“What in the hell is this?” A sickly and pale Grijil grunted as he saw what was inside the box. His voice was hoarse and his body trembled like a house of cards about to crumble.
Aleran and Kindrav exchanged a look. “We took the box you showed us in the picture, we didn't even open it.” Aleran answered while thinking to himself that, maybe, they shouldn't have taken the two fingers for themselves. Maybe they were a little too greedy.
“What the fuck is this?!” But Grujil didn't hear what Aleran was saying. He didn't doubt this was the original content of the box since the size of the two arms fit perfectly in it. And the arms were clearly something very, very precious. But the thing was, it wasn't what he was expecting. As for the two missing fingers, he thought nothing of them since part of the arm was also missing.
The runes on the arm showed that at least, the source of this arm was real. It came from the Astral Runes sect. And it was very unlikely the two kids could find anything that was at the same time a perfect fit for the box as well as something that clearly came from the Astral Runes sect.
‘But, our informant said it was an inner piece of a circle of runes.’ Grujil thought as he looked at Ibrak who was by his side. The man was just as injured as him, maybe worse. He was missing one arm and his nose was bent in an awkward position. But he needed to be here, otherwise, Grujil wasn't sure he could control the two boys right now. They were able to complete the mission and come back relatively uninjured. Meanwhile, according to what the boys said, Rogdo had coincidentally died.
Their ability was beyond his expectations. He was expecting them to open the vault while Rogdo fought the remaining guards. Then, they would have to make a quick search for the box and run for their lives. Rogdo would then send the signal, and Grujil would come down from the sky to pick the box and retreat with it. Whether the kids and Rogdo were able to come back through the sewers was not his problem. He just wanted the box out of the vault.
After all, there had to be at least a qi circulation stage cultivator doing guard, even if it was just to protect the other stuff outside the vault. Rogdo could handle him for a while, but while he was exceptional in the third phase of Heaven opening, he was no real threat for a qi circulation cultivator.
Yet, the kids had come back fine and he had nobody to ask how they did it. When Grujil had seen the fire he assumed something went wrong and immediately retreated. He knew that looking them without the special cristal he gave to Rogdo would be useless. The plan was hastily prepared, using the mission given by his superiors and the information he had obtained.
If all went well, he would have a chance at becoming independent or at bargaining a better position inside the Crimson Claw. If used right, it could open a world of possibilities. But if it went wrong, only the gods knew when his chance would come. The harsh truth was that, until now, he has been stuck in this position. And if this kept going his chances at breaking through would get slimmer as he was suppressed by others inside the organization.
So, when he heard of two thieves who could enter past any door, not having any better plan, he decided to use them. That was why he was prepared for failure, after all, he had put too much faith in two kids he didn't even know. But now, here they were, with the exact same box he wanted but with something inside he didn't expect.
But although he had many questions, he refrained from asking most of them, at least for now. Taking a deep breath, Grujil looked up after a while and started to speak. “Are you sure... there wasn't any other box like this inside the vault?” It was unlikely, but he asked anyway.
“We are sure, boss. We even look inside some drawers and chests. This was the only one, in fact, there was nothing of much value inside.” Kindrav said with assurance.
“I believe your story, is just that this wasn't what I was told I would find. But I can feel how unique this is. And for that, I will keep my word.” Grujil nodded to Ibrak who went away for a moment and returned carrying the IDs with him.
“It was an honor doing business with someone such as yourself, boss.” Aleran said respectfully. But his hands moved like starving dogs towards the IDs.
Grujil didn't mind any of that, he couldn't stop looking at the box. Clearly, he was thinking about something else. “You have done very well, but you may want to stay inside the tunnels for a few days. It will get rough outside. But of course, if you want to leave, we won't stop you.” When he finally looked up his face returned to his usual business-like visage.
Aleran and Kindrav clasped their hands and turned around. But before they could take one step they could hear Grujils cold voice at their back. “ Maybe there wasn't anything of value, but It looks like you have reaped more than just a box and a few wounds from this mission. You two thought we couldn't hear the tingling all those spirit stones make inside your pockets?”
In fact, both of them had already hidden the fingers in the most hidden pockets they had the back of the hoods. And although they had time to hide the spirit stones they decided against it. They left the spirit stones on them to not raise suspicion. It would be weird if they hadn't taken anything else.
“Boss, you said we could get some extra spirit stones if we made a good job.” Aleran pointed his finger at the wooden box. “And I think that counts as a great job.”
Grujil paused for a moment and nodded. “ Indeed, I said that. But, if my mind doesn't fail me, I said SOME spirit stones. You think you would have been able to enter that vault with the formation still active, or with that freak still inside his mansion? We get a share of everything.” Grjujil's voice turned threatening.
The truth was he couldn't care less about the spirit stones. And the vault Ireg had in Hilua would not have anything too valuable. He actually believed the boys in that regard. Unless it was something very valuable the City Lord acquired recently, the most valuable stuff would be inside the Ethergel family vault in the Dragons Heart, the capital of the Empire. That place was impenetrable, with hundreds of formations and a small army surrounding it. But the most intimidating part was the presence of the Imperial Enforcer who all by its own could crush any thought of stealing that place.
The only reason the arms were still in Hilua was that the City Lord had come back too injured to guarantee he could take them safely to the Capital. That was why he had to wait for and Envoy to come and fetch it.
Despite knowing that, Grujil needed to look intimidating in front of these two and not too weak, even when that wasn't the truth. God forbid they suddenly get the urge to steal from him before running away. Now that he knew how good they really were he was more on guard. With Ibrak by his side, it would be enough to kill them but when they were out of his sight, they could be a pain to deal with.
But he also didn't want an unnecessary conflict. Even if he was confident in crushing them with the help of Ibrak, he preferred to preserve his energy. The situation right now was delicate.
With that in mind, he said. “ You have managed to impress me this time so just give me half of what you got, I will allow you to keep the rest.” Had he not been this injured, he would have taken everything and strip them naked to make sure they weren't hiding anything. And only then, if he was in a good mood, he would have given them a quarter of the loot. But right now he didn't want to push the boys too far.
‘You got lucky, little bastards... for now.’ His face reflected nothing of his inner thoughts as Grujil showed a magnanimous smile. He may have given spirit stones to the other members before the mission started, but that came from the organization. Although Grujil had some savings, he would not despise a few spirit stones sent to his way.
Without saying a word, Aleran unloaded his many pockets and threw stone after stone over the table. The two men in front of him were surprised by the sheer amount of stones and at how many hidden pockets that cloak seemed to have.
But after he showed them the empty pockets they looked satisfied enough and didn't bother him anymore. Aleran had truly shown everything he had except for the finger with runes. And he decided to be the one to trow the spirit stones because it seemed that Kindrav had gotten more than him. They would have to split what Kindrav had in his pockets.
With his pockets empty, but thankful for not being checked, Aleran left the room with Kindrav after a reminder of Gruji that if they had to go to the surface, they should do it in the night when nobody would see them exiting the tunnels.
Once the two boys were out of his sight Grujil said to Ibrak. “Send a message to our men outside and tell them to investigate our informants near the border. He said the source was a merchant who sold the carriage to the City Lord when he came back too injured to fly back. He also sold him the box so he could have seen the arms. Check that information and why it has been such a misunderstanding.”
“Yes, boss. And, what should we do about those two?” Ibrak asked with his eyes on the pile of spirit stones.
“Sigh… if only one of us were in one piece or if Juin hadn't died, I would have killed them right here and now. You were right, they are unpredictable. But for now, let's just keep an eye on them. If they stay in these tunnels then we won't have to do anything. Once the envoy comes, anyone he deems suspicious of stealing those arms would be captured or killed. And the Crimson Claw will be on top of his list. We will be hiding on our own set of tunnels for two days and get out of here by one of the escapes routes. Those who keep hiding here by the time he comes will only be sitting ducks for the envoy.” He stopped and gave the wooden box a long look.
After a short pause, he continued with a heavy expression. “Even if we could stop his spirit sense, depending on who the envoy for this mission is, he could very well turn the city upside down with tunnels and everything. I can't tell exactly how valuable these things are, but one thing is for sure, I have never seen or heard about anything like it in my life. If I were the envoy I would do anything in my power to get my hands on them.”
“How important could it be? It is not a piece of the circle of runes we believed it would be. The Envoy will probably arrive in a few days, we could stay longer to nurse our injuries.” Ibrak still didn't believe the Envoy would dare to rashly barge into the tunnels. Even though Ibrak didn't know who he was, the Crimson Claw had a powerful backer, not many would be willing to cross them.
But Grujil didn't think that way. “ Ibrak, you have never seen an Envoy before. Anyone who is above the Qi Manifestation realm is qualified to be one. The other requirement to be an Envoy is to have unwavering loyalty to the royal family. They would dare to anger the gods for the name of the Emperor.” Grujil's eyes betrayed a hint of fear as he spoke of the envoys. “ I can tell those two arms are valuable, just trust my gut Ibrak, as soon as we heal our most grievous wounds we move.”
“Sure, I trust you,” Ibrak said without an ounce of doubt.
“Good, as for the two kids, I will leave it to your own judgment as to what to do. But if possible don't spend your energies here and save what you get for later when we make our escape. I know you have been warning me about them and you want to kill them, but try to get back in shape before doing anything.” Gujil picked the box and motioned for Ibrak to accommodate the spirit stones.
It was the dead of the night and there wasn't a soul in the streets except for the patrolling guards. It's been one day since the attack to the City Lord and a curfew had been established the same day. No one except for nobles was to exit their houses past the ten Ru and the doors of the city had been shut since the incident. And, except for merchants with special permits, only guards could go in or out of the city. In the meantime, the outside of the city was also patrolled in a five-kilometer radius from the walls.
With most of the business closed, the streets were darker than usual. Only those places with nobles' patronage and with very influential owners could stay open. Making the usually busy streets a silent, dark place.
During the past day, there had already been a few unsuccessful attempts of the city guards to enter the underground tunnels from the few most well-known entrances. But until now, they had been pushed back by traps and ambushes. For now, the tunnels were safe.
One could almost breathe the tension in the air over the whole city. It was obvious that the attack on the City Lord was not the end of the incidents. Many believed that both parties were gathering strength and healing their injuries. But as soon as that was over, more chaos would befall on Hilua unless someone more powerful arrived to control the situation.
In this context, Aleran was sneaking around the streets avoiding not only the ground patrols but also the airborne ones. The more he advanced to his destination the more guards appeared. He was going to Heavens Vault to collect the other half of his pay, considering they had already put the papers in the agreed zones, it was time to collect the spirit stones.
‘I should have gone out in the morning when I could blend with the crowds.’ Aleran lamented. He had decided to come out at night because the rest of the Crimson Claw would go out at night. Some of the members were already familiar faces for the guards, even Aleran and Kindrav were somewhat known by them. So, blending in the crowds was hard, leaving only the cover of the night to help them outside. Still, Aleran thought it was better to risk it in the day than going out at night where you would gather all the attention.
But since sneaking outside of the tunnels alone was almost impossible, he was forced to join other members in their night adventures which consisted mostly of visits to brothels. Even with the curfew many men still visited the brothels, although in a much quieter way. From there, Aleran only had to pay for a woman, enter a room, and go out unnoticed. All this for the sake of not gathering attention.
He had paid for one Ru which he thought would be enough to come and go. But now, with all these patrols, he was taking forever to just walk a simple block. As he closed into the central zone the frequency of the patrols and the number of men increased.
Other than that, the streets were also better lit thanks to the number of businesses that were open in this area. This would be good for Aleran to pretend to be a customer, the only problem was that compared with these nobles he stuck out like a sore thumb with his ragged clothes. After all, he didn't have time to buy new ones after the mission. But the most troublesome of the problems were the flying patrols that would pass over his head every few minutes, forcing him to find a roof or a bench to hide under like a stray cat.
Slowly but surely, he kept closing in on Heavens Vault. Being such a big and famous store it was bound to be opened even at these late hours. And indeed, the place was opened, and in fact, it was the better-lit place in the whole city. There weren't many people, but there were still some customers coming and going.
As he passed by the gates while looking around, he noticed that the patroling guards were more focused on some of the items displayed than in the faces of people. Although Aleran was poorly clothed they didn't realize it. And although he had taken his cloak to look more inconspicuous, it was still possible to see his raged pants, luckily these men missed that fact.
With a fast-beating heart, he went to one of the men with the uniform of Heavens Vault and asked for Aldra. The man just asked for his name, and in a few minutes, he came back allowing him to enter, not finding anything weird in such a shady guy visiting his mistress.
“Some rucks your people have caused, it's not good for the business, you know?” Aldra was behind the counter on the third floor, just like the last time he had visited.
“They are not my people I'm just a lowly foot soldier.” Aleran shook his head as he approached her.
“And your friend? Don't tell me he died in the incident?” Aldra revealed a look of sympathy. “ My master is quite fond of barbarians.”
“Thanks for your worry, miss, but he's fine. Even in better shape than me.” Aleran pointed at some of the wounds he had sustained the other night. Bandages could be seen through the holes in his shirt, some of them were tainted with blood, clearly, not all wounds were closed.
“ Oh, poor thing, you had it rough. But as long as a cultivator survive there are many methods to patch you up. ”Aldra smiled sweetly. But immediately after, her smile turned more reserved. “ So, if you are here even with these wounds it means you have completed your task.”
“Yes, all of those papers are in place, some made into wrinkled balls and battered inside small cracks, but all in the areas marked by you and well hidden.” Aleran nodded.
“Well done boy, here I have your spirit stones.” She rummaged behind the counter an took a bag with the rest of the spirit stones.
“Thank you, miss Aldra, it's been a pleasure doing business with you. Send my regards to your master.” Aleran put the bag into one of his pockets, clasped his hands in a sign of respect and turned around. He didn't have much time to waste.
But when Aleran about to go, Aldra stopped him. “ Wait, I have something important to give you.” She took a white piece of paper, quite similar to the others he had given to him only that this one had the rough drawing of a toad
“This is? I thought we were done with the papers.” Aleran was genuinely confused.
“We are, this one is the equivalent of the key to the formation. The moment you activate it the formation comes to life. You only have to put it in any of the exits of the tunnels. And, if I were you I would put it on the outside to run away from it as fast as I could.”
Aleran felt goosebumps crawl all over his spine as the realization hit him. “ So, last time when you said it would activate in seven days, it was a lie. What changed? Why are you giving me this?”
Aldra smile grew. “No reason, maybe it is because my master is fond of barbarians. Maybe because I quite like your abilities and feel you are a good investment. It would be a shame to lose you with all those useless thugs. Just take it and know that if you don't do it by tomorrow night I have a spare key to activate it myself.” Aldra said with a faint smile on her face.
‘Is she really changing her plans to let us live? Or was it always part of the plan and she is doing this to show me not to screw with her?’ Aleran looked for a while into Aldras beautiful eyes but he could find no answer. With not much choice he took the paper.
“ Once you put it on any of the exits it will take around a Mu to take effect. But still, you should put it on the outside since the inside will turn into hell very quickly.” Aldra reminded.
Still trying to control his heart at the bullet he just dodged, Aleran just nodded and didn't even say goodbye when he turned to leave.
“ Remember, next time not only do thorough research on your enemies but also your allies, boy” Aldra said as she saw Aleran reach the stairs.
“Lesson learned, miss.” With his figure already gone, Alerans youthful voice sounded one last time.
“Hehehe. I already feel like my master.” Chickling, Aldra sat down looking at her spare key to the paper talisman formation.
Aleran quickly walked down the stairs while mulling over what had just happened and what was going to happen. For the first time, he started to feel anxiety. He had thought that the papers were some kind of surveillance and that Aldra would go inside with his men to take down the Crimson Claw later. But now he was certain this was some kind of formation, even though he didn't know exactly what a formation was. But the important part is that it would probably kill everyone inside the tunnels.
He couldn't help to question himself if he was okay with killing every single member of the Crimson Claw. This was no longer whether if these people were good or bad, this was in the boundaries of mass murder. ‘ I don't know if I want to carry all those deaths in my consciousness.’ How many people were inside those tunnels? How many of them were just people who were trying to survive and how many really deserved what was coming to them?
“Hey, you! I know you!!” One of the guards who had been previously been distracted, suddenly stopped Aleran as he was crossing the front door.
While distracted with his inner thoughts he had forgotten to look down and hide his face. And when he came back to himself, he recognized the face of the guard who was looking at him. ‘Shit!’ If he could recognize the guard then that meant the guard could recognize him. It was a middle-aged man with a mustache who patrolled one of the areas that were assigned to him.
“Yeah, I know you. You are one of the street rats that-” Before he could finish Aleran sent a strike at his face, and without looking at the result, he dashed as his life depended on it, and it probably did.
“Wooooo!” One of the guards that were approaching from the side took a small horn and blew it, making a deep sound that was especially conspicuous in this quiet night.
“Shit, Shit!” Aleran kept cursing at himself as he ran towards the closest entrance to the tunnels. The guards will not dare to follow him into the dark tunnels and even if they did, they were not familiar with the layout as he was.
But after running for only a few seconds, he had to keep changing his course as guards kept appearing, some even dropped from the sky and rooftops. Soon enough, seven guards were chasing behind him.
‘Woooshh.’ As Aleran was forced to deviate from his course again, a spear came flying and hit his shoulder.
“Agghh” Aleran was sent flying backward, but the piercing pain he expected wasn't present. Instead, he felt a blunt force that almost broke his shoulder but didn't manage to really injure him.
This helped him to incorporate quickly and because the guards who had been chasing from behind had dodged his flying body, he now had no pursuers on his back. So he turned around and started running again.
The guards who had all thought Aleran was a dead man, were at ease as they saw him flying through the air. It took them some time to realize what had happened before giving chase again. This gave Aleran a small breathing space.
‘Thank god I brought the cloak with me!’ Aleran could not think of any other reason why he hadn't been impaled other than the cloak taking most of the impact. He didn't know how or why, but it looked like the cloak was a good defense against piercing objects. Not so much against blunt strikes as he still felt the pain on his shoulder.
Just when he was thinking where he should go, he caught sight of the tight sealing cover of the mouth of the sewer. ‘How didn't I think of that before?’ The cover had no handle to pull it from, only a hole where the servants in charge of maintenance would use a tool to hook it off. But Aleran not only had the strength he also had his magnetic image to pull the cover.
Thanks to that blow, and the fact that he was now in the upper-class district, he could now take advantage to enter the sewers. Even though he promised himself not to do this again he preferred that before being captured or worse. He didn't see who threw that spear, but he was sure the man was at least at qi circulation for it to have that force. His chances were better in the dark sewers.
Without a pause, he took advantage of the small headstart he had to open the cover and fell to the sewers. He started to move between the waste, trying to find the correct way towards the entrance of the tunnels. This was one of the most secretive entrances and one of the less used for obvious reasons. He only knew of it thanks to his last mission.
After a while, he relaxed, seeing that apparently, no one was following. He didn't believe for a second he had enough advantage for the guards to not see he had entered the sewers, it was more likely that they got lost easily and didn't want to continue.
“So, we have to make an excuse as to why you left the brothel,” Kindrav said with a weird voice as he covered his nose with his hand. He had stayed behind to guard their spirit stones, it would be no surprise if Ibrak or Grujil spread rumors about their loot. It was better to have someone always watching over the bag where they put their clothes and hid their spoils.
“That doesn't matter, any excuse would do. Didn't you hear about the part where everyone dies?” Aleran was annoyed that Kindrav was focusing on the wrong thing. But he couldn't yell in fear of someone's eavesdropping.
“Al, nobody here is a good person. Many of the most casual members have moved outside the city right after the attack for fear. Right now only those who took part in the attack plus a few hundred are inside the tunnels. I doubt there are as many as a thousand.”
“First, it was that guy we left to die in the dungeon. We assumed it was dangerous to wake him up and we left him there. Then, it was the girl. And now we are talking about the fate of hundreds. The worst part is that I am genuinely tempted to send them all to hell. Man, I don't know where the line is anymore.” Aleran felt that his own moral boundary was stretching until it was about to break.
“Sigh. You are too nice for even doubting, Al. But, we can't stop this or we would be making Heaven's Vault an enemy and something tells me that would be a big mistake. If that chick is going to do it anyway, you could have left the paper in her hand, why did you take it?”
“I took it just in case we needed it. You got better social skills than me, you surely noticed the look in their eyes, Grujil and Ibrak are wary of us. Before when it was just Ibrak it was fine, but now even Grujil has his guard up. Which in a way I should have predicted, he is heavily injured after all. They didn't even dare to search our bodies in case we were hiding something else. By taking only half of our loot they are treating us as equals. And I would rather be underestimated.” Ultimately, Aleran took the key to the formation because of fear. In fear of angering Aldra and in fear of Grujil and Ibrak. But now, every time he thought of ending hundreds of lives his throat became dried and his chest tighten. He couldn't help to have second thoughts.
‘What am I doing? I'm just a scientist, what am I doing in this world killing like is nobody's business.’ The more he thought about that, the more this kind of thoughts started to pop up in his mind. He thought he had already gotten used to this world and life but the truth was a part of his old self remained.
Before Aleran's mind started going into a spiral, he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Give me the paper. If the time comes I will do it.” Kindrav was looking at him with a serious face and took the paper from without asking again. If Kindrav had to choose he would not use it, but he would feel not an ounce of pity nor remorse by killing these people. In their time here they had seen and heard all kinds of despicable things the Crimson Claw did. From murder to kidnapping, to white slave traffic, and even child sex traffic. Kindrav would not bat an eye if he had to do it.
“Thanks, Kin. I'm feeling tired, could you do the first watch? Wake me when it is my turn. Tomorrow we plan on how to get the hell out of here. Maybe we could ask the Oldre's help, it is time he does something right for once.” With the lack of beds, Aleran lay on the ground without caring about his pants or smell. He was more frustrated than tired and needed some sleep to reorganize his thoughts.
Kindrav looked at Aleran while inwardly sighing. 'Once you chose your path you have to be ruthless to survive, Al. You help me to understand that, but it seems you sometimes forget what you say, so I don't mind helping you.’