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Liz’ estimation born of her instincts, which I trust more than mine at this point considering how often I’ve been caught off guard lately, hits me like a hammer because I never thought it would end like this.

My desperate situation triggers a physically painful tingling to course through my body and causes my heart-rate to spike which induces a sharp stretching agony making my survival even less likely.

To make matters worse, a dozen soldiers holding as many crossbows move up from behind Marks to take aim at me, the Ladyling clearly has her own plans in case her reinforcements didn’t make it in time and has no reason to abandon them even though they’ve arrived.

There is so much flow concentrated in the bolts that the golden glow is as intense as a summer’s sun. I focus entirely on flow, slowing down my perceptions to the point where hearing and sight fade only to leave twelve silver bolts aimed at me.

I direct my eighty portions to course through me and into my armor only to witness the bolts launch at me before I’m ready. In spite of the slower passage of time, the projectiles cross the distance in an instant.

Four hit first, two on my helmet, one on my cuirass, and the last on my stubbed leather skirt. These attempt to twist the kinetic force of their impact and send it drilling through steel to allow the bolts to wreak havoc in my body but my control supersedes these construct’s.

As these four are deflected, the other six hit at the center-mass of my body. Three using armor-penetrating constructs are stopped cold by my runic defenses but this drops my reserves to a third of what they were.

The last bolts burst, bypassing my kinetic control to send out a massive wave of heat that drains my flow to the point where I only retain a handful of portions entirely insufficient to deal with the flames.

We died and were reborn in fire only to be consumed by it in the end. Liz begins waking and reaches out for the broadsword we stuck in the ground. I channel the kinetic force of the stream with the last of our flow and propel water to cover our body.

It works but not nearly enough, I can feel the wave of scorching heat seep into my flesh, so intense it’ll make my blood boil. A silver ray suddenly flashes out towards me from my back, too fast to stop. Even in our state, they still…

Liz rages, her hand is laid on the pommel of our weapon yet it is useless against this. She is unwilling to die without striking down enemies but there is no way to stop this attack.

We open our eyes to peer at the ring on our finger. I’m so sorry, Leomi, Celyz. A timid echo of the past rises an instant before the beings sharing the body she died in lose their lives in turn.

The silver energy falls and wraps up around us. There are at least four hundred portions, far more than I could ever hope to usurp even if I still had the energy I stockpiled.

Will it shred me apart? Fuel the blaze and turn me to ashes? The answer is irrelevant. I use the last of my time to send my thoughts to my lovers, hoping they’ll find happiness without me.

Yet, these last moments drag out. I suddenly notice that the heat has vanished, drained by the silver energy which is now swirling around me without attacking. I peer my eyelids open, causing Liz to settle back in her nest at the back of my mind.

Marks is glaring at something past me. The soldiers facing me seem stunned and are reorganizing their ranks in despair. I draw my broadsword from the ground and take a low defensive stance so as I throw a glance behind me.

I find that the riders are charging and that the archers have drawn their bows to aim at the Ladyling’s people. There is a woman in a thick white winter fur coat observing the entire pass from up the flank of the mountain with a thick cloud of majestic golden energy surrounding her.

Dammit, not Edusa again.” Liz grumbles.

Seems like we both owe her one.” I note, rather amused by my sister’s reaction of disgust but mostly relieved.

I inject a sliver of flow into my weapon and swing at the golden energy swirling around me, easily seizing it all. As Hetlan’s cavalry gallops on my flanks, I weave and launch air-blades ahead of them.

Retreat!” Marks bellows.

The soldiers’ shield-wall breaks like a dam as they turn tail and run. My air-blades are intercepted by disruption constructs and I decide not to reform them so as not to implicate Edusa since I’m using her flow.

The riders slow down and interrupt their charge but don’t break ranks or sheath their weapons as they observe them retreat. I hear a horse move close to me and turn to find a tall blonde grinning at me.

Idali lets her spear slide down to the ground and then uses it to gracefully hop off the horse. I sheath my weapon to hold my hand out. Idali seizes my wrist in the warrior way so I return the favor.

She looks in better health overall but, with how she dismounted, she seems to be avoiding to push the symbiont in her leg without reason. I refill my reserve with forty of the portions and send the rest of the flow back to Edusa.

How did you know?” I ask.

You’ve made quite a bit of noise, it would have been difficult not to hear about your exodus even without the spies feeding us more and more ridiculous reports.” Idali replies.
“What is the meaning of this attack, Duchess Hetlan?!” Marks utters.

Despite her voice being relatively quiet, it spreads throughout the gorge and then into the valley beyond. She seems to barely be able to stand on her feet yet her expression is resolute.

We are defending our Duchy.” Edusa replies with a calm and steady voice.

Pray-tell, what is the meaning of house Cenwalh sending an army into my Duchy?”

An army?! Weqrh.” Marks’ eruption of anger causes her coughing fit. Her face pales. “There are only a few hundred soldiers, this is no army!” She protests. “We are chasing a murderer!”

This is quite an outrageous force to hunt a mere criminal.” Edusa notes skeptically. She’s clearly lying through her teeth considering how promptly she defended me and then gave me flow. “It is a poorly chosen justification considering habits and custom dictate you should notify Hetlan rather than cross the borders of my demesne.” She adds.

There was no time to wait! Duchess, this Jessica Freepath is a dangerous rebel!” Marks protests.

What one calls a rebel, others like the people of Hetlan call a savior who rescued those house Cenwalh either abandoned or sold to the institute.” Edusa counters calmly.

Lies!” Marks bellows with a difficult expression.

We will deal with the issue ourselves, whatever the reason you aren’t allowed to cross our borders with an armed force of any size.” Edusa utters with finality.

This is borderline rebellion, Duchess! There is a decree ordering her capture or execution signed by both the Chancellor and the Queen!” The Ladyling exclaims. “You cannot stop me from arresting her!”
“The King himself could be here that I would turn him away, Countess Marks.” Edusa says with a cold voice that sends a shockwave through the ranks.

Treachery.” Marks murmurs in disbelief.

Caeviel has suffered enough because of his ambitions, I advise you not to trigger a civil war because I assure you that your knowledge of the events that led to this day is lacking.” The Duchess spells out each word and then waves her hand, ending her sound construct.

I throw Idali a curious look but she gives me a thin smile and a shrug to say she doesn’t know why Edusa is being so confrontational. Her cheeks are slightly red though, which I hope isn’t a sign she has a renewed interest in me.

I only told her she could trust you, I don’t know why she’d go this far.” Idali mutters.

Hm. I guess I’ll find out myself.” I say as I turn to leave.

Jessica Freepath!” Marks calls out. “I challenge you! Come and fight me!”

I pause to inspect her. She’s unsteady and pale, I can guess that she’s heavily bandaged and that the wound I inflicted on her is sutured. At least the woman has conviction and perseverance to complete her task.

Alright, I’ll accept if you can make a lion strike.” I yell back at her.

Marks grits her teeth and lowers her chin in shame. She knows she cannot without even trying. I make my way out of the pass. The archers and heavy infantry soldiers I walk by look upon me with admiration that tells me they’ve heard stories that don’t contain much of reality.

I split with Idali who return to Edusa while I go check up on the runaways to make sure the Duchess didn’t lie about her purpose of welcoming them. I find the camp only to witness Marie speaking to Siegfried and his companion Templar.

So there is a political game afoot, and here I thought the Order wasn’t allowed to play these. I sigh and recover my umbrella from one of the mules before heading for the side of the mountain upon which Edusa stands as a Queen in her white garb.

The sight disturbs me because I owe her and it would cost me to have to eventually destroy her if she clings to power. While I’ve not experienced the kind of political power she holds, I do have first-hand experience of what becoming almost unstoppable does to someone.

I may never have given up on the Little one if it wasn’t killing me, if I didn’t have the option to re-implant it and live a long life. It is a corruption of the mind to be powerful, one’s perspective changes to the point where one is no longer aware that they are no longer who they were but perhaps an opposite.

I slowly climb up the side of the valley until I find myself facing her with Idali a step behind. Her back is straight but her green gaze seems a bit timid, out of awkwardness or nervousness.

Jessica Freepath, we meet at last.” Edusa speaks up.

Liz spoke much of you as well.” I reply with a corner smile.

“It was difficult to tell whether Elizabeth was ally or enemy at the time, I don’t regret what I did, merely how or why I did.” She replies with a thin smile. “Congratulations but, I have to ask, how is my liege?”

Sad and angry. Her mother was killed through poison by an assassin likely sent by the Cenwalh or Roskal.” I reply flatly.

I’ve heard, I’m sorry your engagement ended in such tragedy.” Edusa says with a genuine expression. “I hope the rumors about Elizabeth hunting you are as misleading as the impostor was.”

Hm.” I pause to ponder. Are they? Sister, I would never! Liz. Well, I did consider trapping you in your head for a night alone with my kitten but… that doesn’t count right? “They’re greatly exaggerated.” I tell the Duchess.

Good, I’m playing a delicate game here and I would rather not have her chaotic influence destabilize it.” Edusa says with a sharp nod. “I now have the power to put her down and my competitive side may weigh on my judgment.” She did not just say that.

Hrm.” I clear my throat to suppress my hotblooded sister. “Should I take that as a warning for myself?” Edusa makes a mysterious smile that pretty much confirms my assumption. “Why did you act so heavy-handed towards Marks if you don’t exactly welcome me here?” I ask.

Because your quest was Noble according to the old usage of the word.” She replies. I can’t help making a grimace. “It would have been shameful for me to dedicate less to these people’s safety as you did.”

That’s quite the risk to take.” I note.

Not so much, the Order seems to be moving towards petitioning the Emperor to remove King Cenwalh from his throne, which would involve testimony from titled Nobles of Caeviel and opinions from rulers of other Kingdoms.” Edusa replies. “It gives me more freedom to act as I wish. There is also the fact that the King must be headed for Telnur at the moment so it’ll be a long while before the news catch up with him. Also, I’ve made sure that Meiridin receives reports of Hetlan being in chaos so they should perceive this move as a play to establish my authority rather than a threat.”

You’ve grown from your days of chasing Liz on Meria’s rooftops.” I comment with a chuckle.

“A mere half year but I now carry a multitude of lives on my shoulders.” Edusa replies with a humble tone that reassures me towards the future direction she’ll take.

Idali squirms a bit at these words. I narrow my eyes as I notice that her tint is redder than it was. No way. Idali’s falling for Edusa. She does have great eyes. Light gray is much cooler than green but… yes.

Is that the ring?” Edusa suddenly asks, causing Idali’s expression to stiffen. She’s definitely falling for her if just this innocent question is making her jealous.

“It is.” I reply with a smile.

What is it made of?” She questions curiously.

“Bone from…” I pause. “It’s complicated.” I tell her.

Now, I’m really dying to know. At least give me the short version?” Edusa insists.

“I guess I can.” I tell her, rather willing to show off. “Bone from my lost arm’s ring-finger forms the base with a band of silver from the symbol of our break-up around it. The black designs are from the hair Leomi cut, that itself is a long story but they turned white, and then the jewel chips spread out are symbolic as well.”

…” Edusa opens her mouth but then closes it and plasters a smile on her face. “It’s full of meaning, then?” She asks rhetorically. “That’s great.”

It is.” I agree despite the rings we wear being much more than that, platitudes are fine since neither I nor Leomi is easy to understand.

I’ve three people waiting in my tent who insisted on urgently meeting me before the battle, I assume they’re yours?” Edusa asks.

“No, they’re Hospitaliers.” I deny. “Sent by Leomi to watch over me and deliver messages to you.”

Ah.” Edusa nods. “We shall go, then.”

We?” I question.

“I would appreciate having the benefit of your perspective on the matter, but we can delay the meeting if you have other needs to attend to?” Edusa says, ending her declaration with an inquiring tone.

To be honest, I already have my plans so I’m going to sleep and eat.” I tell her.

And your plans won’t change according to the way these news affect Hetlan?” She asks with narrowed eyelids.

“Indeed.” I reply with a casual voice. “I serve none, Edusa.”

I would still rather have you in that meeting, sharing your views, than to learn of your actions once it is too late.” She argues, surprising me by not threatening me.

Fine, but I warn you that as soon as I find Wraith, I’ll be going after him whether he’s in the wild or hiding in the Emperor’s Tomb at the heart of the Empire.” I tell her.

I assume this Wraith is connected to the assassination.” Edusa notes. “You’ll have to tell me all about this but it shouldn’t be an issue.”

I nod and head out at her side towards the other side of the valley while telling her of what I found out. Idali follows in step with us while exuding an almost imperceptible acrid odor I recognize as Rykz pheromones.

We reach a large camp at the foot of the mountain holding at the very least a thousand soldiers. The guards at the entrance salute their Duchess but don’t bow or kneel, which I find very relaxed.

It is quite odd considering the respect each of her people shows her. The lack of Nobles in the encampment is just as significant, it seems like Edusa almost purged her surroundings of them or that those high born that serve her favor standard uniforms and Hetlan’s crest.

We make our way past a vast tent that seems to function as both forge and armory. The smiths inside are smelting ore, which to me indicates that the Duchy itself is running short on both supplies and workers as a consequence of all she had to cede to Cenwalh to obtain her title.

At the same time, there seems to be a large number of apprentices assisting the smiths so it may be that she’s already taken steps to cover her losses. Still, the grain she brought back from the south can’t have been enough.

How long will it take you to bring Hetlan back on war-footing?” I ask her.

It’s unknowable.” Edusa shakes her head. “If I had to guess, maybe half a year if things go perfectly with Sykus in Mirus.”

Well then, I’ll see you both tomorrow.” I tell her and Idali. “Have fun.” I add as I walk off to embarrass them both.

I make my way out of the camp from the east and walk the long way around it back up the mountain to find an isolated spot to rest in. Once I do, I simply crumble down to my ass. I pant heavily with a painfully throbbing chest as my nerves flare.

I’ve repressed myself since I thought I was going to die only to be rescued out of nowhere to not show weakness to anyone but the flirting with death took a toll on my mind and body. It takes me a while until I calm down enough to lie down in a ball and close my eyes shut.

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