feeling this wasn’t about official responsibilities, though; this was Dee. I hadn’t seen him since the last order given, and if he was seeking me out right now, then…

“Sir,” my subordinate greeted me once both our movements closed the gap. “I apologize for the delay.”

“You’ve been working on it?” I raised my brow briefly, posture shifting out of the casual stance I’d been taking.

“Of course.”

At my gesture, Dee handed over a small stack of files, an assortment indicative of the work I’d come to expect from him. It was quite meticulously kept. On their pages were scrawled data and descriptions of a wide variety of events available to the Ophentum’s knowledge, as well as additional intelligence I had to imagine was the cause of his long absence.

Front and center was a recent incident I wouldn’t soon forget: Endon attacked by a solitary creature. One member deceased – Gannen’s face lingered in my mind a moment – and another injured in the process. Subject destroyed by unknown factor. What few descriptions of the figure had been garnered were all here as well. This was what sparked it all.

Next page. My familiarity began to dip drastically at this point, but his attention to detail held up. Hardly anything matched up between these cases and the one I’d personally attended to, except for descriptions of what this mysterious figure looked like and seemed capable of doing. After scanning through the stack a couple times over, I felt like I could start piecing something together.

The most detailed descriptions we got placed this as looking like a woman, all with superhuman strength, durability, and flexibility, as well as an unknown capacity to seemingly enter spaces without being noticed. She tended to leave behind victims killed in the same consistent manner, save for the Endon incident, and would attempt to retreat immediately afterwards. If attacked, would not so much as hurt anyone further in self defense. Several of these described a sort of lethargic behavior in the figure, as well, but it varied.

Could I really come to any conclusions from this? The figure and the behaviors listed here seemed too tightly linked, and that altogether formed our persistent ‘special mark’ as handed down by Aysa’s orders. This was the first time anything seemed to indicate this… might actually be a thinking person. One of our members was saved thanks to her.

Then again, one of these events was dated as happening after Endon. It couldn’t simply signify some sort of change of heart or increased self control. We’d never received this sort of assistance before, nor has it been repeated since. What was I supposed to make of this whole thing? Better yet, what was I supposed to do?

Thankfully, Dee had been waiting patiently in spite of my contemplative reverie. Setting the pages back in their order and handing the stack back to him, I proceeded to order his return to the main office, asking him to set all relevant materials – this, plus anything extra he couldn’t carry out to me – aside for my later attention.

With that more or less settled for the time being, I had no more interruptions between myself and Meisha. The unpleasant reality of her will was begging to be confronted, acknowledged, or at least that’s how it felt from my past experience. It wasn’t like I could just tell her no, young lady or go to your room instead of that.

I sighed deeply. Nothing left but to turn around and be there for her. She said she trusted me more now, in a certain sense, and I wasn’t about to disappoint that, let alone betray it. Boots squeaking against the mud, I flipped my posture and brought her back into my vision again. There was no sense of annoyance or impatience on her face as I walked the short distance back, just a simple resolute quality.

The only thing stopping us from finishing what I’d long intended and dreaded doing was a quickly approaching commotion, shouts for assistance reaching us from up the grassy incline. The camp entrance.