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Having left the Exemplar and the Shade with their flow when I woke up unlike usual, I decide to check up on the state of their shackles before verifying their work on the runic shackles.

I use fire like before to warm the metal, finding that they haven’t tampered with them, at least they didn’t do anything I can detect. Once I did that, they give me a quick rundown of what they did to the runic shackles.

According to them, all I’ll need to do is slam the first links of the chain, the one welded to the braces, into a rune they point out and the weakened metal will be torn, destroying the disruption runic construct.

I compare what the pair they altered to the other three intact ones and I don’t find any visible differences. Vikiana and I then step out, settling in the main room to train. However, she takes both wooden swords.

Give me four portions and use your scimitar for now.” She instructs me.

I do so despite the fact that I’ll have to keep track of how much energy she spends as we spar and that the flow I consume now won’t be available to me to assault the institute.

I need to get stronger, to never again find myself at anyone’s mercy, so that I can’t be manipulated or used without consequence. To be free. Which is ironic considering I’ve been temporarily giving up on my freedom and will again to liberate Cetyz.

Block this.” Vikiana tells me.

She creates one of her kinetic cubes and gives me a second before launching it at me. It doesn’t have enough energy to knock me out but I’ll definitely feel the impact. I don’t try to dodge, as that construct homes in on its target even through walls, but I do jump back to buy time.

I swiftly assemble a defensive construct with my guard up, expecting a surprise attack from the Exemplar to disrupt my concentration. Except she waits for me to extend my right hand out to block the cube before using a lion’s step to get in range and swing at me with both wooden swords.

Blades from the left and right, cube in front. I almost freeze in indecision but, as I often do in these situations, I break my doubt by retaliating. I decide to rush straight at her, to pass in-between her swords before they close in, and punch at the cube to obliterate it early.

All three attacks double in speed at the last moment, which wasn’t entirely unexpected. I feel her wooden sword guards his my sides, doing very little damage. The cube impacts my shoulder after slipping by my fist, releasing kinetic energy that is absorbed by my defensive construct.

I swing my scimitar at her feet, forcing Vikiana to jump up because she is too close to leap out of my reach. I forcefully alter the arc of my swing into an upward slash that she cannot avoid in mid-air.

The Exemplar blocks the scimitar by crossing the wooden swords and adding a defensive construct to reinforce them. Not only that, but the impact helps her retreat backward and reset the fight.

Find a better solution than that to deal with this construct.” Vikiana tells me, creating another cube.

Teach me.” I reply, frowning.
“What will you do next time you run into an unknown construct? Will you ask your enemy how to deal with it?” Vikiana questions with a raised eyebrow.

I take hold of my long scimitar in both hands and swing at her before she can assemble another cube. She falls into a defensive stance, using her wooden swords to hit the side of my blade to parry my blows.

Well, that’s one way to deal with it.” The Exemplar says with a corner smile.

After a few exchanges like that where I fail to break through her defense, she launches a second cube at me. I’m too close to react it time and it hits my upper thigh, destroying my footwork.

That would have broken your bone.” Vikiana tells me. “I admit I’m cheating a little because we’re not going all out, I wouldn’t have been able to make that construct if we were using lion strikes but it doesn’t change the fact that you can only press someone for so long before they find the small opening they need to make a construct and disrupt the flow of battle.”

I get it.” I nod. “Once more.”

I fail a few more times after that until I figure out that the most efficient way to deal with that construct is to simply detonate it before it hits me. I try using a lightning construct, which simply goes through it with no effect. I then attempt an air-blade with the same result.

In the end, because it’s the last cube Vikiana can make before she runs out of energy, I decide to swing at the cube with my scimitar and a half-portion of unstructured flow with the intent of triggering the cube. My blade makes the construct detonate, too far to do any damage but the consequence of using my weapon is that the Exemplar lands a blow on my arm unhindered.

Congratulations, it only cost you an arm and a leg.” Vikiana says, smiling. “The perfect solution would have been to launch a low-powered defensive construct optimized for kinetic energy with a trickle of unstructured flow to trigger the cube.”

“Ah.” I nod. “It didn’t cross my mind to combine both to save energy, or use that construct outside my body.”

We continue sparring normally from then, using very little flow. The Exemplar makes me alternate between defense and offense during the next few hours, only allowing me to take a breather when she lectures me on my tactical choices.

When on the attack, she demands that I focus on mobility and unpredictability rather than on taking risks to land a fatal blow. When on the defense, she demands the contrary, that I only retaliate when I am certain of killing in a single stroke.

If they do manage to put you on the defensive, your goal should be to find the space to go back on offense but if you see an opportunity to strike one down, take it.” She tells me. “You’ll be outnumbered so your opponents will focus on pressuring you until you crack and give them an opening. To that aim, they’ll leave themselves open to your attacks as long as that doesn’t put their lives in danger. If you take those chances to injure them, you might succeed a few times, at best, but at some point you’ll slip and take a hit.”

Alright.” I nod. “What can you tell me to defeat Suxen’s escort?”

I’m not sure, to be honest.” The Exemplar admits. “The one I struck down saw my blows coming which means that she either allowed me to land them or she was too slow to react.”

It might be because she wasn’t given any specific orders.” I venture a guess. “That Director gave overly detailed instructions, like you would to a reluctant child.”

I think you’re partly correct, she was slow because there was no order to follow but I doubt that these ‘Numbers’ need to be told exactly what to do in a fight, they would make lousy soldiers if they did.” Vikiana says. “I believe that they’re taught to battle as a unit, the more of them there are, the more dangerous they will be. Especially if they’re high enough on these drugs that they’ll give their lives up to create an advantage for their unit.”

Does that change my course of action?” I ask.

No. If you have an opening to kill one, you have to take it. You could even entirely get away with it if you know that there is a counter-attack coming and plan accordingly.” She answers and then raises her two swords. “Enough resting.”
“This scimitar is heavy and we’ve been at it for hours.” I groan.

Tough.” Vikiana replies flatly.

She starts with a kick to my left knee, which I block by raising that leg. I counter with a stabbing attack that she easily sidesteps. She brings both arms back, crossing them in front of her torso, taking a stance to throw two horizontal backhanded slashes. I pull my head back and move forward to block both wooden blades… except she isn’t swinging.

Stop.” She tells me as I switch to offense.

What is it?” I ask, puzzled.

Did you notice what you just did?” She questions.

I read your attack so you didn’t launch it?” I ask.

No, you didn’t.” Vikiana shakes her head.

She proves it by showing me her left hand’s grip on the wooden sword. Instead of her fingers being wrapped around the handle, the pommel of the sword is set inside her palm.

I realize that she was preparing to switch to a reverse grip which means that instead of a backhanded slash coming from my left it would have been a stabbing attack I was completely unprepared for.

You need to use that construct of yours to make sure that your opponents are doing what you see them do.” Vikiana tells me.

I was using it, but there is a limit to how much I can process.” I gripe. “I would have caught the change in grip in time to react, I think.”

I have no doubt that you would have been able to but that would have put you on the back foot.” She tells me.

I agree.” I nod. “Again?”

Not yet. I actually didn’t stop to criticize you. Well, not only.” Vikiana notes with humor. “I was going to ask why you pulled your head away.”

Because…” I pause and think back. “Hm. I think it’s because it felt dangerous.”

Good.” She gives me one of her rare smiles. “That’s the same kind of instinct you get from banging your head against a low hanging ceiling several times, after a while, you dodge without thinking.”

That doesn’t sound like a compliment.” I comment wryly.

It isn’t one, it’s the result of training. You moved your weakest point out of reach which limited my avenues of attacks.” She says while raising her swords. “Now, let’s keep banging that head while you get used to the weight of that weapon.”

The weight isn’t actually an issue, apart from digging into my stamina, it’s amusingly the fact that the long scimitar is balanced and that I’m not completely used to that yet.

It’s a lot less difficult to handle than my hammer was at the beginning. That makes me just as dangerous as I was with it. Perhaps more because of the Exemplar’s training. I can’t wait to get to the same level of familiarity with this scimitar than I had with my hammer.

It is especially easy to spin this weapon around my body to strike at anything in my range, although Vikiana has poked enough holes in that method that I wouldn’t consider using it without a defensive construct.

The rest of the afternoon is rough, I seem to pick up bruises by the dozen. Vikiana assures that I’m learning a lot even if it doesn’t seem like it. I do believe that, but the enthusiasm she shows teaching me those instincts by battering me confirmed, to me at least, that Leomi definitely takes from her mother.

I think you’re the best student I’ve ever had.” Vikiana tells me after I slip through a flurry of swings.

I am?” I ask, baffled. “What did you do to the rest?”

I only give out as much as you can handle and learn from.” She replies with a frown, looking insulted.

Tsek returns soon after, providing me with an excuse to put an end to the training. Which is good considering that I think Vikiana was about to prove to me that she’s holding back.

He seems drunk, his shirt is on backward. He crashes into a chair and blinks a few times before resting his forehead on the table. I don’t know what he drank but I am rather thankful that I don’t have my symbiont’s sense of smell.

I saw adolescents throwing rotten stuff at the institute.” He mumbles.

Oh?” I say.

They didn’t call the guard.” Tsek grunts. “The man at the front door, a concierge I think ‘cuz he dressed like one. He came out and the kids ran away screaming.”

Hm.” I nod. That doesn’t tell me much. “Thanks, it helps.”

I have dinner alone with Aisha and Vikiana as Tsek falls asleep on the table. I pick him up by the collar and settle him in the bunk before settling down at the table to spend the night practicing to open the runic shackles with air-blades.

By morning, my reserve has almost regenerated back to half so I wait for it to hit that mark before waking Tsek up and going to sleep. I’ve consumed three forth of my flow in two days, which is acceptable.

— — —

I wake up to Tsek practicing his lion strikes while he watches the two prisoners, who aren’t nearly as secure as I thought them to be but I can’t think of a solution that goes beyond all the constructs I leave with Tsek to guard them.

In the end, I have to believe that the benefits we all stand to gain are enough to keep this plan from being derailed. I consider freeing the two of them, not trusting them but showing goodwill in the hopes that they’ll reciprocate.

I decide against it because Aisha may very well have overstated her chances in escaping. Vikiana has been steadfast in holding to her end of the deal, the risks involved in offering incentive are too high to justify the possible benefits.

Tsek’s newfound resolve to impress me is showing up in his redoubled enthusiasm to improve himself through non-stop training. That assuages my fear that he’ll become a liability but I can’t quite relax about it considering what he wants from me.

Still, he made it clear it wasn’t a condition to his friendship and help so I go out feeling rather secure about leaving him alone with the other two. I make my way past the structure where I store my flow and, as I do, I transfer my entire reserve, which adds up to about eighty percent of my maximum after a night’s sleep.

Once that’s done, I make my way to a mid-sized tavern just outside the slums and gather information about who rules Meiridin at the moment. I am told that the old Chancellor holds regency over the Kingdom while King Cenwalh leads the army.

I push a little and, if I can believe what I’m told, the man is no fan of the institute, not that it means he cares for the slums. It is well known that he has pushed to cut the resources dedicated to the institute and reassign them to more productive pursuits.

That’s interesting, he might be slow in helping the institute when it comes under attack or be uncooperative. It isn’t something I can count on or use, but that’s good news nonetheless. I take the opportunity to confirm the rumor of a Rykz Princess being held in the institute, that it is the cause of the war.

Many ask me how I could know that. I tell them that I can’t answer because it’ll expose me, I do give them as many details on the succession of events as I can but leave the Templar’s names out of it. I then leave the tavern, considering that it’ll have more impact to behave mysteriously since I can’t use Elizabeth Vil.

Before returning, I make a detour to check the leyline from the Palace to the institute and try to follow it. Unfortunately, I lose track of it after a few streets as it plunges too deep underground for me to detect the vague impression of emptyness that my symbiont’s sense communicates to me.

Back at the house, I find Tsek and Aisha at the table. She is in her runic shackles, and tied to her chair, while Tsek is trying to pick the lock of another pair of shackles with a knife that has a broken blade.

The two are getting along too well for my taste. I really don’t like it but considering my recent confrontations with both, I think it wouldn’t be good to interject or meddle so I leave them alone.

I try to keep an ear on them while I train with Vikiana but she notices my wavering focus and rips into me about my lack of discipline. Tsek and I train out various skills until nightfall when he goes to sleep with our two teachers.

During the week that follows, not much happens. I don’t find any more attempts to escape on Aisha’s part. My skill in handling my scimitar grows by leaps and bounds thanks to the Exemplar.

Tsek gets so good at picking locks that he becomes able to remove the runic shackles off from his wrists. I try my hand at it but find that I lack years of practice at minute work to acquire the necessary dexterity in the short amount of time available to us.

My stockpile of flow is steadily growing and that makes me realize that I’m somewhat stalling, pushing the decision to set another meeting with the Director back because it shook me that much the first time.

I make the call to organize one a day later but to warn her mere hours before it occurs to give her as little time as possible to prepare. I select and rent a warehouse near the docks, a place very far from where we’ll rendezvous with Suxen, unlike the first building which was located nearby.

The only piece of furniture I leave inside the warehouse, apart from the large and wide shelves, is a large chair. To be ready for the worst, I cut my symbiont’s wrist above the wooden chair and spread the viscous brown blood that pours out so that it is absorbed. I then hide many lightning constructs in the walls and underground with delayed activation.

I return to the warehouse an hour before sending the letter to the institute to make sure that I still have control over my symbiont’s blood. I find that I do despite my worry that it may decay or that flow will stop considering it part of me, I avoid thinking about what it could mean that my symbiont is that interlinked with my being.

With all in place, I create a large air-blade inside of which I place my scimitar. I then make the construct fly to the top of a shelve, out of sight. I give it a conditional segment to delay activation. I consider adding an armor-piercing construct but judge it unnecessary.

I go back and send Tsek out to hire a messenger to drop the letter at the institute. Waiting for him to return, I set my mask and hooded cloak on, mentally preparing to withstand another hour under that madwoman’s thumb.

This time, I’ll need to maintain better control of myself than the last as I have the capability to escape but cannot allow myself to unless things get too far off-plan that I absolutely need to.

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