I make my way towards the steep cliff ahead while trying to catch sight of the Rykz tunnel. Look, the straw-hat is decent to block the sun but it isn’t exactly comfortable or even nice-looking. I like it. How about I buy you another hat?
What’s wrong with this one? We made it. Well, that’s one issue, it still irritates my forehead sometimes even with the strip of cloth I added yesterday. My sister rolls her eyes. It catches snow Liz! I like it.
I sigh and cut the argument short because it always ends the same way. I suspect there’s something more to it but she’s being way too successful keeping the reason from me. I’m pretty sure she just wants to act all mysterious by hiding our face behind the brim because she misses her mask.
No need to be so loud, I’ll agree to replace it once I’m done with this one but the next hat needs to have a nice feather. Okay! I smile and whistle merrily, having finally made her concede.
After a few hours of walking along the mountainside, I finally catch sight of the Rykz tunnel we escaped from. I stop and run my eyes over the horizon, taking this point of reference to determine where we ran towards once we defeated the Rykz warriors.
My memory of the terrain is a bit blurry because Leomi was carrying me and running fast, her face was more important to pay attention to. I shake my head to focus on scouring the area ahead for the hill we stopped on. Where I was born in truth. I make an awkward smile.
It takes us a couple of hours walking in a serpentine fashion to spot a wood and tall rock I recognize. Using this second point, I manage to asses the right direction to head in. A mere few minutes suffice to find the right hill but that’s because there’s a very discreet trail of smoke rising from it.
“That’s not good.” I mutter.
“We’ll be fine, a few Templars at the most.” Liz replies.
“There is a decent chance it’s Vikiana.” I say with a groan.
“Yvonne didn’t say anything.” Elizabeth protests.
“She gave Leomi news about her mother, where would she have gotten them if the two didn’t meet?” I counter.
“She could have sent a letter… never mind.” Liz says with a sigh, realizing Vikiana isn’t the type to do that.
I stop at the bottom of the hill to think. Her mere presence has robbed us of our choices. We can’t give up on the item up there. Waiting for her to leave could have worked if we had a chance of evading her pursuit.
If only it started snowing, it would be possible to avoid the confrontation and return at a later date. But she might just take the broken sword with her, meaning we have no other option than to go now.
I climb uphill. My pace is slow at first but I accelerate as my resolve builds up. A woman’s silhouette emerges above the terrain, like a shadow covering the sky. I first catch sight of the veteran’s short black hair, then her worn but hard traits, and lastly her piercing light blue eyes.
She is armed but is wearing a simple rider’s outfit without armor. Her horse is clearly not meant for war or racing. She likely borrowed the mount to travel with Yvonne. There is a fire with a pot hanging over the flames from an iron tripod.
“I did not expect you so soon.” Vikiana utters with a low voice.
“I did not expect you at all.” Elizabeth replies with a sneer that serves to imply she shouldn’t be here.
She doesn’t respond, her expression doesn’t even twitch at Liz’ disrespect. I ignore the two. I keep walking as I deploy the scanning construct and make a few adjustments to send a short medium-range pulse of energy to detect silver.
The flow bursts out of me in a wave that covers the top of the hill, my lover’s mother included. The construct then sends the information it gathered back to my eyes. I briefly see a dozen coin-shaped golden silhouettes inside the pouch attached to Vikiana’s belt, but what interests me is the hilt of a broken sword buried in snow to her right.
“At least you had the sense not to take what’s ours.” Elizabeth tells her with a grunt.
“Should I call you Elizabeth Vil or have you held to your resolve to let her fade, Jessica?” Vikiana asks.
“What concern is it of yours?” I question back, unwilling to explain how us sisters function.
“I have naught else to do with my time now.” She replies calmly.
There is a depth and tension to her tone that feels… not threatening but too close for comfort. Considering it is impossible for the woman not to place importance on my relationship with Leomi, her words don’t mean she’s wasting time here but on the contrary that she finally has the time to be here.
Her attitude, voice, and the fact we met here implies that she’s going to keep interfering one way or another. We bristle but set her aside to dig the broken silver lion sword out of the snow and stick it in our belt.
“Why did you come here if you weren’t going to stop me from recovering it?” I ask, rather annoyed that she anticipated what I would do with little knowledge of my relationship with Leomi.
“I have no need to seize it. You will not marry my daughter without my blessing.” Vikiana replies confidently.
“I do not want your blessing so I will refuse it if you give it to me.” I utter harshly.
“Are you saying so as Elizabeth Vil?” She asks again.
“My name is Jessica Elizabeth Vil Freepath.” We utter coldly.
She nods. Her face is without expression, it prevents me from peering through her thoughts. I bite my tongue to hold it in place so that she explains herself. The woman holds my gaze for a while before shifting her weight to her left leg and taking a step to face me down.
“Leomi’s lance construct stems from her father’s house of Lance but her skill, talent, and mentality originate from a legacy older than the Empire itself.” Vikiana tells me. “Whether I sacrifice the continuation of our line of warriors for my daughter’s happiness or prevent it will be determined by you.”
“Leomi will not have children with any other than us.” I respond flatly without letting Liz’ mad anger at the woman’s arrogance take over.
“Death and time will solve that issue.” She tells me with a cold voice.
“Is that a threat?” We ask, insanity stirring our lips up.
“We will cross swords if the time comes to test you.” Vikiana responds.
The quiet confidence in her voice mixed with a slight change in her posture sends a chill down my spine. We struggle not to draw a weapon and fight this warrior who has reached the peak of mastery.
The reason we do not is that I cannot. If there is a single act that Jessica Freepath considers off-limits, it would be slaying Leomi Lance’s mother. Elizabeth disagrees but the situation has not reached the point where she would consider a duel to the death warranted.
“Your opinion means naught to us. You want to be a parent to Leomi? Be her mother first.” I throw harshly.
“I need not be at her side to be her mother.” Vikiana declares without becoming flustered in the least. “She chose her path in this very location by severing my authority over her before leaving you behind.” I grit my teeth. “She now bears the mantle of our line but I have one last duty to determine whether or not her life’s companion is worthy.”
“I’ve no mind to follow your traditions, whether new or ancient, Vikiana.” I grunt and turn to the north-east, towards the Rykz tunnel. “Leomi’s opinion is the only one that matters.”
I depart, leaving her there because we do not want to enter into conflict with a tiger we can’t allow ourselves to kill, which will happen whether I provoke the fight or not if I understood her correctly.
As I make my way, I turn my mind to the Templar Master I hope to meet but soon hear Vikiana catch up to me on horseback. I continuously close my fist and slowly force myself to open it as she approaches.
“I’ve settled things with my brethren.” She speaks up from above.
“Templars?” I ask.
“Yes, but not the Order. Those brothers and sisters of mine who mourn those I have led to their deaths.” Vikiana answers without a hint of emotion to her voice.
“They don’t know who I am unless you or Emffrey have broken your promises.” I respond, aware that I am not without blame even though she didn’t underline my responsibility.
“You are not so foolish as to underestimate those you’ve sailed with, are you?” She asks with a dark tone. “They’ve seen your face, covered in blood or not, they remember and know enough to track you down.”
“You’ve done well to acknowledge Meiridin’s events rest largely on your shoulders.” I utter sharply.
“You’ve done well not to deny yours, but it does not work in your favor you seek to hide behind the mask.” She counters shortly.
“I will welcome any who seeks to end me with a blade in hand and without resentment but I will not present myself to be judged for doing what is necessary or killing to save my own life.” I tell her with a grunt. “How have you settled things?”
“One of us must die within a year.” She informs me as if it is a matter of fact.
She pulls on her horse’s reins just as I stop to look up to her. We hold gazes for a long while before departing once again. This is less of a test than a trial. It would be a failure to end her life, and death not to. She means to force us to kill her. No.
“You want me to prove I am a worthy enough companion to your daughter for you to sacrifice your life in battle but expect me to fail.” I speak up.
“If you fail to do so, then you will not allow Leomi to involve herself with those who come for your life.” She confirms all but my guess as to her prediction. “Of course, you can attempt to kill me as well.”
“Which would be your win whether I succeed or not.” I note with a scoff.
“Our situation is not one where victory or defeat can be considered as a win.” Vikiana responds flatly. “I do not want my daughter to mourn either of us.”
“I can agree to that.” I say with a dark chuckle. “But it matters not, a lot can change in a year.”
“There is no escaping this, Jessica Elizabeth Vil Freepath.” Vikiana utters with a firm tone.
“Yet, I will.” I deny with a giggle. “By this day next year, I will be more powerful than even the entire Order can handle or likely be buried in a nameless grave.” We cannot allow Vikiana to acknowledge us as worthy. “If I live, those who seek revenge upon me will meet the same fate as those they seek to avenge.” I tell her our truthful lie of a decision.
“You are as bloodthirsty as ever.” Vikiana comments with a disapproving tone. “And just as foolish if you think I will allow you to slaughter my brethren.”
Even we do not know what insanity drives us. It is impossible to shine a light on the truth of what will occur and what I will choose to do because events have yet to unfold. Yet, the impossible dilemma makes my heart beat with excitement rather than fear.
“Why must one of us die?” I ask, curious as to why there are no alternatives.
“By my oath to the Lake, whoever dies first will carry the sins of the other in the flames to burn for absolution.” Vikiana replies with a formal tone. The Order is ever superstitious to have agreed to this, or rather the Templars since the Order already ‘forgave’ me.
“Such honor in scheming.” I comment sarcastically. “The Order merely demands I renounce the mask unless I defend the Empire while its Templars seek their revenge through this nonsense.”
I admire them for refusing to let the deaths of their brethren go unanswered even though they will definitely lose their place in the Order by acting against their orders.
“Nonsense.” Vikiana repeats with an angry tone, almost a growl in her throat. I pay very close attention to catch the silver flickers that would precede her attack.
“Nonsense. If my ‘sins‘ are to be repaid by death, there is no need to play games or wait a year.” I declare to provoke her. Yet, she remains quiet.
“I didn’t strive to grant you this opportunity merely because of my daughter. I’ve lived to safeguard humanity and will willingly die if you prove to be someone who can protect us better than I could.” She utters between grit teeth, clearly seething inside.
“Liar.” I point out without pity. “I know you would not be doing this if not for Leomi.”
Only silence answers me but there was never a need for an answer. She would not consider sacrificing herself for me even if I became twice the Exemplar she was. At most, she would fight and simply die if she lacked the skill to win.
“We’ve both lost everything in a way.” Vikiana speaks up an hour later. I throw a glance up, finding her gazing straight ahead at the cliff. “Your losses were of a more permanent nature.” She adds, glancing down at my left side. “Yet, you rose anew. If you fail to convince me, I will as well to ensure your death during the test or a year later does not break my daughter.”
My breath catches from the mention she won’t be holding back if I give her the chance to test me. Let her try to defeat us, we will end the woman. No, this is not a game so we will not play.
Leomi will understand if we just injure her, cut her sword-hand off at worst. A duel is too unpredictable, either of us could die as a result of injuries, we have to ditch her before meeting Amand if we can and after if it isn’t possible. I… I don’t like it but fine.
“Do you remember the names of those who have died for you to make it here?” Vikiana asks with a harsh voice.
Father. I smother the grief and the image of Ulf whose life I gambled and lost to save Teva. Many people come to mind but I know the answer she truly seeks. Joan, Edward, Conrad, and the other Templars that fell whose names I regret never memorizing. It hurts to be forced to suppress the difficult emotions her words are aimed at evoking in me.
“I don’t even remember the name of the Noble’s get who first died when the Rykz ambushed us.” I respond, unwilling to lie. While I don’t see eye to eye with the Templars, I admire their dedication and respect their sacrifice.
My answer remains dishonest because it is aimed at deflecting the subject by angering her. Even the mention of the Rykz serves to remind her that I am a traitor to humanity, which is necessary in case she considers the fact I gave up on the Little one as redeeming.
“Then can you recall the faces of those you’ve killed in cold blood?” Vikiana questions. “The Templars and soldiers who have died on the plains to defend Castle Lance while you looked down on them from atop a hill with a Rykz Princess. The warriors who fell to your treachery during Meria’s siege. I can allow all but you to forget those who fell to your hands whether because of your hubris, ambition, or virtue.”
“Allow!” We cry out from rage.
I grab one of the swords at my waist with a shaky hand and draw it. Vikiana taps the flank of her horse with her heels to get out of my reach while she draws her own sword, a sturdy longsword without ornaments.
“You dare lecture?!” Elizabeth exclaims with a hoarse voice. “Screw you! I see the faces of those whose neck I broke in broad daylight, these batteries made by the institute you tried to deliver me to.”
She charges Vikiana, leaving me to say what we mean to say. She slashes out but the woman easily parries the blow, by making use of her advantage in height and reach. Elizabeth keeps trying to land a hit but she’s too unstable to pose a threat to Vikiana.
“We were never enemies, our paths merely crossed.” I utter, trying to soothe the difficult feelings of guilt, sadness, and anger twisting my stomach. No matter my pain, I cannot kill Leomi’s mother. “I may respect your skill but you!? You deserve indifference at best and are worth contempt. You are but a mere mindless sword for the Empire to swing at its enemies, what pedestal do you think you stand on to judge we?”
“None whatsoever.” She replies quietly. “It is quite clear that you have not forgotten.”
She casually intercepts Liz’ stabbing attack with a kick before she can launch it with enough force to pierce the leather soles of her boots. Elizabeth staggers back and almost attacks again but pauses when her mind catches up to Vikiana’s answer.
I sheathe the sword while Liz blanks out at the realization that she’s said too much. I quickly depart, using my sleeve to wipe my eyes once my back is turned to the woman. I hope she didn’t see the tears but I’m aware that both Elizabeth and Jessica screwed up anyway.
How do I break this? My throat tightens around the boulder stuck in it. I fail to straighten up my mind because my heart is too shaken by the memories Vikiana’s provocations brought to the forefront. It’s fine, with all we’ve done and what we’ll do in Meria, she won’t be able to tolerate us.
“Human society does not involve fighting to the death over every disagreement.” Vikiana calls out from behind me.
“That’s rich of you to say considering why you came to me.” I utter, hating my shaking voice but aware that remaining silent wouldn’t work to lower us in her eyes after how I messed up the previous argument. “And it appears to me that your idea of civilization involves executing peasants to uphold laws that forgive Templars and Nobles who commit the same crimes. Be very afraid for that precious order you strive to protect, Jessica is a damn genius at planning destruction while Elizabeth is fucking unparalleled at delivering it.”
Vikiana doesn’t respond, even as we arrive at the tunnel and cross it to enter the valley. I spot Templar patrols in the distance and head straight for the nearest, understanding my chance at losing the woman will only come if I get her away from her horse.