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strange to be lost, stranger still to belong

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This is what we’ll do.

Even though your affirmation had come from a thick throat, it had been adamant. Leaning in with your eyes intent on his, your solution poured into the open like snowmelt turning from a trickle to a river. So much time spent in silence meant an abundance of time to think about anything, about everything. You don’t understand the way your mind works—never did, and might never—how it takes threads of restless thought and yanks them out of their tangle, then weaves them into something useful, something logical, with little more than passive effort. When that abrupt coherence strikes, the words fume and bubble up until they have nowhere to go but out, shattering into substance after far too much quiet.

You managed to keep this one contained until you were face to face with him, wanting him to hear the initial breathless spill.

This had been one of the simple answers. Those are growing rarer and rarer.

I’ll come to you in secret. No one will see me, so I won’t get in trouble, you had explained with urgency, leaving no room for gruff interjection or argument. And I know you won’t talk to me because it’s against the law. But I’ll talk to you. It’ll be my crime, not yours. You’ll just...listen.

And you had been apprehensive enough as it was, with tomorrow’s dawn hovering just ahead of you. The imposing culmination of your blood, sweat, and tears, here at last, here too soon. Every hurried syllable scratched at your throat in ways you couldn’t afford. Frailty and questions weren’t viable options. So you tried hard to ignore how Rost’s eyes grew more and more distant with each word.

And that’s how we’ll handle this.

Turns out: the best-laid plans can come around in twisted ways.

Again and again, you show up here like a whisper, spurning the fuss of your bestowed title. You show up like someone different wearing your skin.

You talk.

And somewhere, maybe, Rost just listens.

(That’s what you tell yourself, at least.)

High summer, late sun. It beats against your back, all waning heat, casting your shadow across the stone memorial before you. The weather is kinder now than it was during your first visits—with relentless spring showers pelting you, soaking you from skin to bone, eroding your resolve to keep tears from falling and blending with the rain. But this insistent clarity all around makes it more difficult to stop your gaze from drifting. You can feel the creeping urge to glance up the rise to the hovel that stands where there was once nothing. A place for outcasts, still waiting for its maker to come home.

Rost is gone, though, and it’s not your home either. Not anymore. You weren’t born here, but your name was—just a mind-spark before Rost shouted it to the Mountain. The Mountain shouted back. The Mountain made you an orphan when it spit you out; it left you with nothing, no way to handle your wild strangeness.

This was the place that shaped you, taught you. Rost taught you. Rost cared.

And the Mountain is a mountain, looming over both of you now.

It’s hard to look towards the hovel in its shadow—not without without suffering a bitter lash of that guilty grief you haven’t yet carved out the time to reckon with.

So you bite down and keep your eyes straight ahead, trained on his grave and his grave alone. The flowers placed there have long since wilted, but the marker-stone still looks like the carver just brushed off her hands, surveyed her work, and walked away.

The other adornments, too, have managed to endure the change of season. All untouched, same as every other time you pass through. You force yourself to blink away from his bow, from the side-lying Grazer doll—the one he made for you to hold when you were so small, and damn it, there’s that guilt swelling with both parts of your heartbeat—and look instead at things that are fully disconnected from you. Candles, jugs, the bound wooden stakes, that meticulously-stacked cairn. They must mean something, but you don’t know what. Whose burial rites would you have ever witnessed? Just this one. And you missed it altogether. Lying there unconscious after the world disappeared beneath you, blinded by blast, life pouring from your neck. Delivered from a much crueler and more final fate, by him.

And for all Rost showed you (tried to show you) about Nora ritual, these were left out for some reason you could never tie together.

Most Nora customs have left the sourest taste in your mouth. The few you’re familiar with are elaborate in word, zealous in praise to All-Mother. It stands to reason that a burial ceremony would be the same.

Your ritual, on the other hand, is simple.

You remove your Focus—it’s like pulling off your armor, or even one of your limbs at this point. But feeling exposed without it is better than actually being exposed with it. Sylens has no right to this moment and you cringe to think of what he’s already quietly drained from you. It stays on the ground, close enough to be seen, but far enough to keep yourself shielded.

You take a breath. Kneel.

One more breath, to steady the smoldering melancholy that usually lives in the shadow of battle-thrill and must-keep-going. It hollows your bones and makes your hands feel like dried-out leather, or blocks of wood.

And then you speak.

“Hi, Rost.”

You anticipate the way your voice catches, knowing to brace for it. It always does, no matter long you spend preparing, and your throat burns around the greeting. You swallow the cinders in the silence that follows. Stone doesn’t speak back. It takes practice, this act of talking with ghosts.

You press on, willing the wavering to disappear from your words.

“I’m back. I know it hasn’t been long this time. There are other places I should be going, and so many other things I should be doing. Seems to be a pattern these days. But I...I have something for you.” You pause until the infuriating ridiculousness of bearing a gift like this fades. “I wanted to make sure I brought it here before the chance passed.”

It’s there, in the pouch at your hip. You reach in to grasp it—the lens, expertly-stripped, surface cool and smooth to the touch. Its outer edge is still sharp, a fierce vestige of the machine it once served. Your fingers know how to fiddle with it without slicing your skin, though, as you turn it carefully end over end.

This lens was your due. Your spoils from a fight of legends, with your deeds now written into history with lofty words. A name you resent, half-yours, inked forever in bold glyphs.

Part of it makes you cringe, and yet...

The machine's heart is elsewhere—displayed with pride, you’re sure. And rightly so. But for you, home is nowhere now. Nowhere yet. Home is wandering. And the only thinkable place for this item, the only one that fits, is here. With him. It aches.

Still, you don’t show it. Not yet. Because if Rost truly is listening, you want to introduce the story first. And you realize that the straightforward way you were going to just dive right in has disappeared into the churning storm beneath the surface, reforming itself and then emerging as something unrecognizable.

It fumes and bubbles up, just like all the rest. Nowhere to go but—

“You told me that people would need me. And you were right. I’ve gotten pulled into the affairs of so many people since I left the Embrace, Rost. Far beyond hunting small game for people like Grata. It’s… well, it’s everything. Clearing out bandit camps, tracking down stolen family heirlooms, recovering missing husbands or fruit thieves. All for people who don’t know me and have no reason to trust me. It’s like I'm carrying around a signal fire that says—hey, look here, please spew your problems to me. It’s...distracting, Rost.”

You carry enough weight already and could easily look down, shoulder past, keep trudging ahead. To the things that matter to you. Of course, they matter to others, too, but it’s at least somewhat easier to look for these answers when they’re so closely entwined with your own questions.

Spoiled child. Arrogant voice, ignorant words. A bold claim from someone who might know how you’ve lived, but can’t understand how it’s made you seethe.

But still you always help, and you don’t know why. It’s an impulse that stops you in your tracks, makes you ask. An itch in your head, in your fingers. An urge from somewhere further than your flesh or your control, with its hooks buried in deep.

“What you didn’t tell me is how being needed would make me feel. That it’s...difficult. Complicated and—and strange.”

Halfway through, your voice becomes a husk of itself.

Life has taken from you, over and over. Hardly anybody has given any fraction of recompense. They shunned you and now they need you. The very circumstances that so othered you have now crowned you as a convenient savior. Outcast, Seeker, savage—all while their hands are held out, cupped and ready for some offering. And, over and over, you give. It feels like there’s a gap in you that’s wider than it should be, betraying the shudder of your flimsiest pieces and how you’re bound by this nameless imperative.

But if you’ve been rendered a blazing contradiction, it only makes sense that contradictions should thrash all around and through you. When your voice picks up again it’s stronger and declaring inconsistencies. The gritty frustration recasts into cautious quiet as you try out an admission here, where it still somehow feels safe.

“Sometimes, though, it feels alright.”

Sometimes being needed isn’t a promised blow of depletion. Sometimes it fills you more than it drains your patience, marking you with credence and reliance and expectations you would choose to meet—not simply taking them on in a mantling of desperation.

Sometimes, convictions match and meld without the need to wrestle them.

And this? This had definitely been one of those times.

You take out the lens and open your hand, showing it to the grave, to the mild air. It sits heavy in your palm. And so begins the story. Convoluted and condensed in places, for sure, but there’s so much newness in every corner of you, so much clamoring to be said. Luckily Rost probably isn’t expecting some perfectly-concise tale, wherever he might be. He’s used to the way your thoughts scatter.

“The machines outside of the Embrace are fierce. Dangerous like nothing I ever hunted here. Thinking about your warning about the Sawtooth the night before the Proving, I guess you were right about that, too.”

And here you wonder if he saw these machines, too, before you were thrust upon him. Maybe he did. Maybe that’s why he was banished to the wilds—the remainder of a lifetime spent in atonement for stepping out of line, becoming tainted in their eyes? You don’t know. There’s so much you don’t know. You’ll tell it as though he never knew either.

“This lens is from a Thunderjaw—the most menacing machine I’ve faced in the wild. They’re colossal, and heavily-armored, and very angry at us. I’ve taken a few down on my own, but the previous owner of this part? A particularly cranky one. Feared legend of the Hunters Lodge in Meridian. Even earned itself a name—Redmaw. So I had help. Or...I guess I should say, I helped.”

The lines blur like that when you let yourself stand so close to another.

“I’m not sure how you felt about the Carja. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about them. They have their issues, sure, but it’s hard to imagine them as the enemies they apparently once were. They’re just people. Like the Nora. Different, but...”

You clench your jaw before thought runs away from you and this story becomes something else entirely.

“I met a woman in Meridian. Talanah. She’s a noble, and was one of the senior members of their Hunters Lodge. A Hawk. After I proved myself she took me on as her apprentice. Thrush. Some titles, I know, but the Carja love their Sun and their birds, and have a flair for drama. Well, we hunted Redmaw together. A hell of a fight, but...we did it. Taking it down earned her the head title of the Lodge and let her finally settle some...family issues. Worthy ones, not selfish. I was happy to help. And proud of it. Sometimes I forget I can feel that way.”

You were happy and proud. And you still are. There’s warmth in the remembering, from your chest to your cheeks. We make a great team—and being known by a name that actually feels like your own.

“I like her, Rost. If there’s ever a chance, I think we could be friends, or…” A sigh heaves at you, unbidden, when the things you want to say but don’t understand turn to mist and bolt away. “She made me feel seen, and heard. But not as some savage from the East, or a small part of a huge question. As someone I recognize, with a shape that fits somewhere. I’m not used to that, so...yeah. Also strange.”

You laugh. A humorless little sound, just a puff of air through your nose.

“What isn’t strange anymore?”

The silence—Rost’s silence—is an accurate reply.

“You would have liked Talanah too, I think,” you murmur. “She’s...headstrong. Not as much as me, but enough to cause you a headache or two. But she’s also smart, and determined, and honorable. The strength she has in her convictions, it—it reminds me of what you said about making a stand. Kind of encourages me to find that reason, too. To keep going.”

A breeze rustles through, sweeping over your skin, and it almost feels like the gentle disturbance permeates you. You swear you hear the words hold for Identiscan, but that’s not possible. There are enough phantoms here already.

“...it was good to hunt with someone like that again, too. Someone who really knows what they’re doing. I'd even say it was fun. Like hunting with you. I miss it.” Some nights you’ve missed it until you’ve gone numb. “Those were painful days. Angry. Most were. But...there was happiness, too. Moments of it." Brief but bold flashes in the darkness. "I don’t think I ever told you that. I should have. I’m sorry.”

It’s fragile, shaking penitence, then, in your words. Remorse for all of the care you left unsaid when it mattered. But your action is one of resolution, decisive in intention and proud in gesture.

With reverent hands, you lay the lens on his grave—right beside the Grazer doll—taking care not to disturb any of the adornments. And though it remains close enough to touch, as soon as you break contact with it, it feels like there’s an invisible barrier separating it from you. Like a prayer lantern, set alight and drifting farther and farther from reach. The words are different, the audience is different, but the meaning is the same.

“So I leave Redmaw’s lens with you,” you say, keeping your voice even and true. “It belongs here. I—we, couldn’t have succeeded without all you taught me. Everything you left behind is still here, and still helping. I’ll try to keep using it to make a difference where I can. Even when it’s hard.”

Finality strikes with a note of anticlimax. That’s it. That’s what you came here for. It’s already gone on longer than you planned. You’re not good at endings when, so far, even beginnings have been scarce. And you’ve also never been one for lingering. So your closing is quick, maybe a little clumsy.

“So. Grave-Hoard it is, then. Really this time. No more distractions...until I cross paths with the next person struggling with a broken cart wheel. At least that’d be an easy fix.” You smile at yourself and it’s wry, but not bitter. “I just thought you’d want to hear something good for once, instead of more heaviness. I’ll...try to come back, when I can. Goodbye, Rost.”

You stand. Your stiff legs attempt an aching protest, but you ignore them.

Now that everything’s back in your head instead of spoken with a voice that carries farther than you ever once thought, you retrieve your Focus from the ground and slip it back into its accustomed place.

Then you turn away to leave. There’s a burning in the middle of you that you’re not sure is burden or its strange absence. As you walk—with each step putting more distance between yourself and what was once home—it ices your blood, strangles your lungs, rises to your throat. Splinters your control.

See you back home in a few days?

It makes you glance back. Just for a heartbeat, reluctant but compelled.

The lens sits in the place you laid it. The sinking sunlight glints off of it, reflecting a gentle glare directly into your vision. Something about it looks like grateful recognition.

Rost’s amulet sits against your sternum, warmed by your skin. Still heavier than it ever looked, but every bit a part of you now. Beneath it, your heart beats.

Maybe not all attachments hold a person back. You’re learning. So many lessons.

And you turn again to your task, to the twisting path that lays itself out under your feet—all these trails that were once familiar, now traveled in a whole new way. With, once. Still with now, but in heart instead of in arms or by side. Not left behind—held close in everything you’ve ever been, and in this strange state of becoming.