Arc 1: Return of the Blood
"That is why Baudrillard considers 'things' and 'requirements' as false symbols. He criticized Marx's labor theory of value1, believing he had fallen into the trap of capitalism and political economy. He then even proposed his own idea of political economy." Wu Qiren finished his presentation. He opened up his last slide and nodded his thanks to the teacher and his classmates. Upon the teacher's signal, he left the podium and awaited the next classmate's presentation.
The next moment, former postgraduate student Wu Qiren woke up from his dream.
He was curled up, lying in a cold hollowed-out hole in the wall. He could feel the cold wind blowing from the gaps.
Wu Qiren sighed. It had been five years but he still dreamt of his past life. His previous life was boring but it was definitely better than his current miserable situation.
"Thales! Thales!" A large hand stretched into the hole in the wall and grabbed Wu Qiren's ear before roughly pulling him out from that small and damaged place.
It was a dilapidated house. The bright stars in the night could be seen in the sky through the half-collapsed rooftop but the positions of the stars looked unfamiliar.
Wu Qiren could not hold out against that rough hand as he was only seven years old.
He was dragged on the rough brick floor. His knees hurt from the friction against the floor but he did not make a single noise. This was because the cruel Quide was especially intolerant with the wailing of children. It was said that he once broke the legs of a six-year- old girl who had cried for food.
"I've already asked Rick. The money you collected was five coppers less than last week! You've stashed some away!" Quide was angry and looked as red as the mane of a lion. His protruding nose made him look even more ferocious.
Wu Qiren was flung to the ground. His gray eyes looked at the holes in the walls. The five beggars living with him in the same house, ranging between age four to ten, all shuddered at Quide's roar.
At the innermost hole was the smallest girl. The short-haired girl bit hard on her left hand, her face turning red. She looked at Wu Qiren who was on the floor in fear. At the hole beside her was Ned, a six-year-old boy who screamed with fright.
The girl was Coria. Wu Qiren understood the reason she was afraid.
In fact, Wu Qiren's luck that week was good. He, currently known as the beggar Thales, had obtained thirty-seven coppers this week. It was eighteen coppers more than the previous week.
However, he only surrendered fourteen coppers to Quide, the head of the beggar trade in a Black Street Brotherhood. The rest of the money, along with two years of coppers that he had saved, was delivered to Grove Pharmacy. With the help of the kind-hearted worker Yanni, he bought a course of medicine for typhoid fever.
Thales fed the medicine to the four-year-old Coria. Having typhoid fever at her age would be fatal without any medicine.
Over the last five years, Thales relived his past memories from the age of two to his current age of seven. From an ignorant child, he began recalling his past life bit by bit. The memories appeared fragmented and disordered. Even then, during these five years, he began to gain more and more awareness as compared to the initial fuzzy stage. He had a profound feeling when he saw others meet their end.
There were those who died from illness, those who fell to their deaths, those who drowned, those who were hanged, and those who were beaten to death (Thales even saw a crying beggar suffocated to death by a supernatural power from ten meters away once). The human trafficking business of the Black Street Brotherhood had no bottom line or principles. Even if they were gangsters, they needed time to hammer out rules and order. It had only been ten years since they started and expanded.
Additionally, the Blood Bottle Gang, also known as the 'nobles of the gangsters', in its ninety years history, had blood debts with its enemy.
Most of the time when witnessing these deaths, Thales felt helpless. Even he himself avoided a fatal end more than once by relying on scattered memories of his previous life.
Just like his current situation.
Quide was itching for a fight and was in high spirits. The look in his eyes was so characteristic of sadistic gangsters: vicious, cruel and sadistic.
"I did not stash any money! It is almost winter. Fewer people are passing by these three districts..." Thales got up from the ground as he quickly thought of and gave an excuse.
What greeted him was a ruthless slap in the face. Thales fell back to the ground.
"Hand over the money before I beat you up! Or I could beat you up first until you hand over the money! Take your pick!"
Obviously, Quide did not want to hear his excuse. The leader of the Brotherhood probably just wanted to extort for some beer money from them. Another possibility was that he simply wanted to beat somebody up.
"You can also be stubborn. I love stubborn children the most," Quide grinned hideously as he started rubbing his fists.
Looking at the large fists in front of him, Thales knew that Quide would not let him go even if he did not say anything.
Quide had tortured a beggar from the fifth room to death the previous month.
Thales held his red and swollen face as he quickly thought to himself.
Normally, Quide did not care about the accounts. When night fell, he would proceed to the subway's Sunset Pub to hang around or drink. He would not know how many Midier coppers was one Mindis silver, let alone how much the beggars under his care had turned in. This was all done by his deputy, the steady and dependable Rick. Even the shrewd Rick knew that the beggars earned about eight coppers per person every week.
Somebody had told on them.
That was the only possibility.
Thales looked around at the group of beggars. After getting his money from a rich female noble, he had returned directly to the Abandoned Houses2. The beggars in the house must have seen this. In such a grim environment, a child's heart could become even more terrifying than what an adult could imagine.
Quide started to kick again. Thales secretly protected his abdomen with his elbow. He used some of his strength and pretended to be in unbearable pain from the kick. He could not make any sound as Quide loved the screams of children.
"I will speak!" Thales said with a fearful expression. "Don't hit me!"
"That depends on my mood!" Quide looked around and saw the other five beggars cowering in fear. This made him feel satisfied as his authority was respected.
"Wednesday morning, I met a noblewoman. She gave me ten coppers." Thales spoke as he trembled and hid in a corner.
"I knew it! Begging? It was stolen right? Nobody can hide the truth from me, especially a little thief like you!" Quide rubbed his palms viciously as he prepared for the next round of beatings. "Take out the money!"
Without even waiting for Quide to raise his eyebrows, Thales then added. "But I went to Red Street Market!"
"Red Street Market?" Quide lowered his raised hand a little. "You went to the Blood Bottle Gang's territory?"
"Yes. We cannot earn much money in our place anymore." Other than those in the Brotherhood, the brilliant and brave, and those with aspecific purpose, there is none that would enter the three districts near the shady street without being cautious. Even the guards from the city defense team with swords and shields were unwilling to enter such a place full of crime."
"I got so much money the first day but the Blood Bottle Gang did not appear. I thought there would be an opportunity the next day."
"Idiot!" Quide fiercely kicked Thales. Thales saw Coria tremble at a distance. He then heard Quide shouted, "Think about it. How could the Blood Bottle's territory be such an easy pick?"
Thales recoiled back and really trembled. "Yes. The next afternoon, the Blood Bottle Gang caught me and hung me up. I said I was lost but they did not believe me. I gave them all my money and they still did not let me go."
"You good for nothing! How did you escape?" Quide spat ruthlessly.
"After that, I said I was Boss Quide's subordinate and they laughed loudly."
"What?" Quide clenched his fist and grabbed Thales' worn-out burlap collar. He raised Thales from the corner of a wall and asked, "What were they laughing at?"
Thales shook his head and replied, "I did not understand what they said."
Quide fiercely looked at him. "Speak quickly!"
Thales showed a terrified expression. He trembled and said, "Amongst them was a bald person. He said to 'spare the child since the child belongs to Quide and that Quide really needs children..."
Before Thales could finish, Quide had flung him against a wall.
He tried his best to protect his head and chest. He used the back of his body to endure the impact from the wall. He then immediately turned his back to Quide and withstood the blows of fury. After taking the blows for a moment, he tilted his back a little to cushion the intensity of the blows.
"Son of a this bald... Sven... How did he know... I will kill you... Useless... Idiot!"
Mad with rage, Quide yelled repeatedly as he continued kicking Thales, but only a few words were discernible.
The children in the other holes in the wall were horrified to see Thales beaten up. However, they tightly covered their mouths and dared not say anything.
Thales kept enduring Quide's enraged kicks that vented his anger.
At the very least, now Quide would not ask where the extra money went. Besides that, although he was terrifying, an enraged Quide was much safer than a Quide who was gleefully torturing some kids.
Thales' words were half-truths. Thales did go to the Red Street Market but he hid at the dark corners of the alleys and watched his surroundings carefully. He did encounter a noblewoman who wore clothes of goose feathers. By her side were twenty Swordsmen of Eradication. This was when he came out to beg. It was the reason the Blood Bottle Gang did not interrupt him. Thales also obtained twelve coppers from the noble. (He was not stupid enough to steal it in front of twenty Swordsmen of Eradication.) Thales did not wait for the noble to leave, he disappeared into the crowd, never returning.
As for the bald Sven, Thales had never actually met him before. He only knew that the man was the head debt collector of the Blood Bottle Gang. Quide himself was once a thug for the Brotherhood. That was until Quide provoked the wrong person and had a lower part of his body broken. This information was a secret. Thales found out about this at the Brotherhood's large house when he overheard the Assassins, Layork and Felicia, secretly laugh at Quide.
Once Quide finished venting and cursing the bald Sven, he took out a bottle of wine and left grumbling. The back of Thales' clothes had been torn. His back looked bluish purple. Because Thales avoided getting hit directly and had turned sideways, some parts of his body bled from being scratched. The pain came, throbbing in waves.
Blood flowed to the ground. Thales could feel a burning pain. Perhaps because he had not been beaten in a very long time, his muscles felt as though they were burning.
Ever since transmigrating into this world; getting beaten up, becoming hungry, falling sick and feeling cold were all common experiences. However, ever since Thales gradually recovered his memories as Wu Qiren, by staying cautious and also relying on his previous experience, he had not been viciously beaten like this for a long time.
When Quide's voice faded away, the other five children crawled out from their holes. They proficiently carried the weak Thales to the yard. The ten-year-old 'Big Boy' Sinti scooped out water from a jar with a worn-out bowl. The crippled Ryan and the black-faced Kellet were both eight years old. They struggled to gather dead branches and weeds. They then start a fire with flints. The six-year-old yellow-haired Ned and the youngest Coria gathered a few strange leaves. They chewed the leaves and then rubbed it on Thales' badly-bruised back.
Thales endured the pain as he tried to find a way to distract himself. He turned to see a crying Coria and a dejected Ned. He then tried to speak in a calm tone.
"It is alright. Ned, I do not blame you."
Ned suddenly raised his head and looked alarmed. The other four children gazed at him.
"How did you know?" Ned could not help but feel guilty and horrified.
When Thales was being beaten up by Quide, the three older children, though afraid, were gazing at the sight unwaveringly. The remaining two were Coria and Ned. One covered her face and did not dare to raise her head. The other looked at the wall and occasionally glanced in horror.
Coria's typhoid medicine was the sole purpose of those coppers. Coria would definitely not divulge that. Thales was not sure if it was Ned but now there was no doubt.
He tried to squeeze out a smile. "It is alright. Quide will not pursue this matter anymore."
"I I" Ned blushed in shame. He looked at Thales' back as his tears ran down. "I did not manage to obtain any money this week. I also did not dare to go and steal." He sobbed, "Rick did not say anything but Quide was very unhappy. He said if this continued, he would sell me to the desert where the Barren Bone people will eat me. I was so scared that I told him that you came back with a lot of coppers on one of the days I thought that this way they would not Quide then sent me back and said that he would come tonight."
Coria's face turned red too. The herbal medicine in her hands trembled and a few drops of blood dripped down to the floor from Thales' back. Thales moaned in silence. The diminishing burning sensation of pain was once again aggravated by Coria's actions.
Ryan glared angrily at Ned, causing Ned to lower his head even more. Kellet looked at Ned with a surprised expression and then looked at Thales. Only Sinti remained silent and continued to bring the water over.
This kid was only six.
Thales thought to himself.
This child was so innocent. Faced with Quide he was terrified and, in the commotion, he had uttered the wrong words.
"It is alright, Ned, Coria." Thales felt his injury getting better. He gently held Ned's hand. "But, you have seen it too, what Quide is capable of..."
Ned sobbed a little in terror.
Thales looked at him solemnly and said, "Next time, if you all cannot find enough money, just tell me. I will think of a way."
"When compared to Quide, only we are in the same group."
Ned cried uncontrollably. His words were interrupted by his sobbing. "Th-Thales. S-So-Sorry."
Thales silently watched Ned crying non-stop.
Finally, he turned his head around and inhaled lightly.
"It is alright now, Ned." Thales sighed and took the bowl of water from Sinti for a sip. "Don't worry. I will find a way."
He looked at the other five children. Even the recovering Coria still looked terrified.
Tomorrow I must find a way to get more money. He thought to himself.
At the Sunset Temple of the Eternal Star City, after the prayers at sunset, a trainee priest who was cleaning the altar stopped her movements. She looked in surprise at the lamp containing Eternal Oil.
Ever since she started taking care of the altar she had never seen this lamp being used. It was a lamp that had never gained attention. That lamp suddenly lit up with a bright yellow flame.
The flames suddenly turned vigorous and red like the color of blood.
An elder priest noticed the trainee's unusual demeanor. She shouted resentfully and chided the trainee before shifting her attention to the altar. But when she noticed the unusually lit lamp, she screamed.
"Niah! Quick! Inform the ritual master!"
The elder's surprise could not be concealed. She trembled and scurried over to that lamp, raised her right palm and then her left palm, as she prepared to pray.
What is going on? This was the first time the trainee Niah saw the respected priest lose her composure. It was to the extent that she herself was influenced.
Did I make a mistake? But I did not touch the lamp.
"But. But what do I tell the ritual master? Someone secretly came by and lit up the lamp by the altar?" Niah asked feeling flustered.
The elder kept staring at the lamp. Her praying hands continued changing their positions.
"This light, even if you search across the two continents of Errol and its countless islands, there is only one person who can light it up."
"That person would determine the future of this kingdom!"
1. A theory of value usually associated with Marxian economics. Read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_theory_of_value
2. Abandoned Houses: The name of a group of abandoned houses in the Lower City District.