It didn’t take long to find another group, mainly because it was already engaged in a fight. Peeping out of a ceiling corner, the Shadow saw the Hunter fighting against a small group of people along a corridor that was tighter than one would expect a corridor to be. It was probably one of the secret passages.
She wasted no time to throw a knife at a woman who was about to throw a bottle which had a flaming tissue exiting its neck.
“Ah!” she yelled in pain.
The bottle dropped on the ground, the liquid inside mixing with the small fire to enflame, unfortunately catching onto her leg. She screamed and shook the leg while her friend looked up to spot Ayane.
“It’s another one!” another one of them said.
“Ah cripes,” a third said.
The woman would be fine, they all seemed to be wearing turnout coats, even if by and large, they were left opened at the chest, or even entire torso when the top part was left tied around the waist. They had a crimson theme to them and the backs which weren’t tied around the waist possessed some kind of flame-oriented logo spelling out “Fire Hazards.”
Ayane dropped to the floor and rolled.
“Their leader escaped that way,” the Hunter said loudly while shoving her knife through a guy’s hand. He screamed in pain.
The Shadow rolled under another thrown bottle, standing up to punch a stomach, and consequentially, the air out of the woman.
“We will chase him together,” the Shadow said.
There were six of them there, and it didn’t take long for the two to take care of them. They had hand-held compact flamethrowers, and two of them had actual serious flamethrowers, so by the time it was over, multiple flames were left drowning out all around them, stuck to the walls, floors, and ceiling.
The Shadow sighed, tired and sweaty, and looked over at the Hunter who was slapping away a flame that had caught on to her shoulder, showing burnt skin underneath. Ayane couldn’t help but be concerned.
“You engaged them on your own?” Ayane asked.
“They did not look strong,” Zaniyah said, quite simply.
“They do not need to be, they had weapons,” Ayane said.
“Man-made weapons cannot compete with Man himself,” Zaniyah stated.
“You are a woman,” Ayane pointed out.
Zaniyah gave her a sarcastic look. “You know what I mean,” she said.
“You will be the death of yourself,” Ayane said, a bit exasperated.
“We will see, Shadow,” Zaniyah said in turn, and in challenge.
Ayane looked down at the man bleeding at the Hunter’s feet, thoughtfully. She licked the gums where her tooth should be by reflex. Zaniyah followed her masked gaze.
“You feel I did not need to kill?” She asked.
Ayane looked up and shrugged.
“Sorry,” she said.
“Do not be sorry, but from my perspective, those you are leaving alive will have to contend with the Beasts, sooner or later. That’s no better fate,” Zaniyah said.
That was true, sadly. They refused to be allies to the only party trying to survive the Beasts, so their death was assured, no matter who won the war that was going on. Right then, her arm felt a slight shock. She looked at the talk box, then at the Hunter, then unmuted the talk box.
“…ry ingenious, Falk, I will give you that,” the voice broadcasted. “This room is impressive. Screening spells to keep track of every hall and room in the mansion, I can see the Beasts are at your doors. And this communication mechanism. Very, very impressive.” The voice was heavy and definitely carried a senior tone to it. The Shadow had never met the man, but the arrogance he was using and the familiarity… it had to be the Architect.
Why is Falk not there? Ayane asked herself.
“You should know we have sabotaged at least three of your machines, and my people are now scattered about the mansion. This last stand of yours will fail. It was a good show, but in the end, my old friend, you lo—”
The communication was interrupted by the sound of a muffled explosion, followed by a scream. A scream of utter pain.
“My legs!!!! WHAT IN ALL THE VOID MY LEGS!!!”
Other voices came in loud and clear from the communicator, albeit as if from a distance.
“Pesach!” one said.
“Holy crap?!” the other exclaimed.
Another explosion sounded out, nearer, and then the communication cut. Ayane and Zaniyah looked at each other, meaningfully, before the talk box erupted with static once again, followed by Falk’s voice.
“This is Falk Goldschmidt!” it said. “You bumbling mongrels have proved to be quite the bothersome stone in my shoe, and that ends today! Welcome to the House of Magni, where the Beasts’ weakness will be revealed and where you will all, without exception, die! You are not here due to your ability, or that of your leader, but by MY DESIGN!”
“Uh oh,” the Shadow said.
Zaniyah nodded in agreement.
“That bastard…I knew it,” Ayane went on. “By his design, he predicted they would ambush us and make their way here. An ambush. And he let it happen.”
The Hunter nodded again. “He is mad.”
“The Darkness is on site, hunting for you,” Falk continued, “The Warlock prowls the halls, hunting for you. The Shadow and the Hunter and a myriad of Magni warriors are also hunting you down. You have nowhere to run to. And wherever you manage to hide, the Beasts will find you. And your Architect…is now dead.”
He knows the LBA members have stolen talk boxes, Ayane realized, He wanted them to, that is why he gave them to almost everyone.
“I have a feeling he will be at this for a while,” the Shadow told her, muting the talk box.
“Haha! You are beaten, by none other than I, Falk Gold–” the Hunter did the same. “He has been telling us he is led by vengeance,” Zaniyah said, “cannot call him a liar.”
“I can very much do so,” Ayane said, very bitterly, “but he has cornered us as much as he has cornered his enemies. There is nothing we can do but guarantee his success, otherwise, the world falls.”
“You hate him,” Zaniyah pointed out, walking past Ayane to continue her hunt.
The statement made Ayane think, actually. Did she hate him? It didn’t feel like it. She didn’t trust him. She sure didn’t like him, but even Falk, she did not wish to see him dead. That was what hate was, right? Wishing someone to die? She did not know, she had never developed strong feelings like that for anyone, good or bad.
Not until recently.
“I do not trust him,” Ayane said in reply. “If we survive this, we should talk to Eliza, he should never be in charge of anyone ever again. I have the impression he sacrificed those people, on scouting, only to make his rival believe he was truly surprised by their incursion.”
The Hunter gave the matter some thought as they marched on.
“I see your point, but seeing our situation…” Zaniyah hesitated somewhat, choosing words. “You are constantly reminding people that the world is dying. Can you really argue with results?”
Ayane didn’t skip a beat on the question.
“You absolutely can,” she answered.
She was certain she could complain about Falk’s methods because they should be trying to save as many as possible, not simply out of moral principle, but also specifically because most of Humanity had already been lost.
They came to an intersection where the hall crossed off two ways.
“Go left,” the Shadow said.
The Hunter did while the Shadow continued ahead. The talk box was still buzzing on her skin. She turned it on momentarily.
“For you see!” Falk announced, “it would be then, when presented with such a defining lack of alternatives, you would come to one conclusion and one conclusion only, and that is how I knew! That’s how I predicted that–” she turned it off.
Good grief, she thought, shaking her head.
Ayane felt sorry for all the mages that had to be listening, for both information and in preparation for the Beasts’ attack. Were the Beasts already inside? She had the feeling they shouldn’t be running around aimlessly once they were in the mansion.
Ugh, Ayane interjected. She was beyond irritated. It was as if everyone in that mansion did not fully grasp the reality of the situation they were in. Regarding the greater picture. Her thoughts were interrupted, however, by the sight of a mage.
He was crawling across the floor, draped in the burning leftovers of his robe.
“Hey!” she called out, “are you alright?”
He turned around to notice her, hair half burnt and still smoking, and pointed back and down the hall he was crawling across.
“That way,” he said, making use of a hoarse struggling voice.
“I will take you to safety first,” she said, reaching out, but he smacked her hand away and pointed again, vigorously.
“Go!” he blurted out, in effort.
The Shadow flinched as he resumed his crawling.
“I’ll be…just dandy…” he moaned, “just go before…she ruins everything.”
She wasn’t sure what he meant by that and yet had the feeling she should heed his urgency. With thoughts of Igtahlia in her mind, committed not to make the same mistakes, the Shadow ran off immediately.
Ayane met with a flight of stairs she had never seen before and went down for what felt to be too long a distance. There were markings of soot, and dirt, left behind by someone’s boots having pressed against the steps. They led into a door that was left half opened, wobbling with the window. Passed it was a very surprising sight.
A chamber, large as a chamber can be, with an opening showing the skies. She froze, startled because the opening was half covered from sight by the biggest airship she had ever seen.
A gigantic machine she could only describe as a very big balloon, somewhat familiar and comparable to others, if not for its size, was standing right there, fully inflated and held still in the air by chains which were attached to its base, which she could only describe as…a building. A metal building that was not attached to any kind of ground but to the balloon itself.
Metal and steel framed the balloon, defying her understanding of things that could defy gravity. It really was enormous.
It occurred to Ayane just then…that there were not enough mages to teleport all of them to safety. It occurred to her that they would need a transportation vessel. Worst of all, it dawned on her how impressed she was, suddenly, with the Mad Genius, and what he had accomplished with the time he had been given.
Then one of the chains broke, flinging free and very much near making her cough out her heart.
Oh no! Ayane thought, suddenly realizing the sense behind the burnt mage’s urgency.
With the newfound and clarified understanding of what the mage had warned her about, she ran at top speed. If there was anything in there that could not be allowed to be sabotaged, it was their means of escape.
She ran by three burning bodies of mages, unfortunately not being able to stop and check on their health.
The Shadow caught sight of the flame within a minute and reached the culprit by the time she had another chain red hot, steaming, and about to crack.
“Stop!” Ayane yelled which was, in hindsight, a stupid thing to do. The woman immediately turned around, bringing the flamethrower she was holding at her waist to bear against the Shadow, without shutting it off. She was forced to jump to the side.
“Hey!” Ayane protested.
“STAY AWAY FROM ME!” the woman yelled.
Her head was fully bandaged, except for one of her eyes, and patches of red hair were trying to escape it. The bandages seemed to extend down her neck, at which point everything else was hidden by her outfit, which was mainly a leather jacket and tight jeans that looked unwashed. A portable fuel tank was at her back, connected to the hose she was using to spew fire to catch the Shadow.
“I will not let you sabotage this…” Ayane trailed off on her statement, what was it, even? “This vessel,” she managed to say, half-convincingly.
“YOU won’t let ME?!” The woman asked, either rhetorically or upset, probably both.
She pulled a trigger, the machine behind her back seemed to burp powerfully, and the flames shot out at a completely new level of speed and reach.
“WHOAH,” the Shadow yelled, vanishing.
The fact was that they were standing in the shadow of the balloon. Its overcast was massive due to the big exit hole in the wall, which provided light. Usually, the Shadow would have access to small springs that would be interconnected by streams, but she was more accurately in a lake there.
“You Kagekawa brat,” the woman yelled out all around her. “You think I don’t know?!”
The voice reached the Shadow muffled. Ayane witnessed as the woman’s silhouette moved an arm backward to dissipate a large swath of the lake of shadows.
Fire, the Shadow thought, she put fire behind her.
For someone who had apparently been utterly burned, she sure seemed to be comfortable around the flames. But around so much shadow, Ayane could practice more complex arts.
Darkness was a master at the combat arts, and her predecessors had also, arguably, been much better at them than she was. Ayane herself had never seen a use for them, she trained until she could replicate them for her tutor and then never used them again. What did a thief need with such things?
The end of the world sure changed a lot.
And so, five different uniformed Ayanes appeared around the leader of the Fire Hazards.
“What?!” the woman asked, overwhelmed.
Ayane emerged above her, off the face of the balloon, dropping in a controlled dive that was being assisted by a viscous rope-like shadowy materialization. It tightened, pulling her hard, just inches away from the woman. The pull helped Ayane whip a smack across the woman’s head, on top of halting her descent, so she didn’t crash.
With a momentary headache from the whipping effect, Ayane made the leash unhand her. The flames dissipated just as her illusions liquefied back into the balloon’s shadows, and meanwhile, the Shadow flipped and landed with a throwing dagger in hand, which she used to cut the straps tying the flamethrower to the woman.
Ayane threw the fuel tank away, but a hand grabbed her foot. It pulled her out of balance and onto the ground.
The woman lunged at her with a snarl, but Ayane jabbed like a snake, stopping the momentum immediately.
“Ouf,” the woman reacted, dazed.
Ayane followed up with a firm hit, using her left knuckle, to the woman’s kidney, to force her to roll off of her. As the woman rolled, Ayane grabbed her jacket with her right hand and rolled after her, using her left hand to swipe another throwing knife out of her back.
“Ghk,” the woman choked.
The dagger drew a drop of blood from the neck, and at the same time, the jacket was also half-strangling the woman.
“Desist!” the Shadow demanded.
“You’re all idiots,” the woman immediately yelled, and her breath was awful. “This is probably a trap to kill all of you.”
“What are you talking about?” the Shadow asked.
“This airship!” She said, and it was as if she was drowning in a rage that wasn’t subsiding at all. She refused to lower her voice or care about how her neck kept scraping against the blade. “It’s Falk’s work, I’m sure of it! You trust him.”
“I certainly do not,” Ayane said defensively, “but our goals converge.”
“That’s impossible, you stupid, stupid girl.” She snarled and tried to move and would have probably slit her own throat if Ayane wasn’t holding her down so well.
“You are madder than he is,” the Shadow told her.
“I was the one person who was on his side!” she yelled again. “THE ONE! And look what he did to me!”
So the Mad Genius was responsible for her burn injuries. Ayane angled her head slightly, in thought.
“Did you call him obsolete?” the Shadow asked.
She opened her eyes wide, making the mental connection to the reference Ayane was pulling. All of a sudden, her mood critically shifted, and she chuckled.
“No, I wouldn’t be that foolish. I don’t know what I did, I can only assume,” she said.
“That?” Ayane asked.
“That he thinks I betrayed him,” she answered.
And that was the point Ayane decided the conversation wasn’t worth the time she was spending on it. The Beasts were invading, and she was talking to some scorned member of the single greatest enemy of mankind which were the members of Led by Anarchy. Besides the Beasts, of course, that went without saying.
“You betrayed all of us, all of mankind when you—”
“Ugh, spare me, please,” the woman said, rolling her eyes.
Ayane squinted her eyes, offended, and head-butted the woman so she could have a moment to let go of her jacket so she could use that hand to put her unconscious with a hit to the head.
The Shadow was certain there was a lot behind whoever that woman was, and Falk, but it was so far removed from any concern she considered important. What was important to consider was what to do with her.
The woman was deranged, she would never be of help to them and their effort, as the magician had offered to.
The Shadow switched on the talk box.
“…and that wasn’t even the final nail in the coffin, oh no, it was but the hammer to hit home! For you see–”
You have…to be kidding, the Shadow thought, her nerves instantly gnashing.
He was still going. The Mad Genius was still gloating. Her patience flared.
“Shut up, Falk!” she yelled.
The Shadow was surprised to see the interruption carry through. She had half-expected it to be muting her since he was talking, which also meant that nobody else had tried to do that.
“Excuse me?!” Falk asked from the other side, sounding insulted. “Who was this!? We must have words!”
“This is the Shadow,” she announced, “you maniac. How do you justify filling up the talk boxes with your gloating when the Beasts are at our door?”
“They’re not at our door, you pinnacle of youthful idiocy,” he growled back at her. “They are far well inside. What justification do you have to interrupt me?!”
“What?!” Another voice reacted.
“They’re inside!?!?” Yet another one, terrified.
“Damn you, Falk,” the Hunter’s voice came through in a rushed whisper.
“The situation is well in hand, ladies and gentleman,” Falk said, in what passed for a defensive tone of voice. “Follow the plan, keep to your postings and schedules.”
“I found some red-haired woman trying to burn free the anchors on your airship,” the Shadow reported.
“Airship?! My dear, that’s no mere airship,” he announced. “That is a state of the art aircraft of the likes humanity has never seen before! Why, if you could only grasp the–”
“Falk. Please,” she was truly exasperating at that point, “the red-haired woman. I’ve subdued her.”
“What do I know about some—oh,” he said with interest, “does she have burn marks somewhere on her person?”
“Mostly everywhere on her person,” Ayane said.
“Oh, Amanda!” he said in realization. “Yes, kill her, then.”
“What?” Ayane asked.
“And so even the Fire Hazards have met their end!” His voice continued, apparently done with that conversation “All due to the plan that I—”
“If you do not cease this prattling and see to your duties, you will not survive the day,” the talk box broadcasted, and Ayane was sure everyone in the mansion froze still.
The silence that followed that remark was telling. That was a clear, if not sudden, threat against Falk’s life.
“What?!” the Mad Genius’s voice suddenly erupted. “Who dares threaten Falk Goldschmidt, the—”
Silence was the response, and this time, it was deliberate. That was clear due to how it was broken by use of a slightly thoughtful hum.
“Hm….I’ll forgive the crass attitude in lieu of you being right about where my focus should be, at this point in time,” Falk said, carefully but no less demeaning.
Ayane shook her head, trying to find patience within her.
“Everyone, please report on your situation,” Falk asked.
“This is left wing A three,” a hoarse voice came out, “we will be dead within minutes, there are too many of them. The Beasts’ hide is decaying, we can confirm.”
“Excellent!” Falk exclaimed, none too affected by the dying mages.
“At least, it’s weakening,” the mage added.
“As expected, ladies and gentleman. And over on the right?”
“Still no beasts in sight,” another mage reported, reminding Ayane of the Circus Freak. He would have laughed at the rhyme.
“In that case, do send half your forces to left wing B two, it will expedite reloading the cannon.”
“…sure,” the mage replied, none too pleased with the order.
Ayane looked down at Amanda, feeling stuck between two bad decisions.
The Shadow could tie her but could she really trust something like that? Killing her would be immediate. Two seconds and the threat would be gone, and she could move on to help lives that were actually worth the effort.
One moment versus several minutes, most of them spent on deciding on what to actually do.
Every time she pictured slitting her throat, however, made Ayane feel sick. She didn’t want to kill her, much less in a type of execution.
But the Beasts…
Dead within minutes, she thought.
Ayane scratched her head, wondering about what she could do. The Hunter had gotten used to it, and she was a good woman through and through. Caring, in her own way.
Perhaps it was just like with alcohol, one just had to get it over with. Get used to it.
She turned her dagger in her hand, poising to stab.
Instead, she put it back, along with the few remaining others.
Maybe I can do it, she looked around, for the first time taking a closer look at what surrounded her, but not like this.