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I examine the room for tricks Aisha could’ve left behind but find none which doesn’t especially reassure me. I find it somewhat odd she would come find me after how our last conversation went but our relationship went sour last time as well and we could still cooperate.

This is a good chance to use her knowledge to take back my writings and I really don’t like the idea of Teva dying to cover up the Vault as well as my mistake in trusting her.

You’re madder than I am, sis, you’re taking responsibility for her betrayal. She made good points about Lance and she only turned on me because she misunderstood, she doesn’t deserve death. I agree that we should act, I’m just saying.

I shake my head and prepare to respond but Liz returns to her slumber before I can. I sigh and walk up to the chest containing the Little one to make sure this wasn’t all an elaborate play to steal it for Suxen. As I open it, I find the symbiont sprawled inside over the layer of black-brown soil, napping on a layer of half-melted bones.

Lazy weed, you and sis are truly one of the same kind.” I berate while experiencing a rush of tenderness for Leomi who clearly began overfeeding it. “Is it getting fat?” I mutter aloud as I start poking the rubbery flesh.

The Little one tries to chase my finger away with a tendril but it quickly gives up and starts twirling as if tickled to the brink. I keep prodding it for fun and also to ascertain its size, noticing it grew bigger as all its appendages try to stop me.

The symbiont begins shaking violently after a while so I stop and its tendrils finally flap down on the chest’s lid. It’s definitely playing dead. I chuckle and leave it alone as I set up a series of alarm constructs around the room, not that they would do anything to prevent Aisha from showing up unannounced again.

With that done, I make my way to the kitchen to grab a whole pot of stew for at least five and return upstairs with it as well as a platter of dishes that I carry with my flow.

As climb the stairs, I hear Leomi and Yvonne’s voices as a door closes. A crafty idea stirs my lips as I hurry over. I use a strand of golden energy to open the door and step inside.

Leomi turns around, her pure white hair brushing against her shoulders as her silvery eyes lock onto mine. My heart shivers as our gazes touch but I control my love and return her smile. The jay on her shoulder inclines its head.

I approach her with a spry gait. She’s wearing her Hospitalier uniform and her mutilated left hand is bandaged still. She glances to my messy hair and makes a slight frown that disappears as she opens her arms to welcome me.

I reveal a teasing smirk and she pauses. I control my energy to place the platter of dishes on her left palm and hang the pot of food in her right hand. Leomi’s puzzled expression stiffens as I bypass her to walk up to Yvonne standing a step behind her.

You’re healed.” I comment with a grin, having noticed that her cheeks are no longer pale.

I am.” She nods with a smile and a curious pout. “Are you ignoring your fiancee?”

Her straightforward question almost trips me up but it takes me only a moment to understand she is being proactive in case we have a conflict so she can mediate.

Uh!” I exclaim childishly with a nod before rushing to her.

Yvonne blinks in surprise as I launch myself into her arms. Leomi stands frozen where she is with the food and dishes in her hands. I get up on the tips of my toes and kiss my best friend straight on the lips. Her surprise allows me to savor her. She feels as soft and tender as a peach.


The tiny high-pitched noise coming from my fiancee reaches my ears but I ignore it as I push my forehead against Yvonne’s. My best friend finally responds with a brief affectionate push back.

I pull away and take a breath as I rest my head against her ample breasts. Yvonne’s arms wrap protectively around my waist, giving me a feeling of safety. I throw a very quick glance at Leomi. She is glaring at us with pale cheeks and wide eyes.

What’s up, sweetie?” Yvonne asks me with a gentle smile.

I wanted a hug.” I reply.

Jess.” Leomi utters, her voice pinched between her teeth.

I turn around in Yvonne’s embrace and face Leomi with a smirk, causing her to grip her fists. My best friend squeezes me in a tight hug as if to provoke her ward. Lance starts shaking but barely manages to keep her cool.

Why did you want a hug?” Yvonne asks.

“Comfort.” I reply as I make a pitiful expression. Leomi wavers, her lithe fingers loosening. “My fiancee doesn’t satisfy me anymore.” I mutter with a low voice.

Lance’s hands immediately close back into fists and she turns livid with anger. Her glare feels like it could pierce through me so I turn away and bury my face in Yvonne’s left shoulder.

Eeh.” I yelp shyly, feigning fright.

Jessica!” Leomi erupts in outrage.

But it’s true! You don’t please me!” I protest, acting wronged.

Aww, you poor thing.” Yvonne murmurs as she caresses my messy hair.

Yvonne, I swear by the Lake that if you don’t hand her over, I’ll be spanking you instead.” Lance utters with a chill in her voice.

I feel my best friend shudder and notice that a touch of pink takes over her cheeks but, to Yvonne’s credit, she doesn’t let go of me and tightens her grip despite this being a prank. A furious blush takes over my cheeks as I realize this means Lance definitely told her about what she did to me.

Don’t you touch my best-friend, you bully!” I exclaim while pointing straight at my fiancee.

Leomi opens and closes her mouth like a fish out of water, apparently stunned. Her fists end up loosening as her shoulder fall. Yvonne chuckles as she picks me up to carry me over to a chair where she sits down and places me on her knees. I wrap my arm around her neck.

As your best-friend, should I help out?” Yvonne asks while her hands wander to my thighs.

Enough, please.” Leomi mutters, looking defeated. “What do you want, Jess?”

Hmph.” I grunt while turning away. Yvonne’s hands start getting busy.

Iiiirrh.” Lance whines with a pleading expression.

Alright, fine.” I say, putting an end to the farce because my best-friend’s touch is tickling rather than exciting. I would have stopped earlier if she could arouse me anyway.

Aw.” Yvonne mutters without letting me go.

If either Leomi or I lose it, we both do, honey.” I frankly tell her as I lock eyes. “If that happens, you ain’t getting out of this room unscathed.”

The sword-sworn holds my gaze, apparently unwilling to let Leomi go and wishing to tease me as well. Well, fine, Yvonne can always say ‘no’ to make us stop after all. As if reading my thoughts, she breaks eye-contact and lets go of me.

I smile, almost certain Yvonne did this because she knows herself well. She wouldn’t want to destroy the mood if we got going so it’s best to stop now, before her curiosity kicks in while she has apprehensions and isn’t attracted to us.

You little minx, using me and throwing me aside as you like.” Yvonne complains like a scorned lover as I get off her lap.

Are you two done flirting?” Leomi asks with a cold tone.

I throw her a single look and find her trembling with fury. Uh, oh. Liz? Hrm. Now is not the time to be lazy, sis! I receive no answer so I raise my hand up as a peace offering to buy time. Lance stomps over and snatches my wrist with threats of ecstasy in her silvery eyes. Liz!

What’s with the ruckus?” Liz grumbles while blinking to chase away her sleepiness.

Our fiancee is bullying me, sis!” I hurriedly exclaim before Leomi can speak.

She’s lying.” Leomi flatly denies. “Jess is the one bullying me right now.”

Don’t bully my sister, Lance.” Elizabeth replies in the same tone. “We have a date, tonight maybe, or tomor…” Yvonne and Lance stare at me in silence, expecting me to finish.

Uh.” I awkwardly speak up. “She fell asleep again.”

In the middle of talking?” Yvonne asks with a peculiar expression.

Yea.” I confirm.

Ghrm.” Lance grunts. “Lucky you.” She tells me, letting go of my wrist.

Oh… and don’t believe for a moment I don’t know you pushed her to the point where she was going to ravage you only to back off because you love her bullying. I feel my cheeks catch fire from being exposed.

Lucky me? Lucky you!” I say while glaring at Leomi, feeling vexed by my sister’s comment.

My sudden aggressivity stuns my fiancee so I take advantage to push her in a chair and drop in an adjacent one. She reaches out to grab my hand but I avoid her grip and reverse the situation by grasping hers.

No complaining.” I warn her. “Liz ruined my fun.”

You deserve it.” Leomi mutters.

So, where are all my alarm constructs?” Yvonne cuts in.

Aisha passed by, let’s talk while we eat.” I tell her.

I pull the pot Leomi places on the table while they set the dishes and serve their bowls. I tell them of the short conversation I had with Spy and let them digest this new development.

I’m going, and it’s not negotiable.” I tell them after a while. “I owe her and the long-standing agreement I have with Spy isn’t one I’m willing to breach… yet.”

Silence follows my words, the two of them likely surprised by my serious and sober declaration. I keep eating as they gather their thoughts. Leomi’s fingers quickly find a strand of white hair to twirl and my attention falls to that.

What about that army you gathered? There’s a thousand camped in the east now.” Leomi asks without protesting at all, surprising me.

They’re little more than bait for Cenwalh.” I coldly tell them. “They’ll fight for Telnur and obtain a chance to grow stronger as I promised but I otherwise have no plans to rely on them.”

Bait?” Yvonne questions.

Now that I have a force to my name, Cenwalh will see me as the leader of this army and treat me as such rather than one of your subordinates or a single warrior. It alleviates the threat of assassination and political plotting.” I explain. “He will, wrongly, believe that his best option to get rid of me is to act in treachery to the Empire by either attacking us directly or creating a situation where we die to the Lisilese.”

… are you sure?” Yvonne asks with a frown. “It isn’t prudent to think it’ll allow you to provoke Cenwalh with small acts because you trick him into thinking he can only get rid of you with a big move.” She says, showing off her smarts.

Of course I’m not sure.” I say with a smile. “It’s simply a safeguard that doesn’t cost me much to organize, I won’t be relying on it.”

I can’t let you go alone.” Leomi straightforwardly tells me.

I understand.” I nod to her, knowing she cannot let me go with my heart in such a fragile state. “But I will have to act by myself…” I pause. “I’m going to need a halberd too. A balanced one, not one of those you have right now.”

Balanced?” Leomi asks with a soft voice. “Spike or hammer?”

You already made some?” I probe. “Hammer, spikes would get caught on stuff more often.”

Damn.” Lance swears. “I’ll have it done.”

You thought of this but not that, eh?” I chuckle.

My smiths, not me.” She denies.

I nod and keep eating as my eyes run over the room, only now noticing that this inn isn’t the kind of place my fiancee would pick. I realize, as I stare at my stew, that she most definitely picked this inn for me.

Do you want to go for a walk?” I ask Leomi, thinking of our promise that after taking revenge we would take some time alone together.

After diner, yes, that would be great.” Lance replies with a carefree smile.

That single smile makes me pause. While my fiancee can undoubtedly deal with my teasing, I wouldn’t have believed she could do so without some remnant anger yet the fact is she clearly has.

You’ve changed.” I say with a frown, displeased that I missed this. “What happened?”

Hm, not much.” Leomi replies. “I’ll tell you later.” I nod and continue eagerly devouring my meal until I’m so full I can’t handle any more.

Aren’t you forgetting Lady Dun’s invitation?” Yvonne asks Leomi after a while.

Delia and Fallone will keep her company.” Lance dismisses.

Did you reach an agreement with them?” I ask. “And how big are your forces now?”

I did, thanks to your deal with Arkur.” Leomi replies. “They lost their leverage after we dealt with Roskal so they could only agree to work under me because they don’t have the funding they need. Including their ten thousand, I’ve managed to recruit around fifteen thousand so I have twenty-five thousand soldiers under my command but their quality varies wildly.”

Is that enough?” I question.

It should be but who knows.” Lance mutters with a look of worry. “At the latest news from last week, the Lisilese were probing all three bridges and two shallows leading to Telnur while a large force of cold bloods has been seen headed for Trident Hill.”

That’s not great, huh.” I mutter.

I don’t know, the Rykz seem unprepared to deal with the Emperor’s attack so perhaps the Lisilese are as well.” Leomi shakes her head as she speaks, doubting her own words. “The Rykz almost obliterated a Phalanx and used scorched earth tactics but haven’t made much progress since then so I’m inclined to believe that those two moves as well as the Silver Hive attacking Izla Meria were meant to buy time.”

We aren’t yet able to affect these things, don’t worry about it.” I tell her.

You aren’t, I am.” Leomi replies as she sticks out her tongue.

“Let’s go.” I tell her as I roll my eyes.

I steal a hundred portions from her reserve and create a stairway to the sky out of golden flow outside the inn. Leomi smiles and holds her left hand out. I get up and gently take hold of it to lead her out through the window.

We step on the staircase under the gazes of a few hundred people looking out their houses in amazement. I create and destroy golden steps as we climb higher and higher into the sky. The jay on Leomi’s shoulder takes off to glide around us in small circles.

You seem at peace.” I note.

I am, towards you.” Lance speaks up with a soft voice. “But I’m boiling inside for myself and the future.” She adds with a fierce voice.

Her confident tone gives me an odd feeling of losing grasp of her, as if my weakness is causing her to slip away. I experience the need to take her to reaffirm myself but know I cannot as my sister has staked her claim.

All I can do is reach out and so I do, grasping around her lithe waist to set my hand on the chiseled muscles of her belly concealed under her shirt. Leomi lets out a soft laugh, showing she read my feelings.

We slowly stroll across the sky as I create and destroy the staircase. Lance lays her left arm around my shoulders, letting her mutilated hand rest on my stump. Her peaceful expression makes me feel a sense of trepidation.

Mother wanted me to live fully by choosing my path and so I shall.” Leomi murmurs as she peers at the discreet stars in the night sky. “My failure in helping you and meeting the Emperor helped me understand that what truly matters are individuals more than their origins.” She adds.

So what will you do?” I ask.

“I’ll first wish for you to be free as you are but remember that I will always be the threat that defines this freedom.” She teasingly replies.

“No life without death.” I murmur, smiling. “How self-assured. Have you grown more powerful?”

I can now challenge you at your peak.” Lance reveals, stunning me.

I recall her fight with Roskal and understand that she may not be wrong. Her jay is a zone of absolute control that obeys her preferably to me which means that she can theoretically counter any construct I throw at her.

Added to the bird are all the constructs she knows as well as the blood construct and palm construct I taught her, meaning she can definitely hold her own without even mentioning her martial abilities.

What I will do is expand the Hospitaliers in the image of my ideals while also strengthening myself personally so that one day I can defeat you completely and then set you free.” Leomi reveals her ambition to subdue me without shame. “By the way, how would one beat you?” She asks with a facetious wink. I chuckle, savoring the fear I hold for her in my heart.

Attack my reputation, as long as you undermine that then I’ll eventually fall in your hands if you play your cards right.” I truthfully tell her.

Really?” She asks with a frown, clearly stunned I answered her.

Yea.” I confirm.

But you don’t care about reputation.” She probes, believing me but holding some doubts.

I don’t care about money but that doesn’t mean I don’t need coin.” I reply with a shrug. “My plans hinge on our reputations at the moment, you, me, and sister’s.” I tell her. “It won’t always be the case but it is right now so you could exploit that weakness to destroy my ambitions, I would suggest allying with whoever rules Telnur to ensure I would eventually be your prisoner.”

Dammit Jess.” Leomi swears. “Knowing this is going to torment me.”

Yea, it is, you shouldn’t have asked.” I acknowledge with a laugh, fully aware that she can’t use this information yet the temptation remains.

Previous chapter.

Next chapter.


Previous chapter.

Next chapter.

A core of stronger recruits appears as time passes, they are those five or six hundred who did not rest since the beginning. They’re tough but that alone isn’t enough by itself as perseverance will be just as important.

Switch to overhead blows.” I command with a calm voice as midday passes to make them use a different set of muscles.

Nahl and Rowland immediately begin instructing people on the stances to use. A very small number of people manage to properly execute the moves but their skill matters little to me.

The core group is further diminished by this change but not by much and peasants who are used to plowing achieve better results here than they did thrusting. Some collapse from this simple disruption to their mental state.

Once more.” I speak up.

My voice causes many to jump back to their feet, as if startled awake by a superior, and I can’t help but chuckle bitterly. How ridiculous, do they take me to be a great woman who stands above them? I am clearly sitting down.

I feel odd with so many eyes on me but also avoiding me, scared but excited. I tap the wooden rampart as I observe them train, wondering how many will survive this. Stories about cold bloods are the stuff of nightmares, no child grows up without hearing at least a dozen, but the reality is much worse.

Of what I know, Lisilese are about as sturdy as Rykz drones yet are incomparable in their weapon-wielding skills on top of having their own access to the Lake.

While they don’t have a carapace, a cold blood’s body is tougher to kill than a drone’s so whoever follows me should have willpower to withstand whatever may come our way.

Once more.” I command.

This time all rise to their feet. Some fall immediately after, their arms shaking and likely cramping with legs in no better shape, but they tried and those who couldn’t handle it join the next round with renewed determination. My fingers catch in my hair, causing me to notice I’ve been absentmindedly unraveling Leomi’s work.

Woops.” I murmur. Well, I began so I might as well finish. I shrug and continue combing my hair to unravel the orderly knots Lance made by tidying them up. “Ke, ke, ke, ke.” I start cackling as I imagine the face she’ll make.

Your madness is showing.” Uhla quietly notes. “And you’re making a mess.”

Shh, they’ll hear you.” I urge while glancing over my shoulder.

Who…” She says as she follows my gaze.

I immediately turn back and act innocent while she starts grumbling under her breath. Almost half of the core group has taken breaks at least once now and the day isn’t even over.

Once more.” I call out.

Those resting almost all grunt in exhaustion but they climb back to their feet and resume swinging their weapons. Hours go by during which many split off to go drink water or eat their fill.

Most return very quickly, pressured by their sense of competition. I wait until the vast majority have made it back before standing up on the rampart and shaking my head to have my hair breathe a little. I glance to Nahl who nods, activating the construct to spread my voice.

Let me repeat myself, I am not a Noble nor will I ever be one. What I will teach, you have no right to learn according to law. Death is likely to be your reward for going to war so make your resolve before leaving your loved ones or don’t leave them at all.” I calmly utter for the benefit of the many who got here late and wait a while before continuing. “The average sized weasel over there is Nahl, he’ll be my second-in-command but will effectively be your leader. That uselessly tall and brawny giant over there is Rowland, he will be leading you all into battle.” I let a moment pass for the recruits to engrave my two minion’s faces in their minds. “Now, they’ll lead you around this town to make camp on the western side. You may use your flow.

My last words causes many eyes to widen and very few smiles to appear. This move of mine is quite simply to separate wheat from chaff. Those who kept up with the others by using their energy will now have to rely fully on their muscles while those who were smart or honest won’t have much trouble.

As for those who cannot keep up, well they’ll be left behind to spend some time alone with themselves to reflect on whether they’re qualified. I turn around, leaving the rest for my minions to manage as I approach the inner edge of the wooden rampart to jump into town.

Hey! What am I supposed to do?” Uhla calls to me.

Uh, whatever you want?” I reply, blinking. “I only need your help to heal me.”

I was a Semplar you know.” She scowls at me with a dark expression.

Isn’t she still? Wait, no, she joined the Hospitaliers.” I mutter. Thank the Lake I didn’t say all this out loud.

You did speak aloud!” Uhla snaps at me with a harsh glare.

No I didn’t.” I deny with a straight face. “Shit, did I?

You’re doing it again.” She remarks, gritting her teeth.

Alright, alright, calm down you crazy woman.” I say, raising my palm in a peaceable manner that somehow seems to aggravate her. “It’s not my fault you’re hearing voices.”

I’m not hearing voices, Jess, enough.” Uhla utters with a deep scowl.

You’re deaf!?” I exclaim. “Damn, my bad, I didn’t notice.” I say with a concerned expression, turning to the town guards who’re staring at us with huge eyes. “You should have told me, I never noticed.” I berate them.

Urhkrgraah!” Uhla screams at my face as she turns and runs off.

Wait, don’t leave! I need you to manage Nahl and Rowland, these two kids will keep bickering if they’re left to their own devices!” I call out to her.

The ex-Semplar freezes on the spot with shaking shoulders. Hm, this is bad. I hurriedly leap off the rampart and use my flow to carry myself far far away from the short-tempered angry woman.

Come back here, Jessica!” A voice reaches my ears but I’m almost positive that person is addressing a different Jessica.

I land after having traveled some distance and grip my fist to subdue my shaking fingers. I’d long reached my limit being observed by so many eyes and could only last so long because no one got close to me.

I take a deep breath and almost run to Leomi but suppress the urge as I don’t want to grow to rely on her when afraid. No matter how much we love each other, it would not end well for either of us considering our personalities.

I thus decide to head for a merchant guild by myself, facing my fears head-on. Yet, I’m not so foolish as to do so without preparation so I prepare a dozen blood-constructs that can turn into needles or blades at a thought to my body.

This, added to the perception construct always ready to be activated with my control of air and kinetic force, allows me to settle down somewhat yet there is still a hole in my heart.

My hunting knife is useful, and so are the daggers, but they’re not true weapons. I feel a longing for my hammer, which Liz shamelessly stole and took for her own when it was mine from the start.

I pause in the middle of the street and dismiss the impulse because having another hammer forged would be reckless hubris on my part, to many people know about hybrids and the Rykz’ capabilities and doing this would be akin to giving them a map to connect the dots.

It is a tiny sacrifice to ensure my plan will succeed, besides hammers are fun but somewhat unwieldy. This decision makes me shiver as I feel naked and unsafe without my armor or a good weapon. I grunt and grit my teeth to dismiss this mental weakness which I cannot allow in my current physical shape.

No matter what, I can rely on myself and Leomi. I smile as I realize that this thought is no longer a hopeful mantra but a truth, although one dependent on circumstances but that isn’t entirely my fiancee’s fault considering my greed.

I run my gaze to my surroundings, noticing naught of alarm. Most around are civilians going about their day with a few patrolling guards and some merchants as well as some Hospitaliers.

I head straight towards the center of town where I find a Temple guarded by Semplars, a sign that the Order has gathered as much of its forces as it could, and few guilds.

The merchant’s guild is a wooden building adjacent to the artisan’s guild which is made of stone. I make my way for the former and a young armed guard who opens the door for me.

Upon entering, the receptionist hurries over with a slightly panicky expression. I frown but remain outwardly immobile yet ready to lash out or escape at a moment’s notice.

Miss Freepath, how may we help you?” The man cordially asks.

I need grain but I’m broke, also I could use silver coins.” I straightforwardly reply. I mentioned that those who answered my call wouldn’t be fed but there will always be some without supplies and some ill-prepared. “You can send the bill to Prince Arkur of house Telnur.”

I’m not authorized to make such a transaction.” The attendant tells me with an awkward expression.

“Then tell someone who is.” I blandly respond. “I need food enough to supply a few hundred during their journey to Telnur as well as a full pouch of silver, have it delivered to my people.”

Dame, this is…” The man starts.

Have the contract sent to me when it’s done.” I cut him off.

I immediately turn to make my way out because I don’t like the fact this attendant knows of me so I give up negotiating and settle with whatever they’ll feel like giving me.

It matters little, I’ll just steal from Leomi or someone else if they refuse and make Arkur pay the interest, but they won’t since this is a chance to sell at a high price and what merchant would give up such a deal?

It’s going to be expensive, there isn’t much grain left here and we’ve just learned that many of Calmwater’s granaries were emptied months ago.” The man warns as I walk out.

Knew it, this means there is a good chance the guild will agree to my request, at least partially. After all, the coin I’m asking for is negligible for a Prince but significant for me and them so there isn’t much risk to the transaction.

I couldn’t have done this, or gathered so many people, without having built my reputation first, but this is merely a side-benefit the same way the force I’m building is a distraction to dangle under Cenwalh’s nose.

On the other hand, the information he gave me on Calmwater is interesting but I can’t quite pinpoint why that is… does it touch on something I heard or is it just my instinct telling me it matters?

I try to puzzle things together as I make my way back to the inn but all it gets me is a slight headache. I open the inn’s door with a trembling hand and walk inside to find a bunch of rowdy people.

The noise and ambiance makes me tense up but, oddly enough, it also helps my mind relax a bit because of how familiar it is to me. Still, being in the midst of so many people is dangerous so I quickly grab some food from the kitchen and rush back to our room.

I find it empty and thus proceed carefully by scanning the area little by little as I advance only to freeze almost immediately because I spot an open window.

Leomi wouldn’t make such a mistake so I immediately activate my perception construct while swiftly applying a layer of flow around me which I direct through intent to redirect kinetic force.

This defense starts burning energy because it repels the surrounding air but I care not for the expense as hurriedly shape my newly developed construct to enhance my eyesight.

Aisha.” I call out, thinking that anyone else would have been detected by my scans or eyes. “You shouldn’t dismantle our alarms like this, what if I struck you down?”

You’re way too perceptive, I can’t even prank you.” Her playful voice arises from a corner in the room.

I don’t turn to the origin and hurriedly finish my construct which allows me to find her standing near the spot where I heard her but not exactly there. Her silhouette is half-formed and bizarre in my sight, composed of mere flickers of silver lightning.

You can actually find me.” Aisha remarks as she dismisses her camouflage, revealing an astonished expression.

I deactivate my active constructs and take note of the fact she stayed immobile while using it. I run my gaze over her figure. Her curly black hair have regrown to mid-cheek while her eyes are black, she didn’t color them blue which could be significant or not at all. Her round face is as cute as ever but I’m in no mood to flirt.

I always could.” I lie.

Hmph.” She grunts in displeasure, understandably unwilling to accept the statement.

You dismantled the alarms.” I comment.

Couldn’t exactly wake the whole city by triggering them.” She remarks. “I came over for that favor you owe me.”

I squint as I inspect her to figure out her motives. Our relationship isn’t as good as it was before, not that it was ever smooth, but there is an added tension between us since our argument. Still, she hasn’t acted against me and always kept her word as far as I can tell.

How did you find out about my engagement?” I probe.

With Celyz?” She questions. “I didn’t, the Rykz revealed it themselves to our Emperor.”

What… why?” I ask myself aloud, baffled because Grikyz make it clear she wouldn’t involve the entire Hive to help me.

Probably has something to do with our recent string of victories.” The Shade replies. “They likely want our Emperor to think of the hybrids lurking in His Empire, distracting Him so He focuses on internal issues instead of them.”

It would make sense and it fits the Rykz’ style since this benefits both them as well as me, an equivalent exchange which is the only kind Celyz and Cetyz would have agreed to. I miss those two sisters, so much.

I got myself in trouble so this option presented itself for us to help each other, the Silver Hive can’t take advantage of me because of our engagement but they didn’t have a choice but to take some kind of action if ordered by their First Queen or if it became necessary for the Rykz as a whole.

Did you really… uh, sweep a Rykz Princess off her feet?” Aisha asks while throwing me an odd look.

Roots, but yea.” I admit with a grin which I quickly smother. “If I catch even the shadow of a beacon construct or anything I take as threatening in my surroundings, I’ll kill you instantly by the way.” I warn, not forgetting how dangerous Archer is.

I’m not here to threaten you.” She dismisses with a wave of her hand. “But I need you to pay back the favor you owe me.”

What do you want?” I ask, scowling at this bad timing.

You’re not going to let me settle down first?” Aisha asks with a coquettish pout. I glare but I can’t exactly deny warmth to a guest.

Take a seat.” I wave at the room.

Aisha smiles and drags a chair away from the table to settle down. I stay where I am, away from doors and windows, merely rotating to keep her in my sight. She crosses her legs and taps her lips with her index.

I need you to kill Tsek, he’s somewhere in Calmwater Duchy causing trouble.” She plainly tells me.

“…” I gape for a moment, thinking I misheard. “Isn’t he your boy-toy? And kill him? What the fuck! He’s your problem, you brought him to Kruzser!” I explode.

He has completely betrayed the Empire so he has to die.” She coldly responds, her ruthlessness clashing with her smile. “He also stole from you, he’s been repeatedly warned by us both so what’s the problem? Just go kill him, you owe me.”

Do it yourself, I don’t owe you that big a favor.” I reply with a frown.

I would use my people, but then I couldn’t guarantee the safety of that girl by his side.” Aisha replies plainly.

I close my fist but don’t explode because it doesn’t feel like she’s threatening me, merely exposing a fact. She isn’t afraid of Tsek but moving herself exposes her so she would have to use other people or eliminate all witnesses… which hired killers would also do, meaning Teva would die either way.

Does Aisha know what he stole? No or she wouldn’t be so calm. It would be best if she didn’t find out, do I have to act after all? Teva is at risk, she might’ve betrayed me and I’ll never trust her again but the root of it was a misunderstanding on her part. Was it? Leomi is a Noble, there is no denying that.

So?” Aisha presses.

Is his life so cheap to you?” I ask, suspicious.

“… I would rather not do this, and I will not do it personally, but there is a line and he has repeatedly crossed it after being forgiven once and made fully aware of the consequences.” She says between her grit teeth. “You’ll be given a letter once you make it there.”

With that said, the Shade stands and leaves without turning back. Then what was the point of sitting down you little minx? I wait for her to jump out the window to close it and settle down on the bed.

There is only one thing that would make her take such swift and deadly action, Tsek couldn’t keep his mouth shut about the Vault. I bite down on my lower lip.

Aisha clearly has no choice but to use me and I’ve little choice but to comply as the possibility exists Suxen got Tsek to do this because revealing the Vault might be the start of an escape plot. I’m not sure what I’ll do but, either way, I have to go in order to ensure Aisha doesn’t send hired killers.

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Some among these hundreds of new minions are awake and a portion of them notice me but, with the distance and low light, the number is scarce. I raise my hand and shape a fire construct which I launch into the sky.

Frshh. The ball of flames bursts in a bright flash of light that startles many and attracts their attention. The second purpose behind my doing this is to call on Nahl, Rowland, and Uhla who fought by my side before so they’ll recognize the signal if they see it.

What are you doing?!” The town guard exclaims in panic. “Lady Din is definitely going to show up now, Dame Freepath.” He mutters worriedly.

Don’t worry about it.” I dismiss the concern. I care none about who this Lady Din could be but it does make me curious. “Where is this by the way?”

Where?” The guard repeats.

“What Kingdom, which demesne? Who rules this land?” I press.

“This is Haitia, and Lady Din rules this town on behalf of Duchess Marchione.” He responds.

This Din doesn’t have a title which means the land is directly under the Duchess’ control, it makes sense considering it’s so close to Kruzser and thus is on an important trade route for the Kingdom.

As I think, people begin gathering in the prairie before me as a result of the signal I sent out. A few dozen fit on gear that only mercenaries or guards would wear while a handful have equipment good enough to suit a true soldier.

Some are young, others are borderline old, most seem nervous but eager at the same time. The crowd multiplies until I can no longer hold doubt that at least a thousand have responded to my call.

Worries and questions appear on many faces as my silence prolongs but I remain still. It takes a good twenty minutes for all to group up and, by then, even more travelers appear on the road to the town to join the gathering.

I remain outwardly unfazed, taking care to show neither an insane smile nor a nervous one that would expose the butterflies fluttering in my stomach. I doubt I’ll ever be comfortable facing so many people.

I hear steps approaching from the town behind, I estimate that a dozen people in soldier gear are headed here. The guard noisily holds his breath, confirming the fact that the Lady Din showed up. I don’t bother turning around even as the town’s gates open for them.

You’re Freepath, right?” A woman with a deep voice speaks up. “Are you the one who sent that fireball?” She asks, apparently not too bothered by my rude behavior.

I am.” I reply. “Get lost now that you know.” I add without a shred of patience.


The angry voice is cut off by someone noisily waving their arm. I hear more steps approaching, the weight and rhythm telling me my three minions have shown up.

The name Freepath doesn’t allow you to do as you wish, the wild use of a fire construct endangers the town.” The Lady utters with a cold tone.

So you know who I am.” I casually comment. “Since you do, then you’re aware there are consequences for obstructing me. You’ll have no excuse when I launch you through your town’s walls.”

I’ve welcomed honorary Duchess Lance in good faith, Jessica Freepath, what quarrel do you have with me?” Lady Din questions, sounding peeved by my attitude. One of Leomi’s supporters, I assume, at the very least she’s in favor of reforming Nobility.

I’m not her consort so her relationships bind me not.” I clarify the situation. “As for a quarrel, you came speaking with authority when you have none over me.”

The pride of a free-woman, is it?” Lady Din mutters provocatively. I don’t reply, feeling too lazy to argue whichever way. “I would respect that had you not ambushed Elizabeth Vil a few days ago.” She comments with unmistakable disdain.

Hh.” I snort, amused. “E.Vil would have cut your head off merely for stepping within reach of her blade, Din.” I tell her. “Count yourself lucky I’ve a forgiving heart and a generous temperament.”

How does she say these things with a straight face?” Uhla whispers loudly, trying to be subtle to break the tension but failing because of her nervous tone.

Our dear boss has always been openhearted.” Rowland mentions with a touch of sarcasm.

The two of you need to shut up before you drag me into this.” Nahl snaps at them.

I heard you’re a cripple now.” The Noble remarks with a venomous tone.

“I am, yet I can still flatten you and your guards.” I coldly respond.

Don’t cause chaos or we’ll find out if that is a boast.” Lady Din utters and turns to depart without wasting another moment.

I mourn the fact this one is so decisive because I could have almost picked a fight over her last words. I decide to let it go since there are over a thousand pairs of eyes on me.

What was that buzzing I heard earlier? My minions wouldn’t be talking behind my back, would they?” I wonder aloud with a chirpy voice.

There! We all heard it this time! You called us ‘minions’ and you can’t take it back!” Rowland exclaims victoriously.

I did.” I admit with a smirk.

No denyin… wait, you did?” Rowland stutters. “Then… uh. I win?”

So what if she admits to it? You’re too naive.” Uhla whispers mockingly. “Besides, she obviously wouldn’t unless it worked against us.

Leomi sold you out so you’re officially mine now.” I tell them, impressed by Uhla’s clairvoyance but also a bit annoyed because her revelations make it so I can’t toy with them anymore than this.

What? Nuoo!” Nahl dramatically cries out with a low voice and not a shred of sincerity to his despair.

This is vexing.” Uhla declares plainly. I hear discreet steps.

Don’t even try to run away, Rowland.” I speak up.

I’ll tell on you.” He threatens.

Go ahead.” I reply with a chuckle, almost certain he wouldn’t. I hear him grunt but that’s it, he doesn’t leave. “Alright, enough screwing around. Which one of you three has the most knowledge on stuff?”

Depends the kind of stuff you’re talking about.” Uhla replies.

War, logistics, planning, administration.” I list.

“That would be Nahl, then.” She says. To my surprise, the two don’t contradict her.

I know Rowland is uselessly big and muscly, but you shouldn’t bully him.” I comment.

Nahl was a Templar, his education was far more expansive than mine as a bastard who skipped classes.” Rowland cuts in with a sour tone. “And you said no more screwing around, why are you still picking on me?”

No reason, really. For sport?” I mumble as I think things through. “Nahl, you’re in charge of stuff from now on. Uhla, you do whatever you want. Rowland, you’re to smack these recruits into shape and then lead them in battle screaming.”

Wait, you’re seriously doing this? With just the three of us?” Uhla asks with a worried tone.

Sure, how hard could it be?” I reply with a shrug. “You and Nahl are going to be doing most of the work while Rowland yells at them.” I wave at the silent crowd facing us. “I’ll be lazying around.”

Uh, I get that I’m meant to be second-in-command, or something, but…” Nahl trails off.

What exactly do we do?” Rowland continues for him.

Fuck if I know. I’m launching the show, your job is to follow through.” I offhandedly reply. “Oh, and try to keep in mind there are going to be a lot of spies among them.” I add.

I gather flow and take a step forward into the air, climbing atop a platform of solid air which lifts me above the city’s wooden rampart. I take a deep breath as the true size of the crowd enters my field of vision.

Voice construct is up.” Rowland speaks up. I nod in acknowledgment.

We’re going to teach you but, by following me, you will have no right to learn.” I speak up, my voice spreading throughout the plain. “My authority is that which I gain with the point of a blade alone.” A soft grumble spreads as these people take in the revelation but I pay no attention to it and continue. “You will neither be paid nor given any gear until we reach Telnur, at which time it will be far too late to back out so make your choice now and make it well.”

I stop talking to let my words sink in and control my energy to take me to the rampart’s wall-walk where I step down and take a seat on the wall with my feet hanging down.

The guards stare at me but don’t find the guts to tell me I’m not allowed up here. A few dozen people leave the area as time passes and they realize the consequences of answering my call to arms.

Most likely realize that no one will take them to task for learning the lion strike to defend the Empire from cold bloods but the shrewd know that things are never so simple and that following me almost guarantees they’ll clash with Nobility.

Not all of you will be accepted, I will only take those that make it through the training which will consist of a test of endurance, both physical and mental.” I utter and wait for the loud echo of my voice to dissipate. “You have one hour to travel to the forest to acquire a wooden stick at least a meter and a half long before returning.

My command is received in startled silence that is abruptly broken when the first depart towards the small woods fifteen minutes away in a sprint. I sigh but take care not to shake my head so as not to give out any clues.

I spoke of a test of endurance yet these idiots began running when there is plenty of time to walk there. The rest of the crowd soon follows like a rumbling tide, many running but most jogging. Those too eager may think they’ll have time to rest when they return, a mistake.

I’m surprised that Lady didn’t blow a fuse, or that no one sent an envoy to disrupt this.” Rowland comments, showing off his own wit. I glance to Nahl who nods, confirming I can speak privately.

“The lack of opposition means they now take me seriously.” I explain. “I’m unsure whether it’s good news or bad news.”

Surely it’s…” Nahl starts but stops as his mind catches up with the nuances. “No one should be as foolish as to take you seriously, that is a road which leads to headaches often born of a severed neck.” He jokes. Is that reference to decapitation an oblique way to say he knows I’m E.Vil? Unlikely, he would have shown some shock.

At least one arrogant idiot should have shown up, the fact none did means orders were given to stay away.” I say. “Any news I should hear about?”

There is word that Caeviel is mired in unrest, people are worried about a possible famine.” Uhla speaks up.

When did you hear this?” I ask.

Yesterday.” She replies.

I close my eyes for a moment, feeling no sense of accomplishment at Cenwalh’s mistake for it means death and suffering. I glimpse down at my three minions who’re gazing at the underlings I’m testing.

Exchange weapons and get used to them again.” I speak up.

Nahl and Rowland glance at each other before unfastening their sheathes. The former grabs the bastard longsword while the latter takes the claymore as these weapons fit their sizes and fighting styles.

They immediately start sparring, following my instructions like instinct which shows how far we’ve come as a unit. I feel naught at this because I still don’t really trust them and likely never will.

They’re unlikely to ever truly turn against me but I will never be as close to them as I am to Leomi and Celyz. Uhla sends me a questioning glance to which I respond with a nod. She enters the town and climbs up the rampart.

While she assembles the various constructs I need to stay alive, my other two minions fight it out with bared blades. It pleases my madness to witness their lack of fear as they exchange blows.

It’s also quite satisfying to see Rowland restraining his swings while Nahl moves in to pressure him, it shows they’ve both learned to be balanced in their approach to combat rather than overly aggressive or defensive.

Alright, enough.” I tell them as the first potential recruits return.

The two split with dissatisfied expressions, which is fine as competition will help them both grow as it did for Leomi and me. I’ve never been confident in truly defeating her and it remains true now that she has her jay to rely on.

Have them thrust their weapons.” I tell my minions before closing my eyes to inspect Uhla’s work.

That’s your job.” Nahl says.

“You don’t have anything to do so help out.” Rowland returns.

You’re both right.” I murmur. “Since you’ve failed to acquire weapons or supplies, you might as well help him manage them.” I tell Nahl.

I just got the job!” He protests at the unfairness.

“So? Victory is all in war, excuses mean naught to the dead.” I admonish, causing Rowland to snicker.

Form ranks!” He bellows immediately after, definitely aware I would have turned my attention to him otherwise.

I let the two of them manage the recruits until all have returned upon which I open my eyes to gaze upon the eight hundred or so that remain. It seems this small test and my earlier warning were enough to weed some out. I glance to Nahl who nods.

First of all, let it be known I am of above average height.” I speak up, my voice spreading throughout the plain. A deafening silence answer me but the truth seeks not the crowd’s approval so it matters not. “Who hasn’t split what little food they had during harsh times to starve over a period of time instead of eating their fill to die a couple of weeks later?” I question rhetorically, knowing most low born have lived through similar experiences. “This is the truth of the world and so it applies in war, I shall only select a thousand at most because this number is all I am confident of being able to supply. I require an elite core of troops with mental strength to surmount the direst of circumstances.”

I fall silent with these words and observe as another hundred people split from the crowd. I wait a while as a couple dozen more wander off before glancing to Rowland and Nahl.

Who told you to stop thrusting! Keep at it!” Rowland snaps at the ranks.

Your skill with the spear, sword, or harvesting scythe matters not to me.” I speak up. “What will allow you to survive is your ability to function as a group, and such a unit’s strength is defined by its weakest individual.” I explain. “This test is one of endurance and willpower, it will not end until I say so even if it means I take a mere dozen with me to Telnur.”

With that said, I fall silent and watch the recruits thrust their sticks out at a rhythm guided by Rowland. A few hundred more of them give up within an hour but, surprisingly, an equal number of new arrivals make it to the town and Nahl organizes them in a second testing group.

I keep waiting, observing as people fall from exhaustion and leave of their own accord without commenting. The whittling down continues until one sixteen-year-old kid who had fallen gets back up and resumes the exercise, causing those around him to stop in protest. He frowns at the criticism but doesn’t give up.

No one told them to leave when they fell.” I cut in, startling the crowd. “If you’ve not the willpower to get back up, then why would I want you to follow me?” I question and continue without waiting for an answer. “Once more.” I tell the kid.

A brilliant grin flashes on his youthful face as he obeys. I sigh internally because his courage and tenacity are admirable but will also likely lead to an early grave without the corresponding martial skill or access to the Lake.

Another hour passes during which almost all crumble and sit down to rest since they aren’t going to be disqualified for it but the fact that the training continues with seemingly no end in sight causes many to give up on their own accord.

You’re here to fight a war, there are no excuses on the battlefield. Neither fear nor exhaustion are valid reasons to give up on your life.” I speak up, causing all those resting to rise as if a fire burst beneath their asses. “Once more.” I command.

The test continues throughout the morning, more people giving up on joining me as time goes by, presumably because there is no end in sight to their torment but likely from realizing the harshness of a warrior’s path.

Once more.” I repeat after more than a third have crumbled again.

Of those on the ground, less than half get back up while the rest look to the ground in shame. I say naught but many of them crawl away from the group, giving up. What pleases me is that there are plenty who remain and keep resting despite their shame, proving their drive for success.

Once more.” I speak up after another quarter of an hour, and grin as those who hadn’t given up despite their inability to continue rise up. “Those who can last throughout the day, I will accept.”

My declaration breaks the will of dozens who still stood strong as they finally understand I’ve no intention of going easy and allow them to stop for lunch. Yet, none of those who showed shame at being unable to stand up leave.

There are no rules here, I am no Noble and will make use of all those that remain to the end regardless of the effort they put in.” I tell those who’ve begun acting lazy. “Your conscience and the opinions of others will be the determining factor as to whether you remain to the end.”

Upon hearing this, a few of those who gave up decide to return to the field. As I do not reject them, many more return as well. Two recruits, who didn’t slack off in the least from the very beginning and took no breaks, turn red at this sight.

They decide to leave, clearly angered by my way of doing things, but do so slowly as if expecting to be stopped. They turn even redder when no one tells them to stay.

I care not about this pair of fools but I engrave their faces in my short term memory to ensure they are kicked out if they try to return as I’ve truly no need for their arrogant kind.

Once more.” I plainly instruct.

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