For their first task, Rogdo took them to a small village near the city, very similar to Vast Sky village. It was only a few hours of walk, and since they had been jogging, they reached the place much faster.
The inhabitants were all common folk without cultivation. And Rogdo took them to collect protection money from most of the villagers. It was pretty easy to go from door to door collecting silver coins. But it was hard to watch the fearful villagers bowing their heads and paying with trembling hands. To Kindrav this was even harder considering he was a common villager just like them.
From time to time, they had to search the huts to see if the villagers who couldn't pay were hiding money. They also had to look if they had bought something more expensive than usual.
After doing this with several houses, Aleran was getting bored and disgusted. Not only for this practice but he was also disgusted at himself. At the fact that he had chosen this path to get what he wanted. In the course of this hour, Aleran had heard Rogdo spit all kind of threats. They ranged from simply rising the protection fee, to taking away their houses, with the worst being the occasional threat to the children and wives of the villagers. Some times, he even beat men and women to make his point clear.
One thing was to rob people. It was bad, sure. But depending on who you rob, and the way you do it, Aleran could sympathize with a thief that robs because he needs it. It may sound hypocritical, but that was what he thought.
But here, there was something way more sinister. Forcing common people to give you the money voluntarily while threatening with taking away everything. It was not only taking the money. But it was also humiliating the parents, frighten the children and turning their lives into a torment where they had to make enough money for next time. Not to mention the physical injuries these people received.
Aleran couldn't help but wonder if there was another path. According to Kindrav, there wasn't, but he was just a villager. How much could he really know?
Since the beginning, he knew they had rushed with this plan. But he also knew they didn't have much time until the academy started their recruiting. He had trusted Kindrav since he was smart. But he had forgotten that the idea came originally from Oldre. He was someone that, as stated by Faul, made bad decisions.
To Aleran, the plan was good only with the condition that Oldre had some weight within the gang. But that was clearly not how things were. Without someone backing them, they were depending on the word of criminals. For all that he knew, these people could just kill them the moment they start demanding to receive their forged IDs. Sadly, they couldn't back down now. Firstly he doubted they had the time to come with another way to get forged IDs.
And secondly, from the moment they were introduced by Oldre, they had no other choice but to go all the way. It wasn't good to waste the time of people like Ibrak saying something like ‘ you know what, now I think this is a bad idea, goodbye.’ No, they had to keep going now. But they also had to find a way to make a run for it when the time was right.
Finally, they reached the last house. It was the hut of a middle-aged couple, they had a list of who lived in the village. So, they knew who lived there, with a description of their face and age. A man opened the door and he fearfully stood before the three of them. “Mighty warriors, we could not make it to the silver coin, we had unexpected losses in our field. Please, accept this copper coins and next cycle I will pay fully.”
But Rogdo, who seemed to be in a bad mood from the lack of payment of some of the other villagers, grabbed the man by the collar. “A few coppers won't do.” He threw the man inside the hut and followed him in. Aleran and Kindrav looked at each other and went inside too. They got in to watch how Rogdo punched and slapped the man till he could stand no more. He could only stare at Rogdo with his face swollen, teeth broken and making a whistling sound when he breathed.
With a foot on the man's chest, Rogdo said. “ You sure you haven't spent the money on booze or something else? Or are you just hoarding the silver?”They had witnessed similar scenes before, but Rogdo had become especially violent now. It seemed this was a specially bad day and they had collected less money than expected. He was about to land a kick on the man when Aleran said. “ Sr, He is a commoner, he can't take many punches.”
Normally, Rogdo would stop at a punch or a slap paired with a warning. That's why Aleran wouldn't intervene, and just like Kindrav, he would stay back. Kindrav would usually touch his earring as he did every time he was angry or nervous. And Aleran would just grit his teeth. But this time the man was having a hard time breathing, it was possible he had some internal injury. And, in this world, commoners had no easy access to medical treatments.
Rogdo looked at Aleran with a violent gaze, but in the end, he nodded. “Search this place and see if he is telling the truth.” The search was quick and, as expected, they found nothing. Aleran just hoped that the few minutes of search would clear Rogdo's mind a bit.
His hopes didn't come true, as the result of the search only got Rogdo angrier and more frustrated. It was then that a woman entered. “What is happening?” She panicked seeing her husband on the floor and three stranger on her house. It took her a moment to realize what was happening, but, seeing the claw tattoo on Rogdo, she understood everything.
The woman ran unconsciously towards Rogdo help her husband stand up. But before she came too close, Rogdo hit her with a brutal frontal kick. She was sent flying to the other side of the room and crashed against the wall. “ Fucking bitch! You are of no use. If you were a little prettier we could at least sell you.”
“Sir, remember they are just commoners! If you kill them, they won't be able to pay anything.” Aleran and Kindrav stood between him and the woman that was gasping on the floor. Clearly Rogdo held back just now, otherwise, the man and the woman would have died. But still, normal people were fragile as glass when a cultivator decided to hurt them. It was very hard to destroy a piece of the glass without damaging the rest.
‘Man, it seems like we are the seniors and this guy is the amateur. What's the deal with this idiot?’ Aleran was inwardly cursing. Even if you weren't concerned about these people, you can't just beat the shit out of them. If you injured them too bad they won't be able to work and in turn, they won't have money to pay you. It was as simple as that.
Rogdo sent them a fulminating glance, but it seemed that Aleran's words made him come back to his senses. He looked at the man on the floor and said. “ Your name was Karse Ivrath, right? You will have to excuse my manners, I'm not used to doing this kind of job where I interact with people. I'm just doing it to train these two. Here's the thing, Karse. I may not be able to hurt you. But believe me when I say, that if you don't get us the money soon we will find another way to make use of you and your ugly wife.”
Still burning with anger, but with his rationality back, he signaled for Aleran and Kindrav to follow him out. Both of them followed after him without making any noise. They kept walking until they left the town and reached a crossroad. The moment the town was out of sight Rogdo turned around and grabbed Aleran's neck. “ Listen to me well you piece of shit. I will forgive you this once, but if you ever contradict me before others, no matter the reason, I will make you regret it. The same I said to those two applies to the both of you. If you can't make yourselves useful we will find a way to make you spit money even if we have to sell you as sex slaves. And you know what? Without your papers, it is even easier to make you disappear.”
Kindrav was about to move the moment Rogdo spoke, but with a look from Aleran, he knew that it was not the moment. They were not afraid of this man, he was only a third phase cultivator. Hell, Aleran alone could fry the man into a black carcass with just a touch. But he had proven his loyalty to the Crimson Claws and was an inner member. From Aleran's perspective, they had to endure at least until they got their IDs. The last sentence Rogdo spoke was a little disturbing, but they had to take the risk and see if the gang would keep their promise. After that, they could risk it and try to escape. Although according to Oldre, there had been cases similar to them, they could not rely on his words anymore. He knew it was going to be quite hard to get out of this without someone on the inside helping them.
“It won't happen again, sir,” Aleran said with a low voice thanks to the hand on his windpipe. ‘This guy is too quick to anger, he should be thanking us for stopping him. It must have been assigned to us on purpose.’ It was not only the fact that one of them was a barbarian. But they were also an especial case of those who joined the gang. They only wanted to get a favor and were not completely loyal, so it made sense in a way.
“Mhh.” With a snort, Rogdo released him and turned around. “ We go back to the city. There, I will show you the spots and how to sell drugs. This is a dangerous job, some of the junkies are violent and are quite strong. But if you handle their addiction well, you can get more coins from them. And tomorrow, I will teach you the spots and times where you can rob people. I will also teach you how to pick locks and other common thief practices. Although, you will mostly be doing pickpocketing jobs. “
“This is the hardest way to earn some gold since it is not a steady influx of money and it depends on your skills and luck. The nature of your future tasks depends on which of these you do best. By the way, this was the easiest task but you didn't handle it too well, so you can forget about it.”
Aleran rolled his eyes. ‘This guy is blaming us now? Whatever, I don't want to do this shit either.’ Then he looked to Kindrav and realized he was wearing a ridiculizing gaze. This guy had actually made it easier for them.
Aleran also realized that they had the same idea when Kindrav made the gesture of grabbing empty air with his hand. Aleran nodded back at that gesture. They would try to do the best at stealing. That way, they wouldn't have to harm people, not directly at least.
As they kept walking beside the road, they didn't notice that a person riding in a simple carriage that was passing by had watched everything. It wasn't their fault, the carriage was totally plain and forgettable.
From the moment their discussion started, the carriage had slow down to watch the show. And now the person inside was currently speaking with someone else besides him.
“If that tattoo isn't some knock-off, then, those were people from the Crimson Claw, weren't they? Interesting...” A blond man with blue eyes said. He was seated next to the window, with his hand on his chin supporting his head. His face seemed to have perfect proportions, almost too perfect. It didn't seem real. And he was clothed in an elegant cerulean robe with golden patterns of tiny wings on the sleeves and the chest. That, coupled with his face, it made him seem like a prince from some kingdom.
The man was in deep thought for a moment before speaking again. “ For what I can tell, those two are young, so they just joined the gang and they must be in training. But, unlike most of those who join, they don't seem too eager to follow orders. And, did you see the reaction of the taller one? He was clearly prepared to take the muscular man out. It was only after the shorter one gave him a look that he stopped. Clearly, they don't expect to stay long in the gang. What do you think, Adra?”
The man took his eyes out of the window and look at the young woman beside him. She had black long hair with a white lock that was longer than the rest of her fringe. Her extremely pale skin contrasted with the black hair, her big blue eyes, and red lips. She was a beauty by all rights. And though she was wearing a loose rob, it was easy to tell that she had been gifted with a great body.
At the man's question, the woman shrugged. “ You speculate too much, master. There's no way to know if those two are recruits. For all we know, they can be villagers or poor cultivators being threatened by the man with the tattoo and taken somewhere else. As for the rest is even more impossible to tell.”
The blond man shook his head and sighed. “ You still have much to learn, you should focus more on their body language and less on appearances. See the context, and weight the different options in your mind with the knowledge you have. Then choose the most likely one. But be always prepared to replace that theory with others if you get new information.” Of course, he wasn't going to tell that with his cultivation he could actually hear them. It was part of her training to realize when her master was cheating. It definitely had nothing to do with the look of admiration his pupil had.
“That's too much mental work for me.” The woman said a little dejected, even though she still had a look of admiration towards her master.
“Don't worry, like most things in life, it requires practice. When we finish our business, find out their situation, maybe I can use those two.” The man focused again on the landscape, they had long passed by the three people they were talking about.
“Master, you know well who is behind the Crimson Claws. If you act now, you risk exposure, it is too early for that. And this gang is located throughout the empire, it would be pointless to do something here in this small city.” The woman seemed a little jittery.
The man's eyes became a little dreamy before coming back to reality. “Haha. I guess that seeing those boys reminds me of my beginnings. When I had nothing and had to hang with similar lowlife. Don't worry about repercussions, this won't affect our plan. If someone comes complaining, I will just tell them the truth, that the Crismon Claws were stealing some of our customers and the market in Hilua was the most affected.”
“We don't know yet, we still have to take a look at the numbers” Retorted the woman.
“I know the biggest problem lies in this city. The presence of the crimson claws, tough weak in power, is large in number. We are far from the Dragon heart after all.” The blond man looked at the woman and sighed. “Seriously, you don't have to worry that much. The reason our major plan has a chance now is that we are completely rooted in the Sidrin economy. We have become vital without them even realizing how much they need us. It wouldn't be a bad thing if they start realizing now how important our monopoly has become. Even then, they would only be seeing the tip of the iceberg.”
“I still think it is too small of a matter for you to do it personally master.” She knew her master like to play these minor games sometimes, but still, she had to insist.
“Hehe, you know me, I like to have some fun from time to time. But I will only stay for a while, this will be something that will be handled by you. I will only stay to check on the numbers. After we finish with that and with some other deals, you will go and see if the profile of those two checks with what I guessed. If not, then you will have to find some others willing to take our deal, it won't be that hard. But remember, whoever you choose, they mustn't want to climb on the Crimson Claw ladder. That way, we will avoid a possible betrayal. ”
“Yes, master.” The woman nodded while thinking if this whole deal was some sort of test.
Seeing the look on his pupil, the man said. “ It could be called a test. I will reward you if the results are satisfactory. I will leave after you recruit someone. After that, how to handle everything is up to you. And if you get those two, I will probably meet them in person. One of them is a barbarian.” The last sentence was said almost in a whisper. And as he said this, a nostalgic smile crept onto his face.
The woman didn't know why her master was like that, it was a rare sight. Usually, his smiles would be all shiny and business-like. Nothing like this melancholic one.
Two cycles passed since the day they joined the Crimson Claws. And from the very first day, Aleran and Kindrav made extra efforts to show exceptional results when pickpocketing. They had seen what selling drugs were like and it was not a nice job. The main reason was that the stuff the Crimson Claw was selling was too addictive and too harmful. It was a substance in the form of purple dust named “The feeling” that was inhaled with the nose and caused an intense euphoria coupled with hallucinations. It didn't last long, though. The effects were short-lived but those who tried it a few times got hooked for life.
It reminded Aleran of cocaine, only much stronger. It seemed that no matter the world, there will always be humans that can only escape their problems with drugs. The worst part was that some of them were cultivators. They commonly got hooked under the false pretense that the drug would help them connect with the source qi easier. By the time they realized their mistake, it was too late.
It was a dangerous thing to be between these people with nothing to lose and their ticket to “freedom.” Not to mention the harm it caused to other common people. So Aleran and Kindrav made special efforts to not get assigned as drug dealers and instead get a fixed position as thieves.
The first week was the hardest, they had yet to get used to discern when to rob and when to retreat. Mostly because of the patrols, which the Crimson Claw knew their times and routes. And most of the time they paid the patrols to look away.
The goal was to always make more money than the amount to buy the change in the route of the patrols. But still, sometimes they had gotten caught in the moment and forgotten about their window of time with the patrols. This was the reason why one of their first times, Kindrav got a harsh beating from the guards. And he could only escape thanks to Aleran making a distraction.
But very soon they started to learn, not only how to pickpocket but also how to pick locks, which allowed them to get better tasks when they were available. Besides getting in some fights with other pickpocketers when they got into their territory, everything went smoothly.
They had also come with a way to get a better income. When their “shifts” were over Aleran and Kindrav kept robing to make some extra money. It was riskier because they were on their own when it came to the patrols. Aleran couldn't pay the patrols outside of his own designed work hours and designed placed. This was to avoid that the guards changed the course of their patrols and it affected other pickpocketers that were “on duty”. Every time they changed the course of a patrol, they had to warn their superior, Rogdo. He will, in turn, tell the rest about the change in course of those specific guards. Unlike what it looked like from the outside, it was all heavily coordinated.
But, even with the extra risk, when they were off the record they could also keep the money they took. With it, they bought better clothes to blend better in the wealthier districts. While buying the patrols there was more expensive, there was also more income. And in the wealthier districts, they didn't have to worry about coordinating with others. By the end of the first cycle, they were both making more money than the rest of the pickpocketers in the Crimson Claws.
By the second cycle, they were often tasked with heists were they had to break-in in different stores. Be it because the owners didn't pay protection money of simply because they were a good target.
This was something that Kindrav and Aleran did extremely well. When it came to picking locking, they were some of the best. In a world were people normally had super strength, the doors of the different businesses were often secured with really strong locks and all kind of security measures. And Aleran and Kindrav were especially good at it, they had passed through doors without being seen nor heard many times. Aleran quickly learned that besides being sturdier, locks were not as complex as those back on earth. Most of the doors deemed impassable were simply made of steel or iron huge bars acting as locks. This was a problem easily solved by Aleran and his literal magnetic hands. As for the other more complex locks, they invested a lot of time to learn how to open them correctly. This made them quite famous inside the Crimson Claw, and they had earned the ugly nickname (according to Aleran) of twin ghosts.
Now, Aleran was walking down to the Safehouse to meet with Kindrav. By now he was quite familiar with the streets of Hilua and he could come and o as he pleased.
“No, please, wait!”
As he walked the streets, Aleran heard the sound of a woman screaming. He peeked at an alley, and he saw a scene right out of a movie. The damsel in distress being assaulted by two random guys. One man was restraining the woman and the other was touching her body in a lusty manner. The woman had her eyes closed as she begged them to stop.
“Hey, I guess this is where I step in?” Aleran approached the scene with slow steps.
“Piss off, kid. This is an adults thing. Hehe” The man restraining the woman only spare him a glance. But as he turned his head to the woman, he only saw blackness as all the strength in his body vanished.
“What happened?” the woman opened her eyes to see her two assailants lying on the floor. “Did you save me? Oh, thank you, mighty cultivator.” She was well dressed, but she wasn't a noble lady. She was probably the daughter of a merchant with a good standing. But nonetheless, she was about to kneel on the floor as a form of extreme gratitude.
Aleran hurriedly helped her up and told her to just be more careful next time. And with a smiled he sent her off the alley. As the woman disappeared from his sight Aleran took a pouch out of his pocket. “ This petty thieves should learn more from the politicians from the earth. It is easier to rob someone with smiles than with force. That lady had quite the money on her.”
To Aleran that incident was quite common, he often played the good citizen act just to get a few inches closer. Rich people tended to have their money pouches hidden under their clothes. But with his cultivation, it was an easy pick as long as he could get close enough.
He kept walking and soon he reached the safe house. There, Kindrav was already waiting for him so the two could get inside. “Hey, you know why we were called?” Aleran asked Kindrav as he arrived at the safe house. Today was one of those unusual days when Kindrav arrived before him.
“I think is about some kind of special job. All the other members are talking about some big score. Maybe it has something to do with the lord of the city going out for the next few days.” The lord of the city was the man in charge of protecting the city in case o crisis. One would think that Hilua had a powerful lord since it was a city near the border. But in actual fact it was one of the weakest, nevertheless, it was stupid to underestimate someone in that position. Aleran had heard that the city lord had a cultivation level above the qi circulation.
In the end, Aleran just shrugged. “ I guess we are about to find out, anyway.” Together with Kindrav, they entered the safe house.