Heights were one of the most foreign experiences to the Hunter. Tall buildings were something, the far mountains of the Magni, towering over the clouds, had been another, in particular, a sight she thought would forever be the oddest.
Visiting the inner sanctum of the Tech Guild, however, was the ultimate foreign experience.
She looked out the window, it really was the only way for her to even see anything that was normal. A tower of eighty floors, and growing, it was home to most every individual that was either interested in inventions or an inventor himself. Not scientists, no one inside researched anything or advanced any kind of knowledge, much less to share it.
It was a world of gadget worshipers in competition to create the greatest ones. It was an isolated world of technology, full of steam and the newly discovered electricity, running everywhere to power a world of metallic gray and bronze rust. Tech Guild made famous by the original Dark Runner.
She didn’t like it. The floor was too cold on her feet. Between the vapor and noise generated by all the technology going on and all the residents’ smoking habits, the air was filthy. Disgusting even. And there wasn’t a moment of silence to be heard anywhere. She never thought to say she could hear silence, but after one hour inside that tower, she was certain she could. And she missed it so much.
The only favorable point was that she did not feel that naked. People in there had a natural disregard for what others thought or how they felt, so with the hot temperature generated by all the working contraptions and the dense population, they dressed light. She had seen many wearing only near enough to cover their privates.
She still hated it there. But she had a responsibility…not only to her guild but to a fallen comrade.
The Sorcerer had stepped up to lead an attack on the invading force of beasts. She had fallen in combat and died before her eyes. The Hunter was the only witness to her death, and she had failed to honor her with appropriate words. She was used to the wild ways, she had to remind herself that people don’t like dying alone in the first place, let alone remembering to say parting words. Finding appropriate words for the situation had been beyond her.
She had already been interrogated by the leaders of the Shadow Conclave. She, of course, warned them of the Mad Genius’s true intent. She, of course, told them of the Sorcerer’s bravery but did not let them know of her name. She felt that would be a slight on her memory, to be known she had failed in that.
Now? She waited. The Don and the Shadow had both left directly for their respective territories. They had been summoned immediately and were expected to arrive soon. Once they arrived, a meeting would take place. With what intent, she did not know. The prophecy had failed, or at least, it was now impossible to discern. There was no clear winner of the contest, but maybe that is what they wished to declare. Maybe it was all about revealing who among them was the chosen one.
In her opinion, it was most likely the Sorcerer.
I’m being watched. She was so lost in thought she hadn’t realized. The Hunter turned around in a flinch to land eyes on none other than a familiar dark figure. The figure flinched in reaction, momentarily edging to escape but readily shifting weight to stand still. Upon closer inspection, the Hunter recognized her.
“Shadow,” she gave a hint of a smile in her tone, and in reaction, the Shadow leaned forward, welcoming, giving the Hunter the impression she was about to be hugged. The Shadow leveled her foothold, though, again in a kind of awkward movement, and stood still instead.
She was harder to read now. She was wearing a full-face mask and her eyes were covered by some dark substance, it was black, her eye slits, blacker than the shadowed wall behind her. Her outfit, once blue and elaborate, was now black, though no less elaborate. Her hair was the same, long, tied back into a spread ponytail and still long in the front, framing her mask with bangs. It all gave her the sense the Shadow was not one for simple or repeat outfits.
The Hunter could not relate to that.
“I apologize,” the Shadow said with her serious voice, heightened by her accent, “for leaving you. I never thought the Sorcerer would perish.”
The Hunter didn’t know what to say.
She was curious why she had done it but asking would sound accusatory. It was equally odd the Shadow would feel the need to apologize for anything.
She felt she should say something.
“I’m glad you’re alive.” Her voice came out less hoarse than expected, probably due to the interrogation. It had been a few hours before, and she had spoken at length then.
The Shadow nodded. “It was the clown. He saved me.”
That was surprising. Her view of the clown was of an insane person running around cackling like some mix between a hyena and a bird.
Her thoughts must have mirrored on her face.
“I know, I was surprised too. He freaks me out,” she glanced to the side as if she expected him to be behind her. Hunter would be surprised if he even showed up at all to the meeting. And if he did, whatever use the Shadow Conclave could have for him was beyond her imagination. “The Sorcerer…did she die soon after?”
The Hunter gave a somber nod, the emotion bouncing off to the Shadow.
The Shadow’s hands went to grab each other behind her back as she looked down, regretful.
“At least, you were there.”
The Hunter didn’t feel like she was much consolation but she was glad to know her impression, that people didn’t want to die alone, was not wrong. She still felt awkward at even having that conversation, but that was a much more familiar feeling.
“Any idea what the conclave’s planning?” She shook her head. “Did they ask all of us here?” She shrugged. “Did you come here directly?” She nodded. “I kind of don’t like this place, it’s very dirty, isn’t it?” She nodded twice in agreement.
The Shadow chuckled, again unexpected. And apparently she agreed, she immediately stepped back and composed herself.
“I will see you at the meeting, Hunter. I just wished to thank you for your help back then.”
The Hunter bowed slightly with her head and the Shadow gave her an odd look in return. She seemed to be realizing something, she seemed envious. Then she bowed her own head and turned around, leaving without a word.
The whole exchange had been odd, especially considering all of the rumors around the Shadow.
Of all the titles claimed by world-class legendary thieves, three rang the most infamous: The Dark Runner. The Sorcerer. The Shadow.
She had expectations, based on the rumors, of a grim man. Silent and deadly in presence, obfuscated in form. Yet, the Shadow was a young woman, probably a few years younger than herself, far from the intimidating sight the Hunter had expected.
She did not feel anything negative towards her, she seemed like a good person, but that was…an odd impression to have of someone who should be the greatest thief and one of the most dangerous individuals in the world. As it stood, the Hunter was pretty confident she could beat her in a fight. And that she was the better thief.
For that reason, whoever the prophecy was referring to became that much more of a mystery, and in turn, so did their hope to deal with the beasts.
The Hunter turned her back to the world outside and headed into the tech jungle within. No matter the circumstances, she was resolved to find the solution. She would honor her tribe.
Guild, she corrected in her mind. Guild.
Her tribe was gone.
There was no table, no seat to take. No bar with drinks or servants. It was a room like any other, filled with gadgets and trinkets, dusty, with two exhaust pipes leading somewhere outside. It was, however, large. Less like a janitor’s closet and more like a big storage room.
The Shadow was already there when the Hunter arrived, along with the Street Rat. The Street Rat turned out to be the girl she had seen, back at Magni’s main estate. She was proud to have had that confirmed.
Despite the demeanor that made others have compassion for her, the Hunter knew better. She knew what a child was capable, she had been one after all, and she had been capable of plenty.
The next to arrive was the Mad Genius. She was surprised to see him, how had he the gall to show up after having offered to help the beasts? She felt indignation, to a point she allowed it to seep through to her stare. His reaction, as he paused to look over them, was to dismiss her.
“Shadow,” his accentuated voice called out, “is that you? Or some pretender?”
“I am the Shadow,” she replied, with that accent of hers that made her feel all the more foreign and mysterious. But the Mad Genius just shook his head.
“What a disappointment.”
The Street Trash didn’t react. Whether or not it was intended, the Hunter’s impression was that the Mad Genius made her nervous.
“Yer one ta talk,” they turned to see a well-dressed man, wearing a suit of dark and red, holding a large cigar in his mouth like it was part of his personality. “’I killed their leader’, ya wrote. What a bunch o’ bull.”
The Mad Genius looked at the Don insulted.
“How dare you? If I state I shot the man, I did.”
“If you did clip ‘im, how come we’ve seen no effect on them?”
“What control have I of that? Obviously, going after their leadership will have little result. Otherwise this would have already been over. Thanks to me.”
“A lesson to be remembered.”
Those two really liked their entrances but the new arrival was the man who owned the entire tower. Griff, the original Dark Runner.
A white haired, black skinned individual. Truly black, not like her own burnt skin, and he even chose to wear white to contrast. A vest over a saggy old torso and shorts hiding the flab in his forelegs. He had mostly fake teeth and a prosthetic hand which was leaning on a cane. The cane was a gadget itself, that much was obvious, with the cracks and ragged edges of machinery all over it. He didn’t hunch over at all, it was important to note, he was standing up straight.
His eyes pierced them with an energy that was hard to describe. She felt like doing something, anything worthwhile.
Then his gaze changed as it passed by the Mad Genius. It was instant yet noticeable to pretty much everyone. He stopped as Eliza, the organizer of the Shadow Conclave and head enchanter of the Magni, came forth. She seemed as tranquil and motherly as Zaniyah remembered her, although a deep sadness hung over her.
“Thank you for coming so swiftly, everyone.”
“What about that ridiculous clown?” The Mad Genius voiced, “I assume he was not invited?”
“Anyone reading the scroll was invited,” Griff replied with some impatience, “he just decided not to come.”
“OR DID I?!”
Everyone did a double-take towards the noise as they flinched or otherwise actually jumped back and away from the sudden appearance of the figure. He had been hiding behind three gadgets in a way the Hunter could not understand, lying down behind the Shadow and out of view of everyone else, who were forming a circle around her.
He started laughing. His back cracked as he straightened it and she then noticed he was missing his left arm. Both…faults had been necessary for him to hide there.
The scream itself had been terrifying, a mix between a screech and a howl.
“I caught you good! Oh, the look on your faces!!!” He giggled some more and everyone was either embarrassed or, in the case of the Mad Genius, furious.
“You insane lunatic!” The Street Trash giggled, amused at herself and how she had reacted.
The Circus Freak raised his hand.
“Present and accounted for!”
“Alright, enough,” Griff slammed his cane on the floor, obtaining silence. They all naturally took back their places to shape a circle. “I called you here because, now more than ever, the prophecy is important. The best of you will fulfill it.”
“I can sure give that guarantee,” Mad Genius quickly announced, “but for me to achieve this, I will need the cooperation of–”
“Nobody said it was you, Falk,” Griff reacted in spite.
The Hunter was getting the sensation he really didn’t like the Mad Genius – but then why would that be surprising? Who did? “The fact of the matter is we do not know who it is. So the first thing I wanted to do was ask all of you: who do you think it is?”
“The Mad Genius,” he, of course, said, without a hint of a hesitation.
“The SHADOOOooowwwoOowowow…” the circus freak mentioned, like it was a joke, echoing the name himself to add a mockery of a supernatural sense to the name.
“I’d go with the magic lady,” the Don shrugged, puffing out some smoke. “Sorcerer, right?”
“That’d be my pick too,” the Street Trash mentioned, “but with what happened, I’d say the Hunter.” The Hunter caught the girl eyeing her, complimenting her with both words and look. She felt honored but, a slave to her instincts when it came to any kind of interaction, especially coming from the child, she felt suspicious.
“The Shadow,” the Shadow mentioned, which actually caught the Hunter by surprise. Did she really believe that? She had said it too quickly to gauge her tone.
“Hunter?” Eliza called out and she realized she also had to give an opinion.
“The Sorcerer,” she simply said. Calling out her own name was pointless, that was a biased opinion that they would see no use in.
“Right, that was as useless an exercise as I expected,” Griff nonchalantly stated. “What I really want is for us to work together against this invasion. One of you is bound to fulfill the prophecy if we’re all working at it.”
No one said anything in response until the Mad Genius did.
“Glad you think so,” Griff again showed some spite and, this time, the Mad Genius felt it. He sneered a look of recognition, there was something personal that Griff had against him, he seemed to realize.
Hunter could only guess it was the fact the Mad Genius had offered to help the beasts, but maybe there was more?
“The situation is dire. The Sorcerer is dead. The Dark Runner is dead. There’s very few of us but with Eliza and me, we still have the support of the Tech Guild and the House of Magni.”
Eliza stepped forward then, placing a hand over Griffs’ own, over the cane as if gently asking to interrupt him. He seemed to shudder at the touch, but then relaxed, edging the shoulder lightly to allow her interrupted. She removed the hand and stepped forward.
“As it stands, the beasts are impervious to any form of combat, even though it can delay them. So, as in the past, when they first arrived, the only applicable strategy for victory seems to be subterfuge.
“Luckily, they seem unprepared to deal with that approach; that much is evident by the fact we have already succeeded twice in the span of their first hour up here. We have killed their leader and stolen something from them,” she gestured towards the Shadow, and at last, the Hunter realized why she had stayed back.
It had not been panic and it had not been a mistake, she had done it with the intent to steal from them, and perhaps sought not to endanger them?
Was it the mask? A part of the outfit? Something she left back at Kagekawa? It didn’t really matter, she supposed. Yet, from her posture, from the conversations they had had, she had the feeling it had been luck. The Shadow even said so, the clown had saved her.
She’s brave. She had to admit that much. Luck or no luck, superior skill or not, it had been a brave thing to do.