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I fight my nervousness as we make our way downstairs and into the street, I focus on my enhanced hearing and on observing the surroundings with my symbiont’s sense. The street is devoid of people, as usual in this part of the slums.

Aisha steps outside first, taking the lead, I follow behind, and Vikiana is last, her hand is on her sword but her eyes are turned to the Director and the ten beings escorting her, not on my back.

One more step and half of the ten are inside my symbiont’s range, after a few more, I can scrutinize them all in detail. They are all humans but are muscular to an inhuman degree.

Six are men who carry short swords at their waists, the bulges on their backs that gave them odd silhouettes are actually shields set in-between their large black cloaks and hard leather armors, which suggests that they would take the former off to fight.

Four are women whose weapons are two-handed long-swords but not all of the same type, some are straight and double-edged while others are slightly curved and single-edged.

The division of weapons according to gender makes sense to me as men are known to have a more explosive kind of strength while women have a more sustained strength.

What’s most noteworthy about these ten fighters is that their body temperature is rather high and that when they blink, which isn’t very often, they never do so all at once. Each of them has two pairs of runic shackles attached to their belts.

My attention is naturally attracted by the women’s’ breasts, not only because I haven’t gotten off in a while but also because their hyper-developed chest muscles aesthetically clash with their breast sizes.

Vikiana and I hold position a twelve meters away from the Director while Aisha keeps going. Director Suxen’s glasses have a golden glow and, upon closer inspection, I notice that there are indeed tiny runes engraved in the branches. That is likely what allowed her to spot us.

The woman’s smile hasn’t wavered in the slightest since she got here and that only makes her traits look even more unnatural, she’s tall compared to me but still one head shorter than those accompanying her.

Congratulations for this second catch you bring me, Exemplar Vikiana. You needed that boost after your stunt with the pheromones.” Director Suxen speaks up first.

How did you know?” Aisha asks before Vikiana can respond.

It was quite a simple deduction considering that you asked for shackles that could hold a war-beast and last time I spoke to the Exemplar, I told her what I needed. Besides, I have a very little useful construct that allows me to smell Rykz pheromones.” She throws me a glance, smile still on her face.

And you haven’t shared it.” The Shade says, frowning.

Girl’s gotta have her secrets.” The Director replies. The sentence feels completely out-of-place. “I’ve satisfied your curiosity, now quench mine. That thing has a human shape, it is quite interesting. Could you pull back that hood?”

Not here, not now. This isn’t a delivery, Director Suxen. This is my asset and you are only allowed to examine her in the context of fulfilling your King’s deal with our Emperor.” Aisha flat-out informs the Director of her position on the matter.

Her, is it? That hood isn’t hiding a Rykz creation.” Suxen notes. “No, of course not. If these animals knew how to make something that resembled us so much, they would have done so long ago.” Her lips stretch into a grin. I don’t doubt that this madwoman is ‘happy’, but her expression still looks fake to me. “Oh, I can’t wait to cut it up a little.” She exclaims gleefully.

A cold shiver runs through my back. It was the right choice to leave Tsek back as over-watch, I don’t need the kid to hear any of this. No one else needs to know I’m a monster.

There will be no dissection, Suxen. First, we’ll be changing location. And you’re only bringing two guards along.” Aisha declares.

These conditions are oddly restrictive, Shade.” The Director frowns. “I have the necessary facilities and you know that Rykz can handle dissection without dying, this creature should be no different.”

Your inability to produce results has damaged our Emperor’s trust in your so-called genius, Suxen. You may have mapped out human flow access but we are still waiting for you to fulfill your promise to do the same for the Rykz. As such, you will be allowed to examine this asset of mine to gather the information you need to calibrate or create an array for her but no more. If you fail, I will leave with the asset and the University will pick up where you left off. If you succeed, then you will have cards to negotiate. Until then, consider yourself on very shaky grounds.” Aisha admonishes the Director.

Those quacks still cannot agree that mathematics is the only language that can properly describe flow. They are still centuries away from creating a unifying set of symbols. Even if they manage, they would then need to explain the meanings and concepts to anyone they want to teach. Fools.” The Director scoffs.

Nevertheless, the Emperor demands results from you, the fulfillment of the bargain your King struck.” Aisha insists.

Very well.” Suxen replies contritely. Yet, her grin remains and lingers a full second too long before her expression changes to match the tone.

That delay is beyond disturbing. Does she have to consciously think about making or removing her expressions? What kind of being is that? Celyz felt more sincere and expressive with her bare ovaloid head than this Suxen whose features I can read.

You are aware that it will be necessary to bring this specimen to the institute at some point, correct?” Suxen asks. Aisha nods. I’m counting on it. “Good, I do not have the resources to create another array. Now, shall we go, I’m impatient to examine what we’re dealing with.”

Aisha throws a glance at Vikiana who lays a hand on my right shoulder, she always stands to my right if given a choice. I mumble my agreement and the Exemplar transmits that to the Shade with a nod.

The Director selects two women to accompany her, which is a good sign as, to me, it means her mind is turned to defending her own life rather than trying to take control of the situation.

We move towards the building as a group, Aisha and the Director in front, her guards to either side of me, Vikiana at the back. I throw a glance at the Director’s guards, their eyes look dead and their traits hold no particular expression.

The two women even seem a little apathetic, an expression reminiscent of people I’ve seen dead drunk in taverns. It is odd that the two muscular guards would appear so detached in this situation.

We walk into the building and through the hallway to the dark room. The Director snaps her fingers and creates a half-dozen fire constructs that she leaves floating in thin air.

Now, let’s take a bit of a closer look.” She says, moving to pull my hood down. She makes me raise my chin and stares at my mask for a second. “That’s Elizabeth Vil. I heard of the silver tree mask.” She comments.

It is. And it stays on, you need not see her face.” Aisha tells her.

It truly is human.” Suxen declares with an intense glimmer of interest in her eyes. “And from what I’ve heard of her actions, more so than those slum dregs.”

Despite my misgivings about the Director’s character, it isn’t truly surprising that she would be this kind of person. The blatant disregard for sentient life must be a requirement to work in that institute.

The situation is still headed in the direction I expected so I activate the lightning constructs I set up as a precaution and give them an hour-long countdown, which is the time frame I gave the Shade.

You have an hour, Director.” Aisha informs Suxen right on cue.

Only an hour? But I need to thoroughly inspect this specimen.” The Director frowns with a flat smile.

You might have the opportunity to examine her body if you deliver the data.” The Shade replies, catching a meaning that I missed and pushing the Director’s request away.

I don’t think you understand, I need to know the biological properties of this specimen to calibrate my array. That is why it is so difficult to make progress with the Princess, their biology is entirely foreign so I had to start almost from scratch. Flow access is intrinsically tied to species so I need to know about this specimen if I am to both extract and make sense of the data.” The Director explains.

Aisha hesitates before agreeing without looking to me for permission. I wouldn’t be able to give it to her without the Director noticing but her main reason is definitely that it serves her interest to allow the Director to examine me since it is necessary to obtain the information the Emperor asked for.

Number four, number six, remove the shackles the specimen is currently wearing, strip the specimen of all clothing, put the specimen on its back flat on the table, use four pairs of runic shackles to secure the specimen’s ankles and wrists to each of the table’s feet.” Suxen succinctly orders the two muscular women.

One of the two turns and steps in front of me. She seizes my wrists in her large hands and secures them in a tight grip. I panic a little, which agitates my symbiont. I hurriedly calm myself and communicate the need to be passive, which doesn’t work very well because it has been feeling how stressed I am about all this.

The symbiont closes its fingers into a fist to combat the woman’s grip. I instinctively call on the memory of Celyz, of how safe we felt held inside her tendrils, and link that emotion to the need to be passive at this time. The symbiont calms down instantly, some of its tendrils gently undulate under my skin.

As I focused within to retain control of myself, I lose some control over the situation. The other woman took the key to my shackles from Aisha and is already removing them. Soon after, they remove my hooded cloak and start taking my shirt off, one sleeve at a time to maintain a secure grip on one of my wrists at all times.

I swallow with some difficulty. I am beyond apprehensive about being stripped down and examined, yet, I realize that there isn’t anything I can allow myself to do to stop this.

The feeling that I’m being wronged, in body and mind, the one I felt when I observed Tsek get off while thinking of fucking me, surges up tenfold. This is a violation, but one I volunteered for. No matter the personal cost. I wish I hadn’t taken that oath but I cannot break my word. My symbiont expresses its agreement by imperceptibly curling the tip of its tendrils.

As the two woman take the band of cloth constraining my breast, and concealing the flat expanse where the left one was. I find myself wishing that they were male. Ever since I’ve become this monster, I’ve feared that women would look upon me with disgust.

The Director has her book open in her left hand and a writing quill in the right, she is taking notes while scrutinizing my scarred body. There is no disgust in her, only detachment. Vikiana’s face is cold and inexpressive, which I recognize as her poker face, she’s seen me before anyway. Aisha’s eyes are glued to my wrecked torso but don’t contain the disgust I so fear.

In fact, the Shade can’t conceal her interest under her illusion construct, at least not from me. That kind of makes me think better of her, that she isn’t entirely devoid of attraction towards women. Vikiana thinks otherwise but it isn’t surprising that she would, the Exemplar’s view of these matters is flawed and she recognizes as much herself.

The woman who holds my wrists removes the leather sleeve glove and secures them with one pair of runic shackles each. The Director swipes her quill at each and two streams of flow flash forward and fill the runes with energy. I don’t detect anything different.

The other woman steps around to my back and sets her hands on my pants’ waistband. She starts pulling them down. I cannot help the burst of terror that the action invokes in me, it overtakes me and sends me back to that moment in the Rykz lavatories, when Patrick ambushed me from behind and struck me down with a blow to the head.

How utterly powerless I felt when I laid helpless on the tiles as he insinuated that he could rape me but wouldn’t because it would dirty him to do so. I react to the horror in the same way I did back then, by seeking out a way to retaliate.

I don’t even have to tell my symbiont to strike out, it does so on its own, echoing my emotions. All it succeeds to do is land a small punch in the guts of the woman holding the shackles constraining my wrists, to no visible effect.

She retains her firm hold over them and twists the chains to further restrain me while her companion seizes my ankle and forcefully make me raise my leg to remove my pants. I struggle but these two women are like hard muscular walls that don’t budge.

Be a bit gentler with my asset.” Aisha gripes.

Hm.” The Director responds absentmindedly without taking her gaze off of me.

My failure shakes me enough that I involuntarily turn to the Exemplar for help. Vikiana isn’t even looking, she turned away at some point. Her jaw is visibly clenched. I gave clear instructions. I force myself to settle down, giving up on calming my symbiont down for now to focus on me.

I take a deep breath but that’s all I get, my roiling feelings don’t remain quiet for long as the woman finishes taking my pants off and uses her thick fingers to clumsily remove the thin briefs preserving my most intimate place.

In a panic, I reach out to my lightning constructs underground and the air-blade construct under the floorboards, under the table. I fail to link to anything out of my body, I expel flow to try again but the energy dissipates as soon as it leaves my skin, making the runes inscribed on the shackles flare up.

A burst of intense fear courses through both me and my symbiont, making me and it sweat. I almost make use of my entire reserves to challenge these restraints head on but Aisha throws me an intense look, having noticed my attempt. The concern on her real face reminds me that this is all still relatively going as planned.

It reminds me of my oath, of every little piece of my personality was twisted along the path I took to get here. So I bite my tongue until blood flows into my mouth, I placate my symbiont and order it to follow my lead.

I do not react as the women secure a pair of shackles on each of my ankles. I do not resist as they drag me towards the table. I do not move to help or hinder as they each seize me by one thigh and one elbow to lift me off the ground. They deposit me on my back, over the table.

The specimen is quite unresponsive despite a small outburst. Did you drug it? I need to know. Or perhaps you gagged it?” The Director questions.

Neither.” Aisha shakes her head. “She can demonstrate an iron will when she has chosen a path.”

And which path would that be?” Suxen asks.

That of service to our Emperor, Director.” The Shade replies flatly.

The Director’s two dead-eyed goons start attaching the other end of the runic shackles to the table’s four feet. They force me to spread my legs to do so, exposing my intimacy to the sight of anyone who even gazes in that direction.

I feel increasingly violated so I focus on the pain arising from biting my tongue. It helps as it allows me to imagine that Leomi ordered all of this, being angry at my Lady makes it easier to bear, if only slightly because, while I wouldn’t allow others, I would permit to take much freedom with me if it pleases her and brings us closer together.

Vikiana is still turned away and seems increasingly unwilling to even be in the room. Much as I would like to count that reluctance in her favor, I know that she would have handed me over regardless if it offered even the smallest chance to help her daughter.

I am certain that she’s cooperating because my goals are more likely to grant Leomi her freedom back than Aisha’s schemes are. Not to mention that if I fail, the rumor of the Exemplar’s role in this could threaten her daughter’s life.

Aisha, on the other hand, doesn’t play coy and watches, perhaps because her illusion construct provides her with control over what others perceive of her emotions.

I detect that the temperature of her body rose, and then that her sex is just slightly dewy. Suxen’s temperature has been entirely consistent throughout but escorts’ temperature did rise but not nearly as much as Aisha’s. I don’t understand her at all.

The Director uses her quill to write numbers with flow in the air in front of her, creating an equation that she then directs at the table which starts glowing golden. She no doubt reinforced the wood with that odd construct.

Now, this is interesting.” The Director speaks up.

What?” Aisha asks in a gruff voice.

I believe that this… parasite, it seems at a first glance. I believe that this parasite has been diffusing an aphrodisiac in the air through sweating for a short while.” Suxen explains, fascinated.

What?!” I exclaim in sync with Aisha.

The specimen will be silent or disciplined.” The Director threatens in an absent tone of voice.

She walks over to my left side and lays her book down on the table to take her glasses out of her blouse’s front pocket to set them on her nose. I catch a glance at the page she was writing on, finding an unfinished sketch of my body with numerous annotations about both me and the symbiont, she even added thin lines to mark the placement of my scars.

Suxen places her index on my symbiont’s forearm and runs it over the rubbery brown skin. She then brings the finger up in front of her glasses. Her lips distort to form a disturbing grin.

What a fascinating defensive mechanism.” She murmurs. “Number four, remove your cloak, armor, shield, sword, clothes, underwear.” She orders.

This really is not the time nor the place to explore your fantasies, Director.” Vikiana utters angrily.

I assure you that I do not act on such vulgar impulses.” Suxen replies flatly. “But very well. Number four, belay the previous order.”

The dead-eyed goon stops, she seems to sigh in relief. She then sets her cloak back on her shoulders. The Director walks up to her and slips her hand under the woman’s hard leather jacket.

Suxen’s hand explores up to the woman’s breasts and then down into the woman’s pants. Neither one’s expression changes as she does, neither one even blinks. They show no sign of embarrassment or discomfort.

Nipples excited but dry sex. The drug cocktail should have numbed all those feelings.” Suxen says with a frown. “The Princess never used such pheromones, perhaps I acted too soon…”

I’m starting to doubt that this Director even has a sex drive considering that she isn’t reacting at all if my symbiont is truly doing this and making it through whatever Suxen gave her goons.

I really don’t want to think on the meaning this has for me and my life. Another reason not to share my body with the symbiont for too much longer. It does explain some things that happened to me… I wonder if the symbiont associated terror and pain with sex because of me, or if it’s a defense.

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