Beginnings 6.6

We were drifting back into an awareness again. Or… not? How could one tell? Whatever passed for dreams in this state were mundane, fleeting, and drifted away at the slightest breeze. These memories could hardly distinguish between any of it. Moving, or sitting, or flying, or resting, feeling, or distant, or cold, or warm, or loved, or not.

A slight tremor rebounded through the earth, just beneath. No, a host of them. It was the same as earlier. A parade of mammoths or some other strange beasts that performed for us before fading out into a dimly lit room. At least, that was the impression from last time. They were never actually glimpsed.

Just the slight shifting of the dirt one must have sat on. The textures were all wrong, though. Sometimes it was plainly dirt, but sometimes it became velvet and confusing. Sometimes it felt like nothing at all, like one was suspended over a great disc, and the shifting would cease… or perhaps it was simply too distant to feel anymore.

What was actually being felt? What did we look like? That seemed nebulous, too. The mental grasp being held on the boundaries of this form had long blurred, alongside everything else. It bled outwards, gently. It had bled. Now the mass of self pulsed in a loop of self-contained motion. No breath. Breathing would have disrupted the minute swirls of air along what must have been my skin, and it would have been recognizable. Yes. The only disruptions other than that pulse came from the distant outside, from whatever we failed to dream into vision.

And into that atmosphere of gentle timeliness, something like a peal of thunder echoed throughout, a sensation so clear and energetic that every loosely collected fragment of my awareness was called into focus. And we gave it pause. We. We? It rang in our- in my? ears for a time, and times. And it became clear that I… I needed to let it move. Progress. The thunder was unleashed, and as it died down, another roaring input shattered whatever remained of my fugue.

The door was open. The door? I was already assembling conclusions that confused me. There was a door across from me, and it was open, and I could successfully determine that much. But that… oh. I remembered something more now. I was told to stay in here at some point (by who?), and I was afraid (of what?), but I obeyed (why?).

Light was pouring into this space, light which was thankfully a bit too far away to reach me directly. I think that was what snapped me out of it. Those foggy, grey rays scoured every open inch of this interior, a room of scant wooden furnishing and earthen floors. Nothing unusual, but the viewing of it left me with a dreadful, familiar discomfort, and only after a moment’s digest did I understand why.

I was seeing it all in repeat, in a fractal multitude of perspectives that hardly felt as unnatural as they should have. And the rest of me… I was still held together in something that outwardly resembled my body, but the internal space was all wrong, and it crept out from the edges into my surroundings, into the damp wood I had propped myself up against. In a fit of revulsion, I retracted fully into my own body, and the divergence vanished.

Air flooded into my lungs in that first, eager gasp. Like the first rush of wakefulness jolting one out of sleep, I was well and truly aware again, breathing and shaking and pumping blood through newly knit veins again. Back to a comfortable humanity. Generally. The only thing still bothering me was my sense of time, or perhaps just my chronological memory. How long was I like that? No, more importantly, how was I like that?

I never let myself go so thoroughly before. Everything just seemed to fade out of view as I sat here, what with the utter lack of stimulation and unwillingness to make even the slightest move. And the eyes… why did I keep seeing them appear in the moments of least control? Were they present during my battle with Ratheim as well? Even with my typical self restored, I was beset by a lingering disquiet.

More important things to focus on. The door was still open, but the light cascading through that fresh portal was now partially blocked by some sort of… figure. Instinctual calculation placed them as a bit taller than myself, and cloaked in a heavy, muted blue robe. Anything else was hard to ascertain due to the cowl staying in its place and shading their features.

Or was there something else? I had a twinge of recollection, a faint, unsure current at the base of my neck that prickled with unsatisfied familiarity. A moment of fruitless concentration bore nothing, though. What would-

“The conclave has finally finished discussing prior matters,” spake the disconcertingly familiar voice, interrupting me before I could waste more time thinking. “We’re ready to address your situation. Forgive the delay.”

That voice sparked something, brought me back to a set of memories I neglected to think of reviewing. I remembered it plentifully now, how Jasz led me down into this village – however long ago that was – and how I had to strain myself playing along with the peacefulness of it all. The weird, nearly reverent looks we would get, the elaborate pathways… the person he eventually brought me to before disappearing. This person.

I was asked to wait here. Put on hold ‘til whatever business they and the others had to deal with was over and done. And that was what I had to obey. I had no idea how closely I was still being observed, either by these people or by him, so I dared not do anything but sit and rot in the dark of this lonely, barren shack up a hill.

Only after this did I find my voice, and only a brief start to my curiosity. “What is this place?”

“…Perhaps it was too quick of me to assume you were inhibited,” they mused aloud, staring at me with some measure of surprise. “You were very quiet when you first arrived. My name is Taumi, by the way.”

The reason for my quietness was that ‘my guard was up’, but I refrained from saying so. My guard was still up, after all, more than ever. Simply asking a question about my location was enough to prompt scrutiny here? What sort of things were they expecting of me, then? Would it be a mistake to continue acting with my full faculties?

No, there was no way to take that back now. Trying to reverse this would lead to more questions. If I was correct to suspect anyone I came into contact with, though, then all I had to do was feed them the right impressions. Make myself seem cooperative, malleable. Keep it up until I knew everything I needed to know.

“Senna,” I offered in return, perking my head up with excruciating deliberation. “It was simply a bit… overwhelming at first. Having some time to myself did help, though. Could I ask how much you’ve been told about me?”

“I’ve been told enough. More importantly, if you’re not in too poor a state to continue, then I’d like you to come with me. There are people you are meant to meet.” Taumi’s body language shifted a bit, as if to invite me out the door both verbally and not.

Alright, here it was. I had a balancing act staring me in the face; from here on out, I needed to avoid laying it on so thick as to make them think I was merely pretending. It was probably doable. The only questions were what they knew, what I should try to lie about or hide, and what I could afford to cooperate on.

With that in mind, I pulled myself to my feet, a subtle, unintentional smoothness to my motions that I hoped they failed to see. When Taumi turned to lead me outside, I followed. My eyes had fully adjusted by now, and with that, the drabness of the day became apparent; light that seemed comparatively blinding earlier was revealed to be a monotonous light-grey filtering down through thick cloud cover.

Given our location, it was no surprise to feel the sloping of a mild incline beneath our feet, or the chilled moisture resting heavily around me, both in the air and on the grasses and mosses I tread upon. An overgrown, mud-slick footpath just ahead would lead us downwards. I imagined that this would actually have been a nice vantage point to see the village below us, were it not utterly blocked off by layers of tree trunks and the heavy tendrils of vines.

As we pushed through what assortments hung in our path, my memories of the day I arrived steadily returned, chip by chip. Well, it was not so much that I could not remember at all, but certain things certainly called them back to mind. For instance, the two of us eventually came to pass by a shrine which, off to one side, marked our passage. I took note of it the first time I was escorted up here.

“Would you mind if we took a break here?” I asked in an odd tone, stuck between a briefly-considered feigning of fatigue and a more truthful curiosity.

“I don’t believe you should be tired,” my guide, halting their movement for a moment, replied. “Jasz mentioned you displayed much greater endurance than he during his care of you.”

That decided it for me then. “I was just wanting to look at this shrine-thing is all.”

“Ah.”

Taumi, without further comment, refrained from even turning to face my direction, leaving me to satiate my curiosity with a relative lack of scrutiny. Whether that was because of my behavior – something about it causing their guard to relax? – or something else, I had to be content with it. I wanted to take a look either way.

It was a humble structure, all told: a set of pilings driven into the ground to support a small tiled roof over some sort of carved stone… one that was almost recognizable. Several of the engraved sigils were either very similar or outright identical to the ones I took note of further south, along the marked trail. The primary difference between them was a large, central void chiseled into this one near its base.

To literally top it all off, a wide wooden bowl had been placed on the stone itself. The angle was hard to navigate, but perhaps there were offerings of some sort in there? The roofing made more sense in that context. With it, their oblations were protected from the omnipresent dripping dew of leaves overhead, something I could not say about my hair.

There was not much more to see after that. When I stood and turned to rejoin them, my guide took it as a signal for us to continue onwards, and silence fell over our gentle descent thereafter. I was obviously curious about what that shrine meant, what relation it could possibly have had to the other objects, all of that, but right now my thoughts were more occupied on what was directly in store for me here.

“You never answered my first question,” I put forward… awkwardly.

“Quite a bit more talkative today,” Taumi noted. “You’re curious about our village, right?”

“Mhm. I never knew people could live this deep north.”

“Well,” their voice was punctuated by each brief impact of our feet against the path as we continued, “its name is Formier.”

“…And?”

“I’m sorry, but I am forbidden from speaking of most things until you have been addressed formally. Based on what I’ve seen, though, I’m sure there won’t be any troubles for you.”

Maybe I was on the right track in thinking I was relaxing their cautions, after all. That statement gave me more to work with than what they probably assumed. I could do this. It would have to be mostly blind, though; given this apparent forbiddance, I figured there would be little else of value I could coax out of them, accidentally or otherwise. This was a good time to mentally compile what I knew, then.

Their response to my question about what they knew of me was a dodge, and given that they cited Jasz, that meant he was asked about me once we split apart. He knew the general theme of my abilities, but not the full scope of them – by extension, the same is likely true of them. Chorazom must not have given these people any direct information about me, else they would have spoken with much more confidence on what I could do.

Actually, on that note, they mentioned some sort of conclave discussing something, right? Addressing matters, making decisions… not Chorazom. Not him, or their god or gods or whatever. That was critically important, far moreso than Taumi could have possibly conceived. I knew that that entity occasionally engaged in or interfered with an event directly, but perhaps it was more rare than I was assuming? It seemed to rely on agents like Jasz in some capacity…

That meant it might not have been paying attention to me.

It was one, simple realization, yet it briefly galvanized me with all the same strength. Assuming I was under constant vigilance was the only safe thing to do, but what were my possibilities now? Was I going to do anything with this? No, what could I afford to, really?

The initial spark of imaginative hope quickly died down after that, quashed by the fact that I had very little room to maneuver. It changed nothing. There was no way it could. If I was ever discovered, it meant Lily would die soon after. Was there a way for me to sustain resistance without risking her like that?

A deep sigh escaped my lips, prompting Taumi to ask whether anything was wrong, and I obviously denied it. I was starting to get irritated at myself again. However many times I resolved to stop thinking about it and just try to navigate whatever happened in my life, I kept falling into this process of… what, overthinking it, right?

It was better not to think at all, at least for right now. The rest of the distance down this trail progressed quickly once I was fixated on nothing but putting one foot in front of the other. As the terrain began leveling out, several offshoots branched off from our current path, each with hints of stonework partially obscured beneath layers of fallen leaves, between upturned roots, behind veils of vines and low-hanging branches. We were in the village proper.

Visibility of the sky from here was virtually nil. In place of what light would normally filter down, unsettling green torches were lit at regular intervals along each walkway, by each doorway within sight. It was hard to tell at a brief glance, but I felt as if none of them were actually burning anything. I smelled no smoke. Stranger, these were a different hue than the lights I saw when viewing this place from a distance.

Taumi, only briefly gesturing for my sake, took me down the rightmost path through this area, apparently leading me through a more populated section of the settlement. I saw numerous faces of common villagers as we passed by, and each exhibited nothing more than a mellow recognition or interest in us. They were… very normal, and that felt weird after my expectations were set by the likes of Jasz and these ceremonially garbed hierarchs.

We must have been going deeper than the mere shoal I had first been exposed to, upon arriving in Formier. What little familiarity I previously had was quickly slipping away as Taumi deftly brought us through the twists and turns of these passages – for they certainly felt more like subterranean channels than anything else at this point – and the verdant lamps were casting stronger shadows now. What a sight this was.

Each door that jutted into view bore the same set of etchings on its surface, the wood solid and reinforced with a grey substance by the edges, and of an unfamiliar shade. Was that alchemically treated? And what about those markings? They did not seem to indicate who or what lay within, if each was identical… were these residences, perhaps? What could possibly necessitate reinforced doors?

Meanwhile, if there were any merchant stores or artisan workshops or anything else like that around here, they were escaping my notice. In fact, it was hard to distinguish what I was looking at at all anymore, with how much was simply blending together as we passed through. Certainly did not help that this was so confusing to navigate. Perhaps I should ask someone later, try to learn more about how these people lived?

It was only after emerging from those tangled recesses into more open territory that we came upon what I assumed to be our target. Like a curtain of green parting to the grey air, the previously overgrown foliage and interwoven stone structures peeled away to the crisp wind and what felt like a significant sight. My guide was continuing onwards, but I had to pause for a moment just to soak it in.

The primary feature of this large clearing was a set of several stone pillars, each at least twice as tall as myself, with crawling plantlife clinging to the surfaces and stretched between them. Balanced atop them was a substantially more youthful frond roof as shelter for what lay beneath: a massive, low to the ground table or altar of some kind, rich reddish-brown in coloration. It was accompanied but a number of standing torches and other items I could only guess as to the purpose of.

Much more relevant right now were the host assembled within this pavilion we were approaching, a small handful of individuals all clothed in the same subtle garb as Taumi. They were, as a whole, standing about with in a casually haphazard way, perhaps conversing amongst themselves before our arrival. I continued up to the edge of the shade as my guide moved in to join them properly.

I was able to get a good look at each of their faces as they regarded me and the one returning to them. The centermost figure – the one who spared Taumi only a glance before fixing her gaze on me – was a woman in her older years, though her olive skin and raven-black hair were both quite well maintained. Those by her side had similar ethnic features, but varied in terms of age and gender.

“Taumi, brother,” one said in greeting, moving to clasp hands with them as they approached, “we were just starting to get concerned. Anything unexpected happen?”

Removing their own hood, Taumi replied, “Not at all, aside from our guest’s surprisingly pleasant lucidity. I believe she’s in a better state now than before. Is the representative here?”

“She will be joining us after our decision,” answered the elder.

As if brought into line by that one statement, the various members of what I figured was the ‘conclave’ that Taumi referred to took their seats across from me, along a crescent of stout, ornamental sitting pillows. I maintained my position on this side of the centerpiece. Still felt awkward in a way, unsure of what was expected or appropriate of me. At my reticence, the elderly woman gestured for me to come closer, and I approached.

“Sit,” she commanded sternly. My eyes snapped down to my feet, at the pillow I was obviously meant to use, before posturing myself on my knees in as formal a stance as came to mind. It seemed to be adequately pleasing.

“Another of the Children, brought here to us,” the elder’s voice rang out, gesturing briefly to me. “What is your name?”

“Senna.”

“Senna. We are the conclave of shepherds for this people. Our task today will be judging your compatibility and your competency, with the intention of bringing you into the burdens of your birthright.”

“As you are apparently of greater age than most who are judged thusly, the standards will be appropriately higher,” the gruff voice of the man to the left added. That did not sound great for me.

“First, what is your age?” Taumi began.

“I… do not remember properly.” A partial truth. I would likely have been able to keep track better had I been taught what the year was in my childhood. As it was, I could only guess at it, and I hoped that would be good enough.

“A rough estimate, then.”

“At least two hundred years,” I answered, to the best confidence I could muster. While it did not exactly send ripples of confusion through their ranks, the ‘shepherds’ did glance amongst themselves for a scant few moments.

“We do not expect you to understand the workings of God any better than we do,” the elder spoke again, “but we would like to know, from your own thoughts, why you think you were left to fend for yourself for so long. After all, He is otherwise vigilant in his care.”

Just like I was thinking, my freedom – if you could call it that whilst I was burdened with my mother’s curse – was unusual. Did my existence present some sort of problem or inconsistency for them? They worshipped that thing apparently, and now I threw a wrench in what they believed? Was I going to be- wait, no, Taumi said they thought it would go alright, more or less. They already knew I was older than usual, so it was probably just a matter of understanding, not something to panic over.

So what was going on here? Chorazom made offspring like me somehow and then sent us here to be vetted? Something about that felt like it did not make sense to me. Even more dissonant was the generally cordial tone I was receiving here, like some sort of slap in the face after I was coerced into joining them. But did they know about that?

Time to place my bet. “I am sorry, but I genuinely do not know. I never even, uh, knew about him. Before all this.”

“What do you mean by ‘all this’?”

“From the point he told me what I was and where to go, ‘til now,” I clarified briefly, excruciatingly trying to avoid the edge that threatened to seep into my words.

“Hm…”

“Now, ah,” Taumi’s voice cut in again, giving a pointed look at another of the seated shepherds, “to dispel the concerns of some of our fellows, we would like to ask about your disposition to all this.”

“You have lived a time on this earth, after all. Perhaps you had grown attached,” the oldest man present croaked. Was that simply due to my age, or was this related to the surname I gave when Jasz asked? Was that a misstep?

“Ah… no. I have traveled all my life-” which was at least true, “-so I had no opportunities to settle down. It was too dangerous, with how… different I was to everyone else.”

It seemed like I navigated that perfectly, as the little details in their expressions signalled acceptance to my answer. And, if nothing else had before, it guaranteed that they knew far less than Chorazom did. They seemed to have no idea of what that thing took from me, what it threatened to do in the process of reclaiming its precious ‘property’. My gut contorted in a mixture of revulsion, hatred, and melancholy to remember that conversation.

I was… angry at it. I was. What a stupid thing that probably was to fixate on, but it felt of dire importance in the moment. There was still something in me that could fight, that wanted to fight. Rage might have been the only thing letting me refuse to entertain a more simple and easy despair. I clung to that feeling in my chest even as the judgment continued.

With a tone of finality, the elderly woman asked me, “Then, as a formality, you wish to claim your place amongst your siblings, the Children, and among us who serve?”

A deep breath. “Yes.”

The conclave joined in a silent chorus of nods and pleased looks, as extreme an emotion as anything I had seen from the group thus far even in its dullness. I passed. The way they questioned me made it apparent that they were more concerned in making sure I was trustworthy and at least somewhat willing than they were in actually having answers. Were they just satisfied in not knowing why someone like me was here?

Regardless, they obviously considered this portion of my induction to be concluded. They decided that it was time to call their ‘representative’ – of who? The other ‘Children’? – over, a decision accompanied only by a brief signal of the elder’s left hand over her face and chest – something with religious significance? And with that, the conclave stood. I was being left here.

“Taumi-” I stuttered out as the safest person here passed me by. Their eyes lingered on me only briefly as the group, one by one, proceeded back.

“Just wait here,” they said hurriedly to avoid pausing. “You’ll be fine. Good job.”

I was alone, with no real set of instructions other than to wait and no way to know the specifics of what was ahead of me. What did that old woman say earlier… ‘compatibility’, that was probably this first step, and the next was ‘competency’. It was probably far too early to consider my judgment to be truly over with, in that case. There was still something else for me to get through.

For all that mattered at the moment. Right here, right now, all I had was the constant clamor of the forest around me, peaceful and overbearing both. I hesitated even calling it a forest here. This region was so obscenely overgrown that I still had no idea how anyone came to live here; Jasz had to forcibly push things aside to let us through as we neared the village, else the terrain would have been flatly impassable.

And in bizarre contrast to that, the flora’s sovereignty here felt highly controlled. Even along that trail leading down from the shack I stayed in, it was almost as if something prevented plants from overrunning it entirely, and that impression only got stronger the more of Formier I saw. A thorough scan of this space’s edges let me notice yet more examples of what was becoming a regular sight: upright stones, varying in exact size and shape, nearly blending into the backdrop of wild growth behind them.

The obvious conclusion to pull from this was that those stones somehow regulated the unhealthy proliferation of wildlife. I would have been content accepting that, but the fact that I definitely saw similar things so much further south, near Hateli, was bothering me. No way this was a matter of local culture and knowledge, then, at least not singularly. But then what? Was it related to Chorazom too?

One noise out of the dozens I mentally filtered out caught my attention, one from the deepest thickets behind me, and before I could even attempt to identify it, the shock of its repetition split the air. My head whipped back to catch a glimpse of its impact. A short-lived cloud of dirt and broken stems were kicked up mere yards from where I stood. Someone was there, imposing frame standing resolute and still against the previous din of arrival.

The woman’s skin was several shades lighter than my own, at a glance smooth and without anything to mark it. She was… trim, somehow, in a way that I recognized. In contrast to the softness I preferred for my own body, though, the slim contours of hers were accentuated by shapely musculature. The hair on her head was dull russet, shaved entirely on one side and wildly unmitigated on the other.

Her attire, meanwhile, was incredibly simple; a pair of tight, brown leggings and what looked like bandages of sorts wrapped around her torso, binding her chest down. Aside from that, the woman’s glistening skin was exposed. Not even any footwear in spite of traveling through greenery that dense?

“I got here as fast as I could,” she huffed, having taken a couple moments to appraise me as I did her. “Hope you didn’t have to wait long, doll. They already pack up and leave?”

“Ah, uh… yes.”

Her eyes tracked over to the now-empty meeting place. “Still dunno why they waited ‘til right after you were accepted to bother informing me. What, am I supposed to ask you for all the details?”

Her words already gave me a strange feeling. Was her wording accurate, that they informed her right after I was formally accepted? How could they have possibly done that? And there was the implication from this woman that leaving so quickly after it was not actually standard procedure like I assumed. Come to think of it, one of them did ask about the representative right before we began. What changed?

That could wait. I had something more pressing staring me in the face now, and the first step was an introduction.

“Well, my name is Senna. Are you the ‘representative’ they mentioned?”

“Yup, I’m Batrie,” she offered in return. Batrie it was, then. “I’m pretty much the top training instructor around here for our type. Nice to meetcha.”

“Oh, uh, you too. Do you need me to fill you in on-?”

“No no,” the woman waved me off, “I’ll ask one of them later about how it went. Right now I’m just lookin’ forward to gettin’ into the meat of this thing.”

“The what?”

“Well, this process always involves the talk first to make sure you’ll be ready to join on up and there are no issues preventing it, then we do some minor combat testing afterwards to see what we’re dealin’ with. I was told beforehand that the new girl I’d be handling today had apparently been loose for a stupid-long time, so I’m hella pumped to see what you can do!”

Well… at least she was open about her enthusiasm. This was her usual job, then, I imagined? Beyond the training she mentioned. That meant she was typically tasked with gauging the ability and strength of children, or near enough, so maybe Batrie was just happy about getting some variety past that? I preferred that idea over the thought of her being some sort of weird combat sadist.

“What exactly does this entail?” I ventured to ask.

“First thing it entails is goin’ somewhere over than here,” laughed Batrie. “I’m not keen on messing this place up. We’ve got a piddly little sparring grounds place about a ten minutes’ walk from here – that’s what we normally use – but I figure we might be able to handle somethin’ better, eh?”

My head tilted to the side a bit. “I do not think I follow.”

“Look, here’s a simple question: you fast?”

Of brief consideration was my previous decision to hide as many of my capabilities as possible from these people. It was apparent that this encounter with Batrie would require me to make some decisions about exactly what to hide, and I needed to decide quickly here. Right now, though, with just a question of speed?

“…Yes, I can be very fast,” I answered, surprising myself a bit at the blunt pride seeping into my tone.

Batrie gave me a lopsided grin. “Think you can follow me while goin’ fast?”

“That would not be a problem.”

“Alri~ght,” she nodded before practically skipping over to the far side of this artificial clearing. Her movements were suddenly infused with a sort of unnatural energy to them, but not an unknown one, not to me. I recognized it.

At that implicit prompting, I decided to match her, internal corridors in my legs and torso matching up to my memories of older designs I relied on before I got over the discomfort of bodiless travel. That was a little nostalgic. My feet left the earth in clusters of infinitesimal points, and that matched method of movement – to how I used to perform – only reinforced the apparent fact that she and I were similar.

“Ready, doll?”

I had no time to answer before another explosive outpouring of force tore up the ground we stood on. Batrie was rocketing off into the underbrush, and I already had to play catch-up. Keeping to the principle of limiting what abilities of mine I showed, I ended up mimicking her destructive form of movement with a sudden burst of energy to my legs, propelling me forward along the route she chose.

My senses were immediately barraged from all sides. Just counting the sensations on my skin, the air rushing past me, the leaves and branches scraping at my cheeks, the tangled masses of plant matter along every step my feet took, the collection of it was overpowering. I was expecting to have something of a path cleared ahead of me as Batrie moved, but there was hardly any trace of her. Only intermittent peals of thunder told me how to follow her.

And then things started getting weird. Within moments, I was already finding myself tuned to the task at hand, my needs subconsciously influencing that energy I wish only responded to active will. It was just like before, and still scary on some level even whilst being beneficial. I could feel the heat in me respond. Feel the control slip gently away, still easily within reach of my hand if I needed.

Moving at these sorts of speeds without proper preparation had me constantly bumping into and grazing myself against the things in my path, so that was the first change to be made. My reflexes, the very nerves themselves steadily tuned themselves until I could properly react to what I was seeing. This was something I knew how to do myself, at least. Not quite as anxious for me that way.

I hardly even saw the woods around me anymore. My attention was focused entirely on experiencing whatever process was at work inside me. Whenever an object came in close proximity, the deepest sections of my mind had already worked out the answer, and I could avoid slamming into it. Briefly touch off against the trunk of a tree here to shift the angle of my momentum, twist away to avoid that knot of vines, pull myself between two branches there.

Batrie’s crushing contacts with the forest floor were still easy to recognize, and each new hit added a mental point I could steer myself with. It felt like I was slowly catching up to her now that I had adapted to the act of traveling. Some small detail must have been prickling at the back of my mind, though, because something felt wrong. Maybe with another couple seconds of comparison…

I cursed uselessly into the frenzied wind. My momentum was staying consistent, to the point that I could completely avoid pushing off against my surroundings like Batrie needed to, like I wanted to give the impression of needing to. The automatic response started pulling me along without my realizing it? Could she tell? I forced myself to move destructively again after that sharp, panicked point of comprehension, but it might already have been too late to avoid her suspecting that I was hiding something.

There was no way to avoid it or keep pushing it aside now. I knew so little about myself, and was distinctly afraid of the implications of what hints I received. What was going to happen if this kept going like it had been? Was I about to start losing control of myself entirely? No, no way. No way I was letting that happen. I still needed to make it through all of this, get to the other side, to Lily, to my own life again.

And it seemed like my first move in that direction was already laid out for me in the form of a trainer named Batrie.

It was a fleeting thing, but I did feel at least somewhat silly over my propensity to indulge myself, especially with so little time left. Time, as if that represented a hard barrier to work with. And yet, even though I had no intentions of taking my chances too many times today, I was drawn to a bit of nostalgic visitation before today’s proceedings.

One ended up tuning the world out in these corridors, I’d noticed. Whether it was the ostentatious engravings of the primary halls or the more simplistic and utilitarian passages stealthily interwoven, the omnipresence of smooth white stone and sterile lighting lent itself towards introspection. I hardly heard anything aside from my own echoing footsteps at the moment.

I was generally aware of how many servants had been pulled away from the Temple in preparation for today’s event, and putting a bit of attention to it gave me the exact number: 434. That shift in manpower definitely showed. As I made my way into the deepest heart of the structure, I encountered scant few annoyances. This was reminding me a bit of the last time I felt compelled to visit like this, but it would be different now. Ditroph was absent.

Really, I knew this was no time for it – that continued to be my dominant thought, greedily ignored as I crossed the familiar threshold into a cavernous room. It was a skeleton crew on duty today. Only the most centrally operative systems of the Gatework were being monitored, with the rest left on standby or kept automated. What a marvel, as always.

“My Lord.” Oh. Right. “Was there business you needed to attend to? As per protocol, nothing noteworthy to report.”

I was quite tempted to simply will him back to his seat, maybe make myself invisible or force them to stop taking note of my presence, but I only walked down here out of a resolution not to take risks today. Saving up, as it were? I wanted to deal with it normally.

I molded my expression into a perfect, gentle smile. “You’re all working quite hard, aren’t you? I felt ill-at-ease leaving my stewardship for so long, especially with the Eighth busy. I’ll be heading out before it’s time for the ceremony.”

That was that, thankfully. He dropped the issue, and the others in here who’d been paying attention returned to their duties thereafter. I could let myself at least ascertain that much. Gathering raw data was the least risky way to apply myself, after all, and was not liable to leave behind even the faintest of breadcrumbs.

My attention landed on the central pillar, of its intricate construction and complicated function, even before my eyes did. On the surface level, I could read into what it was processing at the moment – locations, physical data, etc. with us Aichleini at the fore – as well as what triggers it had stored in its alerts, which I needed no review on. I was the one who put them there.

Even four thousand years ago, I would have been able to discern this much from it. I was trusted with the device, after all. It was an assignment, a perception of talent that stood out vividly in my memory as I stepped further into the room, far enough to bring my palm into contact with the Gatework’s corrugated lithometallic surface.

I remembered how ridiculous it all was. Where was the guarantee, I would ask. Where was the symmetry, another question held from my tongue. How did it choose which eras were acceptable to be lacking in one vital function or another, did it even choose at all, was our perception of the process fundamentally flawed…

And before me, what? Ditroph? He was intellectually capable, but lacking in other ways compared to me. I was always the true, genuine fit for this duty, such as is only rarely seen in an Aichlein’s birth. My gift made me uniquely suited towards dictating technological advancement and stagnation on behalf of the others, with their voices joining mine. It was a simple fact, but it did go to my head a bit, if I was honest.

It was also an inconsistent, ugly fact about the world I inhabited. Just thinking about the perfection that could be had if our gifts were standardized, kept to their broadest, most functional, and most necessary iterations used to irritate me to not end. Now, all I could do was think back to when I was so invested in such things. Hard to keep becoming vexed at something that no longer impacts you as fully.

My hand retreated from the Gatework’s skin, and at the change, its structure shifted, minute particles breaking off to form my next desire. Twin strands coalesced across from each other, crystallizing into the edges of what would soon be a photonic screen. Translucent, energetic blues shone between the two sides within moments. I was given access to deeper data than the others by virtue of my knowledge, and by the readiness at which it cooperated. None could truly operate these systems like I did.

And yet I knew not enough. Just standing here brought back old frustrations to mind, of hours standing around this thing trying to penetrate deeper into it. Past these shallow programs which yielded easily, into an opaque, stubborn liquid mantle. I knew the core stirred within. I knew, but it was always out of sight, and I knew that such curiosities would not be taken lightly by anyone else.

The archives were all insufficient, useless. Even those informations accessible only to the Aichleini, hidden from public awareness, were hard to decipher and make sense of when one searched such deliriously abyssal depths of recorded time. I had no way of learning where this came from or what it even was. It’s likely no one ever knew. Amusing and pathetic to realize that and see the masses so unconcerned, with their entire civilization and way of life fundamentally revolving around an enigma.

Even before I completed myself, I could call to mind and sift through every single detail, attribute, and need in the technology surrounding me. Even before I was an Aichlein, I was a genius, and then I was ‘chosen’, and then I was more. Yet nothing changed. I could never reach any further than this. The Gatework cooperated eagerly with the completion of my duties, the maintenance I performed, the inputs I gave, but even now, when nothing in all existence should supercede me, it still resists.

I could never forgive the sorts of emotions that dredged up in me. The anger. The feelings of powerlessness, of all things… The fear. I could never forgive that sort of weakness, either, even if I refused to expunge myself of it directly. Out of everything in the world, my own mind was the thing I most worried about irreparably changing. It was a non-option.

So I had to accept this status quo, of being afraid of this thing, of being frustrated at its mysteries and cautious at its implications. If I hadn’t the ability to prevent others from stumbling into blatantly conflicting logs and contradictory records left behind by my efforts, I would already have been done for, most likely. Thankfully, as it was, I simply had to exercise some common restraint.

My fingers hovered over the scintillating surface I called up earlier. Checking in on the upcoming event mundanely had its value, narrow though it was. I still had my role as a speaker to fulfill, and our remembrance would be starting quite soon here, based on how the others were moving. And it would go exactly how I wanted. After all, my proposal to the other Aichleini had already been accepted from the moment I imagined it.

If I could not remove my fear directly, I would remove it through absolute certainty. Then perhaps it would be time to check in on an old ‘friend’ or two.

“Here’s the route your troop will be taking,” he concluded, sliding along the last document I needed. Adjusting my glasses, I briefly scanned over its contents, which thankfully included one of Kiete’s maps. Been a while since I had to go out on something like this.

“Is the roster finalized yet?”

“Yes sir, got it ri~ght-” the man rifled through the satchel briefly, “-here. And I believe that wraps up everything you’ll be needing.”

Without returning my eyes to his, I said, “Right, yeah, thanks. I’ll, uh… handle everything from here. You can head back out.”

The door to my quarters shut with a resounding thud, and only then did I allow myself to exhale fully. And then I rubbed my forehead. I think I must have picked up something from that kid, because all I thought about at that moment was how much of a tired old man I must have looked like. Aysa would have pointed that out and laughed, at one point. Aysa…

Alright, roster. Blinking a couple times to clear my head, I tapped the papers against my desk before laying the even stack down. Second page had the list of names I needed. Maia, Rennir, Teneya… Xander. Hm. Would have been downright shocking to see those two on the same page before all this, both figuratively and literally, but maybe they were considered safe for the moment? Hadn’t seen them fight recently.

It was a small group, all told, and out of all of them, that last name was the one holding most of my concern. He seemed to be in a bit of a slump recently. Maybe it’d be good to pick him up for the assignment myself? It was easier to get back into the swing of things when you had someone familiar to help you through it, after all, and I was more than willing.

After getting up and giving myself a good stretch, I resolved to go try and find him in my first dedicated effort in a while. He’d still be somewhere in the attached barracks here unless his recents habits had suddenly changed while no one was looking. With that in mind, I quickly stowed all the relevant files I’d been given before exiting my little office, the wooden door creaking painfully as air rushed towards equilibrium. What a crisp night.

After dipping through the half-open space between buildings, I made my way back indoors, and the familiar scents and noises of our life here rang through my senses again. Sleepy torchlight flickered at the wind released by my entry. From here, I turned a corner in to the first dormitory, wherein there were plentiful signs of habitation – not least of which were the pair of lower ranked members sharing a drink across from each other on their respective cots.

“You two better be off duty tonight,” I smiled harmlessly. The attention drew two sets of embarrassed looks, though nothing that invoked fear. That was always nice. I never much liked the thought of making kids scared of me.

“Don’t tell the Warden, eh, Mr. Dores?” the one across from me pleaded, already moving to set aside his beverage. “We’re just having a bit of fun while we can.”

“Not like we’re gonna have much time for that soon, it feels like.”

I frowned slightly. “It’s a, uh… concerning time for all of us, with the former status quo disrupted. I do understand. Just remember that we’ve gotten this far together, and that’s how we’ll get through it, too. If either of you have concerns, I’d be more than happy to listen to them. Right now, though, could I ask a favor?”

“What’s up?”

“I’d like to, ah, speak with Omaro.”

“Xander?” the youth to my left clarified, standing up himself. “He got back from his shift just a bit ago. Think he’s still hanging out over near the game tables.”

“Thank you.” With a nod and a roll of the shoulder, I turned to make my way in that direction. Before pulling entirely out of the doorway, though, I made sure to add, “And you boys will be waiting on call more vigilantly now, yes?”

The two of them assured me so. Good. Even that brief interaction left me with some worries, though. Maybe I should try to check in with them later, after we return from the mission? In any case, I was now free to leave this corner of the barracks and head where they pointed me. I had plenty of time, really, yet I couldn’t help but keep up a good pace. There was a bit more than just business on my mind right now.

Things felt tense in here no matter where I went. Even the recreational room, once I arrived. People I passed were not exactly hustling towards deployment, but the threat of it was always there, in some form. I knew that exact feeling. What former comfort we all felt in the uniformity of our purpose from the very beginning was threatened now, too, in a sense. Not to say that I didn’t understand where Janus was coming from, but…

I sighed tersely. There was a lot more to unpack here than just a change in leadership. An incident like what happened with Aysa and Mana was more disruptive than it seemed on its surface, and there was no real way to deal with the ramifications of it, not smoothly at least. I’m pretty sure a lot of these guys still hadn’t gotten over the fear of seeing that second sun appear and vanish so quickly. We didn’t release enough details to assure anyone properly, and I could feel the build-up of anxiety from back then.

In any event, I had someone to catch up with. None of the tables currently in use had Xander involved. If he was still around, he was probably sitting alone at the fringe somewhere, and a quick dozen seconds of perusing the room and its various corners let me know I was spot on. He was sitting by a window around the farthest bend.

As I approached, he turned his head my way. “Ekkan?”

“Xander,” I gave him my best restrained-yet-friendly smile. Looked like it was still perpetually a first-name deal with him. “Am I interrupting anything?”

“Yeah, a romantic date with the windowsill,” he laughed. “Nah, you’re free to sit if you like. Been a while since I saw you last.”

“I’m afraid so. Taking up some slack after the, ah… recent changes-” Xander’s lip twitched, “-you know, didn’t leave me with much time.”

“…I get it, yeah.”

“Well, I mean, has everything been-?”

“Hey, really,” he leaned back in his seat with a wide, shallow smile, “I get it. I get the concern. But I’ve been fine, just… you know, trust me. You shouldn’t be holding yourself responsible for how I’m dealing with something. You have important responsibilities.”

“Mm… yeah, I do,” I nodded my agreement. “I’ve just always said that you gotta make sure people have what they need, and that doesn’t stop at three meals and a roof. Lots of people around here on edge, or worse.”

“Was that what you were coming over here for?” Xander’s gaze left my face and strayed back to the outside, beyond this window.

“Not at all. Mr. Etrescar’s planned out our next mission.”

Xander raised an eyebrow. “What’s up with that?”

“Did you get briefed at all about the latest intel?”

“If it’s about the Seyasta convoy, I just know it got attacked on the way over here. Haven’t heard much more than that.”

“Mhm. Running theory is that it wasn’t just a random encounter, though.” That got his eyes back on me. “Eyewitness testimony places a lot of creatures on the scene, as well as a normal-looking person who wasn’t being attacked.”

“Is this why Janus has been changing gears around here so suddenly?” he sought to confirm, obviously having put the pieces together himself.

“If we go into this assuming we’ve had war declared on us, it starts making sense, right?”

“Concerningly, yes.” Xander fidgeted in place again, just a brief shift in posture. “So what’re we gonna be doing?”

It was here that I began pulling out our mission files. “We’ll be heading northwards to try and find the ambush location. Looking to confirm as much of the narrative as we can, then scope out the surroundings and see what we can see. From there, establishing exactly how this force traveled and where from would be perfect.”

“May I see?”

I handed over the papers, which he carefully accepted and began inspecting. I could tell both when he got to the roster and when he got to the specifics of the roster. The feeling I got from his changing expression wasn’t exactly anger or exasperation, but it was definitely there one way or another.

“I wasn’t the one to draft this, in case you were wondering,” I covered for myself in preemptive defense. “You two will be able to remain professional, I take it?”

“Can’t speak for her, but I am really not interested in more bullshit drama now. I’m not about to start anything.”

“Then get ready. I wanna see us setting out day after tomorrow.”

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