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“Stop, thief!”

I can’t help but wonder why people say that. Has any thief in the history of the world ever actually stopped? I suppose the call was more to alert other people to the thievery, but wouldn’t ‘stop that thief’ make more sense? Even better, describe the thief. You know, something like ‘that black-haired, green-eyed girl in the cloak stole a loaf of bread! Get her!’

Of course, as the girl in question, I’m disinclined to give my pursuers any tips. At least the yell gives me a nice heads-up that it’s time to stop walking nonchalantly and start bolting for the nearest alleyway. I’ve targeted this shop a dozen times now, so the baker, Grig, was doubtlessly none too happy with me. But come on! He just leaves the fresh stuff out in the open! What am I gonna do, not take it?

I’d buy it if I could. I really would. Being a street rat thief isn’t some fun, exciting freedom-adventure. It sucks. A lot. The grand and beautiful city of Skyhope isn’t so grand or beautiful for the many homeless residents who lack the money to survive or the training to become a productive member of society. I and everyone like me are just flat out screwed and there isn’t much of anything I can do about it without a bucketful of luck and someone else’s pity.

Grig was not supplying that pity. As I do my best to weave through the crowd, he barrels right through, shoving people aside as he rants furiously behind me. Which is bad, because I’m weak, underfed, and not particularly talented at much of anything. He was definitely going to catch me.

Thankfully, I had allies.

“Yo! Vita! Right here!”

A friendly voice has me making a ninety-degree turn, and soon I end up face-to-face with Lyn, a drastically superior thief than I could ever dream of being.

“Pass it!” she orders.

I toss her two of the loafs, which she proceeds to wave in Grig’s direction, jeering and taunting.

“Just try to catch us, fatso!”

Taking a huge bite, she runs off in the opposite direction, giving me a chance to slip out of sight. Panting and wheezing, I head through the paths and back ways, munching on the one loaf I kept. It isn’t particularly good bread, but it is warm and fresh and I am very, very hungry.

I tear through it, but know better than to eat it all. While I could probably get away with it, emaciated as I am… well, everyone’s emaciated in our little group except for Lyn and Rowan. It wouldn’t be fair. Lyn is incredibly talented, a natural-born thief if there ever was one. She picks up new skills faster than I can pick friggin rocks off the ground, and is actually one of the more wanted faces in Skyhope. She's a regular noble thief, though, and almost single-handedly the reason my band of wretched gremlins can keep eating. And where she's all skills, Rowan is all brains.

"And we have a winner! Excellent eyes, young man!"

I make my way through the winding alleyways and pop out where I know Rowan has set up shop. He's a con man and expert gambler. Where Lyn steals the stuff we need to survive, Rowan makes all the cash. Despite his questionably legal business model, however, he's careful not to get a bad reputation.

He's just running cups, because as smart as he was, he wasn't always that creative. Ball goes under a cup, cups spin around, he palms the ball into a new cup if he wants them to lose and doesn't if he doesn't. It's a classic game, though he spices it up with juggles and fancy twists for the show. I sidle in behind his stall, giving him his half of the bread.

"Breakfast for you, Rowan."

"Vita! Hey! Thanks, I appreciate it. You get this yourself?"

I nod. I’ve been helping Lyn out for a week now, trying to earn my place. She gives charity, but the charity isn't much just by simple necessity. If I do more to help, I’ll get a bit more food. That half-loaf was already more than I’d normally see in a day. Naturally, I’m nearly a skeleton, barely more than skin and bones. I can't do much without Lyn's help... and she could probably do even more without me than with me. But I need to try anyway. More than just needing food, I owe them. Sixteen years of suffering is more than enough, and Lyn's crew is a far nicer place than any other I’ve been on.

As if to prove that, Rowan hands me some coins.

"Here you go, Vita. Lyn keeps saying you're getting better and better. Pass these out to the kids, will you?"

It’s hard not to consider buying myself a knife or something... but no. These coins were important, and Rowan handing them out was a sign of his trust. I saved my pittance up for years and ended up buying a nice cloak. It was something warm to wear and sleep in, and something to hide my face in when I cry. Can’t take the opportunity to buy that kind of stuff away from the others.

Of course, a few of those kids would get something far more valuable than a cloak regardless of whether I gave them money or not. Not many of them, but... some people were just talented. It is said that the Mistwatcher grants each person a gift when they are made, and while the Church likes to present that as some wonderful thing, it’s no secret that whatever gives the gifts gives them absurdly unequally. Some people had talent beyond comprehension, like Lyn. Some people could shoot fire from their hands without even studying to be a mage!

Some people get nothing. Or at least, if they get something, it is so small and insignificant that only the Mistwatcher knows what it is. I’m like that, as far as I know. But any of the other kids could end up shooting fire! I’m gonna want to make sure I’m not someone that stole money from them when they do. So I make my way back through the alleys towards where the kids sleep, alone with my thoughts.

"There you are, you little thief."

Grig the baker's voice sends fear burning over me like a trough of grease. I freeze. How had he...? Turning around, I see him. Fat, hairy like a bear, and panting with fury, he glares at me from the other end of the alley.

I’m so dead. I turn and bolt.

He's faster than me, though. Everyone is! As fat as he was, I’m emaciated. I’m still recovering from my first run, and this time I don't have backup on the way. Crap, what do I do!?

The alleyways in Skyhope are everywhere, and the walls are high. Even the smaller buildings tend to be two stories tall, all brick and clay and wood. I glance at a window frame... damnit, Lyn would just vault right up there and be out of here. But I might be able to lose him if I get up and over a wall somewhere. He could run faster than me, but I bet he can’t climb.

...Could I, though? Better find out fast.

I know the streets well, if nothing else. Left, right, down one fork... all the while, that fat bastard is gaining on me, ranting about how he'll hand my head to the guards. What the fuck this guy's problem, anyway!? I just need to eat!

There! A crate next to a window next to a smaller-than normal wall. If I climb up there I can hop over and he won't be able to follow. Hell, the crate will probably break under his fat butt. Lungs on fire, legs nothing but shots of pain, I scramble up the escape route. I’m in the windowsill! Just pull, and—

A meaty hand wraps around my ankle. With a single yank, I’m on the ground, head smashing against the wall on the way down.

"All week! All week you've been raiding my shop! You think I'm just gonna let you? Huh!?"

I’m already seeing stars, but the kick to my chest sends even more pain through my aching body. Skidding across the stone ground, I choke for air in vain. No, no, no! I was so close!

"They won't put any guards in front of my shop. I told 'em that thief they're looking for is after me, but they act like I'm full of it! But you know her, don't you? Chased her halfway across the city! More than the damn watch manages!"

Another kick. It hurts. What else is new. God, he’s pissed. Lyn warned me about stealing from someone too many times... I should have listened.

"You stupid kid! How much product will my worthless son have burnt by the time I get back, huh? You're costing me the better part of the day just to—"

"...Maybe you should just stop leaving it out in the open," I choke out. "You're the one making it so easy."

A vein just about pops in the fat man's forehead. ...Ah, shoot. I probably shouldn't have said that out loud. His boot comes for my face next, sending me sprawling another time. Come on, get up. Get up!

Is this how I die? It makes sense, if so. A pathetic death for a pathetic human. My whole life, I’ve been worthless. I’ve barely even tried to be anything else. Only just now was I learning to live off of more than handouts, and I’m sixteen already! Too old to start. So really, beaten bloody in an alleyway seems like the way to go. It happens to nameless people all the time. I might as well be one of them.

With a crunch, I feel my ribs break as the man's latest rage-fueled kick lifts me off the ground and knocks me straight into a wall. Moron probably didn't get that strong baking bread. Just more of that talent some people have. Stupid, lucky, degenerate, fat bastard! Why does this jerk get something while people like me are left to rot? I don't deserve any kind of power, but he sure as hell doesn't deserve it either. Why him and not me?

A scream escapes my lips. I hadn't cried out through the whole beating, but now? Now I’m angry. I just want to hurt him back. I want to see him suffer before I die! Maybe it won't do anything, maybe he won't even feel it, but I lash out at him anyway. What else can I do? Blindly, angrily, I reach for him with everything I have. I wish he was dead. Dead!

I grab something. He kicks me again, sending me flying, but I hold on. It tears out of him, soundlessly. And he falls over.

Broken, beaten, and bloody on the street, I am alone. Only one of my bruised eyes can even open anymore, but Grig... doesn't appear to be breathing. The fight is over, and held tight in my fist is something I can't see. It shimmers outside the edge of my vision, wavering and frail. Like it could fall apart at any moment. For some reason, I know.

It’s Grig’s soul.

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