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Vikiana and I slide with the galley’s angle. I seize control of my limb and pass my sword over to that hand. I then plant the blade into the deck, interrupting my fall. The Exemplar keeps sliding down towards the seawater pouring over the guardrail with every wave.

I inspect my surroundings, finding that soldiers and galley-slaves ran to the other ship and cut the cords. They’re not even fighting anymore, too many injured, exhausted, they seem to have been watching us fight.

The Templars are recovering, pieces of their hard leather armors taken off to heal the burns left by my lightning construct. Grace is trying to urge soldiers holding bows to fire on me but they have no clear line of sight to me.

Aisha’s warning was a trick to distract me, there isn’t anything dangerous in my range other than the damn sinking galley. Vikiana is almost thrown overboard as the ship tilts even further. I grit my teeth and smother the pull to save her. The woman wanted to kill me, she thinks I’m a monster.

If I let her die in cold blood, I become one. Can’t do a thing. The deck shifts suddenly. The ship is now on its side and I find myself hanging from my sword. Fuck. I detect the end of a rope, hanging from a grappling hook planted in the port-side guardrail. I can’t reach.

I throw the unstructured flow anchored to my arm out, ordering it to seize the rope and push it to me. The energy obeys, burning like dry grass during a prairie fire. One portion, two, three, fuck, five. I take hold of the end of the rope and hurriedly absorb the flow to refill my reserves.

I set my feet flat on the deck, angled at ninety degrees, and pull my sword out. I sheathe it and start climbing up. I detect Vikiana, she’s now swimming away from the ship. Why? The galley slants even more, threatening to hit her back. Ah, she doesn’t want to end up stuck under.

I finally reach the guardrail and pull myself up. I don’t try to stand, I throw the rope away and take hold of my sword in my left again. I stab the wooden hull and climb up to the keel.

This spot is relatively safe. Aisha is on the other ship’s bow. The galley violently pitches, turning over completely and settling upside down. Vikiana made it far enough to avoid getting stuck under the deck but not far enough to avoid being pulled underwater by the resulting suction.

Water hinders my other sense’s range and she is quickly fading. I swear and put together two full portions of flow, making it fly to her as quickly as possible. The Exemplar will make a good hostage, she needs to live. I’m rationalizing, fact is I can’t tell Leomi I let her mother die. Thack.

Aaarrrrgh.” I yell.

An arrow pierced my left shoulder, it went through the plate. Unluckily, it hit flesh rather than symbiont. Fucking Odo. I wait for the roiling galley to settle and let go of the sword to take hold of it with my right hand.

I loosen my control over my limb and urgently communicate the danger we’re in. Searching for Vikiana, I instead detect a body floating on the surface. Dalv, her throat was slit. A glance tells me that she was killed a while back as there is little blood around her. Shade.

Vikiana’s head pierces the water not too far from it. A fin emerges to the surface, barely a dozen meters away from her and ‘dead Dalv’. It swerves left and right, making it impossible to tell which of the two it is approaching. Shit, is that what Aisha was yelling about?

I assemble a lightning construct and target… Clink. My limb slaps an arrow away, the sharp head left a small groove in my steel vambrace. Moth… fucking Odo. I aim at the Tianeel’s fin and activate it. The bolt flashes, hitting the damn yellow-blue scaly creature.

It plunges, barely affected. Why can’t I ever be lucky when it matters? Vikiana convulses but manages to keep swimming even with a single arm, likely using lion’s steps to stay above water.

The Tianeel’s wide open maw bursts out of the water, its sharp triangular teeth close around Dalv’s body. There are scorch marks on its flank. Its two large black eyes, on either side of its head, shine with wild cunning. It visibly swallows Dalv before diving back down.

Vikiana is trying to hang onto the hull but is having trouble finding anything to grip at. She ends up planting her dagger into it, giving up her attempts to climb.

Our gazes meet, her light blue irises are open wide to catch every scrap of light they can out of the darkness. Her hard traits communicate how intensely focused she is on survival. She isn’t asking me to help, simply assessing whether I’m one of the options are available to her.

I have a feeling that she would take my acceptance or refusal to give her a hand with the same icy composure. I can’t let the outer monster seep inside. I assemble two healing constructs, one for me, one for her, burning through five more portions of flow to weave them.

I send it to her and then tear my sword out of the keel. I slide down on the curved hull towards her general direction. I interrupt my fall a meter above the water by stabbing the wood once more. She lets go of her dagger and swims over to me. At least, they can’t arrow me here.

I need flow to burn it.” She tells me.

She doesn’t wait for my answer and… infiltrates my link to the flow that I anchored to the plate armor covering my limb. I could easily stop her now that I’m aware of what she’s doing, despite having no clue how she is doing it.

Vikiana starts shaping the sticky flame construct she used before. I detect the Tianeel swimming upwards towards us at dazzling speed. I yell incoherently and seize her collar, pulling her away. Clack. The creature’s jaw snaps close, snagging the edge of Vikiana’s calf.

Arh.” She yells.

It tries to pull her down but it only succeeds in ripping a small chunk of flesh along with a piece of the hard leather armor. The construct she made loses coherence and unravels, streams of golden flow with black lines escape.

Get it together!” I bark.

I seize the sword with my right and lion strike a hole in the hull within arm’s reach above her. I help her take hold of it. The creature’s fin bursts out a couple dozen meters away, it is circling and picking up in speed, no doubt preparing to snag one of us.

The Tianeel’s twelve-meter long slender body seems gigantic from up close, its yellow-blue scales look beautiful. I giggle. Terror is loosening my hold on sanity, fear and madness are both old companions, I embrace it.

I rip my sword out and let myself fall down to sea. The creature immediately springs at me, propelling itself through the water straight at me. I activate the hardening construct, just in case I fail.

Iiishe.” It shrieks.

I am Elizabeth Vil!” I laugh. “Come, monster to monster! It‘s a fair fight!”

It opens its maw, revealing several rows of teeth. I kick down at its lower jaw and stab up at the point of its head at the same time, assembling and activating lion strikes with barely a thought. Danger, danger, danger. The thoughts resound within.

The blade slides and lodges itself between two scales. My bare feet hit the front row of sharp teeth. They slice my flesh but I manage to jam my heel between the those and its thick lower lip. My back impacts something solid. I blink out.

— — —

I hit the hull. The Tianeel is struggling to close its mouth over me because of it. I detect grooves in the wood, likely dug during its efforts to eat me. I correct my footing and seize my sword’s handle again, using it as a lever to force it to keep its maw open.

Vikiana is aiming her flaming construct, just a little… The Tianeel suddenly pulls back, letting me go. A powerful swipe of its tail projects it aside and the construct misses it, setting fire to a swathe of sea. The creature swerves, curls, slamming my chest.

— — —

I’m sinking, unable to sustain the weight of the plate armor protecting my left arm. The Exemplar’s hand grabs my collar, but the cloth rips in her hand. I panic, water enters my mouth, I barely manage to stop myself from breathing in but that won’t last.

My limb finds something to grab onto and pulls. My head emerges from the water, I hear a blood-curdling scream and feel something crack in my grip. Vikiana’s right hand. I seize one of her leather armor’s straps with my right hand and climb up.

Once ‘safe’, I make my symbiont release her. Her hand is in tatters, white bones sticking out of red flesh. I punch another hole in the hull and seize it, then another further up. I set my foot in the first, wooden shards pierce through their sole.

We need to get out fast!” I shout in Vikiana’s face.

Can’t.” She utters with difficulty, expression twisted by pain.

I groan and search for my sword. It’s gone, likely stuck inside the Tianeel. Flow is torn away from me without subtlety, the Exemplar. My reserves are empty, consumed by the hardening construct and there is barely a third of the Due I stole left. I refill my reserves.

My feet are in tatters but these are only surface wounds. My shirt and bra are gone. There are irregular gashes on my torso, a long but thin one of my left breast. The Tianeel managed to rake me with its upper teeth.

Don’t you have a better fucking plan, Exemplar?!” I snap at her.

Dis, tract it.” She replies shortly.

Right.” I giggle to fight the fear back. “It‘s just a big fishy after all, I can just slap it, no problem!”

Don, ‘t, ha, ve to, stay.” Vikiana struggles to say.

What would I eat for breakfast then?!” I exclaim, laughing.

I set my shredded feet flat on the hull, crouching with my right hand gripping the hole I made. I’m not trying that last thing again, best is to jump on its back. The Tianeel isn’t in my sense’s range, but that doesn’t mean much since it could be directly beneath us but too deep for me to detect.

I assemble lion’s strikes and lion’s steps as I wait for it to show up. Vikiana is shaping a construct in front of her eyes. It is composed of golden cubes layered from small to large with spiraling strands of flow linking them.

At least she isn’t going to try the same thing again, the Tianeel definitely recognized the flaming construct as a threat. I would have cut the plate off but we’re all out of weapons and I don’t have time to unstrap it.

Everything is backfiring tonight. I’m out of breath, beyond exhaustion, bleeding red and brown from more wounds than I can count. I prepare myself, tensing my leg’s muscles.

The Tianeel’s writhing form enters my field of detection, it is under the upside-down ship, hiding in its shadow as it slowly makes its way to our position. It goes past the edge of the ship, right beneath our feet.

The fleeting moment of peace passes and the creature’s head arcs up. It swashes at the water to shoot upwards, going for Vikiana, aiming so close that its side will likely bump into the ship.

I lion’s step upwards off the hull, leaping far above its wide open maw a split second before it pierces the surface. I can clearly see that the rows of triangular teeth are covered in blood, mine, my symbiont’s, Vikiana’s, Dalv’s, and maybe others.

The Tianeel twists to follow the short arc of my jump, attracted by a moving target more than by an immobile one or wanting to finish the job with me. It rises high, and then higher. I bring my legs up to my chest.

It isn’t enough, I’m going to fall back down into its mouth! This better fucking work, Vikiana! As if she heard the thought, the Exemplar springs off the hull, straight at the Tianeel’s skull instead of upwards like me. Her left hand is brought back and wide open, golden glowing palm at the ready.

In mid-air, I absent-mindedly note the drops of blood dripping off my toes to fall into the creature’s maw. Just as it is about to engulf my legs and waist alike, Vikiana’s palm strike hits the Tianeel at the center of its skull.

The shock makes its yellow-blue scales ripple from the point of impact with a dry crack and a wet squelch. The sound of its cranium shattering and its brain being turned to mush.

The Tianeel falls limply towards the opposite direction from us who are dropping alike. It hits the surface with the Exemplar, producing a consequent splash. I coil my limb back and release a lion strike at its side. My gauntleted hand rips through the scales and allows me to interrupt my drop.

The creature is, thankfully, slow to sink. I hear air escaping its gills. Vikiana is already crawling back to the galley. I climb up on the body and run over its spine towards its head.

Wha, t are you, doing?” The Exemplar asks, out of breath and likely suffering from multiple fractures.

Getting my sea steak!” I reply, laughing. And my weapon.

I step on the squishy remains of its skull and grab my sword. I pull it out and then cut a chunk of meat from its cheek, piercing it with the point of my blade. I lion’s step my way back and jump over to the galley’s keel. It sank so much that there is barely any of it above water anymore.

Vikiana got her dagger back and is slowing climbing up, the feat made possible because the sea’s surface is much closer to the flatter bottom of the hull. I throw a glance at the other ship.

The soldiers and galley-slaves are looking at us with undecipherable expressions, silent. Even Grace is so taken that she’s forgetting to give the order to shoot me. Too far to jump over to them, though.

Not an issue, they’re not letting Vikiana drown. They’ll send a lifeboat. The Templars are an issue. I only have so much flow, maybe enough to take them out again but there are about thirty soldiers left but only twenty criminals.

Thinking of which. I control the energy anchored to my armor plates to refill my reserves and form a dozen lightning constructs with the rest, filling them with flow to the brim. This will prevent Vikiana from stealing any more. I could stop her but it would require me to pay attention which isn’t desirable in battle.

As predicted, the healthier Templars have already pushed a lifeboat overboard, they’re lowering it to sea with ropes attached to the bow and stern. Aisha is among them, disguised as a soldier. I wouldn’t be surprised if she suggested the idea, to begin with.

The Exemplar sets down nearby on the keel, sitting down in exhaustion. I myself am very close to my limits, but I can’t afford to stop because if I do, I won’t be getting back up until I’ve slept a full day.

Send only one in the lifeboat, and no Templar!” I yell, pointedly avoiding to look at the Shade.

You’re in no position to make demands!” Grace replies angrily.

Aren’t I?” I ask coldly. I point at Vikiana with my sword, Tianeel steak halfway up the blade. I also make my lightning constructs orbit my torso for good threatening measure.

Elizabeth Vil, you killed my father, you killed my brother. I will end you, this I swear!” She exclaims furiously.

I ignore the new Countess, she’s barely twenty of age, pretty much a kid. The Templars don’t take orders from her either way, and they’re the ones who matter right now.

As expected, Aisha is the one that is sent. I specifically avoided asking for her as it could arouse her suspicions, and it did not seem necessary as the woman was nearby already, they had no reason to ask someone else.

It might be a risk to allow her close, but I have ‘eyes’ behind my head and I’ll be ready to make the first move. My heart is beating so fast I feel a muted pain, my wounds are mostly taken care of by the symbiont but those on my feet require immediate attention.

My right arm feels odd, it tingles around the iron chain links. The Tianeel’s teeth raked my mid-section’s flesh, from lower-ribs to lower-stomach. Saltwater is making every open wound feel like I’m dying in a slow agony.

My torso looks like a gory mixture of red, brown, and dark orange blood. I… how will I ever show myself to her? Anguish flares and I am forced to smother it before it cripples me instead of dealing with it.

Vikiana closes her eyes, resting while Aisha slowly rows over. I decide to sit down, crossing my legs. I rip the hem of my pants and make rudimentary bandages to quench the bleeding wounds that the tendrils can’t reach. I then prioritize my healing construct’s targets.

It will be difficult to get the galley-slaves to fight again. They distinctively lost their previous enthusiasm now that an uneasy truce took place, likely so that they could all escape this sinking ship. The soldiers don’t look eager to continue the battle, but I doubt they would defy their orders.

They may be unwilling to take me on after seeing how we took the Tianeel out. It is fortunate that they only witnessed the end, not when it almost tore me apart, but my wounds aren’t light and these soldiers will notice that and won’t fear me as much anymore.

Twenty unwilling criminals against thirty soldiers and a dozen unyielding Templars. Grace remains quite irrelevant, the decision will rest in Vikiana’s hands… unless the Shade intervenes and who knows what she’ll do. I can’t give her the opportunity, I’ll need to seize control of the situation.

The Tianeel, carried away by waves, is engulfed by the sea at last. It’ll sink to the depths. I took a piece to eat but it’s not like I can take my gauntlet off and feed in front of all these people.

Are you okay, Jessica?” Vikiana asks.

She’s already rebuilt her composure. I nod and inspect her state. She laid her crushed right hand over her lap in such a way that the broken bones in her upper arm remain aligned. Apart from those two, non-negligible injuries, there is a small chunk of her calf missing, blood pouring out of the gaping hole but a lot slower than before.

I check on my mask. It’s still on. I breathe out in relief and adjust it. I then look down to my left shoulder. I can see tendrils protruding under my skin but the thickest parts and my flat left chest are hidden by the remains of my torn off shirt while the pauldron conceals the entire area where the symbiont links to my flesh.

That reminds me. Grace called me a thing. I groan. Will I have to deal with that woman too? I don’t want to. If not for her, Idali would have been executed when I foolishly lost the first skirmish.

She’s an Odo though. I have no grudge against her, yet. My left limb shivers inside the plate. A wave of aggressiveness hits me. I fight it down but don’t dare to tell it to rest and heal. It isn‘t over until it is.

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