Crack. Leomi Lance’s back hits the side of a carriage, wood splits. She yells in pain and anger. Princess Celyz’ walks up to the fallen woman, two dozen tendrils menacingly writhing around the Rykz.
“A trap.” Celyz’ resounding voice thunders.
“You sent my Jessica with Elizabeth!” Leomi roars, standing up.
A golden lance forms in the Countess’ hand. The Princess shatters it with a swipe of a tendril brimming with black flow. Two more flash, seizing Leomi Lance’s throat and right wrist.
“Yours?” Celyz growls. “You abandoned her.”
“I did, what I needed to, for her to survive you!” Lance fires back with difficulty. The Princess is taken aback by the response.
“Yet Jessica lives after having rejected the offer that Elizabeth accepted.” Celyz finally says, countering the accusation. “Why speak of this trap now? Did you decide to let Elizabeth walk into it but spoke when you saw Jessica?”
“No, I only just realized, I should have sooner but…” Lance explains, anguish in her light gray eyes.
“Hm.” Celyz suddenly pulls back, releasing the Countess. “We have suspected that it could be a trap. A thousand drones have been assigned to protect the both of them, they know to be careful.”
There is a large crowd of people gathered around the two, held back by Celyz’ warrior escort. The Princess knows that their presence makes it very difficult for her to get rid of this woman, yet it isn’t the reason why she does not.
The primary reason is that it would go against her Hive’s interests, but it is not the only one. It goes against her nature to break a promise, but the most important reason, to Celyz’ innermost core, is that she gave her word that she wouldn’t to Jessica. It would create an unbreachable divide between them if she went back on it.
Celyz dislikes this Leomi Lance for how much she hurt Jessica. She believes that, if not for her, Jessica wouldn’t think herself a monster when the symbiont turned her into such a glorious being.
Jessica denied that she thinks herself monstrous but Celyz knows that she lied. The same way she knows that she cannot compete with the intensity of the feelings Jessica has for this woman. Celyz could smell it on the intoxicating young Jessica.
That is why Celyz does all she can to support Jessica’s double identity. She does not tell untruths as that goes against her innermost nature but as long as she isn’t asked directly, she can use Jessica’s two names to reinforce the deception without lying.
Princess Celyz knows that doing so is her best chance at keeping them apart but, mostly, there will be less resistance from Leomi Lance when Elizabeth returns home with her.
Celyz wants to give Jessica Elizabeth Vil a home within her Silver Hive, something the young girl wouldn’t be able to build in Caeviel, not with the symbiont being such a source of fear among humans.
“You don’t understand, Mother knows the Rykz. If she participated in the creation of this trap… She will find a way to deal with your drones.” Leomi says.
Leomi Lance’s words worry Celyz. She knows of the Rykz’ weakness on water, some Hives have expertise on the matter, but they were much too far to reach and even they do not engage in naval combat.
The Princess watches Jessica’s ship sail away. Her feelings tell her that she should have stopped her as soon as Countess Lance spoke of a trap. For once, she lets her feelings influence her course of action, deciding to adjust and accelerate the plan.
“Your mother is it.” Celyz’ voice resounds in Lance’s ears. “Prepare yourself, you’re coming with us after all.”
— — —
A couple of days later, Countess Lance, her sword-sworn Lady Yvonne, Lady Edusa, and Lance’s closest followers climb on top of a hill, south of Meria. Among them, Amelia, Nathan, and Rowland decided to join her on the trip to the mainland.
The rest of will be busy creating her organization or preparing to leave with Edusa, it will be much easier for them to sneak away now that Celyz is no longer in the city as the other Princesses remain aloof beings who pay little attention to humans.
From the vantage point, they observe a tide of workers build large floating platforms by linking small rafts together under Fenyz’ directions. Celyz is gathering forced from their military camp west of the city.
“Why would King Cenwalh decide to fight this war when he could end it with but a single messenger?” Edusa asks. There is no land to gain, no riches to seize.”
“Ambition, fear.” Lance says. “At the end of the day, Cenwalh hasn’t lost anything for now while negotiating with the Rykz before meeting them in battle would cost him much influence at Court. The situation is in flux, if he can hold until phalanxes arrive then why would he give up the Princess he’s holding? Peasantry suffers across Caeviel but only the local Nobility has so far.”
“I’m so sorry.” Yvonne whispers.
“Once again, Yvonne, this isn’t your fault.” Leomi sighs. “I doubt her trap will even work, I don’t think Mother expected Meria to fall so quickly. She no doubt counted on Master Amand and his Templars to set her trap on the Izla. Without them she can only count on Port-Odo’s Templars and those she brings along, perhaps two dozen at the most. An elite force but my brutal Elizabeth is no fool, she’ll see them coming and make use of the Rykz to escape.”
“But, Jessica is…” Yvonne starts.
“Jessica is smart, she won’t fight unless forced into a corner.” Leomi interrupts her, speaking with intense conviction as if she wills the words to become reality. “Elizabeth wouldn’t put her at risk, she knows I would never forgive her.”
The Red Dwarf’s voice echoes in Lance’s mind: ‘You’re stretching your honor.‘ I haven’t broken the oath, I didn’t ask Elizabeth to protect Jessica, I did nothing. These swirling thoughts occupy Leomi’s mind, torture her.
She would break her promise without a second thought to save Jessica’s life, she knows so. Yet she does not do that, she cannot risk it unless the situation presents itself. The oath is all that she has left of Jessica, without it, even nothing will vanish.
“Once we land, we’ll spread out south of Port-Odo and enter villages to assess the situation while the Rykz scout the wilderness.” Leomi declares.
“My Lady.” Edusa speaks up.
Lance’s heartbeat quickens at the words, imagining that Jessica spoke them. As always when she does, Leomi remembers the moment when her sweet peasant admitted she had a crush on her.
Leomi hadn’t felt the same way at the time but she knows that it all began there, her obsession. The vulnerability on Jessica’s face as her lips sought to kiss Leomi’s cheek, the pain and confusion that her traits drew as she pulled away, left her there. They excite Leomi, just thinking about it fills her with desire.
She then recalls Jessica’s devastation when she broke the vow she took to mess her up until she begs to be taken. That scares her. Leomi fears what she could do to Jessica, what she so badly wants to do to her.
In a way, Elizabeth is much safer, she’s tougher and fights back. Dominating her will be a challenge, one she wants to win but can also lose, she simply enjoys the fight with Elizabeth, the struggle for control. The consuming passion she has for Jessica isn’t present.
Whereas Jessica is different, she doubts that she has the self-control to restrain herself when it comes to her. Leomi’s entire being wants to win when it comes to Jessica, Leomi wants to protect and cherish her, to take and torment her.
“My Lady.” Edusa repeats herself, calling for attention.
“What is it, Edusa?” Leomi asks, controlling her voice to conceal her roiling emotions.
“As ordered, I’ve integrated most of the city guard into the organization and split them up as much as possible but we lack the numbers to separate them from each other enough to fully break up their cliques.” Edusa says.
“We did expect that.” Leomi nods. “The problem will solve itself as new recruits make it out of training and bolster our ranks.”
“I don’t think now is a good time to leave, my Lady. They are in need of leadership.” Edusa argues.
“Princess Celyz has not given me a choice in the matter.” Leomi says.
She omits the fact that even if she did have a choice, she would still go. Edusa’s expression grows hesitant, she considers staying to lead the organization in Lance’s place despite her misgivings about the plan and conviction that they need titles.
“Don’t worry, Edusa.” Leomi speaks up. “Baroness Shipwold remains, she is more than qualified to handle the daily training and many of our current recruits are used to a command structure as they were guards or soldiers. They’ll help my officers guide the rest.”
“What about the charter?” Yvonne asks.
“The few basic rules I’ve outlined will suffice, for now.” Lance answers. “We will adjust as needed over time. How goes the recruitment of Nobles who have no hope to rise in status?”
“Better than we’d hoped but still few in numbers.” Edusa answers.
“Those who apply will grow in numbers as we do and succeed.” Yvonne affirms.
“You leave this afternoon, correct?” Leomi asks.
“Yes, I’ve delayed too much already.” Edusa confirms.
“And I thank you for it, Edusa.” Leomi gives the young woman a smile.
Edusa’s bright green eyes turn away, she knows that she cannot sustain her liege’s gaze without blushing. The Lady had thought that her disagreements with the Countess would push them apart, yet it only brought them closer.
Lady Lance’s willingness to discuss her point of view and recognize the validity of her arguments made Edusa respect her liege even more, fueling feelings that Edusa tried to push away when it became clear that Elizabeth Vil had her favor.
The organization is in dire need of every resource the Countess and Council have at their disposal but the woman still decided to support Edusa’s gambit against her mother by sending her loyal subjects along with her.
“No need to thank me, you helped more than you had to, my Lady. I’m in your debt.” Edusa says.
“Repay me by beating your mother, Lady Edusa.” Leomi tells her.
— — —
Celyz and Fenyz stand on a small wooden tower erected in the middle of the massive floating platform built by Rykz drones. Underneath, surrounding them, are close to seven hundred harvesters and three hundred rowing workers.
They are crossing the arm of sea separating Izla Meria from the mainland, following the same path Jessica should have taken. Five hundred rafts are floating around them, they carry several thousand warriors, one of them holds her rival for Jessica’s heart and her followers.
Celyz occasionally wonders whether the reason Jessica’s heart isn’t choosing her is that she lacks such an organ. Celyz thinks that, perhaps, if Jessica felt her affection through a beating heart, she wouldn’t be so quick to refuse her.
[Thinking of your creation again?] Fenyz communicates through pheromones.
[She has a name.] Celyz replies with a sigh.
[She has not yet declared herself to be with you, has she? It’s quite obvious that you’ve been avoiding the subject. It is uncharacteristic of you to be so blatant, and I can smell your envy at the human.] Fenyz declares.
[You aren’t mad at her?] Celyz asks hesitantly.
[She was originally human, I was overjoyed for you that she responded because it was so unexpected from someone born of such a selfish species. I had no illusions. Is it because the human hasn’t accepted that her very nature has changed?] Fenyz probes.
[I believe so. She is not Rykz, Fenyz.] Celyz admits sadly.
She decides not to mention that Jessica linked tendrils with her while bound to another. She has no doubt Fenyz would blame Jessica and not her even if she admits that she cheated a little.
Celyz communicated much of herself as she inspected Jessica’s symbiont, more than she had to. Yet it wasn’t intentional and neither was her use of mating pheromones to influence Jessica, to open her up to the possibility of them being together.
Rykz Princesses are very much creatures of instinct when it comes to sex and Jessica was already attractive to her when she was ‘but a human’ like Fenyz would say.
[She could almost be Rykz if you took your research further, to its natural conclusion.] Fenyz says.
[Too dangerous, we know too little of humans and the Project’s wasn’t intended for such a transformation.] Celyz denies.
[We did not know that our ancestors were more than animals when you presented this to the First Queen.] Fenyz argues. [Don’t tell me it is not possible, Mother and you specifically picked a parasite of the generation that merged with a Rykz Queen.]
[If I presented this to the first Queen, it would be forbidden.] Celyz shakes her head, pushing the temptation away.
[Would it? This Project of yours is now the most important among all of the Hives. I do not need to hear it confirmed from the First Queen to know as much.] Fenyz says.
[I wouldn’t want to risk her well-being in this way and Jessica would refuse. I know you’re saying this because you’re thinking of me, Fenyz, but I will be fine once Cetyz is returned to us.] Celyz reassuringly tells her sister.
[Well, that little hybrid. fights well.] Fenyz chuckles. [I do want to witness what she could become.]
[I will not experiment on… Wait, Fenyz. Do you smell this?] Celyz suddenly asks. Fenyz deeply breathes in.
[The Hive is under attack?!] Fenyz exclaims with a wide-ranging burst of pheromones.
The seven hundred harvesters move, closing in around their Princesses. The large platform pitches and roils from the sudden shift in weight partition. Celyz waves a tendril at them and they calm down.
“No, Jessica is. On sea, as I feared.” Celyz says in a shaky resounding tone.
“South-east.” Fenyz adds.
The two Princesses give orders to the workers, changing course. Celyz directly feeds her own flow to the workers to speed up their pace, yet there is a sharp limit on how fast their huge flotilla can proceed.
— — —
The next day, they come across the scattered wreckage of a naval battle. What remains of the rafts that carried Jessica’s escort of a thousand drones. There are fuming pieces of a galley, burnt by the Rykz fire construct, the one that turns what it aims to consume into fuel.
There are dozens of bloated human bodies pushed around by the waves under the sun. Yet, no Rykz in the Princess’ range of detection. They’re all resting at the bottom of the sea. Leomi Lance’s followers are shaken by the massacre, battles are deadly but naval ones especially so.
[The humans won.] Fenyz expresses.
[How can you be so certain?] Celyz asks, hanging onto hope. [Jessica could have won and continued her journey.]
[Some of our drones should have been able to grab onto the wreckage, the fact that we detect none means that the humans ensured that none would survive.] Fenyz affirms a hint of spite and disgust to her pheromones.
[Cruel.] Celyz shivers.
They do not linger on the site of battle. Celyz does not even consider that Jessica could have died. Fenyz tactfully avoids mentioning the possibility, as well as the fact that Jessica was very likely taken prisoner if she did not succumb during the assault.
Celyz gives the order to head north-east, reasoning that they will find Jessica if she went south-east to the mainland but if she was forced to flee towards Port-Odo then she needs immediate assistance.
Lance, on the other hand, is not so level-minded. She has been almost catatonic since she caught sight of the wreckage. Her Jessica is in danger because she misread both her mother’s intentions and the manner in which the Rykz planned to use Jessica.
Yvonne tries to reassure her friend, making wild claims about Jessica’s ability to defend herself, to make it through this. Leomi thinks she makes a point, that the girl is a survivor, yet she’s seen and taught the girl how to fight.
Lance knows that her single arm is a limitation that is not so easily overcome, even if Elizabeth chose to protect her above all else. Unlike Celyz who cannot bear to think that Jessica suffered Cetyz’ fate and was captured, Leomi hopes that they were, Elizabeth included.
Barely an hour later, Rowland spots something on the horizon to east. At first, they think that it is simply more wreckage and dead bodies, but they soon notice that there is someone laid across a few wooden beams loosely held together by ropes that didn’t snap like the rest.
Celyz sends a raft ahead to recuperate that person, choosing not to let Countess Lance and her followers on the platform until she knows more, she still hasn’t struck out the possibility that the Countess plotted with her mother to set this trap.
The drones carry a delirious and dehydrated Idali to the Princesses. There are horrendous wounds across her chest and right thigh inflicted on her by a creature that the Rykz don’t know about.
The bite marks don’t match those of the predators roaming the eastern seas, which is the only one the Rykz have explored. This western sea is an entire continent across from it.
The injury to her leg looks infected, rotting. It will eventually eat Idali from within. Celyz assembles a human healing construct and demands that a worker bring her pouch, containing various ointments that make use of her own blood.
It is beneficial to most creatures, it accelerates the healing process and provides sustenance. A remnant older than the Rykz Queen’s ancestor parasites even if it did help those hunt.
This dates back to their origins as carnivorous plants, the sap baited their preys and attracted other members of the living kingdom who would chase away the greedier predators who would eat them whole.
The presence of a part of her in the ointment allows Celyz to better control her flow inside another sentient’s body, something the humans cannot do as well as the Rykz as their blood loses its ‘life’ much quicker than theirs and isn’t always compatible with others of their species.
Celyz soon finds out that the woman’s leg was cut down to the bone and that the infection is so deep that she doubts she can deal with it before she dies. She makes the difficult choice of delaying the treatment to shakes the human awake and get answers.
“Where is Elizabeth Vil?” Celyz asks urgently.
“Wat, er.” Idali croaks with a dry throat.
Fenyz hands their own amphora of water over, the two need much more fresh water than the drones who can sustain themselves with what is contained inside the nourishing liquid they make.
“Temp, lars.” Idali tells after taking a gulp. “Caught, her.”
“Rhyyyyyyyy!” Celyz scrams, her voice is sharp and piercing.
[Calm down, sister.] Fenyz communicates.
[They got her, like Cetyz!] Celyz replies with a swirling tendril.
[She’s alive, Celyz, they both are.] Fenyz insists.
Celyz ignores her sister. She uses flow to enhance her speed and strength. She jumps off the wooden tower and runs across the platform, the harvesters’ ranks open up to let her through.
Celyz pounces over to a raft, landing heavily and almost capsizing the small embarkation. She cares not and keeps going, leaping from raft to raft until she makes it to the one Leomi Lance occupies.
She stands up to her full threatening height, looking down at the Countess while she gazes up to the furious Princess. Leomi’s hand is on her sword, the runic shield Elizabeth gave her is attached to her arm.
Leomi tore herself out of her torpor as soon as she heard that there was a survivor and armed herself when she heard the Princess’ shriek. Yvonne moves to flank with Nathan while Amelia shifts to cover Leomi’s right flank.
She would have fit the plate armor she brought along, if she had time and were not surrounded by water. This fight with Celyz is something she both dreaded and wished for yet it couldn’t come at a worse time as they are in no position to do battle, surrounded by aten army of Rykz.
Celyz roars and plunges her left foot’s root-like toes into a wooden beam. She then folds her reversed right knee and raises the leg to brutally kick Lance. Leomi blocks the attack with her shield, injecting flow into the runes. Much of the impact is dissipated yet there was so much power behind the blow that the Countess still finds herself laying on her back.
Her followers swing at the Princess, coordinating their assault, but it isn’t enough, not nearly. Celyz uses her tendrils to divert every attack with deceptive ease, it is not as easy as she makes it seem. She is struggling to keep each of them inside her wide field of detection as it does not cover her back or lower legs.
“What is the meaning of this, Princess Celyz?” Yvonne shouts.