Dawn rises, the gentle light spreads out over the hilly terrain, shaking Leomi out of her ravings. She stands, picking up her shield and sword to put them away. She then draws the dagger she stole from me before walking out of the split rock.
I jump down as she heads out, worried about the headspace she seems to be in and especially the fact that her internal temperature is high to the point of being feverish. I prepare to intervene by storing lion’s steps and strikes.
Leomi heads east, towards the rising sun. She looks messy, her clothes have suffered from the seawater while her hair stuck to her face’s skin as they dried, the wounds on her forehead left small trails of blood along her right temple.
I’ve never seen her in such a state, not even when we ran from the Rykz in the tunnels or during our captivity, it is perhaps the biggest indicator of how much the idea that Jessica died by her fault is affecting her.
I casually follow behind her, keeping my eyes trained on the dagger in her hand even though she herself seems to have forgotten about it as she heads up a hill, likely to observe the rising sun.
I can hear horse hooves in the distance coming from the north and south, along with more discreet sounds that the Rykz’ pointy legs make when they hit the ground, something like a tchuk, or a clik when they hit rocks. They’re not nearby so it should be fine as Leomi is moving with purpose.
Leomi doesn’t stop climbing the hill until she reaches the top where she stands tall with her eyes set on the sun which is barely peeking over the horizon. I lion’s step once to be in range to stop her.
I scrutinize her with the Little one’s sense for any reaction, yet I find no indication that she’s realized I’m here. I’m being discreet and careful not to make noise but still… She takes hold of the dagger with both hands and reverses her grip, pointing the point towards her chest as she raises the weapon high over her head.
“I’ll walk through the Lake’s burning flames until I meet you again and ask for forgiveness.” She whispers. You… love me that much?
Leomi strikes at her own chest, her expression void of despair. She is calm and filled with absolute certainty. I seize all the flow left in my reserve, commanding it to create the unstructured time field construct I memorized from Suxen’s construct.
My perception slows down, giving me the few seconds I need to dismantle all the constructs I prepared except for a lion’s step and strike into which I inject all the energy I recovered.
I walk a razor’s edge to save her life as I need to be as fast as possible but can’t break any of my bones or rip my muscles as that would make me fail. As I flash past her left side, I use the lion strike on my symbiont.
I communicate my urgency to the Little one, telling it to save her life while initiating the movement myself because it has failed to understand me more than once about specific commands.
Thankfully, it figures out that the goal is to stop the weapon and cooperates with me, pushing its string-like muscles to unwind quicker, allowing me to grasp and stop Leomi’s hands who are gripping the handle just as our dagger’s point makes contact.
My momentum throws me forward so I drag her along, destabilizing myself to push us into a fall. We hit the grass and roll atop the hill for a few meters. I make use of her stunned state to steal the weapon from her hands.
Leomi fights me like a fury but none of her discipline, growling from the bottom of her throat as she uses her nails and knees in an attempt to push me away. I block as best I can while I seek for an opening, letting her claw at my mask as it has little to no effect.
“Leave me alone! You want me gone, you have it! Go back to that Rykz!” Leomi exclaims. Her torn expression and agonizing voice shake me. “I don’t deserve anyone!”
Her sudden outburst of clarity makes her pause in her attacks, allowing me to grab her right wrist with my left hand. She does her best to pull away but her movements are imprecise and her gaze hazy from lack of sleep. I need to follow this through, for us.
“I asked you to make a choice between us, I intend to be given an answer.” I grunt, using the Little one’s strength to take hold of her right wrist.
I set a knee on her stomach and leverage that position to force her arms above her head, slamming her wrists to the ground. I flip the dagger in my right hand and use the point to bundle up both her sleeves in folds before planting the blade into the hard ground through the layers of cloth.
It should resist her efforts to free herself for a little while. I hang back to get up but Leomi throws a knee strike to my left side, throwing me to the side. I groan at the stinging pain as I struggle back up to my feet. She fights weakly to free herself from her restraints, obviously utterly exhausted.
“Why can’t I even be allowed to end it, or even kill you?” Leomi asks, her voice filled with hurt.
“Would you?” I ask, curious.
“That choice would have been nice… would killing me satisfy you, Liz?” She hazily asks, looking over my shoulder to gaze at the sun, shaking in cold fear.
“Are you that afraid of going back to her?” I question, my love for her burning inside my heart, a painful and glorious return to our roots.
“Yes.” She whispers. “It’s the surest way to keep what’s left of my oath, to see her again without seeking her out, without imposing my presence on her and causing her pain. If she’s d, d, d…” Leomi stutters and gives up on the word, her gray eyes madly spinning, disorienting even me. “If she is, we’ll meet sooner, if not, then I’ll wait, I’ll keep walking, I’ll hold onto nothing even if I never meet her again.” She pauses. “You’ll be better off, without me, Liz.”
“You’re so weak.” I insult her, lying my heart out as I couldn’t be more impressed by her courage in refusing herself what she longs for so much, to protect us and also herself to a point. “You don’t get to run away to the Lake.”
“I’m, not.” Leomi denies in a quiet voice as she lets her head fall to the side in the grass. “I’m moving forward on the only path I have left.”
Jessica sits down, satisfied by how far she broke down, eager to have her back. Elizabeth adjusts her mask on her face with her right hand while slowly plunging her left into the ground to stave off the Little One’s famine. Dame Vil determines to finalize the fate she set for herself and Leomi Lance from the beginning.
“You truly lost all interest in me when you realized what could have happened to Jessica, you forgot all about us in the blink of an eye.” I utter spitefully.
“I, didn’t. You did. I, I told you, not to give me this choice.” Leomi replies, exploding in anger for a brief moment but without finding the strength to merely tear her shirt’s sleeves and free herself.
“Why not just throw me away and keep forging ahead?” I ask.
“Because, if she dro… because if she’s go… if because of me she’s de… then I must go to the Lake as well and give her the choice to save me, or watch me burn, or ignore me. If, if not, if she lives, then I’m keeping her from spreading her wing, from joining the republic you set in motion and improving it more than I ever could.” Leomi replies absent-mindedly, her hazy eyes looking nowhere.
“It’s not just killing me you know.” I tell Leomi, wiggling my left hand’s fingers in the earth. “It’s eating me, little by little.”
It ate some of you. I can’t tell her this. I shouldn’t ever have done it. The thought awakens the Little one to other options, that of relieving its hunger on one of my allies, something it hadn’t attempted since Teva. I fight the symbiont to keep it into the ground, berating it by equating trying to eat Leomi to trying to harm Celyz, which quickly solves its rebellious impulse.
“I know.” Leomi’s voice cracks inside her throat. “What else could it be? You’re sent by the Lake to punish me for what I’ve done, forcing me to live a past I was spared from witnessing other than in my nightmares about my weakness in demanding that Jenna stay, about my misguided strength in handling Jessica.”
“I won’t be sticking around for you to suffer my death if it comes to that, kitten.” Elizabeth gently replies.
“I’ll kill you if you don’t.” Leomi madly replies, ripping her sleeves from the dagger to throw herself at me. She trips and falls on top of me, I catch her by the waist and lift her up. “You’ll need me!” She exhorts, struggling to align her eyes to look into mine.
“I’ve told you this because there is one route she may have taken.” I tell her, both loving and hating her throes of despair. “She could be planning to go back home, feeling impotent for failing to follow through with our plans.” Which she has about you. “I wonder if she’ll ask Grikyz if the offer still holds, or if she’s already there doing so.” Elizabeth notes, securing her hold over Leomi’s waist in case she tries to run. “What will you do?”
“Nothing.” My Lady cracks, losing all strength. “Alive, or n, ot, she’s free of me.”
“Neither of us would break on your account.” I half-lie as it is unknown and very dependent on the relationship we would share at the time of a second betrayal, not to mention that what happened was that I pretty much broke and lost it. “The issue is that you’re falling to pieces, little by little.”
“We did this to me!” Leomi replies angrily, thrashing against my grip.
I shrug and casually throw her aside. She lands on her side with a groan and settles on her back with her arms spread out, her back pushed up by her shield. As I patiently wait for her, I notice that the hooves and Rykz are getting closer, and that I can also faintly hear one of two Princesses approaching.
“I’ll try to take the two of you with me if I lose it, I’ve long had the impulse to, I’m that twisted.” Leomi confesses in a murmur.
“Bullshit.” I swear, losing my temper. “I’ve been watching you all night, it didn’t even cross your mind and you were pretty fucking lost.”
Leomi doesn’t reply, deep in her thoughts with her eyes half closed. I get back to my feet, deciding to settle this. From what I’m hearing, I’m running out of time. I throw a look to the north, finding Edusa on horseback with Roisia behind her.
Fenyz and Cetyz are following, the latter a good fifty meters behind the former, there is a huge group of scouts trotting alongside them. To the south, there is only a single rider, Yvonne. She’s the closest.
The three groups all converge towards me, they had about the right angle to find us but not the exact location until I stood up since I’m probably really to see in the morning sky with the sun shining on me.
“Do you know where she lives?” I ask.
“…” Leomi keeps staring blankly into the grass. I repeat the question. “No, I did my best not to find out more than I already found out, that she lives somewhere near the village where there are stables.”
“I’m going to go right now, I have a lot to do and you need time to recover to make your choice.” I tell her. “You don’t get to die, not by your or anyone else’s hands, none other than mine.” I order in a firm tone.
“Okay.” She whispers.
“Good, the two of us are done until you sort your feelings out.” Jessica pushes Elizabeth to utter the final words, twisting our oath to follow through no matter the personal cost.
“No.” Leomi denies, shaking her head in the grass. “We’re not done, this is a break, a ceasefire. Otherwise, I no longer owe you, and you no longer owe me.”
“Yes.” Elizabeth forcefully agrees despite my protests, her love aggressively seizing on this lifeline.
“I forbid you from allowing anyone else to have you. You belong, to me.” Leomi orders, choking in the middle of her declaration of ownership.
“Wait, that’s one-sided? What about you?” Elizabeth asks, eyes widening.
“I’ll give myself to whoever I want because you gave me the choice, I am not giving you one.” Leomi heartlessly explains with a dead voice.
“Okay.” Jessica agrees with a bright giggle, mocking Elizabeth who roars in fury. “Hayrh! Ahgr!” The sounds, further distorted by the mask, are impossible for even me to decipher. It means Celyz is off limits, you idiot. Shit, wait, that’s not… Too late now. Elizabeth shoves Jessica to the side. “But do not forget that you‘re the one who owes me. I was asking for your love and all you did was string me along.”
“I disagree with that statement but the current balance does indeed tip largely in your favor.” Leomi grunts, shifting to throw me a look of challenge.
“Find me in a few weeks, I won’t wait any longer than that, and don’t you dare come to me without resolve before then. Meet me on the road that leads out of the village from the general shop when you’ve reached a decision about whether you’re more afraid to abandon me to be with her or to give up on her to completely be with me.” The two of us tell her, offering a completely rigged choice as Jessica is the one that will await at the end of that road.
My expression is twisted behind my mask from relief, anguish, pride, love, anger, desire, too many emotions that wouldn’t coexist were us not insane. I hear someone dismount, their cavalry boots hit the ground with a recognizable metal clink. Yvonne, in a white and blue Hospitalier uniform, starts climbing uphill with large steps and a bright smile on her face.
“Yvonne.” I speak up.
“I heard you were back!” She exclaims
“Leomi could use a pair of arms right now.” I hurriedly say. Best to get in front of this, can’t let Yvonne break out with my name now.
“She’s here?” She blinks. “Why would she?” She asks, her expression falling.
“Resolving our differences.” I calmly reply.
I have to split my focus on reassuring the Little one whose raging hunger is beginning to unsettle me. Plunging it into the ground worked for a moment but the glove didn’t allow it to get much if anything. I take hold of its forearm with my right hand, reassuring it with the touch.
Yvonne rushes up but stops on the spot when she catches sight of Leomi’s state. Her dried blood and straight black hairs sticking to her face, her clothes completely wrinkled with only a shirt to protect her from the cold morning wind, the traces that shed tears left in the corners of her gray eyes.
“What is this?” Yvonne asks in a growling tone.
“Went through something close enough to what she did to Jessica.” I murmur.
Yvonne’s hand hits the side of my mask, skewing it on my face. I failed to block as I am too busy soothing the Little one. I don’t even react afterward as it takes all I have to stop the symbiont from taking this as an excuse to have a meal.
“Don’t.” I utter between grit teeth, using the lowest possible voice. “Hungry, hard to control right now.” Yvonne’s eyes shift to my left arm before going back up, she doesn’t overtly show fear but her cheeks pale by a small degree.
“There’s no comparison to be made here, she meant to save you!” Yvonne responds in the same low tone but with barely restrained anger. “You aimed to harm!”
“Did she? Did I? She didn’t recover from the state she was in. She threw herself into this… monsters’ arms and sought to inflict and receive pain as an escape.” I tell her. “I just set things straight, she’ll have to pick between me and Jessica to face her future.”
“Straight! You only had to stop twisting things and give her what you both want!” Yvonne explodes. “What’s wrong with that?! Why torture her?”
“Because I want a future with her, not to be the mistress she drops by to have sex with!” I fire back, walking towards Yvonne to push her away from Leomi who is gazing at the sky with a tormented expression. “Because I need this revenge! Because I almost killed myself over her!” I whisper the words with as much strength as I can. “Because I’m insane and this is the sanest path I can live with!”
Yvonne throws me a disgusted look and doesn’t reply, her gaze hurts but doesn’t come anywhere near shaking my conviction. The sword-sworn sidesteps me and heads to her charge, kneeling by her side. She takes hold of Leomi’s left hand and takes a look at the swollen middle finger before helping her stand up.
“You’ll be okay, Leomi.” Yvonne says in a comforting voice.
“Yvonne?” Leomi asks, throwing her a hazy look.
“Yes.” She nods.
Leomi suddenly closes her right fist and clocks Yvonne with it. She takes it in her left cheekbone, completely taken by surprise. Yet, the attack is too weak to do much more than perhaps a bruise in a few hours.
Leomi is the one who stumbles as the sword-sworn’s fails to continue supporting her. Yvonne does manage to catch Leomi in a bear hug before she falls down… only to be thanked by Leomi trying to stomp on her toes.
“You ruined, my last chance, to save her.” Leomi accuses.
“Enough.” Yvonne declares.
She drags Leomi towards me, smothering her struggles by simply squeezing her tighter in her arms. I keep a steady glance on the sword-sworn, guessing what she’s going to do but knowing that there is no way to escape it, the only real options are to delay or resolve it now.
Yvonne settles Leomi’s back against her chest. She then passes her left arm under Leomi’s left armpit to secure her before grabbing her chin to make her look up to me. She then uses a lion strike to grab and rip my mask off, overpowering the construct keeping it there.
“She’s here for you to kiss.” Yvonne declares, a look of worry and expectation on her face.
“We’ve, reached a, dead-end, for now. Can’t.” Leomi sighs as she turns her reddened glazed eyes to me, a visible effort on her part considering she’s tired from lack of sleep and the ordeal she went through. “Oh, oh.” She exclaims in a fragile voice, her vision seemingly clearing up a bit. “Liz, I can your evil smile now. I… I am glad…”
Leomi loses all strength, her limbs falling limply to her sides. Yvonne, stunned and baffled, grips at Leomi’s clothes to stop her from crashing downhill. Despite her shock, Yvonne still prioritizes her charge and sets her down on her back before throwing me a panicked glare containing hidden knives.
“She needs love, not, not…” Yvonne stutters. “Not this!” She screams.
“Couldn’t agree more.” I nod. “Give me the mask back, my friend. Edusa and Roisia are on their way, behind me. Leomi will be fine, she’s strong. She’ll find my love if she seeks it out.”
Yvonne throws the mask at my feet in frustration and anger, turning away to focus on Leomi. The sword-sworn assembles a healing construct while brushing her charge’s hair to the sides of her head as a loving mother would.
I carefully crouch and let go of my left arm for a brief moment to take hold of it. I place it back on my face and then leave north, understanding that Yvonne is doing her very best not to let her emotions turn this into an actual fight. Whether it is because she doesn’t want to incur Leomi’s wrath, or mine, I have no clue.