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Aisha is looping around both ships to get to us, avoiding the dozen or more bodies floating in the small space between the galleys. Every eye is on us, on our pitiful state. I could use a piece of cloth for modesty. To hide my wreck of a chest?

There’s an arrow in your left shoulder.” Vikiana speaks up.

I know.” I groan.

Courtesy of the new Countess. The fight with the Tianeel pushed it so deep that only the plumed head is visible. I felt tendrils move around it but there are so many in that area that it’s hard to tell.

I get back on my feet, Vikiana does too a moment later. She doesn’t seem to be in shape to fight, and doesn’t even have a sword, but I wouldn’t bet against the Exemplar.

I don’t doubt that using a fast blade is what kept me in the fight with her, but it also largely removed my advantage in strength as my limb remained in defense. The Exemplar made sure to say out of my symbiont’s range at all times. My lack of experience with this weapon also means that my attacks are easy to read.

Grace is pacing in the center of her soldiers. She’s careful, I’ll have to use a construct to take her out if it gets down to it. The issue is that I can either kill a dozen or disable two dozens. It still isn’t enough to gain the upper hand with certainty.

Especially since there are injured soldiers laid in the cabin, under the bridge, I can only detect the very edge but I estimate that there are at least ten. The galley-slaves, on the other hand, didn’t gather their wounded, those of them who can hold weapons are.

Aisha’s lifeboat hits the hull. She’s wearing a new face, one with an air of softness about it. I don’t waste my time scrutinizing her traits, it could tip her off for all I know and sight is useless in this case. Vikiana transfers over first, she sits down on the stern’s bench, in front of the Shade, which leaves the bow free for me. I step over and drop on the bench.

Despite my resolve to keep going, I can feel that my body is running out of steam. Everything hurts despite the symbiont continuing to spread its cool substance to dull the pain.

Aisha starts rowing us back. I focus on my other sense and on one of my lightning constructs, ready to intercept anything sent my way. Doubt I can stop an arrow but my limb has the reflexes to do so.

Ugh. I’m starving. The trip back happens in silence, the Shade and Exemplar exchange occasional glances but both seem determined not to tip me off. Her voice is recognizable and would give her away.

She could theoretically use a sound construct to change it but any exchange between the two would definitely be odd since she is hidden under the guise of an anonymous soldier.

As we approach, I notice Tsek, the young galley-slave, watching from above. I slide the slice of Tianeel meat off my sword and throw it over to him. He fumbles a little but does catch it before it hits the deck.

Cook that for me if you don’t mind.” I tell him.

Half-way because of my hunger, half-way because Vikiana and Aisha will relax if they think I’m about to have a meal.

I don’t… is that edible?” Tsek asks.

As far as I know, it should be.” I shrug.

He heads down to the rowers’ deck with another man, they then both make their way towards the stern. Aisha brings the lifeboat close to the hull and the handful of Templars throw ropes over.

I send half my lightning constructs above and use them to force them back. Satisfied, I sheathe my sword and start climbing up. Meanwhile, the Shade and Exemplar tie the ropes to the lifeboat’s stern and bow.

I hop over the guardrail and step away to let the temple guards pull the lifeboat up. It is a slow process as they have to keep it stable with two people on board, including their very injured leader.

Once they’re up, I charge the air in a large radius, encompassing even the injured Templars further back, and draw my sword. Tension rises, the few soldiers holding bows nock arrows. The galley-slaves put up a front of raising their weapons too but their hesitation is obvious.

Aisha and Vikiana step over the guardrail. I activate a lion’s step and slip behind the Shade before her other foot hits the deck. I pass my right arm around her throat and lay the base of the blade over her jugular.

People look at me with confused expressions by my choice of hostage. No doubt thinking that a simple soldier gives me next to no leverage, especially considering the fact that I could threaten anyone on the deck with my constructs.

All except Aisha and Vikiana. The former’s traits underneath the illusion construct show how caught by surprise she is while the latter’s twist in dawning realization.

Yes, I know that’s Aisha.” I smirk behind my mask. I then hit the back of the Shade’s knees with my own, destroying her balance. “Don’t try anything stupid.”

H, how?” Aisha asks.

The Rykz construct.” Vikiana mutters in a tired voice. “What more do you want, J… Elizabeth? Didn’t we agree that the best way to end this war is to remove the incentive to keep it going? To help our Emperor reach his goals.”

I’ve realized something.” I reply in a tight voice. “You’re protecting the Emperor’s interests, not the Empire’s.”

Those are one and the same.” Aisha argues, chin raised up and away from my sword.

Are they?” I whisper.

Grace gives discreet orders, relaying them to the injured Templars who get back to their feet and fan out. Likely preparing to do something stupid. I bring my armored left arm in front of me for cover.

Don’t! Give us some room.” Vikiana shouts her orders at them in a tone that brooks no argument. She turns to me with a difficult expression. “This slaughter was unnecessary, why start it again?”

You ask why? I had no choice, so I made one.” I say coldly. “I was told that I have a right to preserve my own life by your own daughter, I should have taken those words more at heart. You yourself had no trouble breaking the rules when it came to saving hers.”

I…” Vikiana pauses, taken aback. “We could have talked it out, we still can.”

Talk? You wanted me dead once she got what she wanted out of me, hiding behind excuses to justify yourself. Sparing me a life under the institute? Yeah right.” I utter angrily, pressing my blade to Aisha’s throat. “All you offered were vague guarantees to pressure the hum… Caeviel into freeing my sis… Cetyz.

What am I saying? I choke a breath of air down, trying to calm down. I’m not making sense. But I’m right about the Exemplar, this isn’t paranoia.

I, I admit I held some misplaced resentment about the grief you caused between me and my daughter. I’m also ashamed to say that your… proclivities are hard for me to accept. But this doesn’t have anything to do with why I put that condition.” Vikiana whispers. “I think, no, I thought that it would be a mercy to put an end to your life so that you don’t have to live like… like this.” Her light blue eyes turn to my left shoulder for a moment. “Then you provoked this massacre and I thought it turned you into a remorseless killer but then you saved me from the Tianeel when you didn’t have to.” She pauses. “And yes part of me wants you as far away from my daughter as possible because I fear she’ll accept you when you tell her about… this.”

Her scattered speech and revelations put me off-balance, it hurts to see my own thoughts about myself confirmed and thrown back in my face, but the last thing she says makes me scoff.

She won’t. She hates the Rykz.” I comment sadly. “It’s easy to say that you’ve changed your mind now that I have the cards.”

I wouldn’t have left you there Elizabeth.” Aisha speaks up. “I didn’t even want to bring you to the institute but the Director is the one with the best chance in the Empire to extract the data and that’s where the Princess is, where you wanted to go.”

You would be fine with letting me rot if it got you what the Emperor wants, wouldn’t you?” I ask threateningly, daring her to lie.

I… if necessary.” She admits, swallowing her saliva beneath my blade. “I’m not perfect, I saw you shrug off wounds that would put anyone else down. Case in point.” She carefully throws a glance at the arrow sticking out of my left shoulder. “I thought you could handle torture, maybe talk but not that you would start… this insanity. It would have been much easier if you took Odo out because now, Grace knows because he spoke of you in anger after you shocked him. And with this… I won’t be able to get to her so I’ll have to threaten her into silence, and that takes manpower to sustain.”

Are you putting this on me?” I utter furiously.

No, no. This was my blunder.” Aisha says hurriedly.

Blunder?” Vikiana barks at Aisha, interrupting. “Enough schemes, no more lies, you’ve caused enough damage by hiding your motives from the both of us. I’m sure you knew something like this would happen, you counted on it but miscalculated, you didn’t think she could win and look where you’re at now. Your play to keep her controllable put this all at risk.”

Play?” I ask.

I just…” Aisha starts.

Used Odo and Elizabeth against each other.” Vikiana seethes without letting her finish. “I should have never allowed this.”

This is your duty!” Aisha snaps back.

You mean she somehow manipulated me into this trap?” I question, confused.

I swear I didn’t.” Aisha hurriedly replies. Vikiana doesn’t contradict her.

But you got lucky, didn’t you? You came along to find a way to get me to the institute. You would have led me into another trap.” I say between grit teeth.

In what way did she use us against each other? I was supposed to kill him during the torture, she explicitly said so. But Vikiana just implied Aisha lied to her. So there was another goal to the torture. Her every move was aimed at putting me under her thumb, too weak to…

You wanted my injuries to worsen. You wanted me to kill Odo but end up too crippled to fight back, to escape.” I spit out.

I feel sick. The feeble state of my body isn’t helping. The pangs to my heart are worsening, acute pains that cleave the inside of my chest. The rate at which it is beating hasn’t slowed down and this… I almost stumble.

I’m sorry but you know how unstable you can get.” Aisha tries to justify.

Don’t turn this on me.” I growl. “I thought you a friend Aisha. I, I thought you could see what I do, what Cecil did.”

Don’t be naive, the Empire is always at war.” She replies harshly. “I am seeking peace but you’re too blinded by the present to see ahead.”

You let Idali die!” I utter, voice breaking. “You… you were with her.”

I did what I had to do.” Aisha says, looking away in shame.

What are you talking about? You regret sleeping with her or letting her die?” I press.

Calm down, Jay.” Vikiana whispers. “You’re cutting her.”

I look down, finding that my blade has cut into her skin. Aisha is pale and trembling. I settle my emotions but don’t give her any slack. How is the Empire in such a state that even the Emperor’s servants are so… ruthless. Is everything I’ve been told a lie?

They were together, it might have been a give and take kind of deal but… that has to mean something. It does for us, as Elizabeth. Did it? No, my Lady is… she’s better. Is she, didn’t she break the vow?

Idali was, wasn’t a mistake. I didn’t want her to…” Aisha stutters, pulling me out of my spinning thoughts.

I should kill you. You turned on me as soon as our interests were no longer aligned. I should treat you like you did Idali, as a disposable pawn.” I utter without pity.

They still are, you need me.” She says urgently.

You do.” Vikiana confirms. “All three of us want the Rykz out of Caeviel, that hasn’t changed.”

I close my left hand into a fist. They’re not wrong, I could use her. The Shade opens the door to the institute. I turn my gaze to the galley-slaves. If I can get them to fight, I win.

Your backs are against the wall.” I tell them, I know very well the strength and courage one can draw from being forced into a corner. “Fight with me, for your freedom.” I urge, pushing myself.

They look at me and I am suddenly reminded of the state of my exposed torso. Too tired to care, to think. I just want to fight, to win so that I can finally rest. I’m so hungry.

I force myself to stay focused. The soldiers are watching me, they obviously fear me but that won’t deter them if I’m alone. The criminals are still hesitating, looking from me to the Templars. Flattering that they put me on the same level. Grace seems to see what I do as she grows agitated.

I’ll free you all!” The Countess exclaims.

Many of the galley-slaves respond by spitting in her direction. The declaration appears to have made them tilt my way rather than hers. They jeer at her, insulting her family’s honor. They’ve all worked under the previous Odo Counts, not surprising that they wouldn’t trust a word of what she says.

Do or die.” I shout at the slaves.

They raise their swords and cheer, forming their lines. I make my way to their ranks, dragging Aisha along. The task should be simple, yet I encounter difficulty walking straight.

I burn through half my internal reserves to get myself back in shape to fight, reconstituting a strengthening construct, supplying the healing one with more energy, and adding a nourishing construct so that I can keep going.

You don’t have to do this, Jessica.” Vikiana protests.

I’m not agreeing to any more one-sided deals.” I reply coolly.

There won’t be, we can reach an agreement, find a way to work together.” She says.

I’ll consider it if you and Grace surrender.” I tell her. “I’m done trusting you or anyone else.

I control three lightning constructs, charged enough to kill, and get them to target four Templars each. I don’t aim at Vikiana who is retreating to the bridge, towards Grace. Exhaustion is slowing me down so much, mind and body.

I activate them. Bolts fly, absorbed by their hard leather armors. The injured buckle down, incapacitated for good, yet the last five stand strong with Conrad at their center. The galley-slaves cry out and charge the soldiers. I knock Aisha out with my sword’s pommel.

Another three lightning constructs should take care of the temple guards. By the time I finish setting up the targets, however, they receive streams of flow from the Countess and the soldiers. Something they planned while I saved the Exemplar, no doubt.

I launch the thunderbolts anyway, they have no effect as expected but they do drain their reserves. Six air-blades fly in retaliation, I should have seen them coming but… I shatter them by spreading a barrier of lighting composed of three constructs in front of me.

The criminals and soldiers clash. The latter buckle, likely because they’re out of flow. Yet, they are more numerous and the front-lines stabilize, neither side’s combatants seem to have the will to risk their lives anymore. This is the last hurrah, a quiet one.

The areas around my symbiont’s tendrils are… prickling. Especially over my stomach’s muscles. Conrad and the Templars charge, realizing that I still have enough constructs to take them out despite their use of air-blades.

I probably could have taken all the soldiers out instead of focusing on the temple guards but then I wouldn’t have stood a chance against the thirteen of them, with or without the galley-slaves’ help.

I use two of my three lightning constructs, putting the five of them down before they can reach me. I draw on my strength once more and rush towards the bridge. I feel lightheaded yet exhilarated, impatient to draw blood and claim… superiority. Superiority?

My limb shivers with excitement. I lion’s step around the battle, making my way to the bridge. Upstairs are four people, Vikiana, Grace, the captain, and the unarmed helmsman.

A soldier moves in to block me from my left. My limb takes care of it with a violent backhanded slap that breaks her neck. I climb the steps two by two. The Exemplar meets me at the top, my limb blocks her sword and I attack her neck with a wild slash.

She avoids my blade by angling back but I barrel into her. She sprawls over the wooden floor. I prepare to stab her left arm to finally incapacitate her but Grace steps in with a lion strike from my right, forcing me to block.

Die!” She shrieks desperately.

You first.” I growl.

The captain rushes over. I let my limb parry while I slash at the Countess, leaving a long cut on the inside of her sword arm, making her drop her sword. I hazily side-step a dagger flying at me, thrown by the Exemplar.

I absent-mindedly note Tsek’s presence on the upper deck. He is fighting with a blade in his right hand and a skewer of grilled Tianeel meat in the other. I move around the young Countess, blocking her escape and placing her between me and Vikiana.

Drawing your weapon was a mistake.” I tell her. “Trying to kill means you must accept the reverse happening to you.”

I bring my sword down from overhead, aiming at the pit of her neck to end this quickly. She is pulled back by the captain but not out of my reach. The point of my weapon slices her chest from shoulder to belly.

She screams and falls backward on top of the man who just extended her lifespan. Vikiana’s moves in to fight me. She looks completely drained, sad, regretful, her traits express so many difficult emotions that I lose focus.

The Exemplar takes advantage of that, landing a kick to my left leg, which is under the most strain. I drop to one knee but my guard is up. She can’t last anymore without flow and fatigued as she is.

Vikiana accelerates, flashing past me on my right, using lion’s steps. I use my other sense to seek her sword and the direction it’ll attack me from. Instead, I find her in full run towards the bridge’s guardrail, about to jump down to the upper deck.

I spin on my knee and launch after her. My blade almost catches her heel, I would have gotten her if she hadn’t tripped me. She leaps over the rail. I crash into it. The wood groans but holds. The Exemplar impacts a soldier’s back and crashes in the middle of the battle. What the fuck is she doing?!

Behind me, Grace is trying to escape downstairs with the helmsman’s help. The captain is blocking me from pursuing. I roar and throw myself at him. He blocks my lion strike with one of his own.

My limb uncoils and impales him through his rib-cage. I’m unsure of whether I did or it decided to, likely it since it was coiled up. I shake my head. Focus. I pull my gauntleted hand out of the man’s chest.

Stand down!” Vikiana shouts. “I am Exemplar Vikiana of Izla Meria’s Templar Order. Take me hostage and your freedom is guaranteed!”

She plants her sword in the deck and steps into the criminal’s ranks. No!

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