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Our group moves a distance away from all the dead Rykz to set up next to the closed stone gate. Emffrey takes a needle out along with some thick brown string, he and Patrick isolate themselves in a corner.

I turn away to throw another glance at my Lady, she hadn’t been looking my way but that doesn’t stop her from entirely turning around to not even be facing in my general direction.

I grip my heavy Rykz round shield and throw it on the ground. I sit on it, focusing on taking deep breaths to keep my anger at her in check. What is this?

I observe as the Exemplar walks up to the other two Templars. She takes one of two steel flasks that they each carry with them. She then takes her own and holds the three out to Lady Lance by their leather straps.

Leomi, fill these up for me, please.” Vikiana tells her daughter.

But I’ll need to hel…” She starts protesting but her voice dies down when it is confronted with her mother’s flat stare.

I keep my eyes trained on my Lady’s back as she takes the flasks in hand. I see the golden glow of flow appear briefly at the edges of her fingers. She is transferring flow inside directly through the metal. Are those portable energy reserves?

If we go by these stone gates, the tunnel will be some five meters large.” Edward tells Vikiana.

Four, one, two?” She asks him.

That would work with the shields we just took, yes.” He agrees.

Alright.” The Exemplar nods. “Everyone!” She yells out. “We’ll be going in a line, Emffrey and Edward center, Leomi to the right, Yvonne to the left. The other two hold the rear-guard. I’ll be skirmishing center so don’t expect me to be there to save your ass if you slip up because there’s a good chance I won’t be. No fuck-ups.” Vikiana pauses. “Damn Rykz shields are heavy.” She adds absent-mindedly, raising and lowering the one she’s holding to judge its weight.

I don’t know why she’s complaining, she’s moving that round shield like it’s a feather. Vikiana suddenly drops the shield to the ground, entirely giving it up. She then takes the three flasks back from Lady Lance who presumably finished filling them with flow.

After a few minutes of waiting, Emffrey finally finishes sewing Patrick’s hand, he moves on to Yvonne’s gash on her flank. I get back up to my feet and pick up my shield once all of the group’s wounds are bandaged.

We gather in front of the stone gate, a line that goes Yvonne, Emffrey, Edward, and Leomi. They take hold of the gate’s massive stone handles, three on either side.

I watch them pull the heavy doors open, intensely watching the interstice between the stone panels grow. The first things that I notice are the dozen of flow torches. These must somehow be helpful to the Rykz, maybe the contrast in temperature caused by the flames allows them to detect things more clearly.

There is no Princess inside the tunnel, not even a single warrior. They probably would have come out during our short battle outside. Actually, was it short? I lost track of time while that Rykz pounded on my shield with his saber. I shake my head and hurriedly speak up.

There’s nothing inside, just flow torches on the walls.” I say to reassure them as they can’t see inside the tunnel while pulling the stone gates open.

How long is the tunnel?” Vikiana asks over her shoulder.

I really can’t tell, a hundred meters, two hundred, five? The torches don’t continue on forever but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the exit is where I can see the last torch.” I answer.

Alright, stop. This is wide enough for us to get inside.” Vikiana orders the group.

We form up in the four, one, two formation that she told us about and make our way through the tunnel. I keep my eyes trained on my Lady’s back as we make our way, unable to help myself.

Luckily for me and my inattention, our group doesn’t encounter any resistance inside the tunnel. We cross the entire length of the tunnel without incident and arrive at another set of doors, wooden this time.

Listen carefully now because once we engage you’ll have to remember the plan.” Vikiana speaks up but softly so that her voice doesn’t reach the other side of the gates. “We push the doors open but don’t exit, we hold at the edge of the tunnel and assess the enemy. If there are too many Rykz to break through, we thin them out until we can. If there are just twenty or thirty Rykz, we don’t stick around and just directly burst through. Understood?” She asks and whispers of agreement answer her.

Our four front-liners take a position in front of the wooden gates while Patrick, Vikiana, and I place our hands on the door panels. The Exemplar gives us a nod and we start slowly, so very slowly, pushing the panels open.

Unfortunately for us, the metal hinges are rusted and were probably never even greased. The screeching sound that accompanies the opening of the tunnel’s gates is impossible to miss.

I have no doubt that every wild animal in a twenty-kilometer radius heard the noise and either froze on their spot or directly scampered away in fright.

The Rykz on the other side sure as fuck did not miss it. All forty of them turn towards us at once and take their sabers out of their scabbards. The warrior’s movements flow so seamlessly together that they have to be an ingrained instinct rather than a habit.

Rh-hyyyyy, kszz.

They roar the breathing cry all at once, with fury. No doubt because of the death and murder smells coming from our bodies. The slaughter of their kind. They charge us without hesitating, a wave of obsidian black flesh and dull gray metal weapons.

I grit my teeth and keep pushing the door to open it completely. Just a couple more meters. Once done, the three of us let go of the door to hurriedly back away and slip behind our front-liners. Just in time.

Rh-hyyyyy, kszz.

The creatures crash into our group, shield to shield. The sound of it is deafening but lacks the ringing noise that I expect when I hear metal impacting metal. The clanging sound of these shocks do occur but they all dissipate immediately after without resonating.

I see the two Templars in the center buckle under the initial pressure, bending their knees along before pushing back and retaliating with snapping sword strikes, mirroring each other’s movements almost perfectly.

I glance at my Lady and find her repeatedly bashing a Rykz’ head with her round shield. Her other hand is holding the iron bar in the middle like a small staff, she is successfully using it to block both saber and shield, one after the other.

Rh-hyyyyy, kszz.

That Rykz’ stance starts crumbling after the fifth shield bash. Lady Lance doesn’t miss the opening, she changes her grip to one end of the iron bar and crushes the creature’s head with a swift lion strike.

I spot Vikiana moving, she takes a casual step forward between the two other Templars and delivers two ridiculously swift strikes against the two Rykz facing them. An upward slash that directly slices through the left one’s head and a backhanded flickering stab to the right one’s chest that pierces its body armor without slowing down. I didn’t even see her change grips on her sword.

Rh-hyyyyy, kszz.

At the corner of my vision, I see Yvonne being pushed away from her position so I hurriedly move to support her. She is forced to take another step backward and I slip in the opening to bash the Rykz pressuring her with my shield.

Yvonne rushes back in with an overhead lion strike that crushes the head of the unbalanced Rykz. I retreat to let Yvonne retake her spot in the line.

What is this?” A Princess’ resounding voice clamors over the battle but I can’t find her anywhere in the obsidian black tide facing us. “Rh-hyyyyy, kszz.” She suddenly yells out in an imitation of the other Rykz’ breathing cry. It is such a loud shout that it echoes in the tunnel behind us.

The warriors fighting us suddenly grow more aggressive. I notice the moment when the tempo of the battle changes, accelerates. I start hearing fewer and fewer sounds of shields bashing together while the noises of weapons being intercepted increase.

Rh-hyyyyy, kszz.

We’d killed about ten Rykz without sustaining any more than a few cuts in injuries up until the Princess’ cry. Their dead bodies lay on the ground in front of our line as so many obstacles to the warriors that took their place.

In the short minutes that follows her appearance, we kill the same amount of Rykz but the group sustains several grave wounds. Lady Lance’s calf is pierced by a stabbing attack. Edward takes a blow to the chest that doesn’t pierce his chain-mail but makes him sput out a large amount of blood.

Yvonne is forced to retreat when her left arm breaks under the weight of a heavy saber blow that impacts her shield head-on. Patrick moves to take her place in the front-line. I swallow my reluctance to help that maniac.

Rh-hyyyyy, kszz.

I move one step behind him and to his right. I place my shield in the way of every attack aimed at him that I can. I silence the spiteful voice in my head that calls for his death.

Pull back, Edward!” Vikiana yells the order out with panic in her voice.

Sorry, Viki, but this is it for me.” Edward croaks out in a terrifyingly weak voice, refusing to obey her order.

I throw a glance to my right, what I see makes me gasp in fright. The Templar has a saber stuck in the middle of his chest. It entered from his left shoulder and cut through his torso until it was stopped by his sternum, the thick bone that ribs connect to. Edward decides to heroically push onward into the Rykz tide instead of retreating.

Edward!” Vikiana calls out with despair.

He swings sword and shield in wild attacks around himself, receiving more and more gaping wounds because he doesn’t bother defending himself. Three Rykz are felled by his crazed blows but he crumbles to the ground soon after they do. A shiver courses through my back as I witness the Templar’s death.

Rh-hyyyyy, kszz.

The Exemplar advances to fill the gap in our line but doesn’t move a single step further towards her fallen comrade, maintaining the renowned discipline of her Order.

I block another blow for the Lordling. Over two-thirds of the Rykz warriors now lay dead before us, still about fifteen to go. I grit my teeth. Please hold on and be safe my Lady.

Rh-hyyyyy, kszz.

On my mark, back and strike.” Vikiana yells over the cacophony of the battlefield. “Now!

We take a single step backward as a unified line, I raise my shield and hurriedly assemble a lion strike while the Rykz cross over the pile of dead bodies left by those of them who fell first.

Rh-hyyyyy, kszz.

I raise the heavy round shield up over my head. As soon as the warrior enters my range, I bring it down on his head while activating the lion strike construct. The creature decides to use its shield to block Patrick’s attack and its saber to divert mine.

The weight of my shield combined with the inherent speed of a lion strike makes it too much for the Rykz to successfully defend. The warrior’s saber is smacked aside, leaving me free to crush its head with the edge of my round shield. A cloud of viscous brown blood is projected out with the impact, I feel drops of it hit my face.

Rh-hyyyyy, kszz.

I keep a firm handle on myself and step forward to block the Rykz following up behind this one. Vikiana’s tactic worked perfectly for us, there are only a half-dozen Rykz left to fight us.

Patrick takes over for me in the line. I pause to recover my breath, observing the others. Lady Lance is being supported by Yvonne and neither has suffered any more injuries. Emffrey is bleeding from a cut on his arm that got past his chain-mail.

I stare at Vikiana as she chains three quick strikes together and methodically dismantles a warrior’s defenses to finally kill it with a single deadly stab that doesn’t even look like a lion strike.

Rh-hyyyyy, kszz.

I’ve seen her do that before during first part of the melee before I fully joined in. Almost the exact same succession of blows. Is she exploiting a hole in these warrior’s training, in the Rykz’ instincts?

Rh-hyyyyy, kszz.” The Princess’ resounding voice thunders once again but from further away than before.

The remaining four warriors change their patterns of attack. They start aiming their strikes towards our front-liner’s legs, towards their knees.

Shatter!” Vikiana calls out.

I don’t know what she means but the others do and they all split from each other. The four Rykz fall for the bait, rather, they don’t even hesitate to fill the newly opened spaces between our fighters.

Rh-hyyyyy, kszz.

They are all slaughtered within a minute, unable to defend from attacks originating all around them. I contribute with an occasional shield bash. I don’t get much time to enjoy the familiar silence that accompanies the end of a battle.

Drop your shields. We’re pushing through until we reach Meria. Keep fueling your lion’s leap constructs until you’re out, share flow reserves equally.” Vikiana gives her orders in short bursts.

I remain there, frozen by her words. Lion’s leap? I don’t know that construct. I glance all around me to the others. Yvonne is making a worried expression. My Lady finally looks back at me but her light gray eyes seem empty, drained despite the hard determination visible on her face.

The group forms up with Vikiana at the head, Emffrey throws a sad look at Edward’s shredded body but doesn’t move towards it. My Lady approaches me all of a sudden.

Lady Lance leans forward and picks me up without giving me the time to protest or even react. She slips one arm behind my knees while wrapping the other behind my back and placing her hand under my armpit. An old fear emerges and digs itself a hole in my stomach.

What’s going on?” I ask her in a trembling voice.

Lady Lance keeps her silence. She pulls my body closer to hers and joins the back of the group’s column just as it departs. Our group slowly picks up in speed until it reaches a full running pace. I let myself be carried by my Lady and do my best not to hinder her despite how uncomfortable this posture is.

I could run alongside them if I use a full strengthening construct. I am proven wrong almost as soon as the thought occurs to me.

The other five start lengthening the width between each of their steps, a regular increase until all of a sudden they are no longer running but leaping jumps forward.

The group now travels at such a frighteningly fast pace that the rocks and trees that we pass by blur on the edge of my vision. I grip my Lady’s shirt in fright because every-time she leaps ahead, she also has to come down to land. The impacts with the ground are so strong that they threaten to dislodge me from her arms if I have a single moment of inattention.

It doesn’t take long for the Exemplar to notice that I need to be carried by her daughter to keep up. I catch the glance that she throws at me, the eyes that she lies on me are cold and analytical.

I suddenly understand why my Lady started cutting ties with me. Lady Lance knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep up without a horse. It makes sense, she started acting coldly just after we discovered the massacre that took place in the cove.

Sadness and resignation mix with the anger that I’ve felt towards her for most of this day. She should have told me instead of ignoring me. Lady Lance has been preparing herself to let go of me for hours.

We’re stopping behind that rock.” Vikiana loudly informs the group as we approach a large eroded block of stone.

A heavy ball of nerves forms in my throat. I know what’s coming next. They’re leaving me behind. They have to ensure their own escape before anything else. The information that we carry with us is the only real warning that the Izla will get before it is too late and the tide of Rykz pours out of the twins.

If they fail to reach Meria, the Izla will fall and be lost to Caeviel. What’s the life of a single unbound traitor compared to that? “Hic.” The hiccup escapes me. My Lady’s face hardens and her arms squeeze me even more tightly against her chest.

I don’t get to enjoy her attempt at comforting me because the group starts slowing down to stop where Vikiana ordered them to.

It’s… hic. Okay, my Lady.” I try to tell her but she refuses to look me in the eye, she doesn’t even respond.

Lady Lance stops along with the others but sticks to the back of the column and refuses to face her mother who is glaring at her. My Lady doesn’t put me down, she starts holding onto me so strongly that her grip hurts me.

For the Emperor’s sake, Leomi! Put that girl down!” The Exemplar barks at her daughter.

No, I refuse to.” My Lady replies in a tiny voice.

Girl, get off.” Her mother orders me directly.

I look up to my Lady, releasing my grip on her shirt. I raise my hand and brush her soft cheek with the back of my crude fingers. She yields to my touch and finally agrees to look me in the eye.

I allow myself to get lost in the light gray abyss of her eyes, once more. One last time. I find no hope within. My Lady Lance already knows deep inside that her resistance is a pointless attempt to delay the inevitable decision that she will soon be forced to make.

My Lady does what she should do instead of what she wants to do. At least, I think so, that’s why I started liking her more as she showed me facets of who she is through her choices.

As far as I can tell, there is only one path that my Lady can take from here. She has to leave me behind.

Let me go, Lady Lance.” I demand of her. Not a request and not a plea.

She nods. Tears fall from her eyes as she slowly releases her grip to let me slip away from her grasp. I land on my feet. I open my mouth to speak to her further but she’s already begun walking away towards her mother. My Lady left me as soon as I’d hit the ground.

I follow her with my eyes, turning my body along to keep her within my field of vision, somewhat surprised by her sudden departure. I wanted to spend the time we have left together, what is she doing?

I quietly observe Lady Lance bring her right hand up to her chest and clasp it over her heart with so much strength that the tips of her fingers delve deeply into her flesh.

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