The soldiers, about fifteen of them but twelve facing me, flinch at once at witnessing their comrade laying on the ground with my boot’s heel half-way inside his skull.
I let my perception construct unwind so as to return to a normal passage of time without deactivating it. I take a step back and catch a few breaths while waiting for the pain in my arm to lessen.
“Now! We have her!” The one in plate suddenly erupts while raising his hand.
The soldiers charge to encircle me while he launches several air-needles all around me to prevent my escape. Both soldiers and constructs are too numerous to evade even at the fastest speed so I contract the Moebisus strip to swiftly draw my shortest broadsword.
As they close in on me, I launch forth. Five swords close in on me. Three stabbing blows from the front with two slashes coming from the sides. I lower my stance and angle to show my left profile.
A slash whiffs the air and a stab glances off my helmet. Two points hit my cuirass without piercing through while I intercept the last swing with my guard. My defensive construct burns through two and a half portions.
I retaliate with three quick successive hacks, cutting one forearm and two throats. As the three drop, I find three more facing me. I receive a blade in the back, pushing me forth which causes one to cut into the right side of my stubbed leather skirt.
Riiip. A sword catches on my shredded cloak and rips half of it off. My eyes fall on a pool of blood ahead and I pause, causing me to receive a hard blow on the side of my helmet that throws my head aside.
Rage and desperation fills my heart at all the weapons and shields closing in on me. I further slow down my perceptions and slash. The top of a shield drops along with a head.
I pull my broadsword and raise my elbow to stab diagonally up, avoiding both a shield and sword to impale a young woman in the throat. A blade falls on my arm-guard. The wielder opened his guard to make the blow. I slash out, cutting through half the neck of the woman I just stabbed to counter.
My weapon’s blade cuts into the soldier’s armpit and then through his torso. I bend my knees and press down to increase the momentum of my swing. The broadsword slices through the entirety of the torso and then the waist of the next soldier.
Distorted cries reach my ears as more swords fall on my cuirass and helmet. I use the opening I just carved through two lines to lion’s step out of the encirclement and charge the rider in plate.
In my daze, I remain aware that I’ve only about fifteen portions left so I need to end this quickly. The officer leans down on his horse and rides forth to meet me. I stomp down and redirect my momentum to the left with a lion’s step while bringing my arm around my torso for a powerful upward right diagonal hack.
My opponent in plate raises his sword to slash down and meet mine with the advantage of weight. I smirk as his blade slowly falls. I twist at the last moment, giving him no chance to correct his aim, and release my blow the exact moment his weapon cuts through thin air.
My blade flashes at his elbow. The sundering construct flares as it makes contact with the plate infused with flow. The lightning-armor-piercing segments consume two-thirds of the energy to slice through the steel couter and mail protecting his elbow.
His forearm drops with the hilt still held in the fist. My broadsword doesn’t stop, it digs into the plackart protecting his waist and enters his stomach. The shredding segments take over and tear through flesh in a straight line.
His greave hits me in the chest, almost sending me flying. I hurriedly stomp down with my right foot to give myself a pivot to control my momentum. I spin ninety degrees on my heel and almost uncontrollably move backward, finding soldiers charging me.
I bend my knees and plant my feet in the ground, turning my stumble into a skid. The officer in plate screams reach my ears I witness him fall off his horse. This kill cost me nine portions so that was likely a Baron with quite a reserve considering how optimal my sundering construct is against defensive ones. Focus.
Three linked shields rush at me. Five meters. I forcefully arrest my momentum by leaning forward to the point where my left knee almost hits the ground. Three meters. I push out with my right foot and a lion’s step, propelling myself forward. Two meters.
I kick the ground with my left leg, launching myself in a spinning dive above them. I lash out with my short broadsword, cutting through the tops of two helmets. My heart slams against my ribs and makes my every muscle tighten up.
An acute fiery agony burns through my veins as I drop to the ground and roll. Soldiers close in on me. I raise my legs, jerk my back, and kick out, sending my body in a spin that brings me back up to my knees.
Two blades fall on my body, one on my right shoulder that my defensive construct blocks while the other hits my waist and cuts through the steel bands only to run out of energy half-way.
I flick my wrist at the Number holding the latter. My broadsword shreds through her throat. She doesn’t seem to realize and even tries to pull her sword out of my cuirass.
A silver flash warns me of an incoming blow from behind so I twist and take a step aside, causing the sword stuck in my cuirass to jerk out. The Number lifts it to strike me again but her legs give out and she falls backward with hazy eyes.
I engage in a series of dodges while delivering wild slashes as the Numbers try to close in on me from every side again with their shields forth. The pain in my chest increases, forcing me to dedicate more energy to my muscles and slow down even as it causes me to lose my freedom of movement.
I focus my attacks on their forearms, knees, and calves which aren’t protected by chain-mails to preserve my flow for a counter to kill several at once. I receive shield bashes and pommel strikes even as I manage to counter deadlier attacks.
As I feel like I’m going to be injured, the Numbers suddenly break away. Pairs form as some with only half a hand left help those who lost entire limbs. More than a few of the grievously injured drop to the ground after making it out a dozen meters and are abandoned by the eight or nine survivors.
Two who made it out of the melee without many injuries grab their leader in plate and drag him away towards his horse which ran a distance away once he fell off the saddle.
“Leave the mount.” I order with a raspy voice.
Knowing that it is best I don’t move but can’t afford to sit down, I gather the two portions I have left to support my heart and straighten my spine to balance myself on my feet. My chest is palpitating, every beat causes sharp pain to spread in a radius around my thrashing heart.
I absently notice that the soldiers turn away from the other two horses as well and run away west towards the institute. Agonizing minutes pass but my body manages to hold until they’re so far I can afford to sit down, puzzled as to why these unshakable Numbers would run away.
— — —
I hear steps and startle awake cross-legged with swimming eyes and a stretching pain in my chest as if my heart is being pulled apart. I instinctively freeze under this unbearable feeling and barely manage to hold onto the hilt of my broadsword.
I blink to rid myself of the daze and clear up my vision. Uhla’s shape clears up, she is peering at me with a worried expression. She raises her hand. I prepare a lion strike despite not knowing if I can move.
Rowland intercepts her wrist before she can reach me. The sudden movement almost makes me attack but then, I notice Leah, Rowland, and Nahl in front of the other women. Why am I about to strike when I’ve fought for them?
“Dame Freepath, you okay?” Leah asks.
“Nev… er, felt bette, rrr.” I groan with a chuckle.
“Can I take a look?” Uhla asks while forcefully pulling her wrist out of Rowland’s grasp.
“No, pe.” I reply. I place my hand on my knee and try to rise but fail.
“What’s wrong? She doesn’t look injured.” Leah says worriedly.
“We don’t know.” Uhla mutters.
“I’m just, resting.” I explain. “You, should’ve, left. You’re, wasting time.” I tell them, struggling to find air.
“Not long.” Nahl assures. “They didn’t want to leave you behind after seeing you fight.”
“Oh, had fun?” I ask shortly, still struggling to get my limb to listen to me.
“It was…” Leah trails off and glances back.
I follow her eyes, finding out that Marie is looking at me with a blank expression holding her child in her arms as they all are. Hilda is all the way back and to the side with her hand on her neck scar. The rest have rather pale cheeks and worried expressions, apart from Joah who is sitting down focused on her belly.
“Beautiful to witness, horrifying to behold.” Uhla mutters, making no sense.
“Go away, all of you.” I utter, finding their presence tiresome and with little energy to spare.
“Let’s go.” Rowland steps up.
“But…” Leah hesitates.
I squint and use flow on the air surrounding me to lift myself up. Once standing, I manage to sheathe my short broadsword and stumble over to my long one to recover it from the chest of the other rider.
The scene of the battlefield is, as Uhla described, rather horrifying. The limbs I cut are so scattered it feels like they’re everywhere and it’s the same with blood that splashed across the soldiers’ tabards.
We can’t let anything happen to these women we got out of the institute. Crack. I hear the ghostly echo of a neck being snapped and shiver. As I turn back to the others, I find them staring at me.
“Why don’t you come with us, Dame Freepath?” Marie asks, breaking the silence.
“Because, their main target is me but they won’t give up on you if they know where you are.” I utter coldly. I take a few breaths. “You need to get to the forest to lose them and then I’ll bait them further north. This is what I’ll do whether you decide to go to Hetlan or take a series of ships to sail downriver and then south to Izla Meria.”
“But…” Leah protests.
“I need no company, and neither do I wish for it. Now, get lost.” We snap.
I limp north-east towards the woods by myself, leaving them all behind because I know they’ll easily catch up and overtake me. I burn through the rest of my energy as well as every single strand of flow I regenerate to sustain myself.
Luckily, it seems like the two squads of soldiers I took out were all the Palace could send out after me on short notice. That or leaving Meiridin by the northern gate caused the others they sent to get lost or waste time.
Either way, I reach the forest a half-hour after their group does with the babies. I follow the tracks I find and do my best to muddle them until I find them resting in a clearing.
Rowland turns and spots me using a bush for cover. He gives me a thin apologetic smile that I turn away from. It’s difficult to resent these three without knowing exactly why they played along with Leomi. I’m too proud to ask and I don’t care enough either.
I find a large tree with a low branch that’s large enough to sit on. I settle there and take out Vikiana’s notebook to study the drawings she left. I enjoy my time alone, it’s relaxing despite needing to keep an ear out for enemies.
— — —
At dusk, I hear a vegetating ruffling from afar and shake myself out of my daze. I put the notebook back in my pouch and jump off the tree. I use the cover of trees to approach the noise.
“Do you see anything? It’s too dark, we should go back.” A woman says.
“Come on, we’ll have to report the signs we spotted so we have to keep going.” The man replies.
“We can say it was too dark. It is too dark.” She insists.
“You know that won’t work. She beat a Count, Ignès, in front of a crowd.” The man replies with a slightly shaky voice as he beats a bush with his spear.
“That’s…” The woman explodes but quickly catches herself. “That’s why we need to go before we find anything!” She whispers urgently. “If we find her, she’ll put us down and what do you want to do if we find the others? Drag them back?!” She asks rhetorically. “Let’s turn around now.”
“How about you stick around for dinner instead?” I loudly call out to them while stepping from the tree I hid behind.
“Oh, fuck me.” The man swears while Ignès just… stops.
The two wear soldier tabards with a house crest I don’t recognize but their spears look as cheap as a city guard’s and their leather armors are worn out. There are likely a few dozen pairs like these across the woods, meant to scout while the Palace gathers a company of soldiers to deal with me.
Too bad. Indeed, if the Palace had sent its guards, I might have been able to return to Meiridin and get into the building to kill whoever is in charge to cause more chaos.
“Hurry, I didn’t feel like taking you out but I’m running out of patience.” I snap at the two.
“Yes! Um, no, okay… right now?” Ignès stutters.
I ignore them to head back towards the camp, convinced neither has the guts to challenge me to a fight and very aware I’m in no shape to catch them if they run. The best way to get them to obey is to destabilize them and act confidently.
As predicted, the two awkwardly follow me. I lead them to the clearing to be spotted by Nahl who’s standing guard. I wordlessly leave them behind with him and take a seat on the outskirts to eat one of the hard rations I have in my pouch.
I’d rather return to my tree south but there is a chance a patrol will run into them from another direction so I have to stay near. The woman who didn’t seem to like her kid is cooking with a bright look on her face.
I nibble on my food and my eyes fall on my ring. A burst of anger makes my heart beat faster and causes a flash of pain. I glance away only to spot Rowland sitting down the disarmed captives.
I rage at Leomi but some of it is guilt. Perhaps I could have accompanied her, hold my temper. Yet I didn’t because I can’t. I wonder how Leomi will react when she hears of what I did in Meiridin and hope she won’t blame herself.
I eat but don’t return to the notebook. I’m aware I could have done much better in the fight if I was faster but my heart wouldn’t have handled it so I start thinking about a kinetic construct that absorbs the force instead of producing it.
I’ve seen others use gloves or shields to negate impacts but the issue is that those work through countering the impact within the object with an opposite force. Night falls before I figure out a solution, or a way to shape the construct like a bubble that’ll protect me.
Footsteps approach, abruptly pulling me out of my thoughts. I instinctively reach for the broadsword on my back and half-stand while snapping my eyes to the threat. A young redhead startles and takes a step back. I force myself to relax.
“Hey.” Leah says. “Are you…” She pauses. “We decided to head north for the two prisoners’ benefit and then head south-east to reach a fishing village.”
“Good.” I reply.
“Be well, okay?” She tells me.
Leah hesitates for a moment but her expression turns determined. She reaches out and embraces my stiff body. I press my lips together and try not to glare at her who is only trying to be nice.
Their group leaves without a word with Rowland, Uhla, and Nahl. I think I scare them, or they want to respect my wish to be alone. Or both, either way I feel lonely and spend the next few minutes staring at my ring for comfort but only find resentment at how we both reacted to Vikiana’s death.
The bitter irony. The woman didn’t want us together but relented to bless us in the end. Yet, her death caused us to split because I kept a secret, because Vikiana trusted me to keep Leomi safe and Lance took it wrong, or perhaps was jealous that my mother-in-law gave me her techniques…
It doesn’t matter. The fact is it happened because we don’t see eye to eye on too many things, on what we’ve done in the past and plan to do in the future. On what we wish the other would do. There is too much repressed anger in us and against each other for what we represent.
I rise and head off north, leaving the two prisoners behind. I follow the occasional baby cries. During that night, I use my eyes to find six pairs of trackers with varying crests who catch onto the same trail I’m following and knock them out from blind-angles.
It turns out a peasant that grew up in the countryside is a lot better at moving discreetly than a city dweller, not to mention their loud voices. The lack of a true troop of soldiers tells me that they’ve not yet received word of our presence in these woods.
The group ahead turns to go south-east once they’ve calmed the newborn. By the time those I took out return to report being ambushed, they’ll be on a ship in the south-east and those in charge will receive a sighting of me headed north.
I decide to get ahead of their slow group and take out every guard I come across. I take out three more pairs by morning and find a forth near the edge of the woods. I let them spot me heading north without turning back so they don’t know I’ve seen them.