Marcus Denton was sitting at his desk with a throbbing headache, review the financials for the last quarter. The profit margin of his businesses had taken a huge nosedive recently, which was saying something. He usually stole his wares.
The adventurers he paid to smuggle Adamantium out of the dungeon north of the Green Hell were feeling the pinch. Someone was undercutting him, and he couldn’t afford to pay them the old price.
That and the tax was even higher this year on Adamantium, making those men particularly discontent.
Extortion money had taken a bit of a dive as three crews had been beaten nearly to death by a mysterious assailant in the last three days.
Probably some nobleson with more muscle than sense playing Paladin. As soon as Marcus found out who it was, he would destroy the man’s family wealth and show him there was more to strength than knocking people around.
Prostitution revenue was down. As the Madam had explained, some nameless thing had spooked the clientele. This had been independently verified, but he’d given her a beating anyway. It was her job to solve problems like that.
Pickpocketing and petty theft rent was stable, but it barely covered the bribes to the police in the area. With so many crews out of commission, he couldn’t arrange for them to rob any large warehouses and fluff up their income selling stolen goods. All in all, it was a bad scene.
A bunch of unusual occurrences coming together to form the most awful headache. Marcus had in years. If Marcus were a superstitious man, he would believe some ill-omened shit was happening, but raised as a nobleson, he didn’t believe in the supernatural.
Maybe some illegal magician was using voodoo on them.
How was he supposed to contact his brother and tell him that the businesses that made up a quarter of his family’s income had taken a sudden nosedive?
The short answer? He wouldn’t.
Marcus would deal with the problems that he could deal with personally, and for the others, he would dip into his personal savings, hire professionals, and have them straighten out his shit. He had enough money set aside for an emergency to pretend the businesses were still profitable for six months before he ran out.
Yeah, I can handle this.
Might need to do some recruiting, too. Marcus thought, pulling out a bottle of wine from beneath his desk and pouring himself a cup. A few of his members were likely to walk away after having their faces pushed in like that. Some might not even be able to walk.
There was a knock on the door.
“What?” Marcus barked.
“Boss, there’s a kid here, wants a job.”
Speak of the Betrayer.
“Put him with Danny’s boys.”
“It’s a bit of a special case, sir.”
“Oh? Send him in.”
Marcus was pouring himself a cup when he spotted the well-dressed young man sauntering into his office, gawking at his trophies on the walls. Ah, I see, he looks like a noble, but I don’t recognize the insignia on his vest at all.
It was an easy mistake to make, seeing as all his men had seen maybe a handful of nobles in their lifetime in the common and slums districts. Either the kid was a noble from another city, or he had made up the insignia and saved up enough money for an exceptional set of clothes. Either way, he wasn’t nearly as important as he had led his men to believe, but he’d gotten Marcus’s attention.
“What do you want?” he demanded, jamming the cork back into the bottle.
“I’m looking for a job.” The boy said, his attention slowly wandering back to Marcus.
That was odd, normally a kid like that wouldn’t be able to take his eyes off Marcus, due to fear and awe. Either the kid had mental problems, or he wasn’t afraid of him.
Point for being a noble from another city.
“Plenty of opportunity doing street work, making the rounds. Unless you’ve got a profitable contact in another city, you’re worth less to me than the gaudy clothes on your back.”
“I thought they looked nice, but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have an eye for fashion.” The boy said glancing down at his clothes. “You like the symbol of Beladia?” He pointed to the symbol of a tree whose roots formed an egg.
“I don’t care. Stop wasting my time or I’ll feed you to the pigs.”
“Well, I was looking for a specific job. There are things I need to do in the city before I can move on, and I need an income to make it happen.”
“And that job is…?” Marcus said, losing his patience.
“Yours.” The boy’s hand flashed forward, and Marcus was able to put his hand between him and whatever was speeding toward him before everything went white.
Garth kicked The Boss’s body out of his chair, onto the floor. There was a large wooden spike pinning the man’s hand to his face, erupting from the back of his skull. With a well-placed foot and a bit of tugging, Garth was able to retrieve the spike and turn it to ash.
“May you go to whatever afterlife suits you,” he murmured.
“Boss, is something wrong?” came the bodyguard’s voice from outside.
“Yeah, get in here, He’s about to sign something and he needs a witness!” Garth said. Let’s see, a dash of terror, combined with a mild paralytic. He waved his hand and with a gust of wind, filled the far end of the room with invisible airborne drugs that would put the bodyguards into a highly suggestable state.
Instant stockholm syndrome.
Best of all, it wasn’t technically magical control, so it couldn’t be discovered in that way.
“What are you gonna-“ Both of the Bosses men inhaled sharply as they saw Garth propping up the man’s corpse in his chair, and got hit with the full whammy of psycadelic drugs, with a heavy dose of oxytocin.
Their pupils dilated and they wobbled on their feet, staring slack jawed a the scene in front of them.
“I, Marcus Denton,” Garth said as he made the corpse with a hole in its face write on a nearby sheet of paper. “Do hereby give…” Garth had an internal struggle. He never wanted to use a pseudonym, but there was practically no way he could avoid it, now.
And he couldn’t use a funny one like Harry Potter, or Gandalf the white, because it could give a hint about his age. Garth had no choice but to suck it up and choose the blandest name he could think of.
“John Smith, all my properties, without exception, as well as all of my responsibilities, to manage in any way he sees fit.”
Garth pitched his voice higher. “Why thank you Marcus!” Garth used Telekinesis to move the man’s head to look at him and flap its jaw.
“You’re welcome.” He had the corpse say with an audible illusion.
Marcus’s bodyguard’s screamed and fell onto their butts as Garth knocked the dead body back off of the chair and took his seat. Who knew what they were seeing right now, but they were definitely going to feel the effects for years to come.
“So,” Garth said, throwing his feet up on the desk. “You heard the man, I’m in charge now, so I need you to bring me all your problems.”
“You heard me.” Garth said. “Being in charge isn’t about sitting behind a desk lording it over everyone, it’s about solving the awful problems that get passed up to you. The money and women are kind of a fringe benefit. Do you have any paperwork showing the state of the business?”
They shook their heads, slowly coming out of their stupor.
“Sonofabitch.” Garth said, leaning forward and picking through the papers on Marcus’s desk. He glanced down at the lifeless body beside him. “You could have organized it by month or something.”
He looked back up at the two men watching him from the floor with pale faces.
Oh right, the paralytic. He motionlessly gave them an antidote on an imperceptible gust of wind. They would only remember being frozen with terror.
“Since you rockheads can’t read, prepare an oral report on the minutia of the business, who’s important, who runs what, and how. Once I have that, I’ll start putting names and faces to the numbers on these pages.”
“I have an Adamantium smuggling ring!?” Garth said aloud as he came across the details on Marcus’s notes. The two cronies looked at each other and started heading for the door.
“Oh, and if you don’t come back, I’ll find you and your families,” Garth said confidently. He didn’t intend to kill innocents, but he needed them to believe it. He needed them to heed him long enough for him to prove he knew what he was doing.
After all, this was the second time he was running a criminal empire.
Well, maybe more than that. A lot of the years with Beladia were fuzzy.
Garth intended to be more hands-on this time.
“You’re sure this is what you want?” her father asked Thomas one last time.
Thomas, having been thoroughly briefed by Alicia, nodded again, before hastily following it up with “Yes, Father.”
They stood in front of the entire family, assembled to watch one of the youngest boys throw his hat in the ring to compete for the right to be the Sole Heir. The heavy oak dinner tables had been shoved aside to create a space in the center of the dining room where Thomas stood, fidgeting under the scrutiny of the rest of the family. He hadn’t buckled yet, despite all of their father’s questions.
Their father heaved an enormous sigh and dragged his fingers down his face and through his short black and grey beard, before shooting Alicia a glare.
“I have seen your determination, Thomas Denton. As Patriarch, I have no choice but to Admit Thomas Denton to the battle of succession. May fortune favor you. If at any point you wish to concede, you may speak with me or Aunt Maggie privately and we will handle the details.
“Yes Father.” Thomas said with a childish bow.
“And let me use this opportunity, with all of us gathered here, to speak to another matter. My youngest, Bradley, is not to be used as a pawn in your game, and if one of you tries to reproduce Alicia’s stunt, I will personally remove all your teeth.”
The eight boys and thirteen girls of the Denton household nodded solemnly.
Their father cast his gaze over everyone present, then nodded. “Alright. Then let’s have dinner.
Hours later, Alicia was walking Thomas back to his room, holding his hand the entire way and glancing over her shoulder for pursuers. Kyle was a creature of habit. If he found something that worked, he would do it again. He was also cruel. What better way to dash his sister’s hope than kill the boy on the same night he ill-advisedly joined the race for the patriarchy?
She was counting on it.
Alicia cautiously opened the door and peered into Thomas’s room, checking the closet and wardrobe for attackers, and peering outside, into the gardens rendered pitch black by the new moon.
“What are you looking for?” Thomas asked her. Alicia focused her attention on her younger brother, kneeling to look him in the eye.
“Thomas, in this game, your brothers and sisters are trying to catch you. It’s kind of like a big game of tag.”
“Where the losers die.” Thomas said. Alicia wasn’t sure he understood the implications, but she nodded.
“Yes, and the game doesn’t end at bedtime. As a matter of fact, it gets even worse at bedtime. So what you’re going to do now is hide where people won’t find you, and I’ll try to catch them trying to catch you.”
“Why can’t I catch people? Thomas asked, sticking out his bottom lip a bit sullenly.
“Because even if you did catch someone, your brothers would cheat and catch you. I can stop them from cheating. It’s very important we stop that from happening, okay? For now, we’ll be a team, you hide, and I catch.”
“Okay.” Thomas said, nodding.
“Alright, now, put this on under your clothes,” She said, handing him the hastily re-sized mithril shirt meant for his brother. “Then put on your jacket, because you’re going climbing.”
“I get to climb, and at night?” he asked, enthralled.
“Welcome to the game.” Alicia said with a grin.
Once she had Thomas squared away, she quietly left the room, making sure the door was locked. She kept her eyes open for watchers. Just because she didn’t see any didn’t mean they weren’t there, however. Alicia walked in a dignified manner until she reached her room, opened the door and stepped inside.
Once she was in her room, all her veneer of placid calm was lost, and she began changing clothes at a frightening pace. She couldn’t afford to still be in her room when Kyle came for her brother.
She shrugged out of her dress in a matter of seconds, threw on form fitting black pants and a black silk button up shirt and buckled her prized adamantium rapier onto her belt before climbing out the window. All told, about thirty seconds had passed since she’d closed the door.
Alicia nimbly crawled along the outer wall of her family’s mansion, silently leaping from balcony to balcony, before she met her brother on the balcony above his window.
“Having fun?” she asked, and he grinned, nodding.
“Good, I’m gonna watch the room. If you want to stand watch, poke me if you see anyone coming. It might get boring, so if you get sleepy, take a nap, okay?
“Okay.” Thomas said, stifling a yawn.
It was his bed-time.
With an internal sigh, Alicia leaned over the balcony in the pitch-black night and peered into her brother’s room.
The night was uneventful for the first two hours, and Alicia found herself questioning her level of caution when the door to the room finally opened, letting in the illumination of a tiny glow-stone, more steady, and less bright than a candle.
It was just barely enough light to navigate by, and not enough to wake anyone up.
Alicia tensed, ready to swing down into the windowsill and perforate Kyle, when another darkened form followed behind his.
Two of them? Alicia was playing a risky enough game already without pressing her luck in a fight with two heirs, with their superhuman strength. Why would they work together at anything…unless they’d already reached an agreement about who would be the successor, and the other was just staying in the running to weed out the competition.
Heirs working together were dangerous.
Shit, Alicia cursed internally.
“He’s not here either,” Kyle whispered, peeling back the covers to reveal a lump of pillows. “She must have relocated him.”
Either?? Did they go to my room? This game was starting to hit a little close to home.
“Let’s tell Father and go back to bed. We can free Thomas of her venomous influence some other time.”
The two heirs silently padded out of the room.
So it’s like that, is it? Alicia thought, her vision turning red. Betrayed by her own Father.
Well, like Aunt Maggie, I’m going to win, no matter what it takes.
In the meantime, she was no longer betting her horse’s life. She was betting her own.
Alicia slid back onto the balcony and turned to Thomas, who was quietly snoring, insensate. She needed a safe place to sleep.
Aunt Maggie would turn them away. She was forbidden from helping any one side, as was the rest of her family.
Except uncle Marcus.
He was outside the realm of family politics, and he owed her a few favors. He would be easy to browbeat into offering her a safe place to stay, but he inevitably worked for her father. It would never last.
Perhaps she could use him to set a trap. Beg him for a safe house and rig it with poison while she and her brother stayed at an Inn incognito.
She would need to find them both a change of clothes, but it could be done.
Plan formulating in her mind, Alicia picked up her sleeping brother and laboriously carried him down to the garden before she headed for the gate that lead to the city street.