Nikolas stood twenty paces from his parents' bedroom door in the spacious corridor. He had been positioned there for about twenty minutes, making sure they were fast asleep. When he was entirely sure that they were he turned silently on his heel and made his way back to his bedroom. He picked a flat cap from atop his dresser and fit it snugly on his head before continuing across the the room to a large window.

He gazed from the window for a moment before sliding it up quietly and climbing out onto the roof below. His method for sneaking off the family estate was simple yet effective and within two minutes he had lowered himself to the ground via a thick metal pipe that ran vertically up one of the corners of the large house. He climbed the iron fence that encircled the yard and dropped into the grass beyond with a dull thud. From there he made his way through a crop of trees onto a dark road.

As he pulled a briar wood pipe from his back pocket and began to pack Dreambud into it he slowed his pace and listened. "How nice of you to join me, Antonio." he spoke aloud, seemingly to no one. But as the words left his mouth, a boy materialized from the darkness beyond the lamplight, holding a pipe of his own.

"Greetings Nikolas." he said, smiling to reveal slightly yellowed teeth. "I trust you've been well?"

"That's debatable," Nikolas replied. "My father is rarely at home anymore, always at the city council building presenting his latest inventions and gadgetry."

"Well that's just a darn shame. How awful it must be to have a father who works for a living, making money and such." Antonio spoke, laughing.

Nikolas spoke no reply but rather used his fist to convey his response, rapping Antonio lightly on the arm. He began walking and motioned with a hand over his shoulder for Antonio to follow, which he did. As they walked Nikolas lit his pipe with a metal lighter and drew a large mouthful of smoke. He tried his best to blow smoke rings but the light breeze that was blowing on that late summer evening carried them away too quickly. The Dreambud began to take hold within moments and the negative reflections on his family life quickly left his head.

They made small talk as they walked. Mostly about how they were dreading their return to school, which was rapidly approaching. It was their final year of schooling and when it was over they would both become apprentices to their fathers' respective businesses. Although as Antonio's father was a drunkard, his future was looking a little less than promising at the moment. Nikolas and Antonio lived in the city Montisa. They had grown up together, but in recent years Nikolas' family had come into a great deal of money due to his father's work as an inventor. Because their life in the city was somewhat far from peaceful his father and mother had decided it would be beneficial to move to a large estate on the outskirts of town.

In the distance Nikolas could see the city's lights twinkling, despite the late hour. It was a little past midnight and most of the light was coming from the numerous pubs and inns, most likely filled with the many travelers and adventurers that passed through the city on the way to the coast's larger and more profitable port cities such as Aeqar.

Soon they were among the city's buildings. Most of them were made of sturdy wood but some of the larger fronts, like the inn and the treasury were made of stone or bricks. They continued to make small talk as they wound their way between buildings and alleyways. Eventually they were standing in the back of a large building made from weather-worn brick. "Back to the ranch." Antonio said, using a phrase he had picked up from one of his grandmothers.

Neither Antonio nor Nikolas knew what the building had originally been built for, but in recent years it had served as a sort of club house for them and their group of friends. Nikolas walked towards a thick wooden door that was set in the back of the building and raised his fist to knock. He knocked twice, then once, then twice again. It was a pattern known only to him and his cohorts, but as nobody else had ever actually come near their hideout it served no real purpose for identification.

The door was opened by a small boy with strawberry blond hair. "Evening, Maxwell." Nikolas greeted him. The boy gave a two-fingered salute and pulled the door open to allow his two friends into the building. The building was fairly large, but open. There was a set of spiral stairs in one corner that led upwards to a second level, which ran around the upper third of the building. They also had a ladder leading to the roof, but had never needed to use it.

"So Maxie, where's our pal Sir Cavendish?" Antonio sneered.

"Now, now Tony, no need to be hasty." Nikolas said, in a soothing tone.

"Why you askin' 'im?" a third voice joined in. "He ain't ever uttered a word to none of us, I don't see why he should start now!"

A face appeared over the railing from upstairs. It disappeared and soon footsteps could be heard coming down the staircase. The young man that joined them had jet black hair pulled back into a short ponytail, and his face had an appearance that had always made Nikolas think of the pet rat he had as a child. This was Baxter. He led the three boys up the winding staircase to the upper level of the building.

The upper floor was mostly bare, except for some ragged looking hammocks made from what looked like burlap bags, which were hanging from the ceiling. Laying against one of the walls was a boy whose eyes were wide with fear. He looked as though he would be screaming, were it not for the thick layer of cloth wrapped around the lower half of his face. His hands were bound with rope behind his back and a heavy bag of grain was tied to each of his ankles, preventing him from moving.

Standing in the shadows behind the boy's body were three more teenage boys. Each one wore a look on his face that plainly displayed their attitudes of superiority. Two of the three had large builds, and had their arms folded across their chests, and the third one was hunched over, rummaging through a rucksack on the floor for something. He was of average build, but Nikolas knew he was stronger than he looked.

"What're you lookin' for?" Baxter asked the third boy.

"Me steel fists; Only I seem to have misplaced them at the moment so it looks like I'll have to make do with me flesh ones for the time being." the boy replied. His name was Booker and he seemed excited for the night's events.

The two groups of boys surrounded the body that was struggling to gain footing on the grainy floor. The bound male was whimpering and swinging his head side to side. The largest boy stepped forward and pulled a long knife from one of his boots.

"If you've got something to say, nod your head." he said in a stern voice.

The bound boy did so at once.

"I'll take off your gag, but if you scream I'll cut you deep."

The boy nodded again to show his understanding and the towering brute, whose name was Dudley, reached out and pulled the cloth from the boy's head with one quick movement.

"Allow me to first ask," the trembling boy asked at once, in a shaky voice. "do any of you know who I am? What my friends are capable of doing to you?"

Nikolas stepped forward from the semi-circle and gave a sweeping bow to the boy, who looked quite uncertain.

"Allow me to introduce myself." Nikolas started. "The name's Nick, but that's Nikolas to you. You obviously haven't the slightest idea who I am, or what my friends are capable of so if you would, kindly shut up dear sir. If you are wondering why you're here it is because you have transgressed against my merry band of troublemakers. We know you and your idiot pals were in here two weeks ago and we know you were the ones that stole what little funds we had."

"But-"

"But nothing!" Antonio cut him off. "If it weren't for the fact that you and all your stuck-up friends live in mansions, parading around the town in your fancy waistcoats during the daytime and whatnot, then maybe we wouldn't mind sharing with you. But as it is, you're plenty well off and we want our money back."

"It's gone."

Upon hearing the news Baxter lunged at the boy on the floor. Dudley tried to hold him back but he was too slow and in half a second Baxter was upon him. Baxter savagely beat the boy with his fists, and once or twice he threw in a knee or two. Mostly he was yelling about how long it had taken them to save up the money. When Baxter was calm, he usually knew right from wrong, and all six of the other boys knew that nobody deserved to be beaten the way Cavendish was as they just stood by and watched.

A few times one of them stepped in to make an attempt to pull him back, but whoever did so would receive a sharp blow or two before moving back to their place. Dudley, and the other large boy whose name was Leonard, could easily have beaten Baxter to a pulp, but they cared for their friend and didn't want to stir up more trouble.

After what seemed like ages, but was closer to five minutes, Baxter stepped back. His fists were bloody and he was panting hard. His face, which had been dirty even before the scuffle was now streaked with tears. He didn't say a word to anyone but shook his head and walked down the spiral staircase. Antonio walked towards the body on the floor. Everyone present could see that he was in poor condition. His breathing was ragged and his chest was making a low gurgling noise, like when the remainder of the water in a bathtub is finally sucked down the drain. When Antonio heard this he looked mortified, and ran down the stairs.

"He's hurt badly," Dudley said, panicking. "If he dies we're all dead men. His father is an assistant to the king! We'll be hanged!"

Cavendish was indeed the son of not just one of the king's "assistants", but his father was the king's chief advisor. Nikolas knew the stakes here, but the bleeding boy's future looked grim. He was shaking badly and beginning to cough, spraying flecks of blood from his mouth whenever he did. There was nothing any of them could do. Within several minutes he was still, his eyes still frozen in that terrified stare.