I rise in the darkness, finding Celyz crouching at the side of the bed. Her root-like toes plunged into the cavern’s soil, her tail laying in a small circle around her legs, her tendrils are wrapped around her torso but one of them lays gently over me.
I remain like this, my limb’s rested and secure feelings mixing with my own. I smile in content, yet fear that my sentiments aren’t truly melding with it but being taken over. I let my mind wander, running my fingers over Celyz’ appendage.
There are a few things I need to discuss with her. The approaching trip to Port-Odo, and then to Meiridin if necessary. I also need to make sure Lance will be safe while I’m gone.
I assemble a healing construct, finding that my reserves are full, and apply it to my resorbing injuries. Celyz’ tendril moves and trails over my stomach, making me squirm a little at the ticklish sensation.
“Good morning, Jessica.” She speaks up.
“Is it?” I ask.
“According to my internal sense of time, it is.” She nods in the dark.
She rises, uprooting her toes. The limb stretches by itself, provoking an odd feeling of yawning but with its muscles. I extend my legs and bend my back, imitating its action at almost the same moment. The incident brings my fear back to the forefront of my mind.
“You told me that the substance the limb injects me with is akin to adrenaline, but why does it prevent me from feeling grief?” I question sadly.
“I do not know, I can only theorize that anything leading to inaction would be detrimental to its predatory lifestyle.” She responds. “It’s the second time you bring this up, are you alright?”
“I can’t be sure that I am, that’s the problem.” I sigh and sit up on the sheet mattress to hop over the bed’s frame.
“Perhaps you would be happy to hear that we’ve sown fields all across the Izla and used nourishing constructs to accelerate their growth so that they can be harvested before winter.” Celyz says, changing the subject.
“That’s great.” I grin. “Although, that must require an insane amount of energy.”
“My sisters administrating the rear have little to do with their flow so it is only efficient to use it as such.” She replies.
“Clothes?” I ask.
“There.” She waves one of her tendrils at a small chest. “Your gear is being repaired, again. You should take better care of yourself.” She comments.
“Thanks.” I say and pause for a second, embarrassed by what I need to ask for next. “And I’m broke.”
“Take a pouch.” She shrugs with her tendrils.
I open it, finding an assortment of simple green cloth. I get dressed up and enjoy the fact that I don’t have to wear a mask here, along with the freedom of not having the hard leather armor compressing my breasts.
“Since you were curious last night, I should tell you that we don’t really detect heat.” Celyz speaks up. “It is simply the easiest way to explain that things that display warmth are clearer to us. As an example, your hammer is made of Vuskyt and it is more distinguishable to us than other items made of metal despite very similar temperatures.”
“Good to know. Do you know what it is we sense?” I ask.
“The radiation of energy.” She replies. “But it is only an educated guess.”
Celyz leads me to the main room as a worker arrives with a platter of mushroom bowls. I grab a stool from a corner and sit at the table. She picks up a small map and sets it on the table, it depicts a general view of the Izla and the coast, marking Meria and Port-Odo’s location.
“We don’t have anything more detailed at the moment.” Celyz tells me apologetically. “I’ll map the region once we land, but that won’t help you.”
“It’s a negotiation, I don’t plan on fighting.” I shrug. “How likely do you think it is for Caeviel to make the trade?”
“I don’t have enough information to venture a guess. I’m surprised King Cenwalh made a move so quickly but that’s to your credit for talking to Yvonne and getting her to relay a message.” She replies. “It is best to plan for the worst outcomes and you’ll be ready for the rest.”
“So, if the negotiations break down, we assault Port-Odo?” I ask.
“We surround Port-Odo before even sending you in for the preliminary talks.” Celyz says.
“Sounds good.” I nod, biting down on a large mushroom.
“First thing we need to make sure is that Cetyz is in the city. Everything else is secondary.” She adds. “Refuse to even speak of terms until you’ve confirmed that.”
“When should I go?” I ask.
“As soon as possible. It would be best if you arrived before they do, that way you could find out if Cetyz is there without exposing yourself.” Celyz says. I thought I’d have more time with Lance.
“If she isn’t there, what’s the alternative? Infiltrate Meiridin?” I ask.
“Yes and no.” She shakes her head. “We’ll seize Port-Odo and entrench ourselves in the area while we take over the leyline from there to Meria. That will likely take all winter but it will grant us an almost unassailable position and give Caeviel time to rethink their chances of winning the war. By spring, you’ll hopefully have gathered enough people you can trust to attempt to rescue Cetyz in Meiridin while we disperse scouts through the countryside and up the stakes with raids on their economy.”
“So the war could still drag on.” I comment sadly. “What about Grikyz?”
“I haven’t heard back from my Queen yet, but she should be satisfied with our progress.” She answers.
“Alright.” I nod and eat my meal, wondering how I’ll breach the subject of Lance. Finishing my bowl without a clue, I just jump into it. “I want your assurance that you’ll leave Lance alone, Celyz.”
“I, I have duties to…” She hesitates.
“Celyz.” I interrupt firmly.
“I wasn’t going to.” She says, expelling air. “But my sisters or I will be forced to act if she disrupts our hold on Izla Meria.”
“You know what I mean. I expect her to be kept safe and unharmed while I’m away. Imprison her if you need to, but only if you need to.” I tell Celyz.
“We’ll find out what happens at the meet.” She replies, waving the concern aside. “With the Duke out of the way and the rest of Nobility imprisoned, she is the most influential human in Meria. We will have to restrict and surveil her movements no matter what.”
“You’re not the kind of person who would act on impulse, I’m simply trying to make sure that we understand each other.” I press.
“We do, Jessica.” Celyz says in her resounding voice. “Let us go to the forge and pick up your gear. I’ll send a message to prepare a meeting room inside the castle. I would like to settle it all today.”
We make our way out of the hill, emerging out in the morning sun. The sky is clear, there are only a few clouds. We are on the opposite side of the hill from the city, we keep walking for a distance and the sounds of hammers steadily striking iron grow louder.
I find rows of small kilns, workers are throwing wood and using bellows to feed the fires. They plunge damaged sabers into the flames until they become red-hot, at which point they use iron anvils to beat them into shape.
Celyz brings me to a workbench with my equipment set on it. The hard leather armor is new, the other one probably suffered too much so it was easier to replace it. The same could be said for the chain-mail as about half of its links were switched out.
I fit my gear on but decide to use the mask instead of the helmet, it’s not as intimidating and less of a strain on my neck. We head back towards the city with a large escort of warriors. On the way, we pass by the siege towers in the process of being dismantled, laying on the ground.
Thousands of Rykz are pulling out the nails and sawing the wooden beams taken out to make planks that they stack in supply carts. When filled, those are then moving south-east towards the coast but they aren’t entering the city.
“We should have enough embarkations built to send a small force of a few thousand warriors with you by tomorrow.” Celyz tells me.
“I’m not getting on a raft.” I warn her.
“Don’t worry, we’ve seized a galley at the docks this morning.” She chuckles. “Along with a few barges, although you would need a Princess to direct workers on how to sail them so you’ll have to find human crews.”
“It shouldn’t be difficult. I do think you should leave the barges here and allow the merchants to keep trading.” I say.
“That opens us to the risk of spies and saboteurs sneaking in, as you well know.” Celyz argues.
“The Izla is too large for you to watch all the coasts, anyway. Just forbid trade with Caeviel.” I counter.
“It would have a few benefits.” She nods. “It would keep contact with the Empire and show that we’re simply occupying Izla Meria.”
“And it allows us to import grain.” I add.
We engage on the road leading to Meria’s western gate, I notice that much of the night’s battle remains. Arrows and catapult rocks are scattered in the plains in front of the wall. Entire patches of grass were burnt or painted red or brown by blood.
There are also thousands of body parts, from Rykz and humans, torn from them by the Duke’s constructs. Entire limbs were projected as far as arrows by the flow whirlwinds. The dead that could be recovered apparently were.
“How did you manage to scatter his flow?” I ask.
“It’s a small trick. A variation of a construct you already know actually.” She replies mysteriously.
“The lightning construct?” I guess. “It took a similar shape but I didn’t get to observe it from up close.”
“No, the signaling one that you use to communicate with your limb. It is quite simple, really. The sphere scatters in thousands of smaller constructs that establish a two-way contact with the flow surrounding them. They then send random messages in a loop at an incredible speed that are automatically answered in the negative or by a query for clarification. There are so many exchanges within a split second that all the available energy is burnt before the one linked to it can react.” Celyz explains.
“That’s sneaky.” I laugh. “I didn’t know flow responded if spoken to.”
“Well, to form constructs or control unstructured energy, it has to interpret your intent to a degree.” She replies. “We simply found a way to exploit it when we realized that flow linked to two different beings would proceed the same way, by trying to interpret what the messages it is sent means.” She chuckles.
“Isn’t there a way to defend against it?” I ask.
“There are but they need to be integrated into the construct beforehand to block off communications. However, we haven’t found a way to isolate unstructured flow.” She replies. “Before you ask, I cannot teach you any of this. The Empire is aware of what we’re doing but has not found a counter measure as of yet.”
“Are you certain? The headquarters has a room with a runic array that destabilized my lightning construct.” I say.
“I am, but I will make sure. We’ve seen the Empire use constructs that function on a different principle, it is less efficient in terms of energy consumption as its flow covers an area and must remain activated to provide a blanket disruption of segments which induces the collapse of constructs. It is relatively safe unless you keep trying and end up unlucky somehow.” She tells me.
“I missed this.” I smile. She softly lays a tendril over my shoulder.
“You should know that there are ways around these things. The lightning and whirlwind construct, to give you an example, wouldn’t be as affected by these defenses if they are activated before being affected. The lightning will continue and so would the wind as both are natural forces put into motion with flow. On the other hand, the constructs that form blades or needles out of ambient air would simply fade away. Explosively if they are scattered too quickly.” She explains.
The warriors escorting us close their ranks to pass through the gates with us. The thick double wooden doors are reinforced by metal bands. The heavy portcullis grill is raised but I notice it was damaged, impacts so strong that they bent steel.
“The Templars secured the gatehouse so we tried to force our way in.” Celyz comments.
“Will Port-Odo be defended?” I ask.
“Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we would make it there before the Caeviel’s army does.” She shakes her ovaloid head.
“I’m worried about my ability to achieve a similar result there as I have here if it becomes necessary. Not that it turned out well despite all the help I got.” I say regretfully.
“You didn’t do as badly as you think, most of the human casualties were among soldiers. There were fewer losses on either side than predicted.” She denies.
I don’t think so but there’s no point in arguing that. We make our way through the construction site, passing by the tall inn to make our way north-est towards the castle.
In the streets, people stare at Celyz. Their curiosity wins over their caution and our warrior escort is forced to push through the small crowd that gathers in front of us. They aren’t excited but neither are they fearful.
“Seeing humans look at us with anything other than hatred, disgust, and suspicion, it reminds me of when I met you.” Celyz comments.
“You mean when I tried to attack you the very instant we ran into each other?” I ask with a small laugh.
“Point.” She chuckles.
“Elizabeth Vil!” A burly man yells, interrupting us. “Why is Meria alive?!”
“You promised justice!” A woman accuses and parts of the crowd pick up the call, mostly peasants.
“He will be put on trial.” I respond loudly. “You will all have a chance to bring your grievances forward!”
“What about the rest?” The man asks.
“A thief stole from my shop this morning! Where is the guard?!” A merchant says from behind his almost empty stall.
“We’re going to settle all of that right now!” I reply, shouting over the crowd.
I stop listening to the various demands and respond with the same answer, that the council will listen to them when it is formed. I didn’t expect people to be this… involved. Especially since most are peasants and small-time merchants.
I assume they’re the only ones who don’t really have a choice and must come out to work even the very morning after their city capitulated. Those with actual resources are likely hiding out to see what happens.
As we approach the marketplace, the original crowd disperses but others take their place and in the end, it grows in size. Celyz seems to be having fun observing me struggle to keep up with the various calls for my attention.
The Temple is surrounded, and no doubt occupied, by hundreds of harvesters. Trying to find a distraction from the people’s demands and questions that never cease, and with my mind having been brought back to the time of my capture, something occurs to me.
“I was told there are only three types of Rykz back then, aren’t the harvesters a fourth?” I ask.
“They are but they were developed, I suppose is the word, relatively recently so those who informed you were probably referring to documents that predate them. About three hundred years ago, the cold bloods and humans started countering our troops with heavy cavalry and armored war beasts. In response, the First Queen modified an old template of drones, who were used to block Hive tunnels back when we lived predominantly underground, and mixed them with scouts to create harvesters. They have proven quite efficient at dealing with either heavy or light troops.” Celyz explains enthusiastically.
“Your ability to adapt is slightly frightening.” I shiver.
“It is our greatest strength, although, it is time and resource consuming.” She says, nodding.
We reach the castle, the portcullis opens for us and we go through. There are warriors on the wall and scouts patrolling the grounds. I take the lead to guide Celyz inside the keep and towards the throne room, managing not to get lost. She orders our escort to hold outside in the hallway as we walk in.
We find a large round table set in place of the throne and its pedestal at the center of the room. Lance and Yvonne are already seated. Both are wearing court clothes, my Lady is wearing a red slit dress that looks almost identical to the one we shredded by dancing in roses.
I almost pause to revel at the sight, but with Celyz at my side I refrain from doing so to avoid hurting her. Cecil and her council should be on the way since I think I saw Celyz send a scout out to relay the message earlier. Amand’s absence is odd, I would have expected him to join us.
“Where is the Templar Master?” I ask, my voice mingling with Lance’s.
“Where is Jessica?” She says, glaring at the Princess.
“She was informed. It is her choice whether she decides to show up or not.” Celyz replies flatly.
An uncomfortable silence floats over us. Leomi turns to me for confirmation, her light gray eyes pleading for an answer. My mind stumbles a little. If I confirm, then it means I still refuse to see her. It would hurt her, and possibly damage her feelings for me as me.
But I can’t show up as Jessica. I force myself to reply with a curt nod, catching my hand before it raises to adjust my mask for fear of it slipping off. Yvonne looks saddened but not surprised by the answer.
“Master Amand and his Order cannot take part in administrating the land, whether it is under occupation or not.” Yvonne breaks the silence.
I make my way to the table and remove one of the chairs, the one directly in front of my Lady, to make space for Celyz. She taps my shoulder with a tendril in thanks and takes the spot. I sit down next to her, avoiding Leomi’s gaze.
“Countess Leomi Lance.” Celyz speaks up.
“Princess Celyz.” Leomi replies between grit teeth.
“I hereby inform you that you are to remain confined within this castle’s walls until further notice.” Celyz declares, voice rumbling shortly.
“What?!” Leomi exclaims, suddenly standing to slam her palms on the table. “You’re not even letting me look for Jessica?”
“This has nothing to do with that.” Celyz says with undulating tendrils, one of them brushes against my hand, seemingly by coincidence.
We both flinch at the word nothing. Yvonne doesn’t miss it. Her head snaps to me. She then checks my arm and mask, shaking her head. However, she does not look away from me.
I slap the table with my left hand. Bam! Both Celyz and Leomi are startled. The former’s appendages freezing for a split second while the latter jumps a little while her expression turns guilty.
“Enough, I tire of hearing of that girl.” I utter.
I don’t even have to try for my voice to sound angry as there is truth in my words. Leomi sees her as weak and that is the biggest obstacle standing between us, she doesn’t think I can handle what she does, did, to me.
“Your sword-sworn is free to explore the city, that should be sufficient.” Celyz says in a conciliatory manner, burying the issue under a false concession.