Chapter 22

“So where should we go from here?” Laurence looked at Louisa pointedly. “You know the ins and outs of Babel in far greater detail than me or Yun, so where should we go?”

 

“I’m not sure. I know there’s a square near the stele that challengers are supposed to go to, but I’m not sure how to get there. Perhaps we should ask someone?” Laurence could see Louisa was floundering, but he understood why. The city loomed over them in a way that was almost oppressive. It was like they were crawling around in between the scales of a monolithic dragon and it knew they were there. Laurence took the situation calmly, but Yun less so. The normally stoic wolf-boy had begun sweating profusely at the feeling and looked like he was about to throw up. He was not simply oppressed by the aura, Laurence could tell he was scared by something.

 

Before anyone said a word, Yun leapt into the air and climbed up onto the nearest rooftop. As he disappeared Laurence sent the statement Brother, are you sick?

 

There was a moment before Yun replied This one is well, sensed the tracks of a monster. The word monster was less a statement about some sort of deformed aberration, and more of an implication that it was a beast that even godbeasts were scared of. It was an apex predator beyond compare, to the point where simply the path it tracked terrified Yun, and the claustrophobic situation he was in only made things worse.

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As they stood in the street, waiting for Yun to come down, they heard a scuffle from a nearby street. The street they were on was completely unpopulated, so Laurence immediately rushed to see whether the person there would help them find the challengers plaza. He followed the sound until he came to an entrance and looked down the alley before him.

 

It was a rundown affair, more of a place to put out refuse than a street proper. Littered with bags of rubbish and shattered created crates, it quickly became hard for Laurence to see down the length of. There was a rustling at the limit of his sight and suddenly a boy about a year older than him burst into view. The boy had been running for a while now, his red face and wheezing breath tantamount to that, but from what he could not tell. For a moment there was fear in his eyes as he saw Laurence, before that quickly disappeared and was replaced with worry.

 

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The boy dove into a box that had been turned on its side and tried to catch his breath as quietly as possible. Laurence began walking up to him, seeing him in the boxes, but he could not see what the boy was running from. When the boy motioned at Laurence to hide, or perhaps stay away, Laurence became confused. He simply had no idea what, in a civilised place like the city, could cause a boy to run so. If this had been the primeval jungle of the first floor, or the wasteland of the second, he could understand, but right now he could not.

 

As the boy’s waving became more frantic, Laurence understood less. He wondered if this thing coming was what Yun had become so scared of, but after about five seconds he saw two men come crashing through the waste and detritus that persisted throughout the alley. One of the men saw Laurence and shouted “Hey! Kid!”

 

The other man elbowed him and said “Dal, that’s not him. The one we’re looking for is older”.

 

“Yeah, but these street kids are as thick as thieves”. He laughed at his statement. “Oy, kid!” He shouted again. “I know you saw him, because otherwise you’d bit be standing there like a fool”.

 

The boy curled up into a ball, trying to make himself as small as possible, when he heard the men. He gave Laurence a pleading look, as if to beg for silence. Laurence had no reason to help the boy, but the men annoyed him. He disliked being called foolish.

 

“No. I’ve not seen anyone”. He replied. The boy in the create gave him a look filled with thanks.

 

“See, Dal? Sometimes you just have to beat it out of them”.

 

“Shut up Jin,” said the first man. They were both wiry, but the one called Dal seemed to lead. “Boy, if you don’t tell me where that other boy went, then things may become rather painful for you. You hear me?”

 

Laurence looked on. He could see that the men were trying to incite fear into him, they began walking over in unison, but they were far from being as frightening as either Garral or the maelstrom snake. He said nothing as the men closed in, but could feel his heartbeat rising. He could feel the joy of battle building in him. He hated the loss of control he felt when he fought the snake, but the rest of what he felt at the time made the rest of reality seem like it was in sepia.

 

He simply watched until the men were around five meters away before he began to move. Kill. He nearly tripped up when he heard the voice again. It was back. It had not shown up in the month that he had been in maelstrom with Jonas and Sleepy, but this creature, whatever it was, seemed to be summoned by his blood-lust.

 

He ignored it. The men were two meters away now. Slightly too close for comfort, but nothing he could not deal with. Kill. There it was again, this time he was prepared though. He touched his snakeskin pouch and slowly pulled a war-hammer the same size as his body out of it. The hammer was dyed blue and sheathed in snakes of lightning. Its presence alone made the two men pause for thought. There was something wrong here, but Laurence knew they would be deaf before they understood what.

 

“Kill”. He said as they took their first steps within the two meter mark. Flicking out the hammer, he levelled it at the men, before cleaving twice. First, he cleaved right, through the chest cavity of the man known as Dal. Then he cleaved left, through the head of the man known as Jin. Two simple movements overflowing with brutality and rage that also crushed the walls either side of the street, exposing a pair of mild mannered families homes to the elements and the gobbets of gore that Laurence had created.

 

As fast as the men died, he calmed down. The rage was gone, and he was clear-headed again. He could not hear the voice any more. It was clear to him; whatever it was, it only came out when he had the urge out kill. “You can come out now”. Laurence said.

 

“Are you sure?” The older boy replied. He stuck his head out of the box and looked at the alleyway, or at least what was left of it. “By the lady’s…” He gaped at the mess in front of him. It was like a bomb had gone off in the alley, destroy the two pursuers. He gagged and covered his mouth with his hand. He turned to try and avoid the sight of the two corpses, but the damage was done. His cheeks ballooned and the contents of his stomach spayed all over the nearby wall. He swore. “What did you do? How did you..?”

 

“I got rid of them”. Laurence replied. His tone neutral. He understood that seeing a corpse for the first time could be a harrowing experience for some people, but the boy was making far more complaints than Laurence was expecting. “I’m Laurence, what’s your name?”

 

The boy wiped his mouth, clearing off the last couple of trails of spittle and bile left on his face. “You’re crazy, but thank you I guess. I’m James, James Caesar. Call me Jim, if you like”. He clenched his jaw tightly and began to rifle through the clothes of the two men. Pulling out two pouches from around their belts, he looked up. “What’s your name, and what district are you from?”

 

“I’m Laurence Absolution. I’m not from a district, I just arrived in the city”.

 

“Laurence eh? I’m going to call you Law. Seeing as you just broke it”. Jim paused, looked at the pouches in his hands then slowly back up at Laurence. “Not from a district?” His voice shook. “Absolution?” He swallowed. “I think I’m going to throw up again”.

 

“So, what you’re telling me is I just became friends with a goddamn challenger?” Jim grinned. “A goddamn Golden Child no less!” The boy was elated. There was very little that could make him smile, but he seemed like he had just won the lottery. “So, do you need a guide around Spirit? I can guide you round the city, or at least the Desolate Strip and Executioners Pen. You should come to Spring Street. That’s where I live. I wouldn’t say I’m from there, but I’ve lived in the same building on the street since my deadbeat father disappeared”. His words were coming out at a mile a minute, and the sentences he was saying rammed together, as if they were one.

 

“Yes, me and my friends need a guide for the city. There’s supposed to be a plaza for the challengers who come through, and it should be nearby, but we have no idea which direction to travel”.

 

“You have friends? I bet they are as strong as you. Oh man, this will be fun”. Thinking about everything else Laurence had said he stopped. “There’s the old court in the Pen, though no one has used that for anything in years. I can’t imagine it will be much help, but Spring Street is just off there, so you may as well come my way anyway”.

 

The two boys continued chatting until Yun was ready to descend, and in that time Laurence learned many things about Jim. The boy was a thief, a cut-purse and a disowned member of the Caesar clan. His father had done something that was against the rules of the clan, and had been banished for it, along with his family line. The man had devolved from a powerful practitioner of the Book of Order into a drunkard that Jim had no respect for.

 

He lived on his own, but the old woman who lived next to him would occasionally give the boy food. Jim had no idea how many times she had actually kept him from starving, but he still found that theft was more reliable. The only danger that a thief faced in Spirit was the legion of Sir Robert Anvale, the Bobby’s boys.

 

They were a group of soldiers who kept the status quo in Spirit, investigating crimes and catching criminals who break the peace. The boys, or Bobbies, were heavily endorsed by the clans and some were even clansmen who weren’t quite talented enough to become a Saint before they turned twenty but still had the drive to work outside their respective clan dimensions. Often they would set up shop and live in the realms they were expected to work in, raising auxiliary families and clans in the public eye.

 

They were a pain for the thieves in the city because they were so numerous and dedicated. The clans prided themselves in the loyalty the Bobbies showed. While the Bobbies were often less powerful than a Saint, they were feared because they were zealous to the point of insanity in their keeping of the status quo, as well as the fact that in every year for all three of the golden children there would be at least a hundred people who simply were not quite as good, but still wanted to explore the tower. They would train and study the book, and at the point they reached peak Earth rank they would be released into the floor and given to Sir Robert. If they proved themselves capable, not only would they gain recognition from their clan but they would also gain access to rare medicines that could boost their cognitive abilities. The quicker they could learn, the greater their chance of attaining Sainthood, and that meant their longevity would increase by over a hundred years.

 

The trio inundated Jim with questions about the way things worked in the city they had found themselves in, but the more they asked the more they realised how limited Jim’s knowledge was. It was understandable, though. The city was massive in scale and scope, and assuming that a single child could know everything was profoundly naive. Jim did know a lot about two subjects though; the local gangs and the bobbies.

 

He claimed he was in a gang, and that they were the main reason why he had managed to survive on his own for years. The gang he said he was in was called the ‘Spring Street Bashers’, one that prided itself on taking in only the strongest and most courageous people to be members. They holed up in an abandoned bakery near the centre of the street itself, and had spent the last two years turning the bakery from a shop into a fort. It was slow going, but the exterior was now far more intimidating than it had been originally.

 

The group stood outside the bakery and studied it in all its glory. The downstairs windows were shored up, with wooden spikes protruding out of the base of each windowsill. There was pit situated in front of the building, funnelling anyone who wanted to enter the building over a thin stone bridge and towards the incredibly thick and heavy door that seemed to be the only way in.

 

Jim stood outside the door and knocked three times in quick succession, then once, then twice as quickly as the first set. A thin slit opened at eye level and they heard a voice float outside. “Who is it?” Said the female voice behind the door.

 

“Nae, it’s Jim. I’ve got some potentials that the boss might like”. The moment Jim spoke, the door swung open. In front of them was a young woman, about Louisa’s age, covered in tattoos and a young man, wearing completely black attire. They both had an air of command about them, but the man had one that was more approachable. Nae had aura of animosity that seemed to circle her cause people to be wary around her.

 

“An albino, a six year old girl and an outlander who’s as bald as a disgraced monk? This is your idea of potential?” She scoffed, turning to look at the man by her side. “Orwell, are you seeing this?”

 

“Of course I am Nae,” the young man,Orwell replied.

 

“Who’s a six year old girl?” Said Louisa, her voice lined with a very distinctive layer of threat and her eyes bulging wide. Laurence self-consciously stroked his scalp. His long hair had been burned off by the general aura of the maelstrom snake, and it was only now beginning to grow back. His eyebrows were in much the same state.

 

As Laurence mulled over his lack of head hair, Louisa began to shift her form, sliding out of the shadow she usually took and into the form of a stunningly graceful woman. She was built like a gazelle, and with the face of an angel, she could not help but put Nae to shame. “How’s this for child, girl?” she said, her voice dropping from the childish mezzo soprano to the much more womanly alto.

 

Both Orwell and Nae took a step back at the sight. Orwell swore, “By the lady’s eye! Is this what you meant by gifted, Jim? Are we going to be inundated by a menagerie of shape-shifters?”

 

“That’s not the best part”. Jim turned and looked at his new friends. “Guys, this is the HQ of the Spring Street Bashers. My home. Behind me are the two leaders of the gang, Orwell and Nae” He turned and looked at Orwell. “Boss, these are my friends, Law – the bald one, Yun – the albino, and Louisa – the shape-shifter. The thing you should know about them is that they are all Saints!”

 

Nae and Orwell both opened their mouths to say something then stopped. They closed their mouths in unison and looked at each other. Then they looked back at the group standing behind Jim. Orwell raised his hand and looked like he was about to say something but could not find the right words. Finally, after what felt like an hour Nae said “Do you have any proof?”

 

Laurence held out his right hand. On his index finger there was a little black ring in the shape of a snake with one eye. At the blank looks he received he finally spoke. “My name is Laurence Absolution. I am a golden child of the Absolution clan and a Saint tier challenger. If you want proof of my Sainthood then you should know that only a Saint can materialise their spirit as a tool or creature. Well this is mine. Come, Jormugand!” The moment he called the name of his weapon he thrust out his fist, palm up, and a bead of black fire sprouted from between his fingers, quickly growing into a pole before the eyes of everyone around. The flame spread into the shape of a hammerhead around a foot tall and two feet wide, then tapered back into a bladed point. Twisting the hammer made of fire round so that the tip pointed to the sky, he slammed it into the ground. The flames seemed to crystallise for a moment before shattering, revealing a black-steel hammer that was wreathed in flame.

 

Nae and Orwell stood as still as statues, Jim grinned with eyes glittering like sapphires, and Laurence stood there with a very slight smirk on his face. Jim had told them that they might have to impress the leaders before they were allowed to take the initiation test, so that’s what Laurence aimed to do. He judged that it had worked, by the fact that the two leaders of the group had not moved a muscle since he summoned his hammer.

 

“That was incredible, Law!” Jim said, barely able to hold back his awe. “Did you see that?” He turned to look at the two leaders of the gang, frozen in shock.

 

“Well”. Orwell swore. Then he swore again. “I guess Nae was wrong on this one. You guys really are special. What can you do?” He said, looking at Yun.

 

“I don’t do tricks,” the stoic wolf-boy replied.

 

“Take my word for it, he’s as strong as me,” said Laurence.

 

“I believe you,” said Nae, finally releasing herself from her statuesque stupor. “Though if you said you were the son of Bloody Gus, or the reincarnation of the Grand Wild, I would probably believe you”.

 

“Well actually…”

 

“Shut up Jim,” Orwell and Nae said simultaneously.

 

“No, Jim is right. My father is Bloody Gus, or at least according to another Golden Child I know. Apparently Angus Absolution is not a very common name anymore”.

 

“I think I’m numb to shocking news,” Nae said in a pained voice. “Jim, you’re the luckiest brat I have ever seen in my life. If all three of them pass the initiation trial then you get first access to the fence this week”.

 

Jim whooped with joy at Nae’s promise. Getting first chance to talk to the fence was a massive boon to anyone in the gang. There was barely one fence between three gangs in the city, so they were always in high demand to buy and sell stolen goods. The person who was first allowed to go to peruse a fence’s wares would be able to get the best things from the other gangs and make the most money off their sales. Being first was the simplest prize that all the leaders used to keep their crews or gangs in line, while being the last was often the punishment for bringing in the least money, or just doing the worst that week.

 

Orwell and Nae ushered the four inside the building, Louisa shrank back into the form she found most comfortable and Laurence dismissed Jormugand. The show they had put on was more for the leaders of the gang than anyone else.

 

“From this point on,” Jim said, “You should never be afraid of standing up for yourself in this place, but never go all out. If you do then people will get a measure of you and play you if they can”.

 

“Play you?” Said Louisa.

 

“Yeah, Try and work out what makes you tick, then get what they can from you. Often through exploiting your weaknesses or playing to your ego. Many of the younger gang members have gotten in a lot of trouble and a lot of debt by relying too much on their elders”. He looked left and right, as if to make sure that no one could overhear him. “ We’re all in it for ourselves, but I always pay my debts. Law likely saved my life, so as far as I’m concerned I’m his friend for the rest of eternity”.

 

“Thanks,” said Laurence. There was very little else he felt that he needed to say in response to that. Jim was a rogue, and seemed a little too smart for his own good, but he was loyal, and that was something that Laurence liked in a person.

 

“No problem. Just remember that everyone here is in the gang to survive. Sure, we’re stronger together, but everyone still looks out for number one”.

 

“The pack leader?” Said Yun.

 

“No, themself,” said Jim. “Look, just be careful okay? Just because you are strong doesn’t mean you can’t make enemies. The person you offend might not be able to kill you, but they can still make life way more difficult for you than it needs to be”.

 

As Jim finished talking, they walked down a set of stairs and into a large, open cavern. In the middle of the cavern there was a ring, as well as a strange dummy and a pair of pathways that curved off, out of sight. Those three sections of the cavern were the three trials of the gang.

 

Jim walked his three friends down into the middle of the cavern, before taking a few steps back. As he did the room began to fill up. Rings of seats around the room slowly began to become populated until there were three or four hundred people between the age of five and twenty in three rings around the room. Orwell walked out of the large hallway that Laurence had walked out of; following him was another ten people. The ten other people trying out lined up next to Laurence, Yun and Louisa quietly, and apprehensively stood waiting.

 

“Good day ladies and gentlemen of Spring Street,” he began. “We are here today for the daily tryouts within the gang”. Orwell turned and looked at the thirteen young people lined up behind him. “For those of you who don’t know, my name is Orwell, and I am the night manager of the Spring Street Bashers. We of Spring Street pride ourselves on at least one of two things, physical strength and courage. We go where no one else will, either because we are stronger, or because we are fearless! We are the bravest and best thieves in this damn city and we intend to keep it that way!” There was a loud cheer at that statement. Orwell’s pride in his voice, combined with his avid, but precise gesticulation made him an incredible speaker to watch. “We will test you in one of three ways, each testing the two facets of the gang and the three main skills of the thief. If you pass any single one then you are in”. There was a collective sigh amongst the candidates. “Do not get complacent. We of the gang all know the difficulty that you have to face within this set of tests, but do not worry, you get once chance at each.

 

“The first test is the test of skill. You must walk up to the dummy in the middle of the room and take one of the ten coins placed on it without disturbing any of the bells within the dummy”. Orwell walked over to the dummy and tapped it lightly, letting out a cascading tinkling of bells that echoed throughout the cavern. “You hear that sound and you fail. Nice and simple. Next is the arena, this one is pretty obviously a test of strength. Today we have Damien as our resident wall. If you can simply stay in the ring for four minutes without him knocking you out, or just out of the ring, then you pass”. He walked up to the ring and patted the shoulder of a large man with a sallow face who stood just out of the centre of the cavern. The man frowned as he looked at the group in front of him, he obviously did not feel comfortable with the fact that there were young children in the group of entrants.

 

“The final test is the most complicated, but the one that people pass most often. It’s a pathway filled with traps. If you can make it through the trapped path within five minutes then you succeed. The issue with this path is that it is pitch black inside, so you will be going in blind. If you have no questions then I will take my leave and enjoy the show”. Orwell bowed and walked off the stage and let the thirteen candidates choose their trial.

 

Laurence, Yun and Louisa all chose separate tests to show of their respective skills. Laurence, being physically the strongest, chose combat. Yun chose the dummy, as he was the most dexterous of the three, and Louisa chose the path because of her godly mobility and shapeshifting ability. They lined up respectively and waited for their turns in each field. Louisa had the longest wait, as including herself there were six people taking the same test. It was the most populated test by far. In Laurence’s queue there were two boys about the same age as Damien, he was the only one under the age of seventeen in the challenge. Most people had been intimidated away by Damien. Yun’s line was a bit longer than Laurence’s but not by much. With three other people in the queue, it seemed that only the supremely confident would attempt this final challenge.

 

The first one up to the podium was Yun. He walked over to the dummy and circled around it once before punching out with his right hand. Once he punched he walked off the stage, leaving the crowd with confused looks. Has he given up? Many members of the gang began muttering immediately. The muttering became a slight rumble as they were denied an answer, but even in spite of increasingly fierce protests he said nothing. He sat down, near where Orwell was and proceeded to begin watching the rest of the trials as they went on.

 

Orwell leant over, whispered something in Yun’s ear, and looked shocked when Yun responded. It was inaudible to the crowd and did not placate them in the slightest, but Yun’s next action did. He flicked something into the air and the crowd watched as a small golden coin arced towards Orwell’s hand. The coin landed in Orwell’s palm and he held his fist in the air.

 

“We have the first new member of our gang!” He shouted. The furious and conduits muttering quickly turned into a shocked roar of approval. “We welcome you, what is your name?”

 

“Yun”.

 

“A man of few words I see,” he said. “Well, let me be the first to congratulate you on your joining of Spring Street”.

 

“Thanks”. Yun replied, wolfish grin and all.

 

There were several other attempts before Louisa’s go came, but in her course there were several two or three minute successes, but they all came out covered in cuts and bruises. This path was quickly becoming the most feared choice by the testees, simply because no one knew what was inside. Several times through each attempt at the path there would be screams of shock or pain. Both the injuries and the screams of pain were becoming more frequent as the trial went on, but because of how dark it was, no one could tell how. There were many people who assumed it was simply becoming more difficult thanks to people losing blood.

 

Eventually it came to be Louisa’s turn. She walked over to the pathway and entered, quickly turning out of sight to the rest of the people in the cavern. Normally within ten or twenty seconds there would be a yell or a scream, but instead there was nothing. The crowd began to quieten before descending into complete silence. Perhaps the little girl who had gone in was the first fatality. The sound of the pugilists was the only thing that echoed through the cavern, until finally another sound broke the silence. There was a ringing of the bells in the dummy. A minute ticked by and there were still no sounds, there weren’t even the sounds of traps inside being set off. There were no let off springs or chains clashing out into life. There was only quiet.

 

Finally at a minute and thirty seconds Louisa walked out of the path, through the exit, and bowed to the crowd. She was completely unscathed, to the point where there was not even a speck of blood on her clothing. She was calmer, and more stoic than Yun, so simply walked over to her canine idol and say next to him once the event was over.

 

Rather than the shouts and applause that Yun got for being so proficient, the crowd simply let out a collective sigh of relief at the fact that a potential candidate did not die. Occasionally there would be deaths in either the combat ring or the path of darkness, but they were rare and always uncomfortable situations. The fact that Louisa survived lifted a weight from the collective minds and spirits of the gang.

 

The crowd picked up again as they watched the final six testees go through the motions of seeing whether they were worthy. In the twelve or so minutes that it took for Louisa to pass her test the two boys had fought Damien and both had passed. The first round they were evenly matched in skill but the boy going up to fight looked like he was half Damien’s weight.

 

The bell rang and the two fighters began their dance. Damien was a bull, he charged with all his strength and tried to simply crush the boy on stage with him. The boy, Mord, took this charge as a challenge, but rather than fight him head on he acted like a matador to Damien’s bull. Every time Damien charged, Mord turned him and diverted him away, which only served to tire Damien out and make him angrier. Eventually Mord slipped up, reacting slightly too slow. Perhaps it was out of exhaustion, or perhaps simple distraction, but either way there was a sickening crunch as Damien collided into Mord’s chest. The boy span and hit the floor hard. It was easy to tell that he was likely out for the count, but he had angered Damien.

 

Damien ran towards where the boy lay and pulled his leg back. He swung a kick that could have easily crushed the boy’s skull when the bell rang. Visibly slowing, he still ended up kicking Mord in the jaw. There was another crunch and he grinned.

 

“That’s what you get for making a fool out of me,” he said, spitting on the barely conscious boy before walking out of the ring to rest. The crowd went wild at the fight, even at Mord being damaged beyond what should have been allowed. To them it was simply his mistake for going up against Damien. He had passed, and was likely still alive, so the audience simply did not care.

 

After three minutes of rest the second fight began. This time Damien’s combatant was a boy heavier than him, but much slower. He also seemed to know Damien, so greeted the boy with a smile. Everyone could already tell that this fight would be a show rather than the actual fight they had just seen. The crowd had a much more mixed response to this than they had to the real fight, some cheers and some boos, though nothing consistent enough to call itself a general feeling to the crowd.

 

The two men met in the middle and postured a little before beginning to swing their fists. You could tell they were actually hitting each other, but pulling their punches to the point where they may as well have just been tickling. The sound of flesh hitting flesh echoed around the cavern as the crowd went silent. It was at this point that Louisa had been in the path of darkness for a full minute. People stopped paying attention to the fight in the middle and began staring at the path.

 

The bell rang and Damien and his friend got off the stage, they expected a few cheers and boos, like there had been at the beginning, but instead there was nothing. Not a sound. When the crowd finally began moving again, Damien could not help but stare angrily at the girl who had stolen his limelight. There was a palpable sense of aggression towards Louisa, which Yun felt immediately. He snarled angrily at the sensation and sent a message to Laurence. Brother, I am angered by this human’s intent towards mate. Harm him.

 

Laurence smiled to himself. Brother, it is done. He walked up to the stage and stood, waiting for Damien to finish his rest. Standing with a wide stance and his hands on his hips he looked like an arrogant child who simply did not know how deep the water he stood in was. “Take as much time as you need,” he said to Damien, “you’re going to fail either way”.

 

Damien’s eyebrow twitched. A baby could see that this child was egging him on, but he had no idea why, nor where his confidence came from. After a minute to get his breath back and wipe off the sweat he was covered in he got on the stage. It was an odd sight, a boy less than a meter and a half tall facing off against a two meter tall giant. No one would describe it as fair, but Laurence’s unbridled confidence made the fight seem interesting at least.

 

The bell rang and Damien charged at Laurence, just like he had in the first round against Mord. This time, however, Laurence did not dodge to the side like a matador. Instead he ducked under and punched. Another splintering sound echoed through the cavern as Damien was sent flying by the boy’s strike. There was a visible fist imprint that had warped his gut and pulverised one of his ribs, but the most shocking thing of all was that Laurence was just standing on the stage smiling to himself and humming.

 

The cavern was silent, so silent that you could hear the breathing of a person across the room from you in it. Yet there was no one breathing.

 

Damien was off the stage, in a broken pile. His bravado, his overbearing aura of strength and his vicious character had been crushed in moments by a single strike from Laurence. Nothing like this had happened before in the history of the gang. Nothing like this would likely ever happen again. There was truly nothing that had prepared the the children of Spring Street for this. To them, bigger was better. The bigger, tougher, and more muscular you were, the stronger you were; so the more you could get away with. That was why the most respected people were the strongest and the bravest. They would be able to bring in the biggest loot piles thorough feats of strength or daring.

 

Laurence had turned their world upside down. He was not the biggest, he definitely did not have the largest muscles, and he was incredibly thin. It was simply impossible for anyone to comprehend how he had dominated Damien so decisively.

 

As the next challenger of the path of darkness came out they were confronted with the same bizarre tableau that had plagued the crowds. The young boy’s gasp of “What…?” broke the silence and freed everyone from their shock. Sound rushed back into the cavern like a tsunami. It quickly consumed everyone as they began roaring at the insane turn of events that had taken place. No one could stop talking about it, it was simply too shocking.

 

As the few people who were dedicated to treating the wounded rushed over to look after Damien, Laurence got off the stage and walked over to the other seat next to Yun. He sat down and looked at Orwell, then at Jim, who was grinning from ear to ear. Not only had the boy backed the right horses, they had managed to reveal a lot about themselves without actually revealing anything at all.

 

When the shouts and gasps of shock finally calmed down Orwell had the chance to finally talk. “That… That was insane. That was bizarre. Mother Babel…” He could not help but swear. “Is Damien alright?” At the nod of the medics he looked at Laurence with wary eyes. “Well, you’ve shown you’re definitely strong. If you’re this strong now, then there’s no doubt you will become a powerhouse of the gang in no time at all. Tell us your name!”

 

“My name is Laurence Absolution”. Once more Laurence managed to shock the crowd. There were no stunned silences now, but instead whispers of confusion. Everyone knew what that clan name entailed, and no one would deny that Laurence’s bizarre strength made him fit into their perceived mould for that of a golden child. The issue people were having was that they could not work out why he was joining the gang. Spring Street was an abandoned area of Spirit, without clan contribution. At one point the area obviously did have clan influences, because there were so many treasures in almost every building, but the influence had been lacking for years.

 

Orwell swore again, before appealing to the murmuring crowd. “By the Lady’s eye… a member of the clans…” The disbelief was thick in his voice, but Laurence could not understand why. Orwell knew he was a golden child. The young man looked at Laurence and winked quickly before continuing. “I guess, ladies and gentlemen of our beloved street, we have an Absolution clan member in our gang now. He has proven his strength beyond question, so let’s continue with the challenges!”

 

He ushered another strong person onto the arena and let the children and teens try to do what even a seven year old could do. By the end of the night all of the entrants had completed the tests, and all had passed. Generally speaking the gang would not have more than about six people pass the tests each week, but today over double that had passed. In fact before Laurence got onto the stage, the only trial that had received failures was Yun’s.

 

The event came to a close as the final person exited the path of darkness. It had been a brutal day, not necessarily unusual for the entrance tests, but far more shocking than any event before it. As the troupe of new members left the cavern, the crowd continued to cheer and holler at them. The sound echoed down the tunnel and gave it a slightly warped edge to it, making them seem somewhat demonic. Orwell had warned them about this but it was far more unsettling than anyone had expected.

 

After a ten minute walk they exited the tunnel and were shown to their rooms. There were two large spaces, for males and females of all ages, with pallets sprawled all over the rooms. This was where they would be spending a lot of their time before they attempted to continue to climb. When shown their new sleeping spaces they were informed that they would be given better accommodation of they could do something of great merit to the gang, either by bringing in a consistent amount of valuables or by harming the income of any of their rivals. The caveat was that by you going up, someone else would be pushed down. Generally speaking the person who went down would be the person who did most poorly over the preceding months. The only exception to this was those that held their spot for over a year. If they could manage to keep a private room for a year then a new wing would be built with four extra rooms so they did not have to leave.

 

Laurence and his friends got settled into life in the gang quickly thanks to Jim, whose sage advice often steered them out of trouble. Within the week they began working jobs to begin accruing merit within the gang. It was tense to begin with, but the sheer physical competence that Laurence, Yun and Louisa had by being Saints pushed them past many of the other members of the gang.

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