I make my way inside the cubical room, trying to figure out where to break this runic array. The strands of golden energy fade away and reform to allow me to pass. All I can tell after a full turn is that the six sides are identical and that the Princess inside is barely breathing.
I bring the double-bladed staff around and slash at one of the flow strings. The blade goes through it, disturbing the golden energy but not breaking the connection to the Princess.
It doesn’t take me long to realize that, while they seem to be similar to Suxen’s barrier, they aren’t about to break from my physical attacks alone. My symbiont snaps out, managing to touch one of the golden filaments.
I feel my nerves burn up like before but manage to shatter the part inside our body. Fifty centimeters of the flow string breaks but that’s it and, when I step away, it reconnects to itself. That’s not gonna work.
Could use more energy to do this. I’ve already scrapped the bottom of the barrel, literally. What about the Princess, she is supposed to have thousands of portions? It was always a risk to count on her to help me help her.
So, brute forcing the cocoon it is. Brute forcing the cocoon it is. I take hold of the staff in my right hand, marveling at how light it is compared to Vuskyt, and place the blade on my symbiont’s forearm.
I make a very slight cut, just deep enough to have blood trickle all the way down the edge and handle to my hand. I then inject a tiny bit of flow into the vital liquid. My symbiont grips the staff and coils up, ready to strike out.
I examine the tightly wound cocoon around Cetyz, trying to find a weak-point but the best I can find is where to strike to minimize the risk of hurting her inside. It seems like splitting the sphere with a vertical cut would be my best bet.
I bring the weapon overhead, holding it at the other end to deliver as wide of a slash as possible. I assemble a defensive construct over the staff, not with much power but it might protect me for the split second of the attack.
I then, finally, strike down to free Cetyz, breaking the golden strands as soon as I feel them pass through my blood. My defensive construct shatters after a split-second but that was enough to obliterate a huge swathe of the cocoon.
My nerves start seizing, burning, but I keep going even as my biceps tremble and clench. The blade slices down past the level of her waist and, the arc of my slash coming to an end, passes in-between her reversed knees, finishing the destruction of the front and bottom of the cocoon.
A cramp seizes my back down to my upper thighs. I involuntarily drop my weapon and fall on my back, convulsing in agony. Ugh. A, t le, ast, east, t, he… rhaaaaaaa! I break past the fucking pain through sheer will.
At least the defensive construct bought me some time. All I can see are points, purple and pink and green and black… pretty much every color in tiny points moving in dizzying patterns.
I try to use my symbiont’s sense but find out that it’s straight up out of commission, it isn’t even moving much less providing a view of our surroundings. Shit, I should have thought of that, it’s a construct tailored to hold a Princess.
I blink a few times to clear my view. The vague contours of a humanoid shape start appearing at the edge of my vision. It doesn’t look like a Princess, apart from the legs. There are two shadowy wings extending where there should be tendrils and the head is much too wide and circular instead of ovaloid.
I close my eyes, thinking that I’m hallucinating, but the vision goes away so that means I’m likely not. I decide to give it a while before taking another look, truly wishing that I’m out of it and not the result of some mad experiment.
My symbiont shakes itself out of its daze and its sense gives me a first view of what exactly I saw above me. I wasn’t wrong, it is the result of a mad experiment, but not exactly in the way I thought.
The Princess is hanging limply from the cocoon, split down the middle from the top of her ovaloid head to her lower stomach, like butchers do to animals to empty them of their organs before selling them.
The flow strings that I destroyed are repairing themselves but in different positions. They were apparently what kept her together. The entire construct seems to have reconfigured itself to maintain her in this state.
The lack of blood is… worrying, and her flesh, internal or external, doesn’t appear to have a healthy grain. The level of detail my symbiont can provide me right now isn’t enough to assess the damage but I know one thing, she has to be alive despite the appearances.
There would be no need to power the construct even with the institute under attack otherwise. I open my eyes. Finding a dehydrated husk of a being. Her skin is so dry that it cracked in several places and turned dark brown.
The inside of her torso lacks anything resembling organs but there is an extensive network of nerves connecting an incredible number of small gray nodes. Her string-like muscles have atrophied into strands barely thicker than hair.
Her black bones, however, appear to be in good shape apart from her rib-cage which was cleanly cut down the middle. Her ovaloid head contains a chamber filled by spaced out layers of thin muscles and coated in tiny honeycomb-shaped beads.
Cetyz appears to have been starved of food and water, her roots may not have been extended out in an effort to obtain freedom. Perhaps she was simply looking for sustenance.
Her tendrils which were wrapped around her torso are now limply swinging to either side of her, so thin that four of them together would struggle to match my pinky in width, which is the size that a healthy one should be. I count four missing tendrils.
Her legs’ muscles are in better shape than the rest, but not by much. All of this makes me feel more and more desperate but I don’t abandon hope since she yet lives… somehow. I get up to my feet and make a lap around the cocoon.
Her tail is almost touching the ground, it’s in the same overall shape as her legs. It appears like she focused the last of her nutrients into her three lower limbs to keep them functional but her flesh is so dry and brittle that I’m afraid to even touch it or let her hit the ground.
There are burn marks on her face, apparently concentrated between the twelve breathing holes. Me and my symbiont both shiver. I extend my hand out but pull it back before doing something stupid.
I hurry out of the cubical room, wiggling through the twisted metal gate, and pick up Suxen’s leather covered book. I frantically search through it for any clues to revive the Princess. There’s no way that woman would have risked the Princess’ life. I stop on a hastily written down comment.
‘The less sap, the more docile. Can inject and remove substance to use as leverage.‘
That effort to tame Cetyz failed but it gives me an idea. Princesses evolved from plants. They should need water, soil, and fertilizer but since they’re omnivorous, flesh and blood might suffice. Fortunately, I have just what I need.
I grab Turpin by the neck and his pants to lion strike him through the breach. His right arm catches into a sharp piece of shredded metal, jerking his body towards another that pierces through his belly.
I walk up to him and kick him all the way through, which tears a long gash in his stomach. He receives another half-dozen injuries but makes it through in one piece. I stick Suxen’s book inside my shirt and wiggle back through.
I drag and push him under the Princess to soften her eventual fall. Turpin starts twitching and frothing at the mouth, likely because of the energy strands crossing through him to connect to the cocoon, but that’s okay.
Some of my symbiont’s viscous blood slid off my double-bladed staff but there’s enough left to that I’ll be able to break the cocoon. I inject half of what’s left of my flow in the blood and the rest in a general purpose defensive construct.
I swing at the strands connected to Cetyz’ back and shoulders, not as quickly as I can since I do need to consciously break the segments, but fast enough to hopefully destroy them all before my defensive construct shatters.
Unluckily, it only lasts about a second like the previous one despite the fact that I put a lot more energy into it. I grit my teeth and press on, severing every strand until my symbiont falls unconscious again. I recover what’s left of my flow and let go of my weapon before losing control of my right arm as well.
Cetyz starts dropping but rather slowly and in the wrong direction. She is falling to her back instead of front which means Turpin isn’t in the right place to soften a fall that is apparently not going to happen.
The few remaining strings anchored to Cetyz’ sides aren’t enough to sustain her in the air but they’re working to delay while the runic array attempts to recreate the cocoon from the intact bottom and sides. Yet, a good portion of the golden strands that I just cut are failing to even find the Princess and are swinging in thin air above her, exactly where she was before.
This array is somewhat capable to adjust but it’s definitely not able to operate on its own. With that observation, I decide that I shouldn’t entirely break the cocoon in case that triggers some kind of containment measure left for the eventuality of the Princess breaking out.
It would be safer to destroy as many runes as possible as quickly as possible but I don’t have the flow left to do that, I even dismantled my suicidal constructs.
I start slashing at connections a few chunks at a time, using what little energy I have left until the Princess’ back rests on the ground. I take a long break to let my symbiont and my vision recover.
“Just a small parting gift.” Aisha’s whispering voice echoes in the cubical room.
I perk up and scan the area, turning on myself with the double-bladed staff ready to strike out. Screeeee. The twisted metal gate opens by itself, grinding against the ground. The cocoon strands connected to it distend and then break, the rest starts losing integrity from losing its connections to an entire section of the array.
It takes merely a few seconds for the entire thing to unravel and fall apart. Just take the boon, no time to question it. I grab Turpin and drop him at her feet. I then seize both sides of his stomach wound and pull. His flesh distends but it’s taking too long to tear it so I make use of my double-bladed staff.
With that done, I drop him near Cetyz’ feet. I gently pick each of them up to place the emaciated root-like toes into his guts, hoping she’ll be able to feed on this because it’s about all I’ve got. Wait, is it? I look down at my left arm which wiggles uncomfortably.
“Oh, quiet down, I’m obviously not going to feed you to her.” I berate it.
I close its fist, pulling the barely mended injuries on its hand open. A little viscous brown blood pours out and falls on Cetyz’ split torso. I feel my symbiont twist some of its tendrils around my ribs and the amount of blood trickling out increases.
I avoid spilling any on the gray nodes as I have no clue what that would do, instead I concentrate on pouring it on dehydrated crevices and vessel-shaped passages in her flesh. After a minute or two, my symbiont mends its flesh and cuts the supply, communicating exhaustion.
I decide to let it rest to observe Cetyz’ dehydrated skin and muscles absorb my limb’s blood but I don’t catch any voluntary movement on her part. I decide to be patient, having little choice in the matter.
A whole minute passes before I catch one of her muscles twitch. Another before I hear a wet sound coming from Turpin’s stomach. I should close her up now, she might not be able to wake up in this state.
Even if that’s not an issue, I don’t think it would be good for her to witness herself split open like this. She spent years in Suxen’s custody, if there’s damage, it’s been done.
I sit down behind her shoulders, I pick up her split skull and cautiously deposit it on my belly. I then shift my hands under the two sides of her torso to push them up and press them back together with the help of my knees.
I use my left hand to keep at least the upper torso in place while I close her skull up with my left hand by using my torso as a fulcrum. A few minutes pass with no sign of progress. I start shaking in fear. What if she’s dead?
“Please, don‘t be dead.” I utter with difficulty.
That’s my plan? Asking? That’s it? Shut up, what else can I do? I don’t know, feed her more blood, merge with the symbiont for more access, either one of those would be better than sitting there doing nothing. I’m holding her together.
My thoughts seem to split, and my brain along with it, provoking an intense pounding headache. I’ll fall apart if this fails, I need to try everything before it’s too late. I disagree, I’d rather die than lose myself entirely. I disagree, change is preferable to oblivion. Not if it costs us her. Not if it costs us her.
I exhale a breath I hadn’t realized I held in. This brief but intense internal debate shook me to my core as I couldn’t tell which side I leaned towards the most until I fell in agreement with myself.
I feel a pain in my left shoulder which runs up to the tendril at the base of my skull, the symbiont jerks up like awakening from a daze. It has been a bit sleepy from expending so much of its blood. It seems just as confused as I am.
“Sorry.” I whisper as I communicate the feeling to it. “T’was just a moment of sanity, it’ll pass.” I add with a giggle.
A thin tendril brushes against my left thumb, startling me. I glance down, finding that the split in her torso, up to her ovaloid skull, is radiating an intense black glow of flow from the inside.
The relief I feel is so overwhelming that I almost forget to keep my hands on her split sides. She’s conscious! I sense a pitch-black ball of hyper-concentrated energy going up her throat, it contains about as much flow in a tiny area that she spread inside her torso.
Her neck mends within minutes, flesh melding back together and bones fusing. The ball expends half its energy there before moving up to repair her skull but, before it closes completely, my symbiont’s sense detects that it is mostly focused on healing the damaged breathing apparatus inside the cavity.
Cetyz is using way more flow than I’ve ever seen Celyz use, or even Grikyz. That can’t be right, unless she’s been stockpiling for a month maybe? I shake my head and focus on the moment.
“Cetyz?” I ask.
“Iirrrr!” She cries out in surprise, tendrils panically waving around her body. “Rriiik!”
“It’s alright, you’re safe.” I tell her, trying to calm her down. “Celyz sent me.”
It doesn’t work. She shakes her head left and right like she’s trying to find me while desperately gripping at my left hand with a few of her tendrils. I shut my mouth since my human voice is likely the source of her anguish but it’s a little late to do that.
I let her go and try to move away which is difficult to do since she’s holding my symbiont with her thin tendrils which risk breaking if I pull too hard. I do manage to get up to my knees without disturbing her.
A burst of flow courses up to her smooth trait-less face and starts working on the burnt skin. Cetyz calms down a little from that so I slowly get up to my feet. She suddenly flips from her back to her right side and strikes out with her left leg.
“Shruxkn!” She roars.
Her foot impacts me in the stomach with about as much force as the Tianeel when it slammed me into the ship’s hull. I bend in half, losing both the air in my lungs and the tiny bit of bile in my stomach.
I fly back towards the stone wall for a short distance but my body is stopped short as her tendrils, wrapped around my symbiont, snap me back. I feel a brief pang of pain from the left side of my rib-cage as I land on my knee, shaken.
She is furiously turning her head left and right, apparently looking for something. A lot of her is still covered in deep black flow. I feel my symbiont’s panic. I’m pretty sure that it’s trying to communicate that I’m a friend but Cetyz either refuses to believe it or doesn’t understand.
As I recover, I remain immobile to get to thinking. I’m pretty sure that she’s looking for me or at least the origin of the human voice. She’s either entirely blind or her sense is too damaged to find me. I’m quite certain that she smells us but that she thinks that me and my symbiont are two separate beings. She doesn’t realize what I am.
I focus on my symbiont, communicating to it that it needs to make the Princess understand that everything in the room is friendly right now. I don’t know how long it’ll take, but she’s healing her heat-sense and she should realize that she needs to work to recover her voice and hearing once she inspected me with it.
The trick is going to be to survive until then if she starts lashing out, which isn’t going to be easy since her tendrils’ grip on my left arm has only grown firmer since she first held onto it and I think my stomach has been reduced to a huge bruise.
“Rhyyyyyyyyyyy!” She screams with a steadier voice but in a shriller tone.