A dilemma referred to one of two superficially similar yet fundamentally different situations. An inability to make a choice, or facing dire consequences no matter which option is chosen.
The latter definition felt like the more applicable to Claude at the moment.
On the one hand, he could turn around and leave as he'd come. If he did that, however, he would find himself back at the intersection. Only the slightest question would reveal the reason for his return, and Hurian might just decide he was not worthy of trading at the black market. Or he might decide Claude was weak enough to be exploited further. Worst of all, his apparent weakness might give others thoughts of taking his wealth for themselves by force, since if he was too weak to take on a few thugs, how could be possibly be strong enough to face off against other magi?
His other choice was to confront the thugs head on. They might recognise him, and thereby his backing, and let him pass unobstructed. They might not, however. A fight would be unwelcome, and would most likely force him to use his spells to get out, which would end everything for him. Even if they did not obstruct his path, his mere presence would raise uncomfortable questions.
He couldn't decide which of the three options were worse. One question might suggest he was there for the sensual entertainments of Windmoon Street. That would destroy his character in town and ruin any future he might have had in higher society. The other might suggest he was involved in less savoury activities involving the gangs themselves. The outcome thereof would be much the same as the first. The third, while far less destructive to his public persona, was no less damaging to his personal standing. His father might come to learn of it and question his presence, to which he would have no choice but to admit his going to Hurian's shop. Even if nothing further came of his father explaining his presence in the slums using his answer, Hurian or any of the other presences in that clearing might still put his identity to his mask.
His head pulsed violently. He had started the evening on a leisurely shopping trip. Now he faced a choice which risked, in the most serious and devastating manner possible, his entire future. The fight itself had nothing to do with him, but it still put him in a most precarious position.
The thought of confronting them, mask still on, flitted through his mind for a moment, but it was an even worse choice than just walking through it without it. The chance they would let him through unmolested was all but non-existent.
At the very least, however, masked, he would not need to hold back as much and could take care of them easily. He had half a mind to do walk up to them as is for that very reason. He had nothing that could be called a good impression of them, and he didn't mind -- even half anticipated -- giving them a thorough beating.
His absent-minded eyes wandered to the sky, and he saw the moon dancing silverly between the cotton clouds. It was not a full moon, however, and its waned blade cast little light on the slit of alleyway it could reach through the canopy of roofs. It was hard enough to see the silhouettes of the gangs in the dim illumination of the candles. If he kept to the shadowed corners of the alley, he might as well be invisible. No one would see him using his spells.
His worst fears somewhat calmed, his mind started racing at the thought of testing some of his spells on humans. He'd been anxious to test them out on humans, but he'd yet to find candidates worthy. Now, he had.
His choice made, the boy slithered along the side of the alley, hugging the dark, unlit walls.
"Move aside. Don't block my way," he groaned hoarsely when he was a few metres from the back of the nearest group.
The argument had died down somewhat while Claude had been pondering his options. Both sides were parched and soar-throated and the fight was just a few minutes away from dispersing when this new voice joined the fray. A crow-like voice burst out dryly from the rear of the group.
"Ah, isn't this nice? First we run into these dimwits, now we have a friend here with a death wish!" he shouted.
The reed-like man shoved a claw at Claude's shawl, but the boy was too fast for him.
"So a fight it is," Claude murmured as he shoved the man's hand upwards at an unnatural angle.
The man screamed.
He was an experienced fighter, however, and reacted almost as soon as the snap of a finger dislocating burst out of his hand. His other hand grabbed the dangling finger and shoved it back into socket as a foot flew up in the general direction of Claude's chin. It missed, but the man was already coming again.
His head lowered, aiming for Claude's sternum, but connected with a knee instead.
The stringless doll collapsed without another word. Claude's foot came down, slamming into the back of the man's head with an audible crack. Blood quickly pooled under the man's face, oozing out of a smushed hole where once there had been a nose.
Few others had had time to turn their gazes to him, even fewer had registered what had happened. The fight beyond the first group stopped and more eyes darted uneasily in Claude's direction.
Confusion gave way quickly to anger, however, and soon every was charging at the boy.
"I'm gonna crush yer bones! Just you wait and see! I'll make a curry paste out'o ya!"
Claude's feet moved calmly, but rapidly, carrying him backwards in an attempt to maintain the distance between them. His pursuers darted forward with even more gusto when they realised what he was doing.
"Ya damned arse, don't run! I won't leave until I give ya a sound beating!"
A fist flew his way, but ran out of arm just a centimetre from the tip of his nose. Claude shoved himself to the side, into the nearest wall, putting his first attacker between him and the nearest other enemy. His one hand snaked around the retreating fist, yanked it down, and the man with it, and his other elbow connected with the man's solar plexus.
From behind it still looked like Claude was the one in trouble, so the rest continued forward without reserve, thought, or defence.
The man continued his fall, all strength having left him, his face red, and collapsed to the ground.
His oblivious friends could not stop themselves in time, and ran into Claude again.
"Hold him down hold hi--!" the next enemy, a burly man of huge build, but his words were cut short, and morphed into a terrorised screech of utter disbelief mixed with abject agony as he felt his children die before birth.
Those watching the fight and preceding argument from their windows winced in unison, and the man collapsed.
Kamadi's attention was finally wholly drawn from Jerad. He shoved two men aside and faced Claude head-on.
"Who are you?! What do you want?!"
"Just passing by. I asked them to make way, but they came at me instead. I just taught them a little lesson about respect, that's all."
Behind his calm facade, his mind was racing. Not out of fear of what was a dangerous predicament, but at bewilderment and wonder at how easily he'd taken care of some of the toughest men in town. He had had harder fights in school.
There were still five enemies left, if the Sharks didn't get involved, but Claude was more than ready for them.