6. Alterations

When Kel drifts back to consciousness, the quiet crackling of a hearth fire fills the room. She finds herself relaxing before she's even worked out where she is- if there's a fire, then it's safe here. There's even something soft and warm beneath her that's a balm on her sore muscles. A bed? It's nice, but wasn't she just in the woods?

Her memory of the night takes a few moments to swim back to her, but the full pain in her body hits at about the same time as recollection of what happened. Someone in the room hurries over when she groans in response to it all.

"Kel?" they ask, and she cracks her eyes open, only to shut them immediately after. The room's bright lights stab at her brain. The person seems to realize this, and they hurry to the hearth, pulling a room divider forwards to block the fire there. Kel watches the lights dim through her eyelids until it's more comfortable.

"Sorry," they say, footsteps heading back over as Kel squints her eyes back open and hauls herself into a sitting position. "Are- are you feeling alright? I mean, you passed out, and you- well, it's... sorry. We're just worried. People don't pass out at the gates much, or show up covered in... whatever that was."

Even squinting, the person's soft blue dress and mild voice are familiar enough for their identity to click together: it's Briar, one of the town guards and one of the few townsfolk with social skills to match Kel's. He must have been one of the people that brought her in. Thank the gods- he's at least semi-tolerable.

"Honestly..." Kel reaches up to rub at her eyes, arms heavy. "I feel like one of the tykes kicked me. No- more like a goat kicked me. Some large animal, I don't know. I'll be fine in a while."

Briar winces, gaze flicking away. "What, uh... what exactly happened out there?"

How does she even begin to explain this one? "It's a long story. Later."

"Alright... but if it- if you're, then it's- well, you know. It's kind of my job to take care of things like that." Briar's silent for a moment, fidgeting until a thought hits him. He offers up a nervous smile. "I figure I shouldn't tell your father you're back yet. He'd throw a fit."

"Gods, yeah." Kel cracks a grin of her own, then winces. Her face feels stiff and tight. Briar's hand twitches slightly.

"Are you sure you're- sorry. I shouldn't ask."

"Stop apologizing." She presses her hand against her forehead, trying to massage out the tension in her head. Her expression must show some trace of pain, because Briar steps a bit closer, eyebrows knit together with worry.

"Do you- maybe I should get the doctor?"

"I'm fine. Just sore. Nothing she could do for it." Kel would rather avoid the town's doctor if at all possible, especially after that whole affair when she'd last left town. That's not drama she wants to rehash.

"You're sure?" Briar bites his lip. "I mean, uh- no offense, but you look..."

"Like a cat bit my face off?"

"No, it's-" He sucks in a breath, fingers fluttering at his sides. "I don't know. You just don't... I've never seen you wince like that. Not even after sparring. And..." Looking away, Briar grabs at the hem of his shirt as if it could hold him still. "I should, uh, get you a mirror. Sorry."

"Stop apologizing. I look terrible, I know."

"I... don't think you do." His hand twitches up towards his face before he catches himself and grabs at his shirt hem again.

"Screw off." Kel lets out a soft hiss of irritation, head pounding.

"I'll, uh..." Briar steps back, then hesitates. "Sorry."


"Right, right- I know. I'll... yeah. I'll be right back." And with that, he hurries out of the room, throwing a nervous back-glance at Kel before shutting the door.

With him out of the room, Kel's quick to check herself out more closely by feel. Something clearly had the guard spooked, and she's the only new thing in the room. Maybe she looks worse than she'd thought.

Whatever that goop was, it burned like nothing else, yet her face feels... fine. Tight and sore, maybe a little rough, but there aren't any open sores or burns. The only anomaly is that it feels like the skin around her eyes is stretched over the head of a drum. Her hands feel much the same way, now that she's paying it more attention. She brings them close to her face for a good look, vision blurry from squinting- it's still brighter in here than she'd like. Briar must be keeping the place lit up to drive away any night creatures, so she supposes he can only dim it so much.

Her hands look normal enough, at least as far as she can tell. They're bruised-looking from smashing into so many tree trunks, smatterings of purple trailing down her fingertips, but there's nothing swollen or raw. Does she look at her hands that often, though, let alone through her eyelashes? Short of injuries, it's hard to say if anything's changed.

Right about then, the door clicks open, drawing Kel's attention back to the room. Even squinting, it's impossible to miss the person in the doorway- with that squat posture, it's got to be Ryver. No one else in town hunches over in quite the same way, and she'd always thought it was part of why they'd never been allowed to finish their scouting apprenticeship- they're bound to have back problems by now. They hesitate at the door, seemingly unsure about entering.

"Bet you're glad you didn't go out this time," Kel jokes, trying to lighten the mood. She presses her lips together when there's no response.

Ryver is disconcertingly quiet as they shuffle into the room and go to add a log to the hearth fire, pushing the divider aside and sending more firelight out into the room. Between that and the animal fat lamps, it's too bright again. Kel shuts her eyes.

"You shouldn't have come back." Kel's startled by Ryver's voice when they finally speak.

"...Excuse me?"

They're quiet for a moment, and Kel takes that chance to experiment- if she puts a hand over her eyes and peeks through her fingers, then the room's lighting is more bearable. It's just enough to see Ryver fold their arms from across the room.

"You shouldn't have come back."

"I found food and nearly died getting it. Do you want the town to starve?"

"I want the town to stay safe." They pace a bit closer. "You led those things to the gate. Now they know we're here, and we both know what happened last time."

Kel blanches. "If I didn't lead them here, I'd be dead and you wouldn't have food sources."

"We have other scouts."

"We have- I'd be dead. What, are you saying I should have died?"

"Maybe. At least the town would be safe if you had." They turn to the side with a quiet huff. "You may as well have brought them inside."

As Ryver's talking, the door clicks open again- Briar steps in. The tension in the room is palpable as both Kel and Ryver turn to look at him.

"...Uh. I brought the mirror. Sorr- I mean, yeah." He glances at Ryver. "You guys good, or...?"

"We're fine." Ryver unfolds their arms, shuffling back towards the door. "I was just telling her to lead those things somewhere else next time."

"I mean, it's not a bad idea, but maybe there's a better time to talk about that-" Ryver shoves past Briar mid-sentence, nearly knocking the guard over. He catches himself on the doorframe before stepping into the room, throwing Ryver a glare.

"Hey, there's, uh, no rush-" The door slams closed behind Ryver before Briar can finish his sentence. "Uh. Okay. Wow, that was... that was something." A nervous laugh pops out of him, and Kel flinches at the sound. Being chased by a bunch of cackling monsters is still fresh in her mind.

"Sorry," the guard says. When Kel doesn't chastise him again for the apology, he lets out a breath, then notices she's still covering her eyes. "Oh, uh- I'll block the fire, sorr- I mean, I'll block the fire." And he does, hurrying over to the divider and drawing it entirely in front of the flame to leave the room even darker than before. It's dim enough for Kel to relax and drop her hands from her eyes. Briar's gaze shies to the side as soon as she does, his fingers twitching again.

"Briar." Kel finds her voice to be uncharacteristically quiet when she gets the guard's attention. She swears she can feel his anxiety hanging over her like a stone.


"How bad is it?"

"How bad is- is, uh, what?" The guard's hands twitch again, and he presses them together behind his back as soon as he notices.

"You're about to jump out of your skin, Ryver thinks I should've died, you won't tell my dad I'm here yet, and you went and got a mirror for me- something's up." Kel lets out a heavy breath, tugging at the bed's covers. "I'm not stupid. How bad is it?"

"Hang on, Ryver thinks what?"

"Briar, please."

"It's, uh." He reaches up to ruffle his hair, eyes wide. "I don't... You still look like you, but..." The guard reaches into his pocket and pulls out a hand mirror, practically shoving it into Kel's hands. "I'm not- I don't know how to... Just look, okay?"

The mirror feels heavy and cold in Kel's hands, and she holds it in her lap, unease blooming in her chest.

"Should I leave, or...?" Briar's gaze darts between Kel and the far wall, never lingering on her for long.

"No. I just need a moment." Kel surprises herself with that, but being alone with whatever happened feels intolerable. "But turn around. You keep looking at me like I'm going to bite you."

"...Alright." He turns on a heel to face the doorway, doubling down on his fidgeting now that his back's to Kel. She watches him in the lamplight for a moment, heart pounding, then turns to the mirror and raises it up.

The first thing she notices are her eyes. They should be brown, the deep sort of brown that one can get lost in. She'd gotten the color from her father, who'd gotten it from his- it was a running joke in the family that someone smeared mud in the eyes of their children. Now, though, now they're black like the things that chased her, even the whites swallowed up by a black as dark as ink. The only hint of where she's looking is a grayish ring where her iris's edge should be. That ring darts back and forth as she takes in the sight of herself, a surge of panic clamping her throat shut.

It's not just her eyes. Her skin- the skin around her eyes looks almost bruised, mottled blacks and purples tracing the sockets. If the color weren't so light, she'd think it was a bruise, but then there's the shape of it, almost freckled at the edges, rough in a way that no bruise is. The longer she looks, the more evident it becomes. Her lips, her cheeks, the tip of her nose; they're all mottled in shades of violet and gray that don't peel away when she tries to scratch them off. Her fingers hold the same hue when she brings her hand up to move the hair out of her face, dragging a distressed whine out of her. If this goes below the surface, then is she even human anymore? What would her family think? What if this gets worse? What if Ryver's right and she's brought the town's doom to the doorstep? What if it's all her fault-

"...Kel?" Briar's voice is enough to make the scout jump, shaking her out of her trance. "You, uh... you doing okay?"

Her pulse is pounding in her ears, Kel realizes, and she's been staring frozen at the mirror for altogether too long. She forces out a shaky breath and wrenches the mirror down, squeezing the handle tightly enough to turn her knuckles white. Everything's fine. It has to be fine. It's just her face, right? She got out of there alive, and she's herself. What's it matter if her face is wrong? It could be so much worse, and she still has skin, and-

"I'm fine," she croaks, but her voice betrays how she really feels. Briar turns around to see her hands shaking, one squeezing the mirror for dear life and the other covering her mouth. Something in his expression softens.

"Kel..." He takes a step forward, but Kel pushes her hand out in front of her face to stop him from coming any closer.

"Stay over there."

"You're shaking." The worry in his voice lights a fuse in Kel's chest, and she's grateful for the anger that roars up in response.

"I'm fine," she snaps, glaring at the guard through her fingers. "I don't need your pity. You weren't even going to tell me, were you?"

"I didn't- you-" Briar steps back, eyes wide. "You'd just woken up, I didn't-"

"Do I look like the kind of person who wants to be lied to for someone else's sake?"

"I wasn't lying to you!" He shakes his head, gaze flicking to the side again. "Kel, I-"

"Just shut up!" She slams her hand down onto the bed, leaving both hands in her lap. "Shut up. I don't need your help."

Briar's silent for a long few seconds.


"Shut it."

The guard lets out a long breath, turning around. "Fine. I... I'll go." Briar stops himself there, fully expecting to be snapped at again, but Kel stays quiet as he walks towards the door. The scout finds herself wringing out the edges of her bedsheets to try to keep a handle on herself. It feels like she might fly apart at any moment without someone there- someone that she won't cry around. Someone like Briar, who she's just pushed out of the room. His footsteps seem to echo inside her skull.

"Stay. Please." She sounds ragged, and Briar stops just short of opening the door. "I... don't want to be alone. Not now."

"You just told me that you didn't need my help." His posture is stiff and awkward, hands drifting to the doorframe. "I thought... I thought you needed space."

"I don't want you treating me like some wounded animal." Kel finally looks away, gaze drifting to the walls, the dresser, anywhere but her hands.

The soft clomping of Briar's footsteps lets Kel know that he's decided to stay in the room- they trail over to the hearth and pause there.

"I don't see you that way," he says, voice soft. "But you... you do need someone right now. I don't- you need something and I don't know how to help you."

Kel stays quiet, trying to keep down the storm of emotions in her throat.

"I'm going to go get the doctor," Briar says.

Nitty Gritty Details

Starting chaos factor: 6

Scene test: Altered (5)
Altered how?: decrease an activity (3)
Roll for meaning (actions): invade normal (interpreted as everyone pretending things are fine or walking on eggshells)

Roll for meaning (names): Z Be R; Zie Briar? I think I'll go with Briar and use Zie for a title (like Mr., Ms., Mx., Ind., etc.) if I happen to need one.

Roll for meaning (character background): control humiliation (Lovely. Law enforcement it is.)

Fate question: Does Briar come back yet? Odds: likely
Roll: no (79)

Fate question: Does someone else show up instead? Odds: 50/50
Roll: yes (58)

Roll for meaning (names): R (Elements); River seems like a good choice. Lots of noun names today, so I'll switch it up a little to Ryver.

Roll for meaning (character background): academic failure.

Roll for meaning (character conversations): abuse peace (talk about a contradiction!).

Fate question: Does Briar come back yet? Odds: likely
Roll: yes (20)

Hide feelings (Kel's Social vs Great): Fair (+2); Failed

Added gift: darkvision (monochrome)

Added flaws: light sensitivity, altered appearance

Added to thread list: alteration, protect the town

Added to character list: Ryver, alteration, townspeople (2 entries total)

Chaos factor +1; current factor: 7

Not too many rolls this scene- things popped out smoothly onto the page, and I got to have the experience of sitting back and watching it happen. I mentioned last session that I often like to simulate having players instead of simulating having a GM, and that's kind of how it felt today!

Relevant cultural notes for anyone interested in some worldbuilding: because of this world's history, semi-human folks aren't unheard of. They're not the majority, but they pop up frequently enough to have a name: they're usually referred to as Altered. Anyone in the category of "fully sapient and mostly human in appearance, but still obviously abnormal in some way that doesn't fall into normal human variation" tends to get classed as Altered, and they occupy an odd niche socially. In some regions, they're pariahs. In others, they're elevated or accepted, particularly if their mutations give them some sort of advantage in helping the town. On average, about one in fifty people are Altered, but many of them are clustered in specific areas that are known to be more accepting. Hostile towns rarely have more than one or two folks that would count as Altered due to the safety risks.

The reason that there aren't more Altered folks in the world is because many people are now immune to local causes of mutation. They're the survivors of a few centuries in an infected world, and they've either developed immunity, have mutations subtle enough not to present a noticeable difference, or aren't quite human anymore. Of the last category, only some become Altered; the vast majority die from incompatible mutations, and a large portion of the remainder lose their humanity entirely.

Non-immune folks are increasingly able to survive unchanged due to human society slowly getting back on its feet. Just a few generations ago, these people usually died young, either from animal attacks or incompatible mutations. As humanity's become more able to defend itself, more non-immune people survived unchanged inside settlements. Non-immune survivors began to accumulate in cities and towns. The population of Altered is rising as these non-immune people leave town for the first time and wind up exposed to mutations; rather than being killed outright, they're often well-equipped enough to survive. The mutations themselves are becoming milder as well, as incompatible mutations tend to be selected against. All of this raises the number of surviving Altered people. If someone were to crunch some numbers, then they'd predict that the number of Altered people will rise to one in thirty within the next few generations.

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