It soon became evident how hard it was to keep on the subject.
“All I’m sayin’ is I got cigars older than she is,” the Don argued, disgruntled.
“Age is not that much to brag about, Mr. Seniority,” the Street Trash stated from her side, her head leveled with everyone else’s waist. Due to her short stature.
“Shut up, kid, the grown ups’re talkin’.”
She rolled her eyes but didn’t talk back. In that room, three individuals were causing a lot of tension. With the Mad Genius, it felt like someone could say something to trigger him, out of the blue and at any moment, to try and just kill them. The Circus Freak was just an intimidating sight. He had his eyes closed, his body waving back and forth like a slow pendulum as if he was sleeping, but the effect of that was that he looked like a corpse or a caricature of a corpse due to the markings over his eyes. Crosses that looked stitched.
Then there was the Don. An otherwise old man who looked tough, but his mannerisms, the way he gestured and said things, left her with a sense if she got on his bad side, he had the power and resources to hunt her down and make her wish she was dead.
It wasn’t a rational sense, the Hunter knew nothing of who he was, but it was there.
The only one who seemed unaffected by it all was Griff.
“You’re all kids to me,” he patronizingly stated, “we won’t accomplish anything if you keep squabbling like brats. We have different skill-sets and we should put them to use. Shadow, Circus Freak, and the Hunter are the only ones here who can hope to succeed at actually stealing from the beasts. Shadow most of all, due to her arts.”
“Actually, their darkness is strange and different,” the Shadow interrupted, in that bad news kind of tone. “Cut off.”
“Brilliant, further cause to warrant your usefulness,” Mad Genius commented, derisively.
“We need to pool our resources and fight these things!” The Don argued, “they can’t take over the entire world! There’s too many of us!”
“We’ll do that, but no, there are not too many of us, not when nobody’s got any means to hurt them.”
“I will procure the means,” the Mad Genius announced, proudly and in deliverance, “they had the gall to call me obsolete, I seek naught but the chance to lay bare their ignorance.” His mechanical hand clenched, “by the spilling of blood”.
That was another reason the Hunter was made uncomfortable by the Mad Genius, he was part machine. She did not understand how he moved, how the machine parts of him gestured like that.
She was of the unpopular opinion that technology should not be alive since it had no life in it. It seemed obvious to her but the world had long left that reasoning behind.
Griff again knocked on the floor with his cane. Third time.
“Grandstanding aside, let’s talk plans. What can you offer?”
“I can offer you all of Igtalia and Grekkia,” the Don commented, puffing smoke thoughtfully, “and more, see? I can do it quick, too, if I have the Shadow Conclave backing me up.”
“There’s the matter o’ those fat-heads who tried to kidnap us on our way to the competition,” the Street Trash mentioned, prompting Griff and Eliza to trade glances. “Who’re they? And is it possible they can be allies? They seemed to have a lotta resources.”
“Hate to say it but the brat’s right,” the Don gestured towards her absent-mindedly, “is that an angle?”
“We need someone to do that,” Griff mentioned, “Eliza’s our in with the Magni, I have to lead both the Tech Guild and part of the Shadow Conclave.”
“I will look into it,” the Mad Genius announced, “there is no hole in this planet those technologically impaired fools will be able to hide.”
“Ye sure about that there, genius? They took me on an underwater ship,” the Don argued.
“Yes, an ingenious toy to be sure, I happen to know who designed it. Would you like an autograph with the man? Or maybe with myself, I can claim responsibility for the window glass.”
“Yeah yeah, point taken,” he waved at him unimpressed.
“Well,” the Street Trash called out, “besides the big bucksp, I can also go convince the people in my island to take a stake in the fighting. If history’s taught us anything is that they’ll want to keep out of it.”
“Money help?” The Don scoffed. “Of all things, you think we need money?”
“The Scavengers are the richest organization on the planet, Don, I wouldn’t underestimate Street Trash’s contribution. Especially when you think about all the people we’ll have to buy off before this is over.”
“You think you can convince your chancellor to get involved?” Eliza asked, doubtful.
“Oh not him, that cat’s an idiot,” she shook her head dismissively; “I’ll work his wife, she’s got him whipped good.”
“And Don, you can mobilize the middle-western lands?”
“If I got your support, yeah.”
“We can’t provide any combat support,” Griff warned him.
“Naw, see? If I have your support to apply pressure, then there’s less trouble. Less enough that my buttons to handle.”
“His buttons?” The Shadow raised an eyebrow.
“Soldiers,” he enlightened, making her regret she asked.
“Those three things all sound very useful. This’ll be a long thing, the quicker we get the nations to come together and fight, the more time we’ll buy to actually do whatever it takes to take them down. And speaking of that,” Griff and Eliza turned to look at Shadow and the Circus Freak. Hunter was on the opposite side of the circle.
“I am your…in… with the Kagekawa. We are allies in this fight. If there is a task which I am suited for, I will execute it.”
“The king of Norwayaka,” Griff mentioned almost immediately, he already had a task set out for her it seemed. “I know this man well, and he will not take action. But there is a diary we might blackmail him with if you can retrieve it.”
“I will check if no greater task needs my attention,” she cautiously said, obviously doubtful that that one did.
“I can do that,” the Circus Freak raised his hand, reminding everyone he wasn’t a rocking corpse left forgotten, “sounds fun! Scaring royalty’s one of my favorite past times!”
“That is not a good idea, anyone caught–”
“And scaring babies,” he interrupted, finger over lips as he glanced up in thought, grinning mischievously, “it’s so funny, they always look like they’re traumatized forever, haha!”
“…It would be better for Shadow to do this.”
“No, I’ll do it,” he grinned, his tone of voice coming out with a mix of a threatening impatience, in-between his nonchalant goofiness. It was under the surface and it made Hunter’s skin crawl.
“Hunter,” Eliza called out, prompting her to look in her direction, “you have said nothing the entire meeting. Have you any plan on how you can help?”
The Hunter thought for a few seconds, not because of doubt, but because of a natural reflex to try to answer without words. She always gave it a second to see if she could do that.
“Mother Superior learned of an artifact, said to be very powerful.” She breathed. “Two have lost their lives trying to retrieve it from its tomb.” She sighed. “I was scheduled to retrieve it when I received your invite. I assume,” she paused, every sentence having felt like she was reciting a book. “I assume I will do that.”
“Very powerful how?”
“Supernatural. A potential weapon?”
“That’s definitely worth looking into,” Griff nodded. “Okay. Shadow, return to Kagekawa, we know the beasts’re focusing on your land, I imagine you want to defend it.”
“That was from first estimates, it is now clear they spread equally in all directions.”
“I’m afraid you must have old information. They’re spread in all directions, yes, but it’s clear they’re doing a quicker run towards Kagekawa. It might be they’re just focusing on the entire East, however.”
She said nothing and showed no emotion though such a feat is simple when not an inch of the face is being shown.
“I will carry your words.”
Griff banged the cane on the ground again.
“Then we’re set, let’s waste no more time and get going. Keep communication channels open and report back with any news. We may have weeks, maybe even months ahead of us…but don’t be fooled, time is very short right now.”
The Hunter agreed. She had seen the mist, and every hour, her mind spent, at least, a minute visualizing it covering more and more territory. Covering her home. Covering that tower. Encroaching on every inch of world out there, stifling and killing it. Nature was the greatest casualty, by far.
It had to be stopped.
Everything was over with pretty soon after that, and even then, it had not been soon enough. If the Hunter never stepped inside that tower again, she would be very grateful
A lot of things were odd about what was happening to her, and all of them ran through her mind considerably faster than she ran across the city within which the Tech Guild’s tower stood erect.
Everything had fallen out of place ever since she first received the invitation to participate in the shadow conclave, beginning with the fact the competition and the organization shared the same name.
After what she had seen… sorcerer dying at her feet, most of all. That deep dark mist that made it hard to breathe and see, and apparently neutralized shadows? Then the beasts forcing an entire city to run, their big vessels slowly creeping across in their low altitude hover. And now, running there, everything seemed so normal it was out of place, not to say anti-climatic.
It was life as usual in the big city. No one was worried and no one was hurrying. Well, not any more than ordinary, they were hurrying, just not fleeing for their lives. One can mostly tell by the lack of screaming and the sort-of apparent effort no to bump into each other.
Meanwhile, all of them had accepted pretty instantly that they would be working together to defeat the beasts. That was the oddest thing. No one asked whether they should, they just assumed it was up to them, and started planning.
The Hunter did not feel she was anything like any of the others. She was a tomb raider, an adventurer. In fact, her steepest crimes had been committed during the competition. She had stolen from people before, but never as a career and definitely never in a way that would damage their life.
She stole from sacred grounds, territories closed off by governments, or went against laws that were made to keep people safe from decaying structures or dangerous wildernesses. She was not a thief, not like them, and she was not a liar. Every year, her crimes were paid off by the guild, so small were the fines. She was, she felt, the only one there not truly a criminal, and definitely the only one whose ulterior goal was saving the world.
What did the Mad Genius care? He had offered to help them. What did the Circus Freak care? Or the Street Rat? Or even the Shadow, who was probably there only on orders of her masters, they only cared about saving themselves. She felt no bond with any of them, save for the Shadow, with whom she had faced death.
She felt distrust. But there was no denying their skill and their influence. Each of them would undoubtedly succeed in their part. If not, she knew one thing for sure and that was that if anyone was failing in their task, it would not be her.
She left the city by foot.
She was running, it had been a few miles by then, still with lingering thoughts about the meeting and her allies.
“You remind me of my predecessor,” the Shadow had said as they departed, “well not the actual—the one that mattered,” she said, immediately feeling embarrassed about insulting her actual predecessor. But she was referring to him, the creator of the Shadow Conclave, the man who had foiled the beasts’ first attempt. “He didn’t talk much. He just did and people expected him to accomplish. And he just did.” She was envious, Hunter noticed, but she wasn’t certain of whom. Whether it was him or the Hunter.
“Do not end up like him,” she had said, “may we see each other again.”
It was odd, being friendly with her. They had faced death together, that was probably why the Shadow felt the camaraderie. But Hunter? It was hard changing contexts for her. She had slated all of them as competitors, and in a way, she still did.
Finally, the city began to dissipate, the buildings to flatten and scatter. Soon enough, she was out of the steam-riddled heart of Brithan and still running at a good pace. It felt good to be sweating again. It felt good to feel the air, clean and fresh, the rain weak and wet on her skin.
Trees surged up after a few more minutes, and after around thirty, she was deep inside a forest.
“Uff,” the first sign of fatigue showed itself, but her breathing still felt relaxed, her muscles yet healthy and unstrained. She could run for far longer but she didn’t have to, she had spotted the mark on the tree. It was of a bird’s talon with an extra finger. A warning for those who knew it.
She reached into her small pouch and retrieved a short pipe-looking flute. She blew into it, playing a specific melody. She knew they would have heard her and that she would be safe. She put it back and resumed her run.
Nobody could find the House of Magni’s estate or the Kagekawa’s palace, but everyone knew where they were. Her guild, Wild Felids, was believed to be nomadic…the only major guild or organization without a headquarters. But that, as it turned out, was deceit.
They had a sedentary headquarters. They moved it sometimes, rarely, but they had one and, for the past few decades, it had resided right next to the Tech Guild.
“Zaniyah!” The voice sounded familiar and welcoming and it brought the Hunter to a stop. She looked up to see two men on top of a branch, brothers with an acute age difference. “It is good to see you again!”
“Welcome back,” the younger said, a bit more timid. They were both dressed in buttoned shirts and pants, both wearing caps to protect their eyes from the rain, but otherwise not bothered by the weather. She nodded back at them, making the older smile warmly.
“You are not going to grace me with your pretty voice, are you?”
She rolled her eyes and ran to the side, leaving them behind.
Jake and Josh were two natives to Brithan who had recently joined, earning their place with a museum heist in which they recovered an original secret artifact of an ancient king. Both with dark hair and joyful eyes, both chuckling in farewell.
She ran, but now more cautiously. The route was filled with traps and ambushes she had to avoid. Slowly, however, signs of the Felids began to surface. Tents in-between trees, fireplaces carefully tended to because of the smoke, and an overall majority of people hanging around, minding their own business. That was until they saw her.
They all turned to see her, they all knew her. She had gone from a wild investment, more near to a jungle beast than a woman, largely distrusted and abhorred, to the most famous and successful of them all. She had not had time to see how they saw her now that she bore the title and had been invited by the Shadow Conclave, she had had to travel almost immediately.
However, she saw they were proud. Glad to see her, but mostly it was the pride that got to her.
It was odd.
She ran up to the main tent, a big thing the size of a massive circus encampment, tied across the trees with little stakes actually setting it on the ground. That meant that even “inside,” you were among the trees and over real ground.
“Zaniyah, welcome back.” Burto was a warrior, one of mother superior’s favorite lovers, he was usually standing guard. He dressed in cloth armor and wielded a magnificent silver spear which sported scratches and tears all along the shaft.
She nodded at him as a greeting.
“You want to see her, I guess?”
She nodded again, glad to be back to a place where people didn’t force her to speak.
“Go ahead, she’s waiting,” he flapped open a cut-out portion of the tent’s walls so she could lean her way inside.
She shook her head and brushed the dirt off her legs and arms as she walked.
Looking around, she saw nothing but trees and interior tents, sections warded off by stitched fabric serving as walls and doors, all tied to trees or the main tent itself. It was like a maze, but at the same time, like a building with halls that all looked alike. If you knew the building, you wouldn’t get lost.
She adjusted her scarf to better cover her mouth, an act of timidity she had not outgrown yet. She didn’t like to be flustered but it wouldn’t be the first time she caught mother superior in…private times, with one of her lovers. She had happened upon the act once before, she dreaded to do so again.
As she approached the chambers, she met with a woman who was standing guard there, a helmet of dark hair almost covering her eyes and ears as she looked down at Zaniyah. Orithia was tall, even for tall men, and muscular. Very muscular, so much so her padded one-piece uniform stretched against her body. She was mother superior’s childhood friend and most stalwart ally.
“Zaniyah,” she squinted, “finally.”
The Hunter let her lips widen into a half-smile. The memories of riding the woman’s back were still vivid in her mind, she had played with her like an aunt for far longer than she should have. It only stopped when Jake alerted her to what was age-appropriate behavior because, strong as Orithia was, she could easily carry her around still if she wanted, and the Hunter would most likely still enjoy it.
But the day she decided to be an adult was the day that relationship had withered. The Hunter was just another Wild Felid now, with many responsibilities to meet and expectations to honor. Orithia flapped open the cut-out and nodded the Hunter along.
“Zaniyah’s finally back,” she barked into that private section of the tent.