Slowly, life began to flash before her eyes.
All the friends Ayane made as a kid, most of them lost to time, or death, all part of the Mist, some of which judged her along with strangers when as she was returning to Kagekawa, to watch it fall.
Her teachers and masters, how Ayane had hated them when immature, and yet came to respect them once matured for the amazing lessons they had taught her.
Your principles. Your honor. Your duty.
Lessons that were imbued into her, and that included her memory. Lessons that made her spirit wrest control of everything.
I still breathe! I still live!
The Shadow brought her mind to heel, filling it with purpose so that it would focus only on usefulness.
It is not over!
No matter how defeated she felt, how much pain was trying to overwhelm her, things were not over while she still drew breath!
Her mind worked fast as her perception, no longer suicidal, resumed its normal speed. However, thoughts ran faster than light.
The building was wobbling from one side to the other.
Back when she had seen the Mad Genius aiming at her, the instant before she was shot, her peripheral vision caught sight of bodies. Ayane processed that now. Next to a door that led to rooms further inside, on the upper level the stairs led to, two bodies were lying unconscious, that of Alfred and Michela. They had been was on the Mad Genius’s right.
The lights had flickered with the shaking of the building. Ayane had caught notice as she began to fall.
Looking down, the Shadow steeled her nerves and straightened her body to aim at the ground, as she exited clear air and pierced the supernatural mist that always followed the Beasts.
She would dive into Beast air, air terraformed by the dark dust that would otherwise block all shadow streams, springs, and everything else.
But Ayane still carried the stone, she sensed it then against her side. Would it still work? Or did it need half a second to clear up the surface? Because she would not have half a second.
Half a second later, she had her answer, when she opened her eyes amidst the soundless, weightless reality that was the world of the shadows.
Looking up at the tower, Ayane could see a mess of shadow streams, intermittently forming and dissipating, respectively connecting and disconnecting between themselves.
The building was coming down, the electricity and thus the lighting was starting to fail.
While retrieving a dart into her left hand, allowing the right arm to just hang loosely and bleed away since she couldn’t be concerned about it now, she took a soundless breath.
Purpose filled her mind, pushing away the considerations coming from her wounds, and especially from the arm, and she darted upwards at top speed. She didn’t know what would happen if she was in a stream when it disconnected, she could only hope not to find out.
Cursing in her mind, and out loud as well, she coursed fast across the streams, faster than she had ever done regarding navigating them as if they were a myriad of platforms. The Shadow was forced to figure out paths, correcting herself nearly by the second as every stream’s existence flickered on and off.
Ayane came up onto the ballroom and headed for the first stream she could see. She emerged on the balcony where she had seen the bodies, to the Mad Genius’s right. The light under it had failed for a moment. She came out the wall with enough speed to grab onto the ledge and lift herself up and over the railing with only her left arm.
The laughter was still going, maniacal as ever. The Mad Genius thought it was all over.
The Shadow landed and ran towards the cackling manifestation of madness.
The Mad Genius’s psychopathic wailing screeched into a stop and neatly transitioned into a long-winded and high-pitched “what?!”
She leaped at him, right arm flapping behind her unusable, but with the left one ready to lunge.
His mechanical arm turned towards her, but the building rumbled again, shaking the hardest it had yet from some sort of important support having cracked. It threw him off balance so pointedly that his transformed arm shot a burst of bullets that completely missed her.
Yelling desperately, the Shadow tackled into him dart-first. It sunk deeply into his neck as their bodies went through the air to land on the balcony to his left.
They tumbled chaotically across its floor, and she lost the sense of things for a moment there. Ayane regained them at about the same time as the Mad Genius did. His monocles were broken and awkwardly out of his eyes, clearly revealing there was nothing wrong with them. They opened quite well in the realization that he had a pointy thing in his neck.
He will need to do it manually, Ayane remembered.
Her instincts did not fail her. They remembered by themselves how the Hunter had been no match for his mechanical arm, so she immediately drew the big knife the soldier had gifted her and brought it down on his mechanical arm just as it was coming up.
It went half-way through his elbow. His normal arm came around to whatever part of his body he needed to interact with to trigger the explosion, but Ayane slapped it back before turning back to punch the knife with further force, stabbing his mechanical arm against the ground.
It fizzled and emitted vapor, and the Shadow immediately threw her body back around at his normal arm. It was a frantic and despairing flailing about, but it worked.
“NOOO!” The Mad Genius screamed. “NO! NO! NOOO!”
She held his neck down with her good arm, she didn’t know what was up with the bad one, while stretching out to hold his arm down with her torso. Ayane needed to wait for the sedative to take effect.
However, the building was very much giving way. There was only one way out of that situation.
A thought came to her, of concern for the soldiers that were supposedly heading up. She gave the entrance a glance but saw none, what had happened to them?
“I SAID NO!” the Mad Genius gasped, much more loudly than he should have been able to.
His feet exploded against the floor, spinning his body over his head and throwing her off in the process. She hit the wall that was behind him, but so did he, the second right after.
Moaning in pain, the Shadow realized the building was bending or something, what was exactly happening to it was beyond her, but the floor was curving and ramping up. She scurried to reach the Mad Genius and witnessed as he tried to reach his chest with his arm, his mouth already incapable of producing anything resembling a yell due to the sedative.
Terror gripped her momentarily, but his arm, either because it was hurt by his attempt to get her off him or because of the sedatives, fell away to the gravity. He couldn’t do it.
Falk’s face contorted in effort and despair, and also muscle relaxation.
“Nouh…biuuh…” his head wobbled and fell sadly, in the knowledge the Mad Genius would no longer manually activate the explosion.
Ayane grabbed him by the arm just as the floor escaped them. Just like that, instantly and suddenly, the floor fell from them. Her heart leaped as her stomach hurled her downwards to catch up.
Her yelling followed closely.
The Shadow held on to the Mad Genius for the dear life of everyone on that island and surroundings and thought, for a second, that it was over. Reflexively, she looked at the two, lying on the other side of the balcony, and as she landed desperate eyes on them, she hit the floor
Her teeth hit each other, giving her a good ringing, but she was otherwise fine. The Shadow felt the floor scraping as if that part of the building was already sliding off whatever support it fell on. Luckily, the drop had apparently woken up both Albert and Michela.
The Shadow shot up her head.
“ALBERT!” she yelled.
They both sat up in alert, looking around frantically trying to get their bearings, which was bad, there was no time for that.
“ALBERT!” Ayane yelled again, and he looked at her properly confused. “WE EITHER TAKE FALK OR EVERYONE DIES! HURRY!”
Ayane did not have the strength to lift the Mad Genius, who was already unconscious. By that point, she hardly had the strength to lift herself. Her blood was all around them due to the scuffling and the panic, the lack of it weakening her too much, and the pain was near unbearable besides. It was all she could do to stare pleadingly at Albert and Michela to run. To make it to them.
To save them.
Albert looked at Michela who looked back at him, and then they got up and sprinted.
I cannot believe this, Ayane thought, feverishly.
This is how it ended. Stubbornly, the Shadow pushed herself beyond the limitations of her body, somehow convincing it was wrong about where they lied so that she could crouch up while still holding on to Falk so they’d be touching and he wouldn’t slide off. Other than that, she could but wait for the two to run across a collapsing balcony attached to a rupturing wall of a falling room that was part of a collapsing building.
The pacifist and the mechanic skipped uncertain feet across developing cracks and uneven terrain, desperately trying to figure out how to use their hands to run faster and better. It looked ridiculous and untrustworthy.
It was up to them, at the end.
The Shadow’s body was truly throbbing and convulsing with pain, but she refused to lose herself, to lose her grip on the Mad Genius. If she did, all would be lost. That couldn’t happen, not after everything she had gone through. Not after all the lives that had been lost.
She refused to give in.
Ayane tried to yell at them to hurry but instead just growled in pain, her voice echoing along with the crushing rumbling all around her.
Albert’s hands began to glow before he was clear of the stairs. Michela almost tripped, and that prompted the Shadow to try even harder. Roaring, she pushed and crawled a few inches closer, snorting blood as she breathed out with loud growls for every little bit of energy they would give her.
Ayane heart skipped as her surroundings all gave up on the entire world, and fell once again.
The room creaked and boomed and, somewhere inside the pacifist and the mechanic, an ancestor’s instinct kicked in, probably because it was very much against seeing their bloodline end there. The two jumped just before the floor gave way.
“MICHELA!” Albert said in a panic.
Albert finished his hand gestures just as Michela grabbed onto him with one hand and reached for the falling Ayane with another. The pacifist was crying pathetically, and Michela was also tearing up, terrified.
That was the last thing the Shadow saw before the environment completely twisted out of her.
Next was a splash. She didn’t feel it but sensed it. The sharpness of the cold, and the impact of the salt on her wounds, along with the surprise of the new situation, it all threw her senses into complete and utter chaos. The Shadow knew only not to weaken her grip on the things she was holding onto, madly aware that it was really important even if her mind was too busy screeching to tell her what they were and why, or much of anything else, really.
It just screeched for a long moment and into a sudden halt.
Ayane came to two hands lightly slapping her on the cheeks. She opened her eyes in a struggle to situate herself. Who was she? What was she doing? What was happening?
The familiar dark skin in front of her, the stark gray eyes flanked by that familiar white hair brought her memories back in a rush. Pain settled back for a second so as to allow her mind to fully regain consciousness and awareness. She was on a boat, and the face was that of Zaniyah, the Hunter. Her friend, Thunuk, was on the other side of Ayane.
Immediately, Ayane convulsed and coughed up bloodied water to the side. She moaned in pain and settled her back, noticing it was upon Zaniyah’s leg.
An immense cheer suddenly erupted around her and roundabout four bodies tackled her to hug her, albeit cautiously.
It hurt her anyway. She whimpered in confusion, not yet aware of what had assailed her. In response, they all pulled back. Zaniyah, Michela, Nergui, and Alfred.
Nergui and Alfred?
The Shadow was confused, but he just massaged his eyes with his fists.
“You’re alive…” he said, after a bit of struggling disbelief.
“Wow, Shadow,” Nergui added, “yer the real deal.”
The cheering was still going on, she noticed. Curious, Ayane turned her head the other way to see a crowd of people leaning into each other to get a closer look, all looking at the lifeboat she was on intently and full of relief.
They are looking at me, Ayane realized.
“She did it!” Someone yelled from the crowd.
“We’re saved!” Another voice celebrated.
“Shadow,” the kind voice of her friend called from her side, just as something soft touched her left hand. Ayane looked to see Zaniyah, carefully holding her hand as well the one she was still grabbing on to with desperate firmness. Falks’.
“You can let go now,” Zaniyah said.
The Shadow looked upon the Mad Genius, fast asleep, with the bottoms of his mechanical foot exploded and his mechanical arm still completely bent out of shape, with the big knife sticking out its elbow by the hilt. He was breathing.
“I…” she let him go, and with him, a weight the size of the world. “I did it?”
The freedom she felt at that moment was indomitable. She had not even realized the true magnitude of the weight she had been carrying until she realized, now, that they were safe. They were sound.
That it was over.
Ayane looked back at the crowd which was now subsiding and chuckled. Happiness had that effect, she knew from her past. She giggled in a very low voice but then growled a little bit to lift her left hand.
The Shadow was wounded and hurt. Beyond belief. Beyond experience. She wasn’t even sure her right arm could recover or that she had enough blood to survive the mess she had gotten out of, but none of it detracted from her happiness. For it was indomitable.
And she wanted to show it. To share it.
Ayane closed her eyes and swiped the shadow lenses off of her eyes, grabbing them inside her fist. Then she sat up–Zaniyah immediately helped–and raised that fist in triumph.
The crowd went wild.
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