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I keep walking through the night. I lose track of the eastern direction but that doesn’t really matter. How could I have held hope for us? She let herself be convinced to cut my arm off rather than to take a risk by using her flow reserves to extinguish the fire.

Nothing really changed since then, she decided to cut me off completely as soon as I risked hurting her in some way. I shouldn’t have clung to that woman no matter how much I needed her. Mother would have been disappointed to see me like that.

I notice that the area further in front of me is a different shade of black than the ground I’m currently walking on. I approach the line of demarcation until I realize that I am standing on the edge of a cliff. I slowly kneel and look down.

I feel too exhausted to turn around and keep going. It would be dangerous too, maybe I won’t see the next cliff in time. I did the most I could to mess with the Rykz’ tracking ability, I don’t have the energy to do more.

I assemble a fire construct with half my flow reserves and tie it to a random rock near me. I activate it and blazing flames burst to life. The fire provides me with some much needed warmth. Who cares if the Rykz can detect it, I’ve seen a dozen patrols in the area. I’m certain that I’ve been surrounded for a few hours now, maybe more.

I can’t see the bottom of this cliff in the darkness. There’s nothing left between us. I feel so aimless now that I’ve lost the burning desire to feel the touch of her slender fingers that kept me going for so long.

She took so much space inside my heart that the void left behind stands as a gaping emptiness that taunts and oppresses me, an unceasing pain. She won’t even let me forget her.

What is there to lose by going forward?” I ask out loud, standing up and balancing my feet right on the edge of the cliff. “Nothing.” I answer with a laugh. I raise a leg to take a step forward, over the precipice. “Wait.” I pause. “I can’t lose nothing. She gave it to me and I’m keeping it.” I hurriedly back away from the cliff. “Nothing is mine!” I yell, throwing glances all around me to find out if there is anyone to challenge my ownership. I find that there are dozens of Rykz scouts surrounding the cliff in a half-circle. I glare at them. “Come at me! I’ll take all of you on at once!” I hurl my voice at the creatures who showed up to dispute my claim.

I take a step towards them. Some, but not all, raise their spikes. I have the odd feeling that their flat heads are turning to follow the wound on my left side.

Do you want to die?” Celyz’ resounding voice surprises me when it emerges from the darkness surrounding me. I look but fail to find her.

Why not?! I’m… exhausted.” I yell in the night.

You are heartbroken it seems. Not usually a fatal affliction but I suppose it can happen.” Celyz tells me in a flat tone.

Are you trying to break my melodramatic bone?” I ask with a self-derisive laugh.

It would seem that I’ve already succeeded.” The Rykz Princess chuckles in turn and steps out of the shadows in front of me. I startle when another Princess follows her out of the darkness.

This Princess is fully armored with plates that cover both torso and legs. She is even wearing a helmet with twelve holes that match those on her ovaloid head. There are long spearheads fitted at the end of every single one of her tendrils. This Rykz Princess’ has a distinctively deadly demeanor.

Did you do something to my wound?” I ask.

Yes. Do you know that you’re the only living being marked by tracking pheromones for dozens of kilometers around?”

They probably left your radius.” I answer evasively.
“That is quite unlikely and you know it. No matter, recuperating you and finding out the method that is being used to infiltrate us should be enough to salvage this debacle in the eyes of my Queen.” Celyz approaches me and unfurls a tendril.

As she comes closer, I notice that the rubbery brown flesh of her odd root-like toes is damaged by a large number of cuts and scratches. She waves the tendril and the air surrounding us takes an acrid scent.

The Rykz start turning and leaving. I grow anxious and act without thinking it through. I abruptly make a step towards Celyz. The scouts immediately stop moving and flip around to face me.

What are you doing?” She asks me.

Threatening you. You were right, by the way, these Rykz truly do hold affection for you.” I reply.

Why are you still fighting for her? She abandoned you. She left you to die.” Celyz moves her tendril under my chin to lift it up and make me look up to her ovaloid head.

I was promised nothing for this. I’ll hold my end of that bargain.” I reply confidently, not caring the slightest about the fact that my words make no sense.

She moves her tendril to push strands of my messy hair away. The touch of it feels odd, the rubbery skin is both rough and smooth.

Don’t you want to enact some revenge upon her?” Celyz asks me in a rumbling whisper. “Toy with her until she feels the same anguish as you do.”

That’s.” I interrupt myself to let the idea makes its way in my mind. “Yes. Make her pay. No. Make her squirm in agony. She’ll dance in despair for me.” My mouth dries up and my lips form an insanely wide grin as I envision that future. It isn’t enough to fill the void in my heart, but if there’s something inside of me, then I am no longer empty. “Where is that arm you promised me, Celyz?” I ask her absent-mindedly. My mind is occupied by the task of refining my vision of the future, that of a broken Countess laying at my feet, begging.

It grows as we speak.”

I experience a shiver of worry and unease along my back at her mysterious words. Celyz waves her tendril behind herself and the scouts try to leave the area once more. I raise my hand threateningly and they stop once more.

She is mine!” I scream out in anger. How dare these Rykz presume to take her from me?!

Are you done here, Celyz?” The other Princess asks.

I am. I’ll go back with her right away, Fenyz.”

I never needed you to hunt them anyway.” Fenyz waves the deadly spear heads adorning her tendrils at once in dismissal.

I snap my head around to glare at this Princess who is now also threatening the success of my revenge by trying to catch my quarry before I can lay my hands on it.

Are you certain this human is stable enough for your purpose?” Fenyz asks.

She is tough and adaptable. Many humans would have broken under the trials she faced.” Celyz moves her tendril and lays it over my shoulder.

Her body temperature has been fluctuating wildly. Be careful not to break what you intend to use. But then again, I suppose her sanity is secondary to her survival for your plans.” Fenyz turns around abruptly and starts leaving with all the scouts except four who gather around Celyz.

I try to move to intercept Fenyz but she snaps one of her tendrils around to hit the back of my head. I barely have enough time to register the sensation of falling before blacking out.

— — —

I emerge with the morning sun, finding myself held inside Celyz’ tendrils. My body is rocking side to side along with her swaying gait. She stops and lets me down, her tail waves to compensate the change in her balance.

My head hurts.” I groan.

Fenyz has less patience than I do, I apologize for her rash behavior.” Celyz apologizes.

Did I gain enough time for her to make it out?”

I would think that you did, yes.”

Good, she‘s mine.” I make a wicked grin. “What’s next?” I ask.
“You will meet my Queen again and she will judge whether or not to accept you.” Celyz answers. “In the meantime, I will tell you more about us to help you understand us and tell you what you will work towards. The knowledge will hopefully inform the choices that you make in the future.”

We start walking side by side, I look around. We’re inside the valley on a dirt path. I can see the lake and city far ahead of us.

What will I have to do for you, Celyz?”

You have an idea about how humans wage war, correct?” She asks in return. I nod. “We usually take a different approach. We do not concentrate our forces to fight pitched battles that determine the winner within days or weeks. Our workers create a network of tunnels over the battlefield while the rest our forces split into thousands of squads and burn everything that we can find. Fields, granaries, villages.” I shudder at her calm tone of voice while she describes the horrifying reality of their tactics.

But you’re not going to do that here.” I say, hoping that she won’t contradict me.

We won’t. We will use the network of tunnels to take control of the Izla but we cannot apply our scorched earth tactics here for several reasons. First is that our hive is not implanted enough in the Izla to sustain the size of our army on its own, that means that we need the Izla’s stores of food for ourselves. I’ve given the order to start our invasion as you’ve no doubt guessed already. We cannot count on acquiring supplies by directly harvesting the island’s fields since the Nobility will likely forbid the peasantry from sowing in the first place.”

They’ll starve if you take the grain.” I tell her with a shaky voice.

We will leave enough that you will have no cause to worry. That brings us to the second reason why we aren’t using the usual Rykz tactics: my sister. We are going to play a fearsome game, Jessica. It is necessary for us to hit the Kingdom efficiently enough that they cannot easily dislodge us but not with such ruthless cruelty that they panic and threaten my sister’s safety in desperation.”

You want a negotiation. I thought you were here to retaliate?”

The hive is here to retaliate. My priority is to get my sister back, we can strike back in a year or a hundred.” Celyz waves a tendril dismissively between us. It lingers over my shoulder.

Won’t they directly offer to give her back once they see the size of your army? Caeviel can’t want to fight a hundred thousand strong Rykz army just for a single Princess. I don’t understand why an entire war is fought over your sister. I mean no offense to her, but… this seems entirely out of proportion.”

You know of the Empire’s University, correct?” She asks and I nod in response. “There is a similar institute in Caeviel’s capital dedicated to researching the properties of flow. They experiment on Rykz, cold bloods, and humans alike to study their connection to flow. As far as I can tell with what I could gather, their main goal is to find a way to usurp an individual’s access to flow regeneration. Four years ago, they determined that experimenting on a Rykz Princess may yield better results and thus they maneuvered to have one brought to them.”

I’m sorry but it still doesn’t explain why thousands must die over this.”

The short answer is that if they succeed and usurp my sister’s access, it will be the start of an utterly merciless war between the Rykz and the Empire. A war that will not stop until one or the other is wiped out as an entity.” Celyz pauses. “While possible, it is still unlikely that such a thing will come to pass as others have attempted to bend flow to their will several times in the past without any success. That brings us to the long answer.”

There aren’t so many Rykz Princesses that you can let one be taken without retaliating.” I venture my guess.

Yes, but the reason why we have to do this is more complicated than that. As a species, the Rykz could retreat deeper into the mountains or hide underground and it would become nearly impossible to reach us. We could live in complete isolation from the humans and cold bloods. But we cannot afford to separate ourselves from the rest of the world because we depend on your two species for our technological advancement.”

What? You’re the smartest being that I know, you have knowledge that is completely unknown to the Empire as far as I can tell.”

There are a hundred Rykz Queens and a thousand Princesses across our entire species. Think about what that means. Our workers create tools but never invent new ones. Our scouts are great trackers but they didn’t even pause to consider a trick when the amount of tracking pheromones in the air dropped abruptly. Our warriors are trained for war but the Templars exploited their lack of ability to improvise to slaughter them without much difficulty. Queens and Princesses are the only beings with a capacity for complex thought among the Rykz but there are simply not enough of us to intellectually compete with the millions of thinking humans and cold bloods.”

There aren’t that many scholars in the Empire.” I protest.

Who do you think invented the plow? A warring Lord?” She asks me. I open my mouth but close it when I realize what she means, only someone who farms would have the need. “Every mind counts. Rykz spent ninety millenniums on the surface hunting and gathering. Then two species in the continent’s central plains started finding new ways to acquire food. The number of humans and cold bloods exploded. Your two species overtook the entire region within barely a few centuries. The change was so abrupt that our hives could not adapt to the situation and were pushed out without daring to fight for the land as there were simply too many of you. The Queens sealed their ancestral homes and migrated out of the plains.”

What happened next for the Rykz to abandon even the lands surrounding the plains?” I ask, curious.

Unification. The First Hive’s Queen decided that we could no longer stand separate and every Queen that refused had its hive burned, razed, and collapsed by the combined might of the others. It was then decided to avoid settling near your two species until the Rykz learned these new techniques and became able to compete once more. Five hundred Princesses were sent to the plains to spy and learn. More than two-thirds of them died but the plan still succeeded and they came back with knowledge. After a thousand years of restructuring our society, the Rykz were finally unified as a species and as technologically advanced as the other two intelligent species. Unfortunately, it took us too long. By the time we were ready to spread ourselves over the world once more, there was very little land left to occupy.” Celyz tells the tale in a vibrating voice.

So you’ve gone to war with the Empire for land and technology. But this time, you had to come all the way here to find out how your sister was taken and recover her. They thought that they would be safe so far away from Rykz territory but that only motivated you even more. The sudden appearance of your hive in the middle of the Izla is not something that the Empire will forget anytime soon.” My brain finally catches up with the conversation. “By the way, how did you enter this valley undetected?”

This volcano is part of a chain that extends outside of Caeviel’s borders, it took us a year to find a vein we could use.” Celyz pauses. “There is something else you should know. The next entity that will try something like this will be the University, possibly with the Empire’s backing. If they somehow manage to capture or kill a Queen, it is possible that the First Hive will declare an all-out war to put an end to this madness before it becomes a threat to our survival.”

Didn’t you say that such experiments never yield positive results?” I frown.

That doesn’t stop people from trying until they’ve exhausted all their ideas. My Queen hopes to end this before it is too late by pressuring Caeviel enough that they will agree to sign a treaty. If it holds, we may be able to do the same with the Empire.”

You don’t hold the same hope?” I pause. “No, of course not. You know humans enough to realize that such a treaty is not something that will last for long. In ten years or twenty, someone will think that the treaty exists because the Rykz have secrets to hide.” I laugh. “Well, you truly do have secrets to hide if you truly can give me a new arm to replace the one I lost.”

Indeed, we do.” Celyz admits. “And so does the Empire.” She adds in a hard voice.

How long until we reach the city?” I ask because there are too many hills for me to get a good idea of the distance.

We’re about ten kilometers away, so a couple of hours walking at this pace.”

How quickly will I be able to get out of this valley?” I repress my growing restlessness at the thought of starting my revenge.

That will depend on how long it takes for you to recover and adapt. The arm should be ready in four to six days. If the Queen agrees to give you the arm, we will begin implementing it immediately. After that, it will all depend on you.” Celyz explains.

A week.” I grit my teeth. “Can you provide me with a weapon?” I’ll just have to use the time to keep training the lion strike.

Of course. What kind?”

A hammer.” A blade would be too dangerous. After all, I don’t want to accidentally kill her. “Please make sure that the handle is long and that the bottom end of it is sharpened into a spike.” She’s slippery, I might need a way to pin her down.

I’ll get it done. Anything else?”

Not that I can think of right now.” I shake my head. “What is the arm going to cost me exactly?”

A hundred years of servitude.” Celyz lets a resounding chuckle escape her.
“A day.” I make my counter offer while rolling my eyes.

We walk in silence for a while as she seems to be considering her answer.

I’ll only ask you to work for me until my sister is recovered. I’ll trust that you will do everything you can to achieve that end until you prove me wrong.” Celyz speaks up after a few minutes. “My Queen may add her own terms so be prepared for that.”

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