Beginnings 6.7

It seemed we were now fully assembled. The garden terrace sprawled below our elevated position, its immaculately cultivated greenery standing out even amidst the artisanal stonework peppering its reaches. Looking further out, towards the public access, I could easily make out the pair of towering marble statues flanking each side of that entrance. Behind each began the first curves of the many shrub spirals decorating the earth. That was a design I remembered well, from those few thousand years since their installation.

This ceremony, and all its consequences… this was the least I could do in penance. For such a remembrance as this, my shame felt like it could have easily kept me from attending, but I knew I had to take responsibility for my failings, my underlying weakness. This was far from the first time I’d experienced the death of one of our own, but it was the first time I felt so tangibly at fault for it.

I slowly forced my gaze further to the right, towards the centerpiece: a great raised platform whose steps could be climbed from any direction. It was in perfect, clear contrast to the abundance of foliage we’d surrounded it with, and though the furthest tips of the trees surrounding it were allowed to dip low, they never touched. Not so much as a single leaf had fallen onto those immaculate stone bricks.

At the center of that platform was an object I knew much better than I’d have liked to. The memorial. It was the most discordant object in the entire realm. The planes of its violet, crystalline surface were scattered, uneven, some built up out of its foundation and others splitting off part-way up. From each facet flickered a gentle, amaranthine fluorescence, the subtleties of its shade betraying some inner quality to the crystal itself. And upon each facet was etched a name.

Altera, having been the last to arrive, preceded the matter by mere minutes; little time had passed in our quiet preparation before the invitees began trickling in through the public access. One by one and three by three, the most honored members of our most honored houses came to bear witness. Their presences prompted a nearly imperceptible shift in the earth beneath us. For each of their number, a seat was formed, its material flowing upwards from between the soils and shaping into pleasing replications of chairs or couches, as appropriate.

Of course, these were not the only people to be able to view today’s event. The proceedings were being broadcast as well, which meant that today’s particular conclusion would be seen by everyone, not just those handpicked for the present audience. Thinking of that fact felt somewhat daunting. That in and of itself was further penance, though. I would make it clear to our people that even we were not above reproach.

With everything in place, it was finally time. From first among this set of permanently established seats, Ounirok declared an official opening, and right on cue, Altera stood and began moving to the podium in the center. Whatever negligible chatter once emanated from the crowd had now silenced. For many of them, this must have been a completely new experience, the first time they saw an Aichlein laid low outside a history text. The solemnity was more than appropriate in such a light.

Cruel that it was Altera, of all people, speaking for today’s memorial. I was just barely close enough to her to know the scorn that she hid in her heart. To care about where it was directed. While the thought of disappointing any of the ones I’d spent the most time with over these years was distressing to me, it felt keenest in her.

Perhaps it was unfair, though. All this time, she never treated me as anything other than the friend I’d grown to become for her. In all honesty, I should have been biased towards her, not against, considering our shared tastes and other such things. Would it really have been better to have this handed to me by someone I cared little for? Or someone like Ounirok themself, sounding utterly detached from everything?

Thinking objectively, she was probably the best candidate for this. Altera did well to put forward a proper image of the Aichleini – her gait was unmistakably tranquil and proud even on a day like this, and it carried a certain assurance with it. Her attire, humble as it ever was, worked to lessen the distance between herself and those she led. Even putting aside her past, it was no wonder she was far more popular than I.

Taking her position at the natural heart of the platform, Altera spoke. “It pleases us seeing so many gathered here in remembrance of one of our own, a devoted leader among the faithful. Nykorosk of the House Kriskin had hardly the opportunity to live as the Creator intended. It was a true tragedy of this generation, but we may all rest peacefully knowing he has certainly joined our God in final service.”

Twisting her torso halfway backwards, Altera gestured up mightily towards the pinnacle of the memorial. A brief flick of the wrist launched into action a snaking pair of mechanical tendrils, both moving up from their hidden positions in the stage with such fluidity that they must have seemed alive to the unfamiliar. Their ascent was supremely delicate.

When they reached the top, one began prodding the surface ‘til its needle had found space to slip within, and the effusions of mild light glowered with sudden intensity. The crystal was prompted to continue its planned growth. Simultaneously, the other limb had started the work of carefully engraving the next open facet with Nykorosk’s name.

“Here, he will be remembered,” our speaker continued, turning back to the bulk of the audience, “just like all our siblings before him. Let us never forget his sacrifice in the course of protecting our beautiful and righteous culture, our way of life. Everything is built off this most sacred duty of ours, to steer you into the bosom of the divine, and to confront the greatest threats to our peace. It is no surprise that some must inevitably fall to the sinful power of the outside cosmos, but it is to be mourned all the same.

“The House Kriskin has now been twice honored with the gift of this mantle, and though their time in this dignified position has now passed, I know they will continue to move into the future with the grace and eminence befitting such a blessed family. Now, however, is the time for a freshly invigorated faith. Our adherence to the Creator’s will must be made manifest. Our God willing, we might soon be granted the next successor to the title of Twelfth Aichlein, with all the favor that implies on whichever House is devoted enough to be selected.

“Let us take a moment to commemorate his noble House’s contribution.”

The standard proposition. Applause quickly grew to a restrained enthusiasm in the garden, with us Aichleini joining in as well, all except the speaker herself of course. Her hands were clasped patiently behind her back ‘til the noise died down in its long-rehearsed time. I had to allow myself to breathe deeply for what was about to come.

“Now, before we all return and allow ourselves to continue the period of mourning, there is an announcement I have been tasked with conveying to you today, as it relates deeply to our tragedy.” There it is. “We Aichleini are the gifted, the chosen of our Creator, and we all know there is a certain respect due that position, yet we are not infallible. Each and every one of us is constantly in the process of growing and deepening ourselves.

“In our last forays to the unenlightened planet, the distinguished Third Aichlein, Tyronus of the House Oltia, unfortunately displayed a slipping grasp of the gift our Creator gave him. It was this failing that led to Nykorosk’s demise going uncontested. Therefore, it has been decided upon that he should be given time to meditate and commune, to hone himself so that he may once again wield our divine powers properly.

“Until that comes to pass, however, the burden of his gift shall temporarily be placed on another. Tyronus, friend, would you please join me here?”

I nodded briefly out of habit, quickly rising from my seat and beginning my march towards the center, much as she did. This was a penance, I repeated to myself. A humbling. Perhaps the boy would forgive me, wherever he was, after I took the time to make sure this would never happen again.

Friend, huh… I was glad to call her that still. Intense shame had sheltered my from the presence of my fellows ever since that day, at least for the most part, but the people I knew more closely were still here. I still had a chance to redeem myself. To bring things back to how they were before, never to slip away again. There was no way I’d waste this opportunity.

By the time I brought myself to her, Altera was mostly facing me. I could feel the eyes of the whole realm on my person. She extended her hand, smiling, offering me the way forward. This was the condition. As soon as I took that hand, Mazante’s ability would come into effect. It was reversible, it was intended to be reversed, but there was still a certain unease in staring down the loss of a power I’d relied upon up ‘til now.

She was smiling. After so many years of sodality, I recognized the nuances in that smile… and something in it felt utterly wrong. The surface of her expression contained nothing to dislodge me from the assurances I had been hammering into myself, but something old and well-remembered stirred within me at the sight. It was unmistakably my paranoia coming back. I thought I’d subjugated it already.

Friend, huh? There was no mistaking the object of my paranoia. It was a sin, but I was on the cusp of atonement, either way. I was about to freshly retake myself. Just this once, I wanted to allow myself a bit of unhealthy indulgence, so I might once again starve it away in the security only my gift could provide.

‘Is Altera trustworthy?’

I got the answer – ‘Yes’ – after a brief blip of calculation. Brief, but not the briefest. It was that delay again, the one I identified before this latest assimilation began, the one that started my downward spiral into this shameful state. My powers shouldn’t ever have a delay. It didn’t matter the complexity of the problem, the size of the variables, or the scope of its search, there was never the slightest delay.

Yet one inexplicably appeared back then, and in hindsight, it seemed to directly foreshadow an incorrect answer. Such a failure should have been impossible, too. Was there something more to what Mazante feared back then? Was it possible that there was some explanation here other than my deterioration? Were we just too stubborn to consider that before?

I would not repeat that mistake.

‘How can I find the answer as to whether Altera is trustworthy or not?’

‘Orchestrate distraction with Meneura; access deep-storage Gatework logs; compare to surface records; 19085-8847 to 19099-0920; 19226-4402; search related; note discrepancies’.

Without any further hesitation, I reached out and grasped Altera’s outstretched palm. The trigger Mazante set activated. My gift, the constant presence I’d long since grown accustomed to over these vast millenia of life, vanished, leaving me with only a gnawing sense of emptiness and unease.

But I already had what I needed. That last calculation came instantly.

Things were finally wrapping up in here, those lingering notes of unease continuing to echo in the woman beside me as we concluded business with our prisoner. By now the tone had lightened considerably, and though we knew we had to perform otherwise tomorrow, there was at least a bit of civility here, finally. As weird as that felt when directed to someone who replaced someone I knew.

Aysa and I looked at each other with some degree of finality. She’d been silent for the past couple minutes, but the many shifting chords of her heart had already accepted what we’d established tonight. That was good. I needed her fully on board with this, fully trusting me, all without being forced in the slightest.

Civun – certainly a foreign name, as I tasted it – was thankfully willing to spend another night in here. Tomorrow would be better for all of us. We’d put on the appearance of their continued lack of cooperation for the benefit of any ‘siblings’, as they termed them, spying on us. Under that guise of forced collaboration, Civun would give us enough information to go off of, and then we’d conveniently allow their escape.

Such was the plan when it obviously loosened their lips better than anything else. Seemed like a very solid one, too, but what worried me more was what came after that. In spite of the unspoken questions drifting beneath my tongue, suppressed by Aysa’s presence, we were able to verify the likelihood that Senna was related to all this in some way. One of Civun’s two tasks here was to keep an eye on her, after all.

That said, they had no idea where she went. Hadn’t heard anything. It was a blatant cruelty to have her dangled in front of me like that with no guarantees or even anything concrete. Hell, they didn’t even know what happened to Jacquir before becoming his replacement, so what the fuck use was this?

I was staring right out over a precipice, one that I’d already told Senna I would dive into for her. Part of me wanted nothing more than to discard everything just to find her again. At the same time, no one could be so nonchalant about taking such a risk without knowing it’d work, right? Civun couldn’t afford escorting us directly, and there were no concrete realities past that point, only a series of likelihoods.

Aysa was already down in those waters though. I think that was part of why I was accepting her so readily, on top of the usual things like I act empathetically towards people too quickly and easily. We’d have a sort of sisterhood in that sense, neither of us caring enough for anything else in our lives to actually hold onto them, both of us chasing Senna. And then, when we found her… I could simply deal with Aysa.

As the two of us continued on towards the exit, I found myself taking a marginal lead, and used that opportunity to hold the door open for her. Who knows, perhaps she would enjoy the consideration. Outwardly, my efforts failed to prompt even so much as a glance or nod my way, but she certainly registered it internally.

“You heading back to their place for the night again?” I spoke up first, calling back to mind the tidbit she shared about staying with the local carpenter and his wife. Aysa, pausing in the act of walking off curtly, turned to reply.

“Yeah, I wanna see if there’s anything I can do to help out,” she resolved with a quick stretch. “They didn’t let me do anything the other day, so I feel pretty bad about it. Plus, we’ve still got several hours of sunlight, I’d bet.”

“And what about tomorrow?”

She huffed softly. “Yeah, like we were saying. No use in sticking around any longer than necessary.” Aysa then took a moment to regard me. Was that concern in there? “Is it really alright for you to leave so suddenly?”

“And what exactly are you getting at?”

“I just…” she trailed off, scratching the back of her head with equal awkwardness. What a waste of time. If she was going to chastise me for leaving everything behind, then she’d be a hypocrite. No, chastise was the wrong word, but what’d that matter? Same lyrics, different tune. But the tune did matter.

Closing my eyes, I shook my head exasperatedly. I was just confusing myself. Don’t think about useless shit like that – that’s what I had to keep telling myself. At least Aysa, for all her own confusion and floundering in the situation we found ourselves in together, could be said to care somewhat. Cool, she had some basic empathy, why focus on that?

“We both have places to be right now, Aysa. I’d prefer if we both spent the time we had available to prep for setting out tomorrow. Agreed?”

“Fine. Agreed.”

That was that. Aysa felt distinctly snubbed, and I guess I couldn’t blame her for that. It was just a flavor of concern I had no interest in receiving right now, because I didn’t want something to tell me it was right to rethink my resolution. She was just trying to be nice to someone she knew she’d be getting something out of, at least. My resolution wasn’t wrong. Neither of us could say it was.

The woman I was making my companion gave me one last wave for goodbye before trudging off in her own direction, leaving me to do the same. I had a cold, bitter little cottage waiting for me. My feet took me towards it even as I internally worked myself up to a silent seethe. Didn’t even know what was making me angry now.

Seemed like it was just about that hour for the people who’d been working during this stretch of the day to come back in. No one bothered me. I didn’t know which outcome would make it worse, being ignored or being taunted with socialization, but it added to my mood all the same. These people were coming back home to husbands and wives and partners and children and- and I think I just cut my palm open, squeezing it too much.

Pulling the stinging wound up to my face, I sucked uselessly at it as the rest of the way back, which wasn’t that long at all. The familiar exterior of my dwelling came into view well before my hand stopped hurting, but with it came a conspicuous presence leaning against the front door. Someone waiting for me to get back? Out of inbuilt habit, I mentally reached toward the figure only to be greeting by a wild, scorching anger directed… at me.

Lucretia. Shit, she was back earlier than I figured. The other part of my desire to leave this place quickly was to avoid being here for this, but it was far too late for that now. Her pace as she moved to intercept me was nothing short of furious, wildly incensed angles drawn on her face even as the interior betrayed far more fear and worry than anything else.

I’d already rooted myself in place at the first sight of her; there was no avoiding it anymore. Lucretia was free to close the rest of the gap from my peripheral vision, and once she arrived, I found myself pulled up by the collar uncomfortably. If nothing else, that finally got my eyes to focus on her.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing, Trischam? I come back and find out from Elva you’re keeping my brother prisoner?!”

“Don’t come over here assaulting me without being fully informed about-”

“Fucking inform this!” spat Lucretia as she shoved me backwards, releasing her grip on my blouse. “This is shameful! You were taking advantage of me leaving, weren’t you? I wish I was sick longer so I could have been here to stop you from whatever bullshit issue you took with him this time! I knew you never really got along with Jacq’, but this is-”

Look,” I raised my voice to cut her off, “what did Elva actually tell you?”

“Oh, she told me enough. Stuff like how you’ve been like a totally different person ever since Senna left-” that word made my chest tighten, “-and how you’ve been scaring her. How you got obsessed with Jacquir from that point.”

Damnit, Elva, you didn’t tell her nearly enough to avoid misunderstanding what went on. Or did Lucretia not let her say everything before heading out to yell at me? I guess that made the most sense. My teeth grit together in brief anticipation for what I would now need to try and get through her skull.

“So you think I just went crazy and started trying to ruin him for no reason?”

In response, Lucretia simply crossed her arms and gave me a look like ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what I think’. There was a bit of defensiveness hidden in her heart… self-righteousness too? That I dare ask something like that, given everything I did? What a shameful impression. I hated it, and I hated the way I started to sympathize.

I spoke up again. “You know, the only reason we have him successfully restrained is due to some experimental sigils my father used.”

“Are you seriously rubbing this in-”

“Do you know why we needed that?” It was hurting her to keep talking. And I hated feeling it. “Because he was morphing his body out of any physical restraints we had.”

Finally, something I said started to break through to her, internally, but the immediate reaction was anything but favorable.

“…Excuse me, what exactly are you trying to sell me here? What’s that even mean?”

“That ‘obsession’ you mentioned is all because that’s not Jacquir anymore. Some sort of shapeshifter replaced him, back when we temporarily camped in-”

“Cut the shit already!” she snapped, pushing herself into my personal space once again. Lucretia’s inflamed expression was only a matter of inches from mine. “You sound like a lunatic! How am I supposed to believe any of that?! He was getting better, Lily! Why would you-”

Lucretia’s voice broke as she tried uttering that last question, and the searing anger that was once dominant now suddenly yielded to the underlying emotions I’d dredged up. I was presenting her with the loss of a person she dedicated so much of her life to helping. She’d been hopeful about it. My words, the reality I presented, simply tore that piece of the vision of her own future out of her.

Some part of me was already thinking about what she needed from me, as ridiculous as it was. I not only hated feeling the impetus, I also hated how my instincts still brought me to want to fix it. If I did anything other than discard Lucretia right here and now, tomorrow would be so much harder than I was counting on, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to do what I needed to with Elva or Dad. Essentially, I was… scared.

Lucretia took those stretched-out few seconds of silence as message enough. Sucking in a shaky, emotion-laden breath, she turned from me and made to leave without so much as another word. I should’ve been happy to have her go away on her own. Instead, I was even more afraid than just a moment ago, each muted footstep sending a jolt through my chest.

Lucy’s body froze as I ran up behind her, throwing my arms around her torso and burying my head in her neatly brushed hair. I was much too impulsive. Putting aside the fact that I basically just threw away the possibility of a pain-free morrow, this was also probably not the action she wanted from me. Her heart was swirling in equal parts revulsion, anger, and yearning for me to somehow make it all better now.

“I didn’t-” I croaked out, tripping on my words, “-didn’t want to do this to you. My timing was meant to selfishly protect myself, I won’t try to say otherwise, but I also just didn’t want you to be hurt in the process. Even though it was only postponing when this happened.”

Her lack of response carried on for several seconds as the various contents of her mood battled it out internally. It was agonizing to stand here ‘listening’ to it. And when I first felt her back shift in preparation to speak, I was petrified.

“What’re you trying to do?”

“Make it less horrible on you,” I answered honestly. At this point it was to my own detriment, too, but I neglected to say so.

She inhaled slowly. “Just tell me where he is.”

“Jacquir, or the shapeshifter?”

“My brother. I want to know where he went.”

“Lucy… I don’t… we have no idea if he’s even still alive, let alone-”

Please,” she nearly squeaked out, muscles trembling and head lowering, “don’t say something like that. Why do you have to do this to me. Why did I have to come back to this.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t have anything else that I can give other than being sorry.”

“You- no, no no no…” The motion of Lucy shaking her head reverberated into my skull as I kept myself uselessly glued to her. Her voice was getting a harder edge to it again, but her anger hadn’t completely returned yet, and that showed in her face as she pulled away to face me properly. “I’m not accepting this without an explanation, Lily.”

“Alright, but we shouldn’t keep standing out here,” I pointed out.

Lucy was nodding now. Inhaled rather sharply. “Okay… okay. Yeah. Can I- you don’t mind, right? I feel like I need to sit down for a while. Like I’m in shock or something.”

“Cardiogenic or what?” I asked with the tiniest and most tentative of grins, gesturing her towards the cottage.

“Not the best time for jokes,” she responded flatly.

“Sorry.”

Why did it seem like every joke of mine was fated to be awkward at best, or a flatly poor idea at worst? I guess it was just stupid of me. I knew from experience Lucy didn’t respond well to humor when she got like this, and tonight was bad enough already…

With a sigh of self-directed exasperation, I opened the way inside for her. My place was a mess. Didn’t exactly have the energy or motivation to clean up after myself much anymore, but that internal justification did little to assuage the aching pang of embarrassment her presence added to it.

“This place is a mess,” noted Lucy, casting an outwardly critical eye over the interior. Her judgment was halfhearted at best, though.

“If you don’t like it, then sit outside and let me sleep.”

With that, I mechanically went to work clearing off some space for the both of us to sit. My guest stood watching, glancing particularly the padded chair I motioned in offering to her, before the act of sitting triggered what felt like a nostalgic thought inside her. Nostalgia shaded with bitterness, more accurately.

“I can’t remember the last time it was just you and me, together like this,” she murmured in her newly clean seat. “Or the last time you seemed to care this much about me.”

Hanging in the air after those words was the follow-up: ‘And it’s fucked up this only happens when something tragic happens to me’. Something along those lines. I couldn’t bring myself to respond to her words, either explicit or implicit, so for the moment I occupied myself by walking into the kitchen.

This place was even more of a mess. I wasn’t keeping up on washing dishes like I should have been, but that didn’t stop me from being hungry. Or from getting cravings, at least. Looking at it honestly, I probably just wanted something to help occupy my attention, because I didn’t exactly feel underfed at the moment. What a poor habit to maintain.

“Would you like anything?” I offered Lucy. Seemed like it would be shitty to get myself something and not at least give her the option.

“Don’t have an appetite…” she responded. “Are you making dinner?”

I exhaled. “Not really. Just needed something to chew on, I guess.”

“Then tell me what I asked to hear while you get it,” Lucy commanded, several stray hints of volatility coming across in the ethereal.

No more delays then. While I busied myself washing off something for me to eat off of, I told Lucretia everything I knew, everything we figured out or reasoned towards with regards to Jacquir’s imposter and that general situation. It started with the delay in Jacquir joining that meeting back then; then how something about him felt different ever since, in spite of the seeming lack of deceptive intentions that I could register; then all the ways Senna and I tried to investigate things.

At this point it would have been an insult to hide anything from her, so after a short hesitation, I also began describing the strange similarity we’d found between Civun – I mentioned that was their name as an aside – and Senna. The fact that both of them seemed to possess some sort of imperceptible shroud over them was a critical component in realizing that they had to be related in some way. More, that Jacquir hadn’t simply become afflicted with it, but that there was a deeper secret here.

Lucretia was silent all the while, but I didn’t need words to know how she was reacting to it. She was… resistant. Essentially, she didn’t want to believe anything coming out of my mouth. The more pieces of the puzzle I elaborated on, though, the more her rational mind was forcing her to digest it. She had to accept it even as it sickened her.

“…Why?” Lucy asked in as thinly controlled a voice as I’d heard from her.

“I don’t know,” I answered, knowing what she was getting at. “I’ve been trying to get answers. Civun was told to… to play the part, I guess, and just keep tabs on our community. They don’t know what happened to Jacquir before the replacement, or even why they’re here.”

We were both quiet again. During my speech just a minute ago, I’d assembled everything I needed for my evening snack – easy, since it consisted entirely of some generously-slathered biscuits – and now I was free to go take my seat across from Lucy. She didn’t want to leave yet. No, she needed more time to process what’d happened to her today.

A feeling of uselessness started creeping in, with my hands tied in every way like this. Normally I might have just tried to soothe her directly, but given the situation, that seemed like an immense violation. I had no right to touch her like that after all this. It’s not like there was any magic phrase to make it all better, either, so what could I possibly do to make up for this?

Wait, but… there was something. There was still something that could give her a spark of hope. There was something I needed to tell her, too, her and everyone else. Did I approach it incorrectly before, to think of it as something I would need to deaden myself and tear away from everyone for? I was somehow already bolstered by that wish as well. Embarrassing.

There was no getting around it. I needed to keep going forward with my plans, but maybe an opportunity for honesty was something I should take.

“Can I talk about something?”

Lucy perked up the slightest bit. “What is it?”

“To tell you the truth, I never was very close to any of you,” I began, drawing a pang of heartache from her. “Or rather, I never let myself get close to you, on my end. I was… I don’t know what I was, other than too scared to be the one putting more into it than anyone else. I still wanted to be around you and help when you needed me, but I started resenting that, too.

“That’s why I didn’t think anything of the idea of leaving everything behind to follow Senna. She was worried about not being able to just settle down and live peacefully somewhere, so I promised I’d follow her if something happened. It was meant for her, but…

“Maybe on some level, I wanted it for myself. To just get away from here. Where I didn’t fit in; where I had to force myself to try and enjoy anything; where I felt compelled to help people with their issues and was still fucking it up even with this mutation; where I was nothing but the late arrival to the party, the odd one out in an otherwise tight-knit circle. And I never stopped being that.”

“I- who cares if you were late?! I still care about you, Lily!” she insisted with evident pain in her voice. “You’re not less to me just because I’ve known you for less time than Elva.”

My eyes tried to shut it all out. I shook my head, but she continued.

“I mean it. Our friendships with you aren’t meaningless. I’m sure everyone else would say the same, even-… even my brother.”

“I can’t just make myself believe that by having you say it to me,” I muttered, trying to keep my voice steady under the rising swell of emotion in me. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen.

“You can feel it, though.” Lucy stood from her seat, moving to kneel directly in front of me as I continued sitting. And yes, I could feel it. Lucy obviously thought she was being genuine here, that much I couldn’t refute. How was that supposed to stack up against all these past years of experience, though?

“No, I-” I shook my head again, “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to get us hung up on this.”

“Lily-?”

“My point was that I promised I would stay by Senna’s side, no matter what happened to her. I need to stop wasting time sitting on my ass. I’m going to go find her, and find where Jacquir went.”

As I said it, the words almost tasted cruel on my lips. If I was being completely honest, I’d admit that the chances of him still being alive were slim to none, that it didn’t make sense for him to be kept alive somewhere by whatever forces Civun seemed to serve, but that wasn’t a reality I wanted for the woman before me.

Above all else, I just wanted to give her some small amount of optimism for the future to make my actions sting less. Sounded selfish when put like that huh? But it seemed to accomplish what I was hoping for. Against even her own better judgment, what I said ignited that exact blind, irrational hope I’d sought in her. But there was something else too.

“You’re really going to leave then, huh?”

“Tomorrow, if all goes as planned.” I couldn’t stop myself from saying it even as a sickening, sour note bloomed inside her. “I’ll… say a couple goodbyes beforehand. I owe that much, I know, I just didn’t want to make it any harder on myself than I had to.”

She was quiet for several seconds before responding. “Is this supposed to make me happy? That you’ll throw us all away just to find her again, and the possible consolation prize of my brother coming back?”

“Throwing- come on, don’t give me that!” I raised my voice defensively. “I’m not throwing you away!”

“That’s what you just said! That we’ve never cared about you, you can’t trust me whatsoever, and it’s all so worthless to you that you’d rather go off chasing someone you might never find again.”

“I will find her. And I’m going to try and find the person you’re missing, too.” My arms were starting to shake.

“Spare me that,” she growled. “What happens if my brother’s already dead, and I end up losing you too? And Senna, you’re assuming she didn’t leave of her own will, but what if she did? What if she’s never coming back?! What then?!”

My jaw clenched painfully. The shaking was even worse, worse when I cut eye contact with her because I just couldn’t bear it. I could only barely make myself say anything more.

“…I think it’s time for you to leave.”

Lucretia stood forcefully and marched herself over to the door in a plain mixture of fury and misery. The slam of the door echoed in my ears. As much as my body trembled, my chest moving to take in one mechanical breath after another, I was completely unable to move. My heart hurt.

I already fucked things up. I just wanted to make things better with her, maybe leave with some good feelings between us, but I’d accomplished the exact opposite of that. Tomorrow would probably just be repeat after repeat of this with everyone else because I was so fucking horrible at this, and horrible fundamentally. No wonder they didn’t care. Lucy was trying to lie, but I knew better, because who the hell would actually care about someone like me?

‘What if Senna left on purpose’, huh? If she did, I’d probably deserve it. That would be nothing but leaving some trash behind, not like she’d be abandoning anything that made her really happy. It made sense, honestly. I didn’t offer enough to keep Mom around, either, so why not her too? And Dad, he might be sad for a bit, but he’ll be better off when I leave, too. All of them will be.

My head banged against the couch’s spine, first once, then twice after a couple seconds’ delay, then again and again ‘til the pain of it filled my senses. I was such a fucking moron. Didn’t matter how irrational it was or how little sense it made to assume, I couldn’t stop thinking like that. But I was the only person who could actually, directly know better.

So I knew the truth. She was happy. She loved me. She loved me.

So I was gonna go find her, wherever she was. I didn’t care whether I brought her back or whether we’d travel the world, as long as it was with her. As long as I was making her happy again.

I just needed to ignore the question of how things would play out with Aysa once we found her.

I think I could pin it down now. The most striking feature of these forests – of Faenon, at least what I’d seen of it – had to be the soundscape, even beyond any of the beauteous vistas I’d witnessed while staying here. Earlier in tonight’s trek, the calls of avians blanketing all branches in sight with their garish colors were dominant, but an entirely new chorus rose up to replace them once the sun set.

“What creatures are making these noises now?” I put to my guide. “It occurred to me that I hadn’t bothered asking about that before.”

Ahead of me, her neck craned to one side. “Mmmmm, don’t really know. Probably a bunch of different bugs. It’s not a topic I really cared to study.”

“Study, hm. You would have been free to?”

“Back when Belenon was still around, all the libraries were open to the public, if that’s what you were askin’.”

“What of higher learning?”

“That too.” I saw the back of her head dip a bit in what was likely a nod. “You know I did take a few classes over the years. Only took one higher maths course for me to realize it wasn’t for me, though,” she laughed.

“Was that before you started ferrying goods over the pass?”

“Before, yeah.”

I smiled a bit, though I knew Mara couldn’t see. “I’m grateful for your continued answers. Another night of this must be rather bothersome for you.”

“Nah, don’t worry, I think it’s all really neat in a way, accompanying you and the others. Like I’m pretty close to something historic. Everyone’s been through so much stuff over the past couple months that’ll end up in the history books eventually, and I’m actually able to talk to one of the important figures.”

“I’m an important figure, huh?” My lips curled back downwards. It wasn’t that long ago that I nearly broke apart over the impending consequences of my failure. The mere thought of accepting my own apparent importance struck me with guilt.

“I’d say so,” she shrugged, oblivious to my internal thoughts.

“Is that why you agreed to come along immediately rather than insist we wait ‘til morning to set out, as might have been reasonable?”

“I was getting antsy there anyways,” Mara shrugged visibly. “If they’re mobilizing for something big, I don’t really wanna be a part of it. But… mind if I ask a question now?”

“Go ahead.”

“Was it really alright to leave that woman behind? Kirienne?” In the silent moments after, while I simply tried to evaluate the question, Mara spoke up again a bit more frantically. “A-and the others too, you know? I guess that is to say, I’m not sure what you’re planning with them?”

“Kirienne’s trustworthy, so leaving her to represent us at the most militarized faction we’ve encountered thus far makes sense to me. The others were willing to be present for that purpose as well. There are more important things for me to figure out now.”

“Ah… like what?”

My natural response to her curiosity was akin to a very familiar fatigue, not at any fault of hers but at my own lack of knowing how to explain it. To speak nothing of whether I should. The exact details and depths of our planning were never fully known to any one person, even among the people who followed me, and especially not to the people who needed to simply view us with sympathy right now.

Drawing in a smooth breath, I allowed myself to close my eyes for a moment and simply focus on the feeling of walking in time with her footsteps. A bit of a calming action. My emotional state hadn’t been the best lately, to say the least. To progress from my longstanding weariness into this relative frenzy of hopeful action was fairly daunting if you looked at it like that, but I’d probably been making it harder than it needed to be.

I started my response with, “It’s complicated,” cutting short the rest of my thoughts as I opened my eyes to the sight of a completely empty trail. I nearly jolted in confusion, and though I whipped my head around to try and catch a glimpse of where Mara had gone, I saw nothing but black, empty, silent woods.

“Mara?” My voice echoed slightly. “MARA?!”

“Oh, quiet down, it’s just a vision,” a very familiar voice chided me from off to one side of the path. “She’ll still be standing there once we’re done.”

I turned my head as quickly as my muscles allowed towards the source of that voice. Close to the roadside was an ancient, gnarled tree, one of the sorts that never grew quite properly, and out of the tangled mass of its trunk came something akin to a flower, its milky petals peeling outwards from the bark itself.

And then the flower bloomed. Bursting forth in a dazzling cascade of twinkling pollen, a figure I knew all too well emerged from what I could only describe as a portal within the heart of that unnatural structure, skin glistening with the hints of lingering, golden dew. The woman, having fully emerged, planted her feet solidly on a bed of moss that sprung up from the earth as if in service.

She was much as I remembered. Arrogant expression, electric-blue eyes and hair, splashes of golden freckles that practically sparkled in the low light… but there were some differences, at a glance. Her previous hairstyle, strange as it was, had been obsessively maintained and kept static, but now she’d apparently discarded that while keeping to the general idea. Her centermost bangs were still pulled back over her head, with the rest framing her contemptuous smile, but the length was shorter. Rather than being shaped into a backwards-facing point, it all fell messily just past her chin.

Finally, and most bizarrely for someone who had no interest in seeing her like that, her typical white robe was entirely discarded. What remained of her modesty was preserved only by a cycle of constant efflorescence and decay, buds sprouting from the woman’s flesh and masking portions of her flesh behind gossamer petals.

It effectively took me several seconds of pure observation just to process what I was looking at. She knew it, too; that’s why she opted for such grandiose entrances. As much as I would have liked to berate her for it, though, such things were the last on my list of priorities. If she had the opportunity to contact me like this, it was something to rejoice over.

“Altera,” came my acknowledgement. Her left hand raised in a gesture of brief, casual greeting. “Good to see you again. Why haven’t we reconvened before now?”

“Too busy, too risky… the usual,” she replied dismissively. “I had to try playing damage control once they realized you two were separated, but it didn’t pan out, as you could obviously tell.”

“In that they still launched an inundation attempt? Yes, I noticed. It’s not as if I was expecting you to be able to stop that, though. What’s going on over there?”

“I just got back from Nykorosk’s memorial ceremony. The others are still sufficiently distracted for me to be able to get this connection to you through the Gatework undetected.”

My breath caught in my throat, the shock of that news likely evident on my face. One of the Aichleini was killed. When was it, during the inundation? I knew that some number of them were repulsed in some fashion, and that it was likely due to a newly revealed entity that must have made itself known in the process, but even then, to think that it killed Nykorosk…

“I wasn’t aware one of the Aichleini was already dead, just that their incursion was likely stopped by the appearance of a second entity. That would have been why our ally left afterwards,” I concluded my reasoning quickly. “What happened?”

“Close, but not quite. The second entity’s appearance is what ultimately forced them to pull back once it became apparent Tyronus’ gift was blind to it, but Nykorosk was killed by someone else.”

That wording got my attention immediately. “Someone?”

“Yup,” Altera nodded, crossing her arms across her chest. “We were right to finally use that gambit now, delay the assimilation just long enough for you to arrive. This planet has at least one person who can stand up to our enemies, and on her own no less. Not to mention the sheer fortune of something existing that Tyronus was unable to account for.”

“Still, that’s rather incredible to me… If anything, I was expecting you to have to find a way to interfere with him,” I thought aloud.

“Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to do so.”

“Who is this person that killed Nykorosk, then?”

“I’m surprised you’re ignorant to this much. I tried directing her your way, shortly before you landed. She’d been resisting the abduction units trivially, so I kept my eye on her, suppressed the readings of soldier deaths-”

“Tyronus’ calculations didn’t account for her, either?”

Altera shook her head. “No, at least not fully. Anyways, once I noticed her, I decided to put some tests to her discreetly, but the fact that she dove headfirst into a brawl with Ratheim and survived piqued my interest even more. As I said, I tried to send her to you.”

“…What did she look like?”

“Dark skinned woman, really thin; hair was black, fairly long, and somewhat curly. Mm… her facial features seemed of mixed-race. If I recall correctly, she introduced herself to me as Senna.”

There was no mistaking it: that was the woman who intercepted our landing ships and made immediate first contact. This certainly explained how she was in place to find us so quickly, but nothing else here made any sense. Why would she have avoided telling me that Altera had made contact with her? Was that simple caution, or something else?

“I see. Well, we’ve made contact already, but she neglected to mention anything about you. What did you say to her?”

Something strange entered Altera’s expression, just for the barest second, before she shrugged and said, “Hmph, not enough, I suppose. I mentioned that I was secretly working against the other Aichleini, and that someone aligned with that goal would be arriving in the south soon. Figured it was fine to leave it at that.”

“You really couldn’t risk the time to explain in further detail?”

“I was already pushing my luck as it was. Forgive me, wouldn’t you?”

Those words, that tone – she never actually sounded apologetic, did she. Still, it made me smirk at least a bit. I’d been around her long enough to know better, so it was more amusing than infuriating, at least so long as the world wasn’t coming down around us. Her temperament even brought to mind some of my only good memories from back then.

Unfortunately, this was all more serious than just my own nostalgia. The woman I met was more important than I could have ever imagined, and now I had no idea where she was anymore, an initial opportunity lost to her caution or paranoia… or to some other anomaly. In fact, the more I thought about it, the less sense it made.

If Senna hadn’t trusted me, there’s no way things would have played out so easily, right? And yet she facilitated bringing me to that meeting. She decided not to tell me of her contact with Altera, to act like it hadn’t happened at all, and even during her biggest opportunity to let facts come to light, she kept it hidden. Something here wasn’t adding up.

In any case, this was all something to contemplate on my own. Altera would likely offer nothing but dismissals and insistances that she’d done all that was reasonable to expect of her. It wasn’t incorrect, but it also wasn’t helpful, and chasing such thoughts through dialogue was a waste of time compared to our primary goals.

“In any event, I’d say everything’s been cleared up for us, assuming there’s not another assault on the cards?” I asked.

“None whatsoever,” she assured me smugly. “The consensus is that we need to establish methods of prediction that can account for the newly discovered Tier III entity’s presence here before any further actions are taken.”

“Then if you handle finding that woman for us again, I’ll proceed towards the next phase of our designs. We’ll have to delay the latter stages a bit to account for our ally returning, but in the meantime, we should try to assemble as powerful a strikeforce as we can.”

After all, even with an insider’s sabotage, you’d want to stack the deck in your favor as much as possible if you intended on killing nearly a dozen demigods.

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