The safe house they entered was not like any other hideout they had been. This one looked more like the mansion of a respected noble than the hideout of some street gang.
A man seated in some kind of throne stared at the new arrivals with a calm gaze. His dark eyes seemed to show that everything was under his control and anything that wasn't would end up destroyed by him. His face was oval and had thin eyebrows, while his hair was light brown and short. On one of the locks of his short hair, he had a small white feather attached on it with a golden thread. His build was normal, not too muscular and not too skinny. But there was hidden power in the man that made Aleran very apprehensive from the moment he entered the room. He just kept walking together with Kindrav, trying to keep his mind cool.
He started to look around, noticing Ibrak standing respectfully next to the chair. Making him guess the identity of the seated man. He also started to look at the decorations in the room. Behind the throne-like chair, was a detailed map of the city with the surrounding villages nearby included. The room in itself was well illuminated with light crystals, that now Aleran knew were another type of spirit stone. Only that these had to be charged with other spirit stones or source qi to give light for a short period of time. For a while, Aleran had thought that those crystals were a good replacement to electric light, only to realize afterward that they were not. They had to be charged every day with lots of spirit stones, source qi or inner qi. People normally used the last option to not spend an astronomical amount of spirit stones on this.
But what grabbed Aleran's attention were not the crystals, but the complex decorations these crystals were embedded into. Some were cravings on the wall and others were sculptures, but all of them were made after animals and were extremely lifelike. There was a snake carved on the wall, with a few of its scales being crystals that formed a pattern. There was also a huge bear statue near the middle of the room. And the most spectacular was a bird engraved on the ceiling. It covered all the ceiling, its orange and black color stood out thanks to the crystals shining on the bird's eyes and on the tip of its red crown. It was the same bird he had seen fighting the giant snake at the forest of eternal nightmares. And whoever had made this craving, captured the arrogance of the bird in all its glory.
“ A majestic creature, isn't it? The one who made that craving was someone lucky enough to get near the Heavenly Crowned Bird and survive. I've never seen it myself, but they say it was recently spotted fighting the Heavenly Mountain Snake at the border of the Empire. That must have been a good spectacle.” The man in the throne, noticing Aleran's look, spoke again in a casual way with a deep but calm voice. “Although it would be hard to survive such a show.”
Aleran nodded with a serious face, he knew better than most how powerful it was. And he almost didn't live to tell the tale.
“So, you two are the famous twin ghosts, our rising stars.” Said the man more to himself than to them.
“We are just hard working and a little bit lucky, Sir,” Answered Kindrav in a fake show of modesty, but tactful as always.
“Luck is always needed, but without talent, it is wasted and you two have shown talent. But enough of praises, let's not lose focus here and get straight to business.” The man said cutting his own monologue. “I'm Grujil, and I'm in charge of all the Crimson Claw members inside the city of Hilua. I've heard a lot about your skills and that's why I called you here today.”
Aleran and Kindrav clasped their hands and bowed, greeting almost in a synchronized manner. “ Respects to the Bigg Boss.” They couldn't be careless before the man in charge, he was literally the king of this city's underground world.
Although he was obviously not the highest rank in the organization. He was someone with the highest standing in this city. Not to mention that the man was really powerful, something almost impossible to achieve unless you belonged to an organization. Linking this with all the majestuous carvings and statuses and the whole elegant air of this safe house, made Aleran question who was behind the Crimson Claw. This safe house was located in the wealthier district and it had fancy decorations. You don't get that kind of money just by stealing and pickpocketing. Well, Aleran knew that back on earth, every drug lord had so much money that they could buy almost anything. But this was different, this guy was just in charge of this city. So, this was just like a branch office. Aleran couldn't help but ask himself. ‘What would their headquarters be like?’
Grujil nodded. “I summoned you here because, as you have surely heard, there will be a major heist at the end of this cycle. And, if you decide to participate in this, we will give you your IDs as payment. By now, you must have surely realized that forging IDs is extremely costly. And if you keep going like this it will take you at least another five cycles to make enough money for us. Even with your extraordinary skills. After all, pickpocketing and thieving is the less stable position, there can be good days and there can be bad ones. Plus, it is hard to know when an opportunity to rob some major shop will come.”
Aleran and Kindrav exchanged looks. It was obvious that the first estimate they were given was a total lie. And until now, nobody had bothered to tell them anything. But now, it was in plain sight that they could be useful, so these people started to be honest. The biggest problem was that every time they asked how much money was needed to forge the IDs, they would always get an ambiguous answer. The closest they got to a real answer was a few days ago when someone told them “ You would have to convert spirit stones in gold coins to get the real amount.” That answer made them both despair. Luckily, that same day, they had gotten the news that some big heist was coming so they waited to see. And now, it seemed that the wait had paid off.
Aleran was the first to speak of the two. “ What do we have to do, Sir?”
The man on the throne continued. “ For obvious reasons, I won't tell you the details until the same day. But, know that it will be very dangerous, if something goes wrong you will be on your own. But if you do well you may even get rewarded. You got until the end of this cycle to give your answer to Ibrak.”
“We will-” When Kindrav was about to answer Aleran interrupted him.
“There's no need to think it through, we accept, and we thank you for this opportunity. But we need to see the IDs before the mission starts, together with proof that they won't be easily discovered. After we complete our job, we will receive the IDs and go on our way.” They needed to have some proof. Otherwise, these people could just send them to their deaths in this “dangerous” mission or even killed them after they did they part. If they went through all the trouble of making the forged IDs, it was less likely that they would kill them after the mission. And it seemed that they needed their skills for this heist, so it was unlikely that the Crimson Claw would kill them before that. He also knew that if he had to negotiate with someone it was better if this was the boss, his word carried more weight than the word of Ibrak.
Grujil frowned for a second, the mere shift in his expression changing the mood of the whole room. Suddenly, the aesthetically beautiful carvings and statuses seemed more alive and more threatening than ever. The gigantic bird seemed to be measuring its prey, ready to pounce on them.
He exchanged a look with Ibrak and then his face turned indifferent again taking away the pressure together with his frown. “Very well then. We have an alchemist in the city. He is part of the team that creates the papers of those born here and the surroundings. We will need a few drops of blood with your inner qi. Cultivators need to create a new ID when they start cultivating, this would be usually free since you only have to exchange your already existing ID for the modified one. But with you, it will have to be done from zero. Either way, this makes it is easier for us to put you into the system. Just give your blood and qi to Ibrak after this and in ten days or so you will get to see your IDs.”
Hearing the answer, Aleran released an inward breath of relief. For a moment he had regretted his attempt at making a deal with this monster. ‘ What level of cultivation does this guy have, anyway?’ To Aleran, it had truly felt like every creature represented in this room became alive and were about to rip him to shreds. He looked at Kindrav who was covered in sweat and his hands were tightened into fists. Aleran knew he was struggling to not touch his earrings as he always did when in fear.
Aleran immediately bowed and clasped his hands again, Kindrav followed suit. “Thank you, Big Boss, for your kindness and understanding.”
“Then wait outside. In a moment, Ibrak will reach you with the necessary items the alchemist needs to forge your IDs. Remember, come back here in twenty days, and we will tell you the details of your mission.” With those words and a wave of his hand, Grujil dismissed the two of them.
Seeing the two kids out Grujil turned his indifferent gaze towards Ibrak who looked like he had something on his minds. “ What is it Ibrak? Speak, you know I hate to waste time and I need to meet more people.”
Ibrak let out a sigh and said. “ Is it really necessary to give these two the IDs and let them go just like that? They know a lot about our inner workings, and they will know more if we let them take part in the heist. We can just fool them with some second-hand IDs and let some ‘random’ search of the guards find them later. they can just kill them for ‘resisting’ to the arrest .”
“That won't be necessary, it would be a shame to let such talents go. If I wanted them dead, we could just force them to still what we need and then kill them. But their abilities may be of use in the future. Besides, every document is signed by the alchemist that made it. As long as we have the word of the alchemist that made the document it will be easy for us to make him say he was forced to forge their IDs. That way, we will have leverage over those two and keep using them.”
Ibrak wasn't completely convinced. At first, he was disgusted by Kindrav, the barbarian. But as time passed he started to realize that the true threat was the other one. There was something on the look of that boy Aleran that always made him uncomfortable. It was like he was always studying them, searching for a weakness, for something he could use against them. It was like having a poisonous snake lurking inside your hose, not knowing when it was going to strike.
That made Ibrak extremely uncomfortable. He couldn't explain that feeling, it was like some sort of intuition. And every time that happened, it made him feel like squeezing the life out of the boy's neck. “Then I will get the spirit crystal and the bottles” But the decision was not his to make. So, he hurriedly bowed and went out.
Ibrak appeared before them soon after they got out carrying two spirit stones and two small crystal bottles. He took a few drops of their blood in each bottle and then asked them to pour some of it on the spirit stones. Since they could not channel raw qi outside their bodies they had to use this method to charge the spirit stone. Aleran had learned that, when they were empty, spirit stones were called spirit crystals. They seemed to have endless uses, and it gave Aleran a lot of ideas of how they could be used.
This process also reminded Aleran that the inner qi was unique of every person. And that if your parents were cultivators, someone could use their inner qi to trace you and vice-versa. It also made him thankful that his spirit veins were different from the original Aleran making his inner qi different from that of the parents of his new body.
Following that, Aleran was surprised that Ibrak also took their fingerprints with some special ink and paper. He guessed that, maybe, it wasn't that hard to realize that fingerprints were something unique to every individual. Apparently the IDs, besides using some alchemical method, it also used this more mundane method.
Once outside, they were finally able to relax. “ That was scary. Next time you decide to bargain with someone that can kill us in seconds, give me some heads up, will you Al?” After walking some blocks on the labyrinthic city, Kindrav was finally back to his usual lazy attitude.
“I know it was dangerous, but it was needed, Ibrak would keep delaying it otherwise.” But Aleran was not relaxed at all, he was still serious when he continued speaking. “ Kin, we need to find the alchemist, I don't believe for a second they will let us go just like that. There's too much we don't know about how the IDs are made. That's why we have to find him and at least know his movements. Grujil said he was in this city. He must be an official alchemist of the Empire working in the House of Myriad Transformations. I won't feel comfortable unless I know exactly what they are doing, and find a way to get a hand on the IDs by ourselves.” Although Aleran had been very busy with the Crimson Claw, almost to the point where he had no free time, he had been making inquiries about the alchemists and things related to ID forging.
He found out that every city had a house of Myriad Transformations, where all the works related to alchemy were done. Besides making alchemical substances like new metals, elixirs, and even weapons, they also served as a school for aspiring alchemists. Sadly, it was a very exclusive profession. Not only required one to have a lot of money, but the whole organization was also controlled by a few ancient families and one had to have contact with them to get in. This made the information about alchemy extremely restricted and hard to find.
“Ha, you can't tolerate not being in control, can you? You really are a control freak.” even though Kindrav joked he agreed with Aleran. “ If we can't find him, we will need another way to escape their grasp. Which brings me to another theme, we need to get stronger. More and more I'm getting the feeling that our strength is-
“Big brothers, may I ask you to follow me? Someone wants to meet with you two.” A high pitched voice suddenly interrupted, making Kindrav look in annoyance at the new, tiny interlocutor.
Kindrav looked at the kid that was right before them, he was probably 9 or 10 dressed in ragged clothes, a classic little rat of the streets. Like many kids on the street, he was probably an orphan of a poor family. These little street rats took any odd job they could find, like guiding visitors into the labyrinth that was this city or giving information about certain places. They could be almost anywhere, unlike the bigger rats, the guards sometimes took pity on them and didn't chase them out of the wealthier districts. But if they were caught robbing they would be punished like adults.
With a sarcastic voice, Kindrav spoke to the child. “ It seems today is the day of ‘let's interrupt Kindrav while he speaks’.” He said as he shot a glance at Aleran. Clearly remembering how he had been literally sent to sit in the bench in the negotiation with Grujil. Not that he would have had the guts to negotiate with that guy.
“Tch tch tch” Aleran shook his head while clicking his tongue. “ Poor, foolish Kin, the sooner you realize that you are destined to be stepped on by others the happier you will live,” Aleran answered in a joking manner suddenly realizing that, in one way or another, Kindrav always managed to lighten the mood of the situation.
Kindrav just rolled his eyes and look at the kid. “Okay, I'm interested in this mysterious person that wants to meet us. Can you tell us who he is.”
The kid shook his head. “ I don't know her name, but she was a beautiful lady, she was walking with other men, like guards. And told me to take you somewhere.” The kid said while flushing a little.
“Oh! My charm is acting out again. It truly makes women do the most unthinkable things.” Kindrav spread his arms and look at the sky, almost looking like a martyr.
“Don't you have that girl Senna? The chief's daughter? I've never seen her but you talk of as if she was an angel. So, this one is mine. Besides, I'm the one with the charming blue eyes.” The sad truth was that he only knew he had blue eyes from the blurry reflex of windows in the city and his reflex in water. This world had mirrors, but it was something for rich people. He could barely steal enough to buy good clothes and the rest he had to give it away to the Crimson Claw or use it for food. He didn't want to take the risk to keep stealing when he was off duty. So he had never actually seen the aspect of his new body.
“It's all about personality Al, You are practically an ogre. And being around you makes me look like a charming prince. Why do you think I hang out with you?” Kindrav shrugged and continued to talk to the kid that was looking at them like one would at two idiots. “ Why does this beautiful lady wants to meet us?”
“She said that she may have the solution to all your problems with your... employer.” The boy said with a clear effort to remember what the woman had said.
Aleran elbowed Kindrav. “Dude, this is obviously some kind of trap. And a very poor one at that. It would be really embarrassing to die falling in this kind of shitty ploy.” Although normally they were innocent, these kids were sometimes paid by other bigger rats to lure their prey with lies or by guiding tourists into less crowded areas.
“Relax, as you said, is too sloppy to be a trap. Besides, aren't you interested in what the solution may be? And, how much does this other person knows more about us? At least, there must be a hot woman on the other side, the flush on the kid's face was real. If you want, you can go a few steps behind me in case anything happens.” From time to time they had to tail people the streets so they were used to following from a prudent distance.
“Lead the way, boy, let's meet her.” At his cue, the boy started to trot by the streets of Hilua with familiarity.