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How do you see yourself

On your one-way ride

How do you breathe in half light

So wrapped up in your self-administered prize

Antimatter, The Third Arm

 

The wind carries an echo of her voice. Her memory is written in the dust that dries your throat, the sand that chafes your skin; drowns in raindrops that are blessing and curse alike: relief, unburdening, a break from this incessant heat but washing her away. Between the rusting graves of the Old Ones, you seek shelter from storms that howl her name and watch the truth flicker red across the churning clouds: she hasn’t succeeded. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

When they pass, you wander deeper into the battle-scarred emptiness, one foot in front of the other until the wrath of the sky forces you to hide in another crevice like the lizards that flee from your steps. What else is there to do? What else is there but moving forward as you cling to the faintest trace of her?

The Bluegleam pendant, a gift from what could just as well have been another life, weighs heavy on your neck. A lover’s willingness to overcome any hardship. A promise to endure. We will last in something beautiful, as the Blue Light does. You didn’t tell her, already seeing her gaze dart away, her bitten lip, the tension that draws taut her body and clenches her fists. The act of giving comes natural to her, but there is apprehension in being given in return. Fear, even. She allows herself no tether in this world. It was foolish of you to believe you could be hers.

You merely follow in her wake. It’s what you’ve always done. It’s what you do best. Each call ends the same—error: connection timed out—but you don’t need a Focus to track her. She leaves marks on the places she treads on, the people she touches, and you’re practised in spotting them. Recognise them, always, in the stains her love has left on your heart and hands. And every night, you see her: frozen to the spot in a land that barely knows the bite of winter, with arrows flying overhead. Hear the screams, the war-cries of man and machine and your own voice almost drowning in the din, “Aloy! Get to cover!”

Feel the bowstring twitch from your fingertips, death delivered to preserve the life of another. Hers. Your arrow struck true, but you fired again and again and again to make sure. And then so many more.

Afterwards, you found relief in the bushes. She was there when you turned around, all bloodied blade and face, watching you.

“Are you alright?” she asked, and through the sour taste in your mouth you assured her you were. Did so a second time, later, to steady her fingers as she undressed you, trembling not in anticipation but fear of what she might uncover. You were whole. Both of you were. Or at least so you told yourself, guiding her hands along the well-worn paths towards fleeting happiness, seeking to forget just as much as she did.

The next morning, you woke alone. The ritual ached in its familiarity: reaching out through the sleep-haze to where your skin has grown accustomed to caressing hers to find nothing but her absence. Taking inventory of what little remained: the dent in her pillow, her scent still lingering on the sheets, the glaring emptiness in her spear’s stead next to yours. A message. Five words, scrawled in a messy hand that has never bothered to learn the finer points of writing, I’m sorry. I have to. Outside, the guards reported her departure well before dawn, and you sighed and left a note in turn, for those who would eventually follow—Talanah and Milu, who had promised to catch up to you when you raced to attend the Embassy; Erend, who’d been injured protecting miners in the Daunt; Varl, who had stayed to look after him. While their delay saved them from the ambush, the slaughter, it also meant your only companions as you crossed the battlefield and into the wilderness beyond were the birds and Aloy’s silence like a splinter in your heart.

Tirelessly you wander, yet you’re no wanderer. You’ve never striven for discovery, even though your footsteps fall where none have tread before. There is a pattern in the unknown: you set out with another, never to return. Not home, not together. What made you think that this time would be different?

As strange as these sun-drenched lands are, the machines that inhabit it are stranger still. Widemaw, your Focus reads. Leaplasher. Perched on rocks or hidden in bushes, waiting for the herds to pass, you search your data files trying to find the animals long gone and forgotten they resemble. There were hippos once, and kangaroos somewhere the Old Ones called Australia, you learn from a holo collection Aloy had dug up in a ruin for you after you had asked her about bears. Another remnant, one you’re surprised she left you with that morning at Barren Light: the device on your temple and all the secrets it unlocks have always been hers, from the moment she put it on your face inside the mountain that gave her life and bestowed her burden.

“Now you’ve got your own,” she had said, smiling in the dim light of slumbering machinery built for purposes you couldn’t fathom, her fingers lingering on your cheek. “You’ll need it where we’re going.”

From her lips, it had sounded so simple, so real—the two of you, facing the future as one; we instead of merely you and I. Maybe she had meant it, drunken on your wonder, the wide-eyed, word-staggering fascination you had regarded that place with, a sanctum she had trusted you enough to share. Or maybe you had misunderstood. Wilfully misinterpreted, hoping it was more than what you were already used to: you, and her, pretending that you could last. Wordless goodbyes in the blue hour, a final kiss hastily brushed to your forehead, a vague promise that keeps you back and compels you to wait. The way it always ends. Is it wrong to chase her ghost? Thinking that for once, if you hurry, she won’t slip away?

As if you could outrun her. Hers is a frantic race you’re far too familiar with from hunts and glaciers, the pursuit of someone else’s dreams—barely stopping to eat or sleep, ignoring muscle-ache and eye-burn, pushing on for as long as your feet will carry you. Pushing further.

Oseram caravans, Utaru patrols, none have caught more than a glimpse of her, if at all. A trader in Plainsong had sold her a tripcaster, a farmer is alive thanks to her spear, she wore out a Charger and left it for the scavengers in a meadow outside an abandoned village. Her trail leads you everywhere and nowhere, with no way to predict where she will go next.

There is something else by the Charger. It seems a trick of the light from afar, your weary eyes fooling you: machines do not come with black plates or purple cabling. This Scrapper’s armour has merely been blackened by the blaze that brought about its demise, the wires torn to expose machine parts you’ve never truly paid attention to. Except that the kill had been clean, an arrow to uncover the heart followed by a second to still it, and you recognise the handiwork just as much as you do the markings. To claim you understood her explanations to the smallest detail would be a lie, but you know: purple is the Daemon’s colour, the terror that had turned and twisted the Blue Light’s vessels to prey on your people. HEPHAESTUS, issuing a single directive: Cull. It is here. By the arrows’ yellow-and-black fletching you can tell that she has seen it, too.

Its source is easy to track. A tunnel gaping in the mountains west of Plainsong, leading to a cauldron door. You half expect to find her there, drawn to the fight, bringing the fight, helping where she can; but the only ones to stand up to HEPHAESTUS’ wrath is a group of Utaru fighters. The Cordon, they call it, and between their spears and arrows it’s a gauntlet only few machines survive to complete.

They’re apprehensive at first, close ranks at your approach like the shamans did so many years ago when Siktuk had taken you to a gathering, whispering among themselves. Stepping forth, finally, with a question, a reprimand, “What are you doing here? You’re not Utaru.

The same and not-same past rejection: Her presence is an offence. She’s not one of us.

She could be. A dream, barely formed, never entertained, suddenly within your grasp. Belonging offered with the warmest smile, a flame persistent amidst the icy glares, and you had let it falter and fade, afraid to burn all that you had to your name. Mailen.

Love sustains us in the coldest winters, Siktuk had said later, when you had returned to the werak, knowing but not quite yet comprehending that you had chosen your path. You had chosen her.

But you shouldn’t let it consume all that you are.

It is love that has brought you out here. It is love that makes you stay, raise your spear to bolster the Utaru lines until they depend on it just as much as you on theirs. For she will come, won’t she? She has to. HEPHAESTUS’ presence leaves her no choice.

Hostility turns to placidity, then respect. For a few, the beginnings of a friendship even, and you learn their names, their stories—Rae, who had been a Birthsinger in her youth but prefers to sing with arrows now instead, banishing the evening’s quiet around the campfires with her deep, gravelly voice. Vel, a woman of many smiles but little words, once a captive of the Carja who had fled their convoys before they could reach the border, weaving almost life-like machines from leaves. Kian, the youngest of them all, dreaming to gather seeds from distant soils but wanting to make sure there was a home to plant them in upon return. When they ask about yours, you tell it the way you’ve become used to recounting the tale: We usually join a werak of our choosing once we come of age. I didn’t. Decided to see the world instead. I don’t know yet if I’ll go back. Broken truths, omittance shining through the cracks. Without her, your verses are incomplete, your song in disharmony, and the Utaru’s trained ears easily pick up the dissonance.

“I’ve met a few Banuk in my lifetime,” Rae muses, watching steam rise from the mug in her hands. “Before the Derangement, some came here to prove themselves against machines that aren’t native to Ban-Ur. Young men and women, hungry for a challenge. You’re nothing like them.”

Her gaze flicks up to settle on you, bores itself deep into the parts you haven’t shared, unearthing them with every further word.

“You didn’t leave on your own, did you?”

When did you ever?

“No,” you agree quietly, your admission directed at the clumsily folded leaves in your lap. Vel has shown you how to weave them together so they take the shape of a machine, but your attempts at creating a Scorcher have not been very successful so far. You keep practising. If anything, it busies your fingers and focuses your mind.

“I—I’m looking for someone. Someone… important to me.”

There is the shadow of a smile on Rae’s lined face.

“Maybe we can help.”

As the days pass untroubled by news, you try not to dwell on what will happen if Aloy’s search doesn’t lead her here. What it will mean, for her, for you, your newfound friends and their tribe as a whole—HEPHAESTUS will not stop. Can’t stop. Reason is not within its nature.

You fight. You wait. The Scorcher is joined by a Frostclaw, then a Longleg. You fight again and wonder, what if your following is nothing but morbid obsession? Your old refusal to let go. But why the Focus then, the message? The illusion of regret?

You have almost given up when Kian pulls you aside one sweltering afternoon, a hint of nervousness in his eyes. Everyone has been on edge lately—it has been a week of heavy fighting. The increase in the attacks’ frequency is matched by their ferocity. It’s merely a matter of time until they will break through once and for all.

“They’ve found an outlander in No Man’s Land, down by Stone’s Echo,” he says, prodding the still-sparking remnants of a Scrounger with the butt end of his spear. “A huntress, hair red as crimson bloom. I—I thought you might want to know.”

The words trickle into your mind one by one, like the first hesitant snowflakes of an oncoming storm leaving dark stains on half-frozen ground, acquiring sense in the delay. Outlander. Red hair. And—

“Found,” you echo flatly, the letters burning in your throat. Not met. Not hunted with. “Is she—”

A spark lands on Kian’s bare shins, and he flinches, a sharp breath drawn through his teeth.

“I don’t know,” he admits once the shock has passed, giving the machine corpse a kick in retaliation. “They didn’t say. But you’re going to find out, aren’t you?”

The tunnel, the gaping mouth of the mountain incessantly spewing hunter-killers at you, lies just ahead. What used to be shrines surrounded by artfully grown flowerbeds, honours to the massive beasts of steel the Utaru call land-gods, are ruins on a battlefield now, splintered wood and trampled blooms littered with scrap you barely have enough time to salvage. Further down the path, Rae and Vel have collapsed against one of the few barricades that are still intact, fallen asleep on each other’s shoulders.

“I—”

Even if you stay, you won’t hold forever. The fresh cuts and bruises adorning Kian’s face won’t be the last ones, turn into broken bones, or worse. The only way to stop HEPHAESTUS is her, and even though you never told anyone, he seems to understand.

“It’s alright.” His smile is wide and warm, an embrace in all but gesture. “We’ll hold out.”

You set out at nightfall, leaving behind as many arrows as you can spare. There will be plenty opportunity to craft more—later, in the luxury of safety you chose not to afford for weeks. In company you have craved with every fibre of your lonesome being, bearing the answer to a question you’re afraid to pose. Once you know.

Blue vision-lights cut through the darkness of Plainsong’s fields and forests, herds still boasting armour made of white-and-grey steel, free from the Daemon’s influence. Effortlessly, you slip past them, urging forward until a fiery red line on the horizon signals the dawn.

The village Kian mentioned is just up the hill now, enthroned on dusty cliffs, threatening to become one with the wind-swept emptiness of No Man’s Land. There can be no doubt that this is Utaru soil: flowers line the well-worn road you follow into the sunrise, beauty and bloom carved from sand. Purple, yellow, pink, and blue; an onslaught of colours pushing back against the dulled greys. Few and far between, the sea of blossoms is rippled where it fell victim to an animal’s careless steps.

Not an animal. Your trek comes to an abrupt halt. The damaged plants form a familiar pattern, heavy imprints, left-right-left-right almost in a straight line, too large to be those of any wildlife you know. Machine tracks. According to the bees still mourning their lost meal, they are recent.

Somewhere behind you, a loose rock clatters pointedly to the ground. Metal scrapes on stone, accentuated by soft mechanical whirring, and your spear is in your hands before you know it. The motions are calm and well-practised: a slow turn, feet set apart so you can distribute your weight evenly, a loose bend of the knees. You adjust your grip on your weapon, fingers settling more comfortably on wood and leather; draw a deep breath to steady yourself. Take measure.

The Scrapper—black plates, purple cabling, of course it’s one of those—is in no hurry, closing in with a care a less experienced hunter might mistake for hesitation. A low growl rumbles in its throat, issuing a challenge you can’t refuse. Wouldn’t want to, even if you could: Cut and Cordon have shown you that HEPHAESTUS’ creations are tougher, fiercer, more persistent; pose a significant threat to any wanderer they encounter. It’s best not to leave them to roam unchecked.

Claws digging into the rock, synthetic muscle tensing, ready to attack; a flash of red, a roar—

“Hey!”

Startled, the beast’s head whips around, seeking for the source of the intrusion. Before it can lock onto it, an arrow buries itself deep in its left eye. It lurches and howls in what a feeling creature would call pain and frustration; then quickly regains its balance and aggression. A second arrow hits: another flawless shot, targeting the other eye, and this one seals its fate. Halfway through its pounce, the Scrapper staggers. Tremors run through its protesting body, originating where sparks rain from fractured lenses, take hold of neck and spine and limbs like an avalanche sweeping up trees and tents in its path until the entire machine twitches violently and finally, breaks down. A last whine. A shudder. Stillness.

Only once you’re convinced it is truly over, you allow your gaze to drift upwards to scan the ridges framing the road. A young woman towers over the edge, bow still in hand, her outline dark against the brightening sky. The markings on her face and arms remind you of Rae’s—a singer perhaps, you think, but what kind? There are herbs fastened to her belt, and as she climbs down to inspect her quarry, you recognise them as the bitter leaves the fighters at the Cordon used to treat their wounded. Painkillers. Strong ones. Is that what has brought her out here?

“You know, it’s generally considered rude to stare.” Her voice is soft and melodical, carrying the faintest trace of amusement. It takes the edge off the remark, makes it more pointer than reprimand.

“Isn’t it also generally considered rude to kill another hunter’s prey?” you retort, returning your spear to its sling on your back.

The woman chuckles. “It is. Unless that hunter is in trouble.”

“What makes you think I was?”

Kneeling in front of the downed Scrapper, she runs her hands over the polished black plates and pulls out one of her arrows. Despite merely biting its way into an unarmoured spot, its tip is dented beyond repair.

“A single shot normally would’ve been enough,” she says, grimacing at the damage. “And you wanted to fight this one with a spear. I’m not sure the others would welcome another injured outlander.”

Dread-filled anticipation you didn’t realise had taken hold of your heart eases its grip ever so slightly. Another, her words echo in your head. Injured. If Kian was right, if you heard what he’d been saying and not just what you wanted to hear, Aloy is here. And alive.

“So, uh—” you try to ask for confirmation only to fall silent at the tremble in your voice. A surge of anxiety, setting your mind to race with frantic what if, what ifs, your tongue to prickle with a desperate by the Blue Light, please, foils your attempt at casualness. It doesn’t escape the woman’s attention: her undivided focus is a blaze on your skin, burning away all pretence.

“You came for that Nora huntress,” she suggests, eyes widening in realisation, sudden recognition, and you barely manage to nod. “You’re the one who joined our archers at the Cordon.”

“How—”

Visibly amused now, she collects the second arrow and returns both to her quiver. Preserve what you can, you hear Siktuk in the action: in that, all tribes might just be the same.

“We don’t see many outlanders these days,” she explains, rising. “Fewer who wind up at the Cordon having half of our hunters looking for a woman they seek. Practically none wearing such a… device.” With a quick tap on her temple, she indicates the Focus, and you are drawn to mirror the motion. Since that day on the shores of the Daybrink, when Aloy had first offered—wanted—you to use one, it has lost much of its strangeness. Alone or in her company, you tend to forget that it is there. It’s other people who remind you of the speciality you’ve acquired through association, and sometimes you wish you could go back to who you were: just another Banuk, displaced, in search of somewhere to belong. Not yet knowing you would find your home with her.

“Your friend just about fought me when I tried to take it off.”

Of course, she would. Little can separate her from this particular part of her, especially not force. Not if she can help it.

“She’s awake?”

Compassion flashes across the Utaru’s face, and she reaches down to feel for the herbs on her belt.

“Barely,” she says quietly. “And her dreams… are not gentle to her. She keeps muttering about something she found in the mountains, and… a name. Ikrie.” As her tone regains its prior sureness, her head perks up to meet and hold your gaze. “I suppose that must be you.”

A message. Your name. Despite everything, she called out to you in the unheard, and you wonder, was it wrong to doubt her? Aloy does not hurt with intent: every past leaving had a reason. That you haven’t been able to parse it is your failure of imagination, not hers. Then why did she never share it? Whatever the cause, you would have understood. Would have let her go. You know you can’t keep her, so you have never tried. Is she afraid you would smother her now?

You already were, a small voice whispers at the back of your mind. Always will. Why else are you here? What else has made her run?

Noticing the woman is waiting for your answer, you swallow your fears. Force affirmation past the lump in your throat, rasping, “Yes.”

“I’m Zo,” she says, smiling cordially. “Come on, then.”

Inside the settlement, the flowerbeds are even more luscious, tended to with greater care. The safety of the walls allows for an abundance of life—an abundance you have seen devoured elsewhere, by machines, by the blight Aloy has said you had to scour the West to fix—a cacophony of colours, smells and songs drifting through the morning air. They seem to gather and swell in the centre of the village, in front of an intricately decorated shelter.

“You’re a healer?” you ask Zo as she leads you towards the gathering. Your presence propagates through the choir, ripples spreading out from where one singer after another falls silent at your approach, smoothed as they continue their verse once you have passed. They surge and break in the middle, and you realise: this is not a shelter. It’s a shrine.

“I was, once,” she replies and a darkness passes over her expression, clearing just as quickly as it had come. “Before. Now I serve my tribe as a gravesinger.”

Rae has told you about them: healers, of sorts, soothing the pain of the dying and those they leave behind. There have been many graves to sing for in recent years.

“I serve her.”

Underneath the canopy, surrounded by flowers and painted with bright markings, a giant sleeps. 12 Land-God Plowhorn, your Focus had displayed when you had first marvelled at their kind in the fields of Plainsong, hardly trusting your eyes. Machines living in harmony with man, the future Aloy envisions; the past your people more and more forget. That you, having seen nothing but the madness that takes hold of them in the absence of the Blue Light, have relegated to the realm of stories, songs to keep the darkness at bay.

They’re not spared from HEPHAESTUS’ anger either, you had quickly learned. Their madness merely takes a different shape: a work frenzy, tirelessly tilling the soil unbothered by need and demand. Others, like the one Zo is paying her respects to, placing her palm flatly against the shield rising from its skull, simply fade.

“What’s wrong with her?”

There is a message you can’t quite make sense of attached to your Focus scan. It highlights a part on the land-god’s back similar to how it would a weak spot, but the data scrolling by contains information far beyond your understanding. An Aloy thing, you decide. Something to learn, something for her to teach you. If she even wants to.

“We don’t know,” Zo sighs, and this time, the shadows settle on her face to stay. “You’ve been at the Cordon. You’ve seen the cave. Every year, the land-gods visited it, and when they emerged, it was as if they were reborn. One day, they just… stopped. And Re—” She swallows, closes her eyes. Breathes deeply, in and out, squares her shoulders with the exhale. When her eyelids flutter open again, her gaze holds steel. “We’re all part of an infinite cycle. As we die, so do our gods.”

Protest wells up inside you, spills hot and eager onto your tongue. They’re machines, not people, you struggle to bite back. They can be fixed. You don’t have to stand idly by and watch when you could look for a solution instead. Another Aloy thing: those are her words, her frustration. You don’t remember when they’ve become yours.

Keeping your tone as level as you can, you carefully inquire, “So… you just wait?”

If the Utaru senses the turmoil seething underneath, she doesn’t let on.

“We’ve tried everything. There’s nothing we can do.”

“Aloy can,” you blurt out. For a split second, hope flares up to brighten Zo’s expression, only to flicker and smoulder out in disbelief’s stifling embrace. To some extent, a conscious decision—promises made by strangers too often turn out empty, especially ones that sound as ridiculous as this. Had you not seen Aloy achieve the impossible, you would have snorted and shaken your head just the same.

“You put a lot of faith into that friend of yours,” Zo says as you continue through the settlement, and your irritation drips away like snow in spring, a sombre admission blooming in the melt.

“I have to.”

She stops by a hut crammed between the walls and the land-god’s shelter, woven from leaves and wood like everything else. It is dwarfed by its surroundings, yet its blanket-covered doorway looms large at the end of your search.

“Why did you fight at the Cordon?”

Her question strikes you unprepared.

“You came for her,” Zo presses on. “Why not wait somewhere in safety? Why risk your life for a tribe that isn’t yours, for people you’ve only just met?”

Because it seemed the right thing to do, you want to answer. Because it’s what she would’ve done. What you expected her to. And that’s the truth of it, isn’t it? You thought you knew her, like Mailen. Were convinced that if you thought and acted like her, it would somehow make her appear, meld the cracks that have torn her from you in the first place. Of course you were proven a fool. Underneath the confident exterior, you barely know yourself, so how could you believe you truly understand anyone else?

“I—I’m here because a stranger once risked her life for me,” you reply instead, and Zo’s eyes dart back and forth between the building and you while she fills out the blanks. Then, she gives you a slow nod.

“Thank you,” she says with a warm smile. “I’m sure she is glad she did.”

You enter alone. After the brightness of the morning sun, it takes you a moment to adjust to the twilight inside the hut. Someone has arranged her weapons in a row by the entrance—her well-worn bow, the painted markings chipped, the feathers she adorns it with squashed; her quiver, empty if not for one last broken arrow. Her spear, blade spoiled by new notches; the sling she so rarely uses, bands frayed and torn. Next to them, her armour is piled up on the floor: scratched plates on tattered leather, covered in stains that coax the prickling back onto your tongue. Please, please, let it not be hers. There can be no doubt it is. A bowl with the same herbs Zo has gathered waits patiently on its next use, confirming your fears in the quiet.

In the middle of it all, carefully deposited with her pack, sits a container of sorts, filled with swirling golden light. Did she find what she was looking for? This backup of GAIA, the spirit—AI—whose final words are etched into your memory ever since she has shown you that recording. In you, all things are possible. Comfort to another woman, centuries ago. A lifeline to cling to for her. What if this is just another curiosity, taken from a dead end in the vain hope it will help her forge a path ahead?

“Was it worth it, Aloy?” you whisper, and from the back of the hut, the answer comes as a soft groan.

She is still asleep when you kneel at her side, muttering unintelligibly in her dreams. Like Zo said, they are fitful: her hair is wild and tangled, her eyes move rapidly beneath her twitching lids, and a thin layer of sweat glistens on her skin. The blanket has fallen from her shoulders, revealing scrapes and bruises, an assortment of future scars, and you stay your fingers just short of a deep cut on her cheek. This, too, is part of the old ritual. With every return, you bear witness to past violence. She never comes back whole.

What happened to you?

Her breath hitches, and she startles awake and upright, forcing a hasty retreat of your hand.

“Wha—” she mumbles, glancing over your stature until sleep releases her fully from its grasp, focusing her gaze. “Ikrie? What—what are you—you—”

A cough takes hold of her, shaking her entire body, and you reach for the flask on your belt to soothe her eager lips.

“Thanks,” she croaks weakly, still breathing hard as she wipes spilled water from her chin. Exhaustion rests her spine against the wall. “Why are you—you shouldn’t have come.”

I’m sorry. I have to. Your obligations might be dissimilar, but both of you adhere to their call. Maybe one day, you would’ve stopped chasing her, but didn’t you at least have to try?

“You should’ve known I would. Walking away has never been my greatest strength.”

For an instant, she looks at you the way she always has: bright-eyed tenderness that makes your heart flutter in your aching chest, the most beautiful smile playing around the corners of her mouth. It falters before you can return it, collapses into a worried crease between her eyebrows, her tensing jaw as she clenches her teeth.

“No,” she squeezes out with some effort. “You don’t understand, I—”

The ache in your chest assumes a different shape, a different name, one that is filled with sharpness and heat, knives you have carried in your soul but never dared to show her. Anger, boiling up and over, fed by uncertainty and grief.

“Don’t I?” you interrupt her, aggravated, and she recoils at the seething fury in your voice. “Because it all seems pretty clear to me. You ask me to follow you into the West, to help you, to be with you, and I do. But as soon as we get there, you leave without as much as a goodbye. Then, after weeks of vanishing with barely a trace, you show up in a half-forgotten Utaru village, only alive because a hunter took the scenic route that day, and all you can think of is how I shouldn’t be here? Tell me to go, then. Say it to my face. It’s okay. It wouldn’t be the first time I had no place in other people’s grand mission.”

“It’s not—”

“Feelings can change,” you add, softer. “You don’t have to lie about it.”

“I didn’t—I—” Aloy’s retort catches on her tongue as she struggles for an explanation, turns to frustration that makes her growl and punch the floor. One motion too far: she winces, holding her breath until the agony has passed. “Nothing has—I—I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Her desperate kisses, that night at Barren Light. Fingernails digging into your skin, deeper and more demanding than usual. The tightness of her embrace, after, barely allowing you to stir. During the longer nights that followed, in solitude, at the Cordon, you tried to guess the why, settling on the one that was the most familiar in the end—she had moved on, as everyone does. Such is the way of things. All that was left was to turn her back to you and tell you she would continue alone. I never accepted your help. But she did, didn’t she? And maybe, despite everything, there was a chance that she still would.

“The Embassy—when I saw you being sick after the battle, and all those Marshals just—” The words come haltingly, unsure as if she needs to test them first before committing, gathering strength as they run their course. “People die for me, Ikrie. Because of me. And you—no. Rost said the strength to stand alone is the strength to make a stand, alone, for others, and I can. I will.”

You have heard that argument before, or ones quite like it. An entire werak of them, and she has listened to them, too. The story still roams the Cut: how she had walked into the White Teeth’s camp, ignoring tradition and restraint. How she had dismissed shaman, chieftain, but first and foremost—

“Mailen.”

From your mouth, the name gives her pause. There has always been a taintedness to it, something you avoided to touch. You raise it with both hands now.

“She sent me away that day on the glacier, to protect me. Staying with her was dangerous for both of us, but without me—without you—she would’ve never returned to the others. She knew that. She accepted it.” Taking a deep breath, you fight against the lump in your throat, past and present pain threatening to smother you. “And you know that too, don’t you?”

Aloy sits in silence, chewing on her lower lip.

“This is different,” she says finally, and you recognise that guarded tone. It is equal parts agreement and refusal, a warning that she would try to prove you wrong. “This is not someone injured on a glacier, this is the world. Elisabet—”

You won’t let her. Can’t. One day, all that will be returned to you will be her rotting bones.

“You’re not her,” you cut her off. “You don’t have to end like her.”

“She was the only one who could prevent extinction, and she devoted her life to it,” she argues, undeterred, keeping more in the unsaid. Like I did. “Loneliness is a small price to pay if it keeps those that you love safe.”

“Except they weren’t,” you point out quietly. What happened to her friends? you had asked, and Aloy had grimaced and pulled up the recording. Emergency alert. Venting atmosphere. Death in an instant, a murder not even Elisabet could have foreseen. “And she wasn’t alone, not until the very end. She had the Alphas. She had GAIA. And you have us.”

“Us,” Aloy echoes flatly, avoiding your gaze. Instead, she watches her fingers play with the blanket, rolling up the edges, letting them unfurl. Rolling them up again. Three nails are broken and black.

“Not everyone runs from their promises.”

Her head snaps up at the accusation, renewed fervour burning on her face. “Promises matter little to a corpse. You’re Banuk. Shouldn’t you care about survival?”

“I care about yours,” a soft-voiced concession. “Someone has to.”

Protest is written into every fibre of her battered being. It spills out in places—white-knuckled fists tightening around the fabric on her knees, shoulders tensing, her mouth turning into a thin line. Her stifled reply is easy to guess: some iteration of you shouldn’t or you can’t, another attempt to push you away, and you wonder, why the insistence? You walk into danger every day. A misstep, a fall, hunting formidable prey—you have almost died in her vicinity before, and she had stayed. What made the difference?

“Why are you so afraid?”

There is a pause, filled only with her laboured breathing and the morning-business of the village beyond the hut.

“I—I saw something,” she breaks it with a whisper. “Down there, in the bunker with the backup. Just before… everything came crashing down.”

“HEPHAESTUS?” you suggest. What else could it be? Its markings are all over these lands. According to Aloy, the subfunctions were scattered into the unknown when GAIA destroyed herself, but if she had indeed found a part of her, who could say it didn’t hide nearby?

Frowning, she repeats, “HEPHAESTUS? Why—what makes you think—”

“I’ve come across your Charger. You killed a Scrapper by it, remember? A weird one. I don’t know how or why it’s here but—I’ve seen it in the machines. The Utaru fight them every day. And they’re worse than what they were in the Cut.”

Her frown deepens.

“Yes,” she says slowly, rubbing her forehead and flinching when she puts pressure on a bruise. “No, I—I don’t know. But whatever it was, it wanted me dead. And it would’ve killed you too, had you been there.”

“Maybe,” you agree. “Maybe not. All I see is that it almost succeeded, and you… Talanah told me how hunters brought you to the Lodge once after they found you injured in the Jewel. How they thought you wouldn’t make it. She also told me about the Battle on the Alight, what happened at the ridge. All those times you ran off alone—how many close calls has it been? How many more can it be?”

Your questions go without an answer. She merely clutches the blanket more tightly in her fists.

“You say you don’t want people to die for you, but they already did. Elisabet, GAIA. Rost. Ourea, or those Marshals at the Embassy. Their sacrifice only means something if you live.”

“Ikrie, I—I can’t,” she stammers, tears shimmering in her eyes. Her losses are writ large in the hollowness of her expression, her fear. “I can’t protect you.”

Gingerly, you reach out to cup her hands. They relax at the contact, ease her skin against yours, and you run your thumb across the scrapes on her knuckles, just so that she can feel it, but it doesn’t hurt.

“And I don’t want you to. I don’t want you to save me. I don’t need it. What I want is for you to give me the choice and respect my decision.” A gentle squeeze of your fingers makes her look up and meet your gaze. “Can you do that? For me? For us?”

“I… I can try.”

“That’s good enough for me.”

Beyond the woven leaf wall separating you from the rest of the village, a woman’s voice lifts from the choir. The notes rise and fall with beauty and sorrow, a lament trembling with the faintest trace of hope. All is lost, yet see the wonders that come after.

“Will you stay?” Aloy whispers hoarsely. As much as it is a question for the moment, it hides a greater implication, begging for that greater choice. One you are all too willing to make.

“Of course.”