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Vikiana pulls me away from the guardrail. One last glance at Idali doesn’t tell me anything, her head is barely above water. Unless she manages to grab a piece of debris, she’ll be done within minutes. And even then… her wounds may be too much to handle. I won’t count her out just yet.

Odo is still watching Idali from the bridge, looking vexed. The bulky woman, whip in hand, throws a glance at her Lord. He shakes his head negatively, responding to her silent question.

Alas, I am a man of my word.” Odo speaks up with regret.

The Templar whose left forearm I broke takes over for Vikiana and another grabs my right arm. They carry me towards the staircase leading to the lower decks. I focus on my other sense, which covers about half the ship.

I observe the Exemplar approach Odo with six of her companions, the rest accompanies me. Her gait is relaxed but her expression is icy. I try to read the words off her lips but that doesn’t lead me anywhere.

The temple guards drag me through the galley-slaves’ benches, empty and soiled by blood, piss, and the smell of fear. With my entire attention on my surroundings, I notice the rats infesting the ship.

The critters are escaping to their hiding holes, fleeing my escort’s loud and heavy steps. There are barrels in the cargo-hold beneath us and a few crates. One of the Templars grabs two pairs of iron shackles from the wall and we engage in the last flight of stairs.

At the bottom, they pause to light up flow torches and then lead me to a small cell in the ship’s bow. The room has no walls to speak of, the hull serves that purpose and as we are at the front of the galley, it is curved and narrow.

Separated from the sea by mere wooden planks. I might get a chance at scuttling this galley after all. I chuckle. My captors remove the padlock and lift me to deposit me next to a tiny bench, the only piece of furniture here.

I inspect the planks and metal grid, looking for runes. I find a few inside my sense’s field of detection, they’re spread around the hull, but none inside this cell. This isn’t meant to hold titled Nobles.

The Templars deploy around the cramped cell. I wiggle in my restraints to find a position that allows me to breathe without making the rope dig into my wounds and disturb my dozen bone fractures. Every inhalation provokes a vivid streak of pain along my right arm, every exhalation pressures my cracked ribs.

The other galley near this one and stops side by side. Soldiers a few meters above us throw ropes and attach them to cleats, securing both together. Odo and Vikiana barge in my field of detection, they’re talking while galley-slaves transfer from the other ship.

The criminals are in chains and made to walk before the seven who are still hanging from the mast under heavy guard. Odo suddenly shouts, pointing at the eighth rope, Idali’s. A warning no doubt. To his side, Vikiana is toying with her sword’s handle, eyes on the young Count.

I notice that the Templar, who tried to block my hammer with his forearm, is intensely looking at me. He has salt and pepper hair and brown eyes. He has the air of an experienced fighter, the way he stands, how he didn’t falter after things didn’t go as he expected in combat.

What do you want?” I ask.

I’m Conrad.” He replies.

Great. I’m E.Vil.” I tell him without humor.

Are you?” He questions. “Why fight us if you didn’t intend to win?”

Why block my hammer if you couldn’t handle it?” I counter.

Will you answer me if I do?” He asks calmly.

I might.” I reply, rolling my eyes.

I underestimated your strength.” He admits.

Monstrous you might call it.” I utter.

I know two-handed weapons and my experience misled me for once.” He adds, ignoring my comment.

I wanted to take enough of you out that you would have to retreat.” I tell him.

Still want to die?” He questions.

Does it matter, can barely move a finger.” I groan.

It would make putting you in shackles a lot easier if you don’t try something stupid.” Conrad replies simply.

Can’t die quite yet. I owe Idali.” I utter ominously.

That was her name?” He asks.

It is.” I affirm, insisting on the last word.

Conrad nods, unwilling to challenge me on her survival. As far as I can tell, these Templars seem to like me more than Odo. It isn’t much of a surprise that they would dislike the Lord, but I’m a traitor and a Rykz creation.

So, how often do you stand by and let Nobles do as they wish?” I provoke them.

While his behavior was despicable, they were criminals and the punishment for mutiny is death.” A woman replies firmly.

It didn’t have anything to do with that.” I counter angrily. “It was sport for him.”

Are you truly in a position to condemn? You’ve killed many more than he has in the Rykz’ service, Elizabeth Vil.” Conrad says, frowning.

I have.” I utter coldly. “Yet, you’re all pretty chill about it. I wonder what that’s about.”

The Templars stiffen, all six of them without exception. Silence reigns. I lock eyes with those in front of me, one at a time. Not one manages to hold my gaze for longer than a few seconds. Is what I see guilt, remorse?

We are not without responsibility in this matter.” Conrad finally says in a rough voice.

This matter? Could you be any vaguer?” I mock.

It is said that you’ve struck a deal with the Rykz. Princess Cetyz’ release for the end of the war.” Conrad uncomfortably shifts his weight to his other leg.

I did.” I nod.

Do you know how the Princess was captured?” He asks.

I know King Cenwalh and his institute misled Emperor Rasaec to obtain his help.” I reply carefully.

Inaccurate.” Conrad sighs. “Our Emperor agreed to help because flow is the great equalizer between sentient species and he hoped to learn more about it. Without flow, the relentless Rykz would overwhelm us. Their drones are inherently stronger, tougher, and never lose morale. Despite their lack of creativity, they make superior soldiers. The Lisilese, on the other hand…”

Lisilese?” I interrupt.

The cold bloods.” Conrad tells me. “The same way that Rykz are called insects, Lisilese are called cold bloods. They are carnivores. Predators that would, without a doubt, destroy the Empire in battle if not for flow. They are fast, agile, and rarely die from a single strike unless you cut their heads off.” Conrad continues.

“That doesn’t make sense. If humans are at such a disadvantage, wouldn’t the edge they have over us be the same since we have equal access to flow?” I argue.

No. Think of it this way, if you fight a Lisilese while neither uses flow you will struggle to even pierce its scales while it will be able to kill or incapacitate you by landing a single hit. If you both use lion strikes, then you will still risk dying in one blow, but so will the Lisilese.” Conrad explains. “In simpler terms, it is the difference between fighting one against two and fighting with two against four. In the latter’s case, you have a better chance of achieving victory because you can cover each other’s backs.”

Is that why the institute wants to usurp the Rykz’ flow? The reason Emperor Rasaec agreed? But the Rykz do not believe that it is possible.” I say in disbelief. No, the Emperor wouldn’t… “Why take the risk? What is worth alienating the Rykz to this point?”

I do not know.” Conrad shakes his head. “Flow mechanics are out of my expertise but I do know that the Rykz are likely correct. It is believed impossible, or at least beyond our current reach, to alter flow. Yet, it must be important, our Emperor would not have sent his Due if it were not so, he would not… have sent us to capture the Princess.”

You?!” I repeat. “You’re the ones who sneaked in the Silver Hive? Not Caeviel, but the Templar Order? I… ” I stutter, anger clouding my thoughts. “I should have killed the lot of you!

I try to rise, furious. I finally found those directly responsible for the attack on the Izla, but I let them live, I was weak. My bindings hinder me and I tumble to my side. A wave of hurt shakes my body, throwing me into a haze.

Rasaec did this. He wasn’t tricked. He took an active part in provoking this disaster.” I mumble.

Yes, but do not be too quick to judge our Emperor, Elizabeth.” Vikiana speaks up, walking down the stairs to the cargo-hold. “The Rykz have never reacted so disproportionately to the loss of one of their Princesses in battle. Crossing the Empire’s borders with a Queen is far from the rational behavior they exhibited during our long history with them.”

What did you expect?!” I scream, pain making my voice tremble. “You took one of their own!

We expected retaliation, an escalation of hostilities on the Empire’s border. My Emperor prepared for this. Five additional phalanxes were stationed near the Silver Hive, and ten more held in reserve where the Lisilese, the Rykz, and the Empire’s borders link. The operation was planned, the risks accounted for. We were ready, just… on the wrong side of the Empire.” Vikiana explains.

You underestimated them and you still are.” I utter feverishly.

We are doing what we can to fix this but they cannot win this war. It is crass to put lives on the balance as mere numbers, but this is simple logistics. A single Rykz Hive cannot sustain this push into Caeviel.” She contests.

You fools. Do you not realize that all the Rykz want is their sister back? They aren’t here to wage war, they aren’t even retaliating yet! They’re afraid, they fear for the very survival of their species. They want a treaty, why do you think they agreed to this negotiation? If you refuse to return Cetyz, if you capture another one of their sisters, of my sisters, then… then you will see what a disproportionate reaction truly is.” I spout the words out, ignoring the strain it puts on my ribs.

What do you mean?” She asks.

I laugh madly. Vikiana walks into the cell. The Templars make way for her, a few leaving the cell and join their other six comrades. The Exemplar leans in, she grabs my collar and helps me back up on my knees.

Do you know how many Rykz there are?” I answer with a question.

Not with any accuracy but they hold the continent’s eastern lands. The Empire has not been able to explore beyond a few hundred kilometers inside their borders. Why?” Vikiana replies.

Because there are only a few hundred Queens.” I lie. There are a hundred according to Celyz and she may even have given me a bloated number, to begin with. “They do not want all-out war, but you are forcing their tendrils.” I chuckle darkly at the irony. “You wanted to strengthen the Empire? You are precipitating its fall!

It’s only a single Princess.” Conrad refutes.

Have you not listened to what I just said?” I spout, frustrated. “They cannot afford to let this happen again! The Rykz want a treaty, this is an ultimatum. There will either be rules of war, or they will…”

Fold.” Odo shouts from the other end of the cargo-hold.

He shakes his head with a small smile. Nonchalantly walking down the stairs with the bulky woman.

These creatures were obviously cowed by the capture of one of their… Princesses.” He spouts the word with distaste. “The fact of the matter is that one does not behave less violently than usual when they seek to force another party to agree to terms. One attacks until the other side surrenders. These Rykz are scared, they no longer slaughter or displace populations because they know we have the upper hand.”

They are different from us.” Vikiana argues. “What Elizabeth is saying is consistent with what I know of the Rykz.”

You are fools if you think they aren’t already escalating.” I utter viciously. “They took an entire island from Caeviel and got its population to willingly work for them. They are supporting a system of government that threatens everything Nobility stands for. And they made me!” I laugh. “The Rykz will take your city within days, Odo. And then, then they’ll spread across the mainland and set fire to Caeviel from within.”

They will lose. By January next year, the phalanxes will have reorganized along the Empire’s border and Caeviel will be reinforced.” Odo waves the concern.

You don’t understand, do you.” I growl. “They cannot lose! They will send army, after army, after army until you commit to taking the Izla back. And then what will you have achieved? Grikyz will be long gone and Caeviel will be in ruins. Can the Empire afford to keep its phalanxes here to defend the Kingdom? Year after year?”

No. The Silver Hive itself is still active and it isn’t the only one we have to defend against. Another Queen must be there, fooling us into thinking Grikyz never left. The Empire cannot fight on three fronts for long. Armies would need to be conscripted from Telnur and Mirus which would weaken our southern border with the Lisilese.” Vikiana explains.

You assume they can even cross the sea. A fleet under my command is all we need to contain these creatures.” Odo comments proudly.

They’ll learn, but you won’t be there to witness the consequences of your stupidity!” I retort.

This is a waste of time, war concerns not a peasant or a prisoner. Much less this creature.” Odo declares. “At least that blonde provided entertainment, getting shredded just after threatening me with the same fate.”

Rhaaa!” I growl.

I fail to even articulate words, too enraged to think straight. I urge my limb to fight, to help me break out of these ropes to slaughter this fool. It fails me, weakened by my defeat, having spent all its resources. I almost fall on my face but Vikiana is there to catch me.

Odo doesn’t even flinch, he simply stands there with a small smile while I struggle in vain. I slump down, humiliated and powerless. Frustration, despair, and hatred swell. Tears of rage roll down my cheeks. The corner of my eyes burn.

I’ll see it in shackles and inside a disruption construct before trusting that it is under control, Exemplar.” Odo says.

Vikiana raises her hand. Streams of flow energy arise from the many barrels stored inside the cargo-hold to gather above her palm. She shapes a core of a single centimeter in diameter. She spends a long moment concentrating on it with no visible effect on it.

It then floats to the center of the room and bursts into golden particles that move erratically inside the cell, fusing and splitting. After a few seconds, the flow fades away from sight or detection.

Conrad unsheathes a dagger and steps behind me. He cuts the ropes tying my knees and arms together. The Templars then carefully remove my hard leather armor and what remains of my chain-mail one sleeve at a time. Vikiana is keeping a watchful eye on me, specifically my left limb.

These clothes look expensive under all that blood. They have to go too, there could be runes weaved inside the fabric.” Odo insists.

I bite down on my lower lip and let them take the clothes Leomi gave me without resisting. Drained and exhausted, I find myself in my underwear, my body covered in blood.

They unstrap the shredded sleeve glove, pieces of leather still covered my left shoulder. So this is what failure feels like. You lose everything, down to dignity.

The Templars set the shackles around my wrists and ankles. The humans then leave the cell, closing the padlock. Yet, they don’t leave. They remain, staring at the area where the parasite connects to my flesh.

The rubbery brown Rykz skin disappears under my light pink flesh. The tendrils are visible at the base, protruding there but fading further as they thin and plunge deeper inside my body. The Exemplar seems more interested in my collection of scars.

We still need to agree on a destination, Count.” Vikiana speaks up.

This obsession for secrecy again.” He sighs. “Port-Odo is secure.”

You know as well as I do that King Cenwalh signed a decree ordering secrecy for any matter connected to the institute, do you want to risk his displeasure?” She insists.

Fine, but I must see to my sister first.” He replies.

Odo departs, no doubt because my lack of reaction bores him. Vikiana leaves soon after, looking deeply lost in her thoughts. The rest of the Templars spread out in the cargo-hold, sitting down to tend to their equipment and injuries.

I sit down, crossing my legs. I focus on myself I need to heal if I am to slaughter my way out. I try to communicate the need to heal my ribs to the parasite, to the symbiont. Hopefully, it remains in symbiosis, Celyz cautioned me against hunger and I am positively starving.

My limb responds to my intent, most of the tendrils wrapped around my spine and sternum retreat. They slowly concentrate around my injuries, the cut in my back, those on my chest, and around my rib-cage. They tighten the skin on either side on my wounds and further secure my cracked ribs.

The vivid pain is refreshing, it calms my roiling emotions and allows me to relax somewhat, to stop suppressing myself. I’ve learned that my bones can’t withstand my left limb’s strength when enhanced for an extended amount of time, and neither could my right arm.

Leomi did warn me. The thought brings a smile to my face. Once I recover, we’ll see how strong those iron shackles are. It’ll be a pleasure to teach them that Elizabeth Vil is not someone you can imprison with just this.

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