I keep my eye on the other human’s camp while they pack and throw some food in the pot over their fire. Once inside that castle Celyz wants us to infiltrate, I’ll need to split up with them.
The bandits are too unreliable and the mercenaries are used to operate on their own. And I can’t trust either group if things go sideways. Hopefully, the two others that Celyz found will be more reliable, they live in a village so they should at least be sociable.
“What’s that construct you want to teach me?” I ask Celyz.
“Something useful that you can exercise while we walk.” She replies.
One of her tendrils unfurls from her torso and starts glowing black. She then makes a step towards some rock and throws her tendrils towards it with such speed that it cuts through the air with a whistling sound.
I’d expected the rock to break since this is a construct demonstration but that doesn’t happen. I throw a look at the tendril and it also seems undamaged. The speed of her blow was fast but not so much that I would consider a construct to have boosted it.
“Reinforcing construct.” I conclude out loud.
“Yes. It makes Rykz skin impervious to most attacks.” Celyz nods. “It won’t stop a lion strike or the tip of a sword at full speed but you can block blades barehanded if you’re careful about where and when you intercept them.”
“I assume it’ll only work on my left arm. Why don’t you teach this to your soldiers?” I ask.
“Because it’ll rapidly burn through flow when active so you have to manually control it during combat.”
Celyz makes the construct float above her tendril and cuts her ties with it when I extend my hand. I link to it and start assembling a copy of it for myself. I make my own copy of it float over my left hand and cit ties so Celyz can check it.
“Couple of segment values are off, here and there.” She tells me before handing the construct back.
We spend a dozen minutes exchanging the construct back and forth to ensure that I don’t accidentally rip my left limb’s skin apart when I try to activate the construct for the first time.
A group of seven workers coming from the city appear on the path that we took to get here, they’re carrying baskets of food.
It’s a relief to sit down and eat because of the new equipment that I’m now carrying. From the helmet, hammer, and chain-mail’s weight added to the hard leather armor’s restriction on my movements.
I turn my back to the humans and slip the helmet off to eat with Celyz and the group of Rykz warriors. It doesn’t really matter if they see my profile a little from a distance as long as they don’t get a good enough look to describe me. Once we’ve all eaten, I slide the helmet back on and make my way to the other humans.
“Are your groups ready to depart, Hurb, Brie?” I ask them while throwing a skeptical glance at the camp that seems just as messy as before.
“We’ll be ready in ten minutes.” Hurb replies.
“Don’t need to get your panties in a bunch.” Brie grumbles.
Well, that woman really doesn’t like having someone above her head. I suppose it isn’t surprising for someone who chose to be a bandit. Or did she?
“How did you become a thief?” I ask Brie.
“None of your business, traitor Noble!” She spits back at me with some anger.
I frown but keep my mouth shut, no point in antagonizing the woman if she doesn’t want to share. I throw a glance at the other two bandits and they seem to be similarly disinclined to speak to me. I shrug and make my way back to Celyz.
“They’ll be ready to go in about ten minutes.” I tell her. “Do you know the lion’s leap?” I add.
“No but the huntsman should know that construct. Be careful though, it isn’t an easy construct to learn and you don’t have a spare month to take your time.” Celyz warns me.
“I’ll do my best not to cripple myself.” I reply seriously. “Now tell me if this would work.” I take the skin hardening construct out of my body and make it hover over my palm to pass it to her.
“Your segments are still off, you need to remember that every segment you adjust also affects the others. You can’t just fix the construct if you get it wrong from the get-go, you need to restart from scratch every time you make a mistake. I’ll show you again, watch carefully in what order I create each segment.”
We spend the dozen minutes assembling the construct over and over in turn until I finally memorize the precise order without making a mistake. The mercenaries and bandits leave their tents behind to lighten their load.
Their two groups gather near the warriors and they open the stone gates in the cliff for us to exit the valley through the Rykz’ southern tunnel. I am somewhat surprised when these Rykz don’t accompany Celyz and stay behind to guard the tunnel.
The mercenaries take flow torches out and provide enough light for all of us. I spend the first half of the afternoon with Celyz to test and verify that there are no mistakes in the skin hardening constructs I assemble.
The first time I activate it, I’m relieved to see that the arm doesn’t glow dark gold. I train in activating this new construct for just a few seconds to get into the habit of it before I use it in combat.
I stop playing with the construct when I notice that it burnt through a third of my flow reserve within a few minutes of training. I leave Celyz and catch up with Hurb who is leading the way.
“Where do you come from? I don’t think there is much mercenary work to find in Caeviel, tell me if I’m wrong.” I ask him.
“So, you really aren’t a Noble.” Hurb replies, surprising me.
“I’m not, what convinced you?” I incline my head sideways to look at him.
“You can always find mercenary work in the Empire because Noble families never stop feuding with each other, it is a well-known fact among Nobility and our circles.”
“Do bloody conflicts within Nobility happen so often that they need mercenaries to replenish their guards?” I ask, baffled. “Without anyone hearing about it?”
“No, you misunderstand.” Hurb shakes his head. “If their conflicts habitually drew blood, mercenaries wouldn’t want any part of it and the Templar Order would intervene. They hire from our profession to make a show of force, the family that has fewer troops usually backs down before a battle happens. At the most, one titled Nobles will challenge another to a duel that ends when first blood is drawn.”
“How civilized.” I note with derision. They don’t show that kind of restraint when their subjects protest the heavy taxes weighing on them.
“As a group, though, we hail from the southern end of the Empire, the Kingdom of Telnur that is located right next to the cold bloods’ plains.”
“Did You help the phalanxes defended the Empire’s borders against their hordes?” I ask with interest.
“Once or twice in skirmishes. We only accepted contracts during the rainy season when the Noci river running between the Empire and the Hordes is overflowing. The phalanxes’ spear walls don’t need much help to block the few passable shallows that remain.” Hurb explains.
“Is the south so dangerous that you would prefer to work for the Rykz instead? Or even working for Nobles?” I frown.
“Working for Nobility is risky in and of itself, the side that folds often defaults on their mercenaries’ pay. And yes, the south is dangerous enough during a drought that spying and sabotaging for the Rykz seemed preferable.”
“Seemed?” I ask.
“We wouldn’t do this if the pay wasn’t so good for such a short contract. You hide your own face, I’m sure you understand the risk we are taking.”
I nod but remain silent. My situation was more desperate than theirs at first glance but I doubt he’s telling me everything. I chase my guilt by reaffirming my resolve to do everything I can from within to prevent as many deaths as possible. I’m not responsible for this situation, Caeviel’s Nobility caused this to happen.
“What are cold bloods like?” I ask.
“In battle? They fight with lightning fast laziness.” Hurb makes a dark smile. “Their style is quite simple, they’ll draw you in with slow blocks and then surprise you with such a swift counter attack that those who haven’t experienced it first hand before don’t see coming, even when warned to watch for it.”
“Would you mind showing me later?”
“I don’t see why not.” He shrugs. “What’s your story?” He asks me with a curious expression. Can’t really blow him off just after he agreed to do me a favor, can I?
“I was captured by the Rykz… something like two weeks ago. I was injured and they offered to heal me in exchange for my help, I accepted.”
That should be enough information. I don’t need to embarrass myself by telling him about my unreasonable crush on Countess Lance. That could give him cause to rethink how trustworthy I am and that would be an issue.
“The Princess trusts you more than us despite having captured you like the bandits, Elizabeth.” Hurb makes the observation, obviously pushing for more. He even uses the name I gave him to make me open up.
“My plans are compatible with hers to a degree.” I reply. “Beyond the agreement we made, I mean.”
“And what are those?” He asks me directly this time.
“Some revenge, some damage control.” I say evasively with a shrug to make him understand that I won’t expand my answer further.
Hurb makes a thoughtful hum and our discussion dies out since neither of us tries to pick it up. I thank him for the talk with a nod and slow down to let the two mercenary women behind us catch up with me.
I should at least personally ask for their names even if I don’t intend to deepen our relationship more than needed to accomplish the task at hand.
“Hello, I’m Elizabeth.” I awkwardly engage the conversation. “What should I call you?” Asking the question like that is more likely to put them at ease if they think I’m a Noble compared to directly asking for their names.
“I’m Hastia.” The taller one answers. Compared to the other woman because of course I’m the smallest person in the group again.
“I’m Jacub.” The last mercenary interjects from a distance behind us.
“Well, I hope we get along without incident.” I tell them in a warm voice.
“There shouldn’t be an issue as long as we all agree on what we’re doing before we do it.” Lilib nods.
“We’ll all gather together once the other two join us and make a plan.”
“Sounds good.” Hastia agrees.
“How is your relationship with the others?” I ask in a low tone, pointing behind us over my shoulder towards the three bandits.
“Cordial, we mostly keep to ourselves and they do the same. It helps that Yan and Gael are both sleeping with Brie so they usually don’t look at us. Jacub and Hurb can be way too touchy on the subject, it annoys us both sometimes.” Lilib says, throwing a glance at her companion to ask her to confirm. Hastia nods in agreement.
“You’re with Hurb?” I ask Lilib.
“Yes. Best mistake I ever made!” She exclaims in a loud voice towards the mercenary leader.
“I say worse things about you!” Hurb replies without turning around.
“He probably does.” Lilib shrugs unconcernedly.
Their affectionate exchange echoes for a while in the tunnel around us and it makes me smile a little. But I don’t want to linger on the subject so I make a small bow with my head and excuse myself.
I glance at the bandits, thinking that I could try to smooth things over, but the hostile looks they throw my way convinces me otherwise. It’s a lost cause for now.
I spend the rest of the afternoon getting Celyz to monitor the hardening constructs that I assemble to make sure that I don’t deviate in my training. I take the habit of only targeting my left forearm and hand to cut down on the flow consumption.
It would be best to keep a professional distance with the other two groups since I don’t really want to get involved and they could react negatively if I interfere too much.
After a long tiring march for me because of the added equipment I am carrying, Celyz gives the signal to stop and camp.
“What are we both going to eat?” I ask her, feeling my own hunger.
“A worker should arrive shortly.” She replies with a chuckle.
“You’re testing them by coming alone, aren’t you?”
“It is a show of trust. If I guard myself too much in their presence, they may think that I don’t plan on paying them once their contract is over.” Celyz shakes her ovaloid head.
“Hum. And both ends of the tunnel are guarded enough that you can safely escape if something does go wrong.” I add in her place and she chuckles without contradicting me.
The bandits and mercenaries gather flow torches together and make a fire to start cooking their own meal. By the time they’re ready to eat, a worker shows up with a basket, the Rykz emerges from the darkness in front of us.
I check inside, finding eight bowls of wheat and corn gruel. I go through four of them in a rush and Celyz gracefully hands me over one of hers that I also devour in no time.
I walk up to the tunnel’s wall and sit against it to let myself digest in peace, laying my hammer on my legs. I’m already somewhat used to hearing the clink sounds that my chain-mail makes when I move.
I observe the others finish their meal. From here I can see that both groups are discussing around the fire but not with each other, the bandits and mercenaries only turn towards their companions when they speak.
If that’s the level of communication after camping together for weeks, I don’t think it can get any better. It will be safer to divide into separate groups once inside the castle to avoid friction once our actions start to matter and affect the others.
Once they’ve all finished eating, I see Hurb get up and am reminded that I asked him to show me how the cold bloods fight early in the afternoon. The mercenaries all get up with him and approach.
Oh. Right. That might not have been the best idea, he’ll want to evaluate me and the bandits won’t fail to make fun of any mistake I make. I get up and assemble a quick nourishing construct to offset my fatigue.
“No constructs and only light blows.” Hurb tells me while looking at my hammer.
The other three stand at a distance to give us space. The bandits notice that something’s going on and join them.
“Works for me.” I stretch my shoulders to shake my jitters.
He takes his sword out of its sheath and I take hold of my hammer with both hands. His hands start slowly moving from side to side in a waving motion but he doesn’t seem to want to go on the offensive.
I throw a simple straightforward attack towards his center. He taps the head of my hammer with his sword, barely affecting its trajectory and takes a single step back to avoid the attack.
I advance to follow-up with my offensive since his sword hand is waving to a side and leaving him wide open but I barely raise my hammer that I feel a light hit on my side. I look down and see that he is holding sword right against the chain-mail over my stomach.
“How did…” I mutter.
“That’s what they do. Lazy wavelike movements that don’t seem threatening at first. You took a step forward and gave up the wider field of vision you obtained when I retreated. I simply wandered my sword out of your sight when you did and attacked with lightning speed before you could take advantage of the hole in my defense.” Hurb explains.
“That’s scary.” I observe. “How much faster are they?”
“A lot, I wouldn’t fight them at all without a good shield to cover my side. But they’re also incapable of sustaining their top speed or use it too often.”
I notice Celyz’ approach because of the recognizable sound that her feet make compared to our boots.
“The sword is an easy weapon to control because of its light weight, relatively short length, and its optimized center of gravity. It allows him to use more speed when striking while losing very little control, he also retains the ability to abort if he detects danger in the middle of an attack.” Celyz explains carefully. “Your hammer’s center of gravity is much higher on the weapon’s length and that combined with its weight allows you to throw much heavier strikes than him while making it very hard to block since he would need to absorb almost the entire power of your blows to do so. But you cannot abort attacks, Elizabeth, the most you can do is change their direction.”
“I think I can do that.” I speak up. “Let’s try.”
I ignore the frowns that the mercenaries are making and the bandits’ looks of ridicule. I can learn quickly and arcing strikes are something I can easily pick up since that’s pretty much how you harvest wheat with a scythe.
The hammer is definitely too heavy to use the same movements but I think I can make it circle around myself to throw consecutive attacks if he tries to avoid them entirely. I raise my hammer above my head and start making it spin inside my hands.
“Light blows.” Hurb repeats, looking at the weapon with a worried frown.
“I‘ll try very hard not to break any bones.” I reply with a laugh that resounds inside my helmet.
“Oooh! She’s looking down on you Hurb! Smack her good!” Lilib yells out from the sidelines.
“Show that Lord how it’s done!” Brie exclaims gleefully, not even bothering to hide how much she wants to see me bite the tunnel’s dust.