As promised, she soon caught up with the others. They were almost to the cottage where they would be transported to the House of Magni, a small building standing on top of one of the many mountains surrounding that area.
She emerged off the shade provided by yet another tree trunk, smoothly translating into the half-jogging the others were in the middle of. They didn’t have to stop nor did she have to skip her feet or anything.
The Shadow had gotten really good at such transitions.
“You returned the journal?”
“He might very well decide against this last stand of theirs,” she added.
“I am under the impressions he much prefers to die the honorable king,” Ayane offered as a rebuttal.
“Why does that matter?”
Again, the very fair, very good question, and while it was aimed at another sort of answer, Ayane focused instead on a slight misdirection towards the sort of answer she could give.
“Because it means he will follow through with his last stand either way.”
Fortunately, neither of the three were talkative or prone to probing. If Jamie had been there, there might have been more to the conversation.
The cottage was ankle-deep in snow, seemingly abandoned. Inside, however, they would find Edith, the mage who would activate the portal that would take them to the House of Magni, which was at the otherwise unreachable summit of Mount Highmoor.
She shivered, reacting to the freezing winds surrounding her, worrying silently about the possibility of getting sick.
“Is cold,” Thunuk said, slapping himself on the shoulder for some reason. “Need furs.”
“We will be back soon,” Darkness offered, grabbing hold of the door. He opened it, and they were met with a very empty and abandoned cottage.
It was only supposed to look like that from the outside.
“Where is the–”
The ground shook noisily beneath the house and crumbled aside soon after. All four jumped back in alert as the flimsy roof was propped up and ripped apart as what emerged bloated the cottage to almost explode, all because something else had emerged to take its place.
The Hunter seemed to recognize it.
An enormous drill emerged, tearing through the cottage. It opened up into some kind of large mechanical barrels that it used as hands to pull the rest of itself out of the ground, further wrecking the little house. The machine was made out of cheap metal and spent steel, all rusted, differently colored, scratched and scraped and overall put together and fixed up very clumsily, even using simple duct-tape on some parts.
The feet were track wheels, the head was a transparent dome, made of glass, which almost obfuscated the person inside due to how dirty it was.
The rest of them looked at the Hunter, and then back at the mechanical monstrosity as it emitted a high pitch screech that instantly dissipated, replaced by laughter.
The sound reverberated with very bad quality, but not bad enough that she could not tell this was the voice of someone very young.
The machine suddenly jolted.
“Wait a second, are you…did I miss?”
They didn’t respond as they didn’t understand the question.
“Hi, hello? Is this working? Damned contraption!”
A few bangs carried over the faulty sound system, as the young man smacked some of the inside machinery around.
“Hello? Can you hear me?”
“What did you do to Edith?”
“What? I saw your head move. I think? Did you talk? Wait.”
They looked at each other, unsure as to what to do, as the silhouette inside the dome moved frantically, whispers of frustration being carried over to them.
Zaniyah decided to explain what she knew.
“This machine attacked our camp. It caused the distraction that allowed the Mole to take Mother Superior.”
They looked back with a new found understanding of the situation, now knowing what that was about.
“I am led by Anarchy! Hello? Did you hear that?”
The Shadow’s nerves were tensing fast.
“Where is the mage?”
“Ah! I heard that, okay, wait, yes! Wait, right, we are Led by Anarchy! We will see civilization crumble! We will witness organizations brought to ruin!”
Thunuk giggled at the Hunter.
“Baby man exist crazy.”
“Surrender yourselves to chaos! And to the will of the evolved!”
The Shadow stepped forward and breathed in.
“WHAT DID YOU DO TO THE MAGE?!”
“Mage? What mage? Oh, the Magni woman?”
Are you kidding me with this one?
“We convinced her to take us through the portal! I was left behind to deal with you miscreants and make certain of the end of your involvement! But alas, I missed! Why weren’t you inside? You were supposed to be inside, the tracker on the door told me it was opened.”
Led by Anarchy had infiltrated the House of Magni.
That was terrible news. Ayane and the Darkness exchanged guilty glances because that was why he was there, to keep such a thing from happening. He looked starkly intense under his supernatural garments. Guilty.
He stepped forward.
“I am Darkness. Retreat or die.”
“Retreat? ‘re you an idiot or something?”
The Darkness balked, clearly not very used to be treated with such a lack of fear. There was indeed a certain madness to all the members of Led by Anarchy, one just had to look at the Mad Genius, but that lack of awareness was remarkable.
“Look at where we are, where do I retreat to?”
The Darkness renewed his threatening stance.
“You know very well what I meant, anarchist.”
“I know a lot more than what you meant! So much more! I know those shadow arts of yours can’t reach me in here, for instance.” The hand cannons moved and aimed at them, “or deal very well with fire.”
“The world will die,” the Hunter argued, “what are you doing?!”
“Well, what else can we do about it, right? It went ahead and got all civilized. And against our will, to boot!? Freedom or death, that’s evolution.”
“Death is evolution?” The Darkness asked.
“Certainly. Well, I mean,” he detracted, the shadow in the dome clearly bringing a hand to scratch the chin, “it is not, per say, a direct relationship, death is death, but there is a direct causality, however. Without death, there is no evolution. Without freedom, either. When you have leaders making sure sheep like you stay alive, and obedient, how can anything evolve? It stagnates, doesn’t it? Those truly evolved need the freedom to evolve the societies they’re in, but civilization just doesn’t care, does it? It just wants obedience. ‘I know you’re capable of flying, but what we need is a good swimmer, now swim, and you can have food markets and free water and—”
Something inside Ayane popped.
“WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT!? EVERYONE WILL DIE!”
The shadow inside the dome shuddered.
“Well,” it said, a bit offended.
“Most everyone already has! What are you doing?!”
The young man seemed to grab onto some controls, sighing into his microphone.
“Father’s right, there’s no talking things out in a civil manner with you people, it always reverts to a shouting match, doesn’t it? Because you insist on bringing emotion into it, after all.”
The tubes flickered with light.
“Let’s get to it then, I’d say, you’re clearly not willing to listen.”
It seemed to her that he was the one not willing to listen, a fact highlighted by the fire launched at them before they could give a reply. It was fair enough, however, since the reply would have been violent.
The Shadow threw a smoke bomb on the floor, and they split up, leaping away and running away from each other and around the machine. It only had two arms after all.
“Anarchy is the freedom of the independent,” he went on. She saw the Darkness, in a sort of specter form that would most likely be impossible do discern in the dark, but her lenses gave her that ability, trail the ground towards the machine. Its exhaust pipes flared, however, and the metal reddened. From below the waist, and around the legs, small pipes lit up with fire. The ethereal darkness scattered before it, unable to touch the machine. “The freedom for a man to be unregulated, especially by forms of government he has very little say in anymore!”
It annoyed her the man-boy felt the need to spout his philosophies at them. What did it all matter when everyone was dying off?
Of the four of them, Thunuk seemed to be the only one completely out of his element. He skipped behind a rock and stood there, yelling in his native language. The Darkness, a visible mass of something in-between liquid and gas, trailed around the machine like a snake, looking for a way to approach. The Shadow and the Hunter joined each other temporarily behind a piece of the cottage’s roof.
“What is he saying?”
“Insane discourse, no?”
“I mean Thunuk.”
“Oh, he is just cursing. Does not seem to be a fan of giant fire cannons.”
“With that freedom, a man can be as powerful as he has the potential to be! And you would chastise him? You would castrate his ambitions under laws made for primitive brutes passing as men?! Law made to look after the helpless and the stupid and the useless?”
“Ugh. Any ideas?”
“The glass dome?”
The Shadow shook her head. “Remember the Tech Guild’s tower? The little visor screen? I believe the dome is a distraction. Too sturdy to break.”
The Hunter looked back, seemingly a bit aghast, thinking back to something.
“That makes sense.”
“I say we strike the joints. There must be some point where the limbs are attached to the torso that is vulnerable.”
She nodded in agreement and held a finger up.
The Darkness didn’t seem to be making any progress, but he was keeping the machine occupied, although it begged the question of how it could perceive him in the first place, and that allowed the Hunter to look at it properly. The flames, Ayane was sure, helped with the sight.
Meanwhile, the boy inside drove on.
“Once I’ve dealt with you, I will let the beasts know how to get to the Magni, where the others will have already crippled your defenses. They will be ripe for the taking.”
There was something about the way he said it, in his tone, in the certainty hidden within his madness, which betrayed the fact it was no expectation. No sort of hope. He knew, for a fact, that he could communicate with the beasts?
“I see it.”
“I will distract him,” the Shadow told her, and she nodded.
Thunuk was looking out of the rock at them, concerned. When the Shadow left, he leaned out to glance at the machine and cursed again, half freaked out.
The Shadow stopped in clear view.
“You communicate with the beasts?!”
He pointed one of the arms at her and shot flames out, but she simply allowed her body to fall into the shadow beneath her.
The main difference between the Shadow and the Darkness was that she actually traveled the shadow streams, in-between shadow-springs created by physical bodies, while the Darkness actually created bridges. He could thus, visibly, shape the shadows and make bridges through which to travel the physical world, although his ability was more known in its weaponized form than in how he used it for mobility.
She emerged to the side, using a shadow produced by a piece of the cottage, to find the machine had engaged its tracks and was moving around.
“I am not like the rest of you! I sacrifice others, sure, but only because I am not afraid of sacrificing myself. You? You will sacrifice the whole world if that’s what it takes to win.”
“You sure talk a lot, boy.”
The machine turned towards her, the Darkness deep in its tail but still unable to find a point of contact due to the defensive and intermittent flares of fire beneath its torso.
“That means I have a lot to say, doesn’t it? You just don’t listen. You put your lives on the line for leaders who don’t care, for the sake of established rules that were thought of by stupid and ancient ancestors! Even if they knew better at the time, big if! That doesn’t mean they know about now, does it? We live in such a different world, now. Ugh, it makes me so mad, you’re such a bunch of thoughtless sheep!”
She ran away from the flames, catching the Hunter in a non-betraying glance, she had grabbed Thunuk’s spear. She took cover behind a mound of snow, disappearing into a shadow created by the most common of bodies, other landmasses.
“If only you were capable of reason, if onl—”
The Shadow emerged to find Thunuk’s spear shoved through one of the arm sockets, inches away from the dome, horizontally speaking.
The Darkness lashed out like a snake, enveloping the spear with a dark viscous matter that, in an instant, expanded, ripping apart the machinery that was holding the arm together. The other arm came around as that cannon fell, the tone of voice inside the dome now completely different.
But it was too late. The dark matter thrust itself through crevices it found in the now shattered arm socket. Flames enveloped the shattered shoulder but were too late to catch it.
A second later, the dirty glass dome showed a second silhouette. A mass of blackness took shape, blotting out the boy just as he was raising both his arms in terror.
“NO! PLEASE DON’T!”
Unreasonable concern stirred inside Ayane.
The blob of blackness faltered, for a second, in reaction to the Shadow’s plea. It seemed as if it turned towards her even, but that could have been Ayane’s mind playing tricks.
Because it quickly flickered, shifted and struck anyway in a lash of darkness that filled the entire dome.