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Immediately after agreeing to discuss, I pause and observe the three standing before me. Uhla has been unusually quiet and her expression is rather tense while Rowland has been acting eager but it feels like a facade, bravado. Nahl, on the other hand, was very quick to ask for information.

We sa…” Idali starts.

No.” I cut her off while calmly staring at Uhla, Rowland, and Nahl in turn.

“What did you see? Or rather, hear.” I speak up, my tone more commanding than questioning. Nahl shifts awkwardly while Uhla looks away.

That you gratuitously attacked the manor, without provocation.” Rowland speaks up. “It felt odd you would, but I don’t care much either way.”

Isn’t that what we’re here for anyway?” Uhla asks with a somber expression.

You mean take out Nobles regardless of what they did?” I question with a smirk.

“No, we know you wouldn’t.” Nahl hurriedly speaks up.

Yet you had to ask, huh?” I note. “Isn’t that contradictory? Either you know me well enough to be aware I wouldn’t act without reason or you don’t and you have doubts.”

We’ll follow you.” Rowland intervenes.

If you think brainless acquiescence is what I seek, you’re in for a brutal awakening, Rowland.” I growl.

I’ve seen how devastating the war with the Rykz was and am perfectly aware of what it could have been, Jessica.” He snaps back while absently scratching at the scar that took his left eye. “I’m not volunteering to fight at your side without reason. I’ll stay as long as your actions line up with mine.”

I need more.” Uhla utters. “I want to help… but I’m not going to participate in a purge if that’s what you agreed to with the Duchess.” I flip to Nahl.

I believe you had your reasons.” He says simply.

“Reasons I’m not going to explain to any of you.” I tell them.

Jess, why make this difficult?” Idali asks with a sigh.

Because I don’t require help from any of you and I’m not in the habit of justifying myself.” I coldly reply. “There is no proof to any of what happened other than our word. I’m pretty sure Edusa will be able to sort this out but, for now, you either trust me or you don’t. Make a choice.”

I’m with you.” Rowland immediately speaks up. Nahl and Uhla exchange a glance.

I don’t believe you would lie.” Nahl says.

Foolish.” I note.

I’m with you anyway.” He insists.

“I’ll always do my work and heal those who need it, but I… I won’t fight in these private wars.” Uhla says with a sad expression.

Wars are all private if they don’t involve survival for a species.” I calmly comment.

Then so was the Rykz invasion.” Rowland coldly comments.

That it was.” I acknowledge with a sour taste in my mouth. “But don’t forget we struck the first blow.”

In recent history, maybe.” He grumbles.

“Rather than debating responsibility, simply make peace with the fact that whether Human, Lisilese, or Rykz we all kill for our own gains.” I sharply mention. “You either take up weapons to build a system that allows people to determine their your own fates or you submit to choices made by others for you.”

Idali extends her short Vuskyt spear with a snide smile. Rowland and Nahl unsheathe their weapons to cross blades atop hers. Uhla awkwardly crosses her idle arms. I smirk.

Best prepare for a wild fight because I’m feeling facetious.” I tell them and head straight for the town.

Wait, you don’t have a plan?” Rowland asks.

Does she ever?” Idali chuckles.

Pointless to formulate a plan when we don’t know if Edusa’s people will fight us.” I dismiss. “It’s best to stick together and react until we draw the Countess out. If we’re too threatening from the start, she will escape.”

The woman may lead a sort of cult, Jess.” Idali warns.

What’s that?” I question.

“A group of people with distorted beliefs towards the Lake.” She explains.

You mean like Suxen?” I press.

“I haven’t heard what that particular madwoman thinks.” Idali says.

She told Liz that flow is a mere tool with no particular significance, I think that sums up to the Lake being nonexistent.” I tell her.

Then, no, it isn’t the same.” Idali shakes her head. “Most cults are usually benign and have odd rituals like praying to the moon for a good harvest but, with what we’ve seen, her beliefs are more sinister and dated.”

Go on.” I encourage her despite knowing Idali might be doing this to inform the others and soothe tensions.

It used to be that virgins held much more important significance. Their sacrifice was said to bring favor from the Lake and their flesh, or blood in this case, power.” Idali explains. “I don’t know how it works but, the stronger the belief, the more dangerous they are.”

How do you know so much?” I ask.

A decade ago, a murderer roamed Meria’s streets and killed a dozen young people to display their tortured bodies. The killer sawed his first victim’s rib-cage in half and then hung him by the wrists to tear it open to make it seem as if he had short wings.” Nahl speaks up with a somber tone. “It took an entire squad of Templars to kill the man and two died as a result of injuries from the fight.”

Anyway, for the village to have little suspicion about what the Countess did, it’s likely she had accomplices to push her narrative that the victims ran away.” Idali explains.

Wait, could she be more powerful than normal because of these sacrifices?” I question.

Not tangibly, no.” Nahl denies somberly. “But with strong belief comes strong dedication. Any cultist will have practiced constructs they consider significant to the point where they have achieved mastery over them.”

Hm.” I ponder. “You’re saying she’s delusional and believes her sacrifices made her stronger when in fact it was mere training?”

Yes, sacrificial beliefs have been extensively studied, long after they were abandoned, and there has been no proof that they increase one’s access or control.” Nahl mentions.

I’m going to go ahead and assume that, at the time, there were more people than usual condemned to death by Noble houses.” I coldly utter.

It was a long time ago, before the University’s founding.” Nahl says. “The house that led this has long been lost.”

Regardless, is that Countess a Lisilese or something?” I ask.

I’m pretty sure she doesn’t eat her victims, Jess.” Idali awkwardly notes.
“I don’t see the difference.” I grunt. “Let’s go.”

I head for the town but my companions quickly overtake me to take the lead. I focus on my energy and gather the hundred or so portions I’ve stored, much of it located in my gourd.

You all have ten to fifteen portions, right?” I ask.

More or less.” Rowland agrees.

Okay.” I mutter. “Idali?”

Closer to thirty.” She replies to the others’ astonishment.

Alright, then.” I speak up to cut through the questions they no doubt want to ask her. “Focus on lion and strengthening constructs, I’ll deal with the rest.”

Not even the armor-piercing one to quickly end the fight?” Rowland asks nervously.

No, I’ll be providing that.” I deny. “I want you to pressure them and, to do that, you need to be as strong as possible as long as possible. The objective is to lure her out, not to defeat their troops.”

You want to engage in a melee?” Idali asks with concern.

Far from it, I want to slowly go through whatever barrier they put in front of us one after the other.” I tell her. “You’ll see.”

What if she never shows up?” Rowland asks.

“Then we simply keep going until we reach the other side of town.” I tell them with a shrug. “Idali and I can always sneak back in to track her down more discreetly, now focus.”

In the town ahead, Edusa’s people have managed to extricate themselves from the crowd to retreat at the edge only to be faced with the Countess’ armed guards which are twice as numerous with three hundred.

I don’t think there would be a need for as many peasants if Nobles didn’t hire so many soldiers.” I grumble.

Difficult to say it’s unwise considering what you’ve been doing to them.” Rowland says with a laugh.

Eyes front.” I warn them as we enter a street under the eyes of several guards posted on a tall roof at the center of the town.

“Should I take the middle of the formation with you and Uhla at the back?” Idali asks me.

No need to bother.” I deny.

Archers up front-left.” Nahl warns.

I glimpse up to find three arrowheads being lowered down on up from a house’s windows. I flick a sliver of flow in front of us to intercept if they fire but the guards don’t seem intent on attacking yet.

I soon hear stomping that betrays the arrival of several squads of soldiers in the streets ahead. I smirk and give out a small cry to call for a stop. As they all turn to me, I point up at the roofs and lion’s step up to a window sill.

I kick it and catch a beam protruding from the wall that I use to launch myself further upward with a lions strike. I barely manage to bring my arm back up in time to catch the roof and lift myself up.

Idali lands on the tiles a moment before I stand up while Uhla arrives soon after. The archers shoot at Rowland and Nahl who are taking quite a bit longer to climb. I divert the projectiles with tiny streams of air while Idali kneels down to lift Nahl up.

I suppose there’s no need for a formation if we’re not even giving them a chance to face us in the streets but this might get pretty bad if too many of them confront us up here.” Rowland notes.

Try to blow them off the roof as much as you can, doubt any of them have the guts to fight with broken legs.” I coldly instruct.

“You’ll, um, catch us if we fall right?” Nahl asks.

And waste energy? You’re a warrior, one or three broken limbs shouldn’t slow you down too much.” I reply with a smirk.

As the ex-Templar was about to protest, a trapdoor is kicked open and a javelin flies out of the opening straight at us without seeming aimed at anyone in particular.

Idali and I move at the same instant. I snag Rowland’s collar and pull him out of the way while she unceremoniously kicks Nahl aside. I briefly accelerate my perceptions to follow the javelin’s trajectory as it flies past us four.

Uhla manages to move out of the way in time to avoid it, meaning I don’t have to intervene. She staggers to the side panting with a pale expression but straightens up when she notices our gazes.

I’m fine.” She mutters.

“Let’s go then, double-step.” I bark.

We launch out towards the trapdoor from which a dozen soldiers are pouring out. I leap over an alley and land on the building to stop there while Idali, Rowland, and Nahl rush ahead.

Another javelin comes out flying from behind our opponents. I barely manage to divert it away with a kinetic burst by burning two portions of flow to ensure I make it in time to save Nahl.

The three impact the soldiers like bulls, sending those who try to block them with shields staggering back with dazed expressions. I apply an armor-sundering construct to Idali’s spear, which will allow her to pierce anything in her way, while giving the other two’s weapons my version of the shredding construct.

Idali slides past a few attacks and launches three consecutive thrusts that almost blur, cutting three swords at their base and also leaving small gashes in the guards’ sides or arms which force them out of the fight.

Rowland and Nahl, on the other hand, each block two attacks each before counter-attacking. The armor and defensive constructs of their four opponents manage to block the worst of the damage but not all of it.

Three of them receive spiderweb-like wounds where they’re hit while the last tries to block with his forearm and ends up losing two fingers from the impact which also breaks his bones in several places.

The woman drops unconscious from the shock of these wounds and the squad of a dozen panically begins retreating while dragging their wounded with them. Idali and the others let them go without attacking again.

Keep moving.” I bark out. “Break ’em roof by roof.”

A sustained shower of arrows welcome us on the next roof, sent by archers in an avenue facing us and others inside buildings. I casually divert those risking to hit us by sustaining a weak kinetic curtain.

We keep leaping through the town towards Edusa’s soldiers on the basis that the Countess had to be near to organize the kind of pressure they faced so quickly after we made her run away.

On the sixth or sevenths roof we land on, we are intercepted by a half-dozen squads that hid just beneath the spine. I hurriedly shape a long horizontal air-shield with a kinetic component and blast them off.

What a fucking mess.” Idali chuckles as our opponents roll off and fall down to the street below.

Keep moving!” I encourage.

The next roof has them facing two squads of guards so I support them with the same constructs as before. They quickly overpower their adversaries with my help and powerful hacks supported by their strengthened limbs, forcing them to retreat.

Idali and Rowland kill a few, which is likely why they make it through unscathed while Nahl receives a gash to his chest because he hesitated instead of either going for the kill or saturating his hard leather armor by injecting more energy in his defensive construct, which would have likely destroyed it but saved him a wound.

Uhla takes care of the bleeding on the move. We reach the end of the roof only to be confronted with a large group of a hundred or so soldiers on a plaza. They’re standing like a wall in front of a small crowd of inhabitants.

These are the murderers!” The Countess yells from her position at the center of her officers, she’s wearing a much more decent dark green robe but I can see the hems of her transparent white gown. “Blasphemers towards the sacred life given to us by the Lake!” She yells.

A shocked wave goes through the crowd followed by cries calling for our death or execution, as if we had already been captured. I squint as I inspect the ranks to find a weak point to pierce through.

This isn’t good.” Nahl mutters.

“It’ll be fun, I’m sure.” Rowland says with a nervous smile.

“Don’t worry about it, I can get to her.” Idali brags.

Not without ending up like a pin-cushion.” I note.

Ooh, fancy.” She perks up.

Not now.” I glare at her. “Move in tight defensive formation, we’ll get as close as possible before making a move.”

We hop down the roof in several steps and land on the plaza to be welcomed by a volley of projectiles from every direction, some of which have had constructs applied to them.

I accelerate my perceptions and deflect the most mundane projectiles first with an upward gust of hard wind before using kinetic energy to slap the more dangerous far away from us.

Krrbaakrr, brham! The walls behind us are torn asunder and an explosion blast licks our backs as we rush ahead. A line of soldiers with shields and spears move in to block us.

Rowland leaps in the lead and breaks a half-dozen spears with the shredding construct I applied on his sword. Then, he and Idali front-kick those facing them, causing three soldiers to crumble.

As we move into the gap to face the next line, Nahl and Uhla move on my flanks to block two spear thrusts I would have unconsciously dodged. A flaming air-needle large enough to qualify as a ballista bolt suddenly falls down on us from the sky.

It doesn’t drop alone, around it are several smaller projectiles. If I had to guess, I’d say that was everything that Noble and several others are able to throw at me so I don’t hold back.

I slow the passing of time down and send forty portions of flow out, enough to match them. I use some of the energy to assault the Noble’s links to the constructs so as to weaken their reaction times as I forcefully use air and kinetic force to divert the projectiles.

I forcefully bash the constructs away from us and towards the soldiers blocking our way. Krrbooom! The conflagration turns two dozen soldiers to fuming chunks of flesh and also throws both Rowland as well as Idali back a dozen meters.

They roll all the way to my feet with dazed expressions and a few cuts on their cheeks. I signal to them to get up and they hurriedly do so despite glaring at me for turning them deaf.

I flick my finger forward for Idali to run ahead and bring back my thumb to tell Rowland to defend me. As the blonde rushes off with her short Vuskyt spear in hand, he confusedly looks for his sword without finding it.

I use a sliver of flow to point him at a two-handed sword laying on the ground. Our enemies, who were far more surprised by the explosions than we were, start charging back at us just as he picks it up.

Rowland raises it and swings it into a crazed soldier that comes rushing at him with his spear. Yet, despite bashing his opponent away, he visibly winces on impact which reminds me that his bones got shattered pretty badly not so long ago.

On my sides, Uhla and Nahl are blocking a series of lone soldiers attacking them. They’ll balk under the pressure soon but I focus on Idali who is cruising towards the Countess and her officers who are now being protected by her golden swirling blood-construct.

Good, that’ll be useful once she’s dead.” I mutter as I raise my hand towards Idali’s back.

Previous chapter.

Next chapter.


Previous chapter.

Next chapter.

Idali drags the Lordling by the collar while I lead us deeper into the stone structure, past a dining hall and into an office with a desk as well as bookshelves. There isn’t anyone but the fireplace is burning so it’s likely the Countess ran off right before we got here.

We missed her, wake him up.” I tell her.

Alright.” Idali replies.

She throws Tolheim at the desk and starts slapping him with the flat of her boot while I go through the drawers. I find a pouch of coins. I cut the top off and steal all the silver and bronze from it, ironically there is more gold in it.

Jess.” She protests.

I’m running low on funds, Edusa may as well indirectly contribute.” I explain, slightly embarrassed.

“That’s fine but leave some for me.” She replies as she slaps the Lordling with the point of her foot.

Urh.” The Lordling groans.

I flip a few more papers on the desk as I search for clues but find naught of interest even after going through the drawers. It stands to reason they wouldn’t leave their misdeeds out in the open but still. I turn to Tolheim who’s currently being chocked by Idali’s right foot.

I said wake him up, why are you trying to knock him out again?” I ask.

Not sure, he looked at me wrong?” She returns with a grin.

Gh.” I choke a laugh and wave at her to let him go. “So, Lord Dolt, you know why I’m here so I’ll very much appreciate if you told me where the disappeared are… or I’ll end your life and there won’t be anything preemptive about it, just a lot of blood spilled because you’ve soured my mood.” I lie.

Wait until I back off first.” Idali hurriedly tells me as she steps back.

Tolheim stares at us with a dazed expression, seeming lost, frightened, and confused. I feel a touch of pity for him, especially since we don’t actually have much proof of wrongdoing so far.

I don’t know.” The man mutters.

With so many people missing, don’t try to bullshit me.” I coldly respond.
“They just vanish, we tried to investigate what’s happening but we never found any clues.” Tolheim hurriedly explains, raising his arms protectively.

I stare at the terrorized man and let out a deep sigh as I find no signs of deception. I throw a glance at Idali who gives me a shrug. I seize my umbrella to make it spin as I think things through.

Where did Matldia, or whatever, go?” I directly ask.

“Matilda? I’ll never tell you!” Tolheim declares with defiance.

Hey, I think I had all the letters right there in the name.” I cheerfully remark.

You did, congrats.” Idali drawls. The Lordling glares.

Look, Dolt, I’m not going to kill any of you without reason.” I seriously tell the man. “But the more you two hide or refuse to answer my questions, the more suspicious and eager to cut this trip short I get.”

She ran because you assaulted me!” The man protests.

“She ran long before that, don’t lie to me Lordling.” I counter with a dark tone.

“Where did she go?” I ask while spinning my flat umbrella over my head.
“I…” He starts.

Idali extends out her short Vuskyt spear and places the point under the man’s throat, instantly shutting him up. Tolheim gulps, his eyes flicker left and right to either of us as his traits turn desperate.

We don’t have anything to do with the disappearances, I swear.” He repeats with tears streaming down his cheeks.

Great, now I feel bad. I shape a messaging construct and pass it over to Idali through the ground out of the man’s sight, shortly telling her to get into a scuffle with me without context because I trust her and a delay might make a clever opponent suspicious.

Die then.” I coldly proclaim while letting go of my umbrella to grab one of the three broadswords at my waist.

Hey, cut it out!” Idali immediately exclaims. “It might be the truth!”

Silence, soldier! Do your job!” I bark.

While I draw the weapon, Idali shifts her weight from one leg to another, acting hesitant. She launches at me when I raise the weapon, forcing me to block her thrust.

Stand down, bitch!” I yell.

We’re not fucking murdering him, shortie!” She counters.

I scowl and launch a semi-serious hack at her weapon which she cleverly parries by receiving my blade at a thirty-degree angle before rising the weapon to avoid having her fingers sheared off her palm. As we insult each other, the Dolt scampers out of the office on all fours.

Keep banging weapons for a bit.” I murmur.

She holds back a little on the next blow and I take advantage to slam her spear away and hit her chest with my pommel. Idali coughs and bends in half to start wheezing.

Shit, Liz, what the damn!” She protests.

I’m slightly taller than average, thank you very much.” I pridefully respond.

Maybe in your dr…” She starts.

What’s that?” I cut her off by raising my weapon.

Nope, never mind.” Idali swiftly exclaims with a bitter smile on her twitching lips.

“Get moving, he’s probably stopped crawling by now.” I tell her.

I head off while trying to move as discreetly as possible. An attempt I immediately abandon as it’s literally impossible to even breathe without sounding like a damn box filled with nails because my riveted chain-mail keeps clanking inside my cuirass.

I follow the corridor until I find a half-open door and sneak in only to find an empty room. I didn’t hear any doors opening, no way I took a wrong turn so where is he. What do Nobles and rats have in common? A lot, too much to go through, really, but I get your point.

I send out a pulse of flow to scan the room as Idali walks in. I burn a whole dozen portions only to eliminate a passage behind a wall or bookcase. I sigh and look down to the rug.

Mind picking that up for me?” I ask the tall blonde.

Mfhr.” Idali grumbles.

She uses me as a stand to rest her spear on and seizes the rug with both hands. She starts pulling but it seems glued to the parquet so she fails. I frown and consider blowing the damn thing up.

“There’s probably a lever or something.” Idali speaks up.

No time.” I tell her.

I shape a sundering construct and cross slash at the floor before stomping down on the rug with a slight kinetic enhancement. The floorboards blow up into sharps that fall atop a staircase.

Quite the basement they’ve got.” I comment.

Bit of a waste of energy.” She notes.

Not as much as you think.” I reply with a thin smile. “Let’s go.”

Idali jumps down without giving me a shot at going first and seems to slide down the stairs rather than walk, causing a ruckus. As I make my way down, she lights up a fire construct just in time to witness golden runes activate on the walls.

Duck.” I murmur as I reach out with my sword.

Idali drops to her knees. I launch an assortment of constructs, from fireballs to air-blades and kinetic waves, even mixing a lightning sphere amidst just in case the rest is ineffective.

Luckily what assaults us are air-needles, which I easily divert with a slight kinetic push, and a curtain of fire that I smother by venting the air surrounding it, leaving a column of smoke behind.

That was scary.” Idali shudders.

You probably could have handled it.” I note.

I meant I thought you were going to hit me with all that wild energy.” She mutters.

Grow some ovaries, let’s go.” I tell her.

We rush downstairs and through a small room with suspicious mounts on the walls. Either for hanging harvests to dry or prisoners, and I’m pretty sure I know what they’re used for. Idali’s expression falls.

We’re switching to deadly take-down.” I utter coldly.

Why? Don’t we need to find out what happened?” Idali asks.

I’ve heard enough of this shit for a lifetime, I’m not sitting around for another degenerate tale full of self-righteous justifications.” I grunt. “Edusa can figure this shit out by herself, I’m only here to clean up.”

Idali silently nods and heads first into the next corridor. This time, no traps await us but a steel reinforced thick wooden door on the other side protected by a defensive construct.

I use a sundering construct to slice off the hinges, overwhelming the defensive construct such that it fails to reconfigure to concentrate its energy to block my blade.

Idali kicks the door open and, inside, we find a spectacle of horror. There is a stone altar with weird engravings in the center of a circular room with grooves in the ground coated in red flakes that can be naught other than remains of dried blood.

On it is Tolheim who is bleeding out from a gash in his neck despite his attempt to close the wound. His face is pale and he seems completely lost, as if he never expected what he found here. I find the man pitiful but not worth risking anything to save.

There is a black-haired woman standing next to him at the altar with her palms extended towards us. She’s wearing a pure white robe made of almost transparent cloth with no clothes underneath.

She is gorgeous with ample breasts, erect nipples, and black as night pubic hair. That fact makes the situation even more repulsive because her attractiveness puts her at sharp odds with the surroundings.

Golden swirling energy streams out of Countess Matilda’s hands towards Idali who slashes out with her spear to intercept the odd construct with a defensive one made of black-golden energy.

Expecting Idali to fail, I instantly shape a perception construct to launch another set of constructs. The air and kinetic ones manage to slow down her attack but they don’t actually overwhelm it so I focus my energy to create an intense blaze.

It causes her construct to flicker but it doesn’t slow down as a result so I conclude heat has some effect but not enough. I charge the air directly in front of Idali first as a last ditch measure but plan to use an air-shield to block the construct since it is tangible.

Iiikr. Idali’s Vuskyt spear impacts the swirling construct, causing a strident sound. As the weapon is almost ripped out of her hands, she decides to pull it back. The Countess presses down with her hands, giving her attack more speed.

Idali’s right thigh bends at an odd angle and the woman flickers to the side, almost impacting the left wall. I dismantle my protective measures and use the flow to support my friend with a kinetic burst to send her charging.

Idali slides past the threatening broiling energy and charges at the Countess who turns her attention my way, sending the odd construct after me. I narrow my eyes and launch a powerful air-needle at the Countess, enhancing its speed over anything else.

The Countess, aware she’ll be impaled by either Idali’s short spear or my projectile, dismantles the construct she sent after me to recall the energy, which consumes most of the energy so as to make it in time and leaves odd red curved blades hanging in the air where golden currents were before.

A blood construct? I want it! Not now, Liz. I flick my hand at the mass of blood, using air to send it splashing back. Clink. My air-needle slams into the curtain of energy Matilda rose and bursts, causing a red mist to spread out.

Idali’s spear impacts it as well and her defensive construct simply fades away while her thrust slows down to a crawl despite her pushing hard with her right thigh. I gaze at Tolheim whose arms are now hanging on either side of him.

There are now bloody rips in his clothes and tears in the flesh underneath. It seems the woman used his blood to defend herself but I don’t understand why he is helping her, and he has to be for my air-needle to have been snuffed as it was.

The golden curtain drops, leaving behind only the thick red mist which sinks to the ground. The Countess escaped. I reach to Idali to launch her after the woman but she’s already moving around the blood to try to save Tolheim which means she isn’t in any way ready to pursue.

Let him die.” I call out to her. “We need to end her.”

Why did you stop us? She was killing you.” Idali asks him, ignoring me.

My wife. Said…” His eyelids droop. “Give it back, if help.

Fucking idiot.” I swear despite understanding his choice and having made similar ones.

The Lordling’s head rolls to the side just as Idali arrives at the altar and he breathes out, having apparently exhausted all he had left to respond. Idali scowls and heads for the back of the room.

Crrrk. The loud breaking sound fills our ears as tears appear in the ceiling. Screw me, I should have just went for the kill. Couldn’t leave Idali out to dry, you’ll get her.

Let’s go, now.” I urge her.

Idali hesitates a split moment before turning away from the dead Tolheim and rushing at me. I blink as she pretty much tackles and carries me straight out of the room as pieces of the stone ceiling fall behind her.

Hey, cut this shit out.” I protest while bent on her shoulder struggling to keep my umbrella from bashing into a door-frame.

“Uhla told me not to let you exert yourself too much, blame her.” She responds as she rushes up the stairs.

You didn’t, have to, listen!” I stutter out because her shoulder is slamming into my stomach with each step.

When we reach the room, we find the walls already crumbling on themselves. She leaps, presumably towards a window, with her spear coated in silver energy held before her.

As we fly out of the building, I witness the hole she ripped into the glass and flaps alike with what must’ve been a shredding construct. It seems she has plenty of energy to spare, possibly half as much as me.

Let me down.” I coldly demand as I witness a few dozen guards standing outside turn to us.

Later.” Idali replies shortly as she kicks the ground with her right leg to propel us away through the town’s streets.

I grumble but don’t find much time to complain as an officer launches a blazing air-blade at us. Such a hybrid construct wouldn’t usually frighten me but the man assembled it quickly and threw it with a look of confidence.

I check my flow reserves, finding that I somehow burnt a good twenty during the short scuffle, likely from spreading my focus thin while using as much unstructured energy as I did.

I swipe a hybrid air-kinetic gust at the flaming air-blade, sending it flying into the ground. Kkrrbrrmmmh! It blows up, destroying a chunk of pavement and thus sending stone splinters flying into house walls.

Fuck!” Idali swears while pushing her ear against my side.

The destructive effect is relatively powerful but what baffles me the most is the deafening sound it made. I quickly notice that it was actually made by the Countess’ stone manor completely crumbling into a hunk of rubble.

What did you do?!” She asks.

Me? You saw her tear the basement down!” I protest.

Hrm.” Idali grunts, clearly disbelieving me.

The over-fed blonde quickly brings us out of the town’s bounds, bypassing the occasional guard and soldier as if they weren’t there with her speed enhanced by her symbiont.

She stops on a hill where she finally lets me down. I first make a show of soothing my armor before ostensibly ignoring her to enhance my eyesight and inspect the surrounding area for signs of a fleeing Countess.

A handful of minutes pass without a single carriage or horse leaving and, worse of all, it is clear that everyone wielding a weapon in that town has picked it up and gathered in two respective camps.

Doesn’t look like she left at all, in fact I’m pretty sure she gathered her army and is about to attack Edusa’s forces.” I comment.

That’s not good?” Idali asks with a bloodthirsty smile.

“It depends on your point of view, I didn’t want to turn this into a pitched battle.” I mutter. “How much was that crazed escape your call?” I clumsily ask.
“…” She falls uncharacteristically silent. “My symbiont was quite insistent.” She murmurs.

I assume collapsing tunnels could be quite dangerous, even for an underground creature.” I calmly note.

“The others are on their way.” She says, changing the subject.

I follow her line of sight to find Rowland, Nahl, and Uhla sneaking out of town from a small alley. I wave at Idali who nods and launches running towards them with lion steps.

A few arrows and constructs fly at their group but they manage to defend themselves. Idali meets them before they make it a third of the way here and helps them defend to run faster.

Meanwhile, there is quite the commotion happening in town. A small group of angry people seem to have gathered around Edusa’s people and appear to be attempting to besiege them, preventing them from retreating. I sigh.

I’ll have to end this before the evening because it’s only going to get worse when people come back from working boon-day to find out that strangers attacked their town.

Jessica! You destroyed a building without us!” Rowland calls out with an outraged tone.

What? It wasn’t me!” I cry out while glaring at Idali.

I didn’t tell them, they saw the building crumble.” She says, implying that I truly did this. “Everyone knows that’s your thing.” She unhelpfully adds.

You were there!” I exclaim in disbelief.

Yea, but I had my back turned… I’m pretty sure it was you.” Idali argues with a completely innocent expression which convinces me that she’s definitely messing with me.

Why didn’t you call me!” Rowland cries out like a spoiled brat despite his definitely not childish stature.

I don’t think we should approve of…” Nahl starts. I cut him off with a dark glare. “Perhaps we should discuss what happened first?” He offers with an awkward smile. “Then make a decision about what to do.”

Yeah, great idea.” I grunt.

Previous chapter.

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I follow my brother from afar using my eyes to my advantage during the night and the hills during the day. No one pursues which is a relief but I can’t help but worry about my enemies who could track him down with clues he may have left back at the village.

I keep tracking him as he heads south-west until he reaches an even smaller hamlet made up of three houses at the foot of a mountain next to a forest. They appear to be woodcutters because they have quite a few draft animals and large carriages.

I approach as much as possible in case there’s trouble but he merely greets them and stays for the night before leaving in the morning. It hurts to see him depart without hesitation because it means he is serious about cutting ties.

That he didn’t tell me where he’s going in the heat of the moment is one thing, but that he chooses to stay on his journey without looking back… It makes it difficult for me to let go because there is no telling how I’ll find him again once I do.

It’ll be entirely up to him whether we meet again, and it could easily be never if his worldview doesn’t change. Or I could find him as an enemy on the other side of a battlefield.

Circumstances being what they are, I decide to speak to these lumberjacks and let go because my time is very limited, I cannot spend a month tracking him to his destination.

I take off my armor and weapons as I wait for my brother to disappear from sight with a pit in my stomach. I arrange my cloak to conceal the absence of my left arm before heading for the cabins. A large bulky man with a thick black beard and a woman of similar caliber walk out in work clothes.

Hey there, stranger.” The man speaks up with a puzzled expression.

“I’m…” Jezebel is a bit too obvious. “Alana.” I tell them.

Two visitors in the span of a night and day doesn’t feel like a coincidence.” The woman mutters with a frown.

He merely forgot he owed me a few coins before leaving.” I reply with a thin smile. “I’d like to know where he’s going.”

He went that way, you could catch up.” The man replies with a flat expression.

At least they can tell it’s suspicious and Mersey made a good enough impression they don’t want to sell him off to save trouble. They might not speak to us but they could tell others once their impression fades, there are ways to get them to keep quiet.

If they understood, yes, but I don’t want to. Besides, these are low born who would hold Nobles with far more reverence than they should, thus threats would not work for long. I ponder for a moment.

He can’t pay me back now, I merely wish to be able to find him once he’s found work.” I tell them. “A name and destination would suffice, if it isn’t too much to ask.” The two exchange a glance.

He said it would be best he didn’t give us his name because he’s in some trouble and we didn’t ask where he’s going.” The woman tells me with a sharp tone, making it clear she suspects me.

“Well, that’s partly why I’m not trying to get my coin back now.” I tell them with a half-smile. “I’ll be leaving then, thank you.”

I drop my lips as soon as I turn my back, aware that I’ll be unable to track him without a name but conscious that others may not have the same issue. His refusal to name himself will make it relatively easy for anyone who learns of it to conclude it was him that stopped here.

There isn’t anything I can do about it other than hope I’ll be able to find him in a few years, if I’m alive and he hasn’t looked for me. I sigh but return to my gear.

Once I’m equipped, I flick the umbrella back on my shoulder and head straight east towards the clearing I left the others which might take a couple of days to reach. I hope you’ll change as you seek a new life, brother.

— — —

As I trek through the forest at the base of the round mountain in the middle of the night, I spot light from a campfire way off where I left them. Worrying that Saunas could have found our camp and spilled my purpose for coming here, I decide to check it out.

I lower my stance and bend down to reduce my profile to approach stealthily. I find Uhla sitting cross-legging in front of the fire, looking dismayed, which quite amusingly dismays me.

What are you doing here by yourself?” I ask aloud while stepping out of cover.

Oh, shit!” Uhla cries out as she snaps up to her feet and brings her hand to the dagger at her waist.

“Calm down, it’s me.” I tell her as I step into the light. “What got you so on your guard?”

I, uh, no. You just surprised me.” She mutters with her hand on her heaving chest.

I’m supposed to be the one to see blades in shadows, what’s up with you?” I question.

There isn’t a moon up and the wolves have been howling.” Uhla mutters with a slight blush.

Wolves don’t howl when they hunt, Uhla, they stay silent.” I tell her with an amused look. “Otherwise, people wouldn’t lose as much livestock to their packs.”

Ah.” She exclaims in embarrassment.

So, what are you doing here?” I ask.

I went out for a walk and… got a bit lost.” She mutters.

“A bit?” I chuckle. “Where did you think the camp was?”

There, east.” She points at where I came from.

I can see your problem.” I mutter with a laugh. “That’s west, south-west actually.

Is it?” She asks while blinking.

Did she sneak off on her own? Report to a Shade maybe? Or a Templar tailing us since the two organizations don’t mix if they can help it to avoid suspicions cast on the Order.

Look at her, I doubt she could trick even a kid. I let out a self-derisive laugh as I inspect Uhla’s bright eyes. We extinguish her fire and head off to the east. To her embarrassment, we find the camp within an hour.

There you are! We looked for you all day!” Nahl exclaims with a relieved expression.

And didn’t let anyone take a nap.” Idali grumbles.

We would have looked for you if you got lost.” Rowland admonishes.

I wouldn’t have gotten lost.” She replies while rolling her eyes.

City girl like you? Wonder if you’d find your way if I dropped you off where I found her.” I speak up.

Of course I would, I know the four cardinal stars.” Idali denies. “Come ‘ere, I’ll show you because I’m not spending another day looking for you next time.” Idali snags Uhla by the collar and drags her away.

Thought you wanted to sleep, you big softie.” I mock.

Stuff it, dwarf.” She rudely counters.

Come here and tell it to my face, you overly tall blonde with breasts to feed a litter!” I yell at her back.

I have back problems, couldn’t bend down enough to say anything to your face!” Idali utters with a laugh. “And the rest were compliments as far as I can tell!”

Were not!” I deny childishly. The woman ignores me, taking the win. I glare at Rowland and Nahl from the force of habit. They raise their hands to appease me and fail to completely hide their grins. “Cook me something, or else.”

We didn’t say a thing!” Nahl protests.

You’re responsible in some way, I’m sure.” I argue.

I’m not, he’s the one who kept her up to search the area once in a while.” Rowland immediately betrays.

Hmph.” Nahl snorts and grabs a pot of food to heat it on the fire. “Did you find what you were looking for?” He asks.

I did.” I reply with a heavy sigh. “We’ll leave at dawn, where are the temple guards?”

They went ahead, said they’ll take the opportunity to visit a few Temples in the regions we’re meant to cross on the way to Mirus.” Rowland tells me. “They’ll meet us in one of the border towns.”

Lucky for them I do have a use for Templars.” I mutter. “Do you think they left because they didn’t want to be near what we’ll do?” I ask.

What are we doing?” Nahl asks with a suspicious frown as he stirs the pot with a wooden spoon. “You’re implying there’s something other than Sykus?”

Idali!” I yell at the woman pointing to the sky. “You didn’t tell them?

Why would I if you haven’t?!” She yells back with an annoyed look.

Good girl!” I scream at her with a grin.

I’m a woman almost twice your age, kid!” Idali protests.

That doesn’t work to your advantage considering how we met.” I note with a wicked smile. Idali grimaces and turns away, hiding her face.“Aw, don’t pout. I was joking.” I needle her.

I know, enough Jessica!” Idali snaps.

Okay, sorry.” I call out. She doesn’t reply but both Rowland and Nahl stare at me as if they’ve seen a ghost. “What?”

You apologized.” Nahl notes.

“What? Are you implying I’m rude?” I ask with narrowed eyes.

Not indeliberately, no.” Rowland replies.

You can be very polite.” Nahl agrees.

“ … wait, do you mean I’m only polite when it’s deliberate?” I question.

We would never say that.” Rowland protests with an innocent expression.

“Because you’d probably…” Nahl starts with a wicked smile.

Before he can finish, I raise my hand and send all the air I can seize at them both. Continuous gusts of wind crash into them to mess up their clothes and send them stumbling. Their cloaks flap around, occasionally slapping them while Rowland’s tunic ends up over his head.

Do something like that.” Nahl finishes with a bitter smile as he glances down at the extinguished fire.

I suppose the Exemplar had other things to do.” I mutter, raising my expectation of the trouble I’ll find in Mirus and possibly in Hetlan.

— — —

We arrive at a small town where most buildings have a second floor. I picked it first because the Countess isn’t especially powerful relative to others holding the title, especially considering Castle Lance which now makes me realize that Leomi’s house was wealthy despite not ruling as many people.

Edusa merely suspects her of cheating on taxes to fund an army. While that’s understandably concerning to Edusa, I don’t intend to bother if that’s really all the Noble is doing because I’m not a sword for hire. The reason I came here anyway is that there is a good chance this Countess is, at the very least, stealing from her subjects.

Split up to gather information before they know we’re here. Rowland go contact Edusa’s people in this town.” I speak up.

Why me?” Rowland protests.

You used to be in the army and you’re a bastard, Nahl is too nice.” I explain.

“I’m sure he would do fine with her officers, they’re low born. I would do much better at the tavern.” He insists.

You can invite them to a drink for all I care.” I tell him, annoyed.

Nice try but I’m not leaving your side.” Idali speaks up.

“Yea, yea, come on.” I wave her off.

I head off with my cloak wrapped around me to hide my gear, which is a bit useless considering Idali is trailing behind with her spear in plain view. I sigh and tell her to wait back as I look for people to speak to.

Hey there.” I call out a cute boy running past in the street.

What?” The kid asks as he skids to a stop.

I’m wondering where everyone is.” I tell him. “The streets are pretty empty.”

It’s boon-day, just came back from bringing pap his meal.” He replies.

“Unusual, how many of those are there?” I ask.

“Five!” The boy exclaims.

Five? That can’t be every week. As I think over the response, the kid runs off as if I’d finished talking. I shrug and let him go. Five day’s work for free every month is quite a lot but not as bad as it could be.

— — —

None of us learn much other than this, Rowland and Uhla tell me of frequent brawls between soldiers of this demesne and those sworn to Edusa. The Countess’ officers don’t respect the low born leading their Duchess’ troops and often throw insults that trigger fights, or pick the fight directly themselves if the response given offends them.

It is surprising that no one has died yet but it seems the town’s Templars have managed to intervene in time and prevent it. It won’t last long, one day one of them will draw a blade or punch too hard with a strengthening construct. I end up sending the three back to gathering news inside an inn, which neither protests very hard.

We’ve learned about all we could at this point.” I tell Idali. “They don’t appear to be paying any more taxes than is usual.”

Too soon, I would look into the regular disappearances.” She replies. “Three in half a year is a lot for such a small village.”

“Considering the boon-days, they ought to be runaways.” I note. “They said there was no sign of struggle.”

No one up and leaves like that.” Idali counters.

“Who’s being paranoid now.” I roll my eyes. “People don’t seem worried about it, only one mentioned it.”

“I was a guard for years, Jess, this is unusual.” She insists.

“One more reason to visit her cute little castle.” I say with a raised eyebrow as I glance to the stone structure with arches to support the weight at the center of the town.

“You’re just impatient, aren’t you?” Idali asks with a suspicious look.

“Either they ran or the Countess is killing them because, otherwise, she’s be hunting whoever is gutting her free labor.” I reply coldly. “Whatever it is, we’ll obviously not find answers among these people.”

Fair point.” She acknowledges.

I pick up my helmet from one of the hilts at my waist and fit it on. We come across a few patrols on the way but they don’t stop us despite giving us dark glances, clearly taking us for the Duchess’ people.

The guards do stop us at the stone structure’s large wooden gate and refuse us entry. I decide to wait for whoever it is they’re calling while concealing my lack of a left arm underneath my cloak. A tall man ends up showing up in a black coat with a white fur collar.

Lord Tolheim, consort of Lady Matilda, Countess of Hafjord.” The guard introduces.

Haf-what?” I ask in confusion

Haf-yorhd.” The guard repeats more clearly with a dark expression.

We literally told you this a dozen times.” Idali murmurs.

Did you? I’d have remembered that weird a name, I don’t even recall being told the Countess’ name.” I complain.

You’re picking a fight, aren’t you?” Idali mutters with a sigh. “At the door.”

I’m not.” I protest.

“If you are here to insult us, I would kindly ask you to go.” The Lord interrupts with his deep voice.

No, not really.” I deny with a smirk despite having hoped he’d try to strike me. “I’ve heard people have gone missing so I came inquiring.”

Is that so.” The Lord flatly responds. “Who might you be?”

Jessica Freepath.” I utter while showing my teeth with an aggressive smile and flicking my cloak aside to reveal both my weapons and my lack of an arm.

The man blinks and the guards tense. Three pairs of eyes suddenly fall on my left side and then rise to my left cheek. Of them all, the one who pales the most is the Lord. Even his fingers start trembling.

We’ve, heard of you.” He says after gulping. “We would be pleased to invite you for dinner tonight to make your acquaintance.”

I’m not looking for noble entertainment, if you get me.” I reply with a widening grin. “The Countess is here. Ain’t much better than the present to act, or meet as it is.”

So I’ve heard is your philosophy.” The man mutters with an awkward expression. “Perhaps we could prepare something in the boudoir, tea or some other beverage. My Countess is preoccupied but she could no doubt make time for such a distinguished guest.”

Let’s do that then.” I agree.

The man invites us in with a wave of his hand but walks in first without waiting, no doubt rushing to whisper a warning to a servant to warn his spouse. I chuckle as I head in with Idali.

Seriously? Threatening our way in worked?” She asks no one in particular with a baffled expression.

I didn’t threaten anyone.” I protest as my eyes trail the vestibule and all the paintings ornamenting the walls. “Lots of battles there.”

Caeviel’s early history was quite rowdy.” The Lordling speaks up. “There was conflict between regions long settled and those newly colonized, like Izla Meria who had allegiances to their former Kingdoms. The Empire was also taking action to assert firmer control of the outer territories by helping the Order take root.”

Hm.” I mutter.

I’m quite the enthusiast about history, if you’ll forgive me.” Tolheim says while failing to conceal the slight contempt in his expression.

I flick my hand at him almost casually. A wave of golden energy rushes out of my body. I control a third to slam into the wooden doors behind us, closing them with a slight kinetic burst and sealing them with a merging construct.

I shape the air with another third of the flow to propel the man at the stone wall, breaking a painting’s frame, and hanging him there while I add a defensive construct to the doors with the last third so as to slow down the guards who will soon try to break in.

Grh.” The Lordling grunts in pain and faints. I may or may not have hit the stone wall with his skull.

Seriously?” Idali asks, baffled.

Preemptive self-defense.” I tell her.

There was no sign he was going to attack.” She counters.

“Trust me, eventually he would have… with enough provocation on my part and maybe a slap or two with my fist.” I argue.

There’s no way that counts as self-defense, Jessica, preemptive or not.” Idali denies.

You sure?” I ask, turning to her.

Yes.” She confirms with a serious expression and a very unnecessary sharp nod that adds to my amusement. I suppress my laughter as I turn to the Noble hanging fifty centimeters off the ground.

“Well, good sir, I apologize for mischaracterizing my assault.” I apologize with a slight mocking bow. “…” I wait a while before turning back to Idali. “He’s not answering.”

He’s unconscious.” She notes.

“Still, that is very rude.” I tell her.

“Quite.” Idali agrees and turns to the Noble. “You could have at least groaned or something, it would be the polite action to take as a host.” She admonishes while waving her spear under his nose like a parent would shake their finger to berate a child.

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