It felt wrong to have so much privacy. Not that she didn’t like it, Zaniyah loved privacy over almost anything else. It was something she had in common with her friend, the one who was about to go on a second suicide mission. But in one of many ships that were packing a few thousand people, none of which had more than a few feet to call their own, it felt wrong for the Scavengers to hoard so much room for themselves.
However, it was not surprising that circumstances were never bad enough for people to be willing to surrender privileges. Although, was it really a privilege if it was merited? After all, they were just kids, which meant a few dozen families could easily force their way in there, but the children’s manipulation of perception and crowd tendencies was beyond parallel. They knew that once a small group of people was convinced not to go in, everyone else would just convince themselves.
The Hunter saw the Shadow turn a corner, heading towards her and looking much better for wear. When she had emerged out of the floor of the ship, the Shadow had collapsed almost immediately. On top of being beaten up, her arm had been dislocated or broken, and she had obviously gone long without sleep or eat in any significant measure, much like the Hunter.
However, there the Shadow stood, ready to head out again. One last time. Her uniform, the same she had been wearing when they first met, was in a bad but recognizable shape. The right arm sleeve was torn off as was the mast, and the hair was disheveled, utterly surrendered to the wind in all its long, weathered beauty.
The Mad Genius would have no issue knowing who she was.
“I am prepared,” Ayane announced, stopping in front of Zaniyah.
Zaniyah nodded and reached out with the blowgun tube, and three darts in her other hand. “You have three shots.”
“They will be enough.”
The Shadow took them. She put the darts inside a small pouch on her hip, which seemed to still contain a couple of smoke bombs, and tied the blowgun next to her remaining two throwing knives.
It was rare for her to feel that way, but seeing as they might never see each other again, Zaniyah couldn’t help but compel herself to speak.
“That elephant story,” she said, pulling Ayane’s focus, “it comes from my tribe.”
“Oh? You told it to your leader?”
Zaniyah nodded, gulping.
“The woman who was most probably my mother used to tell me, and I told it to my younger sister. Often.”
Ayane’s face softened with worry, even though it tried to retain hardness. Usual reaction, one that was guessing where the Hunter was going with what was being said.
“I…me and my sister. The place I was born in.” She stopped herself, taking a breath. It was hard to talk about it, she had only ever done it once.
“Do not force yourself to do this,” Ayane asked, taking a step inside Zaniyah’s zone of comfort, which since it was her, it was okay.
But it was hard. How to make her understand?
Mother Superior had always said to leave her tribe dead. To forget them since it was wicked and evil, and thus not something she would want to keep alive.
It wasn’t a matter of want. Zaniyah had spent her entire life doing and suffering things she didn’t want, she was part of the tribe. She had killed baby animals when she hadn’t wanted to, she had killed rival tribe children that she didn’t want to see dead. She had walked around in nudity when she didn’t want to. She laid with a man she didn’t want to long before she was ready to, and then more, and been punished for obeying their whims. When they broke the rules, the girls they broke the rules with paid the price.
That was essentially the root of the entire event…that had ended her sister’s life.
“My sister suffered advances that were against the rules of my tribe. I tried to stop it, but harmed him in the process, breaking an even worse rule. The price was steep…they tied us around a tree for seven days under heavy rain.”
Ayane brought a hand over her mouth.
“I…am so sorry.”
Zaniyah did not understand why tears wanted to make an appearance, but she fought them. Like in the past, when talking with Mother Superior, it was hard to maintain composure when one opening her heart to someone else who cares.
“Jhanin. That was her name. She passed away under that tree while listening to the story of the Forgetful Elephant. I escaped when a wild cat came to eat her.”
Ayane brought a hand to her mouth, shocked.
“By the Light…”
The Hunter shook her head, wishing for tragedy to not settle itself.
“I am telling you this because I have told no one else. So I need you to come back alive.”
The Shadow titled her head, her eyes hiding behind the shadow lenses, the complete and pitch darkness absolutely covering her eyes, but never her expression.
“I am sure you have told Mother Superior.”
Zaniyah glanced to the side, shamefully caught.
“No…” she tried.
Ayane sighed mournfully. Zaniyah knew what it was like, to want to promise something good, but be unable to do so honestly.
“I will do what I have to,” Ayane said. “You would do the same.”
Unexpectedly, anxiety welled up inside of Zaniyah, and her voice came forth before she could hold it down.
“I…let Eliza die.”
It exploded, even if her calm tone of voice didn’t show it.
“I let her go to save the Circus Freak.”
“You couldn’t have known she had–”
“I should have known.”
“Zaniyah,” the Shadow grabbed her shoulders, pulling her eyes into the darkness that were hers. “It does not matter. If anyone is responsible for her death, it is the Mad Genius. She sacrificed for you, and everyone else. And you fought to do the same.”
Zaniyah sniffed as the Shadow smiled. She felt very guilty and selfish, forcing her to play comfort when she was about to leave, to sacrifice herself.
“That is what matters,” Ayane added.
Zaniyah sighed, gathering some strength with the breath, some courage, and some trust. With all of that welled up inside her, she pushed herself to step forward and hug Ayane.
In response, the arms that had been holding her shoulders staggered for a second, and then quickly closed around her and squeezed.
In a long moment of near-telepathic sharing, the Hunter remembered the past weeks with melancholic glee. Her first impressions of the Shadow, an unimpressive rookie, to the realization of what she had accomplished. The sight of her every time she switched costumes. The conversations they had had while at the House of Magni, and later, when scouting the Beasts’ advance across Brithan. And fighting together.
Through battle and conversation, she had come to feel for her as she had for Jhanin, her long lost sister. At that moment, the Hunter was no longer aware of the crowd around them, of both all the people who were ignoring them and the ones who were very much aware.
That brought about the memory of yet another person that had had a great impact on them.
“Do you remember the Sorcerer?” Zaniyah asked, in a low voice.
“Yes,” the voice said, near stuttering right by her ear. “If it were not for her, we would never have had a chance.”
“I witnessed her die,” the Hunter said. “She was the first life to be lost.”
Of course, that wasn’t exact. Falk’s friend, The Eye, had died before the Sorcerer, but despicable people like that, like the Mad Genius…they did not count.
Zaniyah pushed away and held Ayane in front of her, at arm’s length. Now she was the one holding her shoulders. She stared at her friend meaningfully.
“Let Eliza be the last.”
The Shadow straightened up, both stance and face. Without looking away, at least as far as the face was concerned, she grabbed Zaniyah’s hands and brought them down, joining them in-between the two of them.
Then she slumped a little bit, and despite the easy smile, she bowed her head.
“I do not want to die. That is all I can promise you.”
The Hunter sighed and looked away. She didn’t want to do it, it wasn’t her thing, but still, she went ahead and complained.
“That is not good enough.”
The Shadow forced an apologetic smile and squeezed her hands.
“That is how it is.”
The Hunter flinched and let go of her hands in reaction, looking down, feeling betrayed. It was irrational, but she was angry, was it that difficult to say the words? To lie?
“You have inspired me, Zaniyah,” Ayane unexpectedly said. Zaniyah looked up at her. “The Hunter. What you have become? From what you have endured? You are amazing, and you are not alone. Whether I live or die, that will still be true.”
Zaniyah stepped aside, a bit too weakly, to give Ayane room to leave. Her friend followed her with a helpless gaze.
“Say goodbye to Thunuk for me, and to your mother. They are both great people.”
The Hunter nodded, not finding any more words worth saying. She was too focused on the fact that no, the truth had been better.
As the Shadow gained distance, the Hunter found words worth saying.
“The Shadow lives on,” she said, out loud, as if chasing after her. “Whether you live or die, that will still be true!”
Ayane turned back to show a smile, a small but sincere smile being caressed by a single tear that had pressed itself through the lenses. Her friend then turned around and walked off.
As she walked away, Ayane lifted a fist and shook it very lightly, but definitely victoriously. She must’ve thought it was so cool, for that picture to be the last the Hunter would ever see. To be remembered like that, like the Shadow that would be cast over all who would come after her.
Zaniyah sighed, leaning slightly to the side, placing the hand on the wall for support.
Yet, anxiety did not overtake her. Her breathing retained its control, and the sense of dread that used to come with caring about people, and socializing with them, was not drowning her mind.
Instead, there was hope.
She might actually live. And if she does not…I…
And the truth of those words.
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