'Children of The Shroud' - A Dark Fantasy RP (Interest/Recruitment - CLOSED AND STARTED)

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Aaaaaand done.

Right, I think I can safely say that recruitment is over now. I'll get started on Chapter 1. Congratulations to everyone who's been accepted and commiserations to those who didn't make the cut. Know that there was a very high standard of sheets, and being rejected certainly doesn't mean what you offered had no worth.

Chapter 1

The downpour that came howling in from the west was oppressive, a weather rare for Kragenau at this time of year. No stars were visible through the thick blanket of cloud, within which low and mournful rumbles of thunder could be heard, and even the late night revellers of the Lower Town had been driven indoors, solemn. The poor and destitute of the Drowned District, the few with the privilege of being able to sleep with both eyes closed, would wake tomorrow to find their city just a little bit more rotten than they had left it the evening before. Even discounting the events earlier in the day, such nights were ill-fated to those who favoured superstition over learning. Any night sky through which the planets, the moving stars that served as portals for the souls of Seldus to influence the mortal realms, could not be observed was considered bad luck. One much never walk alone on such a night, nor plot a crossing by sea, nor lay eyes on the contents of the family safe lest all that dwell within vanish within a moon's turn. Some even believed that no man and woman should lie together on such a night, for they would bear an offspring dark and foul, hidden always from the eyes of the Gods.

Below the surface of Kragenau however, deep beneath the crumbling walls, corpse rats and creeper maws of the Drowned District, one soul did stir. A figure shrouded in black moved with confidence through the Catacombs, the only sounds the footfalls of his supple leather boots, the occasional scurry of some frightened rodent, and the steady drip, drip, drip from the ancient stone arches above. Rounding a corner, he stopped, pausing on the balls of his feet like a lion in the long grass when the antelope turns his head at the faintest whisper of a sound. Fluidly, he removed the glove on his left hand, exposing the palm on which the image of a skull grimaced. Holding the palm of his hand to his mouth, the figure whispered in some guttural, inhuman tongue, before turning his hand outwards, and making a motion as if to blow a kiss down the dark tunnel that stretched before him.

What followed was a rushing, whistling sound, though the man was far too deep into the Catacombs for any wind from the surface to reach them. As the sound passed about halfway down the tunnel, a bat that had been nestled, hidden, in the arches above began to glow as this strange whisper washed over him.

The man removed his hood, revealing a young face. He was bald, with a pointed black beard, hazel eyes and crooked, yellow teeth, that showed as he grinned at the bat, pleased with himself

"It was good of you to welcome me, brother." The man said, walking further down the hall.

At his words, the glowing bat began to twitch, the fur on its little chest heaving as to took what to it must have been huge, gulping breaths. When it seemed like the creature might burst from the effort of whatever had taken hold of it, darkness burst from its over mouth, a substance that seemed to be shadow made fluid, or perhaps tar made gas. From mouth, nose, ears and eyes it poured out of the creature, swirling down to the old grey flagstones below, where it took form. The darkness slithered over itself, layer upon layer, stretching out into arms, legs and a head, before the yawning black eventually gave way to detail, until another hooded figure, this one clad in navy blue, stood opposite the bald one. The new figure remove his own left glove, and the two of them shook hands. The bat, now returned to its own mind, took flight down the hallway in panic.

"I hear a congratulations are in order." the one in blue opened, though he sounded more stern than congratulatory.

"Our Lord has a valuable soul joining him in his hall tonight." replied the one in black.

"Remember you teachings." said the other coldly "Riches and titles are worth nothing in The Shroud. Mylaviss values all souls equally. You did no more great service for Him today than you do every time you crush a beetle beneath your heel. Still, killing him was no easy feat, and you did it clean."

The bald man's smugness had now faded somewhat. "Where is the Old Man? I had understood that he would be the one to receive me."

"He was summoned."

'Ah, fresh meat!' the bald man thought.

The other man's lips curled up into a smile. "They may be just that soon enough. We both know that our Lord chooses wisely, but even so, these catacombs are not as peaceful as they once were."

"Just what the bloody 'ell do ya' think ya' playin' at, Sparrow?" Badger poked the girl hard in the shoulder. Sparrow narrowed her eyes, crossing her arms across her chest, "The fuck you talkin' 'bout Badger?" She replied, with the usual layer of huskiness she added to disguise her gender.

Sparrow had been accosted, much to her dismay, en route to the sewers. There was something she needed to check out. Unfortunately, that meant going through Badger's part of the District, a decision she quickly regretted.

"I'm talkin' 'bout that fucking deal you fucked up last week, with The Twins." Sparrow's eyes drifted slightly, 'who the fuck grassed me up, there's no way they could have known it was me.' Sparrow looked up at the hulking boy. Badger was huge for a Drowned kid, at seventeen years old, he stood just over six feet tall, with wide shoulders and chest, his arms were lean and muscled, his hand hands alone were big enough that they could probably cover Sparrow's entire head. Probably the only reason he was in the position he was, it certainly wasn't for his smarts or good looks.

"You mean the deal you cut me out of? No, don't know nothin' 'bout it." Her eyes remained narrowed as she stood her ground. "DON'T 'CHU LIE TO ME!" The boy roared, punching a wall in the narrow alley they were standing in. Sparrow let her arms fall to her side. She needed to be ready if the moron decided to start throwing punches. "Fuck you Badger! I was nowhere near your bloody deal, I was on the West side that night, hittin' a place with Rusty." Badger frowned, looking over his left shoulder, he nodded at one of his goons. Sparrow clenched her jaw as the boy walked away from her, down the alley. Sparrow sighed, her shoulders drooping as she let her head fall back. "Can I go now, or do ya' wanna blame me for somethin' else I didn' do?" Badger narrowed his eyes, a small smirk in the corner of his mouth. "Sparrow, li'l Sparrow, when will you figure out that ya' nothin' 'round 'ere." He chuckled slightly. "I mean, look at ya', ya still small time, we both used to run together and ya still in the same place you were two years a go." Sparrow stared at the boy. He wouldn't try anything sneaky, that wasn't his style, no, this one liked to brag first, he'd always been like that. "The truth is lad, I'm surprised ya' still alive, look at ya." He raised a fat finger in her direction, his other two goons laughed. "Ya, what? thirteen? An' ya still fuckin tiny, bet ya don' even 'av any 'air on ya bollocks yet." Sparrow's expression didn't change as Badger continued his witty barrage of insults. "Do ya even 'av a cock down there?" For a split second, a tiny smirk curled the corner of Sparrow's mouth. "Do ya even like girls? What with 'avin no balls an' all?" Badger's friends continued to guffaw, he was about to continue, when Sparrow's eyes caught movement at the end of the alley.

'Oh shit.'

Badger's expression hardened as he looked over his shoulder. "Ah 'ere he is, our good mate Rusty!" Sparrow kept her composure as panic began to rise in her throat. As the two boys approached. Rusty was being pushed along by the goon Badger had sent away. The red headed boy didn't look so good. Badger stepped aside as he let Rusty pass, pushing him to the water sodden ground in front of Sparrow. The girl didn't move, her face expressionless as the boy got to his knees gingerly. Badger grinned, crossing his arms across his fat chest. "Now, Rusty, tell li'l Sparrow what you done told me." Rusty glanced back at Badger, a look of terror in his eyes. Well, one eye, the other had swollen shut from what she could only assume was a good 'interrogation'. The boy looked up at Sparrow, "Mate, I..." He paused as his words caught in throat, tears beginning to well in his good eye. "They said they'd hurt my sister, I swear, that's the only reason why!" Sparrow narrowed her eyes, her expression hardening. 'Rat bastard.' Badger took a step forward and planted his huge hands on Rusty's shoulders, much to the boy's immediate discomfort, he squeaked in fear, choking on a sob. "Our boy 'ere told us all about your little trip last week, 'bout 'ow ya dropped that crate on a them Twins' boys, 'bout 'ow you drilled 'oles in them wine kegs." His voice grew more sinister and his grip tightened on Rusty's shoulders. "'Bout 'ow our mate Rusty here, 'elped you do it." Another sob escaped Rusty's throat.

Sparrow felt sick to her stomach, a spark of panic showing in her eyes. "You shouldn' have cut me out of the deal, Badger, you know what happens when people cut me out of a deal." Her voice was steady, with a small trace of menace. Badger frowned, his eyes beginning to burn with anger. "You cut me out of a fuckin' deal? Then I make sure there is no deal." She clenched her fists, anger trickling into her expression and voice. "You know this Badger, back when we ran together, what did I always say, huh?" Badger gritted his teeth as he thought for a moment. "What. Did. I. Say?" Sparrow repeated, her tone growing even more threatening. Badger was furious now, she could see it all over him, he never did like being shown up in front of his boys. Unfortunately for Rusty, he was at the brunt of the anger, Badger's hands tightening even more around his shoulder as he squeaked in pain. "Sparrow never forgets." He seethed. Sparrow nodded her head slowly, "Sparrow never forgets." She repeated with emphasis, her eyes locked with Badger's.

Badger took a deep breath, regaining some of his composure. "Ya' right Sparrow, ya absolutely right." He loosened his grip on Rusty's shoulders, patting them slightly. "I shouldn't 'av cut ya outta the deal." He looked back at his boys, nodding his head quickly. "He's right lads, I shouldn't 'av cut 'im out." They nodded back, confused looks on their faces. Badger returned his gaze to Sparrow, a spark in his eyes. "The problem is, li'l Sparrow, you forgot what I used to say." With one swift and brutal motion, he twisted Rusty's head, snapping his neck like a dried twig. A wicked smiled crawled over his face as Sparrow recoiled in shock. "Don't. Fuck. With Badger." He raised his hands, Sparrow's eyes were wide, her mouth ajar slightly as she watched Rusty's body crumple to the ground, with a pathetic splash. She looked as if she was about to speak, but words failed her, she lifted her eyes to meet Badger's, shaking her head slightly, her eyes searched his face for reasons she didn't know.

"Get 'im." Badger said simply, as his goons brushed by him, stepping over Rusty's body. Sparrow's expression hardened as she quickly fled in the opposite direction. She could outrun these morons no pro- "NOW!" As she heard Badger's shout echo past her, a couple of boys stepped from behind the walls on both sides of the alley exit, blocking her escape. 'Shit!' She began to panic, her boots splashing in the foot of water that covered most of that district. She clenched her jaw as she began to sprint harder. Garbage was strewn about the place, at the end of the alley, there was a couple of empty barrels, side by, lined up against the left wall. The walls of the alley weren't particularly smooth, a number of stones stood out prominently. As she approached the exit, she leapt on top of the barrels, and while keeping her momentum, she hopped to the right side of the alley, planting a foot firmly on an outcropping, she pushed herself away from the wall and towards the two blocking her escape, just managing to make it over their heads and out into the street. She stumbled slightly in the water as she landed, but managed to keep her balance as she proceed to head left down the street, the sound of an enraged Badger behind her.

Sparrow continued to run, glancing over her should slightly, the six boys were still hot on her trail. "SOMEBODY STOP THAT BASTARD!" Badger roared, as he barged his way through passersby. Sparrow weaved through the busy streets, trying to lose her pursuers' line of sight, but to no avail. Sparrow grimaced slightly as a sharp pain ran up leg. 'I think I sprained my ankle a little on that jump.' It was fine for now, but there no way that she'd be able to keep up her current speed. She needed to escape, and quickly. She looked to her right as she rounded a corner, a path to the rooftops revealed itself to her. She knew just where to lose them. It seemed Badger caught on to her idea as well as she heard him curse loudly behind her. Sparrow veered towards a horse drawn cart that was stationary in front of a blacksmith, hopping onto the back of the cart, she leapt off the side, planting her feet on top of one of the buildings window frames. Scurrying up the side of the building, she pulled herself onto the roof, taking a second to catch her breath, she no longer had to worry about being slowed by the water that permeated the street level of the district. She looked back down over the edge of the building as the group of thugs began their own attempts at climbing the blacksmith. She narrowed her eyes, normally they would have given up by now, 'Badger must really want me dead.' "I don't bloody care! We catch 'im now, or I'm taking it out on you worthless dogs!" Badger shouted, must have been answering a dissenter to the pursuit. Sparrow watched as a crowd of people began to form around the building. She slowly began to step back as the first of the thugs, including Badger, began to climb over the edge of the roof. Gritting her teeth, Sparrow turned and fled across the rooftops, hopping over a number of small alleys that got progressively wider as they began to reach the outskirts of the sub-district. 'They aren't letting up, I can't keep this up.' Sparrow began to panic as she searched frantically for an escape route. As the sounds of jeering and footsteps began to increase behind her, she knew they were gaining ground. 'It's now or never.' Her original estimation had them giving up at the blacksmith, now she had to revert to her secondary plan. The Leap of Faith. There was a wide alley, where that sub-district met the next, the only way to get to that distract via the rooftops was over that alley, it was called the Leap of Faith because one needed a certain amount of divine intervention not to fall and break one's neck on the cobbles below.

As they drew closer, she heard a couple of the thugs catch onto her idea. "Boss, 'e's 'eadin' for the Leap!" She heard Badger tear down their warnings and ushered them onwards. Sparrow began to pick up speed as the Leap drew near, ignoring the pain that was beginning to rise in her leg, she focused herself. She didn't need to believe in the gods, and she wasn't going to start now.

The world slowed around her as she approached the edge of her jump, with a burst of speed, she planted her foot into the very edge of the rooftop, thrusting herself through the air, she heard a number of shouts behind her as she came crashing down on the roof tiles on the opposite building, falling into a recovery roll as her ankle gave out beneath her, sprawling onto her back, she laughed in amazement, a rare laugh. Her levity was cut short as she heard the thugs cry out, followed by the sound of a thud as the top half of Badger's body hit the edge of the rooftop, his hands scurrying as his hands found grip. "SHIT! SPARROW! HELP ME!" The girl got to her feet and slowly walked towards badger, a small limp in her step. What she saw was the panicked look of a boy she hadn't seen in years, his eyes began to flood with fear as he held on for dear life. Sparrow crossed her arms across her chest, her face expressionless, her eyes cold. "Why should I 'elp you? You'd 'ave seen me in the gutter if your lads 'ad caught me." Badger winced as his arms began to tire, "No! I wouldn' 'ave!" Sparrow let her hands fall to her side as she squatted, locking her eyes onto Badger's. "If I help you, will you leave me be?" Her voice was quiet. "YES! Yes! Anythin'!" He replied, the fear leaking into his voice. Sparrow searched the boy's eyes, no doubt he would go back on his word, he was too stubborn to let Sparrow just slip by. She grabbed his left wrist, alleviating some of boy's burden, as he breathed a sigh of relief. Sparrow narrowed her eyes, letting the huskiness fall from her voice, it returned to its natural girlish softness. "Remember that job at the Lafferty estate?" A confused look appeared on the boy's face, "What happened to ya' voice? The Lafferty job? Wha' are you talkin' 'bout, just help me up!" Sparrow continued, "Remember when the guard dogs were let loose? Remember when you were s'posed to open the drainage grate so that me and Jimmy could escape?" Her voice took on a more sinister tone. "Remember when you didn't?" Her eyes narrowed. "Remember when I almost died?" She tightened her grip on the boy's arm. "Remember when Jimmy wasn't so lucky?" Badger's eyes darted in panic, "I... Why are ya tellin' me this now! I said I was sorry back then, that was years ago! Why are ya' rememberin' stuff like that now?!" Sparrow let her mouth open into a small smirk, moving her face close to his. "Why am I rememberin' it now?" There was small spark in her eyes as she loosened her grip on the boy's arm. "Badger, what did I always used to say?" She slowly got to her feet as she looked across at the boys on the other rooftop, shouting and pleading for her to help Badger.

"'Cmon Sparrow, stop messin' 'round, this ain't funny no more!"
"Sparrow 'es gonna fall!"
"We weren't gonna hurt ya, Sparrow!"

The girl looked down at the boy at her feet, there was no sympathy in her eyes as the answer to her question flashed across Badger's face. "Sparrow never forgets..."

"That's right."

Badger screamed as Sparrow kicked his hands from the tiles, he fell, smashing his skull across the cobbles below. She looked up at the thugs across from her, they had fell silent. A few of them looked over at her, a mixture of fear, anger, and surprise littered on their faces. Without a sound, Sparrow turned and walked away, looking for a way to get back onto the streets.

Sparrow leaned up against the wall of the narrow alley she found herself in. Having hopped onto a lower wall from the rooftops, she had managed to make it to street level. Slipping her hood over her head, she grimaced slightly as she rubbed her left ankle. Nothing major, should be fine by morning. Her stomach grumbled as she immediately regretted tossing away the food she had been given earlier that morning. 'Probably for the best.' She slipped her hand into the back pocket of her trousers and pulled out a piece of paper, a map. She was a fair distance away from her intended entry point, and she didn't want to risk getting lost in the catacombs, so it appeared she'd have to backtrack into the sub-district she had just left. She doubted she'd have any more trouble from Badger's goons, they were preoccupied with other things. She smiled slightly as she heard the a faint commotion in the distance, the direction she had just left. She wondered if any of the boy's 'friends' would have the guts to scrape his brains off the cobbles. Probably not. They probably left no later than she had.

"The God's of feasts and temples spurn you, but there is one who would value you still. The Shroud calls to you. Hear it, and know what it is to be feared."

What did the cloaked one mean? It wasn't gang recruitment, they were usually more forthright, and a hell of a lot less eloquent. She furrowed her brow, stuffing the map back into her back pocket, she began making her way back to her original destination, enjoying the dryness of the higher ground she currently found herself in. It wouldn't last long.

Without further incident, Sparrow approached the old sewer entrance, she checked her surroundings. Her brain was telling her that it was probably a trap, but her gut told her otherwise. There was something different about this arrangement, something that overwhelmed her usual standard of caution.

'Dammit Faye, this better be worth.'

The Pirate Galleon had come upon them out from behind the rocks, like a great behemoth on the waves. By its design, Will marked that it had once been a trader's vessel. It was well armed, though not as well as a military vessel that size would have been. Despite that, it was armed as well as the St. Sylan, and was larger besides to accommodate for cargo. Its crew outnumbered theirs nearly two to one. A hard port turn had saved them from the pirate's initial volley of cannon fire. Overclocking that turn had brought them swiftly around to return fire while the current was still holding the pirate ship on its course, and allowed them to return fire. Soon, the two vessels were close facing each other. The sound of cannons and rifles would have filled the air except for the crack of thunder and the pound of rain.

With the Captain holding the deck against invaders, William was given charge of the first boarding party, meant to swing across on the rigging and secure an area for the boarding ramp to be passed over. Aside from the pirate captain at the helm, and his men manning the topside cannons, the galleon's deck was empty when Will and his men swung across. The cannon men put up some resistance, whirling short bladed boarding swords like cleavers. William's men worked together with trained efficiency, and the cannon men were quickly dispatched. It was enough time, however, for the roars of the captain to bring reinforcements pouring onto the deck, armed with pistols, boarding swords, hatchets, knives and even meat hooks. William's men formed a tight wedge, their long privateer's sabres forming a dense web of defensive steel against their enemies, as two men at the back caught hold of the boarding ramp and nailed it to the railing. There was little planning gone into their boarding. It was done defensively; their only real option in the face of an attack they could not escape. But they had been at sea for months, and it was a miracle they had come through it in these waters with much more than a few minor skirmishes. The strange luck made the men almost as tense as the isolation did.

The wedge pushed forward as the St. Sylan's Captain led a brigade of reinforcements across the ramp. The Pirates swarmed around them, and the wedge began to break. The effort cost the pirates a lot, and yet more when the reinforcements slammed into them, leaping on them from the boarding ramp with reckless abandon. As the pirates thinned, the combat became a series of isolated scuffles and duels. William and two men assaulted the helm. One went down with lead shot in his belly, and the other was tackled by two burly pirates with knives. Blinking in surprise, William found himself confronted with the Pirate Captain, who drew a long sabre that wouldn't have looked out of place on the hip of a lord. The cannon fire, rain and thunder drowned out the clang of steel as their swords met, batting up and down. Initially, William raised his own sword, still bloody from his previous fighting, and pressed the attack, but was soon giving up ground defensively as the Captain pressed him. The man had quite a few years on him, but he was far more experienced, and merciless as a rabid dog. Will's arm was getting numb from the shock of the blows he was deflecting. He couldn't land a blow. His stabs and slashes were all either batted aside, or dodged, and soon he wasn't even lashing out, but struggling to ward off the pirate's blade that seemed to be everywhere at once.

Soon, he was pressed right up against the railing, sluggishly warding off the Captain's attack, when suddenly the man planted his boot on Will's chest. He went over the railing, and down onto the roiling crowd below, caught in the melee. The sword went spinning out of his hand, and he instead drew the large boarding knife sheathed behind his sword. Struggling in the crowd to regain his balance, he fought for his life. He slipped several times, barely getting back up before stamping feet came down where his head or hand had been a second before. The galleon's deck was slick with blood mixed with rainwater. He had landed right in the middle of the crowd of pirates, and some directed their attention at him. Most, however, were too busy concentrating on the ring of privateers hemming them in, advancing, and thinning the pirate's numbers. It gave Will hope, and that was likely what saved him and kept him going. Eventually, those who were left submitted. William retrieved his sword. Probably his, he thought; a privateer's sabre with nobody to claim it, at least.

The galleon was too large to claim without leaving their own vessel too vulnerable to continue. In the end, the captain elected to burn it after the privateers had taken all out of the hold that they could to fill their own. The loot would become government property, which many of the men grumbled over. It was fine treasure; rolls of silks, crates of rare spices, and even a small chest of gold bullion. Having it around in such proximity to the men set Will's teeth on edge, but it was not his place to say anything. He attended to his duties, having men help the St. Sylan's captain to his quarters, and having him seen to medically. A stray pistol shot had caught him in the abdomen, and he was bleeding heavily. The next few days were even tenser than they had been, but the captain held things together, bellowing orders from his sickbed, while William handled the majority of the affairs. They had no choice but to make for the nearest port.

It happened six days later, as night was falling. It was raining again, though nowhere near as hard as when the pirates had attacked. William was making his rounds around the ship, dressing the night's watch, when one of the rigging workers, a tall burly man perpetually stripped to the waist, stepped out from behind one of the cabins.
"Ah, you can tell the others I'm giving the order to furl sails for the night," Will said, stifling a yawn. The man didn't answer.

"I said tell-" he was cut off by the man lashing out. Moonlight flashed off the ring he was wearing. It was brass; some kind of signet ring, but with a rough stud in the centre. Lights exploded in Will's head, followed by darkness, and a hard slam all along his back as he fell to the deck. Fiery pain blazed across his face where he had been struck. His vision was blurry, and he was dimly aware of hands lifting him. He felt the pistol yanked from his jacket, and heard his sword and knife drawn from sheathes on his belt; it all sounded blurry, as though he were hearing it underwater. He twitched, trying to struggle, and his hearing sharpened slightly as he heard a splash; and voices. "Good fuckin' riddens. I fought he'd never fuckin' kick it. Shoulda just slit his froat like I said. Too bloody weak to stop us, wont'ee?"
"Dun't matter now, does it?"
A voice above him. "I got young Twil here. What ya wanna do wiv 'im?"
"Bin him over't side wiv the Captain. Got his weapons?"
"Yeah."
There was a brief feeling of weightlessness as he was in free fall. Then the icy coldness of the water engulfed him, and the burning of the wound on his face as it poured over and into his mouth. It shocked him into motion and he started kicking and thrashing under the surface. When he broke through, gasping for air, the voices were continuing from some way away. He'd drifted under the water, but he could still hear. "Wait, din't he have that nice silver pocket watch?"
"Ah shit, forgot about that. Fuck it though, we got plenty o'loot in the hold, don't we?"
Hoping he hadn't lost his sense of direction, Will began to swim towards where he thought land was. It would be a long time before he would know if he was right, even if darkness hadn't fallen. He'd likely drown before he got there, but he had to try. After a few minutes, he bumped into something, and recoiled in revulsion when he realized what it was. But then gripped tight to what he realized was his grim salvation. The body of the captain was floating in front of him, and it was all he had to buoy himself on the water.

==============================================================

Will's eyes opened blearily. He was damp. That was probably what brought on the dream; the damp was a reminder of sea's cold embrace. It'd been several months ago. He'd been washed into the quay of the Drowned District, looking not much better than the rotting corpse he was holding onto. He curled up tighter where he sat, under the bridge, and pressed his face into his knees, knocking his leather tricorne hat askew. Sleeping was a dangerous necessity here, but he surrendered to it grudgingly. Still, he was reluctant to wake. Sighing, he pushed himself to his feet, and checked that the hem of his stained shirt covered the top of the large knife sheath strapped to his belt. The sheath was empty, but it helped if other people didn't know that. He shivered as he set off to walk aimlessly, and wished once again for the heavy officer's jacket he'd shrugged off to keep going in the sea.

Will's belly grumbled and he thought of food. That parcel the strange man had given him hours ago was a pleasant little miracle, but one he wasn't sure if he trusted. But he had little choice in the matter. Opening up the burlap bag, he stepped under an overpass and began eating ravenously. Before he knew it, the food was gone. All that was left was the little parchment map. He could have used it to start a fire for some warmth, but something had stayed his hand. So it was tucked beneath his shirt at the waist of his pants. His hand strayed, checking it was still there. Yes...
Will shook himself. The food had seemed fine. Still, something like that wasn't likely to happen again. He thought he should start looking for food and water immediately. Sighing, he set off through the rain. Four months, and this was the first time he could remember having a full belly.

"Listen, Blaize, you need ta 'elp me." May desperately implored. Blaize kept walking down the wet road, uncaring of her presence. May kept pace with him, staring at him with haunted blue eyes on the verge of tears through straw blonde hair that messily swept up in front of her face. The boy, stony faced as ever, was unmoved by her plea.

"That's strange May," He responded, "Last time I checked, I didn't have ta do anythin'. Least of all help you." He turned a sharp corner down an alley. The cold air of the early evening rose to meet him, mingled with the smell of poverty, rain, and human filth. It was a smell almost universal to the drowned district, it permeated it, an underlying odor, sometimes mixed with other things. Dogs, cats, fire, drink, food. But nothing was ever enough to cover that smell. No matter what you did you couldn't get away from it. Everyone and everything in the Drowned District stank of it, marking anyone out as a resident as much as the signs of poverty and decay.

Blaize splashed through the puddles, drawing in water through holes in the soles of his boots. He'd need to steal a new pair soon enough. Boots were tough to steal, he considered. It wasn't like snatching a purse or grabbing a jacket. People kept close to their boots and they were damn tough to wrench off, even if the mark were dead. Then there was a problem with size, what to do if you killed a bloke and the bloody boots you killed him for didn't fit? He could case a cobbler, but that'd just add even more trouble. The guard actually cared if some merchant's shop was robbed, but no one cared if a Drownie died or went missing. Bit sad that.

While Blaize had been thinking, May had kept yammering on. "-lease, you're the only one who can 'elp." The girl said, choking back tears. She must have been desperate if she were trying to appeal to Blaize's sense of charity and empathy.

"What?" He asked, "What the Hell do you want and why should I care?" May wasn't going away any time soon, might as well tell her exactly why he wasn't going to help her. He stopped and leaned against the alley wall, dark against the coming night. A lifetime in the shadows had given the pair of young thieves good eyes in the dim lighting.

"Didn't'cha hear me say it?" She asked, facing Blaize directly.

Blaize rolled his eyes and dug his hands in his pockets. He found his dagger right where he left it. There was no reason it shouldn't have been there, but it felt good to have his hand on it. Never know when it might come in useful. "If ya don't wan'ta repeat yourself then fine, go. I don't wan'ta help ya anyway." He half hoped that she might just leave it at that, but knew better. May was far too desperate to turn away help, or even the illusion of it.

"No, no no!" She hurriedly said, taking a step forward and grabbing him by the arm as though he might otherwise leave. Instinctively, Blaize grabbed her arm and pushed her back, sending her tumbling into the mud and trash that littered the floor of the alley. May threw up an arm to block a blow that never came. Blaize wasn't going to hit her, what would it serve? So long as she kept her distance, and hands, to herself he wouldn't have to do anything else.

After a few moments, Blaize spoke. "Well? You gonna tell me why I have'ta help you? Or are ya just gonna sit there? Makes no difference ta me." At that, May hurriedly got back up, hastily wiping the newly acquired filth from her ragged clothing.

"I need you ta keep Graves from gettin' me'n mah sister. Please. I'll do anythin'"

"And why'd Graves want to get you'n Jane?" A thin smile began to play on the boy's lips, "You cross him?" May looked down, darting her eyes every which way, clasping her hands together. Blaize's eyes widened, "You did, didn't'cha?" He began laughing, clutching his sides, "You crossed Graves? Tell me you ain't that stupid. Tell me." He said between breaths.

"Shut up Blaize, this ain't fucking funny!" May shouted, shaking herself out of fear and shoving the older boy. "Yes, I fucking crossed Graves, alright?! It were an accident an' I need ya ta make him understand that 'fore he gets me!"

Blaize straightened up and looked at May, really looked at her. Less than a year separated them, and she was one of the best cons he knew. They'd been in the gang together since day one. They hadn't really been close though, Blaize worked alone as often as he could and kept to regular run and mug jobs, not the crafty conning that May did. Getting faced to face with people only gave them another chance to get a good look at you, something he went out of his way to avoid. But still, he knew her, May wasn't someone to get scared easily, and Graves wasn't stupid enough to kill one of his best earners over something trivial, he was stupid to be sure, but not that stupid, not quite. This was something big.

"Fine." He said, after a pause, gesturing to May to follow him as he resumed walking deeper into the back alleys of the Drowned District, "What happened?"

May took a deep breath and crossed her arms over her chest, holding her elbows. "Three days ago, Graves sent me ta getta shipmen' and take't ta the warehouse by the third wharf." She paused a looked to Blaize, making sure he was paying attention. Blaize kept his eyes forward, but gestured her to continue, "So I get there, an' there're some big guys. We say some things an' they show me this crate see. It was a plain thing, nothin' odd 'bout it. Now, I'm thinkin' that it might be just'a bit too easy, see? Not that I mind it bein' easy, jus' that ya gotta be careful when somethin's easy. I says to the guys that I wanna see the product, and they open it." The young woman stopped there, making sure no one was around, Blaize stopped briefly and scanned the dark alleyways as well. May had piqued his curiosity.

When she was certain no one was around, May took a step toward Blaize and lowered her voice, "Blaize, it was Rya Powder."

The older thief took a step back and looked May right in the eyes, the sincere look confirmed it, she was telling the truth. "By the gods. He's fucking lost 'is mind." He whispered. Rya Powder was one of the most addictive drugs you could get your hands on. It was also one of the deadliest. Concentrated enough Rya Powder resembled a poison rather than a street drug. It was a sure way to make money though, a lot of money. You get hooked on Rya, you NEED it. You don't get it, you die. That simple. Only a few of the major gangs ever bothered to touch the stuff, and for good reason. Rya Powder was expensive to manufacture or import, exceptionally dangerous, and the gangs who ran the stuff often killed the competition. For a piss-ant gang lord like Graves to try selling it meant that he had officially gone crazy with greed or developed a serious death wish.

May began shivering slightly, either from cold or fear, Blaize couldn't tell, but there was more to the story. "What did you do?" He asked, completely serious.

"I didn't do anythin' Blaize, I said that!"

"Graves doesn't kill people fer nothin'!" He shouted, "What the fuck did you do May?!"

May took a deep breath and steadied herself, "Before I could do anythin', we got jumped. A bunch'a big guys came right outta nowhere with knives. While they killed the delivery boys, I ran and didn't look back. When I finally got the courage to go back, the shipment was gone. They took it Blaize." Tears started forming in May's eyes again. "What am I gonna do? Graves finds out I lost the Rya, he'll kill me an' Janey. Please Blaize, there's no one else but you. No one else can stand up ta Graves like you, he might listen ta you."

Blaize stopped and paced around the alley as May turned and leaned against the walls for support. If Graves was selling Rya, then everyone was in danger, not just May and Janey. He'd get them all killed. There had to be a way out of this, somehow. He'd been blackmailing Graves for years, collecting the scumbag's dirty little secrets. That was one of the main reasons Graves didn't try to beat him into line like he beat everyone else. That wouldn't work here. Selling Rya was almost a death sentence in itself, and Graves would murder anyone who got in his way if he was already that desperate. Hell, Graves might kill him too. They had sure as hell never gotten along, and if Graves was so determined to make it big, anyone who had anything on him was on the chopping block. Like it or not, Blaize realized, he and May were in the same boat.

And then, a plan began forming in Blaize's mind. He thought back to that strange man who stopped and spoke to him the day the High Priest died, that odd package he received. He'd been debating whether to take the man up on his offer, now it seemed he had no choice. He needed a way out, fast. "That's it. I'm leaving." Blaize announced, and started back the way they had come.

"Wait!" May shouted, "What do you mean you're leavin'?" She got up and started toward him.

"I mean I'm gone. Good bye. Farewell. See ya in hell. Whatever. I've got somewhere else ta go, and I need ta be there now." Blaize said, giving May a curt wave before resuming his walk back.

"What about me, huh? What'll happen when Graves finds out?"

Blaize stopped and turned to May one last time. "May, there's only one thing to do. Get a knife, go to Graves, tell him you got the shipment. When he turns 'is back, stick 'im fast. He can't get'cha if he's dead." Can't get me neither. Blaize thought. Hopefully, whatever the outcome, Graves wouldn't matter, May's failure wouldn't matter. Hopefully, the future he had set out for himself was better than the past he'd be leaving behind.

Before May could speak again, Blaize took off at a run, as fast as he could. She'd never catch up. No one would, with luck.

"But sir, I'm valued here!" Andra stared at the figure that was hurriedly trotting away from where she was standing. "I - I have a place of value right here, where I'm needed!"

The figure turned and looked back at her. She still couldn't see his face, but he knew that he was smiling again. What the the name of Gilliajlia was he smiling for? I have two bolts of new fabric that could keep me going for more than a week. I have respect in the community. I am needed and liked here. I couldn't possibly-

"THERE YOU ARE! The BINT seamstress who can't stitch a seam to save her damned life!" Andra jumped as an enormous pair of trousers hit her square in the face. They smelled like they'd been soaked in a pigpen for weeks. As the settled down over the strange parcel and fabric she was holding, she saw that it had been thrown by Jarven, one of her regulars. The figure was gone.

"The same old split is open again, because you're too incompetent to close it. FIX IT."

No, it's because you're so fat that you make Zapatos look like a diet model. "Don't worry, Sir. I don't have anything needing my attention, so I'll get to it right away."

"You better. Piss-stain."

Andra briskly walked down the alley to her tailor shop. Jarven was a rare sight in the Drowned District. His body fat rolls were undescribable. He lived in a different district, he was only able to come here because Andra's work was dirt-cheap and he had a friend in the guard that let him through. Somehow, he hadn't been killed yet.

She put the fabric down on the table in the main room and put the parcel behind the counter, deciding to open it later. She then draped the trousers over her workbench, staring in silent sourness at the inseam that had blown yet again. To her dismay, Jarvis was pulling himself through the door to see if she would do it right this time.

She ignored his titanic struggle and focussed on the job at hand. An initial stitching to hold everything together with fine thread, then a heavier thread to reinforce the-

"I want a patch this time. If it's obvious, though, you aren't getting paid."

I don't have any patches big enough to cover the immense tears you put in your even more immense clothing. "I can do that."

"It's the only thing you CAN do. You couldn't even sell yourself to the streets with a face and body like that. I feel sick every time I look at you."

Andra finished the stitch and took the trousers to the chemical wash. The faded brown would be easy to replicate. She grabbed one of her brown double-patches she had reserved for Jarven. She filled the basin with a small amount of Rickenhammer's Acid Wash and carefully immersed the patch. That would take a few minutes to set. "Tea, Sir?"

"Only if you don't give me the bilge that you gave me last time, you tongueless viper."

Somehow, Jarven's insults only got stupider over time. Andra checked the shelf she kept the teas on. She had two: the "bilge" which was a sweet minty herbal extract, and a simple lemon tea. She chose the lemon. She placed it in hot water on the counter, where she noticed that the parcel had partially fallen open.

Cheese.

He would like that, the fat-soaked hell-glutton.

Andra poured the tea, placed it on a plate with a wedge of the cheese and gave it to Jarven.

"Ugh, how foul. I can't believe you monkeys down here can tolerate such filth. And this cheese to too warm!"

"My apologies, Sir."

Moments later, she had dried the patch, patched the trousers and folded them neatly. "That will be the usual price." Jarven fished out a few coins and dropped them unceremoniously on the counter before taking his trousers. "Be grateful for that, I can't believe I pay you to do such a terrible job, you worthless whore."

You couldn't get a whore to sleep with you no matter what you paid them, so what would YOU know about her worth? "Please come again, Sir. I'd be grateful."

He glared at her silently and waddled off.

Andra counted the coins. The usual amount, of course, was about five times what she charged anyone else. It was enough to buy two whole loaves of bread. Between this and the bread she had seen in the parcel, she almost had enough for this week's rent. Somehow, through the grace of something, she would keep her tailor shop for another week.

She ate the food that remained in the parcel and stared blankly at the map inside. It was... the sewers? The map was very complex, but there was a clear route from the Drowning District centre square access point and a cavernous opening near the centre of town. Was... was she supposed to GO in there? Ugh! They were the only place more filthy than the alleys of the Drowning District.

But... maybe...

Andra was about to put it out of her head and continue her work when a man suddenly burst into her shop.

"Hey. You the Grand Priestess of Gill-aj-la? My wife is having a bad labour, and I can't imagine how incredibly sad I'll be if she passes." The mean tone of his voice caught her entirely off guard.

What an incredibly callous idiot.

Maybe I should just let her die, just to make him think about how bloody sad he'll be.

Now YOU'RE the incredibly callous idiot. Get your scarred little ass out there and help the poor woman."

Screw that. You've had enough. If you miss too many customers here, your precious tailor shop will be closed and you'll be dead. DEAD.

"I'll be right there, sir."

DAMMIT. This is why you don't have any respect around here. You bend to everyone and they all trample you!

Shut up.

You know it to be true, Andra.

Shut up.

You can't keep going like this.

SHUT UP.

Andra grabbed her bag of midwifery supplies. Then, without fully thinking about it, she grabbed the parcel map and shoved it into her bag.

As she entered the street with the man, there was a sudden ruckus as a small boy leapt over the alley, followed by several others. As she stared up at the straining legs and contorted faces, she felt a wild urge to drop everything and climb the wall to join them. She immediately noted several extruding stones from the buildings, she could make it!! She could escape this horrible life! She could get away! She could! She STOP

She closed her eyes, feeling the sudden surge of adrenaline throb and fade. She needed to get out of here. She couldn't deal with these people and this job and this stress anymore.

"Well, if you're done jumping at common daily occurrences, I can finally get our dear priestess to my rapidly dying wife."

Fall on a spear ass-first and DIE. "Yes Sir."

As Andra choked down her rage and fury that was rapidly boiling ever-upwards towards the surface, she couldn't help but notice that the man was leading her towards the centre square neighbourhood, to a house fairly close to the sewer access point.

"Hooray for petulance!" She cheered.

Skylar immediately opened the package the strange man had given her, and her eyes widened as she saw something she hadn't seen in a while: food. Proper food. Not the trash she had forced down to survive, but genuine food. Skylar went for the apple first and wolfed it down, spraying whatever was in front of her with the juice. It was true what they said, absence really did make the heart grow fonder. A couple of months ago Skylar would have turned her nose at a simple apple and demanded some sweets instead. Now, however, the sweetness of the apple was more than enough. She tore the poor thing apart with her teeth, even consuming the core. With that, Skylar found that the apple alone filled her up. Not a problem, the rest could be saved for later.

Just... how long did it take for bread to go mouldy, again?

Regardless, she noticed something that wasn't food, covered in cheese and bread crumbs, it appeared to be some sort of map. Skylar tucked it back into the parcel, there would be time to study it later. With a valuable package such as this, Skylar felt the need to scurry to somewhere safe. The gutter was neither safe nor sanitary. Sure, it seemed like a good idea at the time to sulk about her situation there, but that strange man with the skull had changed things. At first, she had assumed that he was going to kidnap her or something, so Skylar responded to his arrival with a sulky stare. But then the man gave her a parcel and said something about 'The Shroud' and being feared, for some reason. Skylar assumed it was just out of pity, because of that pout.

She didn't care about what the man said anyway. She just wondered whether there would be more food if she went along.

She dragged herself out of the gutter and attempted to wipe some of the sewage off her feet onto the pavement. With one final brush-down, Skylar was ready to go. Her face wore a Cheshire-cat smile, she was the cat who got the cream and now she was taking it take to her little hidey-hole within the Drowned District. Everything was going so swimmingly today. Nevertheless, Skylar, in her bliss, had made a few mistakes. She had ignored the squeaks, and the hisses. They had smelt food. Slowly but surely, a large a group of rats began to follow the little girl. The little pitter-patter of their tiny feet wasn't noticed. It was only when the noise grew louder that Skylar finally stopped and turned around.

Skylar was brought out of her own little world and turned to face reality.

She began to run as soon as she saw the multitude of rodent faces. Skylar knew well enough that she couldn't run forever. Her eyes scoured every corner for a little crack or something to hide in, something that would be too big for the mass of rats to fit. Well... tried to, anyway. Skylar with too busy with keeping herself just ahead of the swarming horde. She scowled. So much for a good day, however, she concluded that a horde of mindless animals was better than a mugger with a knife, or even an encounter with any of the desperate, poor people that called the Drowned District their home. Sure, the rats were just as desperate, but all they did was bite. Humans could do so much more to her.

But enough thinking!

Skylar wasn't the cat who had got the cream, hell, if she were a cat, the rats wouldn't be a problem. Skylar would be all claws and hisses. She was just a little mouse that had found some cheese and was trying to find her hole. Skylar stumbled as she tried to outmaneuver the pack of rats as she panicked. She could see no way to escape. The rats were more than ready to feast upon their meal, the squeaks were an endless cacophony. Despite her quick recovery, it was only a matter of time until the rats would catch up. Skylar looked around, there was only one exit of the situation: a smashed window on the second floor of a nearby delict house. She had no choice but to climb. Her hands grabbed the drainpipe and she began to pull herself up as she held by the parcel by her teeth.

The creaking noises sapped her already low confidence.

Nevertheless, she scampered up the wall and threw herself through the window. Red began to seep through the ragged remains of her nightgrown - her leg had been cut by the glass. She sighed with relief, but soon sucked the expelled air back as she grimaced. It wasn't a particularly deep wound, but it still hurt. Skylar hastily got up and ran to the window to inspect the rats' movement. They were bashing the boarded door but at least she was free of them for now. Her stomach growled. She appeased it by wolfing down the bread and the cheese. Full or not full, it would be a hindrance carrying it around all of the time. The rats would be probably be the least of her problems if she choose to keep the thing.

What of the map, though?

Skylar couldn't run away from reality now, she needed somewhere safe. Not a crevice, a proper home. She could no longer return to what had been her home, her parent's house, and honestly, she couldn't think of anywhere else that would welcome her. If only Sally had a house of her own! However, did Skylar even want to talk to her? No. She would just repeat that awkward question over and over. She scowled at the map, 'So that man wants me to go through the sewers? Ew...' The sewers meant even more rats, and Skylar wasn't particularly in the mood to see of the squeaky critters. Still, she had nowhere to go. Or did she? All Skylar had to do was follow the route on the map! Well, as soon as the rodents went on their merry little way...

She was sure that it would only take an hour or two.

"Hey! Get outta here!" The baker kicked a splash of water from the puddle near the offending pile of rags.

"Fuck off..." Maggy growled back, trying to sound threatening. It didn't really work considering how tired and hungry she was. This was one of her favorite spots to crash, the vent for the bakery that funneled out all the delicious smelling hot air. Plus this spot was tucked away and hard to sneak up on. Plus it was really warmer than most indoor haunts provided the wind wasn't up.

"Come on love, you know the boss doesn't like it when you hang out around here."

"What'a ya gunna do about it?" Maggy sneered at him.

"Don't give me that shit." He said sternly, stepping up to her challenge.

Maggy pushed herself up against the wall even harder. He was something like three times her size and it was way too early in the day to try and pick a fight. Why couldn't he have been one of those types that got all uncomfortable around her?

"Alright, alright gaahd!" She slinked off, making herself look as small as possible.

Maggy had no idea what she was supposed to do now. She was still feeling pretty well fed from the basket of food she'd gotten from that weird charity freak yesterday so that was a head start on the usual business of the day at least. Maybe she could try and get some extra food or find some coin. That was the one upside of being homeless and unemployed, you made your own plans for the day.

She could go down to the den of shit that the Zapatos idiots called a temple. Maybe she could jump a drunken john on their way into the brothel.

"No that's stupid, no one'll be going in at this time of day... I'll get the drunk ones on their way out." Maggy muttered to herself. Maybe she could get some good shoes or something from them.

Unfortunately the Zapatos was still just as busy as it always was. With so many witnesses around it was nigh impossible to try and rob someone without being picked up by the watch. On top of that all the drunken sods with their purses and pants freshly emptied were all leaving in groups so she couldn't even single anyone out.

'Who the hell goes to a brothel with friends? I bet they did stuff to each other too.'

Maggy grumbled around the temple grounds and surrounding streets, trying to scope out the nearby alleys and taverns for loners and stragglers or anything that might be of use. Everywhere seemed to have the same stink of beer, piss and stale vomit. The only exception was the temple which added bad incense into the mix as well. Of all the bloody places of worship it was probably the house of Zapatos that Maggy hated the most. Loud, obnoxious and full of giggling bitch-prats.

'No. No the worst has got to be the Gilliajlia temple. Bastards and bitches every single one of them.' And theirs tried so hard to be pretty, that was the worst part in Maggy's mind. She pictured all their fancy decorations and statues getting smashed apart and their precious temple being burned to the ground, it look satisfying in her head anyway.

She went about her usual routine for most of the day. Begging, foraging and just generally trying to stay out of trouble. She'd become something of a regular feature around certain parts of the drowned district, not that anyone noticed. That was another perk of looking the way she did, Maggy supposed, no one wanted to see you so they didn't. It was handy in its way, so long as she didn't stir up too much fuss.

But stir things she would as dusk closed in and Maggy came across a drunken sot puking his guts out in one of the countless alleys that littered the city. Honestly, sometimes it was like this pace had more alleys than actual streets. The poor idiot must have drunk his own weight in booze judging by how he was struggling to stand. He tried to right himself at one point, leaning against the wall but it was slick from the rain and he slipped down to the floor with a crash, landing on his front. Maggy glanced around, there weren't too many people around and he was pretty far off the street. Maybe she could get something out of it.

Maggy fell on her mark the a scavenger's usual gusto, rifling through all his pockets as quickly as she could with little concern for being gentle. The drunk groaned and pawed at her, trying to bat her off like an annoying fly and grumbling something along the lines of "Ger'off!".

"Shut up." Maggy hissed, punching him on the head. Part of her panicked and thought of grabbing something off the floor and bludgeoning him with it but what if she killed him? Maggy had never actually killed anyone during her life on the streets, hell she hadn't even won a fight. The drunk continued to thrash around. "Shut up, shut up." Maggy hit him impotently some more, cursing her own cowardice.

Of course that was the perfect time for someone to pass by and take an interest in what was going on. Of course Maggy only noticed once she heard a loud "Oi!" come from the alley entrance and saw a large figure rushing towards her.

"Shit!" She made a break for it, the only way out was through them. Maggy charged on, trying to slip round the side of the intruder but she wasn't near fast enough as they tried to grab onto her. She let out a guttural, panicked yelp as she scratched and clawed for freedom. The good Samaritan recoiled as they nursed the fresh scratches and Maggy ran full pelt down the street, not daring to to look back or make eye contact with anyone passing her by. She was far more scared than she should have been by now. Maybe she'd never get used to these close calls.

She found a spot to hide away from the world and pull herself together. Wiping the water out of her eyes and sniffing pathetically. She thanked what little luck she had that no one could she her. "Shit!" She squeaked up, hitting the hard stone floor in frustration. The stupid drunk didn't even have anything on him. Maggy stayed curled up in the corner for a little while, hunger was quickly creeping back in along with the cold.

'fat lot of good that food did.'

Maggy rummaged through her rags for any left overs with no luck. Well except for the weird map that had come with it. She'd assumed that it was to show the way to whichever wretched church they were with, they talked like a priest anyway. Still maybe there'd be more free food there.

'If all I need to do is listen to a crapping sermon to get some free food then fine.' Beggars couldn't be choosers after all.

Selena rolled over onto the edge of the bed and lifted herself into a sitting position, pulling her patchwork robe over her shoulders. Her client had finished early and opted to spend his remaining time lying at her side, speaking to her of the life he'd left behind before coming to this place. He was new here. He was naive.

He was good conversation though, as strange as that might be. The two of them had come from the same world after all. A world of masquerades, fancy meals, gossip and prayer. A world of bullshit. At least, that's how Selena saw things now. He'd been a low-ranking priest in a church he'd neglected to name. Apparently he saw something he shouldn't have seen, a superior engaging in some profane crime against their faith. Framed for the actions of his superior, he was cast out of the church and banished to the drowned district.

Selena could relate to his plight. She could recall a time when she too was lost, alone and struggling to survive in this rotten shithole. Whether through luck, wits, or both, Selena managed to survive long enough to learn the ropes and carve out an... existence for herself here. Maybe he could too.

After a brief stretch she reached under her bed and produced a bottle of cheap wine. She took a swig and offered one to the man beside her, "Nothing fancy, but it's all I got."

His eyes lit up as he snatched the bottle from her hand and threw it back. Wine was still dipping from his lips after he wiped his mouth, "Thanks, it's good enough for me! I haven't had a drop of liquor for weeks!"

Selena allowed herself a small smile. It was nice to see someone who's entire life had been destroyed only a few short weeks ago smile. A legitimate smile was a rare sight behind the walls. It almost made her forget for a moment that the man was paying to fuck her. Which reminded her...

She checked her watch and sighed, "Well, I'm sorry but our time's up." She held her hand out. "Don't worry about the booze though. That was on the house."

Her client stood up, now fully dressed, and started groping around at his pockets. He gave her a stupid look, "Yeah, uh.... about that."

Oh no... you're not that stupid, are you?

"I actually, uh, I don't actually have any way of paying you. Can I put it on a tab or something?" Did he really think Selena would buy that stupid grin? Clearly she'd underestimated his ignorance. He really didn't understand how it worked down here. At all.

Selena's heart sank. His grin faded when he picked up on her displeasure and he began trembling. She hadn't even spoken a word and he was already afraid. The way she looked at him... it was all he needed to know that he'd made a terrible mistake.

"No," Selena plainly stated. "No, you can't do that."

He glanced around the small, unkempt room, "Well, I mean, I don't know what to say. I don't have any money."

Selena shook her head in frustration. She had liked this guy. She really did. If it was just some abusive piece of garbage who'd refused to pay she'd pay them no mind when they had their eyes gauged out by Demeter, but with this man... Yes, he may have been an asshole for trying to screw her (figuratively), but maybe, maybe he'd just spent all these weeks alone. Maybe he'd be wallowing away in despair and was looking for a fellow human to confide in.

She understood that feeling. Maybe, under different circumstances she'd even forgive this transgression, but not here. Not in this place. She closed the gap between them in an instant and grabbed him by the arms, "Listen, you can't do this! You don't understand how it works here! Do you want to get yourself killed?!"

The man cocked an eyebrow, "Get myself killed?"

The moment the words left his mouth the door creaked open and Demeter, Selena's pimp, strolled in. He was a pale man, like everyone else in the district, and wore a fur coat. At least half of his teeth were either missing or replaced by dentures. He flashed her client a cruel grin before looking at Selena, "'S there a problem here, Saph?"

Selena shook her head frantically and relinquished her grasp around the man's arms, "No! None at all! My client was just leaving."

Demeter turned his gaze towards her client, "'That so? Was she all ya' thought she'd be?"

The man nodded nerviously, "Y-yes, uh, she was great."

"How much ya' pay for?"

Selena and her client exchanged looks. Seeing the fear in his eyes, Selena stepped forward, "Fifty."

Demeter chuckled, "Oh, lemme see it." Selena and her client exchanged nervous glances once more, but this time, before Selena could speak Demeter shook his head. Though he wore a smile he was clearly disappointed. "'S what I thought." His carefree attitude shifted to rage in an instant as he stepped forward and smacked Selena across the face, sending her staggering backwards into a heap on the floor.

Through her blurred vision she could see her client lunge at her attacker in a fit of misguided chivalry. Demeter shrugged off his assault with ease and countered with unparalleled brutality, sending the man to the ground, hard. By the time she'd shaken off the shock of being struck Demeter had already climbed on top of the man and had beaten him half to death. She could do little more than watch the poor man wither away under the repressive fists of her pimp. After a full minute of relentless pummeling the man's face had become a completely unrecognizable mess.

Demeter sighed, shook the soreness from his knuckles and got to his feet. He gave the man a sharp kick to see if he'd stir. No movement. The man was dead. Demeter helped Selena to her feet and the two stared down at the corpse in the middle of the room. Blood was beginning to pool around it at a rapid pace. Demeter patted Selena on the back, leaving a bloody hand-print on her robe before heading towards the door, "Take care'a this, will you?"

Selena stood there in silence, staring at the corpse as blood continued to pool around it. She'd have to drag it down to the sewers and dump it there. Unfortunately there was no ethical or humane way to dispose of corpses in the drowned district.

"Have faith, child."

The sewer... Selena suddenly recalled the strange encounter she'd had earlier. What was waiting for her there? The strange man had approached her while she was in a drunk stupor, but somehow.... somehow she could recall his words with flawless clarity.

"The God's of feasts and temples spurn you, but there is one who would value you still. The Shroud calls to you. Hear it, and know what it is to be feared."

There were days Selena thought she had it all figured out. And then... and then there were days like this. She slumped down onto the edge of her bed and glanced over at the wine bottle on her nightstand. She'd have to get some drink in her before she even thought about dragging a corpse into the sewers.

She sighed and took a large swig.

Booze was a good an answer to her problems as any other.

The polished glass vial full of a strange, black slurry glistened like some queer sort of gemstone, sparkling in the dim, dusty light of a brothel window as it danced this way and that through a young woman's fingers. Ezrah watched the liquid's lazy sloshing and noted no separation, no debris. The brew was stable, properly homogenized, he'd done well. The color was correct, black as the viper, lingering, quiescent, and just as brutal when it struck. The Magus' Seven Nature Theory said the black brew killed any light shone into it, that it was given its color by the shade of the dying sun. Any thoughts of the esoteric aside, Ezrah always thought it remarkable what a body could accomplish given the proper... incentive. He reached up and caught the young woman's wrist gently, stained, calloused fingers sliding upwards, entwining with hers and closing over the vile securely, pressing it firmly into her palm, "Careful, if you loose the stopper, and that tastes our flesh, we'll die screamin'...."

The words were muttered into flesh, into the crook of the woman's neck, a warning bound up in a lover's little ministrations. The woman chuckled but didn't push the ruddy youth away. Genuine affection was rare enough in her world, there was no need to stifle tenderness even if it did crop up in the oddest places. Poetry was even rarer, "Such dire, lovely words. How did I earn such dire, lovely words."

"The pillow brings the poet, you know how it goes...," Ezrah yawned, scratched his chest idly and swung his legs over the bed's edge. His eyes alit on a leather bundle tucked onto the shelf near the door in the cramped quarters, "Is that the rest?"

"Aye, just like ya asked," Gentle fingers traced the memories burned onto Ezrah's back, exploring the symbols there even if they didn't recognize the story. The woman, the whore, Risa... was a rare sort of treasure, smart enough to know the true value of two hours in her bed. She knew she was no great beauty, her features largely unmemorable save for an unfortunately distinct pattern of acne scars on her face. But she has some virtues, her flesh and frame were somewhat fuller than the rest of Demeter's working girls, and her hips were wide and generous. She traded on her figure to bring in her johns, and she suspected Ezrah was no exception. The little glass vial's contents, true visra, pure Witch's Breath, was expensive, and Risa knew it. The boy could've sold it for fine silver, even in the Drowned District, gold even, if he risked a buyer elsewhere. But no, he'd taken her up on her offer instead. A favor for later, a lukewarm bath, two hours of her attentions, and the items he'd requested: a cloak, good leather work gloves, and a sailor's boot knife. A good trade in Ezrah's mind, though it would've set the Crone to muttering curses. Meh, her withered flesh had few and fewer yearnings, Ezrah was not so fortunate.

Risa was a treasure for more than her figure though. Her mind was sharp and she kept her word once it was given, qualities far more valuable than the sway of her hips, even if they were less readily apparent. Ezrah didn't mind a trade in flesh with her every now and then, even if he turned most of her peers away. She had a head for novels and stories, she made for lovely conversation, and he'd sired twins on her, a fact he'd gone out of his way to verify even if the mother herself thought it simple rumor. There's was no great, fiery romance, just a simple affection, a fondness, an odd friendship between a harlot and a considerate client. Ezrah pulled on his trousers and fastened his boots, offering the young woman the words of instruction to seal the trade as he rose to his feet and continued to dress, "That there in yer hand? Pure like that, it'll take life with a touch. A thimbleful, mixed in wine or bitter tea to mask the flavor, will drop a ten stone man after a few hours, a day at longest, with no counter anyone is apt to find. It'll leave no marks, save for a stink on his breath when he passes, and most'll name that corpse rot, more'n likely. That brew is unfixed, it'll hold true for a month, maybe longer. After two months though, it'll slant queer, still kill a man, just might take longer, might touch him strange, hard to say. Toss it after three months, it'll be harmless as garter snakes by then."

"Thanks for this, Ezrah. Ya don't know how-"

"Aye, I don't know, best to keep it suchwise," The lad offered Risa a rather rueful grin, but there was a knowing certainty in those dark eyes. Her schemes were not his to know, the less he knew, the less he could tell, the less he could be expected to know. It was a common courtesy of sorts. Any good apothecary did well to keep himself removed from the domestic drama of his clients, who knew whose cup his brew might sully after all. He finished dressing and set about pawing thorough the contents of the leather bundle, inspecting each one as he uncovered it. The cloak was large enough, but the material was cheap and rather ragged, it probably wouldn't last the year, but it would suffice for now. The gloves were a better story, fine things, stained from hard use, but thick and hardy, just like he'd asked. The boot knife was fine as well, the steel sharp and treated against rust, the handle simple, leather bound wood, complete with an even simpler leather sheath. Ezrah threw the cloak about his shoulders and fastened it, stowed the gloves in a pocket of his coat, and fixed the knife to the inside of his boot, "Good work as always, Risa, fine work."

"Just fine?"

"Fine and finer still," Ezrah chuckled and offered the woman a warm grin. He paused a moment before taking his leave, leaning back against the shelves, a slight furrow to his brow painting his demeanor a touch more serious, "How're yer babes, Risa? Heard the boy was down with thrush."

"Ya heard true enough," Risa's good cheer faded somewhat," He wouldn't feed from me without cryin' and hollerin' somethin' fierce. I pray it passes soon, Demeter'll drown him if he makes a racket again, likely as not."

Ezrah fished a packet from the pocket of his trousers and tossed it to the woman on the bed, "Here, somethin' better than prayers. Mix it with warm milk. He'll like it, sweet as it is."

The woman blinked, surprised. For a brief second, her mind flickered back to the idle talk she'd indulged in with her co-workers as her eyes flickered over Ezrah's face, the dark eyes and freckles, so much like the twins, Milo and Sarah. It was a possibility, sure enough, and she supposed they could do much worse for parentage. The flicker of doubt passed, and Risa remembered herself, remembered how things worked in the Drowned District, "And what'll this cost me."

Ezrah paused for a moment, cocked his head to the side and screwed up his face in a mockery of deep thought. He ended the sham in half a heartbeat and chuckled lightly, offering Risa a slight shrug, "Hmmm... well, I'd fancy a new story, for when I come round next. Somethin' with a happy ending, think ya could manage?"

"Aye, I figure I can, till then," the tension fell from Risa's shoulders and a chuckle pinked her words as she waved the lad off. Ezrah nodded with a smile an took his leave.

"Till then."

~~~

Outside the brothel, the rain swept the muck from the stones of the streets as it charged over the Drowned District. Ezrah held his face to the rain for a few moments before pulling up the hood of his cloak, letting the chilling shock of it chase away the warm, sensual lethargy of a brothel bed. Rain was some of the purest water the Drowned District ever saw, provided it didn't blow in from the direction of the factories. Alert and refreshed, Ezrah set off on his path. He had all the tools he needed now, and the weather was in his favor. Now seemed as good a time as any to head to the sewers and hunt the Warped Rats, the sewer rat's larger, pollutant-twisted brethren. Most avoided them out of habit, their meat was worthless and sickened the stomach unless you had the reagents to treat it, and their bite was as venomous as any serpents. Cut deep enough into that stinking mass of fur and twisted flesh, however, and you'd find a purplish sack near the stomach, full of a bitter, evil-smelling bile, with useful properties if you had the requisite skills. The rain would drive them up from the deep sewers, no doubt, and Ezrah knew their usual haunts.

Yes... yes he'd go to the sewers to hunt the rats, to hunt the rats and... and nothing else. Ezrah felt a slight burning, a slight itching against his chest and knew it was just his imagination, knew that the piece of folded parchment in the inner pocket of his coat had no magical properties. There was nothing special about the encounter, he knew that to be true, knew it would only become more true the more he told himself it was mundane. Just some passing holy man, the Drowned District always attracted a few mad cultists, promising this or that. More than like it was nothing but lies and delusions, and if not that, a snare laid to strip the poor of their already meager earnings. The food had been a rare enough treat. The Crone's cleansing rituals had found no malice in them, and Ezrah had eaten them without fear. But this map, this was foolishness, to follow some madman's whims into the city's bowels? Unthinkable. Just a fool priest, just a wandering madman, just some clever charlatan.... The titles rang out over and over again in Ezrah's mind, and each sounded more hollow than the last. That man... if nothing else, he certainly hadn't been mundane. Ezrah had been playing the beggar, an easy enough ruse and a common one used to ply his trade in the more... recreational balms in his possession beneath prying eyes. The man had come like all the others, offering his alms and... and that face.... There had been no eyes, nothing easily discerned in those shrouded features, but Ezrah knew... knew that the man has seen him, emptied him of every trick and every mask and truly seen him. That man knew he was no beggar, knew every inch of him, knew the story burned into his back even though Ezrah had hidden it with cloth and make-up. In one shuddering instant, that towering figure had stripped Ezrah bare and flayed his soul with words of the Shroud.... There would be no casual forgetting....

Ezrah gritted his teeth and swallowed dryly, setting off towards the easiest entrance to the sewers he could recall. Even covered in the cloak as he was, something in his stride, in the light swagger that lingered in it, betrayed him as Marked. Most of the Drowned District had learned to give the Marked a bit of room out of force of habit and obedience to the Myth each Marked took it upon himself to maintain. One could hazard a run on one of the Marked, perhaps you'd beat him and rob him, perhaps he'd escape, who could say? And then, after the days passed and your crime slipped from your mind to be replaced by more immediate worries, a pain would grip you, a hot knife that tormented the guts, a stinking sweat that left blisters on the skin, a burning discharge that left you raw, ragged and weak, who could say? The only certainty was that you would die screaming. Over the decades, the Drowned District had learned of the Marked just as the Marked had learned of the Drowned District. They learned to offer one another, if nothing else, a basic, crude respect.

Ezrah didn't worry about being accosted, even though he kept his ears primed and muscles loose and ready. Some things could be left to the subconscious. Let the sleeping mind remain wary, teeth bared. The waking mind could concern itself with more pressing affairs, like hunting rats and perhaps... perhaps going a bit deeper into the Labyrinth than intended. After all, who knew where the rats might lurk? There were obvious dangers, yes, but Ezrah knew better than most the opportunities that lingered in danger.

Giles loved his old cards. They each had a slight bend or cut to identify it from the back. He'd been using the same set since he started, it was odd how no one had caught on. Even he, the drug addict thought so... His hands twitched slightly, but he quickly corrected and steadied himself. He needed to go again that afternoon, fucking pronto.

"Pick a card, any card!" He began, spreading the deck like a fan, all facing away from him. A dirty woman approached hesitantly, but seemed into it. It was entertainment, after all, who didn't appreciate it?! She hovered her hand over Queen of Hearts, but in the end went for the 6 of spades. Giles could tell by the wrinkle in the upper left corner, that looked like a snake.

"Chosen? Chosen, good choice." Giles said, smirking with a wink. The woman seemed to blush under her layer of filth, she could've maybe been attractive in another life. Giles nodded, making a deck, reshaping it into it's nice blocky form. His ring finger pulled a tiny string, and another deck fell from his crimson patch. He threw his hands up into the air, the new deck flying into the air and fluttering to the ground while his normal slid down. A simple trick, but the gasps from the crowd seemed to show a job well done.

"Tell me... can you find your card?" Giles asked innocently, grinning and pointing at the spread out pile. The girl and the rest looked down nervously, of course they were all 6 of Spades. There was some polite clapping, some "'Ow'd he do that," and a few smiles. Precious in the Drowned District, but shit did they look terrible. A sea of yellow black and gaps. Giles faked a charming smile, doing a quick bow. A few of the luckier among them even gave some tips to the lowly street performer... Giles caught the change in his hat, and went on his way.

He was still good on food, thanks to that fan from earlier. Creepy guy, must've been shy or some shit. Didn't matter much to Giles, he hadn't eaten in a couple days. Luckily, water came easy enough... that left one thing he needed to scratch off the ole to-do list! He felt himself get giddy, it'd been a couple of days! It was even that magical time of day when he could find his bestest buddy in the whole city.

He nearly skipped through the disgusting, diseased district. It was such a good day! It'd been almost 4 days since his last accident, his headache wasn't even that bad, and he was even well fed! He even had that apple in his pocket, still. He pulled it out quickly, putting on his biggest grin as he found him. Tall, dirty as they come, with a wide gap inbetween his front teeth showed up as he grinned at Giles.

"My friend, MY FRIEND, how are you? Hm? Been awhile." He said, in his usual mile a minute speech. Giles held up the clean(ish) apple in the stray sunlight, beaming.

"How much will THIS fetch me, my good man?" Giles could see his eye twitch, as he dashed over and nearly tackled the 'magician' for the treat. He munched loudly while Giles looked at the "product." Herbs and rock looking goodies, all a bit weird smelling. He chose his usual, black and powdery, usually a tar when super fresh, whatever the fuck it was called. A whole apple was worth nearly half the supply! Enough to stretch over half a week... He pulled out his dream stick, waving to the loudly eating dealer a quick goodbye.

"See ya later, Spence."

~

It was raining out tonight. Giles noticed that after the first spark had failed, his hat surprisingly protected him from the elements. And his head was pounding too hard for him to notice some slight patter on the straw. He took off his hat to protect his flame, and the pipe. He needed it to goddamn work already, just fucking work fucking work fucking work.

The spark was quick, making fire wasn't so hard afterall. 6 of Spades made a decent fuel for his pipe. He took a deep breath of the stuff, it worked faster when it was smoked. He remembered that, learned it quickly. First time he tried to fuckin eat it, like an idiot, took too long to kick in. He was smarter now, a whole lot smarter. He grinned widely, didn't even know why. Just felt like it. It was a good day anyways, why not? Fuckin earned that dopey, lopsided grin of his, sitting on a street corner without a care in the world.

Feeling like this was how life was meant to be fuckin lived.

Who needed some fat fuckin god to tell you how to live your life? Giles was doing well, considering his cards. Didn't have a job, still got paid, still got food. Although, didn't he get offered something earlier?

"Riiiiight. Right right right right right." Giles dug in his pocket, and pulled out his little napkin. "Oh shit there is something on here..." He turned it upside down. He was near the beginning of this adventure. He grinned wider, stumbling to his feet. Halfway up he fell face first, scratching his chin on the gravel. He laughed at himself a bit too loudly, picking himself up again and wandering into the sewers.

Wake up, Kaim


This is what he told himself every morning. It had become a daily ritual of his, to tell himself that he should wake to live another day, lest he forget just how lucky he really was to still be alive.

Life in the Drowned District; it either makes or breaks a person. It's more than just being reduced to the worst kind of poverty that gets to most, in fact you'd be surprised with how well people can cope with having nothing. No, the worst thing about the Drowned District was that its inhabitants were all dead. The living dead that is, of whom Kaim himself was now among. They were all drowning here. With people either drowning away their sorrows, or drowning in them. It is hard to survive for yourself if you're put off by the sorry state of society. Caring about others had become the problem; apathy, the solution.

Kaim awoke with his head in his usual choice of gutter, the stench of smog and human effluence being of surprisingly little shock to his senses. How did he come to be here? Did he fall asleep? 'No... I remember...'

It was just after that stranger had given him that map... the daylight was fading fast, and Kaim had learned that these were the worst hours to be about the streets. Just after the Drowned Districts inhabitants had finished their day's 'work', and just before the men left to get furiously drunk and meet with the whores at the brothels. It was often that violent brawls would spontaneously erupt out on the streets, for seemingly little reason more than another man daring to look at a customer's 'girl'.

Eager to avoid any such activities, Kaim had opted to travel through the District atop the rooftops, despite themselves being a notorious haven for thieves and vagabonds; at least he feared them less than drunken butchers. Sprinting across the vast scape of cobble, his pace was only sporadically interrupted by the dishevelled form of a vagrant. He suffered a few tumbles, his bare feet catching on the wrought stone and giving his legs away. He always managed to keep going however, his scarred soles giving no indication of any damage. When he at last came to a landmark he recognized as such on the map, Kaim stopped at the ledge of the building and sat with his legs hanging over the verge. He took the moment to think about just what he was doing, his mind still blurred by the rush of adrenaline.

"A stranger clothed in black comes to you, shows you kindness, gives you a map and offers you a ticket outta this shithole, and you do what Kaim? You follow his instructions to the letter, even though the smart thing to do is stay the hell away from him..."

Sigh...

He knew his ramblings were of no consequence though. Even though it went against nearly every bone in his body, Kaim had to take this chance. It was the only opportunity to escape this life of destitution that had reared its ugly head since the day he was born. Curse the Gods, for he was either to play life with the hand that Maeverniss had dealt him, and stay stuck in this hive of scum and villainy, or he could take it upon himself to forge his own destiny. He looked up at the sky, the stars cloaked by the smog of the factories were like the gods in the way they hid themselves, forever averting their gaze from the Drowned District.

Kaim took the food given by the stranger out of his pouch. He couldn't remember when he had fresh food, but he was grateful that he did, he couldn't even care less if it was poisoned. His stomach satisfied, he took one last look at the sky, vowing that after this meeting he would see it through unclouded eyes, with the very heavens revealed before him.

"Oh shi-!"

Stone gave way beneath Kaim as he tried to rise to his feet, sending him hurtling over the edge of the building and out onto the streets below, his life only spared by the washing lines suspended by the people between buildings. As his fall was broken by wire and gangplanks, the last thought that went through his head before he hit the ground was the memory of a boys body on the floor, blood streaming from his neck, with Kaim standing over with a bloodied shiv.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

And that was how he found himself, curled up on the floor covered in a heap of rags. His entire body ached, but thankfully he knew that the sewer entrance was not far from where he was, and at least he had found a way down. Brushing himself off, Kaim proceeded on with the stranger's map in hand.

Destiny, here I come

"How many this time?" The bald man with the crooked teeth asked, as the pair of them descended down a wide and crumbling spiral stare. As they walked, torches places in brackets along the outer wall ignited before them to light their way.

"Eleven." His companion replied. "The Sanctuary will be quiet tonight."

"Assuming they all make it even half the way down."

"Mylaviss does not send invitations on a whim;" Said the still-hooded companion, a hint of mischief creeping into his otherwise deadpan delivery. "and in the event he does, his whims contain more wisdom than a century of you careful consideration. I'm sure our new hopefuls will be capable in overcoming the obstacles in their way, even the ones of our own making."

The spiral stair ended, transitioning to a narrow stone bridge arching over a yawning chasm. In the dark space, the downpour was deafening. Not the downpour happening above, for it always rained over the crossing. Water permeating through hundreds of feet of rock that held up the present incarnation of Kragenau ended here, as droplets falling one after another from the tips of the congregation of stalactites that hung high in the blackness above them in their hundreds of thousands. The rain that did not fall straight down into the underground lake below made the crossing slick. Still the two men made their way over the abyss as if they had done so a thousand times before.

"When did the Old Man return from his commune?" Bald Man asked.

"He is still there. A shade delivered the commands in his absence."

Bald Man snorted derisively "His sojourns get longer every year."

"Perhaps..." came Hooded Man's answer, "or perhaps that is just our perception of it. There is quite possibly no other man alive who is as bound to The Shroud as he. It could be that time moves differently for him now."

"You think too much."

"And you too little."

"I think the Old Man is tired of living." Bald Man pontificated, sounding slightly bored. "Faldus has no mysteries left for him, and he lingers a little longer each visit in the hopes that our Lord might take the hint and invite him to stay permanently."

"It could be that you're right." said Hooded Man, smiling "Though I wouldn't broach the subject with either of them."

=========================================================================================================================

All over the Drowned District, the Children who had been assigned invitation were still out in force.

Roughly half a mile away from where the scrawny girl limped across the rooftops, a figure in faded grey watched from a rickety clock-tower. As the girl crested another row of houses and descended out of sight, the figure vanished in a swirl of mist, appearing at a new vantage point on top of a chimney stack some distance away.

As the quarrelsome boy took flight from his friend through the maze of streets and alleys, a stray cat, bedraggled from the rain, hissed and darted sideways to make way fro him, Once the boy was passed however, the cat quickly turned and followed, it's paws padding silently as it kept pace.

With the blood of the customer who had tried to short change the wrong merchant still soaking into the floor-boards and mixing with the already present damp, a figure in robes of deep burgundy clung to the wall outside, unperturbed by the absence of any ledge or secure handhold. With one-ear pressed against the flaking brickwork, the man listened through the layers of timber and plaster.

Sparrow furrowed her brow with exertion as she lifted the surprisingly loose grate. Must have been a frequented point of entry. She peered down the hole, she could see a faint shimmering of light at the bottom, probably a wall sconce.

As she climbed down the slick ladder, she was doubly cautious with her footing. She could grit her teeth through a slight sprain, but she didn't feel particularly up to the prospect of snapping her neck.

The girl stepped off the ladder, as she thought, a pathetic looking torch was burning on the wall. Pulling down her hood, her eyes scanned the narrow, dimly lit tunnel. Nothing. All she could hear was the sound of running water and the flames of the torch as it licked the air.

As she continued to look around, she walked over to the torch, warming her hands, she held them to her cheeks. Well, what constituted as her cheeks nowadays. The cold seemed to pierce her more readily as of late, she had lost weight and her appetite wasn't as strong as usual. Her gaze rested on the flames, her hands still on her face, the flames dancing in her eyes. She felt a strange sense of contentment as a wave of warmth washed over her. Sparrow's eyes lulled for a second before opening wide as she pinched the tight skin covering her cheek bones.

Reaching into her back pocket she pulled out the map. Holding it to the light, she got her bearings, ahead of her was a long tunnel, she'd need to take the first right and then the second left. Furrowing her brow, she reached under the flames and attempted to remove the torch from its sconce, to no avail. Sparrow grimaced, taking a few steps forward, she reached for her hood, but then decided against it. She reckoned she'd need her ears more than her eyes.

Taking a deep a breath, she acquiesced to her curiosity, stepping into the darkness, she stood there for a few moments, letting her eyes adjust, before continuing down the tunnel.

Crouched against rough stone wall, Langston kept his eyes squeezed shut, clutching a small parcel to his chest. He did not know from where the man came and he did not care where he went. He just wanted to know that he was gone.

Silence had once again fallen on Langston's sanctuary. He opened his eyes gradually, cautiously scanning the small alleyway for the intruder. Convinced that the man had left, he released a long audible sigh and relaxed his posture, allowing his weary body slide down the wall.

He remained seated, his head spinning from residual adrenaline. He numbly fingered the packaging, gently turning it over in his large soft hands. His brow furrowed, marking his pensive mood.

'What was it he said?'

Langston raked his memory trying to find an answer.

"Have faith my child"

And then... nothing. The man had said something else, but Langston wasn't listening, he was panicking. The man knelt in front of him, lowering himself to meet Langston's gaze.

'The Gods feast of temples...?uhhh... No, that- hm... that just isn't right.'

Langston searched for the words, but his efforts proved fruitless. He could remember the man's hot breath brushing against his cheek, the sound of his voice meaninglessly reverberating through his head, and a macabre skull tattooed on the inside of his palm... well, at least that was something to work with.

He couldn't remember the words, but he sure as hell could remember the symbol. He stood up abruptly in search of his charcoal and parchment, allowing the small package fall by the wayside. He sat back on the ground amongst his other sketches and swiftly began to draw the skull. He sat forward, inspecting his drawing for any inaccuracies. When he finally decided the picture was right he straightened his back and held the paper away from his face, hoping to find some answer. After a brief pause he crumpled the paper, throwing it behind him. "Useless," he mumbled as he began to lay back on the hard uneven ground. Something was familiar about it, perhaps it was associated with a gang in the area, or possibly from one of the hundreds of books he had read throughout his life time, or - what did it matter, he couldn't place it, it meant nothing.
He wasn't sure why he let it bother him, since coming to the Drowned District all of his questions have remained unanswered. Why should this be any different?

These questions, along with many others, drifted aimlessly as he began to nod off. He stretched out lazily and began to raise his hands behind his head until they grazed against something round on the ground behind him. Grabbing the object, Langston sat up slowly and began to examine it. It was a small package, wrapped in weathered paper and tied with a frayed piece of twine.

'Is this what he shoved in my hand?'

Langston grinned sheepishly as he began to pull at the string,

'Too focused on minor details to see what's right in front of me.'

He nodded his head in embarrassment muttering, "at least some things don't change." He delicately began to peel away the wrapping, noting that the other side was covered in script.

Langston let out a sudden manic laugh, excitedly jumping to his feet and allowing the rations to tumble to the ground. He held the map out in front of him, his eyes filling with joyous tears- this was an answer. The map indicated that these sewers ran deep, possibly deep enough to join with the catacombs. If that were the case then maybe he could find a way home.
Langston had to stop himself from sprinting out onto the streets and straight to the sewers. He took a minute to collect himself, and then he hurriedly gathered his belongings, taking a large bite out of the cheese and pocketing the apple and bread. He collected his papers and the materials he has scavenged since his arrival.

He didn't anticipate any trouble on the way to the sewers, now that he looked like a resident of the district people generally left him alone, and it was a good night to travel- with inky clouds blotching the night sky many people would stay indoors. Langston didn't quite understand the superstition surrounding the stars, but he had become very thankful for it.
Langston looked over the alley once more before turning onto the street. He knew he probably would have to return, but he hoped not to.

Blaize ran, coat fluttering behind him. He ran through the well trod alleys connecting the smugglers' highways of the Drowned District. He ran through narrow passages blockaded by high walls of trash, passed flooded trenches cut by time and neglect. May wasn't following, he knew. She wouldn't follow him, she wouldn't dare. Graves wouldn't realize he wasn't coming back for at least a few days. He had been at the hideout early this morning, happy coincidence that, Blaize mused. Perhaps Graves would never find out though. Perhaps he'd get lucky, maybe May would follow his advice and do Graves in. That would save him a lot of time. It was unlikely though, but he could dream. Maybe he'd come out of this whole sorry business with his head on his shoulders. After all, it was hardly the first time trouble had come for his life.

Ahead, the alley opened out back onto the streets of the district. He could hear the cries of men at their cups and women at their trade. The smell of greasy food and stale beer. People all across the district were being mugged and killed, homes were being ransacked. Some people would get fed up tonight and wait for trouble, target regular robbers. Some of the bodies that turned up by morning would be criminals, not marks. Life went on, in spite of the danger and the trouble, even the murder of the High Priest did little to slow the pace of life in the district. But tonight was different. Tonight, his life ended, Blaize reflected, one way or another, he wouldn't be running in the district as he once had.

Near the mouth of the alley, Blaize skidded to a halt, just before the street lights reached him. Graves wouldn't have men out for him, not yet, but that was no reason to chance things. Who knew what eyes were watching? After rummaging around through his pockets for a moment, he found the folded map, the instructions telling him where to find the man with the skull tattoo. Hopefully the offer of the Shroud or whatever was still standing. It wasn't any gang he'd ever heard of. That was troubling, still, that meant Graves didn't know about it either.

Carefully, Blaize unfolded the paper and held it out toward the light. He quickly scanned the page, considering the location he was heading to, the layout of the Drowned District, and his own position. Another few moments passed as Blaize worked out the fastest and most inconspicuous route before tucking the paper away in his coat, and setting off again.

After another mad dash through the streets and back alleys, Blaize found the tunnel entrance that map had pointed him toward. He stopped to catch his breath, rest his burning lungs and sore legs. As he stretched, he checked the surrounding area. No one was nearby, no one was following him. Good. Blaize reached into his pocket and grabbed his dagger. He took a deep breath, then took his first steps into the tunnel to whatever waited him on the other side.

The map told him there were numerous points he could begin the journey from. Only natural, as it led him into the sewer. He recognized a particular area in the cartography as a plaza he'd been through several times since arriving in the Drowned District. After some time, Will arrived there and found the sewer grate he was looking for. Fortunately the plaza was sparsely populated, and those present were too busy to pay him any notice as he pulled the grate aside and descended down the ladder.

Why was he doing this? Well, he supposed the reasons were simple. It was the first opportunity he'd been presented with to improve his situation. Whatever this Shroud was. And even if it came to nothing, the sewers were extensive, and though he suspected they would be as sealed as the district itself was for people trying to pass over, they seemed extensive enough that there could possibly be something overlooked. Some way to get out. Either possibility was tempting enough for him.

When Will got to the bottom of the ladder, he was standing on a narrow stone walkway set to the side of the passing flow of dark water, from which the predictable smell of pungent waste was rising. Nice. Ignoring it, he focused on recalling his sense of direction, and then started walking. As he moved, he fingered the empty sheath on his hip, wishing the large boarding knife still filled it. He didn't like going into such an odd situation unarmed...

A billion white hot thoughts surged through the mind of the Warped Rat, frantic, quick burning things. The sound of the sewer's rain-buoyed currents, the chill in the air, the distant chattering and familiar scents that spoke of true kin and out-freyn kin, and the other sorts of sounds, the other sorts of scents, the ones that spoke of danger. The rat's mind was not made to ponder, not made to plan. It was a simple thing, born and bred to Feed, Fuck, Fight or Flee. The rat did not fear the unknowns, did not fear the dangers it implied. It cared only for the hunger in its belly and the itch in its groin. It would not fight, not now, not without an army of kinfolk at its back. No, in its way the rat knew patience, it would focus on finding for now, finding food, finding the kinfolk, finding a womb for its seed, and so things went. The kinfolk number would grow and grow, as it should be. Soon they would swarm and all that was dangerous, would become food. Why should the rat fear?

The rat is a fool. Only the wise knew fear.

The rat did not fear the danger, even if it avoided it, did not fear the darkness, did not fear the shadows, even when one such shadow shifted strange in one slithering instant and crushed its skull to pulp with one heavy blow.

Ezrah worked in practiced silence, stowing his bloodstained cudgel and finding his way with his hands rather than his eyes. The heavy gloves kept his flesh clear of the worst of it, and he learned to ignore the smell, to use it and cherish it as it blinded him the nose of the rat's fellows. The boot knife did its brutal work without complaint, sliding through the twisted creatures flesh from neck to navel. Unflinching hands plunged into slightly steaming innards and grew delicate as the work called for precision. The wet shapes spoke of organs, intestines that lead to a stomach, a stomach lined with strange bladders. Ezrah cut them away gently, one by one, stowing them in a glass flask tucked away in his satchel, padded with hay and linen. This evening's harvest was plenty fruitful, Ezrah patiently stalking and ending a half dozen of the vermin, some near large as dogs. To dispatch a rat of this sort effectively took a measure of doing, worming one's way into the creature's mind, its habits. Where the rat heard danger of one sort, Ezrah heard danger of another. Footsteps in the gloom, several pair over several minutes. There was a pattern to them, clear as day once his mind overlaid the memory of the map upon the vision of the sewers proper.

Others leapt to heed the stranger's call.... Ezrah didn't know if he should kindle his hopes or despair. Still, one thing was clear enough. If other bodies stalked this queer path, his way was clear. He would be patient, he would watch, and he would follow. Ezrah made his way deeper into the sewers, skirting along the fringes of the light cast by the torches, matching the sound of footfalls where he found them, and padding along with as much silence as he could muster when such sounds grew distant. The man from before offered a banquet of sorts, a meal of mysteries and magics and whispers of the Shroud. Very well, it'd be foolish to snub such an invitation, but it wouldn't do to arrive first at the dinner table.

Selena had spent the last hour treating her bed as if it were some kind of sanctuary. In reality, however, it was nothing more than an island among a sea of blood. Wine bottle in-hand, she'd drank her sorrows away as she watched the pool of blood slow its crawl until it faded away, seeping through the cracks of the floorboard one drop at a time. She put her lips to the bottle once more only to be greeted by warm, stale air. She was out of booze.

Resigning herself to her fate, Selena sighed and tossed the bottle aside. The wooden planks didn't creek as she took her first steps off the bed. Instead, the sound they produced was more akin to that of wet grass. Moist and... squishy. Had she not been well on her way already she'd have likely thrown up.

Crouching down, she reached under the corpse's arms and began dragging him out the door and down the stairs. He wasn't a particularly heavy fellow but then, she wasn't a particularly strong woman. His unwieldy, ragged form was difficult to maneuver, but after several minutes of struggling she got him down the stairs and out into the street. Thankfully--in some twisted sense she presumed--the sewers were not far from her place. In fact, the closest entrance was a mere block away.

Still, any distance was too far to drag a corpse.

The eyes of drifters, vagabonds and criminals followed her slow pace down the street. They wouldn't think twice about approaching her however, especially not in this part of town. They knew what she was a part of. Where she came from. They knew that going after her didn't come without a few string s attached... and a few missing digits. She was thankful enough for Demeter. His protection allowed her to walk the streets of her neighborhood without fearing every shadow. Then again, it was because of Demeter that she had to deal with... this.

She thought back to the mysterious figure again. Could he truly offer her something better? Was it worth risking what she had now? One glance at the corpse beneath her told her her answer.

Her entire body was sore now, but she pressed on. Eventually she reached a tunnel where the rain water fed in. The filthy water ran about two feet deep. This would have to do. Grunting, she lifted the corpse up and over the short ledge, watching it flop into the stream and slowly float away. Covered head-to-toe in mud and blood, Selena stood alone in the rain, watching the lifeless form float away. That could have been her. That could have been anyone here.

She balled her hands into fists and gritted her teeth. This wasn't right. None of this was right. She'd gotten so used to how things worked here she'd almost become blinded to how insane the rules truly were. Could the man she'd seen earlier free her from all this? He didn't seem like one to follow the rules at any rate.

Selena was suddenly snapped out of her trance by the sound of a metal grate squeaking open. Turning her head, she caught a glimpse of a small form entering another part of the sewer further down the block. Instinctively, she reached into her pocket and produced the map.

If I understand this correctly...

That was one of the designated entrances! Selena jogged over to the grate, hesitating a moment when the stench hit her in the face. Plugging her nose with one hand, she grasped one of the iron bars and looked in. She could see the shadow of the small form eclipsing a feint light, before moving out of her line of sight. She allowed herself one last moment of hesitation before climbing in herself, grabbing hold of the cold, slick ladder as she descended down. Eventually she reached the bottom, her eyes darting around as soon as she regained her balance. Doing this while tipsy probably wasn't the best idea.

She squinted her eyes as she stood in the light of the nearby torch. The small form she'd seen earlier was further down one of the tunnels, but not too far. Stumbling a bit at first, Selena found the wall with her hand and started down the tunnel letting her other senses take over. After about a minute she caught up enough to make sense of what she was seeing. A child stood not too far. At least she thought it was a child. The light from the entrance was feint this far down the tunnel.

A child. Maybe they knew their way around? What harm could there be in asking? It was a mere child, after all. Selena cleared her throat, "Uh... excuse me! Little... err---boy?"

Sparrow breathed in sharply as she heard movement behind her. Whoever it was, they weren't trying to sneak up on her. She quickly reached down, pulling the small dagger from her boot. Turning slightly, she slid the dagger up her right sleeve. She saw a silhouette against the light of the torch from earlier, a woman, judging by the way she moved, her hands against the walls of the sewer, and the amount of noise she was making, she wasn't a native. Sparrow narrowed her eyes. Looks were deceiving.

"Uh... excuse me! Little... err---boy?"

'Well wasn't that a formal greeting?' Sparrow tilted her head curiously, her arms hanging loosely by her sides, she didn't feel the need to appear threatening. At least, not yet.

Sparrow swallowed, deepening her voice. "S'up? You lost?" Better for her to think she was a denizen of this place, might be less likely to cause trouble.

As Kaim descended deeper into the sewers, it became increasingly apparent that had he no map he would most likely be lost in their depths for days. The underground's labyrinthine tunnels were dimly lit by the spattering of torches fueled by god knows what. He pitied the workers and slaves charged with maintaining these passageways, wading waist-high through human filth to preserve what separated those in the higher districts from the plague and other terrible diseases. It was a task that Kaim knew all too well, as he himself had to resort to mudlarking in the past, scavenging for what he could amongst sewage cisterns and disease-ridden bogs. Perhaps that was why the stench of the rushing water beside the ratways were of little effect as he continued to head deeper underground.

Kaim picked up a piece of rubble from the floor, probably from the walls themselves, and used it to mark the walls with an arrow whenever the map indicated he should turn and head down another tunnel. This way at least, he figured he could he find his way back to where he entered the sewers from, even if he happened to lose his map.

Or, more likely, that I need to run after this turns out to be an elaborate ploy to capture young men...

Kaim shuddered, trying to perish the thought. There were certainly no guarantees when it came to the matter, he just hoped that by the sound of the Stranger's invitation he would at least not be alone in trying to seek an escape from this reality. In hindsight, the man's demeanor certainly did come across as very cult-leader-like...

Suddenly his ears pricked up at a faint sound echoing through the tunnel to behind him. The sound of what seemed to be voices. Who was it? Thieves? Many unsavoury characters were known to use the tunnels to travel unseen, but Kaim had hoped that tonight of all nights he would happen to not come across them.

He stopped in his tracks, clutching the piece of rock in his right hand even tighter, wishing that he had some better form of weapon. The sound of voices from the tunnel behind were replaced with the clearer sound of footsteps, their location indeterminate. Kaim stood his ground, pressing his back against the wall by the side of the intersection, hoping that whoever was approaching didn't notice him.

Consigned to a long and dull, if tense journey, Will had started singing to himself in a tuneful but somber tenor. It was a pirate's song he'd heard years ago, and one that stuck with him.

"Yo, Ho haul together, hoist the colours high
Heave ho, thieves and beggars, never shall we die
Yo, Ho haul together, hoist the colours high
Heave ho, thieves and beggars, never shall we die.." he stopped suddenly. Someone had scratched arrows into the walls. He supposed it could have been whoever was assigned to change the torches down here, but light scratches like these would have been done away with by the damp air if they weren't recent.

He carried on singing. Best to act unaware. "The King and his men stole the queen from her bed
and bound her in her bones
The seas be ours and by the powers
Where we will...we'll roam..."

Eventually he came to where a man was pressing himself so hard into a shadows where a turn could be made, you'd have thought he was trying to become a part of the wall. In his hand was a fairly jagged looking stone, likely used to make the arrows. Keeping several paces between them, Will said, "I don't suppose you're going to try and bash my head in with that, are you? It's just I'm sort of in a hurry... to get somewhere that smells a shade nicer, you understand?"

It was a kid who seemed to be a couple years younger than himself, and perhaps an inch or two shorter. Will was surprised a man could grow to that height on the sort of food available here. The kid's eyes flicked down briefly, taking in the large knife sheath on Will's hip, its top still concealed by the hem of his shirt. Then back up to his own eyes. No need to let the stranger know the sheath was a bluff piece yet.

Langston stared warily at the removed grate; someone had already passed though here. As he examined the entrance his uncharacteristic enthusiasm faded, replaced by his usual apprehensive state.

Whoever passed through did so recently, leaving their bloodied prints on the grate. Langston was desperately hoping to avoid trouble, wanting nothing more than to be left alone- but he couldn't just ignore the kindness the man had paid him- and aside from that, he needed to speak with him, for he might just have the answers Langston was searching for.

Fear rose in his throat as he carefully neared the sewer entrance, taking great care to move as silently as his awkward gait would allow. He reached the entrance's edge and peered down into the exposed hole, seeing nothing but a warm inviting light.

He took a moment to consider his options, quickly realizing that sometimes there really is nothing to consider. What difference did it make? He could die just as easily on the streets as he could below them.

He lowered himself into the hole and began his steady descent down the ladder. Pain radiated through his feet as he wedged his soles firmly onto each rung. He did his best to ignore it, instead focusing his thoughts on the directions he had attempted to memorize over the past hour.

Only one torch. Langston had hoped for better lighting, but he this would have to do. He pulled out his map and walked toward the faint light. As he lifted his map to the light he noticed something peculiar; the sconce was bent, as if someone had tried to wrench it from the wall. Langston lowered his map to inspect the wall hanging. No, it wasn't the sconce that was bent, but at screw that had been pulled loose. A self-satisfied grin crossed Langston's face

'Slotted'

He unfastened his coat, revealing his finer clothes. With a swift tear he pulled a thin, yet sturdy metal button from off the front of his pants. Holding the button tightly, he began to work on the other three screws, pocketing each as they came loose. He held the torch aloft, allowing it to light the passage.

The torch wavered slightly as cool air blew in from the exposed entrance, it's orange light dancing on the sewer's rounded walls. Langston stood still, finding the sewer oddly tranquil; it felt secluded, safe, and was almost oppressively silent. He turned confidently down the first tunnel, plunging into the labyrinth ahead, a pinpoint of light bouncing in seemingly impenetrable darkness.

"Push, dear."

The woman shrieked in terror and pain and she arched her back.

"It will all be all right if you push."

Another scream.

The man leaned against the wall. "Hurry up. I want to see my son."

You're not so manly that you'll overcome the female gene. My guess is that it's opposite, really.

The woman shrieked again, this time, a trace of fury and frustration leaked in. Andra felt deep pity and sadness for the hellish life the woman clearly lived.

Another scream, back at its normal tone.

============================================

Eight minutes later, a healthy baby boy lay howling on the table. The man was dispassionately looking over its features as Andra disposed of the umbilical cord. But the woman continued weeping. "I hurt... I hurt..."

The man looked at her with a rise of sudden fury. "Would you be QUIET, woman!" He raised his hand to hit her, but Andra stepped between them.

"She's... she's still in labor..."

Twins! This woman was giving birth to twins! Andra reached down and felt, hoping to feel another head. Nothing. She reached a bit farther.

...a foot.

Gilliajlia help us all.

============================================

Thirty heart-pounding minutes later, a baby lay gurgling on the table and a completely dead baby with blue-tinged skin lay in Andra's arms. The woman was unconscious, but she'd live. The man was in a pure rage.

"You LET HIM DIE!"

He escaped the everlasting hell that is knowing that you're his father. "I did the best that I could do."

"How DARE you come into my house and MURDER my CHILDREN!"

"I did not murder anyone. Your child simply was left without oxygen for eighteen minutes because he was turned the wrong way."

"TO HELL WITH YOU! And now I may be left without a WIFE! Since entering my house, what good has happened to me?!"

I brought another life into the world for you to consume. "You have a baby on the table right there. Are you not pleased with the life that made it?"

The baby began to cry.

"Get your BURNED CARCASS out of my house, and don't you DARE think of coming BACK!"

"I shan't. I hope that all your future children die in birth - and your wife too - so they may be spared knowing their relation to the world's most horrible cunt." Have a good day sir.

The man recoiled.

It took a moment for Andra to realize what had happened. She turned and exited as quickly as possible, her gall rising.

Standing outside the house, she realized that she had to lay low for a while. Her shop would be fine - it was double-locked and the building was owned by a powerful criminal that no one wanted to mess with - but the man would certainly come looking for revenge. Andra pulled the map from her bag and stared at it. If she turned left and walked four blocks, she'd be over top of the sewer-to-channel entrance. At this point, she didn't have much to lose.

As she turned to go, she realized that the sun was falling and the streets were empty. She shuddered. She'd have to move fast.

Three blocks later, it was clear that someone was following her. A scrawny young man with a vicious smile. Andra quickened her step. She could see the stinking channel... she had to make it.

The man quickened his step, closing the gap between them.

Andra broke into a dead run, her dress flapping and ripping as she sprinted to the channel. The man let out a horrible snicker and began running as well. Andra managed to put some distance between them by the time she reached the channel, and she dropped over the edge of the street to the lowered walkway by the stinking channel.

It was a sewage-ridden sludge that crawled along the wall of the district, washing out of the city and out to sea. Right by Andra was the sewer access. She quickly wrenched it open in panic and stepped inside.

With luck, the man wouldn't follow. Andra didn't feel lucky. With a sigh of displeasure, she tossed her dress over her head and off. There was a torch on the wall, so she stepped just beyond it, casting a flickering light on her scarred and mottled nude body. She smoothly drew the pistol from her boot and aimed at the sewer entrance.

The young man appeared at the entrance of the sewer mere seconds later, still with that awful grin on. It didn't stay. He howled in horror, surprise and animalistic fear as he leaped clean off the pathway and into the sludgy river. Andra waited, listening to the splashes and gurgles, enjoying every second that she listened to the shit-eating grinner eat shit.

After he had clearly climbed out and fled, Andra pulled her dress back on and removed the torch from the wall. She breathed deeply... and instantly regretted. The smell wasn't so bad with the torch burning it away, but it was still quite horrible.

=============================================

Andra had been walking for what felt like hours when a grate above her suddenly burst open and a body was dropped in from far above. The burst of air extinguished her torch before the body even hit the floor.

Great.

Andra stood in the near-complete darkness, looking around for any source of light beyond the gratings high above.

There... over there. A torch.

Andra gingerly placed one foot in front of the other as she approached. The torch vanished suddenly... it was being carried by someone who had just gone around a corner. She began running, praying to whoever would hear that she didn't slip.

She reached the corner, and saw the torch slowly moving away from her. She continued to follow it. The man carrying it was very thin and tall. Surely he wouldn't feel threatened by her and would let her follow until she found another light source. She got close enough to call to him. "Excuse me..."

The man leaped into the air and fled at a dead run.

Oh.

The man then promptly slipped and faceplanted in the muck.

Oops.

As he lay there, he somehow still held the torch aloft. Andra ran to his side and helped him up.

Gilliajlia preserve us, this guy is proportioned like my knitting needles. "I'm sorry I startled you. What's your name?"

"S'up? You lost?"

Selena put her fingers to her lips, a look of embarrassment washed over her in the darkness. This wasn't a boy at all, "Oh! My apologies, little miss!" She giggled and swayed as she stepped forward. "I hope I didn't insult you!" As she closed in her shadow slowly crept forward, encompassing Sparrow's small frame in its entirety.

A few feet away now, Selena stopped in her tracks and produced the map from her pocket. She held it up to catch the feint light from the torch behind her, "I don't believe I'm lost... not yet, anyway. Do you think you could help find where I'm going?"

'Is... is she drunk?' Sparrow raised an eyebrow as the woman sauntered clumsily towards her.

"Oh! My apologies, little miss! I hope I didn't insult you!"

Sparrow furrowed her brow, maybe she wasn't as good at disguising her gender as she first thought. Remaining silent, she shifted her weight slightly, ready to lash out with her knife or run, should the situation arise. There was no need for her to hurt this woman. Not yet.

Sparrow tensed as the stranger reached into her pocket, taking a step back, she let the knife in her sleeve fall into her hand slightly.

"I don't believe I'm lost... not yet, anyway. Do you think you could help find where I'm going?"

As the woman turned towards the light, the girl saw the parchment. Her gaze shifted towards the woman's face, no longer hidden by shadow. She was pretty, well, pretty for someone who lived in the District. Subtly returning the knife back into her sleeve, Sparrow took a step forward to get a better look at the parchment in the woman's hands. It was a map. Glimpsing up at the woman, Sparrow reached out and titled it further towards the light. She recognised it instantly, for it was the same map she had in her back pocket.

'Where they just handing these out or what?'

Sparrow stepped back and crossed her arms across her chest, "Yer, looks 'bout rate, you're th' first 'n I've seen down 'ere so far." She let the huskiness fall from her voice. No point trying to fool her now, but maybe she could trick her in another way.

"See, I'm 'ere to wait for folk like you, who come with the map, and then show 'em t'way." Sparrow narrowed her eyes, "How much did mah mates tell ya? 'Bout what's goin' on I mean, just t'make sure you're on the same level."

A grating hiss penetrated the darkness,

"Excuse me"

Langston's heart jumped into his throat as he quickly stole a glimpse over his shoulder. A small figure had ambled into the light, its flesh was course and rigid, as if covered in the scaled skin of a snake. He normally scoffed at the idea of monsters and magic, but in this moment he could believe anything.

'Maralith. Fool, run!'

Torch held high, Langston broke off into a sprint, his mind empty as his feet pounded against the uneven muck covered ground. He cursed under his breath as old wounds reopened on the soles of his feet, his thoughts immediately becoming preoccupied with the idea of infection- followed by a sudden white flash of light.

He lay face down on the filth, wondering when exactly his feet left the ground. He lifted his head, allowing a warm stream of blood to flow steadily from his nose. He wasn't worried about the broken nose, what he feared more than anything else was the possibility of a concussion. He began to sit up; one hand cupping his bloodied nose, and the other, still miraculously gripping the torch.

'I certainly didn't trip over anything, perhaps I just slipped. It is-'

Langston's thought was interrupted as he felt two small hands gripping his back and shoulder. Hairs rose on the nape of his neck and a cool chill sank deep into his bones

'How could I forget the Marailith? Gods, I'm going to be killed by something that doesn't exist'

the creature rasped from behind him,

"I'm sorry I startled you. What's your name?"

It was just some woman, Langston kept his gaze lowered as he attempted to rise to his feet, "Uhm... The name is Langston, Madame. May I ask your name?"

He attempted to rise to his full stature in order to give a proper introduction, but his vision blanked. He found himself weak-kneed and careening back towards the ground.

Blaize began trekking through the winding sewer passages. He kept one hand on the wall and slowly navigated the dark passageways, head low. He was thankful he was short, it made getting around cramped spaces that much easier, and he had a feeling that he'd be doing a lot of such scrambling if this was where the Shroud met. Just ahead, he could see the path split into two. That wasn't good.

He pulled out the map again, knowing the futility. He held it up to his face, straining his eyes, but it was no use. He had good eyes in the dark, but the sewer tunnels obliterated almost all light, he had no hope of reading the map. Shutting his eyes, Blaize focused on the map as he saw it on the outside, trying to draw the picture in his mind. Left...yes, that's it, He thought, No, wait, right? He let out a sharp hiss of air and hit the wall. He'd have to go back and try to memorize the map again. That was just perfect, all that time wasted. It was... Then a sound rose to his ear.

Someone else was in this passage, but who? The Shroud? Someone else searching for them? Or was it something else entirely?

After a moment's debate, Blaize made up his mind, planting his hand against the wall once more he started off toward the voices in the darkness. He kept his pace slow and quiet, trying to make out what was being said. The closer he got, the louder the voices became, and he saw lights begin flickering nearby.

Blaize stopped just before the point the voices seemed to be coming from, and peered in quickly to catch a glimpse of whoever was there. He gave a quick sigh as the figures came into view. Some little kid, probably about twelve or so, covered in grime; standing over the kid was a woman who, by the look of her, was a whore. Another quick look confirmed that they were both reading a map, quite probably the same map that had been given him.

A thief, a whore, and a kid all walk into the sewers... Blaize thought wryly. It was like the setup to a bad joke. Still, they had light and were probably looking for the same people he was.

"Hey." He said, taking a half step into the light, his hand still in his coat pocket, "You lookin' fer the Shroud?"

Kaim stood against the wall, practically trying to meld himself into its shadow. His chest was heaving heavily as he struggled to keep his breathing as quiet as possible, whilst simultaneously shaking with trepidation as he waited for the stranger to turn the corner.

Yo, Ho haul together, hoist the colours high
Heave ho, thieves and beggars, never shall we die..

Wait... Is that... a sea shanty?

Shit. The last kind of person Kaim wanted to deal with was a would-be-pirate hopped up on god knows what. Drunken sailors caused just as much hassle at the brothels and pubs as the rest of the Drowned District's inhabitants, except unlike the rest of the proletariat they had significantly easier access to swords and pistols. Great.

Kaim's hand gripped around the rubble tight as the stranger's footsteps closed in to his position. Any second now...

It was then that he saw him. The man was no fool, and despite all of Kaim's best efforts to remain inconspicuous it did not take him long to notice the heaving young man with a porcelain face trying to blend in with the dingy wall.

"I don't suppose you're going to try and bash my head in with that, are you? It's just I'm sort of in a hurry... to get somewhere that smells a shade nicer, you understand?" the man said, giving Kaim a safe berth out of caution, noticing the piece of rubble he so tenuously clutched in his hand.

He looked at the man. He was just as tall, if not taller than Kaim himself, with a slim yet toned build. He wore a seaman's garb, but judging by the state of the clothes as well as his bedraggled hair and beard, he guessed that he was not in active service. The look in his eyes suggested that he wasn't completely comfortable with his surroundings, making Kaim suspect that he had only recently fallen on hard times, and had not yet become one of the drowned.

His eyes were drawn to the man's belt, where a large sheath hung, though he couldn't tell if there was anything actually in it. Still, it was best to assume everyone had a deadly weapon on their person, it prevented any *cough* unfortunate altercations if he imagined it that way.

Kaim played on his already nervous disposition, aware that he wasn't particularly intimidating in his present position, his normal advantage of height effectively nullified.

"Who, me? Of course not! I meant no trouble mister. Surely you can understand me 'avin to keep myself armed. Never can be too careful around here...."

He gave a smile to try to reassure the man he had no ill intent, loosening his grip on the rock in his hand and giving a small shrug.

"Anyway, no harm done. I just didn't expect to see others down here..." he said, bringing his hand behind his head and scratching at an itch. "So what brings you to these parts, sir?"

"How much did mah mates tell ya? 'Bout what's goin' on I mean, just t'make sure you're on the same level."

Selena's eyes moved over the map once more before finding their way to the small girl before her, "'The Shroud calls to you. Hear it, and know what it is to be feared."'" She stated in a voice that implied the words were not her own. It was a tad unsettling that she could recall his words to so well, but she shrugged off the uneasiness thanks in no small part to the wine she'd consumed. "I'm not entirely sure what I expected coming down here, but... well, let's just say the man or... thing that appeared before me alluded to an escape from my current predicament."

She furrowed her brow and let out a nervous laugh, "Which is to say, my entire existence, I suppose."

"Hey."

Selena's eyes shot open, wide and alert as she spun around to see the new arrival. Strange she'd been so calm around the young girl, but jumped the moment she heard a man's voice. Actually, no, that wasn't strange. It would be unusual for her to not have some issues with the opposite sex, what with the way she'd liver her life these past six years. It also didn't help that he was creeping about in the shadows. Who knew how long he'd been watching.

"You lookin' fer the Shroud?"

Selena, wide-eyed and frozen in place, took a few uncomfortable seconds for herself to think of the right answer. Unfortunately, the booze was making her far too bold to tiptoe around the question, "Y-yes... And you are?"

"So what brings you to these parts, sir?"

Will shrugged and gestured with his map. "Some shadowy stranger dumping food in my lap, strongly implying he could improve my lot. And I suppose if it comes to nothing, I can always just run firmly in the other direction and hope for the best." Scratching the scar that split his beard thoughtfully, he looked at the man. He was pale, and seemed nervous. There probably wasn't any actual ill intention there.

"So, what about you? I doubt you're here to mug passersby. You'd be waiting awhile."

Sparrow nodded her head knowingly as the woman recited the words she herself had heard earlier that day.

"I'm not entirely sure what I expected coming down here, but... well, let's just say the man or... thing that appeared before me alluded to an escape from my current predicament."

Sparrow furrowed her brow, looking down at the map. The words these people used, it was more indicative of a religious group than a criminal one, the woman before her didn't particularly strike Sparrow as the illicit type, cementing her suspicions even more.

"Which is to say, my entire existence, I suppose."

Sparrow looked up at he woman as she chuckled nervously, there was a sadness in her eyes, not dissimilar from the look that haunted her mother's eyes. Was she a whore? Maybe. Abused housewife maybe? Regardless, it was one thing to want change, it was another to actually pursue it. Sparrow felt a pang of respect for the woman, maybe they would both find what they were looking for down here, however, that didn't mean she trusted her.

"Hey."

Sparrow perked up slightly, she didn't want to appear too surprised, not if she wanted to maintain her appearance of belonging in the place. She noticed the anxiety on the woman's face, something that wasn't there before. Brushing the thought aside, Sparrow turned towards the newcomer slowly, a look of caution on her face.

"You lookin' fer the Shroud?"

Crossing her arms across her chest, she remained silent as her eyes looked over the boy. Not particularly tall, probably a gutter rat like herself.

"Y-yes... And you are?"

The girl nodded her head towards the woman. "She is, a'm 'ere t'show 'er t'way, you got a map too? Hold it up." Might as well maintain the ruse as long as she could.

"Some shadowy stranger dumping food in my lap, strongly implying he could improve my lot. And I suppose if it comes to nothing, I can always just run firmly in the other direction and hope for the best."

The man gestured to the map in his hand, seemingly identically to Kaim's own. His story too was practically the same as his, and he assumed that it must have been the same stranger that gave them both the map and supplies. Kaim wondered just how many others might also have a similar story, and his previous thoughts about possible other disenfranchised denizens turning up to the meet seemed to be reaffirmed.

"So, what about you? I doubt you're here to mug passersby. You'd be waiting awhile."

He smirked faintly, the sailor being quite right. Unless you intended to mug a rat that is.

"The same reasons as yourself. Mysterious stranger an' all that. Anything's better than sleeping in a gutter and struggling to find your next meal" Kaim shrugged, admitting to his true logic.

He looked at the man from head to toe, before asking "Pardon me, but you don't seem to me the type to need a 'way out'. Unless of course you've spunked all your money on booze and 'ores. It's either that or your ship left port without you..." Kaim put forth apprehensively, his voice trailing off as he realised he might have possibly antagonized the man with a knife at his hip.

"...Although there's nothing wrong with any of that, Mister...?"

Giles opened his eyes. Slowly. He had wandered in through a tunnel, and now he was face down, next to a ladder down a hole.

This was not the worst way he'd woken that week alone, but it still came as a shock somehow.

He stumbled to his feet, looks like his drugs had worn off already. Always happened when you tried moderation. His head beat in a rhythm like a bongo, and he felt a burning in his coat pocket. The napkin, the map. Not sure why it felt like that, but best not to question it. Illegal material leading to... something. Something important, probably, hooded men who give food usually lead to lands of riches and illegal prosperity. Or something like that, whatever prosperity meant.

A headache and a map to something. He half tip toed half stumbled through the tunnels, feeling his head about to explode and smelling not too pleasant. Was this rock bottom? His jaw hurt a lot, as did most his body. Still, his senses weren't quite dead, and he could hear the patter of other feet, as well as faint voices. Not something he wanted to deal with right now, sewer people tended to be better at violence. Giles checked his coat pockets, for a weapon or other thing. Closest he had was fire and cards... he'd have to try that one day. Would be bitchin.

He ran his fingers across the grimy stones that made the walls, stopping every once in awhile to double over from his head pains and general sickness. He used to be so much more durable, able to maybe run the parts he had before. He didn't even have a grey hair! He didn't even have a reason to look for a grey hair! He sighed to himself, clutching his deck of cards to his head. Tonight could still end up being good. No reason why it couldn't, except maybe getting killed. Giles hated it when he got killed, always ruined his night.

Giles sighed, and sat down. Spreading out three cards in front of him, face down. Too dark to make out what they said, some dick twister took the fucking torch. ONLY ASSHOLES TOOK THE TORCH, PERHAPS PEOPLE NEEDED THEM.

"... FUCK!" He yelled into the air, banging his head against the stone wall. "Why is everyone shit. I hate this world."

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