During my training, about five hundred Rykz arrive to complete the group of fifty harvesters, a third of them scouts while the rest are warriors. All of these drones show signs of having been in battle, from scratches to recently healed injuries and used equipment.
That’s good, at least I won’t have any freshly hatched soldiers that lack training. This should be enough to deal with untitled Nobles and there will be fewer patrols in the streets with the human army on the walls.
I use flow without much restraint during my exercises. My reserves are so large and I regenerate so quickly that it would be difficult to run out by using my usual constructs, excluding the lightning one. I assemble a strengthening construct and layer it with a lion strike, injecting double the normal amount of energy into them.
I recall my Lady’s words of warning about ratios. I dedicate more flow to bones and ligaments. I finalize the constructs, ending up with only a quarter increase in energy dedicated to my muscles and don’t dare to go further.
“Once more.” I mutter, lifting my hammer that feels lighter than ever.
I activate the strike and bring it down. The head impacts the ground a split second later, burying itself a few centimeters in. I lose my balance, stumbling forward because it was so quick and unexpected as well as my own lack of preparation to compensate for the increased momentum.
The lack of weight in my hands is only an illusion of my senses, the weapon is still heavy and will mess with my equilibrium if I don’t take care to remember that.
“Once more.” I say, throwing a second overhead swing with more success.
Approaching steps make me turn to glance at the top of the hill dissimulating the convoy from Meria, finding the two Princesses walking over. Celyz is carrying a large wooden case with a handle.
“You should use diagonal strikes.” Fenyz comments from a distance away. “Your attacks would be more balanced between speed and power if you rotated your waist along with the blow… at least that works for us.”
“Impressive though.” Celyz comments.
“You mean like this?” I ask, showing them how I usually use my weapon by swinging and making it spin behind my back for a consecutive hit.
“Yes.” Fenyz nods. “That seems more useful for extended engagements than the other one.”
I bring my hammer back, taking the overhead stance but I suddenly feel an intense burning and stretching pain in my left thigh, immediately stopping to extend my leg in front of me to try to relieve the tension.
“Fuck!” I swear. “Cramp.”
“What are those?” Fenyz questions.
“Muscle over-stimulation.” Celyz replies.
She approaches, laying down her case and extending her tendrils to help me sit down. She massages the tight hardened muscles and lifts my leg to start stretching it at the same time. After a few minutes, the pain gradually dissipates.
“Why would your body suddenly stop moving when you push it? Seems like a liability.” Fenyz comments.
“It usually happens when you do something wrong.” I say, sighing. “I think my stance was off, I either over or under compensated.”
Celyz helps me stand up while Fenyz picks up the large case and opens it to show me the several dozens of the clay vials stored inside, pointing to the ones with a small black dot.
“Those can be used to mark friendlies.” She says.
“Understood.” I nod.
Fenyz spends the rest of the afternoon organizing the soldiers in squads, informing me that they’ll remain together and organize on their own. I use the time to keep training while Celyz helps me identify the defaults in all my stances. Four more wagons arrive, carrying crates marked ‘food’.
When night falls, Celyz and I take the head of the convoy and depart south, Fenyz watches us go without a word. We march quietly, the silence disturbed only by the myriad of Rykz legs hitting the ground and carriage wheels rolling.
We don’t stop to eat, deciding to have our meal on the way. Celyz directs the convoy south-west once far enough from the city that we won’t be seen. I settle at the back of a wagon and lie down.
— — —
I rise with the sun, looking around and spotting a field of corn plant stumps that was recently harvested. The city’s walls aren’t visible from here. By noon, the convoy crosses the paved road I took to travel from Castle Lance to Meria.
We reach the area where the creek should be located a few hours later. Celyz deploys the scouts to start searching the rocky coast. After few tens of minutes, they come back and lead us towards a sloping path just large enough for the carriages to pass.
At the end is a rocky beach surrounded by cliffs with a wide water channel leading into the sea. Celyz directs the convoy to stop while individual carriages maneuver on the looser ground so that the workers can discharge the crates and pull the empty wagons aside to make space for the next one.
Once done, some workers then take amphorae and bowls out to serve the soldiers a large meal while the rest start pulling the carriages out of the creek. After eating, the warriors enter the containers in pairs while the harvesters do so by themselves, rolling into balls to be able to just barely fit inside.
I take hold of my gear and fit it on, laying my hammer inside the last empty crate next to the wooden case containing the clay vials, a worker brings an amphora on Celyz’ orders and sets it beside my weapon.
“Remember to be careful and don’t do anything unnecessary.” She says as I walk inside.
“I won’t.” I reply, sitting down.
“Maybe I should…” She starts.
“Go back and not do anything stupid.” I cut her off.
“I could hide better than a harvester.” Celyz argues.
“Too many ways for this to fail and your presence would add more problems than it would solve.” I counter. “I can hide but they wouldn’t relent once you’re spotted and you cannot easily conceal your tail and reversed knees.”
“Fine. I know it’s not an option but I want to do more for Cetyz.” She sighs, running a tendril over my cheek. “Don’t forget that the priority isn’t the Izla. If you want to save lives, my sister is who you need to rescue.”
I nod and she turns away, waving her appendages to give orders. The workers standing by walk up to my crate and place the cover on the front of it, nailing it shut. I hear them do the same for the other three hundred.
“Good luck.” Celyz shouts in her resounding voice.
The convoy of empty wagons then departs, their wheels rolling on the rocky beach. My nervousness increases as the rest of the day goes by and my patience thins despite my knowledge that the barges will only arrive by nightfall.
Fighting boredom, I work on my strengthening construct. I adjust it to reinforce my entire body rather than simply enhancing my power. It should help reduce the strain of my lion strikes, which is worth the increased flow consumption. I assemble it many times to engrave the new configuration in mind.
After hours of waiting in the dark, I hear loud calls that surprise me because of their proximity. The sounds of waves crashing against the cliffs entirely concealed their approach from my hearing.
“Prepare to lay down the anchors!” I recognize Charles’ voice, the merchant I met with Cecil. She did most of the talking but the man appeared stern and serious to me. “We should be able to fit two barges side by side, tell the other two to wait at sea while we land and load up.”
Their prows hit the rocky beach with a small racket as their wooden hulls scrape on stone and stop. I listen as sailors throw ramps from the deck to the ground, disembarking shortly after with noisy wheeled carts.
I focus on calming down and controlling my breathing while the first crates are being loaded. I freeze when I hear Aisha yell loudly, worrying that something went wrong.
“Don’t try to open them! It’s dangerous!” She exclaims.
“What’s inside?” A woman asks.
“Not your concern sailor!” Aisha replies shortly.
“It shifted when we moved it, that’s not grain.” She counters.
“Of course it’s not just grain, you idiot, what do you think we’re doing here?” Charles admonishes sharply. “Get back to work!”
I relax somewhat but it doesn’t last as soon after I catch him talking to Aisha in a low voice not far from me. I enhance my hearing with a construct and close my eyes.
“I’d like to know what I’m shipping over.” He says.
“That wasn’t part of your agreement with Madame Cecil, Charles.” The young woman responds.
“Cargo doesn’t shift. If transporting this is dangerous, I need to know. I’ll check myself if you refuse to tell me.” He threatens.
“Cold blood war-beasts.” Aisha says hesitantly. An act, no doubt. Cecil must have prepared the answer as a contingency.
“Those are forbidden by Empire law!” Charles protests, barely managing to control his voice. Not that it matters, half the sailors probably heard it as clearly as I have.
“Which is why your client is smuggling them in.” Aisha groans.
“We should have been told.” Charles accuses, moving.
“I don’t have what we need to contain them here so don’t try to open one to verify.” She warns.
“I don’t need to.” He scoffs.
“Don’t, you could destabilize the runes holding them!” She exclaims.
“I’m starting to doubt the wisdom in agreeing with your offer. I think I’ll need a little something more, for the discretion and hazard. I’m sure you understand.” The merchant says avidly.
“What I understand is that there isn’t any risk for you as long as you keep your hands and tongues to yourselves.” She utters coldly.
“Still, this is quite an exceptional circumstance and unorthodox deal. I find myself obligated to insist.” He argues, unfazed.
“We will compensate you if there is an accident, and we’ll add a bonus payment if I hear catch no rumors about this. And trust me, I will know if there are any.” Aisha says firmly. “Don’t expect me to save you if you let one out.” She adds.
“Alright, lazy bastards!” Charles calls out. “Let’s hurry this along, we’re headed south for winter once we’re done with this! Rum and whores await!”
There is a loud cheer and four sailors approach my crate. They pick it up and lay it down on a cart. I can somewhat distinguish their silhouettes through my limb’s sense but it is too vague to be helpful, a torch held by a fifth does register more clearly.
My container is brought up onto the barge and put away against two others. As the loading progresses, more crates are set beside my own. The loading progresses without too many incidents, mostly swearing and fear when they deposit the crates a bit too roughly.
The ship I’m on soon pulls away from the beach, pushed at sea by pushing and using perches if I interpret their words correctly. I cut off my hearing enhancing construct and lay down, taking care not to make noise.
This is the easy part, the trick will be whether Cecil successfully bribed enough city guards to let us disembark without problems. If a fight breaks out in the docks, it’ll be a struggle to reach the castle and my Lady might even still be there if they don’t notice that the Rykz are preparing to assault the walls. And then I would need to hold the keep for a few days with these forces until the second attack. That isn’t a tenable position, no.
Worrying about everything that could go wrong, I find it hard fall asleep so I decide to drink from the amphora as I wait for the other two barges to finish loading. Hours seem to pass before the ships finally depart at sea under Charles’ loud orders. I finally manage to relax a little.
— — —
I wake up with slight nausea, the roiling and pitching are making me feel off-balance. I try to go back to sleep but laying down makes it worse so I sit up and lay my back against the crate’s side. I try using a healing construct but it doesn’t have any effect.
Half-way through a miserable morning, at least I think it is but it’s hard to tell in the dark, I hear someone walking on the containers and softly knocking on them while whispering. I wait patiently, glad to have a distraction. I recognize Aisha’s voice and she doesn’t seem agitated. A few minutes later, she walks over the one neighboring mine and taps it with her knuckles.
“On your left.” I speak up softly.
“Elizabeth, how you doing?” She asks.
“Sick.” I groan.
“The sea is a bit rough but we’re not in any danger according to Charles.” She says.
“How far are we from Meria?” I question.
“Not very, it’s noon, but we’ve stopped since we need to arrive at dusk when the guard changes shift.” She explains. “Idali will be there and we paid the rest of the patrols to make trouble for Tobias who is playing along, the distraction should be superfluous but Madame insisted.”
“I thought we’d only pick one of them.” I comment.
“We needed two of his barges, Charles didn’t want to ‘put all his eggs in the same basket’ as he put it.” She replies.
“He got suspicious.” I note.
“Yes, but he isn’t about to make an enemy out of you after hearing how you defeated and executed Count Odo. I’m actually certain that he knows I’m lying about what’s in the crates, he’s simply looking to gather enough capital to reestablish himself in Telnur.”
“What about storage?” I ask.
“The dock-master arranged for two warehouses right next to the pier we’ve reserved, which is plenty of space even though there are more crates than you said there would be.” Aisha responds with a twinge of accusation to her voice.
“The Rykz are better prepared to assault Meria than I thought, I decided that we’ll be better off making sure that the war ends before they get on the ramparts and that means more soldiers.” I reply not entirely truthfully. I‘m done playing nice with Nobility, they‘ll kneel or die. “Do you have enough gold?”
“Barely, not enough to give Charles his bonus, that’s for sure.” She says calmly. I manage to distinguish her hazy figure shrugging.
“Heh.” I chuckle.
“Won’t matter, I’ll stall with the pretext of waiting to see if they keep their mouths shut. It will motivate them to keep quiet, not that it’s needed, they don’t want any more attention brought on this than we do.” She explains.
“How long until nightfall?” I say.
“Seven or eight hours, we’re lifting the anchor in four.” She whispers in an even lower voice. “I’m leaving, a sailor is close-by.”
I don’t respond, closing my eyes to focus on myself and imagine the coming battle with my Lady. Unlike the castle’s assault, it’ll be her against me. No one else to interfere. I need pay attention to her diagonal lion strike and the reverse swing that follows if I step in range to take advantage if she misses me.
I’ll also need to take care not to be hit with that hybrid needle-exploding construct she threw to the assassins. I’m not sure about whether or not it would pierce my chain-mail but Duke Meria’s needles penetrated wood, so I shouldn’t gamble on that.
Although, it seemed to strain her flow reserves so she might not use it and be defenseless if she misses. The explosion would undoubtedly injure me, however, so I should ensure that I steer as far from the projectile as possible.
I assemble a lightning construct and consider whether to use a full powered one to disable her. Too dangerous, she’ll likely have protections but what if she doesn’t? And I don’t know how much flow I need to get through whatever defenses she does have to knock her out without killing her.
The image of Leomi pinned down to a wall for me to finally reveal my face, show her that I haven’t left her after all, that we can be together, that I forgive her if she forgives me. Make her understand that I’m not so weak that she needs to protect or lie to me because she fears for my mental state for some reason.
I hear chains clanging against the hull as the sailors lift the anchors. There is a call to raise the sails and at last we cruise towards Meria’s docks. The ship’s roiling grows weaker and more manageable as the wind pushes us onward.
I keep my attention on the crate’s wood temperature to keep track of time, it helps quiet my paranoia about Idali and how quickly it could all go wrong. I’ve trusted Cecil’s judgment this far. It’ll either work or it won’t, I’ve done all I can.
Hailing cries inform me that we’ve reached the docks, Charles directs the helmsman towards a specific pier. The barge hits the stone a bit roughly, provoking a tirade of swears from the merchant.
“I swear on your mother’s loose thighs that I’ll fucking stick an oar up your ass if you cracked my hull, Quint!” He yells, provoking bursts of laughter from the sailors. “Get to work you damn mongrels or I’ll get down and throw you overboard!”
They suddenly quiet down and reply affirmatively. I hear them take hold of ramps and pushing loading carts around the deck to start discharging the crates. I wait nervously for the moment when the guards show up but they hadn’t by the time my turn comes up and my container is moved.
I hear Aisha tell them to deposit me in the corner, I assume inside the warehouse. She taps on the crate once they let me down.
“Guards will soon be here for inspection, it seems like we arrived in the middle of their shift change.” She whispers.
I take hold of my hammer and prepare myself for a fight, assembling a full body strengthening construct along with lion strikes, steps, and one lightning construct. The Rykz should be about to…
Clang, clang, clang.
Alarm bells echo in the distance, signaling the approaching Rykz army. The warning is relayed by more bells located closer to the docks. In a city under siege, no one should be able to remain asleep under this kind of noise.
I take a deep breath. This is only a distraction. I remind myself. They’ll take the catapults out, and then it’ll be up to me to end the war before their second wave of attack hits the walls.