I emerge from sleep full of energy and enthusiasm at the thought of testing my idea out. I fast walk towards the well. Is this the fourth or fifth day? I should have kept better track of time.
Either way, she’s probably reached Meria by now. I hope the Nobility won’t make stupid decisions like engaging the Rykz in pointless skirmishes. I’ve seen enough of the scouts to know that they have much better training than most peasants can be. Losses are inevitable. The best I can do now is make sure that the war ends before too many casualties occur.
Once I arrive at the well, I find that the Rykz that sparred with me yesterday is already waiting for me. I pick up the iron bar on the ground and start assembling a lion strike construct.
I tweak the targeting a little to only affect the upper portion of my torso. Unlike the overhead strike that I’ve trained these past few days that needs to use almost all of my upper muscles to execute it with the most power, this feint should only require my arm and shoulder to be boosted.
I change my grip on the iron bar, taking hold of it at one-third before raising it over my head in an exact copy of the overhead strike’s stance. I take deep breaths and focus for a minute.
I activate the lion strike and bring the iron bar down in a stabbing motion. I am surprised by my own speed as my arm flashes downward. My timing was off but the stab is so fast that I could execute it entirely inside of the construct’s activation window.
“Once more.” I need to shorten the timer segment even further. I tweak the construct and try again. The stab ends up slowing down in the middle but it’s only a matter of picking up the timing of the strike myself now. “Once more.”
I spend the morning training that feint while ignoring the scout that is waiting there to spar. It doesn’t seem to mind but then again it isn’t moving at all so I can’t really tell. I eat the meal that a worker brings over and decide to test the strike on the Rykz.
I start the spar by throwing a few overhead strikes that the Rykz intercepts by raising its spikes in the same way it did all day yesterday. I get into the stance again and the scout starts bringing its spikes up to get in position to block, taken by my feint. The stab slips under the Rykz’ guard and lands on its torso’s carapace.
The iron bar’s flat end bounces off the carapace and leaves only a small scratch. It matters not, the Rykz was completely fooled. This will be useful for opponents who manage to survive the first few exchanges and have learned to recognize the overhead blow’s stance.
I spend the afternoon burning through my flow to fine tune both lion strikes, I occasionally spar with the scout to test my forms. The Rykz eventually adapts to the two different strikes that can be thrown from my overhead stance by trying to dodge them both entirely.
Not a bad solution, but the scout loses the opportunity to counter attack by moving away. I can’t underestimate these Rykz despite their limitations. “Once more.” I continue training myself but stop when night starts falling to go check on the Queen before it is too dark to see.
The lack of light forces me to use an enhancing construct on my eyesight to distinguish the huge Rykz at a distance through the darkness. The Queen has lost so much height that her large ovaloid head is only a few meters above the lake’s surface.
The eggs are floating in the water all around the Queen, still connected to her by tendrils. The eggs must have experienced an insane growth spurt since the last time I saw them since they’re now a whole fifty centimeters in diameter. There are so many of them concentrated in the water that their shells are touching.
It isn’t a coincidence that the eggs are about to be laid inside the time frame that Celyz gave me for the arm. What exactly did I get myself into? I turn around and make my way to my sleeping quarters.
Once inside the bed, I nervously turn and roll over the sheet. I can’t back away now, I’ve made a deal. I just need to get through this and I can get started on my revenge. It’ll be fine, it’s going to be okay.
I’ll have two arms and a hammer to pin her down next time.
— — —
“Are you ready?” Celyz’ resounding voice tears me out of my slumber.
I glance around and find her looking at me from the building’s entrance. I immediately sit up on the sheet and hop over the bed frame. I walk up to her without giving myself time to reconsider my decision to go through with this.
“As much as I can be when you’ve barely told me anything.” I reply.
“Let’s talk on the way then.” She turns around and we make our way out together.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“The lake, my Queen is entering the last phase of the cycle.”
“What does that have to do with the arm?” I push her.
“The Rykz as a whole are not a single species.” She answers.
“I… That’s… I suppose workers, soldiers, and Princesses to say they are different species, but what does that have to do with our deal?”
“You misunderstand, workers, soldiers, and scouts are part of the same species but Princesses and Queens are of another. I am telling you that we have entirely different origins.” She shakes her head.
“How is that possible? Your Queen is about to lay Rykz eggs as we speak, how could she do that without being the same species?”
“The complete history of the Rykz is too complex to relate to you but to simplify, our two species melded together over the ages. We only know of our different origins because Queens have a genetic memory of every generation that came before us.”
“How is that possible?” I ask again.
“Our ancestors were carnivorous plants that trapped animals in the depth of the earth. They trapped animals into their tendrils and took over their nervous system, acting as parasites until the prey was entirely consumed before moving on.” She admits in a low voice, somewhat ashamed of her origins. It doesn’t stop me from feeling fear and putting distance between us. “You shouldn’t be afraid, our ability to do that has been traded away for the capacity to lay Rykz eggs.”
“You’re going to try a lot harder than that to convince me.” I reply with anger.
Celyz stays silent for a moment. She suddenly lunges forward, all of her tendrils deploying at once to take hold of me. They wrap around my limbs and neck. I scream in terror as I completely lose the ability to move my body.
“If I could take over your nervous system, you would already have lost the ability to speak.” Celyz explains calmly before releasing me. I shut my mouth but my heartbeat doesn’t calm down. “One of our ancestors must have run into a hive of workers and taken control of its Queen. What happened next can’t be too hard to guess, that ancestor reproduced and our species thrived by controlling entire hives through their Queens. Over a period of time I cannot even begin to describe, our ancestors changed to increase their control over the hives. They grew in efficiency until they no longer needed to parasite a Queen to control a hive.”
“There is no arm, is there? You’re going to implant me with one of those parasite plants.”
“Yes and no. Like I explained, our species melded together. The genetic memory is ours but the ability to manipulate the eggs that we lay was something that we obtained from their Queens.”
“Why should I trust you? I acknowledge that you didn’t need to tell me the truth but… it could still be a trick.”
“I won’t lie, we could implant you with a parasite that would completely control you. But what would be the point without the mind to control the body?” Celyz makes a shrug with her tendrils. “Our ancestors were not smart creatures, they operated on instinct. Such a being would not be able to infiltrate human lines for us, it would be even less capable of fulfilling the task than a scout.”
“I don’t have any other option than to trust you, do I?” I ask bitterly.
“You can still back away, I assure you.” She replies. “Before you decide, though, know that we can truly give you a new arm. Once implanted, the parasite will be ordered to enter a symbiosis with your body and mirror the shape and structure of your other arm.”
“I need time to make my decision.” I tell Celyz.
“You have until the egg reaches the shore. My Queen has to calibrate the arm with your body herself and she will not wait to do it.”
I clench my jaw and resume walking towards the lake.
“What will it look like?” I ask.
“My Queen used her own genetic information as a base to create it. It will be more powerful than your own and the flesh will have a rubbery texture. But fear not, I have prepared something for you to wear that will hide it from sight.”
“I’ll be at your mercy.” I spit out.
“You will have complete control over it, you will be as free to make your decisions as you are now.”
“Again, I am forced to either refuse this entirely or believe that you’re telling me the truth.”
“Jessica, I did not choose you for your ability to fight. I chose you because I need someone intelligent that I can trust to rescue my sister. It would make no sense for me to destroy the very mind that I am counting on to help me accomplish that task.” Celyz pauses. “I’ve told you much more about our history and origins than I needed to because I decided to trust you. Is it too much to ask that you do the same?”
“There is little risk for you when you trust me.” I counter. “I’m thinking about it Celyz, please do not push me any further.”
We exchange no more words during the rest of the way to the lake. There are thousands upon thousands of workers standing immobile all around the lake. All of them are turned towards their Queen, waiting.
I turn my attention inwards for the first time in days. The emptiness in my heart is still oppressing, less so than it was but it remains there. I gather my thoughts and try to think of an alternative path to this one but I give up the idea soon after.
I don’t the strength or the energy necessary to change course. Not now that I am on the verge of being complete once again.
“I agree.” I say out loud without turning towards her. “Don’t make me regret this.”
“You won’t.” Celyz’ voice resounds confidently. “Do you want to know more about the process?”
“Am I going to lose any more pieces?” I return spitefully.
“Possibly.” She admits, I close my first to stop myself from yelling at her. “The arm will anchor itself to your chest and shoulder bones. It will eat some of the flesh there but those are remnants of your left arm, you don’t use those muscles anymore.” Celyz pauses but doesn’t keep going even after I wait a while.
“It’s possible that your left breast will be consumed before you can reach a symbiotic balance with the arm.”
“How likely is that?” I ask as a chill runs through my back.
“The best-case scenario would be some minimal damage that you can heal over time.” Celyz replies evasively.
“Tell me how bad it will be.” I close my eyes as I wait for the answer.
“Your left breast will be atrophied to some degree by the time the implementation is done.”
“Just remove it entirely and leave a clean scar if I can’t recover.” I tell Celyz while passing my hand over my eyes, feeling tired already despite having just woken up. “I already have a scar on my left breast, extend it and don’t leave a mess.”
“I am sorry.” Celyz apologizes.
“Do you think I’ll survive? I don’t know how painful it will be but I can imagine.”
“I think you can if you hold on. The parasite will dispense a toxin inside your body that will paralyze and provoke a feeling of euphoria. You won’t be able to resist so just focus on keeping yourself as calm as possible while it happens.” She explains in a quiet tone of voice.
“I’m not going to panic this late, Celyz. Now tell me why you’re going to such lengths to provide me with an arm. I have as much pride as the next woman but I’m not quite so delusional as to think I alone am worth the significant time and effort that was put into this.”
“My Queen believes that the best way to make the institute fold is to show them that we can attempt experiments of our own on humans. She believes the treaty would have a better chance to hold if it is bilateral.”
“She isn’t wrong but that could easily backfire.” I let the mention of experiments pass without a comment, I’ve chosen my path. “What if the Emperor’s University takes an interest in this?”
“My sister was taken, we need to show some cards of our own or total war will be inevitable.”
I prepare to warn her of the dangers that I see in trying to control greed with fear but I hear some snapping sounds coming from the center of the lake and snap my head around to look.
The Queen’s tendrils are detaching themselves from the eggs and retreating towards the trunk to wrap themselves around it. The lake’s water around the Queen takes the black glow of the Rykz’ flow color.
Small waves centered on the Queen’s trunk start pushing the eggs towards the shore. Workers start entering the water to receive the eggs, it takes a long time for the first eggs to reach their arms as the water current pushing them is steady but slow.
My eyes remained fixed on the workers as they put the eggs away inside building and come back to the shore to receive more. My apprehension about what will come next for me grows as the worker’s task approaches completion.
Once the last wave of eggs is taken away, the ground starts shaking and the waves originating from the Queen’s trunk grow in size.
“What’s happening?!” I ask with some panic in my voice.
“My Queen is uprooting herself.” Celyz answers calmly.
I bite my cheeks to control myself and avoid asking stupid questions like whether or not it’s dangerous.
The huge Queen’s torso, covered by her innumerable tendrils, starts rotating and the movement makes the trunk under it split in three, two legs and a tail. I watch with fascination as the being turns from an odd monstrous tree to an oversized Princess.
The Rykz Queen lost a lot of height and mass compared to the first time I saw her but not in presence. Her remaining magnitude is still plenty enough to intimidate me from afar.
I hear loud hollow popping sounds as the Queen’s limbs straighten and realign themselves. The being then raises its leg and pushes through the water to take a step.
The impact of her foot on the bottom of the lake provokes a small tremor and a wave larger than the previous ones crashes against the shore. I hurriedly back away to avoid getting drenched.
“I hope you’re not afraid of water because you’re going to have to enter the lake in a short while.” Celyz chuckles.
“Don’t make fun of me, you overgrown plant.” I automatically quip back. I tense a little after hearing the sharpness in my words but they only make the Princess laugh even louder.
The Queen shifts her weight on her forward leg and lifts her other leg, her tail emerges from the water’s surface and extends behind her. The shore is hit by tremors and waves every time the Queen takes a step towards us.
It takes long minutes for the huge Rykz to reach the very edge of the lake. She is a full twenty meters tall, she could possibly reach twenty-five if she straightened up instead of leaning her torso forward and bending her reversed knees so much.
The Queen’s tail makes a frightening swoosh sound as it sways behind her just above the lake’s surface. I see her root-like toes plunge deeply into the shore’s ground through the clear water.
“Queen.” I salute her. I’m going to be very polite
“I am Grikyz.” The voice rumbles out of her large ovaloid head like thunder.
I’ve heard that name before, Celyz mentioned that the Empire fought her hive in the past but that sneaky Princess didn’t even hint that it was the name of her Queen.
“Queen Grikyz.” I repeat, adding a bow.
Let’s not inadvertently annoy the being who is about to explain to a carnivorous parasite plant thing that I’m not worth eating… at least not entirely if I understood Celyz’ meaning correctly.
“Hey, symbiosis means what I think it does, right?” I ask her.
“It means that the parasite won’t eat you and will obey your orders as long as you keep providing it with food.” Celyz replies.
“How certain are you that this is going to work?”
“I know that your body and the parasite will enter a symbiosis. That part of the process is unlikely to fail.”
“It never fails to reassure me when you answer my questions succinctly.” I note sarcastically.
“You may have some difficulty enduring the pain during and after the process of implementation.” Celyz reluctantly explains. “I didn’t want to frighten you and I’m only telling you now to show that I am not hiding anything.”
The Queen suddenly unfurls a tendril from around her torso. It is rolled around an egg that is about as large as my chest.
“I need an arm, not a leg.” I mutter humorously to fight my own doubts about this whole thing back.
What’s one more stupidly risky decision to me at this point? Celyz did put a lot of effort into forging an odd relationship with me, I don’t think she would have bothered if she could alter me to serve her as she wishes.
Her point about every mind counting is also reassuring to me. If the Rykz had the power to alter minds, they wouldn’t have needed to hide here for three years before attacking.