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Thread: Child of Darkness

  1. #1
    Wayward Scribe
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    Luned's Avatar

    Name
    Luned Bleddyn
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    Child of Darkness

    Child of Darkness

    If you're interested in participating, comment in the OOC discussion thread.

    "Beneath the city, the belly of Ettermire groans with a growing population of grotesque and violent sewer-borne creatures. Late night disappearances have become alarmingly common and the residents are beginning to notice that something isn't right. With some digging, one might discover that this new problem isn't mere coincidence; something has affected the urban fauna, which means someone must be at fault."
    Rumor had it that a self-proclaimed fairy princess had set up shop above Moody's Ale Cellar down by the river in Radasanth. This would normally have been of no interest to Luned, especially seeing as she rather disliked the company of Resolve's rough-and-tumble crowd of drunks and prostitutes, but this quirky fey had a valuable talent: blink-of-an-eye transportation to any region and most major cities on the face of Althanas. The scribe needed to get to Ettermire and, after haphazard travels over the past year, she was inclined to take any shortcuts available, even if they required her presence at a brothel.

    Prompt for her early evening appointment, Luned climbed the steps to the second floor above the bar. She knew the plain but clean main hall well, having visited her student several times before. Ahead was a second flight of stairs to Resolve's third floor apartment, to the right was the client entrance into Rosie's renowned parlor of trinkets and tricks, and to the left, what was once a coat closet was now labeled with a freshly painted sign in perfect gold on black block lettering:

    Knock once for coat check
    Knock twice for Princess Agnie Lar

    Pale knuckles rapped at the door once, then twice, and with impressive promptness, the door opened. Behind it was a short, voluptuous blonde –– no, her hair wasn't blonde, that was certainly an inhuman gold, almost metallic in quality –– rosy and beaming, peering up to the scribe with anticipation. Luned wasn't surprised to see that behind her, instead of the musty contents of a rarely used closet, was a sunny, posh sitting room with foreign decor in gilded, luscious pinks. She was ushered in, door closed behind them. "Did you bring what I requested?"

    "Ah, yes," Luned replied as she dug through the pockets of her coat. One of the quirks of Princess Agnie's service was the fact that she had little interest in standard monetary compensation and generally had strange demands in exchange for her service. Fortunately, the scribe was in a business that was equally valuable to a quick-traveling extraordinaire, and they were able to work something out to the satisfaction of both parties. She extracted a thick little envelope and handed it over. "There."

    "Ooh, excellent! This will make things so much easier," the fairy accepted with busy hands, opening the package to reveal a substantial amount of plain standardized receipts with designated fields for names, dates, times, and locations. "Shall we test one now?"

    With a nod, Luned extracted a fountain pen –– a most precious souvenir from her last visit to Alerar, she swore she'd pick up several more while she was there –– and handed it to Ags. "Luned Bleddyn, then today's date, location of origin, and destination, Ettermire. We both sign the bottom. Doesn't mean much, but I find folks like things to look official."

    "You are the expert, after all," Agnie cooperated with ill-concealed glee, scribbling the information down in swooping cursive. Luned could often read personality through handwriting, and the fey's certainly fit.

    "Now tear off the top layer, what you wrote should've copied through, and keep it. Give the second to me." Luned accepted her copy and the pen then demonstrated by ticking the corner, of which an identical twin mark faded into existence on the companion receipt. "When I'm ready to return, I'll request my pick-up on the ticket. Don't forget to check it often."

    "Ooh, how clever!" Ags all but skipped over to a prepared wall of her parlor, many-layered, ill-matched skirts flouncing with each step, and tacked it in a highly visible location. Once satisfied, she turned and waved Luned back toward the door with a jingle of belled anklets. "Alright, then, you're free to go."

    "Ah, I was looking to travel today, actually," Luned hesitated.

    "I know." Either impatient or overenthusiastic, Agnie guided Luned firmly by a hand on the back, opened the door, and before she could think twice, the scribe was shoved through and it was closed and latched behind her. "Have fun!"



    In the blink of an eye, as promised by way of advertisement, Luned was, indeed, in Ettermire. Everything was different and, for a moment, it threw her for a loop. The air quality was warmer and drier but laced with the pollutants of an industrious city in place of Radasanth's coastal humidity, and the intercontinental time difference caused her to squint unflatteringly in the early afternoon sun. She stood on a paved street in a vaguely familiar neighborhood, one she couldn't place off the top of her head, but a looming landmark tower blinked into focus against the smoggy sky as her eyes adjusted to the overcast light. Orienting herself, she realized she was close to the city center by just a few blocks, and that meant she was near her destination.

    Gravebeard Cobbler & Sons was a tidy little establishment tucked away between a flower shop and a grocer just off one of the main streets. Its cheery yellow and green sign was welcoming, and Luned stepped through the front door to the creak of hinges and jingle of a greeting bell that was suspended via an intricate mechanism that disappeared into the ceiling and led, she believed, down into the basement. Inside was clean, some readymade products on display as samples of their work, boots and slippers and sandals in all the shapes and sizes one would expect of a reputable shoemaker.

    In the back of the small shopfront was a desk and workbench occupied by an elderly dwarf, hunched over his project in impenetrable concentration. Luned approached and watched for a long moment as thick, stubby fingers manipulated a needle with such deft precision she was put to shame, rough hands gently stitching a vibrant posy on the toe of a soft white leather child's shoe. Immediately the scribe had respect for whoever individual this was, even if she was there for slightly unsavory reasons.

    Luned stood before him and clasped her hands demurely in front of her, avoiding the temptation to fidget anxiously with the trim on her jacket, and cleared her throat in an effort to interrupt as politely as possible. Silence. She did it again.

    Gravebeard sighed, setting down his work with utmost care on the countertop and looked up at Luned over his tiny, round spectacles. "Yes, I heard you. How can I help you, miss?" His voice was gruff through his bristly salt and pepper mustache.

    "I'm here to pick up an order," she replied as naturally as possible.

    He waited expectantly.

    The scribe shifted awkwardly under his gaze. "The name's Arsal."

    The cobbler's chair groaned as he stood with the grunt of a man with muscles stiff from long hours of work. Stretching, he hobbled toward a doorway that led into a dark hallway. When Luned didn't immediately follow, he glanced impatiently over his shoulder. "Orders are kept out back."

    With a nod, Luned followed him into the corridor. There were several doors, but the one they took was expertly hidden in brick, a part of the wall which appeared to be the back of a chimney but yielded an entry as the dwarf summoned in a low voice. She was disappointed she didn't catch any of the words of that little enchantment. The steps leading down began in wood but quickly turned to stone and the portal closed behind them, though the passage seemed to contain some ambient lighting that kept their path visible. Their shadows crawled along behind them, slinking phantoms, and Luned felt a draft that chilled her in a way that reminded her just how sketchy this ordeal was.

    As they walked in privacy, the dwarf apparently felt more chatty. "Haven't seen you before. Your first visit?" His voice echoed off the walls as the structure around them faded into a crudely carved tunnel. Luned estimated that they had descended about two stories.

    "Yes," she replied, startled by how her voice sounded as it rang back at her. It was sharper than his and she dropped off nearly into a whisper. "But I was sent by an old patron."

    Showing no interest in who this connection might be, Gravebeard halted at the landing at the bottom and knocked on the heavy wood door. A small window slid open at face level with the clack of iron and one golden eye stared out at them. "I imagine she's here for the latest shipment," the dwarf explained. The eye blinked at the scribe's freckled face, slot snapped shut, and the door opened. The cobbler hobbled back up the steps while Luned found herself ushered into what didn't appear to be a basement by any stretch, but a sewer.

    "They're waiting just down there," the dark elf who kept security gestured, then bolted them in. "Don't wander off. Follow the torches." He didn't say anything else as he resumed his post, imposing frame leaning against the door with his arms crossed over his chest.

    It appeared that this operation was founded in a forgotten corner carved out of Ettermire's endlessly complex sewer system, something which helped make it the most modern city in the world, but such a beast of a project over the span of hundreds of years lent to errors such as losing track of the many nooks and crannies. That was a convenient issue for organizations such as this, who needed secure and inconspicuous locations for storage and dealings.

    As Luned started down the tunnel she noticed that there were many other open doorways that apparently led out into the rest of the honeycomb sewer system, and perhaps, she noted, other surface entrances, though she was specifically instructed to seek admission through Gravebeard's. She couldn't help but wonder what the other options might be, as well as speculate how many others had access to this particular space.

    It was obvious where she was going even in the vague, shadowy dampness of the sewer. Lanterns studded the walls of the passage just far enough apart that she could see the smooth texture of the stone floor with every lonely, echoing step, washed out gray warming into a weathered tan as Luned passed each light. Up ahead, she noticed a glow emanating from one of the tunnels and knew it to be the place. With a deep breath she smoothed a crease in the skirt of her slate gray dress, then checked that her embroidered jacket was straight and crown of braids intact. Her appearance didn't matter, she was simply giving into routine in an effort to find any last inkling of confidence stashed away in her marrow, anything to feel less like a fish out of water. As an educated young woman she was good at many things, but her advanced ability to psyche herself out was by far the most vexing of her talents.
    Last edited by Luned; 12-22-12 at 09:43 PM.
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  2. #2
    Member
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    Warpath's Avatar

    Name
    Flint Skovik
    Age
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    Human
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    The term for an organized criminal element in the Aleraran language is literally “the low government.” There’s a good reason for that. The dark elves run everything the same way, from industry to monarchy: dirty, but efficient. And Swanra’ann was nothing if not the monarch in the low government.

    Flint was working for Swanra’ann – the self-styled Queen of the Pit. He hadn’t had much choice in the matter, but he was good at not letting it show. That was the first thing he taught himself as a child: defeating fear, burying it so deep inside that sometimes even he doubted it was still within him at all. Doing so was wrong, he knew, and it stripped him of his humanity, but it was better than the alternative. The world is full of predators, and predators can smell fear. It’s how they tell one another apart from their victims.

    Flint Skovik would never, ever be prey again.

    So he worked for Swanra’ann, hard-eyed and cold, and soon he had her favor because he always did as she asked without hesitating, no matter how cruel, and because he was dangerous. A predator, like her.

    He pretended that deep, deep inside him – buried alongside the rest of his humanity - there wasn’t a growing black lump of fear of Swanra’ann. He was good at pretending.

    ----


    “It’s here,” Gareath said.

    The alley was cooler than the open street, and there were still puddles gathered in the bowls and gaps between bricks and cobblestones. The water in Ettermire was tinted black with soot, and rainbows reflected on its surface when the light struck it. Flint privately wondered if it was the water that had darkened the elves’ skin over the centuries, and looked at the back of his hand curiously. It would probably take a long time to affect him, he told himself. Longer than he’d live.

    “Here, Runt,” Gareath said, handing the crate over to Flint. “You carry it from here on. Nobody’s like to even look at you, so it’s safer.”

    Flint said nothing as he took the crate, but he rattled the vials within a little more than necessary as he shifted it up onto his shoulder. Gareath was about to say something, but Flint locked eyes with him in challenge. The dark elf backed down first.

    “Let’s get this done, eh?” Gregor said. “I gotta piss.”

    “That’s nothing new, old man,” Gareath said, leaping on the excuse to tear his gaze from Flint’s. “You’ll wait until the job is done, or Swanra’ann will hear of it.”

    The old man sobered up at that, and made a sour face behind his beard. He was a Salvarman, like Flint, but at least twenty years older. The other three, Gareath included, were dark elves. Their opinion of humans was no secret, but Gareath did most of the talking. If he weren’t so precious to the Queen, Flint might have considered breaking some part of him to send a message.

    The five of them were to oversee a delivery of rare goods – vials of some liquid said to be rare, exotic, and no doubt illicit. It looked like water to Flint, but what did he know of wizards and alchemists? Swanra’ann said they called it Swaysong in Salvar, but he’d never heard of it. The Sway were as unknowable as the elves' science.

    Gareath led the party through a crumbling archway and into a hidden garden behind a smoke-spewing factory. Once maybe there had been plants here, but now it was a flat, brick-lined square of packed earth. There was a tree stump in the center, with three empty glass bottles balanced on it. They were filthy, and may have been sitting there since before Flint was born. He casually nudged one of the bottles over when nobody was looking, and left it in the dust.

    There was a low-set door on the far side of the garden, and Gareath rapped one knuckle against the wood in a slow pattern. A moment passed, and then the door swung open and the five of them shuffled in. “Good timing,” an elf inside said. “Our buyer arrived not long ago, it seems. Go in, I’ll oversee the transfer personally.”

    “Yessir,” Gareath said, and Flint masked his surprise. He didn’t know this elf, but he must have been important for Gareath to show even the slightest bit of respect.

    They were escorted into an adjoining room, which was brick-lined and moist. From the earthen floor and the moss gathered on the brick walls, Flint guessed it was a cellar. There was a small oil lamp set on the center of a basic wooden table in the middle of the room, but it was otherwise empty.

    “I’ll watch the door,” Gareath said. “You four stay here, watch the box. Wait for the buyer. When she arrives, the Collector will oversee the exchange. Keep your goddamn mouths shut unless the Collector orders you to speak. Got it?”

    The four of them nodded sullenly, and without another word Gareath stepped back out of the room and closed the door behind him. Flint shrugged the crate off of his shoulder, cringing a bit as the vials rattled against one another within, and then he set the crate down on the table lightly.

    A cold thrill ran up his spine as he heard the tinkling crack of breaking glass somewhere in the room. He raised his head and looked to his companions wide-eyed, who in turn stared at him with the same look of chilled panic. He stepped back away from the table and scanned the floor, and immediately spotted a small, broken glass vial beneath the table.

    Fear passed into confusion as it occurred to Flint that the vial on the ground was wholly unlike any of the vials in the crate. This one was larger, and bulbous on the bottom, and instead of being filled with a watery substance it seemed to be full of smoke. Indeed, the smoke now leaked out of its shattered container, and expanded as it reached up into the room, roiling lazily over itself. It did not dissipate as it expanded, but instead grew deeper, blacker, with curves and whorls that swirled inward and writhed like a handful of fat black snakes. Time stretched and lost definition as Flint stared into those inky depths, until the sway and sigh of the smoke began to form curves and take shape.

    There was a face hidden within that shadowy, ethereal pillar, full-lipped and exotic, concealed within the smoke but formed from it at the same time, and she began to dance a slow dance that started from her hips and moved up through her torso over and over. The brute had seen such a dance once before, performed by a woman from Fallien. He stared at this woman as he had that one, mesmerized, but this time he did not fall in love. Instead his mind drifted across the width and span of thought, tossed on the waves of a mental ocean that ebbed and flowed to a belly-dancer’s beat.

    And then the spell broke, the smoke cleared, and Flint blinked.

    His eyes burned. He hissed and rubbed at them as the tears began to flow, and when he cleared them he scanned the room. Gregor and the pair of dark elves glanced between one another, all red-eyed and squinting, and then, one by one, they realized only one thing in the room had changed.

    The crate was gone.

    -----

    Swanra’ann did not hire dull mercs. When it occurred to them that their charge was missing, the room immediately erupted into shouts and chaos. One of the dark elves pulled a knife, the other pulled his rifle. The blade came out quicker and drew a deep, ragged line across a one-time friend’s purple-grey throat, long before a shot could be fired.

    Gregor crossed the room in one long stride and kicked the survivor’s left knee out from under him. When the elf went down, the Gregor grabbed the back of his head and forced it into the corner of the table twice. Head wounds bleed a lot, and this one was no exception.

    When the big Salvarman turned to finish the last of his companions, he found himself staring into the dark. His brain filled in the details while his eyes adjusted: when the elf’s head struck the table, it rattled the lamp, sloshed the oil within, and had caused the flame to sputter for want of fuel. Now the shadows in the room were grown deep, and Flint – who Gregor had figured for the least dangerous of the crew despite his bulk – was nowhere to be seen.

    Gregor felt a presence behind him and cried out, but too late. Flint threw three furious jabs in rapid succession from behind, and Gregor went down wheezing. Lazily, deliberately, Flint rolled him over onto his back with one boot and then dropped his knee down onto his kinsman’s throat and pressed.

    “Wait,” Gregor said, choking and struggling beneath the shorter man’s weight.

    “I am,” Flint said. He set his jaw, hardened his eyes, and leaned forward.

    -----

    When Gareath reentered the room, he stepped in blood first and found himself staring down the muzzle of a rifle second. Flint Skovik was kneeling on the other human’s throat with the rifle aimed steady, and the other two were dead or close to it. Nothing made sense until he realized the crate was missing, and he felt the color leave his face.

    “Where is the box?” he whispered.

    “Taken,” Flint said. “How long since you left us?”

    “Minutes,” Gareath said. “Five, six minutes, no more.”

    “Impossible,” Flint said as he moved slowly to his feet. He kept the rifle trained on the Aleraran.

    “Did one of them…?”

    Flint shook his head. “They panicked.”

    “You can lower that, boy. I’m no fool, thinking I could put the blame on you or one of them. The Queen won’t care who done it, just that the delivery didn’t get to where it was meant to. We’re both fucked without that box, anyway.”

    Flint unceremoniously tossed the rifle aside. “The thief couldn’t have come from your door, so he must have used this one. Where does it lead?”

    “A rat’s nest of tunnels beneath the city,” Gareath said, already hurrying to the door opposite him. “They’re sewers, really, spreading out forever. Every minute we stand talking, the thief gets farther from us and harder to find, and we get a little closer to being very dead.”

    The door was locked from the outside, but they forced it, and immediately split up running. The sewer air was blessedly humid compared to the smog-heavy atmosphere above, but it was also rank with rot and mold. Flint hoped these were not his final breaths.
    Last edited by Warpath; 12-29-12 at 03:58 PM.

  3. #3
    Wayward Scribe
    EXP: 24,427, Level: 6
    Level completed: 64%, EXP required for next level: 2,573
    Level completed: 64%,
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    Luned's Avatar

    Name
    Luned Bleddyn
    Age
    25
    Race
    Human
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    Lady
    Hair Color
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    Blue
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    As Luned approached, a tall figure clad in loose, dark clothing stepped out, feet silent and sure on the damp ground. It seemed to hesitate as it closed the door behind it and the scribe wondered if it noticed her, but it was difficult to tell as a black smoke she first mistook as shadow obscured the individual's countenance and blurred its movements, the shroud seeping from the room and trailing after as it dashed off down another tunnel. There was something large in its arms, but in the limited light, she couldn't make out the object.

    Panic set in and Luned dashed up to the door, but when she realized the original glow of a lamp was gone through the small window at the top of the heavy wooden barrier and was replaced by curls of black fog, her stomach sank. Something was wrong, and if she wanted her share of the Swaysong, she needed to act fast.

    "Hey!" Luned shouted, tearing a lantern off the wall and immediately taking off down the passage where the figure disappeared. She heard a shout muffled far behind her, likely the guard, but he was too distant to pursue as she could, so she continued with determination. The golden light she carried rippled strangely off the walls as it swung violently in her hand and the tunnel appeared to narrow as she went, eventually splitting into a fork. Luned cursed and slowed at this development until she saw that the villain's wet soles had marred the years of grime layered on the floor, footsteps leading clearly to the right.

    In hot pursuit, Luned thought she heard something stir down the way and let it hearten her into believing she might actually catch this person, though she hadn't the faintest what she'd do if she did. She didn't even rightly know why she was following, save the fact that she was quite certain something was amiss, and she was desperate enough for this substance that she'd do anything she could to procure any usable amount. Her future depended on it.

    Motivated by the bleak thought of life without the promise of Swaysong's power, Luned followed the passage as it dipped sharply and carried her further underground. As she splashed through an inch of stagnant water, mildew overwhelming her senses, she noticed that there were many openings along the walls, gaping mouths revealing endless esophagi to the unknown. To her relief these were too short to comfortably accommodate the escape of someone as tall as the figure she witnessed, more like oversized pipes, and she continued straight on until she entered a small chamber that functioned as an intersection of several larger tunnels.

    Stopping for even just a short moment reminded Luned just how out of breath she was, heart pounding against her ribcage as her lungs struggled for air. She gasped and wheezed in the dank stench of the sewer, intensified by the dead water that now reached her ankles, and she tried not to imagine what was in it and soaking her best pair of boots. Perhaps she'd need to place an order with Gravebeard, after all. Considering his fine craftsmanship, she allowed herself half a second to desperately wish that the current circumstances allowed her to be excited about new shoes. Alas, no such luck.

    When it finally seemed that the scribe had lost the fleeing figure, something caught the light of her lantern and glinted in the corner of her eye, far down the tunnel to the left. Emboldened, Luned took chase once again, splashing recklessly as she struggled to keep pace in sodden feet and drenched skirts, both beginning to weigh her down.

    "Wait!" she shouted hopelessly, calling to someone who could not hear, as no one was there. Tiring, Luned's pace slowed and she cursed, choice words hollered back at her as echoes from the far ends of the tunnel.

    Once again, out of the corner of her eye, the light of her lantern glinted off something quick-moving and much closer this time, a hot yellow speck flickering as whatever it was disappeared down another passage. Instead of feeling encouraged this time, Luned experienced an epiphany. That wasn't a person, and she didn't want to be there for the big reveal.

    Of course, as she learned in Salvar only months ago, fate was rarely on her side. No sooner than she turned to go back from whence she came, her lantern illuminated the entrance of a nearby tunnel, and within it lurked the essence of nightmares itself.

    For a moment all Luned's wide eyes could see was a pair of massive mandibles, large enough to pluck a limb from a man's body as if nothing more than a twig, dripping with an algae-green sludge. Shiny black eyes, big as her head, leered at her from a height well over her own, its arthropodal body reared atop more legs than she could see. They were coated in strange growths and provocatively violent spines that coated them like quills of hair, some large enough to puncture several major organs at once. Every inch of the scribe's body hurt just thinking about it.

    Its monolithic form seized, tensed, and it let out a horrific hiss that nearly burst her eardrums, sending her staggering backwards and against the wall. She nearly dropped the lantern and could've wept simply out of gratefulness that she didn't, if she wasn't so stricken with fear.

    It wasn't until the creature crept forward, previously collapsed body gaining a horrid amount of volume as it expanded to fill the larger tunnel, that Luned regained use of her extremities. With a shriek of sheer terror she took off, pushed to the limit as she struggled to run. She heard the growling scrape of the behemoth's exoskeleton against the structure as it followed close behind, too afraid to even consider looking back, to experience that visual again. She decided it wasn't facetious at all to speculate that she might drop dead on the spot from emotional trauma.

    In mid-flight Luned remembered the smaller pipelines from earlier, too short to stand and surely too cramped for a giant roach, but conveniently large enough for her to hide. As she neared the chamber intersection she felt a glimmer of hope, but just as the light she carried reached the open space, her foot caught on something and sent her face-first into the water. The lantern smashed, light extinguished with nothing more than one last plume of smoke, and the tunnel was plunged into inky blackness.

    Luned pulled herself up, coughing and peeling loose, wet hair out of her face, and took off running again in the darkness, knowing she couldn't afford to slow down. She felt frantically along the wall on the right, knowing all she needed was the next turn, hoping for salvation before she experienced an uglier fate than she ever could have imagined.
    • • • art

  4. #4
    Member
    EXP: 41,265, Level: 8
    Level completed: 70%, EXP required for next level: 2,735
    Level completed: 70%,
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    Warpath's Avatar

    Name
    Flint Skovik
    Age
    31
    Race
    Human
    Gender
    Male
    Hair Color
    Black
    Eye Color
    Hazel
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    6'4"/330 lbs

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    Flint was standing in a foot of green-brown water at the mouth of a metal tube, doubting. He glanced over his shoulder and considered his options, and told himself it wasn’t fear to run. There was cowardice, and there was prudence. Waste time chasing the unknown and getting lost in this wet, stifling hell, or get out and leave Alerar before Swanra’ann sorted out the mess and realized he was missing.

    A droplet struck the naked flesh of his scalp and ran down the back of his neck. He snuffed the reek of that place from his nostrils and forced himself forward. He couldn’t risk going back and running into any of the Queen’s men. He was unsure of what death lay before him, but all too knowledgeable of the death that lay behind.

    He followed two pairs of footprints. He’d been following them for awhile now. They’d been made by feet smaller than his, which meant neither could be Gareath. For awhile he thought there had been two thieves, but now he wasn’t sure. The second set never intersected the first.

    The tunnels were dark, but not without light. Some eerie luminance shone on the metallic walls of the tubes, and reflected on the surface of the water, though Flint couldn’t discern the source. The moss itself seemed to be infused with its own sickly glow, casting just enough light to safely see by – until it didn’t.

    Twice Flint had to double back after losing the trail in the dark, and both times he had to eliminate his own spoor. The second time was especially frustrating, because apparently he had walked over one of the trails without realizing it and marred it, and it took him a full minute to find where the proper set of footprints began again. They were wider spaced here. Were they running?

    The brute tensed as something sounded in the distance. At first he thought it a whisper and cringed, imagining some drowned ghost lurking behind him, seaweed in her hair and crab eggs in her empty eye-sockets, but after a horrible moment he realized it was coming from far off, echoed through the tunnels. He told himself it was the wind, and did his best to deny his humanity.

    “I don’t fear death,” he muttered under his breath. “I am fear.”

    He didn’t convince himself the first time, so he said it again. It was too dark to see the trail now, but he marched forward defiantly anyway. His boots squelched in what he hoped was mud, and the sound echoed all around him. Now the way before him was dark enough to be an outline, empty darkness held within a darker, tube-shaped, harder darkness. He refused to let himself stop.

    Something made a scraping noise once, so Flint stopped to listen. The silence left a ringing noise in his ears until the scraping noise returned again, echoing so that it was hard to tell but he was sure, so sure it was getting closer. He did not know from personal experience what bone scraping on metal sounded like – not yet anyway – but he imagined that noise was pretty close.

    There was no denying his humanity now. Flint turned, and he ran like hell.

    ----

    The animal part of Flint’s brain craved light, and he scrambled after it like a burning man after water. He fell again and again, slipping on mud and moss, tripping on uneven cuts and grooves in the metal tubes, until he was soaking wet and filthy and panting raggedly. He didn’t care where he was going, just so long as it was getting brighter – just so long as he could see the ghost chasing him.

    A moment came at last when he could stop and gather just enough detail from his surroundings not to feel utterly blind, and he let himself breathe, turning around in a slow circle. A new surge of fear welled up in him when he realized that he didn’t know where he was or how to get back, but this one he stamped down. He could see again, and as long as he continued moving toward the light –

    And then he saw the ghost. She flitted across the opening of a tunnel across from him, trailing sopping wet ropes of hair, her muddy skirts trailing behind her. He doubted his eyes, denied it, but her ragged breath echoed around him, strained by fear and exertion. He tensed, struggling to pinpoint where she would come from when she attacked, but of course she was a ghost, she could come from anywhere and it would always be behind him.

    He twisted, growling, sure to find her waiting for him, but she wasn’t.

    Instead, a monster loomed above him, drooling a mixture of brown slop and quivering green moss like the leaves off a weeping willow. Flint’s shoulders drooped and he cocked his head to one side, and his brain struggled to make sense of what he was seeing. Then it lurched toward him, raising two hard, hook-like legs to either side of him.

    It had mandibles, and too many blade-covered legs, and its body was hard and glimmered, and its eyes were like large, black, solid glass windows that dominated the sides of its head. He’d seen its kin a hundred thousand times in miniature, but it was so unnaturally huge that his animal brain couldn’t make the connection. Instead of reasoning it out, he did what he always did when he was afraid.

    He threw a punch.

    His knuckles met the surface of its left eye, and it was like punching very thick glass. Man and monster recoiled from one another – the monster because it had never been punched before, the man because he just punched a giant roach. Flint tensed, wanting to run but wanting more not to have this thing behind him. The monster worked its mandibles, turning its head in a twitchy, alien fashion from side to side, and then it hissed.

    The sound was deafening, crushing soul and body together, and Flint felt his legs go out from under him. The roach skittered forward opportunistically, its blade-legs clattering and thundering on the metal tube, and it loomed up again. Flint pressed his back against the lower part of the tube behind and underneath him and shoved both his feet up, catching the monster on the – what? chest? – just beneath its head. He grunted and pushed with his entire body, and in the process pinned the top of the monster to the ceiling of the sewer tunnel, and he held it there.

    The roach didn’t know what to make of this turn of events. Its front legs worked uselessly in the air, and it tried in vain to bite his legs, but they were too low and the monster didn’t have a neck to speak of, and its body was hard and inflexible. For a moment Flint thought he’d bought himself some breathing room and a chance to think, but the unholy thing finally figured out how to push its front legs against the sewer wall above his head, and it pushed itself away from him, sliding backward along the ceiling.

    “You fucker,” Flint growled, struggling to keep the thing pinned. “Stop it. Stop.”

    But it didn’t stop, so he let out a ragged scream and pushed with all of his might just as the roach redoubled its efforts, and the oversized pest tumbled onto its back. Flint scrambled away from it through the shallow water, slipping on slime, and risked a glance behind as he started running. The monster was waving its tremendous, bladed legs in the air, scraping them on the edges of the tunnel as it struggled to right itself.

    He took the tunnels at random, splashing and sputtering, until he turned a corner and caught sight of something moving in the dark ahead of him. He paused, and his eyes adjusted. He thought it was a dog at first, but it wasn’t. It had too many legs, and giant pincers attached to its head, and massive stalks that waved this way and that, and it turned to face him, and then he realized there were countless other stalks waving in the dark behind it.

    “Nope,” he said.

    He picked another way and ran, and got to the end of that tunnel before he collided with a smaller, softer figure. He bounced off the side of the tunnel, she fell in the water. It was the ghost, only she was solid, and the fear he felt inside was reflected on her face.

    “Not that way,” he said firmly. “Don’t go that way.”

    They ran together, instantly made family by their shared terror. They ran and ran, until suddenly they were sliding down a muddy hill, and they rolled onto cracked cobblestone beside a poorly lit warehouse. Flint was on his back and saw the sun shining dull yellow behind a layer of smog and he began to laugh.

    Filthy, reeking, soaking wet, bruised, scratched, and shivering – but alive.
    Last edited by Warpath; 01-24-13 at 05:45 PM.

  5. #5
    Wayward Scribe
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    Luned Bleddyn
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    Luned barely registered the abrupt change in scenery when the man next to her burst out laughing, his voice clear and full as it raised to the sky. The sky! She blinked at it, never so grateful to see something so dreary and overcast with smog. Gradually the scribe uncoiled herself from the fetal position and peeled herself off the pavement, allowing herself a few slow, deep breaths to calm the tremors of fear, and wiped some tangles out of her face. Her braids had come loose and her long, dark hair was impossibly snarled, plastered against her soaked clothes with she didn't even want to know what, and she knew it wasn't even worth digging out her ticket home because it wouldn't take ink legibly until properly dried.

    That, and she came here for Swaysong, and she was not leaving Ettermire without it.

    With a few choice curses at the realization that she'd ruined this opportunity to obtain some –– hell, she didn't know why she chased that figure, other than a hunch –– Luned lifted herself to her feet, awakening all sorts of aches and pains as adrenaline wore off. She groaned as she attempted to right her clothing somewhat, wondering if any reputable inn would take in a drowned sewer rat, and then glanced over to Flint, her unlikely comrade in this bizarre situation. She didn't recognize him but his distinct silhouette certainly didn't match up to the mystery person who fled with the package, and he was obviously just as bewildered by this whole experience as herself.

    Going out on a limb, as the laughing subsided and he composed himself, Luned spoke up. "They got it, didn't they?"

    Her question reaffirmed Flint's suspicion of her identity. He pulled himself to his feet, not bothering to spend futile energy on tidying his appearance as she had as there wasn't much one could do when drenched head to toe in sewage. The man nodded simply to answer her question.

    "Damn. I saw them," Luned explained with a furrowed brow, "But whoever it was knows the tunnels very well."

    Flint contemplated briefly under an expert poker face. "Do you have enemies who may have wished to intervene?"

    The scribe's gaze rose questioningly and it was apparent she was striving to maintain composure in spite of the chill that was settling over Ettermire with impending dusk, the breeze much sharper through soaked clothing. She hugged herself. "I can't imagine. No one could possibly know I'm here, anyhow."

    Having hoped this entire ordeal was Luned's fault to save his own hide, Flint was somewhat disappointed in her response. She didn't seem the type to lie but, then again, she was certainly the type to purchase illicit goods from the black market, so who was he to assume such things? Either way, they had a common problem. Before he could speak up, she continued.

    "We have to get it back." Her words sounded pleading, but there was something behind those concerned blue eyes that hinted at an unhealthy level of determination, the type of resolve that sent a scrawny girl into the belly of a strange city's monster-plagued sewers. Resolve that said, without a doubt, she'd go back to get what she needed.

    It was amusing, and Flint humored her as he checked inventory of his belongings. "We were caught in a smoke illusion, and when we came out of it, everything was gone. The thief must be a wizard or––"

    "Smoke? Did it smell like anything?"

    This question surprised Flint and he considered it carefully. "Sulfur, perhaps? Subtle, but recognizable. It came from a vial."

    Luned's lips moved as she mentally ran through what she remembered of an alchemy text, arms wrapped tightly around herself as if attempting to hold in whatever warmth was left. She was shivering. "Alchemy. So, how are we going to track this person down?"

    Flint could've laughed again. We? Before he could articulate a response, however, there was a sound from the pipe opening nearby, and both of the unlikely duo tensed and crossed their hearts through clenched teeth that they hadn't led anything to the surface.
    Last edited by Luned; 01-02-13 at 09:42 PM.
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  6. #6
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    Name
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    Flint tensed, poised to run like hell. There was just a little surge of adrenaline now, enough to chase off the fresh aches and pains but not enough to cause panic. After all, he was outside those horrid tunnels now. If anything from down there came into his world, he was convinced he could easily escape it on the city streets.

    He whipped around, expecting to see waving feelers or the front pair of the roach’s bladed legs to emerge from the pipe. Instead, a tiny silhouette stood there, still and staring. It was an Aleraran child, small and dressed in mismatched and oversized clothing, and she stood in the mouth of the pipe as if she’d always been there.

    There was something off about her, but Flint didn’t particularly want to see a child gobbled up by a giant roach. “Hello,” he said. Even his greetings sounded like a threat. He inwardly winced, and he saw his new companion glance at him sidelong.

    “Hi,” the girl-child said. “I’m Helethra.”

    “Hello, Helethra, my name is Luned,” his companion said. “And this is…um…”

    “Flint.”

    “Flint,” Luned said, and nodded. “You shouldn’t be in there, it’s very dangerous.”

    “I know,” Helethra said, in the tone of all children caught doing something they oughtn’t. “But all my friends are down there. We saw you running away.”

    “There are more children in there?” Flint said, narrowing his eyes.

    “No,” Helethra said, and she giggled just a little. “That’s stupid.”

    Flint frowned behind his beard and puffed his chest out a bit, but Luned thankfully stepped in again before he could send the girl running straight into certain death.

    “Helethra, do you live around here?”

    The child nodded cautiously, perhaps sensing that these strange, filthy adults were trying to tempt her away from the sewers.

    “Well, I’m not from around here,” Luned said, “and I think we’re lost. Do you think you could show us where you live?”

    “Oh yes!” Helethra said, delighted to show off. “Come on, I’ll take you there! I know the way.”

    The girl bounded down the hill from the pipe, drawing a relieved breath from the duo of adults, and then she began stomping in puddles down a narrow alleyway between two warehouses. Now that she was out of the shadow of the pipe, they saw that she was wearing an overlarge and mud-spattered cloak, and boots that must have been four or five sizes too big. She was very dirty, with large, dark splotches all over her hands and face, and just as they got a chance to examine her she abruptly stopped and pulled her hood up.

    “I forgot,” she said. “Gotta put my hood on outside so I don’t get sick. Mom says. Come on, I’ll show you how to get home, it’s this way. I know how to get all over the place.”

    Flint made a grumbling noise under his breath from behind, but when Luned began to follow the girl, he trailed along too. He saw in her posture that she was relieved, and he wondered if she realized how little choice he had. Swanra’ann would never have him killed in the presence of a buyer.

    Flint chewed on that as they walked, silent as Helethra began to chatter on about who lived in what house and whether or not they were very mean. He glanced over at his companion, and saw that same unflinching resolve in her eyes, even as she shivered. He was safe from the Queen of the Pit at Luned’s side, and she obviously knew far more about alchemy than he could guess.

    The problem was, this slight young madwoman would rush back into those sewers the second she had a chance. Flint suppressed a shudder.

    Swanra’ann or the sewer? It isn’t often that one gets to choose the manner of his grisly murder.

    ----

    Flint expected a child that played in the sewers to lead them to her home in a shantytown somewhere on the outskirts of the factory district. Instead she led them up out of the slums and into that strange place where the library neighborhood joined the factory neighborhood, where the people live in tenements on one street and in lofts on the next.

    Flint and Luned, despite being filthy, passed fine and unnoticed amongst the factory-folk, but here they stood out strange, and not just because they were wet and coated in industrial sewage. They were human, short, ill-dressed, and they were obediently following a child, who gleefully leapt into oily puddles with both boots no matter how many times she had to apologize for splashing them.

    Ultimately Helethra stopped at the stoop of a large, stately building, all tower windows and hulking marble pillars. “We’re here!” she announced. Then she paused and looked at them, and put on a thoughtful face. Flint looked at her closely while he could, and decided that the splotches on her face and neck stood out from her skin and were not dirt. They reminded him of the craggy bumps that sometimes grow on the roots of trees.

    “You guys are really dirty,” Helethra told them. “We should go in the back way, or everybody’s gonna get mad at you. Come on.”

    Luned and Flint traded a look, and then followed Helethra down the side of the building, until they came upon a recessed door low in the foundation. Helethra opened the door, and then turned around and said, “Wait here, okay?” and then disappeared inside without waiting for a response.

    “Come with me,” Flint said. “I have some money stashed away. We’ll recover it, and then plan our next move.”

    “Wait,” Luned said. “Didn’t you see the sign above the front door?”

    “I don’t read elf,” Flint said bluntly.

    “This is a museum of medical oddities. It said they have an exhibit on the effects of the city’s industry on underground wildlife. Doesn’t that sound familiar to you?”

    Flint shrugged, and said, “How does that help us recover the –"

    And then the door opened again, and a very tall dark elf stepped forward.

    “Valsharess keep us,” she said breathlessly.

    “I know, they’re really dirty,” Helethra said. “That’s how they were when I found them in the sewer and I told them it’s really dangerous. They were lost and I helped! His name is Mr. Flint and her name is Missus Looney.”

    “Luned,” Luned gently corrected. “I apologize for our appearance, ma’am, we’ve just…”

    The dark elf woman glanced from Flint to Luned and back again, with eyes wide and breath held, and then she exhaled and seemed to regain her wits. “Not at all,” she said at last, “I owe you my gratitude. Helethra has been told to stay away from the sewers…”

    “I wasn’t!” Helethra cried. “They were in the sewers, I told you.”

    The mother sighed. “My name is Ezura,” she said. “Please, come in. Let’s get you warmed up. It’s the least I can do.”
    Last edited by Warpath; 01-04-13 at 03:28 PM.

  7. #7
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    The back led into a narrow hallway, long and dark, the odor of a strange chemical heavy in the air. Ezura led them to the second door on the right which opened into a laboratory of sorts, the stench even more pungent within. When Luned saw the numerous jars lining shelves on the light-studded walls and a well-used work space with an elaborate setup of intricate medical tools, she knew exactly what it was: formaldehyde. Everything was well-stocked, and there was an open cabinet filled with various substances in vessels of varying shapes and sizes, all labeled clearly. Some Luned recognized, some she didn't, but many were familiar from medical and scientific texts she'd perused in the past. On a whim, she scanned it for the ingredients she knew to be in a basic smoke bomb, but wasn't surprised when she didn't see them. That would be too easy.

    A corner of the room was set up as a cozy living space, complete with an oversized armchair and various forms of entertainment from toys to books splayed out on a plush rug, and Luned immediately understood their lifestyle. With a mother who worked long hours, she imagined that a bundle of energy such as Helethra could only spend so long cooped up in a lab before acting out and finding entertainment in the secret places of the city. She'd probably be tempted to do the same in that situation, seeing as the stink had all but knocked her socks off, but there was Helethra pulling her by the sleeve, not even noticing it. Perhaps the girl's sense of smell was permanently dulled from growing up in this environment, and that was why the sewers were more hospitable to her than regular folk.

    Soon Helethra had Luned positioned in front of a metal contraption, held up by pipes that receded into the walls, which radiated a blissful amount of heat. She was accustomed to fireplaces but it made sense to avoid large amounts of open flame in a place where dangerously flammable substances were used in such volume. She held her hands up to it and felt she could've melted, it was such an immense relief.

    "You too, Mr. Flint," Helethra insisted, strolling up to the man who'd brought up the rear with quietly concerned Ezura. He'd stayed toward the back, having made the mistake of looking at the jars close enough to identify the contents: the one closest to him, sitting on a shelf at eye-level, was an elven fetus floating in a clear solution, with little red eyes which seemed to watch him no matter where he was in the room. It creeped him out more than he liked to admit. Behind that was a similarly suspended corpse of a puppy with half of an extra head. "That's Bruno," Helethra explained, pointing up at it and tapping her little brown finger on the glass. "I wanted to keep him, but he died. Mom said it wasn't natural, but I dunno, I think he's cute. Look, he's smiling!" Sure enough, the corners of the lips on the fully developed head curled upwards into the grim grin of lockjaw, tiny teeth bared. When Helethra leveraged herself on the floor and used her body weight to shove Flint playfully on the back toward the heater, he allowed it, but he still felt the eyes of that fetus following him. It prickled the hairs on the back of his neck.

    Ezura was gracious enough, but not the warmest hostess. She stood, her willowy figure slightly bent over them with hands clasped in front of her as if not quite sure what to do with them. She seemed to be a rather uptight woman, her dirty blonde hair pulled up into a severe bun, forehead creased from years of vexation. Her skin was beautiful, though, a few shades deeper than her daughter's with a warm purple undertone that Luned was desperate to remember for the next time she mixed colors. Meanwhile, the elf seemed to struggle with hospitality. "Would you like some hot tea?"

    Refreshments from a rancid-smelling laboratory weren't appetizing in the least to either of the guests, both imagining something questionable served up in a beaker. Flint shook his head and opened his mouth, but as if afraid he might say something rude, Luned spoke over him.

    "We noticed the sign outside," she volunteered, seizing this opportunity to get some information through small talk. "We've never been to a museum like this before, it sounds interesting."

    "Ah, yes," Ezura replied. A soft smile played on her deep red-violet lips and her posture relaxed somewhat, as if relieved to speak on a comfortable subject. "Would you like to see it? If you come back tomorrow when we're open, I'd be more than happy to give you a tour as thanks."

    "That might be nice, we'd appreciate it." Luned smiled back, polite but friendly. "What is the special exhibit like?"

    "Well, Bruno here is a prime example," Ezura said as she nodded toward the deceased dog. "It was only a matter of time before Ettermire's technology began to work against the ecosystem, and at this point our city is ravaged by pollution." She reached out and ran her hand over her daughter's pale hair, smoothing it affectionately. "If we want to make it a safe place for our children, we need to create laws to improve conditions. Our research is the first step to awareness."

    Meanwhile, Helethra stuck her fingers in her ears and wagged her head from side to side, silently mouthing words as if all too accustomed to her mother's speech.

    "That's not very nice, Hel," Ezura said, sharply this time. She gently pried one hand away from her daughter's head, and in the better light, Luned and Flint finally got a good look at the strange, bark-like protrusions in the girl's skin. "You know I do it for you."

    "Yeah, yeah," Helethra sighed, plopping to the floor where she organized her toys on the carpet. Her dolls were all creatively mangled, limbs transplanted from one to another and drawn on with strange patterns, but all wearing exquisitely sewn dresses. She selected one with several heads and a dozen threads tied to her clothing like little tails, and tugged on Flint's muddy pant leg. "Wanna meet my friends?"

    The hulk of a man grimaced as he looked down over his crossed arms, hoping whatever was wrong with her wasn't contagious. "No."

    "How about when we come back tomorrow," Luned said, smoothing over the wrinkle in friendship Flint had caused with his gruff response. "Right now we have to go home."

    "Yeah, you guys really need a bath," Helethra nodded with certainty.

    The scribe crouched down briefly to meet Helethra's green gaze. "Thanks for helping us out. You be careful and listen to your mother, alright?"

    This struck a note and the silly smile left the girl's face. She pursed her lips, little brow furrowed, and looked back down at her toys in avoidance.

    A bit stumped by Helethra's reaction, Luned shrugged it off as she stood and looked to the other adults. Lack of mention of giant monsters when discussing the exhibit had her second-guessing whether she should ask Ezura about them and the last thing she wanted to do was entice a mother into that death pit, so she let it be.

    "Speaking of baths, please go upstairs and get cleaned up," Ezura shooed her morose daughter. "I'll meet you in a minute." With a theatrical groan, Helethra obeyed, but not without gathering her dolls into her arms first. It was quite a bulk, but she managed as she awkwardly toddled out the door without dropping any. The child didn't bid her new acquaintances good bye, evidence of a thoroughly darkened mood.

    Ezura walked them out as Helethra scampered down the hall in the opposite direction. When the girl was out of earshot, she spoke quietly, looking between both of her guests. "May I ask how you came to be…?" Instead of elaborating, she glanced to their mussed clothing.

    Flint spoke up this time, less interested in treading lightly than Luned. "We were hired to map the sewers and encountered an... obstacle. Are you aware of just what exactly is lurking underground?"

    The woman hesitated, resting her hands in the pockets of her lab coat, then nodded. "I have heard some strange things, stranger than the specimens we collected for our exhibit, though I haven't seen them firsthand. I didn't believe them at first, but now that you mention it, I wonder…" She trailed off, but it seemed she was preoccupied by the thought of something different than horrific creepy crawlies the size of livestock.

    "It's not pretty down there," Luned said, frowning. "I know it's not my place to say this, but you might want to take more drastic measures to keep Hel safe. I can't bring myself to imagine what would happen if she got down there."

    Instead of becoming defensive in receiving child-rearing advice from someone less than half her age, Ezura merely sighed and nodded in defeat. "She's got her father's spirit, that's for sure, and it feels wrong to dampen it... but you're right. And please, if there's anything I can do to help –– not that I can imagine what –– let me know."

    Flint nodded and stepped out the door, but as Luned followed, they were interrupted one last time. "If you find anything and manage to get it under control," Ezura ventured, her hand insistent on the scribe's shoulder as she looked to Flint, "Could you bring it back here? I think that's what this city needs –– evidence of something truly terrible. Then they'll wake up and understand what we're doing to ourselves. We will compensate you for your trouble, of course."

    The request made sense, and Flint nodded again. "We'll see."

    The door closed behind Ezura and the snaps of multiple deadbolts could be heard from the other side as she locked up for the evening. It only took a few moments outside for the chill to set in through damp clothes once more, and Luned hugged herself as they walked around the building back to the street. A vague amount of color was visible through the smokey clouds on the horizon; it was getting late, and Helethra was right. All Luned really wanted at this point was a bath. She was patient and tired enough to wait until tomorrow for the next leg of the investigation, all the while unaware of the serious debacle Flint had found himself in. Apparently she was still trusting and naive enough to welcome a team effort when, normally, she'd be shit out of luck. Well, either that or roach feast.

    "I have some money," she said, keeping her voice low, "But where's your stash? Is it easy to get to?"

    Last edited by Luned; 01-29-13 at 11:56 PM.
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  8. #8
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    Flint absently wiped his palms on his pants as he considered Luned’s query. The museum left his skin feeling dirtier than the drying sewer-water, and the smeared mud was, at least, something that could be washed away.

    “That’s a good question,” he told her after a moment. “We won’t know until we try.”

    Luned might have thought to question that, but Flint was already wandering away, abstractly studying one of his hands. He was muttering to himself, but she didn’t catch any of it except the word “smiling.”

    ----

    Flint led her back into the slums while the sun finished setting, and the sickly yellow sky blackened. As night fell it might have become easier to forget the smog, except for the eerie street lamps. Ragged children ran the streets with strange candles affixed to long poles, which they used to light the lamps one by one. The light from them was anemic and shivery, and they were high enough above the street to reach into the lowest layer of smog. Behind the haze they looked like tiny, malnourished suns suspended in uniform lines above the streets.

    The brute began to take the back alleys, and without realizing it he adopted a full swagger. Looking at him, it was easy to believe he owned the dark corners of Ettermire. The truth was, he was searching the dark corners and doing his damndest to look too hard to be worth the effort. This is where the predators lived.

    He slowed his pace and half-turned, waiting for Luned to catch up and come closer.

    “Stay very close to me,” he said lowly. “You look…vulnerable.”

    Her eyes tried to argue with him, but her flat hair, waterlogged dress, and tightly crossed arms supported his point. He hoped he wore his own layer of grime better, but he always had a hard time figuring what people saw when they looked at him.

    “Head down,” he said, and then he plunged in.

    They rounded the corner out of the alley and onto a street filled with loitering dark elves, each swarthy hide smeared with soot, except for the women closer to the building they were approaching. Their skins were clean, and most of it was bared. They had painted smiles for Flint as he passed, but only sneers and leers for Luned.

    They slipped through a doorway then, and into a noisy general room with more cigar smoke than oxygen. Someone inside that cloud was playing the piano to one side of them, and to the other someone else was playing a string instrument, and each seemed determined to drown out the other with different songs. It was a tavern of sorts, or an inn, or a brothel, or everything all together, or perhaps what it was had never been defined. Alcohol and more illicit things flowed freely, and they weren’t halfway across the room before Luned saw one dwarf stab another with a broken bottle.

    Every time they passed someone too close, Flint slowed his pace a fraction of a degree and pressed his back against her before twisting to allow the stranger to pass. It happened twice before she realized he was shielding her from sight as much as possible. It was not an easy feat, because most of these patrons were tall elves, and he was not much taller than she. Still, it seemed to work. She knew better than to look over her shoulder to be sure.

    They reached and ascended a staircase, which was densely populated with people, and it was impossible to go unnoticed. “Hey there,” someone said in her ear, speaking Aleraran. Flint shoved him back, and they ascended a little faster. The crowd thinned at the top, and Luned could see more of the scantily-clad dark elves leaning over the railing there, calling to patrons below.

    They turned a corner down a long hallway, and the discordant noise from below was just slightly muffled. Flint risked a glance back at her, and gave her the slightest nod, eyes hard. Almost there.

    They stopped in front of a wooden door. There might have been numbers on the doors once, but they were long gone, and the discolored white paint was peeling in long strips. How Flint chose the door was beyond Luned, but he did, testing the knob. It was locked, but it took no effort at all for him to force it. Had he asked her, Luned could have done it.

    They entered a dark room, which looked as if it had suffered a minor fire once, but had never been repaired. There was no furniture, and the mirror on the wall was so deeply coated in soot that it could be mistaken for a painting. Flint didn’t bother closing the door, perhaps because the only source of light came from the hallway, which illuminated a bare mattress in the corner. There was an Aleraran elf passed out on it, soaked in cheap booze and vomit but breathing, and still clutching a bottle by the neck. Flint dragged the mattress off to the side and the elf did not stir.

    Once the mattress was out of the way, Flint tore up a loose floorboard and reached beneath, and then produced a handful of long, rectangular papers covered in tight script and stamped sigils. He flipped through them, stuffed them into his belt and then, with some great effort, opened the window.

    “You first,” he said.

    Luned looked from the window to the man and back again, thought about going back down through the bar, and then promptly crawled out through the window onto the roof. Flint glanced over his shoulder, wondering if Swanra’ann’s headhunters spotted him in the tavern, and then followed her out.

    -----
    “You know,” Luned said when they were good and far away from the tavern, once Flint stopped looking over his shoulder every four steps, “when you mentioned your stash, I was worried you kept it in the sewers. Now I think that might have actually been preferable.”

    “Apologies,” Flint said. He either didn’t mean it, or didn’t apologize very often. Or ever.

    “Next time, I think I’ll find a nice quiet spot and wait outside.”

    “Wasn’t safe.”

    “Yeah, it would have to be a few blocks away, but still…”

    Flint shook his head. “For me,” he said.

    “What do you…?”

    “Come.”

    ----

    Luned might have considered giving Flint a stronger piece of her mind, imposing though he might be, except that he took her straight to a train station. The noise from the steam engine and the rattling tracks prevented any mind-sharing, and he didn’t seem to understand dirty looks, and the need was supplanted by curiosity when they left the train on the posh side of town.

    Once they reached the inn, she forgot why she was angry with him. First she was afraid they were going to be thrown out for tracking sewage on the luxurious carpet, and then Flint handed over one of his strange slips and they became “Sir and Madam” and were whisked to adjoining rooms, and they were informed that their baths were ready, and would they like dinner delivered, and please, allow us to supply a change of clothes, how dreadful.

    Before she knew it, Luned was submerged in the largest bathtub she’d ever seen, and the friendliest elves she’d ever met were scrubbing her back for her no matter how much she protested. They washed her hair with sweet-smelling shampoos, combed it with exactly one-hundred strokes over three sections, dried it with a terrifying elven contraption that spat hot air, and then braided it just the way she liked. They fed her a three-course meal right after her bath, and would have brought more if she hadn’t insisted that she was full.

    It was a whirlwind of unexpected, all-too-sudden events, and at the end of it she found herself sitting in the fluffiest bath robe known to the civilized races at a table across from Flint. He was similarly attired, which was objectively hilarious. The robes were robin’s egg blue, and he looked very sullen.

    “That’s…that’s some stash.”

    “Yes,” Flint said. “I’ve done well for myself in Alerar, especially in the boxing houses. The elves seem to equate height with strength; it gives me a distinct advantage. Nobody bets on the short man. Good odds.”

    “Thank you,” Luned said. She was much better at being sincere than he was.

    “Hmm,” Flint said. He didn’t tell her that he’d chosen this place because it was the last place Swanra’ann would look for him. Best she didn’t know how much leverage she had over him.

    “We should have some sort of plan,” Luned said.

    Flint shifted, and looked up at her. He frowned when he saw that now-familiar look in her eyes. The resolve. She was going into the sewers, and he was not going to be able to stop her. He briefly wondered if he could somehow convince her to accompany him to the docks first, or the trans-Salvic train station.

    Instead, he said, “we’ll need light.”

    “Lamps won’t do. Trust me.”

    “Perhaps something alchemical,” he offered. “You seem familiar with the art, and there are dozens of supply shops in the area.”

    Luned brightened at that. “Of course! I’ll need to make a list of ingredients, and I’ll need supplies...”

    Flint nodded thoughtfully. “The bill of exchange I gave them was enough for two nights. If we forgo one, I’m sure the staff would gather everything you need in the morning. If the potions are common enough, we could have them purchased directly. I would prefer to enter the tunnels as early as possible, if we must.”

    Luned furrowed her brow. “Look, I appreciate everything you’ve done already. Honestly, I don’t really know why you’ve come this far with me. I can’t ask you to go down there…”

    “But you are going,” Flint said.

    Luned nodded.

    “Then we are going.”

    “Why?”

    “Call it professional courtesy. It will be difficult in Ettermire with a black mark like this on my reputation. The closest thing we have to a lead is down in the sewers, and I don’t know how we’ll get the Swaysong back without returning there.”

    “This time we’ll be ready,” Luned said. “And hey, maybe we can catch one of those things and they can put it in a giant jar and…”

    Flint’s eyes got a little wider.

    “That’s a joke.”

    “He was smiling,” Flint said distantly, and he slowly shook his head.

    ---

    When they finished discussing their plans for the morning, Flint returned to his room to find a message waiting for him. Inside the envelope was a single sheet of paper folded into thirds. When he unfolded it, there was a single line of text written in fine, thin, simple letters.

    Gareath sends his love. See you soon.

    Flint turned the letter over, and began writing a list. When he finished, he summoned one of the inn’s staff and handed it over.

    “Add this to the lady’s shopping list. I know these things are outside your normal purview,” he said, “but there’s extra in it for you if you find it all before morning.”

    And then he went to bed and, to his later surprise, slept well.

  9. #9
    Wayward Scribe
    EXP: 24,427, Level: 6
    Level completed: 64%, EXP required for next level: 2,573
    Level completed: 64%,
    EXP required for next level: 2,573

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    Luned's Avatar

    Name
    Luned Bleddyn
    Age
    25
    Race
    Human
    Gender
    Lady
    Hair Color
    Chestnut
    Eye Color
    Blue
    Build
    5'4"/Average
    Job
    Chronicler

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    Luned didn't sleep quite as well as Flint did. The moment she hit the down comforter she was out like a light, not even making it underneath the blankets, and she was dead to the world for several dreamless hours before the anxiety in her subconscious sent her tossing and turning. The scribe was jolted awake well before sunrise, the unfamiliar bed all it took to bring her back to Salvar, and she opened her eyes gasping for air as the all too real feeling of the baron's weight on top of her brought back all the reasons she'd come to Ettermire in unnecessary detail. Sitting up retrieved a vision of his face skewered against the pillow next to her, hot, crimson blood pouring vividly from a gaping tear in his cheek, and she scrambled out of bed with the sudden urge to vomit.

    She collapsed onto the chair at the nearby vanity, leaning over the porcelain wash basin, but nothing happened except some chest-rattling coughing as labored breathing caused her to choke up. Deliberately slow, counted breaths calmed her after a few long moments, and when the overwhelming embarrassment and frustration subsided, she dared to look up and view herself in the mirror.

    In the dim streetlight filtered through cracks in the heavy curtains, everything was bathed in a murky gray-blue that reminded Luned of her old faded uniform. It made her skin look paler than usual, almost translucent, and what substance her figure had was diminished under the impossibly plush robe. Dark circles made her eyes look bigger, younger. Flint had called her vulnerable, and she was angry to admit he was right. The person who stared back at her wasn't the person she desperately wished it could be.

    She was haunted by the previous day's failure but today was the day she would obtain Swaysong, the means to absolve her past and liberate her future.

    Luned Bleddyn would never, ever be helpless again.



    After a solid eight hours of perfectly restful sleep, Flint blinked awake to the disturbance of a voice on the other side of the door across from his bed. It took about a quarter of a second to remember where he was, half of one to recognize the offensively colored robe he was tangled in, and about two more to register the identity of the distant speaker and what she was saying.

    "No, no, no…" Luned wailed, panicked but hushed, the whisper of someone in imminent danger. "No, stop!" The last word was frighteningly high-pitched even when muffled through a wall and, convinced a blade commissioned by Swanra'ann was at her neck, Flint flew out of bed with speed he didn't know he had in him. After grabbing the closest weapon he kicked in the door, unwilling to afford the time to see if it was locked or not, and barged in ready to set fury upon whatever offender was on the other side.

    Instead of impending doom, he found Luned doing an astounding impression of a deer caught in the headlights. She had stopped what she was doing just to gape at him in astonishment, then quickly resumed smothering a minuscule chemical fire on a coffee table with one of the hotel's undoubtedly more-expensive-than-she's-worth pillows.

    It was too early for this, and Flint was not amused. He was so visibly infuriated that Luned thought he might go after her with the blade he was white-knuckling as he failed to lower it from ready position.

    "Wait," she said, tossing the charred pillow aside to continue her experiment. "I've almost got it."

    "What do you mean, almost?"

    "Just wait!" Luned knelt back down at the table where she had an array of supplies set out, tubes and solutions and bits of metal and funnels and other such things he had no use for, and went about crafting a potion in a fresh vial. It was at this point that Flint noticed the shards of broken glass strewn across the floor about her workstation, the dark stains from smoke plumes on the ceiling above, and the heavily singed corner of bed canopy nearby. She seemed not to notice any of it, every bit of her concentration gathered in the contents of whatever vile concoction she was mixing. Ammonia was not a refreshing scent to wake up to.

    Flint briefly contemplated that being this disgruntled mere seconds after waking couldn't be good for his health. They were already entrenched in a dire mess and here this woman was, digging them deeper. "And how will we pay for these damages?"

    Not bothering to look up from the task at hand, Luned gestured to the vanity next to the door. On the table were her belongings, meticulously laid out to dry properly, including a battered leather journal, even more tattered red book, what appeared to be the mangled remains of a ticket of sorts, and some scattered writing utensils. There was also a rather bulky-looking coin purse. Flint picked it up, found it surprisingly heavy, and turned it over to dump some level of ransom of gold onto the polished wood. It wasn't enough for a king or even an ugly princess, but maybe a favorite minstrel, and that was a hell of a lot more than he'd pegged her for, that was for sure.

    "You said you had some money," Flint said with a stern glare.

    Luned didn't notice the pointed look; she was busy sealing the vial, a precise procedure which consisted of installing a cap and then dipping it in wax to make it completely airtight. "Well, I was thinking, and if I have to go looking for that stuff, I should at least get a discount. I mean, seriously. So I don't need all of it now." When finished she fanned it to harden the seal, then stood on bare feet and picked her way in a successful but cringe-worthy manner over the shards and wreckage to where Flint stood. He was still glaring.

    "Here. For you." She was afraid he wouldn't let her, but she was able to pry the knife from his grasp and replace it with the vial. It contained three carefully layered liquids of different colors and viscosities, as well as some metallic shavings that floated in a merry patch of glitter on top. "Shake it."

    After seeing the disaster area caused by her previous experimentations, Flint was more than skeptical –– he simply wasn't going to do it. "No."

    With an exasperated sigh, Luned took it back and did the honors. Within a few seconds it began to glow, softly at first, but after about thirty seconds it rose to a staggering level of brightness, all elements thoroughly incorporated. She offered it again, and this time Flint accepted.

    He looked at it suspiciously. "How long does it last?"

    With a shrug, Luned tightened the tie on her robe-turned-lab coat nonchalantly. "We'll find out. I'll make a handful of them for each of us, as many as we have supplies for. Just be careful if you break one by accident, the fumes will knock you out faster than... well... you know."

    Suddenly the vial began to radiate an intense amount of heat. Flint inhaled sharply and involuntarily dropped the glow stick like a hot potato, which landed with a soft thud on the carpeted floor. "What the fuck? They're useless if we can't carry them without––"

    "No, I can fix it! I just used too much by accident, I'll try half an ounce this time," Luned trailed off vaguely as she stooped and picked it up with the sleeve of her robe to carry it back to her makeshift lab.

    At this point Flint was reflexively rubbing one of his temples and made the executive decision to remove himself from the situation. "I'll go order breakfast. Make sure no one gets in and sees this mess, got that?"

    As he departed he saw Luned take a swig from one of the vials from the corner of his eye, then did a double-take just in time to see her refill it from a miniature teapot. The actual serving cup appeared to be filled with an unidentifiable substance that had bubbled over into the saucer, likely the dumping grounds for the failed tests. Flint groaned, feeling queasy at the thought of Ezura's lab, and shut the door behind him.




    To Flint's relief they got out of the hotel before the damages were discovered, though they left enough of Luned's hoard to cover that and more. They just simply couldn't handle more confrontations in this already complication-filled day.

    Breakfast had begun surprisingly light-hearted, Luned the victim of a few harsh competency-related jabs which she quickly turned back on him, and included a riveting retelling of her distressing encounter with the hairdryer the night before. Flint left her in suspense when she asked if they used it on his beard to go back to his room to get ready, and she did the same after she had her fill of the rib-sticking spread that had been laid out for them.

    Clearly that intermission was simply the culmination of denial over their destination, and getting changed into their new sets of clothes and donning their clean equipment was enough to completely change their mindsets.

    Something Luned had snuck onto the shopping list the night before was a small amount of waxed canvas, which she used to tightly wrap her paper-based belongings into a water resistant package. This she tucked into the most secure pocket of her new Aleran-style jacket, something she knew she would be sorry to ruin, but the inn help had reassured her that her original garments did not made it through the wash in a wearable state. Such was the fate of impractical clothing, she accepted with a sigh, and vowed never to choose vanity over utility again. Her "pretty" days were short-lived, and she'd mourn them appropriately when she got home… if she got home.

    Mood suitably darkened and prepared for the horrors that laid ahead, Luned met up with Flint, and they were off for round two of the sewer investigation.
    Last edited by Luned; 01-29-13 at 11:55 PM.
    • • • art

  10. #10
    Member
    EXP: 41,265, Level: 8
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    Level completed: 70%,
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    Warpath's Avatar

    Name
    Flint Skovik
    Age
    31
    Race
    Human
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    Flint was pleased. These were undoubtedly the most comfortable boots he’d ever owned, and perhaps the most functional. They still needed to be tested, but he’d been assured that they were fully waterproof and, as a bonus, the treads would help him keep his footing on slippery surfaces. They’d brought him trousers too, stuff normally reserved for the Aleraran military, and was said to resist tearing and staining and dry quickly. They’d taken more than the clothing’s worth, to be sure, but Flint believed them when they said it was difficult to find things in his size. And that was ignoring the more…unethical goods he’d requested. He made a note of the inn’s name for the future.

    Luned was similarly attired, and the brute was quietly impressed. Sans five pounds of muck and water, and suitably uniformed, the little scribe was the picture of health and vivacity. He was sure it helped that she wasn’t slowly freezing to death, too. She wore her elfish jacket well, or at least better than he did his – it was tight at the back and shoulders. He forgave himself for being unfashionable, because his jacket was covered in pockets, and those pockets were full of useful things. He hoped the things in Luned’s pockets were going to be useful too, but it wasn’t just his boots that were untested.

    The sky did not mirror their youthful resolve, being yellow-grey and dark. Flint wondered if that meant rain. He hoped not. Ettermire was a dry place and unaccustomed to any precipitation at all, which was why puddles gathered so readily and refused to fully evaporate. Even a little rain would undoubtedly form murky rivers in the sewer tunnels, and Flint did not want to imagine what grotesqueries might make their home in the waterways under Ettermire. Trying not to think about it made him think of looking down into one such sewer river and seeing Bruno float past.

    “I wonder how busy the train station is today,” he muttered suddenly.

    “Hmm?” Luned said.

    “Nothing,” Flint said. “I wish the Alerarans weren’t so possessive of their firearms. I had a rifle in my hands yesterday. I should have kept it.”

    “It wouldn’t do us much good in the sewers anyway,” Luned said. “Too hard to keep the gunpowder dry.”

    “More rules,” Flint sighed. “I don’t know how you keep it all straight. What must be kept dry and what will kill when swallowed.”

    “Gunpowder for the first one,” Luned said. “Swaysong for the second.”

    “And here I was just thinking about how refreshing it looked in those little bottles.”

    “Vials.”

    Flint muttered.

    -----

    There were surely many ways to get into the sewers, but they knew firsthand how easy it was to lose one’s way down there. They knew of three entrances that were at least relatively safe and close to where the Swaysong was lost: the secret way beneath Gravebeard’s, the little room behind the factory, and the naked metal tube jutting out over a hill where they’d narrowly escaped the night before. There were a number of good reasons not to use the first two options, not the least of which was that Swanra’ann probably owned or knew of both. Luned had given her own reasons for not wanting to return Gravebeard’s way and Flint had agreed with them readily.

    In the full light of day, the area around that little muddy hill looked mundane: brown-red and grey, surrounded by stout factories and silent warehouses. A large pond formed nearby where another set of grated tubes released steady streams of sickly green water. Stray cats lapped up the muck, pausing to glare as the duo passed. Flint found a heavy led pipe jutting up out of the mud not far from the tube, and after some struggle he managed to disconnect it from whatever it led to underground. He gave it a few test swings, and then nodded his approval.

    “If I see our severely overgrown friend again,” he said, “he’s going to suffer some regrets.”

    That seemed to make Luned hesitate, but only for a moment. She took a steadying breath, marched right up the hill, and then stood at the tube’s opening peering into the dark. Flint came up behind her as she was producing one of her glass vials. She gave it a vigorous shake.

    “Why are you holding your breath,” he said.

    The vial began to glow, and did not catch fire, so Luned smiled and said, “I’m not. I’ve got this. See?”

    “Yes,” Flint said. He produced one of his own vials, gave it a shake, and then slid the vial into a loop on the breast of his jacket, which held it in place. This left his hands free, which he rectified: he hoisted up the metal pipe in his right hand, and produced a chunk of dyed chalk to hold in his left.

    “I am fear,” he said to himself.

    He looked at Luned, as if expecting her to say otherwise. She just stared at him all wide-eyed and freckled, maybe thinking he was crazier than he looked – which was a feat - but she said nothing. That pleased him, so he nodded once, turned, and marched into the dark. At the first intersection he looked at his companion for direction. When she chose a way, he made a mark on the wall of the tube denoting it, and that’s the way they went.

    The sounds of the city streets faded, bells and horns and shouts defeated by dripping water, metallic clangs, and the subtle wail of the wind rushing to escape past them. The muted sunlight dulled until it was entirely consumed by the alchemical light thrown off by their vials, and the smog relented before stifling humidity and the ubiquitous reek of wet rot. Flint told himself that the city was all around them, that people walked the streets above and that mothers were with their children and somewhere far to the north, snow was falling on his familial home in Salvar.

    It didn’t feel like that though. Every step brought them farther away from anything good until their lives before these tunnels seemed like a distant, childish dream. They were going deeper into another world, and every subsequent step was heavier than the one before it.

    Soon, Flint was sure: they were descending into Hell.

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