I stumble mid-stride towards Vikiana. She moves aside, in a flash, and catches me by my collar. She sustains me enough that I fall to my knees instead of on my face. Twelve Templars in front of me, one Exemplar behind. She moves her blade and deposits the edge on my throat.
Ah, finally, the end, my end. The thought occupies my mind for a fleeting moment until I realize that she isn’t cutting my throat, her attention isn’t even on her weapon but on my shoulder, on the blood covering her sword.
My limb’s tendrils squirm and wiggle inside my flesh. I bask in the soft whisper of pain and the abuse sharpens my concentration. Enough so that I notice that the severed tendrils are twisting and writhing to reconnect.
“What is this… red and brown blood?” Vikiana asks, bewildered.
I order my limb to focus on healing and siphon what little flow is left in my lion strike to create a healing construct with it to quench the blood flowing down my back.
The Exemplar keeps her gaze on me, distraught but apparently not willing to end me. My left arm extends its tendrils along the long open wound, weaving through my flesh to close it.
I start feeling lightheaded, drained. It isn’t just from blood-loss, my… strength seems to be pouring out of me like water out of a pierced gourd. My limb is taking what it needs to spread, to fix me.
“I can see… something move inside your flesh.” Vikiana says, like a commentary. “Tell me, Elizabeth Vil, what are you?”
“A monster.” I reply, giggling.
If I am not to die yet, why kneel? I rise, caring none about the metal edge brushing against my jugular. I stagger and use the hammer in my left hand like a cane. My left ribs scream with agony as they support my entire weight, weakened by my reckless use of the lion strike construct.
“Don’t move.” Vikiana orders.
“You seem to need motivation to end this.” I counter, chuckling.
“I won’t kill you but that doesn’t mean I can’t maim you.” She threatens.
I shrug, making the sword scrape against the skin of my neck. Might as well stay still for a bit and heal, as long as they don’t try to tie me up. Beyond the twelve temple guards facing me, the galley-slaves are fighting their way up the bridge’s staircase.
Idali is among them but with her back turned to them, looking at me. I imperceptibly shake my head to tell her to stay put. Odo and his Lady companion joined the fight as most of their soldiers are now lying dead or unconscious all over the deck.
“The Rykz did this to you, didn’t they.” Vikiana says. “Why protect them? Tell me what I need to know.”
“I’ve given you my reasons, any further discussion is meaningless.” I reply coldly.
Vikiana tenses but before she does anything, her head turns to starboard. I follow her gaze, finding the third galley returning from helping the one the Rykz set on fire. The deck is packed with soldiers, taut bows in hand.
“No.” Vikiana whispers.
Too late and too quietly. They release their strings and arrows fly at the slaves, pummeling the bare-chested criminals. More than a dozen fall from the first volley and a second one follows a moment later.
More than half of them dead or injured. The debacle happens in an instant, Idali is knocked down from behind as the crowd breaks away and runs towards our galley. The handful of soldiers they were fighting pursue, slaying any they can reach with their swords.
A few remain, fighting to their last breaths in desperation. Idali ends up being among them as the Lady attacks before she can get back up on her feet. The Vuskyt shield and the Noble’s exhaustion saves her life.
Captain George and his second, Dana, use daggers to cut the last ropes keeping the ships together. The galleys part almost instantly, the rowers on the lower deck are no doubt using their oars to push against this one’s hull.
The slaves that made it out in time jump over the water, a few whose legs were injured fall in the water. Shortly after, those scream their lungs out, panicking and begging for help.
“Tianeel.” I mutter.
“What?!” Vikiana exclaims.
“There’s a Tianeel in the water.” I tell her.
“Go!” She orders her companions.
Ten of the Templars nod and rush to the port-side guardrail, two remain and move to block my escape route. I remain still, recovering my breath, waiting for my limb and construct to stop the bleeding.
As I do, I watch Idali fight the Lady on one knee, blocking sword blows with the shield and countering with swift stabs of her spear. The two seem to be in a stalemate, which means that Idali is likely the better scrapper considering her disadvantageous stance.
The Lady raises her sword, a mistake as it allows her opponent to bash her and spin her spear around, knocking the back of her head in one fluid motion. The Noble drops and Idali places her spearhead on her throat, throwing a glance at Vikiana.
I can tell what goes through her mind, she wants to exchange the Lady for our freedom, yet knows that there is no escape route available to us now that our galley left us behind. The young Count Odo approaches her with to soldiers and she surrenders before they even ask, setting her spear and shield down.
Galley-slaves are still screaming in the water. The Templars are unraveling the ropes that held the grappling hooks from their cleats to throw them overboard and help them. The man, whose left forearm I likely broke, assembles and propels an air-blade construct into the water.
“Iiishe!” The Tianeel’s blood-curdling defiant shriek fills the air.
“It’s going into a frenzy!” The Templar warns.
His companions take hold of the guardrail mere seconds before an impact shakes the ship. Vikiana shifts tensely, tightening her grip on the sword she’s holding to my throat while her eyes wander over the different kinds of blood on her blade.
“What’s the color of its blood?!” She asks.
“Dark purple!” The man answers.
“It’s just a Tianeel then, not one of the Lisileses’ warbeasts.” The Exemplar pauses, staring at my back with suspicion. “Or a Rykz creation.” She adds.
My back straightens and a cold, fearful, sweat courses through it. A ridiculous reaction for one planning to die before sunset. Two successive impacts shock the galley, making all who stand falter. The Templars, secure thanks to their hold on the rails, start pulling on the ropes to lift the slaves out of the water.
“There’s two!” One of Vikiana’s sisters exclaims.
“They’re still in their mating season.” The man replies nervously.
“Steady! They’re not going to break the hull!” The Exemplar shouts.
“No but they can cause enough damage that we’ll sink without enough hands to repair the leaks.” Odo declares angrily.
A spherical construct rises in the air from Odo‘s hand and flares with red light. The other galley, on course to chase ours down, steers to approach this one instead. The Count then looks down at Idali, sword in hand, his left arm still hanging limply by his side.
“But we don’t need those hands.” Odo adds, raising his weapon to execute Idali.
“She spared me, Brother.” The Lady intervenes.
“She laid a hand on Nobility, Grace.” He glares at his sister who holds her ground. The Tianeels hit the galley once more, the hull creaks audibly. “We’ll settle this later.” Odo says, hurrying inside the cabin.
The Templars finally pull the surviving galley-slaves on board, of the seven that make it up, two are missing chunks of flesh, bitten off by one of the Tianeels. Half of the first’s thigh is simply gone and the woman is unlikely to survive, she cannot stand and is so pale that she might pass away within moments. The other is missing a few fingers only and attending to her already.
I could use a few more minutes but the Templars will be back in numbers soon. I restlessly wait for the Tianeels to strike the hull once again, stopping myself from taking better hold of my hammer since it would warn Vikiana that I’m about to make a move.
The galley’s cabin starts glowing golden from the inside and it spreads along the hull. Vikiana relaxes, I find out why when the Tianeels hit the ship for the third time as it barely even shivers under the assault.
Fuck. I angle my neck to avoid slicing myself against her blade and break into a run towards the stairs leading to the lower deck. Vikiana reacts in a heartbeat but she doesn’t attack me, she goes for my hammer.
Her sword glows golden with flow for a brief moment, only long enough to cut my weapon’s hammerhead off. Losing it brings a feeling of loss, defeat. I push onward, keeping what’s left in hand since it is long enough to use and a small part of the blade remains.
I swing it behind my back, not even trying to hit her, simply to prevent her from chasing me right away. The two Templars converge on me, aiming low and high. I leap over the first and present my right side to the other.
The sword hits my arm at the elbow, luckily a still intact portion of my chain-mail. It still stings and disturbs my other two wounds meaning that I crash more than land on my feet. I should be grateful that they’re obviously not trying to kill me.
“Knock her out!” Vikiana shouts at one of her sisters.
“We’re starting to dig deep, Viki.” She protests.
“Do it, there is no Princess here.” Vikiana orders.
She catches up with a few lion’s steps and releases a wide slash targeting the back of my knees. I block the blow with what remains of my hammer, I don’t even try to hide the fact that I can spot things behind myself. No reason to hold back.
The other two Templars are combining their flow and shaping a cubical construct, their reserves still topped off. They must have a lot of flow in the cargo-hold, wish I took the time to check earlier but it wouldn’t have changed much.
I run down the stairs, crouched to keep the hull between me and that construct. Vikiana stops pursuing before going down, she brings her left hand up and a second, smaller, cubic construct forms above her palm.
Before I even make it to the rowers’ deck, they launch the two constructs that fly through the air much quicker than I can run, going through the wood to directly home in on me.
My left limb trembles, no, the sleeve glove does. The runic construct that Celyz engraved activates. The black energy contained within the leather seeps out, disintegrating the runes within the material at the same time, causing a large part of the glove to fall apart.
The flow forms a crescent-shaped line behind me that expands into a curved lens which covers my entire backside. It doesn’t stop there, the construct soon broadens to enclose me inside a black sphere that blocks my sight but not my other senses.
The first cubic construct impacts the shell. I expect it to snuff out like what happened to Duke Meria’s flow, but instead it clashes against the defensive barrier for a second and bursts with a loud bang sound.
The kinetic energy released shoves me forward while the energy sphere dissipates. Vikiana’s cube arrives before it vanishes completely, managing to go half-way through my protection before Celyz’ construct forces it to detonate.
I tumble down the last few steps, I let go of my damaged weapon’s handle to desperately try to grab something with my left hand. I fail and, as a consequence of those attempts, my right side collides first with the deck with my arm stuck under me.
“Aarrrrrhhhh!” I scream.
Without my limb’s cool substance to dull the pain, it pierces my skull. It is so intense that my sight blurs. Fighting against unconsciousness with all my strength, I push myself to my knees and feebly get to my feet.
The two soldiers I took down with Idali aren’t far away. I’m so hungry, I need food. I stagger towards the bodies, my left hand’s fingers are wiggling in anticipation. I let myself drop on top of them.
My limb moves by itself; or perhaps I did, I’m not sure. I take advantage of the hole that my hammer’s spike left inside the soldier’s chest to plunge my hand inside and feed on the man’s blood.
I inspect my surroundings, finding that my hammer’s handle landed to my right near an oar hatch. A bit too far for me to seize, but not so much that I can’t get to it within moments despite my injuries.
I hear a gasp. I turn and find Vikiana and two Templars to her side. The man is staring at my back with wide eyes. The woman’s sight is fixed on my wrist, half-way inside the soldier’s body.
“I skipped breakfast.” I tell them.
An unhinged laugh resonates in my throat, distorted further by my helmet. Weary, I gather myself and tear my limb out of the corpse. The glove covering my left hand remains inside, the leather that covered my left forearm is in pieces.
Squelch. Air makes a disgusting wet sound when it rushes to take up the volume my limb occupied in the dead soldier’s insides. The two temple guards flinch. Vikiana remains still, her expression calculating, her mind seems focused on the task without allowing distractions.
I carefully stand and approach what’s left of my hammer, more of a bladed spike at this point. I lean down with difficulty and grab it. The Exemplar stops her companions by sharply slashing her hand in front of them.
“You still hope that I would turn on the Rykz?” I giggle. “How foolishly naive. Do you really think a Princess would move with anything less than overwhelming force after losing one of their own?”
“Perhaps.” Vikiana admits calmly. “But your life might be valuable regardless. The Empire rarely encounters new Rykz creations. The fact that you are human is… unique. I actually could wander a guess as to who is behind that helmet considering that it is a left arm.”
“Don’t.” I utter, a little scared as she is one of the few that know of my name and origin, enough information to have a small chance of tracking my brother down.
“So it is you.” Vikiana says, a little shocked. “How is that possible? You could barely handle your own shield, Elizabeth.”
It appears to me that she’s using my fake name as a way to extend an olive branch. I take my helmet off and scoff, slapping the offer aside. It’s quite meaningless to hide my face at this point, live or die, they’ll see it. I might as well take the chance to breathe freely, and it’ll be easier for them to kill me.
I set my weapon down just long enough to brush my hair back. It surprisingly works on my messy hair for once because the soldier’s blood makes it stick to my cranium. I take hold of my bladed spike and move towards the Templars, swinging it a few times in front of me.
“Rise, Templars! Do our Emperor Rasaec proud and put the monster down!” I proclaim.
The two Templars move away from Vikiana and fall into battle stances. The Exemplar remains in place, sword immobile. She raises her hand to tell them to hold.
“Why seek death after crossing the sea for peace? Surrender, live. Your demise will only serve to provoke the Rykz further, will it not?” Vikiana argues.
Her reasonable point makes me pause for a second but I soon wave the thought away and harden my determination.
“My death will bring closure to those who await my return.” I respond in a deep voice, believing every word. “While my capture may be the straw that pushes Grikyz to declare all-out war.”
I take one more step and Vikiana finally takes a stance, watching my every move. I rush forth, preparing a stabbing blow. The two Templars move around me to attack from three different directions.
I launch my blow, the Exemplar easily sidesteps the tip of my weapon. Obviously. I smirk and forcefully alter the jab into a swing. My limb’s inhumane strength is likely the only thing that makes this even possible. The move puts immense pressure on my ribs but I don’t let that bother me.
Vikiana used her knowledge of what is and isn’t possible to do against me a few tens of minutes ago, that will work against her now. I observe the bladed part of my spike shoot towards her waist, the woman is in no position to stop it as she was preparing to smash me with her sword’s pommel.
Snap. Ribs break. My strong swing falters and the weapon grazes her leather armor instead of the full-on strike it was on course for. Thud. Pain arises from the base of my neck where Vikiana’s hit lands. She also missed. The two Templars use the flat of their blades, one hits the back of my left knee while the other smack me behind my shoulders.
— — —
I find myself laying flat on the wooden deck. My mind apparently blinked out during the fall. Not very long since Vikiana only had time to lock my left arm behind my back and secure it with her knee.
My left limb’s tendril network is expanding under my skin, redressing my broken ribs while seeking out new, intact, bones to anchor itself to. The symbiont reaches the wound in the center of my chest and forces both sides of the cut together. It then digs into my flesh to wrap around my sternum.
Pathetic. I couldn’t even die properly. I dismantle the healing construct, ignoring the contradiction inherent to using one when wishing for my life to end. I check my reserves, finding about three people’s worth of flow. More than I recovered from that construct but not a lot, my access increased a little.
Vikiana sheathes her sword and signals her brethren to take over for her. The woman flips me over while the, heavier, man places one knee on my left shoulder, effectively pinning my limb behind my back.
The Exemplar takes a long dagger out of her boot and glances down at me, her cold light blue eyes locking up with mine. I refuse to look away, not even when she brings her dagger’s the sharp edge close to my face.
Her hand flashes and, with one swift slash, she cuts a horizontal line right above my eyebrows. The incision bleeds profusely, she guides the blood around my eyes with her index and starts covering my face in blood.
“Best I can do for now, Elizabeth.” Vikiana comments.
“Should kill me now.” I threaten.
“Maybe. We’ll see.” She replies.
She sheathes her dagger inside her boot and brings her hand back, closing it into a fist.
— — —
I blink, the first thought that crosses my mind is how fucking bad my nose hurts, so much that I worry she broke it. Next thought is one of panic as I notice that I’m kneeling with ropes tying my knees, ankles, and wrists together.
There are red and brown stains on the upper deck but no dead bodies. Odo and Grace are facing off. Under the sail’s boom, the wooden horizontal bar that attaches it to the mast, are Idali and the seven slaves that survived. They have ropes around their necks and their hands are tied behind their backs.
The thirteen Templars are spread out in a loose circle around me, swords in their scabbards but hands ready to draw them at a moment’s notice. Two dozen soldiers stand behind the prisoners, holding the other end of their ropes.