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Our small group of four is finally making the last steps necessary to exit these damned tunnels. The small things that torchlight simply didn’t have the intensity necessary to illuminate become clearer. Our upper bodies are dotted with innumerable brown stains, small and large, scattered even on my torso, marks left behind by the viscous blood of the Rykz we killed.

The darkness around us is receding, chased away by the sunlight. But my eyes are drawn to what matters, lady Lance’s athletic figure as she limps ahead, her back straight. Her head is turned outwards, vision fixated on a point outside the mine as she advances.

My gut tells me that nothing good could possibly be waiting there, and the fact that she is staring ahead so seriously isn’t contradicting me. Well, I really don’t care, because right now, I want to witness this instant, the moment daylight reaches her face. I keep staring, leaning on Yvonne a bit more and trusting her with my balance for a short while.

Leomi takes one more step. She crosses into the light all at once. Her straight black hair ruffle with the outside wind, springing life around her visibly tired face, her traits are still sharp but dimmed by fatigue. Yvonne helps me take another step. The new angle allows me to dive deep into her light gray eyes. I realize, sadly, after a few seconds that they are filled with worry, I then catch the reflection of a movement on their surface.

I tear my own eyes away, filled with regret as the fear in my gut is telling me this is probably the last time I will get to admire her. This is likely to be the end of the river for me. Perhaps the superstition is true. We might all flow back to the lake in the end. I sneer at my own weakness, don’t need a stupid legend.

We keep walking, straight towards the center of the fifty Rykz warriors surrounding us in full armor with their sabers and shields raised. A single odd figure is standing there, in the dead center, in front of us. No surprise shakes me at the sight of fifty Rykz, not so long ago I peed my pants from twelve scouts surrounding us like this. I laugh, breaking the silence around the small mountainous plateau around the mine’s entrance.

Rh-hyyyyy, kszz.

Fuck! I press my hand against my ear, fuck that’s loud. All fifty Rykz are making the same damn sound at the same damn time. My body shakes under the very real vibrations produced by their breathing cries. I hear grains of dust cascading down to the ground, joined even by a rock or two in the nearby area. The odd figure standing there, in front of us, lifts its long tail off the ground and the Rykz all … stand down, their sabers, shields and flat heads are simply lowered, seemingly taking resting stances.

We reach a spot in front of the being that just commanded the warriors, is that a princess? The others mentioned this kind of Rykz when they suspected the arrows could be a trap, this looks like a trap. But then again, the arrows did lead us outside, just in the middle of a Rykz army, it could be unrelated.

The being is tall, forcing my neck muscles to work to look up because I am vertically challenged as Father often said to tease me. The odd figure is … odd is the best word.

A good two meters tall but very thin overall, the long tail that is now lowering back to the ground behind it is a long meter and a half, attached under the waist behind the two rather consequent legs it is standing on. Wide thighs and calves, reversed knees, lengthy feet that end in five spaced out … carrot shaped extremities, about the same size too.

The being chooses that moment to flex them, effortlessly plunging those … toes deep into the rocky ground, taking root. Its skin is rubbery like the Rykz’ but earth brown in color instead of obsidian black, I also spot the same kind of string-like muscles protruding out near joints. No clothes, no armor, and no genitalia that I can recognize. Where shoulders or arms should be, there are dozens of very thin tendrils attached on either side of the upper body. They remain idle, hanging along her flanks.

The being is swaying a little, I notice, is it too thin and tall to be stable? Is that why it dug its odd carrot shaped toes into the ground, for stability? I shake my head, working my neck to look up at the odd figure’s head. It is perhaps the part of it that resemble us, humans, the most, its ovaloid head perched on a normal looking neck.

But even then, I think as the being sways sideways slightly along with the rest of its unusual body, it is void of any feature, no hair, no face, no mouth, no eyes, no nose. There is only what I can only assume are six breathing holes on either side of the head, from the chin to the back of the skull, in a diagonal line, each of them slightly wider than the previous one.

This Rykz has … beauty. But, what is it waiting for? I think back to where Yvonne’s knife was on her waist, sending my hand to explore the belt once more. I find the knife within seconds. My fingers wrap around the weapon. The being takes a slow calculated step back, the root-like toes ripping the ground above them as they free themselves before plunging back into the soil, taking root again just a back-step away.

I unsheathe the knife, shaking Yvonne’s hand in the same movement and ignoring the various waves of pain coming from different parts of me, from my wound brushing against Yvonne’s hard leather armor to the cracked ribs protesting the extra weight pressing on them as I stand alone.

I’m tired. Exhausted actually, my body has actually been eating half my flow regeneration just to keep up with … walking, that’s it. How far I’ve fallen, I was able to plow a third of a field alone without even using flow just a couple of days ago, or is it three?

Fuck me, I’m hurt all over. I don’t want to see her death, and I have no reason to delay my own any longer. If she wanted anything to do with me, she would have taken me. I’ve given enough hints, no more deluding myself. She is saying no.

I take a deep breath and smile. This is where my river ends, this is where my flow stops. I take a step forward, raising my arm with the pitiful knife in hand.

I wonder which one of you will send me back to the lake?” I mutter, shrugging off the disappointment I feel in myself for grasping at that delusional crutch, another step.

Too fucking slow, can’t that … princess just close the rest of the distance and end me? Or one of the warriors, fuck if I care at this stage. I hear a sound of metal sliding, unsheathing, behind me, before hearing a movement, a step coming from the same direction towards me.

I don’t have time to decide what to do with the information, or even gather what it means, before a hard object hits the back of my head, knocking me forward, I sprawl flat on the ground, laying painfully on my chest.

As my mind fills with fog, I hear the sound of metal breaking, aloud shrill clink. The last thing I hear is my Leomi saying “We surrender.” before my consciousness winks out.

— — —

I open my eyes and find the abyss of my Leomi’s light gray eyes looking deep into mine. I lose myself for a while, not long enough, but I am shaken out of it when her expression grows concerned. I gaze around, finding us still surrounded by Rykz warriors, but they are no longer in a circle, they are walking all around us.

My entire body seems to be laid down in-between my Leomi’s legs, my head resting on her stomach while she looks down at me.

You know you don’t have to knock me out to get me to lay down with you, right?” I ask humorously.

You’re worse than Yvonne, somehow.” She rolls her pretty eyes and absently raises her fingers to her face to flick a strand of straight black hair behind her ear. I blush furiously at the gesture.

Doing my best.” I croak the sounds through my throat before it tightens too much to talk.

The effect she has on me seems to be worsening with time. I smile widely at the thought, unreasonably happy about it. I keep my silence after that to better enjoy this dream. My heart hot within my chest, beating powerfully enough that it actually provokes a tinge of pain from the injury to the two ribs on my right side.

Pain? Is this real? Lady Lance places her hand on my ribs, right under my right breast, over the cracked ribs. My breath catches short and my eyes snap back up to hers, I feel her working on a flow construct, probably to heal me, I don’t care.

I lift my hand up to her face, slipping under her arm currently busy healing me, slipping under her guard. I want to touch her so much. I lay my fingers on her cheek, my breath further shortens somehow as I feel the softness of her skin under my touch. She seems to lean into it somehow, the grin I make is so wide, I consider that it may dislocate my jaw. I must look stupid, who cares?

Her other hand comes up and catches my wrist, using it to pull my hand away from the wonderful experience. I must have been mistaken about her leaning into it, not the first delusion or the hundredth I had about her. I think with a touch of resigned sadness as I let my arm fall back to the ground.

All done.” She says with a bright smile that wipes my resigned thoughts away.

I turn my attention inwards and notice the staggering amount of energy flowing through the construct she just anchored around the cracks in my ribs. Twenty, thirty times the amount of flow regenerated in a full day?

I try to inspect the construct’s individual segments but the structure is too unfamiliar. It is using notions that Mother’s education simply did not cover, perhaps beyond even what she knew.

Emotionally, I don’t want to accept the fact that she wasn’t perfect, but I’m not six years old anymore. I am long past getting into fights to prove my mom’s the best, because I know she was and I don’t need to prove it. I sigh, smiling in reminiscence at the memory. Lady Lance holds out her hand, I take it and she helps me up to my feet.

I had to destroy a piece of bone stuck in your lung.” She says as I swat the back of my pants to clear the red dust. “And I healed that bump on the back of your head before it could form.” She adds. “I do apologize for that.” She finishes in a formal tone.

Well, I already knew you could knock me off my feet, that’s just another way to do it.” I make a casual shrug.

Twice as bad? No maybe three times.” She shakes her head, muttering as she leaves me there.

I throw a quick glance around, noticing Yvonne and Patrick not too far away, both disarmed. The Rykz warriors are spread all around us, some sitting in a position that seems odd to me, laying on their lower trunks, legs folded alongside the body. Others oiling their weapons, four of them are carrying our three packs and one backpack.

Lady Lance is still carrying her sword, but the blade is broken at the base and her sheath is gone so she had to stick the handle in her belt, leaving the silver lion pommel sticking up. She is currently walking towards the airy Rykz princess.

The Rykz is still swaying sideways. It looks like she is going along bursts of wind, but I cannot feel any. The tendrils on her upper body are now tightly wrapped around her waist, immobile. Her root-like toes deeply planted into the ground.

Princess Celyz.” Lady Lance calls out.

Lady Lance.” Princess Celyz replies. Her voice … resonates, it envelops the area as she speaks.

Can you at least tell me how many patrols you have in the immediate area?” Lady Lance asks the being.

I don’t see why not.” She lowers her head slightly before raising it back up after a second. “The answer is twenty-seven, twenty-eight if you count the four scouts that just disengaged from pursuing you a short while ago.”

My ears tell me that the sounds originate from the ovaloid head, vibrating inside and escaping through the dozen holes laid in two diagonal lines across its sides. Her diction is perfect, perhaps too perfect, much too human for a being so far removed from us biologically.

So, we never had a chance to escape. We are near your hive?”

Yes, good deduction.” Princess Celyz tilts its head sideways and down. Was that a gentle nod? “The mountain is a good naturally fortified location.” She adds.

What’s to happen to us?” Lady Lance asks.
“A bath and clothes in the near future, perhaps some medical attention.” She inclines her head further down, facing lady Lance directly despite her obvious lack of eyes. “Imprisonment, and perhaps death, later.” The being states the information calmly, with no cruelty, no mockery, a simple enunciation of fact, a truth told.

Why tell us?” I ask, loud enough to be heard. The princess turns her head around on her neck, a full hundred degrees, to face me, somehow.

A human would lie or pass over that kind of news.” Lady Lance explains the question, providing details that I didn’t think to include.

Dishonesty is detrimental to civilization, even more so during contacts with foreign cultures.” The being states with a hint of surprise in the resonating voice, inclining her head sideways.

It is uncanny how easy it is to read her physical expressions, I have no doubt that she is puzzled by our question. Surprised to be asked to explain why she didn’t lie when it is obvious to her that lying is wrong.

She didn’t use the word wrong. I correct myself. She said that lying is detrimental to the goal she is currently pursuing: contact with a foreign culture. This princess’ mental landscape has more layers than Patrick does.

What could cause our death during imprisonment?” I ask since she just said she isn’t going to lie, might as well test it.

Your actions, decisions, those of my Queen, outside circumstances, even simple execution if maintaining the imprisonment is more costly to the hive than what we could gain by keeping you alive.” Princess Celyz uses the same uncannily calm tone as she did before, enunciating the possibilities.

What decisions? About what?” I press.

We will discuss that in another setting.” She says with a shake of her whole body, a strong refusal? A definite no, rather. “Now, we walk until night falls.” Her head points out towards a wide path leading away from the plateau.

Lady Lance makes a small approving nod in my direction, it raises my mood up to a sunny level, we start walking side by side as the warriors start moving silently all at once.

The Princess takes long steps that make her whole body, including her tail, swaying from one side to the other. Her oscillating motion brings her all the way to the very front of the … the horde of Rykz that gathers around us, keeping us in the very middle.

These warriors are taking an irregular formation to walk in a group, no ranks, leaving seemingly random distances between each warrior from a single meter to the last one of them trailing dozens of meters behind. The result is a horde of Rykz warriors spread widely across a long distance along the road.

I observe the slim Rykz Princess as she leads the way, three dozen meters in front of me. I see no shoulder-blades on her bare back, obviously since she has no shoulders but the absence still strikes me as odd despite the obviously inhumanly thin structure of her body.

The vertebral column visible under the rubbery brown skin of her back is unlike any bone structure I have ever seen, it is made of a long single smooth round piece going from the base of her ovoid head, all the way down to the tip of her tail.

There is no flesh on her butt, just two bones with a layer of string-like muscles over them. I make a smile at the thought. Her round spine meanders left and right seamlessly along with her swaying gait. There is no indication that it is made of anything other than that single long piece, nothing like the interlinked bones of our spines.

She has two flat ribs, five centimeters wide. They are attached to the spine twenty centimeters under the base of her neck and are lost under the rubbery flesh soon after they begin arching around the side of the upper chest. I hadn’t even seen the two ribs from her front. Another peculiarity, adding to a long list.

I keep my eyes trained on the movement of her string-like muscles, even as we leave the old mine’s road and start making our way through wild terrain. As the sun passes the midday position, I finally manage to follow one of her muscle strings along its entire length, the complicated criss-cross pattern of her layers of string-like muscles made it rather difficult to follow a specific one.

The string is attached under the hip bone, it travels through the entire length of the leg, beginning under the thigh, it passes behind the reversed knee, and behind the ankle to attach half-way along the entire foot’s length, right before the root-like toe extremities begin.

That single muscle must be a whole meter and a half long uncoiled, this Princess Celyz could gain fifty centimeters in height if she straightened her reversed knees entirely. I am not jealous of her height. I am not jealous of her height. I am not vertically challenged. Well, I am a bit short, but I’m sure my height is just below the average if you don’t count giants. A meter sixty is very reasonable. A meter sixty-five by now I’m sure. Possibly one seventy.

The Rykz horde around us starts spreading further outwards during the afternoon as we traveled through the wild mountain, it now encompasses a span of maybe two hundred meters with wide gaps between each warrior.

The sun is lowering on the horizon when the Rykz princess finally stops in front of a wide wooden double gate installed on the flat of a vertical cliff. She is waiting for us to catch up and for the warriors to finish gathering around us.

Sweet aren’t they?” The Princess faces us, inclining her head sideways, questioningly.

Is she imitating human gestures? Stretching out a non-existent ear to show that she is waiting to hear our answer. Or is it a Rykz gesture, does she have eardrums at the bottom of some of these holes?

Who?” Yvonne asks.

My warriors, spreading so far out to intercept dangers far away from me, I find that to be touching behavior on their part.” Princess Celyz explains.

I hear some eagerness to share in her voice as it resounds out of her ovoid head, but her words tell me much more. They say that there can be emotional bonds within the Rykz society, and, perhaps more importantly, that the bonds can affect their behavior.

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