Zahn und Klaue
Cover taken with permission from justathereptile, the original artist.
Feedback: Always welcome
WARNING: This story contains violence, course language, disturbing themes and imagery. Reader discretion is advised.
Disclaimer: KILLER INSTINCT is a property belonging to Rare and Microsoft. I do not own any of these characters.
Notes: I've always been a fan of the Killer Instinct games, and for some time I've been wanting to do a proper KI-based story, but it's been difficult. Part of it had to do with finding an angle that justified and made sense of some of the craziness that happens within the games. The other part had to do with the 2013 game being developed seasonally; because of such an unusual development cycle, the game's story ended up suffering as a result, with barely any sort of cohesion or strong narrative. Some elements are brilliant, but others are either contradictory, real head-scratchers or just downright awful. For the purpose of this story and for the sake of simplicity, I'll be drawing from mainly KI1 and certain elements of the 2013 game as well, although some slight liberties will be taken in order to reconcile the two. Also, I want to give a shout-out to Star Aquarius, H.R.C. Stanley, Baniac, lulgijak and 10868letsgo for their help - thank you guys so much! I hope you enjoy! ;)
"At the midpoint on the journey of life, I found myself in a dark forest, for the clear path was lost."
- Canto One, "Dante's Inferno" by Dante Alighieri
The night howled against the thick walls of the castle, calling for its occupant.
A figure sat alone at a table, humming aloud as he studied the sheet music in front of him, putting the notes of the tune down onto paper with his pencil. Pausing in his song, he muttered aloud, then tried humming again. Letting out a frustrated growl, the figure released a slew of angry curses in irritation as he erased his error, starting back from the beginning until he worked his way to where he left off.
Two unlit chandeliers hung uselessly overhead, periodically creaking.
Behind him, a sandstone hearth roared and crackled noisily, pouring out its dim light across the ochre stone floor. The sole source of light in the entire room, it illuminated his back as he worked, the orangish hue painting the rest of his environment unnoticed.
The ochre color of the floor extended upward to a pair of marble Roman Tuscan columns with smooth shafts and the burning hearth between them, their capitals connecting up to the castle's Gothic rib-like arches. The arches themselves rested against smooth concrete white walls that were disfigured and cracked from age at the top and bottom corners, resembling the decaying hide of an animal. Two feet over the mantel hung a brown clock with two pairs of ornamental bat wings protruding from the top and bottom corners, the clock ticking and winding down. At the left hand corner hung a shield with a pair of crossed sabres, while a self-portrait of Rembrandt watched directly over the figure with keen interest as he worked in the right hand corner.
The sounds of the wind, the clock's ticking, the crackling of the fireplace, the squeaky hinges of the chandeliers mixed with his tune as he put pen to paper.
He paused as the shrill maniacal laugh came again from upstairs.
Tightening his fingers around his pencil, he tried to ignore it, but like the wind outside, the laughter was just as unrelenting, cruel and pitiless, rising and falling, grating on his nerves.
Humming again, he slowly ran his hand through his hair, refraining himself from pulling it out, but as the laugh continued to sound off, the louder he became until he snapped; grabbing an empty wine glass from his desk, he chucked it to the ceiling, smashing it hard against its surface.
"SHUT UP!" he shrieked as glass rained down onto the fancy rug next to him.
For a moment, the laughter stopped, but then picked up again in a soft tormenting chuckle.
His hands traveled to his scalp, grabbing handfuls of hair in exasperation before doubling over, clutching his ears as he was assaulted by the awful sound. Pulling his hands away from his head, the figure hastily grabbed for the cloak that hung from the chair and headed straight out the door as the laugh redoubled in its intensity.
Ravensburg, 2013, 6 a.m.
Konrad angrily lashed out from the seat of his wheelchair, throwing the chess board from the desk in front of him, spilling the various pieces across the carpeted floor.
"That wasn't very nice," ARIA replied from the speaker on his phone.
"Yeah?" Konrad growled, "Well, fuck nice."
His ears perked as someone knocked at the door.
"Come in," he ordered.
The door opened, revealing his faithful servant and long-time friend Jurgen, a tall, broad-shouldered man ten years his senior with thick grey bushy hair, his strong face marked with slight crow's feet at the corners of his gentle eyes, his sturdy form dressed in a fancy black suit.
"Is everything alright, Herr Baron?" he asked with concern in German, then cast his glance to the fallen chess pieces, "I take it you've lost another game with ARIA."
When his employer didn't respond, Jurgen continued to speak.
"I can't say I blame you, sir - ARIA is a bitch when it comes to competition. I've had half a mind to smash her servers on many occasions!" he laughed.
Upon being met with silence once again, Jurgen cleared his throat nervously. "But it's as the saying goes, Herr Konrad - 'you win some, you lose some.'"
"Win "some"? I just want to win at least once. At least for once in my life I want to feel like I'm not perpetually losing," he said lowly, his voice tinged with raw bitterness.
"Oh come now."
"Don't patronize me."
"I'm not, mein freund," Jurgen raised his hands placatingly. "I can scarcely think of many people who could say that they're heir to a family fortune, let alone graduated from the University of Munich with honors at a young age in business. Hell, how many graduated university or high school at all? How many could say that they're nobility, own a castle, and have ties to numerous governments across the globe? How many could say that they own a conglomeration as massive and extensive as yours? I can't even recall anyone or anything out there with the number of subsidiaries that you have, let alone had the amount of influence that you wield to this day. Who could possibly say proudly "I am the CEO of Ultratech" other than you? You made Ultratech possible, and because of that, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the world is now your oyster. That's not what I would call a loser."
Konrad lowered his head thoughtfully.
"You were always good at saying things that please me," he said with a tiny amount of amusement, then nodded. "It's true, few could claim to have achieved the level of success that I have had in a single life time."
His hand reached upward, his gloved fingers tracing along the fabric of the hood.
"However," he continued, all traces of humor dropped from his voice, "I have the perfect counterargument."
Pulling down his hood from the back of his head, Konrad watched as the man shifted in discomfort from the sight of his face.
"What's the matter, Jurgen? Nothing else to add? Come on, Jurgen, kiss my ass some more." Konrad seethed. "Say something about my good looks!"
No response came. Shaking his head in disgust, Konrad raised his hood back up. "Thought as much."
"A cure will be found, Herr Konrad."
"When?!" Konrad demanded, his voice becoming louder with word spewing from his mouth, "I've spent my entire life trying to find it. I'm almost fifty years old. Fifty! Do you have any idea what I have lost?! What I stand to lose as this..." he paused, then gestured furiously to his face, "this continues?!"
"Yes, yes, I know too well, old friend, but you need to keep your spirits up, sir," he replied cheerfully. "There's no point in dwelling on dark thoughts, you'll only make yourself feel worse. You just need to find something to keep yourself busy. Idle hands are the devil's playthings, as the saying goes, and that is also why you need to lay off the games with ARIA."
Konrad growled in annoyance.
"I'm serious, Herr Konrad," said Jurgen. "Your time is far too valuable to be wasted on such childish activities. Why do you continue doing this to yourself when you should be-"
"Do not lecture me on my priorities!" Konrad interrupted, snarling out the words, causing the servant to stiffen. He resumed talking in a normal voice.
"As it so happens, I was fulfilling my duties to her. She's a multitasking AI, Jurgen. The "Advanced Robotics Intelligence Architecture"," he replied, using air quotes in mockery. "Part of the stipulations from that crazy old bat Ryat Adams involves playing games with this piece of junk to help test and improve her systems through her understanding of game theory."
Jurgen gave him a disapproving look. "It's disrespectful to talk ill of the dead like that."
"Yeah? Well, he's dead. His troubles are over, mine aren't. Fuck him."
"Herr Baron!" Jurgen scowled.
"What?!" Konrad demanded. "I never met the man, let alone knew him. He died in 1981, for god's sake, why should I treat him with reverence? If it hadn't been for the fact that I wanted to purchase his nuclear power company I wouldn't have heard of him or this...irritation. You know why I have to put up with this day after day? The senile old fart believed that ARIA would "change the world" and that it would save his wife from whatever ailment she had at the time. Fah! Fat lot it did him! I reckon that the death of his wife caused Ryat to crack, otherwise he wouldn't have included ARIA in his will and set such bizarre terms and conditions. If it weren't for that, I'd have sooner tossed it into the trash where it belongs."
"But surely ARIA can be used to help figure out your condition, maybe provide a treatment-"
"ARIA is worthless," Konrad interrupted. "Nothing more than a bothersome obligation by a sentimental, idealistic, broken old man with delusions of grandeur. He relied on ARIA to help him with his wife. She failed him. He wants her to "save the world", and I'm not going to even comment on the ludicrousness of that. I'll honor the terms of his will, but I'm not going to make the same mistake as him and rely on this junky piece of shit."
There was a long moment of silence in the dimly lit office.
"Was there anything else?" he demanded.
Jurgen cleared his throat.
"Ja, you wanted me to remind you of your 9 a.m. appointment."
"Ah Christ," Konrad swore, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I've forgotten all about that. Which appointment was it?"
"It's the meeting with the other Board members, Mr. Chairman." ARIA said from the speaker, startling both men. Konrad hated how ARIA sometimes did that. The idea of an AI listening in and talking like an actual person in the room was very disconcerting at times. Konrad wondered if ARIA had heard what he had said about her. If she had, she gave no indication of having done so. He reminded himself to make sure when speaking to someone that ARIA's microphone and speaker were turned off.
"Ja, ja, thank you, ARIA," Konrad replied, nodding in acknowledgement, "I'll vid-screen them."
"I wouldn't recommend that, Mr. Chairman. Your presence is needed in order to sign some legal documents."
"I have someplace to get to urgently, ARIA," he said, grabbing a scarf and a pair of thick sunglasses from his desk.
"Where?" the AI inquired.
"It's business-related," Konrad replied as he secured each article of clothing around his features, making sure nothing of his face was visible. "Tell the Board members and the lawyers that I won't be able to attend in person, that I'll vid-screen them and come down later to sign whatever needs signing. What is the rest of my schedule?"
Jurgen took a black leather day timer out from his pocket.
"Eh, you have a meeting with Dr. Gupte, followed by four hours of workout, karate and capoeira with your trainer Tyler Zhou back here at the castle," he read.
"Uhhh," Konrad groaned. "The man's a bloody sadist."
Jurgen tsked, "Now, now, Herr Konrad. I know you're not crazy about him, but you have been putting on some weight lately."
Konrad glared at him.
"And what do you mean by that?" he demanded.
The servant hesitated.
"Well," he said slowly trying to find the right words, "...for your age and height, your weight isn't...ideal."
The hooded figure tensed. "I'm five-eleven."
"Even so, four hundred pounds is...excessive."
"I liked you better when you were being an obsequious little shit," he grumbled.
Jurgen gave a short laugh. It was to his credit that he was able to put up with Konrad's antics throughout the years. If it hadn't been for the fact that Jurgen and his family had long served the Sabrewulf household for generations and were steadfast in their loyalty, Konrad wouldn't have tolerated him and his remarks, let alone grant him power of attorney. It also explained why Jurgen was so patient with him, even at his worst.
Konrad rolled the wheel chair out from his office, then waited as Jurgen locked up behind him. Pulling a cellphone out from his pocket, Konrad dialed a number and placed it to his ear.
"Dieter, tell Heinrich, Michael and the others to get the car ready as soon as possible, we're going to Austria," he said as Jurgen wheeled him down the vast hallways and corridors, then hung up and put it away once he was finished.
"What's in Austria, Herr Baron?" Jurgen asked as he wheeled him throughout the mansion.
"I got a tip-off from a source that there's going to be an auction," Konrad replied.
"Ah hell, not another one!" the servant muttered.
"Yes thank you, Jurgen," Konrad said, trying to keep hold of his temper.
"And what is it that you hope to find?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know," Jurgen repeated, nodding sarcastically. "Well, that's great. That's very helpful."
"You don't approve."
"You know I don't, Herr Baron. We've been through this hundreds of times already."
"And you should know by now that arguing with me is hopeless."
"Herr Baron," Jurgen said quietly, "do I have to remind you of all the times throughout the years we sought out every madman and auction we could find claiming to be in possession of some "mystical" artifact or powers of healing?""
"Jurgen," Konrad growled in warning.
"Do I need to remind you of the vast fortune you spent on the damn things, how the majority of them turned out to be fakes and how it very nearly bankrupted you?"
"Jurgen," Konrad repeated sternly.
"How we'd struggle trying to convince museums to take some of these things in in order to get you tax credits, even when they themselves knew they weren't real?"
"And how we'd have to pay some of those snot-nosed pricks off to get them to accept, rig the tests or keep them from talking?" Jurgen said over the Baron's protests in hushed conversation. "Come on, man, wake up! Enough is enough already."
The two men were silent for a moment as they wheeled though the hallway, the air filled with tension.
"Herr Konrad, you should know that nothing will come from this," the servant said. "There is no such thing as magic."
"What do I look like, some naïve schoolboy? I know that magic isn't real, Blödmann! And yes, Jurgen, I haven't forgotten about my past failures. How can I? I still remember the various shitty herbal teas, the disgusting foods that made me vomit along with the crackpot ceremonies and exorcisms. I still haven't forgotten about that bloody white shaman idiot that had bedecked me in that fucking feather headdress! Dieter still has pictures of that on his cell phone. It's only from the grace of God and a very big cheque book that I was able to keep a lid on this."
"Then why do you continue with this occult crap?!"
Konrad was quiet for a moment, then lifted his head.
"Is it too much for a man in my condition to have hope?" he asked quietly. "To believe that there may be a way? Even an unconventional one?"
"And that is exactly what has me worried, Herr Baron," he said. "These maggots feed on people like you, people that are desperate and vulnerable ."
"Well thank you for that vote of confidence, Jurgen!" Konrad snapped.
"Herr Baron, I know how these shitheads work. They're grubby little parasites - fucking people over is an art form and a lucrative business for them, and once they've latched on they'll suck you dry. What's worse is that not only do you continue to take punishment time after time, but you're only too happy to oblige. It nearly ruined you, Herr Baron."
"I know that!"
It was partially why he had decided go into business and form Ultratech in the first place; by having a better understanding of the law, he could find ways to generate income through legal means, and with his numerous contacts and dividends at hand, Konrad was able to achieve a solid and sustainable safety net for himself.
"Look, you and I have been friends for years, Herr Konrad. I hate seeing a friend being taken advantage of, but it also turns my stomach when he's as self-destructive as you are. What makes this source of yours more reliable than the other losers?"
"He's the one who gave me my voice back."
Hearing that made the servant stiffen.
"You disapprove of him," Konrad said.
"Him especially!" Jurgen said lowly and viciously. "The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end just from mentioning that...cretin! He is the worst of the lot, a practiced veteran in the art of fucking people over that also believes in the bullshit he's selling. To be quite honest with you, Herr Baron, I would not be surprised if that man had skeletons in his closet. Real ones, too."
"I didn't realize that a mere peddler can get under your skin."
"Frankly I don't know how he hasn't gotten under yours, Herr Baron - the man's a freak. Everything about him is warped - his eyes, his skin, that smell, that look he gives when he smiles..."
"I can't stand him. The man's a freak, I tell you, a bonafide freak," he said.
"A freak that helped another freak get his voice back!" Konrad said with a snarl as he looked over his shoulder, causing Jurgen to stop wheeling him.
"You cannot know what it is like to live with the fear that everyday spells the promise of no tomorrow, that everyday some part of you will die and you wouldn't know it," he said.
Jurgen listened, not muttering a sound.
"It is an insidious thing, this condition," Konrad said. "It robs you of everything that defines you as you...and just when you think things couldn't possibly get any worse...well, it continues to surprise and defy expectations."
Taking the subsequent silence as a cue to move forward, Jurgen continued maneuvering the wheel chair down the various corridors and hallways until they finally approached the top of the stairs.
"I've seen this happen to my father," Konrad said, causing the servant to stop in his tracks. "We've both had, do you remember?"
"I tried many times not to," Jurgen replied flatly.
"I was only fifteen when it took him," he said. "I still remember how after he had lost his voice, he wasn't the same."
Konrad shook his head, "Not anymore. The man was gone, long gone. What was left behind was an empty shell. He had to be chained like an animal in the old dungeon in the basement until the day he-"
He stopped, the words leaving him.
Jurgen placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, then gave a strong pat.
Taking a moment to recover, Konrad raised a hand up to his face, then glanced briefly in the servant's direction.
"I have reservations about the man myself, Jurgen. Very strong reservations. But he helped me gain back some of my...humanity. Because of what he did, I trust him when he says that there might be something at that auction of value, that could potentially help me."
"And what if there isn't?" Jurgen demanded.
Konrad looked down as the duo made their descent down the stairs. "Then once again the joke will be on me, as always."