Legend (30.5.4) The Shadow

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FINALE

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.

“ALFRED!!”

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

“OUF! Augh!”

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.

“Rah!” 

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?

“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.

We are?

“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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Legend (30.5.3) The Shadow

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PART 3

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.

No!

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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Legend (30.5.2) The Shadow

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PART 2

The Shadow threw the dagger at the panel that was above the counter and responsible for lighting behind it and slipped into the shadow stream before it even hit.

As fast as she could, Ayane darted towards the counter, seeing many shadow springs flicker in and out of existence along with the withering out of the light source.

The Shadow emerged from under the counter, clearly seeing legs vaulting over it. She grabbed them, bringing a foot to immediately step against the counter for support.

With a yell, Ayane heaved and flipped him over her and onto the rack of glass bottles behind her, hitting some herself.

She lost track of them both among the tumultuous sounds of glass shattering all over them.

Drenched in alcoholic drinks, Ayane felt something kicking her on the sides.

“You stupid girl!”

His full weight came upon her, but before he could get a grasp of her neck, she thrust at his face and pushed against one of his arm’s elbows, his right, making it impossible for him to grapple properly.

“Traitor!”

Ayane kneed him and tried to wrest control of him but he sunk a fist deep into her belly, knocking the wind out of her.

Even if she was at such a disadvantage, fighting up close like that against someone stronger and heavier, that she was already fighting for her life, it was still her best bet beating him.

Talentless at using the dark arts, he had instead dedicated himself fully to martial arts. The Head of Mists was notoriously the best in the clan, and that was without the optical illusions helping him out. It was why he had been given the job.

Ayane locked around his neck and pulled it to try and strangle him with her shoulder, but he managed to put his face in there instead and then pressed hard between her ribs to weaken her hold.

Argh, he knows grappling as well.

She used the two seconds of strength she had in her to reposition her right foot on his hip and then let go, all of sudden, to direct that strength into a very strong push with her leg. He hit the counter violently while she drew a dagger, her last one, but he rebounded off the hit to kick it out of her hand.

The Shadow rolled to the side but was intercepted with a kick that made her flinch and halt the tumble.

She blocked two kicks with interlocked hands and then leaned out of a punch that he dropped with his entire weight, unsuccessfully. It hit her hard, but she was still able to position her arms to grab his punching one.

Not using sight at all, the Shadow lashed out with her legs to trip him while pulling on his arm.

He crashed on the ground and was kept from tumbling by her holding and pulling his arm while rolling her body on top of him.

The Head of Mists groaned loudly in pain and frustration.

Alas, they were right next to one of the bodies, and it kept the Shadow from getting the Head of Mists into a decent position. Smelling blood, she felt something hard hit her head.

Fully conscious of what she was fighting for, Ayane kept herself awake by yelling out in challenge, using all the force she could muster to throw him over herself at the counter again.

She made it halfway to a decent crouch before getting tackled again, all without recovering any kind of decent eyesight. Fighting blind, her head still reeling from the pain, she reacted to grapple attempts while feeling around for something she could use.

She tried to open her eyes but nothing made sense. Ayane realized she should probably be knocked out from the blow before, but wasn’t out of sheer stubbornness. Getting out of an arm lock, she reached inside her pouch and took out a smoke bomb, and slapped him with it.

It worked like a strong punch that hurt her hand as much as it did him.

She crawled away.

It was clear then that she didn’t have enough of a mastery of grappling to compensate for his weight advantage. Ayane would have to risk normal hand to hand, so she struggled to keep her eyes open and to recover some sense of space, even as she felt a human body under her hand.

“You would doom everyone for the sake of revenge,” a judgmental and angry voice came at her, revealing the location of the Head of Mists. “You evil little girl!”

She crawled over the body, the smell and taste of blood filling her senses that were already overwhelmed with the alarms being sent by her muscles and, of course, the head itself.

Ayane coughed and then heard and sensed the rush of movement heading towards her.

Oh no.

She flipped, even without seeing, and raised her foot to intercept the inevitable lunge. The surface of his body fell upon it, but her legs were pushed open to allow for the body to interlock with hers.

By the—

The Shadow lifted her hand to cover her eyes and felt it immediately struck by fingers, and following that, her neck was grabbed. She hugged him with her legs and straightened her back fully so that he could not reach her neck properly. It gave her a couple of seconds of respite, but he roared in despair and pushed against her strength, overpowering her so brusquely that grabbing her neck again made her whip back and hit the floor with the back of her head.

They both knew it was over then, by how she grunted in defeat.

“It is sad, but I will kill you,” he announced, in-between grunts of effort and pain, in a voice that was no longer placid, but rather hurt and struggling. “Then I will take care of Falk and-ugh- go back to lead the survivors.”

Her temper flared, reawakening the possibility that it wasn’t over.

You?!

The Shadow’s vision returned. It was the only hope she had, her mind seemed to tell, and so even if flickering and blurry, it returned. They were still in the smoke, and she was running out of breath fast.

“We could do it together,” he continued, amidst the struggling, “we could.”

He was whispering. The Head of Mists had his head right next to hers to keep her from having a good angle to hit him with.

She knew the choke hold she was on, there was no way she was getting out. She was going to pass out, and then he would kill her.

Adrenalin pumping for dear life, her brain informed her of some movement caught by her peripheral vision.  She turned her head as much as she could and caught sight of what it was.

A third soldier was lying face up, holding one hand over a neck that was bleeding. Gargling and suffering through silent grunts, hidden by hers and the Head of Mists gasping.

He was looking back at her and reaching out, with a knife in hand. The Head of Mists would not spot him, his view of him was blocked by her head.

Ayane couldn’t help herself from moaning with effort as she tried to reach for the soldier.

Maybe the Head of Mists would realize she was trying for something other than just flailing about, but what else did she have? She focused on that one hope and reached out, with all the strength in her.

The Head of Mists whispered further.

“But you had to…be good…”

Ayane just moaned in effort.

The soldier, eyes open wide and gravely, looked down to see her fingertips barely touching the cable of the knife, which he was holding by the blade. Ayane felt her head on fire as if it was about to burst. She was on the verge of passing out.

The Soldier’s eyes looked right in hers in recognition–he could tell–. His look turned downtrodden, accepting something as mental preparation, and then he turned around to reach further.

Blood gushed out of woman soldier’s neck now that it had gravity working against it, but the cable came into Ayane’s reach.

With a grunt that was as triumphant as it was desperate, the Shadow brought the knife around and, without hesitation, sunk it into the side of her would-be killer.

The Head of Mists yelled in pain.

He pulled his head back in an instant of confusion. Ayane twisted the knife while growling at fate, at the notion that she was to die at the hands of that despicable traitor. She pushed free of his weakened hold to head-butt him. It hurt her as well, but she removed the knife and allowed for his body to quickly lose most of its capacity to produce force, at roughly the same speed as it bled out.

The Head of Mists brought a hand over the wound, whimpering in a long moment of painful disbelief.

Ayane wasn’t taking chances, a wounded man could still kill her, especially him in that situation. She punched him in-between the eyes and then flipped her body with her remaining strength to elbow him off of her.

The Head of Mists begrudgingly and sadly complied.

Weaving, short of breath and hurt, Ayane pushed herself to turn and get on top of him, placing the knife on his neck.

His mask was stained over his mouth, and it twisted as he frowned away from her gaze. She considered removing the mask, he gave her a moment to do it, but she didn’t. 

“You…” he coughed blood to the side, further staining the mask, and did not look back up again at her. “You think you have won…but you gain nothing with this. You only lose.”

The Shadow moaned in pain and lifted her head high, looking down at him with eyes that were still trying to focus, even if he would never be able to tell through the lenses.

That had been her choice.

If indeed they lost too much because of it, then they would just have to accept it and move on. If she had indeed doomed all to die because she did not take his assistance.

Well.

“Better to lose everything,” Ayane said, in a weakened but firm tone, “than to gain nothing but misery.”

The Head of Mists coughed again, beginning to bleed out his mouth. He very subtly shook his head, his facial expression impossible to tell under his mask. His voice up again, accusingly.

“Misery that… is but yours. Any of them–those lost because of my actions…they would have done the same.”

“It is too bad that they are dead then, and I am here instead.”

His mask shuffled as his face opened in realization. After three seconds of feeling a frail body without an ounce of fight in it, Ayane felt she could remove the knife.

Doing so, she sat up to the sound, feeling her body sore and hurt from the near-death experience.

The Head of Mists had been rendered speechless. At last. If she had to hear one more thing out of that mouth, she would probably stab it as well.

Breathing loudly, with the smoke dissipating around her, the Shadow stood up. He didn’t even have his hand over the wound anymore, allowing it to bleed out like a small fountain, and was still with his head to the side, to avoid the sight of her.

As her nervous system got things more and more under control, her senses became clearer. There were glass shards sticking out of his bandages at several places, bloodied. There were glass shards on her too, she could feel them.

“Ugh.”

Time was short. The Shadow did not feel at ease to nurse herself properly, but she had to remove the shards, so she started on that. She also pulled her mouth mask down so she could spit the blood that was in there.

Another tooth came out. She felt around, finding it was another one at the back, on the left. She wasn’t nearly as bothered by that loss as she had been by the other one since this one hadn’t happened due to her being stupid and stubborn and was in no way connected to her getting a lot of people hurt and killed.

That one was connected to justice being dealt.

That’s what it was to her. The Head of Mists was one of the Kagekawa and was responsible for an inordinately high amount of death. If he had had his way, he would have been the last human left standing.

Ayane had spent the better part of the past week feeling like some kind of alien. No hate for the Beasts and endless feelings of pity and compassion for people she didn’t even know, even for her enemies. However, looking upon the defeated, dying, broken visage of that horrible man, she knew she was normal.

Ayane wasn’t under some kind of affliction, not when she could still abhor someone to such a degree.

She felt no desire to save him. No desire to see him survive the mortal wound she had inflicted in self-defense, and it did not feel like self-defense at all. She did not even want to him die in peace. Ayane took out the last of the shard and threw it at him in spite.

The Head of Mists shivered, still alive.

“The stand we made at Magni could have very well happened at Kagekawa,” Ayane started, accusingly. “Zaniyah would have been spared so much pain, and almost dying. Hugo could still have his legs. Eliza could still be alive. The Don could still be alive.”

She took a breath and looked down and around at the dead soldiers, pausing for impact. Then she looked back at him, renewing her will to let him know.

“Many of the Beasts are against this war, did you know that? Would it matter? Maybe we could have split the land instead of being forced to surrender it all if we had found out about that before they had already–” the building shook.

It interrupted her but also made her realize she was rambling. She couldn’t do that, she had no time. At the same time, though, Ayane felt the need to make him understand the kind of man he really was.

“We could have done so much more if not for your…exceptional skill.”

The Head of Mists gave no response, but that didn’t dissuade her from finishing her thought.

“You are a despicable coward, Head of Mists, and you deserve much worse than what I leave you with.”

His body trembled in disagreement.

“I,” he managed to yell.

Her temper flared, her grasp on the knife squeezing murderously, but something held her back. He was already dying, she just didn’t want him at peace.

She suddenly felt above soiling her hands further on punishing him. Spending more time on him. He was not worth any of that. His voice only steeled that resolve, so her hold relaxed, and she nodded at herself, unseen to him, as he spoke.

“I am not afraid of dying,” he said, defensively. “I just did not want it.”

The Shadow pulled her mask over her mouth again.

“No one cares,” Ayane told him, as she vaulted over the counter. She walked away, making sure not to do it silently. She was disregarding him. Discarding him. That was what he deserved, for who he was and what he had done.

“I wonder if the same can be said of those that have passed away because of you.”

Ayane spared a glance to catch sight of the soldier that had died to pass her the knife and saw him half-turned to face the ground, a puddle of blood still growing beneath his face.

Swallowing regret and trying not to choke on her anger, the Shadow marched towards the stairs leading up.

Enough time had been wasted, far enough. It was time to face the Mad Genius, it was time to bring an end to the worst days mankind had ever experienced.

And fight so that they are not the last.

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Legend (30.5.1) The Shadow

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PART 1

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.”

“Wha…what?”

“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.

“Oh.”

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.

“You know.”

A throwing star came flying at the old soldier, standing behind her and none the wiser.

“No!”

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.

“Ack!”

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.

“NO!”

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.

Argh!

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.

“Damn you!”

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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Glory (30.4) The Mad Genius

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Falk could not take his eyes off the window.

With his hands clasped behind his back, he watched his checkmate playing out with unprecedented satisfaction. Much as it was inevitable, almost as if pre-destined by the enormity of his genius, it was still all the more real now that it was actually unraveling before his eyes.

And yet, he could not fully appreciate the moment. He checked the scroll yet again, with a half grunt of frustration.

The Street Rat had not reacted to his threats and explanations, or to his challenges and arguments. She had allowed him to ramble on and now there was nothing on the scroll but his own writing, which made it seem like he was writing to nobody.

It was a thorn in an otherwise perfect conclusion to all his plans and aspirations. But it was there, prickling at his sense of success. It nagged at him.

Something was definitely off.

With Albert in his hands and out of commission, that left only the woman mage, he forgot her name. She was the only one left capable of casting the teleportation spell. Yet, near an hour had gone past since he had caused and confirmed the death of the final threats to his plan, the Warlock, and the Darkness.

Near an hour had passed, and no action had been taken by the Shadow Conclave using the woman mage. He was prepared for it, he had sensors and traps ready to trigger the demise of the woman plus whatever warriors would be accompanying the Hunter. They would obviously be sending the Hunter.

Falk knew they knew he was in the penthouse, the Chancellor’s mansion in the sky. From there, he was watching the ruined city of Neyrk, and the anchored ships which were harboring what was left of the people that had called him mad and evil while expecting him to shrug off such words and do what they wanted. Prove them wrong.

Falk felt no sympathy for any of them. But still, they knew it, and Shu would have told them he would not allow them to escape.

Why do they take no action?

The building shook, but he shrugged.

One way or another, everyone in that island would die. Every beast, woman, man, and child. Whether that happened on his last breath, after his last heartbeat, or whether that happened inside that building, by his own hands, was the only difference.

But there was the thorn. Something was off.

If only he had shot the Shadow, if only she hadn’t been so quick to jump out of the ship, she would be dead, and his mind wouldn’t be nagging.

He looked at the scroll again and hummed, tapping on it with his finger, remembering the brat’s words since they were no longer displayed on it. Also an unhelpful factor.

Could the Shadow be alive? Could she be coming for him? Could she have a way of stopping him?

Falk ran scenarios in his head but, admittedly, he knew even less about the shadow arts than he did about magic. It had never seemed relevant since they all stopped working once there was light, a counter which was remarkably easy to employ in those days, as Griff had demonstrated.

Falk chuckled at himself.

“You are at the end, Falk. Why would you take the chance?”

Soon, the building would fall.

He would press against his chest, and the clock would thus engage a very aggressive fission inside the nuclear power cell that was fueling his machinery. It would explode magnificently. It would latch onto what was left of Jakariah’s amulet, he had disintegrated part of it to perform the attack on top of Eliza and the Darkness, to mix its effects with the already destructive force of…well, itself.

It was an amazing send-off.

The Beasts would forever remember him, humanity would be over, and possibly, the island would remain uninhabitable forever, thanks to the radiation that would be plaguing the environment for centuries to come. It would be a lasting reminder of Falk, the man they had called obsolete.

Falk would put all that at risk by not flipping a switch? Hardly.

Promptly, Falk walked over to the wall and flipped the switch, turning on the lights to the penthouse. They flickered momentarily, but steadied on, and brightly. He then returned to the window, his confidence at an all-time high.

It’s checkmate. No matter what the brat says, Falk thought. There is no move left to them. No agent left alive that can challenge me.

The more Beasts he caught in the blast, the better. That meant waiting. For either the building to collapse or for the ships to try and sail away.

I could do with more waiting…

Falk grinned in anticipation, watching his airship. It still hovered near the building, piloted by the poor bastards who had no clue about their situation, the ones left alive after his altercation with Eliza.

Falk watched it explode.

The engines caught on fire which caused a cascade of explosions that damaged its ability to stay afloat. Slowly and terribly, it came crashing down near the skyscraper.

The whole thing took whole minutes, and some fools even tried jumping out of the burning airship. He enjoyed every second of the show, witnessing the airship collapsing all over the ground, to then blow up even further. The surroundings to the tower were set ablaze at such a volume it made it seem like a volcano had erupted.

Falk grinned victoriously.

Glorious.

It crashed right on top of the Beasts. It would make their work more difficult…it would delay them, and that was all well and good.

To wait some more.

It was the best kind of waiting, really. He had the opportunity to watch every single intelligent being on the planet one hundred percent focused and dedicated on stopping him. On bringing him down.

Falk had an opportunity to see them all fail. 

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Unexpected Trust (30.3) The Hunter

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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.”

“Zaniya–”

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.

The truth…

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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A Mind Unmatched (30.2) Jamie

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Jamie walked into the room already expecting to be interrupting something. As such, the sudden jolts of movement from the Shadow and the Circus Freak didn’t surprise her at all. She didn’t much care, short as time was.

“Heh, I got this bastard riled up, alright,” Jamie said, looking down at the scroll as if to pretend she did not notice at all the two were having a moment.

Hugo sniffed inquisitively.

“What’d you tell him?”

Jamie looked up to notice the mages had left, there were only the two in there, and the Shadow was up, stretching her limbs.

“That he’s damn lucky the Shadow’s dead. She’d stop him.”

They glanced at her sort of perplexed, not getting it apparently. The Circus Freak was again the one to voice their impressions.

“That’s it?”

Jamie scoffed.

“Well, what’d you expect me to say? Hey, the Shadow’s about to go kick your butt, I bet you can’t defeat her.” She glanced aside in judgment of how bad that would have been. “He’s arrogant, not stupid. If he believes we don’t know about her, then far as he knows, she’s just showing up out of nowhere, on her own and without a plan. It’s then an ego thing that he’s gotta kill her since that’s all he’s telling me now, that he could easily do it. An ego that he’s sure hasn’t been manipulated.”

“But it has,” the Shadow pointed out.

“Well, yeah…” she rolled her eyes, patronizingly so, “that’s what I do.”

She looked down at the journal.

MG:

I sincerely thought better of you, street brat, but if you truly believe the Shadow had a sliver of a chance to stop my plans, you are all the more foolish for it. Far more than I thought.

The fact she has perished is also by my hand, after all, and that should indicate that…

“Look at this, he’s still writing,” Jamie said, shaking her head down at the parchment. “This guy’s got problems.”

“Yes,” the Shadow said flatly, “he is trying to kill us all.”

“Well, yeah, besides those. Street Brat, though,” Jamie said, tilting her head in respect. “that’s pretty clever.”

“Street Brat?” Hugo asked, with a voice far more normalized than Jamie was used to. It was his normal voice, unaltered and without effect, and yet it sounded so off. “Kinda disappointed I didn’t think of that.”

“I know, right?” Jamie looked away from the scroll and at the Shadow. “Okay, tell me the truth about what happened down there, in Beast city. You decided not to go ahead with the sabotage thing, didn’tcha?”

She froze, her face staring back at Jamie in hesitation. Jamie smirked and closed the door behind her.

“You said you fought their prince. Unless the guy was walking around with a name tag written in our language, someone had to tell you it was their prince. Someone being friendly.”

The Shadow cleared her throat, sounding dry.

“I will explain properly once we are out of this situation.”

Jamie crossed her arms, harshly standing against the Shadow.

“You should explain now, you might die,” she said.

Hugo reacted worse to that harshness than the Shadow did, and that was understandable. He still kept quiet, however, and his face stood unaltered. It was a tiny shift, a tiny shiver that Jamie perceived. The Shadow looked down in thought.

“Yes. The people were willing to help me destroy them, such was their will to oppose what their armed forces are doing. I was met with a choice, to either obliterate them, which I was sent to do–”

“Magpie was sent to do,” Jamie corrected. To say the Shadow was sent to do that would be to insult the decision makers. At least three people making the decision would know it would’ve ended up like that if they sent the Shadow on their own, Jamie being one of them.

“Yes, uh, yes. The other choice was to accept the chance of a future truce.”

“What?” Even Hugo agreed with Jamie on that.

“They were–” the Shadow scratched her head, looking like a bundle of self-doubt, but then shook herself and assumed a much more assured stance. “We will leave and escape. They will keep our lands. And centuries from today, when our peoples meet again, it will be peacefully. I hope.”

“…wait. So you’re assuming we actually find a place to escape to? Somewhere beyond the seas?”

“There are rumors of unexplored land masses.”

“Well yes but–” Jamie grabbed her mouth, her thoughts roaming inside her head. “Sorry, uh, please elaborate?! Why is this the best bet?”

The Shadow didn’t even shift in her place, she had given the matter thought.

“Killing them all does not seem to be a solution. While there are risks…I think they are worth taking, seeing as what the alternative would be.”

Jamie leaned to the side, turning her tone of voice accusatory.

“So basically, you didn’t have the stomach to commit genocide, so you took the one way out that presented itself.”

The Shadow looked back at Jamie, not pleased with her words, and she shouldn’t be. Jamie shifted her weight, leaning the other side to signal she would not be apologizing. “What if they lied to you?”

“They did not,” the Shadow immediately said, a bit too defensively.

“This is crazy.”

“Had I not made that decision, I would not have the stone with which to travel the shadow streams. I would not be able to stop Falk, and we would die.”

Jamie did not relent.

“Or maybe we’d use Cassandra to take care of Falk without you? She’d still be here if you couldn’t get here through the shadows.”

The Shadow flinched and leaned back, realizing the truth of Jamie’s what if scenario.

“It…would be wrong,” the Shadow stated, very matter-of-factly.

Jamie sighed with a smile.

“Yeah, maybe. And maybe we’d fail while you won’t. Who’s to say? We act on how things are now and let our grandchildren judge us, is what I say.”

“If we have them,” Hugo pointed out.

They both glanced at him with sadness, the Shadow even more so, but there was scarcely time to pity the Circus Freak. His survival had cost Eliza’s death, so as far as Jamie was concerned, he could just choke on a bit of sadness.

Jamie looked up at the Shadow, curious.

“Ayane.”

The Shadow flipped, surprised, making Jamie giggle.

“I knew it. You told me your real name the first time we met. I think that’s why I liked you, you know? Much as you try otherwise, you’re so frikkin’ sincere.”

The blue-haired ninja awkwardly titled her head to the side, trying to understand what Jamie was getting at.

“It’s like an addicted guy that loves to be sober, ya know? Being honest and good’s your fix, even though you know it’s stupid. I mean, it’s ridiculous to see what you’ve accomplished. You people usually die off pretty fast. I mean, look at this guy,” she gestured at the Circus Freak.

Ayane followed her gesture, and then looked back at her, again confused.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, he lost an arm when he saved you,” Jamie said. “He almost died when he saved that baby, I guess you never heard of that one, he got shot and almost bled to death. This was back in Brithan. And that’s what he gets for saving yours truly,” she pointed out the legs. “And he’s not even a proper hero, he’s just doing hero things like…like…well like he’s you.”

Hugo chuckled at the thought.

“That’s why the Warlock’s dead, he saved Eliza. That’s why Eliza’s dead, she saved all of us. It’s damn stupid, just doing the right thing, but you keep–”

“It is stupid to think like that!” Ayane interrupted, and quite harshly.

“Excuse me?”

“Many people…we can go around the boat, I am certain we would find many people who have risked all for others, and did not…it does not work like that. Ill and good happens to everyone. Death comes for us all…but what we do and who we are, that is what matters. That is what remains with others, the shadow of ourselves that we leave behind.”

“This is about your saying? Kagekawa’s thing about shadows living on?”

“Yes.” She nodded without a sliver of hesitation. “That is exactly it.”

Jamie smiled at the sight of a full-bodied manifestation of determination and certainty, to replace that of hesitation and doubt.

She smiled at a job well done.

The door opened behind them.

“You should still try to immobilize him anyway,” a voice said, leading the speaker inside, which was Shu, the Bronze Alchemist. She walked into their conversation both oblivious and uninterested as to whether she was interrupting anything, shaking a vial of liquid in her hand. “He might well trigger the damn thing before the tranquilizer affects him enough. Here, drink this.”

The Shadow, defiant mood defused by Shu’s nonchalant demand, passively took the vial and drank it. Her face contorted in distaste.

“Agh…ew.”

“Yes, I know, but you’ll feel a lot better in a few minutes.” She took the vial back, “taste won’t go away anywhere near that soon, though. Anyways, as I was saying, I’m sure he tied the trigger to his heart beat, but if there’s a manual way to engage the explosion, he’ll need to use his hands. So immobilize him.”

“Understood.”

Shu looked around and exchanged glances with Jaime.

“Your side of things?”

“Taken care of. He won’t pass up the chance to prove he can beat the Shadow.’

“Okay, good, where’s the jungle woman?”

“She’s up on the deck,” said a voice unusually tranquil, coming from the door yet again.

Jamie turned around towards the familiar voice of Amara Cronenberg, the Lady of Light. She had changed into a far more informal attire, probably due to a lack of alternatives. She was wearing a modest one-piece white dress that had seen better days, but she was wearing it nowhere near modestly. She still was who she was.

“Lady,” Ayane greeted, formally, with a head bow.

“Shadow,” Amara greeted back, smiling from the heart. “I do not believe we’ve met.”

“I do not believe we have time to,” the Shadow said, apologetically.

Amara turned, to give way, and gestured her on towards the door.

“Go. Know that all our hopes go with you. As does the Light.”

Ayane looked around at all of them and then nodded, not at them, but at herself. Her fists closed and opened along with her taking a breath, and then she walked past them all and left the room.

“I will not fail.”

And then she turned the corridor and was out of view, out to go take on the Mad Genius completely on her own, for the sake of their survival.

Jamie sighed and glared at the Holy Lady.

“The Hunter tell you this?”

Amara turned to Jamie.

“I met her in the corridor and got the sense she would like to talk to the Shadow alone. I offered to help.”

“This’s crazy,” Shu first said, “I can’t believe everything will be up to her.”

“She’ll make it,” the Circus Freak commented, lying his head down. “She has to.”

Jamie had not looked away from the Lady.

“No words of wisdom for her, Amara?”

The woman shrugged in a very divine way.

“What can I say to one who is shining so brightly? I gather she did not condemn the Beasts to death?”

All three of them looked back at the leader of the Church of Light, surprised at her guess. Jamie, however, reached the only conclusion possible.

“You listened on our conversation.”

“She didn’t,” Shu corrected, “she wasn’t there when I came in.”

“The Shadow is now our hope, yes, but if I’m not mistaken, we would have hope had she not returned anyways. We still had one mage that could teleport us into the tower.”

Okay… Jamie thought, following along. “Your point being?”

“Well, the prophecy spoke of the best of the Shadow Conclave pitching hope. Superficially, we were on the verge of destruction, but with one action, the Beasts were actually in that situation. And the–”

“Pfah!” Jamie pointed at the Lady of Light and couldn’t help but laugh. “You think the prophecy was about the Beasts?! Not us?”

“It’s just one interpretation,” Amara chuckled, as ever impervious to Jamie’s attempts at putting her on the defensive. “The other is that one way or another, she is our hope now. And that is all.”

“Not just ours,” Hugo pointed out. “She’s everyones’. I think that’s the point.”

“The prophecy is irrelevant,” Shuu pointed out. “The only reason we followed it was because it was still the better plan. We were faced with an enemy that could not be fought, the only viable strategy was subterfuge and reconnaissance. That’s the only reason why the Shadow Conclave was in place. To guarantee that approach had the best odds of success.”

That was interesting to Jamie.

“So even if there had been a winner?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?” Shuu pointed out. “Prophecy or not, we have done all we could the best we could.”

“Now, it’s up to our savior,” Amara put in, introducing a completely different tone that successfully made both Shu and Jamie uncomfortable. A tone of destiny. “May the Light guide her.”

People with faith bothered Jamie. It was nothing but irrational hope. An optimism that was largely unsubstantiated. But people like Amara, who seemed to never fall short of it, almost made it seem palpable.

“I will go and pray for her success. And keep the people faithful so that they may do the same with honest hearts. I invite you to join.”

She turned to walk away.

“After all…what else of worth is there to do?”

Jamie frowned. She still had to go talk to the other Teens, but outside of that, Amara was not wrong. There was nothing for them to do other than to wait and worry.

Amara left them behind, and the silence was telling. Both Shuu and Jamie were trying to think of what else they could do, in protest and rebellion, but they were coming up short.

“She’s got us there,” Hugo said, helpfully.

Jamie shook, well flustered.

“Oh, shut up.”

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