"We wonder, and some Hunter may express
wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
where London stood, holding the Wolf in chase,
he meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
what powerful but unrecorded race
once dwelt in that annihilated place."
—Horace Smith, 'Ozymandias'
Through the Ashes of Empires
In the Wilderness
And in a single moment, it was done. The Lifestream receded, and the last of the light faded from the sky. The great calamity that had threatened their world was no more, vanishing in one last, blinding burst of energy, leaving only a shower of particles in its wake, drifting through the night sky. Where there had been chaos mere moments before, silence now reigned. The Avalanchers gathered on the Highwind's bridge looked to one another, half in disbelief, as they realised the significance of what they had just witnessed. It was over. Their long struggle was finally over.
In the days that followed, they occupied themselves with aiding the survivors of the Meteorfall incident, joining in the rescue operations taking place throughout the remains of the once-great city of Midgar. Then came the reconstruction, during which time due remembrance of the fallen was given, followed by a celebration of their victory and survival.
Then, little by little, their various obligations forced them to return to their prior lives. Despite great reluctance on everyone's part to disband the group, they all knew that this eventuality could not be delayed forever. In the end, they went their separate ways. And the world kept on turning.
But the roots of their struggle ran far deeper than any of them ever suspected...
A year had lapsed, and most members of the old Avalanche crew had settled down, easing into the roles required of them, with some adjusting to the changes better than others, as a new world emerged from the ashes of the old one.
Despite his initial reservations, Vincent Valentine had elected to return to Nibelheim to retake the old Shinra manor. At the outset of his venture, he had questioned whether this task was worth undertaking at all, whether it was even a good idea to return here, to the birthplace of so many nightmares for himself and the world alike. In the end, he deemed his mission unavoidable, an unfinished duty that fell to him alone. There was no telling what horrors the late Hojo had left in his wake. And thus he set about purging the old manor house, stamping out the last traces of his tormentor's deranged experiments.
The days following his arrival were spent purging the manor of its lingering wraiths, a cathartic venture, and one that kept him busy; a literal approach to exorcising his demons, figurative and real alike. He took care to be thorough, scouring the infamous manor of its roving abominations until not a single one remained. With his reckoning completed and his new lodgings thus secured, he began to delve into the basement laboratory's voluminous library, sifting through its scientific collectanea, more for the sake of satisfying his own curiosity than any practical concerns.
And so he gradually began to settle down in the old Shinra manor, having made it habitable once more. The countryside's seclusion suited him. The mansion was not so remote from human civilization that it made acquiring provisions difficult, but still far enough removed that few visitors troubled him. Shortly before his own arrival, a group of displaced people from the eastern continent had come across the facsimile of old Nibelheim, now abandoned, and resettled the ghost town. The new inhabitants quickly made the town their own, to live and work in, with little idea of its sordid past. They kept away from the brooding mansion at the edge of town, paying little mind to the solitary figure which could sometimes be glimpsed watching over the town from the upstairs window. Few concerned themselves with who lived there, if anyone, and most were simply too preoccupied with their own lives to care. Observing life continuing in this manner, Vincent reflected upon how quickly the world forgot. Perhaps, he thought, it was for the better.
Then, late one night, near the end of the fall, he found himself roused from his state of torpor by a heavy knocking at the door, as that of someone beating against it with the last of their strength. He set aside the heavy tome resting in his lap and got up from his chair to see who it was. Shifting back the heavy door, he was surprised to find Tifa Lockheart standing outside in the torrential rain, shivering from the autumn cold, looking tired and forlorn, her eyes red and swollen. She spoke up before he had a chance to ask what she was doing out there all by herself, the question half-formed on his lips as she struggled to speak in between laboured breaths.
There was no need for her to explain further. He knew who she meant. He wrenched the double doors open, urging her to come in from the rain. She took half a step before faltering. He caught her, enfolding her in his arms as she wept, her body half-hidden by his thick cloak.
He served the two of them supper, a quiet and somewhat awkward affair, given how unused he was to having company. They exchanged few words, though the look on Tifa's face told him she was grateful for his hospitality.
Once their meal was concluded, he urged her to rest, after what had no doubt been a harrowing journey. He fashioned her with a comfortable bed in one of the guest bedrooms, and it was not long before she was asleep, drifting off to the sound of rain beating against the glass.
These things were, he knew, mere salve for her trials and tribulations. With little else to do, he pondered the cause of her distress. She and Cloud had parted ways. The exact nature of their falling out eluded him, though it was not hard to guess that it had been a bitter one. It was difficult for him to understand how the two of them had failed to find happiness together after their victory over Sephiroth and Jenova. He had watched from a distance as their relationship slowly disintegrated, as what seemed a foregone conclusion never came together the way everyone expected it would.
Her anguish, Vincent realised, was not merely the result of her own frustrated desires, but the way in which she remained powerless to stop her childhood friend from sabotaging himself out of misguided guilt. From his vantage point as an outsider, their relationship always seemed a case of 'too little, too late'. Perhaps it was never meant to be, he thought. But that did not make their parting any easier.
He stood in the doorway, watching over Tifa as she slumbered,
tracing the delicate outline of her face by the warm glow of the flickering candlelight, wishing there was something more he could do.
Cloud Strife marched on through the snow field, a solitary figure passing through the wintry desolation of the frozen north. He drew up the collar of his shirt, covering the lower half of his face to guard against the bitter wind and heavy snowfall as they threatened to coalesce into a full-fledged blizzard. Deviating from his current path, he pressed on, seeking shelter in the nearby forest as the weather grew more severe.
The wind died away, little by little, as he passed between the thick columns of birch and oak, ancient titans older than man, towering over the winter landscape, casting long shadows. Reaching the first visible clearing, he pulled his collar down again, inhaling the cool, crisp air, now that he was out of the worst of the storm, no longer assailed by cold blasts of wind that threatened to snatch one's breath away.
As he moved towards the centre of the glade, he became aware of some unseen multitude mobilising in the shadows, stalking him. He could hear the faint sounds of branches being trampled, the nearly imperceptible patter of footsteps in the snow. Then, a low howling as his pursuers drew near. He turned to see a large grey wolf emerging from behind the trees. Then another. A third. Before long, the whole pack had revealed itself. Glancing from one side of the clearing to the other only confirmed his suspicion; he was surrounded, caught in their ambush.
The wolves stood their ground, encircling him, cutting off every possible escape route. They observed the human in their midst with a guarded demeanour, as though waiting for something. Cloud realised his error. He was trespassing on their territory, and the wolves, clearly angered by such a brazen violation of the sanctity of their domain, had rallied against him, though it was not clear whether they intended him harm, or if they were simply trying to scare off the intruder that had wandered into their sanctum. Adopting a defensive stance, he slowly reached for his blade, drawing it a few inches from its sheath, while holding up his free hand in a propitiatory gesture, hoping to communicate to them that he meant no disrespect, and that he merely wished to pass through.
His eyes darted from one wolf to the next, regarding each in turn, watching for signs of movement as he backed away, taking slow, tentative steps towards the edge of the clearing. The wolves crouched low, bending their ears back even as they bared their teeth, their expressions a blend of aggression and fear. It was doubtful that they encountered many humans, being so far removed from any of their settlements, and their behaviour betrayed an uncertainty of whether to attack the unwelcome visitor or let him go.
Though they remained tense, their growling began to quiet down as he moved away from the clearing, watching them carefully as he retreated. Before he had made it halfway from the centre, however, an old wolf, the alpha male of the pack, emerged from the shadows. The wolf, a prideful and great brute, whose scarred visage spoke of untold trials faced during the years of guiding and protecting its pack, fixed the human interloper with a murderous gaze. It snarled at him, its anger provoking the other wolves out of their state of hesitation. They began to bark and howl, as well, their clamour rising in a gradual crescendo as they worked themselves into a hunting frenzy.
Cloud froze in place, turning as the alpha wolf charged at him. He drew, dodged, and cut, all in a single, practised motion as the wolf leapt up at him. The tip of his blade cleaved the side of the wolf's torso, and the great beast fell heavy to the ground. Staggered, he held his blade up, hands trembling from the lingering reverberation of the blow. He drew a terse breath as he looked to the other wolves, who remained in place, watching the confrontation with dismay, uncertain of whether to fight or flee. For a long moment, neither he nor they made any move, as if waiting to see whose nerve would give out first.
Their stand-off was interrupted by a low growl, coming from the twitching body of the head wolf. Cloud looked over his shoulder to see the beast, which he had assumed dead, slowly rising back to its feet, all but ignoring the fatal wound he had dealt it. The great wolf shook with pain and rage, its unchecked, maniacal fury twisting its face into a demoniac mask.
Before he knew what was happening, the wolf charged him a second time, bounding through the snow with alarming speed. Bracing himself, he swung again as it jumped up. This time, however, he missed, and the wolf came down hard, overpowering him with its bulk, forcing the sword from his hand as it drove him down to the ground. His head smashed against the cold earth, the force of the impact leaving his ears ringing and his vision blurred.
In his hazy mental state, he was vaguely aware of the other wolves closing in, galvanised by their leader's charge. They circled the two combatants, howling and chanting, spurring on the monstrous, frantic thing towering over him. He shook off his disorientation, dodging in time to avoid a fatal bite. His aggressor, however, gave no quarter, pinning him to the forest floor as it continued its relentless attack. Cloud seized the frenzied beast by the throat, holding the great wolf at bay as it snapped at him, aiming for his face and neck with its powerful jaws.
Searching for some way to counter the wolf's attacks, he spotted his blade lying in the snow, having slipped from his hands as he fell. He made to reach for it, but the wolf's erratic movements made it impossible for him to release his grip on its neck without risking letting it overpower him. He was left no other choice, however. The other wolves were drawing nearer still, and his assailant's attacks were growing more manic and unpredictable. The wolf simply would not let up, having been driven out of its mind by pain and anger, raging at him hysterically, with no care for its own safety, as though wishing to damn its mortal enemy with its dying breath.
With great effort, he managed to deflect the wolf's attacks, pushing its head to the side with one hand, freeing up the other to reach for his weapon. He extended his arm as far as he could without losing his grip on the wolf, and his fingers brushed against the hilt, but it was too far away for him to take hold of it. The wolf, meanwhile, managed to break free from his hold and threatened to overwhelm him, forcing him to abandon his sword in the snow to hold it off with both hands again.
Frustrated, he gave up on trying to reclaim his weapon. There was only one option left to him, one that had slipped his mind in the sheer chaos of the moment. Still keeping his attacker at bay, he reached for the knife concealed underneath his loose sleeve, taking the hilt with an underhand grip. Tearing the knife free from its scabbard, he plunged the blade deep into the side of the wolf's neck.
To his surprise, the wolf, though temporarily fazed, continued to press, biting and snapping away in spite of the critical wound it had just received. Gritting his teeth, Cloud wrenched the knife back out, sending a spray of blood gushing from the laceration, before stabbing repeatedly against the wolf's head and neck, attacking wildly in order to stymie his enemy's onslaught.
The final blow struck the wolf's head, piercing its skull, but even this was not enough to discourage the enraged beast's aggression, though he had finally managed to force it to a temporary halt. He gripped the knife more firmly, forcing the blade deeper, inch by painful inch, while the wolf continued its attempts to sink its teeth into his flesh.
Despite the great beast's unnatural vigour, he could see the light in its eyes begin to fade, its mental faculties slowly degrading as the cold steel dug into its grey matter. The thing began to tremble, yet it fought on, even as the knife robbed it of its cognition and strength. The wolf's movements finally began to slow, however, its attacks reduced to an ineffectual gumming, and its roar faded to a pitiable whimper. It stared down at him with discoloured eyes, half-blind from the blood pooling beneath their surface. At last, the wolf surrendered its struggle. Its head sank down to the ground, and it lay there, unmoving, breathing its last.
Exhaling heavily, Cloud loosed the knife from the wolf's head again, rolling away the heavy carcass as he forced himself back to his feet. He snatched up his blade with his free hand, drawing a ragged breath as he watched the other wolves for their reaction, bracing himself for a second attack with his sword in one hand and the knife in the other. The great wolf's lifeblood dripped from the tip of the latter weapon, as well as his clothing and face, colouring the snow beneath a deep crimson. The rest of the pack watched him with newfound apprehension, remaining perfectly still, uncertain of what to do. None of them, it seemed, had suspected this outcome. They looked to one another for a moment before dispersing, vanishing into the woods as quickly as they had appeared, leaving him by himself in the clearing once again. Relaxing his guard at last, he breathed a sigh of relief.
A few moments later, he found himself kneeling at a small brook, the outlet of some subnivean stream further away, washing the rivulets of blood from his face with the freezing water. He then picked up a handful of snow from the ground, cleaning his weapons and clothing as best he could. As he worked, he felt something tugging at his pants leg, as if some small creature were nipping at his heels. Surprised, he turned and stood to see a wolf cub, no more than two months old. The cub, having got his attention, stared back up at him with earnest curiosity, panting and wagging its tail.
The cub had strayed from the rest of the pack by accident, it seemed. It appeared to be unaware of what had transpired only moments earlier, or it was possible that its curiosity about the strange visitor in the woods had overpowered its sense of danger. In either case, it continued to watch him with interest, yapping a couple of times, then tilting its head, its manner friendly and unassuming. Innocent.
Cloud looked back down at the whelp with a wistful expression on his face. No doubt killing the old wolf would leave the cub's pack more vulnerable to predation, and less able to fend for themselves in the harsh winter. Though it had done its best to take his own life, he couldn't help but feel a vague regret over slaying the great beast. He had been trespassing on their territory unknowingly, after all.
He knelt down, reaching out to touch the wolf cub's head, moving slowly to see if it would object. Seeing that it did not seem to mind, he stroked it briefly, patting its head. The pup responded favourably to the gesture, leaning into his touch, whimpering softly as he ran his hand over its lightly mottled coat.
He looked up again as he heard a barking in the distance, emanating from the woods. The cub, too, turned its attention to the older wolf, perhaps its mother, watching the two of them from a nearby hillock clothed in thick firs. Cloud rose to his feet, growing alert again in anticipation of a second attack. The parent wolf merely stood there, however, waiting while the cub darted back to its side. It turned away, exchanging one last glance with the human invader, as if to bid him leave in peace. Their territory thus demarcated, the wolves departed for good.
Peering at his reflection in the water, Cloud noticed a thin scar, almost imperceptible, running down his cheek as a result of the earlier encounter. Such attacks, he knew, were uncommon, apt only to occur in the deep of the wilderness, far from any settlement, where the animals remained unaccustomed to human depredation. The whole affair was a lamentable one. But it would not do to dwell on such things for long, he reminded himself. Here was a world more savage, more primal, far removed from the pretensions of civil society. Such extreme isolation should have repelled him, as it did other people, who valued their security above all else, but to his surprise, he found that the solitude of the wild and its honest savagery suited him better than the clamorous cities of the world, where would have been no less ill at ease. Here, at least, there was no pretence of innocence. Only predators, prey, and the thin line dividing the former from the latter. And, as he had learned today, a moment's indiscretion could quickly change on which side of that line one stood.
With this in mind, he took off once more, bracing himself for the journey that lay ahead. The Northern Crater awaited him, and he had places to visit along the way, few of which were any more hospitable than his current whereabouts.
Yuffie Kisaragi slipped inside her room, having dismissed her bodyguard and retinue of servants for as long as she felt she could get away with without rousing suspicion. She slid the door shut, then seated herself on the floor in front of the small vanity situated near the entrance, adopting the customary posture for formal occasions purely out of habit, even though she was all by herself.
She stared at her reflection for a long moment. Nearly two years had passed since Avalanche's dissolution, and her transformation could not have been more radical, on the outside, at least. She no longer recognised the ghost in the mirror, this pale imitation of the energetic young girl who had travelled half-way across the world on her own, before joining up with the band of resistance fighters on a whim.
She had grown her hair out, painstakingly grooming and layering it, wearing it in the style of traditional Wutaian court fashion in an attempt to strike a more 'lady-like' figure, in accordance with her father's wishes. Her face, too, evinced a number of outward changes, caked as it was with heavy white make-up, coupled with subtle red and black accents around the eyes and a hint of blush applied to her cheeks. In all, she resembled a porcelain doll more than a human being, a model of perfect manner and grace, docile and restrained, nothing like her old self.
This change was not the result of coercion on her father's part, or anyone else's, for that matter. Despite her profound disdain for authority and tradition, she had forced herself to undertake this alteration as something she deemed necessary as part of Wutai's healing process. She understood that now that Shinra was gone, it was, as her father liked to remind her, a time of rebuilding, not of conflict, and that called for a different kind of sacrifice. She had known the day was coming when she had to 'grow up'; that was, to give up her natural inclination to eschew her duties towards her country in favour of running off to explore the far corners of the world. It was unavoidable. She simply had not expected it to come so soon.
Her refusal to accept this duty had played a large part in her running away from home the first time, along with her constant squabbling with her father over that very matter. But as much as she resisted the notion, she knew Godo was right. So she played her part, assuming her role as his aide and right hand on the council, suppressing her naturally effusive personality in order to blend in during their various political engagements inside and outside the country. Her new act was little more than a social mask, of course, worn for the same reason as her sudden change in dress and bearing. That's how it had begun, at least. Now, she was not so sure. That mask was getting to fit a little too well, she thought. A little too closely..
She shifted her position as she regarded the impostor staring back at her. Sitting in this manner had presented her with some difficulty when she first began to attend council meetings along with her father, being that she was nearly allergic to the stifling artifice demanded by such events, and had avoided them for the greater part of her life. As a result, she had never grown accustomed to displaying the decorum and grace that was, by tradition, expected of women of her lineage. In the beginning, she had harboured serious doubts about whether she would be able to master the discipline required to do so. She was not alone in her doubts, as evidenced by the surprised look on everyone's faces when she suddenly decided to set aside her transient and careless approach to life in order to participate in the court's political affairs. It was the first time that she had ever displayed, or, at any rate, feigned, any interest in such matters.
It was no secret, after all, that she preferred the freedom and excitement offered by the other side of her heritage. During her childhood, her father had tolerated her near-obsession with her ninjutsu training, reasoning that it was the only way that she would even sit still for what he viewed as her proper lessons. He had hoped that her enthusiasm for such unbecoming behaviour, as he termed it, would fade away in time, but, much to his growing consternation, her interest never waned. Indeed, it had only gotten worse when she first discovered materia and its various applications in combat. Before long, she had proven herself the foremost of her master's disciples, something that their pride forbade them to admit.
Similarly, the courtiers' doubts about her ability to adjust to court life had served to spur her on, igniting in her the same spirit of defiance that had driven her during her childhood, the only difference between then and now being the activities into which she channelled her energy. Much like before, she was motivated by the intent not to let anyone get the better of her. As exacting as the strictures of Wutai's high society could be, she would be damned if she let its members smugly affirm to themselves the worst that they thought of her by giving up.
Even so, making the requisite changes had been a great struggle for her. Having to partake in ancient rituals and ceremonies, and adopt old and obscure customs for their own sake, something for which she could find no purpose or rational justification other than vague appeals to 'tradition', went against her nature in every way possible. The temptation to say to hell with it all and simply run away again had been overwhelming, and several times she had come close to doing just that. She persevered, however, out of loyalty to her country, if nothing else. In time, the lessons from her childhood, the ones she had done her best to ignore and forget, had come back to her, little by little. By now, she had perfected the act, and had even come to believe it herself at times. She had proven her doubters wrong, deriving a sly satisfaction from doing so. But her little victory had come at a great cost, and she was starting to fear that if she did not break away from the masquerade soon, her true self would be subsumed by the false exterior which she had worked so hard to maintain.
In the end, the choice to undertake all of this effort had been hers, but after nearly two years of pretence, not to mention the hardships and restraint it demanded, she was beginning to question the wisdom of her decision. While it was true that her motherland had recovered to a great extent since Shinra's downfall, and that she had no doubt played an important role in that recovery, Wutai's society remained rigid and unchanging as ever, especially in regards to its implicit enforcement of gender roles and social order. Any attempt on her part to challenge the dominant patriarchy, whether from within or without, seemed destined to failure so long as she remained the only one to openly criticise the otherwise unquestioned conformity that allowed such conditions to persist, long after the rest of the world had done away with them.
It was heartbreaking, watching her country vanishing back into the past, rather than forging ahead towards the future, as she had hoped it would. She was sick of pretending in front of the endless cavalcade of vacuous ministers, politicians and dignitaries, whose only motives, as far as she could tell, were to preserve a retrograde social hierarchy that had long been engineered in their favour. If preserving tradition meant remaining stuck in the past, she wanted no more part in it. And as much as she wanted to help Wutai, she doubted that she could bear the burden much longer if it meant losing herself in the process.
She took another look at herself in the mirror. Her old self was indeed close to disappearing beneath her counterfeit exterior. Even her smile was no longer her own, more closely resembling a grimace than anything else. Breaking away from her reflection, she steeled herself mentally for what was to come next. Her mind was made up. All that was left was to follow through with the act itself.
She reached for a sheet of paper and a brush from the nearby desk, grinding a coarse block of ink into a bowl and mixing it with water before dipping the brush into the fresh mixture. Touching the tip of the brush against the smooth paper, she began to write.
I'm leaving Wutai. I'd explain the reasons why, but I think we both already know.
With our old enemy removed, our greatest threats now come from within. Perhaps they always have. What Shinra did to us was criminal, but what we keep doing to ourselves may be even worse.
Our empire will be restored. Of this, I have no doubt. Wutai will flourish, with or without me. I see that now. I only wish it could mature sooner. I've tried doing things your way, because I thought I could help make that change from within. But the problem is greater than I could see. Greater than either of us. Things are changing, yes, but not quickly enough. I worry that we will be eternally trapped in the past if we continue to rely blindly upon tradition alone to guide us, and I don't see that changing any time soon.
You are not to blame in this. But I can't keep up this facade any longer. This is not who I am.
Don't look for me. I'm not coming back.
She composed her letter in finely-wrought calligraphic script, the end result of countless hours spent in cold classrooms during her childhood, labouring under the watchful eye of her unforgiving tutor, earning a sharp strike on the back of her hand for every malformed character and accidental slip of the brush. She tried her best not to wince as she thought of those times, concentrating instead solely on the act of writing. Once finished, she laid the brush aside, folding the letter and stamping it with the imperial seal.
Having left her message, she turned her attention to her physical appearance. She removed the hairpins and ornaments from her hair, loosening and unweaving the bun into which it had been tied, letting her long locks flow past her shoulders, extending nearly to the small of her back. Gathering them up in one hand, she took a knife from the drawer and pressed it up against them. Hesitating, she glanced up at her reflection for a moment before continuing, slicing through her locks with the sharp blade, breathing a sigh of relief as they came loose. She cast the severed strands aside, the slight regret she felt over discarding them after nearly two years of care and attention outweighed by her relief at having rid herself of such an encumbrance. She then proceeded to wipe away the heavy make-up from her face with a damp cloth, until at last some semblance of the person hidden underneath it all began to emerge.
Her transformative ritual completed, she slowly rose to her feet. Ducking behind the folding screens in the corner of the room, she quickly undressed, leaving her brocaded garments on the floor, before throwing her closet open and rummaging through it, piecing together an outfit by haphazardly picking out whatever clothes she could assemble in under a minute: Boots, stockings, shorts, a black camisole with a floral pattern, and a grey jacket. Thus attired, she knelt down in front of the wall behind the closet, sliding open the hidden compartment where she kept her old collection of weapons: throwing daggers, caltrops, materia, and her combat shuriken.
Unable to locate her old headband, she replaced it with a simpler one, tying it in a hachimaki as she headed for the window at the opposite side of the room. She paused in front of the mirror, trying on a different smile, now that she was free of her self-imposed restraints. Better, if not quite as luminous as her usual, carefree grin. But it would do for now.
As she pushed open the window, she stopped again for a moment, hesitating as the full weight of her decision occurred to her. This was no mere flippancy on her part. She was leaving her home for good, burning every bridge she had spent the last two years building here in the process. Knowing that her own reluctance was the only remaining threshold to be overcome, she was resolved not to abandon anything she might regret leaving behind. After this, there would be no turning back.
She looked over her bedroom one last time, taking in its sparse furnishings. A few hanging scrolls lined the walls, a simple paper lantern in the corner cast a dim glow amidst the shadows, and a small alcove held most of the trinkets she had deemed worth keeping around: folding fans, decorative carvings, and other keepsakes. Nothing out of the ordinary. A nearby shelf displayed an array of animal shapes wrought from folded paper, a hobby she had taken up in order to keep her hands busy and maintain her finger dexterity in lieu of sparring or open combat, neither of which she'd had much cause to engage in since her split with Avalanche.
One object caught her eye as she turned to climb out the window: an old scroll passed down from one generation to another, its inscription a reminder of her bloodline's heritage, drawn from the folk tales of her people:
'Child of Leviathan'
This, too, she would have to leave behind, abandoning the gilded cage for an uncertain future that held no promise of anything for her, save for a vague notion of freedom. In the end, however, she could think of little here that she would miss. There was no more time for second thoughts. She decided that if it was too heavy to carry with her, it wasn't worth worrying about.
Satisfied that she had everything she needed, she vaulted out onto the roof, easing back into the acrobatic bearing that she had all but suspended for the better part of two years. She leaned over the edge, enumerating the potential obstacles in her path, before leaping down to the ground with the aid of the branches of a nearby pine tree. Shouldering her backpack and pulling the hood up over her head, she took care not to be seen by the royal guards stationed around the outer perimeter of the Kisaragi mansion.
The sheer number of soldiers patrolling the area forced her to circle around the floating pavilion opposite the mansion, but eventually she got far enough away from the estate to feel safe to remove the hood once again. Reaching the marketplace, she did her best to blend in with the multitude, which swayed in every which direction, in an effort to escape the scorching heat of summer. Two years ago, she might have been concerned that someone would recognise her as she wandered about freely, but considering how little the outside world had seen of her since those days, there was hardly any for her to fear being called out by a stranger. By the time she had made her way into the bustling thoroughfare at the edge of town, she was just another face in the crowd.