That commotion was coming in strongly now, and the only thing stopping me from wanting to sound a camp-wide alarm immediately was the fact that it didn’t sound like we were under imminent attack. Still, this took precedence over Meisha. Without so much as a word passing between us, our eyes met, and just as quickly left as the two of us took off in the same direction.
I might have been inclined to ask her to stay behind again if she hadn’t already proven resistant to such orders. As it was, we both crested the slope just in time to see a confusing sight. We weren’t being attacked, as I thought, but something definitely happened. Two members I only barely recognized were scrambling in, helping prop up between them a youth clad in blood-stained leather tatters.
“What’s going on here?” my voice raised, taking on all the cold qualities of the leader I had to be again as I strode closer. “We have some sort of situation?”
“We need to get this kid some medical attention!” one responded loudly, as much to me as to the few others who were close enough to already be alerted and on their way. A quick glance told me that they’d had the presence of mind to take one of the stocked stretchers before marching over here.
As the man continued helping the youth forwards, his comrade – checking to be sure the two were stable enough to walk together – broke away to join me off to the side. Before he’d even stopped walking entirely, he said, “Sir! We rushed here as fast as we could without potentially risking things getting worse.”
“Is this individual injured?”
“Superficially,” he responded, casting a nervous glance to the quickly departing crew. “It- I mean, it seems like they weren’t injured in battle or anything, but I can’t tell, sir. I’m not trained beyond basic first aid.”
“You were posted at the north watchpoint, right? Is it still manned?”
“Yes, sir, but just the reserve.”
“Thank you for your quick action. You should head back there now, make sure nothing’s coming our way,” I instructed.
His compliance was immediate. Soon, Meisha and I were left standing alone in the mud again. That didn’t mean my responsibility here was over, though. With a quick gesture for Meisha’s benefit, I set off for the medical ward, and she stayed close behind. The girl at least knew better than to pester me with questions at the moment.
As we traversed the familiar spaces, activity and voice both were abuzz, likely at the sight of someone being rushed over to the hospital on a stretcher. Thankfully it wasn’t so bad as to inhibit us from following them; those members still out in the open parted easily to allow us passage, and as a result, our destination loomed into view within minutes.
We must have arrived only shortly after the injured party was accepted in, which made sense. Three nurses had begun the careful task of peeling layers of soaked cloth and damaged leather off the youth’s body. It didn’t seem bad enough for me to want to turn Meisha’s gaze away, though to be fair, whatever worse wounds might have been present were obscured by the nurses’ bodies at the moment.
As one of the caretakers moved away from the cot, I strode forward and got her attention. “Have any idea on their status?”
“Awake… technically. Seems to be in shock. We’ll need more time to ascertain anything further.”
“The injuries?” I pressed.
“Not life-threatening. Don’t worry.”
With that, my brief time with the nurse was over, and her duties pulled her away again. My eyes quickly scanned over the rest of the room, counting heads – myself, Meisha, the two nurses now present, our hurt stranger, and the member who had been first hauling them in here. He was still present, tucked away in a corner and shifting around uncomfortably.
“Thank you for your decisive action,” I began, having quickly advanced towards him. “Do you mind if I ask you some questions about all this?”
“Of course, sir,” his posture straightened out, “go ahead.”
“First, describe everything that happened.”
At my request, the story unfolded, and it gave me far fewer answers than I’d been hoping for. He described this youth being spotted scrambling down the road in a half-blind panic, frantically scanning in all directions even as their body seemingly began giving out under them. From there, it was a race to help get them back to camp, as keeping them at the post long enough to administer any amount of medical aid proved impossible.
So it started out as some sort of paranoid hysteria, and had slowly worn down into the shock we observed now. Combined with having been injured in some form, that gave strong indication that there was something to flee from. Certainly no amount of running around would have damaged that armor in such a way.
What was it, then? A monster most likely – something we know, or something new? Depending on the situation, any number of observed specimens could have caused this, but their condition and successful escape made me think it was either weak, or they’d been part of a large contingent. What party could that have been, then? I didn’t recall sending-
And then it clicked. The group from Seyasta had been running late. They would have been approaching from that same direction. Furthermore, the survivor seemed too young to have been eligible for sign-up and completion of training, yet they were wearing Ophentum standard issue. They were a prospective recruit that was picked up. My blood chilled.
“Meisha,” I addressed her again, “please do me a favor and rush over to the barracks. We need an additional garrison at the north post, now.”
She hurried off without a verbal acknowledgement, without wasting the time needed for one. If the group we sent to escort Mayor Hektor were attacked by something strong enough to leave only one survivor, it made me consider suiting up myself, heading out north to pre-empt whatever might be heading for my men. Irrationally, I knew.
As useless as it likely was, I turned my gaze back towards the man who just got through explaining things to me, asking him to head out as well. If Seyasta itself had any indications of hostile activity nearby, or perhaps had received survivors as well, we needed to know. A quick nod was all that preceded his obedience.
The last thing to do in this situation, I wanted done personally. Whoever this person was, I needed to get answers. I needed to see what we were up against. My gut, twisting in anticipation over the coming days, told me that there was something we would soon need to deal with that was much more sinister than a recurring mysterious figure.
“Nurse, is there something you can administer to encourage coherency? I need to speak with them.”
This wasn’t making sense. Did Lily think just spouting off a one-liner would be a sufficient explanation for this? Moreover, come to think of it, why was Elva okay with this? She had to know about it, right? Or… no, was Lily keeping her from even being interested in checking up on this to hide it? Is that why Elva stayed behind? Could she even do that? Not all of them had the ability.
My instincts kept telling me to hide as much as I could. To do everything to make sure Lily stayed on my side in spite of it. That was pointless, though; she already knew what I was feeling. Relying on deception left me powerless here. Frankly, I needed to examine myself.
Was I okay here? With this?
What was I willing to do?
One shaky breath. “I want to know more, Lily.”
It was just as hollow and stilted as her previous expressions, maybe even a bit fatigued, but she smiled at me just as I said those words. A brief spark of fear ran through my chest as I asked myself whether she could have been forcing me to feel this way, like during that one scandal that should have tempered their judgment earlier.
“Mind me starting from the beginning?”
“Go ahead,” I nodded.
“So,” she grunted softly, stretching her arms forward casually for a moment, “there used to be a man named Jacquir Actomer amongst our town watch. One day, he seemed to sorta just… vanish for a little bit. So briefly you normally wouldn’t pay it any mind. But there was something wrong, after that. He seemed wrong.
“No one noticed but me. After talking about it with- uh, another couple people, I decided to just keep an ongoing eye on him. Eventually, with so many other events happening, I all but forgot about it. Can’t really blame me for that, right?
“But I’ve been getting better. I never really… looked at myself enough to notice it, not until I actually started seeing something, an otherwise-invisible shadow looming over what I thought was Jacquir.
“That brought it all back center-stage to my attention, but it wasn’t until Senna disappeared that we decided this was all suspicious enough to warrant drastic investigation. His behavior, especially, it was- you know, he tried to flat out escape. He was just clever enough to try and keep up the facade all throughout this little process.
“And I just… stopped him. I never tried to actively insert a negative emotion into someone before, or remove positive ones, but it was so easy anyways. Pushing down any desire he had to even move.”
That gave me the answer I was thinking about earlier. I’m sure she recognized the brief twist in my heart – and in my stomach – at the direct confirmation of her powers. And the story itself? I had no idea what to make of it.
“We tied him up here,” Lily continued impassionately. “Tying him up doesn’t actually do much though. With any amount of luck on his side, we wouldn’t have noticed as quickly as we did. Now the ropes are… actually sort of useless?” She paused, raising an eyebrow awkwardly at the man’s bindings.
“Wait, he was escaping from the ropes how?” I used the opportunity to cut in.
“Molding his body. We’re still not sure about the mechanics of it. What we do know is it’s not related to alchemy.”
This was getting more bizarre by the minute. “Okay, how’re you keeping him here then?”
“My father is a proficient alchemist. It’s not exactly his field, but with some assistance he cobbled together something to keep Fake Jacquir’s limbs from moving. I, uh, really don’t think you want to hear the technical details of that,” her face wrenched into a self conscious smirk. “If his shirt was off, you’d be able to see a sigil somewhere on him.”
“Okay, okay, uhm,” my head swam a bit from all the information I was having to digest here, “so you’re saying this is… what, a fake? Someone who is pretending to look like someone you were friends with?”
“I wouldn’t call him my friend but-”
“And you’re holding him here with a sigil and interrogating him. And also you saw big spooky shadows all over him for some reason.”
Lily let out quite the extended sigh at this point, deciding to finally move out from behind the man’s chair and seat herself against the wall. I wasn’t sure how much to mimic here. As a half measure, I took a few steps to bring us closer together whilst remaining on my feet.
“Jeez this is annoying, uh… Oh, not you, just needing to explain all this,” she instantly clarified. “At first I was trying to figure out what the shadow represented. I also wanted to know why he seemed to be partially immune to me.”
“But you stopped him from running.”
“Partially immune. I can affect him, but no matter what I do, I always get a set of very specific readings from him. I figure what I visibly saw around him might be something that’s preventing me from reading his actual emotional state.”
I paused for a moment. Here, rather than simply assimilate whatever she was telling me, I wanted to take the time to try and provide input. If this was all true, it was not only serious, it was fucking weird. I’d never seen or heard of anyone or anything that could do exactly what she was describing.
Lily’s gaze turned away from me, back towards this ‘Fake Jacquir’ to our side, and my eyes accompanied her’s. He was nearly catatonic at this point. She might have been keeping him like that or something, who fucking knew at this point. Whether he was unconscious or not, though, the silence and lack of movement was disturbing.
“Alright, I might just be talking out of my ass here,” I began, earning Lily’s attention again, “but immunity to emotion reading is extremely narrow, and giving false positives for emotion reading even moreso. It also seems unrelated to body morphing or whatever the hell he was doing. That’s why you think it has something to do with the shadows you saw attached to but separate from him, right?”
She nodded silently. I continued.
“If that logic is correct… it implies someone knew about you and set it up so that he could avoid detection.”
“Like I said,” her eyes returned to his form, “something much bigger than us.”
Was that meant to be saying something more than at first glance? It was hard to actually get an idea of what she was thinking or feeling, but I couldn’t help but feel like that line was more applicable to me than anything else. Like my… goals, my trauma, all of it was silly in comparison to whatever we were on the cusp of uncovering. I knew that was an irrational response on my part, though.
“But I don’t think either of us care that much,” Lily finished flatly, as if in response to my inner thoughts. Her words came without any of the derision I would have expected from that sentiment. And she specifically grouped us together.
“We don’t care? We don’t?”
Lily apparently found it time to stand up again. “Both of our primary concerns here consist of finding Senna again. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. I’ve been playing at it gently up ‘til now, but I’ve run out of patience. And you have too, right?”
“How can you be so sure you’ll find Senna through him?” I followed along as Lily stepped gingerly to the front of this shapeshifter. “And… why are you doing all this with me? Accommodating me?”
For the first time, even if just briefly, I thought I saw something genuine written on her features as she took in my question. It was quickly buried beneath an awkward sigh and a pointed lack of eye contact. Couldn’t imagine she actually cared. She hardly even knew me, after all, and I somehow doubted she shared my vendetta. That just made it all the more confusing when she answered.
“I don’t really know the answer,” she admitted, “but in some twisted way, it’s nice having another person here who at least shares the general goal I’ve had eating away at me. Either way, this guy seems closely enough related to this whole mess that even if he doesn’t know about her, he might point us in the right direction to find her.”
Her hands stretched forwards, well into the shapeshifter’s personal space. Delicate fingers, with a gentleness that belied her intentions, unbound the cloth that kept his mouth closed. The man’s eyes fluttered open. Was that genuine exhaustion or continued interference from her? Either way, he was a lot more active within short order.
“W-wait,” he began in a voice unfamiliar to me, a voice which quickly cracked, “please, I haven’t done anyth-”
His words immediately choked out into a broken mess of breathes, short hisses, and longer sobs. The man’s body nearly started convulsing as those vocalizations got louder, and only then did I start getting an idea of what might have caused those injuries on his body. He didn’t need to have been abused in captivity to get hurt like that. Did the sigil not stop involuntary movements?
This was hard to watch. In spite of myself, and of having decided to accept whatever I needed to in order to finish this, the sight of this unconventional form of torture elicited an emotional reaction in me. I didn’t want to see this. I didn’t even want to be a part of it, but Lily was right. We both just wanted to find that girl.
“I’m not very good at this,” Lily remarked at length. The man’s breathing began to slow down, shaky as it still was.
“I… I can’t…”
Another vocalization, a near-growl of deep anguish, pushed out his throat. My eyes averted instinctually. Was this really going to get us anywhere? Thankfully he wasn’t at risk of dying… or at least I didn’t think so. Even still, we’d be more likely to get a false confession than anything at this rate.
The noises died down again, indicating Lily’s relaxation, and gentle movement on her part got my attention perked up again. She leaned forward, pressing one arm of hers against the chair. I wish I could tell what she was feeling during all this or if it was affecting her.
“You’re going to need to be more cooperative here,” she insisted, her tone a flat threat. “I’ve been trying to get what I needed without doing this, but you’re not letting me. You’re making me do this. You’re keeping me from-”
“Wait” he croaked out, the fearful insistence in his voice interrupting one of the few expressions of feeling Lily displayed this entire time, “is- is there anything near us? Anything alive?”
A couple seconds of hard silence. Lily and I looked to each other, with my puzzlement most likely matching her obvious own. I imagined she wasn’t used to navigating situations where she couldn’t directly tell a person’s intentions. Turning both of our attentions back to him, I decided to interject myself for once.
“If you mean other people, we’re the only ones who came here. There wasn’t anyone else in this building, I don’t think?” A nod from Lily confirmed that.
The bound shapeshifter seemed to be putting considerable effort into simply stabilizing his breathing. Neither of us threatened him further, waiting until at least he sputtered out the word, “animals”. And nothing else. He obviously could speak more than that, given his earlier sentence, so was he censoring himself?
“Aysa, we need to search this room. No, the entire building, plus exterior.”
“He’ll be stuck in place, same as always,” she twisted her body to face, then approach, my position. It was only once her lips reached my ear that she continued in a low tone. “I still can’t feel it directly, so I don’t know for sure, but I think this is genuine.”
“Why?” I returned her whisper.
“I haven’t had many opportunities to try and get information from him, and my previous attempts – making him feel more positively about spilling it – seemingly had no effect. I couldn’t understand why. The fact that he was obviously affected by the more extreme insertions here just added to my confusion. But I’ve got it now.
“Even being harmed didn’t make him willing to talk. It was only after my words got more personal- maybe he figured there was a chance I’d listen to something other than an immediate answer? And then what he did finally say wasn’t just some convenient bit of info seemingly meant to deceive us into thinking we had what we needed.”
“…He’s afraid of something, and that stopped him from being willing to speak about it even while emotionally favorable to you,” I finished the logical train. It actually made sense when I thought about it. She couldn’t directly sense his actual emotions, so the fear preventing him from talking went uncontested.
Lily pulled away again, volume returning to normal. “Search this room, then the others along this hallway. I’m going to go comb through the front of the house and outside it. See if there are any animals around here.”
She left, and I was soon alone, or at least as alone as I could be when sharing a room with someone trying very hard not to look at me. And what a strange person, too. I couldn’t help but feel empathetic all this time, with how human he felt, but… he wasn’t. At least I figured he wasn’t, if these abilities weren’t the result of alchemy.
Only with a hint of dry amusement did I try to imagine whether my former subordinates would have simply tried to kill him or not. There would probably have been a lot of debate over whether we killed for the sake of protecting people or purely for the sake of inhuman things being dead. Maybe I was a hypocrite for displaying any amount of empathy for this… shapeshifter.
All in all, those few contemplative moments left a foul taste in my mouth as I got to work. Relatively easy work, at that. I was left to check this room myself, and it didn’t have much needing to be combed through, but I still wanted to be thorough about it. The space underneath his chair was barren, as was the empty space surrounding. The corners, both upper and lower, showed some signs of cobwebs, but nothing scurrying around that I could see. No noticeable holes in the walls, either.
As much as I was prepared to find something and start internally questioning whether it counted based on size – insects should count as animals here, right? – the search didn’t leave me with anything, and that on its own conjured a problem to mind. What if we didn’t find any non-plants around here? Should we take a perceived lack of animals as another sign we’re being successfully deceived? How soon should we start overthinking it like that?
Stepping out into the hallway revealed my next target, another door directly across from me. All of these would be under my purview, I believed. I could hear Lily shuffling around somewhere to the left of me, along with the occasional grunt of exertion and scraping of heavier objects against the wooden floorboards.
This next room seemed like just the sort of place that would require a dedicated look-through. Chairs stacked up atop each other, various sorts of older furniture placed side by side in some ill-fated attempt to make it all take up as little space as possible, all sorts of things like that. I guessed the chairs would be my first target.
Moving this mess would demand a certain level of caution, lest I allow the stack to topple unceremoniously onto me. I mean, I’d probably be fine, but I didn’t want to clean that up if it happened. Before even starting, I decided to pause and remove the coverings I’d been keeping on up ‘til now, if only to keep myself from stifling to death in here.
And I stayed silent after that. Listening. I realized that would be a better first target. If there were scratches or squeaks coming from anywhere in this room, that’d be an important sign, maybe let me direct my attention or just skip all this and go find Lily.
…Nothing. Aside from my own breathing and the occasional distant reminder of Lily’s presence in this house, this place was deathly quiet. Of course, that didn’t mean there truly was nothing in here, but it didn’t give me much ‘hope’. I didn’t even know why I was bothering to put this much thought into it, since I still didn’t know what we’d do if we did find something.
In any case, I did get to it. Everything was easy enough to move with my level of strength, if I was willing to accept the horrendous screeching of improperly handled wood against wood. Which I wasn’t really. I didn’t even know whose stuff this all was, either, so I made sure to be careful about not damaging it. Didn’t stop me from having a brief sneezing fit from all the dust I was kicking up, though.
Somewhere behind all this stuff, I eventually came to an old, heavily chipped desk. Ducking under it briefly revealed similar layers of omnipresent dust and absolutely no indications that anything bigger than a tick could possibly have been moving around here. Opening the drawers out of empty curiosity got me empty results, aside from the last, which still held a couple of weathered parchments.
Once I was done in that room, I left and repeated the process another two times. One that I entered was a bedroom that’d been converted into a makeshift book-stacking convention, something that made me curious about whether anyone had any plans for them, and the other was full of sealed wooden crates. Both intrusions revealed absolutely nothing, not even spiders in the corners or flies buzzing around in the stale air.
Just as I returned to the same hallway for the fifth time or so today, wrapping the familiar cloth around my hair and the sides of my neck, Lily’s frame entered my field of vision again. My eyes turned to witness her stepping nimbly in through the half-opened door. Guess she finished checking outside.
“You done?” she called out gently, her eyes glancing between my own and the door I passed through.
I nodded. “Not even a spider that I can see. Plenty of dust, though. What is this place, some sort of makeshift storage?”
“I believe we had a few families leave their stuff in here after, uh, moving in and all,” she explained briefly. “Not much outside either. I did see a wheat-snake out back, but it was on the opposite side of the room we were in.”
“I’m not sure whether that’s a true positive for us, but I don’t think there’s anything more we can do about it. We should head back in there and finish things.”
Lily began walking my way. She had the same look of dead impartiality that she stuck to all this time, but combining it with such a casual manner of speaking about an operation that involved previous torture rubbed me the wrong way. Did she just not give a shit about it, even on principle? She didn’t seem to be a sadist.
Fuck it, hypocrite or not, my target or not, I refused to do things that way. Lily wanted me on her side for all this, right? And she seemed to be respectful of my autonomy enough to not just force my cooperation thus far. If I was going to be stuck with her, then I was going to make some things clear.
“Okay, listen,” I stepped to the side just enough to block her path, “I still don’t know what you’re expecting from me, but if you want my help moving forward, then I do not want any repeats of what happened back there.”
Lily sighed curtly in response. “What’s that supposed to mean? And we should be doing this more quickly, before our information can change,” she noted, beginning to try and move past me. “If you have concerns, then-”
“Yeah, I have concerns.” My hand, gripping her shoulder tightly, arrested the movement of both her legs and lips. “No more torture, even briefly like that. We find info using methods that won’t just get us false confessions. Got it?”
“…You’re not in charge of the things around you anymore, Aysa.” Her eyes narrowed slightly, with that infuriating little frown coming back again. In spite of myself, my grip loosened a bit, and she pulled away gently. “Come on. This is to the benefit of us both.”