The Shadow switched hands on the knife while licking her busted lip, recognizing then that her mask had become too bloodied for comfort.
She used the knife to help rip it off and then threw the cloth aside, spitting a bit more blood after it. She then put the knife away. It was bigger than the daggers, but she was fresh out of those, which meant there was room for it in her inside belt.
The Shadow sniffed as she reached the end of the stairs, making a turn which led up another flight, all while considering what words she would offer Falk to try and convince him to give up on what he was doing. Chances were really low, but there’s always a chance with a maniac.
Unlike the Head of Mists, the Mad Genius was insane. She believed Falk had truly been enjoying the fact he was useful and instrumental in saving humanity if only to show everyone how wrong they were about him. But on a whim, for one reason or another, he had decided to surrender himself to madness and seek all-out destruction instead.
Well, perhaps then another whim might arise, for one reason or another that she might provide, that would flip him back.
Nobody would trust him again, surely, but at least it would mean a better opportunity to deal with his internal bomb. What was important was to get out of there without killing him.
Or being killed in return…
The Shadow took out a smoke bomb, tightening and loosening his grasp on it, steeling herself to put her life on the line in a straightforward fight, for the third time that night.
Ayane slowly rose up the stairs to bask upon a beautiful ballroom. There was plenty of space to dance, and it was open space that provided zero covers, with glass doors trailing along each side, leading to outside balconies, plus a bar to the left. All the doors were closed.
A beautiful and magnanimous marble staircase led to the next and final floor, this time wide-open. The staircase parted both ways, melting into a balcony that led to one door on the far right, and one door on the far left. Beyond were the personal quarters of the Lady of Light and the Chancellor of Neyrk.
The two levels shared a ceiling, and that meant two floors worth of vertical space between her and the actual ceiling. Trailing each side and leading to the balcony were windows which were placed to match the balconies, skylights through which the moonlight found no trouble to shine through, even if it quickly drowned out in the light being provided by all the lamps. The lamps were scattered across the ceiling, arranged in intricate half-clenched claws which hung off chains.
The Mad Genius was at the top of the beautiful marble staircase that had been placed at the end of the room, all the way opposite to where she was entering from. He was standing there, arms crossed and head straight, looking down on her like the megalomaniac that he was.
“The Shadow.” He announced, in amused disbelief. “You cannot possibly fathom the extent of my desire to see you die at my hands.”
Unafraid and knowing full well how battle-hardened she looked, courtesy of fighting for her life twice already, she stood tall and stared back through the shadow lenses.
Ayane took an unseen breath before she spoke, for there was still quite a distance between them. Luckily, there was no longer any mask to muffle her mouth.
“And you cannot imagine how much I wish you were the man we thought you were.”
“Oh, but I am,” he said instantly, opening his arms as if to gloriously present himself. “The MAD genius, isn’t that right?”
Falk stepped down, dramatically, to the rhythm of his monolog. “What else would you expect from a MAD GENIUS if not for him to trump over the world and bring about its end?”
“I expected Falk Goldschmidt, the genius scientist, to prove people wrong,” she said.
“I am, you stupid girl,” Falk continued, belittling her in the same way many had.
Ayane had gotten used to it. That was how everyone saw her, no matter her achievements…as a foolish young girl.
In all honesty, that was what she was, but that had no bearing on her competency and skill, that’s what people kept forgetting.
“If I were to do as you said, they would say ‘well, he was the Mad Genius…but he changed. He was mad but not anymore, bless the Light’ THE LIGHT!” Falk yelled, hopping onto the floor so that they could trade even stares. Yet, despite nearly sharing a height, and the many paces between them, he still managed to look down at her.
“Now they know, and will know, that I was not mad then,” Falk said, upset. “For if I was so, this is what I would have been doing. Thus they were wrong. Thus I am right.”
Ayane contained a scoff of disbelief, maintaining a grave tone of voice instead.
“And that is worth your life?”
“That is worth every life!” Falk yelled, and then shook himself, seeking control. In a managed tone of voice, he explained, “I had plans to expand my years to infinity,” he proclaimed, reaching out with his hand, “but that was before my resolve was hardened.” He closed it, “before I realized I was putting science ahead of justice. And correction.”
The Shadow tilted her head slightly to the side. “That was a bad thing?”
“Of course!” Falk yelled again, and it echoed across the room.
Ayane realized then they were actually experiencing remarkable quiet, seeing as there was an army of beasts down on the ground, digging into the building.
Falk did not seek self-control then. He had sensed the quiet as well, and it seemed he had something against it.
“You do not deserve my genius,” he rose his voice. “You do not deserve science! They wish for The Light?” Falk grinned sadistically. “I’ll send them all to it!” He threw his arm aside. “As quick as I can make them realize the error of their intellectual existence, I’ll send them all to find out how bleak death really is! My life be damned.”
Ayane kept silent, acknowledging there really was no way to convince him. No way to un-twist his logic. Instead, she searched around for shadow streams or ways in which she could create ones. But all the lights were very high up and working very well. The smoke was her only alternative.
Falk either didn’t notice or paid no mind as he continued, gesturing and voicing self-righteousness of the likes Ayane had never witnessed.
“It is no use to live on, I say, if the only way to have history properly acknowledge my life is to serve the greedy and balk before the ignorant! Damn it to the Void and damn you all to the Void; you called me mad, madness is what I’ll give you!”
Ayane sighed, tired beyond belief. Why him?
Why was he like that? And why there and then? How could someone capable of so much and very much responsible for what little fight humanity had managed to put up be so…petty? He had everyone’s attention and respect.
It was not enough, she realized, bitterly.
Emotions twist even the grandest of intellects, it was something she had learned at Kagekawa that was, at that moment, coming back to her.
Do not trust the mind to curb and control emotions. Emotions will twist it every which way, pulling at it like currents at a raft. You need anchors, and your anchors will be decisions made when clear of mind. Your principles. Your honor. Your duty.
They are the anchors of the wandering mind, and they alone guarantee it will never stray too far from where you want it to be. From what…you want to be.
Ayane sighed again. It was irrelevant. No words would help the situation and, as the building shook again, even Falk mocked her on how time was withering away.
“Running out of time, girl.”
The Shadow agreed with a solemn nod, and this time did not hide her sigh. “You are, without a doubt…the Mad Genius.”
Falk reeled in anger, and then he screamed, raising his mechanical arm while it transformed.
The Shadow had seen it before, and in response, threw the smoke bomb to hit the ground half-way between them. It blew and expanded the smoke in front of her. She stepped aside to dodge the incoming shot, but when it came, it seemed to find exactly where she was.
Ayane reacted by leaning out of the way, but the bullet was unlike anything she had expected. It wasn’t a small saw blade or even a small caliber bullet, it was a very big thing, and it tore away flesh from her shoulder with ravenous efficiency.
Pain shot up in her mind with the fearful expectation of what something like that would do to her if it hit properly.
The Shadow leaped away and span, trying to avoid the following shot, but it scraped next to her knee that time, again drawing blood as it bit across the flesh. She saw that he was crouching and steadying his mechanical arm with his normal one, leaning in his head to better aim, much like a trained marksman.
His goggles glinted against the light in a different way than before.
He can see through the smoke! Ayane realized.
Falk snickered and took another shot, which thankfully missed, as she sped her way back towards the stairs.
“What?” He asked after her, half-shocked and amused. “Really?”
The Shadow dove, another bullet scraping her, this time in the back and thankfully only for a shallow cut. But Ayane tumbled down the stairs violently, transitioning to the shadow stream while processing the gloating that was coming after her from the room.
“What’re you doing, running away like that? Fight and die, that’s what you want isn’t it–”
In the quiet dark of the shadows, she moaned in pain unheard. She had not, however, decided to run.
Cautiously, Ayane took out the blowgun and loaded it with a dart, all while motioning towards the spring being generated by the smoke. It hadn’t completely been thrown to hamper his vision, but rather to block the light and provide some shadows.
I have to assume he will be expecting this move, Ayane thought, preparing herself for whatever unknown action he would take.
From amidst the smoke, the Shadow emerged with the blowgun alone. A bullet hit right next to it, missing her hand by inches. Laughter followed as she immediately submerged it.
Okay, he is watching carefully. But he is not a soldier, and within the smoke, I can use shadow arts. I will have to take the risk that he will miss me…
Ayane took the dart out of her blowgun and held the small tube out of the puddle. Almost immediately, it was shot out of her hand. This time, instead of submerging, she immediately emerged, performing the movements required to generate a shadow clone of herself. They both sped towards him.
The clone was shot before it exited the smoke area, dissipating completely. It didn’t matter, it wouldn’t hold outside of the shadows.
Ayane witnessed his mechanical gun-arm spitting out an empty shell casing just as it was exhaling a lot of vapor from under the elbow. She also noticed that the Mad Genius was not smiling at all as he brought it to bear, aiming at her.
She squinted her eyes and focused, catching how his normal hand squeezed slightly in anticipation of the recoil. She jumped aside with a spin, dodging the bullet completely.
In a protesting yell, Falk stood up and kicked down, moments before she actually reached him with the dart ready in her hand. His foot ignited on fire and blew him upwards, allowing him to leap back and up the entire flight of stairs.
It was unexpectedly nimble of him to pull that off, but there it was.
Falk landed into a clumsy crouch on top of the balcony that the stairs led to, and quickly steadied it with a push of his good arm. His mechanical hand had meanwhile rotated into a different kind of gun cannon. His good arm came about to grab hold of it for support, and the instant after, it opened fire. Ayane was still only half-way up the stairs.
The bullets were smaller, but they exited at much faster rate. The Shadow leaped to the side and over the railings, all the while grabbing another one of her bombs, this time a blinding one. She threw it at the steps while her body flipped over the staircase railings, making sure to grab onto them.
The Beasts had loved that one, and he did too. It blew up in mid-air and caused him to flinch away with a growling scream.
Falk had been expecting smoke.
The Shadow pulled herself over the railing on the stairs and ran diagonally up the steps as he trailed her uncertainly with a barrage of bullets. His normal hand was not supporting his aim but rather readjusting one of his monocles.
Only one of the eyes was affected, Ayane remarked, from he was reflexively tilting his head.
She hopped onto the railing and ran along it, knowing she was short seconds away from reaching him.
Then she saw the Mad Genius reaching back with his normal hand, muttering in anger.
“No no no!”
It brought back some kind of spherical device. Falk took a bite on some part of it and pulled it off, with no little effort, and then threw it in the general direction of the staircase.
Bomb! Ayane felt.
She jumped out and back onto the floor, but the explosion had better ideas and blew her far away. By instinct, she reached out and grabbed onto the edge of one of the upper-level glass windows.
The Shadow obtained situational awareness to the sound of Falk’s angry disappointment.
“How are you still alive?!”
The smoke was cleared, the staircase was a wreck, and she was hanging off the ledge of a window a few feet higher than Falk but many away. She felt burns on her skin but would have ignored them even if they were serious.
Situational awareness provided her with what should be her next move. Pull herself up into the air and vault off of the window to grab onto one of the candle pieces. If she couldn’t use it to reach out to him, at least she would destroy that light source. Whatever came next would come next.
The Shadow moved, pulling her body up.
Alas, in midair, she caught sight of Falk crouched again, arm aiming at her while assuming the same shape it had had at the start. It was not absolutely steady, he seemed to be on loose footing and rushing the stance, but it was aiming. And she was in the air.
Ayane reflexively spun away to her left, to get her heart out of the wait, and received the shot on her right shoulder when she was facing sideways.
The high caliber bullet tore through the entirety of her right shoulder, not going through the chest or neck only because of some bone-related interaction that was impossible to discern. However, it did throw her back and through the window.
The entire world shattered around her while the pain in her arm was still only settling in and yet, Ayane was still so concentrated on finding a way to the Mad Genius that she looked and watched the inside of the room as she went out, perceiving it as if in slow motion.
A smile was forming on Falk’s face, the arrogance of utter victory. The smoke was dissipating. The candle pieces were still very much intact. The building, though, shook yet again. Visibly. It was all the more clear by how the lights flickered.
And then she was out of the building, falling through the air.
Gravity pulled her faster than her organs or mind could keep up with. She involuntarily wailed loudly in a panic, but not even her voice could keep up with her body.
Ayane reached for one of the balconies outside, but she had been pushed too far away by the bullet. The dart had fallen off her right hand, joining her in the fall along with all the shards of the window.
Perception continued to be relayed in slow motion as Ayane fell, perhaps due to the fact her mind knew those were her last moments, and wanted to cherish them.
The sunlight peeked in over the horizon, gleaming against the numerous falling shards of glass she was quickly leaving behind. Blood splattered across the air, also abandoned by her battered and defeated body.
It felt like it was abandoning everything that she was. That body of a foolish young girl was leaving everything behind. From her immediate goals to future dreams, from her thoughts to the blood in her veins.
The tip of the tower distanced itself, more and more, and the hole in the window grew more and more abstract until it was merely in her memory or imagination.
Ayane could still hear Falk laughing, or maybe that too was her imagination.
It was all so surreal she wasn’t even processing the pain in her shoulder properly, or any kind of pain. Even fear was a distant numbness. Everything was being left behind by the fall of her body.
The Shadow had lost.
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