"Black lightning courses through my veins. Is it a lucky gift, or heritage from ancestors? I don't know, and frankly, don't care. For someone raised in the slums, strength and power is the only thing that matters. Devour a soul from another world? Sure, no problem. Slay other sorcerers? Piece of cake. Bake an actual cake? Just watch me.
Every day I grow stronger, wiser, and more powerful. And together with Raito - my not so ordinary cat, we shall ascend to the top. Right?"
It all began twelve years ago. Yes, that's when I was thrown into this damned orphanage. I barely remember my childhood, but some things are etched in my memory forever. Thunder and lightning marked my arrival at the doorstep of this hell. I remember how the thunder deafened me, and the lightning blinded my eyes. But I didn't cry, no, I felt calm and peaceful, as if it was meant to be.
That's the only thing I remember from that day. Neither the face of the one who left me here, nor any other useful information, nothing. Maybe it's for the best. I wouldn't want to remember those who abandoned me in this place. For those who remembered their parents, it was even harder here.
I chose that moment as my birthday, like many others in the orphanage, as there was no more information, not even a small note was left. All I knew was that I was around a year old at that time.
As for my name - I knew it. Cassius, or just Cass for my friends. But they didn't give it to me in the orphanage, and I didn't make it up myself. This name has always been with me. Because, ever since I could remember myself, I could see things that others couldn't. Strange writings hung before my eyes, I only had to concentrate.
⸻ ♦ ⸻
Rank: ??? (1)
⸻ ♦ ⸻
And that's it. Just two lines… Very strange lines. I understood the name right away, but what was the rank? And why is it unknown? What does the "one" mean? So many questions and not a single answer. It would seem like a useless thing, but I could see something similar about others as well. The name was displayed only if I knew it. The rank was also unknown, but everyone I saw was at "one".
But that's not all, there was another writing that helped me more than once - the "State". Oh, this one was the strangest. It constantly changed, but usually displayed the person's true intention. Even if visually they remained unshakable, this inscription exposed everything. Often, the "State" was displaying their relation to me, which was even better, although very strange. These lines have saved me from punishment or deception many times. An extremely useful feature, although I never understood how it works.
Why do I hate the orphanage where I was raised? What else could I do? I didn't live, I survived there, because this orphanage turned out to be in the depths of the slums. The most hellish place of all, it is not meant for children. But who gives us a choice?
Well, until the age of five, everything was relatively good. I was fed, given water, allowed to play with toys made by older children. But it all ended on my birthday. Have I mentioned how I hate that day?
That's when I was faced with the fact that there would be no more freebies. Work or die. Maybe not in so many words, but I understood everything. Even five-year-olds are capable of making a profit, and the Director of the orphanage took advantage of this.
No, I wasn't against working. After all, even at that age, I already realized that our shelter was supported by the labor of older children. No rich uncle wants to help poor orphans from the slums, you can only rely on yourself. And I started working.
Lack of food, insults, and beatings from the caregivers – I could get used to all of that. I knew that otherwise, I simply wouldn't survive. But there was something else... At the age of ten, the worst began. Our work was not the main source of income for the Director of the orphanage. In this terrible world, there were quite a few people with mental disorders who were willing to pay big money for small services…
I couldn't let that happen to me. Exactly a week before my tenth birthday, we made our escape. My friends and I decided not to wait for what might happen. But we knew that there would be a pursuit. The Director wasn't ready to part with his future profits. That day, I committed my first murder.
I snuck into the Director's bedroom at night and stabbed a shard of glass from a bottle into his neck. At the same time, my friends stole our files from his office.
Unfortunately, we couldn't take all the children with us, nor could we take control of the orphanage. I'm sure a new Director would be in charge the very next day. For now, we would simply disappear. But sooner or later we would gain enough strength to return and burn this damned place to hell, together with all the scum that dares to call themselves caregivers…
"Cass, are you going to stand there all day? Hurry up, the "Rats" gang is attacking our guys on Spiderway Street," a boy interrupted my thoughts.
I took one last look at my reflection in the puddle before following him. And there was something to look at, you don't often see something like this. I was twelve years old already, but I hadn't changed a bit. Completely white hair, golden eyes, and a smile... toothy, like a shark smiling. Yeah, I couldn't pass for an ordinary person. I stood out too much. But it was this appearance that allowed me to survive. Fear... sometimes it can help a lot. Especially in a world where might makes right.
"Stop right there!" I shouted, running up to the two groups of kids opposing each other.
The first were locals, children of the bandits and cutthroats living here – the "Rats." The second group was the "Jaws." Yes, in my honor, as I was the leader of it. It consisted of the children who had escaped with me that day from the orphanage.
"Hey, toothy, shut your mouth," a skinny guy around fifteen snarled at me. "My guys want to work here. So, they'll do it."
I approached him and stared at the writings.
⸻ ♦ ⸻
Rank: ??? (1)
⸻ ♦ ⸻
"Have you gone mad, Rat?" I gritted my teeth. "It was decided long ago that this street is ours! Or did you decide to rearrange things? We'll do it quickly, might even take your street from you."
With my words, the guys behind me began pulling out shanks and other sharpened objects.
"Shh... calm down. No one wants to fight you," the guy in front of me retreated a step. "You know our gang is twice the size of yours. One street isn't enough for us. And you still have plenty of space."
"So what?" I snorted, baring my fangs. "We still have enough strength to cut all of you. If you need territory, go deal with the Scavenger. His gang weakened after they attacked the wrong people. Watch out or the same thing might happen to you."
"Quiet!" their leader flinched at my smile. "Fine, let it be. But we'll return to this later."
His gang slowly left the street. The children behind me started chattering happily.
"Cool, Cass! The way you handled them! I was sure there would be a big fight," a boy a year older than me patted me on the shoulder.
"They might come back, so take one of the guys with you and set up guard posts. None of the Rats should sneak into our street."
"As you say, boss," he immediately ran to the end of the street.
Yes, we were a gang of petty thieves. But how else could children like us survive in the slums? We couldn't get out of here.
Sure, we could reach the normal part of the city, but settling there... there's no chance. No one needed homeless kids. So it's better this way. But it's only temporary; sooner or later, we'll save enough money to get out of here, I wasn't going to sit in these slums forever, hoping that the older gangs wouldn't thin us out before we grew up and became competitors. No, we'll get out of here and climb as high as we can. But for now... we have to work.
The Rat backed down also because he understood that lawlessness wouldn't be tolerated here. We still paid a share to those above us. If we retreated, no one would say anything, that would be our own fault. But a direct attack wouldn't be tolerated, he understood that. He tried, but it didn't work, such things often happen here.
"Cass, should we increase patrols for the next few days?" a skinny girl my age with short red hair approached me.
⸻ ♦ ⸻
Rank: ??? (1)
⸻ ♦ ⸻
"Alright," I nodded. "Better safe than sorry. The Rat was too bold, even though he backed down quickly. It's not like him. And ask your informers if they know anything."
"I will," she replied before leaving.
Irma... one of my most trusted people and my deputy in the gang. A tough girl. Promises to grow up into a beauty that will break many hearts. And that's her problem. The slums are not the best place for beauties. She realized this long ago and tried to spoil her appearance, smearing herself with soot or hiding her face. But with each year, it became more and more difficult to hide. The key is not to let the Elders notice it, it will be tough with them. But even so, there are always ways out.
I was heading to my informants. If Irma preferred to bribe homeless children on others' streets, I worked more with beggars. Of course, they didn't work in slums, but in more decent parts of the city. They just lived here. Slums aren't a place for beggars; we barely have enough for ourselves. Yes, there were bandits who liked to throw around easy money, but they usually drank everything in the taverns.
Just like with us, all the streets were divided among beggars. I worked with the ones closer to our street.
"Is there anything interesting about the 'Rats'?" I asked, standing with my back to the wall next to a one-legged old man sitting on the ground.
⸻ ♦ ⸻
Rank: ??? (1)
⸻ ♦ ⸻
"How can there not be," he chuckled in his old, creaky voice. "There's always something happening with them."
"Not something small. Important stuff. They've been getting too bold lately," I threw a copper coin at him.
And as if by magic, the coin disappeared in mid-flight.
"I have something interesting for you. Rumor has it that one of the 'Rats' recently joined an adult gang under Raspy."
"Well, that's no surprise. It happens often," I snorted.
"That's not all," the old man chuckled. "This is just rumors, but it looks like it's the truth. The boy turned out to be cunning, and... he caught the eye of one of Raspy's deputies. That's why the Rats grew a backbone. Because the guy has a younger brother left here. And then... you understand everything."
"Yes," I frowned. "It's unlikely there'll be something extraordinary, but, let's say, the Raspy's deputy might be willing to close an eye on some lawlessness from the Rats.."
"Yes, you understand everything. So be careful with them."
"Thank you," I threw another coin to the old man, which, like the previous one, disappeared mid-flight.
This was interesting information, worth its money. This idiot really might get carried away by the prospects. It's unlikely that anything will change. But ambitions... they can push people to action. Well, since we know everything, we just need to be on guard.
"What do you think, Raito?" I looked down at my feet.
"Meow," the answer came to me.
All this time, a black kitten was spinning under my feet. Or a cat... I don't know. Hard to tell. He was too unusual, I had realized that a long time ago. He looked like an ordinary young kitten but with two tails. I got used to it, but others were surprised. But, there are all kinds of creatures out there, so such a deviation didn't stand out too much.
What worried me more was his youth. After all, I remember him like this for as long as this cat has been with me. And he has been with me since my birth. Yes, all twelve years. Quite an age for a cat, but he hasn't changed at all. It's strange, but it's mine! So I was ready to cut throats for him. He was like a brother to me and we never parted for too long in our lives. Sometimes he could disappear for a day or two, but he always returned to me.
And no, I didn't understand his meowing. It's just... sometimes it was easier to talk to a kitten than to other people. And it was safer too. He, on the other hand, seemed to understand my words quite well. And that's not all. We could still communicate with each other. In our own unique way, but still, we could. It was as if there was an invisible connection between us.
Sometimes I seemed to receive images of what happened from him, including what he had just seen. Very useful, and it saved my life a couple of times when Raito discovered a hidden ambush on the way. A wonderful creature.
I heard a scream on my way back to our base. Such things happen quite often, so I wouldn't have paid attention to it if it wasn't from our street. I recognized this voice - Tim, one of my guys. I immediately rushed in the direction where the screams came from. No one dares to touch my people on my land!
The scene that unfolded before my eyes didn't look too good. A drunken thug with a butcher knife in his left hand had grabbed Tim's arm with his right and was laughing. An extremely unpleasant scene.
"You, let him go!" Irma, who had arrived first, shouted.
"Oh, a girl!" the man laughed, casting a greedy gaze at Irma. "Interesting. You're definitely going to be better than this little one."
Casting a glance at the man, I saw what I expected.
⸻ ♦ ⸻
Rank: Unknown (1)
⸻ ♦ ⸻
"Hey, let's just come to a settlement. What did he do to you?" I stopped Irma, who was rushing forward. "Let him go, and we'll resolve this issue. What do you want? Money?"
"This little one bumped into me and dirtied my clothes. Can't you see?" the man pointed to his terribly dusty pants.
"They were already dirty," I snorted. "But okay, let's not get heated. I'll pay for the laundry, and we'll go our separate ways."
"Eh, no," he jerked the boy even higher. "I have money. But entertainment... You know, let's trade. You give me this girl for a day, and I'll give you the boy. Huh? It's a good deal. Otherwise, I'll just cut off his hand."
"That is too much," I frowned even more, "We don't leave our own. I haven't seen you around here before, tell me which gang you're from, and we'll handle this with your boss."
"Don't you dare compare me to those filthy bandits," he snarled, "I am a mercenary, not a dirty thug."
As if there's any difference!
"So who's your employer? We can make a deal with them. We know everyone around here."
"I already did what I came here for, so I'm completely free and just want to spend my damned money! But all the girls at the local tavern are busy with the locals. So let your girlfriend serve me instead."
"So you're a mercenary and you aren't working for anyone right now," I grunted, pulling out my wallet, "Fine, let's do it your way. Just let the kid go. I'll even throw in some extra for you. Can never have enough booze."
I nodded to Irma, and we slowly walked towards the man.
"That's more like it," he threw Tim aside.
As soon as Irma approached, the mercenary immediately grabbed her by the arm. A grave mistake. In one swift movement, the girl grabs his second hand which holds the knife. A bite, and he drops his weapon. That's when I step in. One move, and the shank in my hand pierces his belly.
"Bastards!" the man screams and throws Irma against the wall with force.
His fist flies straight into my face and… misses. I had to let go of my shank that still sticked out of him, in order to dodge his hit in time. But who said this was my only weapon? Click! My fangs close around his hand, and the mercenary begins to scream in agony. A small black spark leaps from my hand, striking the enemy's body, causing him to freeze in place.
I take advantage of the opportunity and quickly pull out my second shank. But this time, the target is slightly different. The sharpened piece of iron pierces straight through his neck. Blood pours out, and with it, life drains from the man's eyes. A couple of finishing blows, just in case, and he's dead.
"This will happen to anyone who dares to attack the 'Jaws'!" I shout at the top of my lungs, spitting blood from my mouth.
Yes, quite a sight. Furious golden eyes, bloodstained sharp teeth, and clothes soaked in blood… But it's even better this way.
Had he been from a gang, I would've only done this as a last resort. But this mercenary was a nobody on our streets. He signed his own death warrant. You can't attack my people and think you'll go unpunished!
"Help Tim," I nod to the guys who have gathered nearby, "Search the mercenary. Valuables and anything else that can be sold, as usual. Get rid of the body."
Having given my instructions, I walked over to the fallen Irma. She lost consciousness from the impact, but fortunately, there's no blood. Nothing serious, but it's better to have her checked by the local healer. He knows his stuff. The whole gang has been to him, and not just once. He charges a lot, but it's worth it, I don't skimp on the health of my people. So, picking up the girl by the arm, I took her to that healer.
It's been an eventful day today. It doesn't happen often, but it does sometimes. That's exactly why one always needs to be on guard. Otherwise, you'll not last for too long here. Tim was careless, for which he will be punished later. I'll put him on guard duty for the next week. Either way, he's been beaten up pretty bad and is unlikely to be able to work elsewhere.
And soon all the nearby gangs will find out about what happened. An extra demonstration of our strength is never bad. Let them fear us, be wary of getting involved. And let them know: for my people, I am ready to personally rip through enemy throats!
I burst into the doctor's wooden house, kicking the door open. "Doc, we need your help!" I shouted.
A skinny man with a short beard immediately ran out of the next room. The information appeared before my eyes.
⸻ ♦ ⸻
Paul Dofer "Doc"
Rank: ??? (1)
⸻ ♦ ⸻
"What happened?" He looked us over with an evaluating glance. "Put her on the couch."
"She hit her head hard. Lost consciousness," I answered clearly.
"And what about you?"
"It doesn't matter, take care of her. I'm fine. The blood isn't mine," I looked at my blood-stained clothing and frowned displeased.
"Your choice." He shrugged and approached the girl. "Overall, everything seems fine. I'll keep an eye on her, but I think she'll wake up soon. Now get out of here, don't bother me."
"As you say, Doc," I left some coins on the bedside table and quickly went out.
Although I was in situations like this before, I was still a little worried. It wasn't my first time in this house, but it didn't make it any easier. Doc had patched up people from our gang so many times that it was hard to count. I was his patient a couple of times, although I didn't like such moments. My wounds heal fast, so I only ended up with the Doc when I was unconscious.
No matter what people said, I tried to protect my gang members as much as possible, though I didn't babysit them. Everything went well this time. When I first saw the mercenary, I expected a worse outcome. But at least now, people will not dare to mess with us. The "Rats" will also calm down. After all, the demonstrative 'execution' of an adult warrior does make an impression. The main thing is that this guy's buddies don't find us.
I tried to get back to our base as quickly as possible. I needed to check on the others. But today turned out to be a very unlucky day. I shouldn't have decided to cut my way through the alleys. A pack of growling stray dogs appeared on my path.
"Damn you," I cursed.
It was too late to go around. I would have to climb onto the roof; there was a drainpipe nearby, the main thing was to reach it.
"Raito, stay!" I shouted, seeing my kitten move forward.
But what happened next made me swallow the words that were about to escape. Seeing the cat, the dogs immediately began to whine and lower their heads. A bold snort, and they immediately retreated, trying to run away as quickly as possible.
"Well, I knew you were terrorizing some dogs around here, but a whole pack…" I laughed, picking him up and stroking his purring snout. "Good job. Now let's get home quickly. I'm afraid I won't survive another surprise today."
We set up our secret base in the basement of one of the ruined houses. Quite a spacious basement, I must say. It seemed like it used to be the house of a wealthy family. Although... the basement looked like a warehouse. But it doesn't matter. The main thing is that no one knows about it now.
After checking on the guys, I locked myself in my private room. Yes, it was tiny, six by six feet, but still private. Am I the leader or not? I can afford it. The others didn't have such luxury.
Quickly taking off my dirty clothes, I put on some other rags. Only now, when the heat of battle and tension had left me, I began to ponder. This fight... everything went a little differently than I was used to. Yes, the plan was carried out, but how... biting him, I hoped that he would flinch, start panicking, but he froze.
Moreover, I saw a lightning bolt out of the corner of my eye, escaping from my hand. A black lightning bolt. How can a lightning bolt be black? I may not be particularly educated, but I know there is no such thing! So, there can be only one answer – magic. And this was confirmed by the inscription that appeared before my eyes at that moment.
⸻ ♦ ⸻
Your magical core has awakened
⸻ ♦ ⸻