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.