Chapter 25:

Chapter 25: To Stand Up for Oneself


A naked girl walked barefoot through the wasteland, illuminated by the setting sun. Quickly approaching her was a horde of ravenous Sentinels from deep within the Towers.

The girl didn’t turn and run. She walked straight ahead towards the beasts as if she couldn’t even see them. The head of the swarm drew closer and closer, red eyes glowing and mouth opened wide.

Seconds before it reached her, a gunshot echoed across the desert and the beast fell dead in the sand. More gunshots followed and the swarm turned towards them, roaring.

Calum couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “It’s a girl!?” He sputtered, not quite sure if he could believe it. “A naked girl!”

“Out here?!” Axel exclaimed. It had been just a few days since they’d taken down the Bounty Sentinel. They’d come out on patrol to test their new vehicle, and just their luck they ran into a swarm. But on the way back to the slums, the Sentinels had charged towards something else. Something that wasn’t putting up a fight.

Mysha thought she recognized the girl she saw through her scope. She had been the one to fire the first shot, slaying the creature before it could reach its target.

That girl… isn’t she Sky? She had no idea what Nyk’s friend was doing naked in the wasteland, but right now she didn’t care. With Axel providing covering fire they turned the jeep and beat back the swarm, picking up the pale stick of a girl before any hungry Sentinels turned her into their dinner.

“Sky? You are Sky, right?” Mysha demanded. The girl stared blankly up at her, not sparing a word of gratitude for her saviors.

Mysha turned to Calum. Her expression was serious.

“Calum, we need to get back to the city, now. The Central Government needs to be informed about this swarm.

Calum gunned the engine and the jeep roared across the sand, headed for the safety of the slums.

After Nyk had escaped from Lulu with nothing but the clothes on his back, he returned to Rowan and Dyna a defeated man. They had a lot of questions, of course, like why did he look so awful, and what had happened to Sky. But all he could do was hold Rowan tightly and cry as she stroked his hair gently and whispered that everything would be okay.

He didn’t leave his room much the rest of the week. Dyna brought him food, same as usual, but he didn’t even come to the door. She stared down at the tray holding last night’s dinner, untouched.

“Nyk… I’m here,” she murmured, resting her forehead against the door. “If you want to talk, or… anything, really… I’m always here for you, okay?”

What was she expecting? For him to come stomping out and fling himself into her arms? Of course that would never happen. But hopefully the knowledge that whatever he was going through he didn’t have to go through alone would be enough to keep his spirits up.

A knock on the door got the attention of both women, and Dyna went to go see who it was.

“Sorry, we’re not open right- bwuh?!”

She could believe what she was staring at. The most beautiful woman Dyna had ever seen was standing on her doorstep with a smile on her face, looking like a princess from a fairy tale. Standing beside her was a woman in a stern business suit, carrying a large briefcase.

“Dyna, was it? Hello there. My name is Luna Lugh, and I’m here to speak with you and your mother. May we please come in?”

“Um, M-Miss Lugh…”

“Lulu, please,” she said, passing Dyna before she could say anything else. She walked in like she owned the place; her smile did nothing to conceal the fact that she considered her surroundings to be lower than garbage.

“…Welcome, Lulu. What can I do for you today?” Rowan said slowly. At a glance it was obvious that this was someone from the inner city; Rowan needed to be very careful about how she spoke.

Lulu’s smile widened.

Dyna was shaking. She felt like a criminal in her own home. Lulu had flounced into her living room and was now sitting at their table drinking tea her companion prepared. Her own throat felt dry. The content of that cup was probably more expensive than everything she and her mother owned combined.

If it wasn’t for her mother sitting tall by her side, Dyna might have collapsed under the pressure. Rowan was very composed as she addressed Lulu, treating her with reverence as she would a valued customer and not like someone who had stormed into their home.

Lulu set down her cup. “I’m aware that you’re currently housing a Scavenger by the name of Nyk?”

Rowan didn’t answer, but Dyna’s flinch gave everything away. Lulu smirked.

“Don’t worry. I’m not an enemy. In fact, that boy is quite an important associate of mine.”

Dyna gasped.

“Is that so?” Rowan asked, raising her eyebrow.

“It is. He has been working for me, you see, doing Scavenging jobs and the like. I’m sure you’ve noticed he’s been gone for days at a time, yes? I’ll take responsibility for that. We have a very… close relationship.”

Dyna’s throat tightened up and her stomach turned queasy. She stared down at the table, stunned that Nyk knew someone so beautiful. Mysha was one thing, but this woman…

Dyna had a fair bit of confidence in her appearance. She was no great beauty, but by the standard of the women who lived in the slums she was rather appealing. Her body was healthy and she ate well, her chest and hips were generous, and her face was free of any scarring or serious blemishes. The one mark against her was that she cut her hair short to avoid catching or staining it while working, but some people liked that look. She wouldn’t find herself wanting for suitors if she tried.

But even if you took the nicest stone from the side of the road and polished it until it shined, it was still just a rock. All the care in the world couldn’t turn a pebble into a precious gemstone, and it was certainly a jewel more lovely than any other that sat across from her. No wonder Nyk never looked at her like she wanted.

Recognizing that she could never compete with someone like that, Dyna felt a piece of her heart silently die.

“If this concerns Nyk, then I can speak on his behalf.” A shadow crossed Rowan’s face. “He’s… not in any condition to talk at the moment.”

Rowan noticed the lack of concern on Lulu’s face, and her frown deepened.

“I see.” Lulu took another sip of her tea. “Well, I’ll get straight to the point. I would like you to release him to my custody immediately. Furthermore, I request that both you and your daughter avoid all contact with him moving forward.”

“What?!” Dyna exclaimed.

Rowan touched her shoulder as a warning. “Please excuse my daughter. But your request is… surprising. I don’t understand, what do you want with him?”

“Well, to put it simply, he and I have a contract. He works for me; his earnings are mine, his possessions are mine, his body is mine. He’s mine to do with as I please, and I would very much like him returned to me.” She said all this with the casualness of someone asking to borrow a socket wrench.

Neither woman knew what to make out of that.

“He… he’s not yours!” Dyna sputtered, her face red with embarrassment at Lulu’s insinuations.

“He is mine. I saved his life. He owes me a considerable debt, and I’ll see it paid. Unfortunately, we recently had a falling out, and he’s refusing to take my calls. So I would like you to hand him over, if you would.”

Rowan’s eyes narrowed into a glare. She remembered Nyk’s face when he came back that day, how broken he looked. The girl sitting across from her was responsible for that, she was certain of it.

“Of course, I’m not asking you do such a thing for free,” Lulu added, snapping her fingers. “Aud?”

Aud walked forward and set the briefcase down on the table, revealing its contents.

Rowan gasped, and Dyna’s eyes bulged out of her head.


“100,000 drops of silver-pressed fulcrumite,” she confirmed. “It’s very simple. Release the Slum Boy into my custody and have nothing more to do with him, and in return a suitcase just like this will be delivered to you every week for the rest of your lives.”

Rowan scowled. “You can’t be serious.”

“Oh? I’m good for my word, I promise,” Lulu assured her. “I spend more than this on tea and cakes.”

“That’s not the issue. Do you really think that I would sell that boy to you?”

Lulu snorted in disbelief. “You’ve known him for what, a couple of months? Are you really telling me you’ve made a strong enough connection with that brat to give up enough money to ensure you live the rest of your life in luxury?”

Rowan took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. She needed to choose her next words carefully.

“…When I first met that boy, he was covered in blood and vomit, sprawled out in a rain gutter. He had no one, and nothing but the clothes on his back and his gun. He was suspicious and frightened, completely unwilling to trust anyone or open up to anyone. He had the look of someone who had been betrayed and let down over and over again. But in the time he’s lived here with me… it’s as if he’s become a different person. He smiles. He laughs. There’s a light in his eyes that wasn’t there before. And maybe I’m not responsible for that light. But I won’t become one of those people who betrays him. That boy is a part of this family, and I won’t give him to you, not for any price.”

Dyna smiled proudly at her mother and sat a little higher in her seat.

Lulu’s smile faded. “I see. That’s very noble of you, ma’am. I’m quite impressed. But are you sure that’s the best thing for you and your daughter?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, that boy is a Scavenger, you know. That’s a very dangerous line of work, especially without a backer like me looking out for him. Scavengers have a nasty habit of making enemies, you see. And if one of them found out that that boy was staying here? With you? They could do all manner of horrible, unimaginable things to you and your little girl… is that really something you’d risk bringing down on her?”

Her words made Dyna feel sick to her stomach. Rowan narrowed her eyes. “Are you threatening me?”

Lulu gasped. “Threatening?! No, of course not! I’m telling you this because I’m concerned for your safety! In the slums like this, anything could happen after all.”

“We’ll take our chances.”

“And is she okay with that?” Lulu asked, glancing over to Dyna, who was shaking like a leaf.

Dyna swallowed, and tried to channel her mother’s strength. “That’s right. No way. Nyk’s staying here!”

Lulu’s face twitched, shifting into something that was not quite a smile.

“…I see.”

She pushed the suitcase forward. “Two suitcases per week, then.”

“I already told you my answer was no. Nyk is staying here, for as long as he wishes to.”

“I don’t believe I’m making myself clear. One way or another, that boy is coming back with me. So tell me what you need to make that happen.”

Rowan fell silent. She stared at Lulu for a long time, and then her face turned sympathetic.

“I don’t know what happened to make you this way, miss, but I wish your mother had taught you better manners.”

Lulu’s smile twitched. Then she exploded.

“YOU SHUT YOUR FUCKING MOUTH, THE UGLY SLUM GUTTER WHORE!” She roared, lunging across the table and scratching at Rowan. Her face was wild like a beast, and Aud had to hold her back.

Rowan didn’t even flinch.


Lulu fell back in her seat, stunned. Her cheek was bright red. It took a moment for her to figure out what had happened.

“You… slapped me…” Lulu mumbled.

“I won’t be spoken to like that in my own home.”

“Aud!” Lulu snarled. “Rip her apart! Rip them both to shreds!”


“That cunt struck my face! My flawless face! How dare she?! Exterminate them both!”

Aud nodded, raising her fist. “As you wish.”

Rowan tensed and Dyna fell out of her chair, shaking.


Everyone turned to see Nyk at the bottom of the stairs, gun in hand.

“Nyk!?” Rowan gasped in disbelief.

“No, don’t!” Dyna cried.

“What are you doing?!” Lulu demanded.

The barrel of his rifle was pointed at his chin.

“Leave them alone,” Nyk growled, narrowing his eyes. “Or I’ll shoot.”

Lulu straightened out, brushing back her bangs. She crafted her best fake smile. “Now, Slum Boy, there’s no need for something… theatrical. I’m just here in peace, to ensure you meet your obligations. Nothing more.”

Nyk didn’t back down. “You honestly think I would keep working for you? After what you did to Sky?!”

Rowan scowled. She’d worried about Sky, but she didn’t know how to bring it up to him. Whatever happened that day was a mystery to her and her daughter.

“…So what then?” Lulu asked, narrowing her eyes. “Are you just going to shoot yourself? By all means.” She waved her hand dismissively. But Nyk didn’t take the bait.

“You’re bluffing.”

Lulu snorted. “Please. You think I’d shed a tear over your pitiful life? Go ahead. Shoot.”

She was daring him with her eyes, he could see that. Dyna and Rowan both stared anxiously at him, but he couldn’t let their fear shake him.

“…If I die… what happens to your experiment?” He asked slowly.

Lulu shrugged. “I’ll find a replacement.”

He raised his eyebrow. “…Oh, will you now?”

“Yes, I would. You think you’re special? I could spit out the door and find a dozen of you.”

“Then why are you here right now?”

Lulu flinched. And he knew he was right.

“Since the day we met, you’ve been telling me how pathetic I am. How weak and useless and expendable I was to your project, how you only saved me because it was convenient for… what was it again? Branding? And for a while, yeah, I believed you. But if I’m so ‘easily replaceable’ then why even bother? Why come here and try to force the people I care about to get me back, huh? Unless… maybe I’m not so useless. Maybe you do need me, a hell of a lot more than I need you.”

He tightened his finger on the trigger. “Want to test it?”

Lulu’s face turned purple. “Don’t you dare. You think this ends if you die? You pull that trigger and I swear those two will-“

“Enough threats!” Nyk exploded, startling her. Her mouth flapped wordlessly and he relished the silence. For once, Lulu had nothing to say. He lowered his rifle and everyone relaxed slightly.

“Now we can negotiate."

Lulu raised her eyebrow. “…Oh?”

“Now that we’re on the same page, and you can acknowledge for once that I’m not some exposable pawn, we can talk like two adults. So I’ll be clear with you. I’m willing to go back to working with you.”

She narrowed her eyes. “…But?”

He shook his head. “No buts. You and I had a deal. I’m a man of my word, so even after everything you’ve done, I can work with you. But I have conditions of my own.”

Lulu opened her mouth again, but he wasn’t going to give her a chance.

“First of all, you aren’t speaking to Rowan or Dyna. You won’t do anything to them, is that clear? And not just them. Mysha, too. If something happens to any of them, even if I can’t prove it’s your fault, then we’re done, understand?”

Lulu took a deep breath, and smiled serenely. “That is… acceptable.”

“Next condition, I’m going to be staying here from now on. I’ll still come when you call, but I get to pick my own jobs. If I think I can’t handle it, then I won’t do it.” He glanced at Dyna’s anxious face.

“…I don’t want to worry them anymore.”

“…I can live with that,” Lulu agreed.

“Also, I’m not your slave. You’ll pay me a wage. Either that, or give me a cut the take. No more of this ‘repay your debt’ bullshit, helping you is repaying my debt. And I expect to get paid.”

“Fine. We can discuss whatever sum you’d like,” she snorted. He figured she’d be fine with that. It had never been about the money after all.

That just left one last thing.

“If you ever lie to me again, or try to manipulate me for some hidden agenda of yours, then that’s it. I don’t work for you anymore. I work with you. As your partner. I don’t trust you one bit, and I doubt I ever will. But I need your honesty. Is that clear?”

The glare on Lulu’s face was a sight to see. It was astounding that such a pretty face could become so twisted and ugly with rage.

But if she wanted him, she didn't have a choice.


Lulu rose from her seat, and Dyna nearly fell over from the malice rolling off of her.

“So we have a deal?”

“I said fine! Now grab your gun. We’re going.”

Nyk shook his head. “Not today. I still-“

A siren broke through the street, drowning him out.


Dyna and Rowan’s faces filled with fear. Lulu and Nyk glanced at each other.

Her face was serious. “Grab your gun. We’re going.”

Nyk nodded frantically. No objections there.