IN THE DARK (IV)
Dark clouds loomed over the Holy City, blanketing the vast swath of land in shade and shadow, blocking the sun entirely from casting its light onto it. There was a strange sort of eerie stillness to the whole city, to all the streets and little alleyways, and expansive farmlands and riverbanks, and even the usually extremely populated plazas.
Endless, almost corporeal, shadows danced about the edges of the walls and streets, occasional disfigured eye perching out and blinking once before disappearing. Every so often an arm-sized tentacle would reach out from the cracks within the paved roads and wiggle for a second before disappearing.
The world was infinitely besieged by oddities beyond its realm, a set of strange abominations proudly displaying themselves for a moment before hiding in the dark. The now-endless streaks of thread-thin shadows mingled into webs and collapsed, spilling like ink over the streets, filling up the cracks and traveling onward.
Well outside the city, stationed halfway up the nearest mountain, hidden within the realm of the massive forest, Felix and Lucky were currently sitting on top of an abandoned scout tower. The signs of age were evident across its surface, even more so with the vegetation that had nearly taken it whole. The two had hid themselves here shortly after escaping the ranch a couple of days ago, not daring to even peek their heads out of the thick branches and leaves.
“... it’s still growing.” Felix sighed, his face contorted into a frown. “What the fuck is it anyway?”
“... whatever it is,” Lucky said, her expression that of melancholy. “We have no business tackling it... and chances are neither does Lino.”
“What is the Empire doing anyway?” Felix mumbled, agitated. “Why aren’t they trying to clean up the mess?”
“... they probably are,” Lucky shrugged. “But, clearly, they’re not doing all that well.”
“... just looking at that shit makes me uncomfortable and angry.”
“It’s kind of like Lino, isn’t it?” Lucky chuckled.
“Yeah, except I doubt he’d ever suddenly turn to cannibalism and try to eat us.”
“Eh, you can never know with that bastard.” she said. “Maybe it’s one of his numerous fetishes.”
“... why does it suddenly sound possible?” Felix sighed. “Wait, could this have something to do with the whole corpse-business?”
“... you just figured that one out? Damn, you’re so fucking slow.”
“Hey, excuse me if I was a bit distracted!!” Felix grunted, blushing faintly.
“Could be, though.” Lucky said. “It certainly does stink of Devil business. But, then again, it’s been two days and I’ve yet to see even a sign of a Demon, let alone a Devil. Something’s terribly off here.”
“... why does it sound like you’re about to say something utterly moronic?” Felix asked suddenly, glaring at her.
“I’m gonna go and explore.”
“Like hell you will.” he retorted without hesitation.
“Aww, what are you gonna do? Chain me up?”
“I’ll fight you to my last breath.”
“Wouldn’t that just attract whatever the hell that is and kill us both?”
“... you keep saying Lino’s insane,” Felix said. “But, you’re just as, if not more.”
“Heh, why do you think we get along so well?” she winked as she got up. “Don’t worry, I’ll try and be careful.”
“L’,” Lucky felt a strong grip on her wrist, holding her back for a moment. “I know you’ve realized it yourself -- which makes your choice seem even dumber -- but there’s no ‘hiding’ and ‘being careful’ when it comes to that thing.”
“... I’ve got a theory,” her tone mellowed as she crouched down. “And I think it’ll work out. But, in case I don’t come back, feel free to live on and fuck everything that walks, alright?”
“...” she tried to walk away yet even stronger force pulled her back, causing her to slip over a small stone and fall onto Felix who held onto her tightly. “Come back.”
“... I’ll try.” she said, smiling faintly.
“I’m not asking.” she glanced back and met a hardened, cold gaze which quickly pierced past her feeble barrier, causing her lips to tremble momentarily.
“I will.” she nodded faintly, closing in and kissing him softly. “Wait for me.”
They stared at each other for a moment longer before Lucky pulled up and swiftly left, cloaking herself in the shadows of the forest, descending the mountain far quicker than the two climbed it two days prior. She naturally wasn’t rushing toward her death, and was instead fairly certain in her conjecture -- whatever the creature was, its realm was limited within wherever its shadows roamed. She suspected that the creature lacked anything akin to the Divine Sense, meaning that it was practically blind to everything going on outside its immediate realm.
She couldn’t ascertain it completely, but according to her observations ever since Jack and Edward visited her, she had gleamed as much. Though the spread was fast, she noted, it also felt very artificial; for nearly four hours at one point there were several, massive holes lacking shadows deep within their realms. It seemed, at least to her, that the creature necessitated the hosts to expand its domain.
Reaching the mountain’s bottom swiftly, she traced across the vast, empty fields, circling the extending realms of shadows and rushing toward the First District, where she suspected lay the source itself and possibly even the struggle. For all their shortcomings, Lucky very much doubted that the entire upper echelon of the Empire simply rolled over and died -- especially so because the creature seemed to work its magic through unconventional means rather than direct battles.
She wasn’t certain as to what she expected to do even if all her conjectures came true, but at the very least it was better knowing than not; there was still quite some time before Lino returned, which is also why Felix and her hadn’t fled any further, planning on reuniting with him before doing so.
As the landscape surrounding her blurred, she found herself running parallel to the shadows, barely a few kilometers away from their edges yet still unnoticed. She was more and more assured of her conjecture, causing her somewhat shaken heart to calm, realizing she would keep her promise. Yet, at the same time, that realization had shaken her heart just the same, if not more, causing her to curse briefly under her breath, yet still being unable to wipe the smirk off her face.
She ended up running for nearly eight hours at full speed before reaching the edge of the First District; almost immediately she realized she was right as she saw a massive, gaping hole at the center of the District, especially so around the Palace, with occasional flashes of light escaping past the darkening shadows and into the sky. She, however, had neither the desire nor the means to sneak inside and confirm anything; she had already tested her luck enough, she mused, wondering when she’d gotten so comfortable with her name she too started making puns out of it.
Slowing down her speed, Lucky became more cautious as she neared the edges of the shadows, ready to leap back and flee at a moment’s notice. The outer walls of the District were already consumed in shadows so she could at most roam the outside edges, hoping to gleam something more from her short excursion. It was also then that she’d spotted a flash of light blast past the shadows, seemingly expelled out of the realms of the dark, arching through the sky before landing just a few hundred meters away from Lucky. Well, to call it a landing would be a bit generous; whoever it was crashed lopsidedly, and was then dragged further through the rubble and earth, leaving a trail for nearly a hundred meters before stopping.
Lucky took a deep breath before carefully walking over, unsure of who it was or perhaps what it was. As the dust settled, she saw a sorry figure lying down, missing an entire arm and half his right leg. Despite the serious disfigurement, she quickly recognized who it was -- Second Prince On’yal. Though alive, he was heavily wounded at the moment, barely conscious.
Speeding over, Lucky fetched a few healing pills she had stored and forcibly fed them to On’yal whose eyes oozed desperation and terror. Though he tried to move, Lucky prevented him as going any further might genuinely break every single bone in his body. She waited for a few minutes till the healing pills began working their magic; well, rather than magic, it was at most some basic assistance -- they could neither grow back the lost limbs nor could they simply heal the numerous cuts and scars, or recover his strength. The pills merely closed up the wounds and stopped the bleeding, but that was more than enough for someone of On’yal’s Realm to survive.
“... r-run... run away...” he managed to stutterer through his clanking teeth, staring at Lucky with terrified gaze.
“Yeah, yeah, I probably should,” she nodded, glancing back at the City. “But, how about you tell me what happened instead?”
“... r-run! You... damned... woman!!”
“Oi, oi, how are you treating someone who just saved your life?” Lucky glared at him. “Don’t worry too much. Whatever that thing is, it doesn’t even know we’re here.”
“See the shadows?” she pointed at the edge of the darkness. “Anything outside of them, it’s kind of blind to it.”
“... r-really?!” the Prince exclaimed softly as a faint trace of hope surfaced inside his eyes.
“Really,” Lucky nodded, smiling lightly. “So, tell me what happened.”
“... I... I don’t... know...” the Prince suddenly frowned as his body shook, terror returning to his gaze. “It... it just appeared... out of nowhere... killing... devouring... mutilating... b-by the time we realized what was happening... we were, were trapped. We... we’ve been fighting for... I don’t even know anymore. But... no matter... no matter what we do... we can’t kill... it...”
“... how many of you are in there?” Lucky asked, frowning.
“... there’s... there’s maybe fifteen people left...”
“Can you message them?”
“I-I have my Sister’s talisman...” he spoke meekly, fetching a golden piece of paper and handing it to Lucky. “I... I can’t activate it...”
“... alright,” Lucky nodded, sending a sliver of Qi into the talisman. “Inform them to try and leave no matter what and explain to them what I just told you. From what I’ve figured, whatever that creature is, it uses hosts to spread itself so it can’t expand naturally, meaning we’ll be safe so long as we don’t get too near it. Also tell them not to eat or drink anything within the city and to leave it all behind, even if it was within their void storages.”
Lucky quickly tuned out as On’yal desperately tried to explain the situation to the seemingly crumbling voice on the other end. Her eyes quickly look toward south, a strange expression and a surge of emotions besieging her. She felt pathetically weak and, perhaps even more so, simply angry with herself. Even in a moment like this, where she knew in her heart of hearts that he couldn’t change anything, she had still hoped for him to swoop in and fix everything through some miracle. She laughed at herself inwardly, with bitterness surging to her throat; it was this dependence, she realized, that caused her to become weak and complacent in the first place. She realized that she was doing disservice to the both of them; should something happen, regardless of how or why, he would blame himself, even if he repeatedly tried to get her and Felix to simply settle and train in peace.
At that moment she made a vow within the depths of her soul to change, to grow, to outlive the unhealthy faith in him. For the first time, truly, did she understand why Lino always seemed disappointed when people fought for the dreams of others.