Monsters 7.2

I had everything I needed now. Last night’s ‘borrowing’ spree left me with plenty and yet not enough all at once; this journey would likely take me further away than I ever traveled before, and it would be impossible to pack enough supplies for the entire thing. Survivalism was never exactly my forte, but I had been trained. Just had to hope Aysa would be at least similarly capable.

The sky was still a dull, lethargic grey by the time I left the house. Dawn was just peeking over the horizon somewhere, but not here, not through this unusual cloud cover. How did they make it over the mountains? Perhaps there were storms brewing over the Faenon coast, and these were just the sickly remnants, wandering their way over here to shroud my departure.

How strangely energized the act of finally beginning my journey to find my lost love made me. With the heavy morning air now surrounding me, a pair of blades strapped to my belt and a hunting bow slung over my shoulder, I should have begun feeling the exhaustion of my nocturnal activity, but no. I was simply ready.

Skulking quietly through the village proved to be unnecessary, as I glimpsed hardly another soul out and about yet. The very first ones had gotten up just before I set out, I imagined, which was why I chose this timing. Still, it helped to be cautious. Perhaps a dozen uneventful minutes later, I made it to the house I’d kept my prisoner in.

Its door creaked open slowly. The interior was just as dark as I’d left it, with only a muted glow managing to creep in at my entrance. I felt like leaving it like that. After shutting the door behind me, I made my way by memory to Civun’s makeshift cell, knocking twice for politeness.

“Come in,” I heard, muffled, from within.

They seemed to be in fairly decent shape, for someone who was still sitting in the same chair as they were last week. By now, they’d given up copying Jacquir’s appearance, and in its stead was the visage of a young, androgynous person with chin-length black hair, soft features, and skin only a couple shades darker than before. Their eyes met mine squarely.

“I’d like to complete last night’s conversation,” I announced stolidly. “You said you didn’t feel as if you could accompany us, so we’ll need to get more detailed directions than you initially provided. We also have yet to work out exactly how you’ll be escaping without it looking suspicious.”

“Ah, about that, I’ve been doing some thinking… and I’ve changed my mind.”

“On what, exactly?” came my reply, an anxiety-driven harshness leaking into my tone. What did they change their mind on? Not going to tell me after all? If I lost my only link to Senna- but no, it didn’t feel like that was it.

“I want to come along after all,” they declared.

“You said earlier you couldn’t afford doing so.”

“I didn’t think I could, but like I said, I’ve been pondering it since last night. It seems to me like it’d be more natural to take someone along as a guide if you’re unfamiliar with the destination, whether that guide was a prisoner or not. It also seems much easier to set up an ‘unfortunate’ escape while we’re out in the wilderness.”

“I… do agree with all that,” I scratched the back of my head aimlessly, “but I wish you came to that conclusion before I made my preparations. Are you going to need-?”

“No no, don’t worry over me. I won’t be such a bother as to dip into your supplies.”

“Alright, if that’s the case, we’ll rely on you then. But are you gonna be ready to leave? We’re heading out now.”

A nod. “Yeah. I’m really not doing that poorly, aside from the boredom. If you free me, I’ll be able to guide you without issue.”

I still couldn’t discern their true intentions. With that fog still held over their heart, and with that eagerness to see themself freed, I should have been more suspicious under most mindsets. That said, though, we’d already made our deal. No reason for them to try and renege on it now, I figured. And I… I needed every chance I could get to reach her.

“Okay then.”

It took only a brief and minor effort from me to remove the hasty sigilling work of my father. A dozen seconds later, Civun’s limbs were free to move again, and they responded by eagerly standing up to a full height just a bit shorter than my own, stretching their arms and legs gratefully.

“Let’s not keep wasting our time here,” I said at length. “Aysa is likely already waiting at the spot we agreed on. We want to be leaving well before most of the community’s active.”

It seemed conclusive enough to me. Any response would have been just as accepted as we moved out, so without waiting for one and without further thought, I pivoted towards the door to walk out. Just a moment before I could leave, however, Civun-

“Wait. Lily.”

I halted halfway between one step and the next. It was a little late, a little distorted, but I did notice their intention a moment before the words arrived. And my name, coming out of those lips… it was an irrational response. We’d interacted plenty under the guise of Jacquir’s friendship, so it simply made sense for his double to address me by my name as well.

“What’s up?” I responded after my reflective pause, angling halfway back towards them.

“Before we leave, I want to apologize.”

“Huh?”

“If I said that I was only following orders, I’m fully aware it’d sound like nothing more than an excuse. That sort of sentiment can’t take away the sting of having a friend disappear, either. So I’m sorry I contributed to that.”

I frowned slightly, in spite of myself. “I’m not the one you really should be apologizing to. That said, I’m not letting you within a dozen paces of her, so your sentiments are wasted one way or another.”

“I guess so, but that shouldn’t stop me from trying to do the right thing whenever I can, don’t you think?”

The frown already on my face deepened further. Nothing was certain while that obscurant force was still in place, but the look of innocence in their eyes seemed genuine enough. My heart remained stubborn for a few seconds more before a sigh escaped my lips. Gah, so much for being a hardass. Civun and I would be parting soon, and it wouldn’t even be on hostile terms, so…

“You’re right. And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry too. For going overboard on you the other day. I’m really not proud of that.”

“The way I see it, I’m pretty lucky,” they grinned in turn. “If we were both just a bit more stubborn, things could’ve turned out very badly for me. So, I’m not holding what happened against you.”

“What a saint. Come on, we don’t wanna keep Aysa waiting, and if anyone’s watching you from the outside, we don’t wanna make them suspicious.”

“Oh, definitely. Let’s head out.”

Civun stepped past me into the hall, and I made sure to close the door behind them before joining their walk to the front door. Then it was their turn to hold the door open for me as I crossed through. We, ostensible prisoner and warden, made our way into the sleepy morn together without a hint of animosity, and it surprised me how much it reassured my conscience to have them say those words, earlier.

I naturally took the lead as we proceeded. With any luck, Aysa would be ready for us at the spot I indicated yesterday, and we could set out without another soul to witness it. Thankfully our surroundings seemed even more dormant than before. We were able to make it to the western edge of the village without incident, and there, our immediate destination came into view.

This was the cottage closest to where we’d be leaving towards, so not only did it serve as a good marker, it also would block the view of our departure from others back in the village, at least for as long as that mattered. It seemed like the best choice at the time. It did mean that I had no idea whether Aysa was here yet as we approached.

Turning the corner finally gave me my answer as her slightly imposing frame came into view. Civun wisely stayed out of sight for the time being, likely waiting for me to introduce them as coming along as well.

“Right on time,” Aysa remarked coolly. Her emotions seemed less erratic than they were during our last conversation. “I didn’t have a lot to resupply with, unfortunately, but here’s what I got.”

Unslinging a large pack from her shoulder, Aysa opened it up and combed through the contents just enough to show them. There was quite a bit of overlap between us, which was good, and it seemed like she was keeping outdoor skills in mind as well. Having made note of that, I did similar for her.

“This all seems good for our needs,” I said as her eyes scanned over our totaled supplies. “There’s no way for us to pack for a trip like this, traditionally. We just need to make sure we have what we need to survive out there.”

“My thinking exactly. I didn’t have access to anything I could use for hunting, so it’s good you brought a bow along.”

“Mhm. Oh, and before I forget…”

My hand reached down to my hip, where the fingers unfastened a certain gift I’d planned for her. With its release, I gingerly tossed it in Aysa’s direction, and she snatched it out of the air effortlessly. She held it in her gaze critically.

“You got me a sword?”

“Yup, one for each of us. Grabbed ‘em from the armory last night. We need to be prepared for anything that could happen, right?”

Her lips twisted into a half-smirk. “I can do just fine without a blade, but I don’t dislike the added reach. Thanks.”

“No problem,” I nodded, pleased at our continued good relations. “Now, Civun, come over here. I want some more details.”

“Civun?”

Aysa’s attention was drawn to the movements of our ‘prisoner’ as they moved to stand equally across from the two of us, their back facing the distant, wooded hills. Not only was she surprised at their presence after their prior decision, but I got the feeling she was still a bit unsure how to treat this person in the first place. Understandably, all this would continue being a strange set of situations for her.

“Hello again,” they greeted. “Aysa, right?”

She nodded after a moment’s delay. “Yeah. Uh, nice to actually meet you, I guess. Weren’t you, um, not coming along?”

“If I don’t guide you there personally, you’re just as likely to end up frustrated trying and failing to find the place. I’d rather not invite any sort of suspicion that I’m deceiving you, since I don’t have many options available to me now.”

“And you’re just going along with this?” Aysa raised an eyebrow, though her heart knew of the deal we’d already made.

“I’m not exactly being given a choice.”

“Then there won’t be any complaints about us setting off then, right?” I insisted, trying to cut short the little performance we were putting on. “I’d also like you to continue the explanations as we go.”

Civun shot me a vaguely dissatisfied – if falsely so – look. “Very well. I suppose I’ll take point and direct us there. What is it you’d like to know?”

“First, a brief description of where exactly we’re headed,” I gave my answer.

As we spoke, the three of us arranged ourselves into the most natural formation to use; Civun in front, as they suggested, with me directly behind, and Aysa taking up the rear. This allowed me to continue directing the conversation and making it seem like I was keeping a close eye on our ostensible prisoner. Thusly settled, we began trekking straight across the golden lowlands and towards the foothills of the Cindurns.

“Well, the two of you are trying to track Senna, right?” Aysa’s heart smoldered silently at the name. “That’s why you brought her up the other day.”

“Yes.”

“Right. Part of my mission here was to keep an eye on her, make sure we never lost track of her location. We’re not exactly given many details on anything we do, so this is just speculation, but if they weren’t simply curious about her unusual existence, then the elders might have been eyeing her for recruitment.”

Recruitment? Whoever you work for wanted to turn her into another operative like you?”

Civun sighed curtly. “Look, we’re not just some shadowy cabal of spies and assassins doing evil deeds in the night. We do what we do because it has purpose, even if we can’t always glimpse that purpose ourselves.”

“Alright, already, just cut to the chase,” Aysa interjected with plain impatience.

“Sorry,” their voice returned to something more amiable. “Point is, if my assumption is correct and they wanted her to finally join up, then the place she’d have gone… well, I’m taking you there.”

“Sounds like a reasonable starting point, then, but I’d like you to tell us more about the place itself,” I pushed.

“It’s a, ah, travel node of sorts. We use them to traverse long distances we’re unfamiliar with. It’s ancient tech of some kind, from what I’ve gathered.”

“Ancient… technology,” I rolled slowly over my tongue. “Excuse me, what?”

“Might sound strange to hear, but it’s the truth,” they asserted.

“Jesus,” swore Aysa from behind me. “You’ve got things like that around here?”

“Not that I ever knew. If something like that was real, wouldn’t we have discovered it at some point? All it’d take is one person exploring the area and coming back to tell us that something weird was out there.”

“I’m just telling you what I know. If you think you should have known about it before, then maybe it has a function to prevent that,” Civun aimlessly pondered, putting their hands up in a show of indifference. “The fact remains that I used it to get here, and Senna might have been told to use it to go elsewhere.”

“Keep talking about that. Where would Senna have gone from there?”

“Ah, well…”

Their hesitation triggered the same twinge of fear in me again. I knew our agreement, but if things started straying into dangerous territory for them, would Civun be tempted to lie? Is that what this pause was?

“Are you… are you unable to speak in any more detail than this?” I asked haltingly.

“I worry to. I’m not sure any amount of coercion on your part could justify giving you further details.”

I swallowed. “You’re serious about that?”

“You know, I can tell you’re all real big on the whole secrecy thing,” Aysa interjected, tone harsh with a similar anxiety to mine, “but we’ve both got unfinished business with that woman. I don’t know or care who the hell any of you are or what you want. I just want her. For all I care, you can just point me in a direction and I’ll fucking blindfold myself so I’m not stepping on any of your damn toes.”

Tense silence stretched out across our three bodies as Civun – I imagined – deliberated their next response. This was still hard to get used to, knowing so little. And Aysa’s last statement, the way she mentioned ‘unfinished business’… she definitely had her suspicions about what that entailed on my end. But that still hadn’t invalidated our current partnership, at least not yet.

“There’s a village on the other side of the mountains from here,” they finally spoke again, the previous tensions snapping along my heartstrings for sheer anticipation of my answer. “It’s called Formier. They don’t have much contact with the outside world due to their location, but they’re good people, normal people. Just like the ones you know.”

“Will we be able to reach Formier by following one of those routes you mentioned?”

“Yeah, it’s got a marker nearby.”

“And it’s alright you’re telling us this?” Aysa asked.

“I’m simply informing you that a village exists you were unaware of before. They aren’t trying to keep themselves secret. People like me are involved with them only because of who they worship.”

My eyebrow quirked upwards the slightest bit. “What? What do they worship?”

“A real god.”

Were it not for the fact that Aysa and I couldn’t make eye contact without me twisting my head back to face her, I felt as if we would have shared a confused glance. What the hell were we about to get ourselves into? And, more worryingly, what was Senna in the midst of already?

“I think that about does it for my questions, at least until we get to our destination,” I concluded obliquely. “Aysa, is there anything you want to add?”

“Yeah, how far away is it?”

“Be prepared to set up camp before our arrival,” answered Civun.

“Plenty of small game in the foothills, so we’ll be fine. Aysa,” I turned back towards her, “you wanna take dinner catching duties first, or have me do it?”

“I suck at putting up tents, so you can handle that I guess,” she laughed.

On the surface, everything felt like it was now going smoothly, without issue, but I knew we couldn’t get ahead of ourselves quite yet. Some vague notion of preparedness was not the only reason I borrowed these blades. If Civun was potentially at risk for showing us this path, then I had to wonder what their comrades might try to do to us on our journey. I only hoped that our swords would see little use.

“Okay, listen,” Batrie’s stern voice cut through all the worries I voiced, and the worries I did not, “we can’t solve anything tonight. I’m not gonna leave you hanging – that’s why I brought you here, after all – so for right now, just rest. For me. Okay?”

My eyes scanned around the slightly cramped interior. “Where should I-?”

“You can have my bed. I’ll manage.” When I faltered, she gestured towards it. “Go on!”

I had to smile a little at her words. Such harsh hospitality. I was no stranger to it at this point, not after the assertive nature of Lily’s care. No, I should have been trying to put her out of my mind, to not remember. Just thinking about her – her absence – stole any joy my face may have held.

Batrie was right, in any case. Ever since we returned to Formier, I had been subjecting her nonstop to every little thing that worried me. Part of it was to keep showing my trust, but part was also a genuine reaction to the instability I felt in my life. And having a safe place to rest for the night definitely helped alleviate that.

Rest, hm… Why did that sound so unsatisfying to me? As I stepped forward, approaching the bed Batrie was offering me this evening, I realized what it was. I wanted to sleep. Every night I spent with- with her was at best in a half-conscious state, always paying some amount of attention to the world. And before I met her, I was too scared to sleep, because I was too scared of the resulting dreams.

But now, in this new place, this new life, I wanted to experience it again for the first time since my childhood. The fear of what I might see had not gone away; if I had to define my thoughts more clearly, I would say I wanted something I could reclaim and hold control over again. Chorazom could not take this from me too.

That was why, when my head came to rest against the plump feather pillow I had been given, I was more relaxed than I had been in a long time.

And I slipped downwards into a state I had not allowed myself in a long time. I was… not sure how I felt. I was not sure what I looked like, either. That seemed weird. My field of vision gradually angled downwards, but the inspection only showed scant space painted over the air, even while I could feel my existence.

I gave up and decided to look elsewhere, and only then did I notice how warm the air was. I tilted my head upwards to find the sun. A roaring glare filled the sky and earth, and I wished for it to somehow be just a bit closer, and so it was. Light filled every corner of my vision.

That seemed comforting to me. The sunlight was far more familiar than the overcast day or the canopy of green, in spite of the fact that I was born under the supremacy of the latter two. Now I was back in their care, and my heart held no room to feel sad or angry over that fact. In fact, such emotions felt more like a distant concept to me than a facet of reality.

After those moments in the sun, I turned – or rather, the world spun around me from left to right, and I saw myself touch back down on the earth. It was from a vantage I should never have held, to see myself standing there as if looking in from the outside, or indeed to see myself at all when I was unable to earlier.

That was… this was me. Now I snapped back to a first-person view, and I registered it at the most fundamental level that ‘that appearance’ was tied to me, represented me. Anything else was just a temporary deviation. That was far more comforting than any amount of warmth, to just… be. Be that. This. Me. My arms raised and wrapped tightly around my own torso, pressing in at the shoulders, letting me feel my own eager embrace.

With a fresh sense of peace, I moved to sit down. My hand pressed down into the dew-laden leaves that sprouted up where light left its mark in the soil. The coolness and moisture allowed at this distance seemed starkly refreshing after I flew so close to the sun earlier.

Oh, and these little plants were so vivacious, too, now that I looked. My fingertip brushed along one’s stem, and it purred its progression into even more new growths as if encouraged by the contact. More than that, too. Just laying here – because I ended up laying down when I was not paying attention, it seemed – invited the plants to press in against me, never smothering and never restricting in their intimacy.

Heat began spilling out through my skin before long. Maybe this was my response to what I felt was their need, or maybe it was why the plants were here in the first place. I was sustaining them even when the sun had abandoned their little patch of earth, and they loved me for it. Was this a part of me too? I had no idea what this even was, but I felt like I should know, that perhaps I did at one point.

“You wanted to control it, didn’t you?”

Oh. Someone was here. As I looked to the side, flora parted to allow my vision continuation, and I saw Batrie laying beside me. Her position sprawled out among the leaves and fronds mirrored my own, and her eyes held mine tightly. I smiled at her.

“I have no idea what I want. I confuse myself.” Hell, just saying those words confused me.

“That’s right, I called you a paradox, didn’t I?” she chuckled. “So maybe the answer is that you just want to know.”

I hummed a moment to consider her words. “Mm… knowing is just the start, I think.”

“Do you want to fix yourself then?”

Fix myself… did I need to be fixed? Was I broken? Or was it just a matter of everything I lost, that gently pushed in against the edges and reminded me when I had nothing getting in the way? No matter how I mulled it over, I still knew nothing.

The distant, minor aggravation of my situation was enough to prompt me to shift positions. I ended up on my side directly facing Batrie, so her face was close enough to scrutinize now. She had a miniscule birth mark just under the corner of her mouth, and a strong nose, and some charming little lines that creased together when she smiled one of those full smiles. Like now.

“Tell me what you want, Senna.”

“I want you to help me,” I decided impulsively. “At the very least, let me assemble myself into something that makes more sense before I go chasing any deeper shadows.”

“Then I suggest you wake up, doll.”

A rush of breath filled my lungs, dispelling the last vestiges of sleep from my brain. My eyes snapped open. The barrage of sensations that told me when and where I was held nothing back. By the light, it was already well into dawn; by the texture, I was nestled underneath the heavy blanket lent to me; by the smell, someone was frying some eggs; by the sight, it was Batrie.

It felt like hardly five minutes ago that I laid down and resolved to give myself something to dream about. Seemed like I succeeded, though my memories were hazy, and drifting away from me further and further by the second. By the time I propped myself up on one elbow and carefully brushed my hair out of my face, I was starting to completely forget whatever it was like, though I remembered the general impressions it left in me.

“Oh, you’re up!” Batrie noted, glancing over at me a couple times. “If you’d slept in any later, I woulda had to kick your ass again.”

My face pressed into the pillow again with a frown. “I have a time I need to wake up by, now?”

“If you’re going to start working alongside us, then yes.” Flip. Sizzle. “That said, we still need to situate you. It’s a bit more complicated than normal since you’re too old to live at the orphanage or get adopted or anything.”

“Which is exactly what you kept saying you were going to take care of,” I pointed out with continued sleepiness, stretching a bit among her sheets.

“And I will. By the way, since you’re awake now, do you want these first two?”

“…First two?” I blinked. “Oh, the eggs? No, thank you, uh… I do not like eating.”

“You just don’t like eating?” Batrie looked over at me with a skeptical eye.

“There was a long period of my life where I had very little access to food, so I survived by making myself not need it. I guess that sorta became my default state. Now I feel ill if I try to swallow anything.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll, uh- I won’t force you to eat my cooking or anything. I’m not that great at it anyways,” she chuckled awkwardly.

“Used to be that I never really fell asleep either, you know,” I continued, “but I felt like changing that.”

“Is it because you trust me?”

Several heavy wires of guilt wrapped around my throat as I responded with a smile and a soft, “Yes.”

That seemed to make her happy.

In any event, I was more fully awake now, and more fully curious. Last night held my heart in too frayed a state to really want to pay close attention to the place she brought me to. So what did she live like? What would I find here? What could it tell me about her?

Batrie had this single-room dwelling all to herself, positioned close to both the orphanage and the temple, per her descriptions. The floor was composed of closely packed and tamped-down straw, and atop it sat only a few scarce pieces of furniture. Both behind and across from me were set windows into the stone walls. By the wall on my right side was a large basin filled with water, and on the opposite side, a sizeable hearth with its fireside chair. In the center of it all was a simple wooden table and another pair of seats.

Really, it was nothing special, now that I was here; I had been in bigger, better furnished, more comfortable houses, after all. It was downright humble. Yet as I stared across this single space, shafts of sunlight crossing my vision and casting everything into a warm glow, I was struck with a familiar sense of comfort. In a sense, it really felt like someone’s home, regardless or perhaps because of its humility.

And this bed of hers, the only bed she had, was offered up to her guest. She was not like me at all, right? She slept, and ate, and everything. That meant Batrie probably spent the night in that creaky-looking rocking chair by the hearth. It genuinely struck me as sweet.

Batrie had been standing in front of the fireplace, frying her eggs with the metal pan she had set in place there. By the time I finished inspecting the rest of the interior, she had finished and began walking over to deposit her breakfast onto the table’s waiting plate. And all through that, I found nothing better than to mindlessly watch her every move, which in turn prompted several shared glances between us as she began eating.

My throat cleared before speaking. “So, er, you mentioned me working alongside you. What does that entail?”

“It entails you getting the hell out of bed, for one,” she grinned teasingly.

Frowning, I sat up with an exaggerated huff, only for the ensuing rush of colder air against my chest to remind me of my lack of clothing. And her eyes were right on me. My cheeks felt distinctly hotter as I frantically pulled her blanket back over my bare torso, and the embarrassment must have been what sent her into a laughing fit.

“Oh, stop it!”

“Sorry, sorry. Your face was just so funny there.”

“…Would you be able to help me choose an outfit, Batrie?” I worked up to asking after a couple seconds of abashed silence. “I want to fit in.”

“You want me to show off some options?”

I nodded slowly. Batrie asked that I wait a moment, and proceeded to scarf down the rest of her food before doing anything else. Once that was done, she rose and elegantly deposited her dirty plate in the water basin, turning to me now that there was nothing else to get in her way.

“Okay, so we’ve got a few ideas to work with. What you were wearing before wasn’t exactly weird but you’ll definitely always look like a foreigner if you keep going with that. And since we don’t need to have you memorize ceremonial garb or anything yet-” Batrie wordlessly concluded her own thought by morphing her current attire into something new.

The colors struck me immediately; vibrant scarlet threaded with blue and gold composed the top, which seemed to be a loose tunic with a small V neck, the voluminous sleeves of which were made of a white gossamer fabric. Beneath the crimson sash at her waist was a pair of billowing pantalets similar to – if thicker than – the sleeves.

“Here!” she twirled to show off. “This is usually what we wear to celebrations, or just while out for social purposes. Obviously you wouldn’t wanna risk threads this fine while you’re clearing underbrush or picking fruits out in the orchards, but you and I don’t have to worry about our clothes getting ruined.”

“It is a lovely choice,” I said honestly, and with an honest smile.

“Try it on yourself, then! I wanna see you in it.”

I hesitated. “Could you turn around?”

“This again? Oh, fine,” she groaned in halfhearted aggravation before doing as I asked.

Free to uncover myself without having someone stare and laugh at me in the process, I promptly left the warmth of her bed and stepped onto the straw floor, feeling it beneath the soles of my feet, between my toes. And looking up, Batrie was barely a stride’s length away. Even turned around like that, I could hardly suppress my reaction, the nervous electricity in my chest that caused me to avert my eyes.

Which was incredibly counterproductive. I had to actually inspect what she was wearing to copy it, after all. Hastily assembling some modest panties and a bra for myself, I stepped closer so as to get as perfect a view of her apparel as possible.

“Do you still need me turned around?” she asked, tone gentle and without its earlier annoyance.

“I guess not. I am wearing underwear now. And I will need to see the front half again so I can recreate it properly, so…”

“Figure out the back, then, and let me know when you’re done.”

I was close enough to touch her now. My fingers slipped in among the folds of her tunic, brushing them aside and splaying them out so I could recreate every bit of it faithfully. With each bit of detail committed to my memory, I willed my body to form a replica into being, starting outwards from my bra straps.

Soon, the back half of her blouse was copied onto me, leaving the front of my torso still perplexingly bare. I asked her to turn back towards me. Complying without complaint, Batrie kept her gaze mercifully off to one side as I repeated my task, and within minutes, I had finished every detail – omitting, of course, the left sleeve I would not be needing.

That was by far the most complicated piece. Now that that was done, the rest went by much easier; their unique, airy form of trousers struck me as being simplistic, comfortable, and lovely all at once. We finished the outfit with a pair of delicately woven sandals dyed to match.

“There!” Batrie looked me up and down in satisfaction. “You look gorgeous, doll. Now, since you’re all ready, I think it’s time we took a walk.”

“A walk? Where to?”

“I’ve got work to do. Check in with the kiddos I’ve been working with, handle a couple of one-on-one sessions this afternoon, and at some point talk to someone about your living situation. Hey, would you want to be introduced to your li’l siblings?”

“Oh, I am not sure how good of a playmate I would make or anything,” I self-consciously replied, “but maybe so.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll do fine. They’re not gonna bite or anything.”

“That is true. Uhm, still… promise not to leave me alone with them? At least for now?”

“Well, yeah, of course. Promise. What could ever make you think I was gonna leave you alone, Senna?”

“Nothing, I just-” Sighing, I cut myself off. “Nevermind.”

Batrie, frowning in apparent confusion, nevertheless allowed me to leave it at that, and simply took the opportunity to change back to her usual clothing. This time, the chest bandages were replaced with a colorful vest that seemed intended to match my appearance. After checking one last time that I was ready, she escorted me back outside, chivalrously holding the door open ‘til I passed through.

The air outside was still, but of a crisp temperature in the shade of all these trees. Tiny shafts of sunlight poked through the canopy to reveal themselves in scattered arrays. A flitter of motion drew my attention upwards just in time to glimpse several birds all take wing and move to another branch. What species were those? I had never seen that particular multicolored plumage.

Our exit brought us to the small avenue we came down last night. Along the left was a row of homes similar to Batrie’s, each with its stone walls pressed up snugly against its neighbors. Along the right was a sheer wall of knotted wood, grown upwards in dangerous concert, and a series of now-unlit lanterns were hung from its stray branches. It had its own sort of charm during the day, a different one than the hauntingly ethereal vista those lights produced as we arrived the night before.

Directly ahead, the end of this avenue opened up into a larger promenade, and we trotted quickly towards it. Most paths leading away forked and bent towards various outlets hidden behind walls of stone or bark or vine. Several of those deeper chasms were so utterly shadowed that I bet the lanterns hung within were never put out. Or would ‘turned off’ be the more appropriate phrase here?

My guide, however, was not so engrossed in the surroundings as I was, and she dutifully made sure to tug me by the arm down our intended route. Uninterrupted sunlight quickly poured over my skin as we entered a large clear space, a space which featured the largest structure in Formier by my current reckoning. This must have been the temple.

From what I could see, it seemed like more of an interconnected complex than a single towering building – in fact, its height was not that much taller than anything else I had seen. It might have only had a single level. The front face was dominated primarily by a broad set of steps leading up to the doorless entrance, as well as what looked to be a raised tile path along the outside. Thin lichens crept over a full third of all surfaces I could see, and along with the vines firmly established along every vertical space kept even this island of artifice painted with a healthy mix of greens.

As we made our way up to the entrance, I decided now was the best time to ask, “Before we enter, is there anything else I should know? I would… rather avoid committing any sort of blunder.”

“Just try to be show mutual respect whenever one of the shepherds is talking, and don’t, like, tell the kids anything really harsh?” she shrugged. “I think you’ll be fine. You’re not an asshole.”

“Thanks for the confidence.”

Now, if I was told I would be making my way into the temple of a horrible god deep in the jungle, I would expect something far more sinister than the sight I was greeted with. Spacious, evenly placed windows kept a fresh air about the place, each providing a direct view of the vegetation surrounding us or, more rarely, of a distant extension to this complex.

The open floor plan gave me a feeling of welcome even in my unfamiliarity. I could see everything in this first, expansive chamber, all the way back to its rear wall. Numerous functions with ostentatious, occult designs were organized within; fountains, benches and tables, a pair of large fire pits which seemed equipped for cooking, and wide murals etched with dense script all filled the scene.

Little noise interrupted the peace here. Ahead of us were a pair of shepherds conversing by the glistening font, and Batrie moved to join them. They obviously turned to regard us as we approached, which let me see their faces – neither of which I recognized.

“Good morning, you two,” greeted Batrie.

“You as well,” one, a middle-aged woman with weary eyes, responded. “Ready for today’s lessons? I’ve been waiting for you before we started.”

“Yeah, sorry about that, helped the new girl-” her thumb pointed back at me, “-with her outfit. Oh, could you step forward please?”

It took a second for me to realize she was addressing me now. After that brief pause, I moved a bit closer and made eye contact with the two shepherds. I was supposed to introduce myself, right?

“Uhm, my name is Senna. I am glad to meet you both.” I punctuated my words with a polite bow.

“Right, you were the one Vasela inducted the other day, I believe? Nice to meet you too, Senna,” the older woman said, reaching over to thumb the fabric at my shoulder. I stared down at her wrist. “I’m Hurre. This was a good choice, by the way. You look adorable.”

“Speaking of Vasela, could you go tell her to expect me later today, Ilde?” Batrie’s voice cut in from beside me, apparently addressing the other, quieter shepherd.

Without much more than a brief acknowledgement and an even briefer bow in my direction, Ilde slipped away into one of the passages leading away from this first chamber. I hardly even got a good look at them. In any event, I was soon pulled along as Batrie and Hurre made their way down another corridor, making discussion on some sort of change to the curriculum that I had no context to. With nothing else to do, I followed several paces behind her.

Even these connective passages hosted windows to the outside. It was gentle, but I could just start to hear the sound of droplets scattering against leaves. Whatever rain sustained this constant trickle must have just started, I figured. My eyes continued scanning out these portals until someone footing the exterior walkway came into view and glanced in my direction. I snapped my focus straight ahead in a nervous instant.

The room we found ourselves in was more rectangular this time, with us coming out on one of its longer sides. Its other two exits were across from each other on each of the shorter facings. This place was empty of people other than us at the moment, but I assumed that would last only as long as it took for the children to arrive.

Half of the room was taken up by an arrangement most closely resembling a sort of classroom, with several rows of floor pillows in various bright colors arranged opposite a slightly raised stone lectern. Behind the teacher’s position stood a dusty chalkboard, and up against the adjacent wall were a pair of shelves composed of an uncomfortably aged wood. Their contents, at a glance, seemed to be scrolls and other sorts of thick parchment.

Meanwhile, the other half was far less inclined towards serious pursuit, with its assortment of dedicated playpens. Each was stocked with a host of stuffed cloth dolls, little wooden toys of various sorts, and colored, hand-carved wooden blocks etched with single characters of the same script I saw earlier. It must have been downright charming to see kids enjoying all this stuff.

“I suppose I could go assemble everyone for us, if you two need another moment alone before it all starts?” Hurre offered, raising an eyebrow in Batrie’s direction.

“Yeah, maybe so,” she chuckled. “I wouldn’t wanna leave her anywhere unprepared. Girl’s like a little kitten, getting lost and scared without me around.”

I felt my stomach tighten excruciatingly inside me, gaze dropping ‘til all I saw was slightly damp stonework. Hurre left to attend to her task. Batrie was still here. Watching her from the corner of my eye turning towards me made it hurt worse.

“I-” my voice caught in my throat for a moment, “I can hear you, you know.”

She paused. “What do you mean?”

“That was humiliating. If I was that contemptible to you, then why are you going out of your way to help-”

“Woah woah woah, Senna, wait. Contemptible? I don’t think of you th-”

“Sure seems like contempt for my feelings to mock me to someone you know, especially right in front of me,” I interrupted, getting a bit more strength in my tone even while feeling incapable of moving anything else.

“I… I thought it was cute,” Batrie eventually said. “I was trying to make you seem endearing, you know? Like, poking fun at you but in a way where you’re not actually bad or anything. I guess. Sorry.”

Words could no longer form in my throat. Part of me thought that I should have been able to accept her explanation and just move on, since I knew that about her, but… no. I hardly even felt the motivation to return to that anger I felt for her, either. My mind simply kept repeating what she said about me. Scared and lost.

I heard her make a sound like she was considering whether that was enough, whether she should say something more, but any consideration for that left once we both heard a series of rushed footsteps coming towards us. They were back the way we came. With something else to focus on, I lifted my head just in time to see Ilde rushing over to us.

“Uh, is something wrong?” the woman beside me asked, tone still low.

Ilde, panting, held up a hand to ask us to wait. After catching their breath, they looked directly at me. Their face and build both struck me as very youthful, though in the sense of an adult who looks too much like a child, if anything.

“Senna.”

“Yes?”

“Vasela wanted to see you again. She wanted you to meet the partner they decided on for you.” Ilde shifted her gaze over to Batrie for a moment. “She’ll be ready to discuss with you after today’s lessons are done, she said.”

Batrie took a step forward. “Excuse me, partner? She’s not ready for that yet. We’ve barely had one day to work on anything.”

“Sorry. She said you’d still be able to train her during downtime.” Ilde shrugged.

“No, this isn’t normal at all, why is she-”

The messenger held up a hand once again.

“Vasela had this handed down to her,” they stated, a sense of finality to those words. Whatever childish displeasure I previously felt towards Batrie was washed away in the realization that followed.

Chorazom was not leaving me alone.