65. Identity
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13 years old. That was how old Shadow was going to be. Annie thought it was reasonable, considering how far she’d come in 3 months. Any weirdness, childishness, or strange gaps in social skills would be passed off as the consequences of growing up in a forest alone. It made sense that she would need some time to adapt to living in a society.

It wasn’t even totally a lie! She basically had grown up alone, people wise. The fact that she'd only been by herself for a month and change rather than 13 whole years was just semantics. Or so she told herself.

Her new age would still leave her with 3 whole years until she’d be an official adult, which felt like forever, but probably wasn’t all that long really. She was still trying to adjust her internal sense of timescales.

It was the next morning, and they had just set out on the road. Annie was busy talking about the plan for when they got to town, which was mostly just Shadow pretending to be a beastkin as best she could and being careful about what she told people.

Shadow nodded along to Annie's explanation, jogging beside her on two legs. She was practicing maneuvering a bowl around between her paws as she listened. Shadow had finally worked out a gait that let her keep up, and didn’t look too silly. It had to do with holding her tail back correctly, leaning forward a bit, and keeping her stride a specific length. She still had to move her feet quickly, but even the two-week journey had gained her a lot of strength and endurance compared to that first day. She could stay upright for around three hours at this point, only needing to fall back to all fours on account of her back getting too sore. It was definitely the weak link more than her legs, but she did think the situation was improving, even if it was taking longer than she'd have liked.

“So, again, try not to bring up your past if you can help it. If anyone does ask about your past, just remember that you were a shadeling-kind beastkin child, abandoned by your parents in the forest, surviving on your own. You don’t remember who they were, or anything about them. You did not have a swarm, so all of your hunting was solitary. I think it should be okay to talk about our time in the forest together, if you have to. It’ll be next to impossible to keep the fact that you’re something of a savant secret, so I don’t think it’s worth it to try, aside from simply not bringing it up on your own. But, if you don’t mind…” Annie gave Shadow a sheepish look, “please try to keep any mention of us ‘thinking you were a shadeling’ to a minimum, and please don’t tell anyone about the whole village plan.”

Shadow frowned a bit and gave Annie a firm nod.

‘I won’t. I didn’t like it when everyone was mad at you. That might happen again if I talked about it, right?’ she confirmed.

“Right... but, putting my discomfort aside, it’s probably best for us to distance you from any talk of actually being a shadeling as much as possible for your sake as well. Just in case. It will come up, I’m sure, but remember, you’re—”

‘A shadeling-kind beastkin. I know. You’ve told me. A lot.’ Shadow wrote, looking slightly exasperated.

“Right. I’m just nervous.” Annie stated, with a shake of her head. "The last plan didn't go so well."

Annie took a deep breath.

“And, considering that, does anyone have any questions or concerns with the plan?” Annie said, looking around at the group.

Shadow did have one question.

‘So… people really won’t find it weird that I just… completely don’t remember my pretend parents?’ Shadow asked.

The thought was still so strange to her, this idea that people could just… forget things they used to know. She’d always thought forgetting something was similar to getting distracted. A person could forget that they were supposed to come back after five minutes because they were sniffing an interesting bush, or they might forget that they were supposed to be staying quiet when they spotted a whole bunch of frogs all hopping around.

She hadn’t realized forgetting something also included not being able to recall some piece of information when you looked for it in your mind.

Shadow could recall anything she’d ever been paying attention to, if she thought to do it.

Apparently, that wasn’t normal.

“No, people won’t think it’s weird. It's common for young children to not remember much about that time in their life. It’s not unreasonable for you to have forgotten them if you’d lost them while you were still only 4 or 5.”

‘It's just so weird!’ Shadow wrote while looking curious and dumbfounded at the same time.

“I’m afraid you’re on the weird side this time,” Annie said with a chuckle. “But your memory is a great boon. It does a lot to explain how you’ve learned things so quickly.”

‘And I don’t need to hide it.’ She stated with a grin, affirming what Annie had told her earlier.

Her ability made their story make a lot more sense, and would be hard to hide regardless.

“No, you don't. But no gloating. Any new friends you make won’t like you shoving your abilities in their faces.” Annie lectured.

Shadow nodded again. They’d talked about this a bit. Shadow was pretty sure she understood the social dynamics there. If a person wanted something you had, it wasn’t nice to keep telling them about how awesome the thing you had was, unless they asked you about it.

She could understand how someone would really want to never forget things. The idea of forgetting stuff was honestly kind of terrifying to her. She could understand why someone might not like the fact that they had a... leaky memory... shoved in their face over and over again. It would be like… having a human go on and on about how awesome having thumbs was, and showing her how they could pick up all kinds of things and how much better they were than claws at grabbing things without damaging them.

Yeah... that wouldn’t feel too good. She already felt annoyed at these fictional humans.

Still, it was nice to have some cool things about herself she was simply allowed to talk about, even if she shouldn’t talk about it too much. Most of her abilities and life before Annie and Jonas went in the ‘try to keep it hidden’ or ‘absolutely keep it hidden’ camps.

“Gonna start practicing with the wax tablets again?” Jonas asked from the side.

Shadow sighed and gave him a nod. That was a good idea, even if she’d rather stick to dark magic. She went over and handed him her bowl (no, she wasn’t going to call it pawing him her bowl. That just sounded strange in her head), and fished out her tablets again. She started practicing maneuvering them instead. Maybe she could write while standing? That would be an improvement. 

She wasn’t looking forward to having to go back to writing with her claws, rather than scrawling the words in the air with her mind, but she would take whatever she could get, if she couldn’t use dark magic.

Her dark magic fell firmly in the ‘try to keep it hidden’ camp of secrets. This was different from things like, well, telling people she was really a shadeling, or talking about her mana slots. It wasn’t necessarily terrible if people found out she was a dark mage, what with it not actually being illegal. Annie said that a dark mage would normally serve the nobility, acting as a spy or inquisitor for their patron. It wasn’t unheard of for them to find unaffiliated work as scouts or general mages, though. 

That fact, along with the fact that she’d be a beastkin using it rather than a collared shadeling, and the fact that they were going to be in a larger town that knew more about mages, should make for a difference in reception if she had to use her magic for some reason. 

Maybe they’d think she was working for a noble! Inquisitor Shadow! They apparently went around asking people lots of questions, which sounded like a fun job.

But that being said, dark mages were still disliked and distrusted in general. The 'bad stuff and demons' association was still there, and apparently it wasn’t uncommon to find a dark mage in the bigger criminal groups (which were a thing, somehow!), and they used their magic to do bad things. The kind of things that would get you executed.

Annie hadn’t really gone into detail about that.

“Might be good to come up with some stories from your supposed 13 year stay in the forest.” Kirrik put forward. “If it does come up, it’d be good to have some stories you can have on hand.”

‘That I can have on paw!’ Shadow corrected, pointing a claw upwards, balancing the bowl on one paw to free the other for the gesture.

Kirrik rolled his eyes.

“Don’t be pedantic, shorty.” Kirrik stated in mild exasperation.

Shadow gave him a little smile and stuck her tongue out at him.

He rolled his eyes again and shook his head, moving to walk ahead, separating himself from the group a bit.

Shadow's smile fell a bit. He must be feeling grumpy today. It was hard to tell with him sometimes. Kirrik went through moods.

It was a good idea though. She'd make sure to do that.

She tried to transfer the bowl back between her paws but hissed when she fumbled it and the bowl tumbled to the ground. She quickly switched the noise to an annoyed huff. She was getting better at catching herself. As Kirrik had put it, her kind of hissing was for making a threat, not for when you were annoyed. She was trying to make her 'annoyed' sound a kind of huff with her mouth almost closed. The sound wasn't that hard to make and she felt like it got the right tone across. She was making progress, but breaking the hissing habit was hard.

She bent down and picked up the bowl again.

“You really are getting better at using them.” Annie noted as Shadow straightened back up, bowl back in place.

She smiled up at Annie, and tossed the bowl in the air a little before catching it again with both paws. She fumbled it just a little, but still completed the catch.

Annie ruffled her ears and she got a laugh from Jonas.

She was getting better. She’d really been relying on her mouth and tongue more than she'd needed to, because it was easier for her. They’d gotten on the topic of holding things one night, and she’d realized that she could at least practice using her forepaws like hands whenever it made sense. She might not have thumbs, but that just made things harder, not impossible. ...Well, okay, some things were still pretty impossible, but she could get away with quite a lot as long as she could use two paws at once.

She’d decided she wouldn’t shy away from using her tongue or mouth when needed, but she wanted to be able to use her paws for hand things as much as she could. Thus the practice.

It also gave her something to do with her arms while she walked, which was a definite bonus.

“So really, no more comments on the plan? Anyone?” Annie asked again.

“I think it's much better than the last one. Even if she says or does something weird, it ain't liable to fall apart. ” Jonas asserted with a nod. “I think it’s solid.”

Annie nodded, but still seemed nervous.

She glanced back down at Shadow.

“And you’re sure you don’t want to make Shadow your nick—”

‘Shadow’s my real name! I don’t want it to be fake.’ Shadow spelled out in bold, shooting Annie a defensive glare.

“I know! I know. Just thought I'd make sure. It would be safer...” Annie sighed.

They’d talked about switching her to a more human or beastkin name, and keeping Shadow as a nickname, because Shadow was apparently more like a name for a pet... but… it was her name. She didn’t want to change it or make it some fake nickname. It was her name. Annie said people would find it kind of strange, but Shadow didn’t care. She was already kind of strange, and... well, she would prefer to be less strange, but if she got to keep her name, she was willing to be a little stranger, just this once.

Annie looked around and patted her hands together.

“Okay then, I suppose we're ready for Leeside.”