“Alright, that’s progress! Good, very good!”
No, this wasn’t just good. Good didn’t do their session justice. It didn’t do her justice.
This was downright fantastic.
She nodded in approval, whilst her two clients stared at her. The self-certified marriage counsellor smiled and kept nodding, but the couple opposite her just blinked in response, their expressions sombre. Unperturbed, she raised her metal left hand and gestured, encouraging them to do the same. Slowly, but surely, their chins started bobbing.
She flashed them a smile, then pulled out her realm watch, as though to check the time. Ah, would you look at that! Perfect, Four to the hour!
“Alright, I’d say that’s enough for today’s counselling session,” she beamed, adjusting the brim of her hat.
The man client, Harry—or something very close to Harry—frowned, his walrustache bristling. “Counselling? But all you did was talk about investment methods and bank accounts.”
Hmm, maybe they weren’t quite done after all. Harry didn’t look like the fastest bulb on the track, nor the brightest car on the wall. And his wifey, ‘Adrian, with an E’ didn’t seem much bett—ah, heck. She was probably worse, what with her face looking like an oven-baked dairy section. The term ‘butter face’ would probably be a compliment, with well-melted features like hers.
The counsellor inhaled, repressed a sigh, and clasped her hands, ensuring that her elbows didn’t touch the dirty table. An extra load of washing over the weekend certainly wouldn’t do.
“Alright, let’s go back to Step One really quickly, Harry—”
“It’s Adrien!” Harry snapped.
She swivelled her fingers to point at the wifey. “So you’re Harry?”
That earned her a glower. “Eloise!”
“Huh.... You two should consider swapping. You don’t look like an Eloise. Then again, that’s what surgery is for, am I right? ”
There was a crack! of metal palm striking leather glove, as she clapped her mismatched hands together.
“Step One on the Route to Marriage: ‘When a man and a woman love each other very much....’”
The counsel-woman trailed off and gestured for her clients to finish off the sentence. They shot angry glances at each other before continuing to stare at her.
She held back another sigh. ‘Course she had to get the daft ones last. Although technically they were also the first, but that was where the ‘’technical’ in technicalities came from.
“‘.... they get together and wander down to their nearest bank, to open a joint account’,” she finished. “Because ‘the power of love’ isn’t going to pay the bills, nor cover the mortgage. You gotta see your true financial position.”
The clients glared at each other again. Was.... Was there an in-joke between them that she wasn’t aware of? That she wasn’t on the ‘in’ on?
“Well, seeing as there’s no objections,” she said brightly, pushing her stool back and standing. “I think we’ll call it for the day. My job here is done.”
“You didn’t do anything.”
“All in due time,” the adviser smiled, flashing her pearly whites. “You’ll thank me when you tie the noose at the altar, or however you people get married around here.”
“We’re already married, you skiv,” growled Harry. “What we want is advice on how to keep this marriage together.”
The marriage adviser frowned. “Well, that was silly! Dunno why you’d do that, weddings are expensive. But don’t worry, I’ve got a fix!”
She shot a pair of finger guns at the couple and beamed “Divorce!”
Harry scowled and slammed the table, before turning to Adrian. “This was a waste of time.”
“You think?” his wifey hissed. “I don’t bloody know why you’d get one of our marks to try and give us marriage counselling.”
“Because you kept banging on about it!”
“Only ‘cause it’s taken you how long to get off your hindquarters and book us in?” Adrian scrunched her face up in what she obviously thought was a mock thinking expression. “Oh, wait. You still haven’t! You just flagged down what was meant to be our next dupe ‘cause you were eavesdroppin’ on her.”
“Very rude,” the counselor bobbed her head agreeably. ”Also, neither my name, nor the business’ name’s ‘Dupe’. It’s Theia Eri—”
“Shut it!” Harry roared as he jumped off his stool and pulled a large knife from under the table.
Theia nodded at the blade angled at her chest. “So what’s this then?”
“What do you think it is?”
She squinted. “Looks like a machete to me? Just FYI, I don’t take knives as payments. Either card or cash. Preferably cash.”
“It’s a stick-up. We’re—”
“To put it simply, you’re being robbed.”
That unknown voice came from a table to the side. Both Harry and Adrian rapidly jerked their heads in its direction, whilst Theia stylishly tilted her head and glanced out the corner of her eye.
A tousle-haired, probably-teenage-maybe-more girl sat a few units away, leaning back on her chair lazily, feet plonked casually on the grimy table in front of her. Judging from her clients’ reddening expressions, they hadn’t seen or heard her come in.
“How the hell’d you get in here?!” Harry bellowed.
“The door,” the girl responded, with a small grin.
Theia glanced at the boots on the tabletop and tsked. No matter how dirty or grimy the establishment was, there was no excuse for not wiping your feet before placing them on a table where food was being served. People ate here, for Speed’s sake. Gosh, whoever this girl’s parents were, they’d obviously not taught her social etiquette. Something to deal with later, though.
The counsellor frowned at her two clients. “You two’re robbing me? You’re thieves?”
“What gave it away, you dipstick,” Adrian snarled, drawing a pair of grimy-looking daggers.
Huh. Robbers? What a dangerous part of town. She did a quick stocktake, patting her vest and trouser pockets. Wallet, audio player, keys, other wallet.... and her realm watch was still attached to its chain. Yep, that was everything.
Theia squinted at the pair and their blades. “Well you’re not very good ones.”
That’d obviously hit a sore spot. With something that was half-way between a shriek and a squawk, Adrian lunged, striking out over the table. As she blurred closer, Theia couldn’t help but ponder whether even the supposed-thief’s mother could love a face like that, and if she had, how many years had it taken off her life? Living with a child that had skin akin to sun-ripened ice-cream would probably give you heart problems. Hells, just looking at it from further than Four units away was bad enough.
And that was Four units was rapidly shrinking, by each passing millisecond. The marriage counsellor certainly didn’t like that. Which was why it was time for an occupation change—back to gunwoman and temporary divorce counsellor.
She drew her gun and divorced the pair, right between Adrian’s squinty, wide-spaced eyes.
The less-than-attractive client was shot backwards, a silver sword glinting on her brow as a makeshift separation contract.
“There! Job well do—” Theia began brightly, but was interrupted by a howl, as Harry hurled the table aside and rushed at her. Unperturbed, the gunwoman vanished the weapon, stepped to the side, and let her assailing client clothesline himself on her outstretched right arm. He went down, blood streaming from the middle of his face. That was a new one for her—she wasn’t exactly known for being the Picasso of Broken Noses, but hey, it was another spiffy title she could squeeze on to her business cards.
She cleared her throat and brushed off her arm, before straightening up and beaming at the beguiled onlooker.
“Righto, so!” The Theia clasped her hands, as the tousled-haired girl took her boots off the table and stood up. “What can I get you? We’re running a special currently here, actually. Bring a friend to make it two, then add your two to their two, and what do you get…?”
Her potential client glanced at the ex-couple on the ground. “A really bad headache.”
Theia gave a chortle as she pulled out her invoice book. “Sorry, but that’s not how maths works. And if you think that you’ll be able to pay me with a sore head, you’ll need to find yourself another professional. You think those two are getting out of paying me because of a skull-shattering concussion and a minor case of death?”
The mathematically challenged girl side-eyed her and went over to inspect the now-parted-by-death Adrian, nudging the lodged sword with her toe. “I don’t think it’ll be this one’ll be paying you. You might need to try wrangling it all from her Ex.”
Theia laughed again. Realms, that was a beautiful sound, if she did say so herself. Maybe she was a little biased, but so what? What were they going to do, sue her?
She filled in the date and jotted down some Fours, before signing it and tucking it down the back of Harry’s shirt. Then, carefully stepping over his prone—not to mention single—form, she did the same for Adrian, and taped the invoice to her client’s stubby nose. Perfect.
“I dunno where you’re from, but I’ve heard that a case of the Headshots ain’t much of a problem around here,” she told Li’l Miss Dyscalculia. “They’ve got some bang up doctors around these parts. Sure, it might be a bit much for a newbie, but one of the head docs will clear this up.”
She paused. Head docs? Ah, no. That was a punny.
Madam Bad-Maths squinted at her again. “I legitimately don’t know whether you’re just delusional or insane, but I’m going to go with both.”
Theia nodded understandingly as she pulled out her phone to check the time. That was relatively fine; a bit mean, but still within boundaries She’d been called way worse, after all. Although usually, it was her targets that did the name-calling, not the clients. But as long as they paid in full and didn’t leave a mean review, then name calling could just be an additional service. Just like maths tuition! This maybe-client was probably going to need help counting out her cash.
The gunwoman frowned. A couple of minutes to Four-past-noon? She was gonna miss the start if she didn’t leave soon. “Say, uh, missy? Can we do this later?”
Missy’s answer was a raised brow and a “What?”
“Sublime! Aight, just wait around here for, say, forty-Four minutes and I’ll be riiiight back. Cheers!”
Theia snapped off a Four-fingered salute and then kicked it into high gear, blurring out the door as the girl opened her mouth to respond.
Dusty streets and empty buildings blazed by, their inhabitants off to watch their annual spectacle of slaughter and violence in the stands of the stadium.
‘Course, Theia wasn’t going to be joining the plebs. She’d reserved a box seat, up towards the top of the arena, where the best seats were. In Box Four, of course, though it had been rather difficult to procure. Some pensioner with a monocle had already booked the seat for him and his twin grandkids, so she’d surprised him in the morn with some Spontaneous Negotiations. T’was a good deal in the end for both parties; she got her ticket, and the man got forty-Four Grande to give to kiddos. That was, what, twenty-two dollars each? And a large-ish cup for grandpappy to keep his teeth in.
She let out a chuckle. Old fool should’ve haggled harder; she’d even been willing to give him a Venti.
The Theia blew past the wide-eyed guards at the entrance and lunged up the stairwell, reaching the top in next to no time. A pivot to the left, followed by a short, Four-second jog down the corridor, and then she....
“There,” she beamed, flashing her ticket to the slack-jawed attendant creature. The pasty, moulting raccoon-thing just stared as she strolled into the box and made herself at home.
Now, what—or who—was on for today? From memory, the slaughterfest was an 8-for-all, but perhaps they’d mixed it up into a Four-vee-Four? That would be something special, instead of this free-to-murder that was probably not on free-to-air. Ironic, in her opinion.
First up was a.... Jacquelin Smokes? Pretty good name for a restaurant chain, actually. They’d probably make killer wood-fire pizzas. Maybe it was in the name? Did this lass make good pizzas, or was she simply a ‘killer’? Well, the only way to find out was to wait and see.
Or, alternatively? Technology.
She whipped out her phone and launched the browser, heading directly to her saved links.
A bit of scrolling and.... Hm, well then. ‘Jacklin’, not Jacquelin, eh? Another victim to the trend of butchered spelling to make a unique name, though the pronunciation was probably a bit different. Maybe that’s where the confusion sprang from one of the parents had a bit of an accent and the rest was Jacklin.
She scrolled through the text on her screen, then snapped on her goggles to get a closer look. Four seconds later and she pressed her temples, phasing them off with a small wince. Hopefully, Miss Deep-Pan fought better than she looked. ‘Fight well, dress better’ as they all said. Honestly, it was a wonder if anyone that partook in gladiatorial deathmatches had ever walked into a tailor, or had enough intact post-head trauma grey matter to spell the word ‘tailor’.
Now all someone needed to tell the gun woman was that Jacky’s brother was named ‘Tailor’, because I’s over Y’s, or something.
And her skin! She’d seen raisins with better complexion and smoother skin than Jacky’s. If the ‘fiery’ (heh) little woman made it out of this in one piece—and with her skin on her—Theia had half a mind to send her a year’s supply of sunscreen. And maybe instructions, in case she didn’t ‘get’ how to apply it.
She fanned herself down, as she tapped her way through to the next competitor’s profile, just as the PA system announced their entrance. Perfect timing, as always.
The next contestant was a walkin’ and talking’ lion. Personally, Theia wasn’t much of an animal person, but she knew someone that had run-in with a magical, maybe-intelligent lion.
Though ‘intelligent’ might be stretching it.
A colleague she liked to call Relia had encountered one previously, but her words hadn’t been complimentary, even for her. What had her words been? ‘Stony complexion with a personality to match, and probably a rock for a brain too’?
Maybe this one would be better, though that wouldn’t be a tough record to beat. Granted, this one’s posture wasn’t winning any points with her. No way you could be fast if you were hunched over like that.
And it was fighting for Light? Pft, so much for ‘speed of’, unless you were intended to get eliminated that quickly. What was its name again? She’d missed it in the announcement.
Theia squinted at the words on the page.
Albus, the Griffin potioner? Oh, those guys preferred the term ‘alchemists’ didn’t they? Or maybe wizards were better. Hell, Albo was even dressed like a wizard. What was that phrase? The famous one, from that book about wizards? ‘You’re a wizard, Albus?’ That was it. At the same time, however, Albo looked both very wizard, but not very ‘wizard’, in her objectively correct opinion.
The Theia tapped her phone again as the announcement called out the next glory-seeker.
Levanna. Paragon of Not-Speed. The adviser still considered it an utter travesty that Speed wasn’t an element. And apparently, neither was Surprise. Hmph, their loss.
Granted, the ‘Energy’ Paragon didn’t seem like she’d be fantastic at either. She didn’t look particularly speedy, and judging by the colour of Levi’s hair and skin, it would be more surprising if she didn’t injure her back while tangoing with the rest of the comp. So what if she was an ageless shapeshifter? Fact was, a person or ‘thing’s’ body got more fragile as they aged. And if Levi was actually 60-something-and-a-half-millenias, then her body must’ve been willing to drop—like a courier from a height of forty-Four levels. Honestly, the phrase ‘carry me’ might be enough to put her in a wheelchair. For her sake, Theia hoped that she didn’t have any less-skilled ‘gamer’ friends.
She zoomed in on the senior citizen and pursed her lips. The lady even dressed like she was expecting a long (read: permanent) hospital stay. Worn leather and cloth was prolly the same as jammies ‘round these parts. Which was, of course, what you’d wear if you were stuck in a bed all day. No self respecting person would dress up in a full suit just cause they were stuck in a ward, right?
But what if leather and rags was Levi’s equivalent of formal dress?
Theia considered the possibility, then waved it off as the PA boomed again.
Wind was next. Surely this one was going to be better, or at least, faster. The gunwoman turned her gaze to the next gateway and squinted.
So, the other competitors were no giants—a bit short, by Theia’s standards—but this new one was a Shelf. A ‘short elf’, since they typically needed help reaching the top-most one. Sensitive blighters, but it probably had to do with being short and stubby, when you were from a race known for being tall, slender and graceful in most realms.
This one’s first name was something else though. Whatever it was missing in altitude, it certainly made up for in letters. In fact, it was so long that Theia had missed it in the announcement. Luckily, she had her handy dandy long-distance communications device.
She raised her brow at the name. How’d you pronounce this one? Peter’s It? Peter’s Aight?
Whatever. From hereon, this one was Pete. She liked that. Pete, the Shelf.
Some disassembly required.
There was a bang from behind her as the doors to her box were blasted open. Theia swivelled her head to check if the snacks vendor was alright, but it wasn’t them.
The Theia watched as her potential-client huffed and puffed down the steps, before collapsing into the seat beside her.
“Well, hello! Fancy seeing you here!” the hired gun beamed.
Her box-crasher’s response was to shoot her a gesture with a gauntleted hand. Theia nodded and made a note to add that under the ‘extras’ on the invoice.
“So, how’d you do it? How’d you work out which decadent little box was going to be mine?” she asked, stealing a glance back to the showground. “Did you stick a tracker on me? Or are you a P.I? Tell me, do any of your names rhyme with ‘Herlock’ or end in ‘Olmes’?”
The numerically-lacking lass’ response was to hold up a little card, with gilded Fours adorning the corners. Come to think of it, Theia did remember leaving a stack of business cards on top of the table.
“Fair enough,” the counsellor conceded, with a finger tick, before turning back to assess the next competitor.
For the Rep of Ice, the guy didn’t look very cool. Considering that this was the expert opinion of Ms. Theia Eris ‘Style Points’ Fhenn d’Astra herself, she felt that the critique might as well be taken as fact. Sure, he might’ve been dressing a little bit better than the others, but the whole ex-military schlick was incredibly overused and edgy. It was a great way to communicate that you didn’t have any chill, sure, but it also meant that you might as well be a boomer, born in the days of the first Ice Age.
She didn’t really want to spend too much time on this one—better to give him the cold shoulder. See how he liked it, considering that’s what his modus operandi appeared to be
She liked his wings though. Quite pretty for a gothic popsicle. And the name, Cassius. Reminded her of ‘Cassowary’. Maybe that’s what Cassius was short for?
Next one! Next one was....
Theia frowned at the announcement, then tapped her phone until she found the next profile.
That couldn’t be right.
“Hey, tell me,” she queried, nudging the still-panting, box-crasher beside her. “Does this one look chocolate flavoured to you?”
“Yeah, didn’t think so.” Theia said, with a nod.
Well, that was a bummer. And on top of that, this one made Cassowary look positively cuddly in comparison. Not that she wanted to be with Four units of either of one’s vicinity—she’d probably be able to smell their sweat and edge through her mask’s filters.
Seriously, just the descriptions of his abilities felt like they could slice a melon. A ball of blood and darkness? You’d need more than dry cleaning to fix the stain that would leave on your clothes. And she didn’t even want to think about the maintenance needed for a ‘barrier of flesh’. What would you even do for that? Moisturise, exfoliate....?
Or was this just a giant slab of meat? Maybe something like a giant rib-eye? Then that’d be less terrible to a certain extent, but a lot less unique. Hell, Theia could probably go and grab one of those ‘Flesh Barriers’ too. That discounted wholesale warehouse, CostNo, always had some. She could just keep a steak in her pocket and throw it at someone whenever they started to get too aggro. Maybe they’d even offer her a sponsorship if she promised to endorse them between fights.
She rolled her eyes at the thought, as the announcer finally moved on to the next lucky contestant. A robo-lizardborg.... thing.
Well, that was more like it! Finally, something akin to proper, mordern civilisation. That wasn’t to say the RoboRaptor was civilisation, but whatever built it must’ve been a modern one. You know, with high-rise buildings, minimum wage fast food eateries, traffic congestion, and most importantly? A social hierarchy, with upper and lower classes.
A proper society.
It raised the question of where this guy came in. Sure, from what Theia skimmed, the profile did mention something about an accident and an onboard guidance system, but Reptar looked a bit too fancy to be just a courier.
It also looked a bit too.... ‘Robo’ to be ‘Eitch-Two-Oh’, so there was definitely something up with this one.
Maybe he transformed? That was a thought. A brilliant one. Why hadn’t Theia thought of tha—oh wait. She had thought of it! Gosh, why was she so good?
“Say missy, what do you think he changes into?” The Theia asked, with a nod at the lizard.
Theia frowned. “You saying it turns into a cassowary or it turns into the other one? The edgy one.”
“‘The edgy one’? Do you know how little that narrows it down?”
“There’s not that many of ‘em named Cassowary down there, pumpkin.”
That earned her another glare. Glares were so easy to come by, it was a wonder she wasn’t receiving them with her junk mail. This girl had a pretty good glare, though. Having pretty eyes helped.
“Cass,” the pretty glarey girl repeated, practically hissing the word. “You can call me Cass. Not ‘missy’, not ‘pumpkin’. Nothing else!”
Damn. This was one tough customer.
The PA boomed once more, announcing the entrance of the last, and maybe least, of the cast.
This one was another short one, but what he was missing in the height department, he made up for in sheer hideousness. Dear Elemental Lordies and Sponsors, it reminded her of a creature from a horror game she’d seen on the dataweb. Dead Face, the Dark Dessert, or something. This one certainly looked like it had half a dead face. And more, which was much, much less at the same time.
Scrunching her face, she brought up the maybe-guy-maybe-thing’s profile and it instantly dawned on her.
Ah, a fungus. Turning half mushroom would probably mess with more than just your metabolism.
Aside from Krehgor’s ugliness, there wasn’t much else to look at. Drab and edgy clothes, a crossbow....
What kind of barbarians used ‘bows’ in this day and age anyway? Guns and magic was where all the fun was at. No one duelled with bows. Just imagine, taking Four steps away, then pivoting and then seeing who was faster with nocking an arrow. And plus, arrows weren’t loud enough! Nothing said ‘boom, headshot’ like a sky bolt or Four-hundred-or-more calibre sword to the face.
Krehgor’s totes top secret profile also stated something about his scarring. That was probably the least of his worries, honestly, but even then, Theia had to call shenanigans on that claim. ‘Spelunking, loss of footing and undead crypt guardians’ all sounded pretty sus. She was over forty-Four percent sure that it was just his marketing team’s cover-up for ‘slipping and taking a tumble down the stairs’. Tsk tsk, trying to pull a Fast one like that wasn’t going to work on her..
And that was it. That was all of them.
Well, while she wouldn’t want to be seen in the same room as.... pretty much any of them, she had to admit that they were a fun looking bunch. Plenty of ways for all of them to beat the coin out of each other.
If only she’d brought some snacks. Eh, the food attendant would probably make his or her rounds soon anyway.
The gun lady leaned back in her seat and propped her feet up on the railing, almost mirroring her Cassy box-crasher’s pose.
Theia raised her arm and held it, heatrod straight for a single beat. Two beats. Three.
She dropped it, bringing her arm down in a slashing movement, just as the stillness shattered, the crowds roared, and the Game went underway.