Athgar heard distant sounds though they were indistinguishable. An animal, a human, two things clashing together—it could be anything. He didn't bother, allowing his own thoughts to wander through the nothingness.
And there it was again, getting closer this time. He realised his eyes were hovering over words, seeing them but not actually reading them.
Honestly, he was exhausted. He wanted rest and isolation from the world. These past few weeks were beginning to take a toll on him, especially with the fact that—
"Your Highness!" Thomas pulled him out of him head.
Athgar turned his head to lock eye contact with the man who just called his name. Significantly taller and tanned skin. His sharp jaw implied intimidation and authority. His dark hair was greasing from the lack of showering and sleep.
He spoke again. "Minister Williams asked you a question, Your Highness." Seeing how Athgar wasn't paying attention this whole time, he repeated for his sake. "Do you agree with the monetary distribution method proposed by the Thofarian Council? Without a single doubt?"
From his large computer monitor, four faces of old men in suits continued to stare at the king, their patience clearly thin from waiting.
"I—Um, right," Athgar read the papers he had been holding since earlier. Increasing his sight to ten percent, he sped through ten papers in less than thirty seconds.
In simple terms, it talked about distributing a hundred thousand Gens to anyone affected by the Invasion which happened roughly a month ago. University students and families of four or more who lost their homes will quickly be moved into new ones while having their rent paid in advanced for the next six months by the Thofarian and Yogevian Ministry of Finance
"I agree." Athgar straightened his papers. The mask and coat he had been wearing to conceal his appearance since the start of the meeting was urging him to rush; it was hot and he was sweating and the mask was chafing into his face. Usually this wasn't enough to bother him but today was strangely different. "This proposition will be effective immediately."
"As His Highness commands," said all of the four men on screen.
"If this is all for today, then I grant you dismissal." Athgar put away his papers.
The four ministers of Terraviv bowed to their heads to their king before Thomas hung up the video call. Athgar took off his mask, leaning back and appreciating the air on his face. Save for Thomas, all he needed for ten minutes right now was silence. There was still so much to do, so much to think about. Yes, he was young and powerful, but even an Immortal being needed rest.
"You haven't been yourself, Your Highness."
Athgar could laugh, but his exhaustion could only allow a sharp snort. "Well, I'd say the same for you." He stood and took off the coat. "I've been awake for a week or more. You've been awake for two days. We are in dire need of a fucking rest."
No one spoke a word for a full minute. It was Thomas who found his voice again. "However, we can't."
"We can't," Athgar repeated. "The city needs us."
It was below five degrees, and it will keep on declining. Rust, who let his long brunette hair down to warm his neck, never complained and did his best not to tremble in this punishing weather. He really should have donned on some thicker clothing, though he couldn't do that at the moment because with him stood three men.
He stole a glance, their faces were intimidating and frozen in a frown. They weren't his friends, nor were they interested in establishing a rapport. The only reason why they gathered was because of their boss's orders.
Before them, they had their gazes on a worn down house. It showed its porch rotting and the windows and walls filled with graffiti. The front yard was neglected, leaving untended grass in its wake. Moss and dust began to consume the car. And most of all, what really put off Rust was a line of baby clothes placed over the porch's railings, implying the man they were collecting money from had kids.
"All right, you know how it goes," said the tallest and the only bearded man. Rust didn't know his name, and it normally remained that way with the other guys he worked with. "Plan A—we go in and collect the money. If he ain't got no cash to present, then we move to plan B—we drag his ass out and take him to boss for organ harvest. Y'all understand?"
"Yeah," said the other two men.
"Mm." Rust slipped on his brass knuckles. It still bothered him how he was not offered the privilege to hold a gun, and yet happy at the same time anyway because he never learned how to use it.
He stuck close with the bearded man while the other two men went around the house in case their client decides to run through the back door. The bearded man gestured for Rust to knock on the door.
He obeyed, rapping the door as loud as he could.
"Mr. Freesburth!" The bearded man called out their client's name, drawing out his gun. "Mr. Freesburth, your payment's been long overdue! Give us what we want and we can be on our way."
No answer. Only silence.
Rust kept his calm, a skill he's getting used to since he entered this shady business. Once the bearded man gave him the go signal, Rust summoned ten percent of his strength to knock down the door with an effortless kick.
One skill he couldn't get used to though, like the rest of the people he worked with, was dealing with the stench pouring from the door. Shit, piss, and something rotten, Rust and the bearded man cough and gagged the second the smell hit them. They pressed their sleeved arm against their noses, reluctantly entering their client's home.
"Fuck's sake, this place has its own ecosystem."
He wasn't wrong; clothes, furnitures, food wrappings, used containers, foods covered in molds, used syringes, and so on were scattered all over the floor. More graffiti stained the walls, and a little bit below were drawings made clearly by kids, further confirming who lived in this hell of a place. Cockroaches hid at the presence of Rust and his colleague and flies flew around the pungent atmosphere.
"I know it's none of my business, but what's this client's story?" Rust couldn't help himself but ask.
The bearded man didn't seem irritated by the question. He answered honestly. "Not a clue. But from what we can see, I reckon he was trying to get his life back on track, failed, and just kept escaping reality till—well, we'll find out soon enough."
Without lowering his guard, both of them carefully scanned each room. Rust wanted to get out as soon as he can; no matter how much he was breathing through his sleeve, the smell still found its way into his nostrils. It didn't take long before he was beginning to taste the air.
At last, Rust kept himself from being excited when he heard a sound coming from what could be the bathroom. The bearded man heard it too, positioning himself in front of the door. Waiting a bit, he then gave Rust the go signal.
Rust opened the door swiftly, the bearded man stepped inside with his gun ready to shoot. Supposedly, he was going to say his usual threats, but he froze and widened his eyes instead. From where Rust was standing, he couldn't see what the bearded man was seeing.
Curious, he looked inside only to have the same reaction as his colleague.
"Oh Gods, this is so wrong," mumbled Rust to himself, his caring side prompting him to go inside.
On the toilet sat a boy, who was probably six years old, holding his naked toddler sister. Yes, Rust had a mission, but whoever left the kids in this state needed to have a special place in hell. They were covered in dirt, they were skinny, and the boy's eyes didn't have a single light of happiness in them like how any child should have. He had nothing, like staring into the dark abyss.
"Hey there. You okay?" Lowering himself on one knee, Rust tried to talk to him in his friendliest tone, but to no avail. The boy merely stared on with blank eyes. "Your sister looks cold. Don't you have anything to cover her with?"
"Kid," said the bearded man, referring to Rust. "We gotta keep looking for their dad. Come on. We'll deal with the kids later. They ain't goin' nowhere."
Rust sighed, knowing his colleague was right. Now was not the right time to get emotional.
"Can you tell us where daddy is? We just want to talk to him."
He didn't expect anything. Despite that, the boy actually lifted an arm very slowly and pointed to his left. Rust nodded and smiled as thanks.
The direction the boy pointed led them to the only room in the house left unchecked, which was what could be the whole family's bedroom.
The bed lacked its mattress, the floor was filled with more used syringes. By the corner, they found a bong, and the ceiling was stained with nicotine. Rust was feeling dizzy from the lack of clean air, and without a doubt his colleague was in the same position.
Still, their client was nowhere to be seen.
Last place to look was the large closet.
Rust and his colleague exchanged glances, a presumption tempting them to give up the mission.
They did their usual way of opening doors, and one didn't need to look to know what had happened to their client.
This time, the stench of death leaked from the closet, a clear end to their objective.
There was no money, no client, only a corpse.
His colleague finally lowered his guard, then replaced his gun with a phone. "You two, get back in the car. We're done. No. No. The client's dead. Suicide. Yeah. Also, call child services. We got some neglected kids in the bathroom. Yeah. Yeah, use that payphone. Okay, we'll be out in a bit."
Rust closed the closet and kept his brass knuckles and shoved it in his pocket. At this point, although he had never killed anyone, he was used to seeing death straight in the face after a couple of jobs that he did for his current boss.
A bit disheartened that their client was no longer in the land of the living, everyone returned to their car which was parked three blocks away.
"Boss ain't gonna like this," said the bearded man before he started the engine.
Rust covered his facial features by pulling up his hood, afraid to be seen by anyone through the non-tinted windows; before he joined this shady job of collecting clients' debts, he was a musician. A good one too—so good with the violin that it earned him a position inside the King's Residence where he played for the people who visited.
Quite unfortunately, it didn't last too long. After discovering the city's most protected secret, he lost all sense of security and trust with basically everyone. He abandoned who he once was, and wanted a new purpose in life.
They arrived at a fast food restaurant called Jollikat. He tried eating its food, and it was all right. Not as delicious but it was cheap and it made him full. Rust kept silent as he followed the three men into the place, the lively atmosphere and family friendly staffs merely served as facades.
Inside the kitchen, cooks and janitors ignored them as they entered a door. But when it was Rust's turn to take a step inside, the bearded man raised a brusque hand to him.
"Stay out there," he said, then closed the door before giving Rust a chance to complain.
He scoffed, hating how there's nothing he could do about it. He silently marched his way out of the kitchen and sat at a table farthest from the entrance. His feet fidgeted, restless and eager to move on to the next job.
A waitress came up. "Good evening, sir. Anything you'd like from the menu?"
"Some coffee, yeah." He didn't meet her eyes. Instead his gaze gravitated to the counter, where he caught a glimpse of a familiar person in a small television. "And, uh, mind turning the volume up?"
"Sure thing, sweetie."
She walked up to the television and did as what she was requested, then moved to the back of the counter to brew him some coffee.
Rust listened and watched the screen closely. The king's left-hand stood beside the right-hand who was giving a speech on their plans to fix the city while expressing regrets for not being prepared enough during the invasion.
"Here's your coffee. Enjoy." The waitress served him his cup.
Steam emitted from the golden brown liquid and warmed his face rather pleasantly. He took a few sips to warm his insides.
Putting that aside, the violinist honestly didn't care at all about the city's problems. All he cared about was getting the left-hand's face bashed in with his fist hard. No words could describe how much he abhorred people's view on this man; they saw him as the third most powerful noble in Terraviv, the king's left-hand and champion, the handsome role model every Thofarian citizen should look up to. But for Rust, he knew it was all a lie.
The truth is—he is the epitome of evil, and gave not a shred of care for people's lives. He was the maker of the Anti-New Age Law.
He was the king of Thofaria, unable to die of old age and forever stuck a youthful age of twenty seven.
Rust still couldn't wrap this very secret around his head. It was beyond unbelievable.
Eventually, two men from his group emerged from the kitchen and made their way out of the restaurant, not even bothering to meet his gaze or tell him how the job went. Rust was about to chase after them until he heard a whistle from the kitchen's doorway.
It was the bearded man, beckoning for him. "Hey, Boss wants to see ya."
Rust quickly gulped down his coffee and placed some change next to the empty cup. He followed the bearded man to their boss's office, realising he was entering alone as his colleague stayed in the kitchen.
His boss, who preferred to be addressed as 'Mr. Tregar', sat at a desk filled with paper and office supplies. Donned in a white shirt and trousers, he had a cigar in one hand and spinning a lighter in the other.
"Mr. Jörgensen. Please, sit."
Rust took a seat on his brown leather couch. The boss didn't speak for awhile, allowing Rust to take in the view of his office.
It was cramped. This man had papers filling the whole place. There were a ton of framed recognitions on the wall, none of them interesting. And the only sounds in the room was Mr. Tregar lighting up his cigar and taking in a long drag. Later, he blew the smoke.
Rust avoided coughing, but he couldn't stop his eyes from watering.
"You know, we found missing posters of you all over the Northern part of the city. A reward of over twenty thousand gens," he said all of a sudden, emphasizing the numbers slowly. "That's enough to pay two years of my daughter's college tuition, let me tell you that. What makes this all the more interesting is that it's issued by Thofarian Government, not your family and not your friends."
Rust unconsciously clenched his fists, wondering where he was getting at.
"I'm just saying, you know, this woulda ruined your chance at joining The Resistance, but for some reason—" He opened one of the drawers in his desk, then showed him an envelope and a fat stack of cash. "You just got yourself in. Too damn early, I'd add since it'd normally take years. I have no idea why they would want someone like you in their family, but hey, none of my damn business."
Feeling a huge sense of accomplishment for all his efforts, Rust reached out for the envelope and cash, only to be caught off-guard when Mr. Tregar slapped a firm hand on it.
The tension present in the office caused Rust's heart to skip a beat. He sat back, anticipating more of what Mr. Tregar had to say.
"Kid, you're a fucking genius and you've helped out my guys way more than you think these past weeks. I'm just gonna say that outright. I might even want you to just stay under my wing if I had a choice," he said, his hand still on them. "Why the hell you putting yourself through this? You're like, what? Sixteen?"
"I'm twenty-three," he mumbled like a child being lectured, regretting immediately for inserting his own words.
"Whatever. Point is you're fucking young as hell! The moment you join The Resistance, there's no going back. You get that, right?" It was a well known fact that Mr. Tregar had children; the sudden fatherly tone turned him into a completely different person, almost swaying Rust.
"I just—" he stopped himself. He chose his words carefully. He wanted to say that he was angry and felt betrayed by the one man he thought he loved. "I haven't been living how I have always wanted to live."
"So what, you dumping your anger on the king for making you live like a dog? Hate to break it to ya, that's how every commoner lives—myself included. And that's how you're gonna live in The Resistance. It ain't only you and life ain't fair. I'm sure you get that." He finally lifted his hand off the envelope and cash. He took another drag from his cigar, this time blowing the smoke towards the ventilation fan. "Ah, fuck it. Whatever the king did to ya, Anti-New Age law, poverty, betrayal—none of my business at this point. You've been accepted. But, ah, the things I'd do in your youth."
Rust took that as cue to retrieve the envelope and cash. Finally, an invitation to the Resistance; he spent sleepless days searching for anyone who knew of the group. He also fought for it, literally almost dying for asking the wrong type of people.
To be blunt, he expected to work for Mr. Tregar for at least five more months, but to think he'd be able to receive an invitation in less than a month was suspicious.
It was almost as though they were expecting his arrival. Mr. Tregar already said that he didn't know why they accepted him early, so there was no point in asking.
Mr. Tregar shook his head. "Alright, get the hell out of my office."
Rust nodded, then stood. "It's been a pleasure."
"Pleasure's all mine," he said. "Before you go, burn that thing after reading, okay?"
Rust bowed almost dramatically to show his gratitude. He shoved the envelope in his windbreaker's pocket and, at last, made his way out.
Before he walked all the way back home, which was underneath a large bridge that connected Northern Thofaria with Southern Thofaria, he made a quick visit to a children's store and bought a box of crayons, a new sketchbook, and a new colouring book.
He didn't mind being homeless. Because the king had eyes everywhere, he couldn't risk renting out an apartment or room. It was a risk, but it was an even bigger risk to have his information and appearance seen.
It wasn't as bad as he thought when he started though; he already lived poor before he worked at the King's Residence, therefore he didn't adjust so much to the lifestyle. There was a public bathroom for him to bathe, some soup kitchens located nearby, and his time with Mr. Tregar's group gave him enough money to buy clothes and other necessities.
And, what kept Rust from moving to other places was the unexpected friendliness and safety; most of the homeless respected his space and helped him out when he first arrived. At first, he thought they were planning to leech off of him but it was otherwise. They even donated some of their belongings, like their used mattresses and blankets, to his surprise.
As soon as he arrived, Reese and Gilly greeted him with glee.
"Rust! Welcome back!" Gilly was an amateur teen painter. He ran away from his abusive father and ended up in the streets before he found this place. "You've been gone a while!"
"Well, I'm back. C'mere." He opened his arms for Gilly to embrace. They stayed that way for a few seconds before he withdrew. "I got something for you."
He gave him his box of crayons, sketchbook, and colouring book. Gilly had always wanted these three; every morning, he'd swim through trash for unused art materials and paint the bridge's foundation. Though the high school he attends provides him a small amount of allowance every week, he refused to use it for his hobbies.
"You don't know how often these things are still quite new, so what's the point in spending cash for it when I got better shit to spend on?" he'd often say.
Rust thought he deserved brand new ones since he had been insufferably frugal. Also, considering his background in music, he was a supporter of any forms of art himself.
Gilly's face lit up, immediately accepting his gifts. He hugged it and made happy noises. In a way, Rust still sees him as a child. "Thank you! Thank you so much!"
"Off you go." Rust watched him go to his own mattress, immediately drowned in his own world. "So, Reese, what's the story?"
Reese was an old man, and like Rust, he too recently became homeless. Not much was known about him except his back forced him to have permanently bent position. "Not much. We just gathered enough to last the month. What about you, son? How was your job?"
Rust grinned from ear to ear, implying his hard work bore fruit. "Let's just say I got what I wanted, and it should last you two more months."
Honestly, he felt bad for keeping his plans from them, even though they had been so kind to him, taking him in without a second thought. Nevertheless, it seemed they didn't mind at all and respected his commitment to secrecy.
"That's great," he commented. "You've been too good."
"Well, you all did take me in." He moved towards the stairs. "I'll be by the banks if you need anything."
He descended, delighted to see that he had the banks all to himself. The homeless community had no way of seeing him in this area due to the high fences separating them from the banks, so he was safe to read the letter.
He sat on the cemented ground where it slowly descended into the small river, pulled out the envelope, and noticed how it was sealed with the Resistance's symbol.
A man with wings, holding a knife in one hand and a bloody rose in the other. Rust never really knew what it meant, other than the wings always meant freedom. He quickly looked around once more to see if there was anyone nearby or watching him. Then slowly, he peeled off the seal and took out the letter.
Congratulations, Mr. Jörgensen.
We have been meticulously watching you through Bill Tregar, and it is with great enthusiasm that we accept your request to join our family. We believe you will be able to contribute to our cause, therefore please refer to the information below. It is incomplete, however it should be seen as a test to see your eagerness to serve the family.
With that said, we shall be awaiting for your arrival. Let us create a new beginning together through death.
Sincerely, The Resistance.
Rust nearly laughed at how poetic it sounded. Once more, he scanned the surroundings before reading the information they provided.
It was an array of numbers. Below it was a quote 'A king should be the shepherd as his people are the sheep, never should never be the wolf, nor the drought that drains their spirits.'
Rust knew that quote from a philosophy book he read in high school. The problem—he didn't know the name.
At least he knew where to start.
Faust waited for his lunch inside his van, watching anyone who walked through the sidewalk. He hated how the buildings were all washed out colours, he hated how the sky was grey, and he hated how most citizens of Thofaria were dressed in black suits. It all looked gloomy. Even if he was prince, even if he shared the same royal blood as his father, he had no power to add a bit of spice into this city.
Out of pure boredom, he groaned hard into his handheld intercom, almost like he was doing an exaggerated and unrealistic orgasm.
"Hey, stop that!" He heard Unya reply followed by a slight static. "Seriously, there're people in here."
"I'm tiiiiired of waiting, okay?"
"Do you want your strawberry milkshake, or not?"
Faust set his feet above the glove compartment, his big toe tapping on the window. "This would have been faster if you used your CCC identification."
"Come on, that's totally abuse of power."
"Just this once!"
"I'm telling your dad if you beg one more time."
"Anything but that."
He heard a chuckle. "Then wait, you spoiled prince."
That's what she often called him—spoiled prince. His father never actually spoiled him with their family fortunes and such. Though what did make him look spoiled was how he never had the need to go through mandatory education, like every normal Thofarian citizen, and jumped straight into a military career.
His position as three-C officer, or 3CO for short, didn't grant him status power akin to that of royalty, but it offered him respect from society nevertheless.
He saw Unya running towards his van from the opposite side of the road, dodging vehicles on her way.
Entering the driver's seat, she gave him his ham and cheese sandwich and his strawberry milkshake. She had a burger and yogurt-flavoured soda.
"Did people say anything about your outfit?" asked Faust in a tease, drinking his shake first.
As 3COs, they were required to wear a specialized form of black formal suits with shock-proof black gloves, hidden pockets for their arsenal, and earpieces for in-combat communication. Faust wore his uniform with pride due to how cool it made him look.
For Unya, hers was slightly different and made her stand out more; for easy movement, she wore a black flexible miniskirt with shorts underneath. Her knees were padded, and to help her aim more efficiently and understand her surroundings more thoroughly, she had on a pair of smart sunglasses.
Unya gave him a look, taking a bite out of her burger. "Stares. Just hard stares."
"Not like people can see your underwear," Faust said. "Plus, you got great thighs."
"That's not the damn problem," she said. "Do you know how pressuring it feels to walk into a store with your outfit announcing who you are for you? It's like screaming 'guess what, boys? I work for His Highness!'"
"I might as well enter classes like this just so those horny teens can get off my ass."
"I'd pay to see something like that."
None of them said anything after their little episode of laughter. As Leonard continued to eat his sandwich, he decided against commenting on how dry the bread was. When he finished, he placed the paper bag inside the glove compartment and his cup inside the cup holder. Unya did the same.
Faust was about to make Unya gamble. Unfortunately, he spoke too soon. "I'm betting five hundred gens the operator will—"
A static from his intercom interrupted him, making Unya snort in amusement.
"Requesting 3COs into the scene. Volitars spawns spotted five kilometers East from Scion Mall. Please Respond, over," said the operator.
"Oops. What do you know, we've been requested," said Unya in a sing song voice.
"I repeat, Requesting immediate assistance of 3COs. Volitarus spotted half a kilometer East from Scion Mall. Anyone, please respo—"
"Roger, Operator," Unya pressed the PTT button and replied as she set up their GPS. "We'll be there in...ten minutes. Over."
"3CO Jörgensen and Straekbjorn, out." Unya finished it there. She started the engine and drove to their destination. "You owe me five hundred gens, Faust."
Faust groaned. "That's nothing for me."
Unya slipped on her smart sunglasses while Faust increased all of his powers at thirty percent. It was time to eliminate some parasites lurking throughout their city
A/N: I purposefully made this chapter longer than I'd usually write. I hope you all love it! From here on, i'll try to make time to write this story. Ugh, studying entrance exams are kiiiiilling me. But I will survive, and this story as well.