Time passed, gingerly and quietly, making sure it wasn’t noticed even while working to bring about doom.
The ground began to tremble. The Shadow opened her eyes to look upon the storm of dust that heralded the reason why. She sat up straight, exiting the embrace of Darkness’s mystic cloak.
“The Beasts approach.”
“Seems they do,” he stood up, “the Knights will make their last stand.”
“And then we will make ours. The first of two, in any case.”
His head nodded and offered a hand, which she took. Standing up, they watched them for a few silent seconds.
“I cannot wait to see them all dead,” Darkness stated.
“Peculiar, I have to admit, that after everything,” she hesitated for a second there, but she felt so at ease with him. “Well, I do not particularly feel hate towards them.”
“I am too concerned with fearing for us,” she offered as a nervous jest, which he seemed to miss.
“There is no need to. We will defeat them.”
She offered no response other than to turn around and walk away, into a run. He followed.
Ayane was not convinced they could be defeated. In fact, she was sure they couldn’t. The ability to hurt them would not stop them, it was too late, and humanity had lost too much and too many to engage the beasts in any kind of winnable war, even if they could trade casualties.
Doing nothing, however, was out of the question.
The Shadow drew the gun powered alarm device she had been given, which looked like a pistol with a really large tube instead of a regular gun barrel and pointed it up. She pressed the trigger, and the device burst open in an explosion that sent a single firework up into the sky.
All the scouts in the area would now run back to message their main forces.
The Hunter, and her friend Thunuk, showed up next to them soon after, matching their running speed.
She eyed Thunuk inquisitively, not that anyone could notice, and remembered for the first time she had put the bowl aside and left it behind.
“Thank you,” she offered, so as not to lie, or to spend time explaining why she hadn’t eaten it, which was a silly concern to have. He believed her, however, offering yet another grin.
“I help woman.”
“I have been teaching him the values of civilization,” the Hunter offered, awkwardly, as an explanation.
“Accurate ones?” Ayane asked, with a bit of doubt.
That was the fact. What the general consensus said was right was not strictly followed by even the majority of people, even when many of them agreed with said consensus.
Ayane looked at the Darkness who, like her, found the man intriguing. She, however, had lived a life unlike many and had been spared much of society and its functions. It was the greatest mystery of all, why she cared so much about a civilization that she was never really a part of.
Perhaps that was why. She had not participated in it, but she had seen it. From an outside perspective, for years, she had watched people live their lives. There was value to it, great value, which she could not fully explain even to herself, let alone others. The Hunter understood it as well, but in a different way, and for a near opposite reason.
Darkness probably did not understand. His words before, she did not fully believe them. Her instincts, or perhaps some other part of her passing as her instinct, told her he said those things simply out of support. He liked her, and sought her companionship, as someone who could see him clearly, and if that meant caring about the fate of the world, then he would do that.
Oddly, she was okay with that. Faking concern would bring about real results, and the reality of his feelings for her made her feel very happy.
And guilty. She should not be happy. If anything, the fall of Kagekawa had put her in the right mood and given her the right perspective to fuel the correct mindset. Darkness threatened that, and that worried her.
“I see them.”
The easterners had met the beasts in the middle of a valley, a clearing that had stretched for miles so they could see the beasts coming and make tactical moves, as well as blast them from afar. But there, the people of the north and south, under the banner of the king of Norwayaka, stretched across the tops of the endless mountain range, amidst the dense cover of trees.
They were ready for a fight.
Horses were positioned fora riding charge they were planning on making, and several boulders had been dragged to the top there from other parts of the mountainous region. Outside of that, they carried no technology of note. Several barrels of fluids that were unknown to her, and a ridiculous amount of armors any other nation would feel idiotic to display. But the people of Norwayaka, and of Iheria, did not.
They would not meet the king, as he refused to meet with members of the Shadow Conclave in person, but instead with one of his high lords. He was an old man who was sitting far too straight and firmly atop his horse for the kind of age his face betrayed having. He looked half-blind, the way he was staring through them.
“The Beasts come from the south. Same as always, it seems, no vehicles at the head.”
“My king appreciates the assistance but wishes me to reiterate that it is not welcomed. Please leave to better prepare your own battlegrounds.”
Also unlike Melor, those men knew the sacrifice they were making. Their king had not been shy about it in his speech, and she imagined he would clarify it again soon when he gave his last one.
“If we assist you further, perhaps things can be different.”
“This is the plan, thieves. You are not welcomed. Go.”
It was amazing how quickly one’s mood could be ruined, and a calm mind flare up with red hot rage.
“Are you mad? The fate of the world stands at stake, and you bring up matters of class and past slights?”
“Much like the Igtahlians, we will prove to history we could be a match for the Beasts, and in doing so, provide Brithan and Neyrk time to secure victory. Or do you say we are ready to defeat them?”
She cowed, her emotions subdued by the reality of the statements.
“Then go, thieves, and be where you are actually needed.”
The Shadow, The Darkness, The Hunter, none of them had anything to say. Thunuk was at a loss trying to understand the exchange.
He spoke in a language that was incomprehensible to them all, but the Hunter listened. She slowly shook her head, patiently, apparently holding back a chuckle.
“He asks why we are sad when so many will die so well.”
The old knight, who had been looking disgusted up until that point, lit up with a smirk.
“Ha!” He slapped his leg. “The man understands without even getting the most basic of words. You all should learn from him.”
They looked at Thunuk who grinned happily at them, understanding he had defused the situation and made peace amongst them all, even if the why was a bit off.
The fact was that it gave Ayane the first glimpse as to why the Hunter liked him.
“Let them have it, I say! Let them have their holy Light and their fear of the Void. Let them scamper their way into a fighting chance on the backs of real warriors. To us, Glory!”
It was surprising when taking into consideration what distance they had gained, that the voices of the king and his army could still be heard so well.
“To us, the fight eternal in the skies!”
“We will fight like none have done so before! But above it all, men, we will die as no one has died before!”
“HOOH! FOR THE KING! HOOH! FOR THE COUNTRY! HOO HOO!”
Ayane had to admit the speech had an effect, but for the life of her, she could not understand why. Thunuk was looking back with eyes bulging and gleaming, clearly having a different understanding of those men.
“How can they be happy to perish? It is one thing to risk your life for a goal, but this…We are mostly ready at Magni. This is probably unnecessary.”
“The Don held out for almost an entire week,” Darkness pointed out, “they want to accomplish more.”
“Perhaps it is not that simple,” the Hunter pointed out, cautiously, “perhaps the king was told to do it.”
The mood darkened.
“You believe Eliza would order him to die?”
“You know the contents of that journal,” the Hunter said, a bit harshly, “It is hard to feel sympathy.”
The Shadow wished it was hard to feel sympathy. But it wasn’t. It was, in fact, very hard not to. As much as he had usurped his position, the good he had done and how well he had led made it hard not to feel like something was being lost that it shouldn’t.
Furthermore, Eliza being capable of such ruthlessness was a scary realization, and it dawned on her how possible that was. Much like her, Eliza walked with the weight of the world on her shoulders, only unlike the Shadow, Eliza was actually leading.
Ayane shook her head. That wasn’t it.
Listening to him, it seemed obvious that he rather die as the legendary warrior king he had built himself to be, that he had fought his whole life to be than survive and risk being found out for the liar and usurper that he really was. Or, according to Ayane’s preference, had been.
People change. People grow. It takes a lot of effort to leave one’s past behind, and it is vile to threaten to bring it back. On the other hand, shouldn’t one’s action bring about consequences? Wasn’t that, in the end, fair and just?
“Are you okay?”
The Shadow noticed she had slowed down.
“Yes! Sorry, my apologies.”
She regained composure and put her thinking aside. The situation was what it was. Tragic sacrifices, which were nothing new at that point, were being performed by very willing individuals. Her focus, her main point of concentration, should be on not letting those sacrifices be in vain.
She nodded at herself, dedicated, but almost immediately remembered they were carrying the diary. That had been her main purpose when she left the mansion, of course, to go remind the king they still had it, so as to reinforce the blackmail.
Ayane stopped. The others did as well, a second later.
She looked back at the knights who were still riling themselves up in the distance.
“Keep going. I will catch up.”
“Last time you did that,” Darkness mentioned in the agreement, “you cost the Freak an arm.”
The Shadow looked at the Darkness with involuntary aversion.
“Do not call him that,” she immediately corrected herself so she would sound less offended, “this time will be different, there is no risk.”
Besides, that hadn’t been the last time. The last time had been in Igtahlia and she had cost herself a molar, and others their lives. She was suddenly angry.
“No,” Zaniyah repeated, her voice betraying concern.
“I do not say it to get permission,” Ayane let them know, walking away, “do not follow me. I will catch up with you later.”
The Shadow marched off, finding it simple to dive feet first into the shadow stream being created by the plumage on a tree. She simply walked into it like walking down the stairs.
And then she traversed the shadows of the mountains.
The Shadow had gotten better and better at it with the passage of time. She could move faster, and she had a better sense of the surroundings once inside. And whether diving into a shadow or absent-mindedly walking into one, she had gotten perfect for transitioning between the states.
She traversed them quickly, but even with her improved awareness, it was hard to tell the soldiers apart from inside the shadow stream. She was forced to use her meager understanding of battle positions to try and discern where the king would be. She found a cluster of knights on top of a particular hill that could oversee the rest of the battle field, and there, one of the knights seemed to have a couple of feet more to his personal space.
Cautiously, she emerged from the shadow of a tree that crossed the shadow of the horse, intending to simply take a peek to confirm. Instead, the blade of a spear immediately swung down and rested at her neck.
Whoah. She could have immediately submerged, but this was the king alright, so she raised her hands instead.
“What more is there to take from me that you would be so bold?”
The Shadow was momentarily silenced, not only by the cold of the blade at her neck but by the fact she had been noticed so quickly. In a bit of awe, her voice propped up.
“Not take,” she reached down and back, looking for the pouch. The blade made her further lean her head back, to avoid a cut. “I came to give,” she quickly added, pulling the king’s journal out.
His brow creased in suspicion.
“Did you make a copy?”
“No,” she told him silently. “I act on my own when I bring you this. I believe…I believe you deserve it returned.”
He had no words for the few moments he used to pin the book through the pages with the tip of the spear and balance it back onto his grasp. He was not careful about it, and it was clear after mere seconds why when he reached out for a torch.
“I would have not acted differently,” he assured her as the flames set on to the book, “and I make no apologies for its contents.” He meant the journal. He meant his past.
Questions emerged inside her.
“Does it really work like that? Will destroying the contents truly rid you of them? Do you not need to…be sorry?”
Grandstanding eyes glanced down at her from within an impressive and stark figure.
“What do you care?”
That was a very good, very fair question, to which she had no reasonable answer. Not as the Shadow. In her current state, however, talking to a man who would soon be dead, surrounded by other men and women who would soon be dead, Ayane had no trouble being honest.
“I know not why I care. But reading it…having seen you fight these past days…I do.”
He nodded and brought the burning book closer to him. The horse stirred but decided against upsetting the king, preferring instead to risk the flames.
“Others find it hard to understand, or even follow, how much one can change. For better or for worse.” He peered down at her again, “I have a feeling you know of this.”
The Shadow said nothing.
“You’re right, of course. We can never really move on from what we were until we forgive ourselves.” He tossed the journal back over his shoulder as if it was a simple pest. “I am thankful you brought me this so that I can put it past me before I die. You have made a difference here today, thief.”
Having passed the point she was satisfied with, Ayane began to submerge.
“Die well, thief,” he looked ahead again, dismissing her presence, “I can promise you there is nothing more important than that.”
The Shadow vanished without a word.