"Do ya see anythin'?"
"Are ya sure?"
Wrench kept her gaze forward, Zane bobbing at her side, while Oriana watched the alley behind them and the rooftops. Doing so while running in the opposite direction was proving to be difficult, and she couldn't be certain from her vantage point what was happening on the rooftops high above them.
"Well I hope yer right cause I don't t'ink I got anudder round wit' dose guys in me," Wrench said, though she looked as spry as ever—if not more so.
"What was that all about anyway?"
"Haven't da foggiest," Wrench beamed.
First it turned out Zane's ledger was cursed, then Wrench's strength suddenly soared out of the realm of 'human'. Not to mention whatever was chasing them. It was as if all the magic in her childhood storybooks was suddenly coming to life around her. Before today, she thought alchemy and zephrite were the closest there would ever be to real magic, but now...?
"Would-you-kind-ly-put-me-down?" came Zane's voice from under Wrench's arm, bouncing with the pace of her run. Oriana might have laughed at how ridiculous the previously dignified boy looked stuffed under Wrench's arm, if they hadn't been running for their lives.
"Can ya run faster dan me?" Wrench asked, pumping the arm carrying her wrench with exaggerated form.
In answer, Zane was silent.
All three remained that way for a few moments, the only thing interrupting their run being Oriana peering behind and above them, until Zane spoke up again.
"We're-near-ly-to-the-main-road," Zane said in a staccato. "We-can-lose-them-in-the-crowd."
It no longer made sense to try to hide their trail, at least not until they had lost their pursuers. By the time any trace they left was found they would hopefully be long gone anyway. It was the best they could manage given the circumstances.
But as the main road came into view at the end of the alley, their time ran out. Oriana shouted as she noticed the black smoke pouring down the building behind her, and urged Wrench to move faster. As the smoke materialized into Kuro's form, however, Dhuma dropped down in front of them. They were trapped.
"Keep going!" Oriana told Wrench, noticing her friend curb her pace and heft her weapon.
Wrench shot Oriana a curious look, but resumed her original speed, dashing straight toward Dhuma. Dhuma, for her part, merely stood in waiting, not even bracing for impact.
Still running herself, Oriana slowed only briefly to pull her bow from her back again. She levelled it at Dhuma, and this time she fired without hesitation at the woman's eye. Finally her arrows had an effect, and Dhuma doubled halfway over, clutching at her face.
Upon seeing Wrench mere paces away, she began to straighten again, and Oriana saw that while she was scowling and in pain, her eye showed no signs of trauma other than the arrow sticking out of it. No blood, nothing. Still, it was better than their previous track record, and so she fired a second arrow at Dhuma's other eye.
Ready for it this time, Dhuma burst into a cloud of smoke just as the arrow reached her, causing it to pass harmlessly by and lodge in the wall. The arrow that had previously been in her other eye fell to the ground as it lost its purchase.
Wrench sprinted past the smoke, Zane bouncing violently but no longer complaining, and Oriana jumped directly through it a moment later. While it hadn't been her original plan, it had served its purpose. They had escaped.
Oriana stopped immediately after landing, feeling for a moment as though she had hit a wall. But then the strap on her quiver gave out and she lurched forward, turning slightly to see a re-forming Dhuma had grabbed at the closest thing and came out of it with all her arrows. She couldn't afford to try to get them back though, so she ducked into the crowd after Wrench.
"We should be safe for now," said Zane, back on his feet again as they regrouped in the middle of the road. They couldn't even see their pursuers through the mass of bodies surging around them.
"I doubt they'll want to cause a spectacle."
None of them felt the need to point out just how wrong he had been when they heard shouts from near the alley they'd just left. Oriana did give him a disbelieving stare when two burly men went flying over the heads of the crowd and into various fellow citizens, though.
"...these are not the Crown's usual rules of engagement!" Zane shouted above the din, the entirety of the street now panicking and running in any direction that was not toward the blonds. He was flushed red and frowning.
"That's a real comfort," Oriana assured him as they scrambled away from the commotion.
Dhuma and Kuro seemed to be clearing a path through the crowd with completely unnecessary levels of force, judging by the wake of upended people marking their passage. Had they waited, the frightened crowd would have likely parted before them with little hassle. Oriana didn't understand why they hadn't just turned back into the black dust again. It seemed like it would have been easier.
"I believe we may have angered them," Zane noted, unintentionally answering her question. "This way. The main road will bring us right to the carriage."
Following the flow of the crowd while struggling to stay together, they weren't putting much distance between themselves and the fast approaching duo. Their only consolation was that while their pursuers were headed in the right direction, they didn't seem to be headed directly for them, meaning they must still not have spotted them through the turmoil. Still, that wasn't likely to last long given how quickly they were gaining ground.
"Stop immediately or your lives are forfeit," came a thundering voice behind them, so powerful the people around them found themselves grinding to a halt. Even the waves of flying innocents stopped. Oriana and her companions looked behind them, but couldn't see who was talking.
They could, however, barely make out the deadened tones of one of their pursuers responding. It was quiet for a moment, and then the first voice spoke up again.
"Very well then."
A gasp rippled through the crowd and the panicked fleeing began anew, and as Kuro lifted into the air stuck on the end of a poleaxe Oriana understood why. The two of them made eye contact for a moment before Oriana turned tail and dragged her friends behind her down the road. She looked back for only a moment to see Kuro lift himself off the end of the poleaxe with one hand and drop to the ground again.
"The guards will keep them occupied for a while," Zane said. Evidence of this fact in the form of shouting and the sound of clashing steel as guards were presumably tossed around like dolls pierced through the din of the stampede they were caught in.
Oriana couldn't help but feel bad for letting these people be her shield, guards and civilians alike. But the guards—with their weapons and training—had a much better chance at fighting, and the civilians weren't the target so they should be relatively safe, other than some bruises. Besides, the sooner they got out of the city, the less danger everyone there would be in.
As they continued down the main road, people began to scatter down other streets and into homes. They were in the upper residential district, and it was evident that the stylish clothing most residents there wore was not made for running, so they found themselves quickly at the front of the pack. Seeing no trace of anyone following them, they nonetheless maintained their breakneck pace.
"We're nearly there," Zane said, pointing out a horse-drawn carriage ahead of them. Its driver spotted them running and stared for a moment before hopping down from his perch and hurriedly readying the carriage.
"What was with those people?" Oriana asked, unsure if that was even the right word for them.
"They're Shades," he answered, without further explanation. He reached the carriage and yanked the door open, gesturing for the girls to step in.
"But Shades are..." Oriana started as she got in, but Zane disappeared to the front of the carriage to talk to the driver. She continued through a window near the driver's feet. "Shades are as big as a building!"
"And pitch black," Wrench added, squeezing her face near the window beside Oriana's. "And dey got horns and big teef."
"And they're not real," Oriana finished. She couldn't see Zane from the tiny window, but she could hear him speaking the with driver in hurried, hushed tones.
Zane soon joined them inside and the carriage began to roll, the driver encouraging his steeds with words and reins in tandem. But he didn't yet answer, and it remained silent—aside from the clattering of hooves on cobblestone—until the carriage slowed at the gates and the driver spoke with the guards there.
When they were through and clear and there was still no reply from Zane, Oriana stopped watching for signs of pursuit and stared at the boy. His eye was closed and his head down, a frown of concentration pinching his features.
He raised his hand, index finger upward, but otherwise remained still. He seemed to be meditating.
After a few moments of the three of them frozen in place save swaying in time with the carriage, Zane heaved an impressive sigh and cracked his eyelids, tilting his head back to normal.
"Sorry. Nerves. I try not to make a habit of getting that much excitement."
Oriana and Wrench simply nodded in sympathy, still awaiting answers.
"The Shades from your childhood stories are not so much inventions of the imagination as aggrandized retellings of a real (but thankfully uncommon) being," he explained. "They could likely expand to the size of a house in their natural form if they so chose, as well as attemp to manifest features like horns and teeth, but they're weak without taking solid form, and the transformation is draining."
As if only just remembering what they had been running from, he peered out the rear window of the carriage. When he was satisfied they were safe for the time being, he continued.
"It is... highly unusual to encounter a Shade able to transform multiple times in quick succession, to say nothing of a pair of them. The Crown already pays dearly for the services of such creatures. These two must have cost a small fortune."
Oriana was dumbfounded. She had thought Zane had said something about the Crown earlier, but this seemed ridiculous. Her country's government was hiring monsters out of stories to capture her? Then again, she'd seen with her own eyes their superhuman abilities. What else could they be?
"Fortuitously," Zane went on, "they're not faster than horses, even accounting for us making camp at night. Nor will they be able to ride their own, as horses are made nervous and unruly by their presence. We'll make it to Southpass well ahead of them. But they do have methods of communication that will reach the Crown very quickly. I expect we'll have a welcoming party awaiting us at the border."
"What can we do about that?" Oriana inquired, crestfallen. The Crown's advance party had been enough of a handful in foreign territory. What could they possibly do when they were well prepared and guarding a single fortified point in familiar lands?
"Don't sound like da kind of t'ing I can smash my way t'rough," Wrench noted with a grin, "but I'd be happy ta try."
Zane smiled absently at her as he drifted into thought. Nothing seemed to occur to him though, and he gave his head a little shake.
"I haven't the foggiest," he admitted. "None of this has followed my plan. But something will come to mind I'm sure. For now, let's get some rest. We have a long way to travel."
Oriana was convinced there was no way she could do anything remotely resembling resting. She still had so many questions, and aside from that it was broad daylight. But after a few minutes of letting Zane stare out the window with a half-closed eye while her thoughts raced, her brain simply shut down and she fell asleep against Wrench's shoulder.