The city was a stink-hole. It was inevitable when one factored in the insurmountable overpopulation it was suffering. Still, Brithan had managed to keep civilization running, even when it stood on the brink of destruction.
There were two types of civilization. One is new and can break down quite easily; all it takes is a little bit of corruption or incompetence from the leading parties. The other is old. A legacy. A long-lasting fever dream of a status quo that has seeped into people’s very genes.
It was a strong thing, true civilization, because it was made up of civilized people, which are a different sort of human beings. You cannot untrain them out of being part of a class system that they dream of climbing, or of the comforts awarded by mechanisms and technology they don’t understand and take for granted. That all awards them a certain amount of…behavioral endurance.
Three nations were left which were not obliterated. Out of the entire world. And Falk still found a man collecting the trash.
The beasts were somewhere in the sea, heading towards them, or in the mountains of snow, heading towards the northern kingdom. And yet, a child was selling newspapers.
People were printing newspapers. They were fixing plumbing and going to school. They were civilized. Nothing short of absolute obliteration would stop them from being so.
That was, of course, common knowledge to many within the LBA. It was why that was their goal, and why they were helping the beasts.
Behind a couple of ragged teens eyeing him judgingly, trying to discern whether they could mug him or not, Falk caught sight of a member of the Magni. He walked through the teens unperturbed and met with him.
“We can go.”
“Oh? Are you sure you don’t need longer? It isn’t like we have more important things to take care of, after all.”
“Oh, Albert,” he placed his hand on his shoulder, “I’d kill you if you weren’t so efficient. Now get on with it.”
The man shivered, probably internalizing the lesson not to treat Falk lightly ever again. Without saying another word to him, he whispered his spell and they vanished.
They appeared on a sprawling landscape which, against any reasonable expectation, failed to present any signs of a bottom or even a horizon. It was due to the mists, which had a different kind of texture than the ones deployed by the beasts. They were more on the side of gray and had an aura of light about them so that anyone looking would know them to be of a mystical nature.
They were part of the spell that kept Magni’s summit from being trespassed by the average person. Of course, Falk was not an average person and had indeed used his ocular extensions to pierce through the illusion and get inside. Back when he still had a slight interest in magic.
Turned out magic wasn’t kept in books. Unlike scientists, Magni wasn’t interested in their knowledge being accessible. It was taught by word of mouth only.
His thoughts dialed back, sensing Albert’s apprehension in the air, calling him to attention.
“Right, sorry about that. I was thinking.”
“That happens a lot, I see.”
Falk smiled widely.
“It’s what the head’s for, Albert. Lead on, man.”
He walked off without further words as he judged, and quite accurately so, that throwing words at Falk carried risk.
Albert performed the spells to allow them to carry on unhindered; whether those traps and magical ambushes would have any effect on the beasts was something Falk was keen to find out.
It would be hilarious if, after all that had happened, the beasts would unceremoniously find their end there. Not to mention anti-climatic.
He knew, however, that that would not be the case. Magic cannot do anything that nature cannot. Magic is a shortcut and nothing more, one had to look no further than the powerful teleportation spells for evidence and example.
As they walked up the steps leading to the main entrance, he caught the familiar silhouettes hanging around on the balcony of the large hall that they used to meet in, most every day. His right monocle whirred and span, zooming in on the Shadow and the Hunter.
The two had grown closer with time, and would often meet there by themselves to talk like some rookie conspirators.
They didn’t worry Falk in the slightest, their simple minds had no agility for diplomatic subterfuge. They were soldiers, pawns, being allowed into war meetings. That was all.
Whatever was going on apparently did not require their input as they seemed to only be listening.
Many minutes later, after having navigated the multiple corridors and stairs of that convoluted mega-mansion, Falk found out exactly why they weren’t taking part in that day’s meeting.
Eliza was on the phone. She did not look pleased. She looked hurt to a point she refused to let show, choosing instead to be angry.
“There will be no alliance! You have made your bed!”
“Be reasonable, woman! This common enemy is too powerful, and with the LBA–”
“You are the unreasonable one, Griff.”
Ah…the man is groveling.
The Tech Guild had gone from menace to mild inconvenience in one night. Not even Falk knew how deep the Shadow Conclave’s influence ran. Unleashing both the Sorcerer and the Darkness upon a human organization, while being fed information from the Scavengers about the opponent…well…there was no dealing with that. It had started with their famed Tech Tower, which was in absolute shambles long before the beast army got to it, and it spread throughout what was left of the world.
The Shadow Conclave knew there was no point in wasting brute force actions on the beasts, and the LBA continued to evade detection…mostly. That left the Tech Guild as the only viable front to commit its blunt resources against.
Griff apparently failed to calculate for that.
While the beasts actively drained Tech Guild allies and strength, the Shadow Conclave was left mostly untouched as their assets all stemmed from the underworld, and that was surviving just fine. So far.
“I have one of the guards Shadow rescued, woman! And manpower! And minds, so many minds!”
“Pff,” the Falk audibly made himself known, and all in the room looked to acknowledge his presence. “You offer taste of bread when we already have caviar, Griff. Get real.”
The silence was telling.
“HE STILL LIVES?? Eliza!”
“He did not plot against us.”
“He plots against his old friends. And against the beasts. He doesn’t have ambitions of domination.”
“Certainly not.” Destruction. It was ambitions of destruction. Or deconstruction…violent, aggressive deconstruction.
“’Re you forgetting what he did to my kid?! Eliza! ‘Re you telling me I’m gonna die before that miserable–”
“You made your bed.”
“NO! YOU made my bed! I did my BEST!”
She balked. The two girls out in the balcony turned inwards, their interest grabbed. The other three individuals in the room also rustled with new found interest. The fourth, however, remained apathetic.
“If you are…implying towards. You are mad.”
“Had you not followed your blind allegiance, Eliza, and rejected the life WE wanted for ourselves, I would not have followed my ambitions! I would have been happy with you. And you with me.”
She almost choked, clearly incapable of accepting what was happening.
Eliza was notably a fan of transparency, seemingly. That was why she had Falk modify the phone in the first place so that the speaker was loud and public instead of private. At that moment, however, she seemed to be regretting that decision. Falk wasn’t the only one finding it funny.
“Your gall, Griff.”
The Circus Freak laughed, making his presence known.
“Look at who you’ve chosen as allies. And you won’t take me?”
“I can’t trust you.”
“What about the rest? They don’t trust me either?”
“They trust me to decide,” she told him, hand tapping her own chin. “Since we have a history.”
“It’s not sounding like it counts for much,” his voice protested.
“You’re in Britthan somewhere?”
“Where else would I be? The damn Scavengers will find us if I go to their country and you’ll send your damn assassins to kill me! Something I’ve never done to you, by the way.”
“You would have.”
“I just wanna cut in real quick,” the Street Rat interjected, “just wanna say we’ll find you here too, don’t worry.” Jamie gave Eliza an encouraging smile that only seemed to deflate her even further.
“He stayed behind for us.”
Everyone knew who she was talking about. Well, not the Circus Freak, he never knew anything, but Falk was pretty sure the rest were following.
“I know that.”
“We have managed it in his name. Carried out our purpose in his honor, to finally face the beasts at our best, and defeat them.”
“How many decades has it been, Griff? That you’ve been undermining us?”
Silence was the response, which could, and rightly would, be interpreted as too many.
“After what he did for us? The trust he put in us? You wanted us to go off and love? Leave the world to face its destiny on its own?”
“I wanted us to be together. But your loyalty…it wasn’t to the Shadow. It was to the Magni. Loyalty that was beaten into you, literally. Look at the Shadow! Kagekawa is gone and still she serves them!”
She slammed her hands on the little table where the phone was standing.
“SOME OF US STAND FOR MORE THAN OURSELVES!”
“Not all of us,” the Circus Freak interjected, almost chorusing Falk’s thoughts, which was an annoying coincidence that ruined the thought for him. Eliza threw Hugo a look, but he was the only one that was immune to the Look. “I’m just sayin’, I don’t even know who you’re talkin’ about.”
“The Shadow,” she told him, “Katsuo. The first of the original three who faced the beasts and drove them back. I was the third.”
She closed her eyes and slammed her hands again, this time as fists.
“YOU BETRAYED HIM! You are not some stranger to his sacrifice who chose different affiliations but joined us in this hour of need! You are not someone who balked in a moment of weakness and performed one short action of betrayal. And you are certainly not someone who didn’t know what they were doing.” She paused, her eyes squinting hard in an effort not to cry.
Eliza had never demonstrated any emotion that wasn’t placid or tranquil or reasonable sadness. Her pose, her tone of voice, it not only silenced the megalomaniac but all in the room as well.
“You planned. You schemed. You executed it all during decades. Constant…uninterrupted…betrayal. Of Katsuo’s legacy and trust.”
If there had been any doubt as to what Eliza, the matriarch of the House of Magni, considered to be unforgivable behavior, there were none anymore.
He eyed the Bronze Alchemist who, for the first time, gave signs of being affected by the proceedings. She had looked up from her microscope.
“Please put that aside, Eliza, and let me help you save the world.”
Eliza didn’t skip a beat.
“The deaths will toll, and screams will run.”
“Eliza,” the voice called out.
“Misery will mold, a shadow around the sun.”
“Eliza…” the voice pleaded.
“And when the time comes, look to darkness for the save. For hope will be pitched from the very best of the Shadow Conclave.”
The line went silent. Even Griff knew what she was going to say next.
“You are not, and have never been Shadow Conclave. As such, I am absolutely confident you cannot help us.”
“Eliza, please be reasonable. It’s me. It’s Griff.”
“Yes,” she reached over to the switch, speaking in a knowing tone. “I know that now.”
And she clicked, ending the call with a very tired motion. Even her head sagged slightly inside her hood as a gesture of exhaustion.
The Circus Freak did not know a lot of things, but what he was a master of, was timing. Somewhere in a subconscious awareness Falk had inside him, that he wasn’t in touch with, something gave him a feeling of the very second that breaking the enduring silence would cause a comedic effect. This was a feeling Falk did not notice until the Jester’s voice sounded out, very ironically.
“Well, that was dramatic.”
The Street Rat and the Shadow both chuckled slightly. Another person would have been insulted, but Eliza was a different kind of woman. She shook her head and sighed a smile, her hood stirring as a hand acted inside, probably wiping tears.
“I apologize for that. A call from Griff…it could have been relevant.”
“It was hilarious,” the Circus Freak again loosed his tongue, “just thinking back to when he trapped us? And now he’s begging for us to let him help us?” He laughed out loud.
“I have to admit, it was satisfying. With all that’s been happening, I’m kinda happy I got to witness that.” The Street Rat held a sitting stance of natural relaxation that seemed to indicate a level of lack of concern that was impossible.
“Well, at least that’s the end of that,” the Bronze Alchemist said, her eyes returning thankfully to the microscope. “We have much else to worry about.”
“Is no one curious about what I was doing?”
Everyone looked at Falk in an attempt to properly switch contexts, mostly failing.
“You were gone?” Obviously, only the Circus Freak was mad enough to ask that question.
Falk rolled his eyes and let it go. He had learned to do that with the mad jester since his lunacy was such that it did not encourage others to share in it, and treat Falk lightly. As a result, he didn’t much care what the Jester said.
“Alright, then. Any news?”
“Griff called but we told him to get bent,” Hugo pointed out eagerly, causing the child to snort.
Falk looked at him and did his best to sound as monotonous as he could.