Two slaves grab Vikiana and pull her away, one sword pointed at her back, the other over her throat. I find myself stuck between chasing the Exemplar and the Countess. I think furiously and end up deciding to go after Grace.
I take two steps downstairs before stopping. She’s already inside the soldiers’ ranks and the criminals have all pulled back with victorious cries. The battle is over for them. They got what they want.
“You don’t need them to free you.” I shout. “Once we have this ship, they won’t be able to stop you! Port-Odo will fall to the Rykz soon, who would pursue you?”
I can see in their attitudes and in how none reply that my argument is useless, desperate. They have even less of a reason to fight if they don’t need the Countess to free them officially since the records will burn. There is so few of them left that the two lifeboats can carry them to land.
I can’t ask the galley-slaves to fight anymore, not now that they have their freedom. I can’t force them. It would make me no better than Nobility. It would make me a hypocrite as well.
Grace’s smoldering eyes are fixed on me, she has no intention of surrendering, hostage or not. She’s already giving orders to spread out to block the stairs and the area under the bridge’s guardrail in case I try to jump.
“Rhaaaaaa!” I growl in madness, frustration.
My left limb hits the rail, shattering it. I then smash the gauntleted hand down, breaking a hole in the bridge’s floor. There are so many soldiers, I… can I beat them all? I have to. If I fail then I won’t be able to go back to Celyz, I’ll be stuck on the mainland, behind human lines.
I pick up the captain’s sword in my left hand. I slice the air, producing a menacing sound. The soldiers fear me, it is written all over their faces. I assemble a single lion’s step, I’m somehow running low on energy despite the quantity I stole.
Flow truly is the lifeblood of warfare. I jump over the guardrail, swords raised up. Soldiers raise their weapons to intercept me. I twist around in mid-air, avoiding the one in front of me and slapping two others away with my blades.
I impact a soldier and hit the upper deck, rolling to break my fall. I kick the ground and get back up to my feet with two slashes, felling two soldiers. As I fight, I only assemble lion strikes for my right arm since my symbiont is quick and strong enough to deal with the soldiers on its own.
Upper stab, lower slash. I sidestep the first, block the second with my right sword, and swing my left behind my back to slice the throat of a soldier preparing to attack me.
Two whirls of my blades take care of the two that attacked me. With them dead, I find myself in the middle of the soldiers with none in range, surrounded. I chuckle and they take half-steps back.
“Kill her, it!” Grace yells.
They charge. I swirl and swerve, but it isn’t enough to avoid everything. The point of a sword cuts the back of my right lower waist, severing muscles. I opt against using a hardening construct, it consumes too much flow and there are no tendrils there.
My symbiont’s appendages wiggle towards the new injury, closing it and digging deep into my flesh to take hold of the severed muscles. The distraction costs me another wound to my upper right shoulder, luckily that isn’t debilitating.
I refocus and rush to the middle of their ranks. It makes it hard for them to land a hit on me as they risk hitting one of their own every time they try. I throw a flickering left backhanded horizontal swing at my rear.
It carves through a soldier’s wrist, disarming him in both senses of the words as his hand and weapon both drop. The strike continues on and hits another man’s sword. He didn’t see it coming and try to block me, it was simply there in the path of my attack.
Unprepared, he fails to arrest my momentum and my blade carries on with his, cleaving through his torso. I slap a woman’s feint away with my right because it would have blocked my path forward through their ranks.
My heart feels like agony, the rest of my body is no better. I push through it all, ripping men and women apart at the cost of dozens of surface wounds to my back and sides.
Tendrils, tendons, tissue, all of those are sacrificed to preserve myself from deeper injuries like severed bones and pierced organs. I’m a wreck, held together by my symbiont’s appendages.
Those tendrils that are severed writhe back under the armor plates covering my left shoulder so that undamaged ones can replace them to close the numerous cuts and reconnect the muscles.
My mind becomes too scattered, unfocused, to win this. I find myself on the defensive and adapt my tactic. I kill those in my path to keep moving but no one else, I leave it to the soldiers to kill each other as they attempt to strike me down.
That wouldn’t have worked if not for their mounting panic at seeing more and more of them fall. They attack blindly, scared out of their minds. I am laughing but without humor.
I suddenly find myself on the other side of their lines, facing the galley-slaves. I stop short of running into Tsek. He is watching me with an odd expression, the grilled skewer of Tianeel meat in hand.
I sheathe my right sword and hold my hand out. Two of Grace’s subjects raise their weapons overhead. A left-handed lion strike takes care of that by tearing them both in twain at the waist. I turn around to face them, noticing only now that I can’t see much, everything is blurry and filtered through a red veil.
“I am Elizabeth Vil!” I roar with a shattered voice.
It makes the soldiers stagger back. My throat is sore and parched. I throw a glance at Tsek over my shoulder.
“Meat. Water.” I mutter.
Tsek hesitantly hands the skewer over. I slide my mask aside to free my chin and then rip a huge bite out of my prey’s steak. As I chew, my teeth hit a scale. I spit it out and swallow. A flask of water changes hands from the back of the galley-slaves’ group.
“What are you doing! I order you to kill it!” Grace screams.
A young man hesitantly takes a few steps forward. The closer he gets to my range, the more terror twists his traits. I keep eating, challenging any that show signs of approaching with a single right-eyed glare as my angled mask covers the other one.
I drop the skewer and steal the water flask out of Tsek’s hand without even looking behind my back. I gulp it down while Grace keeps failing to rouse her soldiers’ spirits.
Yet, they aren’t breaking. Their expressions make it obvious that they hate me as much as they dread me. Once done drinking, I lay my right hand on my sword’s handle and try to draw it.
I fail. No. I try again. No. No. I try again. I… I can’t. I blink in confusion and try again, fail again. I realize something with horror. I’ve stopped, I should have kept going. I stagger.
Something hard hits my knees. The deck, my legs buckled under my own weight. I tell my limb to heal, thinking that my body reached the limit and that perhaps I’ll be able to get more out of it if the symbiont focuses on that while I fight.
The soldiers watch with disbelief, apparently unable to trust what their eyes are telling them. I am El… It takes a monstrous effort to raise my right thigh and set my foot flat on the wooden floor. Left next. I will myself to move before the dark cloud smothering my thoughts can take me out.
My dizziness increases and, for a moment, I think it means I’ve succeeded. Vikiana’s voice reaches me, yet it sounds so distant that I shouldn’t be hearing it over the spiked club beating the inside of my chest.
“You need Elizabeth to keep you safe.” She says urgently.
— — —
“It’s been two days, her fever hasn’t gone down.” Tsek says worriedly. “I, I think she’s lost too much blood to recover.”
“I took care of that, just keep feeding her and do not release the gauntlet from the chains.” Vikiana replies.
— — —
“Mother! Father!” Someone screams. “I failed, it’ll all burn, Home, Meria, the entire Izla.”
— — —
“What are those things moving under her skin?” Tsek asks.
“I would have to kill you if I told you.” Aisha replies shortly.
— — —
“The Countess wants us to hand her over in exchange for the lifeboats.” A woman with a deep voice says.
“No.” Tsek replies. “You know we can’t trust an Odo.”
“Why wouldn’t we if she doesn’t wake up, she’s useless to us like this.” The woman counters sharply.
“Grace is behaving because they think she’s healing, not unconscious.” Aisha intervenes. “They won’t do a thing as long as you keep your mouths shut, they didn’t even dare to attack her when she was out and on her knees.”
“How was she out? She almost decapitated the soldier that checked on her and tried to hit me when I pull her back.” The woman groans.
— — —
“How is she doing?” Vikiana asks.
“We need more flow.” Tsek replies.
He gave me food and I have plenty of that to go around.
“There.” Someone says, I say.
“That’s… is she a Rykz Duchess?!” Tsek cries out.
— — —
I open my eyes, looking through my mask’s eye openings. There is a flow torch providing enough light for me to see the cell. The metal grill is open but my gauntleted left hand is chained to the bench, pressed flat. I twist my wrist until the chain locks up and breaks. Clink. I sit up, stretching. How long?
“How long?” I ask.
No one answers. I search my surroundings. Tsek is asleep outside the cell, under a rough blanket. Vikiana isn’t far, shackled to the mast in the center of the cargo-hold. Aisha is next to her, also in chains. The rest of the galley-slaves are asleep but I detect two guarding the staircase. That’s a good sign.
The entire length of my right forearm is tingling, not just around the iron links merged to my bones anymore, it is far from pleasant. I take my gauntlet off and use a merging construct to weaken the remains of the shackle around it. I snap it off and rub my symbiont’s wrist before putting the gauntlet back on. Those on my other limbs were removed.
Only now noticing that I’m wearing rudimentary gray clothes, that there are bandages wrapped over three-quarters of my body. The shirt is cut along the entire length of its left side and there is no sleeve there, likely to fit over the armor plates covering my symbiont. I bristle at the thought of someone seeing the monstrous wreck I’ve become.
At least I’m not bleeding anymore, but my heart is beating irregularly, alternating between feeble and strong. I raise my right hand, spreading my fingers flat. They’re trembling. I feel weak.
I pat the right side of my left shoulder, where the arrow pierced my human flesh. Ouch. It’s gone but the wound is still very sensitive. I assemble a healing construct, tapping into my reserves to use half my flow, finding out that half is ten potions. I have a little over twenty people’s worth…
Twenty times the normal access?! Why? Did the symbiont spread further? I pat my body, anxious. Yet, I don’t find any more tendrils than usual, there are a few out of position but only in places where the appendages moved to close injuries.
What’s going on? I recall the fight. I acted… weird, unable to hold back my aggression. I think it feeds the more… animalistic parts of myself and then acts on those feelings, at least to a degree.
I assemble the signal construct and tell my limb to camouflage my left breast. Most of the tendrils spread all over my torso recede, apart from those twirled around my ribs, sternum, spine, and clavicle which are necessary for the symbiont to anchor itself.
Two appendages over my stomach and one on my lower right-back side that runs through my back in a diagonal remain where they are. I blink, realizing that I can feel the three to a degree. That’s new. I think, forcing myself to be casual about this.
Is it new, though? I’ve become more and more aware of what’s happening in my body since the symbiont was implanted. Perhaps this is the same. It isn’t, I can… feel those tendrils, they’re connected in some way.
I try to move them. An intense pain courses through me. They obeyed. I shiver. It hurt because they intermingled with my muscles but still followed the directive. I swallow my saliva, understanding why my reserves increased so much. This parasite is fusing with me!
I smother the paralyzing thought and focus on the tendrils. I try to coil the portions that aren’t blended with my flesh but don’t find the courage or justification to rip them off. No matter the personal cost.
I need to know how this happened. I search my memory. My lower right-back side was sliced, not too deep but apparently enough to sever muscles. The par… symbiont did this to keep me combat ready.
The same can be said of my abdominal muscles that were first cut by Vikiana despite the hardening construct, or maybe because I was a split moment too slow to activate it. Second, the Tianeel’s teeth raked my front, they were too small and numerous to all be blocked by the hardened tendrils.
I don’t want to see how I look under the bandages, the blood hid most of the damage but what little I saw was… too much. I stand up with difficulty, I feel sore all over, spent to my limit.
I scrutinize the cargo-hold, finding two swords outside the cell, both sheathed. I pick them up and fasten the belts to the left side of my waist because their pommels would otherwise press on the injury to my lower right-back side.
There is no one in the rowers’ deck but there are six soldiers guarding the staircase leading to the upper deck where their comrades and some of the Templars are resting. Grace isn’t in my range and I can’t even go looking without picking a fight.
I walk up to Tsek and shake his shoulder. The kid groans and murmurs something incoherent, all I catch is the word ‘soft’. I kick his foot. He startles awake, sitting up with wide panicky eyes and arms raised to protect his face.
“I’m up, please don’t wh…” He stops in the middle of his exclamation.
“Sorry.” I say, feeling guilty.
“No, it’s fine.” He replies sheepishly. “I’m not a coward, it’ll just… take a while to get rid of that shit.”
I nod understandingly and hold my hand out. He takes it and I help the kid up to his feet. Tsek suddenly blushes and lets go of my hand. As he steps back, I note that he is a bit taller than I am but not by much, so he isn’t short.
“I, hum.” He hesitates.
“Boots?” I ask.
He blinks in confusion before pointing at a burst crate. I walk up to it and remove random piles of clothes and empty sheathes, finding a pair of boots underneath. Tsek watches as I set them on and lace them up.
“Are you Rykz Nobility?” He asks.
“No. I’m a low-born.” I firmly reply.
“Then how…” He starts.
“You don’t want the answer to that question.” I interrupt. “How many soldiers does the Countess have left?” I ask.
“A bit over twenty, most are injured.” He says.
“Templars?” I follow up.
“Handful still healing but shape to fight, two are too burnt to move.” He tells me.
“None of them died?” I question, somewhat anxious as I didn’t really hold back.
“No.” Tsek shakes his head.
The answer makes me feel conflicted. On one hand, it would be a lot easier if I didn’t have to deal with them again considering the fact that they outmatch me in flow between them, the Countess, and the soldiers. On the other hand, it is good that I haven’t completely burnt that bridge with the Emperor’s Order.
I think that what they did by capturing Princess Cetyz is beyond foolish, meaning that I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about killing them to fulfill my task, although I likely would anyway, but I am not taking revenge or retaliating for the Rykz, I am ending the war.
“How is Vikiana doing?” I ask.
“Not very good.” He says. I glare at him. “She’s fine, no one would dare to do anything to threaten our pardon. The Exemplar has simply been putting all her regeneration into healing you so her right hand and arm are taking very long to heal.”
“Did she now.” I comment flatly.
“You don’t have to worry you know… Dame Elizabeth.” Tsek says, straightening.
“Elizabeth.” I reply.
“Elizabeth. They’re afraid of you, we can easily get off this galley now that you’re up.” He tells me.
“And you and the others aren’t.” I note.
“Well, I’m not but…” He trails off. The rest are scared but they need me.
“Doesn’t matter. I don’t want off this ship, I want to take control of it and sail back to Izla Meria. And check on the battle wreckage, Idali might still be there.” I say.
“It’s been a week since then.” Tsek says carefully.
“There were plenty of wooden debris floating around, she could have easily grabbed one.” I argue.
“I’m sorry but, even if that’s true, she’ll have drifted too far away by now, there’s no way to go back.” He explains, looking like he didn’t want to say it. “I really wan… I mean you shoul…” He falls short of finishing either sentence. I incline my head, puzzled. Kid is weird. “You can come with m, us.” He finishes, stumbling on his words at the end.
“Can you show me the kitchen?” I ask, changing the subject.
“Sure.” He sighs, seeming disappointed.
Tsek leads the way up to the rowers’ deck, the two criminals guarding the stairs step away when I pass by, giving me a wide breadth. We make our way to the stern, finding the kitchen empty at this time of night or early morning.
There is a cast iron stove in the back of the room, and shelves filled with small sacks of gain. In the middle is an oak table with small marks left by the cook’s knives. Tsek opens the stove and lights the wood on fire with a construct.
“At least there’s plenty of food.” He says cheerfully.
“I thought… never mind.” Right, they didn’t have the supplies before I got most of the crew killed, soldiers and criminals alike. “You a good cook?” I ask.
“Decent, been living on my own for years so I learned.” He says with a smile.
He grabs a pot and opens a small barrel to fill it with water. I take hold of the barrel and set it in front of the table to sit down. I’ll have to manage myself today, I’m far from fully healed.