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Having found what I was looking for, the leyline to the institute, I seek out a shop that sells clothes and buy a decent outfit that doesn’t look too poor but not too rich either so that I don’t look odd when I hire a blacksmith to reforge my hammer.

After asking directions, I’m pointed to a master’s forge at the other end of the city from the slums. A perfect fit as the man is reputable and has no apprentices, he works on commission for Nobility. The fewer people see me with the weapon the better.

The man is tall and ridiculously muscular, his palm’s calluses seem to have calluses. His hairs are short, he has wrinkles on his forehead, creases that likely come from constantly squinting at open flames.

Before anything, I demand his word that he won’t tell anyone of the weapon I show him. At first, the man tells me to go away as he isn’t very interested in reforging a weapon, regardless of the amount of gold I promise, but when he sees the Vuskyt, his attitude makes a hundred-eighty degree turn.

He hurriedly gives me his word and tears the two hammer pieces out of my hands to set them down on his large oak worktable. Its wood is littered with black burns with a vise and a small anvil for precise work bolted to it.

I can reforge that, of course.” He tells me absentmindedly while caressing the hammerhead. “With a few ergonomic changes because those spikes look dangerous but would get caught in armor.”

Hasn’t happened to the previous user as far as I know.” I note.

Then that person had to have been constantly using lion strikes to ensure it didn’t.” He tells me.

Either way, I need something that can pierce through walls without getting caught so a straight long weapon but not a spear. I require medium to long reach.” I explain.

“What did you have in mind?” He asks.

I was told the Lisilese have double-bladed staves.” I say.

They do, but it isn’t something humans can easily wield, I’ve heard of no one competent enough with it to justify using one in actual combat.” He shakes his head. “The cold blood’s scales means that the blade on the other side of the staff isn’t much of a danger to them when they swing, humans don’t have that advantage unless they wear plate armor and you can’t wield such a weapon with that kind of weight on your shoulders.”

What would you recommend?” I ask.

With this kind of quality Vuskyt?” He ponders for a moment. “The problem with what you’re asking is that it’ll be quite a heavy weapon since you don’t seem to want a wooden handle.”

Weight isn’t an issue as long as its balanced.” I inform him.

If I’m not mistaken, you do plan to use this is battle, correct?” He asks.

I do.” I nod.

Then I suggest a scimitar with a large blade and a meter long handle, and no guard so it won’t get caught when you pierce with it. It won’t be an optimal stabbing weapon but that won’t be a problem with an armor-piercing construct. Kind of a polearm.” He tells me.

He makes his way to a weapon rack and pulls out of sword that has a recurved single-edged blade with a hand and a half handle. He swings it in the air a few times and places it back.

That looks good, will it be sturdy enough to withstand an, how should I put it, unorthodox usage?” I ask.

It’s Vuskyt so yes.” He chuckles. “We salvage what we can but there are very few among us who know how to actually reforge this kind of metal without making it brittle, I experimented on some with my master back in the day and I’ve had some of their shields sent to me these past few weeks. Unfortunately, the quality of Vuskyt the Rykz give their warriors is quite low. It’s closer to stone than metal, really.” He explains. “This is a marvel, quite the tragedy that this hammer was cut in half. Did the user run out of flow?”

Something like that.” I reply.

I can also add a straight double-edged blade or a spike at the end of the handle.” He tells me.

A spike.” I say since I can rip through most things except plate or chain-mails, a small blade won’t cut deep enough if it’s the former while the latter can be easily pierced through with a spike. “How long will it be in the end?” I ask.

About a meter and seventy-five centimeters, the handle will be just as thick as this one’s and the blade thicker and wider than the bladed portion of that hammer.” He tells me.

That’s about my size.” I note.

If you use a Mirus scale, yes, I suppose. It’ll be the correct size for you, and I assume you’re about twenty so you won’t grow taller.” He says.

Ah, the infamous Mirus scales which changes depending on what suits their merchants. I settle the agreement in gold, it costs because I also have to pay for the flow he’ll use but he did tell me he made a discount because it’s interesting. I’m rather disappointed when he refuses to let me watch him work the Vuskyt.

I don’t have that much gold left but it should be fine as all that’s left is to buy a parchment to send another letter for Ruth and her crew’s pardon. I can always ask kids to get more from one of the Shade’s stashes.

I pass by the building where I stashed the barrels and send my flow into a barrel from underground as my reserves are back to full. I have a meal with Tsek, spending the rest of the day sparring with him because tomorrow I should be able to use my right arm again to a degree and I’ll ask Vikiana to resume training me.

— — —

I spend the next day training with the Exemplar, and the day after, my right arm is fully healed and I didn’t even have to spend more energy. The next day, she goes over my lion’s step and we spend the day exercising short-range bursts of speed.

At this point, I’ve anchored over a hundred-fifty portions of flow in the barrel’s water and, by the end of the month, I’ll have over five hundred portions stored at a minimum.

Vikiana often uses her left hand to teach me hand-to-hand combat because her right is taking a little longer to recover its full strength and dexterity than she expected. It does not prevent her from running me ragged.

I pick up the long scimitar from the master blacksmith, the dull Vuskyt looks a little brighter than before, polished. There isn’t only a spike at the end of the handle, there are also three others in the blade’s back. The points are aligned with the weapon’s profile and don’t extend out.

The blacksmith removed material from the scimitar’s body to create them but I don’t think it weakened the weapon as the blade remains as wide there as it is close to the handle.

The spikes are curved in so that they don’t catch on anything I stab but will take a lot of stuff with it when I rip it out, like guts and organs. The master admits that he wouldn’t have done it if not to retain some of the hammer’s style. He proposes to reforge it for free if I think it’ll pose problems but I tell him its perfect.

He explains to me how the spikes can be used to hook my opponents if I strike with the back of the scimitar’s blade, a non-lethal way to neutralize someone. He adds that, if I’m skilled enough, I can use the spikes to break swords that I catch between them as Vuskyt is a lot tougher than steel.

The real training with the exemplar starts that day, she teaches me all I need to know about joints, which stances are aggressive, which are defensive, and why. She does not try to train me in those stances but I need to be able to recognize and exploit the weaknesses.

The style she makes me practice can only be described as chaotic, she explains that I must avoid the standard attack chains that I’ve favored with my hammer and learn to use an asynchronous pattern.

She basically recommends that I never stick to a single way to grip my weapon because it’ll keep her opponents guessing and off-balance, switching from two-handed to backhanded single grip to stab backward and then back to two-handed to pivot on my feet for a wide slash that makes full use of my strength.

It is confusing at first but the difficulty drops drastically as I get used to the scimitar, the weapon’s perfect balance and long handle is what makes it all possible. Lastly, she trains me to make use of kicks and punches to cover the holes in my defense after a swing.

We spend the week on that, working on theory during the night while Aisha and Tsek sleep. She explains to me how to dismantle groups from the inside, I should target the leader first to create cracks in their teamwork which I can then exploit to get rid of the more aggressively inclined.

I buy a wooden sword at her request and a staff for me so that we can spar without holding back. I come to regret that purchase as she lays me in defeat nine times out of ten. I find myself rather peeved when I realize that I wouldn’t have lasted half as long as I did when we fought if I hadn’t broken her right arm.

She trains me to reduce the timer segment of my lion strikes to the very limit, my swings’ velocity is such that I can’t strike unless my feet or forward leg are out of the way because it’ll simply be too late if I attack before they are.

The Exemplar keeps telling me to go faster despite the fact that I’m a good third faster than she is, and that’s while using my much heavier scimitar two-handed. I learn a few new feints, one of them is especially effective.

It simply consists in activating a lion’s strike and then deactivating it to slow down. The staggered activation can work from any stance which makes this feint rather valuable as it messes up the opponent’s perception. The one on the receiving end needs to predict when and where a blow that changes speed will land, within a split second.

I add my personal take on it, making use of my symbiont’s monstrous strength to actually change the swing’s direction in the middle of the arc when the lion strike is deactivated.

The first time I use it with the wooden staff, I defeat Vikiana with it, three times in a row. She then finds a counter by attacking as soon as I slow down and wins that spar, but she admits that it only works because she knows what’s coming.

The Exemplar and I get along because we focus on the task and avoid talking about what either of us will do once this is over. It feels like her opinion of me softened in a way but she makes no mystery of the fact that she does not want me anywhere near her daughter, even if I do get rid of the symbiont.

We both avoid breaching the subject after our first spat as there is no way for either of us to convince the other. It isn’t even about me or the fact that we’re both women according to her, she refuses to explain but I get the feeling that it’s about Leomi’s penchant for… How did my Lady put it? Immoral desires.

I have no doubt that Leomi’s mother thinks I’ll be a bad influence. I fully intend to be so I can’t really refute that. I decide to send the message to the institute’s Director on Sunday evening.

As I go to sleep, I feel rather odd about having sent a letter that requests the shackles for myself. I don’t worry about it, though, because I’ve thoroughly prepared the meeting place by hiding constructs and weapons.

The room is rather clean but plunged in darkness because of the planks nailed to the windows. I added a few seats and a table to distract from the loose floorboards underneath which conceals my scimitar and an air-blade.

I’ve spent five or so portions of my daily flow to train and inscribe the new weapon with a set of personal runes. I took what Vikiana told me to heart about there being no common alphabet for runes and created my own representations of the various defensive construct’s segments.

It took me a while and quite a bit of scrap wood to create only a few symbols that made sense to me but there is now a defensive runic construct inscribed in the scimitar’s handle. I set in in the Vuskyt beneath the leather straps. I optimized it to counter the armor-piercing construct because that made the construct simpler and that’s all I need.

The issue is that I can’t activate it along with an armor-piercing construct of my own since they interfere with each other’s functions, draining both of their energy. It shouldn’t be an issue, if all else fails I do remain capable of brute-forcing my way.

I’ve given instructions to Aisha to get her to insist that only two of the Director’s escorts are to be admitted inside at the most since I’ll be likely be made to wear their specific shackles and I’ll only have the opportunity to alter them after the meet.

I don’t want to end up in a situation where I have more than three or five people to deal with, depending on whether the Shade and the Exemplar betray me or not. Tsek will be outside, ready to use the constructs I’ll prepare for him.

But even if it turns out they all turn on me, I’ve stored a dozen lightning constructs underground on a countdown that I need to refresh so that they don’t activate and bathe the room in thunderbolts.

Each has enough energy to be deadly to anyone who isn’t protected by at least a whole portion of flow in defensive construct specialized to deal with the lightning. Added to those precautions are the other threats I made to the Shade and Exemplar.

I doubt they can organize a double-cross that is certain to catch me alive when I’m the only one who’s seen the location and without having the opportunity to coordinate with the Director.

I refused Vikiana’s request to wear her armor. I still don’t trust her and even if I’m confident, that doesn’t mean I can take it easy. There are precautions to take even before we enter that building.

Specifically making sure that Aisha didn’t screw me from the get-go with the letter and her seal. It’s possible she sent some kind of alert and the meeting point will be an ambush.

Which is why we make our way through the streets as four in the night, a good ten hours before the agreed upon time. I’m in shackles and wearing a hooded cloak that conceals the mask on my face as long as I keep my head down.

Aisha is wearing the decent clothes I bought, she is unarmed. Vikiana is in the hard leather armor she usually wears under her plate armor, she is armed with my two swords, both of which contain a lightning construct that I can use to take the two out at any moment.

I made sure that neither have any flow left in their reserves before we left and have been demanding that they transfer what they’ve regenerated every hour. I’m still unsure about how much access Aisha has, and that’s why I gave her no weapons.

My two prisoners are escorting me while Tsek is scouting ahead, dressed like a Semplar with a simple white robe covering cheap clothes. He is to remain entirely silent during the encounter. It is something of a tradition for novice Semplars to be silent so that they can listen and learn according to Vikiana.

We take position in a building’s second floor that has windows giving into the street in front and at the back. If someone tries to surround the meeting point, we’ll see them coming and if they show up in the middle, Tsek will warn us.

I notice a few interactions between Tsek and Aisha, the two are getting a little too much for my liking but he’s been guarding her for a long week and as far as I can tell, she has been trying to mend fences with him and me.

Vikiana took her apart to give the young woman a harsh talking to and the Exemplar told me she was surprised that the Shade had very little to say to defend herself beyond arguing that she had a lapse in judgment, she couldn’t even explain what she planned to do if she got to Tsek.

According to my calculations, my reserves should be full by the time of the meeting so I spend the ten hours until then training hand to hand combat with Vikiana while wearing my shackles.

Tsek enjoys the spectacle a little too much while Aisha throws a few interested but rather subdued glances. I would have thought her interested in one of us before, or curious, but now my opinion is that she’s evaluating our capability, mine specifically.

After almost ten hours of waiting, the institute’s people appear. I recognize Director Suxen immediately as they walk down the street, she has a white blouse while the ten beings escorting her wear thick black hooded cloaks. She carries a thick book stuck between her waist and her left elbow, she also has a pair of silver glasses hanging from her chest pocket.

I enhance my sight and notice that there are either decorations or runes on the glasses. Half of her escort have two-handed long-swords hanging at their backs while the rest wield swords at their waists, only visible under their long clothes because of the scabbard poking out.

Beings, not humans. I can’t rush to conclusions with the institute, I haven’t seen a single face so far and they seem unnaturally tall, at least two meters in height with wide shoulders. I’m quite certain that they were human at some point, their frame fits that of humans, but I cannot rule anything out.

Paranoiac but I’ve learned how healthy that can be. I messed up enough because I was too arrogant or squeamish. Kind of why I’m tolerating Tsek, although I like the kid, I wouldn’t have allowed half as much as I have or reacted the same not that long ago.

Hello there.” Director Suxen says with an eerie smile, waving at us from down below.

We shouldn’t be visible up there, it might be daylight but the window’s flaps are barely open and I took care not to stand in the small ray of light coming in. I frown. And we could clearly hear her voice, but that’s easily explained by the small construct floating above her shoulder.

I didn’t notice her creating it and I’ve been watching her, perhaps she prepared it beforehand. Or worse, she’s that quick at manipulating flow. I throw a glance at Aisha.

The three of us go down, Aisha goes to talk alone to give them ‘her’ conditions.” I turn to the kid, reassured by his tense and serious expression. “Tsek, watch us from a distance. If anything seems off to you, warn us and run. Use the constructs I gave you if need be. Aisha, once they agree to ‘your’ conditions, you come back. We wait for the Director to send her escort back and then the two groups move to the building I prepared. Clear?” I ask.

Clear.” The Shade nods.

I’ll be listening in, Aisha. If you fuck this up, you die first.” I tell her, locking eyes.

She shivers and fails to hold my gaze, which I take as a good sign. I adjust my mask and the shackles on my wrists. This is it, the first true step of my plan.

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