Nyk’s heart was pumping as he ran through room after room. He had gotten lost in the Tower somehow, and each room he passed was exactly the same as the last.
His thoughts were scrambled by that panic; was he running away from something, or towards something? He’d been running for so long he couldn’t remember. But he could feel a deep, primal fear welling up in his gut, telling him that if he stopped, or even slowed down, then something very bad would happen.
Then he felt the heat against the back of his neck.
A hissing snarl rang in his ear. A Sentinel was right on his heels! He picked up speed, running as fast as his short little legs could carry him, faster than he’d ever run before, but it just wasn’t fast enough. It was all he could do to keep the monster from overtaking him.
A flash of red in the distance. Mysha! She was with the others, walking ahead of him, laughing and chatting without a care in the world.
But no matter how fast Nyk ran, he couldn’t seem to catch up. He tried to call out to her, to get her attention somehow, ignoring the rawness in his throat. Mysha! MYSHA! He screamed with all his might, but the name never escaped his lips.
Darkness engulfed him, and his eyes snapped opened.
The first thing Nyk realized when he awoke was that he couldn’t see. Not because it was dark, though, in fact, wherever he was, it was very bright. But there was something in front of his eyes, blurring everything.
Then he realized that he wasn’t lying down. Something was touching him, though, wrapped around him like a rag. But it was cool and wet.
Like most kids in the slums, Nyk had never taken a bath before. His only exposure to water was the muck he found in gutters, or when he could scrape together enough silvs for a dirty glass of the stuff at a stall. So he had no words for the sensation he felt now, being submerged entirely in the strange glowing liquid.
He was completely naked, save for a tube connected to the bottom of his face. It pumped oxygen into his lungs as he floated in suspension.
Wherever he was, it was soothing. He almost slipped back into unconsciousness until the memories began to return.
He and the others had been attacked by Sentinels in the tower, and he’d nearly been killed. He remembered pain like nothing he’d ever felt before, but he couldn’t feel any of that now.
Am I… dead? I died, didn’t I…? That’s right…
As his eyes slowly drifted shut again, he saw a shadow pass in front of him, and the muffled trace of a voice in the distance caught his ear. Then a pair of strong hands seized him by the shoulders and pulled him forward, and he felt the air against his skin again.
“Haaa! Haa!” It took Nyk a second to catch his breath as the tube was ripped from his lips, and his lungs went back to doing their inefficient job on their own. He looked around in frantic confusion like a rat in an alley.
The first thing his eyes landed on was the woman. But was “woman” the right word? It didn’t seem worthy to describe the figure sitting before him.
She was beautiful. Nyk knew that instinctively. No, Mysha was beautiful, but her… “flawless” was the only thought that came to mind. Her skin was impossibly pristine, so shiny and white it almost seemed to glow, nothing like what he would see in the slums. Her smiling lips were unbelievably, unrealistically pink and supple, a bright color matched by her silky, glossy hair, pulled up into two long tails. Her shimmering eyes were the clearest of blues, and as for the rest of her…
Nyk had no experience with comfort women, but he’d seen them before. Parading their bodies around for men to appraise. He’d always felt awkward around them before, with the way they slathered themselves in color and exposed their skin. Now they just seemed silly. It was like they were desperate little girls trying futilely to compete with someone who was naturally superior in every way. A more captivating figure that could seize the interest of anyone who looked upon it, soft and heavy in all the right places and wrapped in the most gorgeous black dress Nyk had ever seen.
Who was she? A woman like this belonged in a fancy mansion in Central City tended to by servants, or in the harem of the wealthiest corporate executives being spoiled with luxury; Nyk didn’t deserve to be in the same room as a goddess like this, just breathing the same air as him felt like he was defiling her in some way.
It was only then that Nyk realized he was still naked.
“A-Ah!” He gasped, quickly moving to cover himself. Flustered as he was he’d completely forgotten about the circumstances that had brought him here, too enraptured by this woman’s commanding beauty.
Wait. Where was “here” anyway? Summoning all of his strength he forced himself to tear his eyes away from the vision of loveliness before him and get another look at his surroundings.
Everywhere Nyk looked he saw color. In the slums, there were only grays and browns and the occasional black or white. But here Nyk could see reds and golds and blues and greens, and even more colors that he didn’t know the names of. Strange chairs that looked more pillow than chair, and a table carved of wood with so many turns and curves it was a wonder it could even stand. Lamps flooded the room with light and crystals hung suspended in a dish of metal overhead, and countless other luxuries that he couldn’t even begin to dream of.
Was this heaven? Did such a place really exist?
“Am… Am I dead?” He whispered.
The woman blinked, as if his question had confused her. Then she raised her hand to her lips and chuckled softly. “Well that was a surprise!”
Even the sound of her voice was better than anything Nyk had ever heard.
“To answer your question, no, you’re not dead,” she assured him. “All thanks to me. And Aud, of course.”
Nyk gasped, and realized for the first time that the two of them were not alone. Standing beside the tank he was sitting in was a tall, stern-looking woman with a sharp gleam in her eye. Her dark hair was cut short and a fringe hung over her left eye, and she was dressed in a black suit over a white shirt, with a black strip of cloth tied in a bow on her throat. It had been her hands that had pulled him from the water, her white gloves were still dripping with the strange substance.
“She was the one who saved you in the Tower,” the gorgeous woman explained. “She fought off the Sentinels and carried you from the wreckage. Of course, it was only due to my generosity that you didn’t summarily perish from your wounds.”
She used a lot of words that Nyk didn’t understand. He looked at her in confusion, and he remembered that night.
“That’s right… the Tower… and the Sentinels… and-!” He glanced down at his body. He could still picture his mangled frame in the dark, spikes of metal jutting out of him in countless directions. But now he couldn’t see a single scar.
He looked up at her in shock. “How…?”
The beautiful woman narrowed her eyes, and her face took on a playful smile. “Why, with the wonders of modern medicine, of course! You happen to be sitting in a premium, state-of-the-art aetherium restoration capsule set to maximum cellular regeneration. Courtesy of Volstgalph Industries and yours oh, so ever truly!”
“Cellular… regeneration? …Aetherium? Wha?” More words that he didn’t know the meaning of.
“Milady, slum dwellers like him are not as well-versed in language as you are, I’m afraid. Their vocabulary is much more simple and limited,” the handsome woman named Aud explained.
“Oh! I see! That explains it then!” This “Milady” said, clapping her hands together. She rose from her seat and approached him, leaning down so she was looking him right in the eye. Nyk gulped. Even her smell was pleasant.
“You were dying, and I used this machine to heal your injuries,” she explained, and Nyk finally understood.
He didn’t know what to say. “You… saved my life?”
“So you do understand! Excellent! That will make this much easier!” She stood up straight, brushing a lock of hair from her eyes. She held the hem of her skirt and bent down once more. “Allow me to introduce myself! My name is Luna Lugh, and yes, I am the compassionate, generous woman who saved your life. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
Nyk swallowed. Two names. That meant his first instinct had been correct. She was from the city. He had never met someone from the city before, he needed to be as polite as possible. Rumors of what the cityfolk did with people who angered them were spread as horror stories to children in the slums.
“H-Hello, my name is-“
“Why does that matter?”
His voice died in his throat. “Wh-What?”
She gave him a confused look. “Why on earth would knowing your name possibly matter?” She asked. “I don’t care, Slum Boy. It has nothing to do with why I saved you.”
“I-I… forgive me, milady, I just-“ Fear seized his heart and he fell back in the tank. What had he done? This woman had saved his life, and he’d just… he didn’t even know what he’d done, but she certainly wasn’t pleased about it!
“Oh! Yes, that’s a great look!” She chirped. “Pants-wetting terror is so charming! More of that please. But no need for the ‘milady’, you can just call me ‘Lulu’. I would prefer it.”
Nyk nodded frantically. “Lulu… okay…”
“Excellent! Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk business,” she said, flouncing back to her seat. She snapped her fingers. “Aud! Bring tea. Do you drink tea, Slum Boy? …No, probably not. No matter.”
“As you wish, milady,” Aud said, placing her hand over her chest and bowing. She left the room, leaving Nyk alone with his savior.
Nyk glanced down at his naked form and shivered. “Lulu, I… I don’t know what you want to talk about, but shouldn’t I be, um…”
He didn’t want to draw attention to his nakedness, but he was feeling incredibly uncomfortable at this point.
“Shouldn’t I be wearing clothes?”
Lulu blinked. “Nonsense. What benefit would clothing you provide me? Don’t be silly, Slum Boy. Now then. How are you planning to repay me?”
She couldn’t be serious. “Re… Repay?”
“Yes. Repay. You do know that word, right? When someone does something for you, you pay them back. That’s ‘repay’,” Lulu explained.
“I-I know what ‘repay means…”
Lulu brightened. “Excellent! Then how will you go about repaying the debt you’ve incurred from me saving your life?”
Nyk felt sick to his stomach. He’d heard the horror stories about Scavengers who owed money. Often they were seized and enslaved to work for corporations who bought and sold their debts to one another like livestock, forcing their debtors to Scavenge for relics in the Towers for free in the hopes of working off their obligations.
Very seldom did any of them succeed.
Mysha had always warned him to be responsible, to not borrow more than he could pay back. But how could he have seen this coming?
“So let’s think,” Lulu said, tapping her chin, “service costs for Aud saving you from the Sentinels, along with transportation costs to bring you safely here, and of course the biggest expense, the rejuvenation chamber, and those don’t come cheap! All in all the cost of saving your life comes to about, oh… 1,269,700 Gols.”
The silence was deafening. Gols. She’d said gols, not silvs. 1,269,700 Silvs wasn’t a price Nyk could imagine paying in his lifetime, and gols…
The room began to spin around him. All he could see was the smile on her face. It wasn’t sweet and gentle any longer, her beautiful features were twisted with wickedness.
“So tell me Slum Boy, how do you intend to repay this debt?” She mused, steepling her fingers together and leaning towards him. There was greed in her eyes. Greed, and something even more frightening.
“I-I don’t… I don’t have anything…” Nyk stuttered. He could live a thousand lifetimes and never earn enough to repay that debt.
“Well, that’s quite a pity,” Lulu sighed, slumping back in her chair. Then she rose and slinked forward, leaning over the tub until she was practically on top of him.
Lulu traced her fingers along his chin, her sweet-smelling whispers tickling against Nyk’s ear. “I do so hate when someone can’t pay me back… but no matter. Today is your lucky day, Slum Boy… I’ll be having you repay your debt to me… another way. And believe me… I intend to get my money’s worth.”
Her words were freezing against his skin. The chill of death sank in once more as he saw his life slip away before his eyes.