“Thank you, Mrs. Perez.” Paul said shaking the woman’s hand before leaving. “The flatcakes were incredible.”
“Thank you, Mr. Tucker. I hope I get to see John building a house in a month or so.”
Paul said his goodbyes and left, retreating from the tiny apartment that smelled like good cooking, eerily reminding him of his own house.
“That was the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard. Hiring kids from gangs?” Ragnar said as Paul walked out the bottom of the apartment building where six of the families of the fifteen members of the West Street Warriors lived.
Carl was carefully eating a pastry, but he nodded his agreement.
“I got good information.” Paul said.
“From their moms?” Ragnar asked.
“Moms always say their son is just the cleverest boy in the world, but if you know what platitudes to look for, you can cut through the bullshit. Is the kid good at hiding stuff from his family? Does she make excuses for his behavior? Does he take good care of his mother or not? I found out a lot.”
“If you say so.”
“I do.” Paul said, marching down the street.
Carl winced as he got his aching body into motion while Ragnar easily loped along beside them.
“That gives us all the information we need on the Warriors, I’ve got three prime candidates for being the kind of people…that man wants.”
That man being a figure of myth.
“Aa AA?” Carl asked.
“I’m not telling you anything about it, Carl. If you knew who we were working for, you’d find a way to spill the beans somehow.”
Carl angrily pointed at his face.
“Trust me, it’s the sort of thing you’d be more comfortable not knowing.” Paul said. “I wish I hadn’t pulled on that thread.”
The three of them walked down to the warehouses on the west side of the city, eyes following the odd trio the entire way.
They walked up to a derelict building, a factory abandoned a long time ago when the Glover family had been destroyed by the Gonzales’s.
The Warriors had seen the three of them coming, and when Paul made it to the front door, there was a rosy cheeked young man smoking in the doorway, fixing them with studied amusement.
“Ooh, let me guess. A fatty, a Wildling, and a cop walk into a bar.” He said, chuckling.
Paul looked around the area, studying the dirt, the broken glass, and the faint smell of human feces from where they’d been shitting in a hole.
Garth might be right about addicting them to a fine lifestyle: The difference was like Heaven and Earth.
“Here’s the punchline.” Paul punched the kid in the face.
“Ragnar, up and over, keep them from running, but try not to hamstring anyone.”
“Racist,” Ragnar muttered, leaping fifteen feet in the air and getting on top of the squat building in one smooth motion.
“Cuff him,” Paul said, pointing at the kid. “We’ll bring back more in a minute.”
Clark nodded and opened his coat to reveal dozens of handcuffs.
Paul strode into the building like he owned the place.
“Cops!” came a man’s bellow, and no less than a dozen people began scrambling in four different directions, bobbing and weaving chaotically through the rotting storage crates to throw off pursuit.
Four went for the back entrance that stood open, shedding a beam of light into the dark building. Ragnar pounced on the front two, slamming them into the glass-studded dirt outside the building before he leaped on the next two, knocking their heads together hard enough to make them go limp.
Two went to the windows in their confusion, then turned back when they saw Carl waving at them from the front yard. They turned and headed toward a wide open trap door in the floor that lead to the sewers.
A couple of the bigger boys charged Paul, as if by going through him, they could escape their situation. Paul caught their wrists and broke their arms with a twist.
They collapsed to the ground, their faces looking more surprised than in pain.
It was surprising to see a noble his age working as a mid-ranked detective.
“Two more here,” Paul said, sauntering through the dusty concrete building. In the corner of the dimly lit room, he made out a rusted iron pedal-driven lathe, no longer functional, but good enough for his purposes.
Paul leaned down and grabbed the lathe, trying not to injure his back as he dragged the heavy machine across the floor. He kicked the trap door closed, then settled the heavy iron directly on top of it.
“Nice work,” Paul said as Ragnar trotted back up to him, having made sure his prey were knocked out. The sound of steel cuffs ratcheting closed filled the air as Clark made sure the boys couldn’t run.
“I prefer easy.”
A few seconds later the Warriors began to bash on the trapdoor, shouting as they were penned in by Paul’s hirlings in the sewers. The heavy lathe Paul was leaning on kept the trap door sealed tight as the gang members desperately struggled to push back into their hideout.
“What do you guys wanna do for lunch?” Paul asked, rubbing his back.
Once they got the gang back to the jailhouse, Paul sorted the boys into three catagories: Loyal Followers, Leadership Material, and Chaff.
The Chaff were some four cling-ons who wanted to be part of a gang, but rolled on the others immediately, Paul let those go home right away.
The Loyal Followers were the kids who wouldn’t squeal, no matter what, but were a little dimwitted. Paul bought them a big meal, with plenty of meat. They were the kind of people that could be won over with kindness. Some ate right away, some crossed their arms and glared, but they’d all eat eventually.
The Leadership Material turned out to be a short kid with a scar down the side of his jaw and a calculating look in his eyes, constantly sizing up his situation. Paul had been surprised when the rest of the kids, even his three likely picks, had kept glancing toward the brown-haired boy for advice and permission as they were interrogated.
Paul had isolated him from the rest and now he sat across from the brown-haired kid, a plate full of steak and potatoes in front of both of them.
“Fred, you’re talented.” Paul said, sawing at his steak. “You built and organized a gang of no less than sixteen people, and actually managed to make a profit. That’s nothing to scoff at.”
The kid watched him closely, following every move Paul made. Eyeing him like a predator. He ate the steak mechanically, not moaning and rolling his eyes in pleasure at the exquisite flavor, or putting up a pointless hunger strike.
He was getting energy where he could.
“You’ve got what it takes to survive, even thrive at the street level, but you’re not special. If you had some vague notion that you could drag yourself to the top of the underworld, I’ll give you this one chance to leave now.” Paul pointed at the door.
“What’s this about?” Fred asked.
“I’m trying to show you that there’s more to life than sleeping on a concrete floor, and there’s a lot more money to be made than the chump change you got from raiding a couple warehouses.”
“We kept our families fed for another six months with that ‘chump change’,” Fred said.
“Mmn.” Paul wiped his mouth with the nearby tablecloth before standing.
“You could do a lot better. I want to show you something, let’s take a walk.” Paul said, opening the door to the interrogation room and walking out without looking back. A moment later he heard the kid’s footsteps behind him.
They passed by the security guard, who opened the gate with a nod to Paul. A short hall and a turn, and they descended the stone steps onto the street.
“If you wanna run, now’s your chance.” Paul said, motioning to the street.
“I wanna see where this goes, but if it ends up with some weird old man who wants to fuck me, I’ll start cutting things.”
“Alright then,” Paul said, suppressing a grin.
Paul took Fred to The Red Fern and booked him a room for two weeks, amenities included. He passed the madam all the cash she would need to get the boy a tailored suit, and keep him in wine and food for the entire time.
After the business was over Paul strolled out of the brothel, shrugging his stiff shoulders. Now all he had to do was start on the boy’s competitors.
Maybe pay Lora a visit during the weekend. That put a bit more energy in his step. Maybe she’ll have a hint of a way to kill that monster. And if not they could just have sex.
“Why are we having lessons out here?” Alicia asked.
“What, you want to learn magic where other people might see you?” Garth nudged his foot through the ash and smoldering charcoal, searching for his Mythic cores. He needed to leverage them effectively, which meant he should make stat enhancing slices with the smaller pieces, then use his enhanced abilities to make stronger ones.
I need to enchant a slicer too. Work, work. He could probably fix a slicer out of an enchanted blade if he could steal one to tear apart.
“You seem…distracted,” she said, eyeing him sideways.
“Yeah, I’m a little distressed. You could say heartbroken, even.”
Garth heaved a dramatic sigh, muscling back his laughter.
Garth still couldn’t help giggling every time he thought of the video of Alicia getting wrapped up by the houseplant, recorded by a little cactus on the shelves. Every time he reviewed it, he found himself thinking I’ve seen enough hentai… and then nothing happened.
Maybe it she had tried to violently attack the plant with her vagina, it would have restrained it, but real life is never quite as sexy as human’s imagination. Still funny as hell though.
“A girl I have a crush on…stole a couple hundred thousand credits from my office.” Garth kept his face studiously somber. “Now I have to punish her.”
Alicia’s eyes went wide, hand wandering to her sword. “Did you bring me out here to kill me?”
“No, I was going to ask you for help getting back at your sister. No one breaks my heart like that!”
She froze, unpackaging the mislead.
“That’s not funny,” she said, her hand still near her sword.
“I thought it was funny,” Garth said with a shrug. “How was the drawing of you, by the way?”
“You’re guessing,” Alicia said, relaxing.
“I liked that catty jab you made to your sister at the end, about her not being in the book.”
Alicia’s jaw dropped.
“Wizard.” Garth thumbed himself. “Student.” He pointed at her. “You’re just lucky I’m a lot nicer than the guy who taught me. That bastard liked cutting off limbs to prove a point.”
Garth shuddered. Not to mention Garth wasn’t good enough to cut someone in half and make sure they didn’t die. Not yet, anyway.
“Anyway, this particular wizard is looking for something specific in the ashes of our little camping party a couple weeks ago. Go ahead and start the tutoring, I can do both.”
Garth paused for a moment. “Start with the Williams family, since we’re going into their land next Friday.”
“The Williams are in charge of the desert to the east of Santo Descanso, Their primary export is silk woven from the wiretap weavers, a breed of monstrous spider that thrives in the desert.”
Garth frowned. He hadn’t come across any giant spiders on the boring trek back home. Maybe he got lucky. As for the name…
“Wiretap?” Garth asked. “how do you know what a wiretap is?”
“That’s…just what they’re called.” Alicia said. “The Williams family risk their lives to harvest the silk, and the industry is generally considered too dangerous for other families to attempt to steal their business.”
“So they’re hardasses,” Garth said.
“They don’t just produce a profitable export, they produce battle-hardened heirs with balls of steel. Nobody wants to mess with people who aren’t afraid of death. A bit like the emperor’s Sardaukar, although probably not as extreme.”
“Nevermind. Point is, the Williams are considered tough, right?”
“They are also the only people who know the secret of preparing the silk, so that factors into their control over the market.”
“Ah.” Garth swept through another pile of debris. “This is the same clearing isn’t it?”
Garth glanced up at the mountain, trying to triangulate his exact position and having a hard time of it: He couldn’t even see the mountain when there’d been a forest here.
“I think so.”
“So what’s your noble’s opinion on why the William’s are cool with hosting a field trip to their lands?”
“Honestly? I think they just want to intimidate us.”
Garth spotted a half melted belt buckle, pulling it out of the ashes.
“Recognize this?” Garth asked. It was the buckle on the front of Alicia’s pants that she’d left behind in the fire.
“Where exactly did you leave it?” Garth asked.
“In my tent.”
“In the middle, at the head of the bed, pressed up against one side or the other? What?” Garth set the buckle exactly where he’d found it.
“Draw your tent around it.”
Alicia stepped forward, oriented herself and drew a rectangle around the buckle with the tip of her scabbard.
“Alright, if your tent was here,” Garth muttered, following his mental map of the camp to exactly where his backpack was when they woke up that morning.
Garth dug through six inches of ash to reveal a scorched leather tube.
“Ahah!” Garth crowed, pulling the tube out of the ash, spilling the half-melted enchanting tools out onto his hand, along with the three Mythic cores.
“What are those?” Alicia asked.
“Nosy, much?” Garth asked, clamping his hands down on the Mythic Cores.
Alicia took a reflexive step back as the light seemed to dim, mana forming a vortex around Garth.
Garth’s head began to ache instantly as the three Cores drew in mana far beyond his ability to process alone.
Let’s see if I explode.
Dear forest, if you could send your roots deep into the earth and pull gold up and give it to me, I would appreciate it.
The wave of mana exploded outward from Garth, settling into the earth, infusing the entire forest as Garth dropped the orbs with a groan, feeling like his head was about to explode. The earth rumbled for a moment before the minor tremors died back down.
“What the hell was that?” Alicia asked, looking around.
“Right. I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t explode, but it was worth a shot. I think mana overuse is more a body related problem than a soul one. I should recover.” Garth said, groaning as he bent down and tucked the Mythic cores into his pockets.
“What did you do?”
“That’s my business.” Garth said, massaging his temples. “You still need to learn your first spell. How do you feel about Force Armor? That’s an easy one.”
Around them, the forest regrew in a matter of seconds, and Alicia yelped and jumped out of the way as one nudged her butt.
The trees reached adult height, fell over and turned to more ash in a matter of seconds.
Good thing it’s dark out.
Garth was wondering what form the gold would take, and found himself rather pleased when he picked a quarter inch wide, five foot long gold rod out of the center of the pile of ash. The rod of soft metal bent a bit under its own weight.
Garth was afraid it would be a liquid solution that he’d have to boil the liquid off, but he always found himself pleasantly surprised when he let the plant do as it wanted.
“How did you do that?” Alicia asked, watching him shuffle through the ash.
“Don’t focus on what I can do.” Garth said, picking out another gold rod, and another, each of varying size and length, tossing them over his shoulder.
“Focus on what you want to do.” Garth looked up and met her eye. “What do you want to be able to do?”