Just as Leiv mentioned earlier, the forest around us had slowly transitioned to older and older growth as we passed through it. This was a place never defiled in the search for lumber, at least not on any scale beyond the local and trivial, and so its canopy reached deeply into the sky above us. The scale was titanic. Such sights could convince almost anyone of nature’s invulnerability.
On the opposite end, the picture painted below our feet held troublesome portents. Plenty of footprints pressed into the mud, and none seemed indicative of traders’ passage; they all seemed to represent the soles of heavy boots. It probably meant there were recent patrols passing through this area.
“You said the marker was just before Niele, right?” I asked again, shifting the weight I had resting on my shoulder. Damn, this was heavy. “I suspect we’re going to pass by another patrol before we get there.”
“It has been a while since I last returned here, but I imagine you’re likely correct. Thankfully, this area isn’t as vital to the Ophentum’s efforts as, say, Vitore, so we won’t be under too much pressure.”
True. If this area had been placed under similar protections, there was no way we’d have been able to travel like this in the first place. As it was, though, we’d gone unmolested simply by posing as father and daughter journeying back home after a risky business venture abroad. Easy enough story when no one was on high alert, and it eliminated any weirder suspicions that might be cast Leiv’s way, but none of that made it any less sickening to pretend.
Just as I feared, it wasn’t long before we heard hints of speech reaching us from the road ahead, far before anyone was in line of sight. Seemed like we had one more performance ahead of us. Thankfully, we’d long since scripted this out. Leiv and I spared only a brief glance at each other before moving into our prepared actions.
Leiv started by reaching into one of his packs and retrieving a worn, navy blue cap he’d gotten from the locals here several years ago, or so he said. Meanwhile, my fingers were busy untying my hair and adjusting my bangs enough to obfuscate my face a bit, just to try and hedge on anyone directly recognizing me as the – former – Ophentum chief administrator. Once we were both looking sufficiently different, Leiv reached over and coldly offered his free hand for me to grasp. We had to sell a familial image, after all.
Our ruse was easily completed in time. About half a minute after we grasped each other, a pair of men in familiar garb rounded the bend in the road up ahead of us, and their gaze landed squarely on us almost instantly. I knew exactly what I needed to do. With inwards-facing revulsion, I raised my arm, pointing exaggeratedly at the two soldiers whilst heightening my voice towards a childish cadence.
“Papa!” Gag. “Some more soldiers!”
“Yes, yes, don’t bother them too much. We’re almost there.” Maybe I was just hearing what I wanted to hear, but I almost swore I could discern a slight tinge of the same disgust I felt there in Leiv’s voice. That was a bit comforting. And humorous.
One of the two men approaching us ended up taking a slight lead, waving us down as we came closer. Apparently our act was doing well – their weapons remained sheathed, and their expressions were cordial. As much as it felt like it would melt my face off in the process, I forced myself to maintain as close an approximation to childlike innocence and wonder and whatnot as I could manage.
“Hey, folks! Looking to make a stop in Niele, sir?” the lead asked of Leiv.
“Absolutely,” he responded, tipping his cap slightly as the two of us came to a stop in the road. “My pumpkin here and I’ve been on the road for quite a while. Really lookin’ forward to gettin’ back to civilization again.”
“Can’t say I blame you.” The man then squatted down so as to put us more at eye level, having turned his attention to me for the moment. “What’s your name, kiddo?”
“Jillie,” I offered with a forced smile.
“And I’m Sven,” Leiv interjected. “You lads be careful out here, alright? Dangerous times we live in.”
“Too true,” he grunted, pushing himself back up to his full height. “Niele isn’t that much further at all now. I’m sure you’ll be able to make it just fine.”
“Thank you both.”
Seemed like that satisfied them fully. After calling the name of his partner, the two Ophentum moved past us to continue down their patrol route. Leiv and I resumed walking as well. Just to be safe, we didn’t drop the disguises – minimal as they were – until the patrol was well out of sight. A loud sigh escaped my lips once it felt like we were safe.
“I hear you,” Leiv laughed awkwardly, stowing his cap back in his bag. “Forgive me if this sounds rude, but I don’t think I ever want you to call me anything like ‘papa’ again.”
“Don’t worry, the feeling’s mutual.”
A soft, content silence blanketed our path then. It was satisfying and more than a bit relieving to have passed the last likely challenge we had before Leiv’s prime laboratory. Now there was nothing left but to complete that journey. The simple act of traveling alongside this man was something I’d grown used to by now, admittedly… used to, but not completely comfortable with.
“This first landmark you mentioned before, it’s coming up soon?”
“I’m curious, what made you choose this as your primary hideout?”
“Oh, a number of factors, really,” Leiv said, gesticulating with one hand. “The locals all know me – or Sven rather – and thus, with the proximity, it’s easy enough stopping in for supplies.”
“And there are no questions as to what someone who doesn’t live here wants with such regular purchases?” I quirked my eyebrow.
“Sharp catch. As far as any of these lot know, I live on a property not far from here. I doubt anyone has any business with me, and if they did and happened to see the cabin empty, it’s easy enough to point to my proclivity for travel. I just visit every once in a while to make sure it doesn’t end up appearing abandoned in any serious capacity.”
Based on his comment on what I took note of, the possibility came to mind that he was still observing me in some testing capacity. What a stressful thing I had to be constantly vigilant over. I had no idea whether he still held my life as something which needed proof of value, or if he ever really felt that way; for all I knew, he could have just been trying to scare me into cooperation, earlier. But all those lingering doubts and unanswered questions were enough to keep me on my toes.
“Aside from the supplies, then?” I prompted further.
“Oh, yes. Natural formations are the next big reason. Lake Willen is less than a day’s travel from here, and the ocean another day beyond that – untamed beach, furthermore. I find those locations and these woods themselves to be fertile in terms of gathering reagents.”
“I see. Paying such close attention to details like those only makes sense, I suppose, when one operates independently.
“Perhaps you’ll yet learn to think along similar terms. Oh, and look, we’ve arrived.”
There was only one feature here that I could take for a landmark. The ground on the left side of the path steadily rose up ‘til a wall of raw earth a couple yards high towered over it, with the exposed roots of a fallen tree grasping towards us. As if recovering from a recent downpour, the dirt was dark with moisture, and droplets glacially released their grip from the tips of those roots or from the sparse shoots of green that had sprouted up between them.
“This fallen tree is where we turn,” Leiv’s voice drew me out of my passive observations. “We walk the way its roots point. There’s a certain route you have to take, which I’ll show you.”
As my gaze was drawn in that direction, I had to admit I experienced a slight bit of incredulity in spite of myself. I wasn’t even sure how one would go about moving in that direction; the shrubs blocked all entrance for at least a dozen yards each way. Or, at the very least, I wasn’t sure how I could be allowed to traverse it without help.
Leiv insistantly walked right into that wall of life, and just as I felt the urge to scrunch my face up in confusion, the center of that obstruction peeled away almost like some sort of door. He held the portal open for me. As I stepped through, there were obvious signs of a footpath leading deeper into the forest, though the lighting had changed greatly and made it difficult to see much. We were mere inches away from a well-traveled road, and yet it already felt so foreign.
“This was an interesting one to develop,” Leiv noted as he moved to accompany me, lumination dropping even further as the plants behind us closed back up. “Encouraged some heavy growth in the area to begin with, and then specifically cultivated that plant to grow in just the right way so as to be malleable when manipulated a certain way.”
“Pretty much just lets you bend it back at the right angle. Otherwise it’s fairly sturdy.”
This footpath was clearly enough defined that I would have easily been able to follow it on my own, but I was happy enough having Leiv take the initiative from here on. His familiarity with the route was evident as we progressed onwards. The biggest issue plaguing me here was the abundance of low-hanging branches that I had to constantly bat away from my face.
Before I could get used to the rhythm of it, the trail withered away into the bank of a brook, gentle water running over smooth stones in the bed and obfuscating any potential tracks left behind by those who traversed it. Directly across from our position were further stretches of completely untamed wilderness, untouched even by Leiv’s distant art – determining our next destination from here seemed impossible.
“This small riverbed is mostly filled with pebbles and the like, but there are a few larger rocks weathering it out, like the one right over there,” he gestured, bringing an entirely uninteresting stone to my attention. “We continue our trek upstream, in the waters themselves, until we reach the third large stone.”
Once we made sure our tracks seemed to lead straight across the brook, we turned upstream and resumed walking. The sensation of water seeping into my boots quickly became its own sort of agony. As soon as I was able, I’d be sure to get a pair that was more watertight than these. Curiosity such that I held did little to mitigate all the ways this underdeveloped body was vulnerable to discomfort.
Immediately upon reaching the marker, Leiv directed us into the forest on the opposite side from where we originated. After another well-concealed entrance, the remainder of the path was much more open than before. I guessed that he no longer needed to obscure things quite as much, after the running waters made it unlikely to piece together the route in totality?
Perhaps calling it a ‘path’ was yet generous. This section of our route was short, and while it was open, it seemed more like a natural occurrence than anything. It was completely unremarkable. I also had no clue that we had come to its end until my traveling partner’s actions made it clear, and that’s when my interest was truly piqued.
“Have you ever come across a technique known as manual or digital sigilling?” Leiv broke the silence as we both came to a complete stop.
Manual sigilling… there was no established technique known to me by that name, but the words themselves had to have been implying something. Yet I couldn’t think of anything within the realm of possibility for what he could be referring to, unless it was something utterly mundane. I was also curious why he’d bring that up now of all times.
“I’m not sure what you’re referring to,” I hesitantly replied.
“Don’t worry, that’s no fault of yours,” he assured me. “None of our curriculums in Celdan, nor those over in Belenon, have ever pursued it. This is something I picked up from correspondence in the Far East.”
“East… You knew someone from the continent of Taimont?”
He nodded. “Indeed. Let’s just say that there are more points of contact between our two lands than just the embittered ports of the Belenese.”
“I’d be fascinated to hear of this later, but I assume the manual sigilling you referred to is relevant here?” I restlessly impelled him.
Leiv stretched his right hand forward, angling it slightly downwards towards the patch of undergrowth just ahead of us. The motions his fingers proceeded to make in the air were perplexing at first. However, the name he gave for it primed me to soon recognize what it was: a sigil being traced out in the air with his fingers, rather than with the traditional materials. Specifically, this one was ‘openness’ or ‘the state of being revealed’ in local symbology… but there was something else blended into it, too, and I couldn’t immediately identify it.
“I’m sure you recognize this one,” the alchemist smugly noted, his words accompanied by a massive shifting of the plants before him. I was awestruck. “Plant roots help maintain soil consistency and prevent erosion. With a little help, the whole thing can be used as a natural-looking trapdoor as their roots displace the earth with them.”
“H-how… how did you do this? How is that even possible? The sheer precision required should render this sort of thing unthinkable.”
Stale air wafted upwards from the gaping vacancy in the earth that had just been revealed to us. A set of stairs led downwards, deeper than I could see the bottom of thanks to a lack of light. Its dimensions were carved out with a seemingly mathematical accuracy, and the walls, though still earthen, had a strange, greying quality to them that invoked the use of alchemy in their fashioning.
“Come along.” It seemed he was ignoring my question for the moment.
We began making our way down. I was relieved to find the steps short enough not to be uncomfortable for me, while he simply took two at a time. It was initially a silent descent. Enough time passed that I became unsure whether he’d answer me at all. As the trapdoor closed of its own accord behind us and choked out the sun, though, he resumed speaking.
“Ah, about your question, right. I too spent all my life thinking it to be impossible, but that’s because we’ve been approaching the entire concept with a somewhat… flawed set of assumptions. Eliminating them with the inclusion of foreign data was the first step.”
“Not the sort of thing you can detail on a flight of stairs, I assume?”
“I believe you’ll want to see the letters themselves,” was his response, and I had to admit he was correct. “Adopting this new paradigm, these techniques, it’s resulted in the most fruitful research of my life.”
“I’m a bit envious. It’s like there was no progress I could make earlier, when I was shackled to someone else’s cause.”
“It’s never too late to start learning again,” he responded with a surprising tinge of humility. “Or to take charge of your own life, make it go the direction you want. That’s the decision I made back then, and that’s the decision you’re making now.”
“There was, admittedly, some dangerous persuasion used to get me to that decision,” I pointed out jokingly.
That’s right, where did my intentions truly lie now? There would likely have been a multitude of options for trying to escape Leiv along this journey I undertook with him, but I never once entertained the thought. I was too curious about him, about his work, about what a person like that promises for the future of a woman like me. Taking charge of my life, making it go the direction I want…
“Yes, now I’m just happy. I was given the opportunity to choose something different.”
“That’s good to hear,” he said with simple contentment.
The stairs soon leveled off, and moments later the flicker of alchemical lighting sprung to life along the left of a sturdy, clean tunnel. Just like in the stairway, all surfaces seemed to be composed of the same treated soul, which at this point, in this lighting, seemed to more resemble stone than loose earth. Ahead of us were a multitude of greyish, wooden doors set into the walls at regular distances. Leiv gestured me towards the fourth one on the right.
“Welcome to your new home, I suppose,” he announced, opening the door. “Though, now that I think about it, you could just live in that cottage I mentioned owning if you preferred that over something underground. Many people dislike living without natural sunlight. I can’t say I’m one of them, but I must be courteous, after all.”
“Yes, I’ll have to think about it,” I replied absentmindedly.
Just like before, his fingers found a spot on the wall, and the gloom that light from the hall only barely penetrated quickly washed away. It seemed to be guest quarters, given the bed and other furnishings. Did he have this prepared beforehand? He didn’t strike me as the type to entertain visitors usually.
“For now, though, this is probably the best place for you to stay. It’s got all the typical environmental controls, as well as a stocked pantry along this left wall. You’ll be my first real guest since, well, ever, but I’m now glad for my thoroughness in having prepared a room like this.”
“Fortunate indeed, else I would have to make due with all that sunlight even more,” I quipped dryly, stepping past the threshold and taking off my footwear. “Evening’s likely approaching soon.”
“Indeed. I’ll be turning in shortly, myself. Tomorrow, I’d like to have a quick start to the day; there’s much to be done.”
“Would you be able to give a brief tour before anything else? To let me acquaint myself with this place.”
“Absolutely. Oh, and when you wake up, please wait in here for me to come get you. It’ll be easier than trying to give instructions on where to go.”
And with that, I was left alone for the first time in many days. For starters, it seemed like a good idea to acquaint myself with this room for the moment. He mentioned a pantry, right? Thankfully it was easy to identify: a slightly raised wooden door behind which were a set of shelves topped with non-perishable foodstuffs. Hm, there wouldn’t be any gourmet meals coming out of here, but it seemed like more than enough to survive off of, perhaps for a couple months or so.
I was briefly concerned with how to reach the items on the top shelf before remembering the desk behind me. Turning towards it confirmed that it had an accompanying chair. Its surface was sparse, and I wasn’t exactly sure what use a desk would be to me in here, but for now, it at least made the place feel more like a genuine room than a hovel in the dirt. Perhaps I would want to take up a journal at some point.
Now, after a day of traveling, I was surprised to note a lack of hunger. Fatigue, that was certainly present, but not hunger. I’d almost assumed I would need something to tide myself over. After brief consideration, I decided to give my body the rest it so desperately seemed to crave before doing anything else, and began stripping out of everything but my undergarments.
The bed looked clean. No dirt, no insects, nothing really bothersome I could see. That was pleasant. I laid down yet tentatively, but it was decently soft, so I slowly lost any apprehension I still had towards it. Really, it’d be easy to get a good night’s sleep on this, it seemed.
Hm, but the temperature was no good. With a tiny huff, I yanked myself up to a standing position and walked over to grab the chair. After positioning it up against the wall, I was able to reach the array of gleaming sigils that dictated this room’s conditions. It looked like it was already set to maintain proper oxygen levels. Just needed to turn the heat down to a more reasonable level. There.
I glanced over at the door to my right, thinking nothing but to note its presence. The handle had a lock on it. He said he prepared this room well ahead of time, so he didn’t specifically provide a lock to make me feel safer, but it was still reassuring. No, more than the simple material security a lock provided, this being here implied something. A man with intentions to be fulfilled while a guest slept would almost certainly neglect a lock that could keep him at bay.
Relief flooded through my chest. Its intensity even surprised me. Every little chance for him, consciously or not, to slip up and cause me to suspect him went by without the least negative note. He really wasn’t going to try to hurt me, was he? His was a lonely and intellectually fulfilling life, and now he genuinely wanted to share it with a peer, with me. The worst I could say was that perhaps his extended hermitage had given him strange ideas on how to properly recruit people.
Heh, no matter how many times I mulled it over in my head, I kept coming back to spin my wheels uselessly. Why? Was I that insecure? I wanted to present myself as, to feel like, someone who had things totally under control, but it seemed impossible to ignore these feelings of vulnerability, now that I wasn’t among the Ophentum.
The Ophentum… Aysa. Speaking of that immature bitch, I wondered if the whole place came crashing down around her now that I wasn’t there to make sure it ran properly. That would’ve been deserved, for sure. All I did for her, and this is- no, why bother being bitter now? Really. I should be thanking her. I should thank her for indirectly giving me this future.
But I wouldn’t mind giving her some payback for it. And I might have a way to do that, soon.
We’d finally made it. Mere moments after Batrie’s movement stopped, I found myself landing behind her, that final impact sending up a spray of leaves and shattered wood. Now that the wind whipping against my ears had abated, I could hear the panicked cries of birds and the beats of their wings as they retreated from our commotion. I did not prefer this mode of travel if only for the sheer level of disruption it seemed to cause.
This woman… my sister, she turned to meet my gaze with her own once we were both stationary. Her cheeks curved into a mild smirk. “Nice job keepin’ up, doll. We made it.”
Before us stood an imposing stone wall, its dimensions completely imperceptible to me. Further up, and the leaves of the canopy obscured its height; to the sides, great masses of shrubs pushed up against the stonework and made it impossible to tell how far in each direction it stretched. Even here, the vines that clung stubbornly to its surface made it hard to immediately tell what I was looking at.
“This training ground you mentioned, it is within?” I asked, eyes still roaming across the mysterious structure’s surface.
Batrie apparently thought that that was enough of an answer, as she proceeded to silently step across the intervening bed of roots and ferns towards the wall. I felt a frown slip onto my face. In spite of my lack of understanding, though, I moved to follow her.
“So… where is the entrance?”
“Right here,” she replied, a wide grin evident in her tone.
Before I had much of an opportunity to ask for clarification, Batrie made her move, her arms extending out first horizontally, then towards opposite vertical positions. Crisp ocean-blue light poured from deep channels carved into the stone in immediate response to this sign. Then, a great rumbling. Leafy tendrils previously fastened to the surface quickly fell aside as, in some horrible violation of nature, the massive slabs of rock rearranged themselves to allow for an arched entryway to appear. Only then did the clamor and coruscation cease.
“Alright, come along now.”
I was shocked into utter, solemn silence at what had just transpired. My guide here still seemed to hold an air of amusement about her over my reaction, but ignoring that, the atmosphere was awe-inspiring. This structure was the most blatant rejection of my previous knowledge I had encountered since Chorazom himself made his existence known.
In any case, I followed along as Batrie entered the newly formed gate. The interior was mostly smooth, unmarred from any sort of weathering, with the only discernible marks being the bizarre divisions of individual stones, all of which were twisted in the wake of whatever process allowed this structure its functions.
The way became increasingly dark as we moved in from the entrance, too. I had to forcibly amplify the sensitivity of my retinas to continue seeing where we were going. When I thought on it, I figured it might not have been too hard to try navigating this perfectly straight tunnel by listening to our footsteps echoing off the walls; other animals were hypothesized to have similar capabilities. I wondered whether Batrie was using this as a test, as well, to see how exactly I dealt with a lack of light.
Just as even this meagre sight began failing me, Batrie stretched an arm to the side, fingers once again tracing out something I could no longer quite make out. At its conclusion, a bright flare of familiar cerulean blinded me, and I hurriedly readjusted my eyes to this more reasonable illumination.
“I would have appreciated a warning…” I grumbled, rubbing my eyes in a bitterness more psychological than physical.
Batrie cackled jovially. “Sorry, sorry. Wasn’t thinking about that. You should be okay, though, right?”
“Yes, I am fine.”
Now that there was more visibility to work with, I could finally appreciate the sheer depth to this place. Gazing up past Batrie’s shoulder revealed that this tunnel seemed to continue without end. No light at the end, just the seemingly-eternal azure blaze pouring out from between the margins of each stone brick. It was unsettling to not even see a potential destination for us.
“I think,” I said at length, my voice echoing along the corridor, “you should tell me about this place. How has something like this survived out here? Why can the stones move so fluidly? No, more importantly, how do you even know how to activate its functions?”
“Slow down there, doll. I can only talk so quick, and we’re just about there.”
“We are?” I looked past her again. “I do not see anything.”
Her footsteps came to a sudden halt, and mine joined in stillness thereafter, planting my feet on the stone and my eyes on the back of her head. Much like the previous two incidents, she started the motions to manipulate this structure. I figured I would get no concrete answers to any of this until after her evaluation of me. In that vein, I was expecting her to open up another corridor, or perhaps a direct door to whatever location she intended to train with me at.
I was horrendously wrong.
The first hint was the duration, and then the intricacy. In comparison to the simple sign woven to make this passage appear, her current actions were hardly recognizable. She appeared to construct two separate, discernible stages in her performance; at the first’s conclusion, a vast rumbling resounded throughout the masonry, like thunder at an arm’s reach. It was only after the second stage that I could finally discern what was going on.
Everything was moving. The ceiling above us peeled away until this interior’s natural darkness was overcome by a flood of sunlight, at which point the artificial illumination deactivated. This was far more than the creation of a passage, or a restructuring of the area we were traversing; it was as if we had just made it to the center of a pastry as it was torn apart from above.
Less than a minute passed before its intended form was more clear. A somewhat mind-boggling expanse of flat stonework leveled out all around us, and tiered expressions progressed in each cardinal direction beyond that plane, giving the vague impression of a cube with the walls all pulled outwards in step fashion. This engineered mass of rock had been shaped on such an absurd level by mere gesture.
“You look positively flabbergasted,” her amused voice shook me out of my passive observation.
“How could I not be? I had no idea something like this was even possible, much less actually existed.”
“Yeah, neither did I, before I saw it with my own eyes. Even then, it’s pretty hard getting used to the existence of a massive, moldable magic cube just hiding out in the depths of the northern jungles.”
“Sounds like this place is still quite the mystery, even to you,” I noted, eyes once more scanning in all directions. “Who discovered this? How was it figured out?”
Her smirk twisted on one side. “Look, I know there’s a lot you still need to learn, but let’s leave the questions for tonight, alright? We have business to get through.”
“Ah… yes, you are right. Sorry. I will be counting on you later, then.”
“Yup, don’t worry about it. Now, before we do this, I just have one thing I feel like I’ve gotta ask you: is that lack of a left arm gonna interfere or hold you back at all, you are you used to it by now?”
A small measure of surprise crept into my expression before my gaze momentarily flitted back to the emptiness of my left side. True, she was right to suspect that I was unused to fighting with one arm, but I was not fundamentally weak. Moreover, if the entire point here was just to gauge my current capacity, what use was that question? Did she just want to cast doubt on me?
“Trust me, I can fight perfectly well,” came my admittedly defensive response, “with or without a left arm.”
“Glad to hear it.” Batrie took something of a combat stance, though her motions were deceptively casual. “Get ready, then, because I’m not warning you more than once.”
Even in the midst of bringing her fists up playfully, the changes were becoming evident. More than any limb, it was her flesh itself, independent of prior structure, that seemed to shift the most, though its function eluded me for the moment. Was… that what I looked like to others?
No, I needed to not distract myself like that, not waste the short opportunity she was presenting me with. What point should I scale myself up to, here? What would be appropriate? I should have been more concerned with that than I was, but I rapidly found myself overtaken with my childish desires.
I wanted to be strong. Whether it was going overboard or not, I wanted to give her nothing less than an image of strength and competence, so I settled on weaving together the most potent designs I knew that still allowed me to preserve a human form. Everything I slowly pieced together, hypothesized, and tested for myself over my many years of sluggish progress would go into this.
First was the skin. Something so liable to split and tear away was unusable, so I changed the material, the composition, and the attachments to the underlying tissue to make sure it would maintain itself when subjected to stress. Then, beneath that now-elastic exterior, I replaced my muscles with long threads of highly reactive micro-crystal lattice, arranged in rows and coursed by an amplified nervous system that I could rely on in the absence of direct kinetic control.
Strength and physical reaction time were both established, but now I needed the resiliency to back it up. Abandoning any sense of naturalism allowed me to do away with unnecessary organs, which meant plenty of internal space. I stretched long, narrow bands of a self-reinforcing structure all throughout my body, bonded tightly to the skin and encasing the flesh. This would keep my shape intact by responding to certain amounts of force with reactive internal hardening, so the need to repair myself would be minimal.
The final area I paid particular attention to was my head; losing my senses would be a practical defeat, here. Overall, they were vital towards completing a battle that I could not reveal myself as anything but a simple shapeshifter during. After ensuring the appropriate protection, I tuned the nerves connecting my eyes and ears even more sensitively, ‘til the light above us was blinding (while yet I could still see and process all of it) and the wind howled in its most minute stirrings (while yet the tiniest squeaks were still audible to me).
I was finally ready. That confidence must have filtered into my posture as I went to mirror Batrie’s laid-back stance, because she decided to give comment.
“You really put a lot of effort into that, didn’t you,” her tremendous voice – or, rather, her voice boosted to tremendous volume by my over-tuned ears – called. “Let’s go.”
The explosion that rang out through the arena as her body pushed off against the tiled stone floor filled my head. I could track her. Right down to my mental core, all my focus was on her, eyes marking the progression of her body as she neared my position, fist extended and aiming to connect with me.
But I could track her, and that meant I could meet it. My open palm caught the incoming fist with a horrific thunderclap. Tensions snapped into place along my arm and up through my shoulder, the structures buckling but not breaking under its weight. A shock of kinetic energy flooded into and through me, and in the next moment, I was acutely aware of the shattering of masonry beneath my feet. Were I not properly braced for that, I would have liked been sent flying into the walls of the arena just now.
She was in close now. Preempting any follow-up attacks on my vulnerable left side, I gripped Batrie’s fist and tugged her closer towards me, eliminating her balance and leaving her open. This was my chance. I immediately pivoted and sent my outstretched leg slamming into the woman’s side. Far too late did I realize that the shattered tile I anchored myself on was failing me, and that tiny sliver of a delay allowed Batrie a response.
Before I knew what she was doing, I lost my restraint of her hand, and where I expected to feel the deep impact of my shin against her torso, there was instead empty air. Panicked, I pulled my leg back and tried to stabilize again on the unstable footing. Batrie must have abandoned some amount of solidity to escape me there.
I looked downwards just in time to see a sharpened, silver mass thrusting upwards, but not in time to completely avoid it. Even as my head snapped back instantly, Batrie’s attack split through my chin, leaving me with a painful vacancy that I immediately set to restore. Her form came back to ‘normal’ as she stretched herself back up to her full height.
Sooner than I registered my own intentions, I swung my arm outwards in an arc with enough force behind it to gouge out flesh, with or without a blade attached. I could swear I heard Batrie release a rough laugh as she, in turn, pulled herself narrowly away from my slash. Seems I had yet to tag her. That only compelled me to try even harder.
The dance between us evolved and set into its rhythm as the two of us continued feeling things out with the other. It felt almost intimate in a way, accelerating our bodies to hack away at each other just to get a sense of the other’s strength. Thrust, twist away, slash, deflect, step forward, retreat; all actions flowing into each other and accentuated by flashes of warm, wet pain.
But she was gaining obvious advantage with every exchange of our limbs. It was frustrating, and unavoidable no matter how I tried to maneuver. Each attack of mine left me without a proper defense, while she was far more capable of keeping me from connecting. The actual injuries were restored without issue; what stung was my relative inadequacy.
My increasing frustration led to increasingly reckless attacks, to slowly chipping away at the attention I paid hers. Nothing alighted in my eyes except the mocking glee of her features, the sparks that flew as my approximation of a blade clashed over and over again with the wrenching, silvered responses that kept me at bay too easily, and the blur of a frenzy that even these new eyes were now struggling to keep up with.
Then it all ended with a single misstep. I moved just a bit too far into her, and Batrie took familiar advantage of it, pulling me along even further and providing an opening. The result was an eruption of furious thunder along the side of my face. My entire world bleared and spun. In moments, the embrace of pitiless tile caught me, kept me still even as it crumbled underneath the pressure of our meeting.
“Just as durable as I was imagining,” Batrie’s voice somehow made it all the way through my disorientation. “Think I’m getting a really good feel for where you’re at, currently.”
After pulling myself slowly back onto my feet, I found my position to be about a dozen paces away from Batrie’s. That was one hell of a hit. Unthinkingly, I pressed my hand against the side of my skull, as if it were needing to be held together by will and fingers in tandem, which was perhaps not far from the truth. Taking this time to force everything back in order and quench the volcanic agony pulsing along my head and spine was an unfortunate, brutal necessity for me now.
“Damn… Why go for the head like that? That one hurt,” I groaned bitterly.
“Because that’s your first lesson, since I saw an opportunity for it,” Batrie replied, stretching her neck to the side casually. “Learn to distribute your cognitive functions. Fail to do that, and one solid hit to the head will take you out, or even kill you. If you avoid getting knocked out, you can recover from it.”
“My first lesson? Surely this is not an appropriate time for that. You wanted to see what I can do, not toss me around and give me pointers.”
“I’d say I’ve already seen what you can do. At this point, you’re beaten pretty handily. Isn’t it better to move on to something productive already?”
“You beat me?” Why? “You just knocked me down for a moment.” Why would I be obsessing over this? “If you want to have an accurate impression of me, then I suggest you not write me off so quickly.” Why could I not dispel this intense shame?
A frown crossed Batrie’s face. “Are you telling me you were keeping something held back, or are you just being stubborn?”
The most literally correct answer was that I was hiding things from her. I had no intention to outright kill her with the same design that finally ended Nykorosk, and neither did I want her – or, by extension, Chorazom – to learn anything more about me than was strictly necessary. Even considering that my own goals might conflict with that, I was too terrified of the possible consequences.
She advised me about keeping myself conscious. That made it fairly obvious that my earlier observations were correct; I was abnormal compared to these people. Not just in the exact force I could conjure that Batrie seemed to lack, but in being able to go entirely without a body. Given that I had little information on how… people like me, like us, worked, it was still hard to tell exactly where I should be cautious and where I should try to press her for more details.
I was starting to annoy myself, more than anything, over how many things I felt the need to track and obsess over. I had no idea what Chorazom wanted, what any of these people would really be expecting of me, or what my future would turn into from here. I could not afford to trust anyone, to treat them as anyone but an enemy in waiting.
That mindset made me too wary.
“I might still have something up my sleeve.”
I wanted to hide as much of my capacity as possible, originally. Anything they knew about, I could eventually be expected to use for their benefit. If I ended up having to perform actions counter to my own morality, then it seemed like the greatest resistance available to me to simply lessen how much I could get away with contributing, in any mild way possible.
“So you were hiding something. But why? You don’t trust me?”
All that said, I needed someone like Batrie. I needed an outside perspective, someone with the knowledge I lacked, someone who could finally help me sort out the complicated mess of my own existence. I wanted to trust her. Or, rather, I just wanted to be able to trust someone in my life now. But I was still too wary.
“I… I do. Jasz gave me some brief explanations when we first met, since I knew virtually nothing at that point. It seemed like I would be seen abnormally if I was honest about exactly what I could do.”
These two conclusions, I was trying to keep them in harmony. I wanted the benefits of engagement without the honesty of it. After today, though, I realized I was a bit too stubborn. Batrie would keep giving imperfect advice the less she knew of me, and she might eventually grow suspicious regardless.
“I mean, none of us are exactly normal, doll. Why worry about something like that?”
Giving a partial truth will often satisfy the suspicious. Where total silence will make one believe something must be hidden there, supplying some sort of answer instead makes it seem as if the person revealing it is more open than they necessarily are.
“Because I have nothing else other than this. It was an irrational fear, I know.”
And when someone thinks of you as open, as not keeping things secret, they trust you. They view you more favorably. They begin telling you things, too.
“I understand. I don’t want you to be afraid, though, alright? You’ve got me now. I’ll take care of you. I know it can be really disorienting when you’ve gotta adapt to a new life, new friends, new authorities, but you’re safe here.”
When I thought about it, I was not a good person. Good people would not think to resort to this sort of tactic, right? But I already knew that. Chorazom was absolutely correct there. I killed someone to preserve my happiness, so why would I refrain from manipulating another to get back to it, eventually?
“Thank you,” I smiled warmly, adjusting my body language to convey as deep a sense of openness and appreciation as possible. “I was lucky to have gotten you, it seems.”
I was incredibly lucky.
“Ehheh, maybe you’re right. There are other evaluators and trainers, after all. Some of ‘em I know woulda been total hardasses here.” A beat. “Ah, anyways, I want to see what it is you’ve been trying to hide up ‘til now, if that’s okay.”
“Yes, just… give me one last chance to impress you. Please.”
Batrie sighed, smiling, shaking her head, but nothing to cast genuine scorn on me. I shifted my weight to the side. Hah, for all I talked things up in my own head, I still wanted to satisfy my childish pride in the process. I would not have blamed her for seeing me as silly.
“Sure. Why not. I’m not gonna keep hurting your pride by dismissing you, so come on, show me what you’ve got!”
Hurting my pride… I wondered if it was as simple as that. Her invitation alone ignited something in me, something that had been simmering and waiting for some source of satisfaction all this time. The core of my heart was ablaze. I knew what this was, and now that I was about to give in to it, my body felt light as a feather.
I was accelerating in the blink of an eye, not even so much as taking up a stance before I could no longer bear standing in place. Unlike our previous exertions, there was hardly any noise to accompany this action, no great kicking up of dust or destruction of terrain, and hardly any warning for her. My eyes were still sensitive. I could process only briefly a look of surprise crossing Batrie’s face before we met.
The sound of metal rent by horrendous force split my ears. In those few moments of lucid self-awareness, I made sure to aim the tip at her shoulder, figuring it dangerous to try piercing her center mass directly. The mass of silvered bone that sprouted there in the instant between her realization and my impact did not do enough. I had sunk deep into the flesh beneath, and all the way through.
But why did my momentum cease so completely?
My throat flared with a heat not indicative of power, but of a dripping laceration.
She must have caught me as I came close.
I looked down to see Batrie’s arm extended into me. Her fingers, argent razors they now were, tore into my throat, opened me without the slightest hindrance.
Whatever horrible impetus had gripped me before, it was certainly gone now. The energy even to keep myself upright quickly drained from my limbs, and with it vanished the blade I had lodged in Batrie’s flesh. And then I fell. First to my knees, then further, ‘til the skin of my cheek met the smooth tile below and all I could think to do was probe the gaping wound in my neck.
“I’m glad you showed me that, Senna,” her voice came from above me. “I think I understand you even better now.”
My body was already quickly reverting to its comfortable normalcy. It was as if a muscle somewhere inside me had been tensed all that time, and I was finally letting it relax again. The aftermath of my defeat and reversion brought a sort of haze over my mind. Simply breathing in and out through my newly-knit throat again felt pleasurable and comforting.
“You’re a bit paradoxical, you know,” Batrie continued, kneeling down beside me. “I could tell how much mental effort you were putting into changing yourself, before we started fighting. The instincts are there, but you keep them only to supplement what conscious design can’t fill, or at least that’s my impression. Am I right?”
I shifted my torso awkwardly to bring her face into view, my head still laying against bare stone. Her expression seemed almost quizzical. “You are… scarily accurate. But what do you mean by ‘paradoxical’?”
“Because that little flame deep inside you is not only uncontrolled, but affecting you. All that obsessive, detailed thought put into your body, and yet you let that influence drive you to such caprices. Like earlier. It was a bit dampened, but you wanted to prove yourself to me specifically because of it, I believe.”
My eyes widened a bit without my thinking of it. After a bit of effort, I pushed myself to a sitting position, one which Batrie mirrored.
“How can you… no, do you know what it is?” I asked with a more timid voice than I wanted.
“Something all of us deal with,” she then replied just as gently. “A fact of life we teach each new sibling to tame. In fact, after today’s session, that seems like the exact place to start with you.”
“So I really am lacking in comparison… to be missing something so basic as that, apparently.”
“You didn’t grow up with us, so it’s not surprising you matured this way. Just means we need to spend some time making sure you’ve got the right foundation.”
She was too generous. I never even felt an opportunity to explore myself on that level, much less found a way to control a force I hardly understood. Hell, it was hard just to properly control the ability I ended up showing off to Batrie, and I had plenty of time to figure it out.
Yet how much of my life was wasted hardly living at all? It was a wonder I scraped together any practice during those years I wandered blindly, trying to keep myself from impacting any single village too heavily. But I could never give that excuse to her. It would invite too many questions, and right now I preferred Batrie having an untainted view of my existence.
“All that aside, you did impress me,” she noted, leaning back to rest her weight on her palms.
Batrie nodded. “That was some killer speed out of nowhere. Insane power, too. And I know exactly what you were hiding before: body manipulation, likely limited to being self-directed. Right?”
“So you could discern that, too. Yes. I only discovered it relatively recently, that I could move parts of my body faster than I should have been able to, that it happened without recoil.”
“What the hell did Jasz tell you that made you think you needed to hide that?”
“Ah, he- it was just something about what… we-?” I tasted the inclusive on my tongue, “-are usually categorized as. Something like shapeshifter, manipulator, or creator, I think.”
“Gah,” she groaned, “okay, yeah, no wonder. Look, we have to clean up after ourselves here. Gimme a moment.”
Batrie sprang to her full height gracefully. The stone just behind her was broken apart, just another instance of the destruction wrought by our combat. I had not even registered it happening that last time, but given the sheer amount of strength I poured into my attack, it made sense to see it. Wait, clean up? Did she mean this?
I decided to join her in the act of standing, shaky as my footing was. For some reason I was still feeling strangely fatigued after being pierced by her, but I was quickly recovering, especially now that I put my mind to a physical action. Batrie seemed pleased to see me standing next to her.
“This would be a good time to teach you these hand signs, but it’d take way too much time since you don’t have any of the foundations. You can still pay attention if you want though.”
Now I was left to watch as she took action. The patterns her fingers wove in the air were just as arcane to me as before, so rather than stare, my gaze ended up wandering around us just as everything slowly came to a disconcerting rumble. I could feel the vibration rising from my toes. The painful screech of stone against stone that proceeded it nearly made me jump in place, even though I was prepared for something to happen.
All along the ground, rock fragments of various sizes began to move of their own accord. No, even finer partitions than that; a thin layer of sand, or something like it, tasked itself to return to the damaged sites alongside the larger fragments, as if even the dust kicked up by our battle was forced to resume obedience. And whenever any quantity found its place, it sealed itself in among its intended neighbors without leaving so much as a fault in the tile.
“How is this possible… the structure can accomplish even such feats as this? It seems indestructible.”
“It’s the repair function,” Batrie replied as if it were a mundanity, “and as far as I’ve been willing to test, it is indestructible. Have to admit I was really happy, discovering a command for this. There’s no way we could afford to play rough in here if it were liable to get worn down each time.”
“How does it register that you are making those hand motions?”
“Again, I think this sorta stuff is gonna be a bit too involved to go into tonight. I promise I’ll take you out here again sometime and run you through it, alright?” Well, she did look genuinely apologetic.
“That is fine,” I nodded.
“What I will go over real quick here, before we leave, is the misconception Jasz gave you.” Batrie’s pause there prompted me to nod again, after which she continued.
“The three categories he brought up – shapeshifter, manipulator, creator – are a practical conclusion for how any given individual can apply themself in the field. In actuality, there are two distinct yet linked abilities we all receive to some varying degree: to generate and wield organic matter.”
“Everyone has those?”
“It varies, like I said. For instance, anyone who is functionally a shapeshifter needs just enough control over at least their own body to be able to change it, and they can usually create what they need in the process. You’re this sort of shapeshifter, right?”
“Yes, and extending to being able to impart abnormal force to it as well.”
“Exactly. They go hand in hand. Some shapeshifters will have more of that than you do, some will have even less. Same goes for the other two categories. You’ll learn the nuances of it over time, as you get more accustomed to being one of us.”
“Ah… yes, I suppose I will. Thanks for clearing that up.”
“No problem, doll.”
“So, uh, how do you turn this place back to normal, now? It was a solid cube earlier, I am fairly certain. Just resetting it while we are still within would probably crush us, and,” I gestured over to the artificial cliffs that boxed off this arena, “I imagine this is not very easy to escape for most people.”
“Yeah, so I don’t take most people out here, silly,” laughed Batrie, mock-punching my shoulder for emphasis. “Though you’d be surprised the sort of creative things they’d be able to come up with to scale those walls. And if it comes right down to it, I could just carry ‘em out.”
It almost felt like there was something in the air there, something she left unsaid, lingering just behind her lips. And then on my end, I was… a bit sore, emotionally. Even with that impetus itself having left me, I still genuinely wanted to make a good impression, to amount to more than just an untrained, unpolished fool. Unfortunately, that seemed to be exactly what I was. Fortunately, though, that meant that I had far more room to improve than I perhaps first imagined.
I really was lucky to have encountered someone like this so quickly.
“I suppose we should leave now, then,” I concluded, though I was not sure who I was speaking more to.
“Yeah, we started a bit too late to really do much anyways, so we need to start leaving now if we wanna get back before nightfall. Sorry to cut things short like this.”
“We definitely want to get back at a reasonable time,” came my agreement. “I am… looking forward to moving on, anyways. I still have no idea where I will be spending the night.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll sort everything out.”
While the two of us began walking the way we came, I glanced over at her repeatedly. Batrie seemed like a happy person, through and through. How much did she know about Chorazom? Was she forced into this like I was? Nothing in her demeanor made me think that was the case, or if it was, it had been a long time since she accepted it.
And the others seemed to worship that damn thing. Did she? Any amount of deference to him would likely turn my stomach immediately, as it did just to imagine such a scene. Yet I most certainly needed to suppress that reaction. I wanted to simply settle into this new life and focus on my goals, but if I would be expected to participate… I had no idea what I would do.
I looked at Batrie again, and I had to wonder if my future would really work out. If I would really be okay here. If I would have to twist myself even further just to survive whatever my enemy’s intentions were.