One of the beast machines didn’t seem to share Ayane’s sense of drama and finality, it leaped for her. She didn’t have the strength to leap away, not yet, but she met the attack with irrational confidence, which is to say, she didn’t even blink, let alone shiver or stumble.
She wasn’t a genius like Falk or an empathic prodigy like the Don or the Street Rat. She wasn’t fearless like the Circus Freak or courageous like the Hunter or powerful like the Sorcerer.
She was Ayane, the Shadow, and she still had the stone in her possession, hidden inside her outfit, near her waist. She had dived into a shadow stream straight out of a thousand mile drop, so it was a simple thing to simply hop and phase through the beast machine’s hide. It was, after all, no different from any other wall coated in the Beasts’ dark mineral.
Nobody saw her awkwardly emerging inside, where there was very little room for her, to press her left forearm into the pilot’s neck for the long seconds it took for him to pass out.
All they saw, villagers and soldiers alike, was the Shadow phasing into the machine, and seconds later, they watched as it collapsed to the side. They then witnessed as the Shadow emerged to stand on top of it.
They did not see how she breathed while choking the man, how she heaved and wheezed, moaning in pain. She actually took an extra ten seconds after the man was unconscious, fighting the urge to just disappear. The Shadow won that battle as well, and so she emerged, wounded and yet standing strong, especially when her face was hidden behind her mask.
The message, she felt, was clear. Nobody would be able to stop her, and since they didn’t know about her arts, or about the fact she was carrying the gem, they had no clear idea what she was doing and how. All they saw was power they didn’t understand making her untouchable if she wished to use it.
She looked around, making sure the remaining beast machines would not be attacking. Then she pointed back at him. “Who was he? The man I defeated?”
“Prince,” someone said, “young. Est.”
Tyrannical monarchy, Ayane realized, well, it has lasted too long, it seems.
“He is but one of you, and you should judge him as such,” Ayane said.
“HA!” The young prince yelled out, followed by what she assumed were profanities and insults, but she ignored them.
“As to the rest,” she yelled out, grabbing her shoulder for what little psychological comfort it offered, “can I trust you?”
The hesitation further proved she was right. Had she simply left, they would have perhaps given in to fear. Ayane needed that to work, however. She desperately didn’t want to execute genocide.
“I was sent here to guarantee your destruction. I could stand here and offer you fear and terror, because of it. Or I could have skipped that and offered you death. Instead, I offer you hope.” For all they knew, she was bluffing.
“We will prove,” one of them said.
For all she knew, they were lying.
“We will prove!” They yelled out in a chorus, all around them and with such promise that the two beast machines that were there looked around with their traveling eye spheres, which she took as a flinch. The prince started laughing.
What should she do? Cause their genocide in the off chance they were lying? Or in the off chance that they would fail?
No, she nodded at them, and slowly, she started dissolving down into the Beast machine she had just defeated. Whether successful or not, I will take the path of least death and destruction.
“Your name!” Someone called out. “When. We tell. Of you!”
She paused. She submerged up to her chest, and considered that. Ayane imagined history being made around her actions there, and thus decided she should better be a symbol than just some girl who won a fight. With the sobering notion she might be generating a legend, she looked around in silence.
“All men die…but their shadows live on,” she proclaimed, somehow managing to contain all the pain and exhaustion out of her posture. “I am the Shadow of Kagekawa, and of all men who have perished beneath your heels.”
They knew the rest. They knew what she had been there for, and what she had done instead. It was now up to them.
Whatever happened would be on their conscience. As to the Shadow, she now had to help the Thieving Magpie, Kallen, find her way to the surface. And then she would need to travel back to Neyrk because although her part in subterranean was over, her part in the affairs of her people was not.
There was no time to waste. Lives were being lost each passing minute, and whatever happened underground would not affect the ongoing fight in Neyrk. Only she could do that. And those there.
Faster, she told herself, tired and painfully, I need to hurry. All we need to do is escape, I need to hurry and convince them to escape.
Ayane had no inkling of what she could say to all those people in order to convince them to give up their homes. She had no idea of how to accomplish what she had sought out to do, but since when was that an issue? It had never deterred her.
She felt her missing tooth with her tongue, and her mind went quiet. Determination silenced every thought that was standing in the way.
All she knew was what she should be doing, how to get it done was beside the point. She hoped she would find a way, as she had so far. That was all anyone on the planet had at that point, really.
I need to hurry.
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