Two days had passed since the painful history of humans encountering the Beasts had come to an abrupt yet very hopeful end when the Shadow had returned triumphant from her mission to subdue the Mad Genius, Falk Goldschmidt, before he could kill everyone.
The ships were at full steam–or sail, depending on the vessel in question–and had already gained enough distance from the island city of Neyrk to have lost sight of it.
There was a fair group of the nautical vessels braving the sea, nearly twenty of them, and all filled to the brink with everything that was left from the human race. It was very little, there was no doubt about that, but it would be enough to continue. To start again, should they find a place capable of providing for them before their supplies ran out.
Falk Goldschmidt, the Mad Genius, was the final loose end. He was laid down on a lifeboat that had been prepared to be cast out. Surrounding the lifeboat were the few people who had been accepted as leaders, albeit temporarily. Among them was Amara, the Lady of Light, whose husband was standing to her right.
She was at the center, clad in a clean and bright light blue dress that shone like a beacon, even amidst the sunlight, or perhaps because of it.
“Even amidst the bleakness of the Void, even while drowning in it, you still served the Light,” the Lady of Light said.
Jamie, the once Street Rat, smiled. She knew Falk would hate to receive a religious eulogy from Amara, he would hate every syllable uttered.
It was exactly why she had suggested it.
“And this man served the Light,” Amara continued. “Much did he contribute to our survival, even as he planned its absolute end.”
Amara, of course, knew Jamie had suggested she do that out of vengeance. But not only was it the right thing to do, but any opportunity to speak of the Light and all their works was an opportunity to take. The greatest of tragedies had ironically contributed to the start of a new age, one the Lady of Light would pen as the age of hope. And she would do her part wherever and whenever she could to make sure it became that.
“For it is no coincidence that he decided to keep the mage near him, and alive. Whatever madness fueled such a whim, it was the Light’s influence. No other explanation would fit.”
The Mad Genius could, in fact, hear every word. Unbeknownst to anyone, the Bronze Alchemist had kept him asleep for something other than a sedative. A muscle relaxant that was powerful beyond all measure, and yet left the brain and nerves, his senses, well functional.
They were not mongrels like the rest of you, Falk thought, I wanted them to die peacefully in the blast. It was a mercy.
Falk could hear every word, but much as he tried to speak, he could not. Much as he tried to scream, to reach for his chest with his arm to engage the explosion right on top of them all, he could not move a hair on his skin. Could not even open his eyes. He was trapped in his body with nothing but his mind.
When he woke up, Falk had been enraged, but by the time Amara began to talk, he had accepted his fate. Her words threatened to inflame him again but the rage consumed his thoughts, and right then, his thoughts were all he had.
My most powerful asset, the only one that mattered, or so I thought. Falk would have scoffed if he could. What good is it now?
“If there is hope for this man,” Amara continued, “it is in the Light’s mercy. In their love. But we, in their justice, must execute him in a safe manner.”
But it does not change anything, Falk thought in protest. Go ahead and get your petty revenge. Luck was on your side, and all of you know it. Chance. Nothing but chance.
“For the Light teaches as much about justice as it does about love…and truth. And the truth is that Falk Goldschmidt is a cautionary tale…of what happens when you blot out your heart from the Light for the benefit of your ego and selfishness. Evil has consumed him, and he would never let it go.”
Falk’s temper flared.
There is no good and evil, you con artist! His mind yelled. There is only gain and loss.
A Kagekawa saying. One that its primed agents had apparently forgotten about. He knew she was there, watching. He knew the Shadow was probably feeling sorry for him.
However, Falk was wrong again. Ayane, the Shadow, was deep inside the boat. A doctor and one of the few remaining mages were hard at work to treat her wounds well enough that she might keep her arm. Nearby, Hugo, the Circus Freak, stared at the ceiling, hearing the ceremony through a box that emitted sound.
It had been invented by Falk. A lot of things are, he would be survived by many of his inventions.
Jamie was enjoying every second of it but Jaunt, the Mother Superior of the Wild Felids, was growing weary. She gestured at the Lady of Light, respectfully, to let her know she would like to get it over with.
Amara gave no indication of catching sight of her sign and yet obliged.
“So, with a heavy heart, do I commit Falk to the Void,” she said. “May we meet him when the Light shines again, along with everyone of us, to witness his final judgment. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Just hurry up and send me to rust, Falk bitterly voiced, in his trapped mind.
He felt it very clearly. Mother Superior was skillful in the way she slit his wrist, intending not to do too much damage, but to guarantee that his life would take long enough to bleed away.
Mongrels, he thought, no longer having the energy to even yell in his mind. Go and live out your pathetic meaningless lives. I will solve the problem of a renewable energy source before I die. At least then, I will know you are killing your own futures!
Falk heard and felt the lifeboat hitting the water. And then, slowly but surely, he floated away. Unable to move or even open his eyes, to even twitch before the pain. His nervous system knew he was dying and didn’t understand why the brain wasn’t doing anything about it.
Falk tried really really hard not to regret his actions. Not to regret his choices. But once the sound of the steam ships dissipated completely, and he was all alone among the waves, his effort ended up being for naught.
Even in that last attempt, he was forced to accept failure, and suffer regret.
Zaniyah, the Hunter, solemnly watched as the lifeboat disappeared over the horizon. She stayed there, standing and watching, far longer than the rest of the crowd.
“You feel sorry for him?”
She turned to Thunuk, who was regarding her cautiously, seemingly unsure whether the question was okay. She didn’t address the concern and simply replied.
“I feel sorry for what we have lost. Like Ayane, I feel he could have been a lot of help.”
Thunuk grinned knowingly. The very white smile of his, the sight of which had become enough to liven her heart.
“But also, you are curious about explosion, yes?” He asked.
Zaniyah rolled her eyes back to the horizon and kept silent, not wanting to let him know he was right. He, however, poked her in her ribs lightly, making her shiver.
“Right?” he asked playfully.
“Tsk,” she mock-swung at him, to swat him away, “not accurate. I simply wonder if it will be visible.”
“Did your mother give information about time until it happens?”
Zaniyah cowed a little bit, crossing her arms on top of the ship’s railing to rest her head on them. It still embarrassed her for him to call Mother Superior her mother even though, in a very real way, that’s what she was.
Thunuk smiled either knowingly or just amused, it seemed to be the same for him.
He had come far, in every sense of the word. Physically far from the village, idealistically far from his tribe’s teachings, emotionally far from his friends and family, socially far from his tribe, but mostly, intellectually far from being seen as a savage.
Zaniyah was at the point where he could embarrass and fluster her, and much as he did so, he never got tired.
Jamie, however, would get tired very fast of seeing the two hesitating to get together, much as she could understand why even when knowing what little she knew about both of their pasts. She felt it wouldn’t be cool to hang around waiting for the explosion like some kind of romantic loser, so she decided to head down to the Scavenger’s quarters. As usual, Jordan tailed her like a good watchdog.
“You don’t wanna check out the fireworks?” He asked, boy that he was, “lady said it’d be somethin’ like nothing we’ve ever seen, right?”
Of course, he would be interested in being a romantic loser. The leash he was on due to that first kiss was still solid, it felt nearly tangible in her hand.
“We need to start preppin’, num’nuts,” she said, playfully.
“Ugh,” she exasperated, to punctuate how much smarter she was. “We’re not even sure where we’re sailing towards.” She lowered her voice very naturally, to signal their conversation should be drowned out by the noise around them. “If rations start to run out, people will go crazy fast, right? Fights’ll break out. We need to talk about what we do then.”
“Hm…yeah, bein’ helpless kids won’t be that good, huh?”
“No. That’s why we start hoardin’ right now,” she whispered, going down the stairs into the middle of the crowds and even greater noise. “Worse comes to worse, we use what we have to bribe people to fight for us.”
Jordan was more than happy to play the dummy part, mostly because he really couldn’t outsmart Jamie, not at her best, but he wasn’t so dumb as to need everything explained all the time. Still, he knew that she, with that ego, developed a likeness for whoever listened to her, and acknowledged she was smarter.
Jordan would make sure to listen to her the most, by playing a bit dumb here and there, and thus become her favorite.
If he failed, a couple more years and he’d be on his own since he would never make a Teen by himself. Jamie would would make it happen, however, if he were useful.
Confident there was no danger to her, he took a gander at her still developing curves, and had to be honest in his willingness to hear her say more, and to have her like him.
Ya like ‘er, Jordan, he thought to himself. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with it, she’s prolly the best girl alive.
She really was, or at least, by every metric he cared about.
Meanwhile, Emery was in a room with River, Sage, and the other surviving Teens. She had brought up the topic of strategies for if the trip took longer than expected, but half of them had requested they wait for Jamie to arrive. That was telling.
It’s definitely time, she thought to herself, crossing her arms patiently and twisting up an amused smirk on top of it. It came much sooner than I expected, but all the more reason to take you seriously, Jamie…as a rival.
Emery’s part at the end of all that Beast business had been much less than desired. She had been sure, and she still was, that odds were high that whoever stayed behind at Neyrk as their contact would die. It made sense for Jamie to take the risk, but not for her. Alas, now the situation was that Jamie had caught up to Emery in terms of reputation, and with the Shadow Conclave officially gone…that meant they were absolute equals.
The Circus Freak, however, felt equal to no one. Being stopped for more than ten minutes used to be the epitome of boredom, to the point of torture. And there he was, for two days now, still trying to swallow the fact he would never see Eliza again. And also walk.
It had been evident to him he had developed feelings for Ayane, but whatever connection he had with Eliza had only become apparent the moment he knew she was dead. He had never missed anyone ever in his life, so it was a foreign experience trying to come to terms with the emptiness he felt, and figure out how to go on with whatever he lacked inside.
On top of how to deal with his lack of legs.
The door opened and, since he didn’t have really anything going on, he immediately looked to see who it was. The woman who walked in was wearing a dirty beige lab coat and a pair of spectacles, with a pantsuit underneath.
With an innocent face and in a way that could be described as perky, she looked at him up and down.
“Are you Hugo?”
“The Circus Freak,” he said, curious, “the one and only. And you?”
“Michela,” she announced with a big smile, “I’ve been told you’d like some limbs.”
“Limbs, some limbs?” She approached, taking out a ruler from inside her lab coat. “Stretch out your arm, please.”
“I guess I could use a couple,” he said, cautiously, “but how?”
“Well, you ever noticed Falk was sporting mechanical limbs?” She asked in return while measuring his good arm.
“Yes? But it’s not something I saw a lot of other people with,” he offered his reasoning, even if quite uncertainly. He didn’t, after all, know anything about the field.
“Oh yeah, it was definitely a Goldschmidt special,” she said excitedly, “but I got a chance to learn a lot while working with him.”
“For him, you mean,” Hugo corrected, in what he hoped was a friendly manner.
She confirmed his hope by sticking her tongue out. Then she hopped next to his absent legs.
“Look down here, tell me where your feet ended on if you were holding them perfectly flat.”
Hugo bent over, sitting up, and looked at the ruler.
“Further,” he said, “further…further. Another two inches. There.”
He lied back down. It was all too sudden and, in a strange way, hard to believe. Was there really a way to…Falk’s limbs were pretty strong, but were they agile? Would he be able to be as nimble as he had always been?
“I never saw Falk running or doing a split or something.”
“Heh,” she chuckled, taking notes, “I’ve got nothing else to do in this trip, Hugo, I’ll build you legs that do whatever you want. Psh, I’ll build you spares. And an arm too. But that’s if we can actually do the thing. See, technology was never the problem, Falk just came up with ways to build limbs that aren’t super noisy when they move. He didn’t solve the main problem, however, which is the pain.”
“Yeah…” she bit her lip and twitched her nose, scratching the back of her neck doubtfully, “gotta connect to your nerves uhh…brutally. Yeah, let’s go with brutally. It’ll usually kill a guy. Honestly, how Falk survived that is still a big question, my standing theory is it has to do with the burns somehow messing with some key nerves of his…”
The Circus Freak chuckled, which surprised her. She probably knew as he laughed for a few seconds, that he wasn’t doing it ironically, but she didn’t know why. Whoever put her to the task knew about his birth condition but had apparently not told her.
“That won’t be a problem,” he said, grinning at the ceiling while shaking his head at the way life worked.
Sending Falk to die was supposed to be the end of it. There was no future in his mind beyond that threat, especially with Eliza being dead, and his dismemberment. But there was.
He closed his eyes and wondered if his prayers had anything to do with anything. Hugo swallowed disbelief or belief, he wasn’t sure. But he clarified for Michela.
“Pain’s not a problem.”