A core of stronger recruits appears as time passes, they are those five or six hundred who did not rest since the beginning. They’re tough but that alone isn’t enough by itself as perseverance will be just as important.
“Switch to overhead blows.” I command with a calm voice as midday passes to make them use a different set of muscles.
Nahl and Rowland immediately begin instructing people on the stances to use. A very small number of people manage to properly execute the moves but their skill matters little to me.
The core group is further diminished by this change but not by much and peasants who are used to plowing achieve better results here than they did thrusting. Some collapse from this simple disruption to their mental state.
“Once more.” I speak up.
My voice causes many to jump back to their feet, as if startled awake by a superior, and I can’t help but chuckle bitterly. How ridiculous, do they take me to be a great woman who stands above them? I am clearly sitting down.
I feel odd with so many eyes on me but also avoiding me, scared but excited. I tap the wooden rampart as I observe them train, wondering how many will survive this. Stories about cold bloods are the stuff of nightmares, no child grows up without hearing at least a dozen, but the reality is much worse.
Of what I know, Lisilese are about as sturdy as Rykz drones yet are incomparable in their weapon-wielding skills on top of having their own access to the Lake.
While they don’t have a carapace, a cold blood’s body is tougher to kill than a drone’s so whoever follows me should have willpower to withstand whatever may come our way.
“Once more.” I command.
This time all rise to their feet. Some fall immediately after, their arms shaking and likely cramping with legs in no better shape, but they tried and those who couldn’t handle it join the next round with renewed determination. My fingers catch in my hair, causing me to notice I’ve been absentmindedly unraveling Leomi’s work.
“Woops.” I murmur. Well, I began so I might as well finish. I shrug and continue combing my hair to unravel the orderly knots Lance made by tidying them up. “Ke, ke, ke, ke.” I start cackling as I imagine the face she’ll make.
“Your madness is showing.” Uhla quietly notes. “And you’re making a mess.”
“Shh, they’ll hear you.” I urge while glancing over my shoulder.
“Who…” She says as she follows my gaze.
I immediately turn back and act innocent while she starts grumbling under her breath. Almost half of the core group has taken breaks at least once now and the day isn’t even over.
“Once more.” I call out.
Those resting almost all grunt in exhaustion but they climb back to their feet and resume swinging their weapons. Hours go by during which many split off to go drink water or eat their fill.
Most return very quickly, pressured by their sense of competition. I wait until the vast majority have made it back before standing up on the rampart and shaking my head to have my hair breathe a little. I glance to Nahl who nods, activating the construct to spread my voice.
“Let me repeat myself, I am not a Noble nor will I ever be one. What I will teach, you have no right to learn according to law. Death is likely to be your reward for going to war so make your resolve before leaving your loved ones or don’t leave them at all.” I calmly utter for the benefit of the many who got here late and wait a while before continuing. “The average sized weasel over there is Nahl, he’ll be my second-in-command but will effectively be your leader. That uselessly tall and brawny giant over there is Rowland, he will be leading you all into battle.” I let a moment pass for the recruits to engrave my two minion’s faces in their minds. “Now, they’ll lead you around this town to make camp on the western side. You may use your flow.”
My last words causes many eyes to widen and very few smiles to appear. This move of mine is quite simply to separate wheat from chaff. Those who kept up with the others by using their energy will now have to rely fully on their muscles while those who were smart or honest won’t have much trouble.
As for those who cannot keep up, well they’ll be left behind to spend some time alone with themselves to reflect on whether they’re qualified. I turn around, leaving the rest for my minions to manage as I approach the inner edge of the wooden rampart to jump into town.
“Hey! What am I supposed to do?” Uhla calls to me.
“Uh, whatever you want?” I reply, blinking. “I only need your help to heal me.”
“I was a Semplar you know.” She scowls at me with a dark expression.
“Isn’t she still? Wait, no, she joined the Hospitaliers.” I mutter. “Thank the Lake I didn’t say all this out loud.”
“You did speak aloud!” Uhla snaps at me with a harsh glare.
“No I didn’t.” I deny with a straight face. “Shit, did I?”
“You’re doing it again.” She remarks, gritting her teeth.
“Alright, alright, calm down you crazy woman.” I say, raising my palm in a peaceable manner that somehow seems to aggravate her. “It’s not my fault you’re hearing voices.”
“I’m not hearing voices, Jess, enough.” Uhla utters with a deep scowl.
“You’re deaf!?” I exclaim. “Damn, my bad, I didn’t notice.” I say with a concerned expression, turning to the town guards who’re staring at us with huge eyes. “You should have told me, I never noticed.” I berate them.
“Urhkrgraah!” Uhla screams at my face as she turns and runs off.
“Wait, don’t leave! I need you to manage Nahl and Rowland, these two kids will keep bickering if they’re left to their own devices!” I call out to her.
The ex-Semplar freezes on the spot with shaking shoulders. Hm, this is bad. I hurriedly leap off the rampart and use my flow to carry myself far far away from the short-tempered angry woman.
“Come back here, Jessica!” A voice reaches my ears but I’m almost positive that person is addressing a different Jessica.
I land after having traveled some distance and grip my fist to subdue my shaking fingers. I’d long reached my limit being observed by so many eyes and could only last so long because no one got close to me.
I take a deep breath and almost run to Leomi but suppress the urge as I don’t want to grow to rely on her when afraid. No matter how much we love each other, it would not end well for either of us considering our personalities.
I thus decide to head for a merchant guild by myself, facing my fears head-on. Yet, I’m not so foolish as to do so without preparation so I prepare a dozen blood-constructs that can turn into needles or blades at a thought to my body.
This, added to the perception construct always ready to be activated with my control of air and kinetic force, allows me to settle down somewhat yet there is still a hole in my heart.
My hunting knife is useful, and so are the daggers, but they’re not true weapons. I feel a longing for my hammer, which Liz shamelessly stole and took for her own when it was mine from the start.
I pause in the middle of the street and dismiss the impulse because having another hammer forged would be reckless hubris on my part, to many people know about hybrids and the Rykz’ capabilities and doing this would be akin to giving them a map to connect the dots.
It is a tiny sacrifice to ensure my plan will succeed, besides hammers are fun but somewhat unwieldy. This decision makes me shiver as I feel naked and unsafe without my armor or a good weapon. I grunt and grit my teeth to dismiss this mental weakness which I cannot allow in my current physical shape.
No matter what, I can rely on myself and Leomi. I smile as I realize that this thought is no longer a hopeful mantra but a truth, although one dependent on circumstances but that isn’t entirely my fiancee’s fault considering my greed.
I run my gaze to my surroundings, noticing naught of alarm. Most around are civilians going about their day with a few patrolling guards and some merchants as well as some Hospitaliers.
I head straight towards the center of town where I find a Temple guarded by Semplars, a sign that the Order has gathered as much of its forces as it could, and few guilds.
The merchant’s guild is a wooden building adjacent to the artisan’s guild which is made of stone. I make my way for the former and a young armed guard who opens the door for me.
Upon entering, the receptionist hurries over with a slightly panicky expression. I frown but remain outwardly immobile yet ready to lash out or escape at a moment’s notice.
“Miss Freepath, how may we help you?” The man cordially asks.
“I need grain but I’m broke, also I could use silver coins.” I straightforwardly reply. I mentioned that those who answered my call wouldn’t be fed but there will always be some without supplies and some ill-prepared. “You can send the bill to Prince Arkur of house Telnur.”
“I’m not authorized to make such a transaction.” The attendant tells me with an awkward expression.
“Then tell someone who is.” I blandly respond. “I need food enough to supply a few hundred during their journey to Telnur as well as a full pouch of silver, have it delivered to my people.”
“Dame, this is…” The man starts.
“Have the contract sent to me when it’s done.” I cut him off.
I immediately turn to make my way out because I don’t like the fact this attendant knows of me so I give up negotiating and settle with whatever they’ll feel like giving me.
It matters little, I’ll just steal from Leomi or someone else if they refuse and make Arkur pay the interest, but they won’t since this is a chance to sell at a high price and what merchant would give up such a deal?
“It’s going to be expensive, there isn’t much grain left here and we’ve just learned that many of Calmwater’s granaries were emptied months ago.” The man warns as I walk out.
Knew it, this means there is a good chance the guild will agree to my request, at least partially. After all, the coin I’m asking for is negligible for a Prince but significant for me and them so there isn’t much risk to the transaction.
I couldn’t have done this, or gathered so many people, without having built my reputation first, but this is merely a side-benefit the same way the force I’m building is a distraction to dangle under Cenwalh’s nose.
On the other hand, the information he gave me on Calmwater is interesting but I can’t quite pinpoint why that is… does it touch on something I heard or is it just my instinct telling me it matters?
I try to puzzle things together as I make my way back to the inn but all it gets me is a slight headache. I open the inn’s door with a trembling hand and walk inside to find a bunch of rowdy people.
The noise and ambiance makes me tense up but, oddly enough, it also helps my mind relax a bit because of how familiar it is to me. Still, being in the midst of so many people is dangerous so I quickly grab some food from the kitchen and rush back to our room.
I find it empty and thus proceed carefully by scanning the area little by little as I advance only to freeze almost immediately because I spot an open window.
Leomi wouldn’t make such a mistake so I immediately activate my perception construct while swiftly applying a layer of flow around me which I direct through intent to redirect kinetic force.
This defense starts burning energy because it repels the surrounding air but I care not for the expense as hurriedly shape my newly developed construct to enhance my eyesight.
“Aisha.” I call out, thinking that anyone else would have been detected by my scans or eyes. “You shouldn’t dismantle our alarms like this, what if I struck you down?”
“You’re way too perceptive, I can’t even prank you.” Her playful voice arises from a corner in the room.
I don’t turn to the origin and hurriedly finish my construct which allows me to find her standing near the spot where I heard her but not exactly there. Her silhouette is half-formed and bizarre in my sight, composed of mere flickers of silver lightning.
“You can actually find me.” Aisha remarks as she dismisses her camouflage, revealing an astonished expression.
I deactivate my active constructs and take note of the fact she stayed immobile while using it. I run my gaze over her figure. Her curly black hair have regrown to mid-cheek while her eyes are black, she didn’t color them blue which could be significant or not at all. Her round face is as cute as ever but I’m in no mood to flirt.
“I always could.” I lie.
“Hmph.” She grunts in displeasure, understandably unwilling to accept the statement.
“You dismantled the alarms.” I comment.
“Couldn’t exactly wake the whole city by triggering them.” She remarks. “I came over for that favor you owe me.”
I squint as I inspect her to figure out her motives. Our relationship isn’t as good as it was before, not that it was ever smooth, but there is an added tension between us since our argument. Still, she hasn’t acted against me and always kept her word as far as I can tell.
“How did you find out about my engagement?” I probe.
“With Celyz?” She questions. “I didn’t, the Rykz revealed it themselves to our Emperor.”
“What… why?” I ask myself aloud, baffled because Grikyz make it clear she wouldn’t involve the entire Hive to help me.
“Probably has something to do with our recent string of victories.” The Shade replies. “They likely want our Emperor to think of the hybrids lurking in His Empire, distracting Him so He focuses on internal issues instead of them.”
It would make sense and it fits the Rykz’ style since this benefits both them as well as me, an equivalent exchange which is the only kind Celyz and Cetyz would have agreed to. I miss those two sisters, so much.
I got myself in trouble so this option presented itself for us to help each other, the Silver Hive can’t take advantage of me because of our engagement but they didn’t have a choice but to take some kind of action if ordered by their First Queen or if it became necessary for the Rykz as a whole.
“Did you really… uh, sweep a Rykz Princess off her feet?” Aisha asks while throwing me an odd look.
“Roots, but yea.” I admit with a grin which I quickly smother. “If I catch even the shadow of a beacon construct or anything I take as threatening in my surroundings, I’ll kill you instantly by the way.” I warn, not forgetting how dangerous Archer is.
“I’m not here to threaten you.” She dismisses with a wave of her hand. “But I need you to pay back the favor you owe me.”
“What do you want?” I ask, scowling at this bad timing.
“You’re not going to let me settle down first?” Aisha asks with a coquettish pout. I glare but I can’t exactly deny warmth to a guest.
“Take a seat.” I wave at the room.
Aisha smiles and drags a chair away from the table to settle down. I stay where I am, away from doors and windows, merely rotating to keep her in my sight. She crosses her legs and taps her lips with her index.
“I need you to kill Tsek, he’s somewhere in Calmwater Duchy causing trouble.” She plainly tells me.
“…” I gape for a moment, thinking I misheard. “Isn’t he your boy-toy? And kill him? What the fuck! He’s your problem, you brought him to Kruzser!” I explode.
“He has completely betrayed the Empire so he has to die.” She coldly responds, her ruthlessness clashing with her smile. “He also stole from you, he’s been repeatedly warned by us both so what’s the problem? Just go kill him, you owe me.”
“Do it yourself, I don’t owe you that big a favor.” I reply with a frown.
“I would use my people, but then I couldn’t guarantee the safety of that girl by his side.” Aisha replies plainly.
I close my fist but don’t explode because it doesn’t feel like she’s threatening me, merely exposing a fact. She isn’t afraid of Tsek but moving herself exposes her so she would have to use other people or eliminate all witnesses… which hired killers would also do, meaning Teva would die either way.
Does Aisha know what he stole? No or she wouldn’t be so calm. It would be best if she didn’t find out, do I have to act after all? Teva is at risk, she might’ve betrayed me and I’ll never trust her again but the root of it was a misunderstanding on her part. Was it? Leomi is a Noble, there is no denying that.
“So?” Aisha presses.
“Is his life so cheap to you?” I ask, suspicious.
“… I would rather not do this, and I will not do it personally, but there is a line and he has repeatedly crossed it after being forgiven once and made fully aware of the consequences.” She says between her grit teeth. “You’ll be given a letter once you make it there.”
With that said, the Shade stands and leaves without turning back. Then what was the point of sitting down you little minx? I wait for her to jump out the window to close it and settle down on the bed.
There is only one thing that would make her take such swift and deadly action, Tsek couldn’t keep his mouth shut about the Vault. I bite down on my lower lip.
Aisha clearly has no choice but to use me and I’ve little choice but to comply as the possibility exists Suxen got Tsek to do this because revealing the Vault might be the start of an escape plot. I’m not sure what I’ll do but, either way, I have to go in order to ensure Aisha doesn’t send hired killers.