Something was bothering Petra.
Aloy wasn’t sure what it was, exactly, not yet, only that it wasn’t something completely life-altering, or incredibly terrible, because if it was, her lover would have already come to her about it. She was sure of that. Petra told her everything.
But it wasn’t something little, either, or a bother, or an annoyance, because Petra freely moaned and complained to Aloy about nearly every frivolous thing nowadays—like getting the wrong wood delivered at the forge, the kind that just didn’t burn right, or the weather, so irrepressibly hot that even just half a day atop the forge resulted in scalding sunburns and pouring sweat, or the lingering soreness in her arm, courtesy of the broken bone that’d healed over four years ago now. Even Aloy had days when her leg ached, the once-cracked femur throbbing in the cold and damp of the winter and spring seasons.
No, this was different. Not big, but not small, either. Aloy wanted to ask Petra what it was, but she knew better. Eventually, Petra would speak up. Aloy would just have to be patient, and wait.
Seven years, they’d been together, when you added it all up. She was twenty-five years old now, going on twenty-six. Petra—she’d roar like a searing, out of control forge-fire if she heard Aloy tell anyone—was approaching fifty.
Aloy was grown now, though she hadn’t gotten much bigger, or taller. Sure, she had more muscle, and her skin had gotten darker, the scars standing out brighter than ever on her forearms and face. Her hair was longer, so hard to control she’d stopped trying to tame it at all. Petra loved it, teasing her that one day she’d trip over it during a hunt and have to shear it all off. Aloy hoped not. She’d matured in other ways as well. She’d learned caution, and care, and appreciation for all the big and small things in her life. Petra was the biggest. They shared everything.
Well, almost everything, it seemed.
It’d started a week ago. A traveler had arrived at their settlement in the early afternoon, looking for trade and a cheap night of lodging. Free Heap had welcomed him with open arms, the brothers and sisters of the forge crowding around him to ask of faraway news and happenings. Aloy had immediately pegged the man as an Oseram, by the thick leather and metal-bolted clothing he wore, the way he laughed so bawdy and loud, and how dirty his jokes were. Petra’s were better, but his were close.
Petra had been out till nightfall, working at the long-reclaimed scrapyard, bulking up their supply of machine parts and power cells, the lifeblood of her heavy weapons. Over the years, she’d built bigger and better cannons, each louder and more dangerous than the last, and had amassed a collection large enough to make the meanest Thunderbird cower.
That night, Petra had kissed Aloy hello—she did that any time they were apart more than an hour, something Aloy secretly cherished—and then settled by the communal fire for a dinner of rich boar meat, and the newcomer had stepped forward to greet her, eager to meet the de-facto leader of their proud little settlement. Petra had nodded at him, clapped him on the shoulder while he clapped hers, then froze, her smile stuck halfway across her face, melting slowly away. Her eyes, warm with her usual playful friendliness, went cold and blank.
She knew him, Aloy had realized, looking at them.
But then Petra had forced her smile back on, and said, “Welcome, stranger,” and the man had nodded and gone along with it, and no one but Aloy had been the wiser.
“Why don’t you head in first,” Petra had suggested to Aloy after their meal, fixing the newcomer, mingling on the outskirts of the milling, yawning villagers, with a rather dangerous look. Aloy’d agreed, then gone into the forge and snuck a peek from a high slat in the wall, watching as Petra had a quick but tense conversation with the man back behind a dilapidated shed, where no one could see them. The longer they had talked, the straighter Petra’s spine went, and the higher her shoulders rose, until they were practically up around her ears, both fists clenched at her rigid sides.
Petra had come to bed only a few minutes later. She didn’t talk about the conversation she’d had at all.
The man had left the next morning, while it was still dark and everyone but the lone guard on duty slept, without saying goodbye, or trading a single thing. A few people asked questions, wondering where he’d gone so abruptly, but then, one by one, they’d gotten caught up in their work for the day, and forgotten all about the strange newcomer.
Not Aloy, though.
Now, a week later, the traveler gone, Free Heap buzzing once again with its usual flurry of activity, Aloy was still wondering. The unspoken question was on the tip of her tongue every time she saw her lover, morning and night. She’d expected Petra to relax after the man was gone, and laugh off whatever it’d been about, and then everything would go back to usual, but instead, the opposite was happening.
Atop the mighty forge, Petra was working relentlessly as she had been for several days straight, her hammer ringing out across the village like a sharp-pealed warning bell. There was a certain frantic rhythm to her hammering. An anger. No wonder her arm was hurting her. She’d taken to early morning and late nights, something that genuinely alarmed Aloy. Before, absolutely nothing could cajole Petra to rouse from the warm furs of their shared bed before mid-morning. Aloy’d sent in a placid, Overridden Watcher inside exactly once, just to see what would happen. She’d forgotten about the malfunctioning Oseram Cannon Petra had brought inside for tinkering, and the resulting fire fight nearly destroyed the entire forge. Aloy hadn’t done it again, but everyone in Free Heap had gotten a good laugh, Petra most of all. Of course, she’d gotten Aloy back that night, in their bedroom, the air reeking of burnt Watcher lenses and wires and oil. Aloy shivered just thinking about it.
But that wasn’t the same Petra now. These days, she worked tirelessly on her cannons, forging for hours on scraps of metal, throwing it back into the coals at the slightest defect, growling with frustration. In the evenings, she told her stories and her jokes and laughed with the rest, but she didn’t sound the same. She held Aloy at night, kissed her hello or goodbye, but didn’t touch her beyond that. She was closed off. Scared, almost.
If Aloy knew one thing, she knew her lover. Petra was upset. Very. And Aloy needed to help her.
That night, she waited for Petra to come to their bed, completely naked on the furs, her bare body lit red by the crackling forge fire.
Near midnight, Petra staggered in. She was covered in the day’s sweat and smelling of bitter ash. Her cap was crumpled in her hands, midway through the act of wiping her brow with the inside of her elbow, when she saw Aloy and went still. The tense lines of her jaw and shoulders fell the smallest bit. Aloy smiled. That meant this would work.
“Come here,” she said, bending one of her knees up and letting it cant to the side so Petra could see everything.
Petra’s eyes honed in between her thighs, the cap falling from her hands, forgotten. “I… I…” she stammered, and then shook her head. Flustering Petra was difficult, but not impossible, as Aloy had learned. The trick was to not have any modesty at all. “I’m kind of tired—” Petra said, a pathetic attempt at an excuse. Probably, she knew what Aloy was doing, but then Aloy dipped a well-callused hand between her own legs and began to stroke. The fire in Petra’s eyes flared hungrily.
“Come here,” Aloy said again, firmer than before.
And Petra came.
She fell upon Aloy like she wanted to attack her, hands going for Aloy’s strong waist, blunt fingernails digging into her muscular flanks. Petra kissed her hard and harsh, sucking in quick, growly breaths, like a hungry animal, but Aloy kept her own mouth gentle, lips supple and soft, and before long Petra stopped her biting and scratching and snarling, slumping on top of her with all her warm, solid weight, making Aloy grow the slightest bit breathless. She loved it, the dizzying sensation of her lover’s body bearing down on hers.
“Sorry,” Petra whispered into her cheek. Aloy’s lips tingled, swollen and half-numbed by the rough abuse. She ran her tongue over her puffy bottom lip, saw Petra watching her beneath the dark fringe of her lowered lashes, and smiled. She gave herself a moment more to relish the weight and feel of the woman on top of her, then gently slid Petra off, rolling her onto her back and sitting up to straddle her lover’s generous hips. With slow care and deliberate intent, she undressed Petra, shifting as needed to remove her top and bottoms, taking her time with every hooked metal catch and hidden tie, until the older woman was naked beneath her, gasping with impatience.
As soon as she was bare, Petra didn’t try to take control, or push Aloy off and ravage her. Aloy didn’t even have to ask as Petra stretched herself out and put her arms above her head, gripping her own wrists so she couldn’t interfere with Aloy’s fun, pale thighs falling open with barely a touch. Aloy scooted back, knees sinking into the soft furs beneath them, kissing Petra’s chest, her sternum, the warm expanse of her belly. She squeezed her breasts and twisted her nipples and felt the other woman tremble under her.
Petra was wet and swollen and more than ready. Burying her face between her legs, Aloy breathed in heat and musk and sweat and metal, everything that was Petra, everything that she loved. She nosed through the patch of dark, damp hair, glistening wetly in the low light, and licked hard down the seam of her. The taste of her was familiar and strong and primal, tingling in the back of Aloy’s throat. Petra gasped and shook, her thighs closing around Aloy’s ears, cutting her off from the rest of the world, until the only thing that existed was Petra, and her soft, satiny wetness. She licked and sucked and sampled every part of her, her tongue at times a hard, stabbing barb, and at others, a slow, tortuous swirl. She swallowed and gasped and feasted. She drank and drank and drank. She would never get tired of this.
Three times, Petra stiffened and seized, body wracked with pleasure, each orgasm lasting longer than the one before. Between her legs, she only grew hotter, and wetter, red and swollen, until Aloy’s face was sticky with her, jaw sore, tongue almost numb. The taste of her was stronger now. Deeper. Aloy could think of nothing but having more.
Finally, Petra released her own wrists and had to forcibly move Aloy’s head away. Aloy protested only weakly, dazed and greedy and overwhelmed, panting fast. While she would’ve rathered staying where she was, she allowed Petra to draw her up so they could lay beside each other and kiss in the firelight. Petra cleaned her off with slow drags of her tongue while Aloy blinked away the spots in her vision and came back to herself.
“I love you,” she murmured into Petra’s slick, musky mouth, drunk with her heady taste. Petra kissed her and gently pushed her down.
Sure hands ran down her twitching sides and gathered at the crux of her thighs. Callused thumbs hooked inside of her and held her apart, the air cold and cruel against a place so hot and tender. The thumbs retreated, and three fingers squelched inside of her with ease, soon joined by a fourth, Aloy shivering with a delicious thrill through the burn, while Petra’s other hand slid further back, running through the slippery mess on the inside of her leg, trailing down to her other entrance.
Seven years together, and there was not a single place left on Aloy’s body that Petra had not thoroughly explored. Aloy had been beyond embarrassed when Petra had first licked her all the way back there, thinking maybe she’d done it on accident, caught in the heat of the moment. But then Petra had licked her again, and again, until Aloy was delirious with stunned pleasure, confused with her own aroused reaction.
A month or two later, Petra, after a great deal of tender care and practice, had managed to work a thick finger inside. Aloy had climaxed so hard she’d swooned, and woke to a genuinely worried Petra slapping lightly at her face and calling her name. It had turned out to be only a little mortifying—the passing out, and the fact that she’d come so hard after, well, that—and a week later, Petra, using a soft-smelling natural lubricant she’d created herself for probably that specific purpose, got the entire metal shaft of her harness inside.
Aloy’s throat hurt just remembering how she’d screamed herself hoarse that night, the wetness between her legs flowing so freely they’d had to get rid of a few of the furs. Petra had reduced her to a quivering, limp pile of warm flesh, boneless and unspeakably satiated. It had become one of her fondest memories, joining the ranks of countless others.
She loved all the toys Petra had made for them over the years, all those she’d ever shared with Aloy, the ones she’d used to torture her in such wonderfully wicked ways, making her squirm and whine and squeal, but sometimes, she preferred this—just the two of them, and naked skin and rough fingers and a warm forge.
“Ahh,” Aloy got out as Petra curled and straightened the fingers inside her. “Ahh.” She felt incredibly full, and spoiled, and happy. Petra’s lone middle finger, her longest, popped past the second knuckle into her other entrance, then settled all the way down to the third, the muscle bearing down tight against the very welcome intrusion. Aloy was so wet she could hear it over her own panting, and wondered what it looked like, how much of a mess she was down there. Imagining it excited her, knowing that Petra could reduce her to this, and would do so happily for years to come, because she loved her, and—oh!
“That’s my dirty girl,” Petra crooned teasingly into Aloy’s slack mouth as she climaxed abruptly, clenching hard on the four fingers stuffed inside her folds, and the lone one in her ass, crooking them this way and that, pulling at her quavering insides. Petra was very gentle about working them all free, leaving Aloy stretched open and empty and feeling painfully bereft. She watched blankly as Petra licked her four fingers clean—the fifth, she wiped surreptitiously on a fresh, wet rag placed nearby for that very purpose, because Petra, with sex, was anything but unprepared.
Aloy was ready to flop her head down and sleep, wonderfully sore, sweaty and spent, but she could see it—the rigid line in Petra’s shoulders, the tense hardness in her face and jaw, and knew, whether her lover knew it or not, they weren’t done.
Petra was trying to settle down spooning her for the night when Aloy roused suddenly, gathering the dregs of her strength for one last round. She knocked Petra’s hands back, rolled them over so she was on top, and spread Petra’s legs with a jerk.
“Aloy!” Petra gasped. “What’s gotten into you?” Her eyes were curious, maybe even the slightest bit suspicious, but her grin was all pleased delight and excited anticipation. She wanted more, and Aloy would give it to her.
She braced herself on her knees on the furs and twisted Petra onto her side, straddling her lower leg. She eased herself forward and settled her pubic bone tight against Petra’s, holding Petra’s warm, damp thigh close to her chest as she began to thrust, trying to find the right spot and rhythm. It didn’t take long. Every slippery rub sent a delicious shiver through her as their folds kissed and parted. Petra gave a strangled gasp and gripped the furs beneath her with white knuckles, doing her best to rock back at Aloy, tendons in her neck and thick shoulders standing out against the strain, the hard, heavy muscles in her arms flexing under a sheen of sweat, flushed bright pink from her brow to her stomach.
“Ahh,” Aloy groaned as she bucked particularly hard, catching her swollen nub against Petra’s own, hearing the soft smack of their wetness meeting, and then turned her head and bit into the soft flesh of Petra’s calf, just by the back of her knee. Petra cried out and kicked on reflex, and Aloy ran her tongue over the mark she’d made in apology. She spread her legs even further to give herself better leverage, and began to thrust with even more power. Petra flung her head back and gave up trying to help, lying back helplessly as Aloy slammed against her.
Aloy put her head down and squeezed her eyes shut. If she looked at Petra, splayed out before her, breasts jumping, skin shining from the heat, she’d climax. The muscles in her thighs were burning, the length of her abdomen aflame with the effort. Everything between her legs was sopping wet and scorching hot. She was wet almost to her knees, Petra even more so, the sound of their folds rubbing making a sloppy kissing sound between their legs. The furs were going to be a mess after this. They’d probably have to get rid of some again.
“Oh…” Petra whimpered, “A-Aloy—!”
Just the sound of Petra’s voice—usually so rough and confident, but here and now, wrecked, desperate—made Aloy snap. She managed half a dozen more thrusts, feeling Petra thrash against her as she came, and then came herself, the force of it snatching all the breath from her lungs. “Hnn—!”
She woke a few seconds later collapsed over Petra, her forehead resting just below Petra’s breasts. She kissed the curve of her ribs, tasted salty sweat and musky tang, and, with supreme effort, sat up and pulled herself away, her entire body shaking madly. Their thighs parted slickly, pubic hair clinging together, a web of clear wetness pulling apart and drizzling downwards as Aloy collapsed onto her back, sweat plastering the furs to her flushed skin. Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t move another inch.
“Spit and fire,” Petra panted. “Where did that come from?”
“I, uh…” Aloy said, tongue thick in her mouth. Her head was still reeling. “I missed you, I guess.”
“I’m right here, Flame-hair.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I do.” Petra looked away. “Sorry.”
“It’s just, you’ve been working a lot lately.”
“So you attack me when I should be getting my beauty sleep?”
“No, I just…thought you needed it,” Aloy said.
“Ha,” Petra chuckled, caught, the rise and fall of her chest slowing as she got her breath back. “You could tell, huh?”
Aloy was quiet. She realized she couldn’t ask Petra about the strange man now. It felt wrong, almost, to go after her during such a pure, delicate moment, when she was most vulnerable. She shouldn’t have tried. She didn’t regret the sex, just the reason she’d gone into it with. She felt almost as if she should apologize. She stared up at the dark ceiling, feeling a strange mix of sickly guilty and blissfully content, not sure exactly what to do.
“It’s okay if—” she began, just as Petra said, “My mother is sick.”
Aloy’s mouth snapped shut so fast she nearly bit her tongue. For a long, tense moment, neither of them spoke. Their calming breaths seemed ridiculously loud in the ensuing silence. The flames from the forge guttered and snapped, echoing like cracking tree limbs, shattered beneath the bulk of a charging Behemoth or a rampaging Thunderjaw.
“Your mother,” Aloy repeated. The word alone, mother, made her stomach clench in a way that was not entirely pleasant or unpleasant. In all their time together, Petra had never once mentioned her mother, or her family at all. Aloy had simply assumed her parents were passed away, killed by rabid machines or perhaps the Shadow Carja, but realized now that had been foolish.
“The man, the traveler, from a week ago. I knew him.” Petra huffed, rolled her eyes. “But I’m sure you already guessed that.” Aloy gave a quiet murmur, and ran her palm over Petra’s sweaty chest, feeling the steady tha-thump of her heart as it began to cease its frantic beating. “His name is Jagend. He’s from the Claim. Oseram land, to the north. Where I’m from.”
Aloy was not surprised. She remembered Petra speaking of it when they’d first met, how she’d fled her people’s lands, sick of their backwards traditions and old, outdated ways.
“I’ve never been there,” Aloy admitted, though she’d heard of it from a great many mouths. Unlike the majority of Nora and Carja lands, well-traveled and dotted with settlements and towns, the Oseram Claim was known for being greatly untouched. Aloy’s own adventures had never pushed her so far north, so far from home.
“You’re not missing much,” Petra groused. She looked uncomfortable, and angry, but Aloy knew it wasn’t with her, but the situation she’d been put into. “I was born in Mainspring, the Oseram Capital. My father was a forgeman, of course. My mother helped him when the aeldormen allowed it. Otherwise, she sewed.”
“No brothers or sisters?” Aloy asked, feeling vaguely stupid for having never asked before. It seemed something obvious to know about her lover, especially after all their time together. Again, she’d assumed Petra was an only child, never questioning otherwise.
Petra winked at her. “Just me. Aren’t you lucky?”
Aloy let out a breath. She wasn’t sure if feeling relieved was appropriate, but to be honest, one Petra was about as much as she could handle. The idea of her having a sister or two, especially if they were anything like Petra at all, was terribly daunting. Really, a girl could only take so much teasing and flirting in a day. “What else did he say? About your… About your mother.”
Petra sighed and scrubbed a hand through her sweat-damp hair, gone snarled and curly and beautifully dark. “Just that she’s sick, she’s old, and I should go take care of her, or just go say goodbye.”
“Hmm.” To Aloy, such frank direction seemed cruel and overly blunt, almost to the point of being cold, but that was the Oseram way. “And what will you do?”
“I… don’t know,” said Petra, sounding unsure, which she never was. “I didn’t exactly leave on the best of terms.”
Aloy remembered Petra saying something about the Oseram trying to marry her off, thinking a woman’s duty was to be a wife, to obey a man. She could understand why Petra was always so angry with her people, why she’d left home—well, not quite her people anymore, or her home. Free Heap was her home now. Its citizens and Aloy were her people.
“Do you… want to go?” she ventured, not wanting to upset Petra with the suggestion, but eager to help find a solution however she could.
“What choice do I have?” Petra growled. “My father died a long time ago. An accident in the forge. She’s all alone. Can’t just let her up and die without doing something about it, can I?”
“You can do whatever you want.” Aloy shuffled closer, so Petra’s head could rest comfortably on her bare shoulder, raking bowstring-callused fingers through Petra’s short hair, springy tendrils catching at her knuckles.
“Hmm.” Petra closed her eyes, breath deepening. Aloy thought she’d fallen asleep when she said quietly, “I’ll pack tomorrow. Have to decide who to leave in charge, though. Free Heap can’t stop just because I leave. Kaeluf could handle it, maybe, but he’s getting up there in age. Still, anyone else would just ruin everything, so you’ll have to lend a hand—”
“No,” said Aloy firmly. “I’m coming with you.”
Petra looked at her and smiled. She knew better than to refuse, or forbid her. She didn’t even try. Instead, she murmured sleepily, “I love you,” and gave her a drowsy kiss before snuggling her face back into Aloy’s sweaty neck. She was asleep barely a minute later, snoring gently.
Aloy lay awake for a while longer, thinking of what the next day would bring, and the ones after. She thought of what they’d need to pack, and which roads they’d take. She thought of the word mother, and how it made her feel somehow sad and small, despite everything she’d discovered about the world around her, the machines and the Old Ones, and Elisabet Sobeck and the past that had been lost to them all.
In the end, it came down to the fact that Petra had a mother, a real mother, and Aloy did not.
But, no. It didn’t matter how that made her feel. She could swallow her pride, the still-lingering bitterness of her birth, and her life as an Outcast. She had to. This was something she needed to do for Petra. She was what mattered to Aloy now, and she would never let her down. Never.
They woke early, and packed while it was still dark. Petra ducked out to speak with Kaeluf and collect supplies while Aloy sorted through her vast assortment of weapons, deciding which to bring and which to leave behind. If Petra had her way, they’d load up an Oseram Cannon or two for the long trip, just because, but Aloy knew better, and planned to pack light. She picked out her Shadow War Bow and Sling, as well as her trusted spear for necessary Overrides. Everything else would be too burdensome, and by now she was completely confident in her abilities to keep both her and Petra out of the path of any stray Thunderjaws or Stormbirds.
Petra returned, and they hauled their things outside. Aloy was pleasantly sore from the previous evening and wasn’t at all looking forward to a day of bouncing around on the back of a metallic mount. Of course, it didn’t help that Petra kept grabbing her every few minutes for a round of anxious kissing or enthusiastic over-the-clothes groping, understandably worked up and nervous for the road ahead. The third time it happened, Aloy started laughing while Petra scowled at her and then pouted, not stopping until Aloy gave her a half-hearted apology. Really, if it helped her lover get over her jitters, Aloy would gladly take on the burden of being Petra’s plaything.
Over time, Aloy had taken to always keeping a fresh mount close to Free Heap, in the event she’d need a quick ride, and whistled for it now. After a minute, a placid Strider arrived, snorting and pawing the dirt with large metal hooves, blue lights aglow in the morning gloom. Petra loaded up their travelpacks on its wide haunches, and hopped on. Aloy squeezed herself behind her and waved to Kaeluf, stationed at the top of the forge, prepared for the no-doubt intimidating duty of taking care of Free Heap and all its residents during Petra’s absence.
Out of sight of Free Heap, Aloy directed Petra to steer their mount toward a herd of Chargers and leapt nimbly from the Strider when they got close, pausing only to make sure it didn’t immediately try to buck Petra off. She’d gotten better with her Overrides over time, discovering ways to send new and different commands to the machines through her spear after years of rigorous study and hundreds of attempts. Sylens’ workshop and his copious notes had helped. Now Petra could ride her own mount without fear of being ejected.
Within seconds, she stalked and Overrode a Charger with absurd ease, hopping aboard—wincing when her tender rear hit the metal—and giving it a kick to join Petra. They divided their things between both machines and then took off, Petra leading. They kept the machines at a canter, Aloy scanning the horizon constantly for danger, Petra quiet, uncharacteristically somber and thoughtful.
They stopped when it grew too dark to see properly, even with the blue lights shining from their mounts. Aloy sent them off a ways to wait, and helped Petra build a fire and roast some meat. They slept in a shared bedroll, woke early the next morning, and were off once more.
After two days, they had a visitor.
Petra was arguing with Aloy about something or other—something had been packed wrong, or forgotten entirely, and it wasn’t a big deal but Petra’s nerves were already growing frayed and only getting worse the further they got from Free Heap, so Aloy was letting her blow herself out, like a quick-burning fire—when there was a soft rustle, and the snap of a broken branch.
Aloy had her bow out in a flash, an arrow aimed straight at the noise. A crest of red feathers caught her eye, and she stopped. Was that…?
“Nil!” said Aloy, surprised, scrambling off her Charger, Petra copying her after a moment. Sure enough, Nil himself stepped smoothly from the brush, alive and well. Aloy had not seen him in several years. Petra eyed his flamboyant crimson headdress, then quirked a skeptical brow at the rest of him, but thankfully chose not to comment. “What brings you here?”
“Hunting,” Nil said with a feral grin, as if that explained everything. With Nil, it sort of did.
“Oh,” said Aloy, surprised. Hunting? She’d never run into Nil so far north, or so deep in the untouched wilds. Could there really be bandits out so far? She sniffed the air, curious, then caught the slightest whiff of bitter smoke. She squinted into the distance and finally noticed a fading streamer of black, so far away it was a mere thread, at the foot of a massive mountain, probably a half-day away. She tapped her Focus, trying to zoom in, but could only make out a few indistinct purple blurs from nearby plants and animals.
“Nil, huh? Love the get-up,” Petra said to Nil, standing a little closer than was polite, trying to study his elaborate headdress and armor. “Some nice looking metal in there.”
Nil blinked, then looked over at Aloy, as if for help.
“Nil, this is Petra Forgewoman,” Aloy supplied. Petra stepped back and grinned, and the two nodded at each other. “She’s with me. Petra, this is Nil.” She paused. “He’s my…friend,” Aloy finished lamely, unable to think of a proper term.
Throughout her travels seven years ago, she and Nil had partnered a dozen or so times to topple the empire bandits had scrabbled together across Nora and Carja lands. Then, once they’d run out of bandits to rout, like a wild, rabid animal, Nil had turned on her, demanding she fight and kill him. The ultimate challenge, the greatest hunt. Aloy had refused, horrified by the notion, and Nil had retreated back to the wilds. Aloy was glad he hadn’t died, but was still a little leery of him. They may have worked together, but they were vastly different people. In all those bandit camps and holds they’d routed, she’d never once enjoyed killing another person.
Helis, of course, did not count.
“Want to come along?” Nil asked, displaying sharp white teeth, cocking his head toward the distant smoke. He had a new scar on his cheek, just healed, but otherwise looked the same as ever. “Like old times?”
Truthfully, Aloy felt as though she had killed more than enough men for a lifetime, but bandits were bandits, and if left unchecked, their numbers would swell and innocent travelers could be hurt. It’d been necessary before, killing them to protect the lands of her people. Was this necessary, now? Nil could probably handle this group alone, but perhaps she should help, just to make sure… “Alright. If, if that’s okay,” she said quickly, glancing at Petra, who shrugged.
“It’s on the way,” she said amicably. “Won’t hurt.”
“I’ll lead,” Nil said, looking almost gleeful with anticipation, and then disappeared back into the trees at a quick pace. Aloy hesitated, then called off their waiting mounts, allowing them to mingle back with a wild herd. It’d be odd to follow Nil on machines while he walked, and she didn’t mind the exercise. Hopefully Petra wouldn’t, either.
“Sorry,” Aloy muttered, following his path at a quick pace. “This won’t take long, promise.”
“Hmm,” was all Petra said behind her, easily keeping up. Then, “Interesting fellow. A little… wild, I guess, is the word.”
“Well, to us. Unless you want to challenge him to a duel.”
"I’m all set.”
“He might be a little off, but he’s a good man. He fought at the last battle, against Hades. In Meridian.”
“Oh?” Petra frowned, then shook her head. “Can’t recall. And I’d remember that headdress, believe me.”
Aloy laughed. “Don’t worry. You two will get along just fine.”
“Right,” Petra said. “Maybe he can give me some tips.”
Distracted, a tree root caught Aloy’s foot, and she stumbled. Dare she ask? “Tips on…?” she ventured.
“Never seen a chest so smooth and hairless, man or woman. Like a doll’s, almost. Really, what’s his secret?” Aloy guffawed so loud a turkey burst out of the undergrowth and fled, gobbling madly. “And don’t get me started on that eye makeup. It’s flawless. I’ve never been so jealous.”
A few hours later, they were close enough for Aloy to tag over twenty bandits with her Focus, some of them equipped with intimidatingly big heavy weapons—Petra sneered at those, calling them bastard knock-offs of the real thing. There were three alarms, two nasty-looking bruisers swamped in armor, and six men on lookouts, all armed to the teeth. It was still broad daylight, but Nil laughed when Aloy asked if he wanted to wait until nightfall.
“Where’s the challenge in that?” he said.
Aloy sighed and sorted through her weapons. Bow and arrows would be best here—they were the quietest. When hunting—machine or human prey—Aloy preferred to remain undetected as long as possible, striking from the shadows, hiding bodies as she crept through the unsuspecting camp. Nil would follow her lead until someone inevitably spotted them, or a body was discovered—really, he was happy just to kill something.
“What about her?” Nil nodded at Petra.
“Me?” Petra said, and fished in her travelpack for a weapon. All she had was the newest version of her heavy-little weapon, a hand cannon big as her forearm, and a weighty line of fat ammo canisters and shells. “Don’t think this’ll work, Flame-hair.”
“Way too loud,” Aloy agreed. “Okay. Wait here. If we need help, I’ll send up a fire arrow. Otherwise, just hide.”
“Hide?” Petra scoffed, even as she cast about for a good spot to sit and wait. “Oseram don’t—”
“Yes, yes, Oseram don’t hide,” Aloy said. She kissed her—a quick peck, but then Petra took her by the arm and really laid one on her—and when she pulled away, breathless, flushed, Nil was watching them curiously.
“Go get ‘em, Flame-hair,” Petra said, and then, of course, smacked Aloy hard enough on the bottom to make her jump and squeak.
She and Nil shuffled through the tall grass in silence, Aloy fighting down a blush, Nil just looking thoughtful.
“Your woman is… interesting,” Nil commented, after a beat.
“Uh,” Aloy said, waiting, but thankfully, Nil left it at that, the primal gleam in his eyes washing away the last bits of humor the closer they got to the bandit camp.
The smell came first, the air growing thick and sour with the scent of smoke and charred meat, no doubt the bandits’ supper. Smelled like boar, burned terribly. Aloy stopped to check her Focus once more before moving on. Two of the look-outs had moved from their perches to pace the crooked ramparts of their rotted, crookedly built wooden base. One had a blaze canister strapped to his back. Aloy glanced at Nil and pointed to him. Nil grinned ferociously, and they separated, using the long grass to circle the base unseen.
In position, Aloy waited, keeping an eye on the bandits as they milled about, shouting, chatting, laughing. One complained about the weather, the relentless heat of the sun beating down on them. Two others gambled over a handful of shards, then devolved into a fist-fight when one accused the other of cheating. Another grumbled something about taking a piss in the bushes, then suddenly stomped over, coming so close to Aloy he could’ve reached out and touched her. The second no one was watching, Aloy lunged out of the grass, grabbed him, and yanked him back to cover, silencing him with a quick, silent strike of her spear.
A sudden explosion rocked the base, brilliant green-yellow flames mushrooming outwards. Nil, triggering a blast for the ill-fated bandit strapped to the blaze canister, as planned. Two other men were caught in the mess, dying noisily, thrashing and then going limp.
The camp descended into chaos, but, unable to identify an actual enemy, the men hesitated in ringing the alarm. As they ran amuck, Aloy snuck up on a second bandit and struck him down similar to the first. She drew her bow, fitting a hard-pointed arrow to the string and pulling it to her ear. She sighted one of the look-outs, separate from the others, breathed out, and loosed. With a sharp snap and whistle, the arrow blurred across the space between them and buried itself into the look-out’s chest, killing him instantly. He fell, boneless.
The rest of the bandits had retreated further into the base, where Aloy’s bow couldn’t reach. She’d have to go inside. Keeping behind cover as much as possible, she picked an entrance and crept inside, sticking to shadows and hiding behind crates and debris. She caught one man hiding like a coward behind some stairs. He saw her, opened his mouth to scream—and then slumped as she thrust her spear into his belly.
She peeked from her spot and saw the yard was relatively clear. She ducked out and slashed one of the alarms, and sprinted for a walkway connecting to the other side of the base to get to the second, disabling it as well. She’d just reached the third alarm, similarly unguarded, when someone yelled. Aloy froze, head snapping around, but it wasn’t her who’d been spotted—Nil was in the lower yard, surrounding by five bandits. One of the big bruisers was dead, his heavy weapon smashed, but the other was very much alive, struggling with loading his burden properly.
“Nil!” Aloy shouted, knowing it’d distract the bandits and give Nil time to fight. Sure enough, heads turned her way, and a cry went up through the base. Aloy slashed the last alarm and then pelted straight for Nil, who was becoming overwhelmed by the five bandits, but grinning broader than ever, exhilarated by the danger.
As they always did during times like these, things got blurry for Aloy. She swung and kicked and stabbed and jumped. She wasn’t Aloy anymore, but a creature of instinct and action. Faces faded, sounds dulled. She kept just enough of herself to remember how much she hated this.
Behind her, Nil danced in his own battle, whooping and shouting for more, adulating where Aloy suffered. This was where he was happiest. This was his home, where Aloy’s couldn’t be any further in the world.
Aloy blinked, and the yard was littered with corpses. She was covered in sweat, arms burning, her spear gone heavy in her hands. There was a ringing in her ears, but she couldn’t feel any injuries other than a few bumps and scratches, a miracle in itself. Nil was crouched nearby, catching his breath. He had a slash on his chest and a bruise on his jaw, but nothing else. They’d done it. They’d—
With a brutish roar, the last remaining bandit tackled Aloy around the waist and dashed her to the ground. Shield-Weaver was in her bag, left behind with Petra, too bulky for stealth, and now Aloy shouted in pain, or would have, if she had any breath in her lungs.
It was the big, armored bruiser. He was covered in blood and furiously angry. Even worse, he still had his heavy weapon, loaded and primed, the dreadfully ugly machine shuddering with energy. The bandit hefted it with a bellow and pointed it straight at Nil.
“Watch out!” Aloy screamed, voice raw, lungs burning, and kicked up, knocking the weapon skyward. The bandit fired, and a scorching ball of metal rocketed from the mouth of the cannon and exploded above them, showering them with fragments of red-hot metal scraps. Aloy hissed and rolled away as the bandit aimed again, this time at her.
“Hey!” yelled a familiar voice, startling them all. The bandit turned—
—right into the barrel of Petra’s hand cannon.
“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” Petra sneered, and then fired the weapon, point blank at the hulking bandit’s face, destroying his helmet, his armor and his weapon in one deafening, all-encompassing bang, shrapnel flying, a mushroom of blazing fire and choking smoke billowing outwards. The force of it knocked Petra onto her ass and sent Aloy and Nil diving to the ground.
Aloy’s teeth were buzzing when she got back up. The bandit was dead, naturally. Nil was alive, looking stunned but unhurt. She ran to Petra, who was sitting up and rubbing her sore arm, shoulder knotted from the weapon’s kickback.
“I’m getting too old for this,” Petra grumbled, chuckling when Aloy threw her arms around her in relief.
“You saved us,” Aloy whispered, closing her eyes and breathing in the scent of her lover.
“That cannon was an embarrassment to all Oseram,” said Petra, allowing Aloy to help her stand, waving a hand at the scrap heap she’d reduced the brute’s weapon to. “I did him a favor, getting rid of it.”
“That was fun,” Nil said, grinning. Aloy had never seen him so happy. She tried to smile back at him, but couldn’t. She was glad they’d rid the land of the bandits, but that was where her satisfaction ended, and Nil’s began. Probably, this wasn’t even the most amount of men Nil had killed in a day.
Nil didn’t ask for another duel before he left, thankfully. He simply nodded at Petra politely, and then raised a hand to Aloy in farewell. “Good luck, on your journey,” he said.
“You, too,” Aloy said, and meant it.
“See you again, Aloy. Some day.” Sated—for now—Nil disappeared into the brush and was gone.
“Alone again,” Petra joked, threading her arms around Aloy’s waist and holding her from behind. They didn’t move for several minutes, watching as the sun crept down toward the horizon. It’d been a long day, and Aloy was tired.
“Sorry,” said Aloy, trying for a joke. “You didn’t get to ask Nil about his grooming secrets.”
“Oh, I did, earlier,” said Petra. “But he just stared at me and walked away.”
They slept well, and started off again in the morning.
After a full week of hard travel, Petra announced one afternoon that they had reached the very edge of the Claim. They were in Oseram land now. The road they’d been following for days was smaller here, less trodden and worn. Trees were bigger, and there were less mountains flanking them. Aloy could see, if she squinted, a dark cloud in the distance that looked a little strange, and then realized it wasn’t a cloud. It was smoke.
Petra saw it too, saying, “Mainspring, the city of a thousand forges,” and while she didn’t smile, she still looked somewhat proud of her people, and what they’d accomplished. Oseram were not known as the very best metal workers in the land for nothing, after all.
The closer they got to Mainspring, Aloy noticed, the less trees there were. Naked ground scored by burnt trees trunks stretched for miles. It appeared almost… desolate. More fuel for their mighty Oseram forges, Petra explained. Apparently, they never stopped burning, day or night, throughout the crushing heat of summer or the snapping cold of winter. Oseram had plenty of metal on their land to mine, but it was easier to trade for it, because if you wanted superb weapons, you needed good metal and even better heat. Mainspring had both.
They reached the capitol as night fell, Aloy dismissing their mounts before they were spotted, wondering if she’d be recognized here as the Savior. It’d been some years since that fateful battle, yes, but most days she was still picked out and lavishly thanked if not downright worshiped.
“Let’s find a room to stay at,” Petra said, as their dirt path turned into a well-cut stone road, leading into Mainspring proper.
“Are we not going to your house?” Aloy asked, confused.
“Not today. My mother doesn’t live in the middle of the city. She lives on the outskirts, on the far side, another few hours from here. We’ll sleep here tonight, go in the morning.”
Aloy didn’t protest, and followed Petra through the growing crowd. She was eager to see the city, and compare it to all the others she’d been to. Meridian would be hard to top, but Mainspring seemed to be trying its best to impress. While it didn’t have Meridian’s towering height, it was a wide, lazy sprawl of squat, well-built wooden or stone houses with rock-paved streets cutting corners and walkways here and there. It was hot and oppressively stuffy, like the searing desert of Free Heap combined with the claustrophobic close-quarters of Meridian. Aloy immediately disliked it, and then felt bad, because this was Petra’s home, or had been, a long time ago.
The people were like most Oseram Aloy knew—short and thick and strong, men and women alike. They laughed loud and argued louder. Several times, a fight erupted in a shop over haggling prices, the men—or women—stumbling into the street to settle the argument with their fists. They weren’t at all like the Nora, so quiet and shy. Aloy appreciated the difference, but preferred neither.
Everywhere Aloy looked, she saw a forge, and streaming black smoke, and heard the ring of a thousand hammers, and smelled every type of metal imaginable. Sharp, sweet, pungent, acrid. She could see Petra closing her eyes and breathing it all in with a fond, wistful look on her face, and smiled at her. Petra scowled briefly at the look, but didn’t stop, then led them to a sturdy looking inn with a kitchen and a bar.
They ate and drank and talked. Aloy sipped a cheap brew while Petra teased her for it. “I like it,” Aloy told her, and Petra sneered.
“It’s boar piss, is what it is,” she said, and hollered out an order. A few moments later, an overflowing pitcher of something that smelled like raw blaze was placed on their table.
“What’s this?” Aloy asked, eyes watering.
“Scrappersap. Real Oseram brew. That drivel from Meridian is a cheap copy. Sure, it’ll knock you on your ass, but this’ll blow your head off.”
Aloy stared at the pitcher as if it were an unknown, unscanned machine she’d been ordered to hunt, without weapons or armor. “Maybe I shouldn’t—”
“Believe me,” Petra said, pouring Aloy a generous cupful, “once you actually meet my mother, you’ll realize you’re going to need it.”
Aloy braced herself and tossed the cup back. She swallowed without trouble, put the glass down, and wondered what all the fuss was about. Petra was grinning at her strangely, like she was expecting something to—
The drink hit like the invisible wallop of a screaming cloaked Stalker. Aloy gasped and reeled as her stomach lit up as if filled with embers, wheezing long and hard until her lungs cramped. The blood in her veins sizzled and pounded through her body, racing up to her head where it throbbed at the crown of her skull. Once, she’d been hit point-blank by the fully-charged blasts of a pair of Fire and Freeze Bellowbacks at exactly the same time. It wasn’t the most pleasant memory. That was what drinking Scrappersap felt like.
Petra laughed at the look at her face and clapped her on the back until Aloy began to breathe normally again.
“You alright, there, Flame-hair?”
Aloy coughed and coughed. Her nose was running. “I hate you.”
“That’s okay. You won’t even remember this tomorrow.” Petra raised her own cup and downed it in one go. “Whoo!” She smacked the empty cup on the table and poured another, throwing it back with equal ease. Aloy goggled and hoped they’d live to see the morning.
The rest of the night was a blur, and Aloy was glad for it. Hopefully she didn’t make too much of a fool of herself, though Petra surely did, and didn’t care.
The next day, it took them two hours longer to find the house they wanted than Petra had predicted the night before, mostly due to a pair of pounding, mind-wracking hangovers.
Petra paused at the door to a two-level, homey-looking little house, but didn’t knock. Aloy wondered if maybe she was tempted to turn around and leave, despite what they’d gone through to get there. Then Petra set her mouth and barreled right in, like she was walking into a herd of jumpy Grazers, no matter the consequences. Aloy followed.
The house was warm and clean and well-built, the walls stone, floor wood. The furniture was worn but practical, without a personal flourish of decorations. The hearth was lit, a hearty-smelling soup boiling atop.
Sitting at the fire was a beautiful woman with long black hair tied in a braid. She seemed near Petra’s age, face lined but not harsh, with the build of a full-blooded Oseram and a softness to her that spoke of a life spent tending fields or knitting clothing, not slaving in a forge or hunting wild machines or fighting in ill-begun wars. Beside her was a basket filled with husks of dry, blackened corn. She was working the kernels free from the cobs to presumably be used to plant next year’s crop, popping the stone-hard seeds out with a short knife.
“Fire and spit, Mal? What are you doing here?” Petra snapped, and Aloy jumped at the hard edge in her voice. She’d never heard that tone before.
The woman—Mal—looked up, her eyes going right to Petra, who made an odd choking sound at the sight of her. Mal’s face went blank, in obvious shock. The dark, glossy corn kernels fell from her hands and scattered across the floor with little ticking sounds. “Petra?” She shot to her feet, and would’ve hugged her if Petra hadn’t gone completely stiff, expression tight. The air in the room grew thick and tense till Aloy could barely breathe. With both women frozen, she cleared her throat.
“Hello. I’m Aloy,” she said, hoping to break the spell. It worked, Mal shaking herself and smiling kindly at Aloy, though darting glances at Petra every few seconds, as if unable to believe she was there.
“Malund Fieldwife,” she introduced herself, coming over to greet them properly. She was even prettier up close, with light gray eyes and brown skin, the polished bits of metal tacked to her thick leather dress glittering like gems. “You’re a… hunter?” she ventured to Aloy, who nodded and smile. “I’m, ah, honored to meet you.” To Petra, she said, “I—I didn’t know you were coming, Petra. Jagend said, he said he’d try to find you, but honestly I didn’t think he would, and I’ve just been so busy I forgot, watching Siluf, and—I—we wanted you to know. If Jagend had said he couldn’t find you, I was going to send one of my sons, have them—”
“Sons?” Petra croaked. “You have sons?”
“I have three,” Mal said, looking unspeakably proud. Petra bristled.
“Good for you.”
Mal ignored Petra’s rudeness, smiling politely. “It’s been so long, Petra. Over twenty years, maybe? It’s good to see you. I’ve missed you.” She cocked her head suddenly at Aloy, and asked with all innocence, “Are you Petra’s daughter?”
Aloy choked on a mouthful of air, trapped between understandable outrage and a good hard laugh. Was this woman serious? Yes, she was a good deal younger than Petra, but they looked absolutely nothing alike.
Petra, on the other hand, didn’t find it funny at all. She seized Aloy and squeezed her close to her side. “No,” she growled out, “she’s my woman, not my kid. And mind your own damn business. Where’s my mother?”
"Oh, I’m—I’m sorry. She’s upstairs, in bed. She doesn’t get out of it much. She’s been so weak. She has a terrible cough. The doctor comes to see her at least once a day. He says she might have a few weeks left, if she takes care, and doesn’t push herself.”
“Right,” Petra deadpanned. “So she’ll be dead tomorrow.”
Aloy gave a nervous laugh, Mal joining her a moment later. Petra narrowed her eyes at Mal suspiciously.
“And you. You watch her, because?”
The smile faded from Mal’s soft lips. “She fell a few months ago. Broke her hip. Now—”
“No, I meant, why are you the one doing it?”
Mal smiled, as if accustomed to Petra’s blunt nature. “Because I wanted to do it. For you.”
“I didn’t ask,” Petra snapped.
“Won’t your own family miss you at home?” Aloy asked, trying to avoid a fight.
“My children are grown,” Mal said. “And the farming season is late. We’ve already harvested a good amount of the crop. I have more than enough time to come and check in on the ailing mother of a… a good friend of mine.” The look she gave Petra seemed to be for someone who was once much more than a friend.
“Well, I’m here now,” Petra said. “So you can leave.”
“Very well.” Mal returned to her seat by the basket of corn. “Let me finish my work, and I’ll go. It was good to see you, Petra. I’m glad you came.”
Petra just stomped from the room, heading for a narrow staircase.
Mal nodded to Aloy. “Nice to meet you, Aloy Huntergirl.”
"Bye.” Aloy joined Petra at the stairs, following her lover as she grumbled and clomped to the second floor.
“Mal,” Aloy said while they were alone, trying to keep her tone light. “You knew her.”
“I knew her,” Petra said stiffly, without turning around.
It clicked. “Was she one of those reckless girls who broke your heart before I came along?”
“I...” said Petra. Then, in a sad, broken voice, “She was the first.”
Aloy was given no time to process that bit of information, swallowing her words as they reached the top of the stairs and entered a small, gloomy room lit by a lone lantern.
Like Petra—like all Oseram, really, the old woman sitting in bed by the window, propped up by several lumpy pillows, was thick and squat, yet somehow maintained an air of fragility. She’d been powerful once, Aloy could tell. Now, however, her hands constantly shook. She had thin white hair too limp to form curls and Petra’s eyes. Before they’d even come inside, she was already scowling, the wrinkles on her brow and cheeks pulling tight at her sagging jowls, frowning even harder when she saw Petra.
“Metal and rust, I really must be dying if you showed up,” the old woman grated out, voice strong and cutting where the rest of her seemed withered and weak. “Should’ve saved yourself the trip, sent me a message instead. Here, I’ll write it for you. Go jump in a forge. Sound right? Yes? No? Now who’s this?” She pierced Aloy with a hard glare. “You lost, little spark?” She looked from Aloy’s soft, worn leathers to her scarred forearms, her wild red hair, and her sunburnt, freckled face. Realization dawned. “This—this is her?” crowed the old woman, looking vastly unimpressed. “This little spark saved the world? Ha!”
Aloy wasn’t sure if she should be offended or humbled by the woman’s complete lack of manners or grace. She went for polite instead. “Hello,” she said. “I’m Aloy.” To be honest, it was a little refreshing, to be treated so callously by someone who knew exactly who she was. It felt almost… familiar.
“Feh,” said the old woman. “Yes, I know who you are. Everyone does. Red haired Nora, all the way up here in the Claim? You’re a long way from home, child.”
Twenty-five years old, Aloy was a woman grown, but something about this hunched up old Oseram made her feel very small indeed.
“Mother,” Petra growled in warning, but the old woman bulled on.
“I’m Siluf Forgewife, girl, and don’t you forget it,” she said to Aloy, then whipped back to Petra. “And this is my ungrateful, runaway daughter. So, finally decided to come back home, eh? Only thirty years too late, eh?”
“Mainspring is not my home—”
“No, that scrap heap is, eh? Right, almost forgot.”
“Why can’t you just keel over and die already?” Petra snarled with no heat. “Then I can leave and go back to my desert.”
“If I’d known you were coming, I would have!” Siluf bit back.
Feeling horridly awkward, Aloy just stood there and watched.
After a few more traded barbs, mother and daughter seemed to calm. Siluf glared grumpily out her window, and Petra set her hands on her hips and made faces of great pain.
“We’re only staying a few days,” Petra finally said, in a tone that was almost civil. “Then we’ll be out of your way.”
“Humph,” said Siluf.
Satisfied, Petra stomped back downstairs. Aloy mumbled, “Nice to meet you,” to Siluf, then trailed after her lover.
They didn’t speak during supper, nor afterwards, when Petra took a bowl of the hearty stew up for her mother. Aloy, sitting by the hearth, listened hard for yelling or fighting, but heard nothing, and was relieved.
A few hours after dark, Petra helped her mother prepare for bed, then met Aloy in the only other room on the second floor, a storage space crammed with a cot barely big enough for the two of them surrounded by perilous piles of random pieces of metal.
Not even a minute after they lay down, Petra was kissing her, tugging at Aloy’s waistband with fervor.
Aloy flushed and made a half-hearted attempt to stop her—really, it’d been almost a week since they’d last touched like this, and she was feeling the need as well. “Your mother will hear us,” she whispered, scandalized.
“Then be quiet.” Petra bit Aloy’s earlobe and pulled the bit of flesh with her teeth until it reached the very edge of pain and hovered there. Below, her fingers worked the laces of Aloy’s pants and stole inside. Aloy squeaked and then clapped a hand over her own mouth. Making love in their own forge in Free Heap was one thing. Touching each other frantically in a small house with an old, snappy woman on the other side of a thin wall was another one entirely.
She knew Petra was most likely doing this because Siluf would hear them. Fucking your Nora-born female lover was definitely a surefire way to piss off your mother, Aloy had no doubt. She felt only a little bad, how wet she was when Petra slipped inside of her.
She came startlingly fast, a hard rush of blood pounded in her skull. Petra withdrew her fingers and nudged them into Aloy’s mouth to be cleaned. The moment they slipped from her lips, Petra was kissing her hungrily, growling like a ravenous animal.
It was a while before they fell asleep.
The next few days were awkward but not completely terrible. Siluf couldn’t go anywhere in the house other than her own room, and even then she needed help dressing, eating, and relieving herself. Petra took on the responsibility without complaint, and Aloy was left alone for most of the day, free to pursue her own devices.
She slept longer than she had for years, and spent many hours outside, sitting on the roof, just watching everything, and marveling at what people, given enough time and effort, could achieve.
It was quieter than she’d thought, here on the outskirts of the city. The hubbub of Mainspring was reduced to a low murmur in the background, forges glowing a deep red in the night and hammers ringing faintly but incessantly during the day. A perpetual haze of smoke hung in the air, blotting the sun. Trees standing tall in the distance were felled throughout the day and dragged slowly back to the city to be burned in mighty forge-fires. Aloy didn’t know very much about Oseram religion, but she imagined rather than worshiping the sun, they worshiped some metal deity forged by divine hands. That was, if they worshiped anything at all.
Mal stopped by every so often, to check on things or to bring them a ready-cooked meal. She was kind and warm, and Aloy couldn’t find it in herself to dislike her. She resisted probing Mal with questions of her past with Petra, sure that if Petra wanted Aloy to know about it, she’d tell her.
Petra only fully relaxed during their second day there. She and her mother still snapped at each other, but Aloy had come to realize that was normal for them, and didn’t mean they actually hated one another. She could heard Siluf coughing in the night, a wracking, lung-tearing, horrible sound. Petra held her tighter every time her mother started up, as if afraid they’d hear Siluf’s last, rattling breath right then. But the old woman was strong, and hung on.
On the morning of the fourth day—Petra was considering leaving the next, feeling restless—they had a change of pace. Petra wanted to visit the forge her father had once worked at, but it was a long walk from the house, and Mal was busy. Aloy didn’t wait for Petra to ask her to watch her mother, and suggested it immediately. The look Petra gave her in return was warm, grateful, but slightly pitying, like Aloy didn’t know what she was getting herself into. She probably didn’t.
Siluf glared the moment Aloy came into her room.
Petra said simply, “Don’t die,” to her mother, and to Aloy, “I’ll be back soon. Promise.” Then she kissed her extra hard, knowing her mother would see and no doubt disapprove. Aloy let her, but still blushed when it was over.
And then she was alone with Petra’s mother.
In a way, Aloy appreciated all the abuse she’d dealt with as a child and an outcast—it gave Siluf’s harsh looks and cruel quips no power. She was all heat and smoke, but it was a bluff. She was just an old woman. She sort of reminded Aloy of Odd Grata, just a bit.
“What’s it like?” Siluf asked her gruffly, after waking from a short nap. “Saving the world? Having everyone kiss your ass wherever you go? Must be fun.”
Aloy swallowed a quick retort. Oseram were nothing but blunt, even if it seemed cruel.
“I hate it, sometimes,” she admitted.
“Hmm. Right. Must be terrible, everyone loving you. That the reason Petra’s with you, eh? Bit of hero worship?”
“She knew me before then. We were friends. I met her at Free Heap, when—”
“Free Heap,” Siluf spat. “Feh! Nothing is free. Nothing! Petra’s a fool, thinking that, running away from her family like she did.”
“Petra said…” Aloy started, then hesitated. “She said, she didn’t want to get married, and that was why she left.”
Siluf narrowed her rheumy eyes at Aloy. “I know what you think. About us Oseram, and our ways. How it’s worse for a girl, or a wife. How the women have no power, can’t even own land without a man there to do it for her. Can’t have it like those woman-loving Nora, with their precious All-Mother and whatever else. Ha. Stupid Oseram, backwards Oseram. You think we all believe it’s right, the way things are? You think we’re happy with it?”
Aloy thought of Malund, and how content she seemed with her life and her children. “No. But some must be.”
“Yes, some are,” Siluf snapped. “The stupid ones. Most of us put our heads down and deal with it. Get on with our lives. Some don’t. They run, like Petra. Hide off in faraway lands, but still call themselves Oseram when it suits them. My daughter didn’t like the future her father laid out for her. It would’ve been a good life for her. Not the best, but good. She would’ve had a good husband, and a good forge, and children to care for. And what’d she do? She spat on that and she left.”
“Those things,” Aloy ventured, “they’re not for everyone. Some people need... more.”
“And, what, I don’t know that? You think I didn’t want to have adventures? You think I didn’t have dreams?”
“No.” Aloy shifted uncomfortably on her seat. “Everyone has those.”
“Bet you never dreamed of saving the world, did you, Nora-girl?”
At the nickname, Aloy couldn’t help but laugh, and think of the wonderful way Petra said those same two words. “No, I didn’t. It just happened.”
“Can’t say I don’t wish I hadn’t done something so big,” Siluf sniffed. “Not save the world, of course, but maybe, I dunno, discovered a new metal, or something like that. Ha!”
“You still could,” Aloy said, trying to be kind.
“I’m dying,” Siluf said with the utmost conviction. “My lungs. They’re done. It’s from all that forgework when I was younger, breathing in that smoke and sulfur, too dumb to realize what I was doing. I wasn't careful. You keep your eye on Petra, you hear? Don’t let her do stupid things like I did back then. We know better now. Otherwise she’ll end up just like me. Unable to breathe after one set of stairs. The broken hip was just a bonus.”
Aloy was quiet. Weak and old as she was, Aloy simply couldn’t picture Siluf dying anytime soon. She still seemed so full of fire.
And then the coughing started.
Ten minutes later, Aloy was genuinely frightened. Siluf’s face had turned bright red at the first few coughs, but now it was bleached-bone white, her hands clutching at her chest in agony, coughing again and again, her entire body wracking from the force. Once, a small amount of pink mucous came up. Blood.
“Should I get someone?” Aloy asked, worried and sweating and pacing. "The doctor?"
“Nuh-no—” said Siluf before falling to another bout of wet hacking. “My—my med-medicine. Give m-me m-my med-medicine.”
Aloy found it by the bed, and helped Siluf gulp down the dark, bitter-smelling liquid. Then came a greenish paste to be rubbed over her thin, boney sternum. It tingled against Aloy’s skin and turned hot the longer she rubbed.
Sighing weakly, Siluf collapsed back against her pillows and was still, though exhausted. “See, Nora-girl? I’m a dead woman already. The medicine won’t cure me. It just stops the coughing for a bit. My lungs are still useless. My hip is still broken. I’m done for, understand?”
“I… I’m sorry,” said Aloy, not sure what else to say or do.
A strange light came to Siluf’s eyes. “Now, then,” she breathed, “if I had some Blue Burnvine, I’d—”
“Blue Burnvine? What’s that?” Aloy had never heard of such a plant.
“It’s medicine. Used to treat diseases like mine. Most of the time, it doesn’t work, but sometimes…”
That was all Aloy needed to hear. “Where does it grow?”
Siluf was falling asleep, eyelids fluttering weakly. “In a cave… to the east… Blue… Burnvine.”
“I’ll go,” Aloy said, making sure Siluf could hear her. “I’ll get you your plant. I promise.”
“Hmm.” Siluf blinked sleepily at Aloy with an odd expression, her mouth twisting, eyes cryptic. "You will, won't you?" she murmured. Then she turned her head and fell asleep.
Aloy marched downstairs, armed with a new purpose. First, she would need her armor. Shield-Weaver blipped and powered up the moment it was on. Next were her weapons, spear, bow, and sling. Then she fetched her herb bag, and her rope. She was ready, but had one last errand to tend to.
She found Mal in the fields outside Mainspring, bent double, hacking at the bottoms of dried out corn stalks with a weathered machete.
"Please, Malund, can you go to Petra’s house and watch her mother for me? There’s… There’s something I have to do.”
Malund goggled at Aloy’s glowing armor, at the weapons bristling at her waist and back. “Where are you going?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll come back soon. Please, can you go? Not for me. For Petra.”
“I—of course. For Petra.” Malund looked worried, and unsure, but handed her machete to another field worker and nodded at Aloy. “Good luck.”
Aloy went east. For a long stretch there were no caves, no trees, and no rocks either, just naked dirt. No machines, which relieved her. She wasn’t looking for a fight, or a hunt. Just a plant. After the desolate swatch of land came low brush, then a tangle of vines, and finally, trees and valleys and streams. She followed one, always heading east.
Finally, several hours later, she found the cave, or at least one of the many entrances inside. This one went straight down into a cold, gaping darkness, the stones around the opening crumbled inwards, creepers and curled vines dangling inside. The cave itself seemed impossibly massive. Aloy found a rock the size of her fist and dropped it in. It took nearly twenty seconds before she heard a splash. Well, at least there’d be something to land in if she slipped. She considered searching for another way in, a safer way perhaps, but Siluf had seemed so old and weak and already fading…
There were no nearby trees strong enough to take her weight, and the rocks seemed too fat and too slick, so she wedged her spear firmly between two and tied her rope to that instead, and slowly began to lower herself inside the cave. Blackness swallowed her almost immediately, and she activated her Focus, lighting up several junk piles far below, fallen debris dotting the area, as well as a single Scrapper corpse, and two broken Watchers.
Slow and steady, she descended. Gradually, her eyes became accustomed to the gloom, but then she realized the cave itself was lighting up, but not from above. The water beneath her was…glowing, somehow. It was so clear and clean Aloy could see almost all the way to the bottom, where it grew too deep and dark to make anything out. Were there tiny machines in the water, maybe, giving it that ethereal glimmer? She activated her Focus but it gave no readings, except—
—there! At the very center of the lake, atop a tiny island of white rock, the purple haze of a yet unidentified plant. That had to be the Blue Burnvine. Now she—
With a jerk and a surprised gasp, she reached the very end of her rope. She was still dangling a good ten feet from the water, which stretched bigger than a pond, almost enough to qualify as a small lake. Stalagmites glistened high above, like rotten fangs in the mouth of some enormous, sleeping creature. The walls were wet and pearled with slime. Aloy had no idea how she’d climb out if she fell. Surely, there were more entrances than the one she dangled from, but—
She heard a hiss, and then a loud splash, and suddenly she was weightless, falling straight down. She hit the water with a gasp and surfaced immediately, a piece of her rope still in her hand. It hadn’t broken. It’d been cut, by something incredibly sharp.
The water around her surged and rippled, and Aloy realized, stomach plummeting with dread, that she was not alone. She floundered and swam as fast as she could to the tiny outcrop at the center of the vast lake, clutching at the pathetic hump of rock and pulling herself out of the water. There was barely enough room to stand.
Panting, fighting to stay calm, she waited.
Three painfully long minutes later, the water bulged and undulated to her far left. Ripples pulled and stretched at the smooth surface, following the path of an unseen creature. Aloy pinged her Focus, and had to bite back a gasp at the sight.
It was one of the biggest machine she’d ever seen besides Hades, or a fossilized Metal Devil. It was a snake the size of a Behemoth and a Thunderjaw put together, all sinuous lines and slow-curving strength as it propelled itself through the water with lazy flicks of its long-dragging tail, tipped with a narrow forked blade, probably for spearing or stabbing—or cutting ropes. Like a Stalker, it had some sort of camouflage capability, rendering itself invisible as it swam. When it breached the lake's surface, however, the cloaking fell away, revealing a white-and-black carapace atop slick metallic tubing. Yellow lights glowed eerily through the water as it drifted across the lake, searching for her.
Aloy swallowed and squatted on her haunches, trying to come up with a plan. She was now trapped in a cave with an unknown machine she’d never faced before, and with no foreseeable way out. Snapmaws were one thing, certain death in the water but lumbering brutes on land, but this machine seemed completely and perfectly amphibious.
She checked Shield-Weaver. Fully charged. Still, there was only so much it could do before its power cells overloaded and reset themselves, leaving her completely open to attack. One charge from that machine would probably be enough.
With great care, she unloaded her weapons, wishing she’d brought more ammo and supplies. As it was, she could craft maybe two freeze bombs for her Sling and a couple dozen arrows for her bow. She had no tripwires and no ropes, and, perhaps worst of all, her spear was now out of her reach, though without the appropriate knowledge from a Cauldron, she couldn’t Override the Juggernaut anyways.
She tapped her Focus. It pinpointed only two areas the machine was weak—a freeze canister located directly inside its gaping mouth, hanging open in the drag of the cold water, big enough to swallow her whole, and a vulnerable point near the base of its tail. It had no limbs to blast off, its body shaped like a massive tube, a water serpent of epic proportions. The moment Aloy started shooting, it would probably dive deep into the black lake, where her arrows couldn’t reach. She’d need to keep it at the surface.
When the Juggernaut was turned, Aloy slid herself into the water and swam as quietly as she could, following its slow circuit around the cave. How close could she get before it noticed her? Maybe she should try to just avoid it entirely, sneak by while it was distracted—
Suddenly, there was a loud snap, and then a sharp crackle, and the entire lake lit up bright blue as the machine released a powerful pulse of energy, fingers of lightning stretching across the water’s rippling surface. Aloy sucked in a breath and tried to dive out of danger, but the shockwave caught her anyways, and she grit her teeth and let loose a burst of bubbles from her mouth as she screamed. Shield-Weaver absorbed the worst of it, lights blinking and alarms blatting in warning, giving the water an eerie red glow.
She opened her eyes to see the Juggernaut surging right for her, jaws parted, a fierce glow alight in its throat. She swam deeper, lungs burning. This was insane. She couldn’t fight this thing in the water, but without a platform, she had no choice.
Somehow, the Juggernaut missed its initial lunge, but struck Aloy hard across the back with a thwap of its tail, like a monstrous whip. Luckily, it hit her upwards instead of down, and rather than drown in the crushing depths, she crested into the air and sucked in a desperate gasp before plunging back into the water with a slap. A ferocious current snatched at her, tumbling her end over end as the Juggernaut whipped back toward her. She managed another clumsy dodge, then seized a section of its tail and hung on. She’d never held her breath this long. Her vision was darkening on the edges.
Her Focus pinged. Less than ten feet behind her was a power core, a vulnerable cylinder the size of her leg. Slowly, buffeted by the brute force of the Juggernaut surging through the water, she worked herself backwards. As soon as she was close enough, she scrabbled at her belt, grabbed two arrows, and plunged them both hard as she could into the cylinder.
A screeching cry shook the cavern just as the power core exploded. The water dampened the force of it, but Aloy still felt as if she’d been hit by a charging Behemoth, and was forced to release the thrashing beast. Shield-Weaver gave another high-pitched warning—one more hit, and it would fail. She clawed to the surface with cramping lungs and sucked in air like a starving man.
The water boiled and frothed as the Juggernaut screamed in outrage. It was confused, now, and unable to use its cloaking. Its body, sinuous as a river eel but big as a Tallneck, slithered and knotted itself into a ball of writhing fury. Every light on its body had gone blood red.
It saw her.
The Juggernaut surged, and Aloy treaded water, and waited—and let it hit her.
Shield-Weaver took the blow and instantly turned black. She would die upon the next strike, but she didn’t plan on taking one. The Juggernaut had batted her with its head, the blow powerful enough to knock her completely out of the water. Momentarily airborne, Aloy spun herself upright and lobbed a readied freeze bomb not at the machine, but at the water beneath her. The bomb hit with a splash and then burst apart, freezing a wide swatch of the lake's surface into a single massive ice chunk. The Juggernaut brushed the edge and swam away from it with a flick of its massive body.
Aloy hit the water and quickly swam towards the ice. It was slick and frigid to the touch, but it was solid, and after Aloy scrambled on top, she could stand on it. She had a platform now.
The Juggernaut circled her warily, as if perfectly aware she now had a small advantage. It was slower, she noticed. Its broken, soiled tail, half-blown off, oozed an oily black murk into the perfectly clear water. It couldn’t hit her with it anymore. All that was left was the shocking attack, which she should be safe from now with her ice chunk, and its bulling charge, something she still had to worry about.
The Juggernaut seemed to come to the same conclusion. It dove deep into the water, hiding its head in the clouds of black oil. Aloy waited, hardly daring to breathe. If she got the timing off now, she’d die.
The water saved her. Just before the Juggernaut broke the surface of the lake, the water bulged and stretched outwards, and Aloy aimed and threw her last ice bomb at that exact spot. The bomb went off just as the Juggernaut’s head erupted in a spray of black-tinged water droplets, ice screeching as it formed around the machine’s neck and jaw. The Juggernaut shrieked in anger, wrenching itself back and forth, but couldn’t break the ice. It was trapped.
Now the Juggernaut was stuck with its head above the water, unable to lift the heavy slag of ice attached to its head, or pull it to the depths. Aloy ran towards it on her ice floe, boots almost skidding out from under her. She didn’t have much time. Cracking ice filled her ears. A horrible glow began to form in the Juggernaut’s open mouth—it was going to blast the ceiling, and bring the entire cave down on them both.
Aloy sprinted to the edge of her platform and jumped. Drawing her bowstring to her ear, she aimed and shot an arrow straight into the machine’s yawning gullet, piercing the freeze canister within.
Everything went dark.
The violent explosion shattered the ice to powder and sent Aloy flying. She sank fast, stunned by the blast, then came awake when she sucked in a mouthful of cold water and flailed to the surface, half-drowned. She spluttered and coughed and panted, treading water, twisting and turning as she tried to locate her enemy.
She saw it. The Juggernaut was dead, its entire head gone. Bubbles frothed as the rest of its broken body floated eerily down into the dark, eventually disappearing from view.
Aloy gasped and laughed and cried. With supreme effort, she swam back to the tiny island at the center of the lake, and pulled her torso out of the water. She lay there for a very long time.
After such a battle, gathering the Blue Burnvine and finding another way out was stupidly simple. She found her spear, and then tottered at a slow pace back to the Mainspring outskirts. Her entire body felt bruised and battered. She was soaked to the skin and colder than she’d ever been, but she couldn’t stop moving.
She didn’t realize she’d made it all the way to Petra’s house until someone screamed. It was Mal.
“Aloy!” she cried, horrified. “What—what happened?”
“I went to get… I was…” Aloy swayed where she stood. She was having a hard time remembering. “The cave. The cave to the east. I went to the cave to the east.”
Now Mal looked frightened, face paling visibly. “The cave?” She rushed to find a blanket, and wrapped it around Aloy, pulling her into the house where it was warm. From the way she held her, Aloy could tell Mal was a very good mother. “No one goes near those caves, Aloy, for good reason. There’s a machine in there you can’t fight. It’s killed anyone who tried to get near it, and—”
“I killed it.”
“You killed it?” Mal said, incredulous.
“Siluf said… She said there was a plant inside that could help her. And I… I wanted to do it, so I went, and…” Aloy’s knees almost buckled, but she forced them straight. She still needed to go upstairs, and give Siluf the plant. But Mal was warm, and holding her so gently. She couldn’t pull away.
“She should have warned you about the machine,” Mal protested. “Siluf never should have sent you there. She—”
“I just wanted to help,” Aloy said. She was feeling terribly sleepy all of a sudden. “That’s all. I just… wanted to help.”
“You’re very brave,” said Mal, voice soft and full of wonder. “And very reckless. I think I can see why Petra cares for you so deeply.”
Aloy was quiet, cheek pressed to Mal’s shoulder. To be honest, she could barely keep standing upright, but something told her it would not be pertinent to faint right now.
“I remember what it was like,” Mal said suddenly, rubbing Aloy’s back in big, soothing circles. Her eyes were soft with emotion and forgotten longing. “Loving Petra. And being loved by her. Petra doesn’t do halfway. When she loves you, she gives you everything. She doesn’t know how to protect her own heart. I wanted to stay here in Mainspring and be with her, but she hated it here. Hated how things were expected of her. Her mother wanted her to marry some Forgeman, but Petra wouldn’t have it. So she left, and I didn’t. I married a wonderful man, and I gave him children. I’m happy with the way my life turned out. Truly, I am.”
“Can’t say it was… that simple for me,” Aloy managed. Her own life had been a whirlwind. Living with Rost, being an Outcast, then suddenly thrust onto a pedestal and called a savior. Would she have preferred it, if she could have had a quiet life like Mal, married and with children to call her own?
Petra didn’t want children. She was abrupt and crude and stubborn. Aloy had never loved anyone more.
Aloy smiled dreamily against Mal’s dress. “I’m happy where I am, too.”
“I’m glad,” Mal said. She sounded it. “I worried about Petra, before. I wasn’t sure where she’d end up, out there, if she’d get herself hurt, or worse. We were both so different, back then. She wanted to see the world, and I wanted to stay. I wasn’t the reckless girl. She was. We broke each others’ hearts.”
Aloy made a noise she hoped sounded sympathetic. She could barely talk anymore. “The pouch,” she slurred, motioning to her waist, where her bag of herbs was. Then she fainted.
She woke an hour or two later, naked in a warm bath. Mal was nearby, looking slightly embarrassed.
“Sorry,” she said at once. “I wanted you to warm up. I should’ve asked.”
“It’s okay,” said Aloy. The water was so hot it almost burned. It was glorious.
Mal helped her dress, afterwards.
“Did you give Siluf the plant?” Aloy asked, and Mal balked.
“Um, I… We should, um, you need to talk to Petra, I think.”
Petra! Aloy had almost forgotten about her, and how could she? It hadn’t even been a day since they’d parted, and so much had happened. She hoped her lover wouldn’t be too angry about everything.
Petra, of course, was absolutely furious.
“I’m going to kill her,” she said, with profound sincerity, the moment she stepped inside the house. By now, Aloy was huddled by the fire, wrapped in a double-layer of furs, drinking from a mug of soup so hot she flinched every time she swallowed, sweating out the last of the chill in her bones.
“I’m sorry—” Aloy said.
“Not you! My mother! Blast that stupid old woman!”
“Petra,” Malund said, laying a placating hand on Petra’s shoulder. “Calm down. Aloy’s fine.”
Petra knocked Malund’s hand off and bared her teeth. “Don’t get me started. You should’ve been here. To stop her. To stop both of them!”
“Why would she stop me?” Aloy asked. “I wanted to help.”
Mal started, “Your mother was just trying—”
“She did it because she’s selfish and stupid!” shouted Petra. “She did it just to see if Aloy would go! Well, I hope she had her fun because it’ll be the last she ever has!”
“It’s alright, Petra,” said Aloy. “I got the plant.”
“Plant? What plant?”
“Your mother said Blue Burnvine grew in the caves, and if I brought her some—”
“My mother’s a liar,” Petra snarled. “There’s no such thing as a Blue Burnvine! There is no plant to cure her! She sent you out there for nothing. Because she was bored. Because she wanted to test you, see if you were brave as she heard. She might as well’ve tried to kill you herself, the old bat!”
“Oh.” Aloy fell silent, taken aback. Not for a second had such an idea ever occurred to her, that Siluf had lied about the plant, sending her on a wild turkey chase for her own amusement. “I… I thought…”
“Of course, you thought. Of course, you believed her. You’re just that kind of person. Too kind and honest for your own good.” There were tears in her eyes, Aloy realized. She felt horrible for scaring her so badly. In a quavering voice, Petra said, “Mal, thank you for taking care of Aloy, but can you please leave?”
It was, by far, the most polite thing she’d said to the other woman in the past several days.
As soon as they were alone, Petra fell to her knees and threw her arms tight around Aloy. Aloy worked her own arms free from her furs so she could hold Petra back. They rocked together in front of the fire and didn’t speak for a good while.
“I’m sorry,” Aloy whispered into Petra’s hair. She was sore and cold and tired and her hair was still partly wet, but Petra was so warm and soft and smelled so good, like a well-banked fire tinged with the sweetest smoke.
“Don’t be sorry,” Petra choked, still overwhelmed with emotion. “You were just being you. I can’t be angry with that, can I?”
“I scared you.”
“You always scare me.”
“I’m sorry,” Aloy said again.
Petra swallowed thickly, then managed a grin. “You know, Flame-hair, half of me keeps waiting for you to run off with some spark your own age, someone who can keep up with all that bluster. Someone who can deal with the real you better than I can.”
“Hmm,” said Aloy. “And the other half of you?”
“The other half knows better.”
Aloy smiled, and they kissed.
When her eyes were clear again, and her heart steady, Petra said, “I’m going to talk to my mother,” and went upstairs.
It was quiet for so long that Aloy grew nervous and half-walked, half-crawled up the stairs after her, staggering into the back room.
Petra was by the bed. Curled like a child beneath the blankets, Siluf was utterly still. A small, almost satisfied smile claimed her face. She was gone.
Had Siluf passed away just after she had left for the caves, Aloy wondered, or had the old woman waited until she’d triumphantly returned? Either way, had she been pleased with Aloy, the fact that she’d obeyed her, gone looking for a make-believe plant, just because a sick old woman had asked for it? Was she happy, knowing her daughter loved a girl who would throw caution to the wind and embark on a dangerous quest to help a dying Oseram simply because she could?
She’d never know, but Aloy didn’t mind. What she felt now was only sadness, for what her lover had lost.
“She looks happy, at least,” Petra said. She sighed and pulled the blanket up over Siluf’s face. “She got what she wanted. Still, it would’ve been nice to… say goodbye, I guess.”
Aloy hugged her. Petra sniffed, once, but didn’t cry.
“Thank you,” she said. “For coming with me.”
“I’ll always go with you. Wherever you want.” Aloy peered over Petra’s shoulder, at the shockingly small lump Siluf’s body made on the bed, and said her own silent goodbye. She would miss her.
The next day, arrangements made and Siluf put to rest—burned in a blazing forge, what else for a true Oseram?—Petra and Aloy bid Malund farewell, and left Mainspring. Aloy missed Free Heap terribly, but she wouldn’t mind coming back to the Oseram capitol for a visit, some day.
A few hours on the road, Petra spoke up. She’d been quiet all morning, though that was understandable. She’d been grieving in her own way, Aloy was sure.
“So, listen,” she said suddenly, “You know how you tell me about those things you find, the, what’d you call them, recordings? Of the Old Ones? You know, the ones where you can hear their voices and listen to their stories?”
“Yes?” Aloy did remember. She had even played some for Petra, allowing her to wear the Focus and share in those forgotten memories. Petra had laughed affectionately afterward, saying it was strange, hearing voices of people long since gone.
“Remember the one you showed me about those two who were in love, and wanted to be married? And that thing they used to do, when they wanted other people to know? With... With the rings, the ones they wore on their fingers? And how you thought that was… Well, that you liked it?”
“Yes?” Aloy repeated, not entirely sure where this was coming from, but feeling like it was very important. Petra was walking very quickly now, almost like she wanted to run away from this conversation entirely, so Aloy touched her wrist and stopped.
Petra jerked to a halt as well, and blurted, “I made you something.”
“…Back at Free Heap?” Aloy asked, curious.
“No, this morning. During the…” She looked back the way they’d come, the billowing black clouds of smoke that perpetually hung over Mainspring. “When we put our loved ones to the flame, it’s tradition to forge something at the same time, using their spirit to guide us in the casting. You’re supposed to make something precious, something you can share with someone you love.”
“Oh.” Aloy’s heart began to race. She wasn’t sure why. “That sounds… That sounds really wonderful.”
“Yeah. So. Here.” Quickly, Petra held out her hand and dropped a small metal object into Aloy’s palm. It was a small, simple band of metal. A ring.
She looked up. Petra had one, too. As she watched, Petra slid the ring onto her own finger, then looked at Aloy expectantly.
“You made me a ring,” Aloy said numbly. She turned it over in her fingertips, feeling the smoothness of it, already falling in love with the sheen of the pure red metal. It glinted and shone in the sunlight, undercurrents of yellow and gold swirling like eddies in the curves.
“Of course I made you a ring,” Petra grumbled, but her face was uncharacteristically red. “I want to be your wife. Don’t know why I need to make a stupid ring for you to know that, but—but people are thick. Don’t want them thinking things, like you’re not mine, or I’m not yours, see?”
“You want to be my wife,” Aloy said. She was beyond touched. Sudden tears clogged her throat. Petra had used her own mother’s guiding spirit to make something precious, and she’d forged Aloy a ring, and she wanted to marry her, and…
Petra wasn’t red anymore. She was close to purple. “Well, of course I want to be your wife. Really, I should’ve asked sooner. We’ve been together for seven years. I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone.”
Aloy’s eyes pricked. She choked back a thick sniffle, and slid the ring onto her finger. It fit perfectly. She gasped and flung herself at her lover, burying her face in Petra’s warm chest. There was not one thing she’d change in her wild life to bring her here. Absolutely nothing could ruin this beautiful moment.
“Plus,” Petra added, “I mean, have you seen your ass?”
And Aloy laughed.