Claude suddenly realized that he had thought everything too simple. He was faced with a dilemma in his current situation. The first was his getup: his face was covered like when he went to Hurian's to buy some things. He didn't want to expose his identity, so he could mask himself and appear like a mysterious magus and didn't have to care about much. He could even lash out without consequence.
He had planned to locate Arbeit during the night and thought his older brother would simply be gambling in a run-down den. He had planned to put himself out as a robber and ruin the den so he could use the confusion to teach his brother a harsh lesson. Everyone would think he’d just gotten caught up in something completely unrelated to him.
He didn't think Blacksnake had such a luxurious setup in the slums. He had stumbled inside and encountered quite a lot of trouble before he could locate his estranged sibling. No wonder the maidservant asked him to remove his outerwear yet again. They weren't on Old Street after all, nobody wore their outer wear inside. Some were so invested in their games they were drenched and on the brink of stripping. Even the maids were dressed in summer skirts. Though Claude didn’t think the fact that the skirts fluttered about and revealed tantalising glances at what hid beneath had no role to play in the choice of dress.
Thanks to the copper-pipe heating system, the inside was a few degrees above the outside world. And the many people inside only added to the heat. Claude stood out horribly in his current getup. A couple men in vests in one corner were watching his every move. He supposed he should consider it very restrained for them to only have a maid ask him to remove his disguise rather than just kicking him out.
He had two options at the moment: either refuse and face up to the two bouncers -- they would not leave him alone if he insisted on maintaining his disguise -- or take off his disguise and reveal who he was. He didn’t doubt for one moment at least one person in the hall knew him enough to recognise him even in this dim light. He was not going to brawl his way out of this with magic. There was no way he could hide his spells with so many eyes watching him, and he was not going to get everyone before someone slipped out and let the world know he knew magic. Not to mention that he was not going to get Arbeit in a den this large, the bouncers were not going to let him.
Arbeit was a customer, so they would protect him -- granted he kept paying his debts, of course. And Claude had no way to make himself a customer. His last thale had bought his guide’s gratitude.
If his father were still free and untarnished, the gang wouldn’t have dared do much to him, but everyone knew that, barring an intervention by someone of substantial power and influence, his father was done for. There was no reason for them to show Claude anymore respect they would any greenhorn brat off the street. He might get it worse, actually, since his father had been no friend of the gang when he was still the chief secretary.
More than anything that might happen to him, however, he was more worried he’d get his family involved. He was not about to let them suffer for his impulsiveness.
He was still deciding what to do, when the maid made the decision for him. She pulled on his shawl, and he instinctively pushed her back. His shove was stronger than she’d expected, and she lost her footing and headed for the floor. She cried as she fell, and held Claude’s shawl to balance herself. It went down with her.
Luckily Claude was wearing a black mask that covered the lower half of his face, so his identity was still protected. It was enough for the bouncers to decide he was up to no good, however, and they came at him. Six charged in total. The apparent leader was a bald man a head taller than Claude. His bare muscles bulged with every step. He gave his nose a boxer stroke and glanced at the men beside him, who charged ahead of him.
"Find out what’s his purpose," he said carefully, his eyes glued to Claude.
None of them thought much of Claude, despite his dress. Faced with six burly men, Claude's 1.8 metres wasn’t that impressive either.
If only Claude was less inclined to overthink everything. He supposed it was unavoidable, however, even his old boss had frequently criticised his inaction. There wasn't always a perfect solution, and no matter how well-prepared he was, there were too many variables to keep his plans certain. He just had to charge his way through his obstacles to his goal now. The ends didn’t matter, as long as one gave one’s utmost.
He just couldn't be as carefree as his boss, but the moment he made his choice, he never looked back, and he had made his now. Damn everything else, but he was not going to be beaten tonight.
He unleashed six Magic Missiles.
Groans suddenly filled the den. The six projectiles burrowed through his six attackers and left them rolling on the ground in pain. Blood seeped through the floorboards and into the ground beneath.
"Ahh... this... Murder..."
The maid, still clinging to Claude’s shawl, muttered, too shocked to scream for several moment. She made up for it when she regained herself, and the room’s small windows shook.
The entire hall stopped and a pindrop would have been heard. Then everything erupted into utter chaos as each made for an exit, uncaring about anything that got in his way.
Claude ignored everything and made for the first floor.
He was stopped halfway up the stairs by a group of black-vested guards appearing on a balcony overlooking the ground floor. They were five. Unlike the guards on the ground floor, these had a loaded arbalest each. All five of which now levelled in Claude’s direction.
"Who are you? Off with your mask! Who dares cause trouble in Blacksnake's territory?"
Two of the men stepped forward and made for his mask. The first was a middle-aged man in a dark-grey evening robe. His face was red and his light brown hair hung in a neat comb-over. He looked more like a banquet attendee than a guard. He elegantly placed both his hands on the railing and gazed at Claude.
Beside him was a slender and tall man dressed in loose-sleeved attire. He crossed his arms and two protrusions could be seen around his waist that looked like two shortswords. He stood guard beside the middle-aged man.
A dozen more burly men appeared from the two corridors leading to the underground hall with all sorts of weapons, including arbalests. The four guards stationed at the iron gate from which Claude entered also approached with their weapons.
The gamblers and maidservants scrambling to escape calmed down and their cries faded. Ten gamblers appeared on another balcony.
Claude saw Arbeit hiding among the crowd, his face red and lost in alcohol as he hugged a shy maid.
Claude’s vision was dominated by red. That heartless fool all but bankrupted his own family for this?! He was a beast in a man's clothing!
Claude fought back his urge to burn him alive and regained control of himself. He glanced at him with as frigid and dead a pair of eyes as he could, then turned away. If they discovered he’d come for Arbeit, his disguise might mean nothing.
Seeing Claude checking out his surroundings, ignoring them, the middle-aged man lost his cool.
"Attack! As long as he can still breathe, you did good. I don’t mind a corpse either though!"
The arbalests twanged and five bolts came Claude’s way. They all stopped mid-air about two centimetres from Claude, however, and everyone’s jaws hit the floor together, followed moments later by the bolts.
The middle-aged man's face bleached. The guard beside him already had his sword out.
Claude ignored the pair, focusing instead on the arbalests. His volley answered theirs from a moment earlier, then he turned to the men rushing him from the stairs.
Barely two minutes later, the last of the men was out cold on the ground, elbow broken.
Claude frowned and chided himself. He shouldn’t have gone after the arbalests first. They were no threat to him once Projectile Barrier was cast. He should have dealt with the attackers first.
He was glad this mistake hadn’t been bad, but he had to learn from it. He’d been caught off guard by them thanks to his return of the arbalests’ attack, and had had to rely on several volleys of Magic Missile to regain his footing. The fight had been much harder than it had needed to be.
The hall was empty when he looked up again. Besides the guards, only a dozen people still stood in it, besides him, of course. Most were cowering under tables or behind counters. He supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised since everything around him was crimson and littered with bodies, some dead, some dying, a couple rolling around in agony, clutching broken stumps of limbs.
He felt no remorse for them, however. Besides the fact that they’d come after him, they were Blacksnakes. They deserved no empathy.
Now, however, he doubted he could keep his family out of this if they ever found out who he was.
His eyes returned to the balcony to find it empty as well, and the memory of the group leaving as the fight started turning against them flooded back into his mind. He was certain they’d not appeared on the ground floor yet, however.
As long as they were still up there, he could just take them out one by one. Arbeit just had to wait a little longer. His little brother was coming for him.
His casual steps reverberated to the stairs in the empty hall.