Contrary to popular belief, air vents are very difficult to crawl through. Since vents are designed for the purpose of transporting air, rather than plucky heroes, they tend to be a tad small. Another problem with air vents is the noise factor. Crawling on your hands and knees over sheet metal is extremely noisy, negating the desired stealthiness. While it is possible to find the rare building with large enough vents, and there are magical trinkets out there that can negate the sound problem, most professional thieves consider breaking into a building through the vents to be impractical.
Despite knowing this, five months before the 14th Tournament, a seventeen-year-old girl named Rachel Botterill crawls on her hands and knees through a maze of air vents.
Perhaps it would be wise to back up a little. Not too much, mind you, just enough to explain how Rachel ended up in this situation. On February tenth, 2234, a package arrives on Rachel’s doorstep. Rachel is surprised to see the package. It is rare for her to receive mail. For the most part, this is because she lives in an abandoned building on the outskirts of town and avoids personal connections. But, I digress.
Rachel takes the package into her apartment and places it on her table. She reaches into her pocket and retrieves a small Swiss Army knife. The knife has a red handle and has crude letters spelling out Rachel carved into the handle. Rachel flips out one of the knife’s blades and cuts open the package. Inside is a stack of papers. Atop the stack lies a letter. Rachel reaches for the letter and recoils her hand after feeling something cold and smooth.
Below the letter sits an eyeball with a grey iris. Rachel pokes the eye again and realizes that it is made of glass. Rachel pockets the eye, cuts the letter open with the knife, and reads the note inside.
Dear Miss Botterill, it says, I have a job for you. One that you’ll like.
Over the years, you’ve tried to fly under the radar. Tried to avoid letting the gangs or the government know about where you live or what you do. Odds are, you think it’s safer this way. The thing is, I’m a very powerful man. A man who knows things. I know about your less than joyful childhood and about the struggles you’ve faced. More importantly, I know about the illegal activities you and your brother have committed over the years.
You’re a professional thief. One of the best. You make money by stealing objects and information for the various gangs that run the hellhole of a city you call home. I need you to steal something for me. Several somethings, actually.
Miro Caiden, founder of Vulcan Labs, is the smartest man alive bar none. Over the past forty years, he has single handedly revolutionized magic based technology. Any new invention by him is enough to change the world. I need you to steal as many as possible.
Caiden despises working with others, due to the fact that they work slower than him. His prefered method of inventing involves locking himself in his lab, creating several prototypes, and leaving them locked in a safe for his employees to find and reverse engineer. Not the most efficient way to create products, but the only way that seems to work when for a company whose chief engineer is a supergenius who refuses to work with others or write down how his inventions work.
Caiden owns 27 labs around the world. For a reason that I cannot fathom, he built one in the pitiable flaming garbage heap of a town you live in. City 19’s lab is surrounded by a heavily fortified complex designed to keep out any intruder.
Your task is to break in, grab as many prototypes as possible, and bring them to a location that will be revealed at a later date. You will be paid substantially for this task, if you choose to complete it.
PS: I’ve taken steps to ensure that the building will lack human guards between 2:00 AM and 3:30 AM on the seventeenth.
No name is written at the end of the letter. Rachel places the letter to the side and examines the other papers. The top paper shows a six by eight grid of squares, each assigned a random number between 1 and 48. The following papers show permutations of the grid; for example, one labeled “Electrical” shows yellow lines that travel between the squares. Another, labeled “Vents”, shows a maze of passages between the boxes.
The blueprints to the building, Rachel realizes. She tears through the stack of blueprints, studying them and committing them to memory. She thinks for a second before looking at the “Electrical” map again. Rachel realizes that one room, Room 37, has more wiring leading to it than any other room.
Rachel checks room 37 on the other blueprints. Room 37 has only two entrances, one of which leads to a dead end. The only way to get to room 37 is by taking a twisting path through two dozen rooms filled with security measures, starting at the main entrance.
The main lab, Rachel thinks to herself. A plan begins to form in her head. Robbing Vulcan Laboratories will be hard, to be sure, but is doable.
Two weeks later Rachel scales the building’s fence, knocks out part of the security system using an EMP grenade, sneaks into the building through a side entrance, and climbs into an air vent. Going through the vents is actually a decent plan in this circumstance. According to the blueprints, the vents lead straight to room 37.
Rachel pulls a flashlight from her pocket and clicks it on, illuminating the dark vent as much as she can. She crawls, scrunched up on her chest, with barely enough room to breathe, heading through the vent until she comes across a fork in the vents path. She struggles for a second to bring her hand to her head and then clicks the small device in her ear. “Jer,” she whispers, “You there?”
After a half second of static, a voice emerges on the other side. “Come on Rach, you know me, where else would I be?”
The voice belongs to her older brother, Jeremy. More on him later. Jeremy, as far as Rachel knows, is at home. Rachel rolls her eyes. “The Eucleia,” she says, bringing up an incident that would take far too long to explain right now.
“That was one time.”
“I spent fifteen weeks locked up because you were busy getting hammered!”
“Once! Besides, the women there are nice to me, unlike someone I know.”
“Shut up,” she says, before realizing that she needs to be silent.
“You know, you don’t have to be quiet. The Silencing Charm you stole should block out any noise you make.”
“I’m not going to risk it. Magic can be canceled out, and that’s assuming that the charm works on the machines.”
“Fair enough. Now then, what can I do for you?”
“Go get the blueprints. I need you to guide me through these vents.”
Jeremy sighs. “It wouldn’t kill you to say please every once in a while,” he says.
“Now would be good.”
“Fine. You entered the building through the southmost door on the eastern side, right?”
“And you entered the vents through that room’s access point?”
“Okay, is this the first intersection you’ve reached?”
“Yes, now hurry up and tell me which way to go.”
“Go left, and talk to me when you reach the next intersection.”
“Okay. Thank you.”
“Aw, you’re learning. Isn’t being kind wonderful?”
“I hate you.”
Led by Jeremy’s directions, Rachel travels through the vents, winding her way closer to the center. Eventually, she reaches the grate that Jeremy states is above the real lab. She stretches her arms back, trying to reach the rope tied to her left knee. She undoes the knot and pulls the rope, bringing the bag attached to it to her chest. She reaches in, searching for the tool she needs.
She pulls out the swiss army knife and rubs her thumb across the handle, feeling the letters crudely carved into the knife. She frowns for a moment, for a reason she can’t understand, before pulling out the tool’s screwdriver. She unscrews the grate and it falls to the ground with a faint thud. She grimaces and hopes that the charm covered the sound of the grate falling.
“Are you sure that this is the right part of the building?” she asks.
“Pretty sure,” Jeremy replies.
“It’s the right room. I swear.”
“You better be right,” she mumbles before jumping down into the darkness below.
As she lands the room’s lights turn on. The room is barren, aside from some dust, two sealed doors, and the metal skeleton standing in the corner. Aside from the robot skeleton, there are none of the expensive pieces of machinery one would expect to find in Caiden’s lab. In fact, if it weren’t for the robot, Rachel would have doubted that Caiden had anything to do with the lab. Regardless, a robotic skeleton stands in the corner, staring at Rachel with its metallic red eyes.
Rachel stares back, unsure of her next action. The robot’s head jerks up and a pre-recorded message plays over the robot’s built-in speaker. “Please exit the premises at once, or this Vulcan Laboratories security robot will be forced to remove you through less than desirable methods. Vulcan Laboratories is not liable for any injuries caused by our machines. Thank you for your visit.”
“Jeremy, this isn’t the lab!”
“Really? That’s odd.”
Rachel runs over to one of the doors and tries to open it, to no avail. “You said that this was the right room!”
“Well, that’s inconvenient. See if the door says where you are, and we can try to find that on the blueprints and work from there.”
Rachel runs and checks the other door. It too is locked. She glances at the metal man. “There’s a guard robot,” she says.
The robot enters a boxing stance. “Due to your unfortunate decision to ignore our request for you to leave, we are now forced to use a less than desirable method to remove you from the premises. Vulcan Laboratories is not liable for any injuries caused by our machines. We apologize for any problems that may come from the actions you have forced us to take. Thank you for your visit.”
The robot charges forward and jabs at Rachel’s head. She ducks out of the way and runs to the other side of the room, searching through her bag. The robot follows. Rachel jumps out of the way of another punch, landing on the floor, and pulls out the item she searched for. Rachel detonates an EMP grenade, freezing the skeleton in its tracks.
She slowly walks away from the skeleton, eyeballing it to make sure that it is actually down for the count. Satisfied with her survey, she begins to examine one of the locked doors. A tiny vertical gap rests between two bulky metal plates, each slightly thinner than the wall surrounding it. A small camera rests to the left of the door, with a small black screen beneath it. The door on the opposite side of the room is identical. She taps on the screen, but it stays black.
“Rachel,” Jeremy says, “Are you okay?”
“I shut the guard down with an EMP, but I still need to get out of here.”
“Do you see any indicators of where you are?”
“There’s a small screen by the door, but it’s off and won’t turn back on.”
“It probably got knocked out by the EMP.”
Rachel reaches into her bag and pulls out a small crowbar. She wedges into the gap between two doors and attempts to open them. “What I’m wondering,” she says, “Is how I ended up in the wrong room.”
“There are a few possibilities. You could have made a wrong turn, or gotten in through the wrong entrance, or maybe the blueprints are wrong.”
“Do you think that whoever sent the package was trying to trick us? Why would someone try to get me stuck in an empty laboratory?”
“Well, there’s another possibility.”
“I…may have misremembered the blueprints.”
“You mean that you don’t have them in front of you?”
“They’re still back at the apartment.”
“Are you back at the apartment?”
“Relax, I have a photographic memory.”
“No. You don’t.”
“Well, either way, you have more pressing concerns at hand.”
“Like the fact that that grenade probably wasn’t enough to destroy the skeleton. It’s likely that it only temporarily shut it down. The skeleton’s probably rebooting right now.”
“How long does it normally take for guard robots to reboot?”
“I’m no expert, but I guess about a minute.”
Rachel is knocked to the ground by a sucker punch from the skeleton. She’s dizzy, possibly concussed, and her vision grows dark. The skeleton pulls it’s fist back, ready for another strike. She rolls out of the way, barely dodging a punch that lodges the skeleton’s fist in the ground. She runs to the door, pulls out the crowbar, and swings it at the skeleton.
The blow dents the metal man’s head and sends a loud clang that, if not for the Silencing Charm, would’ve alerted any guard stationed in the surrounding rooms. Rachel hits the skeleton again, this time connecting with the robot’s neck.
The robot frees its arm and throws a punch that Rachel avoids by ducking. Rachel wields the crowbar like a dagger, embedding it in the robot’s weakened metal neck vertebrae. She grabs the crowbar with both hands and pulls towards the ground, prying off the skeleton’s head. The head falls to the floor. Seconds later, the body follows.
Rachel sits down. Her breath is heavy and sweat pours down her face. She’s never been in a fight like this. She feels her heart pumping blood through her veins. Deep within her heart, she feels an emotion that she doesn’t really understand. An emotion that she likes. Part of her wants the skeleton to get back up so she can fight it again.
“Are you okay?” Jeremy asks.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Is it dead?”
“I broke its head, that normally kills things.”
Rachel stands up and catches her breath. “So, how’s the Eucleia?” she asks.
“I’m not there anymore. I’ll be home soon.”
“Good, I need you to look out for me.”
“The door should be working now, go look at the screen.”
Rachel walks over to the door, stepping over the robot’s corpse. “The screen’s on now,” she says. “It says Room 12. Under that, it says Place Eye On Sensor. Wait a minute.”
She looks through her bag until she finds the eye. She holds it up to the camera. The screen below changes, displaying the message Welcome, Dr. Caiden in bold text. Through the doorway the actual laboratory is visible.
No light turns on, forcing Rachel to rely on her flashlight. The room is dusty, looking like it has been abandoned for years. The far wall contains an open doorway into a room filled within safe deposit boxes. The two remaining walls contain dozens of tool boxes, filled to the brim with various parts. A small table covered in wires, gears, and circuitry sits in the middle.
Rachel enters, searching for something valuable. “I think I found the main lab,” she says. “It’s weird, though.”
“What do you mean?” Jeremy says.
“I thought that there was supposed to be good loot in here.”
“What does the room look like?”
She describes the room to Jeremy and he says “Check the boxes.”
Rachel pulls one of the boxes off the shelf and begins to pick the lock with her knife and a hairpin. Before she can open the box, she hears some ticking. She tracks down the noise and discovers a bundle of dynamite wired to a ticking digital clock. The clock shows the time to be 4:56. Then it shows the time to be 4:55. Then it shows the time to be 4:54.
Rachel realizes that she is locked in a room with a bomb and begins to panic.
“Jeremy, there’s a bomb here,” she says.
“No shit! The clock says I have less than five minutes. Any idea on how I can get out of here in time?”
“Well, the vents would take far too long to go through again.”
“And that’s assuming I could somehow get up into them without the furniture I stacked to get into them the first time”
“You could try going through the locked doors, but that might take too long. Especially if there are any more guards to deal with. That leaves the boxes.”
Rachel returns to picking the lock. “Yeah, I figured the same thing,” she says. “If these boxes actually contain some high tech equipment, maybe I can use some of it to get out.” The lockbox clicks open. “What do we have here?” she asks no one in particular.
Inside is a small silver cylinder with two prongs sticking out perpendicular from it’s top. To Rachel, the item looks like a sword hilt. Inscribed on the side are the words Claíomh Solais. Near the top of the hilt is a small black button. Rachel presses the button, and a cyan blade, sixty centimeters long, emerges from the top of the hilt.
“I opened one of the boxes,” Rachel says. “It had a laser sword thing in it.”
“Well, that could help fighting any guards, I guess, but I don’t see how it’ll help you escape.”
“I have an idea,” Rachel says, a smirk on her face.
She cuts the lock off another box and opens it. Much to her chagrin, it does not contain a way out. “I opened another box.”
“What did you find?”
“A cigarette lighter.”
“A cigarette lighter. Like one from old movies.”
“What does it do?”
Rachel clicks it, creating a small flame. “It creates a small amount of fire.”
“Okay, I can’t think of any use for that. Put it in the bag. Maybe it’s valuable.”
Rachel pulls another box off the shelf and cuts it open. Inside she finds a pair of white and yellow metal boots. Written on their heels is the word Talaria. She puts them on, hoping that they have some sort of magical effect on the user. “I found some boots,” she says. “They don’t seem to do anything.”
“You should have risked going through the doors.”
“It’s too late, I only have, what, three minutes?”
“Two minutes, forty-six seconds.”
“Well, let’s hope the next box contains something more-”
Rachel’s toe accidentally clicks a button within the boots, and a blast of energy emerges from their soles, throwing Rachel at the room’s ceiling. She lands on her face. “Ignore what I said earlier. The boots let me jump high.”
She opens another box, this time finding a metal orb with the word Asclepius written on the side. She examines it for a second and, finding no apparent use for it, places it within her bag. The next box she opens contains a pair of aviator goggles with the words Odin Eye engraved above the left lense. She puts them on, and her vision changes. Everything turns blue, except for her hand, which becomes a bright orange color. “I found some goggles,” she says. “I think they’re thermal.”
She pulls out the lighter and clicks it. A white blob appears in her eyes, confirming her theory. She feels the side of the goggles and finds a small gear-shaped dial near one of the lenses. She twists it and her vision becomes normal. She turns again and the room becomes green.
“Scratch that,” she says. “The goggles have different special things.”
“What does special things mean?”
“Like, thermal and night vision.”
“I don’t see how that helps us.”
“I have an idea.”
She twists the dial, switching between different view modes. She cycles through various types of visions, before finally arriving at the one she wants. X-Ray vision. She scans the boxes, seeing the outlines of various objects, before finally pulling one of the shelves.
“Jeremey, how much time do I have left?”
“One minute, six seconds. Whatever you’re planning to do, you need to do it fast.”
“Don’t worry, this shouldn’t take long.”
“You don’t seem very worried. Why’s that?”
“Because I just found a prototype Kaladanda Cannon.”
Kaladanda Cannons are a type of gun invented by Vulcan Laboratories. They are large, heavy guns that fire blasts of magical energy that vaporize their target. Extremely deadly, and extremely popular among various military organizations.
Rachel pulls the heavy gun out of the box and aims it at the room’s ceiling. “Time?” she asks.
Rachel fires, destroying the ceiling with a large boom. Up above her lies the darkness of the night. Through the smoke of the city, Rachel spots a handful of twinkling stars. The tosses the gun down; it’s too heavy to carry with her. She jumps. With the help of her boots, she lands on the roof of the complex.
Rachel runs, faster than she has ever run before, desperate to escape the complex before it explodes. Jeremy counts down, second by second. She jumps, clearing the fence and landing on the street outside the building. She lands on her feet and the boots absorb the fall. “Three seconds!” Jeremy shouts.
Rachel jumps to the other side of the street, landing on her hands and knees. She covers her face and waits. Three seconds pass. Then three seconds more. Then a minute. Rachel stands up and stares at the still standing complex.
“So,” Rachel says, “The complex didn’t explode. I think the bomb might have been fake.”
Jeremy’s words, meant to be sarcastic, ring truer than he realizes. Part of Rachel is disappointed by the retroactive lack of danger. In fact, Rachel feels disappointed about the entire heist. While the fight with the guard robot was exhilarating, the rest of the heist was easy, like the lab had been built for the sole purpose of being robbed.
Rachel turns around and discovers a tall man wearing riot armor and a longcoat standing next to a black car. A gas mask and helmet cover his face, leaving Rachel unable to discern any information about his mood. He rests a large sword on his shoulder. He puts his hand out and beckons for Rachel to come closer.
Rachel begins to back up. The man points his sword at her and crimson flames surround the blade. “I do not wish for this encounter to end in violence,” he says. “Get in the car. Now.”
Rachel analyzes the situation she has been presented with. On one hand, she could get in the strange car on the request of a strange man with a sword. On the other hand, she could simply run away. Rachel, being a sensible human being, chooses the latter.
She dashes towards an alleyway, using her boots to amplify the force of her steps. A heavy blow to her side knocks her to her feet. She looks up and sees another man, wearing the same armor, standing over her. In his hands is a golden mace, its head shaped like that of a Lion. Rachel reconsiders options and decides that running is no longer a good idea.
The man with the sword walks up to her and moves the blade near her throat. “I dislike violence,” he says. “Unfortunately, you have forced my hand.”
The man kicks Rachel in the head and she falls deep into the darkness of unconsciousness.
Rachel is awoken to the smell of onions. Due to the fact that onions are an odd thing to smell, Rachel is slightly confused when she awakens. The fact that her arm is chained to a table is the icing on the confusion cake.
Rachel’s eyes flutter open to the sight of one of the gas mask men. He’s sitting across a table from her. Rachel can’t see the man’s face but assumes that he’s scowling. The two are in a small, dimly lit room. Behind the man lies a large mirror. A police station, Rachel thinks.
Rachel turns her head and spots the other gas mask man standing in front of a thick, blue, metal door. Part of his mask is pulled away, revealing a clean shaven chin. In one hand he holds the lion club. In the other, a raw onion with several bites missing.
“Are you eating a raw onion?” Rachel asks.
The man sitting across from her slams his fist on the table, gaining Rachel’s attention. Without a word, he opens a file sitting on the table and begins to read it out loud. “Rachel Botterill,” he says. “Born in City 19 on May 16th, 2216 to Rebecca Botterill, deceased. No father listed.”
He shuffles some papers and pulls out a list. “You have quite the extensive rap sheet, Miss Botterill. October 9th, 2220, petty theft. January 14th, 2221, petty theft. June 28th 2221, petty theft. January 2222, breaking and entering. July 2nd, 2224, breaking and entering, grand theft. September 8th, 2229, breaking and entering, resisting arrest. I suspect that there more than a few other crimes that you managed to get away with.”
Rachel squirms in her seat and suddenly realizes that she’s barefoot. The boots are gone. After a few seconds of thinking, Rachel realizes that her earpiece, goggles, satchel, and hoodie are also missing.
Rachel begins planning her escape. She glances at her hands, which are handcuffed to the table and realizes how hard it will be to escape. Before she can try anything a thin man bursts through the door, almost knocking the man with the club over. The man sitting across the table from Rachel stares at the new man for a few moments. The intruder smiles.
The man is in his mid-thirties and has a short, well-groomed beard. He wears an expensive charcoal suit with a blue tie. Rachel swears that she’s seen the man before, but can’t quite place where. Something about him seems…off. Maybe it’s the way his smile feels artificial. Maybe it’s the way his eyes look, like they’re made of ice. Whatever the case, Rachel can tell from a glance that he’s up to something.
“I’m grateful for your assistance, General,” the man says, “But, I think I can take it from here.”
Begrudgingly, the man sitting across from Rachel stands up and exits the room. The man with the onion follows. The remaining man takes a seat in front of Rachel. He places a small, red, swiss army knife on the table, just out of Rachel’s grasp.
“I apologize for any harm that man may have inflicted on you, It’s so hard to find good help these days,” he says with a smirk.
“Who are you?” Rachel asks.
The man chuckles. “It’s rare to meet someone who doesn’t ask for my autograph. Reminds me that there are still parts of the world that don’t watch my show. Still, I’d think that a bright young girl like yourself would recognize me.”
Rachel says nothing. Instead, she thinks of ways to get her hands on the knife. “My name is Faustino Nash. Most people call me Faust,” the man says.
The name feels familiar. Rachel mulls over the name, trying to place it. “Wait, are you that one cheesy talk show host guy?” she asks.
Faust’s smile disappears. Rachel makes a mental note to avoid saying anything bad about Faust’s show. “Yes,” he says. “I’m that “cheesy” talk show host guy.”
“Why are the cops working with a tv host?”
“That’ll become clear in a moment. Let’s talk about what you were doing at Vulcan Laboratories,” he says.
“Do we have to? Can’t we talk about something else, like the weather?”
“It’s been unusually balmy over the past few months,” Faust says. “Now then, let’s get back to the topic of the multiple felonies you committed tonight.”
“You know, I think the next few months are going to be really cold. Like, nature will balance out the heat we’ve been having.”
“Breaking and entering. Destroying an expensive guard robot. Attempted theft of half a dozen expensive prototypes. Industrial espionage. Add in your other outstanding warrants and we’re looking at years, maybe even decades of jail time.”
Faust stares into Rachel’s eyes. “Of course,” he says, “There is a way for you to make all of this go away.”
Rachel feels like vomiting. “You’re disgusting,” she says, her voice filled with contempt.
Faust laughs. “Get your mind out of the gutter,” he says. “I’m talking about the Tournament.”
Rachel stares at him blankly. “What Tournament?” she asks.
At this point, Faust begins to question Rachel’s intelligence. “The Golden Valhalla Tournament,” he says.
Faust is shocked to hear these words. This is the first time that Faust has met anyone who hasn’t heard of the Tournament. In his defense, nearly everyone who lives in the Cities and most of the people who live in the Outlands knows of the Tournament. Besides, he has a very good reason to believe that Rachel has heard of it. More on that later.
“The Golden Valhalla Tournament,” he repeats.
“I still don’t know what that is.”
Faust sighs and hands Rachel a small blue book. On the front of the book, The Golden Valhalla Tournament is written in golden letters. Rachel begins skimming the book.
“The Tournament features the deadliest warriors, wizards, and weirdos from around the globe fighting for one wish, magically granted by Marilyn Maia,” Rachel reads.
Rachel does a double take when she hears the name Marilyn Maia. There isn’t a person alive that hasn’t heard of the fallen god. Rachel realizes just how serious Faust actually is.
“What does this have to do with me?” she asks.
“I need an underdog,” Faust says. “Every good story has one. I think you can be that underdog. If you agree to fight in the Tournament, I’ll arrange for all the charges against you to be dropped.”
Faust places a thick contract and a pen on the table. He unlocks Rachel’s handcuffs. Rachel immediately grabs her knife. She looks at the contract and sees a big dotted line waiting for her signature.
“Make sure to sign your name in cursive,” Faust says. “It’s fancier that way.”
“What makes you so sure that I’m going to sign?”
Faust smiles. “I checked your bank account balance. There’re a lot of digits. You aren’t stealing because you have to. I think you went to that lab tonight because you wanted a challenge. I’ve presented you with the biggest challenge on the planet. All you have to do is sign.”
Rachel places the pen on the paper. She hesitates. “Come one,” Faust says. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Rachel signs her name, and with it, her death warrant.