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Shadow was stalking through the woods with a purpose. She sniffed around, letting her nose guide her. She’d caught the sweet, tangy scent of some froleberries on the air. She squeezed herself under some shrubs and spotted her prize.

There they are! There's a lot of them!

The plump red berries stood arrayed in front of her, proudly displayed on their bush. She grinned at her find and gathered a few in a pouch. She smelled the air again, this time focusing on the scent of her compatriots. She set off toward them, keeping the path she was taking in mind.

She could gather the berries herself but experience told her the humans were way better at it. At first, she’d insisted she could gather them herself, but the whole party was getting held up while they waited for her to finish. She had realized she was just being stubborn. The humans had nimble hands and she didn’t. It made sense for them to do the gathering.

She’d been sad for a while about that. The humans would always be able to do things she never could because of their unique body structure. They were just so conveniently constructed for handling objects.

Annie had snapped her out of her funk, sitting her down for a talk about strengths and weaknesses, and while you might be bad at some things, you could be great at others. You could use your strengths to help where your friends were weaker.

“For example, you have your wonderful sense of smell, and can run much faster than either of us. Even if we can pick berries better, we’d never find them to pick in the first place without your help.” Annie had explained to her.

It had been just what she’d needed. Sure, she had trouble with certain things because of her less than nimble claws and their lack of accompanying thumbs; sure, she might have issues picking up anything heavy because of her diminutive size. But she had a lot going for her too.

She had amazing senses compared to humans. While humans were practically scent-blind, she could smell all sorts of things, sometimes even from miles away. They could barely detect a scent at all unless it was super strong.

Her eyes could see better in the dark (like, way, way better). Her ears could easily pick up on sounds they missed entirely. It was harder to compare taste and touch, but who was to say they weren’t better too?

She could run fast and had natural weapons they lacked (although that was somewhat questionable. They had swords, daggers, and stuff. As far as she was concerned, that counted).

There was also her dark magic, she was apparently quite talented with it. Humans had to go through a bunch of training (years!) to do anything at all, but she could already do all sorts of things.

She could use her acid spit and shadows, and she’d since figured out how to use her ear-sight. Annie had called it echolocation, but she didn’t need to make noises herself for it to work. It was more like she could just see wherever sound existed, as long as it made it to her ears at some point. She didn’t think it counted as echolocation if she wasn’t making echoes, now did it? It would just be ‘location’. Calling her ear-sight ‘location’ was just silly. Why would she do that?

There was progress being made on her other magic ‘slots’ too. She almost had the vision one figured out. She had it up to second-long bursts of functionality. Her ear-sight had been lasting about that long when she finally got the shape right.

She still wasn’t sure what it did, but her vision was definitely different for the second it was on. She would need to do more experiments once she got the mana to slot correctly.

Her main limiting factor in unlocking more was the time it took figuring them out. She had been able to sense all kinds of different places she could slot more mana, but each one seemed to have its own unique shape. She had an overabundance of choices, so she was focusing on the senses for now. Luckily, she had some sense of when her mana was fitting better. She’d never have made any of the slots work without that feedback.

Annie had no clue how to help with figuring out the slots, as apparently humans didn’t have them.

They did something different.

She wasn’t sure what exactly, because she wasn’t that far along in her training yet. It had something to do with making precise shapes though, which was what led to her current task. She would push her mana outside of herself and try to shape it into different forms.

Apparently her shadow-fluff was simply dark-attuned mana floating around outside her body. It just so happened to look exactly like the shadows. Given that shadows were a lack of light (i.e. darkness), that made a lot of sense.

That training might very well have an unexpected side benefit. Mana was visible. If she could make it sharp enough and put it over a surface with some good contrast, she would be able to make words that people could read.

That would be a game-changer. No more having to get out ink and paper, or having to find a convenient patch of dirt. No more having to laboriously spell out the words one letter at a time.

She would be able to write with her mind and it was going to be great.

She wasn’t there quite yet.

But I will be soon.

The idea brought a smile to her face, her body bursting into a run as excited energy coursed through it.

She was so caught up thinking about it she barely noticed when her leg hit the string.

What she did notice was the ground exploding up around her, like a gaping maw of some great beast closing in all around her.

She may have panicked a bit.

AHHHHHHHHHHHHH

“SKREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!”

It’s eating me! It’s eating me!

She thrashed about with slashing claws and gnashing teeth, as the world squeezed around her. She was constricted, tangled. She couldn’t move.

Nonononono…no… Wait.

She was… not being eaten. She stopped struggling. She could still see the outside, although she was much higher up than she had been before. She was tangled in something.

It felt rough against her scales as she shifted. It was a bunch of… small ropes? She’d seen Jonas' rope he always hung off his belt. He would use it for all kinds of things. It was like that but smaller, and all woven together. It had openings big enough to let a leg through but not anything larger. In her panicked thrashing, she’d tangled herself up in the mesh.

What the heck is this?

This was definitely a made thing. It wasn’t actively hurting her, just sort of holding her here and making sure she didn’t leave. She looked around as much as she could given her restrained position. It seemed to be hanging from a tree branch, suspending her in the air.

As she took in her situation she calmed down, the tension draining out of her body. She really had nothing to fear here. She could probably bite her way out if she had to, although it might be difficult to reach the right ropes given how tangled everything was. But she needn’t bother with that. She could shadow-port.

She colored a bit as the thought came to her. Well, not really. She imagined herself coloring a bit. Shadelings can’t really blush. Just... the point was she felt embarrassed.

She had thought she was being eaten and her reaction to that had been to flail about randomly rather than using the ability that let her literally teleport out of danger. If she had been getting eaten, she could very well be dead right now because of her panic.

Maybe she should take Jonas up on his offer of sparring lessons. He’d said they would help to train proper responses in combat. They would probably help with things like this. It was just… there were so many other things to do! Everything seemed important and there was only so much time! She couldn’t do them all, and the one that involved getting whacked with a stick on a regular basis wasn't making a strong case for being put at the top of her list.

Oh well. I’ll do better next time.

She’d had just about enough of hanging in the air trapped in a rope mesh thing, so she shadow-ported down. When she arrived on the ground, she heard the tree rustle as it shifted, her weight having been suddenly removed.

She shook herself off and stretched, unkinking her limbs. She checked herself over. Everything seemed fine. Nothing hurt.

Looking back up at the thing that captured her, she started to examine it.

How did this thing catch me?

It obviously wasn’t alive. Yet it had managed to snatch her up and trap her in its ropey grasp.

That doesn’t seem possible.

How could a rope just up and grab someone, then pull them into a tree? Maybe it was magic?

She noticed that almost at the top of the line that connected the trapping part to the tree, there was a little blocky thing attached. It was quite high up there, so she was having trouble getting a good look at it.

She glanced toward the tree.

Well then. Guess it’s time to practice.

Her tree climbing had unfortunately been one of the skills she let fall by the wayside. She was busy learning stuff whenever the group was resting, and busy running around hunting and scavenging when the group was moving. Not to say she hadn’t climbed at all; it just wasn’t something she’d been focusing on.

That made this particular climb a little nerve-wracking. She moved slowly and kept her claws dug into the bark, making sure she had a solid grip before moving her next limb. She glanced down and was acutely aware of how high she was.

You’ll be fine, just take it slow. she told herself, trying to settle her nerves.

She finally made her way up to the branch the rope was attached to, and shimmied her way over to it. The branch swayed as she made her way further down it. Her heart was pounding in her chest as she lurched around; the branch made a less than stable surface. She glanced over the edge and immediately regretted it. She didn’t really like heights. That may have also played a part in her lack of training on this particular topic.

She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment.

Calm down. I’m fine. I’m not going to fall; I have a good grip.

She took a deep breath and continued moving, her face set with determination.

She made it to the rope, glancing over the edge of the tree branch, she could see the block attached to the rope. It was wooden and had a narrow hook at the end. She also noticed a small thread attached to it. It was tied on to the hook part, and the other end was just dangling, not attached to anything.

Was this... attached to something? What's the hook for?

She looked down at the ground again and spotted it. There was another block pounded into the ground, like a counterpart. She couldn't really see it, but perhaps the hook...

It was enough. How the contraption must work sprang into her mind.

The branch was bent down and hooked to the ground. The string was stretched across the path. I bumped the string, which pulled it loose from whatever was holding it on its far end. The loose string let the hook shift, which let it slip free of the block on the ground, which released the tree, which sprang up, pulled up the mesh rope, and me with it!!!

She stayed stock still, locked to the branch, eyes wide.

THIS THING IS GENIUS.

Her body started wiggling of its own accord, despite her iron grip on the branch.

I must have it.

Cutting it off the tree was just a matter of getting her teeth around the rope, and it came down with little effort. She knew Jonas could knot the ends together again for her. She considered how to get down herself, but the thought of having to make that whole terrible trip back to the trunk backward or, gods forbid, turning herself around up here proved to be a little too harrowing.

She decided to just shadow-port down. That left her unable to use it for a little while. She could almost do three in a row now when her mana was at full strength, but she would need about an hour for her to gain back enough for that third one, having already used two.

She preferred to save her mana if she could, but… she looked back up at the tree and shivered.

It took her a little while to work the block spiked into the ground out of said ground, but she managed. She put the spiked block in her pouch and managed to coil up the long ropey part that had been attached to the tree around her shoulder and torso with some clever gymnastics. She was resigned to having to drag the meshed portion. Luckily, the forest had been getting far less dense as their travels continued so she should be able to find a path to drag it where it wouldn’t get tangled.

She was just about to set out when she heard footsteps moving through the brush toward her.

Oh.

She felt her face flush with imaginary heat again.

Jonas is running over to rescue me because of all the screeching.

She should have gone to tell them she was ok.

She sighed, facing the rise the noise was coming from, she hoped he wasn’t… huh.

She sniffed.

That doesn’t smell like Jonas.

A completely unfamiliar human crested the small hill.

They both stared at each other with wide eyes.

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A note from Zat

Gotta love clever engineering.


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Zat

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