Vikiana pushes her feet until it touches mine. I throw her a questioning look over the rim of my bowl, wondering what she’s doing until I feel a strand of free flow pass through her boot to my bare foot. Only enough energy to form a lion strike. I shape one and send it back to her, cutting my connection to it.
“How do you do it by the way? Is it a construct or one of this creation’s abilities?” She asks about how I could ‘see’ behind her back.
“A variation on a signaling construct, it works internally.” I lie.
“Must be based on Rykz ‘sight’, there are a few constructs that allow humans to do the same but they’re too distracting to be viable most of the time.” She comments. “Would you be willing to teach me?”
“No.” I reply.
“Understandable.” Vikiana gracefully accepts my refusal. “This is the lion strike you use, correct?”
“Mostly, I didn’t really dare to experiment.” I say.
“Wise.” She nods. “You use this one in combat?” She asks.
“I have, yes.” I respond.
“The less familiar you are with a construct, the more energy you tend to waste.” She says.
“I’ve noticed, my lion’s step burns more than I would like because I make it last longer and reinforce myself more than I should. It’s instinctual in a way.” I tell her.
“It’s good that you have that kind of feel for flow.” She notes absent-mindedly. “Train it and with time you’ll be able to adapt your timer construct on the moment with but a thought.”
“What do you have to tell me about my lion strike?” I ask.
“The balance between strengthening and reinforcing works for a hammer but would be overdoing it for a lighter weapon. It’s hard to tell since your targeting segment is tailored for you but it also seems to me that you’re not excluding enough muscles.” She says.
Vikiana hesitates for a moment and leans in to touch two points below my bra. She then pushes slightly to make me turn and hits three spots on my back.
“Those are useless to you, they contribute but it’s so minimal that even without boosting them and using a lion strike to your upper physical limits, you won’t strain them beyond these muscles’ natural capacity.” She explains. “Same goes with your hand, unless you’re hurt there is no reason for your weapon to slip out of your grip. Your wrist needs more reinforcing than strengthening.”
Vikiana then proceeds to give me ratios for my joints, the elbow is about half and half reinforcing against strengthening while the shoulder is the inverse of the wrist, the articulation is sturdy and can handle more strain.
Once done, she transfers the unchanged lion strike back to me. I dismantle it and assemble one while following her instructions, sending it back to her through our feet. A good trick to bypass the disruption construct, perhaps I should look into using the lightning construct through direct contact.
“Better.” She nods. “Do train with it before trying it in combat.”
“Going to be hard with those.” I groan, moving my left limb to shake the shackles.
The Exemplar backs away in a split second, her expression tense but not fearful. She doesn’t trust me or she doesn’t believe I completely control the parasite. Which is valid considering I don’t, it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement to ensure our survival.
“Keep training your lion strike.” She tells me. “I advise you to get very familiar with the lion’s step before even considering optimizing it. But when you do, remember that your ankles are the most fragile part of your legs and to take every care to preserve your knees. At the kinds of speed you can attain with this construct, a single misstep can break them.”
“Alright.” I nod.
“And, Jay.” Vikiana pauses, visibly struggling with a decision. “Use this as a last resort.” She sends the lion strike and a minuscule construct back to me.
“What is it?” I ask.
“The key to disabling the disruption construct.” She murmurs.
“Why would you give this to me?” I frown.
“Because, in the end, I can’t doubt your loyalty to the Empire and I… do not like this.” The Exemplar tells me.
“I don’t need it.” I shake my head. “The disruption construct might even be to my advantage since I only know a single construct that could help.”
“Just keep it, you said you weren’t confident in defending yourself.” Vikiana says stiffly. She relaxes a little as she continues. “It’s wise, it’s very difficult to fight with shackles on.”
She stands, picks up her stool, the bowls, the spoon, and leaves quickly. She heads to the upper decks without slowing down. It looks like she doesn’t want to give herself time to reconsider the risk she just took. I could easily expose her to Odo with this, not only that but if I use it, it’ll be difficult for her to explain even if I do get rid of the Count.
I lean down and step on the middle of the chain keeping my wrists together. I try pulling with my left arm to see what kind of progress I can make towards breaking free, but the chain simply slips under my sole so I stop to avoid disturbing my right arm.
However strong my limb is, my right arm can’t match it without a construct and I’ll likely need to enhance both so the disparity would remain. I need to find another way than forcing the iron apart. Maybe if I find somewhere to fix it so I can use only my left.
That’s still brutish besides, apart from the wooden bench which wouldn’t hold, there is only the metal grill and there is nothing to attach the chain to there. I suddenly recall how our plow broke in the summer, the iron head was old and worn out but it didn’t just snap, it hit a rock while I was using a strengthening construct and the impact twisted the metal enough that it tore.
I turn my wrist around the chain until the links lock up. I could easily break it this way, well maybe not easily considering how thick the iron is but this will be doable as soon as my right arm heals.
I lie down and get familiar with the new lion strike configuration. The change in how I partition the energy might seem like a small thing since I don’t actually use more or less flow, but the construct is now more efficient by a magnitude.
It is tailored to my natural limitations to boost the muscles that can take it to the limit while ignoring those that don’t require any help. I start tinkering with it to adapt it to my left limb.
My root-like fingers, that look so inhuman mostly because of the lack of nails, certainly don’t need to have their strength enhanced even if I plan to rip someone’s throat out. And I am, Odo.
The absence of nails is such a small detail yet it is so noticeable that even if the brown rubbery skin wasn’t so obviously of Rykz origin, this would give me away on its own.
I try to determine whether there are any useless string-like muscles to the parasite’s physiology but end up concluding that I don’t know enough about it and messing with internal constructs without the necessary knowledge isn’t a good idea. There is also the fact that I might let it act on its own and that required a full range of movement.
I spend the afternoon getting to know my new lion strike. The internal structure didn’t change but the targeting segment now has an additional layer of complexity to it.
A few hours pass and I regenerate enough to assemble a lightning construct with enough flow to incapacitate someone, which takes about a third of a person’s full energy. I take note of which segments exactly are losing stability because of the disruption construct and recreate it without them, anchoring it to my left palm.
I’ve come so far from the meek peasant that didn’t even dare to talk back to Nobles or deny their requests. I’m more confident, freed by power in some ways. But it came at a steep cost and my actions still carry consequences that cannot be avoided, some that I deserve for my part in Father’s death.
I pull myself out of that train of thought before it can drag me down. Odo is still delaying. A mind game? He’s trying to let me stew in worry. I laugh. I’ve been through so much, does he really think he can break me like that?
However, Odo does show up before the end of the afternoon, accompanied by Dalv. I swear when I notice the bucket again, my bra and briefs have just barely dried up. The bulky woman has a rope, a cloth towel, and a scarf in hand.
“No.” Conrad suddenly stands and blocks their way.
“No?” Odo asks threateningly.
“I won’t let you do this.” He replies coldly, hand on his sword.
“You don’t have a choice, Templar.” Odo sneers. “Your Exemplar signed off on it, now stand aside or I will demand that you be arrested.”
“That’s not… possible.” Conrad stutters.
What’s getting him so agitated? The young Count loses patience and walks around the Templar who seems too stunned to react. I get up to my feet, Dalv deposits the bucket on a barrel and takes hold of her whip. I walk to the back of the cell, ready for another round.
Conrad gets his bearings back and looks at his brethren for support. The three Templars shake their heads sadly. He grits his teeth and departs, climbing the stairs two steps at a time. No doubt going to Vikiana.
“Where do the Rykz plan to land?” Odo asks me.
I remain silent. He raises his hand, pressing thumb and middle finger together. Snap. Dalv walks up to the cell and opens the padlock. They’re already ignoring the Exemplar’s warning.
I consider meeting them head on but I don’t have enough confidence in beating them with so many injuries and almost no flow. It isn’t worth draining the healing construct for the possibility of avoiding some pain, I’ll have a better opportunity later.
“It puts its hands behind its back.” He orders, drawing his sword. I can’t exactly do that. He scoffs at my confusion. “Walk over the chain.” He adds.
Once again, I hesitate. It could worsen my injuries. Not as much as fighting them since I would only end up at the same place but in a worse state. I rage inside but do as Odo says, I step over the chain linking the shackles together, passing my hands behind my back.
I’ve lost my arm, I can handle a little torture. I forge my resolve and decide to endure. Dalv picks up the bucket and fills it water. Meanwhile, the Count commands me to lie down on the bench, his sword held high to threaten me.
I follow the orders automatically. This is what occurs when you lose. I need to be patient. I can make it. It takes a bit of doing to find a position with my right arm stuck between me and the bench in such a way that my weight holds it in place without causing too much pain.
Odo watches with impatience as Dalv kneels by my side to tie my waist to the bench with the rope. She then blindfolds me with the scarf. The bulky woman turns to the Count, nodding to signify she’s ready.
“Where will do the Rykz plan to land?” Odo asks again.
I keep my silence, there’s no point in bravado at this stage. I’ll rip him apart soon, patience. The young Count waits for my answer, smile widening as none comes. Snap. Dalv places the cloth towel over my mouth and nose, folding it several times.
She then picks up the bucket to hold it over my head while Odo moves to grab my forehead and applies pressure to hold it still. His smile fades and he makes a grimace, showing aversion. Because he’s touching a low-born monster, no doubt. I feel repugnance myself but it is a minor inconvenience at best.
Dalv dips the bucket. I detect the water getting closer and closer to the edge. The knowledge and ability to sense water pouring down onto the cloth covering my face doesn’t help prepare me for the drops that suddenly trickle down my nostrils, irritating the air ducts. Wrong. I think, water in my nose is wrong.
I push air out to expel the invading liquid with little to no success, I don’t even succeed in pushing the drenched cloth away from my nose, away from my face. It’s smothering me!
I soon experience the urgency to breathe in, I wasted my entire supply of air in a vain attempt and now I have no more. The water, this foreign invader is blocking my nose. Without even a conscious thought, I open my mouth wide to inhale the vital air, to grasp at life.
I’m drowning! The thought resonates like a scream, engulfing all. It’s inside my lungs! There is water inside me. Drops trickling down my throat in the wrong channel, an oppressing presence, death in darkness.
I cough. A desperate, panicked, reflexive attempt to expel the liquid except it doesn’t help! It only wasted what little air I grasped and I immediately breathe in, urgently seeking to replenish the crucial supply.
The cloth is drawn in with the air and water, pressing against my lips and nostrils. I’m trapped! My survival instinct is lost, struggling to move my legs or arms isn’t achieving anything, inhaling is making it worse. Water breaches my lungs, flooding them.
I feel the cool substance spread from tendrils who are writhing under my skin, seeking solutions, survival. My mind clears somewhat but that only helps me realize that I’m… breaking.
I won’t last, the limb isn’t able to save me. It is struggling against the shackles. It pulls the chain taut and then slams against the bench, unable to find the space to coil on itself. I can’t breathe! Air! Water… Breathe!
The towel is pulled away. Thank you, oh Emperor, air, air. I cough, I retch, I grasp at life. Sounds reach my ears but I am in no state to recognize them, to make sense of anything other than that I’m actually still alive. Slap. A sharp burning feeling bites my left cheek.
“Tell me what the plan is.” Odo shouts in my face.
It takes a second for the words to register. Too slow. Clap. The flat of his hand impacts my right cheek, dazing me and provoking a stinging pain. I need to answer. I open my mouth to speak and then stop. What?
What was I just about to? Cold fear courses through me as I realize that I came very close to just… to just folding, bending. Odo brings his thumb and middle finger together. I involuntarily tense, forgetting all about my efforts to hide my ability to detect my surroundings despite the blindfold. Snap.
He doesn’t seem to have noticed but that doesn’t stop me from actually feeling hatred towards myself for breaking down. Dalv places the towel back on my face and I feel the desire to beg for mercy.
Why should I be so stubborn? What? I revolt against the promise of relief, I rage inside. If this goes on, it’ll get to a point where I’ll say anything for air, for survival, to make it stop.
Dalv leans in and grabs the bucket. I reach for the lightning construct anchored to my left hand and wrestle the parasite for control of the arm. I don’t let it and brutally impose my will by communicating danger with my entire being.
I writhe on the bench. Odo misses the point of it, he tries to keep my head immobile while Dalv splashes me with water. I hold my breath, which only makes the wet cloth feel even more stifling.
My mind is blank, unthinking, white with hysteria. It is all I can do to reach out with my root-like left fingers to brush against Odo‘s ankle. I activate the construct.
Crack. I hear, no, I experience the lightning bolt course through me. I convulse and seize, my muscles disobey me. My thoughts are scattered, scrambled. Bodies flail uncontrollably, nails rake against my flesh. Chaos.
The haze lifts and I notice three more people in the cell. Odo is laid flat against the hull, the back of his head is resting against one of the wooden beams forming the galley’s skeleton. Dalv is standing but unsteadily. The bulky woman’s fingertips are bloody.
The Templars grab the two of them and pull them out of the cell, one of them takes care to sustain Odo‘s head. The detail hones my focus and I notice that there is a cut at the base of his skull. A ray of hope helps me recover further but I notice soon after that he is still breathing.
Odo blinks. He isn‘t even unconscious. I shake my head, making the oppressive drenched cloth slip entirely off of me. I intensify my fight against the rope restraining me, terror remains deeply ingrained in my flesh.
My limb is shaking, struggling against the shackles for freedom. My right arm feels like it was hacked at with an axe, several blows to my shoulder and forearm, agonizing pain that fuels my urge to fight, to retaliate.
Vikiana and Conrad rush down the stairs, no doubt attracted by the commotion. The first glance she throws is to check on me, the second is for Odo and the disappointment on her face is unmistakable but only lasts for a split second. She points Conrad to me and walks up to the Count, checking his pulse.
Conrad turns his eyes away from my bust. I look down, there are four shallow, bleeding, trenches coursing from my clavicle and across my now exposed right breast. Dalv’s nails dug in my flesh, and ripped the right side of my bra off.
“Are you okay?” He asks.
Conrad doesn’t wait for my answer, he unties the rope and then leans in while looking away to try to hesitantly bring the pieces of my bra back together. Without warning, I rise and slam his fucking nose with my forehead. Conrad falls with a cry of pain, his nose probably broken.
I jump to my feet and hurriedly step over my shackle’s chains. I hear yells of warning but block them out, one thing, and one thing alone matters. Odo dies. Dalv has her whip already in hand. I rush out of the cell, fully prepared to tank the blow. I cross the threshold.
A golden cube impacts my chest. I feel my brain vibrate, impact the inside of my skull. My already short breath is cut to nil. I drop, to my knees, and then on my face. I’ll wake up dead. Worse, I’ll wake up drowning.
— — —