The Journey's End?

Daylight shines upon the traveling shades as they come to a stop, giving Stomper time to rest on the edge of the green pastures that lead to their destination.

Stabby thought little about how to reach Kyoki. He didn't realize it would be much of a problem. Neither Grisha nor his mother mentioned it, so he expected it would just be a walk-in and talk situation where the primary danger was the journey rather than the destination.

Now he knows Kyoki has guardians. The guardians may let them pass if they don't show aggression, but from how well the rest of the mission had gone, he's sure that won't be the case.

The shade soldiers could be helpful, which speaking of... where'd they go? They warned them about the forest with the spider-orcs, proceeded to not help them fight the creatures, then stopped giving reports. Either they're the worst choice of guards or something happened to them.

Something's off. He needs to talk to Grisha.

Stabby glances over to his brother, who lays unaware of the loud thumps of Stomper's footsteps. How was he going to wake him up without getting murdered? He didn't have the serenity of Grisha's room to save him this time, and there wasn't enough space on the Kohdok to keep his distance while he pokes him from afar. He didn't even bring anything that can tie his hands. Damn... what a fool he was for thinking handcuffs wouldn't be useful.

Wait, maybe...

No. That's too risky. Though if he did, he could use the excuse of training, and, well… his options are limited. He could wait for his brother to wake up naturally, but that would take a while and these conversations are important.

"I guess I'm doing it then. All the gods up there, please grant me safety." Stabby scoots closer to the larger shade.

After adjusting his distance to a safe level, he takes a deep breath. He looks to his second shadow. "You ready?"

The shadow gives a disapproving nod.

"Oh. Well... too bad?" The lack of confidence fails to boost Stabby's shaken morale.

He pats Stomper's head, "you believe in me, right?" Stomper grunts, lacking care for his predicament.

"That's the best I'm getting, so I'll take it as a strong yes."

Stabby focuses his effort on his arm. "Don't fail me now, clone." The shadow splits from his hand, pulling the rest of the duplicate limb with it.

And now for the hard part.

As he gets to his shoulder, resistance builds, pushing against the shadow's escape. He doesn't need to get the whole clone out, just enough to allow him to dodge any waking attacks his brother will throw at him. He keeps his pained grunts quiet to avoid waking Grisha prematurely. The pain increases as the lower shoulder separates. The tension between the pulling of the shade and the resistance of his body feels as if it was his bones he was pulling out.

"Damn it body, why do you have to fight back?" He grunts. "Fine, if that's how you want to play." Stabby summons a dagger, stabbing at his shoulder. His shoulder reactively jerks down, separating from the shadow along with a good chunk of the clone's torso.

Yes! Hopefully, this is enough. He doesn't have the energy, nor pain tolerance, to get past another shoulder.

"Here goes nothing."

The clone reluctantly moves in close to the slumbering shade. They take another deep breath. Simultaneously, both Stabby and the clone grab Grisha's shoulders and shake him rapidly, jumping back immediately. The moment they touch Grisha, he snaps awake, jumping after them. Seeing nothing but red, he summons a spear from his hand and impales his disturber, jumping into the air. Reaching the top of his leap, he arches back the spear, the impaled clone stuck to the shaft, and flings it to the ground. The spear pierces the surface, not stopping till the clone's body, halfway up the spear, touches the ground.

Grisha lands, his shoulders heaving.

"Uh... Slicer?" Stabby asks, his voice cautious.

Grisha turns to Stabby, his eyes dimmed and a vicious scowl on his face.

Stabby is in much more danger than he thought.

He pulls on the straps connected to Stomper's horns, trying desperately to awaken the creature. He knows his wake-ups were bad, but he never realized the extent of how dangerous they are.

Grisha closes in, teeth-gnashing. Stabby scoots back, not realizing how limited the space on the Kohdok's head is. He falls back, landing hard on his elbow. He ignores the pain as he crawls away from the maddened form of his brother.

He doesn't know what to do. What can he do? He doesn't want to attack his brother, he finds the likelihood of him escaping narrow, and Stomper won't wake up!

Shivers travel through his hands, the unsteadiness of his arms causing him to collapse to the grass. Grisha enters the ten-foot radius, long blades coming from his wrists. Stabby tries to pick himself up, but his arms keep faltering.

The shade he knows as brother stands above him, his see-through pupils glaring upon him with an unrecognizable hatred.

Grisha moves to strike. Swings his blade.

Then... stops.

A flower petal, one Stabby has never seen, lands on Grisha's head.

His yellow eyes regain their bright color. The blades melt back into his skin. He blinks repeatedly, the irritation in his eyes fading.

As the elder shade regains awareness, he sees Stabby trembling on the ground beneath him. Grisha's sight turns to the gash on his sibling's arm, the knowledge of what happened coming to him.

Grisha falls to his knees, a flood of tears flowing from his eyes.

"I hurt... you. I'm supposed to protect you and I hurt you." Grisha reaches his arm out to Stabby but pulls it back. "I'm sorry... I'm so sorry."

The sight of such potent emotion from Grisha is surprising. Stabby didn't know others beside him has this weakness.

It's his fault. If Stabby didn't wake Grisha up, he wouldn't be going through this. He brought this onto his brother like he brought it on to himself. Stabby may be shaken, but he has to stay strong to make up for his mistake.

"Hey..." Stabby's voice cracks. He tries again, doing his best to keep his voice steady, "Hey, it's alright. I'm fine. I just got a cut, and I'm tough, remember?"

Grisha responds, "But it could have been so much worse. I should have warned you better, and I didn't. If I didn't snap out of it, I could have killed you."

Stabby doesn't know what to say. He racks his brain, hoping to find any way to comfort Grisha. No words come to him.

He moves in close, his want to help his brother overpowering his fear, and pushes Grisha's arms to the sides. Stabby lays his head against the elder shade's chest, locking his brother in a deep embrace as he listens to the light hum of his core.

Grisha pauses, his tears ceasing. His arms wrap around the smaller figure, pulling him close.

The brothers appear as a statue, neither saying a word.

...

The silence remains as they return to their travels, though the mood improved. They travel without further delay, making significant progress.

The shadow detaches from Stabby's side with relative ease compared to his previous attempt. He can now separate three-quarters of the clone without a life-threatening situation. He still can't make it past his other shoulder, but he's getting there.

A question enters his mind.

"Hey Slicer?" Stabby asks. "What happens to you when someone wakes you up?"

"Well... ugh." Grisha's posture slumps further than normal. "Sorry, that's not something I'm comfortable talking about, right now."

"Did something happen?"

"Yeah... I'll tell you later." The response felt insincere, but Grisha quickly changes the topic, avoiding further questions. "Do you feel like you're being watched?"

Being watched? That's an odd question. But thinking on it... "Yeah... I do," Stabby responds.

Grisha glances behind them. "At first I thought it was the shade soldiers, but it feels different somehow. Almost sinister."

Stabby's ears perk, "Oh right, I think something odd is going on with the shades, too. They didn't help us in the fight with the spider-orcs and did nothing in the encounter with the light army, which is weird alone, but the weirdest thing is they've reported nothing since their first report before the forest."

"You're right. They should make a report every half-day, every day at minimum." Grisha pulls out the map. "It looks like we're almost to the swamp, but we need to be careful. I'm certain someone's following us."

Stabby's body tenses, his attention now focused on the feeling someone has been stalking them for days. It unnerves him. They could have attacked them at any time. Why did they wait? What did they do to the shades? There's no way they could watch him and Slicer without catching the attention of the guards.

Looking over to Grisha, he appears to be on edge as well, judging by how tightly he grasps his bow.

Time passes, the tension showing no relief as signs of movement continue to avoid them.

Stomper slows, the thud of each step becoming more and more delayed. The ground is getting softer the further they trudge. They must be close.

In the distance, a gigantic mass of entangled vines lies patiently for someone to approach. Thorns and flowers of various varieties adorn the wall of thick greenery. The flowers' powerful aroma thankfully blocking the scent of the murky swamp inside. From what Stabby's seen from both books on nature and his connected thoughts, the smell of swamp is something he'd prefer to avoid.

He sees someone strange near the center of the vine wall.

"Huh. That's odd." Stabby mutters.

"What's that?" Grisha asks.

Stabby points to a man kneeling in meditation. He keeps his head lowered, revealing no sign of identification. His entire body is cloaked by his black and blue leather clothing. The only thing to point to his race is his gloves cut off at the fingers that place his sharp claws into view.

"That is odd," Grisha says, narrowing his eyes on the mysterious man. "Prepare yourself, Stabby."

From Grisha's reaction, this must be the one who's been watching them. Though the upcoming encounter will be dangerous Stabby can't help but feel excited. Each battle he's fought pushed him further on the path of understanding his abilities. Though he's made little progress on strengthening his inner resolve and pushing past his negative thoughts, he thinks once he masters his powers that won't be a problem for him.

As they reach twenty feet away from the man, Stomper halts. The shades hop off of the Kohdok's hide and onto the muddy plains.

Grisha puts away his bow and greets the form. He previously mentioned not to show aggression until certain of a person's intent. Stabby trusts his approach and follows his lead, giving a second greeting.

The cloaked man chuckles in response.

"Did I do something funny?" Grisha asks, his voice kind but firm. "I hope I didn't offend you."

The chuckle breaks into full laughter. The figure says, "Oh no, you didn't offend me at all. It's just, it's quite amusing to hear the 'barbaric' shades, I've heard so much about, greet me so politely." His head raises, the bestial mask of a demon of the sunlight coming into view. The mask is blue, a wide smile spreading to the edges of the mask. The eyes are wide open with the pupils of a feline. Short horns sprout from the top of the mask. His frame is small, but something about him exudes danger.

Grisha jerks back, summoning a pike to his side. "Search for the partner, the demons always work in duos."

"No need to search. We aren't playing hide and seek." A second voice says from behind.

He's humongous, nearly three times the size of his partner. His intimidating torso, covered by not much besides the few straps that hold his double-sided battle-ax in place, is coated in dark blue fur. His mask is yellow, carved similarly to his cohorts, with the exceptions of a shorter smile and much longer horns.

"If we were trying to be sneaky, you'd already be dead," The blue demon adds to the delight of his companion. He continues, "Although, to be honest, you two far surpassed our expectations when you escaped the silk-strewn forest, even with the help you received."

"Can you stop complimenting our targets and get to the violence?" The yellow demon asks, his claws curling. "I've been getting a hankering for action ever since I saw them fight. I want to start some chaos."

"You're right." The blue demon jumps to his feet, grabbing two daggers from his sides. "Let's start some chaos."