He didn't even have the audacity to look disappointed by it, his expression only flickered for a moment like a flash of moonlight through the trees, and the way he hung his head in near sadness was brief and looked put on. He was always so unreadable, even his little smirks, his teasing, the one time he had admired her skills. But there was something behind his eyes, something that looked like she'd shoved her knife into his gut.
She'd tried testing him through all of this, seeing what he was capable of. He always let her lead, always patiently waited for her to pluck her way over to the next camp. She'd rushed in the first time, burning through her remaining resources and scorching her fingertips on explosives to see if he rushed in carelessly along with her – and he had. And when she sat back and picked each bandit off one by one, each shot a short huff of victory, he stayed beside her and allowed her to simply do what she was best at. And when they realized blood was beginning to soak into the dirt and came to investigate, he took them down methodically with his own arrows, crouched in the grass beside her.
Once, she'd seen Nil take an arrow for her. He had barely slowed or stopped, darted into the line of fire and nocked another arrow to kill the man that had shot him. It had infuriated her. Not because she felt as though he were trying to protect her, but that he had done it without hesitation, and didn't stop and expect a 'thank you'. Didn't mention anything despite the crusted blood that had trickled out from between armour and flesh after the battle. Why it got under her skin, she didn't know. He'd told her he belonged where the arrowhead passes between armour and skin, she didn't really know what that meant. The place between armour and skin was vulnerable, the armour failed and the arrow was about to pierce. How could that be a place for any man?
He'd asked her to meet him here, she made a joke when she spoke to him to try to see if she could get him to break character, but he remained immobile and unyielding. They stood under the fire orange sun with a gentle breeze, it was a calm moment that did seem somewhat poetic. They stood face to face.
The request, “how about we try to kill each other?” still rang in her ears like the tip of her spear knocking harmlessly off the metal of a machine when she didn't have enough heat behind her swing. For a moment she saw the red glow from their lenses, they may not have human expressions, but they were still expressive. She'd watched injured ones try to flee from battle, watched them try to dart away from her metallust in vain as she hunted them down. She told him her ears would ring later in the calm after the fight. This rung in her ears more than any fight.
His targets were humans, fresh blood splattered over the stone. Hers were machines, pieces of scrap ripped from their bodies smouldering in the grass. His hands were dirtier than hers could ever be, she expected, but hers weren't clean either. Bandits had died at her hands, shadow Carja, Eclipse. Without realizing it, she'd begun staring at her hands. A bit of dirt under one fingernail, a black smear on the back of her thumb. But no blood, and certainly not Nil's.
But there was the matter of Nil's request, and she looked back at him. The sun was setting behind him and she wanted to sigh and just walk away. She'd meant to, anyway, her parting words had been to tell him he could shoot her in the back if he wanted. But his had stopped her.
Something inside of him was dark, it ached in a way she couldn't understand. Something she expected that she wouldn't understand, not while he stood there and watched her as if he was waiting for her to speak. He'd been a soldier, he'd taken lives. But somehow she trusted that all the lives he had taken from this world had been well earned. His need to end fell into line with his morals, his honour, which he seemed to hold to a high standard. He didn't kill the innocent, she didn't expect he would do so, either. And if he had, perhaps they'd been just caught in the crossfire and he had been too deep in his own darkness to care. He'd said he was never lonely when there was killing to be done, but now that much of the killing was done – what now?
With the moon rising behind her, the sun nearly gone behind him, she took a step towards him. “Now it's my turn.” She said, he rose an eyebrow and she smirked in return, “I helped you with the bandits, now you need to help me with the Cauldrons.” As he opened his mouth to speak, she held up a hand to silence him. “I know, you're going to tell me that I helped because I want to kill, too. I'll save you the effort, I wanted to help people, that just happened to be the only way to do it.”
The man chuckled, held out his hands to either side of him, palms open to the stars beginning to glitter in the night sky. “Actually, I was going to tell you that I'll meet you there.”
And with that one sentence, Nil turned and began to walk away. “But you don't even know where they are!” She protested, calling after him, he simply waved his hand in the air to dismiss her concern. She frowned, folding her arms over her chest and damn near pouting. But he was gone, vanished into the trees and lost among the whispers of night.
Frustrated, she stuffed two fingers in her mouth and blew, the shrill sound called a machine to her, a slow rumbling thing that ambled up beside her. She didn't think he would be there, waiting for her, she only had one more Cauldron to get through, one more monster to face at the end. The first Cauldron she'd gone into had damn near killed her, the wound hadn't even scarred yet, though it was nearly there. But another week and it would be a mere shadow on her rib cage.
She rode into the night, torn between urging the mount to run faster and just plodding along the pathway slowly to give him enough time to get there before him. She couldn't tell which result she wanted more. But when she got there, the crisp air and dusty breeze refreshing her after a night of travel, she heard a familiar voice.
“You never stop surprising me, Nora.” Nil was saying, amusement in his voice. “The Slayer of Machines also tames them, I would guess that has something to do with this Cauldron you're leading us into?”
“Yes, actually.” She said, swinging her leg off the mount and planting her feet into the grass. “This is the last one, it has what I need to override the last of the machines.”
He admired the Charger she'd ridden in on, it stood docile, staying close but taking a few steps to explore its surroundings. “Why don't you show me.” He suggested, not a question and only a hint of a challenge.
Challenge accepted, Aloy tapped the focus to see what was around them. Surprisingly, nothing. She'd anticipated something, normally there were machines that haunted the entrances to Cauldrons, so finding it barren was a red flag. “Follow my lead.” She instructed, and crouched low to the ground and moved ahead, towards the light that radiated from the Cauldron itself. He followed her into the long grass as she continued to watch for a sign of something.
Then she saw it, a flare nestled into the foliage ahead of them. Stalkers. There was no way to tell how many there were, two at least, maybe three. She couldn't use the focus here, it was going to have to be her own eyesight. Nil remained quiet, observing, and when she spotted one against the rocks she held her palm out to him, wordlessly telling him to stay. He jerked his head in a nod and she skulked out of the grass, unseen, undetected, and when she was close enough with her spear in hand, she began the process.
The stalker perked up, knowing its kin was nearby. All it took was a well placed arrow thudding into a tree for the others to become aware of her. She slid back into the grass beside Nil, and the two of them watched the Stalker take out its own kind. She didn't spare a glance at him, but thought she heard him mutter something under his breath that sounded like praise.
And when the last Stalker was standing, injured with little sparks of current flirting with the air as it limped, she stood and walked towards it. “Tell me, Nil,” she challenged, “does it look scared?” A quick jog, the Stalker croaked as it tried to step away, cowering. Her spear found its way deep into its chest and it simply crumpled to the ground, defeated.
“Is it cruel to make them fight themselves?” Nil pondered as he came up behind her.
“They're machines.” She retorted.
“And yet you still asked me if it looked scared.”
She huffed. He did have a point, but they were just machines. They didn't feel anything, but as he passed her to seek the entrance to the Cauldron, he spoke again. “It didn't look scared, it looked like it had simply accepted its death.”
With no idea what to make of that, she followed him. He'd asked her to kill him, asked for his death to be handed to him by her hands, yet he spoke of a machine accepting its death? Could it even comprehend something like that? Did he find solace in a machine accepting its fate? She cast her eyes back at him, watching the confident leisurely way he walked. She knew the doors of the Cauldron was not the entrance, but spotted the hand-holds to climb up the mountain before he did. She started walking towards it, it didn't take him long to follow her.
“How did you know where the Cauldron was?” She asked as he began to climb.
“How do you think I knew which camp you would be at next?”
“Have you been following me?” Almost outraged, climbing up after him. He didn't say anything until she had reached the top as well.
“It pays to know where my partner is.”
“I'm not your partner,” Aloy frowned, how could she think of him as her partner? Conveniently, she ignored the fact that they were currently working together, as partners, on this latest task. And that they had been working together on and off since they'd met.
“You've helped me to liberate a great number of people, we have worked together each time. I think that qualifies us as partners”
She thought back to one of the things he'd said to her – that he wasn't suggesting a Carja wedding – and the words rang in her head as they kept moving forwards. She lost herself in thought and let Nil take care of the Watcher nearby. It didn't seem to be much of a secret that a number of the people she'd met had been somewhat.. flirty. Not particularly interested in anything of that sort, she'd shut them down or pretended they weren't doing anything abnormal. It struck her as odd, then, that Nil had been the only one not to flirt with her. Others had, of course, but he stood out because he more than could have, the tone he used held a hint of suggestion but no real intent. Instead of flirting with her, he implied she was the one flirting with him. This man was aggravating, but curious.
She didn't realize, at first, that he was standing near the entrance of the Cauldron, tucked away in a cave. He was smirking at her, she frowned at him and pushed by him, overriding the door effortlessly and leading the way in. They didn't speak, he simply held back and let her lead the way. “You haven't asked what a Cauldron is.” She observed, scanning the area for anything that could get them killed. She wondered if Nil would have welcomed that.
“You haven't offered. My expertise is blood, give me a piece of scum and I can show you all the ways I can end his foul life. Yours is machines, Metal Tamer, I don't expect many people know what these are.”
The thing that infuriated her the most about him was how correct he was all the time. He spoke in technicalities, pointing out all the little flaws in her words piece by piece without acting like he was actually right. This was the most they'd been able to speak when going in together, so now that they were she found herself a little flustered and annoyed with no real reason why. “This is where machines are made.” She declared, pointing above them where automated machines moved parts.
“Have you thought of destroying this whole place?”
Frowning, “of course I have, but I need to understand these things before I go around destroying everything.”
Almost in approval, he nodded, and continued walking down the path.
And at the end of the road, a Thunderjaw stood surrounded by current, thrashing its head. “We have to kill it.” She said, quietly, even though it wouldn't matter if it could hear her or not. When he said nothing she asked “not going to ask what killing it does?” She challenged, he simply smiled at her in a way that was less like his usual calculated actions and more friendly.
“I trust you know what you're doing, ready when you are.”
He rarely used her real name, she faltered for a moment before throwing herself off the edge, into the pit where she could very well meet her death. But she wasn't worried, she'd got herself out of trickier situations. But in those seconds her hands rubbed nearly raw against the rope as she looked up at him, she wondered if he might allow his death to come rushing at him like the clap of thunder. As her feet hit the bottom, as he began his descent, she found herself concerned, her heart beating in her ears. “There's another favour I have to ask of you, after we do this.” She said, voice soft, trying not to let the desperate worry betray her. “I'll need your help once more.”
If she offered him another challenge, then perhaps he would fight harder. If his goal was to die here, maybe she could force yet one more task onto him.
“I thought we weren't partners.” He said, she wanted to smack him. She scoffed, taking off at a jog to the captive machine.
“You'd better be ready!” She called. With no time for him to prepare, she released the Thunderjaw, and it came at them.
Nil made a damn good partner, as much as she may protest and argue with him it was one undeniable fact. When its tail came around and knocked her off her feet and knocked the breath from her lungs he was on it, arrows into its throat and calling it over to him. And when she watched it back him into a corner, she whistled and lit her arrows on fire before firing them into its back.
Aloy always worked alone, but working with him wasn't so bad. She didn't feel the itching urge under her skin that made her want to move on ahead alone. And when they killed it, breathless, she cheered in a quick bark of joy, jogging over to it as she wiped sweat from her forehead. And with the last override downloaded, there was no machine she couldn't control. She itched to test it.
Nil only watched her, his crystal grey eyes passive, and when she walked over to him he offered a small smile. “The thrill of this fight doesn't taste as sweet, but it isn't so bad. You may make a machine hunter out of me yet. Now, what is it you need me for?”
“There's a battle coming, soon, in Meridian. We're going to need all the help we can get.”
“I make no promises.”
They emerged into the evening, the fresh air cooling her skin. The Thunderjaw hadn't died easily, a bruise was forming along her side. She stood in the grass to watch the sky for a moment, to cool her damp skin, he stood beside her. It was curious that his answer had changed now, the last time she had suggested this he had rejected outright, now he left it open ended. “You didn't answer me,” she mumbled, eyeing him. “Were you following me?”
He stood before her, close, and in one swift motion he'd placed his thumb on her chin with his fingers curled under her jaw and tilted her face upwards to meet the intensity of his gaze. She was very aware of his closeness, almost too close, his thumb hot and calloused and smearing her own sweat on her skin. His eyes bored deep into hers, they were nearly nose to nose and she couldn't breathe. He smelled like sweat and wood smoke, something metallic that was maybe blood or maybe a manifestation of how much he talked about it. Her body felt frozen while it burned from where he touched her. Heat rose in her ears and on her cheeks, her breath came quick, her heart racing harder than it had during the fight. What was wrong with her? It was impossible to speak and even more impossible to think.
“Yes.” He replied, his breath smelled like gritted teeth and fresh peeled bark straight off the tree. And in another swift moment he had let her go and backed away, walking at an easy pace away from her. She didn't try to call him back, could barely even contemplate the fact that he'd been following her. Her skin still burning where he'd touched her, his touch like lightning. She had only just begun trying to figure out how he had been able to follow her when --- 'Now is not the time for romance, Aloy, you need to focus on defeating HADES, not flirting with a psychopath'
“Sylens!” Her first instinct was to tear the focus off her ear and throw it into the grass, stumbling and scrambling to keep upright and feeling ashamed of the way her cheeks heated like she'd been caught in an intimate moment. From one man telling her he had been following her to another butting into private conversations, she wondered if she was ever going to catch a break. Once this was all over, she was going to find a way to block everyone out. Her focus didn't need to be connected with anyone else.
“What's a psychopath?” She asked through gritted teeth, angry and frustrated all over again. She knew there was no use in telling Sylens it hadn't been flirting, he wasn't going to believe her anyway. Denying it would make her look guilty.
'Nil. Stay away from him if you know what's good for you. If you had agreed to his little fight do you really think he wouldn't have dealt the final blow? Remaining near him with guarantee your death. He would forfeit your life to save his in an instant'
“I would have won.” She said through gritted teeth.
'That's not a risk I'm willing to take'
“Good thing it's not your choice then” she bit back, almost tempted to start screaming Nil's name so she could fight him here and now, just to prove him wrong. “Guess I'm not allowed to have any friends now” She scoffed under her breath, bitter and unamused but uncertain if she would even see him again, let alone if he was her friend.
'Allies, yes. When an ally goes down on the battlefield you can continue, but when you use a friend it puts your life in danger. I need you alive.'
Both Sylens and Nil bothered her in similar ways, but Sylens was overbearing and treated her like a child. He scolded her for choosing to find out what happened to the Old Ones for her own reasons, and not for his. Nil was an inescapable force, pulling her in with his intensity and his quiet way. It was easy to explain why Sylens bothered her. It wasn't so easy to pinpoint why Nil got her bothered.
“Sounds bleak.” She remarked, brushing hair from her face and letting her thumb touch where Nil's had been only a few minutes earlier.
'Not bleak, accurate. There is no time for romance when the world is in danger.'
“How about you just stop watching me, then?” She bit back, outraged, “that way you don't need to see me waste time.” But he was silent, probably just ignoring her again. The ass, she was going to make sure he never saw anything she did once this was over. Never again. She was no one's puppet.
Besides, it was hardly romance. She wasn't even sure she could call Nil a friend, let alone anything more. They were only partners on the battlefield anyway, no more than that. Their kinship came from the blood they spilled and the machines they destroyed. Her thoughts were muddled as she stomped off like an insolent toddler. Angry and still a little flushed and still itching to start screaming Nil's name until he came back so she could show Sylens what romance actually was.
Aloy wouldn't see Nil again until the final battle.
“Follow the trail of machine husks and smoke. At the end of that path I guarantee there will be a girl with hair red as blood and eyes as deep as the sky fighting her way through anything daring enough to stand in her way.”
The victory was not easily won. She left with puncture wounds peppered across her skin from falling debris and a limp in her step from something torn in her thigh. But the smoke had cleared, and the machines, well, they became less hostile. They'd still attack if anyone got too close or if they felt threatened. They were like wild animals instead of the predators that they had been.
She was offered a place in the palace, a permanent place. Somewhere she could call home. She denied it but agreed to stay for a few days, unwilling to settle in just yet. After living as an outcast then being thrust into a journey where she didn't stop moving, she felt a little lost. The idea of staying in a large city like Meridian didn't appeal to her, what would she even do with herself? Too many people, too many voices, too many merchants shouting at the crowds in a desperate attempt to get more shards. The last time she'd checked, though, shortly after the battle to restock her supplies, they'd offered it to her for free.
She'd rather scavenge than get handouts. Praise and fame didn't sit well with her, there was something uncomfortable about it in the pit of her belly. It wasn't what she was used to, and how could she be? All her life she had been alone, shunned, and now everyone wanted a piece of her. Avad looked at her like an animal watching its prey, he looked at her like she was supposed to fill Ersa's shoes. She was no one's replacement. Even Erend looked at her like he was too shy to ask her directly, and instead kept with the awkward compliments that made her want to knock his teeth in. Did he hope she would fall at his feet and beg him to be hers forever?
In two days, there was a celebration. For her. For them. The 'war heroes'. She was hardly a war hero, she was just Aloy. Outcast turned Anointed. It was sickening in a way, and she had only been here a day.
'Remember how the blood pounded in your ears? They'll ring later, in the calm.'
She was in the palace, getting fitted for this 'celebration'. Nil's voice was in her ears, then, and in the calm her ears rang from the lingering brutality of battle. She was vastly out of her element, the Carja silks were deep rich purples hanging off of her and showing far too much skin than she wanted to. She'd walked with her middle exposed, that didn't bother her, this did. It cut low on her chest, loose layers of thin fabric with a rich leather under-bust that, while it looked quite nice, seemed to give a false impression of the actual size of her chest. Thin shorts that rode high layered with a thick decorative belt with long strips of silk that left her thighs visible to anyone walking by, and even more skin with any slight breeze. She couldn't fight in this, she may as well walk in her underclothes for as good as this did. Though she did like the decorative wrist wraps, and the delicate gold chains that wound around her waist and off her shoulders.
“I thought I said I wasn't suggesting a Carja wedding.” Came a voice from the doorway, she yelped and crossed her arms over her chest, embarrassed, before she noticed it was only Nil. When had he become 'only Nil'?
“How did you get in here?” She demanded, controlling her voice to something that didn't sound borderline hysterical. She still had her arms clamped tightly over her chest, suddenly embarrassed to be seen in such a state of undress like this. “Aren't there guards?” She'd shooed the woman helping her away a long time ago, she had been trying to find a way to politely tell her she wasn't going to be wearing this thing.
“I walked in. You would be surprised how far I can get just by saying you asked for me.”
She clapped a palm to her forehead, sighing.”Of course you did.” But she felt no true annoyance, only a minor exasperation that was mostly due to the situation.
“You're not wearing your device, Machine Rider.” He observed, sitting down in one of the chairs like he owned the place. The look suited him but he still looked like a caged animal, confined to the walls around them.
Her cheeks warmed in embarrassment. If Sylens was still spying on her, there was no way she was letting him see her like this. She unfolded her arms from herself, looking back into the mirror. She didn't answer him, instead tried to tug some of the silks higher on her chest to cover more. It was no use, she'd tear the fabric before it gave way on its own. The clothes were made well, though, she could appreciate that much.
“Does the lap of luxury not satisfy the heart of a wild flame like you?” He observed, there was amusement on his face.
“I didn't see you at the battle. I know we spoke before it, where did you go?” He'd told her hair like a splash of blood and the whispers of the guards around her were that of fear. She'd tried to tell him off but he had been so soft and sweet with his words, so honest with his pain. She had been so glad to see him.
“I killed a few then went into the city, I helped evacuate anyone who couldn't fight from. I even got to kill a few more Eclipse along the way. Once it was safe, I led them back.” There was no lie in his words, but he'd never lied to her before. “I apologize for not being beside you, Partner, I was on my way until they shouted for help. It seemed the others had gone on ahead, and they didn't feel safe.” But then he paused, smirking. “Though I did see you drop that Stormbird. Impressive.”
Aloy stepped off the little platform, “and no,” she started, walking back to her normal armour. Well worn and battered but strong. Protective. “This doesn't suit me at all.” she grumped, under no illusions that they would be attacked and she needed her armour, but that this was entirely the opposite of what she preferred. Nil chuckled. But she could admire his choice to help others, he fought with honour.
“Why not? It's fit for a princess.”
“Wait, with Avad?” She shot him a look, one eyebrow raised. She had honestly tried not to think that this was all an attempt to court her. And really, this outfit wasn't that bad. A little revealing but no worse than what she'd seen other women wear around here, she was over exaggerating it a bit. She scoffed. “I'm not interested. A man who says he hates that his people struggle while he lives in a palace isn't the kind of man worth having.”
She didn't realize how close she had wandered to him in their conversation until he spoke again. “What kind of man is worth having, to someone like you?” That little smirk, that little hint of a smile. A spark was somewhere in his eyes, he was testing her. Sizing her up.
“Not a psychopath.” Because she wasn't sure how well the focus could 'hear' her if she was still being watched. He laughed, she sighed. “Get out of here, Nil. I need to get out of these clothes.” Under the heat of his gaze she felt more exposed than ever. But his eyes hadn't wandered lower than her lips, at least not while she was watching.
He bowed his head, and retreated to the door. But with his hand on the door frame he paused and looked at her. This time, she saw his eyes flick up and down her body. “You don't have to go to this. No one is forcing you. Your path is your own, Hunter, you have no need to do what makes everyone else happy.”
As per usual, Nil was correct. So Aloy paced, and when she was sure no one was going to walk in she stripped off the fine silks and got settled back into her armour. But it was well worn after the battle. The seams were fraying, the metal coverings were coming loose but she knew there was a place within the city that could repair it. So she grabbed her bow and placed the focus back on and jogged down to where the merchants slung their wears. She was mad. Not at Nil, but at the situation. People nodded or smiled at her as she passed, when she first got here they'd whispered darkly that she was a Savage, and why was a Nora let in? Now it was admiration and praise. Somehow she actually preferred the dark discussion, at least it was what she was used to. Once she had wanted this, wanted to be praised and loved by everyone. Now that she had it, it wasn't really what she thought it would be. It felt undeserved, in a way.
She walked up to the man shouting at ladies in silks, trying to get them to buy some of his armour. She approached him and steeled herself for an irritating conversation. And it was, he gave her the Carja armour at no cost. Angrily, she thrust a Behemoth lens into his hand and stomped off, at the very least that would help, and she didn't have a lot of them with her anymore anyway.
Ducking into Olin's house, she changed into the armour, then carried hers in her arms to the seamstress. “Can you repair this?” She asked. “I need it done as soon as possible.” And the woman hurried to accommodate her.
“This will take me awhile.” She said, “it's not your regular skirts, great care needs to be taken. Give me two days, I'll have it done.”
Aloy suppressed a sigh, thanked her, and left. The day of the celebration, of course. The day that she'd be forced into something uncomfortable and paraded around as if she was worth her weight in gold. Saving the world had never really been high on her to-do list, it had just happened along the way. So now, she just had to wait. But her path was always going to be her own, even if she didn't know what that was. There was one more thing she wanted to do, before she closed her focus off from the world.
Avad had been asking her to preview the dress for him, she had smiled politely and told him she was right in the middle of something and she was so sorry, but she just couldn't spare the time. He had apologized for his advances, so she knew he was just trying to be friendly but it still rubbed her the wrong way. She anticipated that he expected her to run off before the ceremony. It wasn't a difficult assumption to make anyway, they could probably see the restlessness in her. She had made her decision by the end of the day, as soon as her armour was ready she would be gone. On the day of, Avad kept her within eye shot, or it was Erend doing the watching.
She had taken the silks and packed them away, they would be useful. They wouldn't go to waste. They were hers, she had every right to take them. At least, she thought so. She was taking them anyway.
She honestly did like both men quite a lot for different ways, and didn't blame them for trying to keep her here, because they could see her restless spirit. They all could, her eyes seemed to hold no secrets. It wasn't until late afternoon that she finally found her chance. She had all her things with her, she was ready to go, all she had to do was pick up her armour and disappear into the afternoon before all of this could start. But at the gate, Erend grabbed her by the wrist. “I know what you're planning.” He said gruffly, “and if you leave, it'll be seen as a personal insult.”
“Why aren't you stopping me?” She asked, he let go of her wrist. There was no use lying to him, not when he wasn't trying to stop her.
“This doesn't seem like your thing, Ersa was like that too. But she put up with it because Avad asked her to.”
“I don't think he ever asked me directly, he just made it happen.” She murmured bitterly.
“He forgets sometimes, we've all been through a lot. What do you want me to tell them? About why you're not going to be here tonight?”
Aloy couldn't help the grin on her face. “I need to return to the All-Mother. My safety is at risk, and if I don't deal with it now, I can't guarantee how much longer I'll be around.”
“Sounds serious. Be safe, alright? Come back to visit, don't be a stranger.”
“I'll return.” He clapped her shoulder and she briefly clasped his wrist. “Thank you.” And with that she took off at a jog back to the seamstress. Erend bought her time some, but probably not enough. The seamstress beamed when she arrived, and brought her repaired armour to her with a bright smile. It looked like new.
“Here you go, I hope you're happy with my work.”
“Of course.” She said, grinning and happy and a little flushed with excitement. She'd be out of here soon. The seamstress asked for payment, which was a breath of fresh air in the suffocating city. “Do you mind if I change?”
With her bow on her back and her spear at her hip, she stood at the edge of the walls. It was a long way down, if she messed this up she was dead. She tied the rope to stone, cut a short length of rope and placed it under the first one. Move quickly, now. She lit the short rope on fire, and when it began to burn she tossed some of the rope off the cliff and threw herself off of it. The theory was that she would make it down safely and when the rope burned, she could just pull on the rope and bring it down to her. She wasn't about to risk the city in her haste to get out without being seen.
But not everything goes to plan. The rope burned too quickly, became slack then fell, taking her with it. She tried to save the fall but landed, hard, on the dirt. She cried out, flat on her back and staring at the sky and leaves with watery eyes from the pain. Whatever she'd torn in her thigh had torn again and it felt like a blade had been jammed in there. But she was free. She was alive, she was out of there and she didn't plan to return anytime soon. As soon as she could get up, she would be away from all this.
But the first of which was wrapping her leg for some stability. She knew the fine silks were going to be useful, so she used the tip of the spear to cut a length of it off from the rest. With one piece between her teeth, she wrapped it tight around her thigh and tied it off. It still hurt, but she could walk on it until it healed. Where she was going she didn't need to walk much.
There was some solace in finding Elisabet's final resting place. Touching the old armour and clearing away the vines and leaves. It was comforting to see her. It was comforting to listen to old recordings of her voice. By then the limp had mostly healed.
A week after she had run from the Meridian celebration, she returned to the place she grew up. It was hardly her home anymore, the memories were still thick and consuming. Like she was a little girl again, insisting that she was going to win the Proving. Rost's gentle guidance leading her through her life. She dismounted the Strider, shooed it away, and walked to his grave. She placed flowers on the warm afternoon stone, sitting down in the grass next to it, and began to talk.
She told him everything she had been through. Going through each journey she had taken, step by step, telling him about every person she had met along the way. It left her feeling hollow, retelling everything that had happened. It felt like she had nowhere to go now that the fighting was over. It was like she had nothing left to do here, nowhere to go and no real plans. Her road had ended and now she had no clue as to where she was supposed to go next. There were places she could go, maybe, but nowhere really felt like home. The road had become her home. She had her answers, and now she was left searching an endless sky for something else, or for another question to ask.
Somehow she wasn't surprised when Nil emerged from around the corner. “You're deep into Nora lands.” She commented, her voice thick with emotion that felt tight around her chest.
“You are too, Aloy Despite the Nora.”
She frowned, unaware that he had spoken to Talanah, and even more so unaware that he had been asking about her. Or that he had chosen to stick around after the battle. Wordlessly, she grabbed the focus off her head and tucked it away, wrapping it in fabric just to be safe. She hated that something that had once been so dear to her now filled her with uncertainty. “Why are you here, Nil?” She asked, feeling alone without the little piece of machine.
“You disappeared right when they were about to praise your name to the Sun. You left quite the impression. They didn't even know you left, the chaos was a thing of beauty. It seems that abandoning your titles is common for you.” He was smirking at her, or maybe it was just grinning. The evening sun was in her eyes.
“You seem to give them to me all the time.” She pointed out, shrugging half-heartedly.
“Ah, but none of them really stick, do they?”
“Despite the Nora,” she responded, her voice more bitter than she intended.
“And Partner.” He said, this time she could tell it was a brief grin he flashed her. She frowned.
“With all the bandits dead and the machines calming, what is there for you to do, Nil?”
He sat down across from her with slow calculated movements, on the other side of Rost's grave. “I'm in the market for a new partner.” He started, his eyes focused on her intently. “Or maybe even just a sense of purpose.” He presented his vulnerabilities so casually, as if he trusted her or he saw that information as common knowledge. She stared at him, trying to find some truth in his stormy grey eyes. Instead of anything she expected, she found a placid acceptance. He stared at her honestly, without any barriers.
“How do you track me?” She asked, uncertain how to respond to the intensity of his gaze.
“Follow the trail of machine husks and smoke. At the end of that path I guarantee there will be a girl with hair red as blood and eyes as deep as the sky fighting her way through anything daring enough to stand in her way.”
Aloy blushed, scoffed, and looked away from him. She didn't say anything else for a few long minutes, contemplating all of this. And when the heat subsided she looked back at him, his gaze hadn't wavered from hers. The intensity of it was intimidating, she didn't know if she was strong enough to keep meeting his eyes. He looked like he was searching for something within her. She didn't think she held any answers. When it came to tearing through metal she had no hesitation, but being caught in the intensity of someone's gaze like this she was a little out of her element.
“There's a man named Sylens that was guiding me on my path.” She touched her hand where the focus normally was, he hadn't asked but she was telling. “He was able to access everything I saw through my focus. Now that the fighting is over, I need to make sure no one else will be able to do that again.” Especially after he had oh-so-kindly butted in the first time he'd touched her. There was a flicker of something in his eyes, something that might have been a flash of hope. “I need to go into Mother's Heart. See if I can access something that will help me.”
“Then lead the way, Sunshine.” He said, and it seemed like a part of him had returned for that moment alone.
“You might have been able to sneak by the Nora, but you won't be able to get into Mother's Heart dressed like that.” She observed, he was still wearing his Carja uniform. Nora's didn't usually wear red, nor did they expose so much skin. She cast her eyes to the grave they sat next to, reaching out to touch the warm stone. She wasn't looking for a partner. Not really, she hadn't met anyone who could keep up with her. While her and Nil had effortlessly worked together to clear the camps, she didn't know the full limits of his skills just yet. But she wasn't looking for anyone, she didn't need anyone.
There was something dark within Nil, something that might possibly be broken. She wasn't so foolish to think that she could fix him, not that she wanted to either. In a way, they were both in the same situation. Their roads had ended together in an explosion of dust and grit and blood. Now they were both floundering, uncertain where to go next with no clear direction. But Nil's appearances were always so brief, she didn't expect him to be around long enough for him to be a true partner. She didn't think Rost would have minded what she was planning here, so she stood on unsteady legs from sitting for so long and began to walk to the place she'd once called home. Nil followed behind her as she walked to the front door.
The door was near rusted shut, and inside it smelt like stagnant dust and old ash. The fire had long ago burnt out, but the remains of burnt wood stayed. She ran her fingertips against the walls as she walked, kicking up dust from the floor. Nil watched her from the doorway, quiet to not disturb the weird tremble in her limbs. She went to Rost's bed, to the feeble wood doors that kept his clothes. It opened easily, and she searched through the cloth until she found what she was looking for. He'd been a Brave, back then, and as she searched she found the outfit. It was faded in colour, full of dust, but she shook it out and it seemed to be fine enough to get Nil into Mother's Heart without question.
“Try these.” She said, her voice shook and this time, she didn't bother trying to conceal it. She wasn't so sure yet why this was getting to her so much. She handed the clothes to him, letting out a soft shaky breath. He took them, moving slowly as if he were worried any sudden movement would cause her to break. He could probably see it written on her face. He set the clothes on the old table and began to undress. She yelped, turning away quickly and cupping her hand by her eyes so she couldn't be tempted to peek. She was shaking, it felt as though she were breaking apart completely and unable to stop it. From the sorrow holding tight to her chest from being here, where she and Rost once lived, to the shock at a man getting undressed in front of her, she was under the water and sinking fast.
“Don't be so modest.” Nil chuckled, she supposed it was at least good he seemed to be back to teasing her.
When she did look at him again, wearing the clothes Rost had once worn, something sad hit her like a tree falling in a forest. She let out a breath, tried to keep the tears away. “You need to look like a Brave.” She said, choking on her words, it was an old style of dress that they didn't wear anymore. Nil's knife was on top of his Carja uniform, she grabbed it hard but before she could start cutting off the stray threads and extra embellishments, he grabbed her wrist. The touch jolted through her, ice cold water seeping straight to her skin, her stomach lurched.
“You're not going to gut me, are you?” He asked, voice heavy. She looked up at him and knew he could see the struggle she was battling. He let go of her wrist, she grabbed a thread and slid the knife cleanly along it to remove it. He was taller than her, she only needed to look at where she was working and he wouldn't see the way her eyes began to fill. “Who was he?” He asked, after a minute of her carefully cutting off bits of fur and leather.
“My mentor.” She said, there was no use concealing it now. “He was like a father to me. He taught me everything I know.”
She jumped when his thumb touched her cheek, wiping tears away. Hurriedly she stepped back from him to wipe them off the bridge of her nose herself. “He did a fine job.” He said, but didn't look at her. Instead, he began to gather the bits of cloth and stray feathers off the floor and set it on the table. She stepped in again, he still looked away, as if respecting her tears and her grief. Once the last bit was cut away, she set the knife down and stepped back. It wasn't perfect, but he looked like a Brave. She only had to hope that Teersa was the one she would deal with when she got there.
But it was time to go, she wiped her cheeks again and made to leave, to head to Mother's Heart so she could get this taken care of. Instead, he moved to stand between her and the door. He didn't touch her, but his hands hovered over her shoulders. She could feel the heat of his palms, and when she looked up at him he seemed to stare straight into her core. “If you haven't given yourself time to grieve, Aloy, then maybe now is the time. I will step outside and leave you to your rest.” He said it as an offer, but he left no room for disagreeing. When she said nothing, his hands fell onto her shoulders so gently but it felt like he'd forced all his weight on them, her knees buckled. “Sleep, we will leave tomorrow.”
Then he stepped away, left her alone in the room and disappeared. She wasn't sure if she'd see him again. But that didn't matter, whatever was going to happen would happen. And it wasn't like he was wrong, either. She had never given herself a chance to grieve. She had accepted his death with a firm hand and ran that grief as drive to find out what her purpose was. Erend and Avad had a chance to mourn the loss of Ersa, Aloy had never given herself that luxury.
So for the first time, she sunk to the dusty floor and let it overtake her.
After the waves of despair had passed, after she had calmed, after the waves receded, she picked herself up off the floor. Using her hands to steady herself, she wiped her cheeks and concentrated on breathing. She was so tired. She felt raw and exposed but – in a way – better than she did before. She gathered the old woven blankets and pillows off the beds and carried them outside. She walked slowly, head down like a wounded animal, to where Nil lay in the grass. He was awake, and spared her only a glance before looking at the stars again.
She tossed half of the mess of fabric in her arms at him, and dropped the other beside him. She lowered herself to the ground, adjusting the blankets to be comfortable, and lay down. It didn't feel right to sleep in the house, she didn't think it ever would. She fell quickly into a dreamless sleep.
When she woke, Nil was not beside her, but he was sitting a little ways away from her, staring at the sky and bathed in the glow of a yellow sunrise. She edged her way over to him, her palms in the dewy grass. When she sat next to him, her legs facing the opposite direction his were, she touched his arm. The touch was a ripple of white-hot current ripping through her, but she persisted. He looked at her, stormy crystal eyes meeting hers. “Nil.” She said, her voice rough but not betraying her this time. “Are you okay?”
“While I am more interested in the secrets you carry, I suppose the secrets of the world will do just fine for now.”
No one spared him a second glance when they entered Mother's Heart. But they paid attention to her, whispering praise. She ignored it, and walked with her head held high. No fear, no hesitation, and Nil kept at her side while she led the way up the path. No one stood in her way as they walked to the cave, and thankfully, it was only Teersa who stood inside. She greeted her, Aloy smiled in return. “I need to speak to the Goddess.” She said.
“But what purpose does he serve?” She asked, eyeing him with a hint of suspicion.
She hadn't actually thought about why she might need him, only that she might have to bully her way in if someone gave her trouble. Quickly, she needed to come up with something passable. Anything would do. She expected a fight, not a question. But she needed to make sure she would understand it, the Nora wouldn't understand what GAIA was. “I wish to ask the Goddess.. permission.” And bowed her head, almost in shame, hoping she wouldn't see through the lie. She did spare a brief glance at her travelling partner, who said nothing. She really hoped she didn't need to explain any more.
Teersa frowned. “I don't think you need All Mother's blessing, but very well, Aloy. I understand you are alone, and the road you've taken to get here. If you wish to find All Mother's blessing about your mate, I will not stop you.”
It was as simple as that, it seemed, she held her palm to Nil, wordlessly instructing him to wait for a moment, and stepped up to the platform in front of the entrance. The little light shone on her, scanning her. The automated voice spoke –Hold for identiscan– and she waited, holding her breath. –genetic identity confirmed, entry authorized. Greetings, doctor Sobek. You are cleared to proceed–
With a nod to Nil as the door opened, they stepped through together. He only observed, this wasn't what he was used to, and he expected he'd only ever seen this in ruins before.
Once they'd passed through the rooms to Elisabet's office, she let out a small sigh of relief. That had been much easier than she thought. Only a simple lie that she and Nil were more than – at the moment – travellers travelling together. “GAIA?” She called into the quiet room, and all at once the lights lit up and the hologram of GAIA materialized.
–Greetings doctor Sobek–
“Please,” she started, wearily, “it's Aloy.”
–Very well. Greetings, Aloy. Database updating. Query, who is with you?–
“This is my friend, Nil. Allow him, uh, access, please. Even if I'm not here.”
–Very well. Hold for identiscan input–
Little beads of light began to scan Nil's face, running over each line of his face with flickering glow. He stayed still, allowing the machine to work.
–Identiscan input complete. Greetings, Nil–
He nodded, Aloy pulled the focus off her ear. “GAIA, can you access my focus? I need you to do something.”
–If I am able to, I will help. Place focus on the screen–
She stepped towards the screen, she set the device down inside the slowly rotating half circles on the screen, then stepped back. A little map of everywhere she'd been popped up, words moving too fast for her to see flickered along the right side of it. Records, conversations, she could probably even find images of Rost on it. She smiled with a sad kind of fondness at the though.
“Awhile back,” she started, snapping herself out of her wistfulness. “A man named Sylens was able to see what I saw through my focus. Everything I said, everything I did was visible to him. I need to make sure that won't happen again.”
–Confirmed. I can disable all input from other devices across the system. All focus devices will need permission from focus owner to receive contact from another focus user–
“Yes, that sounds perfect.” She said, gratefully.
She exhaled a deep sigh and turned back to Nil, “How many of the world's secrets do you want to know?” She asked, in return he peered into her soul. Intently. He didn't look like he was seeking answers anymore, but he looked like there was something within him that was burning. She couldn't tell if that was a good thing or not.
“While I am more interested in the secrets you carry, I suppose the secrets of the world will do just fine for now.” His smooth voice and casual way of spilling what he was actually thinking.
She sighed, uncertain if she liked the usual Nil or the sullen one lost in his thoughts better. “GAIA, play the transmission I saw when I first came here.”
–Downloading. .. Download complete. Begin playback–
She sat on the floor, and he sat beside her to watch. The hologram had his attention and when it was over, he turned to her. “I started out trying to find my mother, instead, I found this.” And she began speaking, telling him everything she had gone through up until this point. At some point, GAIA interrupted her and told her the focus update was complete. But she was lost in her story. She wanted to reach out to him, she wanted to put a hand on his chest and see if that spark was still there. See if her stomach still churned whenever they got too close. But now, after she finished the story and he said nothing, she began to feel a little lost too. So she met his gaze and tried to find her answers in him. There was nothing, he was unreadable and gave no hints.
–Aloy. There is a disturbance at the doors–
Her eyes widened, “Oh no, how long have we been here?”
–One hour and twenty seven minutes–
She swore under her breath, scrambling to her feet. She swiped the focus off the screen and put it back, turning to look helplessly at Nil. When she started for the door Nil was in front of her, she was half panicked and shaking. Nervous and worried and mentally preparing herself to fight her way out. “Take a moment to calm down.” He said, softly, his hands hovering over her shoulders. “Breathe deeply.”
“The tribe doesn't understand what GAIA is. I couldn't explain it to them, they would never understand.” She said hopelessly, wishing he'd put his hands on her instead of just holding them a little too far away.
“Then how about we walk out of here, holding our heads high, and ignore everything they say?” He suggested.
“What if I need to come back here?” She murmured, feeling weaker by the second.
–Negative. I can be with you at any time, and my controls can be accessed by any terminal–
“There's our answer.”
“But what about---?” But she cut herself off, because the place she grew up wasn't home anymore. “Fine.” Her eyes felt wet. “Let's get out of here.”
So they left, picking through the empty steel rooms and reaching the entrance. She was nervous, her hand on the cool metal, she could only imagine what was waiting for them on the other side. Worried, she turned to Nil for comfort. He nodded, reassuring, she sighed and stepped back as the door opened. “There she is!” Someone was shouting, shrill, Lansra.
“There she is! The defiler of the All Mother!” Lansra shrieked, “how care you bring an outsider to the Goddess? And then dare to consummate under Her. The daughter of the Metal Devil deserves no blessing!”
Don't think. Don't breathe. Keep walking. She repeated the words in her head over and over. Trying to stay calm, trying to stay rational. But Lansra's voice was slowly fading because she hadn't stopped shouting and Aloy hadn't stopped walking. The sun was bright in her eyes and she remained still and silent. She didn't slow down or stop until she had crossed the bridge, her breath came fast and she held her spear tight in her hands. With a shout, she swung it into a tree with all the force she had in her. Her breath came in short bursts, half whimpers, the spear embedded into the bark, she'd pulled something in her back and her wrists had vibrated with the force of the hit. The birds she had scared off were still fluttering in the sky.
Nil made to speak, and she wrenched the spear from the wood and pointed the tip at him, right under his nose. “What?!” She demanded, taking steps towards him as he took them away from her. “You want to try to kill each other, Nil? Is that what you want? Is that why you came all the way here?”
“No” he said, raising his hands, palms facing her. “You declined my offer already, I am not going to force you.”
“Well maybe I want to fight you!” She growled, frustrated and knowing she needed to stop taking it out on him but unable to see straight. At least she was used to being treated like that, and she hated the assumption that she had done something like that.
Nil closed his hand over the spear, outraged, Aloy yanked the spear from him without thinking. There was a splash of blood, and somehow the shocking red of it began to calm her. She watched it drip down to his wrist, dropped the spear, and walked away from him. He gave her a few minutes, but eventually he sat down beside her and placed the spear between them. She untied the silk from her thigh, it had been there a week to make sure it would heal without issue, and tore a strip from her teeth and tore a second scrap of it as she got up. She dunked the scrap in the river in front of them and wrung it out as she walked back to Nil, kneeling in front of him. Roughly, she grabbed his wrist and ignored the way his skin felt hot under her fingers. She wiped the blood with the wet cloth, and once the wound was clean and weeping slowly she tied the silk around his fingers. “I'm sorry.” She said, looking down at the grass between them so she didn't have to meet his gaze.
His free hand moved to her, his thumb pressing against her chin and his fingers curling under her jaw and tilting her head up to meet his gaze. “Your thirst for blood matches mine.” He murmured, her heart raced.
“Hardly.” She retorted, glaring at him.
With a smirk, he spoke. “There's a whisper of bandits south of Meridian, past the cliffs. Let's pay them a visit.”
With no other goals, she nodded, jerking her head away from his grasp and standing up and away from him, trying not to stumble into the river. She stuck fingers in her mouth and blew, whistling into the late morning air. A Strider trotted over to them, and she wondered if she could call another. She'd overridden multiple machines at the same time before, but she had never had two mounts. So she grabbed her spear and hopped on, whistling again. And, to her surprise, another one did show up, trotting over and standing next to the first. “Okay, let's go.” She said, and it was only then she realized she tasted blood from when she'd wrapped the silk around Nil's hand.
They went back to the place she grew up first, Nil changed and she waited, taking in the sights for the last time. She was probably overreacting a little bit, but she didn't know when she would be back. There was a chance they would attempt to exile her.
They rode to the edge of Nora lands after that, where she knew there was a Stormbird who liked to patrol the area. She had an idea, uncertain if it was even possible, but she wanted to try it. She'd never flown before, and if there were any bandits two hunters showing up on the back of a monster machine would be enough to scare any more from daring to try. Even if she did prefer stealth to get in anywhere, this would be impressive at the very least.
It took two arrows to catch the machine's attention. It screeched, forming electricity in its chest. “Come on, land.” She murmured, dodging the blasts as they came. Once it got lower she loaded her ropes, shooting it in the wings and the chest until it was anchored. Once it was, she ran up to it and thrust the end of her spear against it. She'd never overridden anything so big, she didn't know if it would stay overridden long enough for her to do this. But it did work, that last Cauldron she and Nil had gone into had allowed her to figure this one out. Once it was docile, looking at her as curiously as a machine could look at her, she undid the ropes and used the mechanical pieces of its body to climb up it. Once she was there, she stuck her spear into its back, she should be able to control it from there, in theory anyways. She flashed a grin at Nil, who was staring at her with some kind of surprised expression, as if he had no idea what she was planning on. But, without questioning her judgment – and she was questioning her own judgment – he climbed on as well and perched behind her. “Hold on” she advised.
The bird opened its wings and with one flap they were rising into the air. The thrill of being lifted, so high already after only a few movements of its wings, took the breath from her lungs and when Nil's hand came to rest on her waist she felt a little dizzy. She knew that overriding bigger machines didn't keep them under her control for long, but this way should allow her to keep it under her command for long enough to soar the skies to where they were going.
They flew, and below them as the sun began to set the world was so tiny from up here and bathed in red. She'd never seen anything like it before. There was a feeling of weightlessness, the cold air biting her skin. “You never stop amazing me.” Nil murmured, leaning forwards and breathing the words into her ear. Here she was, soaring the endless sky, and suddenly all she could think about was the man behind her. He could have sat further away from her, there was plenty of room on the back of the machine. They sat ahead of its wings, along its neck. He could have sat anywhere else where her hair wouldn't blow in his face so he could see better. They flew into the fire red sunset and she was trying not to think; she pushed her back against his chest and tried to keep calm. “What are you doing?” He asked, his breath hot. Ashamed, she pulled away but his hand moved to her stomach and pulled her back to him. She squeezed her eyes shut.
“If you stay with me.” Nil said, his voice low. “I fear I will destroy you.”
“Wait. Bide our time. Stay on guard, then do what we do best. Have you satisfied your bloodlust yet?”
They flew into the night, the Stormbird did try to attack a few things that passed under them if they flew too low. She just had to input her direction, and it corrected itself and flew higher. She felt like she could touch the stars. She hadn't responded to Nil's words, but had continued to settle back in his arms every time she leaned forwards to ensure she was still in control. And he allowed it, every time. She didn't even really like him, but he was warm and the air up here was like ice. He would never destroy her, she couldn't be destroyed. She was drawn to him, pulled to him by a force she couldn't explain.
“We're getting close.” Nil said, gently, as if he were uneasy. She sat up, looking down at the faint blue lights below them, machines patrolling the area. She directed the bird lower, “there.” He said, “we can walk the rest of the way from there.” She had liked the idea of showing up on the back of a machine, but moving in quietly was better.
They landed, and shakily she climbed off the machine. She still felt a little dizzy and her legs felt weak, her back felt cold from where he wasn't. She didn't understand why a mere touch could do so much to her. Maybe it was from the lack of contact, so few people had given her that kind of attention, so suddenly getting it set her heart alight. She didn't think it had anything to do with him, but rather, the simple action itself. She didn't see stars and lights and hearts when she looked at him, she saw a man with a grin like blood covered teeth, a phrase he'd used before. A predator made for destruction and killing, but who she trusted not to turn on her. Nil was no mate, but he could be a partner.
The Stormbird lingered with them, but it was only a matter of time before the override ran out and they would have to fight it. So together they darted through the trees to get across the plateau.
It was a few minutes before they neared the edge, a village had been cut into the rock and stone. It was isolated, and she hadn't even seen any machines along the way. It was no easy journey up here. She watched for a few long minutes, Nil had disappeared from her side for the time being. He would be back, when there was a chance for him to kill, he was always going to be there.
The bandits had made themselves at home and stuck the villagers underground. She counted them through the focus, trying to find an easy way in. The walls were heavily reinforced, a stealth attack wouldn't be held for long. They would have to go in. When Nil returned, he pointed to the other side of the carefully erected walls. “That's our entrance.” He murmured, “take out what you can and meet me there, Princess.” Then he was leaving, disappearing into the night.
Aloy drew the bow, pulled the arrow tight and waited. When the first man fell, there were shouts. They were on high alert instantly, as if they expected this. Two hunters who had wiped the area clean of bandits were a formidable foe, they weren't taking chances here. So she rolled through the grass and made her way through the foliage to where Nil had pointed out.
And then it was just killing. Nil launched a few explosives and she peppered them with arrows until they bled out or died. Anyone who got too close got the sharp end of the spear or the clean sweep of Nil's knife. They tried to attack, but they couldn't get in a scratch. Something abut it felt off, like there was more to it than just this, this felt too easy. Once the bandits had all died, the two of them walked into the village as casually as if they were just buying an afternoon meal. The sun was beginning to rise, and with the focus, they found where the villagers were held.
Some were injured, others were exhausted. They'd been rounded up and forced underground one by one until all of them had been taken. They spilled into the fresh air of early morning, grateful, clasping Aloy's hand in relief and joy, Nil hung back instead of being joined in the cheer. Something about this whole thing felt too simple, like there should have been more or something else was still coming. She turned to Nil for answers, but he offered none. As the villagers made to clean the bodies off the soaked earth, she walked towards him.”Please tell me I'm not the only one who thought that was too easy.” She said.
“You're not the only one, girl, there's something else in the air.”
“What do we do about it?” She asked, he cast his eyes to the horizon.
“Wait. Bide our time. Stay on guard, then do what we do best. Have you satisfied your bloodlust yet?”
“It's hardly bloodlust, Nil.” In reply he held up the hand with a bit of silk tied around his fingers where she had cut him. She frowned, but decided to take a page out of Nil's book, and simply walked away. She was tired, they had been at this for too long now. It was this point that she expected Nil to vanish into the night, and then she would be alone again. After checking that everyone was okay, she retreated from the village and climbed back into the grass she'd originally watched from. She could rest here, for a little bit anyway.
Aloy hauled herself over to a tree, her ankles in the grass, and pressed her back against it. Just a few minutes would be enough, that's all she needed. As she closed her eyes, she found herself not missing Nil's presence. She didn't know if it was because she felt nothing for him or because she was confident he would be back soon enough.
She woke a few hours later, groaning when she tried to move. Her back ached, it felt like she had been forcefully bent in half. Instead of trying to stand with the crippling pain from sleeping slouched over for so long, she just lay on the ground, trying to ease herself into getting up again. When she looked up, there he was. Of course, sitting there with a coy smile on his face as she struggled. “Of course you're here.” She grumped, rolling and then using her arms to push herself up to her knees. Then, was able to sit up enough to sit on her heels. She arched her back, stretching it out, trying to work out the tension in her back.
Behind that little smile of his, there was something else. Something searching. “I need to walk.” She declared, voice pinched, and started moving. That was feeling much better. She didn't check to make sure Nil was following, she knew he would. But it made her wonder what he was thinking. Was it always going to be like this? A goal and bloodshed, then this wandering until he found the next path? She found herself feeling the same way.
She stopped in a clearing, somewhere water had gathered and was spilling out over rocks, she could hear it. Nil stopped in front of her. “So I guess I can consider you my partner now.” She observed. “You haven't left since you found me at Rost's. This is the longest I've ever seen you.”
“You could say I found someone worthy enough to be my partner. You are smarter than my last one, I know you won't get yourself killed like he did either. But if you want me to leave, you need only give the word.”
“That's good to know.” Telling him to leave was the last thought on her mind. It was nice to have some company. Even if he lived for the taste of blood in the air, she did not. She preferred to help people to help them, Nil helped people because he saw killing as a sport.
Aloy inhaled, a sharp pain left of her lower back without warning. She stumbled forwards, trying to locate the source of the pain from behind them, but her vision began to blur too quickly to see anything. Nil's hands were on her shoulders, keeping her upright. Very quickly, her head began to feel light and dizzy. It wasn't like riding the bird high in the air, it felt different. It felt wrong. She looked up at Nil, he looked concerned and it looked like he was saying something but there was a high pitched ringing in her ears. Her vision fogged as she lost her balance. But he was there, tightening his arms around her as she began to lose touch with everything around her. Her last thoughts were feeling the low rumble in his chest and knowing he was there. She wasn't alone, she would be fine. What a ridiculous thought.
But on the other side of the river, he thought he caught another glimpse of blood.
When he woke up, Aloy was gone. Her spear and her bow had not gone with her, but her focus had. He put a hand to his forehead, trying to press the dull ache out from behind his eyes. There was blood on his hands, her blood. When she had stumbled towards him, as if she'd been hit with something, he had put his hands on her arms to steady her. It had quickly become apparent that whatever was happening was worse than that, when her intense eyes had clouded he had firmly grabbed her. When she continued to sink, he had wrapped his arms around her and put his hand to her back and her armour had been wet with blood. There was something there, too, but he didn't have a chance to do anything about it before a sharp pain rocked through his shoulder. Understanding that he couldn't fight it, he wrapped his arms even tighter around his companion in a vain attempt to keep her safe. He knew it wouldn't work, he knew they would be pried apart but she wasn't quite out yet, he'd seen that panicked fear in her eyes when she realized what was happening. His last moments could be that of comfort, breathing in the smell of her hair and hoping that his arms alone could be enough to save her.
His body ached, the dart was half embedded into the meat of his shoulder, caught on his vest. He made to grab it and flinched, reversed barbs. Of course. With a sigh through gritted teeth he ripped it from him, stifling a groan. At least it hadn't been deep, or at least as deep as he thought. He untied that little bit of silk so delicately wrapped around his fingers and used it to dab the blood as he inspected the piece of machine. There was still some left in it, and it poured out into the grass. He didn't get a full dose, but she had. He would have a few hours, at most, to get to her before she woke.
He'd known something was going to happen, it's why he had left the village and left Aloy to her own devices. He'd searched the village and area for clues, anything that would help. There was nothing nearby and no one around, no one other than the villagers. He'd asked them questions, trying to get the full story, trying to tell if someone had seen anything that could be useful to them. None of them had any clues, they were just relieved to be safe again. Some were hauling away the bodies, the trophies of their work. He watched almost sadly for a moment, and had gone to find her again. He found her sleeping, he had brushed a stray piece of fire-red hair from her face – a sin, he knew, but the action had happened before he had a chance to stop himself – and kept watch. Allowing her to her rest to make sure she was safe. He remembered watching her with unashamed eyes, the little gap of creamy pale skin between her belt and her top and the rise and fall of her chest as she slept. But the guilt had become too much before long, and he had turned away. One could only gaze at the sun for so long.
Aloy was gone now, and he didn't know how to find her. Even the dart was unassuming, the main of it could be found with most merchants, even pulled off some machines. It had been filled with whatever poison they'd used to so cleanly knock them both out. But these weren't bandits, bandits would never attack in such a sophisticated way. This was more, and he suspected that village was the lure. Get them here, let them clear the town of filth, then ambush. It was clever, it was his mistake to assume they were dealing with the usual scum.
He needed to find her, and he needed to do it soon. He sat in the grass for a few moments, eyeing the lines of her bow before looking at her spear. The strange device wired to the end stood out to him, he leaned forward and grabbed it, hadn't she given him access to GAIA? “Maybe..” he murmured, he needed to find the nearest terminal, or access point, or something. If GAIA could find her focus, then he could find her. He knew her well enough by now, he knew there was no force strong enough in nature or otherwise to keep her down or captive for long. Aloy was strength personified, a wildfire that burnt everything in its path, a storm that commanded both respect and fear. He had been drawn to her from the beginning, her light and her beauty was rivalled by none. And then he learned she was a fighter. Working at her side had shown him the bleak and dark world he lived in might have had a bit of hope after all, and when it was all over he could think of no greater honour than having her be the one to end his broken life.
But even with the way he saw her, he could still see her flaws. He wasn't so taken that he was unaware of them. Like the fire he so fondly related her to, she was destructive. There was something in her that was broken too, her flaws were laid bare before him. She wasn't nearly as far gone as he was, when he had found her in Nora lands he hadn't been sure what he would find. He found a girl at the end of her rope, unhappy and a little lost and on the verge of breaking down. He couldn't help but to brush her tears away, he had fought the urge for so long. But she had not hit him for it, he could be thankful for that. He had encouraged her to give in to her darkness, for a little while at least. And when she emerged later, he hadn't said anything to her. It had been his first sight of the core of her, the one he hadn't realized was so similar to his. When she'd touched his arm in the early morning he had wondered how he had convinced her that he was somehow worth anything.
When she had fallen back into him, on the way here on the back of a massive flying machine, he had thought that she must have been mistaken. She had been clear that he wasn't up to her standards, and he was okay with that. There was more blood on his hands than entire armies, she had to have known this, yet she still pushed her back into his chest and settled there. When she had pulled away after he spoke, he'd pulled her back without thinking as his hands trembled. He'd told her that he feared he would destroy her, he wasn't the type to fit in to normal society. Even from a young age he had known that, and now it was just a simple fact, it was just who he was. He worried that he would bring her into something she couldn't handle, that he would take her somewhere and she wouldn't be able to come back from it. He worried he would drive her to somewhere dark that he couldn't touch. If he let her in, even though he knew she didn't want to have access to where he was the most infected by it, his darkness would leech out into her. How could he even think about risking corrupting someone greater than the Sun itself? She had her own monsters to fight, she didn't need his as well.
He wasn't going to be rescuing her, nothing was going to be able to take her down. He was getting there and he was going to stand at her side and enact their revenge on the scum that had taken her. But even if he was rescuing her, he knew she would be strong enough to walk on her own without his help. And if whoever had taken her had broken her, he would make sure to drag out their deaths long enough to hear their death rattle in the throats. And if they had killed her, he would keep them alive, and when they begged for their death he would laugh and leave them to rot away in whatever prison he built for them.
He stared at the spear and pulled himself to his feet. Contemplating for a moment, was it her, or was it just the spear? But when he whistled a Charger ambled towards him, obeying his command. He was actually quite shocked, it must have been something to do with the frequency of the noise that triggered something in them. He grabbed her bow from the ground and hauled himself onto the back of the machine, wielding her spear at his hip and urging it forwards. There was no easy way down from the plateau, but after riding the cliff for a few minutes he found an area that would be a little easier.
He scraped his palms with his descent, hopping to ledges and grasping branches and trees, but made it to the ground and whistled again. Another machine came towards him and he took off into the evening. He rode that machine into the Sun forsaken ground, urging it faster and faster until it couldn't continue. Its mechanical joints fusing together from the heat, electricity sparking from it, like a wounded animal it collapsed under him. He drove Aloy's spear into it as it looked up at him, as if in weary thankfulness, killing it. If nothing else, he could show it some small mercy, and placed his hand on the warm metal in thanks for a brief moment.
The ruins were close by, all he had to do was look for an entrance. When he entered, the air smelling of dust and damp, he called for GAIA. Nothing. So he kept moving, going deeper into the ruins to try to find anything that would help him. Nothing was around, and if it was it would be dead, regardless of what it was. He had a purpose, he had a drive, his heart was ringing in his ears and he pushed onwards. He let out a sigh of relief when he found a large set of doors, similar to the ones in Mother's Heart. He stood at the platform, hoping it would still work after all this time.
–Hold for identiscan–
When the doors opened, he rushed in. Aloy was a damn miracle, giving him this kind of access. He didn't know what he'd have done if he had no way to get in, or if he hadn't been accepted by the blinking scan. Once inside, he ignored the recording and instead followed the lights until he found something similar to what he had seen before. He tapped at the screen and it lit up. “GAIA?” He asked, and stepped back as the hologram appeared.
“Aloy has been taken. I need you to find her through the focus.” He said.
–Focus is offline, Aloy, not found–
Horror swept down his spine, what had they done to her? “Last known location?” He asked, desperately, almost begging. A map appeared, and further south where the trees grew so thick they blotted out the sun there was a little dot, blinking. Near a river. If her focus had been destroyed, he wouldn't be able to follow her any further than that. But maybe there would be some sign of a trail or some hint as to where she had been taken.
He was going to have to bring her a new device. “Where is the nearest focus?” He asked, trying to memorize the location on the map. He should be able to use the focus himself to find her as he got closer.
–There are two in this facility, currently unlinked. Query, am I assigning one to you?–
“No, just one for her.” He had no use for it, and for as long as they stayed together they would only need one anyways. But that was him being hopeful, soon enough she would continue on her own road again without him. Then he would be back to isolation without her, but it would be better for her. He knew what he was.
–Confirmed. Place focus on the screen–
The devices were stored in the room, he began to open drawers until he found two little triangles nestled in the corner. He grabbed one and set it down on the screen, it lit up as all of Aloy's memories and recordings uploaded onto it.
“Thank you. If I need you, I will ask.”
With that, he left, jogging back out into the night and whistling for another mount. He urged it forwards, following his memory for now until he began to get closer to the thick of trees. It was the dead of night and the only light under the branches was the light of the machine he rode. Almost hesitantly he placed the focus on his ear, like Aloy had done, and checked his surroundings. He was on the right track, and he could see the use in this thing. He could see the little creatures illuminated with it. Occasionally, as he traversed deeper, he would check again.
Her ability to track came down to this thing, it wasn't her, she had help. The knowledge of that was almost soothing, she wasn't super-human. It made her feel more real, more touchable, more skilled. Aloy was a wonder, her tracking skills may have come from this device, but her combat skills were her own. Years of work went into her abilities, she was so driven, it was hard to look at her and see the way she seemed so lost. He could see the frustration under her skin because it matched his own so well.
He heard the ripple of the river as the sky began to lighten, it began to brighten the pitch black of the forest, he didn't need the focus anymore as he emerged to where the trees cut apart enough to see the light of the sun. He could see the signs of a scuffle, his best guess was that she had woken here and began to fight. And she had fought hard, there was blood on the rocks. He dismounted and swiped his fingers through it, still wet but sticky. Only a few hours had passed since she had been through here, if that. The air was moist, so maybe it was a little longer. He found the pieces of her focus, probably taken off her and destroyed, and found the dart as well. It matched the one that had been in him, but this one was mangled. Bent between the cartridge and the metal points, he winced as he picked it up, it hadn't been just removed from her, it had been twisted out of her. There were pieces of flesh caught in it, ants scurrying over the meat.
But on the other side of the river, he thought he caught another glimpse of blood. “Clever girl.” He muttered, approvingly, she'd tried to cause the most damage to herself possible, so she would bleed on her way and leave a trail for him to follow. She continued to amaze him, he didn't think that sense of awe would ever dissipate. So he plodded across the river, and began to follow. He was concerned about the blood, but unless they'd killed her and let the blood weep from her on its own, she would be alive and fighting.
The journey was short and easy to follow. He'd left the machine behind so he could enter undetected. Aloy had done her best to leave a mark, he couldn't quite think past how much he admired her determination. Not even what looked like a serious injury had been too great a risk to leave a path. Eventually the trees began to end and he could see where they'd taken her. An abandoned mining village, long left to rot under the sun. It was small and unassuming, probably would have been a nice enough place to stay back when it was thriving. As he scouted the area, looking for an in, looking where to fire his arrows, he heard a yell. Unmistakable, distinct, she had already escaped. “That's my girl.” He said to himself, approvingly. If he snuck in he could help get the jump on whoever had taken her. And at the very least, she was still alive. He had hoped he wouldn't need to carry a body back to the Nora.
He slipped past abandoned houses, close to the dip in the earth where the mines had been dug out into a small cliff side. And there she was, dressed in the rags they had put her in with dark bruises on her wrists and fighting with the handle of a wooden shovel, the metal had broken off long ago, bloodied and bent a little ways away from her. She was a bird made of pure light and fire, no cage would ever be strong enough to keep her. There were no chains thick enough to tie her down, he could almost see the wings she wore on her back, outstretched to the sun. Hair glinting in the sun, pale skin shining with sweat and blood and dirt.
And when she looked at him, from across the grey dirt, after his arrow embedded into the skull of the man in front of her, the beat that his heart skipped became the moment time halted and the world went silent.
Never in his life had he seen anyone or anything as beautiful as she was in that moment. Crimson hair, a spark in her eyes that could ignite the ruins of the Old Ones, a speck of blood on her cheek, fighting off anyone who dared challenge her with only a bit of wood. She had carved through a few of them already, they worse Eclipse masks. She was pure primal carnage and destruction and absolute beauty. And when she looked at him her eyes lit up brighter than the sun and when she smiled at him – brilliantly – his breath caught in his chest. He knew no one who even came close to her radiance, no one had ever looked at him like that, no one had cared enough to. From the moment he met her, from the first time she watched her take the life of a vile human, she had eclipsed the sun and all he saw was her thereafter. And there she was, smiling at him like his worthless life mattered. She was his redemption, she was his tether that kept him from falling off the earth. She shouted his name, he held her spear in his hand, stretching it to the sky, it was hers and he was never worthy of using it anyways. He closed the distance between them when the noise of the world returned to him, she dropped the broken wood and took the spear from his grasp. She smiled breathlessly at him. “What took you so long?” She was injured, he could see the blood sweeping down her back. He could see her laboured breathing, he could see how hard she fought to stay on her feet.
He plucked the focus off his head and held it to her, her eyes widened. “I had to get you one of these.” He said. He ached to put the focus on her ear himself, to knot his fingers in her hair and pull her in whisper all his confessions into her mouth. In the midst of the battle he had never seen her so clearly. But she would never know this, she didn't need to know this. They were his secrets, and she didn't want to know him that well.
“Nil, you..” she trailed off, putting the focus on her ear. He handed her her bow, and stood with his back to her. And they fought, together, now that she was fully armed she was impenetrable. And when the last man fell, she turned to him again.
“Get your things, I'll make sure they're dead.” He told her and stalked through the caves, killing anyone too cowardly to face them, relishing in their last rattled breath. Staring down at them as he watched the fear in their eyes turn into nothingness. And when they met again, she was wearing Carja armour instead of her usual outfit, her midriff exposed, her breathing still laboured and pained. The wound on her back continued to bleed, and she gave him a shaky smile. The adrenaline gone, the blood loss left her stumbling into him. He wrapped one arm around her shoulders and the other hooked around her knees and lifted her, she simply dropped her head to his shoulder, one of her hands falling to his collarbone. He held her there for a moment, watching her breath come fast. Her fingertips moved to his scarf, gripping it tightly.
He found himself worried, in that moment, that maybe she cared for him too despite what he said. That wasn't a good thing, but he still carried her to a place he could treat her wounds with his jaw against her forehead.
“It did, very well in fact. Significantly better than the last time I did this.”
“They wanted revenge.” Aloy said, “for what I did to their leader. Set up those bandits to draw me in, told them all they wanted me alive. That's why they were so easy to wipe out.” It hurt to breathe, she felt light-headed. “It would be their heads if I wound up dead.” She flinched as Nil squeezed water onto her back, her aching skin. She lay on her stomach, wearing only the thin shorts and top normally under the decorative pieces of metal of the armour. “They thought that if they sacrificed me they might be able to regain their following. Most -ow- had abandoned them.” She clenched her jaw, he was gently removing clotted blood and dirt from it, exposing the raw flesh. He'd built up a fire, set up some old rotten smelling sheets under her belly as the sun sank.
Nil worked gently but it didn't stop it from hurting. Her old armour was ruined in the fight, in the struggle near the river when they stopped to remove her focus when she woke (presumably they thought she would call for help through it), she had pulled away from them and landed hard on her back. So she'd tried to lodge the dart between the stones under her and writhed until it twisted out of her. The pain had been mind-numbing, but it had twisted from her body in the end. Her hope was that it would leave a trail, anything. Nil had no way to track her this far, but if he could get close enough he could find this. The last thing she'd expected was for him to actually find a focus. He'd taken it a step further than she could have anticipated.
“You have lost a lot of blood, it hasn't started to close, it keeps bleeding.” He said to her, still gently wiping with a sting at each swipe. “There's no way I would be able to sew it together, there isn't enough skin left.” She gritted her teeth and tried not to swallow her tongue. The mark felt raw and exposed, throbbing uselessly. A trickle of something wet swept down her side. Fear lurked in her stomach, this wasn't going to be easy.
“Cauterize it.” She bit out, this wasn't his fault and she needed to remember that she couldn't take it out on him.
“Are you sure?” He asked, his voice uncertain.
“Yes.” She snapped, and looked away from him as he grabbed a canister of blaze from his own supplies. She didn't look when he opened it, and hissed through her teeth when a fresh cloth was wet with it and pressed delicately against the open wound. She tried to find something she could bite into. She trusted him, but the fear of pain was making her mind race. She settled on an arrow, the wood was springy and not too hard. It would have to be enough.
“Are you ready?” He asked, she let out a small breath that sounded like a whimper and nodded, trying to prepare herself for something that would hurt more than she could even think about. Suddenly, his hand was next to her head, his palm facing the sky. Gratefully she placed her palm against his and threaded their fingers together, squeezing and trying to control her breathing.
The white-hot pain that came from the touch of the knife and the ignition of the blaze felt like the world split open and was tearing her apart. Her limbs felt torn from her body, her mind shut down and she didn't know if she was screaming or not because her entire world was nothing but pain. She understood now why one would rather embrace death than be in pain, Nil's talk when they first met about the pain of death made sense now. There would be no pain in death. A flash of cool and the heat stopped but the pain remained. But minutes passed and the heat began to fade and the fog in her head began to dull she began to come back to her body. Nil's hand was still in hers, his fingertips white from how hard she was squeezing, he was tracing her skin with his thumb and humming badly, and listened to the sound intently as her gasps for air receded into breathless whimpers. Tears were on her face and still running freely, and once she could feel her body again the burning hurt on her back left her terrified to move
“You're off key.” She said between pained noises she couldn't help but make. He only chuckled, but the humming stopped. He continued rubbing her skin but she found herself missing the sound. “D-did it work?” She asked, scared she would have to do that again.
“It did, very well in fact. Significantly better than the last time I did this.”
“You're done it before?” The sound of his voice was soothing and felt like something to grab onto. She could concentrate on his voice instead of the pain and that made things a little easier. It was all she could do to hold on and try to ride out the pain.
“When a man loses his arm in the throws of war, there isn't much time to be careful. Used a little too much blaze and singed away his eyebrows.”
“Did it work?”
“Last I knew he had three children and a woman who liked to fuss over him.” She let out a short breath of laughter and his fingers tightened over hers and he said: “Brace yourself.” Cool water washed over the burnt skin, she buried her face into her arm and tried not to cry out. But while the cold hurt, combating the heat felt a little bit better. It would be refreshing if it didn't hurt so much.
He didn't leave her side. He stayed there, her grip loosened on his hand and he kept stroking her skin. She blearily watched his hand in hers, watched the slow movement of his fingers. It was comforting, it was soothing. She didn't realize she had fallen asleep until she woke up. Her body was sore and his hand was still in hers, but his grip was slack and he had lain down beside her, asleep. The moon was high in the night sky and she just watched him breathe until she fell asleep again. She'd never actually seen him sleep before.
When she woke again, her hand was empty and the sun was scorching in the sky. Carefully, she reached a hand to her back and tried to touch the mark. It was tender, to the left of her spine and felt like the shape of a star, it felt slightly blistered and tight but it wasn't wet. She exhaled, slowly lifting herself to her knees and trying to keep her back from twisting. She wanted to get properly dressed, and looked down at the sheets she'd been laying on. Blood stained them, dull rusted red on grey rotted sheets. She was caught in watching it when Nil returned, she looked at him helplessly. He had a number of things in his arms, and dipped a clean cloth into the water from the river and handed it to her. She wiped the sticky blood off her stomach and the dried red off her waist. Then handed it to him so he could clean the rest she couldn't reach. He rubbed the leaves from the plant he carried between his fingers, and gently dabbed it over the mark. Then placed a few of them on the raw flesh gently, and methodically folded a clean cloth from his bag and laid it over the injury.
Then he began to wrap it as she sat up straight. He knelt close to her, she held her arms up as he passed the bundle of cloth from one hand to the other around and around her waist. His arms nearly around her, it would take nothing for her to just fall into him. She was so tired. Nil tied off the bandage and stood, grabbing something from the fire and handing it to her. “Eat.” He said, and briefly his hand touched the top of her head. Tenderly, affectionately.
They stayed there for the day, tossed the soiled sheets into the fire, he'd grabbed them because they were no loss once they got ruined. There were some supplies in the abandoned town, enough to allow them to scavenge. That evening he helped her to her feet, put out the fire and loaded both their things onto his back and helped her get out of the village, to the green grasses that grew alongside it and set up camp under a tree. He dug out another fire, lay sheets down for her to be comfortable, and let her keep sleeping. He hadn't asked if she wanted to stay in the town and seek shelter under a roof, instead he'd just known she would rather stay outside. Or maybe that was just his own preference that made him choose. But the bodies would begin to smell soon, and Nil probably didn't want to hide his work so soon, he probably wanted to lead them to rot as a reminder that they weren't about to be stopped. And now she was thinking like him, great. The grass was more comfortable, and not being so exposed felt better too.
They stayed there for a week, he took her bandages off once a day and left them off for it to breathe before putting clean ones on. She slept most of the time, waking to eat and murmur a soft thank you on occasion. Until she began to feel restless, when she wasn't sleeping as much. Waiting around like this had never suited her, but Rost had taught her from a young age that it was important to rest after an injury, especially when they were severe. If she didn't rest, it would cause her more damage in the long run. But she could flex and move now without pain. It was still a bit tight, but it wasn't crippling like it had been.
Together, they gathered their supplies and she attached the armour back on. It was only once she was fully covered, save for the exposed skin around her middle, that she realized that she had been rather under dressed for the last week. Somehow that hadn't really hit her until now, but it was a little strange that it had taken this long for her to notice. At this point she was comfortable around Nil, she didn't feel uneasy around him like she had in the beginning. This strange man talking about hunting humans for sport had put a sour taste in her mouth at first. Now she thought she understood.
With two mounts called, the two of them made their way back to a land that she, at least, was more familiar with. But they had no real direction and no real path. He seemed content like this, and she supposed she was too. There was something comfortable about their silence, but she and Rost had travelled in silence. He would give her the signal and she would follow his lead, or venture on her own. Nil was nothing like Rost, of course, but she didn't always see a need to fill silence with words. They travelled through the night, and when dawn broke to a grey and cloudy morning like the shade of Nil's eyes, they were nearing Meridian. She had no intention of returning there yet, she had no desire to. Too many people around wasn't really her idea of a good time. Not to mention how she had left.
Or at least, she didn't have any intention of entering Meridian until one of the guards stopped them. “You're Aloy of the Nora, aren't you?” He asked, gruffly. She wasn't surprised.
“Depends who's asking.” She replied curtly. She wasn't even sure if the Nora saw her as a Nora anymore.
“Sun-King Avad has been requiring your presence.” The guard gave a sideways glance to Nil, as if suspiciously. She frowned.
“Fine.” She said. “I'll be there by afternoon.” She urged the Broadhead's away from the path and a short distance away. She heaved a sigh and looked at Nil for guidance.
“It may be best to see what he wants, you may have spoken to him causally, but he is still a king who could revoke that.”
He didn't need to mention what had happened in Mother's Heart, she knew well what would happen if she went back. She didn't need more enemies, even this praise was better than being driven and hunted down. But would Avad really go so far as to label her a criminal? Would he send her to Sunstone rock? If her greatest sin was not attending some dinner, that was hardly grounds for punishment. It certainly wasn't worthy of informing all he guards that he wanted to find her. “I'll meet you here later.” She said, she probably shouldn't complain about having the guards informed to pass the message on, she could be a difficult girl to find.
Unless the person looking was Nil.
“And I will be in the area, Love, don't keep him waiting.” He flashed her a grin and she frowned at him. It was foolish to think that she wouldn't have to deal with this situation at some point, but she had hoped it would take longer than this. She was still healing, she still wore the bandages to keep it protected if the blistered skin did split. It was her mistake for venturing too close to Meridian. So she steeled herself for what was to come, and made her way into the city.
It still looked the same as it always did, bustling with people and sound and shouts. Merchants begging for her attention, people brushing by her, guards standing to attention when she passed. It smelled the same, too, she couldn't describe what it sounded like, something earthy and fragrant. When she got to the bridge to the palace, she inhaled deeply to ready herself, then began to walk. The breeze was cool and the clouds were darkening.
When she got to the outlook Avad usually spent his time he leapt to his feet at the sight of her. She offered him a small smile, “Aloy!” He exclaimed, placing his hands on her shoulders. “None of us have seen you, we've been worried. Are you okay?”
“Yes, I'm fine.” She replied, the bandages around her waist were visible, but it wasn't painful anymore unless she moved too much. She shrugged his hands off of her and took a step back, trying to offer a kind smile. She had been prepared for worse, Avad wasn't a bad guy, she had no reason to feel so defensive. “I've run into a bit of trouble,” she indicated to her stomach, “but it's nothing I can't handle, I'm fine.” She paused, noting his look of concern. “I'm sorry I left that day, I just needed to take care of something. It couldn't wait.”
“It was disappointing that you left, many of us had spent a great deal of time preparing for your celebration. But I understand, it was my mistake to think that you would like the fanfare. I should have known better.”
He had told her it was for everyone, not just her. She wasn't sure if this was a ploy to make her feel guilty for leaving or if he was being genuine. Or if he had lied to her in the first place. “It wasn't my intention to hurt anyone.” But an apology was an apology, she could respect that.
“Sit,” he offered, sitting down in his normal throne. She sat opposite him, sitting slowly because slower movements didn't hurt. “But, forgive me, Aloy. You left in Nora armour and when you return you're at the arm of a criminal dressed in Carja gear. You can see how I am concerned, of course.”
She frowned. “I purchased this here before I left, mine needed repair. It was too badly damaged in the fight.” She sighed, “I can see why you're concerned but that doesn't mean I agree with it.”
“Aloy,” he started, leaning forwards with his elbows on his knees. “I'm just looking out for you. If nothing else, you are my friend and I want to make sure you're safe. Nil isn't the kind of person you want to be with. If you eloped with him, I'd like you to tell me.”
Something cold slipped down her back, she clenched her hands into fists where they rest in her lap. “That's not what happened.” She responded, curtly, jaw tight. “Nor will it. I have no intention of settling down with anyone.”
He nodded, “then why are you travelling with him? I have never seen him stay with someone for this long. After the wars he became a recluse.”
“And how do you know how I've been travelling with him?”
“I didn't, until now.”
Something hot flared up in her ears, her eyes narrowed. “Avad, is there a point to this meeting?” She asked, aggressive. She was already bracing for the pain that would rip through her when she stood up. She was waiting for it, and Avad delivered as rain began to fall.
“I just don't think he is good for you. You don't know what he's capable of.”
There it was. She stood, abruptly. “And you think you are? I think I'll be the judge of what's good for me. Goodbye, Avad.” The pain that seared through her back at the movement didn't show on her face. She left, wanting to sprint out of there but trying to hold onto her dignity.
Everyone always seemed to act like they knew what was best for her. They thought they knew where she should go, who she should see, what she should be fighting. She was fuming, the anger was hot under her skin. Sylens treated her like a child, Avad treated her like she was incapable of making her own decisions. All of the Nora treated her like her path was always wrong. There was always conflict, there was always someone trying to pull her off her chosen road. And with no clear home and no clear goals this wasn't what she needed.
Erend stopped her, she hadn't even seen him. She let out a breath and tried not to take it out on him. It wasn't his fault, there was no use in upsetting him because she was mad. “Aloy, you look troubled.”
She sighed, he was close to Avad so she wasn't going to give him a lot of details. “I'd rather not talk about it.” She replied, but the look on his face was genuine concern. “I guess I just don't always see eye to eye when people try to tell me what to do.”
“Avad, huh?” He chuckled. “He does have a point though. That Nil guy is a shady piece of work. I wouldn't trust him if I were you. He'd probably stick a knife in your back sooner than he'd stitch you up.” At that, Aloy nearly knocked his teeth in. She wanted to tear the bandages off her and thrust them in his face and tell him that it had been Nil who had taken care of her while she struggled to heal, it had been him who cleaned the injury and it had been him to seal it. Instead, she simply began to walk again, roughly shouldering him out of her way as he tried to step into her path to stop her. “Aloy!” He called after her, and called a few more times as she walked. She ignored it, furious. She left Meridian with a fire burning in her chest. She was livid, she could barely see straight.
She knew Nil, she knew who he was and she had figured out enough of him to trust him. He would never hurt someone who was honest, he would never hurt someone who tried to do good. He might have strange views, something in him was misaligned and he found joy in ending others but he channelled that urge into something productive and helpful and even honourable. He wasn't a bad person, he might not have been a good one but he wasn't a monster. And even if he was a bad person, he wasn't who they said he was.
Something in Nil was broken. He had wanted to die at her hands, he felt like he lacked purpose. Those words still rung clearly in her head, like he was still saying it again. That look on his face, cold grey eyes with a storm brewing behind them like the sky above. Always searching for something in her. But he had come for her, he had found her a new focus and had tracked her all the way to where they'd held her. She didn't know if anyone else would have been able to get there that fast.
It was raining harder when Nil turned up, she turned to him with the spear in her hands. “How about we try to kill each other?” She mimicked, she wanted to put him to the final test. Would he deal the last blow? Would he truly be the worst thing for her?
“I'm not fighting you.” He replied, the confusion in his face was brief.
“Why not?” She bit back, “according to everyone else you're just going to end up hurting me. You even said yourself you'd destroy me. So let's try to kill each other, Nil.”
“You're injured, this wouldn't be a fair fight.”
“I don't care. Fight me.”
"But you? You wouldn't have held back. I thought you saw what was in me and knew it needed to be eliminated.”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The thrill of the fight was bleeding out of her, Nil stood before her without a word, refusing to react to her challenge. There was no reason for her to fight him anyway, she liked his companionship and didn't like the unsteady feeling that swept over her when she thought about travelling alone. But she didn't know where she would go anyway, unless she travelled further than she had gone before. But all her journeys had been further than she'd been, travelling again with no idea where exactly to go would be no different than what she'd done already. Maybe Nil could show her where he'd been or where he had come from. With a heavy sigh, she sank to the wet grass and sat there, defeated.
Everything felt a little bit like a mess, she didn't have the energy to do much more than just sit here.
“Now isn't the time for this.” Nil said, he'd walked in front of her and held out his hand. After a moment, she put her hand into his and let him pull her to her feet. Her back ached, the burn had split somewhere. He held her hand for a moment as they stood, sparks dancing up her wrist. But he let go, eventually, and instead put his hand on her shoulder blade to help guide her along. He seemed to see the pain of the open injury on her face, and walked slowly with her. They made their way across the grass and took shelter in the dry dirt and sandy grass under the rock of a cliff cut away to leave a patch where the rain couldn't fall.
She knelt on the ground and allowed Nil to unwrap the bandages to check the wound, he told her it had opened in a few places but it wasn't anything they had to worry about, and wrapped it again with dry cloth. When it was tied and secure his fingertips found a place to rest above the cloth against the skin just below her rib cage in a second of contact that felt like hours.
It rained for two more days.
In the dead of night as rain poured they sat still awake, both of them mulling over the weight of the world that seemed to hang over them. Nil sat with his back against the rock, relaxing, his arms folded over his chest. His eyes were closed but he wasn't sleeping, though he had been asleep for a little while. Aloy hadn't, too preoccupied with her muddled thoughts. When he opened his eyes to look at her, she looked back at him from where she sat. “If I had said yes,” she started. “Would you have killed me? If you had won.”
He stared at her for a long while, as if deciding how much he wanted to tell her. “There was something in your eyes, something I saw when we first met. You had goals, somewhere to be and questions to answer. People to kill. I don't think I could have been the one to take that from you.” But she said nothing, only watching him. It looked like he had more to say, like he was just waiting to see if he should say it. Eventually, he delivered. “But you? You wouldn't have held back. I thought you saw what was in me and knew it needed to be eliminated.”
The impact of the words hit her like a Thunderjaw's tail, swift and hard and she just stared at him. She'd known this, she'd always suspected it, but actually hearing it from him was a shock. She'd told him she thought there was a need for him in this world, and that mindset hadn't changed. Maybe part of her needed him because there was something about him when she looked at him that felt like she was staring into a mirror. She stared quietly, then turned her eyes away from him. “I don't think you need to be eliminated.” She replied.
“I couldn't imagine why.” His reply was honest, there was almost confusion in the way he said it.
She scoffed, but said nothing for a few more minutes. She wasn't sure what else she wanted to ask him, but she knew that he would answer her as honestly as he was able in this moment, with the rain still pouring down just beyond their little shelter. She knew now he wanted her to be the one to end his life. “Why me?” She asked, eventually, enough time had gone by that seemed like the moment had passed.
But he replied after a few moments himself, but she could tell there was so much he wasn't saying, so much she found herself yearning to know. “You were the only one worthy of that honour.”
Instead of thinking of something to reply to that, she exhaled deeply and moved towards him, resting her back against where his arms were crossed. He leaned forwards a little, she moved too, and let him remove the metal plating from his shoulder. When that was gone, he sat back and she went with him. She settled against him, he was warm and it was cold, and he almost hesitantly put his arm around her. Without waiting she settled her arm over his, the cool metal against her skin and her fingers resting on the backs of his knuckles. She closed her eyes, letting the comfort of the touch soothe the churning storm inside her.
When she woke up the rain had slowed but hadn't stopped, it was bright and grey and in her sleep she had rolled to him, her knees on his thighs and her arm around his waist with her other arm pinned underneath her. She was comfortable, she could feel the beat of his heart, his hand at her side, the heavy weight of it felt so soothing. She felt him move, and put her hand on his chest and used it to sit herself up a little bit, facing him, they were eye to eye and her heart thudded in her ears. All at once he sucked in a deep breath and cupped her cheek with his palm with his fingers in her hair, he pulled her in but stopped. She could feel the way his hand trembled as her eyes fluttered closed. The world around them narrowed to the places they were connected, nothing else existed. Just him and her, quiet in the rain. She tilted her head, just a little, uncertain but yearning, her lower lip brushed his for a split second before he was letting go and pulling away; the loss was a swipe of pain across her chest. He was grabbing his shoulder plates and untangling himself from her.
“Nil?” She asked, her voice shook, she was so confused. Why would he grab her like that, only to push her away? He didn't respond, only securing the metal and beginning to walk away. “Nil!” She tried again, but he was leaving. He was walking away and there was nothing she could do. He disappeared into the rainy morning and she hid her face in her hands, upset and trying to control it.
This time, she didn't think he was coming back. It felt so final, so decisive, so without question. But still, she waited an hour to see if he would return. When he didn't, she steeled herself to facing the world alone again. Why did it feel so daunting when she had faced worse on her own? Maybe it was because she just didn't understand why he left, he had shown her another side of him then vanished faster than she could process it. He'd left before she could process what she'd been about to do.
At the bottom of an hour she tried to rationalize that this was all for the best. She left into the rain and let the water cool her flushed skin. She felt empty and list but just began to walk and hope she found her way again. The rain was washing out her path. Soon she had wandered into a Stalker nest, she hadn't noticed until she spotted a flare nestled into the grass, they hadn't seen her yet so she picked a fight with them.
And with mud splattered up her arm and thigh she continued on. Tearing wire from their bodies and taking it with her as she went. She kept killing machines as she wandered, leaving a trail of husks and metal. She'd let her mind get muddled and caught up in a man a few years older than her with a questionable outlook on life. The loss still stung but it didn't feel so bad when she worked through her hurt with violence. She kept killing until the sun had set, her supplies fully restocked and her bag heavy. She was near a Tallneck, and after contemplating for a moment, crawled up a hill and climbed up its back. The rain had slowed to near a stop, and when she got to the top of its head it was little more than a few drops. It would be fine. She lay on her back and closed her eyes. Maybe tomorrow she would find a Stormbird and have it take her far away from here.
She woke with the rising sun. The rain had increased overnight, it was pouring. She felt water logged and cold straight into her core. She rolled to her side, shivering, trying to seek some warmth from the machine. Normally she would hop off its head without a thought, but she didn't trust her stiff hands enough to hold the rope. So she climbed, moving slowly, making sure each time she grabbed something that her grip was sure and strong. Careful not to fall, if she fell from up here she would meet her death.
Once she was on the ground, almost too cold to think, she stumbled along in an attempt to find shelter from the rain. It took less than an hour to track down a few abandoned shacks, barely bigger than one little room. She sank into one of them, dropping her things and resisting the urge to curl into a ball right there. She used her spear to chip away at the rotted wood floor until she exposed the dirt under it. Winded, sore, still bone cold, she ventured out to the other two shacks to find anything dry enough to burn.
Once she had a small supply, she sank to her knees and arranged a few arrows that weren't entirely waterlogged. But blaze started the fire anyway, and she layered wood onto it until she could feel the heat beginning to touch her skin. She removed the heavy metal from her body, the extra fabric, until she wore the thin clothes under all that, and hung them next to her to dry.
By sunset, it had stopped raining. But the ground was mush, she was warmer and a little less miserable. It had been stupid to stay out in the open like that, but she was still alive and that chilled feeling was beginning to fade away. The fire was warm, she didn't stray far from it. She would stay here, one more night, then she would climb onto the back of a flying machine and it would take her away from here, and maybe there she could find the place she belonged. And if she couldn't, she would be the girl who tamed and commanded machines as if she had created them with her own hands.
When she woke, it hadn't begun raining again, she felt dry and sore and washed out, but there was heat within her again, she felt human again. So she grabbed the stiff dry armour and put it back on, piece by piece, gathered her things and put out the fire and stepped out into the soggy earth. The air felt fresh and clean, today was a good day to change something. Today was a good day for her to take her first steps into the unknown. But as she walked, she spotted a familiar figure standing in the light of the morning sun. She wanted to shoot him in the back with her arrows, she wanted to scream at him, instead she walked up behind him in the sun as she folded her arms over her chest and he turned to look at her.
He looked broken, or like he had broken and had done his best to put himself back together. He looked vulnerable, he looked like whatever was dark inside of him had come to the surface. “How did you find me?” She demanded, hands clenched.
“Follow the trail of machine husks and smoke,” he echoed, she'd heard him say that before. “And at the end I guarantee there will be a girl who I have no right to be around.”
“What do you mean?” She growled, the emotion felt thick on her tongue. She was struggling to keep it together. She had convinced herself she would never see him again, or maybe years later she'd catch wind he was dead by his own hand.
“You were my horizon, Aloy.” He murmured, it was the first time he'd used her name since he had come to her at Rost's grave. “Everything you are, everything you could be, was beyond my reach. Your light eclipsed the sun, and no god in this world or the next could ever hope to compare to you.”
“What?” She'd assumed that whatever beat within her for him wasn't returned, that he felt nothing for her but that of a hunting partner. A friend, at the most.
“I'm in love with your carnage, and I couldn't dare to believe that maybe you found something in me that you thought was worth it. From the first time I saw you, I knew you were going to be unlike anyone I had ever met. When I fought alongside you, I knew it was too late for me to escape your gravity. But then you started looking at me like my worthless existence mattered, and I didn't know what to do. You were my tether, you were my reason to keep going, you were the horizon I followed while I tried to find what I was supposed to do.”
Her eyes were wide, “where have you been?” She nearly whispered, her voice shook. Her arms had fallen to her sides.
“Trying to decide if I dared touch the sun, or if I was even worthy enough to be close to her.” And with that, he had stepped towards her and took her face in his hands. He pulled her in, and this time that pause wasn't hesitation, but careful, so he could search her eyes. She put one hand on his chest and brought the other up to the back of his neck, she wasn't going to let him pull away from her this time.
When she kissed him she stopped thinking, he kissed her like she was his dying breath. She didn't know exactly when her feelings for him had changed, but there didn't always have to be a moment, did there? She had done a good job of not really being aware of it, she'd only acted. She'd moved into his embraces and found herself craving each little touch that sent her stomach churning and her fingers curling. She hadn't actively tried not to think about it, but she'd found solace in him and the way he looked at her like he understood. She didn't need to explain it to him, she didn't need to show him her scars because he bore the same ones. The darkness in him may have been darker and deeper, but it matched the shade of hers. His was broken and crumbled down into an emptiness and she was only fractured, his isolation matched hers, whispers followed his steps and they followed hers too. But he walked with the whispers at his back to carry him ahead, plunging into wherever his wandering took him. She used hers to fuel her fire.
When she looked at him, he looked at her in a way no one had ever looked at her before. Something like admiration, understanding, a deep love that beat inside him with his blood. She kissed him again, he moved a hand from her cheek and wrapped it around her, her head was spinning and it felt as though she were about to slip off the earth and fall into the sky. Like the wind and the stars and the clouds above, she loved him. The cracked pieces of her fit perfectly into the broken pieces of him, his flaws matched hers, she never would have thought that this strange man who saw killing as a sport would be kissing her like she was more than just a name.
She expected his praise to be uncomfortable, but it was honest. He'd never seen her as anything else but her, others had watched her rise from Outcast and beyond, no one but him had simply seen her. No more, no less.
They settled into an embrace, one of his hands running through her hair. She didn't know what to say, so she said nothing, simply standing in his arms like she belonged there. Eventually, he pulled away, and she thought he was going to run at first, instead he pressed his thumb to her chin and kissed her again, softly and slowly, before giving her a slight smile. “Where to now, princess?”
Thank you so much for reading this, I'm honestly so glad you made it through. If you like it, I love comments. They seriously make my entire damn week.
That aside, I adore these two and I'm eager to start writing again. If you're reading this and you're a writer, or a role player, I am interested in writing with you. Together, we can carve a path to a new journey for these two.
Mostly, I just want to know you liked what I've written. Some of these comments I've got have got me a little teary-eyed and I can't thank you guys enough. I'm still writing and hopefully I'll have something else soon.
And again, thank you for reading this and I can't wait to get back to writing them again.