In Peace.Ch55

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I dig a small and shallow hole first to then expand on it. I keep going until my arm starts shaking from exhaustion. I take a break by going around the house while dragging my feet into the snow in order to gather more pieces of debris.

I find enough to build a secondary fire but the wood is wet so I stack it inside the house for later in the winter. I take the breached barrel where we stocked our food and bring it over the small hole I dug, I stomp down on the wood to make it fit inside and set it on fire with flow.

I then put the cooking pot on the blaze, I filled it with water before leaving for the village. While waiting for it to boil, I make my way to the handcart and bring it closer to the fire so I can eat in relative warmth.

Once I’m done, I go check up on the children, finding that they’ve barely even made any progress. There are still wooden chunks everywhere and strands of hay spread out all across the floor. They throw me looks of defiance, especially boy three.

I lay my hand on my knife’s handle, which makes them look away and pretend to work even harder, picking up one strand of hay at a time. I sigh and make my way to the well.

I resign myself, starting to lift a bucket of cold water up. I wrap the rope around my forearm and pull, repeating the action over and over until I end up panting with a bucket on the side of the well.

I wrap the long rope around my waist while I catch my breath to then head back to the gaping hole in my room’s wall, wondering if they took hammers or just spent weeks using their flow to dismantle it. I put the bucket down on the ground to pick it up by the rim and pick it up to rest the bottom on my thigh.

Heads up.” I warn just as I cross the gap.

The four kids look up to me with blank and confused expressions until I propel the water in their general direction with my leg and arm. The way their eyes widen as the freezing cold water splashes at their feet and drenches them up to their ankles makes the energy I wasted doing this all worth it. They scream in anger and outrage which almost manages to make me smile.

What did you do that for?!” Girl one yells.

It stank.” I reply coolly.

Girl one and boy three move towards me with closed fists stop after taking a few steps. I think my expression is what causes them to stop but I can’t really see my face so it’s hard to tell. Boy one, with his broken ribs, and boy two, with his smashed nose, retreat in the corners of the room.

I’ll have a lot more free time tomorrow to motivate you.” I tell them before departing.

I unwrap the rope from my waist and throw the bucket back into the well. The second fire I started is running out of wood so I take the cooking pot off the fire and pour the steaming water over it so it trickles into the hole I dug and softens up the ground.

I then shovel the cinders and wood chunks out before resuming my work. I keep working like this for hours on end in utter silence without my mantra, focused on getting enough done by nightfall to finish tomorrow morning to go hunting and foraging in the afternoon.

Unfortunately, the shovel slips out of my tired fingers a few times which slows me down considerably. I end up coming short by nightfall so I light up a tiny fire construct on a stick to light up the area and keep working. After a while, I hear footsteps approaching, likely the children.

So, you done?” I ask, stepping out of the still shallow grave.

I wipe my brow before glancing at the kids. They’re dirty up to their knees and elbows with traces of soot on their clothes. Well, they shouldn’t have lit a fire in my room or even entered it.

They are also being oddly silent. I pick up the stick with the fire construct attached to it and raise it to take a look at their faces. They are showing awkward expressions, apparently taking stock of what I’m doing.

Don’t make me come and find you tomorrow morning.” I grunt.

I plant the flaming stick back into my pile of loose ground and get back to digging. I fail to plant the shovel right a couple times, mostly because I’m being observed and that’s putting me on edge.

Beat it!” I growl.

They leave slowly. I almost get out to chase them off but decide against the waste of energy. I get back to work but end up having to stop when I run out of flow to fuel my fire construct.

I end up having to eat a cold meal because I didn’t think ahead enough to realize I don’t have a flint, not that it matters much to me. I think of Leomi and what she could be doing, as I have during the day, but that doesn’t get me anywhere.

She’ll return, she has to. I lie down in a corner of the cart to go to sleep, aware that I’m going to need to plant the parasite soon. Likely between some thick bushes at the far end of the backyard where even my brother and I didn’t go explore when we were young.

— — —

I wake up at early dawn, rising with the sun to stretch my sore limbs. I immediately get to planting the parasite in the bushes, deciding that it’s a priority before the kids arrive in a few hours and that it needs to be done out of anyone’s sight.

I don’t bother to dig a hole, I merely use the shovel to push branches away and clear a small path. I drag the chest deep into the bushes and step out to make sure it can’t be seen even from someone standing in front of it.

I then unlock the chest and step back to kick the lid open. I wait for a few seconds before using a signaling construct to tell it that there is food. I am counting on the fact that I’ve kept doing this as I traveled to establish an understanding between us, that I’ll feed it as long as it doesn’t attack me.

The Little one sends a couple hesitant tendrils out. I grit my teeth and reach out with my right hand, hoping that this isn’t going to end into a fight because all I can really use is the lightning construct and lion strikes.

I will lose if this goes badly and becomes a contest of strength as I’m certain its tendrils are stronger than my arm. No, if it attacks, I need to use all my energy to knock it out with a bolt.

I slowly approach the parasite with my right hand, sensing continuous friend signals. It is reassuring to me that the Little one is slow in its response, almost lethargic, but I don’t trust it so I keep my guard up.

The parasite unearths more appendages that slowly climb up to my wrist like slow-growing vines. I send a friend message again as it pulls itself out of the wooden chest with my wrist.

The ten-kilogram parasite hangs itself on my arm, forcing me to make a huge effort to move it in the thickest part of the bush. The Little one’s tendrils release my wrist one after the other until the parasite drops on the ground.

It uses its appendages to explore its surroundings through touch until it finds the largest branches. At that point, it starts using its large root-like fingers to dig the earth and plant itself horizontally.

I’ll have to be careful not to step over it, it’ll likely pounce out of the ground. And keep an eye on these bushes in case they wither. I’ll have to keep giving it animal guts and vegetable peels to make sure it keeps seeing me as a provider even though I’m certain it can now find plenty to eat for itself.

Its lethargic behavior makes it unlikely that it’ll go after humans or animals unless they walk atop of it, but I still carve the word ‘danger’ on the inside of the chest’s lid and leave it there.

I then get out and use the shovel to push the branches I cleared back into place, including a few brambles that weren’t in the way before. Satisfied, I head back to the grave to resume digging on an empty stomach.

My state of mind takes a bit of a hit from my slow progress, I had estimated that it would take me a long time to do this with a single arm but instead of spending a few more hours, it’s going to take me a whole afternoon and morning.

I hear the kids from hundreds of meters away as they’re joking and talking loudly on the road. I grit my teeth, knowing full well that there isn’t much to do in the winter other than prepare for spring and take care of farm animals.

It helps that they turn quiet when they see the house and stop to stack stones from the wall they destroyed in the wheelbarrow they brought. They also took brooms along with them and are wearing gloves which shows that they intend to fix the wall today.

Yet, I see no sign of mortar. I sigh and resign myself to living with a draft until I find the time to make some. I could ask but I wouldn’t trust them to do it properly, mostly because I don’t think they know how.

I finish digging the grave at noon so I make my way back to the handcart to take Father’s bones. As I do, I catch sight of the two Hospitaliers making their way uphill with a wicker basket.

Checking up twice in two days isn’t a coincidence. I suppose I brought this on myself by being moderately aggressive. I walk around the house to take a look at the kids’ work in case I need to kick some butts before the Hospitaliers arrive.

I find the children sitting in a circle. They’ve stacked the stones back up and filled the gap, the wall isn’t entirely straight but it never was. They’re watching me with suspicious glances.

Did you clean it all up inside?” I ask.

Yes.” Boy two replies, pointing at a stack of hay and debris that they pushed to the edge of the yard.
“Then what are you waiting for to beat it?” I question.
“Lunch.” Boy one replies with a glare.
“Not here you’re not.” I inform them before flipping around to stomp towards the Hospitaliers.

They grow a bit tense, likely because of the fact I’m squeezing my knife’s handle, but keep walking. I plant myself in their way with a dark look on my face. They make awkward little bows.

Good day, Ms Jessica.” The tall one speaks up.

Names?” I ask.

I’m Frank, this is Hale.” The shorty replies.
“Frank, Hale, what do you think you’re doing?” I question with a fake smile.

Well, we thought that eating together would help ease the tensions.” Hale replies hesitantly.
“Girl one has been avoiding me for fear that I might turn her lesbian. Boy one has less brain than his father, and that’s saying a lot, he hasn’t come up with an original insult, ever. Boy two has never realized that the fact he doesn’t understand something isn’t an argument in his favor. Boy three is too clueless to realize that challenging me is a bad idea after I laid his three friends down singlehandedly.” I catch my breath as the angry barrage escaped me a bit. “Should continue? I can go into specifics.” I propose.

No, we’ve heard plenty.” Frank replies awkwardly.

No, no. It’s important you know that boy two thinks he’s a man, and that it somehow means that women shouldn’t talk back.” I press.

They came back motivated last night and left this morning after their chores. They were repentant.” Hale tries.

I half-expected to be told that Roger’s mother left his family when he was a kid and that it’s hard for him but I doubt these two have been here long enough to have caught onto that story. I’m of the mind that the mother left because of how they treated her but I wasn’t born and people don’t really like talking about it.

What did they say? That seeing dig my father’s grave set them straight, it made them realize how wrong they’ve behaved? I’m sure they feel real guilty.” I comment sarcastically.

…” Frank throws a look at the kids over my shoulder.

His jaw is clenched while Hale looks discomfited, clearly they’ve been tricked. I would bark out in mocking laughter but I’ve wasted enough time and air on this.

I expect the lot of you to be gone within the next minute.” I utter flatly. “I have things to do.”

I turn around and make my way to the handcart without letting them answer. I step over the slipknot and pull it up to my waist, fastening it. I pull the cart over to the side of our house, where we kept the dry wood for the winter.

I unpack everything into the main room, including my liangi’s case which also contains Suxen’s notebook, my mask, and my mail-shirt. I leave it in a corner of the room while I make the rounds outside to make sure the Hospitaliers and kids left.

Once I’m certain, I head back inside and start dislodging stones at the base of the northern wall. I then start scraping at the ground until I find the plank covering the hole we dug to keep our money safe.

I pull it towards me, because it’s still a bit lodged under a tiny space in the wall even after removing the base stones, and then up to uncover a small sack. I open it, finding what few coins I have left.

I replace the silver coins in my pouch with copper ones and then go out to pick the shovel. I dig at the sides of the holes until it’s long enough to be able to fit my liangi’s case, throwing the dirt out of the window.

I then store the case and place the plank back, shoving the stones I removed into their original place. I go out and take a deep breath. With this done, all that’s left is bury Father and start my new life by going out to hunt.

We have a week or two before we starve, plenty of time. I should also start scouring the area for Leomi. I unsheathe my hunting knife for a moment. I‘ll blame them as I will my Lady if she gave up. I shake my head and take the piece of cloth containing Father’s remains.

Normally, the Templar would officiate and people would show up. At least the villagers have enough sense not to show up, I’m not convinced Father agreed to have our stables dismantled and I would have turned them away anyway for how they sided with Buton. Funny how they suddenly hate the Baron.

I take a long look at Mother’s grave as I step down into Father’s, remembering how angry the burial ceremony and empty words uttered that day made me. How little it helped me or my family go through the ordeal, we only recovered with time, and work.

It makes me realize that no amount of apology, self-blame, praise, or prayers to the Lake would suffice. None of it seems appropriate. I unwrap the piece of cloth holding Father’s bones at the bottom of the grave to start transferring them one by one.

Thank you, so much for, raising me, Mother, Father.” I utter as clearly as I can with my voice cracking from grief.

The words bring tears to my eyes that I let flow freely as I set his bones in order and place two copper coins over his eye-sockets. I do so because old stories relate that it was done in olden times.

In spite of my dismissing most of those long forgotten traditions as superstition, and even doubting the Lake at times, I need to provide Father the best chances I can.

I climb out of the grave as carefully as possible and start burying Father, taking great care in the first few dozen shovels of earth I throw in so as not to disturb the bones.

It takes me a long time to fill the grave but I take no breaks and use no flow. I take comfort in the fact that the Emperor is not Chosen as it means that the Lake doesn’t support any one being above any other, it doesn’t favor any species.

Father and Mother worked hard all their lives, it should count towards being blessed by the Lake in death. They never took hateful actions even if they weren’t perfect. If they aren’t welcomed by the golden flames, then no one would be.

You took good care of us.” I speak up while looking to the sky, but not at the sun as looking at the dead could torment them with regret. “Brother will come pay his respects one day, I’m sure of it.” I take a deep breath. “I’ll survive. It took me a while but I’ve learned to trust what you taught me about life. It’s about how you face the challenges, not how much they hinder you.”

As I speak, my roiling sadness finds a resting place in my heart. Somewhere to lay without crushing me but also without disappearing. My grief remains harsh and difficult to bear, yet it is also a reminder of the love we had as a family and that they’ll always be with me.

I lay my hand over my heart, lean my head down until my chin touches my chest, and close my eyes before giving them my parting words. “You gave us everything we needed to forge our own paths. Father, Mother, you can now rest in peace.”

Arc 06 End –

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In Peace.Ch54

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The family doesn’t listen as they keep dragging Roger away. I catch a few words, piecing together that they’re berating him for behaving like he’s twelve. I frown but don’t raise my voice again, knowing that there’s little point in arguing over one kid now when I want all four.

As if on cue, the old temple guard advances forward, causing the two Hospitaliers to step closer to the front of the crowd. Both men are pretty young with the facial hair of those who haven’t fully grown up yet or learned how to properly shave.

They had spears because they didn’t recognize you and went out to protect the village!” The Templar speaks up once he arrives at the half-way point between me and the villagers. “They were correct to since you attacked and still hold a weapon!”

I run my gaze over the crowd, noticing that quite a few throw looks of disdain to the old man. Slaughter him. Only if need be. Carlo… rather the kid whose name I don’t recall that didn’t have the guts to come out, is hiding behind the corner of a house and observing the situation with a nervous expression.

There is no sense in responding to the Templar, everyone here understands perfectly what the kids were trying to do after I’ve told them the state of my home.

That doesn’t mean they’ll help me, only that arguing is pointless. Besides, the old temple guard’s stature is crumbling from how obvious it is that I’m ignoring him, having already dismissed his role.

I’m pretty sure the Order’s statutes don’t require Templars to receive a request for arbitration for them to do their duty but this is a small village where people don’t like others butting into their business uninvited, even if they do spy from afar.

What happened to our stables?” I ask in a cold tone, choosing to improve my hand before playing it. “And to our horses?”

The insects killed them.” The Templar replies viciously.
“The Rykz started pillaging the area, your father agreed to dismantle the building to help build walls.” Martina speaks up.

I freeze at the sound of her voice, almost failing to catch my hunting knife as I was in the middle of switching to a standard grip. I try but don’t find the courage to look at her, the memory of her rejecting me, of my life crumbling, too fresh in spite of it having happened years ago.

They didn’t own the building anyway, they defaulted on their debt to Bar… Buton!” The Templar exclaims, addressing the village as he glares at me.

The fact he corrects himself from using the title shows it was a slip of tongue. There’s quite the resentment over the old Baron fleeing by himself. The crowd’s hard expressions clearly indicates their position on the matter.

You will hold your tongue.” I tell the Templar with a slight smile. “Or I may decide to take it.”

Gasps go through the crowd while the old temple guard blinks and takes a half-step back before drawing his sword with a certain delectable fright in his eyes. The Hospitaliers’ expressions grow serious.

They both raise their hands, making the crowd’s flow flare before receding. An effective show of power without escalating. I glance at the twin mountains to the south-east, taking a deep breath in nostalgia.

We have already settled on a schedule to rebuild what we’ve taken down when the snows melt, Jessica.” Ms Conner speaks up. “Since your family’s need is most urgent, we will place you ahead in the list.”

There is no more family, I’m alone now.” I respond, despising the anguish I hear in my voice. Brother may never return.

I… I’m sorry to hear that.” Ms Conner says. “Your father was a good man.”

I care not for condolences from any of you.” I tell her, repressing my sadness as it hinders my anger.

I hear movement behind me so I shift to ascertain my surroundings while keeping the Templar and the Hospitaliers within my range of sight. Ms Conner is walking over to Victor, having left her daughter Emily in the dirt even though she’s waking up.

The four who have treated my home worse than they would a barn will return with me to fix what they’ve done.” I speak up loudly so all can hear. It’s satisfying to see the fourth kid jump and hide behind the corner, but not enough for me to forgive.

You can’t prove ‘mah Victor did anything!” The father yells. “And you attacked him!” He adds like he forgot.

In fact, the man hasn’t even rushed to his kid, too busy maintaining his venomous glare. Probably thinks his child deserved the beating if he couldn’t beat a freak like me. I really hate that I agree on the first part even if not the second.

My only need for proof would be if I cared to convince any of you.” I utter coldly.

You cann…” The Templar starts but cuts himself off when I point the tip of my hunting knife towards him without even looking.

My daughter will do all she can to make up for what she did.” Ms Conner speaks up.

Roger will too.” The cousin speaks up. I hadn’t noticed he returned with the kid in question.

Roger’s face is bright red, clearly from having taken slaps. His nose was wiped of blood but it’s slightly crooked, meaning I broke it. I raise my upper lip, showing teeth in a parody of a smile. The kid pales, which draws out red hand-marks on his cheeks.

Well, Victor won’t!” The father spouts out.

My child wouldn’t do this!” A mother calls out, likely referring to the fourth kid.

A cacophony of dissenting voices arises from the crowd, the outrage sounds fake to me as they’re discussing a matter doesn’t concern them. It enrages me almost as much as those pretty much saying the Templar has a point about me behaving like I own the place.

How about you lodge in the village and we can all take care of this in spring?” Ms Conner proposes, likely out of concern for me since she should be aware to a point about the damage and my empty pantry.

There will be reparation today or there will be bodies.” I flatly affirm with simmering rage, cutting short every conversation like I threw a bucket of cold water over them.

I face the village, most of it has gathered by now, conscientious of my bloodthirsty look. While most freeze, the Hospitaliers move forward with aplomb and the old Templar regains his courage from that, advancing towards me but no further than they do.

This isn’t how disputes are resolved, Ms Jessica.” The taller Hospitalier speaks up.

There is no dispute here.” I rebuke. “Either they do what’s right, or I’ll make them and take down those who stand in my way. You’ve been warned.

I flip around while paying very close attention to any silvery flicker that could appear and listening closely for any sounds. I make my way to Emily who tenses up, staring at my long hunting knife with wide open eyes.

Ms Conner, who is holding Victor by the waist to help him stay up, looks at me with an appraising look. She starts dragging Victor over to her daughter who is now shaking.

Up.” I tell the girl who seems frozen and not just because her butt is buried in snow.
“M, Mom!” Emily stutters, crying out for help.

Learn something while you’re there, Emily.” Ms Conner replies calmly. “Actions have consequences. Count yourself lucky, many would not even give you the opportunity to make up for your mistakes.”

The woman’s words convince me to stand by instead of forcing the girl to get up, especially since doing that would require me to sheathe my weapon. Ms Conner grabs her daughter with her free hand to firmly pull her up and take over for supporting a whimpering, grimacing, Victor.

The kid is still dazed, but I get a lot of satisfaction out of his tormented expression. I only seem to have cracked his ribs but I’ll just have to break them for good if he pisses me off.

I hear Roger scream so I throw him a glance, finding him struggling against his cousin who is firmly dragging him over. I catch a silver flicker behind my back. I take two steps to the side before pivoting to face the threat, weapon drawn back to slash out if needed.

Victor’s father stops dead in his tracks. He was trying to sneak by to get his son. I glare at him until he moves back, holding his hands up with a look of panic.

See! This freak is a menace, she almost struck him!” The Templar exclaims.

Don’t try to slither behind my back and you won’t run the risk of being struck down.” I growl.

He takes a step forward but flicks a look to the Hospitaliers and doesn’t dare any more when the two don’t follow his lead. In fact, the two put some distance to the old temple guard to exchange a few words between themselves.

The proposed resolution that the culprits repair what they’ve damaged is fair.” The tall Hospitalier speaks up. “We strongly encourage those who have been pointed out to cooperate but if you estimate that you aren’t guilty, we will take upon ourselves to investigate and refer what we find for judgment in Meria.”

With that said, we will not stand for violence of any kind.” The other one adds, clearly aiming the comment at me even though he’s also warning the old temple guard.

There is no need. I knew something was up with my daughter and her friends, they are clearly responsible.” Ms Conner intervenes.

I agree.” The cousin speaks up. “I’ve seen them lurk in that area when they should have been gathering firewood.”

But…” Roger protests.
“Shut up.” His father yells out from the back.

Bring a shovel.” I shout at where the fourth kid was hiding.

I resist the pull to provoke the Hospitaliers who split up to talk to Victor’s father and Carlo. Whatever annoyance I have with myself for submitting to Grace’s interrogation, it isn’t their fault and they’re helping even if I rather wish they do not.

I signal at Roger to tell him to go help Emily hold Victor. Ms Conner keeps her dark glare trained on all three, standing with her arms crossed. I almost smile as the view is nostalgic. I really need to forget all their names, they aren’t worth memorizing.

The fourth better catch up with that shovel, I won’t be as nice next time.” I threaten any who are listening. “Now, get going.” I tell the three kids.

I wave my hunting knife to push them to move, making them scuttle back in fright with outraged cries coming from girl number one and boy number two while boy number one screams in pain from the small booboo to his ribs.

Their protests and calls for help quickly die out as they are met with cold looks from the villagers who seem to be shifting the blame for the violent situation on them. They’re too afraid to berate the woman with the drawn weapon.

I shake my head from the temptation to escalate and force a confrontation, focusing instead on our goal of burying Father and getting my house in order. I can feel that Elizabeth doesn’t like it but she isn’t about to contradict us, her and me.

The kids complain to each other as they walk ahead of me, I actually dismantle the sense-enhancing construct I applied to my ears in order not to hear their hypocritical reasoning about how this is all my fault.

Not only would it enrage me, but it would inevitably weight on my shoulders and that would require me to work through their bullshit to get it out of my head. I’ve done that too much for too long.

Still, I take a malignant pleasure in walking quickly even as it tires me just to make them panic and accelerate, not to mention boy number one’s occasional agonized and fearful shouts.

Boy number three catches up with a shovel as we engage on the hill leading home. I slash my hunting knife in the air to make my him sweat with the threatening swishing sound it produces.

Pick it up!” I call out.

That freak.” Boy number two grumbles, showing that the slaps didn’t do the work they were meant to.

I don’t respond, finding the insult repetitive and quite lacking when made at a monster. Besides, they’ll soon be too busy to think up better ways to curse me. I chuckle darkly. Their backs straighten in reaction, making me double down as I savor their fear.

The Hospitaliers end up showing up on the road as well behind us, following at slow walking pace. It bothers me but it’s not like they’re doing anything wrong so I let it go and vent my annoyance by making the kids accelerate.

When we arrive, I point them to the hole in my room’s wall and make them walk inside. I sheathe my weapon and steal the shovel from boy number three, if I can even call it that considering it’s no more than a square piece of metal screwed to a wooden shaft.

Hey! Where are the brooms?!” Boy number two asks, looking around.

Tool closet is empty.” I reply calmly in spite of the fury it inspires me that I’ve lost close to everything.
“There’s no way we can do this without even a shovel, then. Give it back, freak.” Boy three proclaims, suddenly acting all brave with his hand extended out.

Ha, funny.” I chortle while taking a step back through the hole in the wall to cover my flanks.

Boy three takes a half-step forward with his chest extended out. I guess he feels that he has the numbers now. He might not have stayed behind out of cowardice earlier but to be on the lookout.

Girl one, boy one, and boy two don’t follow the kid’s example, they actually shift aside to put some distance between them and him. Boy three throws them baffled glances, apparently thinking that they should help him take me on.

I stick the shovel’s handle under my armpit and swing it at him. It smacks him right in the back of the head. Clonk. He cries out in pain and falls over, almost smacking his nose on the ground.

Ouch! Are you crazy?!” He spouts out.

I don’t care how you do it, use your hands and nails if you need to.” I tell the children. “But this won’t be over until the wall is fixed, and trust me, I’ll be on the lookout for sloppy work. If you have to spend all winter rebuilding this wall over and over again, that’ll be fine by me.”

You don’t even have floorboards, what does it matter! You live like a pi…” Boy three has the good sense to cut himself off before losing his head to an unfortunate shovel accident.

I lower the tool and glare at them one by one until I get them all to lower their eyes to the ground. It takes them a good five minutes to realize that I’m waiting for them to get to work. Boy number one starts doing so in bad faith, using only two fingers to pick up one of my bed-frame’s shards.

You’re going to get a lot more injured before this is over if you keep this up.” I tell them as I leave. Violence clearly won’t work to get them into a proper state of mind, which is good because I have a temper.

You’re not helping?!” Girl one cries out.

I choose not to dignify the dumb comment with a response. I trail towards the arriving Hospitaliers. The two slow down as they see me headed their way, making awkward faces as I throw them a cold glance.

You can stay on the road if you want.” I tell them. “But those are my lands and you’re not stepping on them.”

Technically, they belong to the Republic of Izla Meria under King Cenwalh, Ms Jessica. If you want to buy the property title, there is an office to make the request to in Meria.” The tall one replies.

Being polite is no excuse for being a smart-ass.” I respond, looking down on the man from below. “Let me ask you a question, do I look like someone who cares about the technicalities of who my land belongs to?”

Clearly not.” The man acknowledges.
“Then don’t fucking bring it up.” I grunt. I start turning around but he stops me by raising his hand.

We do need to ask you about the status of your pledge.” He tells me.

What?” I blink.

Baron Buton is dead, and his heirs have fled the Izla in fear of the Red Dwarf.” He explains. I’m not that small. “You could be unbound without your knowledge since no one currently holds the title.”

And you want me to swear a flow oath to the Hospitaliers?” I ask, feeling a cold mass in my stomach.

Or to any titled Noble you deem worthy, you are free to choose.” He replies.

I’m going to go with no.” I utter flatly. “If I’m free to choose, I’m going with no one.”

That’s not really…” He hesitates. “Is that forbidden?” He asks his companion.

It is by the Kingdom and Duchy’s laws.” The other one whispers.
“You willing to die to enforce those?” I ask with a corner grin. I can’t really defeat them but it wouldn’t feel right to agree like a sheep.

We are.” The two reply almost in sync, with conviction. “We have to in order for the Hospitaliers to be seen as legitimate.”

The shorter one can’t help but throw a dubious look at my left side. I assemble lion’s steps and relax my muscles to be ready to flee before giving my response because it’ll be as far as I go no matter what arguments they have. Besides, the fire is out so I need to hurry before the ground cools down.

You’re both so cute in thinking you can take me that I’ll do you a favor.” I speak up. “I pledge my flow to Commander Leomi Lance.”

That’s good enough, but you should know that you are surrendering control of your reserve by giving such a broad oath. The Hospitaliers have a procedure for a much more restrained pledge that will protect you from abuses as we can only make use of the energy when acting according to our rules.” The taller one explains.

We do apologize for intruding like this.” The other says.

If you’re sincere, don’t bother me.” I reply. “If you stick around, expect me to kick you back to the village by nightfall.”

I don’t wait for their answer, I turn around and make my way to the backyard. I would really rather be alone right now. Events don’t allow, we can only make due. I head to the smoking cinders over my mother’s grave.

I use the shovel to put out the last tongues of flame. I then stick the handle under my armpit to stabilize it as I jam it into the softer ground and press down on the head with my foot. It takes me a half-hour to learn how to dig like this but I manage without any flow.

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In Peace.Ch53

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I bash and scrape the pot against the hard frozen ground to little effect. After a while, I am forced to stop for lack of progress. I make my way around the house to take firewood out of our winter reserve.

I unsurprisingly find that the pile was stolen as well from under the small flat-roof that served to protect it from the weather. I resignedly cut the old rope keeping that structure in place and kick one of the pillars, dislodging it.

The flat-roof crumbles to the ground. I pick one side and drag it over to the grave, making a second trip to gather the pickets that held it. I set that wood pile on fire with a construct in the hope of warming up the ground.

As I watch it burn, Elizabeth grows angry and agitated. She wants to go and there’s little I can do to convince her otherwise. I’m already lucky she is no longer pushing us to the symbiont.

I’ve grown to an understanding with the parasite as I traveled but it bothers me that Elizabeth went to it so quickly. It makes us powerful. It kills us, and how weak are you that you would rely on it to win a fight? We are not weak.

I shake my head and make my way to the well, finding with relief that it’s been left alone. I pull the rope tight and start wrapping the rope around my forearm to start lifting the bucket up.

It’s heavy and it feels like there’s a snake constricting around my arm but I don’t give up. I get the bucket above the low-wall and quickly snatch the handle to put it down next to the well.

I bring the cooking pot over to pour the water in, it’s dirty but that doesn’t matter for what I’m doing since the plan is to boil the water once the fire starts running out of wood.

It’ll take hours for the blaze to die down so we have time to make a trip to the village and back. I take a deep breath and straighten my back, letting my rage out to focus on these new circumstances.

First, retribution. I turn north, and start walking. I manage to find the snow-covered path because I know exactly where it is and start following it, finding scattered stones from my room’s wall a few dozen meters down the road.

They were put there specifically to block the way, to isolate our home from the village. There are fresh horse and human tracks that turn to go down a small track that leads to two fields to the east, indicating it worked.

The human was wearing the kind of spiked boots that I’ve seen people in plate use, the foot-marks leave no doubt. That has to have been from Leomi even if I have no idea why she’d be in armor, she passed by during the night or a day ago depending on the weather.

Rhaaaaaaaaaaa!” I roar.

I check my flow reserve, finding it two-thirds full. Sufficient. I coldly assemble lion’s steps and strikes as I start clearing rocks from the road. I leave them in a pile to the side in case my Lady returns to recognize the mistake.

If they cost you and me her, I’ll fucking slaughter them. I resume heading to the village with my hand on the hunting knife’s handle, toying with the idea of using it but feeling like punching the twits will be far more satisfying.

I follow the horse tracks in reverse until they split from the road. Whoever showed up was turned away from the village or avoided it entirely. I keep going until I reach the wall blocking the street.

It goes from house to house and is about two meters tall, they used mortar but very sparingly and mostly to secure the beams supporting the wall from inside.

I’m pretty sure I could destroy this if I tried, it wouldn’t even take a fully powered air-blade if I hit it right, but I don’t have the energy to do that or any real reason.

I walk around the village to the west, finding barricaded windows and doors at the backs of the houses. I realize as I go that the houses were specifically built with their backs in a circle in order to make the village easier to defend.

Either way, it doesn’t take me any time at all to put two and two together. Our stables were dismantled and the construction materials our family got into debt to buy were used for this shoddy fortification. It’s unlikely that it was enough, they probably took down other buildings.

I hear voices inside the village as I pass by the eastern street, which is also walled off. They sound alarmed and directed to our home south, likely because of the smoke rising from the fire.

What… f… ykz returned?” A woman asks with a bit of panic.
“I doubt the Rykz would light a fire to warn us!” Ms. Conner calls out from afar, likely having decided to respond to all the discussions on the matter at once.

A cold grin appears on my face as I decide to keep my silence, entirely in sync with Elizabeth about the fact that we’ll need to be discreet if we want to hunt our preys down without interference.

I shift gears, falling into a lower stance as I stalk around the village in case they took their hunting bows out. I edge away from the wall to have a look at the roofs, finding that a few roofs were cleared of snow.

I keep my eyes on them as I head to the northern street, which allows me to spot four heads peeking from the general shop’s roof. One of them is Emily, who is Ms. Conner’s daughter, while the other three are Roger, Victor, and a kid whose name I never could remember.

They notice me a moment later, not quite a feat considering I must stick out quite a lot in the snow. Unlike what I thought, they don’t scream insults at me, but instead start scrambling down the roof.

Their expressions of panic and fright are quite obviously not directed at me but towards what they know they did, likely behind their families’ back. I can’t even find the heart to laugh, too furious and eager to catch them.

The matter of the stables can wait since it was done in a clean manner, it’s clear that what was done to my room wasn’t done by the people in the village. They don’t like me, a few hate me, but they wouldn’t stoop that low as a community.

I get back to hugging the wall for cover, playing a bit more with the hunting knife as I wonder if they’ll make me use it. I walk past carriage tracks coming from the north-east, which could mean it came from Buton’s Dungeon but it more likely came from the road running along the coast.

The wheel marks go around the village towards the east, indicating that I went all the way around when I could have gone to the left and found the entrance when I encountered the blocked southern street.

No matter. I forge ahead, keeping my senses peeled. I don’t pay attention to the quiet conversations going on inside, or the jingling that tells me that grandfathers and grandmothers are knitting winter clothes regardless of the small commotion over the fire.

No, I track these children’s hurried steps. The lack of cries of surprise or admonishment from villagers at these seventeen to nineteen year old running in the streets tells me that they’re using small alleys between houses and avoiding windows.

They stop for a brief moment, likely to grab something as they cause wood clattering. They quickly depart again in a sprint to the east. I don’t accelerate, considering that it’s more important to preserve my combat capability than to hurry towards a confrontation that the kids are clearly as intent on than I am.

Besides, I’m curious to see what they’re planning to do before I bash their smirks in. I advance carefully until I hear a door being unlocked a couple dozen meters ahead, past the gate they built on the eastern street.

I try to jog over with the snow muffling the sounds of my footsteps, but unfortunately they start walking out before I can make it there for an ambush. I stop and straighten up, affecting a deceptively casual stance with my hand on my long knife’s handle.

The three kids that come out have rudimentary spears in hand with sharp wooden tips but are more crooked than straight, the fourth apparently decided not to show. They definitely made those themselves because they couldn’t get access to their families’ tools.

Emily is wearing a thick winter dress that causes me to disdain her before I even notice the hesitant way she’s holding the weapon. Victor has a rough leather jacket that I’ve seen him in before, holding his spear too tightly.

Roger has a fur coat that gaping holes, showing it was hastily tanned and further damage with use. His grip on his weapon isn’t too tight or loose but he’s holding it too far back so he’ll lack reactivity and maneuverability in close quarters.

It’s really her.” Emily mutters in a low voice.
“She’s even more of a freak now!” Roger calls out. “Look at her!”

Keep your voice down!” The fourth kid urges from behind the street’s gate.

…” I hold my silence, rather baffled at what I’m seeing. Are they planning to use these pointy sticks?

Leave!” Victor whispers loudly at me. He sounds like he’s trying to chase a wild dog.

Shoo.” I respond in a mocking tone. “Bad dog!” The kid grows red, which is far from the hard, pale, look I expect from a killer.

Go away, you hindrance! If it wasn’t for you and Buton being cowards, we would have been warned of the insect’s invasion!” Roger quietly spits out. They’re really afraid to be heard.

Okay.” I mutter.

I start advancing, considering that the conversation went far enough. They raise their gnarled spears up like clubs in response. Victor protectively steps in front of Emily, pretty much rendering her useless.

We just got rid of the freakish monsters, we aren’t letting a one-armed idiot back in!” Victor seethes.

You tell ‘er mah boy!” His old man murmurs in encouragement from behind the gate as well. Isn’t that interesting.

If you’re going to do something evil, at least smile while you’re at it.” I tell them, affecting a bloodthirsty grin.

Let’s do this quickly.” Victor urges to the others.

They raise their spears like their clubs and start advancing on me. Their faces fall as I confidently move in, leaning forward to be ready to charge at any moment. I adjust my angle of approach to ensure that the three hinder each other as much as possible when they try to beat me with their silly spears.

Feeling stupid about needing the parasite yet? Bash their noses in, they’re just at the right height! I chuckle at Elizabeth’s response. The sound causes the kids stop in their tracks.

My smile drops as I lion’s step into their range. Emily is further so she’s the only one who notices in time to react, unfortunately for her, she can’t do anything with Victor in front of her and Roger to her right, which is my left.

I reach out to Roger’s spear, grabbing it before the child even thinks to bring it down. I don’t try to rip it out of his hands since he could be using his flow to strengthen himself but I leverage it down and to the side to put an obstacle in Victor’s way.

I then use an extended lion strike to bring my fist back and punch Roger’s nose in a swift, fluid movement. Smack. The fleshy impact is like music to my ears. His head is thrown back by the hit, while I unexpectedly trip forward.

I quickly angle my shoulder and slam it into his chest, throwing him down to the ground. It takes me a moment to realize that I lost my balance because I compensated for a non-existent, yet painful, left arm. I’m too used to leaning in because striking with the parasite pushed me backward.

Aaah!” Roger yelps.

A silvery flicker tells me that a kick is incoming from my right so I use a half lion’s step to raise my leg. I barely manage to bring my foot down on the offending appendage in spite of the fact it should have been easy.

As I pin Victor’s foot under my heel, and while he clumsily remembers he has a spear, I shift my forearm to deflect the butt of Emily’s spear. I make use of her moment of pause as she tries to figure out what just happened to take hold of her hand.

Her eyes widen as I give her a mean grin and use a lion strike to haul her towards me. I slam my forehead into her left cheekbone, causing her to crumble to the ground, unconscious. I look down on her while watching the idiot whose foot I pinned with the corner of my eyes.

Dad!” Victor yells out in panic as he fails to pull away from me enough to use his spear.

Son!” The older man replies. “Stay away from him you crazy bitch!”

I see red as they are the reason why Father has yet to be buried. I lion strike my elbow into his side, breaking one or several of his ribs with a dry crack. He drops while screeching in pain. I kick him in the head, knocking him straight out.

Crack. I fall forward, experiencing a harsh pain in my lower back. I immediately lion’s step myself further ahead and turn around as I get back up. I find Roger with blood running down his nose like a waterfall and a broken spear in his hands.

His cheeks are deathly pale. He runs away as soon as my eyes lock in with his. I try to run after him but the hurt in my back causes me to stumble. I gather myself and go through the constructs I could assemble to take him out.

Unfortunately, there are none I can use with a bit over a third of a portion of energy. The kid runs to the door they used to exit the village, rushing inside the house and slamming it behind himself.

I frown and start walking after him while unsheathing my hunting knife, trying to figure out how I’ll get that door open if he locked it. Yet, the sound of a large bar being slid off the gate on the eastern street behind me causes me to pause.

You’re dead, you whore! You better not run!” Victor’s father stupidly threatens.

We might need to. No. We won because they were so sloppy it wasn’t even a fight, we can’t even use the armor-piercing construct right now and using the lightning one would be a terrible idea. Lion strikes are enough, we can slice them to bits.

I know a whore, she’s countless times worthier of life than you’ll ever be.” We utter in a flat voice. “Draw a weapon on me and find your end.”

You little freak!” The man shrieks.

What’s going on here!” Ms. Conner’s voice thunders down.

A commotion arises on the other side of the gate as the villagers gather, likely from Roger’s bloody nose and Victor’s father’s frantic attempts at opening the gate, or maybe the screams from earlier.

That freak Jessica! She came back and attacked our kids for no reason!” The old man exclaims.

Quickly, help me open the gate!” Ms. Conner exclaims, paying little attention to the man but clearly worried.

You can get out from the house on your left, it isn’t properly barricaded.” I speak up.

Jessica are you all okay?” Ms. Conner asks.

They’ll survive, I just roughed them a bit.” I answer.

Must be pretty embarrassing for the old man to realize he lost his cool so much he forgot he could’ve gotten out that way. Wish he had figured it out, it’s going to be impossible to lay him flat unless he attacks first now.

I hear footsteps from people rushing into the house while others start working on opening the gate. A quick glance at the two knocked out children confirms they’ll stay out for a while longer.

I start toying with my hunting knife while I wait and catch my breath, spinning the small guard on my palm. Ms. Conner soon emerges to rush over to Emily with a hard worried look as she notices the small bleeding and swelling wound on her daughter’s face.

Behind her emerge a few villagers who glare at me, the miller and a cattle farmer are about the only two I have any familiarity with. Both shouldn’t even be in the village, even at this time of year, but it’s not really surprising that they are if they feared the Rykz.

Ms. Conner starts assembling a healing construct, probably being very careful as she’s taking a lot of time to do so. I hear Victor’s father arguing his side as they work on opening the gate, the noise making it hard to pick up what they’re saying. I do catch the sound of the old temple guard’s voice.

We were only camping!” Roger barks out in protest. “That freak is crazy!”

Come over and say that to my face, coward.” I shout back.

Silence falls over the crowd on the other side. I doubt what I said directly caused that to happen. The gate opens slowly, first revealing the old Templar with a new uniform with his sword to his waist.

He was likely held prisoner in Meria because I’ve rarely seen him with his weapon or such a pristine silver lion tabard. It would make sense for the Order to focus what few resources they have to regain their reputation in the more remote provinces who likely felt abandoned, logical since they were.

He turns accusing eyes towards me, almost provoking me to rage out. Instead, I switch from playing with my hunting knife to aggressively switching between standard to reversed grip with swift flickers of my wrist.

Barging in like you own the place and causing a fight!” The old man erupts. “Have you no shame?!”

Ha.” I chuckle. “Who asked you to arbiter this dispute?” I ask in return.

I am the Templar!” He utters back, turning red.

Considering I’m the one who was attacked, I’m the one who should be making the demand for arbitration. I have not, stand aside.” I coldly argue.
“I saw you strike first through the cracks!” Victor’s father spouts out.

You rushed us!” Roger adds.

They came out with spears.” I counter with finality.

I run my gaze over the crowd. Half the village apparently gathered and they look more confused than angry. Good. I spot a pair of Hospitaliers at the back of the crowd, looking lost and uncomfortable. They’re clearly out of their depth.

The old temple guard tries to speak up again, likely trying to meddle his way into this again. I cut him off and explain what happened and why with my eyes trained on Roger as I recount what I found home.

The kid, Roger, grows smaller and smaller as he retreats on himself, confronted by the village’s outrage. In the end, his father seizes his ear while one of his cousins takes hold of his arm to drag him away as the family tries to flee the sheer embarrassment of the situation.

Hold it right there.” I shout, stopping them in their tracks. “I’m not done with any of them yet.” I add in a sharp voice.

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