The two scouts try to follow me, loudly. I lose them rather easily by plunging in a thicket and go deeper in the woods to seek the tallest tree. I find a large pine over fifteen meters tall and climb it with no little difficulty.
I throw my gaze south-east and find a small camp with the rising sun’s help. I can’t really distinguish much from as far as I am but it looks like there is a donkey and they’re hidden between two low hills.
They wouldn’t be camping if they had been spotted so I consider that my trick worked. I settle on a branch and close my eyes. I need to rest if there is a need to catch up and rescue them in a few hours.
— — —
I awaken in the middle of the afternoon with my reserve more than half-filled. I spend five portions on a shaping construct to repair the torn steel bands of my armor and a few scrapes in my helmet. The stubbed leather isn’t as easily malleable so I leave it as is.
I enhance my ears and catch many sounds of soldiers scouring the woods from almost every direction around me. Then, I check the camp in the distance again to find it unchanged.
I spot a larger camp south-west with horses, tents, and burning fires as well as tiny figures that seem to be headed for it that could just as easily be small trees. I drop down the pine tree and head north-west to draw them away from the others.
In the woods, I encounter many pairs of scouts but easily avoid them because of their constant nervous exchanges. I reach the edge of the forest on the other side. I travel north for an hour only to find myself in the middle of two troops of twenty guards coming from east and west behind me.
They have varying crests on their tabards. I frown because I didn’t expect them to be so quick but then again, it was likely they would pull people from every barony and I don’t know what the layout of the region is.
Either way, these troops look about as inexperienced as can be, perhaps even more so than Meiridin’s city guards who have to deal with a much larger population. It would be dangerous to be seen or give them time to surround me so I head up a hill and stop there to wait for them.
Once in full sight over the horizon, soldiers turn to me in droves and pull their weapons out. I experience a sense of déjà vu, as if I’d already done this long ago. I shake my head and draw my broadsword to focus on my opponents.
Gruuah! I follow the sound to a woman holding a horn to her lips with a large hammer on her back. I set out straight for her. By her side is a man holding a long wooden stick almost as tall as him with ironed sleeves at the ends.
“Jessica Freepath! By order of the Queen and Chancellor of Caeviel, you are condemned to death for rebellion!” The woman proclaims.
I ignore her. My name was spread and my purpose will have been as well, all that remains is to prove none can stop me from going where I wish. As I patiently await their approach, I see visions of slaughter.
Older battles blur together with yesterday’s and I experience an epiphany about how to become as good as Elizabeth if not better by exercising control over my surroundings rather than my body.
I am unable to rip openings into my opponent’s defenses as Liz does by instinct and strength, elevating efficient slaughter to a brutal art. What I am able to do right now is take advantage of flaws already present with minimal movements through tactics.
I loosen my grip on my long broadsword and lower my stance. This defensive stance seems to encourage my opponents who accelerate their pace up this small hill I stand on. Their newfound confidence does not benefit me.
“I wish not the end of your lives and so I warn you that death is what you will find atop this hill at the edge of my blade.” I declare calmly.
“Bravado!” The woman dismisses.
The soldiers don’t flinch even though those on the front-line appear nervous. It seems like they haven’t heard of the battle south yet. The one with an iron-tipped staff moves in first with a golden glow on his weapon.
I estimate it to be a kinetic construct but there’s a chance it’s a simple defensive one. The man’s leather clothes are rough and don’t seem hardened, if I had met him elsewhere, I would think him a peasant of a kind.
He swipes at my helmet. I angle back just slightly, avoiding the blow. As I prepare to lean it to strike, I notice a shift to his back-leg and decide to pull my right leg back instead.
He reverses his staff and the other iron-tip swipes past where my forward leg was a moment ago. I try to slash at the center of his weapon but interrupt the swing because the man takes a step forward to try to hook my left leg.
I raise my boot and it passes under it but, before I can move in, soldiers close in on me from the flanks, giving the staff-wielding man a wide breadth. I observe them with the corners of my eyes as I accelerate my perceptions.
The two soldiers swipe at me, one to my right thigh at the back, the other at the left side of my waist. I swing straight down, parrying the former and shift my weight to my back right leg to dodge the latter by a tiny margin.
The man propels his staff forward to slam the tip into my chest. I expel a stream of flow that blows it aside and push out with my right foot. My left side slams into his chest, throwing the man staggering back.
He takes three more steps back than needed, confirming he’s an expert. That’s the last thing I needed. A silver projectile flies at my stomach. I slap it aside with the flat of my single-edged broadsword.
I follow through with that blow while twisting my wrist to bring the blade against one of the soldiers who is caught off guard and catches ten centimeters of the tip in his left eye.
Even with that kill that didn’t cost me any energy, I remain in the center of far more soldiers than I can deal with. I lion’s step in the other direction, further confusing them as I launch a backhanded swing with a sundering construct enhancing the blade.
I hear gurgling sounds behind me and screams. That killed one and injured two. I lion’s step back and to my right, stepping atop the body of the first I killed to take advantage of the hole in their lines.
I shift to both avoid an iron-tipped staff and face the second line of soldiers who have yet to react to their fallen comrade. I launch a wide zigzagging slash that focuses far more on precision than speed or power.
It still overwhelms the three soldiers facing me, two lose a wrist while the other receives a large gash in his chest. I hear a long scraping behind myself so I reverse my grip and stab under my armpit.
The two soldiers on my flanks finally turn to slash at me, the one on my right is first because the other isn’t left-handed. I swing up with my reversed broadsword, slicing vertically through the man’s guts as if his hard leather armor wasn’t even there.
It might as well not be considering his defensive construct gave out instantly under my sundering construct. I glimpse the soldier to my left strike panically so I lean down and avoid it.
An intense silver glow appears right behind me, cruising at the small of my back. My only options are to charge forward and engage a dozen soldiers in a melee or somehow take that impact.
I choose the latter. I send a portion of energy into that area and prepare to absorb the iron-tipped staff’s kinetic energy. When it hits, the stream of flow contorts and twists to obey my intent.
The energy rapidly changes shape and distorts only to then disperse along with the force behind the blow. While the failure cost me a little, it taught me that leaving it entirely to flow isn’t going to work.
Still, the result was decent enough considering anyone else would have likely almost entirely failed. I immediately launch a low lion’s strike kick to my left while swinging my sword around to hit the soldier’s side.
Crack. I hear and feel the knee breaking sideways a moment before the flat of my weapon hits. I turn my chin slightly to follow his fall with the corner of my eyes and am satisfied to find he drops atop the man with the staff.
Then, I rush forward to the third line of soldiers and dispatch five of them before they can coordinate to hinder me. I don’t launch in the wide plains because, while they haven’t used projectiles yet, I’ve spotted that some carry slings and pouches that look like they contain rocks.
I flip around and launch at the soldiers that are closing in. One brings down a war-hammer with a small head and a spike so I stomp down to arrest my momentum and make him miss.
My left leg continues and the reinforced tip of my boot impacts his sternum. The soldier stumbles back. A woman raises a forked weapon I’ve never seen before but, before she can bring it down, I hear distorted speech and the soldiers disperse.
I spot two move in while drawing one-handed axes with spikes at the back from their belts. I narrow my eyes because those, same as the war-hammer, are much more likely to pierce my cuirass than a sword and I can’t afford to constantly use a defensive construct.
I inspect my opponent’s faces, finding them determined in spite of all those I’ve already killed and realize that they may very well be hardened fighters, not soldiers. I would guess they have similar pasts to the ‘Wraith’ in service of Nobility.
I settle where I am for a moment to catch my breath and let my heart settle because these fighters might be a lot deadlier than I gave them credit for. Liz suddenly slides our broadsword’s blade over the pieces of our cloak and brings it up to our eyes.
The reflection on the bloody blade shifts, betraying movement. A moment later, I hear a foot shift on strands of grass behind and to my left. I lean down and launch a wild strike behind my back.
Half a forearm with a hand holding a spiked axe flies over my head to land on the ground in front of me, causing many to freeze, stunned by my reflexes. I launch at the man with his staff, hoping to make him block with a defensive construct but he outplays me by slapping the flat of my blade aside.
I lion’s step to follow the momentum he gave my blade and bury it in the head of the soldier that stood by his side without bothering to use my sundering construct.
A sharp pain suddenly erupts from my waist. I instantly gather flow into the blood seeping out of me to force the weapon out and then gather a blood-needle that I launch upward in the hopes of catching the one responsible.
A dying woman gargles. The staff-wielding man launches an upward strike. I use the broadsword I buried in the fighter’s skull to throw the body at my opponent who moves back to avoid it.
Then, the woman moves in with her hammer held high. The hammerhead is large and made of steel, it’s bigger than my Vuskyt hammer which means it’s almost as heavy. There’s no way she can fight with it for long, no matter how much energy she puts in her strengthening construct, her body will saturate.
As the heavy weapon drops, I notice three others attacking me within my field of vision, and hear two more behind on my flanks. The iron-tipped staff pierces the air towards my chest a split-moment behind the overhead blow.
While I don’t know what’s behind my back, the scene of my surroundings is clear in my mind and that is enough to fill in the blanks. There is a fighter already lowering his spikes axe to catch the back of my head if I step back or stay where I am for too long.
While it’s unlikely he’s using an armor-piercing construct, it’s irrelevant because the sheer physical force concentrated by an axe’s head would defeat my defensive construct even without one. I’ve myself used this principle so much I couldn’t be clearer of that fact.
I take a tiny step forward into the hammer blow and then kick out with my back-leg and a lion’s step while angling my torso left to right so as to avoid the iron-tip of the staff.
The hammer’s handle lands on my shoulder and I kneel down with it to gradually kill the force behind the blow while propagating flow to cover my backside a moment before the man flicks his weapon at it to prevent me from killing his boss.
The kinetic construct amplifies the force of the blow but I redirect the force to propel me while stopping my cuirass from caving in. I fly at a pack of unprepared fighters and cut three throats with a single swing.
I land in a heap with them but manage to knee one to send myself in a roll. I rise back to my feet and slash wide. My blade, supported by my sundering construct, slices through everything in a half-circle in front of me.
Running low on flow, and having killed enough to incite a panic, I sift through their ranks with my blade, using accurate lion’s steps and quick swings that exploit openings. I trip and kick bodies, live and half-dead, towards the man and woman who try to catch up with me through their now disorganized ranks.
“Retreat!” The woman erupts after minutes of me toying with their formation.
The crowd splits in every direction to confuse me, leaving only a squad of fighters to face me. I slaughter an opening in their ranks before they can close them and lion’s step north to hunt those going in that direction. After slaying two from behind, the rest decide of their own accord to turn east and west.
With that done, I flip around to receive the hammer-wielding woman and staff-wielding man, now aware that they’re not going to be easy to kill. Yet, I find them also keeping their distances with ugly looks on their faces, weapons resting on the ground.
“Who are you?” The woman asks tensely.
“A peasant, Jessica Freepath.” I reply, keeping my voice short and quiet so as not to clue them in that I’m running out of air.
“You can’t have so much access, it’s impossible unless you’re a Noble.” She utters.
“Really? Then how do you explain Hersirs?” I ask with a corner smile. “They are given flow by their Hordes and Clans as they gain recognition, Nobles are the same, though their access is undeserved most of the time.”
The woman grits her teeth and turns to her soldiers, finding them gazing at their fallen and injured comrades with pale faces. I swipe my broadsword over my shredded coat to wipe the blood off and then bring it before myself to signal I’m ready to keep fighting.
“How can you be so fast?” The man asks with flames in his eyes.
“Fast?” I smirk. “Come on, you’ve merely seen my reflexes and a few tricks. I haven’t pushed the limits of my speed or access yet. You should really have asked what happened to my first pursuers.”
“Let’s find out now!” The man exclaims while taking a step forward.
“No, we can’t beat her.” The woman says as she catches his shoulder with her left hand, clearly having given up if she’s saying this in front of those under her lead.
“But…” The man turns back towards the injured writhing on the ground.
“You can take the wounded back, I won’t interfere, as long as you don’t, go north.” I speak up, gasping for air in the hopes the oxygen will keep my heart fed and healthy.
The woman’s eyes narrow but she swiftly shakes her head and nods in agreement. I decisively sheathe my weapon and observe them give first aid to their comrades while making sure none tries to draw a slingshot.
They depart south-west fifteen minutes later at double-pace likely seeking a village to rest. I remain as I am, eyes on another battlefield where I slaughtered and cut limbs off.
Crack. The sound of a snapped neck resounds in my ears. These fighters… I don’t respect them as people but I do respect their courage, they could have been decent people had they not entered Nobility’s service.
This is what Lance wants to reform? These bloody methods of throwing bodies and daggers in the dark at your enemies until they fall with no regard for those who have to follow their orders?
I shiver and sit down. I take out a small quill, a tiny bottle of ink, and a roll of parchment from my pouch. I then place the bag on my lap so it gives me a relatively stable platform to write on.
‘Nobility’s power lies in how it permeates all facets of society. A Liege’s permission is required to move out of their lands. Their protection is obligatory to sell goods so that they are not confiscated or copied for another to profit from your work. A house’s guarantee of character necessary to rise in society from simple peasant to a free-man or free-woman. Of all the injustices, the latter is the worst for it is a lie, through and through. Freedom is taken, not received. Freedom is fought for, not given. Freedom that depends on others is illusory for it can be taken back and is thus anathema to itself.‘
I wipe the quill on my torn cloak and then put again my writing tools and parchment before pulling it completely off my shoulders. With my rage so evacuated, but my anger towards Leomi’s treatment and ideals far from gone, I stand and resume my journey north.