They were forced to detour around a big square that led out of the city because there were two beasts standing guard there. That cost them roughly ten minutes, but she did prefer leaving out of a tight street over an open square. It, however, only led her to more trouble.
She didn’t recognize the whisper, and instincts informed her immediately it wasn’t coming from any of her companions.
They stopped with her as she turned to find another group of survivors, three strangers that were obviously not family, though judging from how close they were to each other, they were friends. They sneaked didn’t wait to be called, they were already sneaking out of the building, the last one in the street, if not city.
“Are you leaving? Can we come with you?” They were all adults, those tree, and all men. They were dressed in clothes that didn’t really fit them, they had probably taken them from the home they had just left. One of them had theirs too tight, one could tell he was a fighter. They had their hairs cut short. They looked like soldiers.
Deserters. I have to save deserters now?
Ayane didn’t say anything, she just turned around and walked away. Let them follow if they want.
“Just follow us, I guess?” Nestor commented, “no guarantees, I dunno how the lady’s even getting around, I can’t see past two feet in front of me.”
“Same here,” they were already following them, “that’s why we were waiting. For the mist to clear.”
“The mist does not clear,” the Shadow told them with a hint of impatience, “keep up or get lost forever.”
“We’ll keep up.”
She wasn’t happy about it but leaving them wouldn’t make her happy either. Plus, she was relieved to be out of the city. She didn’t know whether the battle was still raging but she would make the exact same way back unless she saw something that motivated her otherwise.
At about that time, she saw something she didn’t like. She stopped.
She looked on, intimidated. Her body shivered momentarily.
“Girl?” Yana herself asked, “see somethin’ scary?”
Ayane turned to the right and resumed her jogging. Yes, she had seen something scary alright.
Hundreds of the things were marching back. If she ran at top speed she was sure she could get out of their way, but with the group? The certainty was considerably less.
None of them could see it, the mass of monstrous silhouettes rampaging towards them. It was so aggressive how they traveled, crashing across the ground as they leaped on and on.
Soon enough, the others would hear it.
“Whoah, do you hear that?”
Sooner than she thought.
“That…sounds like a lot of them.”
“Can we be faster? Let’s be faster.”
“Can we be silent?” She spat back at the cowards, “let us be silent.”
She was The Shadow. She was supposed to be the intimidating thing they should be in awe of. Yet, there she was, carrying a small old woman on the most awkward piggyback of all piggybacks. There she was, putting her life at risk for a bunch of strangers.
What was wrong with her?
The beasts came closer in their approach, but it soon became apparently she and the others would successfully get out of their way. The beasts could see very well in the dark, she knew that much, but it wouldn’t matter once they cleared the plains to hide behind a hill.
“We will stop here,” she informed them, crouching so Yana could get out. “Until they pass.”
“Until they pass? What if they find us??” She looked in the direction of the former soldier, the mask hiding her disdain. Of all the survivors to show cowardice, the deserter was first on call. Obviously.
“They will find us if we leave cover.”
“She knows what she’s doing, guys,” Nestor told them casually, grabbing hold of the little girl to set her down. She giggled in whispers because of his grabbing.
“She’s smart, alright,” the little girl concurred, pushing Nestor away. “Stop it, let go of me haha.”
“We should leave in that direction then,” another said, pointing away from the hill, “we’ll keep under cover and ga–”
“You are very welcome to go,” Ayane told them, pointing in the same direction. “All of you. I will stay.”
“What’s your problem, lady? We’re just trying to help.”
She stepped towards the man that now decided to talk back to her as if he had equal standing. “A coward trying to help, now that is rich.”
“A coward?” the man was offended.
“You are deserters,” she accused, keeping her voice low, “you fled the fighting and abandoned your retainers.”
“Our retai…did you see those beasts? We’re supposed to fight those things?!”
“Lessons of morality from a thief,” another rolled his eyes.
“Yes, I am a thief,” she told them, noticing she had made the mood tense, and caring very little about it. She felt like acting out a bit, her life was in danger in a way she would never be able to justify to anyone. “I can be a coward, no one expects me to protect anyone or anything, I am not a soldier.” She pointed out, and all three of them looked down in shame, “my vows are not yours, I do not receive sustenance so that, in case a fight comes, I will have to face it before others. That is your business.”
She pulled back from the confrontation, walking back to lean on the hill with her arm.
“Why help us then, Shadow?” Nestor asked, again. “You are a thief after all? Right?”
She didn’t have an answer yet. And felt she would never find one.
Disgruntled, she leaned out to look at the army of beasts that could kill them as easily as she could a cricket.
“I am a stupid thief,” she told them.
It was the truth. She wasn’t the Shadow, she was just a poser, a poser who was about to get herself killed should one of the beasts think to check the flanks any further.
They waited in silence, the deserters offering no more conversation or argument. They waited tensely and nervously for her to say it was time to move.
So did she, anxious she would make a mistake and have them move too soon. However, once the beasts didn’t find them in the city, they would scour the surroundings. They should be assuming they were hiding, or perhaps she had already been recognized back there at the city? By the beast whose execution of Yana and Nestor she had foiled?
All Ayane could hope for was that the Head of Mists had also been spotted, thereby dividing their efforts. It was a weak hope because he, unlike her, wasn’t stupid. He would have ignored people in peril. If not due to a lack of compassion, then due to the correct sense of duty and greater good.
For whatever else, however, she had done it. Abandoning them now would be all the harder.
“Let us go.”
The battle, Melor’s last stand, was obviously lost. She was going to have to move them to a city that hadn’t been attacked when she didn’t even know how fast the beasts themselves moved. She hoped they had suffered some deaths or some injuries at least, that their vehicles had suffered malfunctions forced upon them or any one thing that would slow their advance.
Because she wouldn’t let anything slow theirs.
She crouched and grabbed Yana off the floor, rising up to start the jog again.
“I can hardly wait to walk on my own two feet again.”
“Yeah?” Nestor picked up the little girl. “I can’t wait to be fairly certain I’ll be okay in the next couple of hours.”
“Silence and swiftness, everyone,” the Shadow told them. “Follow me.”
The cold started to get to her before the muscle pain. With all the commotion, mists and darkness, it had been easy to forget how snow sprinkled around the environment, submerging what little vegetation there was to see in chunks of white. That meant footprints, but in that environment, it wasn’t much of a problem to leave a few tracks.
The scary thought about the things they were trying to escape was that you could only evade them, never fight them. There was no safe zone, no portion of the world that would keep them safe, should they decide to be unrelenting in a chase.
Still, the rest of the trek was uneventful, even if still pretty tense. She could tell the others weren’t used to the silence. She didn’t like it either, she had warmed up to it over the years, it didn’t make her anxious or awkward anymore. The same couldn’t be said of the small group she was rescuing.
Not only have I done less than expected, but this will also delay my return.
The Head of Mists would for certain arrive before her, probably having done his duty a lot better than she had done hers.
She tried to justify, she sought to imagine the disappointment of her teacher, the consequences that would befall her and the clan, the scorn and disdain she would earn from the most Occult. She remembered lessons that had been ingrained into her mind in an effort to justify abandoning them.
She had gotten them out of the city. That was enough, that had to be enough, she had to hurry!
But moment by moment, second by second, it became more impossible for her to do so. Her heart was the issue. Ayane knew in her heart that they would die should she leave them.
An hour went by. The mist started to dissipate enough that everyone could now see around them. It wasn’t long until the gasps begun, reacting to what she already knew surrounded them, the signs of a great battle. A great battle that had been lost.
“So many people…” the little girl commented in a scared kind of awe.
Ayane realized then she didn’t remember her name. It didn’t matter, however, but it was weird she had forgotten it so quickly.
Yana and Nestor, she thought to herself. Huh.
They were shocked and horrified at the scene, but if they had seen what it looked before, they would probably soil themselves.
All of the weapons of humanity were broken. All of the soldiers in sight tore apart and bleeding as far as the eye could see, to her left, which confused her even more. She had taken them towards the flank, to avoid the big valley where the battle had been fought, and still they were walking through bodies. The battle had moved considerably seeing as though they had prepared a final stand on the valley alone..
“The terrible thing is,” Nestor pointed out, “there’s no sign of even one of them.”
Exactly, she thought to herself, her heart full of pity and disdain, they are unstoppable.
“And we’re expected to fight those things,” one of the deserters said, “I signed up to fight people, or animals if there’s a need, not…monsters.”
She had no energy to despise them anymore. The last shred of dignity she had hinged on not showing one ounce of exhaustion or tiredness, that was taking all her concentration already.
Mental stamina is a hard thing to hold steady, especially when there is no immediate perception of rest. It enhances pain in an inexplicable way, but not in one impossible to understand.
The Shadow had learned to cope. She had learned that’s what it was: mental. She could deal with mental.
It took them the better part of half another hour to lose sight of bodies, at which point they completely made it out of the mist. They could finally relax a bit as their breathing was allowed to occur normally again, but the cold became more noticeable. Thankfully, her costume wasn’t exactly thin-layered and had almost no skin showing, which meant better protection from temperature and wind.
After twenty minutes, her worst expectation was realized. Her heart skipped a bit when she noticed his presence and an almost overwhelming despair flowed throw her. She stopped in reaction, looking sideways through her mask so the others couldn’t tell. Still, she had stopped, so he would know she had noticed.
“Lady?” The little girl asked, noticing something was off.
A Mist. Not the beasts’ but a member of the spy force employed by Kagekawa: the Mists. Not the Head, either, just a member, was standing several feet away from them. Watching.
He would report on what she was doing, she wouldn’t even have the chance to lie about having had more legitimate problems to justify her tardiness.
Yet, for their sake, she considered yelling after him, asking what direction to go so she’d be sure she’d find a safe city.
“Shadow?” A voice asked almost next to her ear. Yana’s worry was pretty audible in her tone.
He was gone.
“I thought I saw something,” she pulled Yana a bit up and breathed out in the effort, “but it was nothing.”
After a few minutes, two Mists showed up. She didn’t react that time, she just kept moving. They left less than a minute later, only to come back afterward with two more.
What are they doing?
As she marched, she started to notice how they seemed to be popping up, as if to see what she was doing. It made her feel judged, in the bad sense of the word, it made her feel naked and betrayed in some public space.
Yes, let us all look at how much the Shadow has strayed. Let us all gossip about her misgivings!
It was humiliating.
They never stayed for long or show up in large groups, but for the remaining hour it took her to reach the city of Yanszou, they were a constant presence only she could see. A crowd of watchers.
Did they perhaps think she couldn’t see them? That would only make matters worse, that they thought that little of her.
She didn’t go all the way into Yanszou, however. The last thing she needed was for her to publicly show up with an old woman riding on her back. When the city was well in view, she stopped.
“There, Yanszou has not been attacked yet.” She crouched so Yana could get off.
“Alright! Thanks a lot, girl.”
“Yah, gratitude for sure.”
The deserter went off running, the first to leave them behind. Ayane had never learned their names but she wasn’t sorry about that, she preferred them to remain nameless. And forgotten, if that was possible.
“Uhm…you can put me down too, Nestor,” the little girl requested, and he complied, “I can walk the rest of the way.”
The Shadow stood up next to Yana.
“You really saved our butts,” Yana gave a few weak laughs, “boy, am I hungry! Can’t wait to get some food into this old tummy of mine.”
The little girl giggled.
“Yer funny, grandma.” She grabbed Yana by the hand and ran off, encouraging her to follow. She was more energetic now that she was safe. “Come on come on, let’s go get that food! I wan’some too!” They both were.
“You really did, though, I hope you know that.”
Ayane looked at Nestor, he was watching her.
“You saved us. You don’t look very happy about it, I get it. We ruined your sabotage job.”
“But you saved us. I, at least – I’m very grateful.”
She held his stare with what she knew was a blank one, that of her mask with eye slits darker than the night behind her. She didn’t care about the man’s gratitude. The fact he was emphasizing her actions, actions the Mists had witnessed and certainly reported back to all her leaders…it only made her feel that much more disdain for them. Stupid actions and decisions.
“You do not know what I look like,” she told him in response.
She turned around and ran.
“Doesn’t really matter,” he said after her, “thanks so much!” He yelled.