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No need to move. It would be a mistake to right now, even if I find the perfect opportunity to slice the Noble’s throat. No, take it if you see one. Victory now would mean defeat. This woman I saved, I will not witness die.

One more life, one less… kh, kh, I’ve lost count and care, what remains is the goal to win for myself and as many as possible. This, life, matters. The longer the stalemate lasts, the more soldiers will unwind, the more rest I will get, the easier it’ll be to end this entirely.

Ivan’s hands shake with the blade in hand which causes the hostage’s skin to tremble. I narrow my eyes and prepare to act, if only because Liz made her desires known and it would be unfair of me to make a unilateral decision simply because I am in control while she rests.

Calm down, son.” Siegfried says with a soothing voice.

There’s no need to rush Ivan, let’s talk alright?” Marks proposes, giving up her previously forceful angle.

Her tone is relatively steady. The mere fact I hear her walk as she speaks informs me that she’s far from feeling as much pain as she should considering the length of blade I stuck in her waist and that she’s apparently reluctant to pull out. Drugs or maybe a construct causing similar pain-numbing effects.

She must be brought back for trial! Burned at the stake! Quartered with pieces of her to be put on spikes at every location she defied our Kingdom!” Ivan raves, pushing his demands at Siegfried and Marks as if they had any say in my actions.

You madman, Dame Freepath isn’t coming with you! Release Helen!” Marie erupts while waving her knife.

Siegfried gives me a pointed glance as he slowly takes off his helmet, revealing white hair and a wrinkled face. He walks straight into Ivan’s line of sight. I briefly throw a look at Marie to tell her to be quiet and find Nahl already doing so, showing presence of mind he’s lacked as of late.

I would wonder if it was principle or guilt that pushed Rowland, Marie, and all the others to come to my help but I know and I’ve spilled too much blood to waste air asking.

Lord Ivan, we know each other, you are a faithful arm for both Caeviel and the Empire.” Siegfried says. “You don’t truly want to harm this civilian.”

But she… she…” Ivan stutters, clearly taken aback by the Exemplar’s calm demeanor.

Jessica Freepath’s choices shall impact herself.” The Ladyling argues. “And, after such battles, you need not cross a line you will never return from because the world will take notice.”

No! Nonono!” Ivan rages. “No! You betray, you… She must die… all these deaths, all this blood, she cut into my defensive construct as if it wasn’t there!

Ah, that backfired Marks. I get she was trying not to fan the flames but she appeared too much on my side, which she definitely isn’t considering how far she pushed herself to put me down, and Ivan is now seeing red.

Ivan, stop!” Siegfried erupts as the man’s grip shifts on his sword hilt. “These are indeed rebels to the Kingdom but we can reach a compromise so as not to deprive the King of his subjects without judgment!”

Ghthz!” Ivan incoherently spits out as he shakes the hostage left and right, causing her to whimper in terror.

This is a stalemate, soldier! The life you hold hostage here will cause far more deaths across the lands if it is lost!” Marks reasons. “You’ll never know what concessions there are to gain if you don’t try!”

She, the traitor refuses to speak!” Ivan bellows.

“But we do not, and I’m sure Miss Marie is amenable to negotiation so as to save her friend.” Siegfried smoothly counters. “Are you not?” He quickly relays the conversation.

I am, Helen doesn’t deserve to die here, none of us do.” Marie quietly responds.

See, Ivan. We can solve this.

“I… Freepath, she’s…” Ivan mutters hesitantly, his eyes darting to me.

I remain immobile, ready to end him but with my attention on the soldiers arrayed behind me. They’ve gathered back into ranks which means this is a very dangerous moment.

The tension is ironically dissipating because of the hostage situation but if battle resumes now then they will fight and I don’t have what it takes to break them again so I must wait until adrenaline fades.

Either way, I’ve said my piece so I can now observe the hypocrisy so that psychological pain join the physical agony wrecking my nerve endings. The very fact I’m conscious feels odd but, to be fair, I think that now that my body has cooled down I wouldn’t last a minute in combat.

I can’t allow any of them to get away.” Ivan utters with a spiteful expression.

If…” Marie throws me a glance to which I don’t react. “If, if you just let it all end, I’ll go back to Meiridin with Exemplar Siegfried.” She hesitantly proposes. Honorable of her to risk it for me, especially considering the risk of imprisonment.

That rebel is the issue.” He blows.

His gaze cross paths with my icy eyes and he shivers. He pulls his hostage more tightly against himself to use as cover and takes a few steps back with her. Siegfried moves to keep the same distance between them and keep the man’s attention on him.

How about we all return to Meiridin? I can promise you no one intends to threaten you.” Marks butts in.

I…” Marie turns to Siegfried.

“The destination is not mine to choose, I am but a mere escort.” The old man says while placing his palm on his breastplate. “But, that solution would indeed be best.”

They would have to make their choices.” Marie says quietly.

You’ll be witnesses to her hanging.” Ivan says with a cruel smile.

We’ll only consider this if you let Helen go and don’t stop Dame Freepath.” Hilda utters.

Ivan, let the woman go and we can discuss a reasonable end to this.” Siegfried quickly intervenes, clearly to draw the Lordling’s attention to him and away from what Hilda just said.

We don’t take hostages, Ivan, this is wrong.” Marks says, causing Ivan’s crazed expression to waver.

“You have my word the Order will look into the events that brought about this situation, Ivan, and the King will be informed.” Siegfried adds.

But… she…” The man hesitates, causing his grip on the hostage to loosen.

Helen takes that opportunity to suddenly grip at his forearm and jerk it down. She then tries to slip away from his other arm but he tightens his grip while fighting her to place the blade back on her throat.

Siegfried flashes forth at a ludicrous speed for the thick plate he’s wearing. My flow, with but a thought, follows the grooves established through practice and strengthens my muscles.

I throw myself forward and, with merely three steps, cross the distance separating me from Ivan. I pour energy into my arm and broadsword as I watch the old Exemplar expertly tear Helen from Ivan’s grasp while preventing him from using his weapon.

I flick my wrist and jam my weapon up into his breastplate to impale the entire length of the blade in his torso. I keep pushing until the guard hits his bottom ribs and the tip comes out of the back of his neck all the while staring him in the eyes.

Uhgrl, uh!” Ivan gargles.

No!” Marks yells.

That wasn’t necessary.” Siegfried says with a sad voice as he guides the distressed Helen to Marie.

The hostage left your, hands wounded, and so you receive death from mine.” I tell the man, barely concealing how short in breath I am. He blinks as if confused, as if disbelieving things ended like this. “You’re an idiot. Were I truly in need for arguments, to cause a rebellion, I would have encouraged you to kill the woman, with their fame, it’s likely Meiridin would have gone up in flames.”

Hrgh!” Ivan groans.

I jerk my weapon out of his chest, causing him to stiffen from head to toe. He drops backward with blood seeping from his lips. I hear Marks tense behind me and throw a glance only to find that she’s not even in a state to take a proper stance.

You’re no threat to me.” I mock her. “You never were.”

We still outnumber you, vastly.” She responds while defiantly raising a shaky gauntlet. I run my eyes across the ranks of soldiers and fighters, none of the sixty or so show any eagerness to charge.

It didn’t do you any good, the first time around. You’re welcome to try again, I’ve reaped tougher stalks, of wheat.” I bluff with a cold voice, causing many of my opponents to flinch. “You’re a hypocrite, Marks, peasants are perpetual hostages to be used against one, another under Nobility’s rule. What that idiot did is exactly, why they must, leave Meiridin.”

Exemplar, you know we never wanted, things to go this way.” Marks pleads.
“You chose to do battle when you could have called for Arbitrage, Countess. But…” Siegfried walks up to me. “Dame Jessica, will you consider it?”

No.” I firmly deny.

She’s unreasonable.” Marks utters.

“I will not blame her after these events.” The old man shakes his head.
“Blame me?” I scoff. “You’re just as much of a, hypocrite as she is to, consider escorting them back to Meiridin, when you swore you, would protect them.”

They weren’t in danger before you brought them on this escapade.” The Exemplar says with a frown. “You may not have caused this battle but you eagerly plunged into it, this was a loss for everyone.”

Not for peasantry, old man, anything that harms Nobility, is of benefit to us.” I say with a mean smirk.

Is it? Who do you think are those you fell with that blade?” Siegfried asks rhetorically. “Farmers and peasants who rise to protect the Kingdom when it is in need.”

If they place their lives, on the line for Nobility, then they are soldiers, in a war.” I utter without hesitation.

Hm.” Siegfried scoffs but he doesn’t press.

The old temple guard then turns and walks back to the runaways as if washing his hands of this. Marks’ left leg starts shaking, revealing that she’s been putting all her weight on it and that whatever she used to negate the pain coming from the broadsword I put in her waist is starting to lose effectiveness.

I’ll have my weapon back if you wish to flee with your injured.” I speak up, forcing myself to say the words in one go.

I lean forward to give them the sense I’m about to charge them as well as conceal the fact I’m taking rapid breaths to recover from speaking that single sentence with a normal threatening voice.

Let it bring about your end.” Marks, seething, spits out.

She yanks the broadsword out of her waist and applies a construct over it. I use a few portions of flow to make a blood-mist since I have some available. The Ladyling launches my broadsword at me like a projectile.

I use my absolute control to shatter her construct and steal the five portions she used. I sheath my weapon at my waist and seize the other to slide it sideways in the scabbard suspended at my back.

When I look back to Marks, the woman’s taken the staff-wielder’s weapon to support herself and using his help to walk away. Aah, shit, you killed the one who might’ve had information. Ah, shit. That’s what I said.

I stand where I am, giving my heart a chance to recover as I watch the regiment pick up their wounded to retreat, Marks lasts only long enough for the soldiers to make her a stretcher to lie on. In a way, that Noble’s breakdown made it easier for me to win this fight.

As my heartbeat grows stabler, my mind becomes hazier. The disgust I felt during the fight returns at the sight of the blood and body parts scattered across the field before me. The flesh I tore with my blade, each chunk cost me.

Can’t ever fight like this again, it almost physically destroyed me. I hear steps. I find my hand already on my short broadsword’s handle by the time I think of putting it there. Marie hesitantly steps in my view but doesn’t move in front of me and remains to the side.

What do, you want?” I ask stiffly. I feel like my every muscle is on the verge of cramping up.

You’re, um, injured.” She mutters.

That’s more, usually the, case than not.” I reply humorously.

We’re going to set tents if you want to…” She trails off.

No need.” I refuse.

Yet, I can’t stay here either. I channel energy through my body and make my way south to rest near the camp the runaways are raising. I spot a group of people discussing with pale faces, Helen among them with another of the women from the original runaways while the rest are new faces.

Threats. They’re no danger, Sis. Hmph. I pick an area with long soft grass a few dozen meters away to settle down and start slowly unstrapping my armor. It takes me ten minutes to remove the protectors on my legs and another ten to remove my arm-guard with my teeth. The suspicious group starts heading south-east as I work on my cuirass.

You running away now that Nobility can’t see you?” I ask aloud, startling them. “Cowards, using others as bait.”

Helen ignores me but the woman and a few others stop, forcing her to do the same. Marie and Hilda appear soon after to start arguing with them over their decision, and the problems they’re facing. I completely ignore their conversation until they call out to me for an opinion.

I open the path, it is your responsibility…” I inhale. “… to trail it. If, you cannot bear it, then perhaps…” I gasp for air. “The consequences of returning, will be easier, than those, of leaving.”

With my piece said, I send a wave of air at them with my flow to impress on them my wish for peace. They wisely decide to take their problems back to their camp, to Helen’s obvious displeasure as she appears eager to leave.

Understandable, considering she almost died, but I can’t help but look down on the woman. With people such as her, my plan to destroy Nobility will fail. You’ve calculated that it’ll succeed even in the worst circumstances. With what I’ve seen here, the Numbers might be even worse.

I push my index in a hinge at the left side of the cuirass, where the steel bands overlap, and slip it under a leather strap to pull it out. I take a minute before unfastening it and then repeat the process for the next three in that hinge.

Once I’ve loosened my cuirass, I pull it off and then struggle to lift my riveted chain-mail over my head. Next comes my hard leather armor but it turns out my dried blood glued it to my clothes. I let my arm drop and exhale, exhausted.

Dame Freepath.” Rowland’s voice startles me but I don’t let it show.
“Cut that shit out.” I snarl at him. “Come and help me.”

… We had reasons other than merely obeying Commander Lance.” He says carefully.

It’s prudent to delay, walking in range, but unwise to, remind me why, I owe you an ass-whooping.” I mutter. “But, go on.”

We all thought you would get in trouble, and neither of us was willing to stay away once we discussed it.” He says.

Oh, well all’s, forgiven now! You discussed it!” I mock.

We would have told you beforehand but…” He trails off.

Just pull on the damn sleeve and shut up.” I bark at him.

He steps up and takes hold of my jacket’s sleeve. It takes a few tens of seconds struggling to get the damn thing off me but, once it’s done, I finally get to lie down and breathe while my muscles send agonizing waves of pain.

You were pretty harsh to the runaways.” Rowland comments.
“It’s their life, I’m not going, to make their decisions, for them.” I grunt.

They need a leader.” He argues.

Then do, it yourself.” I snap at him with finality. “But you’re wrong, peasants need, to be left to, think for themselves.”

That takes time to learn.” Rowland murmurs.

Only if, you’re coddled.” I dismiss while closing my eyes.

He falls silent and waits a minute or two, likely debating whether he should call Uhla to give me medical attention or leave me alone. He makes the right choice not to push me and leaves.

— — —

An air-blade flashes at my throat, my arm refuses to move to block it. I barely manage to divert it with a kinetic construct only to find four more air-blades flying at me from every direction.

They impact me head on, cutting both arms and both legs. I drop to the ground. Viscous brown liquid seeps out of my stumps to gather in a pool around me.

Strength leaves me as the blood pours out of me, endlessly and to the point where its rise threatens to drown me. As I struggle to keep my chin above the surface, the sap turns into maggots that slither on my skin.

— — —

I snap awake with goosebumps and a chill in the back but with my attention completely set on the approaching footsteps. I reach out for one of the weapons I have in reach.

I’m only here to tell you we’re leaving.” Uhla tells me.

Already? Well, go on then.” I mutter and close my eyes once more “I’ll catch up.”

They’ll come back for their dead, tomorrow at the latest.” She says.

Not if they don’t see me leave first.” I whisper.

— — —

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