For the third time that day, the Shadow stood tall and said:
The man stepped forward so he could stand tall as well, it was easier for him, in regards to her.
“I can see,” he stated. “By the way my people look to you, I can guess what is happening. You are not with this creature,” his full head of hair waved towards the Mole, who was still gasping for hair while bleeding to death.
The Shadow wanted to reply. She wanted to tell him that hope was happening, change was happening, a pursuit of peace and happiness and a struggle against whatever fear and intimidation he was responsible for. But the Hunter came to mind, along with the tales of her predecessors. But most importantly, Ayane thought back to every single interaction she had had had with a silent teacher.
She would ask “what did I do wrong,” or “what’s the problem,” but they would just stare back in silence. And she would know.
Saying anything to the effect of her intentions and goals, of what was right or wrong, felt like a detraction from them. It felt to her that if she were to say anything, it would do more harm than good. Following on that instinct, she kept quiet and simply retrieved daggers from within her costume, one for each hand.
“Nothing to say, human? Is my language not understandable? I have been told I have been a very good learner.”
She felt questioning that point wouldn’t diminish her presence there, so since she really wanted to know, the Shadow asked: “by whom?”
He smiled a crooked smile, white teeth full of dark holes.
“By the same man who told us about the location of the light gem…twice. And where to find your home in the hills, and the rest of the homes being used by our main opponents, the Shadow Conclave.”
Only one type of person in the entire world could have had that knowledge to share, and that was an actual member of the Conclave. Ayane considered whether that could be true.
Perhaps Falk had actually never abandoned the LBA goal.
No, Griff gave us this location…and everyone else. It had to be one of the leaders, but I am not completely aware–
“The one in gray,” the man revealed, as if for his own amusement.
The Shadow could not avoid a reaction to that. It clicked.
It all just clicked. Everything since she first went behind enemy lines until that very moment standing there, it all just suddenly made sense in a way she had never thought about.
How could they had just dismissed the fact the Head of Mists had lost the magic scroll? Only when Griff betrayed them had they assumed someone had a scroll and was aware of their communications, but what if that had been the case since long before?
He had not just lost the magic scroll.
“We captured the fool. It took some effort, he was not disloyal to you, but we can be very convincing.”
The Shadow needed not say anything else. A fight was about to happen, and she felt that the more he spoke and gloated, the greater the effect of defeating him would be.
“No words? Are you not wondering why I’m telling you this?” He asked, trying to prompt her.
Ayane didn’t move a hair, let alone a vocal cord. She kept staring, hands firmly gripping her daggers, ready to move and fight. She postured with all the challenge she could muster, she postured hard enough to stare down her own doubts and fears.
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” he continued. “You have already lost, and you will soon be no more.”
The Shadow did not react to the taunt, or to the sound of crashing from behind her, caused by a few very heavy, very powerful things landing. Hard.
“Your language,” the man pointed out, holding his hand up in a halting gesture that was directed at the machines behind her, “so complicated, sometimes, so dependent on your tone and inflection.”
He took a step forward.
“However, in the case of that statement, it is wonderful, because I need only one sentence to say many truths.”
He stepped forward.
“You, as in you humans.”
He stepped again.
“You, as in…what was it called? Kagekawa?”
He stepped once more.
“You as in the Shadow Conclave.”
He stepped one last time.
“And, of course, you as in the Shadow.”
He was looking down at her from but two feet away. His head was bigger, his jaws were sharper, his shoulders were broader, his legs were thicker, and his arms were bulkier. The Shadow looked small and scrawny in the presence of that warrior.
Blades do not care, she thought to herself, imagining that she was saying that to his face, a face of someone who had clearly not lost in his life. Not ever. The face of a bully who had never been put in his place.
“No words? Are you certain?” He scoffed a smirk down at her. “No whimpers or pleadings? This might be your last chance to hear your own voice.”
From behind her lenses, she glanced at the people looking on. The importance of that confrontation seemed obvious, even if she wasn’t used to understanding people. The feelings behind their reluctance, manifesting in an anguishing manner, were coming out loud and clear.
Ayane brought her sight back up to the man. If she could defeat him. If she could show everyone. With her heart set on it, she finally followed up on his prompt.
“I am. The Shadow,” she spoke, similarly to how the villagers had spoken, but obviously without trying to imitate the actual tone of voice. “I. do not. Fear you.”
He didn’t like that. His cool-headed and confident demeanor vanished behind a roaring protest as he swung at her with a quickness the Shadow could follow, if barely. She leaned away while parrying the move, which is what one would typically do against a force they had not the strength to match.
Sparks flew as his rocky forearms scraped against her blades.
He threw a flurry of blows, his stance and technique reminding her of Western pugilism. She thought she could face it but a stabbing attempt resulted in a broken dagger, and a block of his saw the other thrown away.
Taking advantage of his block, however, the Shadow crouched into his space and punched him in the gut twice with the left, which he seemed not to feel at all as, with a short grunt, he swung right back at her with a hook. Ayane leaned back and grabbed the arm, pulling to throw him off balance, but his foot anchored to the ground with great firmness, crushing it a little bit. He thrust with his other hand and hit her shoulder with a punch.
Ayane let go immediately and hopped away.
He followed her steps and swung wide, forcing her to leap away. He leaped after her, his right foot leading the charge. She landed and hit his leg away while stepping aside, but with his momentum unbothered, he quickly transitioned with a backhand that she very narrowly avoided by dropping back. Her back dropped, but her legs rose, upper-kicking him in the groin.
Annoyed, he hugged fists and threw his body weight into crushing her with them. She rolled to the side, again narrowly avoiding it.
Ayane wanted to just plunge into the shadows, but she felt she shouldn’t. Winning would be meaningless if the people watching were left believing only the Shadow could have defeated the man. They had to think anyone could.
So instead of vanishing, she got kicked in the sides and sent flipping across the air, which she suddenly couldn’t breathe.
Landing, she stood and smacked herself in the chest, taking a deep breath. She got up just in time to avoid a deadly hit by jumping away, trying to get an additional second to catch her breath.
One should not depend on the arts. That was a lesson for any member of the Kagekawa, and one Ayane had taken to heart. She had hardly ever used any but the most fundamental art of navigating the shadow streams. It had been a fact many had used to justify being derisive towards her and her unproven mastery of said arts.
She had been a thief. What use had a thief for anything other than the ability to go through walls? Still, she wondered if any of her predecessors would have had an easier time handling that fight.
She wondered, as her right shoulders took yet another hit too violent for her muscles to contain, if any of her predecessors would have been able to take those hits. As it stood, she had to avoid most of them while her hits seemed to be negligible.
Precision, Ayane thought, precision is true strength.
Her teachings were coming up, just as they always did when her personality left the stage so that the mind could better concentrate.
The Shadow would not defeat her foe through brute force, or by using cunning such as taking him into a building. But although he was fast, strong, durable, almost as if wearing armor over his skin, he was not a good fighter.
A fight can turn on its head in one single moment, her learnings reminded her, a man can have only one arm left, and with it, rip the throat of his opponent in the only successful exchange of the fight.
Her enemy was not a superior fighter. He wasn’t sharper, and his attacks didn’t flow, they were simply relentless. She had to hold out and last long enough for her moment to happen.
It had to.
Vitals can be armored, and they were, but joints are ever vulnerable. Otherwise, they are unusable.
He was keeping that under control as well. He hardly ever kicked and all his punches kept his arms from stretching outright. They were always at least a bit curved. But that didn’t mean they were protected.
More or less vulnerable… she remembered, time gets you through either way.
She kicked his knee a fourth time and ducked under his mad swing, striking at his armpit. That is what she would do, hit the same vulnerable parts over and over again, and with time, they would weaken.
They had to.
Time displaced itself in her mind as the fight continued, seemingly forever and without end. It sure felt like that to her. Every time she hit him, it would be with a short burst of blows to vulnerable body parts, and every time he hit her, she would be sent off flying with the sensation she would not be able to get up again.
But she did.
Again and again, she tumbled across the floor or hit a wall, only to stand back up again with a stubborn snarl, or a short coughing fit, only to continue fighting. Her gauntlets began to break, and soon after, her scarf was ripped apart when she went through a window. The window had no glass, only a frame made of jagged rock which cut her and shredded the scarf.
Inside the house, she growled herself to stand up. While walking out, she tied part of the scarf around her knuckles to help keep the skinny gauntlets together.
If they broke, it would be over.
Soon after that, even if it felt like a long time to Ayane, she grew desperate with her mask. Standing up from a blow to her stomach that had sent her tumbling for a dozen feet, she pulled it down. She found relief in being able to spit blood in peace, and breathe easier, and the whole thing also reminded her of her missing tooth. And what it represented for her.
The man charged her, and she yelled, monosyllabic, in challenge.
Every moment she wanted to give in, the missing tooth reminded her of what she was responsible for. Glancing around at the people watching, no matter how painfully, reminded her what she was fighting for.
Ayane had lost that tooth being a fool and had immediately caused deaths as a consequence.
There would be no more of that.
The Shadow landed out of bouncing off a wall. Hunching down, her legs feeling right about ready to give way, she refused to even kneel. Instead, she stood back up and glared at the man in challenge.
They locked into combat again, not two seconds later.
His stance had lost its firmness. His movements were looking shaky as she punched his elbow again. He grunted, hurting, revealing to the Shadow that she was achieving progress.
Alas, she wasn’t that far behind him, and that’s if she wasn’t far ahead of him regarding damage to the body. The Shadow was moving sluggishly.
Finally, she saw a chance. An opportunity to jab straight at his throat. Alas, once she threw the blow, he lunged his head down and caught her hand in-between his chin and his chest.
Oh no! she realized.
Ayane was a moment too slow to pull back, so he grabbed hold of her right arm by grabbing around her bicep with his entire left hand. The act of pulling her alone, so that he could impale her like he had the Mole, ripped her arm out of her socket in a loud crack.
“Ahhhhh!” In the desperation of being a moment away from dying, Ayane jumped away, throwing her body back and out of his right-hand thrust, which cut through only superficially.
Using his strong grip as an axis to rotate around to his side, her body spun. Her arm would’ve stopped that movement, but it was already broken and in blinding pain so Ayane, without giving it much thought, just went ahead and further dislocated it so that she could land her good elbow on the side of his neck.
She did it so fast.
It was one single movement straight out of dodging his thrust. His right hand was still where her heart should have been when her elbow connected. She didn’t feel her arm being let go due to the amount of pain it was under, and due to the near-blind tunnel-vision focus she was employing at that moment, when she would either win the fight or lose the world.
Before her feet hit the ground, her torso pulled a bit back, and her left arm whipped open, striking at his neck with the side of the hand, precisely where the elbow had hit
“YOU!” She yelled, drawing strength from it.
A tenth of a second later, her right foot landed, and her left hit him on the side of the knee.
Ayane felt it giving in.
“ARE NOT!” Ayane yelled.
Her right hand didn’t show up for the flurry of hits to the side of his face, especially the temple, but the left still hit it twice and then elbowed as well, all while his body was trying to fall on top of her due to her knee hit. She followed up by spinning around to swipe to his leg with a strong kick.
“THE WILL!” She yelled again.
Feeling his body faltering, Ayane span around his back, smacking the back of his neck and then tried to grab him and push him down to his left but her right hand didn’t show up. Driven a bit senseless by the pain and stress, Ayane instead brought her arm around like a hanging piece of dry-wood and bludgeoned him across the face with it.
Her opponent fell on the ground and promptly experienced Ayane’s entire weight distributed around his neck via her knee, roughly half a second before a dagger was pulled out to stand on top of his eye.
Breathing strongly, Ayane tried to focus her mind. The pain was numbing it, so she wanted to yell, but whatever she had been yelling before, it escaped her. Anger still welled up in her, pressured by the pain in her broken arm.
“YOUR PEOPLE WANT DEATH RATHER THAN YOUR WAR!”
His eyes were unfocused and, it seemed to her, bloodshot. It was hard to tell, but it was possible she had damaged the inside of his head. Yet, he still managed to curse in their language.
And then in hers. “NO OTHER CHOICE, DEMON,” he bellowed, “‘TIS DEATH OR WAR! KILL ME! Go ahead!” He yelled in pain, grabbing his head with both hands. “GO AHEAD AND DO IT! THIS IS wa—” he coughed out blood.
He whispered in gibberish but then finally spoke, even if he was incapable of yelling due to the pressure on his neck. “You kill me they kill you…and on and on…until all of you are dead. And the world is ours.”
Ayane shook her own head, trying to think through the pain. She looked around at the people surrounding her while breathing harshly on top of him, nearly at him.
“We…they…” Ayane shook her head again, wincing at the incredible pain, bringing her will to focus. In a movement that surprised even her, she threw the dagger away so she could use the hand to grab onto her injured shoulder.
“They will…kill you,” she coughed out a bit of blood, “Augh… they will end your tyranny,” she said, exasperatingly. She stood up on the strength of a painful moan.
“Agh…” and looked around at the people there. They looked stunned.
“Justice!” Ayane managed to yell, gesturing at her defeated foe with but an attempt to point, which her broken and exhausted body refused to comply with. She coughed a bit but stood tall again, putting all the effort she had into yelling.
“Justice will not be done by my hand!” She stepped away, demonstrating she was offering the man to them and their judgment. “Only by yours!”
He was theirs, after all, as they were his.
“Only by yours…”
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