A prepubescent mustache, bloodied, on a face too young to be dead. The young man had nothing on him besides boxers, leather socks and gloves, and a sleeveless shirt plus the type of protective eye-ware you would find in a welder. He was utterly sweaty and sported some burns on top of that, all from operating the machine. He looked terrible, and the only thing Darkness was responsible for was one tiny hole in the boy’s forehead.
“He baby, huh,” Thunuk said, pointing down awkwardly at the young boy.
“I warned him,” the Darkness offered, not as an excuse, not in the slightest, but rather as a statement of causality.
“What do we do now?”
The Shadow looked away, pulling the communication scroll in a movement that severely lacked smoothness.
She opened it and ignored all previous messages.
LBA cut us off. They have infiltrated the mansion.
Ayane waited for a minute, a full minute of no response. Her foot tapped in impatience as the blank paper increasingly unnerved her.
“Only the Mad Genius is back there,” she said, “if he does not check the scroll…”
“What do we do?”
Why was the Hunter asking that? For some reason, the question irritated the Shadow.
I have no good answer to that.
They were cut off. They had no way to teleport to the mansion unless the Mad Genius looked at the scroll. They could perhaps reach there by foot, but it would certainly be a hazardous journey, one that would be unlikely to succeed before the Beasts caught up.
Her nose flared, and she sneezed.
Ayane yelped and turned the other way.
“Eeww. Look away, look away.”
She removed the mask, whispering rude words under her breath as she kneeled down to clean the mask with some of the snow.
This is what I was worried about. Blast it.
She looked around, maybe something had been left over from the cottage that she could use to catch her sneezes that wouldn’t look that bad under the mask. She found a piece of cloth that would do, but it was a really ugly brown color.
“Ah,” she emoted, having found a black one. Black was usually okay, especially with her mask. Right then, she glanced sideways at them because they were staring.
“What?” She sneezed again. “Argh.” She placed the piece of cloth inside the mask, to cover the mouth and nose, and then pulled it up carefully.
This will have to do for now.
“Are you okay?”
“Like Thunuk said earlier,” the Shadow said, putting the mask back on, “it is cold.” Again, she opened the scroll, but there was nothing.
“Nothing,” she told them.
“We need to do something,” the Darkness said, with a hint of hesitation.
“I agree,” the Hunter said. “What do we do?”
“Augh.” Ayane’s voice was muffled now, slightly, but she ignored it. “We have no means to escape the Beasts outside of the Magni. Either the Mad Genius opens the damned scroll, or I suppose…our only chance is to make it by foot.”
As if to process this, they all looked out at the large expanse of snow standing between them and the magical mansion. Except for Thunuk who felt no need to look to both guess what they were thinking and give them his opinion.
“No,” he said.
They all looked back at him in surprise. The Hunter talked to him in their unintelligible language, and he replied with something that made her almost chuckle.
“Apparently we were so obvious about our intention that no words needed to be understood,” she explained.
“I see no other alternative,” Ayane said, eyeing the scroll again to no avail.
“What about the magical defenses that they have in place?” The Darkness asked.
The Shadow shrugged.
“I will go.”
Thunuk and the Hunter had doubts that they could manage the trip. It would take long hours to walk down and up the correct mountain, and climb it would be extremely difficult, especially in the freezing weather. The concerns were, of course, very valid, and mostly coming from Thunuk. But staying until the Beasts caught up was not a good idea either. In fact, and everyone agreed, it was a lot worse.
They would leave the kid behind, whatever his name was, but she wanted at least to spare him the decency of closing his eyes.
She noticed then that The Darkness could tell the Shadow was upset. That was not by accident.
“I do not believe I acted wrongly,” he said.
The Shadow stood up and looked down at the boy. Not long ago, she had also fought members of the LBA without much regard for their safety. It was different, however, she was certain.
“When it is so easy to kill someone,” she spoke, in a low voice, dreading a reply, “I ask…why not refrain from it?”
“I warned him,” he said, and it was like it was all that needed to be said.
“Yes,” she turned away and walked off, more to create tension than to lead the march, “yes, you did.”
As she jumped down, from rocky foothold to rocky foothold, she couldn’t help but try to figure out why she was so annoyed. The boy would have killed them all and he was suffering from some kind of insanity from which they could not recover him from.
Yet. How much harder would it have been to simply incapacitate him? They could have been gone by the time he woke up. Easily.
The way the Darkness talked…there was a divide between them. Their minds, who they were, and the way he regarded killing showed it. Despite her feelings for him, Ayane had the strong sensation that the man was…he had clearly had a different life. He was an assassin, and had been one since his infancy. Clad in his supernatural cloak of Darkness that made him into one of the most dangerous forces on the planet, he had killed countless times for the Kagekawa.
It all bothered her. Despite being things and facts that were the same the day before, they were upsetting her now, when they hadn’t then.
“I suppose this is not the most dangerous risk we have taken.”
She glanced sideways to catch sight of the Hunter, who had left Thunuk behind with the Darkness. She could hear him speaking under the strong winds they were facing, it seemed a language barrier presented no real challenge for his aptitude to converse. The Darkness seemed uncomfortable by the experience, it was funny.
“It could mean the end of the world,” the Shadow said, refusing to smile but rather forcing herself to remain bothered.
“Anything could in these days we live in,” Zaniyah said.
Ayane nodded in agreement. “I am glad I am not the only one thinking so. If only the others were equally concerned.” She perused the scroll again, grunting in protest once she was met with nothing but blank space following her report.
The Hunter placed a hand on her shoulder and asked, “what about the Darkness?”
“I do not understand how he could simply kill the boy,” she admitted.
“Hm. You have a conscience for these things.”
“You do not?”
Zaniyah offered a very uncharacteristic cough.
“I do not. I have lived a different life, I suppose. I’m a different person.”
Ayane envied her, greatly, but her pride wouldn’t allow her to say so. Instead, she sneezed, and then groaned in frustration because of it.
Oddly, she drew determination from it, picking up the pace.
“Different persons or not, we have to be the right ones, Zaniyah.”
The Hunter nodded, but as she was doing more and more lately, she didn’t hold her tongue.
“Would the right person have killed the boy?”
The brain said yes. The heart said no.
The Shadow held her tongue.
LBA cut us off. They have infiltrated the mansion.
We make for the mansion by foot. Hope to reach it before the beasts. It would be better to be brought.
We need a mage.
MG, we need a mage.
MG, when I see you, I will punch you.
The Shadow nearly ripped the scroll apart, she was so mad. Zaniyah sneezed next to her. Thunuk retched and spat out a blog of mucus. Then he cursed some sort of complaint.
“Damned Falk,” Ayane yelled, “how does he go for so long without checking the damned scroll?!”
“There is the possibility that the LBA have killed him and taken over the mansion,” Zaniyah suggested.
“There is no way that happened,” the Darkness interjected, “not with the Warlock present.”
“They might have caught him unaware. He is an old man,” Zaniyah said, apparently having met him.
“Better men have tried,” the Darkness said, oddly defensive. “He will die of old age or at the hands of his successor, and that is it. I can guarantee that much.”
Thunuk growled again, and spat again, and cursed as well. Then he said something in his language.
“Thunuk says he can see we are bickering, that it’s worthless, and we should save our breaths.”
The Shadow shivered again, noticing she was beginning to tremble. Her feet were numbed by the cold of the snow around her, but at least her hands were still hurting. That was something.
She turned around from the ledge and grabbed onto the face of the cliff, pulling herself up.
The view was breathtakingly astonishing. Due to her purpose as a thief, she had never really experienced mountain climbing. She had never seen sights such as the ones presented to her at that altitude, where the terrain stretched unimaginably far, and mountains rose and agglomerated with a semblance of… creativity. The sense of awe, the size of the world, was something she had never experienced before, not even when looking up at the stars or over the endless plains of her home.
There was a lot to think about, and as usual, it was all things she didn’t want to think about. What if they failed to reach the mansion? What if the LBA had really destroyed their defenses there? What of her and the Darkness? What had they shared exactly? What more could they share before she died? What of the boy they had killed, why had she gotten so upset about it?
Ayane growled and sat down again, on another stone’s ledge overseeing a cliff, and pulled the scroll out.
We are still alive. And checking.
Flustered, she put it and the feather back, before giving a big sigh. Even through cloth and mask, her breath turned to mist in front of her.
“Are you okay?”
She didn’t reply, or rather, she didn’t answer.
The Darkness followed her worried gaze, and she knew he could see them as well. The Beasts.
“The Beasts. They are coming.”
“What?” The Hunter called down, immediately looking over at the landscape. “…we need to hurry.”
The Shadow blew on her hands to get a moment of reprieve from the cold, in preparation for the pain and effort she was about to abuse her body with.
“Falk better be dead,” she said, getting up.
“We can use the shadows,” the Darkness suggested, breaking the silence on the topic that Ayane had kept from the start. “It will be faster for us. It will guarantee that we make it.”
“No,” the Shadow stated.
“You should,” Zaniyah agreed, “there is no way–”
“That I am leaving you,” the Shadow said, stubbornly. “We can make it.”
“Be reasonable,” he requested, “this is about the world, not us.”
Thunuk raised his voice above the winds, all of a sudden. He yelled, he complained, he gestured towards the Beasts, he gestured around, at the weather and cold, he interrupted himself to cough and, in reaction, roared in frustration just before spitting another glob of mucus and saliva. Then he punched his chest and yelled some more.
Finally, he stopped, holding a very stern, very impatient face as they all stared at a loss. Ayane looked aside at Zaniyah.
He was already back to climbing.
“He said a lot of mean things,” the Hunter started. “To summarize, he is angry that we stop and talk so often when we are being chased, and to make matters worse, when it is so cold.”
The Shadow held the Hunter’s gaze for a few seconds and saw as it softened much like hers did, even if her friend couldn’t tell over the mask.
“Well,” Ayane stated, looking after the focused warrior. “I agree.”
Without saying another word, she leaped onto the surface of the cliff and started to climb. The Hunter picked up the pace as well, and soon, the Darkness was following close behind.
“I hope you do not think ill of me,” his voice reached, almost nearly falling short. “Of my suggestion,” he added.
Ayane gave no response, more due to the effort she was putting on climbing, but also due to the reality of the situation. The Beasts were reaching them. The four of them were supposed to have teleported back to the mansion to give everyone a time frame of their arrival, would they even be ready without their timely return?
She felt like she had spared more than enough attention to her feelings.
She instead focused on the climbing.
The air thinned, the clouds cleared, but it would last for few hundred feet. After that, they could then see an unnatural fog present all around the summit, which seemed to be riddled with thunder. Anyone who saw that would turn back, and perhaps they should too. It was possible that real danger was awaiting them. Magical traps, defenses put in place against possible infiltrators, the Beasts nonetheless.
“I think it might be safer if I take the shadows,” Ayane yelled ahead, which was easier now that the wind had died down, but made her run out of breath all the faster. “In case there are spells waiting to destroy us.”
She saw the Hunter looking up. They were no longer climbing then, per say, but rather walking up a path. Ayane was happy she couldn’t see her skin, it felt like it was dying in one long gasping attempt to moan somewhat audibly.
The Hunter grabbed hold of Thunuk’s shoulder and looked back at the Shadow.
“We will not last long here.”
The Shadow didn’t break her stride, walking past them.
“I will not be away for long, not if I live. I will be back for you.”
“I will stay and look after them,” the Darkness said from behind her, very literally lighting her heart. She was going to suggest it and thought she would need to argue the issue. He, of course, couldn’t see her smile of relief, but she hoped he could feel it. “For as long as I can.”
She nodded back at him.
Ayane stepped within a breach that was on the mountain, a dent in its rocky hide, where there were shadows. With a breath that seemed stolen and heavy, more than ever, she stepped into the world of shadows.