The group of humans on horseback start moving away from the Rykz army, however, they aren’t approaching Meria. They go down the hill and I lose sight of the figure that resembles Father riding our mare. I nervously adjust my grip on the shield.
The bombardment continues for a few tens of minutes and several things become obvious. First, the catapults aren’t accurate enough at this range to pose a serious threat. Second, there are at least three Princesses shooting down the projectiles that get too close to their towers.
“Shouldn’t you be commanding?” I ask.
“Morgan is coordinating the army from the central gate.” My Lady replies, pointing at the reinforced section in the middle of the wall. “Duke Meria should have arrived by now to take over. Either way, I don’t have the required experience to do so and we need all those with the skill to weave large-scale constructs on the towers.”
I notice that the soldiers on the opposite side of us on the rampart walk are all wearing black tabards. Count Odo is standing atop of an identical tower with a dozen Nobles. He doesn’t seem especially tall but has a large muscular frame and deep black hair. He wields a large sword on his back, a two-handed longsword.
The catapults stop firing as the last siege engine leaves their range. The sun is completely hidden now. Darkness has taken over the plains and the Rykz are almost invisible in the midst of it.
“Did you notice the group of four humans?” I speak up.
“Yes. Who are they?” She asks.
“I don’t know, but I sent a message to Jessica’s father to tell him to leave the Izla. I’m afraid that he joined them on the way back to Meria.” I say.
“I, I can’t help, I swore that I would do nothing.” Leomi stutters.
“I’m asking you, you’re not doing it for her.” I argue.
“Edusa!” She calls out. The young woman opens the hatch and peeks at us. “Tell Morgan to let the group of humans in, throw them some ropes if the Rykz are close by when they get here.”
“Right away.” Edusa nods and departs.
I assemble an eyesight enhancing construct to scrutinize the grassland, searching for the horsemen. I lay my hands on the rampart, feeling the cold stone. I can barely distinguish the Rykz army even with my improved sight but I do catch a movement within their ranks when a large group of them detaches and heads directly towards us.
I’m not the only one who notices as a few catapults fire at them soon after, missing the creatures entirely but the projectile’s flames enlighten the area and the next shots they fire are more accurate, if still off.
“Henry, send a messenger to Count Thrin and tell him to stop firing. We don’t have ammunition to waste on such a small contingent.” Lance speaks up, before turning to me. “You should go, I think these warriors are heading here to escort you.”
I don’t respond, too preoccupied by my search for Father. I focus my effort on the hilly area where they disappeared at first. I find them at last, about half a kilometer away to my right, they’re headed towards the gates at galloping speed.
I sigh in relief. They’re too far for the Rykz to pursue, they should make it here without trouble. I unroll the rope from my shoulder and tie it around a crenelation before throwing the loose end over the wall.
As I prepare to go down, I hear small exclamations of surprise. I quickly enhance my hearing with a construct, just in time to hear archers release arrows with a recognizable twang. They’re far from us, positioned near Odo’s tower.
I immediately turn my eyes back to my Father, I’m certain that it’s him, I wouldn’t mistake him for anyone else at this distance. The volley misses the horsemen who are slowing down, pulling on their reins, no doubt reacting to the first arrows. Except they’re deep inside these archer’s range.
“Order them to cease fire!” I yelp at Lance.
“I can’t.” She replies in a tiny voice.
I lose my nerve and snap. I let go of my hammer to seize her throat with my left hand. I squeeze. She coughs and takes hold of the forearm to try to make me let go. I slam her against the crenelation.
“What do you mean, you can‘t?! Order them to stop! Now!” I utter madly. She chokes and taps my chest weakly with distressed, teary, eyes. I loosen my grip to allow her to speak.
“I don’t.” Cough. “I don’t have, command over that section, of the wall anymore, Elizabeth, I’m sorry.” She says weakly, with a short breath. “Odo, used us, as an excuse to go back, on his deal with the Duke.”
This is my fault. I freeze. Nobles are afraid of humans working for the Rykz and my fixation on Lance cost her some influence, like Amand warned me. Twang. The sound of another volley being released pulls me out of my self-blaming lethargy. I let go of my Lady and climb on a crenel, seizing the rope with my left limb.
“Don’t try to come back, Please! We’ll meet when one side calls for talks!” Leomi calls out.
I jump off, only slightly holding the rope to slide down as quickly as possible. My cloak’s hood falls off and I see my hammer impact the ground under me, thrown by Lance.
I feel my left hand warming up because of the friction. I can almost… see my own fingers heating up against the rope. I land heavily, seizing my hammer as I assemble lion’s step constructs. I depart towards my father’s last position.
“Don’t shoot!” I hear my Lady yell.
I raise the shield to cover my right side, trusting my helmet to protect my head. I pick up enough momentum to start leaping over the plains at full speed.
No arrows fly towards me for a long while, but that changes as soon as I come across a high fold of the terrain with hundreds of them planted in it. I hear a horse braying. I feel projectiles impact my shield and hop on the other side to use it as cover.
I find our mare, weakly neighing on the ground, bleeding out from the half-dozen arrows lodged in its body. Father is stuck underneath, unconscious, the animal’s weight compressing his torso. There are three men nearby with their mounts, all of them dead and unable to help.
I drop my shield and hammer to take hold of the horse’s legs, using a strengthening construct to roll it to the side. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, there is a broken arrow shaft planted in the middle of his chest. His cheeks are dug from fatigue.
Very little blood is seeping out of the wound, reassuring me somewhat. I kneel at his side, panting for air. I swiftly assemble a healing construct and anchor it over the injury, activating it. I wait, and wait but the construct remains idle.
“No.” I whisper, caressing the side of his wrinkled face. “Please.”
I reactivate the construct, again and again. It doesn’t work, nothing happens. I grab the projectile and pull it out. I place my hand over his heart, feeling no beat. I start pumping, trying to get the organ going again. All I achieve is increase the amount of blood leaking out of the wound.
Clink. An arrow hits the top of my helmet. I keep trying. Anger, denial, mixing in a shadow that obscures my thoughts. Tick. Tick. Two missiles hit my chain-mail. Father, I’m so sorry. I reach out to my anchored flow and unravel it to weave the energy into a fire construct that I activate. I’m not leaving him to rot here.
I grasp my weapon and set my shield before standing, turning my back to the flames. I glare at the top of the wall, finding a line of at least a hundred archers aiming at me.
“Odo.” I utter. “Odo!” I yell. “You will answer for this!”
“Cease fire.” A man calls out in a deep voice from atop a tower, the sound of it spreading over the plains. “For the execution of filthy traitors?” He asks, scoffing.
“They were seeking refuge, you butcher.” I scream. “No more hesitation.” I murmur. “Come down here, murderer. I will end you.”
“Are you challenging me to a duel?” Odo questions with a derisive tone, looking down from his perch. “Shoot that peasant.” He orders, without considering it.
I drop on one knee, setting my shield in front of me. Just in time to intercept the volley. Crack. My shield shatters and I’m left holding only the metal bands of its backing, I let go of it and rise.
“Coward!” I shout, brandishing my hammer. “Come down and face me yourself!”
The response I receive is in the form of arrows. I jump behind the ridge in the terrain. I hear a large troop of Rykz approaching my position but don’t turn to look, unwilling to face the pyre consuming Father.
All fifty gather around me, efficiently organizing their ranks into a circular wall formation that covers every angle except our backs. My left limb is shaking, mirroring my lost state. I hear a burning rock impact the grassland not far in front of me. Arrows are constantly showering the warrior’s dull metal shields without having an effect.
“Breaking the truce and executing refugees! You have no honor, Odo!” I call out. “Prove that you at least have the strength to hold your title, if not the character!”
“Empty words. But I am tempted to finish you by my own hand.” Odo replies in a dark voice, offended or possibly annoyed that the attack isn’t putting me down. “Hold your fire, I am to collect this low-born’s head on a spike. It will stand as an example for the rest.”
My hunger and blood-lust make me shiver. I approach our mare’s dead corpse under the cover provided by the Rykz. I assemble a signaling construct to tell my limb to both fight for survival and feed.
The familiar cool substance spreads through my chest, except the euphoric feeling doesn’t take hold this time, it is smothered by desolation. My left arm lets go of my hammer to coils on itself, its string like muscles hold for a brief second before unraveling violently and piercing through the horse’s torso to drink its blood.
I send both signals again, using the construct, while I attempt to regain control of it. The parasite doesn’t understand at first, but after a few more of the same messages, it starts obeying me again. I push with my entire weight to plunge it deeper inside the carcass, helping it consume as much as it wants.
I can almost… distinguish the insides of the animal, feeling the differences in temperature on my limb’s rubbery skin. The tendrils around my left clavicle uncurl from around the bone, slowly. They stayed that way even after the break healed, why are they moving now?
I once again send both signals to the limb, somewhat frightened by what I’ve triggered but uncaring of the possible consequences as long as I am in shape to tear Odo apart. The tendrils extend towards my neck, moving under my skin to wrap around the spine at the base of my skull.
I grit my teeth, suppressing my fear of losing control of my own body. I have no idea how to prevent it from doing what it will anyway. A spike of pain cuts through the dampening effect of the cool substance released by the parasite but it fades almost immediately.
The world around me… emerges in more detail. I can distinguish each strand of grass in a ten-meter radius, not in my field of vision but I can sense the shape of them even behind my back. There are clear delimitations between air, soil, and living organisms. The Rykz are hot, the plants are warm, the ground is cold.
I seize my hammer without even looking, the dull metal stands out in this new sense’s field of detection. I hear chains being pulled taut and gears creaking. I push a warrior aside to throw a glance at Meria’s gates, finding that the portcullis is being lifted.
Behind the heavy metal grill, Odo is sitting on a large horse’s back, wearing a full plate steel armor that is so well polished that it reflects torchlight. There are a dozen mounted Nobles in file ranks behind him.
I split the Rykz’ ranks and push through to stand with my weapon over my left shoulder. I walk up to the round catapult rock that missed us, there are still a few flames flickering on its surface, the last remnant of the fire construct anchored on it.
I inspect my flow reserves to prepare lion’s strike and step constructs, finding that they’re half empty but regenerating rapidly, a little too quickly actually. I push the concern away and assemble a dozen of each construct.
Count Odo kicks his horse forward out of the gateway, his escort spreads out on either side of him. He unsheathes his two-handed longsword, holding it to the side in mid-air. I raise my hammer high and bring it down on the stone with all my strength, provoking him with the loud thundering sound.
“This will be good for morale.” Odo says with a short laugh.
“Approach alone, be slain by one you look down on.” I spit out.
“I’ll stuff your head and hang it on my throne room’s wall, wench!” He responds while fitting a helmet with a black and white horsehair crest brush on it.
I keep the rock between me and Odo, ensuring that he can’t charge me directly. The blade of his sword takes a golden glow, I recognize the construct that cuts through even stone. I assemble a lightning construct and start charging the air around myself.
He kicks his mount again and the animal accelerates, I notice that his left hand is laid flat on its romp and probably transferring flow. The horse breaks into a full gallop towards me, ignoring the obstacle blocking its path.
I jump to my right just as it leaps over the rock, choosing this direction because Odo is right-handed and won’t be able to switch side in time to attack. I experience a weird moment as my new sense allows me to follow the Noble’s trajectory despite my head being turned away.
I activate my construct in mid-air, a bolt of lightning surges from my right hand, aimed towards the animal but it diverges at the last moment to hit Odo‘s weapon instead. His armor glows golden for a fleeting instant but that’s all the effect it has.
I roll on the ground and get back up on my feet. I notice that his sword isn’t as bright as before but it soon regains its previous state, filled with flow energy. I rush at his horse’s flank, using lion’s steps to close the distance before he can fully turn it around and charge me again.
I bring my hammer around, swinging it at the animal’s head. Odo tries to block with the side of his blade, succeeding to slow my blow down but not stop it entirely. There is enough momentum left to carry both weapons and impact the mount’s skull, knocking it out.
Odo manages to leap off in time to avoid getting caught under the horse, his steel armor clinking and clanging as he crudely lands. I rein my blood-lust and impatience in, keeping track of the dangerous two-handed longsword’s golden blade.
“As expected, brutish tactics.” Odo grunts.
I lunge at him, but he avoids it with a small side-step and swings his blade in return. I can clearly follow the trajectory of the sword, so much so that I casually angle my torso backward and avoid it by a single centimeter. I fall into a defensive stance instead of counter-attacking. I need to deal with the construct on his weapon first, his life next.
Odo brings his weapon back, preparing a horizontal slashing attack, I prepare to receive a lion strike. He takes a single step forward, swinging at the same time, it is sudden and dazzlingly quick. I leap back but the point of the blade still catches the front of my chain-mail, cutting through it and my hard leather armor like they aren’t even there.
I bring my hammer down as his sword slows down at the end of its arc, catching the flat side of it and forcing it into the ground. It instantly loses its golden glow as it shears through the soil. My new sense informs me that only a thin layer of skin was cut by Odo‘s attack.
I activate another lion strike to swing my weapon upward and catch the Noble on his helmet’s chin guard, it flies off his head and his nose starts bleeding profusely. I don’t stop and make my hammer spin around to throw a consecutive attack.
Odo blocks just in time and tries to slash at the hole in my chain-mail as he can no longer rely on cutting through my defenses. I crouch, letting it pass over my back and tackle him. We fall down, I use the scythe-like section of my hammer to threaten his exposed face but he manages to block and kick me aside with his knee. We stand up, gauging each other with narrowed eyes.
“First blood is yours, I will concede that.” He says slowly.
“Couldn‘t care less.” I utter, preparing myself for another exchange.
He throws a flurry of strikes with his weapon, I easily deviate or block them as the arcs of attack are all very apparent to me, even his occasional lion strikes appear obvious if I simply take care not to be taken by surprise. However, I refrain from retaliating because I don’t believe that a normal blow of mine will do enough damage to get past his plate armor and disable him, which means he could decide to ignore it and make use of the opening to kill me.
His sword is starting to glow golden again. I activate a lion strike and aim my counter-attack at his center mass to force him to intercept my attack since it would undoubtedly sunder the steel protecting him.
Odo does so with the flat of the blade, and I utilize that to lock weapons with him. I make use my superior strength and the fact that his equipment is much heavier to force him down on one knee. He angles the edge of his sword to try to cut through my hammer’s handle.
I step back and activate a lion strike to launch an attack with all my strength towards his flank. He desperately blocks but as with the horse, it is not enough to stop the momentum of my swing. The noise of the impact along with the metal bent to the point of being torn is deafening.
Odo coughs blood, he tries to rise but fails and his blade escapes his grasp. I should feel something, but there is only grief in my heart right now. Golden runes appear on his armor as he uses his forearms to protect his face. I start pounding on him to little effect as the kinetic energy of every blow seems to be absorbed without affecting the man.
I assemble a lightning construct by utilizing all my reserves and activate it without charging the air. His armor absorbs the bolt but the runes lose their glow. Odo pales and panics as he reaches for his weapon. Two things happen concurrently, his escort charges and the Rykz move forward to intercept, reforming their shield wall.
“Justice for all those he wronged! Do not let Nobility dictate your life and death, they are not worthy!” I shout.
I kick Odo‘s weapon away and swing my hammer, aiming at his throat with the bladed part of the weapon. I miss by a small margin and it cuts just above his jaw instead. The top of his head falls off to the ground. I steal a saber from one of the warriors and impale the head through its eyes. I raise it above my head to show everyone on the wall before throwing it in Father’s pyre.