“You don’t have any friends, you understand me?”
Unit-8 regarded its creator with glassy-eyed indifference. A rat gnawed on a wire somewhere above him, snapping it and making him sway slightly from his harness up in the ceiling. It was midnight, the moon’s light cast shadows even this far down in the basement of the Doctor’s house.
“Friends are shits with smiles who only have good things to say about you if you keep kissing their arses.” The Doctor said, fumbling with Unit-8’s vocal transmitter on the dirty tray before him. “They’ll never remember the good things you do for them but do one wrong thing like implant them with minor augmentations without them knowing about it and, boy o boy, they’ll never forget it. This city is corrupt, my son. You would do better not to get distracted by the notion of friendship. Shit blast!”
A hand slammed down on the table, making the rat squeak and a screwdriver clatter onto the floor. A scraping sound alerted Unit-8’s sensors that the screwdriver was kicked aside and shuffling boots indicated that the Doctor was, once again, ambling about.
“Everyone will disregard your genius. That’s why, when you leave this room, make sure you hide it well.” The Doctor’s voice had a wheezing and rasping quality to it – a tincture brought on mostly by smoke and not age, although a hundred-and-six years of being old did addle the Doctor’s own vocal chords somewhat. Grabbing a handful of battery clamps and a jar, the scientist continued with his monologue. “When I was young many regarded me as being a rude and disrespectful snot. ‘Your son has a problem with authority, Mrs Krubbel.’ Of course I had a problem with authority! My whole life I had to deal with shitty adults who didn’t care a single—”
The jar slipped from the Doctor’s feeble hands and shattered on the floor, a series of squeaks were distinctly heard scampering out of the way.
The Doctor cursed.
A sharp crack of bones disturbed the genial silence of the lab.
“Gotcha you filthy vermin!” the Doctor exclaimed triumphantly. To his demise more rats came crawling from the dark recesses of the basement; they gathered around the smeared corpse of their companion and began tearing at its remains. Two weren’t quick enough to react when a hammer bashed their heads in, startling the rest into motion as they attempted to flee.
Wiping four fingers across his brow (and leaving grey hairs in their wake) the Doctor flicked his fingers at the rats. Silvery tendrils resembling silk ribbons flowed from the old man’s fingers, wrapping around the rats and, without any resistance, seeped into the rodents.
The rats ceased their squirming and came into possession of an intelligence far advanced above their own primitive one. This transition happened within a few short seconds: the rats didn’t utter any cries of protest and when the last silver tendrils disappeared, the animals sat up straight on their hind quarters.
Their beady black eyes twinkled with something other than base instinct.
“Kill the others.” The Doctor ordered them.
In unison the rats complied, each darting off in a new direction.
The chains holding the immobile droid aloft rattled and shook, bringing Unit-8 down to face the Doctor. With the walls being pencil-grey and the floor of the basement a dark brown wooden, it was almost an eyesore to regard the robot: forests of wires poked out at every angle, one leg was a foray of missing cogs and tubes, its face was an empty and domed shell except for its glass ‘eyes’ (which were in fact custom-made lenses containing numerous sliders for various functionalities) that dangled around a neck-pipe. The majority of the robot was unfinished and in its beta phase ‘skeletal’ stage. On a rack to the side were body covers, more pipes, cables, and other miscellaneous items.
Doctor Krubbel, an esteemed scientist residing in Dominus Prime, hobbled over to something quite special and at odds even in a lab that was the home of scientific breakthroughs: nestled amid a bed of spark plugs was an obsidian container wrapped in a series of stickers. The stickers and spark plugs served as a decoy in the event of a brake-in – after all, who would steal a container decorated in girly stickers of unicorns and goofy-looking bunnies? Calloused hands gripped the container and crooked fingers elongated to clamp on the wide lid. The Doctor’s wrist clicked with a series of pops as he twisted the lid open. A near-insubstantial amount of gooey and puss-like matter squirmed inside, strange noises and a sweet odour rising from the depths.
“I shall bestow upon you my greatest gift yet, ghuuste.” The Doctor murmured to the wraith creature. It was too young to understand him – a mere three years, but in time it would come to understand much. “Being the last of my kind has made me lonely, ghuuste. The genius element has taken very little and given much to the world, to me, to this city. If I am to survive, my son, it shall be through you in the mind. Perhaps soon we might come to share the same body, eh?”
The Doctor lowered an arrhythmic finger into the shifting gloop. The wraith-like thing immediately spun around in the container and made purring noises, its touch wet and cold.
Every day for the next twenty years the Doctor extracted more and more tendrils of his genius element and transferred it directly to the ghuuste. With each transfer the man grew weaker, hunched, withered, and became less stable as his ancient mind started losing its grip on his sanity. However, as his body became weaker and age rapidly sped up with him, Unit-8’s appearance improved with each visit.
The day came when Doctor Arasti Krubbel paid a final visit to his creation.
Unit-8 was complete. The mechanical body (torso, shoulders, arms, and legs from the hips down to the knees) was clothed in the modern-day attire of a noble gentleman: a burgundy trench coat draped just past the knees, fine black gloves covered his hands, a smart ivory-white buttoned vest pompously showed off the lavender dinner shirt underneath, and leather cropped pants clung to the metallic frames of his calves. Plain formal shoes and a broad belt with unique stones completed the outfit. The face, on the other hand, complimented the look: designed in conjunction with old motorbike helmets, the dome-shaped head covered a face with a rather skeletal appearance and swooped around to the back like fins, hinting at further elements of elegance and nobility with a solid red-gold sheen.
The container which had become the ghuuste’s home for so long was brought into a sealing chamber positioned directly above Unit-8’s mouth. Heaving as he did with his shaking arms, the Doctor poured everything down into the compartment and waited, not long, for the wraith to rapidly spread through every nook and cranny of the robotic carapace. A jerk of the shoulders and the spasm of flexing fingers were signs that both robotic shell and mushy goo had made a connection.
The Doctor’s creation was perfect.
“My son.” He whispered to it with his dying breath. “You don’t have any friends.”
Were it not for the shouts of alarm, feet rapidly tapping along tiled roofs, and a sense of danger that was almost palpable in the air – all clear signs of what would appear to be a pursuit of some kind, the evening would have been tranquil. However, it was not: on the spacious roofs of adjoining buildings figures ran and leapt from one to the other, desperately trying their best to catch the elusive thief. Wet tiles – a light drizzle had settled upon the city that week – caused careless individuals to lose their footing and tumble to the streets where the occasional cry of surprise would ensue.
“In the name of the king,” a gruff voice roared. “Stop you bastard! Stop!”
Someone with a wilting voice sang. “Oh! I wanna love you…! I wanna love you and treat you…right!”
The thief’s pursuers were dressed in black uniforms with spiked badges on their breasts and pistols gripped in their gloved hands. The uniforms worn by the Dominus Prime Tactical Response Unit (D.P.T.R.U. or otherwise known as Tru-Force) were counterfeit and the individuals pretending to belong to the task force specialized in a field that was on the underground side of things – the actual officers were bribed to ‘misplace’ their gear rather discreetly.
Unfortunately, the thief wasn’t privy to this information.
Towers and buildings obstructed most of the thief’s vision but, when he at last did reach a momentary respite to search for another escape route his eyes flicked to the sky and his scarf untangled itself. For a brief time he admired the bright stars glittering in the evening sky and breathed in the salty tang of the wind coming from the eastern sea port.
“I see him!” an officer shouted.
The thief skirted a railing, vaulted over an officer, and slid down a ladder. He was perhaps on the ground for no longer than a moment before the traffic of the late-night populace offered more obstructions than he had in mind before he was, rather swiftly, back on the roofs again.
Somewhere below the officers a bard was busy singing, his tone full of emotion as he plucked at the strings of his small harp. “I want to love you…every day and every night…” Onlookers glanced up at the stomping feet and dropped plates in fright, a few cried out in panic, yet the bard continued. “Is this love? Is this love…that I’m feeling?”
Quite a distance from where he was, the thief materialized as a small and distorted figure on the surface of a spyglass. Holding the eleven-inch-long bronze device was a figure dressed in a trench coat sporting finely made shoes.
Almost where I need you, good sir. The figure thought.
Without any effort the thief leapt across distances many would second-guess themselves first before attempting, coming into a roll the instant his feet made contact with the adjoining building and resuming his attempt at eluding the officers. A quick glance told him there were seven on his trail and he needed to lose them fast, the vial in his pocket and the liquid it contained all the motivation he needed. He picked up his pace: less than three hundred meters to his right was a bridge connecting the cathedral and beyond that the quieter, private sectors of the noble folk. If he could make it there, sneak into a nobleman’s house and avoid detection from his security personnel, he’d be fine.
“Whoa!” the thief shouted in alarm as a throwing knife grazed his cheek.
Being startled cost the thief dearly: he stumbled, lost his footing, and skidded some distance. Due to his momentum his skid turned into a barrel roll that brought him to an abrupt halt against a tower wall – thankfully the tower reached sixty feet into the air. Spitting out a wad of phlegm, the thief winced as he began his ascent.
“He’s climbing!” an officer stated the obvious.
The voice of the captain leading their charge was gruff when he said. “Got it.”
Unclipping something from his belt, the captain pulled an abstract object from the pocket and threw it with marksmanship accuracy at a spot just above the thief’s extended hand.
Brick and mortar exploded, showering the streets below in debris and rubble. A small part of the tower walls groaned and a sizeable lump broke off, landing on the dazed thief’s already-injured arm. The thief hurled curses at the false officers and tried his best to ignore his hand which was probably no more than a useless ensemble of bone and flesh.
“Givsons. Get him out from there.” The captain ordered. “Ryka make sure you restrain him. He’s a slippery little thing.”
Givsons was an ogtin – a species of creature that resembled man and possessed unnatural strength, and thus lifted the eight-hundred kilogram chunk of cement effortlessly. The thief rolled to a standing position and was about to take off when ropes coiled about him, holding him in place and panting. This was the work of Ryka, a Pyth-Slient user who specialized in the art of manipulating inanimate objects.
“What do you want with me?” the thief wheezed.
The captain gave him a look that spoke volumes. “Don’t play the stupid captive, kid. You know what you stole and you know why we chased you.”
Defiance reflected in the thief’s eyes.
“That’s better. Keep quiet if you only have stupid things to say – speaking of, you’re not required to say anything to me.” Rolling a shoulder, the captain tapped Givsons on the back. “Ryka, release him. Givsons, send him to the man.”
Ryka cleared his throat. “Not to be an annoyance, Cap, but the vial he stole and…our fee?”
“Our fee will be paid by midnight.” The captain said. “As for the vial, well, let’s pretend we don’t know anything about it and the thief got away.”
“What?!” the thief exclaimed. “You’re corrupt cops?”
“This is Dominus Prime, kid.” Givsons towered above the young thief. “Loyalty ain’t never put bread on the table.”
Even as the rope holding him went slack and offered plenty of leg room, the thief would never have been able to muster the energy fast enough to dodge out of the way when Givson’s massive fist went rocketing into his abdomen. The thief soared backwards down the lip of the building, narrowly missing a horse-drawn cart selling sweet cakes and more bards singing various verses. It took a lot of effort to struggle back to his feet and, even though the people who had occupied the vicinity barely moments ago had ran away in a typical panic, the thief wasn’t surprised at all to see a slim figure standing before him.
“Who…” the thief panted. “…are you supposed to be?”
There were a series of lampposts lining this side of the street – with a twisted sense of irony the thief realized he was on the exact spot where he always waited for that pretty girl from the Institute to walk by so he could woe her – and a rat scampered to the unknown figure before he stepped into the light.
Fine black shoes, leather cropped pants, an elaborate dining jacket, and a trench coat regarded the thief from where he hugged the bloody mess that was his arm. “You’re a nobleman?”
Red-tinted lenses flared from within the confines of the finned, golden head and the stranger howled. He clapped his hands at the obvious discomfort of the thief whose eyes were darting about uncertainly as if searching for a trap.
“This is a trap, right?” the thief asked, the back of his head throbbing from his fall. “You’re not—”
A bladed-cane appeared from behind the stranger. “Indeed it is, sir.”
If he thought the evening wouldn’t have any other surprises in store for him the thief was sadly mistaken: the ground trembled and, confused, the thief glanced at the cane-wielding stranger. The red orbs rotated into what appeared to be a pleasurable smile and the air directly in front of the thief shimmered, there was the rich smell of cactus juice, and in the next instant a fist filled his vision.
This time the thief did crash into a cart.
The stranger clapped hands at the shrouded individual standing beside him: he, too, wore a mask of mechanical properties with blinking lights, the hood of his shroud was pulled low, and his attire was similar to that of the desert dwellers who were known for their light-skinned trousers and padded shin-boots.
“Bravo!” the clapping stopped. Bowing with much gusto the mysterious stranger introduced himself. “I am Marvellous Mav Raleos! Not a noble but certainly the noblest of gentlemen and acquirer of things…worth acquiring. I am an admirer of art, a servant of entertainment, and a purveyor of delectable desires. You, young thief, have been a rather generous aid in my search for that vial you carry as it is something that belongs to a client of mine. Would you be so kind as to hand it over? Or should I have my accomplice pry it from you?”
“You’re not getting this.” The thief sputtered. “I risked too much just to find a buyer.”
“Do you even know, precisely, what that liquid contains?”
Mav Raleos whistled. “I’m afraid ‘godblood’ is but a myth and something entirely different from what you have on your person. Before I tell you exactly what it is, might I request you describe the person who hired you to steal the vial?”
“…Scaly skin, yellow eyes, a tail he tried to hide…” the thief said reluctantly, suspicious. “Why are you asking?”
“Oh dear, what a pickle. It seems you, boy, can see through the spores. Whatever shall I do about this? The fact that we were both hired by the same man doesn’t perturb me in the least, I assure you.” Mav Raleos paid no attention to the rat that had appeared on his shoulder. “Might you be interested in a compromise?”
“What do you have in mind?”
The lenses flared gleefully again and Mav Raleos gestured at his desert accomplice. The man approached the thief, rendered him unconscious with a sharp punch, and extracted the vial. The purple-white liquid shone with such luminescence that it created a five-centimetre wide glow around the vial. Mav Raleos bowed his head at the desert dweller in thanks and quickly pocketed the treasured item within the confines of his trench coat.
“A gullible thief – that is decidedly something I never thought I’d come across. Now then,” Mav Raleos said with a tap of his cane. “Jazzark, I believe you were telling me about—”
“Not yet.” Jazzark’s muted voice sounded mechanical.
Mav Raleos cocked his head sideways. “Very well then. I would tip my hat to you, sir, if I had one but hopefully you get the gist of my notion—”
“Let’s strike up a deal, Mav Raleos.”
Gyros whirred. “My good man! Those were my very sentiments—”
“I’m not going to kill those men you paid off to pretend to be Tru-Force officers.” Jazzark promptly and deliberately interrupted him. “What I want is something only someone of your abilities can get for me. In return I won’t question you about this kid being able to see through the spores clotting the very air these people breathe.”
It was a good proposition Jazzark gave him; Mav Raleos was simply one of many experiments and projects the esteemed Doctor Krubbel had created in order to improve Dominus Prime. The spores, being an early invention, created a pollinated veil of sorts that concealed a person’s true appearance what with the city being home to a vast multitude of strange species (orcs, demons, ghuusts, beykra, etc.). The reason for the spores being created was so that its inhabitants could better coexist amongst each other and improve not only their general lifestyles but productivity as well.
Mav Raleos waited before he said anything, afraid Jazzark might interrupt him again. When no such matter seemed to be forthcoming, he said. “Jazzark, you know I can procure anything in the entire Dominus Prime—”
Jazzark cut him off. “I want a ship.”
“An odd request. Done.” The ghuuste looked askance at Jazzark. “Aren’t you the least bit curious about why I want the vial?”
Jazzark sighed. “I have no intention of getting involved in the things you do, Mav Raleos. I need your skills as much as you need mine.”
“Certainly. As a man of my word I will get you your ship and I believe payment is necessary, is it not?”
“It is.” Jazzark turned to face Mav Raleos. “You promised me you knew the whereabouts of my apprentice. Where is he?”
“I believe you already found him.”
Jazzark glanced at the unconscious thief. “You made me steal from my own apprentice?”
“Indeed. He, however, stole from me first. As an after thought I gambled on the fact that you might recognize him, even covered in blood and dust and concealed in shadow.”
“I wasn’t expecting him to be in this city. You justify this act of foolishness by having him chased down by thugs who beat him and hiring me who beat him as well, all without getting your hands dirty?” the information broker nodded. “You really are a bastard coward, Mav Raleos, and a dangerous man.”
Mav Raleos bowed his head. “I am a gentleman coward and merely one not to be trifled with, Mister Thidge. Suffice it to say there was no other ulterior method I could have thought of in order to acquire the vial without matters reaching an unpredictable climax.”
Aside from it being a blatant lie, Jazzark had to admire the ghuust’s tenacity and the ease with which he had manipulated everyone. Jazzark knew that Mav Raleos already had a contingency plan to deal with those Tru-Force thugs and, he knew with unease, himself should Jazzark prove a threat.
“All this over a vial?” Jazzark hefted his unconscious apprentice, Heyva, over his shoulder. “What makes it so important? Tell me about its contents.”
Basking in the glory of enlightening a fresh mind (and one that submitted to sate its own curiosity), the ghuuste fished a mechanical hand into his pockets and whipped out the glowing vial with dramatic flair. He held it aloft for the desert man to see and spoke in awe. “The contents of this vial, Jazzark Thidge, contain a concoction of something far more potent than all of the known elements combined. I believe you already know what it’s called.”
Jazzark shook his head. “Your buyer, how did he come to know about it?”
Mav Raleos shrugged. “I guess a bird must have told him. Not that that matters to me, you understand. I was merely beckoned and paid quite handsomely to acquire the godblood for him. What he does with it, well, is his business and not mine.”
“You told me that the godblood is a compound more dangerous than all of the combined elements,” Jazzark said. “With this knowledge, you’re not the least bit worried what he’ll do with it? What repercussions this might have? How many lives he might endanger?”
Mav Raleos shrugged his shoulders. “I am a businessman, Mister Thidge. It is not my prerogative to question my client’s intentions. What—”
“You’re willing to let innocent people die just so you can make some money?!”
“Firstly, the money is quite a generous lump of credits many would sell their souls for to have. Secondly…” the ghuuste cocked his head to the side, hearing something. “Mister Thidge, you might want to vacate the area and follow me. We can continue this conversation in a better fashion because at the moment we have uninvited guests.”
“Jazzark, I implore you to RUN!”
Less than a second after the two bolted a singular spout of water rained down where they would have been, the intricate blocks of the quad hissing, smoking, and eroding fast. Immune to the acid rain, two figures dropped forty-five-feet from the spires of the opposite building, their eyes glazed over and their palms giving off blue hues of roving lights. A teenage girl joined them, lightning bursting through the cracks in her skin, sizzling and arching about her with barely repressed tenacity.
“Pardon! Make way, I say!”
Instead of trying to dance through the crowd like Mav Raleos, Jazzark squared his shoulders and barrelled into them, using Heyva as a battering ram. Many leapt out of his way and one or two keeled over, too winded to shout curses at them. Cries of alarm were replaced with screams as a bolt of electricity connected with a storefront’s metal grating covering its windows, shocking a group of people and keeping them frozen as their insides slowly cooked.
“Who are they?!”
“Individuals who are rather upset about my previous business dealings!”
No surprise there. “What did you do?”
“I hired a thief to steal a vial for me.”
Jazzark almost stopped running. “You bastard! Your double-crossing and scheming will get you killed!”
“Not quite.” Mav Raleos rounded a corner and rushed into a tea garden which offered a lovely view of the marketing district, beautiful flowers and statues enhancing the visual stimuli to the extent that a series of stairs leading to a lower platform were slightly obstructed by them. A patron, too preoccupied by the conversation with her clientele, failed to notice them jump over the railing where they found themselves in the arch of a recessed wall. “As I was saying, Jazzark. On the contrary my double-crossing and scheming are what keep me alive for being the information broker that I am there are certain advantages to my position in this city.”
Jazzark injected Heyva with adrenaline. “What advantages?”
“I know everything about everyone and that, my good man, makes me indispensable.” The ghuuste fixed the cuffs of his trench coat. “I do not proclaim myself to be an acquirer lightly: in a single motion by sending word for you in Corrak I have given you your apprentice, obtained possession of my client’s rare item, brought to light a select number of corrupt Tru-Force officers and in retrospect the false ones, and ultimately I have rid this city of a handful of black market dealers.”
“What black market dealers?”
Mav Raleos pointed a finger upward. “That market we dashed through? Those consumers were buying drugs, conducting sexual trafficking deals, and selling illegal stock such as endangered animals. Leading our pursuers through that particular sector has ensured that not only do they brutally perish but that the area is quartered off for further investigation into these illicit trades.”
“You’re talking nonsense,” Heyva began stirring. “I didn’t see anything illegal up there.”
“Indeed, Mister Thidge. Dominus Prime wouldn’t be the most corrupt and dangerous city if you did!” Reds orbs flared with amusement. “I believe amends are to be made, young thief. Do you still recall me?”
Jazzark’s apprentice messaged his head and stopped when he recognized Jazzark. “Sir? Captain Thidge? What’s going on?”
Putting a hand on Heyva’s shoulder, Jazzark explained.
Thirty minutes later Mav Raleos stood up, straightened his fanciful attire, and brazenly walked out into the open, tapping his cane.
“I’m assuming it’s safe?” Jazzark called after him.
“For me, yes.” Mav Raleos glanced over his shoulder. “I advise you to wait until dawn. The Tru-Force officers might not have recognized you during our expedition today but there is the chance someone of uncivilized purposes might have which, I believe you know, will somewhat hinder your progress in the city. Especially if any prying eyes happen to belong to those of Harriet Harper.”
“I don’t even want to know who she is.”
Mav Raleos chuckled. “Quite perceptible of you. Your ship shall be ready when you claim her at the docks – look for The Savvy Mistress. Alas, as I do enjoy our lengthy prattles about my morality and business transactions, Mister Thidge, my presence is required elsewhere. Good evening.”
“What is he, Captain?” Heyva asked when the ghuuste had left.
“The hero this city needs.”
It took Mav Raleos ten days to reach the location where he would meet with his buyer. Corrak was an arid desert with patches of land and puddles of water placed tightly in the nooks of rocks or at the bases of shallow holes in the earth. Mav Raleos spotted a tiny lizard shimmying in the hot sand, oblivious to a snake slithering towards it, and the snake was itself left vulnerable to the creeping advances of a desert nomad wielding a spear made of bone.
Swathed in layers of clothing to protect himself from the impregnable heat of the sun and the millions of grains of sand that the wind hurled about him, Mav Raleos watched the snake swallow the lizard just as the nomad impaled the snake.
The ghuuste’s powerful lenses helped him witness this event ten kilometres away.
Gravel shifted and claws scratched against rock. His buyer, an infrei monster with multiple chains wrapped around the collars of his beast hounds, was an imposing eleven feet tall with scars adorning his massive bulk and had twisted horns.
Mav Raleos greeted him. “Tardiness eludes you, Mister Heilcrat.”
“I want vial before I give payment.”
Mav Raleos ignored the snarling beasts and produced the vial.
“Potion really give me power?”
Heilcrat smirked and gulped the contents of the vial. Dropping to his knees, the infrei monster released his hold on the chains and his hounds moved to flank Mav Raleos. Heilcrat’s breathing was shaky, uneven, his body trembling as the concoction spread through his system, but he soon regained his composure and celebrated with a roar.
“I believe I am owed payment, my good man.”
“Stupid robot.” Fangs on all sides regarded the ghuuste. “I trick you!”
“You trick me?”
Something flickered in Heilcrat’s expression: figures materialized from the entrance of a hidden cave, blue sparks flashing about them. In the lead was Harriet Harper, the agent charged with detaining rogue elementalists or those involved in any crimes of similar nature.
Eyes darting between the new arrivals and Mav Raleos, Heilcrat hissed. “I have plenty power now! Strongest in Corrak! Puny humans think to catch Heilcrat?! Bah!”
“Not catch,” Mav Raleos informed him. “Eliminate.”
Brows furrowed and Harriet Harper sent bolts of lightning searing into the infrei. As chaos erupted and chunks of rock went flying into the air, the ghuuste saw this as his opportune moment to flee. The elemental hunters would be too busy taking out a monster as powerful as Heilcrat and Mav Raleos’s agreement with them didn’t include waiting around to get destroyed.
They sought rogue elementals, they got them.
Back to Dominus Prime, then.
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