The train descended from the mountaintops and the full city of Fleettwixt came into view: A gargantuan megalopolis the likes of which existed nowhere else in Sunwell.
From city walls to coastal docks, the entire city was covered in buildings so grand, so towering that they surely scraped the sky itself. Mana factories poured out purple-hued smoke that billowed up into a dome-shaped magical barrier in the sky. With mountains to the east, a grand forest to the south, and a river running through the north, it was an impervious fortress as well. Never in history had Fleettwixt ever been under siege, and it took no tactical genius to understand why.
The train entered a tunnel underneath the city walls and glided gently to a stop at the its terminal station. Riders grabbed their luggage to leave, but Amelia had only a single satchel, so she walked right out of the car without a huge line.
The exit was divided into two categories: Reentry and New Arrivals. Most people would go through the former; just swipe their ID cards, let the spell activate, and go to work or home or wherever they felt like today. Amelia, though, had to choose New Arrivals. Unfortunately, the experience was not quite as smooth.
Not many joined her through the long, winding hallway. An orcish family with two mothers and a herd of timid children. A human dressed in a business suit reading a paperback book as he walked. That bickering kappa couple. Other than them, customs was empty, likely because of the sheer difficulty to even get into Fleettwixt.
They passed through two security scans, each with an increasing number of security guards posted—including several stone golems that stood perfectly still like ornaments against the walls. The moment anyone misbehaved, they would go right into action with furious speed. Amelia knew that all too well.
And then came the customs inspection, the final checkpoint in this hour-long endeavor.
An overweight elven man with gray skin, gray eyes, and a gray security uniform sat on a stool and looked at Amelia through the smallest glasses she’d ever seen. If she couldn’t tell he was bored from his expression alone, the drooping, pointed ears would have given it away.
Customs inspection. The final barrier into Fleettwixt, and one last hurdle before Amelia’s revenge could truly begin.
“Name, entry pass, and hand your bag over,” he said mechanically.
She took her entry pass out of her satchel and gave it to the man. He noticed the black glove over her right hand and his eyes shifted just a little bit. A security guard, another elf of considerable size, took the bag and began inspecting.
“Amelia Bluewood, sir.” Her words were polite, terse. Just how she liked them.
He peered through those tiny glasses at her entry pass, then began glancing back and forth between it and the woman, comparing the photo to the real deal. His eyes narrowed.
The ID was a fake. She had no prior address, no hometown, not even a birthday. But the info was not what concerned him, she knew. It was the relatively human photo on the pass compared to her actual appearance.
He stared for a time at the scar-like crack running down the middle of her face, at the rocky texture of her half-bald head, at the dim purple glow where her right eye should have been, at her broad frame and surprising height.
Just the face painted a portrait of this woman’s entire life: She was a colonial laborer, no education, extensive experience in dangerous jobs. One day something went wrong and she barely came away with her life, but now she had a real chance at something new in the city of lights.
That whole story was wrong, but time and time again, people took a moment’s glance and constructed a whole life for her in their minds. The elven inspector was no different. She saw the pity setting in as his eyes darted away.
“What is the purpose of your arrival?” he asked, looking intently at the entry pass.
“Contractor for the Fourland Growth Corporation.”
“You’ll be a harvester, I assume?”
“I assume,” she said.
He pushed his minuscule spectacles closer to his eyes, then glanced briefly in her direction. “Are you sure you’re here for agriculture?”
“What do you mean?” she asked. Though she knew well what he implied. Her frame was broad and her limbs were bulky, especially for a woman. And naive country folk were often lured into Fleettwixt for work that dabbled in less legal realms. Fourland hired her exactly for that reason, not that the elf needed to know that.
“Well, stay out of trouble. If anyone tries to coerce you into anything, just go to your—” He looked at the entry pass—“the Rockmund Consulate, and they’ll help you.”
The boredom set back into the man as his time with Amelia drew to a close. “Enjoy Fleettwixt,” he said as he swiveled his stool away from her face. With some hesitation in his voice, he added, “My only advice: Look for anywhere but Fourland. They’re no good.”
“Thank you,” she said, turning away from him as she passed through the inspection barrier, the invisible threshold that finally brought her into the city proper. She took her satchel from the other elf, put it on her back, and slung her hood over her head.
Then she entered the large, ornate doorway just past the customs area. Here it was: Highden Station. The transit hub of the entire city. The ceiling alone was higher than any building Amelia had ever been in. And there were so many people here she could not even see the floor. A glittering gold chandelier and a huge painting on the wall that read, “The North Sunwell Company: What Wonders Campaign Starting! Check your local paper for details,”
There were a dozen different paths to train lines and upper-floor shopping centers and carriage pick-up areas. For a second she stood still, simply trying to take it all in, but found that to be completely impossible. Amelia was shoved through the crowd, having entered the stream of some invisible walkway without even realizing it. Surrounded on all sides by all kinds of beings until suddenly she found herself outside of Highden Station entirely.
The fresh-ish air reached Amelia’s nose and reminded her of her girlfriend’s old workshop. Memories began to flood back, but she refused to let herself dwell on them. Not yet.
At her feet laid grand marble steps. Around her, tall, obelisk-like buildings commanded every street corner. Bright green bushes dotted the sidewalks and looked entirely out of place in the middle of winter, but truly fitting in Highden. This was the central business district of Fleettwixt, the pearl of commerce and culture in all the Sunwell continent.
There was no snow on the ground or anywhere she could see. Not even especially cold. She wondered how they did it, how they cured the weather, and how much it must have cost. The dome-like energy shield up in the sky was surely the cause, but the result was far beyond anything she had seen in the rest of her travels. And she had even fought battles on a floating island in the sky.
Off in the distance, to the south, the top of the Coliseum poked through. That famous place where battles were waged and fans were earned. To the east, Castle Fleettwixt, where the King once lived in the monarchy days, glimmered in nostalgic beauty; now, it was a large museum. To the north, the glitzy entrance to the vast Manadhmeth Dungeon, where that Great Hero defeated the Dungeon Core and brought so-called peace to all of Sunwell.
Anywhere she went, she would be inundated with possibilities, with pathways to any number of futures. So many people, and so many buildings. It was obvious why so many people fell for the alluring aroma of Fleettwixt, when it was dutifully designed to dull one’s senses for hours on end, navigating corridors and customs, just to throw a magnificent sight right at the moment they entered the city proper. A newcomer’s delight. The thing soon-to-be-crushed dreams were made of.
Amelia would have been the same if she did not know the truth about this place, about the North Sunwell Company’s brutality and the exploitation that created everything here. The beauty was only rock-deep. Everything else was mud and grime.
Then again, she had fallen just like all those others into a hopeful trap of her own: This place was going to reunite her with her girlfriend.
“I’m doing this for you, Ed,” she whispered to herself.
Now she was here, and now it was time to begin her quest. She had no plan, no lodging, only a photograph of an old city map sitting gently at the periphery of her HUD. Her optimism was only matched by the sheer uncertainty of it all.
Before any of that, though, she needed to deal with the fact that the Fourland Growth Corporation had brought her into Fleettwixt and expected certain things from her. Because they were already here to collect.
At the bottom of the marble steps, down at street level, stood one human man in a large hat and a ridiculous pin-stripe suit. Arms crossed, pencil mustache, and thick glasses that obscured his eyes from view. A long wooden cane. His toothy grin conveyed all she needed to know—this was the man assigned to pick her up.
So she headed over and made sure not to make eye contact until the moment he said with a creaky voice, “Amelia Bluewood. Glad you made it.”
She did not make eye contact. Kept on walking past until the human tapped her on the shoulder with his cane.
“Hey, you’re Amelia, right?” he asked, his voice like slime all over her ears.
“What?” Amelia turned to him with a jolt of feigned surprise. “Oh, yes, I’m Amelia. And you?”
The grin widened. “Theo. Welcome to Fleettwixt.” The look in his eyes was something along the lines of, geez, what happened to this girl’s face, but the rest of his expression was as inviting as he wanted it to appear.
“It’s a nice city.”
“So you had a nice trip, from, from, uh...?”
“Rockmund,” she answered.
“Rockmund? Holy damn, that’s far. Didn’t realize we went out that far. Well, anyway. Ought to come with me.”
“They didn’t tell me about you.”
He chuckled softly, as if to offer friendly reassurance. “I’m your Fourland guy. Who else would I be?”
Theo beckoned her and she followed him away from the steps, deeper into the city from which she would not return. Not if she succeeded, and certainly not if she failed.
Out here in the city, the crowds were beyond anything Amelia had ever seen before. Entire villages worth of people crammed into a single city block. And the people here were of such a colorful mix. Fleettwixt, nominally an elven Home City, welcomed people of all shapes and shades, of races she’d only read about. Orcs, dwarves, humans, goblins, felids, nagas, fauns... She thought she even saw a myxo transforming off to the other side of the street, though it was too quick to know for sure. Almost all the glossal races--—those intelligent beings that founded towns and traded knowledge—were represented here in some form or another; if not in-person, then up on the flashy painted billboards, or crooning through radios from buzzy open-window restaurants.
Everyone around wore business suits and smart winter dresses. No burlap sacks sewn together with animal furs, no overalls or torn-up hoodie hand-me-downs. Just style and class. Nice hats adorned on almost every head.
No one stopping, no one doing, just well-paced walking from place to place.
Anything like this normally would have overwhelmed Amelia utterly. But this time, in this place, was different because Amelia had a goal. Every shop she passed, every gutter with steam rising up, was just another distraction from her main—her only—objective.
Her girlfriend was here somewhere.
And Amelia was going to find—
Amelia bumped right into a seven-foot-tall orc.
She tensed up, braced for impact, but when she turned her head he was already long out of sight in the crowd. It was the miracle of city life, Amelia thought, that bumping shoulders with an orc did not automatically mean fists were about to fly. It had been a long time since she could slip through a place without a fight, but here, it was like she was invisible.
Theo noticed and let out an oozing chuckle. “You best be careful ‘round these parts.”
“Yes, sir,” she said. The extra “sir” went a long way, because Theo eyed her for a few minutes longer, as if to express some interest in her beyond the concerns of an employer.
Every step he took, he banged the cane on the ground, even though to her eyes he had no mobility issues to speak of. The thing was purely ornamental, an extension of his overwhelmingly gaudy attire.
If this was the kind of man who inducted new arrivals into Fourland, she wondered just how deep this enterprise would go.
Theo led Amelia down an alleyway and a long passage of cramped walkways. And there, the magnificence of the business district disappeared in an instant. The marble became dirt and the bushes became garbage bags. But even here, people were everywhere. But fewer of them were hurrying to their next location. Many lurked, loitered, chatting with each other or squatting down while they read the papers. A few turned to glance, then stare, at her.
The air smelled of sweat and burnt mana. A faint hum of noise reverberated in every direction, never ceasing as far as they ventured down this blocky alleyway. A rat skittered by on the ground and took a curious look at her before shoving itself through a crack in the wall.
She was not used to places so unabashedly dirty. Places that looked and smelled so unappealing. Every place she had seen today was likely magnitudes cleaner than the mud-covered livestock and smoke-filled taverns she was used to. But even if it was cleaner, it did not feel like it.
And the sound was most certainly too much for her to handle. A long gray train flew by on the railing overhead, roaring so loudly that everything else was drowned out. Then, after a few seconds, the train was gone and the city soundscape returned to Amelia’s ears, still humming away. A radio played through an open window two stories up, playing that horrible North Sunwell Company jingle as it moved to a sponsor break.
She entered her system settings and turned on the audio dampener to preserve her sanity.
The two went through a small passageway obscured by a stack of cardboard boxes. A dark rocky path that looked like some long-forgotten, long-abandoned monastery hallway.
Theo looked a lot less outwardly pleasant than when he picked her up, without even a word to change his mood. The warm welcoming face had darkened into the kind of sour man she had been expecting all along. Whatever he was planning, she knew it was about to come soon.
“I’m a little hungry,” Amelia lied. “Do they have food at the Fourland headquarters?”
“Yeah, sure, kid,” he said.
“Actually, will I be working today? They didn’t tell me anything. All I know is I’m a harvester.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
They exited the passageway and found themselves in some sort of discard pile, where rusty, broken items were piled high in the space between two apartment buildings. Brown, gray, and the sharp odor of dried-up mana far past a usable state.
No way out except for where they just came from. No other doors in sight.
“How long have you been in Fleettwixt, Mister Theo?”
He turned his head back for just a moment, just to take a look at her through those thick glasses. “Fifteen years, kid.”
“Do you like it?”
Theo stopped in his tracks. “Let’s cut the chit-chat,” he said. “Hand over the package.”
“You got the goods, right?”
Amelia shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Theo sighed. “I kinda suspected you’d be one of these.” He tapped his cane in just the right way, and a curved, knife-like blade popped out near the bottom.
As he said this, out from the piles of metal scrap and from behind in the passageway came four men—three humans and a dwarf—each holding bats, crowbars, and other blunt objects. Whatever they could scrounge up, Amelia guessed. The back-up looked shoddy, dirty. Theo, though, dressed sharp and flashy. Looked like he had showered this morning. She realized the scenario here before she even asked a real question.
“I don’t understand,” Amelia told Theo in feigned ignorance. “I thought I was going to the dorm.”
He sighed. “Listen. Fourland brought you here for one thing, and that was to smuggle in our package. If you don’t have it, you definitely ain’t gonna work with us. Or anyone, for that matter.” He smiled gently, with sickening levels of fake sympathy.
One of the men yanked Amelia’s satchel from her back and dumped the contents on the ground below. A toothbrush, a thick diary, a change purse, an extra pair of shoes, a couple changes of clothes, a mirror, and a battery-lamp. It looked particularly pathetic when displayed all out on the ground like this, just how little she had on her.
“It’s in the book,” Theo said.
The goon stepped on the mirror, cracking it, and took the diary from the ground. He opened its latch to reveal the hollowed-out gap in the middle.
“Soul gems,” he said. “Boss, it’s a bunch of soul gems.”
“Of course it is. What else would Fourland smuggle into Fleetwixt, you dolt?”
Theo sighed once again. “Thank you so much for your cooperation, Amelia. You did a really good thing, and you’ll make a great harvester.” He took the fake diary from the other man and looked with glee at the tiny glittering gems inside. “Unfortunately, you made me angry, so I’m going to have to charge you. Maybe we can sort—” He stopped, suddenly. “What the hell is this?”
“They’re empty!” Theo shouted. “The soul gems are empty!”
Amelia gritted her teeth.
She balled up her black-gloved right hand, and let the facade of naivety vanish with a rage-filled glare taking its place.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” she said. “Years of my life planning for the right moment to let loose, and here it is. I’m a little giddy.” No outward smile, but joy on the inside.
Theo took a step back without even realizing it. “Kid, what did you do with these soul gems? Who do you work for?”
“I’m on a mission. Two parts. I suppose I should tell you.”
“Not sure if I care, kid,” Theo said.
“First, I lost my girlfriend, and she’s somewhere in this city, waiting for me. I haven’t seen her in a year, and I’m desperate to finally kiss that beautiful forehead.
“Second,” she continued, “I’m going to destroy the North Sunwell Company. They’ve eviscerated my homeland, smashed its beauty into quarries and mana farms. They are responsible for—” She gestured to her face— “for this. So, since they control Fleettwixt, I thought I’d return the favor and obliterate this whole place with my own fists.”
The five men responded with stunned silence. She had not yet activated any of her abilities and they already knew what was about to come.
“I thought you were just a soul mule,” Theo said, finally. “But actually you’re nuts. What the hell does any of this have to do with your little revenge thing?”
“You’re too low here to really understand,” Amelia told him. “Fourland seems like just another criminal enterprise to you. Just a good way to make some coin. But it’s all connected. Fourland supplies the North Sunwell Company with mana on the books, and souls under the table. You five are pawns in the expansion of a colonial empire, and I’m sure you don’t even care.”
“Listen, I hate the North Sunwell Company as much as anyone,” he said, “But I can’t go back empty-handed. No soul gems, no buy. Either tell me what you did with the real souls, or I’ll have to give my bosses your head as a very sincere apology gift.”
Theo stared at her, holding his knife with a tight grip. Each of the four other men advanced on Amelia, closing the gap between them and preventing any sort of escape she could have made.
Not that she ever planned on making one.
“The souls? I consumed them,” she said.
“I absorbed them to power up my system. Easier to smuggle them into the city that way, I thought. And now I have a lot of empty soul gems all for myself. For you.”
One of the humans took a step too close—
And instantly felt the cold embrace of a seismic fist to the face.
He fell to the ground and splayed his limbs over the dirt.
“Shame,” Amelia said. “I hoped you’d give me more info first.” She pushed up her jacket sleeves and flexed her right arm—segmented, cracked, and made of pure stone. “But you’re all just street scum anyway. No point in interrogating you.”
She flexed her rocky fingers and each of the goons took a step back.
“Wh-what are you?” Theo was frightened to the point that his cool, slimy voice had completely evaporated. The real menace here was her.
“You see,” she explained, “I’m not exactly human. Not human at all, really. You know about golems?”
“Wha— You’re a—”
“Yeah, I’m a golem,” she said. “I may look the part, but I’m as human as a mudbeast.”
He did not have a witty comeback. No desperate information to give her. Just a look of horror.
“Now I’m going to kill you all.”
Amelia Bluewood’s revenge began now.
For Ed, for all of Rockmund, she would stop at nothing.
Her right eye glowed bright purple as she reached within herself to boot her higher-level systems.
Combat Module activating.
Scan Module activating.
Running system scan...
Welcome back, Amelia. :D I hope you have a nice time.
“It’s been a long time,” she said to herself. “Let’s finish them quick.”