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Jim was worried. He had spent enough time in deep trouble to know when something was not right. He had developed a healthy sense of paranoia because of it. It kept him alive, and often helped him make more money than he normally should. Because of this sense though, he had an itch that he could not scratch.
He knew something was wrong. He had known since Laurence was cornered by the Bobbies that there was something coming, and it was nothing good. The main reason why he felt this way was two-fold. First, their jobs had gone a lot more smoothly than they had ever gone before. Sure, Laurence had become untouchable by the Bobbies around Spring Street, and the desolate strip in general, but this smoothness was unprecedented. The second reason, the one that got Jim’s hackles up most, was that the most vicious of Laurence’s enemies had all gone to ground. The six men and women, led by Damien the brute, had all completely disappeared from the Spring Street premises. They said it was because they were planning the biggest job that they had ever done, but Jim was suspect.
It seemed more like rats leaving a sinking ship to him. They had left as quickly and as quietly as possible, and when Jim broke into their chests in the sleeping hall, he found them empty. No one emptied their chest. Not even when they moved up to a private room. They just took the chest with them and the chest in the hall was replaced.
Everything that had happened screamed for Jim to be suspicious, because no one acted the way Damien’s troupe had unless there was a reason for it. He just could not see what they were planning.
In the end, he decided to go to Orwell and ask for advice. If the night manager did not know what to do, then Jim would give in to his paranoia and simply go to ground. If he did know, then Jim would help in whatever capacity he could.
Jim paced up and down the hallway outside Orwell’s room for a good five minutes, still seriously considering giving in to his itch, but after a lot of thought he knocked on the door. He waited, and waited, and just as he was about to leave, the sound of locks unlocking and a deadbolt sliding open echoed from behind the thick, wooden door. A very bleary eyed leader of the Bashers answered the door. When Orwell saw Jim, he mumbled something incoherent about sleep and ushered the boy in.
The room was odd. It was a simple room, hewn into the rock like most of the rooms in the base. There were three very simple light arrays set up in the ceiling to offer varied levels of ambience in the room, as well as two water arrays and a chilling array. One water array gave a small stream of variable temperatures and the other sat in an alcove and only belched out warm water. In comparison, just the amenities of the room were quite extravagant.
The thing that made the room odd was its state of clutter. Around the bed there were clothes and bags and various tools strewn everywhere that could be seen. There was only a small outline of a human within the clutter where Orwell obviously slept. On the other hand, the rest of the room was perfectly clean. Jim could not help but imagine Orwell as a dragon, sleeping on its hoard when he saw the bed. It was the first thing that had made him actually smile for days.
As Orwell made himself a drink from some leaves of a plant that Jim did not recognise and hot water, the younger boy say on the floor and began talking. “Orwell, I know you probably don’t like getting woken up in the mornings, but something is very wrong right now. I couldn’t take it to Nae because she would definitely fly off the handle, and Laurence would listen to me but not really understand why I’m so worried right now”. He paused, fiddling with one of the many strange devices near Orwell’s bed. “I’m not sure how, but I think Damien the Brute and his team have betrayed us”.
Orwell spat out his drink when he heard that. There were occasionally times when people with grudges would levy the betrayal charge at their enemies, and it was usually investigated before being summarily ignored, but this time Orwell was having difficulty believing Jim was lying. Generally speaking, the betrayal charge was one that was declared in public, so even if the target was cleared of the charge, there would still be great suspicion of them by the general masses. It was a calculated manoeuvre when someone hated their rival, or enemy, enough that they think the best choice of action is to get them ostracised from the community.
“Why do you think that?” Orwell said, quickly waking up.
“Okay, so it doesn’t seem like much, but for the last couple of days I have been feeling really nervous about something, to the point of paranoia. When I get like this, I know something bad is going to happen”.
“No, it’s a… danger sense I guess”. Jim put the toy down and looked at Orwell. “I looked into it, even broke into their trunks, and found some things that don’t add up. Damien made a big deal about planning some big heist, but it looks more like he’s gone to ground rather than gone to case some big house. Their trunks are empty, for one thing. That never happens”.
Orwell swore. “Look, I’m not going to jump to conclusions because you’ve actually looked into things before you called betrayal, but we can check it out”. He took a sip of his drink before continuing. “First, we look into the claimed logs. If his claim is bogus, then that should completely sway me. If not, then we will dig deeper. Maybe we can ask people about the Brute’s team, see if anyone let anything slip. Deal?”
Orwell quickly donned some clothing and they moved to the claimant hall. This hall’s role was three-fold. First, it contained a map of the desolate strip, with road names and buildings on it. This was used to stake claims on, with small flags. The general rule was that if there was already a flag on a place, you avoided the place. Second, there was the message board. Pinned to it were, on average, twenty messages about bobby patrols, wanted posters, and occasional updates about the status of the gang. The third use for the claimant hall was the trading board. A large message board at the far end of the room was literally covered with notes about items and trinkets that people had but did not need. If anyone had an interest in a certain trinket, then they could look at the trading board and discover if there were any people willing to trade it for something. This entire room was reminiscent of a claimant hall of a large guild, so there were many people in the gang who wondered who in the history of Spring Street had the nerve to steal from one.
When Jim and Orwell arrived in the claimant hall, the place was quiet. This early in the morning there were next to no people around, as everyone in the headquarters would be asleep, and the people who weren’t were on jobs. They walked over to the map and began checking each flag placed on the table. Upon each flag were the initials of the leaders of the various teams, with a small wax tablet attached to the side of the table that could be used as a key.
Jim immediately began scouring the map, looking at each flag individually to find the DTB initials that he knew would either prove, or falsify his claims. As he did, Orwell ran his fingers down the wax tablet, hunting for Damien’s name. He reached the end of the list long before Jim had looked at all the flags, and when he did he looked up at the boy, a slight frown creasing his forehead.
“Jim,” he said, “Damien’s name isn’t here”.
“I don’t need his name, I know the initials. DTB. If we can find the flag, then we might find out where they are”. Jim began searching with renewed fervour.
“No, you’ve missed the point. They’ve removed their name from the list of active teams. Damien has left Spring Street”. Orwell’s voice was not the normal jovial sound that Jim recognised, there was a hint of anger in it that completely changed the way Orwell spoke. “We need to get word out, I have a really bad feeling about this”.
They moved off to the mess hall, where there were a few members of the gang sitting, most resting from a job well done. When they entered the room, Orwell pulled the attention of everyone there and sent them off to different parts of their base, to get everyone into the mess hall, and to notify the gatekeepers that night. As people woke, word spread like wildfire. Someone had betrayed the clan. The halls echoed with the sounds, as well as the shuffle of people moving about. Eventually, a crowd had gathered within the mess hall, and surrounded the two faces of the Spring Street Bashers.
“What’s this about?” Nae whispered to Orwell.
“I’ll tell you in a second,” Orwell whispered back. He turned, slowly looking every person he could in the eye, before climbing onto a table. “Ladies and gentlemen, I apologise for disturbing your regular rest with some awful news. There has been a betrayal amongst us”.
The gasp of the crowd broke Orwell’s measured pause for effect. “I do not say this lightly,” he continued, “but there are several people here who have been at a head with the accused before, and know how vicious he is. I can only assume that his hatred for everyone in the clan has reached a point where being one of the most powerful and respected individuals in the gang is no longer good enough. That’s right, the person, no, the people who have betrayed us are the crew of Damien the Brute.
“Now before you start clamouring amongst yourselves about the validity of this claim, I would like to raise our key pieces of evidence. First, all their belongings have been removed from their chests, but the chests have not been taken. Second, the name of the crew has been removed from the annals within the claimant hall. Third, they left the gang around two days ago, making a large deal or of a big score; and Fourth, the entire crew left to case a building. Six people are simply not needed to do that”.
Orwell got off the stage and then looked at Nae. “Pass the word around, Damien is blacklisted”.
The night became day, and day became night again, as the gang waited with baited breath for Damien’s revenge. Damien was well known enough that the majority of people in the gang had gotten in his bad side at one point or another. They knew he did not forgive and forget, but instead believed in retribution for the slightest infraction.
This had not stopped people from wanting to work with him, however. He was horrible, arrogant, and downright dangerous at points, but he was excellent at his job. Despite his bulky frame, he was one of the best members of the gang at stealth and reconnaissance. Coupling that with his immense strength meant he was well wanted by many people, even with his unfortunate character defects.
No matter where Jim looked, the members of Spring Street shared his sense of paranoia. It was more comforting than he would have liked to admit, knowing he was not alone in this terror. Unfortunately, they still had no idea what Damien had planned. No matter who tried, the members of Spring Street were being shut out. The death knell was ringing for the gang, and no one wanted to be part of it.
He sat in his room, fiddling around with his purple leather-bound book. It was the only real memento of his family he had left. When his father was lucid, he often said that it was the only thing that the elders of the clan could not take away from them. Caesars are strong, he would often say, but even the strongest Caesar cannot deny another the path to Order.
He had read parts of the book hundreds of times, but only since he met Laurence had Jim wanted to complete his first full reading. He knew what the book was, he had known for a long time, but he was scared that by completing his first reading, by becoming a Saint of Order, he might begin the transformation into his father. That was what scared him most.
Finally, after much deliberation, he opened the book and began to read in earnest. He knew that he would be behind the best of the other people in his age group, but if he could complete the path to Sainthood in a couple of years, then he would still be able to hold himself up with pride. He hoped that beyond everything else, the clan would allow him a small amount of pride, even if he was his father’s son.
He read and read, turning page after page, and quickly lost track of time. The book had so much information, more than he could actually take in at any one time, but he sat, processed and kept reading. Eventually, he closed the purple book. He had read enough. It was time for him to build upon his knowledge. He sat in the middle of his room, legs crossed and arms spread wide, with rich tendrils of mana spreading through his entire person. With each breath he would draw in a large amount of mana through his nose and let it flow through his body. This flow of mana would collect in his hands, head and abdomen, forming a spiral that centred around his heart. With each rotation of the spiral, his body became more suffused with mana, became stronger, and came closer to Sainthood. The Spiral Breath Formation was the one that his family used, because the spiral shape was so important to their cultivation path. The perfect spiral was in all things, artists and mathematicians called it the golden ratio. Some people said it did not exist, but the Caesar family knew better, they knew that this ratio, this spiral; it was the key to understanding the fundamental order in all things.
His understanding of this spiral deepened with each breath, as did his understanding of control, and order, until something inside him seemed to coalesce. The spiral shrank inside him and slowly started to solidify, before morphing in shape. Two thin strips slipped from the sides of the spiral, and the solidified gem of mana began to turn into a beautiful crystal diadem. It was not what he was expecting, but the form of his soul was surprisingly reminiscent of the symbol of the Caesar clan.
As his soul condensed into physical form, there was a burst of energy that rippled through his and the surrounding rooms. He had surprised himself, he assumed that it would take him months longer to actually become a saint, but here he was, becoming what he knew he might hate. He thought back to Laurence, how the boy seemed perfectly happy with his status, and was content with himself. He was still not entirely comfortable, because he had seen that cultivation had got his father nowhere but the bottom of a bottle, but he was willing to give it a go. After all, it would give him an edge.
He closed the book and lay down in bed, sighing at the comfortable sensation in his body. He was so comfortable that he ignored the sounds outside his room. He could hear shouts and yelling of an indeterminate origin, but could do nothing but relax into a light sleep. About half hour later, Jim woke from his slumber, with a thin layer of grime around him and thoroughly stuck to his clothing, but his flesh was as soft as a newborn baby’s.
His body felt like it was floating, and he could vaguely hear something happening around him, his natural response to this was panic, so tried to rouse himself from the situation he was in. His eyes opened wide as there was a crash against the door in his room, shards of wood splintered off across the room, and the body of the door shook. There was another crack as the door gave in, the hinges tearing free from the frame itself. In the doorway stood a man, maybe nineteen or twenty years old, with a devilish look on his face. He frowned at the young boy on the bed in front of him and muttered “I thought there were supposed to be girls here. Oh well, sometimes a boy is just as good”.
Jim propelled himself back as far as his body would allow him. He was still in that odd half-asleep state, but it was fading; he simply felt like his body was covered in pins and needless. As his back hit the wall, he froze. There was nowhere else to retreat. All his exits were behind the man who was quickly cornering him.
“Come now, I’m a Saint, this will only be painful for a little while. I promise your death will be quick after I’m done”. The man pulled a knife out from his belt and levered towards Jim. He could smell his rank breath and tanned leather in far greater detail than he had any wish to. Focusing on the small details helped, but soon nothing would.
There’s no cure for being dead, Jim, he thought to himself. He knew he had to do something, but the man was a Saint. If he wanted to win, then he would have to accept who he was, truly give in to becoming a Caesar. He did not know if he was ready to do so, but he knew he had no other choice.
Growling, he looked the man in the eyes, summoned his diadem and yelled “Stop!” putting the entire force of his being into the command, as well as a sizeable chunk of his mana. Blood began fleeing from his nose, and slightly from his ears, as he stared at the man, now thoroughly stopped by Jim’s command. He laughed. He had been a Caesar for all of five seconds, and had already broken the cardinal rule of the Caesars, Do not order, shift order instead.
Jim could see the man’s mind, he could see his wants, his dreams and his priorities. And he could change them. This was the power of the book of order, it did not affect the physical, but instead it changed the order of things. Jim has recklessly forced an action that was contrary to the man’s priorities, causing a backlash that nearly rendered him comatose. He had stopped the man, but he knew he had one more thing to do. The man had to die.
Synopsis: The online game <