Training a magician requires years of intense training, but training a rifleman only takes a few weeks. That is the chief advantage of guns over artifacts.
—Excerpt from “Guns vs Artifacts” by Klaus Munk
Kraej City was awesome! True, the buildings were made of some dark blue concrete-like substance that made it look gloomy, but it was very much like modern cities on Earth. This world’s technology was roughly on par with Earth in the 1970s. They had electricity, flush toilets, air conditioners, refrigerators, telephones, television, radio, cars, trains, helicopters, etc., but no internet or cellular phones. The “city” was really a megalopolis or supercity. That is to say, it was originally six cities that all grew until they merged into one giant whole. Millions of people lived here and there were futuristic-looking skyscrapers in all the business districts.
It was a far cry from the quaint little village of Lieceni where I came from, but it’s not like I was really a country bumpkin. I wasn’t overwhelmed by Kraej’s City’s size or magnificence. After all, Earth also has big cities like New York, Tokyo, Mumbai, Shanghai, and so forth. I felt a little nostalgic about my old home, Singapore, when we entered the city.
Uriel had his protege Israfel, an A-class EL, waiting for us with a vehicle at one of the military’s underground tunnels near the north gate. Since I insisted on strict secrecy, Uriel used his walkie-talkie to tell Israfel to leave before we boarded the van. The military vehicle had dark tinted windows.
Seraphiel lived in an ultra-high security residential tower. Uriel drove us into Seraphiel’s enclosed parking space where a private elevator took us directly to his flat. Great! No one would be able to see me enter or leave.
The full-floor flat was spacious and airy, with high ceilings and large windows. One-half of the space was filled with bookshelves crammed with hardcovers and paperbacks. The other half was full of plants. There was an expensive-looking telescope on the balcony. I was too tired to appreciate the elegant wood-paneled rooms, expensive designer furniture, and modern abstract artwork. Sariel tried to talk to me some more, but Seraphiel showed me directly to the guest bedroom. I immediately took my shoes off and climbed into the bed while Seraphiel, bless him, hustled the other two Commanders out.
“Go to work,” I said to Seraphiel when he returned. My eyes were already closed.
“You’ll need me-”
“No, I won’t. I’ll be sleeping,” I said. “Go.”
“Alright, I’ll be back at noon with lunch,” said Seraphiel, but he didn’t leave. I could hear him pacing back and forth beside the bed.
I opened my eyes and gave him a questioning look. The “world’s deadliest fighter” fidgeted nervously, fussing with his shirt cuffs and tapping his fingers on his thighs.
“What is it?” I said.
“Promise me you’ll be here when I return,” said Seraphiel.
Right, he must be worried that I’ll run off to find the chosen hero. I did plan to do that later, but right now I had to rest.
“I’ll be here,” I said. I reached my arms up to him, and he bent down for a long hug before leaving. Touching a carrier of the virus still made me feel nauseous, but I endured it for Seraphiel’s sake.
“I’ll be back at noon with your lunch,” he said. Closing my eyes and turning my body to the side, I hugged a pillow and yawned.
Sweet, sweet sleep! Sometime later I almost woke up when I heard Seraphiel knocking on the door. I wanted to sleep some more, so I just flung the bedsheet over my head. He entered the room and whispered, “the food is on the table,” to me before leaving.
When I woke up for real it was already nighttime. The city outside the bedroom windows was gaily illuminated in bright, neon lights. Billboards proclaimed the merits of various products: “The Better Insurance,” “Nothing’s as Good as AlphaShine,” “Fresh Salads,” “Impossibly Good, Impossibly Cheap, Plutronics,” and “If you’re not using Nemo then you must be tired of life,” written in Rhixnun script. It was like a scene right out of “Tales of Vesterland.”
I could hear the three Commanders talking outside the bedroom, so I cleaned myself up a little before joining them.
They were in Seraphiel’s living room. Sariel was lying on the sofa while Uriel was seated on an enormous and very comfortable-looking reclining chair. The stuffed chair must have been custom-made for Uriel since normal furniture wouldn’t be big enough. Seraphiel was standing, looking out into the night sky, but he quickly turned and walked towards me when he heard the door opening.
“Hello, sweetie,” I said. I hugged him, ignoring the sick feeling in my stomach when we touched. Seraphiel was wearing an expensive perfume that smelled cold and fresh. I didn’t know much about the herbs and flowers in this world, but to me he smelled of seawater and mint with a hint of jasmine and base notes of amber and cedar.
“Here are the clothes I bought for you,” said Sariel. He was holding a big white box.
“Thanks, I’ll need that tomorrow. I’m all out of clean clothing,” I said. I knew Sariel had something up his sleeve.
Sariel opened the box to show me the contents. He picked up a pair of pink panties and handed them to me. “Here, you should try this on.”
“Thanks,” I said again. I took the underwear and the box from him and put it in the guest room. Sariel was disappointed by my lack of reaction, but it would take more than lingerie to embarrass me.
“Let’s eat,” said Sariel. “I’m starving.”
The food had been laid out on the wooden dining table. In Lieceni I had eaten mostly fresh vegetables grown in Signe’s garden. Here in Kraej City, fresh leafy greens were expensive since they were grown on farms outside the city. Meat was only slightly less expensive. The regular diet of the city’s population were the cheap beans, mushrooms, root vegetables, and worm meat that were mass-produced in Kraej Company’s factory farms. Seraphiel had prepared mostly vegetables and meat with white bread.
The three ELs went for the large, juicy steaks first, but I took a little bit of each vegetable dish first. The salad with meorlan dressing, made with mayonnaise and the lemony-tasting juice of the meorlan fruit, was delicious. I also liked the roasted sweet boquila roots which were like a cross between cassavas and sweet potatoes. One of the fluffy dinner buns proved to be stuffed with a zesty brown sauce and a meat I couldn’t identify. It was like Chinese BBQ pork buns. Yummy!
“Angels eat meat?” said Sariel.
“I thought they lived on air,” said Uriel.
Great, now he was egging Sariel on.
“Mmm,” I said. “What goes with that sauce?”
“It’s for the steak,” said Seraphiel, placing a little of the sauce and steak on my plate.
I focused on eating while they made small talk. The Glorious Zadrus were favored to win the next uluma match with The Strethyes, but the season’s champion was probably going to be The Hungry Ridnacs. Sariel threw the occasional snarky remark at me, but I paid him no mind.
The dessert was fresh berries with cream.
“Delicious!” I said.
“We’re done, so can we talk now?” said Sariel.
I put my dessert spoon down and leaned back on my chair. “Okay.”
“Who is the hero?” said Seraphiel.
“What are you planning to do now?” said Sariel.
“We aren’t fully cured. Are we going to get sick again?” said Uriel.
They all spoke at once. I held a hand up and started answering their questions. “I will need to check on you every week and heal you again if you need it, but I don’t think you’ll get sick again. The hero’s identity is a secret for now. You’ll know in a few weeks or thereabouts. I plan to rest for a few days and get settled in.”
The three of them exchanged glances, and Seraphiel must have been chosen as their spokesman because he was the one who started asking more questions. “Do you need anything? What will you do after you’ve settled in?”
“I need a whole bunch of stuff!” I said. I ticked off the items on my fingers. “One, I need cash. Two, I need to shop for essentials. Three, I need a job because it will look suspicious if I spend money but have no source of income.”
“Money and shopping aren’t a problem. We can help you with that,” said Seraphiel. The others nodded. “Why can’t you just live here? If you need a job you can pretend to be my personal assistant or something similar.”
“Uh, I need to stay near someone…”
“You mean the hero.” Seraphiel frowned.
“I’d like to find a place near East Thuesen, sector eight.”
“Unacceptable. You’ll be safer staying with me,” said Seraphiel.
“You’re not my father, Ely. You can’t tell me what to do,” I said. Seraphiel was obviously used to being the leader, but he had no real part to play in my mission. He wasn’t the one in charge here. East Thuesen was a rough part of town, but at least it wasn’t a slum. Most of the people who lived there were blue-collar workers.
“I have a suggestion,” said Sariel. “One of my friends opened a book cafe. He recently went bankrupt and is selling his inventory. I can easily set up shop in East Thuesen, and you can be in charge of the books. Flexible schedule, of course.”
“Perfect!” I said. Things were falling into place nicely.
“Buying the business, overhead costs, staff salaries… the two million credits we owe should just about cover one year of operations,” said Sariel.
“Three million,” corrected Seraphiel.
I laughed. “Oh no, I’ll have more than enough money to run whatever type of business I want to. And you, Sariel, are going to give me all the credits that I need.”
“Me? I’m not an easy target like those two!” Sariel crossed his arms in front of his chest.
I was going to make him eat his own words.