Everything around her was pure darkness, and it had been for the past hour. Or hours. Or was it minutes?
It was hard to tell.
She was dedicating most of her mental faculties to not freaking out. Ayane knew the moment she tried to scream, she wouldn’t stop.
Instead, the Shadow continued moving.
The drop seemed to have happened decades ago and to have lasted only an instant. She vaguely remembered glimpses of the Beast’s gun emplacements, which were large machines the size of cars with long cannons protruding out of them. The Shadow vaguely remembered concentrating on that one crucial micro-second that preceded the void.
The speed with which she reached the entrance to the shadow stream gave Ayane only a very small moment to make the transition. She had never performed the art in such a short period of time, not even close, but all her practice while working for Shadow Conclave had prepared her well. She had made it.
Alas, there was momentum to a transition. Like diving into water, the faster one’s going, the deeper one gets by the time they get enough control to stop. Ayane had been lost ever since.
One, two, three, I will find a way back, Ayane thought in a melancholic tone. One, two, three, I will find my way back.
The nothing had always been welcoming to her. The quiet, the absence of eyes upon her and the safety itself, of isolation. But now, it was anguish. Not seeing a way out was terrifying, and on top of that, the clock was ever ticking. Odds of Sarah dying increased every passing second.
Thinking about it, because there was nothing else to do, it made sense that the Shadow couldn’t find a way out. The entire world was now terraformed, or at least enough so that the shadows were blocked everywhere, she hadn’t thought of that before jumping.
The Shadow decided to stop and focus.
It has always been a question, what this place really is, Ayane thought instead, trying to think constructively instead of panicking. It cannot be truly a void. Since I can breathe and move, it needs to be made of something. Something that flows.
Ayane could indeed sense something. She never had, but then again, she had never spent so long inside. Of course, there was also the chance that insanity was simply beginning to strike her mind. However, the constructive thing to do was hope it was the former and not the latter.
It is called a shadow stream for a reason, Ayane thought, encouraging herself. Something is flowing…
It was then that she considered her hair. Before going off on the voyage on the airship, she had changed costumes once again, donning the one she had original wore for the Shadow Conclave competition. Even if it was a darker version of it–to better match the shadow lenses–it still left her fingers free, along with her hair.
The Shadow reached up, lightly and slowly, confirming that her hair was moving. As was her scarf-cape. They weren’t just hanging as if in a void, they were being brushed along, albeit very slightly, by a current she couldn’t feel or see.
The Shadow noticed the direction and followed it for a few seconds. Then stopped, stabilized her hair and let go again, waiting to see which direction it flowed to. She began breathing normally again, taking advantage of the new-found sense of purpose and progress to regain some confidence in what she was doing.
Ayane had done a lot of stupid things and made a lot of foolish decisions, all of which would be hard to explain to anyone else. Jumping after the Thieving Magpie had by far been the worst. It was a decision that she would not be able to explain to anyone.
Yet, she had gone ahead with it.
This insanity has to pay off, Ayane stubbornly thought.
Shaming the name of the Shadow, the title and all its past forbearers, was near to the worst thing that could happen to her. However, she was facing something none of them had ever come close to facing: the end of the world.
Ayane had given the matter a lot of thought. During her time at the House of Magni, she had made sure to talk to Eliza at lengths about Katsuo, the Shadow who had sacrificed himself to buy humanity time to prepare. It was time they had mostly wasted, but that was beside the point.
She wanted to get a good idea of him. How he thought and acted. Who he was.
Eliza had told her how he, too, made decisions on his own. Cut off from his handler, and thereby from Kagekawa, he decided to ally with rivals, which was unprecedented until he did it. He decided to infiltrate the Beast’s first vessel. And he decided to sacrifice his life to make sure Eliza, then the Sorcerer, and Griff, then the Dark Runner, escaped with what they had stolen.
The man had made decisions that nobody could understand. Unjustifiable decisions which he nevertheless considered to be right. And they all worked out.
Ayane was definitely on track to match the first part, but the jury was still out on the second.
Her thoughts took a backseat, quite suddenly, upon catching sight of a tiny blip of brightness in the middle of nothing.
A light! Ayane’s mind yelled, frantically.
It was indeed a source of light. The same effect as when a shadow had a good angle on sunlight. That was what she could see, a very tiny window into some kind of light source.
Go go go, by the Light! Ayane thought without processing it, goooooo.
She went through the tiny exit so fast she came out the other side in a dive.
“Waaaahhhh!” Someone screamed.
“Whoah!” Ayane yelled, surprised by the sudden pull of gravity.
The Shadow brought her arms up to keep herself from meeting concrete headfirst. She bounced off and tumbled back across rocky terrain to hit the wall she had come out of, quite dazed.
“Holy crap!?” Someone yelled in a whisper.
The Shadow turned her head towards the voice manifesting surprise to find the Thieving Magpie, who seemed to have just then stopped crawling away, and was instead half lying down almost in a sort of crab position. “Shadow?!” she asked in shock.
“Sarah,” Ayane said, her voice teeming with a far greater amount of relief than she thought she felt, “are you well?”
She looked terrible, the poor girl. She had certainly been crying, evident by how she wiped a tear from her left eye, which she interrupted to lunge for the Shadow with a hug.
“I thought you’d all abandoned me to die!” Sarah yelled, no longer in whispers. “What happened?!”
“Keep your voice down,” the Shadow requested, looking around with a sense of danger, “I will explain, but you need to calm down, Sarah.”
“Oh man,” she reacted in a whisper, pulling back into a sitting position, “just call me Kallen, my real name’s Kallen.”
The Shadow smiled and reached out, placing a hand on her shoulder. “I am Ayane.”
The Shadow’s mind was suddenly being invaded with information she had so that she could discern what information she needed. Mostly, however, it dawned on her that Jakariah’s amulet, carried by Kallen, was what was enabling an opening in the shadow stream, even against the Beast’s terraforming.
If that was true…
“Kallen, let me see the amulet,” Ayane said.
“Hm? Oh okay!” She reached into a small pouch that was tied to her waist on the inside of the pantsuit she was wearing. She had it opened on the torso due to how warm it was in the caves and seemed to be wearing some kind of skin-tight suit underneath. She removed a round thing that was not the amulet.
“That is not the amulet,”Ayane pointed out.
“It’s not?” Kallen asked.
Falk… the Shadow realized, murderously.
Ayane grabbed the stone off Kallen’s hands and inspected it. Her shadow lenses were seeing pretty much what they saw when the amulet was in front of them, only it was bigger and a different shape.
“I think this is the proxy,” Ayane remarked, quite angrily. “Falk must have switched them.”
“Why’d he do that?” Kallen asked.
“Likely for the same reason he allowed you to fall to your death,” Ayane said, with no small amount of spite.
“What do you mean?” Kallen asked, confused.
“Your wire did not break, Kallen. Falk had no intention to try and retrieve you.” The Shadow said.
Kallen’s puffy hair wobbled as she looked aside, and then back at the Shadow. Ayane wasn’t paying much attention, she was holding the stone next to the wall and observing how, upon proximity, the material on the wall that blocked the shadows was punctured, forced to allow the shadow stream to spring into existence.
“He doesn’t believe in me, is that it?” Kallen asked, still not getting it.
“He only believes in himself,” Ayane explained.
Ayane retrieved the communication scroll and held the stone next to it. It was empty, but once she lit it up with the stone, writings appeared on it. They showed nothing but TM, Thieving Magpie, asking about what happened to the cord and pleading for someone to answer.
There were five or six messages in a row, it was sad to see.
“So what are you doing here?” Kallen finally asked.
The scrolls are also blocked by the transformed terrain… the Shadow considered, and then frowned, berating herself, of course they are, and they make use of the shadow streams, just like my art. I am so stupid, Ayane thought, in grim realization.
She also thought back to the Head of Mists and how he lost his scroll during their infiltration job. If he had held on to it, they would have known it didn’t work. Did Falk know about that? Did he send Kellan down there to die without even a way to communicate? Was that the real reason he setup the vocal system they were using back at Magni?
“Ayane?” Kallen called.
Ayane shivered in response, quickly whipping her head towards Kallen. “Sorry, did you ask me something?”
Kallen shifted her feet slightly and looked away. “I guess…why are you here? If I was abandoned by the Shadow Conclave…”
“I am here because you were not,” Ayane said, grabbing her shoulder, “you were abandoned by Falk. You and I have that in common.”
The Shadow looked back at her own scroll wondering if it would work. She didn’t see any communication on it, particularly Kallens’.
It stood to reason they would not be connected to the ones being employed by the rest of the Shadow Conclave, if they were still using them, due to the possibility of Kellan being caught by the Beasts.
That meant the two of them were stranded.
“What do we do now?” Kallen asked.
Ayane thought about their predicament. Before making a decision, it would be good to consider what could be done.
“Why have you not carried out the mission?” Ayane decided to ask. “Is the path blocked?”
“Yes,” Kallen said with a pout, “I tried leading them around, but they always leave at least one of the big guys in front of the entrance to the big room. I tried finding another way, but all I can find is either tunnels going in the opposite direction, or one particular one kind of…crossing a village.”
“A village?” Ayane asked.
Kallen’s face twisted somewhat, it seemed like she didn’t believe it either. “Well…it’s a really really big place…it’s got houses and…people. They look a bit different, but they look like people? I’m not sure, these goggles aren’t that great.”
“The fact is that carrying this gem seems to allow me to perform my shadow arts. This allows us a great opportunity,” Ayane explained.
“Oh, you can go through walls if you’re carrying that?” Kallen asked, translating her point.
“Yes.” She could do much more, in actual fact. Seeing as she was inside a network of caverns which were not significantly lit, which would usually mean a scarcity of shadows, the stone actually allowed her to traverse any surface she desired.
In essence, the proxy stone transformed her greatest weakness into her greatest strength.
“But that means…you need to leave me behind,” Kallen said, downtrodden.
The Shadow turned her head to one end of the corridor, a bit saddened. “Yes,” she said.
“Crap…augh, why am I even here? You could’ve just come by yourself, then. This is ridiculous,” Kallen stated, and quite rightly.
“Only the inventors were allowed to tinker and experiment with this,” Ayane said, a bit bitterly, “that is why.” More practical people would have performed more practical tests, instead of just wondering about effects that cannot be seen.
The Shadow looked at the scroll again, thinking.
“Get your scroll out and write something new,” Ayane requested, all while walking away to gain some distance.
“Uhm okay,” Kallen conceded.
The Shadow gained enough distance to make sure the stone wasn’t affecting Kallen’s scroll, and then looked at her own.
I’m useless, aren’t I?
Ayane sighed, feeling bad for the poor girl. It was a very undesirable situation for her, but worst yet, for the world. Had they known those things from the start, she and the Darkness would have probably just come together to wreak havoc and guarantee a successful mission.
The Shadow walked back to meet the Thieving Magpie, trying not to let the lost opportunity weigh on her heart too much. She had to focus on what could be done then, not on what they failed to realize could be done beforehand.
“Can you fight?” Ayane asked.
The girl frowned and looked down at herself.
“Guess so?” Kallen answered, not very confidently. “If I have to? Probably not at your level, I mostly just jump outta places.”
“You were not trained is what you mean,” Ayane said in understanding. She looked around, deep in thought.
“I definitely can’t fight the Beasts,” Kallen said.
A plan was forming in the Shadow’s mind, however long it had taken. She was not completely sure how she was managing to stay level-headed and patient, circumstances being what they were, but she did hold every confidence it was the best thing to do.
“Did they see you? Are they after us?” Ayane asked further.
“I think so. Some of the guns tried to turn after me,” Kallen said, “so they saw me falling at least.”
Too likely they will find her while I am gone, then, Ayane considered, tapping her chin with a finger. Think, Shadow, think.
It agonized her to leave Kellan on her own, but with the scroll working, they would at least be in contact. If Kellan had to move, she could later relay where to find her. But the more Ayane looked around, the more it seemed likely they would both get lost. Everything looked the same.
“Just go,” Kellan abruptly said. “Just go, I’ll sit tight. If I have to move, I’ll write down the path I take in the journal. If you can get back to here, you can find me.”
Smart, Ayane thought, but it wasn’t enough. It didn’t actually give any good guarantees. However, was there any better alternative?
“Are you sure?” Ayane asked.
“Augh, I dunno, I just,” Kallen interrupted herself and started pacing around. “What else is there?” She gestured nervously. “People must be dying right now, back on Neyrk, right? What am I gonna do? Make you babysit me and take me all the way outside to someplace that’s a little bit safer? That’s stupid.” Kallen let her body fall into a sitting position, in defeat. “I just. This’s so pointless, what’m I doing here? Just…argh.”
Kallen thankfully had manifested her frustration and fear in whispers, which made it a bit funny though not enough that the Shadow would laugh. The situation being what it was.
Feeling her chest squeezed, Ayane crouched and grabbed both her shoulders. “Hey,” she called in a low voice.
The Shadow sighed and took a minute to remove her eye slits. Once her eyes were free, and natural eyesight filled her perception, she realized it was something she hadn’t done in a very long time. Everything was so dark and hard to discern without them. Every single speck of rock that was so very clear before was suddenly agglomerated into one deformed surface.
Ayane blinked, getting accustomed to it, and then looked in Kallen’s eyes with her own.
“You are amazing,” Ayane stated, gravely. “I cannot promise you anything, but I will do my best to get both of us out of here. I can promise that.”
Kallen actually smiled at that. Her eyes seemed slightly watered, but she managed not to cry. She gave the slightest of nods and seemed to want to say something, but her voice faltered and offered no words in return.
Kallen’s feelings, however, were clear.
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