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Full Version: The Past of Ampere: "Shade"
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((Hey everyone I've begun writing a story that details the past of this dumb Umbral character that nobody likes. Gawd I hope he dies. Anyways it ended up becoming way more long winded than I originally intended, so I don't blame anyone if they feel like it's too much to trudge through. Tried to include pictures with my crud art to imitate a kind of Japanese light novel style, cause that always seemed fun. Enjoy, and comments and critiques are always appreciated!))

Chapter One: Dreams

The continent of Gold was ever an inhospitable environment. Harsh deserts, lack of rain, brutal sand storms. And yet, despite these conditions, cities and villages dotted the map of that barren land as if to show the resilient defiance of mankind.

One of those cities was the home of two parent-less children. A city of little renown, but only because the denizens there had little want for fame. Being widely known didn't matter. Survival did. Nowhere else was this more true than the day to day lives of those two children. Street urchins, with no means to earn a living, with no guardians to guide them. But they didn't care.

They raced through the crowded streets now, a girl and a boy. One of them had a face of uncontainable smiles and laughter, her vibrant blonde hair whipping wildly around her head as she slipped through passerby's with practiced ease, like a needle threading itself through cloth. The boy fared far worse, his face strained and matted with sweat, appearing to find struggle even with the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other, bumping harshly against the very same people the girl had gracefully slipped through.

“You wouldn't be this pooped if you took a head start, Rags! What's the point of playing look-out and sounding the alarm if you were just going to wait for me to catch up, anyways!?” She called to the boy as he tried to breathe out a response through desperate pants.

“You—gasp, know I don't leave people behind! Any—anyways, just give it a rest already! We've been, ngh, running for hours!”

The girl heeded his words and allowed her legs to slow into a calmer gait, before reaching a brusque halt. “Y'think the guards have given up by now?”

“O-Obviously, they don't get paid enough to run a MARATHON everyday.” The boy explained as he caught up, trying to subdue the burning pain that raged through his lungs.

“You're right,” She grinned as she fished a moderately large pouch of Murai from her pocket and bounced it in her palm in order to relish the sound of jingling coins. “WE do, though.”

The boy shook his head and crouched to the side of the dusty streets, resting his back against the wall of a nearby building. “Talk about bad luck. I had that place scoped out for a week, and the guard patrols never deviated once. Then on the one day we decide to pull a heist, our honorable law enforcement just happens to show up,” He muttered as he looked to the sky and allowed the bright sun to warm his face. Though he was sweaty and exhausted, he always appreciated the comforting glow the daylight provided, even amidst sweltering heat. “...You're fortunate that you're as quick as you are, Shade.”

“Fortune's got nothing to do with it, Rags. It's all skill.” The now named girl jeered playfully as she moved to stand beside her friend. “Anyways, can we at least find a spot with a canopy? I hate the damn sun.”

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The boy nodded, and as the two of them moved through the city streets it was clear that their differing preference for weather seemed to be well-reflected in their appearance. One with her golden hair and fair skin, the other with his dark locks and tanned face. One that basked in the sun, the other that greatly preferred the relief of the shadows. They were so distinctly different, and yet, as the two of them walked side by side, they seemed to fit each other perfectly.

Pausing next to a nearby shop, the delicious aroma of cooked meats wafted into Shade's nose as she felt her mouth water. “Well, this seems as good a place to spend our new investment as any!” She suggested happily.

Rags only nodded, allowing her to enter the store and pick out what food they would get, as he himself chose to remain standing outside. He never had a particular preference for such things, anyway. However, as Shade was no doubt drooling over the selection of culinary choices available to her, a city guardsman had walked by from the street and locked his eyes squarely on Rags. The boy cursed inwardly as he watched the armored man's approach.

“You there, boy. There's been a report about some young thief running about. A lot of money was apparently stolen. Do you happen to know anything?” The guard's eyes narrowed as he stared longer at Rags. “...Where are your parents, actually?”

The boy's face, which normally remained somewhere between muted and impassive, suddenly contorted itself into what appeared to be the very picture of grief. Sobs escaped his throat as tears slipped endlessly across his cheeks.

“I—I'm not in trouble, sniff, am I?”

“What?, I was only asking a questi--”

“My father told me to be a good boy while I waited for him to buy things! But if he sees me talking to you, h-he'll know I've been bad! And things will hurt when I'm bad! He'll hit! It-it'll hurt so much...!” Rags cried as his face fell into his hands, his tattered sleeves becoming dampened by the falling tears. The stunned guard could only imagine that the boy's dirty clothing was just another sign of the abuse he must have suffered at the hands of his harsh parents.

“I, look, just forget I said anything! And clean up your face before he gets back! I...I have somewhere to be.” The guard said hurriedly as he put as much distance between himself and the crying boy as possible, now shouldering a new-found feeling of embarrassment and guilt.

Shade emerged from the shop carrying two large sticks of grilled meat in each hand, having watched the events unfold from inside. She smiled and shook her head, handing one of the sticks to the boy who's expression had now returned to its usual poker face.

“Another guard none the wiser, eh? As usual, your acting skills are nothing to sneeze at.” Shade murmured as she gave a low whistle.

“Yes, well. You don't grow up with a theater troupe and come away with nothing.” Rags responded casually, taking the meat from the girl and biting into it appreciatively.

“Still, always the innocent little child act. You could stand to mix it up a bit, maybe do a bravado thing. Like, 'Ey, guard, who's ya think yer talkin' to?! My daddy's a high ranking official dat'll bust ya ass! Now SCRAM!' I mean c'mon, I'd be super entertained if I saw something like that.”

The boy rolled his eyes, waving off Shade's suggestion with his hand. “I go with what works. Besides, in all the plays I was either the meek child or one of the female characters. Not exactly a lot of opportunity to practice the 'bravado thing'.”

“...Wait. So that means they put you in a dress a lot?”

Rags' eyes narrowed. “...Yes.” His response was, predictably, met with Shade's uproarious laughter.

“HA-HAAA! SERIOUSLY! Weeell, I guess I shouldn't be that surprised, considering what you're wearing now isn't that big a difference!”

“This.” The boy grunted irritably, as he pulled against the hem of his clothes, “Is a ROBE. And it's very practical. It's protective, easy to move in, and--”

“...And raggedy as hell! But that's fine, couldn't call you by your nickname otherwise.” She grinned as she patted the top of the boy's hooded head playfully, much to his annoyance.

“At least I don't have solarphobia like the girl that ENJOYS being called Shade. Seriously, you can't stay in the sun for more than ten minutes before you start getting all twitchy. What's up with that?”

“Sun sucks. Don't trust it.” She said simply as she finished off the rest of her meal, patting her stomach in satisfaction. “I'm stuffed. Nap time is imminent. You gettin' tired too, Rags?”

The boy shook his head. “No. Get some rest, I'll keep watch. Scope out the crowds and area for new targets.”

“Already? C'mon, this Murai will still last us a while.”

“All the same. Doesn't hurt to be prepared.”

Shade gave a light shrug as she laid her back down against a row of wooden crates. “Meh, suit yourself.”

Rags did as he said he would, scanning the streets and looking for various big spenders. Especially the rude, the harsh, and the combative. He always did this when preparing to pick a new target. If the two of them were going to detract from another person's well-being for their own sakes, he at least wanted that person to deserve it.

However, upon hearing the steady breathing coming from Shade, indicating she was fast asleep, the boy broke away from his watch and began to feel at the bricks of a nearby wall. Finding a loose one, he eased it out if its place and reached into the hole, extracting what appeared to be a compact but nonetheless thick book.

His eyes seemed to light up as he cracked the bindings open and scanned the various pages. It was a book on magic, and also described schools and research that occurred in the Mage Capital of Karaten. Rags had always had magic in him, but it never began to truly grow and flourish until the day he ran away from the acting troupe that had raised him, and found himself partnered with Shade.

Still, even with what he believed to be a considerable natural talent, and the guidance of various books he had managed to pickpocket off the bags of strangers, the boy could only manage simple lightning and curate spells. It wasn't enough to fight off a city guard or properly heal serious injuries, but he had still come a long way from the tiny sparks he used to produce, or the grafting that could barely patch up a paper cut.

The boy was desperate to grow more, to learn more. He thirsted for knowledge, but more than what could be gleaned from words on a page. He wanted proper instructions from a teacher, someone with real experience and power. He wanted a school, an education, a place of belonging! He wanted Karaten. That place so far away from the dust-filled shit-dump of a city he was rotting in. That was his dream.

Suddenly, a human-shaped shadow crawled over the faded pages he was reading. Rags silently cursed, knowing they could belong to no one else but Shade herself, glaring at him silently from above. How did she always manage to stay so quiet?

In a lightning fast movement, before he even had time to react, the book was out of his hands and into hers. “Fun reading material, hm?” She asked, though her voice was practically smoldering.

“...Give it back.” The boy hissed, his anger rising with equal intensity.

“I thought I told you to drop all this magic bullshit. It doesn't help you, it doesn't help me. It just fills your head with crap you can never have.”

“That book is MINE!” Rags yelled as he made a wild swipe at his stolen possession, which Shade dodged with no apparent effort on her part.

“Yours? Hardly.” She snorted as she waved it high in the air. “You and I both know we don't own anything we didn't steal first. And since that's exactly what I just did, I guess that makes this book mine, now.”

Ignoring repeated objections and dodging all his attempts to retrieve the book, Shade then began carelessly tearing pages out at random, reading small lines from them in a mocking voice before throwing them into the scattering winds. “Yadda yadda, Focus this, Focus that...ah, 'Lightning spells belong in the Nature domain, and--' Hey, this is the field you're so interested in, right Rags? 'Their electrical intensity can be assessed by many scientific factors and units, like amperes, which measure electrical conductivity or--' GODS! All this wordy hogwash.”

She stopped reading and closed the book with a huff, her eyes quickly scanned the ground of their surrounding area. Finding what she was looking for, she casually took a few steps to her right and proceeded to drop the book between the metal bars of a nearby sewer grate. “Back where it belongs.”

“NO!” Rags cried as he lunged at the grate, desperately trying to fit his hands through the small openings, but knowing it was no use. Turning to glare at her with a face full of fury, he grabbed her arms and pinned her to a nearby wall. “YOU! What the HELL is your problem?!”

“The problem isn't MINE, Rags.” She spat as she shook off his grip and shoved him away. “You think I don't know what you're always up to when I pretend to sleep after you oh-so-graciously volunteer to keep watch?! Reading your books, practicing your spells! Always trying to train your magic, where do you think that power is going to get you, huh?!”

“I'll tell you where it gets me! It gets me to Karaten! It'll get me noticed! A mage will sense my abilities and see my potential!” The boy argued, desperate to make the girl realize what he had always wanted. What he could in fact HAVE, if only he was allowed to extend an arm far enough to grab it. But Shade's eyes only narrowed and darkened in response.

“Are you an idiot? Karaten and Oniga hate each other, and that animosity covers all the surrounding lands, too. You're never going to find a gods forsaken mage in Gold, and definitely not a backwater city like this! Your precious books should have at least told you that much.”

“Then I'll leave myself! When we steal enough Murai, I'll take my share, find a port, and sail there! But oh, that's exactly what you don't want, isn't it? Getting left behind? That's the reason you're always putting down my magic, because I can actually BE somebody, while you're never getting out of this stupid hole!” Rags' words were met by a harsh slap across the face. He clutched his cheek bitterly as he stared at Shade's raised hand. If his own vision wasn't blurred by the sting of her strike, he may have noticed the tears that were welling up in her eyes.

“...Left behind? Me? Like I NEED you?! Who does all the stealing, all the footwork, all of it without even being seen or heard? All you do is the planning and the look out, like I couldn't already cover that myself! I was doing JUST fine before I met you, crawling up to me as a sniveling nameless runaway, because your meanie actor friends beat you too much! You'd be dead without me, not the other way around!” She screamed, all the while refusing to make eye contact with the boy who remained silent, letting his jaw set in grim determination.

“Fine. I'm just a burden. You clearly don't need me. So I'll just get out of your sight, and you can find some other pet to overbearingly snatch books away from. Good fucking riddance.” Rags muttered as he turned and walked away, refusing to look back at the girl who was still trying to collect herself.

“Yeah, alright, GO! See for yourself how pointless your dreams are! You'll get yourself killed within a week! You hear me?! A WEEK!” Shade yelled, but her words fell on deaf ears as her friend rapidly disappeared into the sea of people in the busy street.

Chapter 2: Family

Shade was still fuming hours later after her fight with Rags, wandering aimlessly through the bustling streets of the city. As she trudged through the crowds she began snatching away whatever possessions she could safely identify from passer-by's. Anything that looked valuable and unprotected rapidly found their way into the inside of her satchel. It was almost too easy. Shade had always had the right eyes, the right hands, the right agility. It was hard to describe, but it was almost like she could slow the flow of time whenever she picked a pocket. Whether this was due to her perception or her speed, she couldn't say for sure.

Rags would have objected to the mugging of random people, of course. Some of them could have starving families, or sick children, she could almost hear his complaints in the back of her head. That's why he always took so long to identify proper targets for their heists. As if he had any right to judge the morality of people! He was only around twelve years old, what did he know about the rights and wrongs of the world. His idealism was just as naïve as his dreams, a fact she was never able to get him to acknowledge. Then again, his careful and relentless observations also guaranteed that the targets in question were highly lucrative, so she didn't have much room to complain.

Not to mention the success rate and profits of her thievery had improved significantly ever since she had taken him under her wing. In fact, the occurrences of her getting caught had gone from rarely to...well, never, in the two years they had been together. But that wasn't the reason she didn't want him to leave to become a student in Karaten. Not entirely, Rags.

Even she didn't discount the possibility that it could happen. Maybe someone with connections could discover him, maybe he could get a scholarship or whatever the hell schools did, and finally live a happy existence with people that understood him. Dreams were nice. It's just that Shade only ever saw reality. And the reality was that it was far more likely he'd be discovered by the unsavory first, people who'd use his magic for their own gains, people that would kill him out of fear, the list of risks never got shorter.

She didn't want to pull him aside and explain in detail all the horrible things that could happen to him. Part of her desperately wanted him to have dreams, something to cling to. Shade didn't want Rags to suffer more than he needed to, for him to be afraid of more things than he needed to. It was the same reason she never told him much about her past, or why she held such disdain for the sun.

It was why he would never truly understand why she spent so long pretending to sleep, sensing his secret attempts to read and learn magic all the while. It was because it genuinely took that long for sleep to take her. She had to get through all the images that wouldn't leave her mind, first.

Namely, the image of two bodies hanged in front of her, dangling lifelessly from the branches of a tree. A man and a child. A doctor and a patient.

Her father.

And an Umbral.

Shade's memories from three years ago hadn't faded much. The constant nightmares proved it. There were so many happier times too, of course, but remembering those took effort. She didn't know when exactly her mother had passed away, but it was due to some illness and her father never felt much need to speak about it beyond that. She supposed there was a small irony in the fact that he was the village doctor, and yet his wife died in the way that she did.

It didn't particularly matter. Her grave always had a fresh set of flowers, and the doctor and his daughter lived a quiet, comfortable life. Talm and Cecilia Barrows. They helped the sick, they healed the injured. It was enough. As the years went by, however, her father eventually took in a most unusual patient.

She usually arrived covered in a heavy shawl, but always removed it when she was safely indoors. Her skin was paler than anything Cecilia had ever seen. Like fine alabaster. In all respects, the girl seemed like a living version of a porcelain doll, save for the dark, intricate mark that marred the left side of her face. Even the mark itself seemed to hold a certain mysterious beauty, Cecilia thought, and yet the patient had always tried to hide it as if it were some grievous sin.

After much relentless pestering on her side, her father eventually gave in and sat her down in an attempt to better explain the situation. The girl's name Maya Lafaire, and both her and her parents were Umbrals.

“They belong to a species of changed humans that people widely refer to as 'Corrupted'.” Talm explained carefully to his daughter, although he wore a tight grimace as he did, as if the word itself was something that left a bad taste in his mouth.

“They're just like you or I, Cecilia, with only small physiological differences. What happened to them is exclusive to them, and it can't be spread around like some disease or illness...despite many people thinking otherwise.” He went on to detail the different types of Corrupted, how societies tended to treat them negatively, and how the Lafaires eventually came to find her father.

Maya's parents had grown up together as childhood friends, and had played outside often. Both were unfortunately caught under the Black Eclipse, both had been changed, and both had been disowned from their respective families. They tried as desperately as they could make a living, but the constant exclusion and disapproval from the townsfolk of wherever they moved to weighed heavily on their hearts. Having a child together seemed like one of the best ways to find some joy in their lives again. Neither of them were aware that becoming an Umbral could be hereditary.

For some reason, the sun's rays were even harsher to Maya than most Umbrals, and she suffered from skin rashes and burns constantly. Desperate to find ways to ease her pains, her parents eventually discovered the writings of one Dr. Talm Barrows, her father. He had at last revealed to her that he had in fact been a significant researcher in Umbral biology once, and had authored and been accredited in many articles related to the Black Eclipse and its progeny.

However, her father eventually came under heavy criticism and scrutiny for the sympathetic stance he took on Umbrals and most other Corrupted. He also loudly protested many research ideas that were proposed in the effort to advance their studies, many of which involved live experimentation. Perhaps inevitably, his colleagues eventually turned on him, slandering him to the point where he no longer had a voice or place in any scientific council. Disillusioned, he abandoned his research and academic post to pursue a life of medicine, instead. He was followed by only one co-worker, a fellow sympathetic researcher who would eventually become Cecilia's mother.

Talm Barrows had never attempted to pursue further study into Umbrals since, though word and rumor of future Corrupted experiments occasionally made their way to his ear, passed along by students and researchers who still secretly admired his work. They were also likely the ones who had directed the Lafaires to Barrows' home. And though both families appreciated the outside assistance that brought them together, Talm also could not prevent some of the rumors he had heard from shaking him to his very core.

Despite his reservations over whether or not a child should know such things, her father felt the need to tell her about some of them. The one that stood out the most was Professor Leinwick and the Umbral pens. Cecilia had a difficult time keeping the disturbing story away from her dreams.

As the care that Talm gave to Maya continued, usually through healing salves for her skin burns, and with his history as a researcher fully explained to Cecilia, she began to make sense of many of the unusual practices her father had conducted before. For example, he always seemed to keep a rigid attention to the calendar, often calculating dates and circling various days and writing small notes in journals. He also spent many nights gazing at the sky using a telescope.

Perhaps most significantly of all, there were several times in her life when her father had instructed her to never leave the house. Also, patients that would usually come to their home for treatment would stop visiting, and Talm himself would go to their houses instead. Now Cecilia finally understood why. They were all avoiding the Black Eclipse. And even then, her father had still taken great risks, traveling outside under a sun that could become eclipsed at any given moment, all to make sure that the townspeople were in good health.

The girl could not have been more proud of her father. He was more selfless and heroic than she could have ever known. She also had to do her part, and she made sure to play with Maya during her check-ups, ensuring that the Umbral girl never felt discriminated or alone. Cecilia would always strive to share in her father's kindness, and gained an immeasurable sense of fulfillment in hearing Maya's laughter.

Then, one day, Maya's parents disappeared. Talm had his suspicions, he knew that the Lafaires would never willingly abandon their daughter, but he was in no position to investigate or prove anything. So he took Maya into his own home to raise alongside Cecilia, who couldn't have been happier. Their bond had grown into something akin to sisters by then, anyways. But the new living arrangements would last for little longer than a week. Her father and the two girls were walking home after having a pleasant dinner out, partly to celebrate and ease Maya into her new family life.

They were talking and laughing excitedly with one another, when suddenly, a rock flown in through the darkness and caught the Umbral girl directly in the temple. She crumbled to the ground, and as Talm cradled her and attempted to examine the head wound, he urged Cecilia to race to the house and fetch his medical kit. Her feet had never carried her faster.

And yet, when she finally returned, the case of supplies she had so urgently carried fell from her grasp as she witnessed the sight before her. A man...a child. A doctor...a patient. Father...sister. Hanging in a tree. Cecilia fell to her knees, as her wide, tear filled eyes fixed upon the five men standing bellow the bodies. The darkness that night was thick, and they hadn't noticed her presence yet. Two of them were still occupied with the ropes they had used, while two others were carrying torches. The one in the middle simply stood idly watching, though he clearly seemed to be the ringleader of the group. He spat at the feet of the dangling bodies.

“Serves the good doctor right. Throwin' his lot in with HER kind. Least with him outta da way, there's no one around town left to give a shit about the other two freaks we offed. He was about to send word of it to other villages or sumthin', I swear.” He wore a relieved grin as one of the other men decided to speak up.

“An' dis won't get us into mo' trouble o' nuthin', boss? He was da doctah, aftah all.”

“Shaddap. Course not. People 'round here hated the pale black-marked demonshits as much as we did, and no one else but ol' Talm has connections ta anyone living outside these parts anyways. Who they gonna call? We're outta dis scott free.”

“And his girl?”

“No one will listen to some dumb kid. Poor bitch is just an orphan now.”

They all laughed a bit, then. It covered the noise nicely as Cecilia carefully unlatched her father's medical kit and blindly reached into its depths.

Something sharp bit into her finger, but she ignored the small pain as her hand clutched at the object, extracting it from the box. Her eyes had adjusted enough to the darkness to make out its shape. It was a scalpel. Cecilia then quietly got back to her feet, as her body seemed to be moving on its own. Though she never had formal training in any sort of combat, if a knight from Chatarunga witnessed the events that unfolded he may have sworn she was being carried by the Black Wind. No noise escaped from her as she flew from the darkness towards the men.

She saw nothing but bodies. Felt nothing but rage. The speed and vision she would utilize in the future to perform such flawless pickpocketing, was now being used to stab at every vital organ she could find. The men had expected nothing, and dodging their few stray swipes of retaliation was alarmingly easy as their blood splattered her face. Even as the last body fell, she continued to stab, unblinking, uncomprehending. Rain had begun to fall, extinguishing the last embers of the two fallen torches and enveloping Cecilia in complete darkness. It was at this point the scalpel fell from her grip, and she realized just how truly alone she was.

In later years she would deeply regret not taking down the bodies and burying them, but she also knew she had neither the time nor the tools to do so. She could only turn and run away into the darkness. From that moment on, Cecilia ceased to be. She was now Shade. And she would never, ever allow herself to become an Umbral. Umbrals could not survive. Being an Umbral was not only a death sentence to you, but everything you cared about, everything that anyone around you cared about.

Shade loved Maya for who she was, but hated what she had to be. It had gotten her killed. It had gotten the Lafaires killed. It had gotten her father killed.

An Umbral could never find happiness. Deep down, in ever fiber of her being, the orphan girl would never forget this realization.

A small collision with another person in the streets of that city in Gold stirred Shade from her thoughts. She had done what she could since then, stealing and hiding, moving from city to city if guards got too suspicious. She was well aware that she also had the abilities to defend herself, if need be, but she honestly could not bear the thought of holding another blade. She never for a single instant regretted what happened to those five men, and yet...still, years later, she could not fully accept what she had done. The girl who had taken all those lives wasn't her, it was someone...something that she had called upon to fulfill her vengeance. That was what had taken control, what had guided her hand. And despite it granting all her wishes, it terrified her.

She would never want to relive it in a million lifetimes. And from that point on, anyone that saw her could not deny that she appeared haunted, that she had a look in her eyes that no girl her age should have. It was an aura of death and impermeable sadness that she carried with her. All until the day that she had met him. The tear stricken boy, the bruises and scars that covered his body. Her decision to hide him away from the troupe of actors that searched for him.

Ever since their partnership, she smiled more. She had shifted back into the girl she once was. Rags had healed her, and he likely didn't even know it. Shade's teeth grit as she remembered the manner in which they had parted ways. She needed to find him again, she needed to explain to him why she had tried to shelter him the way she did. He needed to know that she would willingly see him sent away safely to Kataran if she could. She would be able to bear the loneliness. She could afford to get caught by the guards more and punished more if need be. She was a big girl. She could handle herself.

Those weren't the reasons she had tried to keep him with her. He had to believe that.

Shade knew she could convince him with enough effort. Maybe he wouldn't have to put an end to his dreams, but just put them on hold. They could still be happy with the life they currently led, as long as they had each other. Then when they were older, more prosperous, more able to care for themselves, then they could travel. They would sail to Kataran together. Rags was smart, far smarter than she could ever be, he didn't need teachers or a fancy education. He could learn enough from books alone and already be hired as a professor by the time they got there, she bet!

Then he'd finally be around people he fit in with, just like he dreamed of, and she would continue to stay and support him, and then they'd maybe start a family, and--

The aimlessly wandering girl had to suppress a blush as she shook the thoughts from her head. She was getting way too ahead of herself. Finding Rags was what needed to come first, anyways. For all she knew he could have ran straight out of the city on an angry impulse, wandering the desert in search for a port and boats he would never find. Shade's eyes hardened in a determined fashion as she waded through the crowds, until a dangling pouch of Murai loosely attached to someone's waist caught her attention.

She wouldn't even be technically pickpocketing because she wouldn't be reaching into anyone's pockets. It was just hanging there out in the open, practically begging to be taken. Well, as long as Rags still wasn't around, some extra free Murai couldn't hurt. Putting as much faith in her speed and agility as she always did, Shade's arm reached forward until she was met by a wholly unfamiliar feeling. Not a pouch of gold in her hand, but a gauntlet clasped around her wrist. Shade looked up, perplexed, into the dark eyes of a hooded and masked man. Two other men wearing the familiar gleaming armor of the city watch appeared beside him.

“Got you, girlie.”

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Any attempts to escape the restraints of the guards was futile as they led her to a nearby building. She had recognized it, but had never been inside its confines. It was their establishment. Though the masked man who had caught her was now nowhere to be seen, it appeared she was being formally arrested.

Pushed roughly into a large office with hands still bound, she was motioned to take a seat by a large man standing behind a desk. His armor seemed a grade above the others in both material and design, indicating his greater importance.

“My name's Lonnel Caygrien. Captain of the City Watch.”

“Good for you.” Shade muttered sardonically as she seated herself in a nearby chair, still painfully uncomfortable due to her restraints. A moment later, the door to the office swung open, and the same masked man that had caught her earlier entered, now dragging behind him a very familiar hooded and robed boy. “Found her accomplice.” He said simply, grabbing Rags by both his shoulders and forcing him down into a chair next to her.

“Godsdammit.” Rags breathed darkly, and upon noticing that Shade was seated next to him, scowled and turned his gaze away from her stunned expression. Captain Lonnel then looked at each of them plainly and spoke.

“One of the guards reported you stealing from a rather wealthy merchant the other day. The boy here was sighted fleeing with you, hence his arrest by association.” The man said dryly, appearing to thumb through a report on his desk.

“The girl was then caught red-handed attempting to steal from someone by one of our associates, and various wrongfully taken possessions was also later found on her person.”

“You KEPT stealing after we separated?! From who, just...anyone you could find!?” Rags balked, staring at Shade indignantly.

“I was just—I didn't mean to, well I mean I did, but it was more like clearing my head, and...dammit, I'll talk to you about it later, just--” She quickly turned away from her friend to glance back at the guard captain. “Hey, look, I know this seems bad, but it's like, our first offense, right? Can't you let us off the hook?”

Lonnel's eyes narrowed and his lips pursed as he looked between the two of them. “This is hardly your first offense. Just the first time you've been caught.”

“Uh...same difference?” Shade pleaded, offering a weak smile. The captain didn't respond as he walked around, out of his desk, in order to approach the two of them and eye them more closely.

“Hm...the boy, appearing to be of some Onigan descent. The girl...something or other. Neither with any notable parents to speak of.” His eyes then flitted upwards as they made contact with the masked man standing behind them. “Do they fit the criteria?”

“Quite adequately. I'm sure he'll be pleased.” The masked man replied as he moved over to the captain, pressing a handful of coins into the other man's palm. It was then that Shade realized that something was very, very wrong.


A bag was then thrown over her head, obscuring her vision in darkness.

In accordance to what the people that had captured them likely intended, neither Shade nor Rags could get a proper grasp of their surroundings, only that they were being pushed into a cart of some kind and taken somewhere. Shade couldn't even keep track of how much time had passed as they silently traveled in darkness. She had tried to communicate with Rags at first, but every time even a single syllable slipped out of her mouth, she was jabbed sharply in the ribs by a guard next to her. Despite also having a bag over his head, Rags must have known this, as he attempted to utter a “Just sto--” before also being elbowed in the side.

Finally, the cart seemed to screech to a halt as they were then lead outside of its confines. Shade honestly didn't know what to think. She had no plan. Even if the guards did somehow ease up on the security and they found an opportunity to run, they wouldn't even know which direction they were going in with their heads covered.

'We're going to have to find out something EVENTUALLY.' Shade thought darkly. That guard captain had accepted a bribe. What she needed to know was why that masked man had bribed him in the first place. Finally, after a fair distance of walking, they were made to kneel down in what felt like a crowd of people. Shade frowned underneath the bag. Were there others around them in the exact same situation they were in?

Finally, she heard a voice. And it didn't belong to the masked man. It was slightly higher pitched, and somehow seemed...unsteady.

“Good evening everyone, I'm sure you're all wondering what's going on, and why I've brought you here today! Let's start with introductions! My name is Professor Leinwick.”

Shade felt her heart stop within her chest. She had frozen completely. Leinwick. The one her father had spoken of. She had no doubt of this. Why. Why was this happening. How was this happening. All the frightful dreams she had had about the things Talm told her about came rushing into her mind in a single instant.

'No! FOCUS! Don't lose it!' She urged herself internally. She was one of the few people who knew who Leinwick was, what he did. The professor himself likely didn't think anyone there was aware of such things. It was an edge. She had to use it to her advantage somehow. Umbral pens. Separate ones for each of the variables he sorted them into. What could she do with that...what. Wait.

Rags. He was here because of her. Ever since the day they first met, she had been unwittingly leading him to this moment. She had to protect him, no matter what. She had to make it seem convincing, too. According to the stories, Leinwick was not a man that enjoyed being played.

“HE KNOWS MAGIC!!” Shade yelled, interrupting whatever Leinwick was going to say next. For some reason, she could feel the gaze of both the man and Rags staring squarely at her.

“The boy, next to me! He's a mage! That makes him important somehow, right?! He's special! I could have kept it hidden, but I didn't! Do I get a reward? Will you let me go?!”

“Sh...Shade...” Rags murmured, his voice a quiet tremor that nonetheless resounded in her like an earthquake. She was glad for the bags, then, so that he couldn't see her eyes.

“Hm...fascinating. So this one knows magic. I would have never expected that from a group of no-name orphans I paid to be taken off the street! And to think...I had far less glamorous plans for him, originally.” Leinwick said with a chuckle as Shade felt him turn to a nearby guard.

“You, place him in the mage pen, now. Hee, how fortuitous, and here I was thinking it wouldn't be seeing any new tenants.”

Shade felt the stomping of boots arrive next to her, and heard Rags being lifted to his feet.

“No! Wait, what's going on—Shade?! You told me to HIDE IT! Why would you--why did you—aren't we, please! Shade! SHADE!!” He cried as she bit into her bottom lip to suppress a sob.

How could she tell him? It needed to be done. Leinwick couldn't know she was trying to help him, it could set him off into doing something far worse. And at the very least, the mage pens would be safe, to a point. People with magical abilities were rare, Leinwick wouldn't want them killed off. They would get regular meals, and they wouldn't have to suffer terribly harsh conditions.

Leinwick was truly, undeniably mad. There were far worse fates. He had starvation pens, disease pens, even...killing pens. He wanted to create as many variables as he could for his experiments. And Shade knew what he was, above all else, trying to achieve. He was trying to create as many Umbrals as possible by keeping them caged outside until the Black Eclipse passed. His goal was not just to produce a high amount, however, but to also document possible conditions for why they changed. He wanted to know everything.

'I was helping Rags, I was helping him, I was helping him!' Shade thought to herself repeatedly, to convince herself that she had done the right thing. But when she had heard Rags call out to certainly didn't feel like it.

“You did me quite the little favor by letting me know about his gifts, child. Perhaps I could grant you a reward like you had requested.” Leinwick proposed cheerfully. Shade barely reacted. She didn't care. Reward or not, her only concern was making sure Rags was alright. She was getting them both out of this, she had to, before the Black Eclipse arrived. An Umbral could never find happiness. She refused to even take the risk.

“You. Cut off her bindings, and take that silly bag off.” Suddenly, Shade's hands were free. She touched the bruising around her wrists gingerly, and a second later her eyes were spontaneously flooded with vision. Taking a moment to adjust, her stare then focused on a stocky, bearded and aged man, who was leaning in front of her, grinning wildly.

“Here,” He said, reaching underneath his white lab coat into a satchel hanging from his waist. Finding the object he was looking for, he took it from his bag and tossed it towards her feet. It was a rusty dagger.

“There's your reward, it should serve you well.” Leinwick announced with a soft chuckle, before turning away to look at the other captured orphans. “...In the killing pen, I mean.”