She turned towards the strange accent to find instead a bowl filled with rice and meat. Holding it was Zaniyah’s friend, Thunuk. Calling him peculiar would be putting it mildly.
“Gratitude,” she simply said, taking it off his hands with a nod. He grinned heavily.
He left her alone again.
The view from the cliff went far and wide, showing a very large breath of terrain. Her land had its mountainous regions, but the north of Brithan was just one big family of mountains. It was beautiful and overwhelming and sold short by the knowledge she would be fighting the Beasts soon enough.
The Shadow scratched her head, mildly bored.
This costume was a bad idea.
Unless she shaved her head, the new purple tight-fit uniform was not going to work. And tied to her back, right above the waist and wrapped in cloth shaped like a lying down hourglass, was a set of small daggers which were designed to be thrown. It looked slightly off.
She had sent her luggage with the retreating forces, and she was already looking forward to getting it back so she could change. She rested her head on her knee.
“Maybe the green one?” No, she didn’t like green, and she had tried to weave a tail thing into that one that just didn’t work. Maybe she would prove some kind of point by changing to her blue suit, the one she had used to participate in the competition. When it all started.
It would provide a kind of cycle to things.
“Thinking about what to wear?”
She twitched, not being able to help herself, but immediately relaxed once she saw the Hunter. Blushing behind the protection of her mask, she nodded.
“Only you, Shadow.”
Ayane shrugged apologetically, placing the bowl on the ground. Taking the mask off to eat would be too troublesome, and she wasn’t that hungry. The end of the world has, by and large, done a number on her appetite.
“It has been a long wait.”
Zaniyah nodded in agreement.
The Shadow had come to look up to the Hunter. Mainly due to the state she was in both when they met in the meeting room, back in Tech Guild territory, but also after that. Thunuk and the Zoo Keeper had shown up carrying her unconscious and severely damaged body. Zaniyah was the toughest individual Ayane knew. In comparison, she was still licking the empty spot where a molar should be, trying not to be depressed by its absence.
Sure, the Circus Freak had ripped himself off his crushed arm and laughed about it, but he seemed to be an insensible maniac, one can’t really call that being tough.
“Thinking about Mother Superior?”
Zaniyah shrugged apologetically.
“You and I, we share circumstances. We are both forbidden from being with our family, while still helping them.”
“Maiko did find her,” Ayane reminded her, “I am confident your people will be able to rescue her.”
“It confuses me that Led By Anarchy has not killed her yet.”
The Shadow looked away in thought, considering that.
“They must be certain we fall with the Magni. I assume they left her behind to die to the Beasts, somewhere in the country.”
Zaniyah had crouched, not being as lazy as to sit on the ground as the Shadow was doing. Tough and always ready for action.
“The plan worked. The Wild Felids have yet to contribute in any way to all of this.”
“What?” She looked again at her friend. “You retrieved the amulet, Zaniyah. Twice. Through you, they have contributed plenty.”
The Hunter sighed and placed an encouraging hand on her shoulder.
The two, both young women and informally exiled from their respective families, and both having found respect and appreciation for each other’s skill, had been drawn to talk. Many hours had they spent on some balcony or another, at the House of Magni, peering over the endlessly obfuscated horizon. And talking.
“Thank you, Shadow. Soon, we fight the beasts.”
Fighting the beasts was supposed to be impossible, but thanks to everyone’s efforts, it was not. Especially thanks to the Don.
Of course, having decided to abandon him and his to their fate, she felt especially concerned when news arrived Igtahlia had fallen. His confidant, who managed to escape, had informed them he might be alive.
How he died, she imagined, was the stuff of legends. Who else in the world was going to be found standing straight and resilient, even in death, over a dead beast? The Shadow had not informed people how he had been looking at a photo of a woman, someone she imagined was his mother.
The Shadow had closed his eyes but had otherwise left him be.
She was convinced that her decisions had led him to that position. Had they been the right ones? Should she have stayed and tried to help? At the end of it all, she was trying to save the world, not anyone in particular, but as Zaniyah had helped her understand, saving the world is meaningless if you don’t also save someone in particular. In her case, Mother Superior.
In Ayane’s case?
I want to save everyone.
It was a rebellious thought. A member of the Kagekawa, and the Shadow even, having heroic wishes? It was madness. But she couldn’t help her feelings. She could only ignore them.
That is not my duty.
Her duty was to wait there for the Beasts to come into view. And then they would fight them. They would fight them up and down the hills until they reached the House of Magni, where the Mad Genius would unleash his inventions.
Around a mile behind her, a small army of robed figures awaited. The Hunter and Thunuk also supposedly waited, even if it seemed like they were patrolling themselves. Together.
What was left of the Norwayakans, and of the forces Neyrk had sent, and of the Brithans themselves, they all waited a mile behind her. More importantly, the Darkness was there as well.
They had not talked since Kagekawa had fallen.
But they would now, it seemed.
“Darkness,” she greeted, a bit coldly.
“It is good to see you well.”
She endeavored not to look at him. Ayane knew if she did, she would give in, but he had seen her at her worst and the shame she felt because of it was not something she could handle. She felt disgraced when under his gaze.
“They are proud of your actions, you know? In fact, they are ashamed of theirs.”
That was incredibly meaningful to hear. Ayane found it surprising it did not make her feel better.
“The most occult considering herself the most responsible for your banishment. She felt the need to end her life.”
Ayane shuddered and couldn’t help but look at him. Disgraced. Her heart skipped when her eyes processed his visage, with the help of the lenses. Silhouetted by the cloak of flowing darkness, his highly defined body stood, with slumped shoulders seemingly surrounding an exhausted face.
She rallied, looking away.
“Is that supposed to make me feel better? I did not wish death on her.”
“It would have caught up to her, sooner or later. Some cannot live with their shame.”
Ayane knew the concept and even understood it. Once, she thought perhaps she would reach that point, but the day she watched her home being trampled by the army of the Beasts, she discovered she would not.
“Some rather attempt for redemption. Reparation.”
“Sometimes, that is impossible.”
“Yes,” she agreed, “when you do not try.”
Never in her life had Ayane ever expected to silence the mighty and world-famous Darkness. It was even more surprising than the most occult taking her life out of slighting her.
But in her rebellious thoughts, that she did not speak but which still fueled her unwillingness to give the man an inch, Ayane considered Neniko a coward. She could not handle her shame? She could not face the Shadow once again and apologize for her mistake, is what that meant. She could not accept the mistake she had done, and instead of trying to make up for it, and facing the Shadow from an inferior position, a position in which she should bow and apologize, she took her life.
Thereby depriving the world of her talents and skills. And in such a time as the one, they were living, to boot.
“You are angry,” he stated.
“My venerable leaders exiled me and pawned you and the Head of Mists off to the Shadow Conclave, retreating themselves to the safety of a watchtower. Where they contribute nothing to the fight.”
“They contribute through us.”
The Shadow stared at the Darkness.
“Griff, of the Tech Guild, has betrayed us all. And yet, he has contributed more than our leaders. Look at Eliza, the Matriarch of the Magni, and her role in all of this? Through it all, she has administrated, decided, and led. She is at the forefront of this entire… the Scavengers. The Wild Felids. All contribute with all they have,” she pointed out accusingly, “the Head of Mists is more the head of Kagekawa at this point.”
He shuddered. Ayane could feel his life-long conceptions of loyalty being pressed. Was he thinking about killing her over the slander she was spouting off?
“Your criticism is harsh. These other organizations were not obliterated to the extent we were.”
She looked ahead again, resting her chin on her knee.
“Fair enough. I but wish for historians to one day debate on that. Until such a point is reached, however, it is largely irrelevant. I am angry because what you tell me shows lack of perspective. From them and from you.”
“The world is ending,” she said, in a rather melancholic tone that simply reinforced how obvious it was, and how sad it was nobody seemed to really notice. “Millions have perished. Thousands of cities have fallen. Our works are gone, our art is destroyed. Our land rid of its shadows. These beasts march on to achieve our extinction, unstoppable at that, and yet our clan worries about how they have mistreated me? It is ridiculous.”
He held his tongue.
“Should they all show-up and give me a battle plan, apology or not, I would follow unquestionably. But instead, it is up to me to decide all. Who to trust. Who to follow. What plan to execute. It is up to me not to fail, and to know when to fight and when to retreat, until we can retreat no longer.”
Her voice faltered, but she didn’t.
“And should I fail, it will be on me. Not on some mistling that I sent, not on you or the Head of Mists, but it will be on me. The fate of the world…”
He sat down next to her. The cloak of shadows felt like a breath of air, supernaturally in the fact it bore no heat or cold, it was purely…a force.
“Forgive me as I think about what you have said.”
The Shadow welcomed the silence seeing as she had gotten worked up at the end there. As much as she tried hard to be an unflinching paragon of certainty and action, doubts and fears plagued the inside of her mind constantly. It was hard to keep them at bay when talking to someone who might actually understand.
Someone she had obvious feelings for, not only romantic but of compassion as well. He had been doomed with that cloak, and much like her, he had been grown for it.
Unexpectedly, he moved before talking, placing an arm around her shoulders.
“You do not stand alone for the fate of the world…Shadow. If for nothing else, Darkness will stand with you.”
“And the clan?”
“Glory to the clan,” he stated, “but to the void with them. There is no arguing it, you are absolutely right. We have all failed you, and very nearly failed the world. A body cannot function when it worries only about its head.”
The words had come before they were even thoughts.
“May I lean on you?”
It was a good thing she had a mask on, though they were close enough for her embarrassment to be noticeable from her body heat. He swallowed dryness, apparently at a loss as well.
But, true to his name, his voice didn’t falter like hers had.
“Only if you will let me lean on you.”
She allowed her head to fall on his shoulder, and soon after, felt his head land on hers. Softly. Embraced by the darkness, she felt as if she was in the shadow stream, in the comfort and safety of that sensorial paradise. Only she wasn’t alone.
Ayane tried not to cry, it would be bothersome to clean her eyes, so she kept them focused on the horizon, and on the expectation of seeing the army of beasts appear to ruin that moment.
That much unexpected, and yet much needed moment.
Time did its work, however, by passing. The Shadow did eventually quiet her mind of troublesome thoughts and negative expectations, and at long last, allowed for some optimism.