Ignoring the other two nobles, I focus my attention back to Leomi as we both move and take a seat on the blanket, back to back. My resolve to chase after her while I can is only strengthened by the fact that I am the slowest member of a group probably being hunted by tireless creatures. Beings who will soon wage war on the Izla if the nobles are right.
I crush my hesitation and lean my back against hers fully, savoring the warm contact connecting us despite its innocence and the whole position being kind of uncomfortable because it needs to be for us to stay awake. Although my head only reaches up to her shoulder blades so I can just let it rest it between them. That is much better, I muse.
“Comfortable?” She asks in a quiet teasing voice.
“Totally, maybe angle forward a bit more? There is an appropriate angle for a backrest and that’s just not it.” I answer, voice light and teasing in return.
“What?! Oh, damn it.” She mutters, but not quietly enough. I don’t think I was meant to hear that. “Yvonne is much better at this.” She grumbles apologetically.
“At what? If the point was to break the ice and lighten the mood, that was fine.” I tell her.
“Oh, good then.” She shrugs. “I’m not very good at … talking. Being nice.”
“I noticed.” I say in a flat voice, but soon regret it as I feel her shoulders droop slightly. “I’m kidding! You honestly helped me out a lot earlier after … you know.”
“I’m very sorry I dragged you into this.” She apologizes and I can almost feel the guilt present in her voice.
“I don’t know, all you asked was for someone with knowledge of the area right?” I ask.
“A volunteer and the map yes.”
“Oh, that’s why the Baron was so hell-bent on making me volunteer.” I shrug, unwilling to let her take the blame for this whole mess. “Not your fault, it seems like he didn’t want to send his men so he just dumped it on me.”
“That’s … odd but, I suppose it doesn’t matter now. I appreciate the fact that you’re not blaming me.”
“Oh right, the map, what happened to it?” Don’t want to add a Baron blaming me for his lost map to my problems.
“I destroyed both our maps before leaving the site of the battle.”
I make a small hum of acknowledgment but don’t really want to keep talking about myself or the future so I change the subject directly.
“I heard you repealed a pirate raid a few months back.” I say.
“Ha! A pirate raid!” She scoffs in semi-laughter. “They were little more than scatterbrains in a row-boat. The beginnings of a joke really.”
“Sounds like a fun story.” I encourage her.
“Eh, why not.” She muses for a moment before taking a grandiloquent voice. “It begins, as every story involving pirates … with a treasure map!”
“For real?!” I can’t help but ask.
“No.” She instantly shoots me down, having obviously been waiting for that reaction.
“Aww.” I exaggerate my disappointment, she rewards me with her laughter.
“So, pirates!” She then suddenly exclaims with flourish.
“You said they were barely more than idiots.” I instantly shoot her down in revenge, using instincts honed over years of petty arguments with my brother.
“Hem, yes, but they had a boat and they attacked a ship! So, pirates!” She repeats with enthusiasm and I keep silent this time, smiling as I let her have the pirates. “Me, Yvonne, Gerald and Clement were traveling on a barge with Patrick and Nicolas as escorts trough their lands.” I hear her fist hit her chest above her heart in a salute to departed comrades. “I was inspecting the trade conditions along that river both because my subjects also use it and because of the Duke’s task. After a whole morning of Nicolas describing the subtleties of weight scales and their use to create finely tuned mixtures of flour to create even better … bread. We were thankfully interrupted by the helmsman who suddenly started yelling : pirates, pirates!” She laughs a bit at the memory. “All six of us were instantly up in arms, swords out and ready to test our mettle against the feared raiders of the seas. But when we looked all around the barge we found … nothing of note, just a single rowboat near the river shore and cruising in our direction … very, very slowly, barely faster than the barge itself. Inside were three young men clothed in the most ridiculously black outfits with white skulls sewn everywhere. They had some on their boots, on their shirts, gloves, everywhere.” I feel her head shake sideways in amazement trough the movement of her shoulders against the back of mine. “I think we all sheathed our swords in perfect synchronization as we stared at them in disbelief, watching them row from the coast to the barge. It took them a good fifteen minutes to catch up with us and when they got there, it got really wild. They unsheathed their swords, revealing that they had also painted their blades black, and they started yelling at the barge captain, throwing the most over the top threats about drowning him in barrels of fish liver, or cutting his flesh in ribbons before throwing him to the sharks, or making him swallow fish livers until they came up to his nostrils. After a few of those, it seemed to hit them that they had made no demands as of yet so they started asking for the captain’s coffers of gold along with all his jewelry. That’s about where the joke ended for the sailors, they stopped laughing and started taking out their knives, some of them picking up maneuvering oars, while me and the others took our weapons back out too. There was no gold or jewelry on the boat of course, but that doesn’t change that the captain does keep their pay in his cabin. It may have only been silver but I think you understand better than I do how common folk can react to threats on their livelihood.” I nod my head along her back. “That’s about when our pirates started second guessing themselves and tried to disengage with the barge. It didn’t really seem like bloodshed was necessary but the sailors were quite angry and they were too slow to escape.”
“What did you do?” I ask.
“I put a hand in the water and emptied all my flow reserves creating and maintaining a small whirlpool, it didn’t affect the barge but their tiny boat got caught and capsized, it was quite glorious.” She muses. “I cut the construct short before they could drown and our brave pirates went back to shore by the strength of their mighty arms, yelling their colorful promises of revenge.” I laugh at that and she chuckles along with me, I make a relaxed sigh after finishing my bout of laughter.
“Who were they?” I ask.
“Some dumb kids, sons of merchants or Nobles no doubt. Too much free time, not enough brain to realize they would have been hanged high and dry if anyone bothered to catch them.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“No real need, we reported the incident to every noble in the area. Whoever they were, that stunt required the hire of at least a tailor to make those ridiculous clothes, it wouldn’t be very hard to find them if they ever tried a repeat performance.” She shrugs, unconcerned.
“Their parents will probably catch wind and connect the dots.” I add.
We remain in silent for a while, I keep my eye aimed at the darkness of the tunnel in front of me, watching … nothing.
“Your turn.” Leomi says, breaking the silence.
“To entertain me with a story.” She adds.
“Hum, oh I know. The first time I tried to ask a girl out, that always made my father laugh.”
“Oh, yes, I want to hear that one! It sounds embarrassing for you!” She exclaims eagerly. “Tell me!” She orders with fake authority in her voice.
“Well at least your priorities are clear.” I drawl in a deadpan tone.
“My intentions are honest!” She protests.
“Yes, you are honestly looking for ammunition to use against me.”
“Oh, you understand, good.” I feel her make several small satisfied nods of the head.
“Aright. Fine.” I exaggeratedly sigh. “It happened during the summer when I was fifteen, my dad was friends with her dad so we were helping them pick up the apples from their orchard. I spent all morning carrying baskets of apples and once in a while I bumped into that girl, I couldn’t help but notice how cute she looked to me every time I did.”
“Was she?” Leomi asks.
“Eh, I honestly can’t remember. She looked average to me the last time I saw her, but she looked really pretty to me at the time. You know?”
“The opposite kind of happened to me … once. So I suppose I do understand.” She agrees.
“Well, she was taking a break and standing against one of the trees, laying her back on it all relaxed. I took my courage in both hands and started approaching her right? Right. I wanted to walk up to her, ask her out, but I didn’t know what to say so my mind went to the closest memory this situation reminded me of : a scene in a play I saw when I was a kid with my … anyway, the prince enters the garden and tries to seduce a duchess, I can’t remember the rest of the story but that part stuck with me for some reason.”
“No wonder! You were already trying to become a fearsome lady-killer at that age!” She laughs, mockery obvious in her voice.
“Shush! My mastery of the craft will soon be revealed to you.” I spout arrogantly.
“I’m sure.” She drawls in response.
“So, I approached her right? The goal was to imitate that prince and put my hand right next to her face, getting her attention and then closing the distance between our faces to try to woo her, or ask her out or whatever, I never did figure out what I was going to say, anyway.”
“The princely maneuver!” She exclaims with enthusiasm.
“Yeah, that … except at the time I wasn’t as tall as I am now.”
“Pfft!” A snort of derision escapes her.
“Shut up! I was much smaller, then, but I did grow up a lot since.”
“Uh-huh.” She says, noncommittally, but I can feel her head shake sideways behind my back.
“Anyway!” I interject “There I was, unable to reach the spot above her shoulder with my hand but completely dedicated to asking her out, so, as is natural, I decided to improvise.”
“Naturally.” She deadpans. “What did you do?” She seems to think of something because she has to restrain her laughter before continuing. “Did you put your hand on … on her breast?!” She asks, faking outrage. “Jessica!” She adds, feigning shock.
“What? No! I just put my hand next to her on the trunk, except the highest point I could reach was just about under her shoulder and because she was so tall I was forced to bend my neck pretty much all the way back to look up to her.” I try to continue but Leomi starts laughing so hard that it shakes her shoulders behind my head, forcing me to detach myself from her a bit so I can continue. “That’s about when the ridicule of the situation hit and I just started laughing uncontrollably. Same as what you’re doing now, really.” I add with a sullen voice.
“Sorry! Couldn’t help it. So you just laughed?” She asks as I retake my position sitting back to back with her.
“Couldn’t help it, she was like a full head and a half taller than me, my neck was hurting simply from trying to look up at her, I had my hand pretty much right under her armpit, so I laughed like a maniac.”
“I mean, I can’t deny that its a funny situation considering I was laughing not a minute ago, but most people realize that sort of thing before or after it happens, not in the middle of asking someone out.” She says, disbelieving.
“Well, I never did ask her out, so she never knew that part of the story. She stormed off, calling me a freak. Never really talked with her after that.”
“Well, that’s her loss.” She says with a smile in her voice.
“Thanks.” I say quietly. “Third time better be the charm because I’m out of time.” I whisper the childish rhyme out of impulse but I take care to do so quietly enough that the words don’t even reach up to my own ears. The attention I’m putting in listening to the sounds around me allows me to hear the lightest noise, a flat sound resembling something scraping against a dusty ground. “Fuck. Did I imagine that?” I whisper to myself.
“What did you hear?” Lady Lance’s back suddenly straightens as her entire being seems to increase several levels in intensity.
“I think I heard the sound of something scraping against the ground.”
“We’re going, wake them up.” She orders me as she starts picking up the torches and extinguishing them.
I approach Patrick but before I reach him, he opens his eyes and stares at me, I remain there half-frozen and unsure of what to say when he simply nods, sitting up to start packing his blanket. I slowly make a few more steps to reach Yvonne and shake her shoulder. Her eyes instantly open to look up at me, I press a finger against my lips before putting it to my ear a few seconds later, she nods in understanding before starting to pack her as well.
We gather around Lady Lance once everything is packed away, she taps her ear with a finger and points the tunnel I was sitting in front of with her other hand, the one leading back towards my village, where we entered the tunnels from.
Of course that’s the tunnel they would block, I resignedly shake my head. If they’re hunting us to silence us, the first thing they would do is block the quickest path to a human settlement, making sure we cannot relay any kind of message back to warn the Izla.
The formation they take this time places Lady Lance in point while Patrick and Yvonne take position behind me, walking side by side. Not long after we engage inside the tunnel theoretically leading into the old mining tunnels, or at the very least dug in their general direction, weird echoes begin reaching us from behind.
I cannot help but waste a small amount of flow to augment my hearing and satisfy my fear fueled curiosity by helping my eardrums discern the sounds reaching me. Unfortunately, the outcome is the worst possible for me as instead of alleviating my fears trough knowledge, they are exacerbated by the ghastly noises that now reach me loud and terrifyingly clear.
“W … What is that?” I can’t help but ask despite the silence observed by my other three companions. I notice the shaking of my hand as it starts impacting my thigh, suppressing it by closing my fist as hard as I can.
“That’s … that’s why they are called the Rykz.” Yvonne answers me, voice a bit weak. “Their warriors make this … breathing sound when they do battle in their tunnels. Old stories tell us that when enemies enter their tunnels, they fill their nights and days with the sound. A never-ending pressure on the minds of their invaders as the Rykz can project the sound from extreme distances by synchronizing their breaths together in numbers.”
“The others didn’t do that!” I exclaim, sounding childish even to myself as I hear the useless, off the mark bratty comment.
“Those were … scouts, a variation on the Rykz worker but smaller and leaner. Less mass for more speed, spikes instead of claws.” She pauses. “We didn’t want to add more for you to deal with, so we didn’t warn you about that, sorry.” Yvonne apologize with genuine contrition in her voice.
“If they get too close we will have to start running.” Lady Lance informs us.
“This sound.” I complain trough my grit teeth despite not wanting to sound like a brat again.
The sheer weight of the situation is eroding my will and the unceasing noise bearing upon my nerves is making it even harder to cope, at least the sound doesn’t seem to be getting closer but maybe that’s a trick of the echo, it wouldn’t make sense for them to make it easy for us to gauge the distance.
I shake my head off the paranoid train of thought and gather most of my flow, leaving a trickle behind so that I don’t end up hanging high and dry like last time, I suppress a shiver at the memory of it. I organize the energy in the shape of the full body muscle enhancing construct, tweaking the duration segment so that the effect lasts as long as possible, before anchoring the flow and telling it to standby, ready if we start running.
“I see something up ahead.” Lady Lance says. “It looks big. Shit, I think it’s blocking the whole tunnel.”
“How hard of a block?” Patrick asks, voice tight.
“Don’t know yet but its moving, so its alive.” She answers. “I have a hypothesis and an idea but you’re not going to like it.” She adds.
“Don’t need to care about my feelings at this point.” He replies.
“I haven’t studied much about the Rykz, but I did hear that they make use of … underground cattle is how my tutor at the time described them. This might be some animal they use to dig tunnels, a big grub by the looks of it.”
“Sounds solid so far but if you want to fight it then consider the strength necessary for that thing to dig tunnels.”
“I agree, but it’s not like we can turn around. My idea was more along the lines of applying a pinpoint muscle strengthening construct to it and then we fight it. What do you think?” She asks.
“Patrick?” She asks again when he remains silent.
“It could work, but to be sure that it does work in the span of time that interests us we will have to apply a full body construct with as much flow as we can spare.”
“Can’t we just boost only its heart to the point of bursting? Or another single point?” She asks.
“We don’t know the first thing about this creature so no, we can’t pick and hope, does it even have a heart? The time-frame available to us is too short to be making tests, we kill it, we move or cut the body and we run.”
“That’s the plan then, you and Yvonne will have to hold the rear while I supercharge the thing.” She pauses. “If this thing can control flow we’re fucked.”
“We don’t have much of a choice, even if you use your entire reserves fighting their warriors, it won’t be enough. The fact of the matter is that if they engage us fully, we’re done.”
“Saving time matters more than saving energy right now.” Yvonne agrees.