The first thing Aleran and Kindrav set to do was to locate the alchemist working with the Crimson Claw. But despite all their efforts, it ended up being a dead end. Alchemists were reclusive by nature, and access to the House of Myriad Transformations was very restricted and guarded with many formations.
The first day both of them had made a reconnaissance, sitting at a bar with a good view of the House of Myriad Transformations. The place looked like a small palace, with big sturdy doors, and precious statues of dragons on each side of the door. The street was quiet, in fact, people tried to avoid passing by the doors as much as they could. They didn't want to disturb the alchemists' peace. This makes the block where the House of Myriad Transformations was, incredibly quiet. There wasn't even a single guard on the doors.
But the second day, when they were still doing more reconnaissance, they were approached by a seemingly normal man who asked their names out of nowhere, in a very polite manner. After speaking he just stood next to their table with a bland smile plastered on his round face and with his eyes glued to the House of Myriad Transformations. But despite how common he looked, Aleran and Kindrav could immediately tell this man was even more dangerous than the big boss. The problem was not on the man itself, but on everything else. At some point, their surroundings had distorted into a mess of twisting colors and noises, always changing, with the man as the single constant in the world. The feeling lasted for an instant that seemed to drag for eternity.
As soon as the world recovered its form and without wasting a moment, both of them gave the man a random name and excused themselves. The man didn't stop them, he just stood there from beginning to end with the same bland smile that gave Aleran a creepy feeling.
With no other choice, they forgot about the alchemist and put their minds into mapping the tunnels. Aleran was confident in his Divine Perception, and he had been working to improve it. Although he hadn't found the way to integrate images with it, the ability gifted by the Kaisha was getting easier to use. With his divine perception, Aleran could see the general form of the tunnels and the chambers they were connected to.
He started going to different corners of the city and simply felt, through his connection with the source qi, the places where there was a lack of earth under him. The network of tunnels slowly revealed itself before Aleran who draw the whole thing in a white big paper. It was practically an underground city beneath the actual city.
That part was pretty easy. But one day, he was going through the tunnels and seeing no one near him, he used that opportunity to use Divine Perception. Peering again under the tunnels, just for pure curiosity, he found that under the regular tunnels were another layer of tunnels.
These were narrower and fewer in number but ran much deeper than the ones used by the normal members of the Crimson Claw. It took him a lot of time, but with Kindrav keeping an eye for outsiders, he managed to trace the tunnels back to the safehouse where the Big Boss lived.
These tunnels were probably meant for emergency and they connected to three different exits outside the city. The exits were cleverly hidden but were not guarded by anyone. After exploring a little with his Divine Perception Aleran realized there were places in this second layer of tunnels he couldn't reach. So, he and Kindrav took the chance to sneak into one to see if there were more hidden chambers.
They picked one exit that was on a small lagoon. Although he didn't want to admit it, Aleran picked this exit because he always liked the stories about pirates with hidden treasures under the sea and remote islands. There was no hidden treasure and no sea here, but nonetheless, Aleran loved every second of the small expedition.
The entrance was a simple metallic door that looked more like a hatch and was unlocked. Aleran and Kindrav had to swim for a long trench even after crossing the door, luckily the place was illuminated by some strange aquatic plants. If one wasn't a cultivator it would be impossible to swim through the inundated tunnel without an oxygen line. Either way, to be cautious they had gotten along a hose made with the intestines of some animal, to breath and to guide them back. The tunnel in question made a turn upwards, and after a while, the water was kept at bay. Then, they had to climb down on to the other side, which was the hardest part since there was no ladder.
All the effort was worth it because they finally discovered, through his Divine Perception, two rooms that they hadn't been able to see before. These rooms, Aleran estimated, were outside the city limits. And they were not connected to any other place more than these tunnels.
Smelling treasure, both of them continued through the tunnels going straight for the rooms. but as they got closer they started to feel a huge pressure. It was Kindrav who noticed that this was the feeling a killing array gave. The best ones were usually undetectable but it seemed that the boss himself set up this array. It made sense in a way, you couldn't hire an outsider to create a protective formation for your top secret hideout. The big boss could only use his meager abilities to set some formations, what's more, he couldn't place them on the doors because they would be too eye-catching. This way he was compromising the defense in order to gain privacy. The hideout relied upon the fact that no one would be looking in the places the exits were hidden, and that nobody even knew they existed. The first layer of tunnels was complex enough to make anyone believe that if the big boss had something to hide he would do it there.
But it appeared that in this case, it had worked. Both of Aleran and Kindrav were ignorant when it came to formations. Either way, the formations couldn't stop Aleran from using his Divine Perception and keep exploring with his mind. With this new discovery, Aleran, and Kindrav, mapped the complete set of tunnels three days before the agreed time. These three days left, Kindrav spent them training with the cultivation technique.
As for Aleran he had broken through way before Kindrav and took those three days to rest. Once he looked at it, Aleran realized that, though they had not been scammed, the cultivation technique was really not that good. The thing was useful, but calling it a cultivation technique was far fetched. It was more of a guide to expand the nodes of the arms and chest. Breaking through the qi circulation realm consisted of expanding the nodes on the spirit-veins. With this expansion, the nodes would fuse, or overlap, as they called it, with the flesh and with other nodes. This made it possible for the cultivator to move more qi towards one part of his flesh strengthening, even more, one extremity but at the cost of losing qi on the others.
Every node needed a different method of refinement in order to expand. But Aleran and Kindrav only had the method to expand the nodes of their upper bodies. That was what the man referred to as half step qi circulation.
They would be able to strengthen one of their arms at the expenses of the other and the chest area. The same could be done the other way around. It was not much, but it was enough to save their life in a desperate time.
Wanting to keep it a secret, they cultivated outside the city. Thanks to the upcoming heist, the big boss had given them and other members of the Crimson Claw, free time. That free time was the only reason why they managed to cultivate and map out the tunnels at the same time.
Aleran was the first to break through. He only needed a few days of work gathering the source qi at a monstrous pace that left Kindrav with his mouth agape. What took him more time was the process of refining, it was a complex set of movements of his inner qi around the node that could make anyone dizzy.
The moment one of his nodes expanded, he understood why Zarasen didn't allow him to breakthrough when he was in the asylum. All his inner qi turned chaotic and the surrounding source qi also started to vibrate. Inside a calm place, in terms of qi movement, this kind of disturbance was like a holding a lantern in the middle of the darkness. And this was only with one, every time he expanded another node on his arm the effect grew stronger. He couldn't imagine how much would it be if he did the same to his whole body.
While Aleran managed to expand his nodes by the fifth day, Kindrav could only do it on the last day, the fifteenth. This made Kindrav realize how much of a monster Aleran truly was, and that soon, Aleran's abilities will start to become monstrous. But that only motivated him to work harder so as to not get left behind. Still, be it Aleran's or Kindrav's speed, they had both achieved a breakthrough faster than normal cultivators. After all, they had done this while mapping the tunnels.
“ You are saying that are two sets of tunnels?” Adra was looking at the map the two boys had brought to her. It was impressive, the tunnels were like a spider web extended under the city, slowly trapping everything inside.
And, what was more impressive was that they only took fifteen days to do the whole thing. She had been skeptical about them at first, but her master seemed to believe their words the moment the blue-eyed boy said he would do it. She knew of some ways to do what they did, but none were possible for their level and would take much more time. This made Adra question what she knew about these two boys.
“ Where is the second set of tunnels?” Asked Aldra after looking at the map closely.
“Ah, that would cost extra, let's say... eighty spirit stones,” Kindrav said with a harmless smile. This was something they planned the moment Aleran discovered the second layer of tunnels. They still needed fifty spirit stones for the two of them to take the test. Being a secret, they were obviously important for the big boss, and that made it important for Adra.
Adra didn't look surprised by this, in fact, she expected it the moment she heard about the second set of tunnels. She was not as experienced as her master, but she was no idiot. “ That's too much, It would be good to have this information, and if this was a set of tunnels under the capital I would pay you that much. Unfortunately for you, this is just a branch of the real Crimson Claw and it will only help us with this single branch.” It was hard to learn from the secular world the actual value of spirit stones, and the boys must have already understood that the price they had agreed before was too low. “ But I can give you fifty if you are willing to do something more.” She had learned from her master that no matter how small the sum you are expending you will have to make it worth it. Moreover, the boys mad the mistake to tell her why they needed those spirit stones, she would never pay more than what they needed to take the test at the academy.
Aleran and Kindrav shared a look, and as before, it was Kindrav who finally spoke but with dubiousness. “ What do we have to do? As long as it is not dangerous we can try.”
“Simple, give me the two maps and let me study them for a moment, you can wait here till I come back. I will be able to tell you exactly once I have studied the layout of the tunnels. Just trust me.” She spoke with a resolute look in her beautiful eyes.
“That blond guy, your master, trusted us when we said we could map the tunnels and even gave us the cultivation technique before we completed anything. I guess its fair to trust back.” Kindrav nodded, remembering the look the man had when he spoke about the barbarians.
Adra smiled as Aleran took a small piece of rough paper rolled just like the bigger one, and handed to her. Afterward, she disappeared behind one of the doors behind the counter.
Aleran didn't count the time, but he was sure it took her more than three hours, or Ru as they called them, to come back. She looked tidy like before, but her face was clearly showing signs of tiredness as she carried on her hand a stack of papers. Unlike the rough paper, Aleran used for the maps these were a pearly white, they had a shiny luster.
She extended both maps on the counter and put the stack of papers to the side. The maps now had ‘o’ markings made with black ink in some areas. Adra pointed at one of the marks and said. “ I need you to put these paper talismans in the general areas near the circles I marked.” She said with a weak voice. Making the talismans was a tiring process. Fortunately, her master had almost completed them, she only had to do the finishing process which was the easiest part. But with the level of these paper talismans, it was already a titanic work for her.
“What are these for?” Aleran asked seeing that Kindrav also had a look of confusion.
“This is one of the ways to make formations. As for the details... you will see soon enough. Let's just say that if you do this right, in seven days you will not want to be in the tunnels.” She said with a tired but sweet smile. But this weak smile sent chills down Aleran's spine without knowing exactly why.
After making some more arrangements, Aleran and Kindrav say goodbye to Adra and started their new mission and for the big heist coming in five days.
Many warriors of the Crimson Claw had gathered in the pit but the stands were not fully packed, there were less than fifty people. And unlike the usual scene, there was no massacre playing in the pit and no yelling in the stands. Only a single man, with a small white feather the size of a pinky finger hanging between his hair, was standing in the middle of the pit.
Aleran looked around and noticed that almost all the people here had a tattoo of a red claw somewhere on their bodies. They were all at the third heaven opening stage with some qi circulation cultivators mixed in between. There was even one qi circulation mid phase standing next to Ibrak. All the people here were inner members, the only exception being him and Kindrav.
Next, Aleran looked at Grujil. He was standing in the pit with his arms behind his back facing at the stands, like a general looking at his army. He looked more prideful than when he met him in private.
“ My friends, you have surely heard why I have gathered you here. Word on the street has spread about a big heist we are going to pull soon.” Grujil spoke with a domineering voice.
All the people in the stands nodded, some even cheered. But Grujil just looked calmly at everyone before continuing. “That's good. Because we are not going to be pulling any heist today. This is a mission coming directly from the capital, and it is no robbery. We have gathered here to end the life of the Lord of Hilua. Our target is the City Lord himself!”
The whole place turned silent, even Aleran drew a gasp of air when he heard the real target. Everyone with some connections in the streets knew that a big heist was going to happen soon. Nobody knew when or where, but this made the city guards patrols to increase. And the personal guard of the City Lord had gathered near his private warehouses located all around the city. This left the mansion unprotected. “It was all made on purpose.” Aleran heard Kindrav whispering from the side and only nodded in response. It was a crazy idea, even for the Crimson Claw.
Grujil passed his gaze through everyone present. “ As you know, the City Lord is stronger than any one of us here, including me.” This was possibly what was going through the mind of every single member at the moment. Even if this City Lord was considered to be in the lower spectrum of power, he was still someone the Empire recognized to have the ability to protect one of its cities. Aleran was still pretty ignorant about how the empire at large worked, but even he knew that someone in that position had to be quite strong.
After a small pause, Grujil continued. “But, even before he returned from his last expedition, we got the word that he had been injured in his latest adventure. The odds of killing him are not as slim as you might think, in fact, we have the advantage. His injuries are bad and they are getting worse. Thanks to the decrease in guards patrolling the City Lord mansion, we will have one shot at destroying the formation surrounding it without being interrupted. With that done, the rest is just to do what we do best, to fight! ” He made another pause to let the information sink before opening his mouth again. “ I won't lie to you, though. This mission will be dangerous, some of you will die. But for those who return, you will be compensated with one hundred spirit stones!” Grujil raised his voice, and with it, the inner members started to cheer.
Grujil knew that even if they knew the City Lord was injured, his men would still hesitate at the crucial moment. It was understandable, even if they do kill him they will all have to hide, laying low for a few cycles, even years. The Empire didn't take well to have its authority stepped on.
Killing a City Lord was no joke, even with his backer, Grujil would have thought this through a little more if he didn't have his own personal agenda. For obvious reasons, he didn't say it, but he was pretty much aware that he will lose more than half of his men. That was the reason why he offered so many spirit stones, he knew that only a few would live to actually receive them. One hundred spirit stones were a small fortune for a cultivator without a strong background, it could open many doors to better resources and equipment. Most of his men, just like most of the Crimson Clawin every city, were deserters or they had been kicked out for bad behavior from the army, the Dragon Claw. They had no other place to go and they had no way to get their hands on spirit stones, they would do almost anything if they could get a few, much less one hundred.
“It seems this mission will be more dangerous than what he is saying. We had to go to all those troubles to get only one hundred spirit stones, and suddenly this guy decides to give them way just for one mission? That's just too suspicious.” Kindrav said whispering as low as possible.
“Look at them closely, Kin.” Aleran pointed at the men cheering, they all looked excited on the outside, but their eyes betrayed a hint of fear. A fear they could only vent with cheerings. “I'm guessing everyone understands that. They must know better than us how much a spirit stone is worth, and they must know this mission will be extremely dangerous. Yet, they are willing to do it precisely because they know how hard is to get that amount of spirit stones. Even if they have to go through hell to get them”
Kindrav nodded. After the encounter with that strange man in front of the House of Myriad Transformations, he couldn't say how many experts were lurking inside the city without anyone knowing. And, if the alchemists were guarded by such a powerful person, then the City Lord must have someone or something to rely on to protect himself. Kindrav was certain, these people surely knew how serious the situation was. If not, they had lived in the city's underworld through all this time for nothing.
Even as they whispered back and forth, Grujil continued to talk and encourage his men. It was only after a long monologue that he gave instructions for everyone to prepare in one of the side rooms.
But just as Aleran and Kindrav were about to follow the rest, they were surreptitiously held back by Ibrak. Aleran suddenly tensed up as an idea surged in his mind. ‘ Had they discovered anything bout our deals with Heavens' Vault? Or did they found some of those talismans the woman gave them?’ He looked at Kindrav who was doing everything to look as innocent as possible.
At some point, after everyone had exited from the colosseum-like place, Grujil appeared next to where they were sitting. He was already sitting next to them and looking at the arena. The haughty air from before was gone and his usual serious and businesslike face was back again. He was very different from the thug and gang leader from just moments ago.
After some time looking at nothing Grujil opened his lips. “You won't be with the rest in this mission. You haven't even practiced any martial stance nor skill, and therefore are too weak to make any difference.” He said with a grave face that made Aleran afraid to even look at the man. He raised his had and looked at Ibrak who was standing. With that single exchange of looks, the man turned around and went through one of the many doors. Then, Grujil continued. “But that's not why I include you on this mission, the reason is that there's something I need you to steal for me.”
Understanding that they had been held back to speak about business and not about betrayal Aleran was finally able to talk. “ Which one of the City Lord warehouses must we rob?” Aleran had guessed that even though right now they were heavily guarded, once chaos ensued in the City Lord's mansion they will realize everything was a ruse and they will forget about protecting the warehouses.
“You are a smart boy.” Grujil showed a faint smile. “ But the item I want you to rob is special and it will be in the City Lord's Mansion. In its vault to be more precise.” Seeing the look of apprehension of the two kids, the big boss said. “ You won't be fighting and I only need you to use the skills you use every day in the streets. While the vault is protected by a formation, it is the same that protects the rest of the mansion. And that formation will be destroyed by me, luckily for all of us, the mansion is a private place of the City Lord. Meaning that he couldn't hire a good formation master from the empire because of how expensive it is, and much less from the outside because of privacy matters. You won't believe how many people leave unguarded their most precious things due to the lack of trustworthy formation masters.”
‘Yas I do believe it, you and your precious tunnels are a perfect example.’ Aleran said inwardly while sharing a knowing glance with Kindrav. He was sure the barbarian would be laughing and pointing at Grujil if he could.
Unaware of what was going through the head of the boys, Grujil kept talking. “ The vault is located in a separated building resting at the back of the mansion. It is just a gray square building that contrasts with the white and gold mansion. You will wait outside the perimeter. Once I destroy the formation you will get inside the perimeter only after we start fighting, and even then, you will wait until you are sure most of the guards have left the grey building. After that, you will do your magic. For what Ibrak has told me, you have a keen sense of space and move fast even in unknown terrains while no door had been able to block you. That's exactly what I need, someone who doesn't waste time and is able to do everything fast. Someone who can't be stopped even by the most solid, sturdiest divine metal door that can even hold someone like me back.”
What made Aleran and Kindrav famous was that they had been able to rob a place protected by a door made of divine metal, that was locked by a bar made with the same metal. It was a special metal made with alchemy and reinforced through unknown methods. The metal wasn't much heavier than normal steel, it was even a little lighter, but it was many times more resistant. It was actually used more for weapons than for doors. But Aleran discovered that it was attracted by his magnetic field. This discovery let him very excited at the moment and made him want to reach qi circulation mid phase only to be able to use magnetic fields outside his body, that would allow him to do much more cool things.
Kindrav nodded his head. “ If we don't have to deal with formations, then we can do it.” He said, knowing what Aleran was capable of and trying to reassure Grujil.
“ Good. Once inside, you will look for a large box 30 inches long made of blackwood with golden engravings on its corners. Once you find it, take it back here and make sure nobody follows you.”
Knowing not to ask what was inside the box Aleran answered. “We will do as you command, big boss. But…” Aleran paused, he could tell that whatever was in that box it was important for Grujil and he didn't want to piss him off. But he was not going to forget the reason why they were doing all this in the first place.
As if reading his mind Grujil turn to look at the door where Ibrak had left a moment ago. ”Ibrak will come back in a moment with a drawing of the box. He will also bring your IDs so you can see them. Once you circulate your qi inside your bodies, the IDs will react and glow showing your same qi fluctuations. That's the fastest, and the first method everyone uses to verify IDs. These IDs are made so they can pass every possible check, strictly speaking, they are not fakes, but real ones made skipping the legal prosses. That's the reason why it is so expensive.” He said this with a little pride, showing a shadow of a smile on his face. Getting an alchemist on your side was extremely hard.
And just as he finished, Ibrak closed in with two small papers that looked more like flexible sheets of metal. They had a metallic brown color and the edges were almost too sharp. On the papers were written “Aleran Ivrath, son of Karse Ivrath. Born on the 16th year of the Last Dragon.” “Kindrav Ivrath, son of Karse Ivrath. Born on the 13th year of the Last Dragon.” After that phrase, there was more information on where they were born and a physical description.
“Oh, I guess we are brothers now. Though nobody will believe we are related, with you having a butt for face and me being the handsome specimen I am.” Kindrav said while pointing his finger all over Alerans body and face.
But Aleran didn't answer. He was staring at his ID with a frown and the face of someone who had eaten something disgusting. ‘ Mother fuckers!’ He Thought while trying but failing to keep a straight face.
“Is something wrong with the ID?” Asked Ibrak clearly unpleased with the brat that didn't appreciate all the troubles they had to go through to make one of those.
“No, is nothing. I was just trying to memorize the information here, just in case, someone asks me. It would be truly stupid to have a foolproof ID to just have my cover blown by a simple question as ‘Where are you from?’” He finally reacted, clearing the suspicions.
“Yes, and make sure to get your stories straight too. You are brothers now, you have to share some childhood memories. Though the chance small, someone could ask you about that.” Grujil reminded them before keeping the IDs and continuing with more instructions. Once the mission was over he will give the IDs to the boys, as promised.
After a while, Grujil rose and went to one of the doors followed by Ibrak. But before leaving he turned. “ Oh, by the way, Rogdo will be supervising you. You already met him I believe, so I'm sure you won't mind.” Grujil didn't trust the kids, Ibrak had made good points on how dangerous it was to have them know too much. And the more he talked with the two the more he realized they were smarter than what they looked. This made him rethink if he should kill them or not. Having a dumb but loyal subordinate was much easy than controlling a smart but unloyal one.
And although he also didn't trust Rogdo too much, the man was one of the oldest members under him. And what's more, on the surface this mission was an order from their backer, even the robbery. Rogdo didn't know him, but he had some rough understanding of how powerful that backer was. So Rogdo would not dare to touch the box, on the contrary, he will guard it with his life. The best part was that the guy was very powerful compared with those of his own rank at the Heaven Opening stage. Knowing that he could not advance Rogdo had focused on martial stances, producing good results.
In the end, Grujil decided to wait and see. The IDs were hard to get and the boys were useful, more so at a moment like this. But after the mission, he could just kill them if what was on the box was as good as his informant had told him. No matter the cost of the IDs or their abilities, what was on that box was way more valuable. He will give Rogdo the order to not open it, but there was the risk the boys could peek inside while Rogdo was distracted. It could be better to finish them off once everything was over.
“You have two Ru to get ready, after that, come back here and meet with Rogdo. Do not get out of the tunnels until its time, the doors are guarded so we will know if you get out.”
Aleran and Kinrav were left with no other choice but to accept the arrangments made by Grujil and preapare for the upcoming heist.
Once Grujil and Ibrak went out, Aleran turned to look at Kindrav. Unexpectedly he was looking at his ID with a sad face. “ So, you did notice it. You are better at hiding your emotions than me.”
“ Of course I noticed.” The moment he received the ID he had to make a joke because that was the only way to cope with his emotions. Otherwise, he would have attacked without caring about the difference in power.
The face of a poor villager, dressed in what almost looked like rags emerged in Kindrav's mind. The man was fearfully holding a few copper coins with a trembling hand raised at the level of his fearful eyes. And then, he remembered the lines Rogdo spoke before leaving the man alone. “If you don't get us the money soon we will find another way to make use of you.”
Looking at his ID as if it was the only thing in the world, Kindrav spoke “We say we wouldn't harm innocent people, but this...Say, Al, do you think that if we hadn't done anything, that man would still be alive?... If I hadn't suggested you join the Crimson Claw if I hadn't spoken with Odre…
“Highly unlikely. Don't beat yourself for something outside your control. They would have killed him for other reason like giving the parcel of land to another unlucky villager. And even if it was because we joined the Crimson Claw that he died, so what? It was impossible for you to know it was going to happen. We did what we thought best for us. All we can do is to try and cover as much we can, trying to think about the possible consequences and act with that in mind, hoping something like this doesn't happen again.” Although he said that, Aleran was feeling just as guilty as Kindrav, although he knew it was illogical to hang on that thought. There was nothing they could do anymore.
Aleran patted Kindrav's shoulder and with a hint of obsession that made Kindrav rise his head from his trance, Aleran said. “Want to control everything? You want to make sure this doesn't happen again? Then get stronger, strong enough to make others feel everything is under your control, everything. Past, present, future, their whole lives, their essence...their soul.” Kindrav recognized that gaze, it was the same Kindrav saw when he asked Aleran about his future. A mixture of panic, fear, and...greed. Peering into that obsession, Kindrav could tell that whatever it was that his friend had lived through before meeting him, it had left a big mark on him.
“Let's go, we have a few more talismans to put, if we hurry it can be done before the mission begins.” Pulling himself out from the guilt, Kindrav started to walk. He did it for himself just as much as for Aleran who seemed to be fine but was clearly not. Kindrav had learned from his time together with Aleran that his obsession was not only one of the things that pushed Aleran forward but also an armor he used when things got out of control.