“The Street Rat,” the girl finally said, “what an honor.”
“Oh, whatever, Nergui. Listen, turns out you and the other guys the Shadow rescued could be really important in this whole beast thing.”
She looked up, at last, and first focused on the Shadow. She smiled kindly.
“Thank you for your help.”
Nergui no longer seemed that little to Ayane. She was still a child, but much like Jaime, there was a tallness to her. Her posture demanded to be taken seriously by some sub-set of Ayane’s consciousness that reason didn’t have much access to.
“Now we need your help.”
“That’s what it sounds like.” She leaned back and took a bite of her bread. “Thing ith… I vonly really help myselth.” She gulped, “unless you can offer me some worthwhile motivation? Which you know, doesn’t include altruism.”
“Stop bein’ such a boycotting broccoli. Whole world’s doomed if we don’t stop the beasts. That includes you.”
Nergui looked towards Jaime.
“Does the Street Rat order the rest of us around, now? Did I miss some memo?”
He rolled his eyes.
“Nergui here’s delusional,” he put forth with a nod to the Shadow, “she thinks she would’ve been the Street Rat if it weren’t for me.”
“I should have been the Street Rat,” she threw him a look, there was evidently some deep-seethed competition between the two. “Instead, it’s this guy. Or gal, I wonder if you’ll ever decide.”
“Yer gonna bother me about that, too? Just get to work on finding these people. Or d’you think the Igtahlians have a chance against the beasts?”
What did that mean, decide whether he is a guy or gal?
Ayane browsed Jaime with a closer look and a question on her mind. Indeed, that Jaime was a boy had been her assumption. The Circus Freak had not been as quick to make that assumption, he had asked, but Jaime definitely looked like a boy to her. She had figured Hugo was just trying to get a rise out of Jaime.
“I think odds are looking good. Not that we’re sticking around for long to make sure, but still, point is, we’re doing good.”
“Yer not gonna be doing good once the beasts stampede across the landscape. D’you know Kagekawa is gone?”
She opened her eyes in reflex, Nergui wasn’t prepared for that news. She glanced at Shadow, but she would never be able to tell how Ayane hurt, not through the mask.
“You got a day, if even that lon—”
They turned around towards the shouting that was coming out of the alley entrance.
“I don’t care how sick you all are, freakin’ brats. Get movin’, too! Anyone in there?”
Jaime looked at Shadow suggestively. In agreement, she retreated back into the shadows, leaving part of her head, which had an ear, out to still hear what was going on. It was hiding behind of the dumpsters so she wouldn’t be seen.
“What is this? Primary school?” The voice was too aggressive to be a guard or a soldier, it was threatening. “Get goin’ if you don’t wanna be monster food.”
“Mm-m-monster?” Jaime and Nergui’s voices echoed, pathetic and lost, “they’re here?”
“Yes, they’re here, why’d you think I’m tellin’ ya to get lost?” The mean voice growled. “ah, do what you want, freakin’ boss told me not to try too hard anyway.”
He stormed off.
“You can come out.”
“It seems we have run out of time.”
“No, this is good,” Nergui commented as Jaime nodded in agreement, “and you’re right, Jaime, this isn’t the time for our games.”
“Glad ya think so,” he exasperated.
“With everyone leavin’ the city, they’ll be funnelin’. We’ll find the others.”
“You still remember them?”
Nergui and Jaime and really all the other kids scoffed at the question. It made Ayane want to smack their bottoms for being insolent brats.
“You should go, Shadow,” Jaime suggested, “we need to know when it really gets to be too late. I’ll have Albert be with us. Worse comes to worse, we still have Nergui.”
“Wait, why do you need us, again?”
“We believe your long exposure to the taint of the beasts, their dust, may have changed you. This will help us understand something about their nature.”
“I’m changed? I don’t feel any different.”
“That’s why we want everyone, it’s a shot in the dark, it’s not all we got, but it’s part of all we got and, as things are going…”
“Right right,” Nergui rolled her eyes and shook her head, “if I find out I’m dying, I’m gonna hate you all forever.”
She said it casually but, not only did it sound sincere, but it also brought the possibility to Ayane’s mind. What if they were poisoned? What if it was…too late for them?
“Get goin’, Shadow,” they both waved at her, “time’s running out.”
She gave them a determined nod before submerging back into the shadowy corner behind the dumpster.
“Alright everyone, gather ‘round for descriptions.”
The next voice was muffled. It occurred to the Shadow that there had not been only three people there, part of those few minutes of conversation. A small group of children, likely members of the Scavengers, had been there but had hesitated to say anything. Nergui had clearly taken the role of leader and, the way they looked at Jaime when he showed up, revealed the level of regard they held for him.
She emerged inside a room, the last floor of a two story building. Ayane grabbed a window and climbed up to the roof, which was harder than the ones in her homeland, the tiles were flatter and more slippery.
Still, Ayane climbed to the top to get her bearings. She observed as men wearing no kind of uniform, unless a trench coat over a suit is a uniform, yelling at people to move them along. The people created currents that traveled along the sidewalks, and occasionally bridges, all headed in one direction.
Here I go again, with a heading opposite to the one of everyone around me.
The Shadow was learning not to hesitate, but this time, it was easier. The more action she had, the less she had to think about Kagekawa and how everything had turned out.
And how the Head of Mists was not only alive but a secret member of the Shadow Conclave.
She leaped her way to clear the crowd. Pretty soon, she had to start using the shadows again. The buildings were becoming occupied by individuals who were not leaving but instead seemed poised for a fight. These were very clearly soldiers, telling by the uniforms, and a mix of men and women stemming from Igtahlia, Grehkia, and some other nations that would come next.
She had to admit the Don had done a good job gathering forces. And weaponry. Somehow, he had outfitted cannons into some of the buildings.
Ayane started using cellars. Because of being underground, and thus underwater, no soldier was stationed on them, and they were overly dark and full of shadows.
As she came out of the shadows on a particularly dark corner of a room, however, she came into contact with something she did not recognize. In that cellar, she found a suspicious pair of barrels. Nothing else was left in the room, it had been ransacked by either other people, or by the owners themselves before they fled. Two chests were open with pieces of clothes hanging out of them, as was a closet, and the two barrels.
The Shadow was in a hurry, however, and so she didn’t inspect them long enough to try and figure out what they were. Maybe the owners had been wine makers?
However, she came to find that the same two barrels seemed to be scattered across many cellars. It suddenly became frequent, but still, she did not have time to investigate. She saw no reason to, it was clearly not a beast ploy.
Intermittently, she would emerge on a top-floor, carefully because most soldiers were standing on those, and climb up to catch sight of her surroundings. Eventually, several minutes after losing sight of escaping people, she found what she was looking for: she caught sight of the beasts.
Ayane was shocked to see that they were stopped.
A bridge had fallen, and quite recently, bits of it could still be seen floating in the water between where a group of beasts stood, and where a group of gangsters stood. Chief among them, the Don.
He was smoking, she could see that much, and possibly talking. She found an empty spot that was closer where she would be able to hear. Quickly, she submerged and traveled the currents to reach it.
The Don was a man unlike any she had ever met, though granted, she had not met all. Or even very many of them. Still, he had a presence of superiority that was difficult to explain, and harder to resist.
The Sorcerer was the strongest person the Shadow had ever met, she had strong-armed both herself and the Hunter into a suicide mission to save the world, fully confident and certain that no one would die, and that they would succeed. She had a sense of self-respect and self-worth that would come off as arrogance if it wasn’t absolutely justified by what she was capable of.
Yet, even she had balked before the Don upon their first meeting.
The Shadow emerged on the side of a building, from the shadows within the alley formed by it and the side of another building, to watch as the Don stared down the beasts.
Men like him were usually arrogant. They basked in the power they held, feeling untouchable, but the Don was not the type to feel untouchable. He was the type to step inside your personal space and touch you.
It wasn’t about an air of arrogance with him, it was an air of danger.
She saw as a beast tried to jump out of the water, instead hitting against the wall of the floor the other beasts were standing on. The Don had, at each side, some kind of machine. The machines were spewing vapor, little pyramid bases hastily bolted into the floor, with a cylindrical beam of steel at their centers, pointed half-way up. They were trembling, like pistons asking to be used.
“You don’t wanna talk?” The Don blew out smoke, “fine.” He took another breather of his smoke while the beast underwater tried to jump out again, unsuccessful.
“You have come as far as you ever will,” he said with all certainty, “the best scenario for you, see? At this point? It’s to back out now and go back to wherever you came from.” He paused to smoke. “And enjoy your few years of peace while we figure out how to hunt you all down and exterminate you.” He took another smoke, while some of the beasts stirred.
They can understand?
Of course, Ayane was there when the Mad Genius and the Eye had talked to one of them, only it wasn’t one of the things that the Don was facing, but rather a more humanoid version. One made of flesh, one that could be shot in the head.
“You cross this river, it’s not gonna be pretty. It’s gonna get ugly, but if there’s one thing you should know, my people’ve agreed, too, see? If there’s one thing you should know is that this is the most beautiful city in the most beautiful country in the world. But if it’s not ours then it’s not gonna be pretty anymore.”
The air jousted as some sound echoed into existence in a mighty screech. A voice emerged, gnarled and raspy by whatever sound system it was grinding through.
“We will make it as pretty…as the rest of the world.”
The fact pretty was being said by that voice made the Shadow cringe. It was intimidating, foreboding, and as dangerous a threat as she had ever heard.
The Don didn’t even flinch.
He threw the cigar on the ground and stared back hard as he stomped on it.
“No, we will.”
The sound scratched against the air again.
“You will perish…as the rest of the world.”
He scoffed a chuckle.
“If I had a dime for every time I heard that, I’d bury you all in them. Go back. Enjoy whatever time you’ve got until we come after you.” Hands in pockets and without a hint of hesitation or doubt, he added: “or else.”
What happened next was the most terrifying thing the Shadow had ever witnessed. Again, the whiney echo screeched into existence, but in a multitude of choruses. Then the voice appeared again, simply laughing.
And a myriad of others joined in.
All of the beasts in front of the Don, dozens upon dozens, clawed every inch of air between them all with a condescending and very sincere laughter.
The Don’s brow frowned deeply. He looked aside and nodded.
One of the men next to him nodded back and pressed down on a lever that stood on top of a box which had wires leading into the water, at which point you’d lose sight because the wires were very thin and near transparent.
The laughter was interrupted by a string of explosions.