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I let my scimitar slide off my shoulder. When it’s down to the level of my waist, I arrest the fall and bring my right arm back, twisting my waist. My forearm starts shaking from the weight of the scimitar so I launch my lion strike at the thick metal double door.

Clang. The weapon bounces off. The energy covering the door doesn’t seem to waver. I frown. I’ll try hitting it a few more times when my limb is healed. I let the tip of my scimitar hit the ground and start using it as a crutch as I make my way back through the tunnel.

The two Shades and Suxen are obviously gone but I find Turpin on the ground, unconscious. I head into the central tunnel and limp towards the Director’s office, a room filled with bookshelves. On the Director’s desk are small wooden blocks of various shapes with small holes to fit them together with sticks, likely construct models.

I look for clues to Cetyz’ cell but give up rather quickly considering that Aisha left the office in a mess. I’ll go back to looking for a solution if I can’t brute force it. I walk back to the crossing, grab Turpin’s collar with my scimitar’s spikes, and start dragging him to the runic gate.

What did the rest of the goons do? Will find out if they get in my way. I keep limping along. Once at the runic gate, I throw Turpin against the gate. A portion of the runes flare on impact but have no visible effect and return to a dormant state once he slides off. He seems unaffected.

Is it based on pain? I think he twitched when he hit. I use my scimitar to press him against the double metal door. The same section of the runic construct activates fully, Turpin starts frothing at the mouth. I maintain him there but, after a minute, the runes go dark.

He isn’t moving anymore. Ah, he stopped breathing. No matter, he’s here for sustenance, not wind piping. I pull him away with my scimitar and check his pulse, feeling no heartbeat. Okay, that’s dangerous.

My symbiont reaches up to my cheek on its own, pushing my mask away, and presses the two sides of the wound Ka’tchuk inflicted together. I flinch from the biting pain.

My left hand’s rubbery brown skin formed long round ridges where it was shredded. It doesn’t seem like that’ll withstand much but it did stop the bleeding.

I communicate to it a feeling of urgency, that our goal lies beyond the door, it shivers but lets go of my cheek to seize the scimitar and release control to me. I shred Turpin’s pair of pants into thin strips of cloth. I wrap them tightly around my left hand’s articulations and wrist.

I then assemble a low-powered lightning-armor-piercing construct and bring my weapon back. I take a few steps back and throw the scimitar at the door. The blade impacts it. A different section of the runic construct activates.

Clink. The weapon bounces off. It didn’t work but the defenses used more flow to repel the attack than I used. Still, there’s a lot left, more than I can drain with the half-dozen portions I have left.

The energy redistributes itself to resupply the section that was just activated. I swear. This thing isn’t going to break until it entirely runs out or if I break through that section of the runic defense and destroy the gate in one go before the energy can redistribute itself.

I sit down and cross my legs, thinking. It didn’t take all that much for my scimitar to be torn out of my hands when my lightning coursed through the veins, it wasn’t propelled away in a single direction like it happened the first time because both sides of the tunnel attracted it.

I can use this instead of an air-blade. Considering that it was pulled from my hands, I estimate that it’ll take a lot less power to shoot the scimitar at similar speeds. If it works. Far as I can tell, it’s either this or manually brute forcing it. I’ll have to use all my flow whatever I try to do.

I worry, what if I fail this close to my goal? I got this far through preparation. Each hour that passes brings me an entire portion so, if this doesn’t work, would I be able to wait an entire day? Beyond unlikely since reinforcements are likely already in place, and there’s the fire…

I pause. Wait, the fire? I haven’t heard a thing since that ‘crack‘ earlier, when I was… when I was speaking to Aisha. Fuck! There’s no way I wouldn’t have felt the tunnel shake if something broke. I would maybe have heard something along with a tremble, not the other way around.

Fucking Aisha tricked me, she used a sound construct to convince me that I’m out of time so she could run with Suxen. She’s impressed on me that the institute is on fire, but did I see any sign of it? I did feel stuff crash so she probably wasn’t entirely lying.

No time to waste on the Shade, it’s done, I need to get to Cetyz. I assemble a lightning-armor-piercing construct but pause again and dismantle it. The batteries. I perk up and jump to my feet to start running back to the crossing, and then back upstairs, limping the entire way. I ignore the pain in my left knee from the damaged articulation.

I start opening random doors, I find a corridor engulfed in light-orange flames, stone cracked where the metal veins melted. The heat is intense so I slam the door close. What the fuck? The flames shouldn’t be this hot, or this color.

It has to be fueled by flow but there’s no way my construct lasted this long, is there? I swear but move on to the next doors, until I find a flight of stairs. I rush down but find my way blocked by a pile of rubble.


The voice is weak but it’s definitely someone calling for help. I assemble an air-blade with all my flow. I use my sense to find an empty space in the middle of the stone blocking me and shape my construct into a small sphere that I wiggle in there.

I then meticulously expand the construct, pushing the stone up and aside to free the way, basically setting it back into the spaces it fell from. Once there is a small passage, just enough for me to pass, I hollow the spherical air-shield to be able to pass while it holds the rubble in place.

I rush through as quickly as I can, thinking that, with my luck, the entire corridor will crumble on me. Surprisingly, that doesn’t happen so I anchor my construct in place. It won’t last very long, but hopefully enough for me to explore and come back.

I hear the voice again so I move on through the hallway until I emerge into a large empty storage room with shelves and a single large table in the middle. On it, I find the vial with the tendril inside, a few instruments that I’ve seen Suxen make use of, like scalpels and flat-headed scissors.

My eyes home in on a staff with blades facing in a different direction on either end. The metal of looks like black steel but it has silver patterns that resemble flowing water which means it’s something slightly different. I grab the weapon and start exploring the room.

Help!” A woman calls out.

Stop yelling, there’s no one and you might provoke them to attack.” A tired man says, annoyed.

They haven’t so far, these things are tools.” She replies.

They aren’t batteries and they’re almost off their drugs, just shut up.” He angrily spouts out. I head towards the voices.

Silence, both of you, I hear something.” Another man says.

I find a door hidden behind a shelf. My sense detects a dozen drooling people in dirty clothes on the other side, they’re all bleeding and several have broken limbs. They are facing the back of the room, which is out of my range.

They have chains around their wrists and a more thorough scan finds another dozen people buried under rubble. They were likely all chained to that wall. I slowly open the door, finding that there’s another on the other side.

The dribbling people don’t react to my presence, even as I walk through them. Their eyes are closed but there’s a slight golden glow escaping through their closed eyelids. Their expressions are slack, their mouths half-open.

I carefully touch one of them, an old man with a broken arm. He collapses. Flow starts pouring out of his eyes and mouth. I panic and kneel down, taking him in my arms. I detect two thick scars under his hairs and that a chunk of his skull is missing.

I, t‘s okay, I’m, a friend.” I stutter.

It doesn’t help, it actually makes it worse as he starts silently crying. I hear the woman call out for help again, but she is shushed by the others. I ignore them as I try to comfort the old man, barely stopping myself from growling.

His gaze is lost in the distance, I hear him garble sounds but none of it makes sense, he soon loses consciousness. His flow is sinking into the ground, I notice only now that he isn’t linked to it, that it’s free.

I’m, sorry.” I push the words through the lump in my throat and take the almost full portion of energy.

In tears, I move on from one battery to the next. They all crumble as soon as I touch them, their concentration broken. All I can think of is that it takes all they have to hold onto their flow.

I know what needs to be done here, yet I keep delaying as I take their energy. A few remain conscious after crumbling. The last one looks beyond exhausted, he has thick dark circles around his eyes. He drops unconscious before I can even touch him, I smell excrement on him.

I seize the energy and rush to the other door. My sense tells me that there are a half-dozen of Suxen’s goons on the other side, huddled up together in a tiny room with barrels of grain and a small stove. There are two others, they’re armed with swords and facing the door with an absent expression.

Is, is there someone? Is the way out open?” The woman shouts, I recognize the voice as the one of those who worked on the first array I went through to get inside.

Shut up! If it was one of ours, they would have replied to you by now!” A man snaps. “It has to be one of the batteries. We must have messed up the last one and she’s leading them, no way they went insane just like that!” He mutters something else that I barely catch. “…ve carved more out.”

I kick the door open and throw the double-bladed staff at the Number on the left. It pierces through her throat even though she should have had time to raise her shield. The other one charges me without deigning to raise his two-handed longsword.

I bring my scimitar around but, before I can strike, the man throws himself on the blade, impaling himself. He groans but there is a smile on his lips as he exhales for the last time. I freeze. Wh, what?

E, Elizabeth Vil!” The woman shouts, retreating behind the others.

While I stupidly stand there, the rest of the white bloused goons raise their hands and start shaping constructs. I shake my weapon to get rid of the body, utterly baffled and feeling as confused as the batteries but more determined than ever to see this through.

That’s our chance!” The man exclaims.

I lion’s step in the middle of their group and slash out, melding into my sad anger. Arms fly out, legs are cut at the thigh but I kill none. They cry out in despair, demanding mercy, begging for their lives. I keep swinging, using my sense to its fullest to sever hands, ears, and fingers.

P, please!” The woman begs, her left stump extended out to stop me.

I grab her collar and throw her into the other room. I seize the next one by his hairs and do the same. One by one, I drag or propel them into the room with the poor people they’ve used as batteries. The angry man is bleeding out from his thigh, which now looks like a bright red chunk of meat. I walk up to him first.

Give me your flow.” I order.

B, but…” He stutters, trying to keep an eye on me and the batteries while pressing down on his wound. “They’ve been using unstru…”

I slap him, breaking his jaw. His eyes glaze over, almost falling unconscious. I restrain myself and move on to the woman. She pulls her flow out and hands it over before I even take the second step.

I seize it and do the same for all of them, breaking bones and noses as needed. I don’t feel a shred of pity for these people, they’re not even fit to be prey. Once I’ve secured every bit of energy, I assess my reserve, finding that I’ve gathered almost fourteen portions.

You’ll let us go with this, right?” The woman asks fearfully.

Yes.” I reply.

I raise my sword and slash her stomach open with a single slash. Her eyes open wide and she shrieks. She panically tries to prevent her guts from falling out of her belly but, with a single hand, finds the task impossible. A fitting putrid smell engulfs the room.

The goons try to escape however they can, most of them crawl away but one tries to grovel at my feet. I take hold of his neck and throw him on his back, splitting his belly open like I did to the woman.

Once more.” I utter coldly, doing the same to a third.

One of them is almost at the double-bladed staff so I walk up to him and stab him in the back, once in each kidney. I walk over him and grab the weapon. I then move on to the next one, and the next, and the next, muttering my mantra as I do.

Most die of blood-loss or shock before I reach the last but the terror in their eyes, on their faces, in their voices, satisfies me. I watch the last of them die, standing there in a large pool of blood and guts, feeling sick to my stomach about what they did to these poor people.

I notice that some of the conscious batteries are watching as well, witnessing the end of their tormentors with almost imperceptible smiles. I kneel down next to the old man. I place one hand on the back of his head and another on his chin. I grit my teeth, smother myself by summoning a dark shroud from my broken heart and break his neck.

I fall into a daze as I move on to the next one and do the same. I finish these poor people, who’ve been cruelly used as batteries, one by one. I do so gently, if that’s even possible in these circumstances. Uncharacteristically, I don’t feel bloodlust from my symbiont, it would help as I deal with this.

In response to the thought, it communicates a sorrowful emotion to me, akin to grief from waste, but also some urgency and offense. You’re getting awfully good at understanding me. I swallow my saliva and finish my morbid task.

With the last of them dead, I pick up my two weapons and leave, following my symbiont’s advice. I make it through the arch made by my air construct and dismantle it behind me, recovering only two portions from it. I limp back to Cetyz’ cell, comforting myself with the fact that their victims got their revenge in full and seemed at peace when they died.

When I killed them. I might be growing less and less sensitive to murder but this wasn’t murder, it was an act of mercy. I couldn’t get them out and also save Cetyz, besides they were too far gone to recover their lives.

They turned on their oppressors, they won by trapping those who did this to them. These monster suffered a fitting end for what they did. Snap. I hear an echo, recognizing the sound that the old man’s neck made when I broke it. I fall to my knees and puke bile.

I start shaking and crying but stand back up. I keep making my way, frail and nauseous, fearing the state in which I’ll find Cetyz. My symbiont pulses and sends a burst of its cool substance. I feel grateful for the help.

Once I’m back in front of Cetyz’ cell, I focus on the work to be done, burying my dark emotions deep down, with the rest. I assemble a lightning construct which I anchor to the metal veins running through the tunnel. I tweak it so that it’ll discharge from me and strike the section of the array that blocked the armor-piercing construct.

Should I really try this? If it fails, I’m fucked, but I don’t really have any other options. I grab the double-bladed staff and advance on the door, resolving to test whether or not it’s possible to brute force my way through.

My symbiont seems to read my apprehension as I prepare myself to feel pain and injects more of the cool substance. I slowly extend the weapon out into the golden glow. The construct doesn’t react even as the tip goes further.

I take a deep breath and tap the door with the tip of the blade. A brusque flash of pain goes through my arm which seizes, making it go limp. The weapon drops and breaks contact, putting an end to the effect.

Fuck, that’s out. My nerves are pulsing in white-hot pangs, almost like a cramp but much worse. No construct entered my body, it just seemed to happen through contact.

I put that weapon down and take hold of my scimitar and assemble a lightning-armor-piercing construct for it. I make use of all the energy I have except one portion, putting their gift to good use.

I step in the middle of the tunnel and extend the scimitar out in front of me towards the door, trying to center it inside the tunnel. I actually end up having to raise it above my head since the tunnel seems to be made for giants.

I loosen my grip and activate my constructs. Lightning bolts crack out along the veins in the walls, flashing out towards the double-door. Cryyk. The sound of metal being torn and twisted fills my eardrums as I stumble forward, feeling a burn on my palms.

I didn’t even notice my scimitar leaving my hands. Crack. I hear a stone drop. I look up, finding a large vertical breach in the door which damaged even the stone arch above. I notice a lattice of golden filaments on the other side. I grab the double-bladed staff and rush up to the opening to start making my way through it, finding fragments of my scimitar as I go. It was worth losing my weapon.

I use the last of my flow to seize the scattered flakes of energy from the broken runic construct, replenishing my reserve up to a half-dozen portions which is less than a tenth of what was infused in it.

It takes me a minute to get through the fifty-centimeter thick metal door without injuring myself on the sharp edges. On the other side, I find a large spherical cocoon made of thin golden flow strands floating in the middle of a cubical room.

The sphere is attached to runic symbols on all six of the walls by slightly thicker energy strings. My sense tells me that there is a thin Princess inside, wrapped around in its own tendrils and tail.

Her legs and toes are extended out towards the ground but apparently unable to break containment. She seems to have attempted to break free at some point but is now completely immobile.

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The Lisilese’s internal temperature is fluctuating, which tells me that he’s likely awake but preserving his energy as he’s bleeding both blue blood and warmth from several injuries. I lower my stance to offer a smaller target for him to aim at and for me to defend.

If I can distract the Shade, or take him out, with the lightning construct… that’ll give that Lizard enough of an opening to deal with Suxen. The issue is that he might truly be unconscious so attacking the Shade would give Suxen an opening since he has been restraining her as well as me.

I can point you to Aisha but the Director isn’t going anywhere.” I declare.

Hm.” The Shade ponders but shakes his head in the negative, his eyes remain trained on me as he does. “That’s alright then, we can all wait here. Without moving.”

I’m not waiting for Aisha to show up, she would turn this into an unmanageable situation. I notice through my sense that Suxen is injecting flow into the tunnel’s metal veins with her feet. Shit, even if I don’t make a move, she will.

I gather most of my energy in the wall to counter her, leaving myself with only enough to feed my defensive construct. Suxen notices that I intruded into what they’ve been calling a ‘circuit’ and she makes a thin smile.

I frown as her flow retreats in front of mine and decide to pull most of it back as well. I boost my lightning construct’s power and decide to try to provoke her into action with it, so the Shade will shoot her instead of me. I charge the sections of the wall leading to her, and the air as well.

My provocation fails as she simply allows me, seemingly fearless even though my previous lightning construct injured her. The Shade is definitely aware that Suxen and I are making moves, but he seems content to let us fight it out.

I can’t trust that, he revealed his presence by shooting the Lisilese when Suxen was about to die, that’s no coincidence and neither was the fact that Aisha showed relief from the Director’s survival.

My overinflated sense of self-worth blinded me from an obvious conclusion. Suxen matters a lot more to them than I do. The fact is that the Shades have been after distribution data from the beginning, confirmed by the fact that Aisha went straight for Suxen’s research.

The two of them would obviously care much more about the madwoman who can gather and analyze that data than a brutish hybrid whose only skills lie in battle. The drugs Suxen created might also be of interest to them since they seemed to numb the Numbers’ sense of pain.

Rumble. The tunnel shakes around us, distracting us as it disturbs our footing. I pick that moment to activate my lightning construct, deciding to bathe both Director and Shade in bolts. The bright blue-white bolts of electricity course through the veins, headed in two opposite directions.

A half-dozen things happen all at once. My scimitar is torn out of my hands, moving like it did earlier, yet this time it hovers for the split second during which the lighting storm is the most intense around me, before the bolts flash out towards the designated targets.

The weapon drops back down, landing in the exact center of the tunnel and at equal distance from Suxen and the Shade. Bolts strike Suxen from all around her but don’t seem to have any effect as they simply travel down her legs and fade back into the ground.

The Shade shoots his arrow at me just before the tempest reaches him but when it does, he directly drops and starts convulsing. He’ll only stay down for a little while, he’s too far to sense but I can see a slight golden glow inside his clothes.

His arrow’s flight is destabilized by the lightning’s passage. The projectile swerves, seemingly edging to the tunnel’s center, but its speed makes it smash into a wall long before that can happen. Crack. Stone actually splits around where the arrow-tip hit.

The Lisilese waits for the lightning to pass him before slithering up to his clawed toes. His movements are so discreet that I’m beyond certain that I wouldn’t have noticed if not for my symbiont overly paying attention to the reptile-like being. Apparently, so has Suxen.

The Director raises both her hands towards him. I hear a sizzling sound and smoke rises up from between the Lisilese’s runic collar and neck. He drops to his knees soon after. Thunk. The sound of his scales impacting the stone shakes me to my core as I realize that Ka’tchuk likely just died.

The two-meter-tall creature makes an effort to remain sitting on his clawed heel instead of falling but he fails to balance himself in time. I reflexively step up to him and catch his shoulder, stabilizing him.

His head turns towards me. I meet his red vertical iris, there is still a glimmer of life in them. But then his muzzle keeps turning and his skull keeps going, closer and closer to his shoulder until his neck splits up from the runic collar. His head hits the ground.

There is a charcoal black ring where his scales were cut, the flesh is so burnt that it’s lost all color and isn’t even bleeding. The last remnants of my lightning construct fade away without having achieved much.

I pull lion’s step up to my scimitar, grimacing in pain because of my injured left knee. I lean down to grab the weapon, take a breath, and kick the ground with another lion’s step to propel myself at the Director. I hear a whistling sound. My symbiont lets go of my weapon to swipe at the arrow flying at my back.

I notice, or rather feel, that it won’t make it so I use of my strengthening construct to twist my trunk, so abruptly that I almost pull my back muscles. My left hand hits the shaft.

The arrow shatters entirely, shredding bandages, splitting rubbery brown skin, severing string-like muscles up to the wrist. The thin black bones are exposed and several articulations visibly disjointed.

My symbiont lashes out in pain, swiping at Suxen which propels large drops of viscous blood all around us and towards her. She raises her forearm to block it with one of her golden barriers.

I struggle to bring my scimitar back with only my right hand but do manage to deliver a quick swipe towards her leg, aiming to distract her while I try to send flow into the blood since some of it landed near her throat. She blocks my blade with another barrier.

I lose my link to the energy I sent to my symbiont’s viscous sap. I notice the runes on this section of the tunnel activate. Suxen’s constructs shatter so I push my weight on my blade to cut into her leg but it only results in a superficial cut.

Suxen retreats, panicked like her plan went sideways. My sense isn’t providing me with many details, the Shade is too far but I doubt he did this anyway. I try to seize my scimitar with both hands to quickly dispatch of the Director but my left hand is too damaged to grip anything, it’s barely in shape to hit with.

I pass my symbiont around the handle to settle it in the pit of my left elbow, making it easier to raise it and giving me a platform to strike from. I don’t waste time. I abruptly extend my left arm, which jerks the blade up, and launch a single-handed lion strike at her neck.

I hear Aisha’s voice but, with my symbiont’s fury and my own anger towards Suxen, I simply choose not to hear whatever she’ll use to force me to spare the Director. Suxen suddenly splits in two, the blurry warm image my sense gives me steps to the left while what my eyes see remains.

I try to forcefully follow but my right arm just isn’t strong enough to do so safely or even accurately so I abort before breaking a bone, giving Suxen the time she needs to put some distance between us.

Aisha!” I growl.

I’m sorry, Elizabeth.” She replies.

I hesitate, if I keep pursuing Suxen while ignoring Aisha’s constructs, there isn’t any guarantee I’ll get her since I would have missed whether the Shade intervened or not and it’ll inform them that the illusions don’t work on me.

If I try to use a lightning construct or an air-blade, she’ll activate the disruption construct again. Not to mention that the other Shade will keep launching arrows at me and it’ll be hard to dodge while limping.

I inspect him, finding that he’s up on one knee, another arrow knocked with the bow pulled tautly. Aisha is carrying a large bag on her shoulder and making her way over to Suxen. The Director is visibly rattled and decides to get closer to the Shade.

I send flow underground, directing it towards my symbiont’s brown blood on Suxen’s mostly blue blouse from the warbeast’s blood. I start weaving a blood-blade but the tunnel’s runes flicker and I lose my link before I can finish it. Aisha is intermittently activating the disruption effect.

Control yourself. I take a few quick breaths and shift my weight over to my right leg. I quickly analyze my chances. Aisha has no doubt burned a lot of flow to make that illusion, however briefly, and she has to control the runic construct in the tunnel. What are my options to attack?

None, I don’t have the flow to deal with the two Shades and Suxen. My left knee isn’t in a good shape, my left arm isn’t either, my symbiont’s sense is straining to keep up at the moment. Fuck me.

There’s no need for you to act, Director.” Aisha declares, keeping watch over me. “You’ll be safe in our custody.”

So this is it?” I ask, looking at the bag. “You used me to get the data, now you’re taking Suxen and her research regardless of what she did.”

Cetyz is at the end of this tunnel.” She replies with a sad look, pointing at the one to the right. “You should go.”

If you want my help, then get the Specimen back under your control and bring it along.” Suxen demands calmly, reaching to the veined wall.

Aisha throws a silent glare at Suxen. I notice only now that Aisha is no longer wearing an illusion over her face. She’s back to how she looked when I first met her except for her black eyes and short hair. She throws a gaze at the other Shade over my shoulder.

This is when she betrays me. How foolish of me to think that I would be able to retain the upper hand, she would obviously pick my weakest moment to turn on me. Aisha turns back to Suxen and nods. She got her answer.

I tense, preparing to block another arrow, getting ready to break my body to kill these two women before dying under a barrage of projectiles. Aisha’s left hand moves slowly, reaching to the dagger behind her back.

I rest my scimitar’s spike flat against my elbow to leverage the weapon up to my shoulder. Meanwhile, I let my symbiont hang to my side, resting and slowly healing. It’s slowly bleeding and looks disabled, which isn’t far from the truth.

Aisha takes a single step forward towards me, placing her right next to Suxen. If she takes one more step, I won’t be able to take both down in one strike. I lean forward, threatening to attack if Aisha advances any more.

It didn’t have to come to this. You should have just listened to me.” Aisha utters coldly.

Her eyes are empty of emotion, ruthless. She pulls her dagger out. Something’s off, her first resort shouldn’t be to engage me in melee range, especially since that’s making it easier for me to get to her with my injured knee.

On cue with my suspicion, I detect a thin spinning arrow headed straight for me. I lion’s step aside, avoiding both the projectile and Aisha’s attac… not? She is stabbing up with her dagger but not at me, at Suxen.

The arrow releases an intense flash of light just as it reaches me, blinding me and the Director both. Aisha’s dagger pierces through the bottom of Suxen’s jaw, I detect that it stops only when it hits the palate. The madwoman’s tongue is now literally hanging by two threads.

Aisha pulls her dagger out in a cascade of bright red blood. Suxen reaches up to her jaw, gargling and trying to pressure the injury with little to no success as too many layers were cut. She has a panicked look in her eyes as she weaves a construct.

Aisha stands aside and lets the woman heal herself, keeping her eyes on me. Her words from before were aimed at the Director, but I have no doubt that the threat holds for me.

I can’t let you leave with her. Even if she wasn’t a danger to me, she kidnapped people and caused the war, there are too many reasons that call for her death.” I declare, struggling to remain calm.

You cannot afford to fight us.” Aisha denies. “You are barely strong enough to even reach the cell, and with the fire upstai…” Crack. The sound of something breaking all the way up reaches us even all the way down here. “With the fire upstairs, you have even less time to act than you realize.”

I would win.” I lie confidently.

You likely would.” Aisha acknowledges. “Please don’t make me fight you. I’m sorry about this but Suxen will be under a tight leash, she won’t be allowed to pursue the research she has begun here.”

I know I should back down, that freeing Cetyz must be my priority, but the memory of those pregnant women chained to a wall prevents me. Suxen tries to inhale but chokes on her own blood. Yet, she doesn’t let that distract her from the equations she’s weaving in flow to mend her flesh.

I take stock of my flow, finding that I still have a half-dozen portions. It’s enough to put up a fight. I prepare myself, assembling a lightning-armor-piercing construct and a lion strike.

Oath or not, Suxen cannot be allowed to leave alive. I might even survive. I feel my symbiont disagreeing, hanging weakly from my side, it has strong feelings about oaths and is basically informing me that we won’t be able to take another one of those arrows, much less two.

I could grab Turpin, use him as a shield… No. Aisha is watching me too closely, she won’t let me. I could grapple her into submission even in this state, I have no doubt. But Suxen is bleeding a lot less even if she’s far from healed, she would be able to intervene.

I need to make a move. My symbiont, almost directly responding to my thought, stops injecting me with its cool substance to start bringing its torn flesh and muscles back together.

The pain coming from my injuries, especially my stomach wound, and our burnt flesh grows by several degrees. My symbiont is unsubtle in reminding me that we’re not in shape to get into unnecessary fights, that the consequences of doing that could be severe.

Suxen.” I seethe, glaring.

Elizabeth.” Aisha tells me softly. “Think of it like she’s sentenced to slavery, she will not see daylight ever again.”

I throw a quick glance over my shoulder. The other Shade has an arrow ready and isn’t showing any signs of fatigue from keeping his huge bow taut. I groan but, with my symbiont in such a bad shape, know I’ll be very likely to lose.

Give me her book.” I demand both as a test of Aisha’s intentions towards the Director’s research and because it might help me in the near future. “And her tongue.”

Done.” Aisha nods.

Blrr!” Suxen exclaims, trying to protest.

The Shade takes advantage of the fact that the Director has to hold her own flesh together and maintain her healing construct to pull the expensive leather covered paper book out of the blouse. There are blood stains from three species on its cover and edge.

Aisha hands it over, entirely ignoring that I even made the other demand. I take it and leave, rushing towards the tunnel to the right, caring none about how Aisha tenses when I go past her and actually take some pleasure when I detect her expression falling. It’s too blurry to tell what kind of face she’s wearing out of my sight but I can tell she’s far from proud of herself.

As I limp through the tunnel, I decide to dismantle my constructs, even the strengthening one sustaining my heart. I might need the energy to free Cetyz but even if I don’t, I’ll need it to heal myself.

Before I even make it two dozen meters, the other Shade manages to cross fifty meters to join Aisha. They take hold of the Director and start dragging her away. With any luck, Suxen will die of blood loss or I’ll catch them on the way back. My symbiont shivers in agreement.

At the end of the tunnel, I find a large double door made entirely of the dark veined metal. There are runes all over the surface and each of those is brimming with flow.

I stand there and observe for a minute since my symbiont is still putting itself back together, specifically the hand articulations, which means I can’t act yet. As far as I can see, or detect, there isn’t any energy resupplying this runic construct which means that it is losing power, but too slowly for me to wait it out.

I would try to sense inside but the metal seems much too thick and I don’t want to place my hand on it before assessing that it’s safe to do so. I take a few minutes to memorize the pattern, specifically the single equation running around the more classical runes’ circumference.

I take Suxen’s booklet out, searching through it to find out whether she has notes about it or not. I stop when I find myself, drawn naked and in detail with a thin quill. There are notes from both Suxen and Francis.

It’s easy to tell which is which not only because of the handwriting but because the man was so disgusted with me he actually kept his distance from even a drawing. There are mostly numbers about my height and observations about my health.

It hurts to find that, according to Suxen, I won’t live to be thirty. I could even fall within months if the parasite… My symbiont pulls on one of my ribs in annoyance at me thinking the word… if my symbiont keeps straining my body to its limits.

The madwoman covered the next page in ideas of where to cut to force the parasite, symbiont, to integrate with my reproductive organs. Even more terrifying is that she planned to get me pregnant from one of her Numbers before that to see if my symbiont affects the fetus and to have a second test subject if the, apparently successful, merging of our two species is only possible because I’m special in some way that could be transmissible.

Another page with a naked drawing of me but this time focused on me and my symbiont’s inner workings. I learn only now that it has no organs, not even a brain, but an insanely complex nervous system with a large number of nodes that Suxen suggests could fill the same function as a brain but spread out to be less vulnerable to injury.

I swiftly go through the pages, finding a large number of equations with bare-bone explanations on mathematical concepts unknown to me but I can tell that it’s mostly about flow access.

I go back to the beginning of the book, remembering that I caught sight of a diagram that vaguely resembled a Princess but that I dismissed because of the crisscrossing lines and blots that I now know depict a nervous system from seeing my symbiont and me on the same drawing.

Apparently, Princesses are rather close to my symbiont, or it’s the other way around considering it was partly created in their image. Suxen notes here her observations on the Rykz and the fact that it isn’t capable of reproduction on its own, that she would need to turn it into a Queen to study the process with which they modify drones.

I go through the book front to back but find no reference to the runic construct in front of me. I do find two things of interest to me, and one that worries me. First the veins in the wall are made of metal like I’ve assumed which means that my lightning construct interacting with metal does weird things to Vuskyt.

Second, I find the detailed equations she used to make the helix-shaped construct that she activated in conjunction with the array to extract the data. I’ll have to go through that to see if I can recreate the time slowing effect, I did manage to copy the field it created with unstructured flow.

The heavy book contains a lot more than I’ve seen and, even if most of it is madness, some might be of help. But apparently not for what matters the most, freeing Cetyz. What worries me is that it feels incomplete, that Suxen developed her ideas a lot more but not on this book that she carried at all times.

I put the book away and reach out to my symbiont, wondering how it’s doing. It responds back with a small whine, seemingly apologizing about how slowly it’s healing despite the fact that it’s already stopped the bleeding and is in the process of mending the hand’s string-like muscles to then pop its root-like fingers’ articulations back into place.

It feels my impatience and worry. I caress my own left wrist, soothing it because while we’re in a hurry, we cannot afford to be hasty. I could possibly go around this metal door’s construct by breaking the wall with an air-blade but I doubt Suxen would have left such an obvious loophole.

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Wait, the two-meter tall creature is staring me in the face? I’m definitely tall, so maybe, but probably not that tall. I jump back, shoving the unconscious Turpin in his face.

I expected an attack but he simply raises his right hand, lazily placing his palm on Turpin’s bare chest. Instead of the body falling, it seems to stick to the rough scales covering his palm.

He then throws Suxen’s goon aside and slowly rises back up to his full height, taking rough, shivering, breaths. We stare at each other for a long while, me rather unwilling to attack with Suxen so close, him apparently preserving his body heat.

I notice that the skin on Turpin’s chest, where the Lisilese placed his palm, took the red tint of a rash. Suxen is moving while keeping him between us. Having learned my lesson about this being’s speed, I don’t let her distract me too much but it’s not like I can just ignore her either.

Ka’tchuk!” He growls for the fourth time.

Elizabeth Vil!” I yell back, annoyed. He flinches, reflexively touching his jaw with his left stump.
“Khsss.” He hisses.

The ‘kh‘ sound rose from his long throat while the ‘ss‘ was produced by his tongue as it flickers in and out of his maw. Suxen raises her hand and the runic collar around his neck starts glowing golden with a bit more intensity.

The Lisilese almost entirely stops moving, the two pockets in his back contract. The warmer liquid in them flows into the being’s body, raising the overall temperature by a fraction.

I have a gut feeling that he’s about to attack. I take hold of my scimitar in both hands and deliver a quick strike to his smooth chest. He shifts backward and to the side, easily avoiding my blow.


Something grabs my left knee, making me buckle. The counter escaped my notice, his right foot’s three clawed toes are now gripping my leg and squeezing. I let go of my scimitar with my left hand and lion strike with my right.

I expect him to dodge but it’s worth a shot. Before the strike even reaches half of its arc, the Lisilese’s spine bends backward, beyond what a human could do. He doesn’t even lose his balance despite standing on one leg, he actually turns the move into an advantage my using my leg as an anchor.

My foot slides forward from the weight. My symbiont, having read my intention in letting go of the weapon, flashes down to grab one of the small claws and pulls it out of my flesh.

The Lisilese loses his grip and, angled back like he is, starts falling. He doesn’t even try to recover his balance, he simply goes limp. His shoulders impact the stone floor and he rolls on his back, getting back up on his three toes in one smooth motion.

I take a step back, limping from the injury in my left knee. Suxen raises her hand. A wave-like construct bursts out of her palm and bursts into flames, homing in on me. I raise my scimitar, trying to both block it and the Lisilese’s eventual attack to take advantage of my distraction.

The being instead steps in front of the fireball, receiving it in his back. The long pockets along his spine expand, growing to a size that they hadn’t before. I can sense the heat transferring through its scales and into liquid filling them.

Hiiishk!” It shrieks in pain.

He didn’t get out of that without any damage, the flesh to which his back’s scales are attached to is swelling. The creature then pulls the hot liquid back into his body, his internal temperature rises by several degrees.

I get into a guarded stance, rather unwilling to get close to him as he is rather hard to handle. Not to mention that it feels like Suxen is threatening his life with the runic collar.

This creature has named itself Ka’tchuk, as you’ve guessed, Specimen.” Suxen speaks up with a polite smile. I kind of just yelled back, didn’t realize that was his name. “Apparently, its tribal honor demands that I not interfere in the Hunt. Primitive foolishness, it is the reason why these creatures can never truly defeat the Empire.”

Coward.” I reply. “Threatening him to fight for you.”

I did no such thing.” Suxen denies. “I am merely using this collar to protect myself. It has lost a hand which is a humiliating loss for these primitives, Specimen. These primitives allow what they hunt to land a single hit as a way to demonstrate skill and domination. The harsher the mark, the higher the risk, the stronger the prey, the more honor they receive. The most savage members of their species have scared scales all over their bodies but lose all their standing if they receive debilitating injuries. This one foolishly believes in their superstitious Hunter’s Blaze, hunting a strong opponent to feed it to it will suffice to begin restoring his honor.” Suxen explains.

The Lisilese makes a move, accelerating from immobility to speed above that of my lion’s step within a split second. It’s a lot easier to detect his moves now that he’s warmer.

I really wish I won’t have to fight a cold chunk of metal as fast as he is at some point, swords are a lot easier to follow because they’re held by humans who can’t physically demonstrate the kinds of bursts of speed he has.

I strike out at his legs while closely watching his right hand. He jumps over my weapon and crashes into me. Fucking… I smash my mask into his muzzle. Guh. I hit the ground. It shrieks out in pain, opening his mouth wide. Shit. He bites down on my left shoulder and seizes my left forearm with his right hand.

My symbiont twists and starts reaching up to his jaw through sheer strength. It tries to stop it but finds that it’s unable to. It increases the pressure on my shoulder, squeezing red and viscous brown blood out.

His left stump hits the side of my head and mask, breaking the hold of construct that’s keeping it on my face. The wooden item flies off and hits the wall, cracking further. He brings his leg up to claw at my thigh.

I jerk my leg up to both dodge and strike him in the groin, to no effect. I feel my symbiont doing something in its part of our left shoulder. The Lisilese suddenly releases my left forearm, angling his head aside without releasing his hold to avoid the blow he just released himself.

His arm then flashes around the limb, enclosing it between its biceps and the pit of his neck. I’m going to lose hard if I keep fucking grappling. While my symbiont strikes out at the scorched scales on the Lisilese’s back, breaking a few but doing little to free us, I assemble an air-blade between our bodies.

Yet, before I can activate it and slice at the scales protecting the Lisilese’s stomach, it propels itself back, spitting dark-orange blood out. It bristles and whines as it opens and closes its maw.

I look down at the teeth marks on our shoulder, finding a glistering gel-like substance. Did my symbiont actually… I explode in laughter, unable to help it. They were trying to eat each other at the same time!

Alright, enough screwing around. I get up to my feet and use the air-blade to propel my scimitar up, snatching it out of the air. I then form an armor-piercing construct. The Lisilese shifts its stance, guarding himself primarily with his left stump.

Elizabeth Vil, predator.” I declare with an aggressive grin.

Ka’tchuk, Sssprst Hrrssr.” It replies in a deep, throaty voice.

I throw an overhead lion strike at his mid-section. He kicks the ground and spins on his left toe-heel’s claw, using barely any effort to dodge. I shift my hands opposite to each other on the hand and open my fingers while keeping my palms on the handle to make my scimitar arc down around the point held between my hands.

I seize it again after it spun a hundred and eighty degrees, achieving a reverse grip before even the Lisilese can take advantage. It strikes out with his right hand, I forcefully reverse my weapon’s momentum into an upwards lion strike.

His left forearm takes a red glow, that of his flow, and strikes the flat of my blade with his stump to redirect it to the side. The movement required him to twist his spine, yet his right hand’s aim remains true.

I flick my head to the side but one of his right hand’s claws bites into my left cheek, knocking my mask aside and leaving a cut almost deep enough to pierce all the way through.

Rhaaaaa!” I shout in pain and anger as my blood cascades out.

I hurriedly shift my mask back into place and once again use my symbiont’s superior strength to slam my scimitar into his side, catching the Lisilese by surprise but not enough to cut more than scales. He blinks with his two sets of eyelids and puts some distance between us.

My grin widens and he opens his maw just slightly, forked tongue flicking out. I shift my grip closer to the blade to be able to attack quickly while retaining the use of the handle to defend myself.

We exchange blows, or I do while he retaliates once in a while. I throw out quick attacks to try to force him to constantly use his top speed which would eventually tire him out but he is wise to my tactic and makes use of his left forearm covered in some kind of flow construct to defend himself whenever he fails to catch one of my slashes in time to twist away.

I swing out at his belly, the tip of my weapon brushes the surface of his pliable scales, which have a slightly lighter blue color than the rest. My armor-piercing construct merely cuts a small thin line into them.

He hisses victoriously, I squint my eyes and throw a reverse one-handed lion strike with my symbiont that he definitely doesn’t see coming as it slices a layer of skin off his left forearm, completely destroying the construct anchored to it in the process. Blue blood starts oozing out of the injury.

His right hand’s claws dig into the left part of my chest in retaliation, sheering through cloth and flesh to leave four bright red trenches. I growl is anger and limp back to put some distance between us. Stupid, he didn’t see it coming but neither did I and I think I pulled a rib if that’s a thing, it sure feels like it.

We lock eyes, sharing a crazed look, that of battle maniacs who can’t fully enjoy themselves because we’re splitting our attention with the intruder. I throw a quick swipe at his long neck, aiming at the collar, which he hurriedly dodges.

He could have easily avoided that, there was no need to use that kind of speed. So, the collar will kill him if damaged. I nod and swipe at his neck again but interrupt the strike before it comes close. He blinks at me three times, twice with the scaled eyelids, once with the cloudy white membranes.

Turn around and die in dishonor.” Suxen threatens, apparently sensing something from this pause in our battle.

Kss.” He replies sharply, throwing a bloodthirsty look over his shoulder.

I take advantage of his foolishness but decide not to kill off the Lisilese. Instead, I lion strike at his chest with the flat of my blade to propel him at Suxen, to distract her and shatter some of his bones so I can deal with her without interference.

My scimitar violently impacts him but I hear no crack, feel no break. His chest’s bones seem to bend inwardly, absorbing much of the momentum. He flies off at her, spinning on himself much quicker than he should be.

He lands on his feet right in front of Suxen, his torso twisted at a hundred and twenty degrees from his waist. His spine unwinds and his right hand lashes out towards her throat. Suxen’s eyes widen.

Krrrsssssssssssss!” He growls, the blue and red scales on his head bristle.

An unbelievably fast and thick arrow flies in my direction, coming from my back. My breath catches. In the position I’m in, just after delivering a huge blow, I simply can’t move out of the way and my symbiont is extended in front of my chest so there’s no way it can reach all around to my back in time either. Am I dead?

Luckily, or perhaps because I was never the target, it zips just above my head, actually disturbing some of my hair, and pierces the Lisilese’s left shoulder. The impact shoves him aside and into the tunnel’s wall. His long muzzle hits the wall and, this time, I can distinctively hear a small crack.

His eyelids close over his red irises. He seems to have fainted and is bleeding from the two slits at the end of his large snout. I start slowly sidestepping towards my mask, realizing that charging Suxen or making a sudden move might result in my death.

Don’t move.” A man’s voice orders, coming from a ways away in the tunnel I took to get to the crossing. So he came from the institute, why isn’t he killing me?

I need my mask, I have a skin condition.” I reply, not stopping.

The specimen is lying.” Suxen speaks up, looking pale.

Silence, Director.” The man replies. “Do not move, Elizabeth Vil, or I will shoot.”

I slowly lean down towards my mask, preparing my scimitar, ready to intercept the arrow that won’t fail to come. Twang. My symbiont snaps out, smashing the scimitar flat into the thinner arrow aimed at my left knee. Clink, crack, clink.

The arrow’s shaft shatters into dozens of wooden shards while the head spins out of control and hits the wall. I stumble a little from the sudden movement and shift in weight distribution but recover quickly.

I pick up my mask, set it back on my face, and stand up while turning around to see what the newcomer looks like. He is a good fifty meters away, a huge bow in hand. The draw weight of that thing must be at least seventy-five kilograms yet he’s already knocked another arrow, a thick one, and is pulling his weapon taut without any apparent effort.

I’m pretty sure he isn’t wearing an illusion construct because I’ve seen him before when spying on the Hetlan Lady at the docks. He looked like an average sailor, which is pretty muscular now that I think about it. He has rough traits, one that definitely wouldn’t look out of place anywhere and be soon forgotten.

What does Hetlan want?” I ask, peeved. “Or are you the Shade?”

Ho.” He exhales with an impressed look. “The latter.” He tells me.

Suxen blabbed.” I comment.

Set that weapon down, Elizabeth Vil.” He replies, ignoring my attempt to arouse conflict.

I would rather play with you for a while.” I counter.

I flick a look at the quiver on his back and repress a swear as I find a second one behind his waist, containing at least four dozen arrows in total. Did he come here prepared to fight an army or what? It is a bit flattering.

He releases the arrow but it flashes past me, towards Suxen who hurriedly raises her hand, which already is glowing with flow, and forms a wide barrier with it. Her construct shatters but she does manage to deflect the arrow.

It goes for you too, Director Suxen.” He warns. “The next one will contain a shredding construct.”

I weave a defensive construct in my scimitar, waiting to get a feel of what’s actually going on since they don’t seem to be working together and it would be beyond unwise to give them a reason to.

Specimen, you think yourself powerful.” She affirms, and isn’t exactly wrong. “I hadn’t through you would have this much access, I admit. But you will soon hit a hard limit, if you haven’t already. You are an ersatz of a hybrid, if you do not completely integrate the parasite, you will stagnate and die because your body cannot handle the strain.”

So?” I ask, caring little as I’ve gotten this far through brutal wits.

Do not sacrifice the future for your animalistic need to prove your dominance. Surrender, evolve!” She orders.

You’re insane.” The Shade intervenes.

What you’re doing isn’t creation, it’s destruction.” I utter coldly.

A negative change for some, a positive for others. It matters little, one dies and is reborn with every passing second.” She dismisses, mentioning her mad philosophy once again.

You call this positive?” The Shade asks, baffled.

I pursue knowledge.” Suxen replies.

I worried about whether or not I would have the guts to kill you all, put an end to this madness.” I take a deep breath to calm myself. “It hasn’t been a concern.” I finish by throwing her a bloodthirsty glare.

The Emperor will never allow the perversions you pursue. You deserve death for those who have died in your experiments.” The Shade throws out with a calm but judging look on his face.

This is not even a mere a raindrop compared to those who died to protect the Empire!” Suxen exclaims. “What I’m doing will save thousands, millions!”

That is a false equivalency.” I counter. “Those who have died to protect the Empire have chosen to accept the risk, your victims have not.”

Yeah right.” She scoffs, her polite smile gone, replaced by the ugly grimace of a thwarted egomaniac. “No one volunteers for the Vaul…” Suxen interrupts herself. I notice, from the corner of my eye, that the Shade suddenly injected about a dozen portions of flow into his arrow. “Why aren’t you killing me?” Suxen snaps to the Shade who relaxes a little. “You’ve ruined my institute for a reason. Is it because Cenwalh won’t be paying for a new one? That way, he’ll be wanting to get rid of me. Which means you want me.” The man frowns, likely because he’s missing several pieces to put the puzzle of her erroneous assumptions together.

It doesn’t have anything to do with you, Suxen.” I speak up in a mean tone. “The destruction is all me, the Shades are only concerned with the data and me.”

Actually…” The Shade starts with a bit of an awkward smile. “You’re not even a secondary concern, Elizabeth Vil.” I buckle, that hit me straight in the ego. “Unless you can tell me where Aisha is, since she left a message upstairs saying she does have the data.”

I freeze, realizing that Suxen is right, that they want her. I can‘t allow that. I secure my grip over my scimitar. The Shade immediately switches his aim to me with a ruthless look in his eyes.

He pulls some of the flow in the arrow but there’s enough of a glow left that I can tell there’s a construct anchored to the projectile. I don’t move since he isn’t firing and start assembling a lightning construct inside the metal veined tunnel, just underneath the stone’s surface.

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