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As I walk past one of the slum’s best taverns, which is really no more than a plank sustained by two trestles, a keg, and a few tankards, I hear something that chills me down to my core. I stop and turn to the short but bulky woman who spoke.

Say that again.” I order, voice shaking from fright.

Be drin’in m’h beer, you twat, go away.” She replies sharply.

I grab her shirt with my left hand and pull her closer, her eyes are level with mine. The abrupt movement makes her spill her beer all over the bar’s plank. The barman takes a step back to avoid getting splashed but he’s smiling, likely because the tankard was almost full and paid for.

I am in no mood.” I utter coldly.

‘ey! Cool it, skank!” She shouts. “I jus’ say the critters bash’d the east, you ain’ one of them ar’ ya?”

What Kingdom?” I press.

All of ’em.” She shrugs, trying to break my grip on her shirt.

All three?” I ask, shaking.

‘hink so, are there three?” She replies.

Fuck!” I yell.

I let her go, that woman obviously doesn’t know any more than this. I turn away to leave and sift through the meaning of this, how it could have happened, why, the barman stops me with a short yell.

Buy a drink and I have another piece of news for you!” He calls out.

I’ll give you a gold coin if it’s worth it.” I counter.

Oh, ’tis!” The woman says. “How ’bout you give it to ‘e? I’ll tel’ ya.” Okay, I was wrong.

No.” I turn to the barman.

The Emperor paid off one of the Cold’s Hordes, just before he went into slumber.” He tells me. “Apparently, th’ southers will only have to deal with one or two this summer.”

Blessed is Emperor Rasaec.” I whisper in relief.

This piece of news is truly Lake-sent considering how many phalanxes were pulled from the south. I take a gold coin out of my pouch and throw it up at the man. His grin is so wide when he catches it that his mouth could fall off his face.

I leave, my mind preoccupied with the implications behind this. There’s no way the Rykz made their plans while knowing that the Empire had paid off a Horde, the timing is far too narrow for that to have happened unless the Rykz worked with that Horde but then the Lisilese wouldn’t have agreed.

They planned to attack the east during winter, when the Empire doesn’t have to wage war on two fronts. It makes more sense to think that they timed the attack for it to occur while the Silver Hive plowed into Caeviel…

Or that they prepared for the possibility but acted on it after they learned about my symbiont’s capacity for creative thought because now they’re even more motivated to strong-hand the Empire into lasting peace. Which would make me partly responsible.

No, I can’t carry the weight of the world, the Rykz think the Empire threatens their survival on the long run, there is no doubt in my mind that they would have attacked at some point to support Grikyz’ push.

I tremble in my boots, angry and sad, torn by the fact that everything I’ve done so far will only amount to, at best, preserving Caeviel. At the end of the day, the conflict between my two species runs deep.

It is arrogance to think my actions would achieve more. I shouldn’t be too worried, this proves that my faith in the Emperor wasn’t misplaced, He did what needed to be done to preserve the Empire. He will again when comes times to negotiate.

I am not so cynical as to believe that war is unavoidable but not so naive as to think it is entirely avoidable. I shake my head, deeply saddened by the conflict and torn by this on a personal level because of Leomi and Celyz. Regardless of what happens elsewhere, I must focus on the here and now.

As I told them, I reach the shack by nightfall. By habit, I use my sense to scout out on my approach. I find Tsek naked in his bunk, which looks more like a mess of blankets now. He is dozing off next to a bare-chested Aisha in the process of pulling her pants back up. I freeze on the spot, stunned. By the Lake! What the fuck?

Tsek, you little whore! I gripe at myself for thinking that in a moment of anger. I hope that he wouldn’t take it as an insult, Aisha wouldn’t. I reflexively hug a wall, heart beating fast.

I feel embarrassed and, if I’m honest with myself, jealous. I remain hidden, shifting a little to the side so that I wouldn’t be visible if Aisha walks out the door. She’s still dressing up with a smug, satisfied expression.

I am actually thankful for the fact that what I detect through my symbiont doesn’t emotionally translate into feelings like sight does. Although, it did for my Lady but perhaps it was more about acquiring knowledge of her excitement than sensing the shape of her body.

Tsek is blinking with a slackened smile. It seems like he doesn’t quite believe that he just got laid. Aisha gets up and walks up to the table, she starts organizing the pieces of parchment containing her notes and the schematics.

Is she about to leave, did he trade her freedom away for a good time? I chase the question out to observe since I’ll get the answer soon. I doubt it’s that, not this late into things. And they did this just I told them I’d be back so it’s probably the worst possible timing for the Shade to make her escape.

Indeed, once she’s done gathering it all in a neat pile, Aisha sits down and lies back to start reading the pieces of parchment one at a time. Tsek is still out of it. I remain stuck where I am, unable to make a decision about what to do one way or another.

They’re both free to do what they want and I did explicitly tell Tsek that his role came to an end. I can easily imagine his thought process when confronted by Aisha and her very tempting assets.

With little changing inside apart from Tsek offhandedly sending his flow to fuel the fire at the stove, I decide to stop being so damn hesitant and to walk in. Aisha doesn’t even deign to look up, she simply lets go of the pile with one hand to wave at me, which leaves the papers hanging.

Tsek perks up to look at me, the guilt creeping into his expression allows me to follow as he realizes that he screwed up a bit. He is definitely awake enough to realize he should know to cover his privacy.

I don’t say a thing or rebuke him because it hasn’t done anything apart from exciting the kid and, not only do I not want to deal with the awkwardness, but it isn’t really my place to butt in since I’m with neither of them. As I often do now when I’m lost, I walk up to the stove and serve myself a full bowl of gruel.

Tsek gets out of the bunk and grabs fresh clothes, hurriedly dressing up. He then fastens a sword to his waist with a determined expression. At this point, I care little about giving him directions or advice, he can make his choices and live with them.

You ready?” I ask Aisha.

I am.” She nods. “Going through it one last time.”

I’m going to go now to look for a vantage point so I watch over as you enter the institute.” Tsek speaks up, picking up his black cloak.

Alright.” I reply without turning around.

My response apparently makes him relieved and I realize my mistake, he probably thinks I’m jealous of her or some similar delusion. It doesn’t matter, this is likely where we part ways and if we run into each other again, I’ll deal with it then, when I don’t need to keep him happy.

He’s nice and can be fun to hang out with but I probably should have drawn the line a bit better. Tsek doesn’t say a thing to Aisha as he leaves while she doesn’t even wave at him. There apparently isn’t much beyond physical attraction between them. And a common interest in sneaky stuff.

Once she finishes the last page, Aisha gets up to stretch with a long sigh. She turns to me and winks at me with a smile. I remain stone-faced but she doesn’t seem to mind.

There isn’t anything like a good fuck before an op, besides, it’ll likely keep him from doing something stupid.” She tells me. “Should try it, enjoy life a little.”

That’s not life.” I reply harshly. “Even this, what we’re doing, this is necessary but it’s not life. Life is about creation or improvement, not wanton enjoyment or destruction.”

Pff.” Aisha groans. “You’re way too stuck up, I can loosen you up before we go if you want.”

I’d rather go early so it’s still night when we get out.” I reply, a bit too tempted to directly refuse. “Where are the shackles?”

Ooh, kinky.” She grins.

Aisha.” I utter flatly.

Fine.” She says, turning serious. “There.”

She points at a pile of clothes in a corner of the room, the ones Tsek took off I guess. I riffle through them until I find the pair of shackles that Aisha and Vikiana modified so that I can disable them by simply smashing one of the bracers into a rune.

I hand them over to the Shade to place my mask on my face and pull my cloak’s hood around my head. She sets them around my wrists and takes the key out of my pocket to lock them.

How do you feel?” She asks.

Ready, you?” I reply.

Kind of worried, I don’t usually go in blind.” She admits.

It’ll work or it won’t.” I tell her.

That’s really reassuring.” Aisha says sarcastically.

She grabs the hems of my cloak and closes it around my chest to hide the shackles. We make our way out and through the slums. As I detect unsavory people roaming the streets, it occurs to me that we’re both unarmed.

I’ll take us around in a long loop in case we need to hide out in the shack, I don’t want the institute to know where we came from.” I lie.

I head towards the palace, avoiding all those that I detect through my sense. Aisha grows a bit confused as the path I choose is filled with detours, wasting time. She doesn’t complain, deciding instead to train her flow as she follows my lead.

We make a turn into the alley just above the small leyline linking the Palace and the institute, I activate the first timer construct, setting off the countdown for the air-blades to fall into the water.

With that done, I accelerate our pace as we head towards the next location. We soon pass by the structure where I left my preparations. I look for Tsek but don’t find him and don’t want to waste time looking so I stop in front of the building and start activating the timers for the lightning construct, air-blade, and fire construct.

Activate the shackles.” I tell Aisha.

She opens my cloak and touches the chain to inject her flow into the runes. She locks eyes and gives me a nod once it’s done. We both stand there for a long moment, without doing anything other than staring at each other’s masks, one of wood, one of light.

Hey, if I don’t make it…” She pauses. “Don’t tell Cecil about my screw-ups.”

I probably won’t say a thing as long as you don’t screw me over.” I tell her.

Thanks.” Aisha whispers. “And, tell her to go through my stuff. I left a letter and directions to recover the gold.”

Alright.” I nod. “We’ll be fine, Aisha, and I’d like to stay but we really need to go.”

You just set some stuff on a timer, huh.” She makes a shrewd, appreciative smile. “I didn’t notice a thing, you’re good.”

I triggered the constructs that’ll kill me if this goes to shit and I won’t be resetting them.” I lie.

I can tell I didn’t convince her but I can’t really do anything about it other than making the threat a truth. I gather some of my flow to assemble a lightning and a signaling construct on separate one-hour timers with a conditional segment that’ll trigger them both if one fails or is tampered with.

At least, that’s the intent. I have no way of checking if it works and I doubt it will considering that I estimate I would need several other segments to make it work, at least one segment to detect the construct’s failure.

We take a small alley and engage on the street that runs around the institute’s large rectangular building. We walk along the dark stone facade as we make our way to the only entrance that we know of, a small door with a flap.

Aisha takes hold of my elbow and leads us across the street. The flap, unsurprisingly, slides open and a pair of eyes appear. The person glares at us for a while until the Shade shapes a construct that looks like some kind of seal, sending it over.

The person takes a step back from the door to let it through and closes the flap once it is. A minute later, the door opens. Aisha and I head inside, at the same time, but she still pulls me by the elbow.

We enter an empty small square room. There is a single average looking man standing behind the door with an axe in hand. He closes and locks the door behind us before signaling Aisha and me to move.

Stand in the center.” Aisha tells me. “He can’t talk.”

She lets me go and moves to the back of the room next to a thick oak door reinforced by a steel frame, it likely leads deeper into the institute. The man puts his axe away by sliding the handle inside a buckle at his belt.

He walks up to me and, without warning, places his hands on my shoulders to run his hands along my sides, apparently checking for weapons or concealed objects. His touch is rough and methodical, it isn’t too hard to bear at it feels like the man is just doing something he’s done a thousand times.

Don’t remove the mask.” Aisha speaks up authoritatively.

The man nods but raises his hand towards it. I tense but he only sends a trickle of flow to infiltrates the wood. He pulls the energy back soon after and turns to Aisha.

Umph.” He grunts.

He doesn’t open his mouth for long but the brief moment is enough for me to catch a glimpse with my other sense, finding that his tongue was cut. The man places his palm on my back again and shoves me towards the other door.

The Shade knocks at the door. A moment later, I hear someone lift a wooden beam and set it down. It’s difficult to sense details through this thick door, and I can’t detect anything through the stone walls, but I can somewhat follow a muscular woman as she removes two chains and opens three different locks.

The security seems a little over the top but it’s all physical so far. Although, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell if they’re using flow with these runic shackles around my wrists.

They could be scanning the surface of my skin and I wouldn’t know unless the construct actually intruded inside my body or if I saw the golden energy but I’ve seen flow diffused so much that it was invisible so even seeing it isn’t guaranteed.

The heavy door is pulled open and the woman stands aside to let us walk in. Her gaze is expressionless, dead, confirming that she’s likely part of the Numbers. He pushes me forward once more.

The room I’m made to step into is a lot larger and there are eleven of the Numbers, male and female, arrayed all along the walls. Two of the men are guarding a long corridor with doors, shields in hand.

dThere are dozens of runes already brimming with flow inscribed in the stone floor. The man closes the door behind me and Aisha while the female Number mechanically locks it before setting the wooden beam and the chains back in place.

I start calculating my chances to defeat these people, planning ahead which of their swords I could steal and how. My thoughts are interrupted as a door opens deep in the corridor and Suxen emerges out of it, followed by five regular looking people in white blouses.

I want every centimeter of the specimen scanned and the results double checked against the previously recorded data.” She orders.

This array isn’t meant for this, Director.” A man notes.

Make it work, the other three are unavailable, one is configured for different data extraction while the other two are set for Rykz and Lisilese biology.” Suxen explains.

She then turns to me and her smile grows wider, yet never reaches her analytic eyes. Suxen’s nameless goons spread out in the room and activate runes I hadn’t noticed before, adding energy until the golden glow covering the entire floor is so thick that they have to kneel down to inspect the runes.

How is the specimen doing today?” Suxen asks the Shade but keeps her gaze on me.

She is being difficult because you overreached, Suxen.” Aisha replies sharply.

She then walks up to the Director and takes her aside, away from the center of the array. I enhance my hearing and don’t miss the fact that Aisha isn’t moving out of range.

She is threatening her life with constructs, so no more debasing my asset by stripping her of her clothes. I had to leave the Exemplar behind to limit complications and I’ll expect you to act accordingly.” Aisha tells her.

Deactivate the security counter-measures.” Suxen orders loudly, without hesitating.

But, Director!” The man from earlier protests.

Unless you can alter the array so that it doesn’t immediately activate on detection, you will do so.” Suxen responds firmly.

The man makes a grimace but the rest have already started deactivating some runes. The Numbers are all standing there, I can almost feel their dead, eerie, gazes on my skin.

And don’t remove the mask, we need to keep her pliable until we have the data.” Aisha tells Suxen.

How foolish.” Suxen comments. “And problematic.” She adds, deep in thought. “The specimen’s brain chemistry may have been damaged by the parasite, I’ll have to look into that. Perhaps the parasite has damaged the brain functions if it does not have the good sense to preserve its own life and accept greatness. It would have been wiser to tame it, Shade, it is now in large part an animal after all.”

Get me the Data, Suxen. Until then, it is all meaningless bluster on your part.” Aisha replies angrily.

You truly are compromised.” The Director notes coldly. “I thought it was simply the pheromone but you’ve been engaging in vulgar activities with the specimen, haven’t you?”

I am acting on my Emperor’s will upon His Order, Suxen, you would do well to remember that.” Aisha utters flatly.

Number Seven will take you to the observation room, I will expect you to behave.” Suxen replies calmly with a polite smile.

You dare!” Aisha exclaims, her illusory face shows anger but her real returns to calm. Did she know how this would turn out? Is she purposefully setting the direction of the conversation?

Settle down. You will get your copy of the data, I will retain possession of the specimen.” Suxen explains.

My asset is not yours to do with as you wish. There will be immediate consequences if you think you can ignore me as I uphold His will.” Aisha threatens.

Immediate? If you think we haven’t noticed your partner snooping around my institute, then you are gravely mistaken and so was he when he associated with known Hetlan agents.” Suxen scoffs. Aisha’s eyes widen in surprise but she soon recovers as the Director continues. “No, you will sit tight so that we both get everything we want tonight.” Suxen suddenly turns to her goons, who are all attentively listening to the confrontation between the two. “Get back to work or I will cut your funding and get rid of those ridiculous batteries, those you’ve hidden in basement four!” She snaps at them. “You would do well to train your skills rather than waste your time on creating crutches to conceal your inadequacy.”

I will remain with my asset, challenge me on this and you will discover whether I am bluffing or not, Suxen.” Aisha threatens.

As long as keep your silence.” Suxen agrees dismissively. “If you cause trouble, Number Seven will restrain you. You’ve been warned.”

Aisha throws me a glance. Her illusory face appears agitated, and vexed, but her real one expresses worry. I blink slowly, signaling that we are still in agreement. She sighs in relief.

Perhaps she just made a play, perhaps she acted angry while calm because she didn’t want the Director to think she expected this to happen and was fine with being sidelined by Suxen as long as she could remain in my vicinity.

The Shade’s motives will remain unknowable until the end, and even then… I doubt I’ll ever know it all. The goons take hold of my shoulders and move me slightly to the side, adjusting my position to the exact center of the array.

Previous chapter.

Next chapter.

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