It was an impressive display of force. Armored vehicles with gun emplacements, the ballistae and the cannons, all of it supported by a few thousands of soldiers. Uniforms were varied, the diversity manifest the coalition of nations that had been formed against a common enemy. Japien had soldiers there, she recognized them most of all.
The mist advanced, its edges reaching across the valley at a visible crawl. The army had gone silent meanwhile. The valley reeked of anxiety towards the unknown, that was an advance too supernatural for even men who were ready to die. Where were they? When would they see them?
They were lucky they could not see what was coming for them, they would not remain in their posts, most likely, if they could. Her new vision was able to pierce through the thicker mist. Even the thickest. It had never been more evident than on that moment, how much her vision was improved by the shadow lens.
They advanced in a disorganized cluster that seemed nonetheless geometrical. They had their own vessels, half-submerged in the ground and hampered not a bit by it. Their numbers? Greater.
They were wide and larger than any man, those beasts, and still they outnumbered the allied army Melor had assembled.
“What do you see?”
She looked aside at a grey-uniformed member of the Mists, the group of spy-dedicated assets that Kagekawa employed.
“A greater force than ours,” she stated, succeeding in not letting her voice shake. “You will give them no help.”
The spy nodded and jumped off the ledge, climbing down the face of the cliff in swift hops. In a regular fight, the Mists could still help in a combative capacity, much as the Shadow could. That, however, would not be a regular fight.
“DO YOU HEAR THAT, MEN?” Melor yelled, unsheathing his long sword. “That is glory coming for you!”
No, Ayane thought silently…that was the sound of the vehicles burrowing into the ground. Ayane had been taught to lack sympathy for the loss of life, there was very little of innocent to anyone in the world. He had, however, not been a good learner. Faced with such a scene, her heart couldn’t help but weigh as she left the scene.
The thickest part of the mist enveloped the valley just as she passed it from afar. The battle began right around the time she cleared the frontline. By the time she had cleared the backline of the beasts, mere minutes, Melor’s army was already being pushed back.
Her mission was simple, if suicidal. It was the same as the head of Mists, the leader of the group and supposedly the best of them. They had to go behind enemy lines, using the battle as a diversion, and infiltrate the beast’s ranks looking for sabotage opportunities or, failing that, reconnaissance.
The head of Mists had started at the opposite flank of the battle and both of them were acting without the knowledge of Melor or his generals, of course. They wouldn’t take lightly to have what they felt was the last battle be nothing more than a diversion, but on the other hand, they were so confident they probably wouldn’t care.
She ran as fast as she could to Pelindrad, that would hopefully be where the main vessel, the one she had infiltrated back in Prusnia, would be stationed. The Shadow would not have time to go beyond Pelindrad, she knew that much, Melor’s forces would have been defeated by then.
She felt the air growing hostile, but thanks to her mask, it was still breathable. Ayane had considered it when she had fashioned the costume.
Her shadow lenses made it very easy to avoid the beasts, she could see them in the distance, she imagined, a lot better than they could see her. Though in fact, there weren’t a lot of them to be seen anyway. Not once she reached the city.
Was that all of them? As many as there were, that is still a lot less than—but she remembered, they were spreading in all directions. That was just one front of their invasion.
Feeling increasingly desperate, she tried to focus on the moment. She had been trained on several techniques to deal with stress, they would come in handy now.
Situational awareness takes a few seconds of concentration and needs to be repeated every half minute or so. A potential unknown variable can easily distract one’s attention but, with the shadow lenses, she could see everything around her, every foot of isolated abandoned land that was being scoured by the beasts. There was no surprising her, there was no unknown variable creeping off some darkened corner of a street. She found no need to squint or force her vision, it was completely relaxed.
Breathing, one could focus on breathing, especially when it was so hard. Ayane heard herself breathing in and out and tried to diminish that sound. She could always improve her techniques, she focused on that, making her steps lighter, her movements swifter.
After a solid ten minutes of running, she reached the city. An assortment of box-shaped buildings, as tall as five floors, arrayed around several large squares that were known for proliferous commerce. Stands and kiosks spiraled with all manners of products, from spices to food and weapons, jewels and crafts and, of course, clothes. She had visited just a few months prior and had had a very good time. The Shadow had had the goal to steal a gem that a maharajah hired Kagekawa to acquire. The owner, a warlord of the mountain lands to the north, didn’t want to sell.
Simpler times, and definitely less grim.
Signs of battle were everywhere. Parts of buildings were broken or exploded, weapons dropped on the ground, most of them bent blades and discarded pistols and rifles. Defeat was evident in the amount of blood and corpses lying around.
It wasn’t even a day old, the scene of the slaughter, but it was helped by the mist. Whatever was in the air was covering the whole environment…coating it. That included the bodies and the blood, which thanks to that, were not as fresh as they should be.
Still, even for one whose stomach was toughened through the training she had had to endure, it was a tough sight to swallow.
Worse yet, however, there was no capital transport vessel like the one in Prusnia.
After a good fifteen minutes of running around the rooftops, avoiding what few beasts had been left to do final searches for survivors, she could not find it.
She found other vessels, the ones she had seen burrow their way into the fight, but that was it. That and a more static, and less scary, piece of foreign machinery.
It was a pillar, of sorts, a pillar twice her height and width. It was all metallic, their weird metal that was foreign to their world, but the top was punctured with a lot of holes. It seemed to be spewing the mist. At the base of the top, of the area with all the holes, was a small gem: a dark thing that looked like onyx.
I should take a sample. She took a look around out of habit and then drew a knife. She could not carry the whole pillar but she was going to bag whatever the pillar was spewing, and she would take the gem, too.
She jumped up and hugged the pillar with her legs. She tried to remove the gem for two minutes. Failing that, she held a pouch down to catch the mist particles being spewed into the air, closed tight with a string, and then went back to work on the gem for five more minutes.
Grrr… it quickly unnerved her enough.
Ayane turned the knife around and pummeled the gem, trying to break it. She grew tense because of the noise she was producing but she didn’t want to go back to Kagekawa with nothing but dust.
She turned around at the scream, that was a survivor! She grabbed onto the top of the pillar and kicked, jumping out of it into the air.
She ran towards the yell.
An explosion, a building collapsing or part of it, directed her movement. Ayane had no plan – she was hardly even thinking – she had heard the yell and moved before considering things.
The scream erupted again as she turned a corner. The Shadow was met with one of the beasts pushing through a hole in the wall, a guy was crawling away into the street.
“No no no oh no! Please!” He coughed uncontrollably now that he was faced with the full corruption of the open air, he was trying to get up. She hesitated, wanting to think of a plan of approach, the cautiousness that had been drilled into her emerging in response to her fear. But there was no time to be cautious, the beast’s legs initiated the piston-like movement that would result in the guy’s death.
The Shadow swiftly threw a flash bomb right at the his head.
“Ah!!” In reaction, he dove from the hit just as it exploded. She closed her eyes in reaction but felt no additional light hit them.
It can even handle the light?? That was unexpected, but welcome, it gave her that extra second. She was running when the beast was still in mid-air, missing the leap over the frantically tumbling guy she sought to save.
Ayane grabbed his hand and gave him a harsh whisper.
“What?” He questioned but he ran along immediately. “What’s going on, I can’t see!”
“I can, shush!” She whispered to him. Her voice was shaken but it was okay for him to hear it, he was nobody important.
She turned around the house as soon as possible, hoping the beast’s senses hadn’t returned quick enough to catch sight of their escape.
She heard a crash behind them, however, and looking back, saw the beast had landed on that side of the street. It looked around.
She led him around the tight curves produced by the houses, going around them, using the need that the beast had to leap around as a way to keep ahead of it. The man was losing breath fast but keeping up anyway, such was the need to survive.
Eventually, they had enough of a lead that she felt confident they could hide with decent chances of success. She flung him through an already broken window of an obviously assaulted house and jumped right after.
“Ouf ow! What was–”
“Shh!” She tackled him out of her dive through the window, grabbed hold of him and rolled out of sight. She saw stairs leading up that had no wall underneath, which meant the flight would cover most on-looking angles.
She pulled him into the cover and sat him down.
She covered his mouth with her hand and held the other to her lips.
At that moment, she thought he could see her face. She had forgotten he would not be seeing the concerned, near-terrified red eyes of a fellow human, but the closed-off mask of a mystical being he should be afraid of.
Then she remembered.
“Breathe…” she whispered to him, as calmly as she could. “Through my hand…the air is rotten.”
He nodded, tears still in his eyes. He was roughed up, cuts here and there, and obviously horrified. But he had moved and kept himself from panicking, which was enough. His breathing relaxed from heavy gasps to more regular breaths. She used her other hand to help him control his breathing, waving it up and down.
“That’s it, ssshhh, it will be okay.”
She glanced to the side inside her mask, she could now do that without anyone noticing. She could look somewhere else as long as she didn’t turn her head and they’d never know she was doing it.
I hope it will be ok.
The beast landed right next to their house. He yelped at the sound but the cracking ground covered it. She made less sound than him – a heart skipping a beat is pretty silent.
She kept her hand in his mouth but leaned in on him while leaning out with her head, to look at the beast who stood in the mist that was coming in through the windows. Just outside.
The stifled air would block a normal person’s vision but not hers. The beast turned around, which was a good sign.
Then it jumped away, which was even better.
“I’m sorry, could you–”
“Ssh,” she reflexively squinted inside her mask, edging out closer to try and see if it came back. If it had left something behind.
“Ow, it’s just–”
She felt his hand on her knee, she leaned back immediately to smack him for that but then noticed it was her fault, she had been shoving her knee in-between his legs and right into his crotch.
“Ah!” She reacted a bit impulsively, pulling back so abruptly that she lost her balance and fell on her butt. “Apology.” She whispered gravely.
“Apology?” He whispered back. “You saved my life, you could cut it off for all I care.”
She crouched again, attaining a good stance, and leaned her head aside in confusion.
“Hyperbole,” he waved his hand, “please don’t. Who are you?”
“We are not safe,” she said in response. Hyperbole? What is that? “Anyone else alive?”
“I don’t know. It hasn’t been long, more people could be hiding.”
So what? She asked herself, feeling dumb about having that concern. It would be nearly impossible to escape with that guy, let alone with someone else. Yet…there were scarce any beasts in the city. She reached inside her garments and retrieved the scroll, it was usually laid flat against her back. She didn’t see any new developments on it.
“Who are you?”
She ignored the guy and wrote on the scroll.
Head of Mists. Report.
While she waited for a reply, she took note of the man. He looked young, younger than her but not really a kid, he was maybe in his sixteens. He was wearing some pajamas, his bare feet were busted and bleeding, which was okay since the city was all busted and bleeding, it wasn’t serious. Still, he was a normal kid, they’d need to take care of it if she expected him to leave the city.
He had a triangular face. A large forehead, how he looked so normal was beyond her but she remarked his hair was nice, it was brown, shoulder length, and even with all the action, still pretty neatly over his head. A bandana would cool on him…but with the bangs? Better without?
She shook her head back to sense.
“You said hyperbole before, what is that?”
“Uh…” he looked at her oddly, should she know? “Figure of speech…exaggeration. I said you could cut off my balls – that I wouldn’t care because you saved my life, but that’s an exaggeration, I-I would care, my gratitude is not that immense.”
It was probably the stress. Then she looked at the scroll again and no answer, he was either dead or the art was blocked.
She held the scroll flat against her belly and slowly pushed it back inside her costume, reflexively looking down in thought.
She needed to retrieve the gem or at least parts of it.
“Who are you?” he asked again, “are there more of you? Looking for survivors?”
The Shadow looked up at him.
“I am here to sabotage, not rescue. That task is not yet done.”
His face fell in realization.
“Oh…why help me, then?”
Ayane looked to the aside, she didn’t have an answer.
Now that she had stopped and was thinking things through, she was feeling claustrophobic within the situation she had put herself in. Escape with him decreased her chances of escape dramatically. They would never get back before the end of the battle.
After Melor’s last stand, the beasts would continue on towards Usuka, Hanppon’s first city. Even if they did escape, there would be consequences, there is no reasonable explanation as to why she would choose saving a life over the much more important task of figuring out how to hurt the beasts.
The Shadow was there due to a very rare chance an entire army was dying to give her. Possibly the only one they would get.
Ayane looked back at him, staring in a long moment of silence as she transitioned between several looks: remorseful, sad, scared, confused, helpless, resigned, decided.
None of which he saw.
“I am the Shadow.”