The bus lurched to a halt. The doors opened and I heard the sound of people scuffling out.
The conductor yelled for the passengers to walk in an orderly manner but most of them just ignored him and shoved their way out.
The conductor turned to us with a giant smile as we left the VIP compartment. He fawned over us, offered us future deals and discounts, and asked if our journey had gone well. We assured him that everything had been fine and promised to seek his company’s services in the future.
I stole another glance at the laborers powering the bus as we got off.
Empty eyes. Sallow cheeks. Lifeless expressions.
I clenched my fists and felt my resolve strengthen.
We wordlessly walked down the road towards Farden. Like any other city in the Air Kingdom, it didn’t have walls. We passed the security checkpoints where Kai flashed his magic paper, and entered the city.
Kai and Amy took Zoe to an Inn to help treat her. Even though she looked a lot better after spending a couple of days with us, she was still just skin and bones. Years of surviving on drugs and nutrients had left her with a sunken expression and a pale, sickly face that wouldn’t disappear after a day or two of healthy eating.
While they began trying to fix Zoe herself, Runir and I were going to start executing our plan to fix the system that had brought her to that position in the first place.
We silently walked down the street, paying attention to the conversations floating around. Eavesdropping was a great way to gather intelligence.
“…Breize Labs are showing off their latest project.”
“Yeah, heard it’s their biggest project in decades.”
“My brother works in the finance ministry. He said it cost a fortune!”
“They’ve been keeping it under wraps too. No one knows anything about it.”
“I heard from a friend that the Goddess herself helped design it.”
“Really? If that’s true then it’s going to revolutionize everything! The Goddess gave us roads and cars too. And the factories…”
“Remember the Breize Trams?”
“What about the Castle Hoppers?”
“Yeah, course I remember! Who doesn’t?”
“Well, one thing’s for sure. This year’s exhibition is gonna be unforgettable!”
The crowd of pedestrians thinned as we approached our first destination. We stepped into an alley beside a gold painted building and melted into the shadows.
Runir turned to face me, his hood pulled down to cover his face and making it almost impossible to see him in the dark alley.
“Racor Labs hires contractors to guard their most important locations. The files should be on the top floor but they might have hidden something in the basement too so I’ll check there just to be sure,” he said, pulling out a manhole cover and dropping into the sewers.
I didn’t follow him though, since I had to go up.
I jumped onto the side of the building and kicked off onto the other wall. Then I kicked that wall too and landed at the top of a three story building across my target. I ran to the edge and jumped across at the last second, landing safely at the roof of the Racor headquarters.
There were a couple of guards there but none of them posed a threat. I knocked out a bald headed man and a thin woman, both of whom were wearing dark green robes with a blue tree trunk on them. Probably the contractors that Runir had mentioned.
They weren’t even level 100. Racor Labs weren’t rich enough to hire any real firepower. They were, however, rich enough to lay traps, so I made my way down carefully.
There were a few wires and sensors on the way but I avoided them or diffused them by stealing parts of their mechanisms with my Ability.
My Ability was ridiculously versatile. I could steal pretty much anything from anyone. Of course there were conditions too.
For one thing, I could only steal things that actually had an owner. So I couldn’t use my Ability to snatch up a rock besides the road. But the really troublesome part was that I had to know who the owner was too.
In this case, I just thought of the owner as ‘Racor Labs’ and pictured the mechanism of the traps and stole parts of it. I’d picked enough locks back on Earth to know how most contraptions of this kind worked so it wasn’t tough at all.
At the end of the first flight of stairs, there was a door with a black bolt of lightning drawn on it. There was a guard standing next to them but I knocked her out with a quick punch to the head and made my way inside.
There were a few more traps but I got past them easily. I walked over to the shelves in the corner of the room and pulled out a couple of files.
I actually couldn’t read all that well back on Earth. But on Erath, I’d somehow managed to learn pretty quickly which was surprising because they used regular old English here!
Amy told me it was because my INT stat had gone up so I could learn things faster, but it was pretty weird feeling myself become smarter. You usually never noticed yourself improve or become better but on Erath, I’d felt myself change way too quickly.
…Breize Labs project Starbus…hundred thousand laborers dispatched…funds released…cooperate…will of the Goddess…Observatory off limits…Goddess’s room…contacted Duke Felity for approval…affirmation received, commencing research on application of Air magic for…
I closed the file and put it away in my Inventory. This was what I’d come for.
I turned to leave the room but I felt something snap against the back of my neck. It hurt and I staggered, swinging the sword in my hand behind me.
There was a loud shout and then a gurgling sound as something fell to the ground.
A brown haired man lay unconscious on the floor, his hands held against his stomach. Although I’d hit him with the flat of my blade, the difference in levels was just too high.
I adjusted my mask and dusted off my gray robes. My back had a gray tornado sewn on it which I had made sure to show the last guard before knocking him out.
I left the room and dashed up the stairs. I jumped down from the roof into the alley and changed into my normal clothes and waited. Soon enough, Runir pulled himself out of the gutters and changed into something less grimy.
Then we walked out of the alley and disappeared into the crowd.
“Funny how it all came back to them in the end,” Runir mused.
I nodded. Who would have thought that all the files would point to them? Must be fate.
“I love stealing from the same people twice,” I said, staring at the billboard outside the building we were standing on. “Especially when they’re assholes.”
“The files from the Racor, Ponel, and Haku Labs say Breize’s latest project is being held here. Once we know what it is, we can proceed with the next part of the plan,” said Runir, pulling down his hood. “My Ability is telling me that the project should be in the compound next to the main building. I’ll head on over there and see what it is, you go over to the offices and see what else you can find. We’ll meet back at the Inn when we’re done.”
He jumped down and landed in the shadows, vanishing from view. I took a deep breath before covering my face with the same gray mask that I’d worn while robbing the other Labs.
I walked across the roof and sat down next to the glass panels covering the center. Runir had said that glass was only made in the Fire Kingdom so these panels had probably cost quite a fortune.
Oh well, I thought.
The glass shattered as I drove my elbow through it. I jumped into the building, ignoring the shards pricking against my skin. They couldn’t get through my Defense so I didn’t have to worry about getting hurt.
I heard noises coming from down the hallway so I ran the other way. A door came up at the end of the room and I kicked it open and went inside.
It was a large office with gold and silver plated ornaments everywhere. A few monster skins lined the floor while a bright chandelier full of glowing stones hung from the ceiling.
An old man sat on golden chair beside an expensive looking desk. He was glaring at me and had a dagger pointed at my chest.
“Who are you?” he snarled.
I didn’t answer. Instead, my eyes wandered to the top of his desk where I saw a shiny golden plaque with something written on them.
Mr.Valence Casso, Owner of Casso Factories and Manufacturing.
I turned to him. This was the guy responsible for the suffering of thousands of laborers. He was the one responsible for Zoe’s pain, for her nightmares, and her insanity.
“Ha, got you now!” he said triumphantly.
He was pointing a large air gun at me. I hadn’t noticed him reach for it because I had been looking away. This one had a much larger barrel and would probably be a lot more dangerous than the one I had in my Inventory.
Not that I cared of course.
I slowly walked up to the old man. He blinked in surprise but recovered quickly.
“Stop! I’m warning you, this thing can blow off the head of a baby sky wyvern!” he threatened, thrusting the gun out further.
I kept walking. He kept glaring.
Then he shot me. And I shrugged it off.
He stared at me in disbelief and fired off a few more rounds. I felt something hitting my body over and over again but it wasn’t even enough to make me wince in pain.
He threw away the gun and stood up. I met his gaze just as he smirked and his eyes began glowing red.
My mind started feeling murky. My vision blurred and I stumbled a little. For a split second, I heard strange sounds from all around me and felt myself drifting into the darkness.
But then it passed.
Casso had a frozen smile on his face. His lips were quivering and he was pointing at me with a shaky finger.
What was that? Was it his Ability? No wonder he runs a factory full of slaves, I thought.
“H-how did you…just how high is your level?” he stammered.
I stepped up close to him and pressed my mask against his face. He was trembling now and had fallen back onto his seat.
“P-please let me go. You can take whatever you want. Just please don’t-”
I smashed my head into his. He slumped to the floor, unconscious.
This isn’t over, I thought as I stared at him. I’m going to make you pay for everything soon enough.
I stepped past his body and picked up the files from his desk. I read them over and realized that they were what I was looking for so I put them into my Inventory and made my way to the window.
I heard footsteps outside the door. It slammed open just as I jumped outside, my gray robe fluttering in the wind.
“Daddy! Daddy! We’re going to be late. Hurry up!” cried the little girl running down the street.
“Wait up kiddo! Your old man isn’t as young as he used to be,” said the middle aged man running after her.
He was out of breath and sweat trickled down his forehead but there was a huge smile on his face. He chuckled before shaking his head and running after his daughter.
“Honey, you shouldn’t have,” said a young black haired woman clinging to a young silver haired man.
The man held a bouquet of flowers in his hand and was smiling affectionately at his girlfriend as they walked down the road in the same direction as the father and daughter from before.
In fact, almost everyone was moving in that direction. People of all ages, shapes, and sizes were walking in the same direction, chatting and smiling at each other and giving out relaxed vibes.
These people were happy. They were going to an event where they could have fun with their friends and family, unwind from their stressful lives, and marvel at the latest gizmos and gadgets.
The people of this kingdom loved science and engineering. For most of them, the latest technology was more than just a cool new toy or tool that would make their lives easier.
No, for them, it was a part of who they were. Their national identity revolved around science and technology. The Air Kingdom was known for it’s technological prowess. Their scientists effectively ran the country. Even their Goddess was a scientist.
So the Exhibition wasn’t just a fun family outing or a cool show. It was a religious festival and a national holiday. It was a big part of their culture. The Exhibition was featured in books and plays. In prism casts and campfire stories. It was the talk of the town for months. People looked forward to it for the entire year.
Of course, they also loved to talk about the event itself. The new buses or washing machines. The latest in Air tech or new ways to apply Breize stones.
And the main attraction-the Goddess’s secret project. Personally designed by her alongside the finest engineers of Breize Labs, the Goddess’s secret projects always revolutionized the technology of this world so it was always a topic of great debate.
Even now, as I walked towards the bus stop leading to the shrine, I heard people wondering what this year’s project would be.
Someone suggested that it could be another home appliance. Maybe a new weapon? Perhaps an improved car or a bus?
Made me wonder how they’d react if they knew I had the answer in my Inventory. Might just crush me before we could even start the plan.
“You ready?” said Kai as I passed by him.
I nodded under my sunhat before pulling it down over my forehead and walking away. No point in letting anyone know we were together just yet.
We reached the bus station but I ended up waiting near the side. The others boarded their buses first while I went over the plan in my head. Taking a deep breath, I boarded the last bus to the Shrine and nervously watched the scenery pass by outside.
The bus lurched to a stop and I got up from my seat. I got off with the rest of the crowd but unlike them, I wasn’t laughing with my friends or cracking jokes with my family. I wasn’t here for fun.
I stole a glance at the laborers bound at the front of the bus just as the doors closed. I clenched my fists and joined the crowd ahead.
In the distance I saw a tube like the one we’d used to get to the main island from the second anchor city. People took turns getting on the platform before vanishing into the clouds above.
I saw the others board the platforms and head on up before me. I waited until the crowd thinned a bit before stepping onto the gray platform. Air gushed out beneath the platform and we shot up the tube.
The crowd of people below kept shrinking until we reached the clouds and everything became white.
“Mommy, look!” cried a little girl as we emerged from the clouds.
When I saw what she was pointing at, even I couldn’t help but take in a sharp breath.
It’s beautiful, I thought.
You’d think that after you’ve seen one floating island, you’ve kinda seen them all but this one was stunning.
Water tumbled down the sides before vanishing into the misty clouds below. There were layers of glowing rocks and metals below the surface, casting a rainbow of colors in every direction. The surface itself was built in tiers, with a forest of strange gray and silver colored trees lining the sides.
Some houses built with the same glowing rocks and shiny silver wood stood among the trees but most of them were concentrated in the center around the most amazing thing in sight…
A tower built with spiraling layers of glowing stones. It shot up even further into the sky, its top too high to see from where we stood. There were holes in the tower from where all sorts of smoke puffed out. Every few seconds, a bright light would shine down from the direction of the top of the tower, illuminating the smoke or making the shiny metals and stones sparkle.
The island became larger and larger until we finally reached the ground and got off. I followed the crowd down the road leading towards the tower. All the houses we passed were empty. Even the forests didn’t have any animals in them.
A beam of light shone down from up high, making the spectacle in front of us shimmer and sparkle in a myriad of colors.
Crowds of people bustled about stalls full of weird foods that I had never seen before. There were a bunch of small stages where people dressed in lab coats or gray robes pointed to their machines and described them for the cheering crowds.
Several important looking people sat on a raised platform. In the corner of the first row sat a bald middle aged man in a gray suit. He was talking to a white haired old lady in a yellow dress.
Beside them sat an old man with a long, flowing white beard who was facing a group of teenagers. The teenagers were all wearing the same black uniforms and were listening to the old man’s words intently. The old man waved his hand and the teenagers dispersed into the crowds below.
Next to him was a boy with a gray crown on his head. The boy was tinkering with something in his lap while smiling innocently. He looked at the young woman that was sitting beside him and pouted.
The young woman sighed before reaching over to fix the boy’s glasses and saying something to him while pointing at the cube in his hands. Her long gray robes swept over the boy’s shiny metal throne just as I caught a glimpse of the gray tornado symbol on her back.
The young woman sat down on her seat before smiling at the young man to her left. He was wearing blue robes with the words ‘LeAgua’ emblazoned on them. He laughed at something the young woman said before taking a sip of wine from the goblet in his hand.
The rest of the first row was filled with people wearing the same gray robes as the young woman. Unlike everyone else, these people weren’t chatting or laughing. Instead, most of them nervously tapped their armrests or bit their nails.
The people sitting behind the first row wore gray, black, yellow or blue robes. Most of them were quiet, not daring to disturb the people up front. I spotted a familiar old man but I chose to ignore him for now.
As the Exhibition wore on and the crowd became even louder, a group of gray robed figures appeared from inside the tower.
Suddenly, everyone went silent. The gray robed magicians pointed to the large stage in front of the raised platform where the important guests sat, and a strange glow appeared underneath the stage.
Air gushed out from below the stage as it began to rise. It kept rising and rising until it was taller than most of the buildings I’d seen in this world.
Murmurs started passing through the crowd as the people began to surround the white box in the center of the Exhibition. Anyone could guess what this was.
I saw Amy and the others take their designated positions so I made my way to my own. It was time to begin.
The gray robed young woman said something to the blue robed man and he laughed in return. She turned to the boy on her other side, bowed and jumped onto the raised stage.
“Citizens of the illustrious Air Kingdom as well as honored guests from abroad, on behalf of Breize Labs and the Air Goddess’s Shrine, I welcome you to the 500th annual Breize Science Exhibition! Thank you for choosing to spend your time with us here today, and trust me when I say that you will not regret it,” she said, holding a gray rod in her hand. The rod glowed as she poured magic into it, and propelled her voice across the exhibition grounds.
The crowd cheered and clapped but it still couldn’t drown out the young woman’s voice.
“I am the chief engineer of Breize Labs, Ezure Taiker, and I will be your host for today,” she continued.
“With us we have the esteemed Duke Felity of the Air Kingdom.” She pointed at the bald man in the corner of the front row.
“The honorable Countess Gratif from the Earth Kingdom.” She gestured towards the white haired lady.
“The headmaster of the Academy, Professor Pandorium,” she said, bowing to the bearded old man who waved in reply.
“The chief marketing officer of the LeAgua company, Mr. Lazure.” The blue robed man stood up and waved to the crowd.
“And of course, His Majesty the King, Galemor the fifteenth.” She bowed to the young boy sitting on the metal throne who acknowledged her with a wave of his hand before going back to tinkering with his cube.
The woman turned to the crowd again with a wide smile on her face.
“As you all know, this exhibition was started by our Goddess as a way to showcase the latest technological innovations and to encourage development within the scientific community not just in the Air Kingdom, but all over Erath,” she said.
The crowd started cheering again.
“And today, dear guests, is a very special day. To commemorate the 500th edition of this great event, the Goddess has created a very special gift for the people of Erath.”
The crowd cheered even louder.
“As someone who has worked with Breize Labs for her entire life, I can assure you that this project is unlike anything that you have ever seen before! It will revolutionize the world!”
The crowd went crazy.
“Dear guests, today history shall be made! Today, you will witness the dawn of a new era. Your children will learn about the events of this day. Your friends will envy you for being here today. Dear guests, after you see what lies inside this box, you will never look at the world in the same way again. Dear guests, before you right now stands the first ever-”
“Hey, someone get that kid off of there!” shouted someone from the crowd.
“You can’t go up there kid!” shouted someone else.
“Wah, it’s so high up!” exclaimed the little girl as she reached the top of the ladder and stood on the stage next to the young woman.
“C-cindy! Get down here this instant! How could you go off like that?” shouted her father as he grabbed the ladder and started climbing it.
“Daddy, daddy, look! It’s so pretty!” the little girl said with a smile.
“Hey sweetie, what are you doing here?” said the gray robed woman as she gestured to the guards to stay away.
She smiled at the little girl as she walked over to her.
“Waiting for daddy!” the little girl said, confidently.
The young woman’s smile grew. “Aren’t you just adorable!” She reached over to pat the girl’s head.
“C-cindy…get…down…here…this…instant…” said the middle aged man climbing the ladder.
“Aw, you hear that little Cindy? Your daddy will be mad if you don’t listen to him, you know?” said the young woman.
The little girl shook her head. “It’s okay, daddy will forgive me!” She tapped her head as if in thought. “Hey miss, are you the Goddess?” She stared at the young woman with bright eyes.
“No, no!” laughed the young woman. “But I work with her sometimes!” she said proudly.
“Really?” said the girl excitedly. “My big sister wanted to say something to her but she couldn’t meet her. Could you pass on the message for her?”
The young woman blinked in surprise. She looked into the little girl’s sparkling eyes and smiled.
“Sure, tell me,” she said, bringing her ear close to the girl’s mouth.
“Well she said,” the little girl whispered. “Fuck you.”
The ‘middle aged dad’ swung over the edge of the stage and rushed at the gray robed woman. He grabbed her by the neck while she still had a frozen smile on her face.
“What the-” cried the woman, but her voice was cut off by the ‘middle aged dad.’
“Shush, this is the fun part. You wouldn’t wanna miss it,” he said, smirking at her.
He reached for his clothes and pulled them off. The little girl beside him did the same.
But surprisingly, instead of being naked, the two now wore a set of white and gray robes and smiling masks.
The people on the raised platform stood up and some of them pointed at the masked figures. But before they could cast any magic, a pair of gray robed figures walked out from the last row and picked up the boy king.
Then they jumped onto the stage.
“How could they-?”
The boy stared at the cube in his hands before looking at the figure holding his other hand. The lady smiled before reaching for her clothes and apparently pulling them off. The boy’s eyes widened as the woman suddenly had a strange mask on her face.
The young man on his right held a bouquet in his hands. He sniffed it and smiled.
The white bearded old man, the blue robed young man, the white haired woman and nearly everyone else on the platform readied their magic and prepared to fire. The guards also slowly closed in on the stage.
The silver haired young man threw the bouquet at the platform and the flowers suddenly split. The petals scattered and surrounded the guests like a prison. The bearded old man fired a powerful bolt of darkness that dissolved inside the wall of petals.
The others tried to shoot their magic too but they couldn’t get through the petals. A gray robed woman tried to walk through them but got pushed back.
The silver haired man also tore off his clothes to reveal the same outfit with the white mask.
The man who had been pretending to be a middle aged father thrust the gray robed woman into his companion’s hand and picked up the boy king.
The boy looked like he was about to cry but he bit his lips and focused on the cube in his hand.
“You were right!” said the masked man as he faced the gray robed woman. “We are going to make history today!”
I stepped out of the crowd as the people began jeering and cursing.
“Now, now settle down everyone. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to our cute little king now would we?” he said, smirking as he pressed a dagger against the terrified kid’s throat.
The crowd went quiet.
“Now that’s better! I guess you do have a shred of humanity in you, after all,” he chuckled.
“You fiend, let His Majesty go!” snarled the gray robed woman being held by Amy.
“Fiend? Me? No, no, you are confusing me with someone else. I am not a fiend, dear missy. Because I am certainly not as nice and welcoming as a fiend. No, my good lady. We’re something far worse.” He leaned closer to her.
“We’re the monsters that terrorize monsters. The criminals envied by all the filthiest members of society. The notorious thieves who have stolen from every rich bastard in the world. Street urchins sing our praises, nobles curse our parents, and young men and women swoon over out names! We’re the challengers of evil and the purveyors of natural beauty. The connoisseurs of loot and booty, of both kinds if you know what I mean, and the lovers of all things bare! We are…” He paused for effect.
“The stripsters! Iya ha ha ha ha ha ha!”
What the fuck is up with that laugh Runir? I thought, glancing at the strange scene in front of me again.
The guards ran towards the stage, leaving the gates unguarded. The crowds gawked at the weird act on stage while the dignitaries stared at it with disbelief. .
What should have been a national day of celebration ended up getting hijacked by a bunch of perverts wearing creepy masks. Anyone would be surprised by this turn of events.
Well, whatever. Phase 1 is complete. On to phase 2.
I changed into the gray robes worn by the scientists of Breize Labs and walked straight into the tower. I looked up at the entrance and noticed the word, “Observatory,” written above it.
I heard Runir laughing again so I hurried inside as fast as I could.
He really needs to work on his evil laugh…