Vikiana is asleep, and so are the majority of the soldiers on the galley. The six Templars watching me have long lost their focus. Anyone would between talking to each other and combating their fatigue.
The cool substance has spread throughout my entire body by now, the feeling is unmistakably distinctive. It affected my brain within moments, spreading a lot faster than it usually has, my right arm within a few tens of seconds.
I place the nail over the mark in my skin and pierce. I then slide it under my flesh and start pulling. My left hand doesn’t lack strength, the flesh distends at the point of entry and then rips.
The pain is muted but remains quite intense, I grit my teeth and keep going until I tear a three-centimeter wide wound. I then do the same on the other side of my forearm. The two cuts feel like mild pulsing burns despite my limb’s help.
Next is… I focus my attention on Vikiana as I link to the key she gave me. I activate it, disabling the disruption construct. The Exemplar has no overt reaction, her head turns slightly but I attribute that to her agitated sleep.
I shift my mask back over my face and assemble a second merging construct, identical to the first. I anchor both to my forearm’s two broken bones. I then activate the strengthening construct I prepared earlier.
Every time I move, I disturb my shackles and the chains make metallic sounds. That’s a level of noise I cannot go above without my guards noticing. I slowly move my left wrist around my right one. The chain turns and, after a half-dozen revolutions, the links become so intertwined that they lock up.
I seize the chain in my left hand, as close to the shackle as I can. There is no slack. I assemble a merging construct and, for the hundredth time, make sure that the Templars have no line of sight.
My heart is beating wildly. I make the construct travel up the chain and anchor it to the two links closest to my palm. I breathe out in relief, the disruption construct is indeed deactivated.
I adjust the segments governing the melding rate and dilatation to their maximums, the opposite of what I did for the other two. I activate the construct and the two links merge together at their points of contact within few moments. I squeeze and twist the chain.
Clink. The links break. The merging construct weakened them, that was a lot easier and discreet than if I had to brute force it. I purposefully adjust my sitting position to make a little more noise and camouflage the fact that I just freed myself from the Templars.
I get rid of the two weakened links and repeat the process to shatter the chain at the base of my left shackle. Clink. That cost an entire portion of energy, a person’s worth. Acceptable.
I grab the link at the end of the chain and plunge it into the rip in my forearm, applying the widest side. I wiggle it inside until I’m relatively certain that there are no muscles, veins, or nerves left in between iron and bone. I then activate one of my prepared merging constructs.
The slower I go, the less damage to the material there is. I carefully proceed to merge the link to either side of the fracture. It sinks into the thin layer of flesh, provoking a spike of agony that I repress with all my will. I can’t afford even the slightest tremble.
With excruciating focus, I push the chain link through until it hits bone. Cold-white pain hits me, my brain itself is reeling from the shock. I press on, there is no turning back now. Despite how much I want to accelerate the process, I don’t let panic born of suffering overtake me.
I remain attentive to the individual segments, calibrating the rate at which the iron fuses in function of resistance. The more there is, the slower I go. It takes me tens of minutes, at the very least, for the link to merge a single centimeter in.
After another half-centimeter for good measure, I stop, confident that the fracture is set. Even weakened iron is tougher than bone, this is satisfactory. I exhale, releasing my tension and evacuating the hurt. The wound and bone still radiate intense pain but it is incomparable to when the merging construct was still active.
I assemble another merging construct and break off the link right under the one merged to my arm. I then get started on the other broken bone without giving myself any time to think or reconsider. The experience is not one I want to repeat but it is necessary.
The process this time is just as tormenting but now that I’ve gone through it once with success, it is more… tolerable. I even notice that, under the cold-white throes, is the feeling of the bone being compressed.
I push the distracting sensations away and concentrate on the task. Soon, I’ll… A spike of pain interrupts the thought. Fuck that hurt. I grit my teeth and slow down the merging rate.
Three of the Templars directly looking at the side of my face, at the sweat rolling down from my forehead. Come on, don’t come over, I’m almost done. Unfortunately, Conrad doesn’t do that, he stands and approaches the cell.
“Is it your arm?” He asks.
“I’m fine.” I say between my teeth.
“If it’s infected…” He starts.
“I’m ad, justing the heal, ing cons, truct.” I utter urgently, my voice skipping because of the pain surges.
Conrad remains there. I decide that it is of no immediate concern, he isn’t suspecting me. It takes a couple more minutes for the link to get to the same point as the previous one. I don’t hide my relief, slowly breathing out.
I test my right arm by slightly moving my fingers, elbow, and shoulder. All seems to be in order and the pain is gradually receding to the back of my mind. I would, without a doubt, have passed out without my limb’s help.
There are two iron links to either side of my right forearm now, half of them consumed by the construct. They’re bloody, and so is the skin surrounding it but it isn’t too bad. I assemble a quick healing construct and apply it, I hadn’t planned to do so but Conrad’s concern is well founded, I can’t afford an infection.
I weaken the bit of chain dangling from my forearm with a melding construct. Then, I start stretching out to awaken my muscles and make enough noise that… Clink. Not even Conrad, watching me, thinks the small sound made by the chain breaking is out of place.
He keeps watching for a few minutes longer, his concern fading as I recover, and then leaves. Next, my ankle’s shackles. I check how much energy I have left first. I know that all those constructs I’ve used amount to about three to four portions of flow, yet I still have about a Countess’ worth in reserve.
Good, I’m going to need it. I turn and twist my ankles around each other, making the chain tangle with itself and lock up. I then close my legs until the links form a single block with no slack between them. I seize the left end with my hands and apply pressure.
The link welded to the shackle twists, it distends until it finally gives out and is silently torn open. I remove it and proceed to do the same for my right ankle. Now free, apart from the shackles on my limbs, I take a break, more than apprehensive about the next part of the plan.
One step at a time. I assemble a lion strike for, using ratios of strength to reinforcement that would shatter a human arm. I apply it to my left limb and then double-check my strengthening construct to ensure that my newly healed ribs are fortified enough to withstand the shock.
I then assemble two lion’s steps. It’ll give me enough pushing power to… in one blow. I know I should stand, be ready. But I have a hard time controlling the fear that arises when I think of…
So I focus within. I gather a third of my flow and assemble lightning constructs, ten of them with enough energy that each will certainly disable anyone they hit and may very well kill them, I’m not sure.
It doesn’t quite matter whether those I hit live or die. It is a balance between using enough power to ensure that I take my targets out of the fight and having enough of them to deal with whatever threat comes up.
I’m technically ready, yet I am still delaying what I need to do to actually escape. The inevitable moment when I’ll have to face… I assemble a hardening construct and anchor it to my left hand and forearm.
Too much stalling, I could have done all of that later. It’s just a bit of… I’m a good swimmer, tons of summer practice. Not much else to do when no one even wanted to be near me. Still delaying.
I allow myself one last moment that I spend checking up on the Templars. They’re not far outside the cell but by the time they open the padlock, I’ll be long gone and they’ll have to deal with the hole in the hull.
I coil my left arm back, hand closed and held underneath my armpit. I stand, take a single step back. I am Elizabeth Vil, I fear neither water nor Tianeel. I activate the lion’s steps and pounce forward. I release the lion strike, rotating my waist and fist to increase the power.
The blow impacts the curved hull, it shakes. Crack. Shit. I expected to go through the thick planks. Too much pressure from the outside? Crack. They shatter. Seawater pours in, scattering shards of wood and drenching me. The salt contained in it assaults my many open wounds.
I smother the echo of terror. I won’t drown. The hole is large enough for me to pass so I take hold of the edges and fight the current to escape the galley. Crack. My right arm stops supporting me and I’m thrown aside by the gushing water.
For a fleeting moment, I think that my gamble failed, that the iron in my forearm broke away. But after a closer look, I see that what happened is that the piece of the hull I held broke away.
“Fuck.” I swear.
“Elizabeth Vil, stop!” Conrad shouts.
I ignore him and find a new hold. I push my legs out first and bend my knees, pressing the flat of my feet on the outside of the hull. I leverage myself out, into the water. I fight the anguish of being completely underwater, focusing on swimming to the surface without letting the fears scatter me.
It is a single meter above, yet it feels like I’m crossing an entire river because I know what it feels like to drown, the memory is vivid, disturbing. My head emerges and I take a deep breath. My mask held, a boon.
I swim along the galley, towards its stern. It is sailing forth so this is the quickest way to put some distance between me and the ship. I hear shouts of alarm. Behind me, the hole is blocked by a panel of human flow, I recognize the feel of it through my sense. A bright blue light bursts in the sky above the ship I just left.
Good, spend all that energy. I smile but don’t let anything distract me from keeping my head above the water. The galley-slaves lower the oars into the sea, they’re stopping the ship. Not quick enough. I am alone on the moonlit ocean, almost invisible.
The second galley is headed in my direction, following the other one. Fuck, they’re already looking for me. Soldiers are spreading on its upper deck, holding their flow torch perches overboard to pierce the darkness.
I take two black-golden lightning constructs out and send them towards the ship’s bow. I swim towards the center, not even considering diving. It is speeding along, their oars are out but they’re not stopping but rowing towards the other galley that is.
More and more of the ship enters my sense’s radius, allowing me to target a man on the bow. I activate it. Thunder roars and he crumbles. The soldiers turn towards the dry sound and bright light. I activate the second construct to give them something more to look at while I slip right under their noses.
I swim next to the ship’s hull, using its curve to hide from sight. Not that I really need to, these idiots are all rushing to the bow. Alright, what’s next? Either steal a lifeboat or take over the ship. Both options require me to actually get on it, and the first is very unlikely to succeed considering how quickly they reacted to my escape.
An oar plunges into the water a few meters away from me. I could climb up to that hatch, it’s a meter and a half up, it wouldn’t be too hard. The issue is that the four soldiers guarding the slaves will see me and this isn’t worth using that many lightning constructs.
The galley is picking up in speed, no time to think and I can’t waste too much energy keeping up with it. I swim towards the hatch closest to the staircase leading to the upper deck. I assemble a lion strike for my left arm, using the same ratios as before.
I coil my limb back and punch the hull a few tens of centimeters above the surface. Crack. The impact pushes me back in the water but I expected it and compensate. The noise is negligible considering the commotion above, the slaves definitely heard but they’re not sounding the alarm.
I propel myself up and grip the hole I just made with my right hand. A stretching pain burns through that arm, I take it in stride. I don’t have much of a choice but to put weight on my just recently healed shoulder muscles and barely stitched together bones to do this.
Crack. Another left-handed lion strike creates a second grip, very close to the hatch. I take hold of it and pull myself up, breathing easier now that I’m not dependent on my right arm. I set a foot in the first hole.
I hang back and leap up, grabbing the edge of the rower hatch. The slave holding the oar is looking down at me, a young kid of about eighteen years old. He’s my age. He has short black hair, clear green eyes, and his traits remain youthful if dug by hardship.
I bring my right index over my lips and wink. He hesitantly nods and resumes rowing in rhythm with the others. A good thing considering the four guards would notice that he’s slacking sooner rather than later.
I observe the soldiers, and those above, waiting for my opening. There are none approaching the stairs to the rowers’ deck, and no soldiers in the cargo-hold. They’re all concentrated around the guardrails, mostly around the bow, searching the sea for me.
Unfortunately for me, my chance appears to have past before I got to the hatch. Three of the four decide to head upstairs, likely to find out what’s happening. I could let them go and then take the last one out, but then they would come back which would be an issue.
I take all my lightning constructs out of my body and anchor them to my left limb’s surface. I then gather enough dark-gold flow to cover the rest of the rubbery brown skin. That should hide it well enough.
I climb up, and slip through the hatch. They stare at me with wide eyes, taken completely by surprise. I jump over the rower bench while I take three lightning constructs out, making them float around me.
“You, right there, don’t move!” One of them shouts.
I ignore him and move to block their way to the stairs. The galley-slaves have all stopped rowing, they’re watching intently and some are even discreetly pulling their oars back. I smile behind my mask. They’re chained but not incapable of fighting back.
I assemble four lion strikes, one for each. I follow Vikiana’s advice, now’s the time to test this out before things get serious. One against four, and it isn’t serious yet? I chuckle and leap forth through the corridor between the benches.
Two soldiers stand side by side, the other two unable to engage without climbing over the benches and risking getting within the galley-slaves’ reach. Those I’m charging raise their swords, deciding to go on the offensive, no doubt because I’m unarmed. In more ways than one. I chuckle at the dark thought.
The first soldier delivers a high slash, aimed at my upper chest. The other slices down at my left arm, covered in flow. The attacks are slow. I shift low and to the right, slipping past both swords. I activate a lion strike and deliver a straight left punch.
I hit the jaw with enough force that it is almost torn off, it remains hanging to the man’s face only because his right cheek held on. I spin on myself and activate the other lion strike. I deliver a backhanded blow to the other man’s throat, crushing it.
Both of them fall down to the deck within a split second of each other. The last two soldiers are staring at me. A man and a woman frozen, apparently unable to keep up with reality. I lean in and try to grab one of the swords with my left hand but my hungry limb is being difficult, edging towards the man vainly trying to set his jaw back.
I take hold of it with my right hand and reflexively tell my limb to behave. The absent-minded thought surprisingly works, the symbiont obeys. I put the wounded man out of his misery with a quick stab to the heart but let the other suffocate because their comrades are running back.
“Stop them! They’re going to sound the alarm!” The kid whose hatch I used to get in yells.
I run at them at full speed. I can’t let them bring more down here yet. It turns out I didn’t need to, the slaves use their oars to trip them and the two drop. I jab the woman in the back, severing her spine. I then activate the third lion strike to impale the man from behind.
My left hand goes through his left side, his tunic offered almost no resistance and his skin even less. He dies before she does, the shock of such a large wound, I suppose. I plunge the limb deeper, ripping through his flesh to seize his waist bone. I rise, his body dangling off at my side.
I shiver a little but… gotta feed it. I head towards the cargo-hold’s staircase. The galley-slaves are already reaching out for the swords laying on the ground. They’ll free themselves.
“Wait!” The kid shouts.
“Make more noise, will you?” I snap over my shoulder.
“Sorry.” He mutters, taken aback.
“I’ll be right back, don’t try to pick a fight yet.” I tell them.
“We’ll fight, but you have to promise that some of us will get to live, like the others did!” A tall, muscular man, intervenes.
“Do whatever you want.” I utter coldly. “I won’t promise a thing, not even that this galley will still be sea-worthy by the time I’m done.”
I engage in the stairs, these criminals will fight whether they want to or not. I’ll end this war. That is the oath I took, and the goal I pursue, whatever the cost. The corpse’s feet hit the steps as I walk down. Tack, tack, tack.