There was a drumming silence encapsulating a small, riverside, star-shaped fort. As the silver moon hung above, casting its rays over the gray walls, those few patrolmen who ought to be paying attention to the surroundings were snoring happily with emptied bottles in their hands.
The fort itself was called Lunar Fort, one of numerous forts alongside the border between the Divine Dynasty and the Demonic Battlefield, situated at the very edge of the desert separating the two, with only a river’s worth of distance before crossing over into the bordered territory of the Divine Dynasty. It was also one of the most manned ones and had experienced the most skirmishes over the years, turning many-a-soldier stationed here into a veteran.
However, as number of attacks decreased exponentially in the past month since Empress Evelyn’s ascension to the throne, security had gotten lax. It was also on this very night that a shadow nimbly scaled the five-meters tall walls of the fort without making even the faintest of sounds. Heaving over the extruded edge, the shadow landed on the wall yet didn’t pause, instead immediately leaping over and beginning to scale down its other end, quickly entering the compound itself.
It didn’t contain many buildings as the fort was primarily focused on frontline defending, meaning there were no civilians present and was entirely composed of soldiers. Besides the largest building - barracks - there was a smithy, warehouse and separate armory. The shadow ignored the latter three and raced toward the barracks, a three-story building made of tinted brick and concrete, windowed ten times per floor.
Rather than going toward the entrance, the shadow once again began scaling the stone and reached roof in a matter of a few moments, bolting toward the chimney and jumping in without any hesitation. Though inside was pitch black, it seemed as the shadow knew the course by heart, navigating somewhat complex route which connected a single chimney to all fireplaces in the barracks.
The room of choice was slightly different than others, particularly with the fact that it was twice the size, slightly decorated and housed only a single person. The shadow landed onto the wooden floor yet again without making the sound whereupon its edgeless features molded into a person wearing body-tight, linen clothes and a mask covering everything but starkly black eyes.
Those very same eyes quickly scouted the room until they found the bed rammed into the corner and a man sleeping atop of it. Approaching silently, the figure withdrew a barely discernible needle from seemingly nowhere, firing off at the man on the bed from a few meters, precisely hitting the latter’s neck. The man’s body contorted for a moment, indulging in a few bouts of spasms, before returning to its former tranquility, as though nothing happened.
The figure walked over to the bed and picked the man off of it, heaving the latter over its shoulder before once again retreating to the fireplace, beginning to scale the chimney, reaching the roof and, as though it was never there, quickly disappearing into the night outside the fort itself.
The figure once again turned into an edgeless shadow, morphing the man into it as well, and bolted southward, into the lands of Divine Dynasty. It ran through the night without making a sound for nearly an hour before reaching a small shack seemingly in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but thick, leafless trees.
Reflecting its exterior, the shack’s interior was plain and simple, with only a single chair present of the furniture and absolutely nothing else. The shadow once again morphed into a figure as it lay the man down onto the floor before withdrawing the mask from its face. Behind was a face of a defiantly beautiful, yet tepid frigidity best reflected in the woman’s eyes. Her hair was short, boyish in design, black as night in hue.
She quickly sat down onto the chair and crossed her legs as another needle appeared in her hand, which she also threw at the man. The latter shook for a moment as his eyes opened; he cried out as he tried to move, yet all he could do is look around with his eyes. The entirety of his body was strangely paralyzed to the point where he couldn’t even call upon Qi in his meridians. He immediately realized something was wrong, especially so once his eyes landed on the woman sitting in front of him.
“... what the fuck?” he mumbled meekly. “Who are you?”
“You should have been delivered a letter these past few days,” instead of replying to his question, woman asked one of her own. “Can you give it to me?”
“I asked you a question.”
“I believe its source is the ‘Mortal Council’ as you morons call them,” the woman said, her voice cold and indifferent. “Again, I’d very much like to see its contents.”
“... ha ha ha, you’re fucking insane.” the man burst out into a short, sporadic laughter. “Do you even know who I am you bitch?!”
“... are you worthwhile me losing valuable time remembering your name?” the woman asked right back, seemingly with honesty bereft of filth. “I’d wager no, as I have no clue as to who you are besides being the highest-ranked person in that fort. I do not like to indulge in conversations; if you’d kindly give me the letter, I can make all of this quick. If not, just say so.”
“... of course I won’t, you moronic whore. Just wait till I get my hands on you--”
“... why do people always defy?” the man was forced to silence as he suddenly felt a strange feeling surge within his chest, as though something was wiggling its way out. “They defy and defy, forcing me to exert means I do not wish to exert. Your defiance becomes the ruin of my reputation. That feeling in your chest,” the woman finally addressed the man’s sudden worries. “It’s because of a very particular breed of worm. It goes by many names across the world, but your lands call it ‘Hearteater’ I think. Strangely, it doesn’t actually eat your heart; it simply eats away at nerve endings connecting to it, stimulating your brain into believing your heart is being eaten. Most people die due to the brain’s confusion as it tries to fire up countless support systems for nothing, overexerting their bodies. Did you know? Their hearts continued to beat for almost a minute after they died. Fascinating, don’t you agree?”
“... y-you... you are Shade!!” the man exclaimed in terror as he glanced at his chest, fearful of what might happen next.
“... I suppose I am,” the woman said. “Which is why you should know what will happen to you if you don’t give me what I want. I mean, you must have borne witness to at least one of the corpses I’ve left behind. Do you too wish to become someone’s nightmare?”
“... y-you insane bitch!! Once we catch you, you’ll finally learn literal definition of hell!!”
“... I can assure you,” Shade suddenly leaned in until she was inches away from the man, startling the latter. “I’ve lived hell far worse than you all can come up with together after a thousand years of contemplation. The letter. Give it to me.”
“... fuck you. I ain’t giving you shit!” the man replied defiantly.
“...” she stared into the man’s eyes for a moment before suddenly smiling faintly. “Did you ever wonder just what happened to all those guys’ genitalia for it to end up so... off?”
“Honestly, even I find it rather grotesque and avoid doing it if possible,” she said, sitting back up onto the chair. “After all, I’ve got needs as well and I hate seeing a liked toy of mine be turned into... well, you know. That.”
“You... you wouldn’t dare---”
“I’d dare do anything,” she interrupted him quickly. “Even slit the throat of the person I serve. What makes you think you’re special? I want the letter, and we can be done with.”
“... will you let me go?”
“... pfft, ha ha ahahaha, will I let you go? Ha ha ha ha... aaaah, good one. Good one indeed. Of course I’m not going to let you go, you ape-brained moron. You’re a dead man. Yet, I’m at least kind enough to let you choose how to die. In perfect exercise of absolute, hellish torture that will have your ghost wander the Netherland for all eternity crying out in agony, or one which will settle your soul quickly and peacefully. I wholeheartedly recommend the second one, for both our sakes.”
She’d gotten the letter in the end; however, just like most of those before him, the man chose the first route. It involved a lot of screaming, blood and crying, as it always does. What she’d learned over the years is that no one is truly impervious to pain - one simply has to figure out a way to jolt back the dead feelings into motion.
This has been Lucky’s life for a long time now. It wasn’t fighting, participating in wars and battles, but being a shadow consuming those treasured the most by the opposing side. Unlike others who trained by her side, she operated alone - always. She found presence of anyone else unsettling, and would find herself waking up in the middle of the night, fearful of whether there was a knife on her throat or not.
Though there were times when she regretted becoming who she was, they were quite rare - and have been growing rarer over the years. It’s the oldest principle of repetition leading to routine; it has become her routine to be the nightmare for many, and angel for a few. She hardly thought of her past, mostly due to the immense pain associated with it, yet it has become a reoccurring dream for the past few months.
Images of days before she became who she was today, when she was an ordinary cultivator with friends and foes like any other, with aspirations of being something much larger than what she realistically believed she could be. The image which repeated the most often, however, was one of a boyish face, braving an innocent smile hiding sufferings which she, till this day, had never deciphered. Nine years after their separation, Lino was still the greatest enigma to her. Even the Emperor of Divine Dynasty, and current Empress in extension, she understood as though she lived and breathed their lives.
It was also with the dreams that a strange form of anxiety surged within what she believed to already be completely dead - her heart. Mixed in was also a dose of fear, something she hasn’t experienced in a long, long time. It wasn’t fear of death, or even something as monumental; it was a simple sort of fear, born of single thought: what would he think of her if he were to see her as she is?
She was growing increasingly more confident that the strange beggar that had recently surfaced was exactly him, yet despite searching, even she was unable to confirm it, which only further led her to believe it was him. She was certain that if there truly was a person in the whole world who could hide from someone in broad daylight, it was him.
“... it’s time to go back,” she glanced out into the night for a moment before huddling into the corner, readying for sleep. “I wonder how’s the city changed...”