To say that business was not doing so well that evening in the Crystal Lounge would be a bit of an understatement, but none of the three people there were terribly worried about it, especially not this late at night. The empty seating area meant that Azura could go back into her bedroom and pull out her large posing mannequin to practice figure sketching, while Ruby could take a break from singing long enough to get ahead of her own schoolwork, figuring out the purpose of some ancient gear-powered device. Abigail was nearing the end of another in the huge pile of novellas that she had spent nearly half of her paycheck on, and not having to do any further cleanup meant that she'd probably be halfway through whichever one she'd pick up next before it was time to head back to her dorm room. Pausing her perusal for a moment, she took a quick peek in the storage space beneath the coat check counter, just to make sure there was an umbrella there for her to use. The rain outside was pretty strong, and accompanied by enough wind to blow at just the right angle that seemed to discourage anyone from going out. Ruby, Azura, and Abigail all decided wordlessly about half an hour ago that the outdoor conditions were perfect for catching up with all of the things that sort of needed to be done but didn't really seem all that important.
The comforting pit-pat of the rain against the windows must have dulled Abigail's sense of the passage of time, as it was at least an hour after she would have normally left when she, with a yawn, realized that she was going to have to head out soon if she wanted to get home before she fell asleep. Ruby noticed her as she gingerly placed a bookmark partway through a new book, and spoke up to break the silence.
"Oh, time to head home now? Be careful out there, alright?"
Azura, startled slightly by the sudden speaking, placed her sketchbook on the bar counter and slithered towards the door to see Abigail out as she put on her coat and backpack and pulled her umbrella, white with black polka dots, from its resting place. She made her way around the entryway and to the door, then stopped as she placed her hand on the door handle.
"See you tomorrow!" She smiled as she tugged the handle, pulling the door open and letting the din of the storm outside rush into the lounge. "Have a nice--" she started, as a sudden gust of wind slammed the door against the wall. Abigail pulled on the handle again from the other side as a torrent of rain tried to rush into the building past the awning in front of it, soaking a foot or so of the entryway's carpet, but her grip was too weak to manage, and the gust had picked up enough that the other door smacked open as well.
Azura lunged for the first door handle, and with what was clearly no small amount of effort, heaved it closed, snaking around to leave the bulk of her body in front of it while she strained to pull the other one closed. Once she had managed that, she quickly slid the bar lock in place, sealing the doors from the weather outside.
"I think maybe this storm's a bit too strong to walk home in. Maybe you should wait and see if it calms down?" Azura said to Abigail, still pressed against the slightly buckling doors.
Abigail sighed, looking at the doors past Azura. "I can just turn intangible. I wouldn't even have to worry about the rain then, and if I run it should last long enough to make it back to the dorms."
As Azura shot Abigail a concerned look, Ruby interjected as she peered upward through one of the windows. "I don't think that's a good idea." She pointed towards the sky, through the window. "Those cloud patterns don't look natural, and the fact that we haven't heard any thunder tells me that the storm outside is probably magical. Your intangibility wouldn't matter then, as a bolt of magic energy would hit you regardless."
That was enough to make Abigail perk up and scoot slowly away from the door. "Then what should I do?"
Azura smiled and worked her way towards the sitting area in the back, where Ruby was still looking out the window. "Don't worry," the Gorgon reassured, "you can sleep here tonight. We've got a couch in our room, or if you'd prefer we can push a couple of the booths together and get you some blankets."
Abigail nodded. "Thank you, I'll do that, then. With the booths, I mean." Abigail didn't want to intrude on her friends' privacy, and always thought the red velvety material covering the foam booth cushions was comfortable enough to take a nap on anyways. As Azura began to push the booths around and Ruby emerged a minute later from the back bedroom holding a comforter and thinner bedsheet, Abigail wondered aloud, "So, the storm out there is magic? Why is that, and what does it mean?"
Ruby smiled as she laid the blankets across the set of booths that Azura had arranged into a bedlike shape. "Everything here in Mahou City is tinged with magic to some degree, that's a natural result of the landscape being created by the total willpower of everyone living here. Places where students spend more time, like the school itself, have so much of it that damage dealt to the building can repair itself, but the effects of it are still felt all around. As the world slowly builds itself, heals itself, and produces atmospheric effects to mimic the weather patterns of a real world, it uses the ambient magic around to do this. You learned about the ten elements of magic already, right?"
Abigail nodded, recalling her early lessons with Miss Fenris. There were ten distinct magical elements, each of which had its own role in the balance of natural forces and each of which had one other element in direct opposition.
Ruby continued. "Well, when some pieces of terrain are created, like a desert, they're made with a fixed climate and that makes the elemental balance there settle in pretty easily, and they only produce weather that is either appropriate for the area or created by a conflict with another nearby piece of terrain. But here in the city, there's a set of distinct seasons that are all different from each other, and that means that the balance is constantly in flux. Add into that the fact that purity magic is generally in higher demand, leaving lots of entropic energy around, and it will mix with trace bits of other excess elements to create these magical storms."
Abigail cocked her head slightly, trying to interpret it herself. "So then instead of lightning bolts, there will be magic bolts? What do those do?"
"Pretty much the same thing, only with an elemental attunement. There's probably a lot of wind and water, which would explain the conditions that look like a normal storm, but if it's short on sound then that would explain why we haven't heard anything."
"I hear something," Azura interjected. The other two went silent, but despite their concentration could not make out any noise other than that of howling wind and raging rains pelting their windows. As they both looked over to Azura to elaborate, her eyes widened a bit. "It's a siren!"
Immediately, Ruby and Azura both sprang into action as Abigail stood there, confused. Ruby rushed to the utility closet to grab whatever tools she could find while Azura began flipping the remaining booths over to cover the windows, making sure to draw the curtain first. As the other two hurriedly darted around the lounge, Abigail wondered aloud, "What's going on? What does the siren mean?"
Ruby spoke as she walked by Abigail to the front door carrying a bucket of assorted nails and a hammer. "It means there's a trauma shadow headed towards the city."
Though Abigail wasn't sure what Ruby was talking about, the urgency in her words and in the actions of both of her friends told her that this was something she needed to take seriously. She ran into the utility closet to grab a hammer of her own, emerging with the closest thing she could find, a rubber mallet. It was only once she found something she could do to make herself useful, pounding wooden shims into the windows to help seal them shut, that she asked the question that had for the past few minutes been weighing on her.
"So then what's a trauma shadow? I thought there wasn't really anything to worry about in Mahou City." As far as Abigail knew, there wasn't any real issue with death in this strange miniature dimension, as the magical energies that dictated its form and function could even go as far as to bring someone back from complete disintegration.
Ruby answered, in between strikes of her hammer, as she worked to create a stronger seal around the door. "There's nothing physical to worry about, no." She darted from one side of the door to the other, holding the board she was nailing into place up as far as she could reach. "There's a massive magical effect that keeps our bodies intact or puts us back together. But it's not an intelligent effect." She shoved another board across the bottom of the doorway, kicking it up against the threshold before kneeling down to secure it. "At a base functional level, it removes pain, both physical and emotional. So if someone hurt you, or you relived a bad memory, or had something that you don't remember come up to the surface, all of the pain you felt for that would be wiped away by the spell. Most of it ends up out in the forest."
"But that doesn't sound right," Abigail answered, remembering her own rough transition to the school, "I don't just feel better about everything that had gone wrong the day before when I wake up here."
Azura interjected as she moved the more breakable bottles down from the display bar into boxes, padding them up by wrapping them in a large canvas sheet from her room. "That's because it only removes the feelings you're having then, not the source of the feelings."
Ruby nodded in agreement, though no one was looking directly at her as she did so. "Right. And this is where things start to become a problem. If the same negative emotions are scrubbed out, and being given a semi-physical form as they do so, they can start to form together out in the forest, especially if the process keeps repeating. When there's not much of it, it's just a miasma, probably so thin that you would barely even be able to see it even with magically-enhanced aura vision. And most of these miasmas just form with others into the monsters we have out in the forest. They're a pain to deal with, but they're not likely to do any lasting harm."
"So the monsters out in the forest, they're not real creatures? I thought that one of my classmates had gone out there and found something that she's training now."
Ruby replied. "Not everything. Some creatures are just animals summoned from various planets. Probably most of them. You can tell if it's a miasma monster because of its behavior. Animals are motivated by survival, but these miasma monsters have negative emotion as their base component and therefore only care about hurting others. And the more closely-related the source of their miasmas are, the more specific and powerful a monster you usually get. When a group of miasmas of similar source merge into one, the result is a near-shadow. They can have more advanced strategies and are capable of deception and cunning on levels that your normal monster will never attain. their motivation goes from a simple 'hurt living things' to something more closely tied with its source, like generating specific kinds of terror or hurting certain kinds of living things."
Abigail reasoned to herself for a moment before hazarding a guess. "Then if they get more powerful the more specific they are, 'trauma shadows' are going to be the worst of them, because they're the most specific?" As she spoke, a window a few feet from her shattered as a large rock smashed through it, causing her to yelp out. Azura responded quickly, wedging one of the booth tables into the window well at a slight angle, then stuffing tablecloths into the open holes. After shaking off her sudden case of willies, she asked, "How specific can they get?"
Ruby's answer was solemn, despite her having to speak up to have her voice heard over the still-raging storm. "One person. Sometimes, the repeated negative emotions stemming from a source of un-dealt-with trauma will find themselves growing together, more and more by the night. Once they have a powerful enough form, they will be overcome by their desire to hurt the person who created them and rush straight at them to do their worst. They're pretty single-minded, hard to slow down, and if they so much as touch the person they originate from, they disappear into them. When that happens, there's usually nothing that anyone else can do. They'll psychically enslave their host, sending them into a coma. While a few students have had success fighting one off from within, most of the time the only thing that can get them to wake up is a complete memory erasure."
Abigail lowered her head a bit, realizing what that meant. Without your memories, much of who you are is gone. It's not death, but it may as well be. She wanted to ask a question again, but the thought drifted out into the quiet room, leading her to realize that the sounds of the storm had stopped completely. She blinked her eyes wider curiously, looking to both Ruby and Azura to see that they too had noticed the change.
Ruby slowly backed away from the door, gently setting the hammer down as if she were facing a wild bear. Azura slithered closer to the middle of the lounge, gripping tightly onto the plank of wood she was holding. Both could tell that the atmosphere around the club had abruptly changed, and both knew that it was not in a good way. Abigail, staying as quiet as possible, ran over to the pair and looked to them to say anything and let her know it was okay to speak, but neither of them wore expressions that gave her that impression.
The entire building pulsed slightly, all of the walls seeming to strain inwards as the horrible heartbeat of whatever was outside reverberated through the walls, modulated by the glass of the windows and the wood of the doors. Like a shockwave, a feeling of anxiety washed over the three, and they all flinched reflexively toward the center of their group.
The building shuddered again, the chandeliers on the ceiling and the stage's curtain all shaking with the sound. One of the lights flickered out momentarily, then hummed back to life as dust that had settled years ago in nooks Ruby and Azura had figured unreachable began to stir out of the window wells and from between the floorboards.
The sound and vibration continued beating on the lounge from all sides as the trio stayed huddled together. Ruby finally spoke up, startling Abigail who had by this point convinced herself that making a sound would cause whatever the thing was to do whatever it was doing in a much more terrifying manner. "I think it's after one of us."
Over in the coat check room, Abigail's backpack hopped off its hook, falling to the floor with a loud thump. "Then what do we do?" Abigail squeaked.
"For now, we hope that it's unable to get in. A lot of these buildings arrive with magical fortifications, and it's possible that all of the songs I've sung here with my idol magic have strengthened it further. If we're lucky, that's all it will take to keep it at bay until someone else is able to defeat it."
"And if we're not lucky?" Abigail wasn't feeling especially fortunate at the moment, considering the circumstances.
"If it gets in, don't let it touch you. Don't stop to look at it, as sometimes that is enough to get a victim to freeze up."
In one of the bathrooms, something porcelain fell and shattered. "Can we fight it? I don't have any weapons, but..." Abigail shakily asked. She had not been doing terribly well in Miss Kim's class, and though Sensei Hwang was supportive, it was clear that he wasn't challenging her with very much.
"Only if it's got us backed into a corner. And if we knew who it was after, we could have a better chance. They're emotional in nature, and because of that they have specific weaknesses. But to know what one's weakness is, you have to know the source of the trauma. Us whacking away at it or pelting it with magic spells won't be enough; you'd have to add in a representation of something that counters the trauma."
For a moment, it was completely silent again. All three of them were looking down at the floor, asking themselves the same question. "What if it's me?"
Azura had been through trauma enough for a lifetime. Because she let out the vision that had suddenly come from her in the form of a painting of her deity Ret, she was sentenced to death and shunned by everyone she had known.
Abigail as well knew a considerable amount of suffering. Thanks to a crafty lie from an entertainer, she was knocked out and left for dead in the lounge's wine cellar until her body had wasted away completely, leaving the ghost she was now. There were still nights where she woke up feeling the icy chill and yelling out to make sure that she could still make a sound.
Ruby wasn't able to remember much about her time before arriving at MSF High, but the frustration that stemmed from her not realizing that she was in the wrong body for so long was surely enough to be the source of such a monster. She tried to push the thoughts that it was her own inability to see her true self responsible for the current situation, and the mental self-flagellation that accompanied it, out of her mind.
This time, the shake was much more violent, tumbling the few unmoved tables in the lounge over. As the three peered around to see why it had suddenly become much stronger, all three quickly recognized that through tiny cracks in their defenses, a thick black murk was slowly pushing in.
"It's getting in!" Abigail yelled out, pointing toward a crack in one of the blocked-off windows. "What do we do?"
"Find something to push it out with, but don't touch it!" Ruby yelled back. "If you cut its entry off, the smaller part that's inside should dissipate!"
In truth, Ruby wasn't sure if that would work, but she knew that the city was populated with heroic students, many of whom would be much better equipped to deal with a threat like this, and she figured that every second she bought was another second in which someone might notice their plight and deploy a suitable response.
Abigail darted around the lounge, looking for anything that would work as a deterrent, before running up onto Ruby's stage and yanking down the half of the red velvet curtain bunched to the right side. The pole holding the curtain up and the gearing which attached it to the ceiling wrenched out after Abigail put all of her weight onto it, and she was able to pull it off the bar once it had hit the stage. Wrapping the curtain around her hands multiple times, she hesitantly inched up to the window through which she had first noticed the darkness creeping in. Up close, she could see that it absorbed all light, and thus seemed to have no texture, but had an almost smoky layer of dark shadowy haze that lifted off a couple inches from its surface. With more than a little bit of trepidation, she pushed the curtain up against the blob, as if to smother it away from her. It pushed back with a surprising amount of resistance, but not enough to stop her from holding tight against it.
Meanwhile, Azura ducked under the front of the lounge's bar to retrieve her massive paintbrush. On more than one occasion, she had been forced to use it as a weapon, though she had bought it specifically to do base coatings on large statues and help her paint murals. While there were some more art supplies behind the bar, including a set of chisels, a hammer, and a set of paints with an equally oversized palette to mix them on, Azura wasn't going to need any of those. Instead, she darted for the supply closet to find something else--a five-gallon drum of industrial flooring adhesive. She wasn't completely clear on how this thing did its creeping, but it seemed apparent to her that it could only come in through exposed cracks--something she briefly considered must be somehow symbolic of the trauma shadow's source. Regardless of why it needed a way in, she decided she would deny it that by painting over every possible crack with glue, and with her increased strength it was easy to carry the bucket around from corner to corner, sealing the building as she did so.
As the other two worked to physically seal off any points of entry, Ruby rushed over to the door and mentally scanned through her catalogue of idol songs until she found one that she felt would be able to help bolster the barriers they had created. With all of the vocal power she could muster, she began to sing a song of protection. It was not one she had written herself, and she knew that in a few days she would be billed by the powers that be for the temporary broadcast rights, but that was wholly unimportant to her now. As she sang, a wave of energy began to exude from her throat, becoming a shield a few feet taller than Ruby surrounding her in a near-invisible layer of force that reflected with a gridlike pattern against the light. With further manipulation of her voice, she was able to reshape the shield, pushing it up against the door and the darkness that was seeping through. As it met with the nightmare beast, the shield's frequency began to shimmy slightly, wobbling against the mass of the trauma shadow as it squirmed against the magical effect.
Though the three were all incredibly busy plugging leaks via their different methods, it appeared that they were at least on top of things, and so long as they held out at this pace, they would be able to survive until help arrived.
This thump was different from the others. While previously, the pulses caused the entire building to quake, this one was directed, and much more forceful. Ruby heard and saw it before the others, as it seemed to be centered directly on the door. The boards nailed in place instantly cracked, splintered, and flew off the edging around the door as the double doors whipped open, pelting towards Ruby but deflected by the spell she was generating. The doors slammed against the walls as a huge mass of shadowy darkness slowly crept through, pushing up against the edge of Ruby's shield and taking a concave rounded shape as more of it entered. Despite the quickness with which the barrier broke, the shadow itself didn't move very fast--rather, it surged forward in painfully spaced beats, each time appearing larger and more intimidating, and each time putting more strain on Ruby's protective spell. Ruby pushed her voice to sustain the note, but with each slam against the shield, her voice faltered slightly, and the shield shimmered and warped slightly. As the pressure from the darkness increased, the strain Ruby was putting herself through became more and more visible, and small scuff marks began to appear beneath her high-heeled shoes as the effects of the shield began to push her back with each beat. The shadow, oozing against the shield with a consistency similar to wet clay, grew out upwards, reaching past the doorjamb to the ceiling and glomming over the top of Ruby's shield.
As Ruby looked up to gauge how well her spell was doing, she quickly came to a pair of realizations, the first being that she wasn't going to be able to hold out much longer and the second being that soon it wouldn't matter, as the more of her shield the beast pressed against, the more difficult the spell would be to maintain, and it would only be a few more moments until there would be no room left for her to escape. Timing the cessation of her spell with a leap that was less graceful than an observer would have expected from someone like her, she dove out of the cavity where her shield spell had protected her back towards the stage. She had expected the void to be instantly filled as the shadow creature flooded it from above, but instead, it simply slowly crept forwards as it always did, leveling out to a flat surface a few feet across that began to slowly bisect the lounge.
Abigail rushed to Ruby's side, still positioning herself behind the Uruseiyan with relation to the creeping wall of darkness, and helped her to her feet, supporting her as she regained her footing and backed further away from the nightmare. It was then that Azura, slithering her scaly body between the wall and her friends, brandished her giant paintbrush in defiance of the shadow. After barking at the other two to get back and making sure to give herself enough distance to back away as needed, she began swinging her paintbrush at it. For a moment, it seemed as if her attacks were affecting it, as a large mark of the glue slapped across it and stayed visible even after a couple pulses. On the third beat of the creature's progression, however, the area that had been halted by the glue was simply consumed from the sides and it was mere moments later that the shadow was back on track towards the stage.
Undaunted, Azura raised herself up a few feet, took a deep breath to focus, and lashed across in a flurry of strokes, leaving a large crisscross grid of glue shining over the moving surface of the shadow. As she backed up, dunking her brush in the bucket to replenish her supply, she watched to see how long it took the exposed bits of shadow to pour through the glue and continue, noting that it seemed to care more about creating a dividing wall than simply growing itself. She was sure that she could not achieve the speed needed to completely seal it off, nor that it would ultimately stop it anyways as it now had a good fifteen feet of other sides that had already made it into the lounge, but so long as she slowed it down just a little, they could hold out hope that the city's other residents might see the shadow attacking the lounge and bring someone better able to deal with the threat. Timing her strikes, she laid down layer after layer of glue against the shadow, each time preventing its full advance by a moment, but after five crisscross layers, the bucket of glue had nothing left to give. With a surge of strength, she lashed at the shadow with her dry brush, but it felt almost like striking a brick wall, and her weapon of choice did little more than develop a large crack just below the bristles to show for it.
Azura began to dart for the side, but Ruby called out to her. "Don't head in any direction other than the way it's going yet! The longer we're able to keep it going, the more time we buy! We need to get up towards the stage!" The Gorgon nodded in response, and made for her friends, who were both clambering up the side of the stage. Azura, having a much easier time of the short vertical climb, latched her damaged paintbrush into the pair of holster loops she had sewn into the back of her apron and used an arm each to heft Ruby and Abigail onto the stage.
Abigail spoke up as they waited for the wall to advance. "Is there anything we can do anymore?"
Ruby replied, shaking her head in both a negatory response and to clear her thoughts a little. "I don't think so. It looks like it's trying to split the lounge in half, and I think it's doing that so that we don't have as much of a place to go. I don't know how this one works, but I imagine that it's moving so slowly to scare whichever of us it's after, and it will probably keep this up until we've got nowhere to run to." The three of them backed up against the door, Ruby timing the monster's movements to gauge how many pulses they had until they would have to retreat to the bedroom. "If we split up, it would probably go after whichever of us it wants, but if we do that, we won't be able to slow it in the most effective way."
"How's the most effective?" Abigail asked, shaking.
"Try and get it to make walls all the way across, then get it to start a new one as close to halfway as we can. We'd have maybe five or six walls that way at this size before there's not enough room for us."
Ruby whipped open the door, preparing to order the others to get through to the bedroom, but when she opened it, she was greeted with a wall of darkness identical to the one they were already backing away from. In a flash of reflexes, she yanked the door shut, but before it could latch it bounced against the growing shadow monster noiselessly and began to push back open as it crept to meet the rest of its mass. Ruby couldn't help but exclaim what the other two had likely already figured out. "It got in the other side, too!" The group ran and slithered down the stairs to the left of where the door was, then made their way to the center of what remained of the lounge area, with what remained not overturned of the booths on one side and the bar on the other. Ruby motioned for the others to stand near her, in as close to the center as she could figure, then watched the wall to see what it would do next.
Half a dozen pulses passed after the shadowy wall had fully formed through the middle of the Crystal Lounge, and Ruby's examination had not yet found another wall forming. It was only when she looked up at the ceiling that she realized what was going on. The chandelier was slowly being consumed by the wall, less and less of it visible with each pulse.
"It's not making a new wall, it's pushing the wall towards us!"
The three looked around, nearly hopeless, desperate to find something that could spell an escape for them. Ruby pointed towards the booths remaining and yelled out. "It has a harder time moving through solid things! Azura, push the booths in the way, we'll try and bait it into making a new wall!"
Without saying a word, Azura followed Ruby's instructions, straining only slightly to heft the booths and pile them a foot in front of the creeping wall, stacking them atop each other until they reached most of the way to the ceiling. For a few beats, the wall pushed up against the seats, rattling them slightly as it tried to make its way past them. If this wasn't going to work, there wouldn't be much time left. As near as Ruby could figure, without getting it to go back to its old tactics, they had just a few minutes until the wall pushed the remaining ten feet or so to get to the other side. Thankfully, after the shadow seemed to stall for a second, it bulged in the center and began to creep towards them in a new wall.
Ruby sighed in relief. A part of her had worried that the shadow was able to understand what she was saying and would have ignored the "trap" she had set up. The relief didn't last long, however, as she realized that the wall that was forming like a pseudopod from the creature was considerably thinner than its original one, and was pushing out much faster with every beat. When it reached the point where they could no longer back away, the three jumped to the side. Unfortunately, while Ruby and Azura jumped towards the bar, Abigail didn't read into Ruby's body cues and jumped to her right, towards the other side.
"Hurry, this side!" Ruby called out, and Abigail turned around to see the mistake she had made. She tried to get around behind the bar, but the shadow wall was moving too fast for her to judge if she could squeeze through without touching it or not, and she instead bolted to the far corner of the lounge.
"I can't make it! I'm sorry!" Abigail cried out, hoping her words could be heard through the creeping darkness.
After a moment of silence, she heard Ruby's voice call back. "Just try to stay away as long as you can! Don't let it touch you! Go intangible for as long as you can once it's too close!
And with that, the wall of shadows slammed against the side wall of the lounge.
Panicked, Ruby shrieked out a note Azura only once before heard her use, when she was nearly trapped under a mudslide in one of her Gym class's obstacle courses. The pitch was accompanied by visible sound waves that punched against the wall in the center of the divide between where Ruby hoped it was weakest. The wall of shadows rippled, but refused to give way, even when Ruby increased her volume and took a forceful step forward. After a minute of the vocal barrage, Ruby's ability to concentrate gave out, and she was forced to halt, pressing her right hand against her forehead.
"Will it leave her alone if it's one of us that made it?" Azura asked Ruby as the two hopped up onto the bar.
"I hope so. I think it might be trying to scare us all to further empower itself, though, so there's no telling for sure." Ruby scanned the shadow, realizing that its next attempt to push between them could come from any point on either wall, and could be at any speed. Together, the two held each other close as they waited for the next sign that something would happen. They both knew what they were going to have to deal with soon, the possibility that one of them could be stripped of all memory of the other. It was Ruby who first spoke up. "Azura, darling..."
Azura looked into Ruby's eyes.
"Azura, if anything happens to you...I'll be there, okay? I won't ever leave your side. I'll write a million songs about every day we've had together, I remember all of it and I'll share it back with you!" Ruby's words stuttered out through the tears that were starting to form.
Azura, too, was crying. "And if...if it's..." Azura couldn't even vocalize it, but the look Ruby gave her told her that she already knew what it was she wanted to say. Azura understood Ruby's true self better than anyone else, and was the first one to really be able to see it. If she had to do it again, she wouldn't hesitate. It was then that the wall that bisected the lounge shuddered again, and a new thinner wall pushed out, directly between them. Quickly, the two darted back against the far wall, trying to keep to one side of it, but as they moved, the wall moved with them, keeping its centerpoint in the middle of their embrace. Unable to do anything else, the two shared what they hoped would not be a final kiss before breaking apart, Ruby to the right and Azura to the left. All three were alone.
Azura coiled her tail behind the bar, peeking through the kitchen door's window to confirm that it was already flooded with the monster. As she backed away, it seemed to move slower and slower, creeping up the ceiling and down the floor to slowly push her farther and farther from where she knew Ruby was. As the shadow slunk across the remaining walls, Azura ducked under the bar, to the cubby where she had stashed her art supplies. There was no sudden reeling back of the monster or crashing through a portion of it by a heroic shadow defense force member like she had hoped. She was alone, she knew that it wanted one of the three of them, and there seemed to be nothing she could do.
"This is it," Azura thought to herself, shaking in place. "There's nothing more that I can do now. It won't help to yell, or scream..."
"Or," she continued the thought, "to be afraid of it at all. That is what it wants, after all." The walls continued to inch towards her from all directions, but taking stock of the situation, she realized that as afraid of it she was, it had its own fear--not being feared. It was only able to get as close as it had so far because all three of them were terrified of it, and if she stopped feeding it, maybe that would slow it down. Not sure how to use this epiphany to her advantage, she stared at the wall that was steadily advancing towards her.
"You understand? I'm not afraid of you anymore. You might take one of us, but I'm not going to help you do whatever you plan to do anymore. You may as well just get it over with."
The pulsing wall slowed, as if hesitant. For a couple of beats, it surged towards her before pulling back out, like a rolling wave, crashing against the wall of defiant courage Azura had erected. Then, it seemed to pause completely.
"That's what I thought." She said aloud to the wall of shadow. With a sigh, she pushed the remaining shakes out of her body, stretched a little to loosen herself up, and looked around at the apparently relenting monstrosity. She thought to herself, so as not to give any of her ideas away. "The others are still in danger, but worrying about them won't do anything to help them. Thinking calmly, however, will. If Ruby were with me right now, she'd have used this time to think up a way to deal with it."
With only a tinge of urgency, she sized up her options while remembering everything she knew about the trauma shadows. Ruby's hastened lesson to Abigail was at the forefront of her mind, as was the fact that it could have been any of the three of them.
The shadow's behavior was the final clue that she needed, but they were all too busy trying to fight it or avoid it to realize it. From its first surge of motion into the lounge, its goal was to cut them off. It was slow about its work, but one by one, it managed to isolate and imprison all three of them.
Ruby's own body as Reuben was a cage that kept her from being able to connect with others and realize her true potential.
Abigail spent the rest of her life alone and forgotten in a wine cellar from which she was unable to escape.
Azura herself was literally imprisoned for her heresy, shunned by friends and family.
The shadow didn't represent a person or group that had harmed one of them. It was a manifestation of the feeling of being trapped! No matter who it was that it wanted to infect, it had to do it by creating a cage around them and closing in until all hope was lost! That meant that the others were probably still okay, and all she needed to do was find a way to symbolically defeat the shadow's source!
She ran her hands over her pockets. She cursed in her native language internally, realizing that what she was hoping to find was on her dresser, back in her bedroom. Maybe the register had one...no, she'd already put it with the others after they decided to close early. She frantically searched the area left for something she could use, but there was none there.
There was, however, her art supply bag. "That's right," she remembered wordlessly, "I was going to try to paint or sculpt for a while. I don't have any canvas or clay, but maybe..." She shook the bag out onto the floor, and watched as its contents clattered out. Paintbrushes, pencils, carving knives...there! Settled on the bottom of the bag were the heaviest items, a hammer and chisel set, the same one that she had used to reshape Ruby shortly after they had met.
She checked again all of the places that she had already looked to see if perhaps she had left a chunk of marble lying around, but no luck. The shadow, seemingly sensing that she had figured out how to affect it, began creeping towards her, faster, forcing her to grab her hammer and chisel off the floor and back away a couple feet. After thinking frantically, she pulled her cracked giant paintbrush from its holster on her back, laid it against the remaining part of the bartop that had not yet been engulfed, and methodically hacked away at the handle end.
Her first task, simple enough, was to flatten it as much as she could. Of the five-foot brush handle, she quickly managed to shave three feet of it into a rough but flat enough surface for the next stage. Using the chisel, she scored a pattern around the piece she intended to keep, thicker at the end and collapsing quickly into a round shank toward the bristles, with decorative patterning throughout and a grip just before the metal piece holding the bristles in place. Thanks to how she had rotated it, the cracked piece was removed entirely as she knocked out large chunks around the grip end, then carefully carved the bit into the end of her creation. It was rough, and maybe later she'd take some sandpaper to it, but as it took shape, the wall of shadow almost instantly began to retreat away from it. By the time she had finished it, it was apparent that the shadow wanted nothing to do with it, and there was a spherical area around the massive key that Azura had carved that was actively repelling the trauma shadow. Quickly, she picked it up, brandishing it by the grip she had created, and slashed it towards the darkness that separated her and Ruby.
Azura expected to meet with some resistance as she sliced through the shadowy wall, but was surprised to find that the monster's body simply moved away to keep its distance, much faster than she thought it was capable of moving. The wall had gotten thicker since it had formed, and the gash she had created wasn't deep enough to push through it, but waving the key in large circles around the spot caused the rest of the shadow to back away in an area large enough for her to continue forward. Leaving an extra-large opening to account for her long tail, she rushed into the next area to see that Ruby was still there, sitting on the floor with her eyes closed, singing softly to herself.
"Ruby, it's me! You're okay now!"
With great trepidation, Ruby slowly opened her eyes and tilted her head to look up at Azura. Her shocked expression widened into a beaming smile when she saw what it was that her Gorgon partner had used to pierce the veil of darkness between them.
"A key! Of course, all of us have been trapped, and the shadow was doing it to us all over again!" She very nearly continued, but Azura had already turned her attention to the next wall, the one that had cut Abigail off from the two of them before they had been split. This time, Azura didn't bother swinging the key around, instead thrusting it into the darkness and stirring it around like an oversized egg beater. In reaction to her movements, the inky mass scrambled away, cutting a hole for the pair to walk through.
The other side had gotten smaller and more cramped than the others. Whether this was because Abigail was the true target, because she was more frightened, or because it had simply had more time to constrict against her was something that neither of them were sure about. They were too busy looking for their ghostly friend, who was nowhere to be seen. Aggressively, Azura swiped at the other side walls, grazing close enough that they would push away but just on the surface so as to avoid hitting Abigail if she were somehow buried in them. She uncovered one of the piles of booths that she had stacked earlier, but still no Abigail. "Where is she?" she cried out to Ruby, letting some of the fear she had discarded earlier slip back in.
"I told her to go intangible; maybe she went inside something solid to hide." The Uruseiyan answered, only barely more calm than Azura. "Unless she actually..." She kneeled down at the end of the bar, examining the latch on the trapdoor that led to the cellar below. It was still locked, but if she was able to move through sold objects while she was using her spirit abilities, it only made sense that it would remain bolted. Thankfully, there was another key for it hidden in a tiny magnetic box stashed under that end of the bar, and as Ruby retrieved it, she wondered if the shadow would have reacted just as harshly to it as it had to the giant one Azura had carved. After undoing the padlock holding the bolt in place, she tossed the key towards the corner of the lounge, where the shadow still had some of its mass spread. Interestingly, it moved away to give the key a wide berth, but not nearly as violently and to not nearly as great a distance as what Azura's improvised weapon provided. Ruby unbolted the latch and threw open the trapdoor, then called out. "Abigail? Are you down there?"
Instinctively, Ruby and Azura flinched. The last time she was down there, the poor Poltergeist had been so scarred from the experience that she lashed out at the two, telekinetically throwing everything in the lounge at them. This time, however, she rushed up to the stairs leading from the trapdoor to the wine cellar and began to climb back out as she softly spoke back. "Is it gone?"
"Not yet, but Azura figured out a way to fight it. Are you alright?"
Abigail nodded as she emerged from the cellar. "Yes, I realized that I locked myself in just after my intangibility ran out, and for a moment it brought back memories of before, but I knew that this time the two of you would come for me. I think...I'm not afraid of the cellar anymore."
"That's wonderful," Ruby responded, taking Abigail's hand as she helped her the rest of the way out of the basement, "But we're not done yet."
"Yeah, why exactly is that?" Azura interjected. As the other two turned to focus on her, she waved toward the hole she had burrowed to reach the room. After just a few moments, it had shrunk down to be less than a foot across, and the other walls had still maintained their steady progression towards the trio. "I can hack at it all night, but it won't do any good if it just keeps coming back. I don't think I've even hit it yet!"
"You're right," Ruby analyzed, "It's just moving away from your key. It's still trying to do what's in its nature, keep us trapped. The idea of the key can keep the darkness at bay, but to truly free us--"
"Got it!" Azura grinned with determination. she turned her attention, and her swipes, toward the initial wall the creature had created. with a flurry of strikes, she drove forward toward its source. Surprisingly, as she moved closer to where she knew the doorway was, bits of the wall began to lunge at her, forcing her to momentarily turn her attention to one side or another. A large glob of blackness reached around the blade of the key and tried to yank it out of her hands, but she maintained her grip and shook it off. Ruby and Abigail were forced forwards with her as what were once the monster's orderly, flat, and threateningly impersonal walls glooped into disorganized clumps of shade desperate to strike forwards, having discarded its behavior out of what must have been some form of self-preservation.
Sensing that it would not give her another chance if it could help it, Azura curled up her tail then darted forward off it, striking not unlike the snakes that her species so resembled. With all of her might, she used both arms and the full force of her coiled body to launch herself straight at the doorway. Though the creature struggled to resist the forceful effects of the key, it could not help but leave an opening just wide enough to slide through without touching it, and with a straining heave, the key burst through the other side, into the cold, wet air of the city.
There was a crackling light that seemed to rush in from the outside, spreading across the darkness. The shadow was instantly rendered immobile, its thrashing ceased as it began to sizzle and harden. The effect spread from the doorway out across its walls, filling the vision of all three there to see it. With a shimmer and a flash, the monster was gone.
For a moment, Ruby, Azura, and Abigail all stood there. Azura retracted her body slowly to regain her balance, but as she did so, the three simply looked back and forth without speaking. Occasionally, one of them would look up, down, or to the side to make absolutely sure that none of the monster remained, but each look only confirmed that no trace remained of the trauma shadow. In fact, if not for the broken door, the cracked window, and the tossed about furniture, it would be hard for someone without aura vision to tell that anything had been there that night. Outside, the storm had mostly subsided, with little left other than a drizzle in the dark, but they slowly made their way out into the rain, just to make sure that the outside still existed. As they let the rain fall over them, smiles formed on each of their faces, and the three quickly began to hug each other, first Abigail hugging onto Ruby, then Azura wrapped both her arms and her coils around both of them.
The ordeal that they had gone through was harrowing, but in the end they all came out realizing what they really had. So long as they could depend on each other, they would be able to weather any storm. It would take some time to repair the damage done to the lounge, but they all felt it was worth it because of the connection they knew they shared and the knowledge they had gained would be able to stop any shadows that might target any of them.
The story was captivating and the end touching. It is an excellent piece, you have good taste.
You do a really good job of mixing emotions into your stories. PotRBA was both terrifying and hilarious at the same time. Mahou Galaxy was tense with just the right amount of relief. And this one was sad and scary, but at the same time so sweet and endearing. I'd like to do my own sort of shadow story, but I'm not sure it'll compare to this. I love all your work, and I hope you keep doing your thing, bud. C: