Chapter 17:

Cryptic Umbra

Crimson Core

Cryptic Umbra.Bookmark here

[Cryptic Umbra] is an unexplained phenomenon that occurs when a Prime Shard takes the role of [Devouring Core] and swallows another Sleeper, instead of forming the Dreamer with it.Bookmark here

In nature we recognize such behavior as „feeding“, although in this case it would be more like „cannibalism“ or much more closely, „phagism.“Bookmark here

Even though the state of [Cryptic Umbra] itself is unknown, the cases where people's feelings, desires and their character itself end up eaten by the force of the consumer are more than plenty.Bookmark here

Every living being at some point in time will try to consume others, such is the circle of life. But the level of consumption vary drastically. Bookmark here

It's extremely hard to differentiate between „care“ and „consumption.“ Bookmark here

Between „loving“ and „eroding.“Bookmark here

Between „person“ and a „subject.“Bookmark here

But to stop yourself at the realization of your own wrong-doing is an ability of Gods themselves.Bookmark here

Humans cannot do that.Bookmark here

Humans raise and consume.Bookmark here

They love and they wither away.Bookmark here

We care. We care too much for all the wrong reasons.Bookmark here

„...“ Bookmark here

Everyone had a good time at school festival. But the day was nearing it's end. Umeko stood burrowed into the floor in front of the Psychology Club room.Bookmark here

Shiki was sitting inside, alone. She saw him entering the room couple of minutes ago. Bookmark here

She had an idea of what needed to be done. But she was afraid. She started to question all her decisions up until this point.Bookmark here

„I came all this way to chicken out, huh?“ Ume muttered to herself.Bookmark here

Her legs shook as if she was carrying a robust closet with the skeletons within it making up all the mass.Bookmark here

„He said he loves me, then why am I so afraid?“ She mocked herself as she punched her chest with tiny hands.Bookmark here

„....“Bookmark here

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„Utari?“Bookmark here

„Yes?“Bookmark here

„I'm really cold.“Bookmark here

„That is because you're so close to me.“Bookmark here

Thousands of red strings emerged from the walls and desks and chairs and bookshelves and tied Shiki's frostbitten limbs, stretching him to the breaking point. His defenseless body dangled in mid-air as he was staring in a single dot on the opposite side of the room with eyes filled with contempt.
Bookmark here

„I answered your call this time.“Bookmark here

„But you still hear her, don't you?“Bookmark here

„I only hear you.“Bookmark here

„Lies.“Bookmark here

„I swear.“Bookmark here

„I know you hear the Spark in the distance. I know when you lie.“Bookmark here

„Even if I do, I don't care about that.“Bookmark here

Then prove it.“Bookmark here

„How?“Bookmark here

„Kiss me.“Bookmark here

Red strings had fully enveloped Shiki and knit a warm cocoon that resembled turtle shell around his crumbled body. The darkness swallowed him whole.Bookmark here

„See? I let myself go.“Bookmark here

„But you did this for yourself.“Bookmark here

„What do you mean?“Bookmark here

„I'm still trapped in the dark.“Bookmark here

„You keep pulling the strings your way.“Bookmark here

„You didn't let go.“Bookmark here

„How can I let go? Tell me, please“Bookmark here

„You need to find the answer yourself.“Bookmark here

„Come to me.“Bookmark here

„Just don't stop moving“Bookmark here

„...“Bookmark here

When Ume had finally built up the courage to open the door, she found Shiki lying on a floor. Bookmark here

„Shiki!“ she shouted.Bookmark here

„Ume, do not,“ behind her stood Ren and Alp.Bookmark here

„I don't know what's going on Ren, I'm so helpless!“ Ume punched the floor beside Shiki.Bookmark here

„When I...“ loud gurgling sound from Alp made Ren use the correct words, „ when WE were in trouble, you and him were there for us, now it is time for me and Alp to repay that favor.“Bookmark here

Ren caught the chip-like object that Alp had thrown at her.Bookmark here

„But he's somewhere else, in some cryptic crap I dunno!“ Ume sobbed.Bookmark here

„I know. We have talked to Cyn before coming here. Whether you like it or not, she is an expert in things like this,“ the flame within Ren's amber eyes comforted Ume.Bookmark here

„Yeah, Cyn, I mean, nurse, she really cares about you, Ume. She told us that there is a way to fix this. But we need you to stay out of it.“Bookmark here

Alp tried to persuade Ume to back down.Bookmark here

„The napkin,“ muttered Ume.Bookmark here

„Excuse me?“ Alp looked back at forth between Ren and Ume.Bookmark here

„He kept nagging me about the napkin in the [World Within]. The same one that my father gifted me when I was young,“ Ume took a deep breath, „when I was still just Nagisa.“Bookmark here

„That must mean he made contact with her, as well as my sister,“ Ren felt a chill, throbbing down her spine.Bookmark here

„Oy Oy, if this has something to do with your sister, you need to stay out of it too!“ Alp shook Ren that pondered while staring at Shiki.Bookmark here

„Cyn knew about it, that is exactly why she is sending me,“ she smiled gently.Bookmark here

„My queen...“ Alp wanted to hug her tightly but stopped himself.Bookmark here

„Maybe we can ask Omi...“ whispered Ume.Bookmark here

That line vividly aggravated Ren.Bookmark here

„Omi is no longer a member of this club, he is a Lotus' puppet from now on,“ she exerted a painful exhalation and averted her gaze, „besides, he served his time with us, he is free to do as he please.“Bookmark here

Ume would probably question her words from days on end if things were like they used to. But they are not. Ume wanted her Shard partner back. She wanted her friend back. Bookmark here

„Omi suffered because of our incompatibility, I hope he finds happiness with another girl,“ a single tear carved it's path down her face.Bookmark here

She would mourn their crackled bonds later. It was time to let go of past and make sure that the future doesn't meet the same fate.Bookmark here

„Correct,“ Ren crouched beside Ume, „you are an amazing friend, girl and a strong Fighter, stronger than I will ever be, and I know that you will make an amazing Compassionate Shard for Kappa, no, for Shiki.“Bookmark here

Alp has already started to stretch his boulder-like hands during their talk.Bookmark here

„You know I can't stay put right? If I find a way to reach you guys, I will,“ Ume said through her tears.Bookmark here

„And I will not stop you,“ Ren added.Bookmark here

„We need to hurry, Kappa needs us,“ Alp picked up the unconscious Shiki from the floor.Bookmark here

„Oh lord, this guy is as stiff as a de....“ Ren hit Alp in a stomach with her elbow.Bookmark here

He realized what he was about to say and squeeled a little. Odd sound brought a partial smile on Ume's face. When Alp had noticed it, he took it as a victory. Bookmark here

After he carefully sat him down on the chair, making sure he doesn't fall off of it, he walked on the other side of the table and offered a seat to Ren.Bookmark here

„So, how'll ya enter there exactly? It's not like he can talk or anythin',“ Ume sat on a chair beside Shiki.Bookmark here

„We can activate The Bridge by establishing an emotional connection with him. It will severely strain our mental health, but that is the risk I am prepared to take,“ Ren said it while rubbing Alp's hand.Bookmark here

„I'm with you all the way through, you can count on me,“ Alp covered her hand with his other one.Bookmark here

„I will start,“ said Ren and cleared her throat a bit, „I really like how clumsy and nervous he always seemed, but at the same time he was committed and very successful at our job.“Bookmark here

When Ren finished the sentence, Alp clapped enthusiastically. The prism in the middle of the table gave out an extremely pale glow. Bookmark here

Disappointment was clearly written all over her face so Alp wanted to make things right.Bookmark here

„I like how easily you can carry him around, and he never wanted anything from cafeteria and he walked often through the school garden, he obviously likes nature. He's a good person!" He yelled the last part.Bookmark here

The glow on prism barely intensified which almost put Alp in a coma.Bookmark here

„You guys are lame,“ concluded Umeko.Bookmark here

Both Alp and Ren couldn't even defend themselves from that fact and withdrew in shame.Bookmark here

She looked at almost frozen body of her partner next to her that seemed more lifeless with each passing second. Bookmark here

„Each trip to [World Within] counts as a date, right?“ she asked his unresponsive framework.Bookmark here

Her insides ached seeing him like this.Bookmark here

That's not the nervous Shiki that warmed up to her over time. Last couple of days were like hell to her. Bookmark here

Shiki was busy fighting the lonesome wars and walked around like an empty shell. In classroom she would desperately explain that he feels sick and answered questions for him.Bookmark here

When she would attempt to talk to him, he would either look through her or give her generic enough answers. So instead, she followed him around without letting him now she was there, even though she knew he wouldn't react anyways. Bookmark here

It was like watching a robot on an auto-pilot. And not the entertaining kind.Bookmark here

She wanted her partner back. But most of all, she wanted her friend back.Bookmark here

She leaned towards his frost-bound lips and gave him a soft kiss. Bookmark here

Prism light exploded like fireworks celebrating the new year. Their kiss lasted for a tiny fraction of time, but for her it felt like eternity.Bookmark here

The time has seemingly stopped.Bookmark here

„....“Bookmark here

„My queen, open thy eyes!“ Bookmark here

Ren woke up from a sound of Alp's voice.Bookmark here

She took a look at him and saw a knight in full armor made of glittering steel.Bookmark here

„Alpha? Is that you?“Bookmark here

Her voice seemed more pronounced and mature. By touching her face, she felt wrinkles. As she stretched her arms she noticed a luxury fabric of a kimono that had an extremely fine texture.Bookmark here

„It is I, at service of thee,“ the giant armor knelt before her.Bookmark here

„Stop talking like that Alpha, it is honestly disturbing.“Bookmark here

„Yes, my majesty!“ Bookmark here

She was already used to Alp's role playing jokes by now and she found them cute and special, but this way of speech was too much, even for him.Bookmark here

She was lying on a king-size bed in what seemed to be the castle chambers. Antique-looking curtains adorned the windows to her right, with a neat desk and an expensive chair underneath it. In front of her was a big closet that could easily fit couple of grown men inside it.Bookmark here

To her left was still kneeling Alp and behind him a giant mirror embellished with purple lotus flowers.Bookmark here

When she looked in a mirror she saw a grown version of herself. Bookmark here

„I look like my mother!“ she screamed in disbelief.Bookmark here

„My queen is the most beautiful woman in the world, it is not possible that she looks like someone else, not to insult the queen regent,“ voice broke from within the helmet.Bookmark here

His armor was so robust, you couldn't see a person within it.Bookmark here

Ren coughed a little and the knight immediately offered her a napkin. It was a light purple napkin with a palm tree engraved in it.Bookmark here

Letters started to emerge on it's surface. They were written in admirable cursive writing. Bookmark here

„Attend the ball.“Bookmark here

„Play the role of a Queen.“Bookmark here

„This must mean that Umeko found the way to assist us, stubborn clever girl,“ Ren talked to the armor that still knelt beside her.Bookmark here

„Excuse me, your Majesty?“ Armor replied.Bookmark here

„Knight! Escort me to the ball,“ she commanded.Bookmark here

Alp suddenly grabbed her body and carried her like a damsel in distress out of the room.Bookmark here

The hallway was a long half-burnt wooden cage with some parts of planks still in flames. The smoke completely covered the ceiling of a hallway and the holes on the floor made the walking difficult. Bookmark here

Somehow, Alp seemed thoroughly unfazed by that bizarre sighting and walked towards the stairs as if nothing was going on. Ren was busy making sure that her expensive Kimono doesn't catch on fire.Bookmark here

What they found at the end of a long hallway weren't exactly stairs but a slide covered in thick layer of ice. Alp slid down the slope like a professional. They spun around like a figure-skating couple.Bookmark here

Upon reaching the bottom floor Alp put Ren down and ended his awe-inducing performance with a pirouette.Bookmark here

Not a single sound of clap could be heard from the audience even tough the first floor, where the ball was in a full swing, was crowded with neatly looking noblemen and noblewomen dressed in expensive festive clothing. For they were nothing but pictures, taped onto plain-looking mannequins.Bookmark here

„Everyone came together in this joyous occasion to celebrate their beloved Queen,“ Alp moved one mannequin after another so Ren could walk past them.Bookmark here

She smiled and waved at them as she made her way towards the chair that was placed on the top of giant pile made of organic remains of various plants and vegetables.Bookmark here

She sat on a throne and admired the noble crowd that gathered just for her.Bookmark here

„We have joined here, together, to celebrate life that was gifted upon us in this cold, cold world,“ Ren was pulling the words of her speech from an imaginary bucket left in the far corner of her mind.Bookmark here

„All hail the Queen!“ a shout broke through the lifeless crowd followed by an intensive hand-clapping.Bookmark here

Knight drew his sword and inspected the hall.Bookmark here

„Who is this?“ Ren asked.Bookmark here

„It is I who doesn't rule, your humble servant, The Fool,“ it was a shadow dressed in rainbow-colored court jester's outfit. It approached the throne slowly, while hiding behind one of the mannequins it carried throughout the way.Bookmark here

The Fool stopped before the Knight that waited for Queen's orders.Bookmark here

When Ren looked at the jester closely, she realized it wasn't a shadow at all, it was Shiki. Bookmark here

„Kappa? What are you doing?“ She stared at him in incredulity.Bookmark here

„Ah Kappa, Kappa, no! He is being kept somewhere in the dungeons below,“ he bowed before Knight's sword that was pointed straight at him.Bookmark here

„I am the other him or more like he is the other me, for I am but The Fool as you can see,“ he clapped at the sword as if it was just a fly and it crumbled into ashes.Bookmark here

„How? Impossible,“ knight grabbed his helmet in panic.Bookmark here

„At your service stand I, before you say one final goodbye,“ he took off his ridiculous pointy hat that had a bell hanging at the end of each point.Bookmark here

„Take me to real Kappa, this second!“ Ren pointed at the jester's face that had an off-putting grimasse.Bookmark here

„At your service my Queen, I shall take you down below and blow some steam,“ the jester kicked the floor in a tap-dance manner and the portal-like hole opened that swallowed them all.Bookmark here

„....Bookmark here

„Hey Shiki?“Bookmark here

„Yes?“Bookmark here

„They are here.“Bookmark here

„No, please, that can't be true.“Bookmark here

„Oh they are here.“Bookmark here

„I beg you, don't take my friends too.“Bookmark here

„I just want a complete harem down here!“Bookmark here

„Huh?“Bookmark here

„We have all of Utari, most of Miyako, quarter of Nagisa, let me at least have some of that cutiepie Ren and we can let Alpha go, I'll just sip some of his powers.“Bookmark here

„Don't you dare.“Bookmark here

„I need a full collection! Now shut your trap and enjoy your lone time with your beloved Utari.“Bookmark here

„...“Bookmark here

The hole led Ren and Alp to the castle dungeons. Ren expected filthy cages and unspeakable horrors, but to her surprise they were greeted by a group of shadows dressed as maids.Bookmark here

Jester walked before them with an introduction.Bookmark here

„Welcome our guests, my dear girls, one is a man of steel and the other is a Queen that people's hearts she swirls.“Bookmark here

Maids bowed before them. Bookmark here

Behind their backs were the rooms made of completely transparent glass walls. They could easily see what was happening in each and every room, but there was not much going on actually.Bookmark here

The rooms were occupied by even more mannequins in various static poses.
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Below their feet was an equally transparent floor that openly revealed the loosely kept secret in a very bottom level of a castle.Bookmark here

All the way down, bathed in absolute absence of light, levitated thousands of odd-shaped objects that seemed like coagulated man-made suns that glowed in warm red nuances.Bookmark here

„Crimson Cores...“ Ren whispered.
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