Once the expedition got moving, I made myself busy finding things to do. My morning’s worries about the future were quickly replaced by the boredom of travel.
Instead of going directly away from the mist, we moved along its edge, and followed something that resembled a dirt path more than any proper road. It was looked rarely used, and was only maintained enough to get the expedition where it needed to go, and occasionally send supplies to the watchtower that overlooked the entrance to the necropolis.
The mages, priests, and expedition leaders had had actual carriages waiting for them at the fort along with the food supplies for the journey back. Being able to annex a wagon for myself meant that I had a surprising level of luxury, but it still involved too much sitting around for my taste.
When I was alone, I practiced some simple shapeshifting. Nothing too big. I limited myself to things like an extra finger, or claws that would actually work. Changing my body around took more mana than I had been willing to spare during my time in Peninsula, and I had never done anything more than simple cosmetic changes.
After an hour of hit or miss attempts, I came to the conclusion that it was very much a subconscious skill. The claws had been fairly easy, but weren’t as impressive as I had hoped. Growing an extra finger had been much more difficult. It had taken me six attempts to make one that could move correctly, and I had no idea how I had actually done it. If I wanted to do a big change like growing a second pair of arms, it would probably take days of growing, ungrowing, and then regrowing them again before I had any acceptable results.
“Maybe I should start working on a male body. It couldn’t hurt to have a backup appearance.”
I was happy to live my life as a female, but it might be a good idea to start working on an alter ego. I doubted that I’d need it any time soon, but I’d be glad to have it ready when I did.
“Shit. Now I’m gonna have to get a second wardrobe.”
Even more than the mana cost of creating a second form, it had been a lack of desire for more clothes that had kept me in one shape this long. I could be lazy about the strangest things some times.
Once I had finished, I reverted everything I had done to myself back to my “true” form, and made one final addition. I grew out my hair. Some of it. Most of it was left short in a messy pixie cut, but I formed two thin braids that started at my temples, went over my ears, and merged into one at the base of my neck. To complete the look, I repurposed a thick silver ring, and tied it to the end. I had to use some mage magic to get it all to work. I couldn’t shapeshift my hair into braids, unfortunately, but regular magic can still do wondrous things, and I was happy to squander my skills on making my hair look good.
* * *
Now bored of my own company, I began to look for other ways to fill my time.
Mayra was more than happy to abandon the crowded carriage she had been riding in and come visit my wagon.
Together, we charged the small mana battery that powered her golem doll, and she quickly reset its command enchantment. Together, we spent the next hour putting it through its paces while we learned what it was capable of.
For something its size, it could do a lot. I didn’t know how it compared to modern golems, but Mayra was certainly impressed. She gave it simple orders, but slowly made the list of commands more and more complex. If computers had existed in this world, she would have been a programmer beyond compare.
The golem was far from sentient, but its muscle memory was flawless. After moving it through the paces, Mayra had quickly taught it dances that most people would take several hours to learn.
I had to admit that I envied the thing. As a fellow magical construct, I was annoyed that it was able to surpass me in some skills. In any skills. So far, all I had been good for was killing cursed. This golem was already proving how useful it would be in Mayra’s daily life and daily life was where I was struggling. I snatched it up, and checked under its dress. Mayra glared at me, but I was mollified. At least I could beat it in that regard.
Mayra got angry at me again later when I taught it to copy her body motions and sarcastically pantomime her words. She may not have been amused, but I thought it was hilarious.
Mayra left soon after, and I got the impression that she was taking the golem into protective custody.
“You’re a bad influence,” she told me. “You’ll probably start teaching her rude gestures next, and I don’t want to know what you’d have her doing if I left you two alone for more than a few minutes.”
She was definitely taking it into protective custody.
Mayra was already using gendered pronouns for the thing, and I doubted that it would be long before she gave it a name.
“She’s acting like we’re a feuding couple in the middle of a divorce. If she’s the golem’s mother, am I the father, or also a mother? I at least get visitation rights, right? I may have looked up golem-daughter’s dress, but that doesn’t mean I’m a pervert, does it?”
* * *
Once Mayra had returned to her carriage, I went to Gregor to check on the status of my salvage rights.
“I’ll write it up for you once we get to Orlis,” he said in response to my nagging. “For now though, we have some things to talk about.”
I was nervous as to what that might mean, but calmed down once he had an assistant priest run off to fetch the expedition’s reports. For the rest of the morning’s ride, we talked about the necropolis, shared ideas, and compared notes.
He lamented the lack of thoroughness of both himself and his predecessors. As I read through the two large tomes, I had to agree. All of the expedition leaders, Gregor included, had assumed that they knew everything they needed to. Their little area at the edge of the city had provided them with enough cursed to cull, and that was all they had cared about.
Snake had barely received a passing mention in either of the books, and Flock was spoken of more as an annoyance than as the boss monster that she was. Like Respawn Day, neither Tank, nor half of the other creatures I had occasionally witnessed in the city were written about even once.
To my surprise, the assistant priests proved to be more than just assistants, and I had to start drinking, just so that my words could keep up with their questions.
Once I had convinced them to partake of my massive alcohol stockpile, we had soon emptied three bottles between the four of us. Despite our inebriation, it was one of the most intellectual discussions I had had in… ever. And that included what I could remember of my past life. I was a necropolis expert, surrounded by my peers, and we left no stone unturned as we put our minds together to unpuzzle the nature of the cursed cities.
“How often does that Respawn day happen?”
“Usually between one and two months. I’ve gone three months without seeing it, but it can still come earlier. This one came early.”
“We believe the cursed reappear at the place they were when they first became undead. Can you confirm this?”
“I’ve seen the same zombie multiple times, and it was always in the same general area. I can’t perfectly confirm it, but I believe that’s true.”
“How quickly do you think the curse overcame the city?”
“Very quickly. I’ve seen a few places that were looted before I found them, but I never saw any signs of evacuation, and your camp at the stadium was the first time I had seen a place that was fortified. When the curse happened, it happened too fast for anyone to react.
The discussion went on and on, and for every answer either side gave, there were a dozen more questions. We weren’t just comparing my answers to theirs, we were rethinking everything that the empire knew about the necropolis in the first place.
There were many questions that went unanswered. “How did it happen?” was the big one. Still, we were able to reconfirm, deny, or prove a lot of ideas. Father Gregor suggested we have this conversation again once we reached Orlis and had access to the older records.
He also hinted that it might be good for me to visit other parts of the empire and scout out their necropoli as well. I was apprehensive to the idea, but couldn’t deny its merit. I had spent two years stuck in Peninsula, and wasn’t in a rush to go to anywhere like it. I had mostly wanted the salvage rights so that I wouldn’t have to smuggle my stuff out, and so that I could maybe come back for more later.
He was right though. I was one of the most qualified people to explore a necropolis. Besides being a technological muse, it was probably the best application of my skills. And with my incoming salvage license, it had the potential to be a very high paying job.
I told him that I’d need time to think about it. A lot of time.
He understood, and I was grateful for that. I might be willing to do it some day, but not today. Or tomorrow. Or next week. Or month, and maybe even year.
I had long since cast off my fear of the city itself, but the feeling of entrapment, and the sense of constant danger… Those didn’t fade so easily. I wanted to take my time and adjust to being around people before I went back to anything like that.
* * *
When the expedition stopped for a short lunch, Haylen was next on my list of people to bother. I had expected her to be eating with the other officers, or even her platoon’s sergeants, but instead she was with Mayra and Corlo.
“Normally I would be eating with them. I had planned on dividing my meals between the two, but this wasn’t exactly a normal expedition. Now, most of them want to eat by themselves. And with my pilgrimage coming up… They’ll be getting a new commander soon enough.”
Unfortunately for me, after two days of making small talk, I was running out of nonserious things to discuss.
Haylen and Mayra were curious about what I planned to do once I reached Orlis, but that was something I wanted to actively avoid talking about. They had trouble taking, “I don’t know,” for an answer, and seemed determined to come up with a solution. Corlo, luckily, didn’t join them in pestering me about it.
Eventually, I came up with a solution, and got them to help me start learning to write. My reading and listening skills were fine, but my speaking and writing was far from fluent, and had to be learned the hard way.
They were shocked at my readiness to use my “high quality paper” for something as basic as making flash cards. While the empire had managed to recreate woodblock printing, it was still far from the standards of a printing press. Papermaking was the main issue, and I was essentially devaluing it by using it in the manner that I was. Haylen went so far as to make me swear to donate the flash cards once I was done with them, just so they would get enough use to make them worth the paper they were written on.
When Kearse and Chad wandered by, on their way to their own tent, they asked to join us. Their upbringing meant that while they could technically read and write, it was at a very low level, and they were both eager to improve. Not wanting to be the only one who didn’t know things, I eagerly accepted their request.
The grammar of the imperial language was fairly easy to grasp, but the writing system was more comlex. It wasn’t as convoluted as the unnamed one I wrote in, but it had three different alphabets, each with their own upper and lower case. One for statements, one for questions, and one for placing emphasis on a word. My past life had seen multiple different linguistic writing styles, but this one was new to both of us.
It was a lot to memorize, and I knew I was going to be staring at the little slips of paper for quite a while.
* * *
When the marching started again, I bounced back and forth between my wagon, and anyone who was willing to talk to me.
After saving their lives, the other soldiers of the expedition started to open up to me, and would ask a question or two as I walked by.
“Why do you have horns?”
“Because I was created with them. I like my horns. I bet if you could grow a pair, you’d be proud of them too.”
The euphemism wasn’t lost on them, and they found the juvenile humor as amusing as I did.
“How did you survive in the necropolis for so long?”
“By being really fucking cautious. And being really good at running. Maybe someday I’ll grow enough of a pair to actually enter a necropolis and look for a fight.”
My praise for the expedition wasn’t lost on them either. By my own words, even the people that had died were braver than I was. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck. Far be it from me to say that I wasn’t surrounded by people that didn’t look, swim, and quack like heroes.
Later on, I heard cheering before I saw its source.
There was a small village build around an equally small stream, and its people had come out to shout for us as we went by.
I was amazed that anyone would willingly live this close to the mist. What didn’t amaze me was how much they loved the expedition. To anyone who had to worry about having a zombie wander through their field, these soldiers would be hailed as heroes of legend. To them, the expedition was the first line of defense against every nightmare they had ever had.
The village was just a small cluster of mudbrick huts, surrounded by a thick wall. As curious as I was, the expedition didn’t stop to go inside, and I didn’t get to see much of it other than the gently sloping roofs.
“I still need to see more, but this basically confirms it. The world got blasted back to the stone age. I should probably be impressed that they’ve managed to rebuild as much as they have.”
The wall itself was obviously meant to defend against the undead rather than the living, and was only tall enough to keep any one zombie from reaching up to grab someone standing on top.
Outside the wall, the stream had been irrigated and divided up so many times that it never managed to leave its surroundings. This place wasn’t horizon to horizon sand like I had expected, but it was still a desert, and the people living here couldn’t afford to waste any of the water they had access to.
We waved to the villagers as we marched on.
There was still a lot of ground to cover that day.
* * *
When we did stop for the night, I set up my tent next to Haylen’s at the end of the row. I hadn’t waited to get kicked out of hers. Now that I had my own, there wasn’t any reason to keep sharing. Last night had been an exception.
My tent stood out from the ones around it. The domed shape, fabric type, and woodland camo coloration meant that it was easy to differentiate from the drab grey triangles around it.
It was designed for two people to sleep in comfortably, but three could probably fit if they squeezed in. I couldn’t fully stand up when I was inside, but since I’d only be using it for sleeping, it was roomy enough.
I went to Kearse and Chad’s tent for dinner. I wasn’t trying to avoid Haylen, but I was trying to avoid any conversation that would result in people asking me about my plans for the future.
As expected, they were the right choice. The two either hadn’t noticed my stress at all, or they had taken the manly path of pretending that emotional problems didn’t exist until they were too big to ignore. Regardless, their lack of interest was calming, and helped me remind myself that my problems really were something for the future.
Kearse pulled me aside and asked me in a whisper if I could keep his box of loot a secret from Chad until after the week’s march was over, but that was as close as our conversation got to discussing anything more than a day or two away.
We talked about the marching pace, the weather, and simple gossip.
The most interesting part of the evening came when Chad decided that he would ban his cousin from their tent until Kearse had taken up the salacious offer that he had received the night before. By that point, I had forgiven Kearse for his luck, and agreed with Chad wholeheartedly. I was willing to live vicariously and just wanted to know that at least someone would be getting some action that night.
I had to give Kearse a bottle of my favorite wine, and make several highly unsubtle threats before we were able to get him to make a move.
Chad was doing his best not to laugh as Kearse walked away, red faced, and trying not to look at anyone around him. I failed to hide my own laughter. I was laughing so hard that I would have fallen out of my chair if I hadn’t been sitting on the ground.
“I didn’t think he’d actually do it,” Chad told me. “He always said that he was waiting for the right one, but I guess there are some opportunities that even he won’t turn down. A man thinks with two heads, right?”
He blanched as he remembered that he was technically in female company, and may have gone a bit beyond decorum with his comments.
“Er.. I mean… Um.”
I grinned and looked around conspiratorially before telling him about what I had woken up to that morning. It may have been a prank that I had fallen for, but it still made a good story, and Chad seemed like the perfect audience for it.
“Jealous?” I asked.
“Of you? Definitely.” His previous hesitation was lost once he understood that I shared his enjoyment of the womenfolk. “There’s not a man in the platoon that hasn’t dreamed of waking up next to the commander. Of Kearse?”
He copied my suspicious glance at our surroundings before waving me closer so he could whisper to me.
“That “girl” he saved is twice his age. She’s gonna break him in two. Her and her tentmate.”
My grin grew with every word, and I offered a silent prayer to whichever god Kearse believed in to send him home in once piece.
“There are worse possible first times for a guy. He’s not stupid, and I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to teach him every trick they know. That said, they’re going to teach him every trick they know. He’ll be lucky if he gets any sleep tonight, and I don’t mean that in a good way. We’ve got a long march ahead of us.”
I was beginning to understand Chadvid a little better. When I had first met him, he had come off as a bit of a playboy, and he certainly was. But he didn’t seem like a bad guy. He could tell the difference between girls that wanted to have fun, and girls who were looking for romance, and was smart enough not to involve the latter in his escapades.
His skin wasn’t as dark as Kearse’s, but he still had that “tall dark and handsome” look, and backed it all up with a healthy dose of natural charisma. He’d probably make for a horrible wingman though, and I quickly decided that I wouldn’t want to go out drinking with him.
I nodded at his words and gave him a friendly pat on the back.
“You good man, Chad. World need more cousins like you. Too bad you not woman, or I be all over you.”
“Well,” he told me, “my tent does have some extra room tonight if you change your mind.”
I was interested. I genuinely was interested. But at the same time, I didn’t want my first time to be with a man. Technically, I was still a virgin. I wasn’t putting it on a pedestal, but I wanted my first time to be more special than, “I was horny and someone offered to fuck me.” I most likely would have my first time for the simple pleasure of it, but I wanted it to be on my own terms.
“Tempting offer,” I responded, “but I’ll pass. I may only prefer women, but I still prefer women.”
Chad gave a nod and a shrug, unconcerned with being rejected. I refilled the wine in his cup and we made a toast.
“To women,” I said.
“To women,” he agreed, “And to drinking with your competition.”
* * *
I didn’t stumble on my way back to my tent, but throughout the day I had drunk a good deal more than was strictly necessary. I had a decent buzz going and a silly smile on my face when I crawled into my sleeping bag.
I rolled over and closed my eyes. It had been a good day.
I rolled over again and started making plans for tomorrow. Hopefully it would go just as well.
Again I rolled over, and flipped my pillow. It had absorbed the warmth coming off my head, and wasn’t as comfortable any more.
I rolled over, tossed, turned, and readjusted the pillow for the umpteenth time.
I couldn’t sleep.
I was inside, but I felt exposed. Back in Peninsula, the only place I could sleep comfortably was in my water tower. This was very much not my water tower, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how easy it would be for a zombie to walk up and start gnawing on my face before I had a chance to react. Two years of caution and trained paranoia were not easily overcome.
The night back in the stadium, I had been too happy at my rescue to think about my usual cautions. Last night, I had been too insensate and unaware of anything to care. Now though, I was alone with my thoughts and fears.
Do not sleep on the ground. The zombies can reach you.
Do not sleep in a room with only one door. The zombies will block your escape.
Do not sleep in a place where you can’t see your surroundings. The zombies will come eventually. They always do.
There is no such thing as safe. There is only safer.
Everything I had learned about survival in the necropolis was screaming at me that what I was doing was dangerous. Logically I knew I was safe, but even a homunculus has survival instincts, and mine were on full alert.
I opened my senses. That had helped me on my first night with the expedition. The people around me were like a hundred glowing nightlights in my mind. They should have calmed me, but they didn’t.
Maybe it was because I had gotten better at controlling my mana, or maybe I had just become more accustomed to using this perception, but my range had increased greatly compared to the night I first found it. It was like I could see for kilometers around me. There were no cursed. There were no monsters. But I could feel the mist. Despite the full day’s march, we still hadn’t turned away from it yet.
I had always been inside the miasma when I tried sensing things before. Now that I was somewhere normal, I could tell the difference. The sense always gave a general feel for something, but it was usually vague, and by itself it wouldn’t be enough to guess what I was actually looking at if I hadn’t seen it before.
I knew I was looking at the mist though, and the feeling it gave me was clear. This place is broken. This place is damaged. This place is not as it should be. It was like someone had taken a knife to reality, and then sloppily stitched it back together. If the Ancestor’s curse really had broken the world, the mist was where it had healed incorrectly and become infected.
It didn’t feel wrong. Not like the zombies, at least. But it was clearly “not right.” It was very much “not right.” Surprisingly, it didn’t feel evil. I would have expected some level of animosity from a place so broken, but there was none.
“The world is uncaring, but it is fair. Even as twisted as the mist can be, I suppose it hasn’t forgotten that.”
I closed whatever third eye allowed me to perceive the world in such a way. The feeling of life around me was helpful, but the wall of mist waiting in the distance was a little to apt an analogy for how I was feeling at the moment. The past loomed behind me, and the rest of my life was lurking somewhere beyond the horizon.
I was safe now, but that was it. I was still in a place that I didn’t know, and I was headed towards an uncertain future. They weren’t new problems. They were the same ones I had faced when I first left the crazy witch’s house. They hadn’t gone anywhere. They had merely been waiting in the back of my subconscious for the past two years.
They were miniscule compared to what I had been through, but my mind refused to do anything but dwell on them.
What would I do when I reached Orlis? What would I make of my life? Who did I want to be? Would there really be a place for me in this world?
It was everything I had wanted, but it was quickly becoming everything I feared. It was all of my uncertainties, gift wrapped and waiting to be opened in a few short days.
“Stupid brain! Shut up and let me sleep!”
I knew that my fears were unnecessary. I was making them into a bigger deal than they should have been. Knowing that I was overthinking things didn’t help me stop though, and I spent the next several hours tossing, turning, and twitching with every inconsequential thought that crossed my mind.
By the time the sun rose, I couldn’t tell if I had been awake all night, or if I had repeatedly fallen asleep and woken up every ten minutes. It didn’t matter. The results were the same either way.
I was one of the first people awake, and I groggily took down my tent before climbing into the wagon that had unofficially been declared mine.
* * *
The next few days dragged on in much the same manner as the first. During daylight hours, I made sure I was too busy to think about anything that wasn’t part of my immediate surroundings. At night I wrestled with the darker thoughts that fought their way into my mind. It wasn’t long before I was in a constant fugue state as the anxiety and lack of sleep built up.
I was too stressed out to sleep, and I was too tired to properly manage my stress. It was an awful combination, where each problem fed and built on the other.
It wasn’t hard to keep it hidden though. If I seemed tired, it was just because I wasn’t used to the constant travel. If I was drinking more than usual, it was because the alcohol helped me speak, or just because I was excited. Nobody really knew me well yet, so as far as they could tell, I had always been like this.
I would smile and put on a happy face when I talked to anyone, but as soon as they were out of sight, the mask would slip and I’d go back to looking like a sleepy zombie. I knew I needed help, but I also knew that nothing other than reaching Orlis would fix me. They could offer me kind words, but those words would mean nothing to me. If words were enough, my head wouldn’t have been fucked up in the first place.
I didn’t even know who was actually driving the wagon most of the time. It could have been Arlonia’s own emperor and I wouldn’t have noticed. As soon as I crawled out of my tent and packed it up, I’d wander into the wagon and zone out until my bladder or social obligation forced me to leave.
The days weren’t entirely unpleasant. Far from it. I very much enjoyed spending time with everyone. It was only when I was alone that the inner demons had a chance to haunt me.
After breakfast, Mayra and I would sit in my wagon and discuss magic. It turned out that we had very different viewpoints on a lot of it.
Mages divided their magic into two main styles. Sorcery, and wizardry.
Sorcery was done through imagination, intuition, and intent. Wizardry was based around rules and attempted to apply logic to the chaos.
The mages guild emphasized wizardry. If a mage couldn’t recreate their spell as a magic circle, then they obviously didn’t understand it well enough.
I went the opposite way with it. I liked to start with a magic circle, and then learn to cast it naturally. If you couldn’t cast a spell with the same stability that a circle gave you, you obviously lacked control over your own magic.
Both methods had their merits, but Mayra and I had different standards, and we were happy to argue about it whenever we had the chance.
During lunch, I would find Haylen, and she continued to give writing lessons to Kearse, Chad, and I. For dinner, I would eat with whichever familiar face I ran in to first.
I was usually able to find something to keep myself occupied. But not always. I spent a good portion of the journey slowly recharging my larger mana batteries while I read my books. Once again, they were helping me to escape reality.
On the second day, we finally turned away from the mist. The farther we got from it, the better the road became, and we started passing villages and towns with increasing regularity. No two were exactly alike, but mudbrick houses and thick walls seemed to be the standard. Some of the buildings were whitewashed, and they too grew more common as the distance to the miasma increased.
Yes, the days were quite nice. Night however, was not. My mental state deteriorated with every hour of lost sleep. I started staying away from my tent for as long as possible, and even tried doing another reorganization of my storage space. I hoped that physical exhaustion would help me fall asleep before my brain could keep me awake, but it didn’t work.
By the fourth day of travel, my worsening condition started becoming hard to hide. I was too tired to speak correctly, and even alcohol was no longer enough to help. The dark rings around my eyes made me look like a raccoon, and no amount of shapeshifting could hide them. People started to ask if I was feeling alright. I told them that I hadn’t slept well, but didn’t go into details about how bad my nights had actually been.
* * *
It was on the morning of the fifth day out of the mist that I finally broke.
Predictably, I was one of the first to get up. I had taken down my tent, and crawled into my usual place within the wagon.
I was half asleep, but not nearly half awake. I don’t know how long I had been huddled in the corner of the wagon while I waited for the expedition to start moving. Breakfast was skippable. I wasn’t hungry anyway.
I heard a knock at the back of the wagon, and my mind snapped into action before I could consciously think. A knock meant zombies were trying to break down the door and get to me. Zombies meant danger, and danger meant I had to fight. It was pure reflex.
I let out a startled shriek and a burst of telekinesis at the same time. The blast was wide and unfocused, but it was still strong enough to rip the canvas roof off of the wagon.
I quickly realized what I had done, and looked towards the source of the sound. It was Haylen.
I had knocked her off her feet, and she was lying on the ground, groaning, and clutching at her bloody nose. I had hit her with the equivalent of running into a brick wall.
I jumped out and was by her side in an instant. My outburst hadn’t been lethal, but it was more than enough to hurt someone.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to hurt you. Are you okay? I’m so sorry.”
Haylen was still dazed, and blinked at me several times before she recognized me.
“What? What was that?”
From her point of view, she had knocked on the wood to get my attention. She hadn’t even known that she had been hit before she was on the ground.
I scrambled to help her up, and led her back to her tent. The nosebleed stopped fairly quickly, and I was left in the awkward situation of trying to explain why I had kinda sorta blown up a wagon.
What could I say? How do you tell someone that returning to civilization scares you more than a city full of zombies? It shouldn’t have been so hard to tell her that I felt like I had no control over my life. But saying, “My life is a mess,” is more difficult than it sounds.
I was holding her like a lifeline, and repeating, “I’m sorry,” over and over.
Haylen pulled me off of herself, and sat me down on her bedroll.
“Indigo, what’s wrong? Tell me what happened.”
I opened my mouth, but I couldn’t get any words to come out. Instead, tears filled my eyes, and I started to sob. The sleepless nights of mental self-torture had worn me down, and I couldn’t hide it any longer. I needed help.
I was still crying, but I forced the words out, and once I did, I couldn’t stop them.
I told her about spending the last two years on my own, and that despite being around people, I now felt more lost and alone than ever.
I confessed that going to Orlis terrified me, but the idea of running away scared me even more.
I admitted that I had no idea what I was doing, but couldn’t bring myself to ask for help.
I let it out. I let it all out.
When the last of the words had left my mouth, I continued to cry silently. Haylen was holding me in her arms, and gently petting my head while she listened. I didn’t care that she was treating me like a child. I wasn’t embarrassed at all. The physical contact was comforting, and I needed it as much as anything else.
She started to speak, but I put my hand over her mouth to silence her.
“No. Please no words. I not want sympathy. I not want hear you say, “It be okay.” That only make it worse. I only want understanding. I only want you know my thinking. That all I want. So please, no words.”
I removed my hand and went back to just being held.
A moment later, Haylen spoke softly.
“I know this might not be what you want to hear…”
“Don’t say it. Don’t you dare say it.”
“But things will get better. It will be alright.”
“You just had to fucking say it, didn’t you? Did you not listen to a word I told you?”
I pushed her off of me, and stood up, furious.
“I know!” I shouted at her. “Things don’t need to get better! Everything is already fine! I know that my problems are only in my head, but that’s not enough to make them disappear. All I wanted was for you to listen. I don’t want your pity. I don’t want your sympathy. I just wanted to know that someone understands how I feel. That’s all! Nothing more! But you don’t… I just… Argh! Fuck it!”
I pushed my way through the tent flaps, and went to find somewhere I could be alone. Someone had reattached the canvas top to the wagon, so I climbed back in and threw up a telekinetic wall to keep everyone else out.
I felt bad for yelling at Haylen, but only a little. I had specifically told her that I only wanted her to listen. I had made it clear that I didn’t want to hear any empty platitudes. I was angry at her, but I’d get over it. I hadn’t really expected her to stay quiet anyway. Her need to feel like she was helping wouldn’t let her. With the way my brain was currently working, it’d probably only be a few hours before I forgot it happened in the first place.
I pulled out a bottle of liquor and began to drink. It would either put me to sleep, or I’d get alcohol poisoning. Either one seemed acceptable at the moment. I was stuck with my thoughts again, but this time I was angry enough to beat them off. Maybe Haylen’s misplaced words had been helpful after all.