What to Fight For (28.2) The Shadow

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PART 2

The Shadow slipped into the shadow stream right beside Kallen and looked back. Holding up the gem, she could clear see the outside. It was usually beneficial to pop the head out to take a proper peek, but the gem worked like a flashlight and made it so the Shadow wouldn’t need to do so.

Kallen showed no reaction which in turn meant the flashlight could not be seen by normal eyes.

Finally, Ayane thought, with a cathartic sense of finality. An advantage.

Not only did the proxy stone enable her to slip in and out of any location, due to the lack of lighting inside the caves, but it allowed her to peer out into the real world without having to enter it.

The Shadow set out straight for the big room where she was supposed to replace the Beast’s power source with the very stone she was carrying, and also with what hopes she had it would actually work as intended. She found the room quickly enough.

The Shadow swam around the room, the ground, ceiling, and walls, making sure she noticed every detail of it.

It was very big.

It had a Beast right by the entrance, piloting one of their machines, and a few more patrolling the room. The power source was inside of a chamber, sitting on a pedestal. There was no visual indication that it was powered on, or off, so hopefully, she could just switch them.

The real question was how.

The moment the Shadow left the stone behind, she’d be stranded, and Kallen too. But before even considering whether or not it’d be worth it, there was the fact the Beats could just take the stone out.

Even if she could escape with the power-source, Ayane doubted they wouldn’t be able to replace it.

The core of the idea behind their mission was to replace it without anybody knowing, or failing that, to take away their ability to swap it back. To accomplish it, the Shadow would have to make the replacement and escape with their power source, and on top of that, she would have to block the entrance to the room–there was only one, fortunately–to properly guarantee there would be no replacements.

The Shadow transitioned back to Kallen.

“Falk gave you explosives?” Ayane asked, coming out of the wall.

“Ah!” Kallen yelled in a rushed whisper. She turned her head towards Ayane’s head, which was popping out right next to her shoulder. “Wow, that’s freaky. Uh yeah,” she confirmed, again retrieving something out of her pouch. It was a malleable satchel that she had bent over itself.

Kallen held it out, explaining, “He said to place it on a surface and press the button in the middle. It’ll only work if it’s completely flat on the surface.”

The Shadow reached out with one hand and took it.

“This is kinda weird, ya know?” Kallen asked, awkwardly. “I thought we’d only see each other again when it was all over.”

The Shadow smiled with a very minute scoff. “Necessity does not care much for narrative, does it?”

“I guess not,” Kallen conceded. “Sorry, not really used to this kinda stuff.”

The Shadow nodded and slipped back into the shadow stream.

Now, she had a way to block off the room and a decent-enough likelihood that she could actually pull it off on her skills alone. Still, she wanted to better guarantee her chances.

She spoke of a village nearby, Ayane thought. Perhaps if I cause a commotion there, they will leave the room less guarded.

Even one less Beast would be worth the effort.

With time pressing down on her nerves, the Shadow navigated the streams to find the village. It was a quick find.

Those people really lived in almost absolute darkness. Their only light came from crystals that emitted a near-supernatural shine. They were of different colors but not at all arrayed with any specific aesthetic in mind, it gave her the impressions they were not made but rather formed by natural means.

Nevertheless, there was a beauty to it that stood a bit in contrast to Ayane’s dread. The houses were made of rock, mostly circular and welcoming, which also stood in contrast to her expectations. She wanted to see an evil place, and spiky buildings that didn’t even look like houses but more like hives, or even just holes inside which the Beasts would be living like actual animals.

Instead, the people there were walking around dressed in rags, talking to each other and carrying things around like… regular people. Their feet were hooked and hard, they didn’t wear any shoes of any kind. Their skin was, along with the hair, that of someone she would associate with being a century-old hermit, but if Ayane ignored the displeasing looks, they looked like any other group of villagers.

Uhm… Ayane didn’t know what to think about that, so she, unfortunately, defaulted to concern.

Would terraforming their air kill them? That was obviously Falk’s intent and hope, but she didn’t much care about what he thought and knew for a fact he could be wrong. Yet, what hope did she have, or any human being, other than for Ayane to try?

The Shadow navigated to a wall of a particular house, glaring outside at a group of people that was walking near it. She took a breath in her mind and stepped out into the real world.

Intending to intimidate, to get someone to scream for help, the Shadow walked out of the wall, intending to appear out of nowhere in as supernatural a fashion as possible.

Everyone who caught sight of her froze.

Male, female, elders and children, the small group of ten people all just froze and stared at her. Not terrifyingly, or in any way scared, but still rather shocked.

More people began to notice, gradually, growing the group with each passing second. The more people noticed her, the faster others did as well until the entire street was filled with people standing around, apparently at a loss as to how to react.

The Shadow stared back, her shoulders arched menacingly, unafraid and ready for a fight. What’s wrong with them? Scream, cry for help, do something.

“Moma!”

The mother shushed the child and pushed her arm down, whispering unintelligible words. The large group of people looked around at each other, throwing glances and glares that were perhaps a bit too meaningful, and yet, they continued to not react.

This is… weird, Ayane remarked in her mind, trying not to deflate her poise.

The Shadow drew a dagger and tried to exude the kind of aura the Darkness was known for. In return, a man approached her, albeit very carefully. With slow and cautious steps, he came into talking distance.

The man cleared his throat in a seemingly sickly manner, and then scratched it with a voice that was attempting to talk.

“You. Are Sha…dow concla. Ve,” he stated, surprised.

It took everything she had not to lean back in shock. Instead, she leaned her head down in what she hoped was a threatening gesture.

“Yes,” alerted the Shadow, in a silent and deadly voice, she hoped, while drawing the second dagger for good measure.

What are you doing? Ayane asked the man inside her mind, she was really confused at how they were all reacting.

More and more of them were noticing her. Those with children mostly cleared out, but everyone else cautiously approached and ogled eyed. The man that had spoken was dressed in dusty gray shirt and shorts. His arms and legs were very hairy, as was his face, and his eyes seemed to peer into her like those of a demon who knew too much.

His burrow furrowed pleadingly. “Let. Us help. You,” he said.

That did it. That, at last, made the Shadow flinch. Behind her mask, she rose an eyebrow as her poise utterly deflated.

“What?”

Ayane peered at them thoroughly suspicious. “What do you mea–”

He shushed her, looking around cautiously, which prompted the group of nearly a hundred people to do the same.

“Come,” the man waved at her, walking away.

Ordinarily, the Shadow would feel absolutely contrary to following the lead of genocidal maniacs, but the curiosity nudged at her too much. He sounded sincere, and they all looked legitimately worried they would be seen talking to her.

And that made no sense.

Besides, Ayane was very confident nothing could hurt her, not when she had the gem and could thus fall through the ground quite quickly at the drop of a hat.

Keep your wits, Shadow…focus, Ayane thought, confident that all she had to worry about was to not be caught off-guard.

They led the Shadow inside a very big building. It was tall, and the entrance led directly to a room brimming with chairs. These were not made of any kind of wood, but some kind of metal that was perfectly crafted. There was a podium at the end, and above it was a painting. Ayane didn’t recognize what was used as paint, it was definitely not anything she knew about, but she did recognize the picture.

It was Jakariah.

What… Ayane thought, dumbfounded. What in the…

The Shadow found herself standing in the middle of a church, a Church of the Light, of Jakariah’s Light while being surrounded by the people who were behind the near extinction of the human race.

“Please do not surround me,” the Shadow said, as a warning.

Those behind and to her side immediately stepped back to give Ayane space and walked by the chairs to provide her a full view of everyone. It was roughly a group of twenty, not everyone had come.

Ayane looked back to make sure it was clear, and then back at them. She did what the Hunter would have done and kept quiet, so as to prompt them to speak.

The Shadow did not put her daggers away.

“Mill…” the man looked around for help, but there was none. “Too many…times ago. Ancestors came. They look,” he coughed, and pointed at the painting “for Light.”

One of the others, a woman, said something in their language before looking to the Shadow.

“They. Find Dark. Dark takes. Eyes,” she pointed at her own eyes, the perfectly black goblets that were all their eyes, and also those of the machines they rode.

“Could not,” another continued, “return. Would. Be killed.”

This is hard to follow with all these pauses, Ayane thought, so their ancestors were pilgrims looking for Jakariah’s Light, probably the amulet itself or something else. I remember that, in the past, there were a lot of people who thought the Light physically existed. That is no longer the belief.

“Stayed. Forever,” someone else said.

They are humans… she looked down at the feet, looking them over so as to regard them from that perspective. It was possible.

“Life okay,” the first of them picked up the narration. “until now.”

“Out of. Resources.”

“Drilled. Too much.”

“Forced. To go up.”

“How many?” She asked immediately, trying to size up what they were saying in her head. “How numerous are your people?”

“Not as. Many. But many. As surface,” one of the women responded, gesturing up. “Our land. As big.”

That meant cities. That meant nations. An entire offshoot of human civilization had apparently developed underground for millennia without everyone on the surface knowing. That was insane to accept, but it also meant, for a final fact, that Falk was absolutely wrong.

They would never be able to win a normal confrontation.

What the Shadow was there to do, and the Thieving Magpie as well, it was the only chance humanity had.

They are human too, Ayane told herself. It took quite a toll on her mind, the revelation, but it was important for her to accept it.  

“Our leaders,” the man picked up again, his voice tired. “They are. Convinced. You would. Deny us. Survival.”

“They. Decide On,” that person coughed and tried to clear his throat, so someone else picked it up “Preemptive. Oblitera–tion.”

Ayane took a breath, processing all the information.

She wasn’t enough of a loyalist to tell herself Hanppon or anyone else on the surface wouldn’t have done the same thing. Looking at the Beasts, and knowing how numerous they were, there was no way a peaceful resolution would be possible. After all, nations already had a lot of issues with their neighbors, how would they accept an immense number of people that don’t even look like them?

Peaceful immigration would indeed be impossible, so the leaders of the Beasts were not wrong.

Yet…

“It is. Unfair,” the original spokesperson said. “We killed. Our resources. We stayed. In dark. Instead of. Return–ing.  To light.” He had a coughing fit, and the woman stepped a bit forward to speak again, but he held his hand to stop her. “Now we. Go up. And take. With Us. Dark.”

He giving a voice to what Ayane was thinking. Much as her people would’ve done the same, it would also be wrong of them to do so, and it did in no way justify that it was wrong.

“We make. Mistake,” the woman continued, “we. Not want. To help. Our leaders.”

“We want. To help. You.”

Ayane winced at that, producing a shiver she could not avoid.

What? This is crazy. They’ll help me fight them?!

“Why would I believe you?” The Shadow asked, making sure her tone of voice did not betray the compassion she was feeling. “How can I believe you?”

They looked around, clearly uncomfortable.

“There was. Take of power. We cannot. Stop them. But. Maybe we. Can help. You?”

The Shadow looked around in a reflex that betrayed her wish for someone else to be there. Someone like Eliza, to make the decision, or like Jamie, who was more used to seeing through deceit and gauging honesty. Ayane was not apt at understanding either.

How could they even speak her language? The singular words she had heard their warriors speak, here and there, okay, or their military leaders knowing words of their enemies, it made sense. But how did common village dwellers know the common tongue?

Ugh, Ayane grunted, her mind painted. It would be better if they changed their minds and tried to fight and called for help, it would make things a lot easier on her. With that in mind, Ayane decided to push the envelope onto full disclosure.

“What I have come here to do,” the Shadow pointed out, while gazing at them. “It will doom you to a slow death. I have come to kill the dark. ”

They flinched at that. Some of them were having second thoughts, but the moment the Shadow gripped her daggers a little bit tighter, the man stepped forward with a yell.

“No!” They all stopped and looked. “Living. Is not. Everything.”

Ayane saw as most of the group nodded in recognition, it was probably a saying of theirs.

“Living is. Torture. If not…” the man frowned in a struggle to find words.

Someone from the end of the building, near the podium, decided to chime in. “Right.”

Ayane saw he was holding a book.

They still have our literature, Ayane realized, solving the mystery of their mastery of the common language. Their language changed, along with their looks and…vocal cords, but they still learn our words.

The man nodded at the newcomer vigorously. Energized. He looked back at the Shadow and grabbed his heart to emote pain.

“Living is. Torture. If it is. Not right.”

The Shadow understood the argument, but it was a hard pill to swallow. It also hurt her plan more than it helped, even if they didn’t know it.

It would really be easier if they attacked her. If they didn’t give her a choice but to act in self-defense, for the sake of the survival of what humans remain.

They’re humans, Ayane chided herself, they’re humans, not beasts. Still, especially as humans, their offer was very hard to believe.

“You will doom your entire civilization to death?” Ayane asked. “How am I supposed to believe that?”

“Tell us how to. Help. And we prove,” the woman said, clearly the best speaker out of all of them.

And then, in a chorus, they all said.

“We will prove.”

And that was that.

Ayane could feel it within her, whatever it was that kept driving her towards bad and almost always suicidal decisions, heating back up again. That part of her, that core and powerful part of her, lit up and pulsed.

Ayane felt repugnance at the idea… of killing those people.

Damn… Ayane thought, in true anguish. What do I do now?

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