[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.
In nature we recognize such behavior as „feeding“, although in this case it would be more like „cannibalism“ or much more closely, „phagism.“
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.
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.
It's extremely hard to differentiate between „care“ and „consumption.“
Between „loving“ and „eroding.“
Between „person“ and a „subject.“
But to stop yourself at the realization of your own wrong-doing is an ability of Gods themselves.
Humans cannot do that.
Humans raise and consume.
They love and they wither away.
We care. We care too much for all the wrong reasons.
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.
Shiki was sitting inside, alone. She saw him entering the room couple of minutes ago.
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.
„I came all this way to chicken out, huh?“ Ume muttered to herself.
Her legs shook as if she was carrying a robust closet with the skeletons within it making up all the mass.
„He said he loves me, then why am I so afraid?“ She mocked herself as she punched her chest with tiny hands.
„I'm really cold.“
„That is because you're so close to me.“
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.
„I answered your call this time.“
„But you still hear her, don't you?“
„I only hear you.“
„I know you hear the Spark in the distance. I know when you lie.“
„Even if I do, I don't care about that.“
„Then prove it.“
Red strings had fully enveloped Shiki and knit a warm cocoon that resembled turtle shell around his crumbled body. The darkness swallowed him whole.
„See? I let myself go.“
„But you did this for yourself.“
„What do you mean?“
„I'm still trapped in the dark.“
„You keep pulling the strings your way.“
„You didn't let go.“
„How can I let go? Tell me, please“
„You need to find the answer yourself.“
„Come to me.“
„Just don't stop moving“
When Ume had finally built up the courage to open the door, she found Shiki lying on a floor.
„Shiki!“ she shouted.
„Ume, do not,“ behind her stood Ren and Alp.
„I don't know what's going on Ren, I'm so helpless!“ Ume punched the floor beside Shiki.
„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.“
Ren caught the chip-like object that Alp had thrown at her.
„But he's somewhere else, in some cryptic crap I dunno!“ Ume sobbed.
„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.
„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.“
Alp tried to persuade Ume to back down.
„The napkin,“ muttered Ume.
„Excuse me?“ Alp looked back at forth between Ren and Ume.
„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.“
„That must mean he made contact with her, as well as my sister,“ Ren felt a chill, throbbing down her spine.
„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.
„Cyn knew about it, that is exactly why she is sending me,“ she smiled gently.
„My queen...“ Alp wanted to hug her tightly but stopped himself.
„Maybe we can ask Omi...“ whispered Ume.
That line vividly aggravated Ren.
„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.“
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.
„Omi suffered because of our incompatibility, I hope he finds happiness with another girl,“ a single tear carved it's path down her face.
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.
„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.“
Alp has already started to stretch his boulder-like hands during their talk.
„You know I can't stay put right? If I find a way to reach you guys, I will,“ Ume said through her tears.
„And I will not stop you,“ Ren added.
„We need to hurry, Kappa needs us,“ Alp picked up the unconscious Shiki from the floor.
„Oh lord, this guy is as stiff as a de....“ Ren hit Alp in a stomach with her elbow.
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.
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.
„So, how'll ya enter there exactly? It's not like he can talk or anythin',“ Ume sat on a chair beside Shiki.
„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.
„I'm with you all the way through, you can count on me,“ Alp covered her hand with his other one.
„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.“
When Ren finished the sentence, Alp clapped enthusiastically. The prism in the middle of the table gave out an extremely pale glow.
Disappointment was clearly written all over her face so Alp wanted to make things right.
„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.
The glow on prism barely intensified which almost put Alp in a coma.
„You guys are lame,“ concluded Umeko.
Both Alp and Ren couldn't even defend themselves from that fact and withdrew in shame.
She looked at almost frozen body of her partner next to her that seemed more lifeless with each passing second.
„Each trip to [World Within] counts as a date, right?“ she asked his unresponsive framework.
Her insides ached seeing him like this.
That's not the nervous Shiki that warmed up to her over time. Last couple of days were like hell to her.
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.
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.
It was like watching a robot on an auto-pilot. And not the entertaining kind.
She wanted her partner back. But most of all, she wanted her friend back.
She leaned towards his frost-bound lips and gave him a soft kiss.
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.
The time has seemingly stopped.
„My queen, open thy eyes!“
Ren woke up from a sound of Alp's voice.
She took a look at him and saw a knight in full armor made of glittering steel.
„Alpha? Is that you?“
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.
„It is I, at service of thee,“ the giant armor knelt before her.
„Stop talking like that Alpha, it is honestly disturbing.“
„Yes, my majesty!“
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.
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.
To her left was still kneeling Alp and behind him a giant mirror embellished with purple lotus flowers.
When she looked in a mirror she saw a grown version of herself.
„I look like my mother!“ she screamed in disbelief.
„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.
His armor was so robust, you couldn't see a person within it.
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.
Letters started to emerge on it's surface. They were written in admirable cursive writing.
„Attend the ball.“
„Play the role of a Queen.“
„This must mean that Umeko found the way to assist us, stubborn clever girl,“ Ren talked to the armor that still knelt beside her.
„Excuse me, your Majesty?“ Armor replied.
„Knight! Escort me to the ball,“ she commanded.
Alp suddenly grabbed her body and carried her like a damsel in distress out of the room.
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.
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.
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.
Upon reaching the bottom floor Alp put Ren down and ended his awe-inducing performance with a pirouette.
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.
„Everyone came together in this joyous occasion to celebrate their beloved Queen,“ Alp moved one mannequin after another so Ren could walk past them.
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.
She sat on a throne and admired the noble crowd that gathered just for her.
„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.
„All hail the Queen!“ a shout broke through the lifeless crowd followed by an intensive hand-clapping.
Knight drew his sword and inspected the hall.
„Who is this?“ Ren asked.
„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.
The Fool stopped before the Knight that waited for Queen's orders.
When Ren looked at the jester closely, she realized it wasn't a shadow at all, it was Shiki.
„Kappa? What are you doing?“ She stared at him in incredulity.
„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.
„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.
„How? Impossible,“ knight grabbed his helmet in panic.
„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.
„Take me to real Kappa, this second!“ Ren pointed at the jester's face that had an off-putting grimasse.
„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.
„They are here.“
„No, please, that can't be true.“
„Oh they are here.“
„I beg you, don't take my friends too.“
„I just want a complete harem down 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.“
„Don't you dare.“
„I need a full collection! Now shut your trap and enjoy your lone time with your beloved Utari.“
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.
Jester walked before them with an introduction.
„Welcome our guests, my dear girls, one is a man of steel and the other is a Queen that people's hearts she swirls.“
Maids bowed before them.
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.
The rooms were occupied by even more mannequins in various static poses.
Below their feet was an equally transparent floor that openly revealed the loosely kept secret in a very bottom level of a castle.
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.„Crimson Cores...“ Ren whispered.