64. Babies
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Shadow was sitting on her bedroll, feeling a little... sad. They had been travelling for almost two weeks, and she’d been learning all kinds of things. The process had gotten even faster now that she could ask questions on the move.

Kirrik had shown up again a little while after they’d left the river behind, and he’d been doing his job teaching her the things he knew. She'd learned more about hunting and was learning a lot about beastkin culture. It was pretty interesting. Apparently, they were mostly divided up into clans that fit their major needs. For example, Shadeling-kind beastkin (which was what Shadow’s made up beastkin persona was) would be a member of the Noctuine clan, which were mostly nocturnal meat-eaters. A different example might be the Aquerra clan, which was mostly filled with the kinds of beastkin that needed to stay wet, so they built swamp cities. 

Beastkin culture also put a lot of importance on being respectful to others and earning respect yourself. There were a bunch of different ways people could show it and earn it, and a lot of it had to do with their actions. Things like showing up and helping a friend with their work without any prompting, or being successful and sharing that success with others.

All the beastkin clans were on generally good terms, to the point where they'd unified themselves as ‘The Coalition of Yolis’. The different clans would fight from time to time, but it was more a matter of pride than intent to actually conquer each other. Actual deaths on the battlefield were uncommon, with strict codes of conduct and healing mages available. If any other country threatened them though, they all fought as one, and the gloves came off. According to Kirrik, they were a force to be reckoned with, and Shadow’s mom and uncle didn't disagree.

Shadow had been pretty shocked to learn about large scale fighting and wars. It seemed so... contrary to everything else she'd learned about society. Attacking people seemed to be illegal everywhere, why was it suddenly okay as long as they were from a different country? It seemed like a terrible thing to do in general.

There were a lot of different explanations, but Annie seemed to think it stemmed mostly from greed. Powerful people wanted more power and having big wars could get them access to stuff that made them more powerful, or get rid of things that threatened that power.

That was the boiled-down version. It was all very complicated. Shadow definitely didn’t fully understand it yet. Thankfully, Annie said that they had a reasonable ruler right now (His majesty, King Otis Vaughn) unlike some of their previous ones, so war wasn’t very likely unless some other leader attacked them.

Shadow had been improving in her spars, and now she practiced using her magic in them too, from time to time. Kirrik and Annie had been roped into joining too, but Shadow's mom only helped her get a feel for interacting with other people's magic. It was a very strange way to fight, and Shadow was still getting a feel for it.

She’d practiced her mana shaping and many other skills as well.

None of that was why she was feeling down right now.

She had just had quite the talk; one that weaved in many directions, covered many topics, and all related back to the same thing.

She’d just had the sex talk.

Or biology talk. Anatomy talk? Something like that. Culture was also involved. It was a big talk. Things had gotten pretty complicated.

It had all started after Shadow had worriedly asked Annie about something strange that had been going on with herself. Over the last couple of days, there had been a few times where she’d caught herself doing something kind of weird. She would be out hunting, sniffing around for some prey, but completely ignore the scent when she smelled it. She’d sniffed the air, smelled the prey, and discounted the smell as not what she was looking for.

She’d caught herself after a couple of minutes, and hadn’t really thought much about it the first time, figuring she’d just been distracted. But it had kept happening.

Eventually, she put some thought into the matter. Paying attention to what she was doing the next time she noticed it happening made her realize that she’d been unconsciously smelling around for shadelings.

That surprised her. Her first theory was that she might just be missing her siblings, but that didn’t seem right. Mostly, because she didn’t actually miss her siblings. She still felt some sadness when she thought about them, and how they’d died, but she didn’t miss them. Annie and Jonas were family now, and they were so much better than her siblings had ever been.

So, she didn’t miss them, but still, some part of her wanted to find them. Or maybe just find shadelings in general.

She realized it was an instinct. A new one.

She sat with the feeling a bit, and she realized she wanted to find other shadelings and do… something... with them. She wasn’t really sure.

It unnerved her.

She’d thought she had her instincts pretty well in hand at this point. Ever since leaving with the humans, she’d basically been defying those urges constantly. As far as they were concerned, she was always hanging out with animals she should be eating, sleeping in bad places, and staying awake at all the wrong times. It was easy to ignore them because she was aware of them. The thought that she might have new ones cropping up that would have her doing things before she’d realized something was up scared her.

It scared her enough that she’d gone and talked to Annie about it.

And that had been what triggered the big talk that Annie had been preparing for.

Shadow learned a lot.

First and foremost, she learned about anatomy, sex, and how sex made babies. Annie had made diagrams in her journal about all of it, which was really helpful. Shadow had also learned that her mom was quite awkward when talking about this with her. She’d had an idea, considering how long Annie had needed to prepare, but seeing the full extent of it was kind of fascinating.

It didn’t stop Annie from teaching her though, even if it came in chunks of serious, straight-faced explanation broken up by bouts of red-faced embarrassment.

Shadow learned about ‘lady parts’, and the fact that she had them, and also about the male equivalents. They had real names, and she was taught them, but apparently, everyone was supposed to be very coy about actually using those words in ‘polite’ conversation, so ‘lady parts’ it was. Even saying that was discouraged though. She supposed you just weren’t supposed to talk about it at all unless you had to. 

A part of her did wonder if that was just Annie, though... Kirrik and Jonas didn’t seem nearly so embarrassed, despite being in earshot the whole time. Shadow certainly didn’t feel embarrassed herself. She supposed Annie’s delaying and hesitancy to speak on this topic made more sense given how uncomfortable the whole situation was for her. She appreciated that Annie was willing to teach her despite her discomfort. 

She became even more suspicious as the talk moved on, and she learned that ‘lady-parts’ had many other names too, such as private parts, or lady bits. When she asked Annie about why something you weren’t supposed to talk about had so many different names you could talk about them with, she didn’t get much of an answer. Her mom just responded with an unsatisfying “They just do.” and turned pink again.

She’d let it go at that point, figuring she would still need to find some things out on her own. She didn’t want to make her mom uncomfortable.

The lesson moved on, and Shadow was also taught the purpose of these supposedly private parts. It finally made sense why there were both males and females, and why their parts were different. She’d always wondered about that, but somehow had never gotten around to asking.

It was kind of amazing to think that all living things had built-in anatomy that could do something as amazing as creating a whole new creature. It did make sense that they would, though, because otherwise, they wouldn’t be around anymore!

The exact process did differ a bit between species. Humans didn’t lay eggs! They just came right out of their moms as babies! That certainly would have been quite a different experience than breaking out of her egg had been. She’d started to talk about the possibility with Annie, but had been asked to please stop. Her mom had started to resemble a tomato again.

Shadow had done her best to hide her amusement but had still earned herself a scowl.

She also learned about the more cultural side of things.

Humans normally raised their babies as a mother-father pair until they grew all the way up into adults. That wasn’t always true, and she learned there were many exceptions (adoptions were obviously a thing, and Jonas was her uncle, not her father), but the point was, that a human’s babies were always raised by someone, or they would die.

That had been a shock to Shadow.

Babies were quite useless when they first came out! Human women (and most female animals that didn’t lay eggs, apparently) even had a whole set of organs (Breasts! That was another word she was supposed to avoid using. So strange.) they used to feed their babies at first, because they weren’t even strong enough to eat normal food!

Shadow was honestly a little upset she missed seeing a baby while she was in the village. She supposed she’d just been unlucky. They’d surely been around somewhere.

The situation with shadelings was quite different. 

Annie had actually had to really work herself up to explain things, and Shadow understood why after the explanation. She already knew some of it from her own past, but hearing everything was just... sad.

Shadelings were not raised by their parents. They would hatch, swarm, eat, and die. If they managed to make it to adulthood, they would stop exclusively hunting and sleeping, and add a new behavior to the mix. They would go out with their swarm and find another adult swarm to mate with. The swarms would breed, and the females would all go and lay eggs in some safe spot together. This would go on until enough eggs for a new swarm had been laid in that spot.  The new, combined swarm would run off, and repeat the process in some new location, leaving their eggs to fend for themselves.

They would continue running around, and combining with other adult swarms, until they all eventually died. It explained how they were still around, despite the attrition rate. Just a couple swarms making it to adulthood in decent numbers could create hundreds of offshoot swarms.

The whole situation sounded… completely terrible. 

It was all so pointless and sad. What kind of life was that? Just… eat, grow, have babies, and die. Completely ruled by instincts, never doing anything that broke the mold. She was extremely grateful she’d been found by her new family. Even if her swarm hadn’t ended up like it had, she knew she would have left at some point. That was no way to live.

Shadow also suspected she knew what was going on with her instincts after that explanation.

As Annie went on, Shadow’s suspicions were confirmed.

Apparently, shadelings only took about 3 months to become physically mature. This was way shorter than humans, who took over 10 years, sometimes up to 16, before they could say the same. They were only considered adults at 16 years regardless. So... she was fully grown now, or close enough not to matter. That was why her body was telling her it was time to go and… make more shadelings, she supposed.

It was both relieving and scary at the same time. She’d been worried about more instincts popping up, and it seemed like that wasn’t going to happen anymore, so that was nice.

But... she had mixed feelings about what the instinct meant. She could go and... have babies, if she wanted. Did she want that? She couldn’t help but imagine some of the parents she’d seen watching their kids play in the village, smiling.

Apparently, Annie had considered the same thing. Thus had begun a very serious talk about the differences between physical and emotional maturity, and despite the fact that Shadow was now technically fully grown, she was still a child. Normal shadelings had no need for emotional maturity. They lived and died on instinct alone, but she wasn’t a normal shadeling. She was a person. That meant she needed to be mature in both areas before she was an adult.

Which led Annie to her request, or, well it was more of a firm instruction, but one made with good intentions.

“Shadow, I’m going to ask you to not follow that instinct for a while. I’m not sure how strongly it’s affecting you, but you’re still very young, and getting yourself pregnant would be a terrible thing to do. You might be physically mature but you have plenty of growing up to do before you should consider anything along those lines. Will you promise me to wait?” Annie asked in one of the most serious tones Shadow had heard her use.

It was honestly relieving. Shadow had agreed on the spot, giving Annie a small nod and hug, much to her mom’s relief. 

Ignoring the instinct wouldn’t be all that hard. She had absolutely no desire at all to run off and find a swarm, leaving this whole life she’d just made for herself behind, just so she could go lay eggs everywhere, abandon them, and watch all her swarm-mates die again. That sounded completely terrible, even if her instincts disagreed.

And so, their hug broke up and the lesson moved on. She learned many more things. It was interesting how many cultural norms revolved around having sex, or sex-related body parts. For example, Annie had explained more about the clothes situation. Apparently, the whole cultural taboo about not going around without clothes on had less to do with actually wearing clothes and more to do with hiding your private parts (which made that particular nickname make more sense). When looked at from that perspective, the clothing rules she knew about seemed a lot more consistent. 

But once they stopped to set up camp, Shadow found herself sitting on her bedroll, thinking back on the prospect of having kids.

She would obviously never want to do what normal shadelings did, but did she ever want to have them, and raise them the human way? She was fine waiting first. But when it was time... would she do it? She could lay a few eggs for herself, away from any swarm, and stay with them like a human mom. She would have little Shadows that she could love and teach and raise! They would never have to struggle like she had, and they would have a real family from the day they hatched.

She could be their Annie.

They could all love each other and go around learning new things, and she wouldn’t be alone anymore.

Not... not that she felt alone. Annie and Jonas were wonderful, but… Shadow was unique. As far as she knew, there was no one else like her. As much as she tried to fit in, she was constantly reminded of her differences, and it didn’t seem like that would be changing any time soon. And.. sure, differences were fine but… it would just be nice to have some more shadelings like her around.

But... there was a big issue. And it was one that killed her fantasy before it really even had a chance. Worse than that even. It made her fantasy awful. It was why she was sad right now.

She had no way of knowing if her kids would even be like her. In fact, they most likely wouldn’t. Variants were rare and apparently random. Annie's best guess about her intelligence was that it was somehow linked to her being a variant. If her kids weren't variants, then they would just be normal shadelings. And.. even if they were variants, that was still no guarantee they’d be like her

The thought was horrifying. She could imagine having to keep them all tied up, leashed, locked away somewhere so they couldn’t bite anyone or get themselves killed trying to hunt a bear or something. She’d have to bring them food and… treat them like pets. Like bad, violent pets. Her own kids.

Every part of her was revolted at that prospect. That would not be a thing that could ever happen. She would never allow that.

But the fact that she could never have kids... well, it made her sad. Not… extremely sad. She wasn’t crying, keening into the night. The dream had been too new, but it still hurt to lose it. She would never be someone’s Annie.

She paused for a second.

Well, that wasn’t exactly true, was it? She could always adopt! That was what Annie had done, after all. Her kids wouldn’t be shadelings, and she would still be unique, but… maybe that didn’t matter as much as she thought. She guessed a part of her really did just want to have kids. Well, even adopted, they would be her kids, and she could still be their Annie! 

It cheered her up considerably.

She got off her bedroll and trotted over to Annie.

‘Mom! I could adopt a baby! Or babies!’ she printed enthusiastically.

Annie did a double-take, having been caught somewhat off-guard by the statement. She hadn't been privy to the thought process leading up to it.

“I… suppose you could… when you’re all grown up, and have established yourself, of course. If that’s something you would still want to do by that point.” Annie answered tentatively.

Shadow nodded. That had been her plan from the start. She wasn’t planning to go against her promise. Although, she supposed she wouldn’t have to if she adopted.

Ah. That’s why she clarified.

Shadow tilted her head slightly as she realised something.

‘When will I be grown up, anyway, if it’s not my body that counts?’ Shadow wrote curiously, before getting a mildly horrified look on her face.

‘Will it take 16 whole years!?’ she scrawled out in bold.

Annie laughed and shook her head.

“I’m honestly not sure. We’ll need to figure that out together, and it shouldn’t be sixteen years. You... are definitely farther along than a three-month-old.” she paused. “But... we should probably work that out before we hit the town. You’ll need to have an age you can tell people, and telling your real one is not going to work for our cover story.”

Annie smiled down at her.

“So, do you want to figure out how old you’re going to be?”

Shadow definitely did.