Ayane did not want to stay in the shadow streams for long. The quiet and the silence provided an absence of action that, even if only apparent, were enough to drive her mind into a state of introspection.
That was the last thing she needed.
She kept her mind busy with practical considerations instead, recollecting all she knew about the Mad Genius. His physical abilities, all his weapons, and gadgets, even if she felt it was a useless exercise. The man was many times mad as he was a genius, nobody even knew what that weapon was that he used from the airship. She imagined it was an increased version of the cannon he had used back in Highmoor, but there was no way to be sure.
Every time they experienced an engagement, it seemed like he had new things. His level of productivity was astounding.
Long story short, there was no prospect of her out-thinking him, or in any way correctly predicting how he would fight and what weapons he would use. She could only out-skill him.
This is the tower, she thought, looking up and through the barrier between existences, a layer that usually refracted her sight much more harshly.
The tower was still standing. There were powerful flames all around one side of it, which better revealed to her that while the stone allowed her to freely access the shadow streams from any point, the light would apparently still block it. Not that that was relevant, for if the inside of the tower was sprayed with the white mist than the stone would be of no use in that regard.
The tower was surrounded by many of the Beast machines. They seemed to be shuffling nonstop against the building, grinding its base apart as if foot by foot.
The end is near, the Shadow remarked.
That was the last thing Ayane had to do. Her last task.
She either succeeded, or everyone would die. It was the first time she was in such a straightforward situation, and yet, she didn’t feel all that different. Anxieties weren’t higher and fears no more pronounced than usual.
Everything rested on her actions, but how was that any different from how it had been ever since she had witnessed the fall of her clan?
Feeling inside her mouth for her missing tooth, Ayane produced an echoing sigh, which was a weird perception to have in a place that produced no discernible sound, and moved on.
Half-way up the tower, she found all shadow streams were blocked. The top was completely lit by light. Ayane thought that was unexpected.
He knows I’m alive?
Perhaps Jamie had not been as successful in her taunting as they hoped. On the other hand, if he knew the Shadow lived and things had not blown up yet, that meant she had been exactly as successful as promised.
She. What a surprise that was, Ayane had been certain the Street Rat had been a boy-
The Shadow shook her head to refocus, chiding herself through emotion alone for wasting time and brain on idle thoughts.
Quickly, the Shadow approached the boundary, slowly peeking out of the wall to confirm there was nothing around to hurt her. It seemed to her it was a normal hall, with doors trailing each hall and a staircase at the end.
Shockingly, she was met with three soldiers. All three were wearing different uniforms, and one of them looked at her since the others couldn’t see her.
Ayane had assumed they were furniture since they weren’t moving, the light from the stairs to her far left hadn’t been enough to illuminate them properly.
The Shadow instantly brought her hands up to manifest lack of danger but kept herself submerged just in case. At the same time, she got a good read of the layout in case she had to engage them.
But she truly preferred not to.
The man who had noticed her was the oldest. He had a stubble of gray under an otherwise dark face, yet endeavoring to become a beard. The uniform was green. The other two were a red-head in a blue uniform and a blonde woman in yellow uniform. The colors weren’t bright at all, or that much masters of the darker tones of their thick trousers and coats, but they were still discernible and identifiable.
The Shadow did not wait for them to take action.
“Do you know who I am?”
“Ah!” The other two whispered, loudly, turning around and aiming their weapons at her.
The one who had seen her was more prepared to respond.
“You’re the uhh…the ninja of the group, right?”
“I am the Shadow,” she looked to the side, “are there more of you?”
“Yeah,” the woman to her right said, “what’re you doing here?”
Why would the Mad Genius kill the men himself, when the Beasts will do it for him? Ayane realized, bitterly. These soldiers are cutoff from knowing what is happening due to his control of the scroll.
“The Mad Genius betrays us all,” she announced, leaving the wall to both show confidence and trust. “I have been sent to neutralize him.”
“What?” The woman shook her head in confusion. “No, I mean, we’re all that’s left, aren’t we?”
“And the boats,” the oldest pointed out.
“But that’s—those don’t count, my wife and kids are on the thing,” said the red-head, slightly concerned. His voice was a bit too boyish in Ayane’s opinion, but it wasn’t like she had room to complain.
“Plans have changed,” Ayane said. “We are to use the vessels and escape. But the Mad Genius is armed with a bomb and will kill us all the moment he is about to die. The ships included.”
“I can believe it,” the eldest said, spitting to the side, “did you hear his laugh when the airship lit up? That man’s insane. I think he did it.”
“I can buy that,” the woman said, her voice raising its pitch. “But killing himself?!”
The building shook, and all four of them looked around in worry.
“Time is short, I cannot stay and talk. I am going to stop him. Please, one of you go gather whoever else is in this tower, and meet me at the top.”
“What do we do then, can you…can you take us all int-into the wall?”
“Shut up, Jeff, and get going,” the old man said. “Go with him, Nadia.”
She nodded and waited for Jeff to move. Ayane didn’t, however, she was already walking towards the stairs.
“But,” Jeff tried.
“No buts,” the leader argued, walking after Ayane, “get on it. I don’t want anyone dying for nothing but a mad murderer.”
The Shadow took a breath and walked into the light which was drowning the stairs. Into vulnerability, without showing an ounce of hesitation or fear. The man followed her closely behind.
She glanced back at the old soldier.
“Is there anyone with the Mad Genius? Explaining things and stopping him will prove difficult.”
“No, he’s for sure alone,” the soldier said, and there was a vindictiveness to the man’s tone. He wasn’t taking the turn of events lightly, and no wonder, he probably had set up the men on the floors below. He had probably sent them to die for the sake of Falk.
Ayane felt compassion for the man.
“That is good.”
Exiting the staircase, they were led into a large and wide lobby. It had suffered efforts to make it defensible; all its couches and closets were shoved to the opposite side of the bar counter that trailed almost the entirety of the left wall, to make another farfetched barricade to hide behind. Roughly ten men were there, holding position. All that furniture would have filled the wall to the right, which space was all bare empty, with nothing but scratch marks on the floors to remind people of how it had been used.
However, something else of much greater and terrible importance was there. Someone Ayane had dearly not expected to see.
“Shadow. I see they sent yo—”
Before she could process what he was saying, Ayane flinched back into a fighting stance, almost frighteningly fast.
The Head of Mists’s clothing settled around him as his head leaned forward knowingly. And in the time it took Ayane to realize he did not know she knew about his betrayal, his body moved to the sound of a ruthless and yet apologetic tone of voice.
A throwing star came flying at the old soldier, standing behind her and none the wiser.
Ayane stretched out her hand to intercept it, but by the time she managed, the different angle allowed her to realize there were actually two throwing stars, perfectly set side by side, with one slightly lower. One of them hit her in the hand, barely getting through her gloves, while the other swiftly sunk into the soldier’s neck.
Ayane turned around in a panic to see the other soldiers, utterly confused, already under a flurry of attacks that were near-impossible to properly discern. Two were dead.
“No,” she ripped the star from her hand and threw it at him.
He dodged it by seemingly just standing still and phasing through as if he were a ghost. Three more were dead by then.
The Shadow darted off at a run, but the Head of Mists moved as well, leaping towards the only side of the room where someone wasn’t already bleeding to death.
To the right, two of the people were screaming with a star sticking out one of the eyes.
He lobbed over the counter as the surviving soldiers, two of them, turned their pistols towards him. He opened his legs to kick their guns aside so that the shots went wide and not even close to hitting him, but also to envelop each neck in his thighs. Masterfully, while driving them into the ground with his weight, he reached out with his arms and grabbed the pistols off their startled and thus frail grips.
He landed, their heads being sent into a daze by hitting the floor, but it didn’t matter if they were completely conscious. In a fluid movement, he bounced, hopping and flipping around to bring the pistols to bear against her.
She jumped to the side just as he landed and pressed the trigger, missing both shots. Choked whimpers came out from behind the counter. It was hard to tell, but she knew he had landed with each foot on a neck and was now emptying the pistols to make sure she wouldn’t approach and upset his throat trampling.
She threw a dagger at him which he dodged, again seemingly by phasing through it. He fired more shots.
Ayane threw a smoke bomb at the floor and then dropped to the ground to avoid the blind shots that followed, two more from each gun.
Then they clicked empty, all out of bullets.
Focus, Shadow yelled at herself, trying to contain her rage. His costume twists vision. That is all that’s happening!
The spiral-like mask he was hearing, made out of an assortment of bandages just like the many that enveloped his body, created very natural optical illusions.
“My contact with them has been removed,” the Head of Mists announced, and in the distance, the Shadow was forced to hear the failing whimpers of men dying of crushed throats. “There is no one else who knows of my part in this war, and that will guarantee my safety with the Beasts. As such, I would switch sides again.
“But I know you, girl, this will not be possible so long as you draw breath.”
She had never heard his voice speak so many words in a row. It sounded casual, unworried. Pressed but without remorse. Weighed by a responsibility he knew nobody would understand.
The Shadow pulled a dagger, knowing full well he was right.
“Or would you for once put aside your egotistic sense of morality? Would you be reasonable?”
Now he sounded judgmental. Heat rose within Ayane.
“Reasonable?” She sounded clearly upset, and she had to admit she was. Feeling her missing tooth, Ayane was all too aware all those men and women were dead because of her carelessness. She had really not been expecting to see him there, but that was no excuse. Even the Hunter would’ve held her reaction and watched to see what he did.
“There is no good or evil, remember? There is only gain and loss.”
He dares? Ayane felt her lips contorting. He dares to use Kagekawa dogma to justify what he has done?
Ayane looked through the shadow lenses, seeing him crouched behind the counter, watching attentively. She also noticed, below, that the smoke was blocking enough light to generate a small tear through which she could slip into the shadow stream.
The thing was growing, so she decided to speak.
“You have singlehandedly lost us the world.”
He clicked his tongue, again judgmental.
“Do not be dramatic. When your predecessor sent the Beasts back underground all those years ago, they took some residents of the city with them. They interrogated them.”
His voice was infuriatingly cold and unafraid. Calm. As matter-of-factually and detached as it had always been. What was there of personally seemed intent on chiding her like she was some brat, a baby in the ways of the world and its complexities.
“Those people did not know the location of our clan,” Ayane stated, as accusingly as she could. “And of the Magni. And of the amulet of Jakariah, or of our plans. You became their agent, and you stayed their agent, reporting back on all that you knew.”
The Head of Mists breathed, purposefully loud enough that she could hear him. He then appealed.
“I am exceptionally skilled and will be of great worth to humanity if you but swallow your self-righteousness and allow me to assist you in taking down the Mad Genius.”
Ayane paused at that.
If Falk weren’t taken care of, they would all certainly die. But if the Head of Mists was accepted, what evil could he yet do?
Countless are dead because of him…this might all just be another ploy.
She knew her thoughts on the matter were more driven by feeling than reason. He had killed the soldiers first so he would have an opportunity to talk to her. As the Shadow, she was less liable to exact justice when it served no viable purpose.
He truly sought a way back into humanity. And Ayane? Ayane truly sought answers.
“Tell me the truth about your relationship with the masters,” Ayane asked. “They did not know about your connection to the Shadow Conclave, did they?”
The Head of Mists shifted, into a more confident stance.
“I am exceptionally skilled. I have been manipulative in regards to the clan’s paths, yes… to be frank, keeping the Darkness from telling them about me, convincing him they already knew, that was the most difficult part. After all, I could not deal with him as I dealt with Neniko.”
Neniko? The tear on the ground was now big enough. She was ready to make a move, but she was not satisfied with what she knew.
“The High Priestess?” Ayane lowered her voice to a meaningful level. “You killed her?”
“Another secret to keep, for they believe she took her own life in shame, which she should have, in any case. To scorn you like that was the height of foolishn–”
The Shadow’s temper flared.
“YOU THROW SWEET WORDS AT ME?!”
Reasonable expectations be damned.
“You think to coddle me with compliments and play me for a fool? You have destroyed Kagekawa. You have been the enemy’s pawn! Against everyone!”
The Head of Mists leaned back, defensively.
“I had to make a choice,” he said, weighed yet unapologetically. “To lose everything, or to gain.”
Again with that drivel.
Ayane didn’t care. She wouldn’t…she couldn’t. Once again, she was about to take a huge gamble and act as most wouldn’t.
Most would take his help and then betray him, kill him.
The Shadow hesitated. More than with the beasts because, this time, she wished to lash out instead of acting with and for the purpose of hope.
To gamble like that, to throw away his support which would all but ensure the defeat of the Mad Genius, felt damming. It was as if she was some kind of self-appointed final decider of the fate of every human being left on the planet.
All those weeks came to a head in her spirit as she considered her interactions with everything and everyone that had come into her life, the Darkness included. She had lectured him on the priestess taking her own life only to now find out that it, like so many things, was not what it seemed.
Certainly, the Head of Mists was also responsible for Kagekawa staying away from supporting the Shadow Conclave beyond the presence of the banished Shadow and the growingly rebellious Darkness.
All the lanes of thoughts and experiences merged. The Mad Genius was the most important fight, but that was the most important decision.
Ayane was sure of hers.
Maybe someone else would make different decisions, gamble less, hope for less, fight with more, but she was who she was. She had refused to live on with the blood of an entire people on her hands because living is torture if not right.
Well, the same could be said for not having that monster’s blood on her hands as soon as possible. She leaned forward menacingly, not knowing whether he could discern such a movement through the smoke, and not the least bit caring.
“You chose poorly.”
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