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 taken.
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, and 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. As usual, the Hunter listened to it and then told them the translation.
“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.
Nothing, she realized. Annoyed, she wrote an additional entry.
We are still alive. And checking.
Flustered, Ayane put the scroll and the feather back, before giving a big sigh. Even through the layers of cloth in front of her mouth, her breath turned to mist in front of her.
“Are you okay?” the Darkness asked.
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, then at the weather and cold. He interrupted himself to a cough and, in reaction, roared in frustration just before spitting another glob of mucus and saliva at the snow around him. 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 Hunter’s gaze for a few seconds and saw as it softened along with her own, 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,” she said, “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.
“Thank you,” Ayane said, stepping into a breach that was on the mountain. It was 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.
The Shadow soon found that it was blocked. In a different way from what she had seen with the Beasts, however. The mages had simply created a few inches of a void. It was just missing, everything, it was not a blocking but a disconnection. It was, in a way, the most unnatural thing she had ever perceived while in a shadow stream.
Ayane exited and walked back to her comrades.
“No good?”Thunuk asked.
She shook her head disappointingly and looked over the edge to try and spot the Beasts.
“No good,” she confirmed, “can you see them?”
“No,” the Hunter replied.
“Good,” Ayane said, “means they are not as close as they look to me.”
They all reacted, startled, looking at Thunuk.
He spoke, again loudly and aggressively, but this time only towards the Hunter, using their language. And then he stormed off towards the mystical cloud filled with supernatural dangerous powers.
Ayane and the Darkness glared at Zaniyah.
“He is very cold,” she offered as explanation.
“Is he also ready to die?” That was the Darkness.
“Of course,” she said, “he would not be considered an adult otherwise.”
The Darkness and the Shadow traded invisible glances, and then looked back at the Hunter.
“Does he want to?” the Darkness asked, doubtful.
Thunuk coughed his way nearer to the storm cloud which was too idle and silent for a cloud that actually contained storms.
“I suppose not,” Zaniyah said, “but he still lives in the moment, and at the moment, he prefers dying to being cold.”
“Well, will we simply let him?” The Shadow asked, unsure, and before she could receive a reply, the air on top of stone, a few feet away, distorted. It was very telling as every other inch of air for dozens of feet all around them was still and thin.
The stone glowed, and blinked, and quickly stopped looking like a natural part of the mountain. It clearly had been put there. The Hunter called after Thunuk who stopped to look back at them, all while the three of them stepped back, apprehensive.
They relaxed once light began being refracted unnaturally, but in a very familiar way. Relief filled them when Albert appeared, standing on the stone. His hood was off, which showed off his short bowl-cut black hair and a pair of framed spectacles and what was an ordinarily round face.
He adjusted his glasses, surprised at seeing them. “Well, look at that, you are here.”
“What—” Ayane interrupted herself to look at the scroll, to make sure there was no change, and then looked back up at Albert with renewed indignation. “What is going on? Why have you not said anything?!”
“Me?” Albert asked in confusion. “How can I say anything? And what should I be saying?”
Ayane held up the scroll and asked, “you have one of these, right?”
“Actually, those anarchy blokes got a hold of one,” Albert said. “So Falk prohibited us from using it.”
Thunuk, oblivious to what was being said, marched towards Albert with the empowered presence of a warrior that had never been cold before, let alone experiencing frostbite. In the rush to get some answers, she ignored it.
“How did you know where to find us?”
“Well, it’s a funny story, actually. Eliza sent someone to let us know that we should actually check the scrolls, and when we di—yes, sir? Can I help yourgh!!”
Thunuk had grabbed Albert by his collar.
“Too cold!” he yelled, right at poor Albert’s face. “Go now!”
“I agree,” the Hunter said, apparently a lot less interested in the state of things at the mansion, and the details behind their abandonment than Ayane was.
“Fine,” the Shadow allowed. “I can ask Falk directly…”
And she did. Her gloves were still cold, her fingers still numb, but she still wagged them in the Mad Genius’s face. He, however, was unfazed.
“Does it look like we have time to dally about, discussing just how my decisions escape your understanding, girl?” Falk asked, quite clearly rhetorically.
She seethed in anger behind the cover of her mask. It was taking all she had not to shiver from the cold. Her body heat was returning and spreading, and because of that, it was reminding itself of how cold it had been, and still was. To make matters worse, she sneezed again.
“Did the LBA really infiltrate the mansion?” The Hunter asked. Thunuk was nowhere near them, he had run straight to a fireplace. The Darkness had also disappeared.
“Yes. This damned building has been outfitted with numerous hidden doors and halls, it’s a veritable mausoleum of secret mazes,” Falk said, seemingly inconvenienced by the fact. “Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be an issue as Eliza’s minions have a rough grasp of these secrets, but no one is truly familiar with all of them.”
The Mad Genius was not idle as he talked. Indeed, he had a wrench in hand and was tightening several screws on some sort of gadget that was aimed at a door that led to the main hall that led to one of the entrances to the mansion.
“Which means,” he continued, apparently annoyed at having to explain, “that this is probably the one place on the planet where the Architect… has an advantage on us. He’s a master strategist, and his ability to map out every detail of a building he perceives is unmatched. I have several mages looking for them and have been using fatalities to track their positions, but it is not a fast enough endeavor.
“Plus,” he added casually, “I’m fairly certain they’re re-positioning said bodies to try and fool me.”
The Shadow couldn’t stop a moment of trembling, which only worked against her temper.
“Fatalities?” she questioned. “You are sending them out to die?”
Falk’s gadget eyes looked back at her in confusion.
“I’m making use of their deaths, there’s a difference. If only they would be foolish enough to attack the Warlock, but alas, this is Pesach we’re talking about.”
Falk stood up and fiddled with his ocular enhancements, spinning them slightly as he admired his work with a smile that was very inappropriate for the situation, not to mention the conversation.
“Pesach. The Architect. Augh. Hopefully, the Darkness can have an easier time at finding them. They already didn’t expect him to be at the ambush.”
The Shadow was still convinced they had been abandoned. There was no other reason to not even check with the scrolls.
“Whose scroll did they get?” Ayane asked.
“The womans’, of course,” Falk replied. “Her name was Edith if I’m not mistaken.”
“Wait,” Ayane pressed, her eyes squinting unseen, “how did you know about the ambush if you did not see the scroll?”
He paused and looked at her again.
“Well, obviously, I saw it, once Eliza’s new minion arrived to let me know. As soon as I knew you were alive, I calculated how much time had passed and how far you could have gotten and, correctly, I assumed you would have decided to make the trip by conventional means in lieu of any worthwhile alternatives.”
There was a hole in that, she was sure of it.
“Please,” he half-begged half-demanded, waving his hand to silence her, “your death would not benefit me in the slightest, I certainly did not collude in order to guarantee it. The real and relevant fact we should take into consideration are that time has run out. How about we spend no more time on your inability to comprehend a situation and instead hear what I have to say about it?”
It was a good thing she had a mask on because Ayane would most likely been showing a very ugly, very childish facial expression. Falk was smart. Clever. But he had an ego that guaranteed a wrong perspective on things. He had assumed something wrong, he had made a wrong decision. Otherwise, they would have not had to trek across mountains to get close to the damn place.
To state otherwise was an outright lie but to argue it seemed to be a lot of wasted effort. Instead, she gave in to her temper and cut the conversation short.
“I will find these people and put a stop to whatever they plan to do.” Her voice slithered to a different tone. “Unless your genius mind can see a better use for me?”