The Exemplar’s light blue eyes are turned down, watching the galley’s bow split the waves and the sunrise reflected on the seawater. I sense that her lips are moving just slightly, whispering a song.
“Three months I carried,
Blood and steel parried,
Three more I ran,
Through rock and sand,
Three awaiting your arrival,
In bliss and upheaval,
You came out smoldering,
Gray eyes protesting,
The loss of your warm dome,
To gain a loving home,
Now you’re prone,
To seek your path alone.”
Her voice hits me like a punch to the gut. I heard Mother sing the same refrain. I step away from the woman, needing space to breathe. I move as far as the rope tied to her ankle allows. Luckily, it is enough that the words no longer reach me.
I adjust my mask as I swallow my tears. Father, Mother. It takes me a long moment to recover my breath and… emotional stability. What am I, a child? It’s just a song. I glare at the Exemplar who doesn’t react, her gaze still lost at sea.
Grace steps out of the ship’s cabin. She spots the two of us and stops short. I welcome the distraction, assembling a lightning construct to make it hover in-between me and the soldiers.
The Countess barks an order and the officer commanding the soldiers guarding the staircase rushes over to her. I sigh and take my time to assemble two dozen more lightning constructs one at a time, making each hover to create a barrier.
I then sit down on the deck, crossing my legs, and assemble one last lightning construct but with ten portions of flow this time. I doubt I could even control it precisely. I’ve used the construct enough to be able to predict that the bolts would fork out of the charged air on their own with this much energy. It works well as a threat, though.
The Countess gathers her soldiers and the Templars regroup. They’re preparing to defend if I attack. The tension on their traits as they scrutinize the black-gold lightning construct spheres tells me that they do not want to pick this fight.
I focus on the construct’s segments, trying to figure out how to alter it to discharge this much energy, and more, in a controlled manner. It is an important requirement of my plan to free Cetyz, that and a timer construct to delay activation.
It shouldn’t be too difficult to do as I’ve witnessed Teva do it so I only need to experiment some. Besides, this one isn’t nearly as complicated as the explosive construct she made.
Celyz did retain control when she overwhelmed the Templars during the battle over Castle Lance’s plains, and she used a lot more flow than this. Except what I want is a single bolt, not a thunderstorm. Perhaps if I sustain it over a period of time instead of triggering it all at once.
I extend the timer segment, which alters the others, mostly the portion of the construct dedicated to charging the air to guide the lightning which thins out. That’s confusing. It’ll be harder to direct the bolt along a path like this, not easier.
I extend the timer segment further until it reaches the point where it would take ten minutes to discharge the construct. I stop myself from activating it, realizing that the soldiers and temple guards are nervous enough that doing so might trigger a fight.
Grace is standing on the cabin’s threshold, her hand is opening and closing over the sword at her waist like she’s on the verge of drawing it to attack. I tug on the Exemplar’s rope, deciding that it would be best to return before I do something stupid.
Vikiana turns away and we head to the staircase leading down to the rowers’ deck. I make the lightning spheres orbit us and focus on my other sense to be ready in case I misread the situation and they decide to attack.
We both take deep breaths before engaging in the stairs. I dismantle and absorb the lightning constructs I made except the largest one. I add a second timer segment to it, connecting to the first and separate from all others.
I stop and sit down on a rower’s bench, waving at Vikiana to tell her to take a seat in front of me. Her expression turned back to those of the hard veteran, the traits I’m used to seeing on her face.
“How do you create add conditions to constructs?” I ask the Exemplar.
She shapes a small segment composed of a thin line of flow with two barely thicker spheres at its extremities. I start imitating her but she stops me by raising her hand and creates a cube one of the two tiny spheres, putting it in the center. She then shapes a timer construct that intersects the middle of the second sphere.
“Like that but don’t copy it mindlessly, ‘intent’ is paramount to determine the effect of the conditional segment. The more complicated, the harder it is to do because the slightest slip can destabilize the entire structure.” She answers.
I link the first and second timer segment of my lightning construct with the intention of triggering the primary timer segment when the one I added is consumed.
I then send the construct to the other end of this deck, at the edge of my field of detection before charging the air around it and activating the secondary timer segment, deciding not to set a target yet.
After a minute, the timer segment triggers and activates the lightning construct. Small bolts of electricity are discharged in the air, contained within the area of charged air and following a seemingly random pattern as there is no target.
“Are you trying to create a construct to set a protective layer of lightning around yourself to defend against air-blades?” Vikiana asks.
“What? No.” I reply. I hadn’t thought of that.
I alter the targeting segment to aim the construct at a bench. Some of the tiny bolts edge towards it but most still appear to occur randomly. The air isn’t charged enough. I reduce the primary timer by a third and the lightning grows more intense, if still very, very, small, but most of them are now on target.
Interesting. This confirms that it is possible to create an intense sustained bolt, which turns out to be easier to control than an instantaneous discharge as long as I don’t distend the timer construct too much. The conditional timer works which means that I can get my constructs to trigger at any time I choose. It’ll take planning to make it work.
“Without knowing your plan, it’ll be hard to advise you, but I can tell you for a fact that this lightning construct won’t be enough to take the institute.” Vikiana speaks up.
“Why is that so?” I ask.
“It won’t be stopped by a disruption construct if activated outside the affected area, true, but the lightning construct can be efficiently blocked by a defensive construct.” She explains.
“What you use on your armors?” I ask.
“Yes. It’s an all-purpose defensive construct, although it does not work well against the air-blade construct.” She says.
“Rock, paper, scissors.” I comment.
“In a way, but there are a lot more options than those three.” Vikiana nods, gaze still lost at sea. “The lightning construct, however, is very efficient at destroying the air-blade construct. It heats the air when it goes through the construct, making it expand and burst through the shell of flow encasing it because it runs out of energy to contain it.”
“What about the armor-piercing construct? I was told that it’s almost impossible to block.” I ask.
“That’s true.” Vikiana agrees. “The only way to stop it is to drain its flow by letting it cut something. The defensive construct works against it but it is a very inefficient tactic. It costs just as much flow to stop the armor-piercing construct as it cost your opponent to create it, which puts you at a disadvantage because you need to have a surplus of energy in the defensive construct to ensure that it’ll be shut down and that won’t stop your opponent’s weapon. It means that your opponent is the one dictating the pace of the fight and, with equal reserves, they can easily feint you out by tying your flow into your defense because you’ll never know when they’ll add more energy into their construct and no one can defend forever.”
“How do you deal with it?” I ask.
“I redirect the attack, you can too considering how fast your… arm is.” Vikiana explains.
“I don’t have the reflexes to do that.” I say.
“Train them.” She replies.
“Would my lightning work?” I question.
“No.” She shakes her head. “It was explained to me that the armor-piercing construct severs the connections between the tiny things composing materials and only activates when a weapon is cutting something other than air. Unless you want to electrocute yourself just as you’re being stabbed, your lightning will simply pass through the weapon without interacting with the armor-piercing construct.”
“Teach it to me.” I speak up, trying to test her dedication.
“The armor-piercing construct? It’s a massive drain of energy until you train yourself to the point that you can synchronize it with a lion strike, only activating it when you cut, and even then….” She trails off. “But I will, I’ll put one together when I have the flow.”
“Air-blade and defensive construct as well.” I tell her.
“Of course.” She nods. “The latter won’t work well on clothes.”
“Show me all three.” I say.
I dismantle altered lightning construct and reshape it into a standard one before handing over three portions of flow for her to create each construct. She spends the day teaching them to me, taking breaks for lunch and dinner.
I go exercise the constructs but don’t test them in part because I lack confidence but mostly out of distrust towards the Exemplar. I tie her back to the mast and impress on Tsek that there must always be at least three of them watching her. I go to sleep with half my reserves of flow, having spent quite a lot during training. The rest of it went to power my healing constructs.
— — —
I wake early, feeling a lot stronger, my left rib-cage isn’t hurting when I breathe anymore and there is no lingering pain when I move my right shoulder. I hop off the cell’s bench and walk up to one of the criminals watching my prisoners to ask him to point me towards spare clothes.
He shows an open crate to me. I riffle through it until I find a decent set complete with briefs along with a band of cloth to hold my right breast and cover the scar in place of the other one. I also find a clean rag.
I grab a bucket and fill it with water before making my way to the rowers’ deck. I wave the guards upstairs away, basically telling them to get lost. Once they’re gone, I settle on one of the corner benches near one of the oar hatches because there is no line of sight to it from either one of the staircases.
The first thing I do is to unstrap the plate armor covering my left limb and remove the sleeve of my previous shirt, setting the pieces down in order. I clench my left hand into a fist, seeing the muscles strands move in accord.
I take the rest of my clothes off. I carefully unwrap my bandages. I find that, unlike mine, there aren’t any scabs sticking to it, or dried blood for that matter, which makes removing them a relatively painless process.
There are red irregular wounds crisscrossing most of my torso, the upper portion is relatively intact but there is a long vertical jagged tear in my right breast’s flesh. I look like a wreck but it isn’t as bad as I expected. Still, these injuries will definitely scar.
I use the rag to clean up, the fresh cool water is a welcome feeling, especially when washing my hair. I start scratching the captain’s dried blood off the gauntlet, and the blood sticking to my mask, whoever it’s from. I then throw the dirty water out through the hatch.
I dress up in clean clothes after having securely wrapped my chest up. I lastly strap the plate armor’s pieces to my left limb. I go back down to the cargo-hold and fill the bucket with water again to start cleaning my old outfit and the bandages I just took off.
It isn’t the easiest to do with a single arm as I don’t want the gauntlet to rust. The task is more difficult than I recall, I often did this back when I was a Rykz captive but, apparently, I forgot how hard it was. Still, I persevere because I won’t keep the symbiont if I survive my gambit to free Cetyz.
I stop to wipe my brow, finding a dozen galley-slaves watching me with baffled expressions. Shit, I shouldn’t have done that in plain sight. They saw me as… perhaps not superior but removed from their station.
Doing chores doesn’t fit with Elizabeth Vil’s image. I make a grimace but finish the task anyway. It might reduce some of the hostility they might be feeling. Doubtful, they’re criminals, not common folk.
I untie the Exemplar and bring her to the rowers’ deck again. We spend the day training the three constructs, repeating what we did the day before. By nightfall, I know enough to create all three constructs on my own but very much learned to loathe her strict instruction style.
The woman was so critical of my ‘instinctual’ approach to weaving constructs that she insisted that I assemble lion strikes as quickly as I can to show her the result.
She inspected each of them and found that my ratios vary slightly and that I tend to extend the timer segment a little bit more than necessary. I do so to be on the safe side, ensuring that I don’t have to focus too hard on synchronizing my attacks with the lion strikes.
She spent two hours drilling me on the importance of precision. It appears that slacking on timer segments will not only slow my lion strikes down but also waste flow since you add energy to swing faster in a fight and that means that you use more flow to achieve a similar result.
I put an end to the training as soon as I see the sun start sinking below the horizon through the hatch. It took all I had not to blow up her face when she instructed me, with a sharp voice, to go back to training my basics.
I go to sleep early, ignoring her advice to keep exercising for tonight and use half my flow to power my healing constructs once again. A night’s sleep recovers about a third of my reserves so they’re almost always at half even with what I burn to train.
— — —
I rise before the sun does, not that I can see it but I can tell because most of everyone else is asleep. I get up and discreetly walk up to Aisha and Vikiana, taking my time to avoid making a sound.
Their guards’ throw me curious glances, I respond by placing my index over my mask to tell them to be silent. I send several strands of flow into their bodies, searching for anchored constructs.
The Exemplar has none but the Shade has what I recognize to be several illusion constructs layered over her face and more hidden throughout her body. That’s all she prepared but I should have thought of this before. I wake them both.
“Hand over your reserves. You’ll do so every morning from now on.” I tell them. “If you need it for anything, you ask.”
Vikiana agrees easily, handing her single portion over without a complaint. Aisha, on the other hand, groans.
“That’s a bit harsh.” Aisha says. “What about my cover?”
“I can’t make you, but I can blow your cover wide open if that’s what’s holding you back.” I comment.
“You don’t even know how much access I have.” She argues.
“Aisha, my good mood isn’t going to last.” I utter quietly. “I know you have enough to maintain that illusion construct for over a week on your regeneration alone and I don’t care if you keep feeding it, but you have more than that.”
Aisha sighs and forms a ball of golden flow of about two people’s worth. I anchor it over my gauntlet. That’s about what I expected, even if she has more, this will sharply limit her ability to cause trouble.
I untie Vikiana and grab an empty barrel of water that I set over my shoulder. The Exemplar and I head upstairs to the rowers’ deck. I glance out through an open hatch, finding a grassy river bank.
“How much longer will it take to reach Meiridin?” I ask.
“I don’t know, we’re sailing far bellow cruising speed.” Vikiana replies.
“I’ll go ask later then.” I nod.
I set the barrel down in the alleyway between the benches and draw my sword. I then assemble an armor-piercing construct over the weapon, using Aisha’s flow, under Vikiana’s supervision.
Once she gives me a nod of approval, I take a few steps back and draw my second sword with my left hand. I then give her the blade with the armor-piercing construct applied to it.
“You try it.” I say. I incline my head to the side, observing her reaction.
“The barrel?” Vikiana asks without missing a beat. I nod.
She adjusts her grip over the weapon’s handle, making it turn inside her palm a few times to get a sense of it, taking stock of its balance. If she taught me something dangerous, she isn’t showing it.
Besides, I’m still linked to the construct so she can’t alter it or use it against me since I can dismantle it before she does anything. The shackles to her wrists force her to use raises both hands to take an overhead stance.
She swings the sword down at the barrel, shearing through it like butter, not slowed down in the slightest by the iron ring holding the upper planks together.
I sense that the armor-piercing construct dissipates before her swing loses momentum and the blade ends up stuck in the wood. The blade left a twenty centimeter cut in the barrel. Vikiana pulls the sword out with a flicker of her wrist, resuming her stance in one swift movement.
“With the defensive construct this time?” She asks.
“Yes.” I reply.
I shape a defensive construct, applying it to the barrel. I then create another armor-piercing construct for her sword. I use the same amount of flow for both. She strikes again, this time the blade is can only slice a single centimeter deep before it is stopped.
Yet, the defensive construct still has a small amount of energy and is still active while the armor-piercing construct has entirely dissipated. I frown and glare at the Exemplar.
“One centimeter is enough to lose my life if I get hit in the wrong spot.” I say in an accusing tone.
“You applied it to the entire barrel and there is no perfect defense.” Vikiana explains. “That works against the lightning construct, but not against such localized damage. That being said, this is wood, I wouldn’t have cut steel nearly as much and a hard leather armor will protect you against this much damage. I did warn you that clothes wouldn’t work.”
“You should have explained this at first.” I say.
“The lesson is better remembered if seen with one’s own eyes. One thing at a time, Jessica.” Vikiana tells me.
“Elizabeth.” I seethe.
“There isn’t anyone within hearing range, Elizabeth.” She says.
I wanted to try the air-blade construct next but it seems like I should verify her affirmation that the lightning construct won’t work against the armor-piercing one first.
I take the sword from her and assemble both constructs. I apply the lightning to the barrel with an extended timer so that I have time to strike. I activate and swing at the barrel.
The blade cuts through the wood and iron in the same way that Vikiana did, except it doesn’t stop at the same point. It slices a few centimeters deeper. I blink in surprise. I didn’t use a lion strike.
“Did you hold back?” I ask, suspicious.
“No.” She says, looking just as surprised as I am.