Five kids had disappeared from the WestEnd over the last week. It wasn't so high a number, maybe. Not for the district that had more violent crimes, per capita, than the entire rest of the city combined. The Guard and SPI were still looking for the 'WestEnd Killer'; there were routine gang wars more violent than a day in Khe Sanh; and the events of a certain shadow and walking-corpse filled night not so very long ago had been enough to make hardened warriors quail and sob. Death was a way of life, on these streets.
But still, even in the WestEnd, there was little tolerance for those monsters - human and not - who preyed on children. Which was why, when a pack of Makos saw a little boy get dragged, screaming, into a storm drain, they contacted their most hated nemesis. Broke the unwritten code among the criminal underworld. They went to the Guard.
Not immediately, of course. No, first they tried going after the kid themselves. Six rough-and-tough street knights, thug born, gangbanger raised, went down the sewers of the WestEnd. One - well, most of one - came back out, shaking and bleeding.
So they went to the Watch. The lieutenant at the WestEnd said the sewers were Public Works' problem, and kicked it over there. Public Works chipped in a map of the sewers that was at least a century out of date and kicked it back to the Watch. The lieutenant asked for volunteers.
You'd think I have enough on my plate already, Paladin thought ruefully, checking his pistols. Seven in the magazine and one in the chamber, Federal Hydra-Shoks guaranteed to put a gruesome hole in any tissue they hit. They were less effective against armour, which was why he had additional magazines of teflon-coated AP and standard ball rounds tucked away in the harness loosely strapped over his coat. The right tool for the right job. Like his swords and fighting knives, he'd had the bullets thrice-blessed. Charms had been placed on the guns to ensure they'd shoot true. They should be effective, even on targets that sneered at mortal weapons - like the surviving Mako indicated this one had.
He was going in alone, though - nobody else had been brave, or foolhardy, enough to volunteer. Not even after he'd raised his hand. He'd picked up a reputation for being where the fire was hottest, after all, and that had the inevitable result of getting the people around him burned. Usually, he preferred to work alone - it gave him more freedom to move when he didn't have to worry about protecting anyone else when the feces hit the fan. And they almost always did.
This, though, this made him nervous. Rumour - never the most reliable resource, but the only one he had in this case - had a lot to say about the city underside. There were miles of tunnels under the city, everything from sewer piping and subway tunnels (from back in the day when the city had a working Metro) to ancient ruins that had been built over and forgotten as the city grew larger. There were demons caged beneath the city, they said, much like they'd wanted to cage Renna the Betrayer - wrapped up in unbreakable chains and bound in spell-circles, the secret prisons bricked over and left. There were dark things, lurking in the endless night.
About the only thing that could reliably expected, really, were rats, darkness, and a foul smell that was slowly choking the Public Works workers as they laboriously lifted the steel manhole cover free of the cobbles. Paladin took a look around the narrow alley and had to laugh. How amusing to think that this dead-end might be his last sight of the surface world. Bags of trash, plastic and burlap both, heaped up against the building walls. The graffiti splashed board fence that tried gamely to keep the alley from being used as a shortcut between two busy thoroughfares. The clotheslines strung between the buildings like the web of some demented spider, festooned with clothes like festive streamers. And, of course, the manhole; a gaping black orifice expelling the fetid breath of Hell itself.
"You're taking this awfully calmly," Guard-Sergeant Remington Abigail Lee said in her rough, bulldog voice. Remmie - woe to the person who called her Abigail, or worse, 'Abby' - was a huge, gruff, bear of a woman, perfectly capable of holding her own - and then some - in any bar brawl or riot. The Guard was a family career for the Lees, and Remmie had brought pride to the tradition. But even she drew the line at plunging into the dank, black underbelly of the city.
Paladin shrugged, glad she couldn't read the morbid poetry of his thoughts. "I've seen worse," he said glibly. It even had the luxury of being true. "Smelled worse, too, come to that."
Remmie wrinkled her nose. "Remind me never to take a slash at your place, then," she said. She was holding the Geordie lamp the Guard had reluctantly issued Paladin when he'd volunteered. He didn't really want it, but the nature of the WestEnd made electric lanterns, flashlights, and even chemical glowsticks unreliable. The last thing he wanted was to be alone in the dark, deep below the city streets.
"You sure about this?"Remmie asked, stepping close and lowering her voice. "Nobody's going to think you a coward if you change your mind, you know. There's some jobs they don't pay us enough for."
Paladin gave her a long, measuring look, and answered just as quietly. "This isn't about the money, Rem. It never was." And then, louder. "So, what do you think about the new duds? Am I still drop dead sex-ay?" He was decked out in protective coveralls, thigh high rubber wader boots, latex gloves and shielding goggles. As Remmie watched, trying not to laugh at his ridiculous question, he pulled an air filter over his mouth, adding to his outrageous appearance. He still wore his long, black coat, trusting to its many enchantments to keep it safe and clean.
"Oh, yeah," she snickered. "You're pretty damn 'sex-ay' all right - for a crazy person." He looked at her and held out one hand menacingly.
"Remmie," He intoned, voice muffled and distorted by the air filter. "I am your father."
She snorted rudely. "I'd like to see a skinny twig like you be my father," she said with a smothered laugh. "You come along home when you get out of that hole and get cleaned up, though. We'll see if we can put some meat on those bones."
"Thanks," he said ruefully, stepping over to the manhole. "But I doubt I'll be in the mood to eat anything for a while, after this excursion." He saluted her jauntily and dropped into the manhole, catching the ladder at the last possible second and lowering himself gently into the darkness.
Remmie carefully lowered the Geordie lantern on its line down after him. "Godspeed, Guardsman," she said softly. Even though she knew that he'd been through worse - or at least, claimed to have been through worse - she couldn't help but worry that this was going to be the last time she saw the pale young man in his long black coat.
~End Part One~
Down he went, hand over hand on the rusting ladder. Down, into the darkness. Down into the murk. Down into foulness.
Even through the air filter, the tunnels stunk like ten thousand corpses. This section was relatively dry; the muck only came up to his ankles. Every squelching step emitted a fresh addition to the suphuric salt marsh stench.
"This was not one of my brightest ideas," he said, looking around. Even after Remmie lowered the Geordie lamp, there wasn't much to see; the brick walls of the vaulted tunnel were caked with muck and grime, save where rivulets of mousture cut their way down. Over the years, the trails of running water had carved grooves in the face of bricks softened by their exposure to the corrosive air.
Out of curiousity, Paladin jabbed a gloved finger into one of the walls. The brick crumbled like wet chalk.
I better watch my step down here, he thought grimly. This whole place might come down around my head... and take most of the WestEnd with it.
The circle of light from above vanished as the Public Works men closed the manhole. Paladin and Remmie had argued long and hard for them to keep it open, but they'd refused - for much the same reason as they'd refused to provide any sort of guide to the labrynthine tunnels beneath the city.
There were dark things, beneath Rhydin. The main job of Public Works was to keep them there, down in the deeps, where they wouldn't bother decent people. Leaving an opening to the surface world went against that job - so, while they'd stand a guard over the manhole and refrain from cementing it back up, they wouldn't leave it standing open.
"Some of those critters down there are quick," one of the men had grumbled. His tone said that he clearly felt Paladin a fool for even considering venturing into the darkness alone. "They'll have your throat out before you can blink."
So the hole was sealed, and Paladin was locked alone in the dark, save for the dim light of the safety lantern. Firedamp was a constant danger in the methane rich sewer tunnels, and even with his pyrokinetic gift, Paladin didn't want to risk his luck with an explosion. He waited for several long minutes in the gloom until his eyes had adjusted; he knew from experience that an outside observer seeing him now would be shocked, watching his pupils expand until they swallowed his irises, leaving his eyes as black as night. "Good genes," he usually joked when someone inquired about his keen senses, superhuman strength and reflexes, or apparent immunity to the ravages of age. With luck, nobody would ever know how true that was.
When he could see clearly again, he tugged the crude map out of his pocket and looked it over. It showed a majority of those tunnels closest to the surface - storm drains and sewer channels, emptying out into the Rhydin River, or to various holding facilities around the city. The storm drain the Makos had gone chasing down wasn't too far away - the main reason he and Remmie had chosen this route for his entrance.
Although the tunnels were noticeably warmer than the frigid outside air, thick and muggy, Paladin felt a distinct chill run down his spine as he looked down the tunnel.
Enough wasting time, he told himself firmly. Let's get a move on.
Even with the muck, even with the murk, even with the stench and darkness, it was enough to find the site where five Makos had been killed and a sixth one crippled. For one thing, they were still there. Most of them, at any rate.
The holding chamber was almost perfectly spherical, with a catwalk running around its rim and four tunnels leading off. The center was an oily black pool, its surface only a few inches beneath Paladin's rubber booted feet, glistening viscously in the lantern light. Bit and pieces of dead men were scattered around the room; torsos bobbing in the water, limbs strewn about the catwalk, weapons scattered about higgledy-piggledy like a child's discarded toys. The room's walls had been chewed on raggedly by automatic weapons fire, the brick torn and pulped and splintered.
Paladin leaned over interestedly to investigate the remains of a Kalashnikov. The weapon's composite stock had been painted Mako gray, the butt wrapped in dragon's hide. The barrel and bolt assembly were mostly missing, what was left raggedly twisted and melted. A hand was still tightly clenched around the grip, "LOVE" tattooed across the pale knuckles, a twisting dragon on the back of the hand, terminating at the ragged stump of the absent wrist.
Paladin chewed his lip under the mask and crouched, studying the scene intently. The bodies were scattered all around the chamber, but most of the gunfire was concentrated on one section of the wall, with only a few craters on the others. So... the gangers entered the chamber, spotted their target, and opened up. One good burst, and then they didn't have much more chance for shooting.
He made his way along the catwalk gingerly until he'd reached the far side. Even in the softened brick, the bullets hadn't penetrated very far. 7.62, .45, a lot of 9-mm... none of them more than an inch or two into the brick. As if they'd been slowed. As if they'd passed through something first.
The surviving Mako had said something about their bullets not working. It was hard to get any sense out of him - he'd spent most of his time gibbering. Or screaming.
They came, they shot - and it killed them. But what was it? The remains showed signs of scorching and melting... Paladin frowned, examining a severed leg. The Mako's gray dragon-hide uniform was scorched and pitted, bone-deep craters scattered apparently at random up and down its length. He hissed breath through clenched teeth, and instantly regretted it with the foul, accompanying smell.
Acid. Well, that was probably to be expected. What else kind of creature could live down here, in the corrosive atmosphere of the sewers? He looked at the torn-up wall again. Acid spitting, bullet proof... well, not exactly 'proof'. Just 'less than effected by.'
He shook his head. From bad to worse... but other than confirming some of his darker suspicions, there really wasn't any new information. How big was it? How did it move? And most importantly - what did it look like?
He looked at the nearest tunnel, next to the bullet holes. It had been going into or coming out of this one, presumably, when the Makos caught up to it. Going to its lair, maybe? Did this thing have a lair? He paused, examining the tunnel walls. Grooves, eaten into the brick work, right about his shoulder height. He brushed them lightly with a gloved hand, frowning. Fairly fresh, or they would have been covered up by muck and grime.
There wasn't necessarily a connection, but it was the closest thing to a lead he had. He took it.
Unknown hours later, he had to admit that he was lost. It wasn't an unusual experience for him; he'd spent most of his life lost, to one degree or another. Very rarely, though, did it come with the ominous, menacing feeling that being lost deep in the bowels of Rhydin City carried.
He'd discovered some new information about the grooves he'd been following. For one thing, he was more positive than ever that they were tracks. They had seemed intermittent at first, disappearing every few feet only to reappear a few feet further down the tunnel. Eventually, he'd gotten the bright idea to check the opposite side of the tunnel. Bingo; more marks, their patterning opposite. It looked like something large, swaying back and forth as it moved, brushing the sides of the tunnel as it - what, walked? Slithered? Crawled?
Impossible to tell, in the mostly liquid muck that covered the ground. Paladin's own shuffling footsteps were soon lost as the ooze filled in behind him. Not for the first time, he wished he'd brought a staff or something similar with him - something that would allow him to probe ahead, seek out any hidden pitfalls. Every slow, creeping step brought new worry that the ground would give out beneath him, drop him into some flooded, subterannean chamber where he'd drown in the filthy, stinking waters...
Stop it, he chided himself. That's not going to help anything. Think of the kid, lost down here, scared. Think of the monster. Keep your mind on the job. Although, honestly, he didn't have much hope of finding the kid - not alive, at any rate. Not since he found the acid-scarred bodies of those Makos. If the thing that grabbed him was the same as the one that had dismembered the thugs, then odds were the kid was just a snack in this thing's gullet.
If it has a gullet.
The rushing of water dragged his attention further ahead. Sloshing forward, he found that his tunnel ended in another collection chamber - or something like one. His tunnel actually ended several meters above the chamber, but a rusty ladder was bolted to the brickwork, and led down to an observation catwalk.
This chamber was much larger than the last, and from the roaring sound, several tunnels came together here - most of them with much greater waterflow than his. The cataract noise was deafening, but little could be seen in the dim light of the Geordie lamp.
The air through his filter seemed fresher here, and he could feel a slight breeze on his face. He raised the lantern as high as he could, but still the catwalk below was barely visible - forget the roof, high overhead.
Enough airflow here. Worth a risk. A flicker of thought was all it took to form a will o'the wisp light, barely more than a spark. At his guidance, it flittered out into the chamber and began to expand - now grapefruit sized, now watermelon, slowly bringing illumination to the room. His eyebrows raised as great, rusted machines came into view.
Once, the thunder of their mighty pistons and the churning of their water wheels must have drowned out the roar of the cataracts. Now, they were still and silent, shrouded with green growths and algae, stained dark by time and the tidals flows of sludge and sewage.
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair...No indication of their purpose, but their scale and that of the room, hinted at their importance, the grandeur they must once have held. He must have come further, and deeper, than he'd thought.
He shook himself out of his silent reverie. He wasn't tomb raiding or dungeon crawling today, seeking ancient relics and forgotten knowledge. He had a job to do, and time wasn't on his side. The size of the chamber made tracking the monster impossible, but with luck he could pick up its trail again on the far side. Climbing one-handed down the slippery, corroded ladder wasn't an easy task, but he'd managed worse.
Funny; as much as he was sure the creature had passed through the chamber, he'd never considered that it might still be there...
It boiled up out of the murky water when he was halfway across the chamber, moving faster than anything of its bulk had a right to. Even with his incredible reflexes, Paladin had no time to react - a pseudopod, mostly transparent but shot through with pale red veins, wrapped around his leg and jerked, hard.
He hit the deck, choking off a scream as his heavy coveralls began to smolder in the thing's clenching grip. One of his pistols was in his hand, blazing away as the tentacle tried to drag him into the water. The bullets splashed into the 'flesh' as though it were made of Jell-o, the heavy Hydro Shoks tearing gaping holes that almost instantly mended. The thing seemed to flinch, once, then whipped and sent him flying.
Paladin lost his grip on pistol and lantern as he impacted with the far wall, barely rolling into the blow to keep his spine from breaking, his ribs from shattering. The both fell away into the gloom as his foxfire light went out, one falling into the water with an inaudible splash, the other crashing onto a stone ledge and shattering, the oil splattering, igniting.
He staggered upright, his leg a blazing knot of pain that could barely hold his weight. He managed to roll under a spray of water, washing the acid off before it could chew through the muscle - fresh water, hopefully, not that there was time to worry about that. Barely visible in the bonfire of lantern oil, the monster came on - its form morphous, shifting. He could barely make out a large body and a spray of tentacles - something like an anemone, or an upside down jellyfish. Or maybe that was just his pain-fogged mind trying its damndest to fill in the blanks.
It was on him again, now, lashing with its tentacles. He ducked the first blow, snapping one of his fighting dirks to hand and severing the next pseudopod as it came for him. The third and fourth wrapped around and slapped him from behind, sizzling as they connected with his impenetrable coat, knocking him forward. He rolled with the blow, lashed out with a kick. Cried out in pain and horror as his boot sank into the soft, gelatinous surface of the thing. He jerked back, leaving the rubbed boot behind, and tried to parry with his knife as the tentacles struck. Again and again, with brutal, bone-bruising blows that even his coat had difficulty deflecting.
He howled as one lashed him across the face, disorienting him, the skin immediately blistering at the contact. Blistering, but not dissolving... it was hard to think as he writhed under the furious beating, feeling his arms go numb, his ribs creak and crack. Maybe some tentacles were more acidic than others. Maybe it had wasted most of its acid on its earliest attacks, used it up on his coat. Maybe... maybe...
He lashed out, severing another tentacle, grabbed and squeezed as yet another made a grab for him - the runny flesh squishing like gelatin between his fingers, the leather glove charring and smoldering. He pulled, and it stretched like taffy, tore apart. Another one struck him hard across the side, launching him into a roll. The knife spun off into the darkness, almost instantly replaced with his remaining pistol. The muzzle flash strobed as the thing lurched and followed him, lighting up its misshapen, blobbish body, revealing the screaming heads sealed within its rubbery form, slowly dissolving, digesting. Some were fresh, some were bare skulls. Some of them were child-sized.
He could barely hear himself screaming as the gun emptied, Hydro Shoks tearing huge, gaping, useless holes in his enemy. No eyes, no mouth, no discernable anatomy at all. Wordless imprecations of rage and pain tearing his throat, drowned out as it fell on him like a tidal wave, pseudopods bludgeoning madly.
He barely felt it when one of those tentacles lifted him up and threw him again, barely noticed the world become brighter as he landed in the burning pool of oil.
Flames. Flames around him, licking at him. His body, a mass of pain. Bones cracked, flesh torn and blistered from the brutal punishment, the acidic touch. But not burning - even in the heart of the fire, he was untouched, shielded by his pyrokinetic gift. Even with his brain so fogged from pain that he couldn't remember his name, his Gift still protected him.
And something more; through eyes nearly sealed shut with swelling, he saw the thing slide towards him, then hesitate. It extended one tentacle, but flinched it back before it reached the flames.
It's scared, he realized dimly. Scared of the fire... Scared for a reason. It's vulnerable... He tried to reach out, to lash it with flame, ignite with the power of his mind. Burn it where it stood. He couldn't focus, couldn't concentrate enough to raise the fire; could only watch through graying vision as it gave up and slithered away, deciding that this meal was just too much effort. Watched it slide into a hole in the wall, compressing its bulk - disappearing.
And then he knew no more.
~End Part Two~
He woke up, kicking and screaming.
The first thing he noticed was that he wasn't in the sewers anymore. The room was dimly lit by a glow lamp on one wall, windowless but homey. The bed beneath him was soft, the blankets wrapped around his sweat-soaked body warm. They would no doubt be comfortable, if he weren't tangled and bound by them.
The second thing he noticed was that the pain was mostly gone. His right leg still ached and burned, his face felt stiff and sore, his arms weaker than they should - but he felt worlds better than the nightmare storm of agony that was the last thing he recalled.
The third thing he noticed was that he was naked. He didn't realize that until the nearly-hidden door on the wall opened and a young woman poked her head in.
"Faith," she said with some amusement as he grabbed at the blankets he'd just untangled himself from and covered up. "The way you were carrying on, we thought you were being murdered again."
"Not quite," he said, struggling to maintain his modesty - whatever might be left of it, seeing as how someone had to have stripped him in the first place - and control his reaction. Blushing made his face hurt more. "Where am I? Back in the City?"
"Not quite," she echoed him with a slight grin, entering the room fully. She moved like a dancer, all quiet, unassuming grace. "You're in Undertown."
"I'm still in the sewers?" He blinked, surprised. This didn't look anything like the catacombs of stench and foulness he'd descended into.
"Hardly," she sniffed, seemingly insulted. "Undertown has nothing to do with the sewers, save a few common passages. It's like saying Rhydin City is in the forest, because they're both at the same altitude and the King's Highway runs through each."
"I didn't mean any offense," he said cautiously. "But I'm still underground? Still beneath the City?"
"Well, of course," She smiled at him, mood suddenly merry. She was mercurial, strangely flighty, but radiated dependability like a rock. "Otherwise, you wouldn't be Undertown."
"Thank you." He looked around the room again, then back to her. "Who brought me here? And who healed me?" Healing magics usually didn't work on him, and when they did work properly, they took a terrible toll. Yet someone had clearly repaired the extensive injuries to his body - as powerful as his natural recuperative ability was, he had been far too wounded to be back on his feet so quickly. Which reminded him... "And how long have I been out?"
"A lot less than I thought you would," she answered his last question first. "About ten hours or so, probably more - we don't know how long you were out before Jack found you. He said you were laying in a puddle of burning oil, it's amazing you weren't burned to death. Of course, by the looks of all those scars on you, it seems like people've tried just about every other way possible to kill you." He opened his mouth to reply, but she carried on. "So, probably not too much longer than that. Jack found you, he's always been something of a ranger, roaming the tunnels and caverns under the city as he wills. Though it's getting more dangerous to do that, these days. Witnessing what happened to yourself, for example.
"Sylvia's the one what healed you, and it wasn't easy, believe me. She's been abed almost as long as you have, and she's likely to stay there longer; it took near everything she had to put you back together, and it was a pretty close thing at that.
And to answer the rest of the questions you no doubt have coming, I'm Maria, and this is my house you've been sleeping in. I had a spare room, so I volunteered to take you in. Now, no doubt you're pretty hungry with all you've been through, so I'll get you some breakfast, even though it's closer to dinnertime."
"Thank you," he said again, a little dazed, but he said it to the closing door as she bustled back out of the room as quickly as she'd come, suiting action to words immediately. He looked around the room once more, trying to process the information. Undertown. You heard rumors of people living in the caverns under the city, but they never made the inhabitants out to be so... normal. His coat was folded neatly on a table across the room, as immaculate as ever - even the WestEnd hadn't managed to break down the layer upon layer of protective enchantments woven into its leather and silk. Not yet, at any rate. There was no sign of the rest of his clothes - they'd probably been burned.
Well, easily handled. His backpack was, as always, right where he needed it to be, and a moment after Maria left the room he was off the bed, legs a little shaky and achey but otherwise holding fine. Other than some slight dizziness and his sore muscles, he felt pretty well. It was a thing to marvel at, and he resolved to speak to this 'Sylvia', as soon as he could. He shrugged into clean clothes and was just buckling up his tanker boots when Maria reentered the room with a large, steaming bowl of soup.
"Well, you're a resourceful fellow," she commented, not batting an eye. She did give the backpack a suspicious glance as she set the food down on the table. Paladin shrugged slightly. The backpack did that to everyone. "I was wondering what we had that would fit a skinny fellow like you. Glad to see you won't be walking around in one of my old skirts."
"I'm sure it would have looked quite lovely on me," Paladin replied with a faint smile, bowing slightly. He glanced longingly at the soup, then back to her. "Will you be joining me, miss?"
"Maria," she chided lightly. "And no, thank you, dear. I've eaten. Although, a cup of coffee would go down a treat; a pity, as we're all out. Our last surface-world supplier seems to have run afoul of some of the trouble you folk keep having up there, and we haven't gotten any of our regular shipments in a month."
Paladin nodded and began to rummage in his pack again, emerging in short order with his canteen, French press, a hand-powered coffee grinder, and a bag of coffee beans. That, at least, got a bit of a reaction.
"You really are a resourceful fellow," she murmured, eyes wide, as he quickly made coffee and set the French press up to brew.
"I try," he said with a larger smile, sitting down at the table and tucking into the soup. It really was quite good.
After soup and coffee, Maria offered to show him around the Underside. Although his legs were still a touch wobbly, Paladin eagerly agreed. Undertown was smaller than he might have expected, little more than a few city blocks - although he shouldn't have been surprised. It wasn't like they could be expected to keep a huge community hidden for very long, could they?
Maria lived in "Northside", what looked like an old warehouse district. The warehouses had been converted into homes and apartments, and the area was better lit than its counterpart in Rhydin Above was - street lamps never lasted very long in either the Dockside or the WestEnd, after all, and even when they were present they were seldom quite so bright and cheery as the magically powered glowstones scattered about the area. Still, despite the touches of color on the alley walls and the decorations the citizens had hung up from place to place, there was no mistaking Undertown for any surface community. The air was too still, for one thing - although there was the faintest trace of a fresh breeze when Paladin stopped and concentrated, and no taste of stagnation in the air. And, of course, one could feel the weight of the unseen roof over their heads - the cold, pressing certainty of stone, lingering, waiting, endless and patient.
Or maybe that was just him.
Maria had insisted on saving the rest of the coffee in a thermos before she and Paladin had left her house, even though he could make more easily enough - a 'waste not, want not' policy that he recognized from other subsistence-level communities, and had to respect. When they stopped at a fountain in what for all the world looked like the town square - an area Maria referred to as 'Central' - he had to wonder aloud at how few people there were roaming about, and at how much Undertown resembled the surface world.
"I suppose it would," Maria shrugged. "All of this - and most of us - came from up there, you know." She toyed with the thermos for a moment, looking pensive. "Most folks here are former slaves, escaped or freed. The others... well, everyone's got some demons in their past, some things they don't want to talk about, or they're running from. There wasn't a life for us up there... so we came down here. As above, so below." She shrugged again, clearly uncomfortable with the topic.
"Everybody's looking for a piece of their own peace of mind," Paladin said, understanding. It sounded like a song lyric, or a quote. Maybe it was; his mind was a library of pop culture references and trivia, all scattered about without rhyme or reason. It wasn't uncommon for him to start singing a song, letter perfect line for line, and be unable to remember where he'd first heard it. Things like that happened when you lived your life on the road, always a stranger, always a visitor.
"Something like that, I guess." She looked away for a minute, still toying with the thermos, and then back at him. "You know, when you go back to Rhydin City, you can't tell anyone about us, right?"
He nodded, looking down into the fountain waters. Pure and clean, they showed no sign of ever having been spoiled by wish-carrying coins, or swam through by fish. The flowing waters were soothing, and he felt himself relax a little more. "I'd figured as much, seeing how I hadn't heard anything solid about you folks before. No tales from people returning from excursions to the scenic suburbs below the city." He smiled, a little crooked. "Appreciate hearing you folks will be kind enough to let me go on my way when I'm done down here, and not try to hold me."
"We're not jailers," Maria said, looking away again. "Just... people who want to live our own lives, without the world up above always telling us what to do, or how to live." She smiled then, matching his. "Besides... I saw what you looked like, when Rambling Jack brought you in. I'm not so sure we could hold you here, unless you let us."
"Probably not," he said softly. "Believe me when I say I'd never want to harm you, though. I owe you folks a lot." He chuckled, shook his head. "Owe you my life. I'll carry your secret to the grave and back, if need be." He looked up, found her staring back at him - violet irises meeting his storm gray eyes levelly.
"I hope it doesn't come to that," she said. "But thank you." She stood up and brushed her skirt off, fixing a smile on her face. "But I should probably stop monopolizing you. You should meet Siegfried, and after that, you'll probably want to meet Rambling Jack. I'm sure you and he have a lot to talk about."
Paladin thought of the twisting form of the creature that had brought him down here, all oozing body and flailing tentacles, and nodded. "I'm sure we do." he said softly, and rose to his feet.
Siegfried's place was, predictably enough, another warehouse. Decorated with blue dreamcatchers, and painted with a pleasing mural of field and forest, but a warehouse nevertheless. It seemed to be par for the course, here in Undertown, and Paladin was forming a theory on the district's origin. At some point in the past, some disaster - natural or otherwise, one must remember that this was Rhydin, after all - had dropped a goodly section of the city's shipping district underground and buried it, to be lost and forgotten. Paladin had seen similar occurences before; Seattle, in Earth's United States, for example, or Il Ruene in Tella's Caerlyn.
The real question in his mind was how many of the current inhabitants were descendants of people who'd been buried here, and how many were later arrivals. That didn't seem a question he was likely to get an answer to, however. Maria was quiet on the way to Siegfried's, caught up in her own concerns. Paladin noticed her watching him, a time or two. He tried not let it worry him.
The inside of the warehouse had been converted into living quarters, making a large, roomy house of the former storage space. That was the intention, at least - the place reminded Paladin a bit of a cubicle farm, if a large and homey one. The smell of tea and the unconventional furniture, mostly beanbags, did a bit to alleviate the feeling.
Maria introduced Siegfried as the 'Mayor of Undertown'. From the man's sheepish grin, Paladin got the feeling it was more of an affectionate title than a formal one. The Undertowners seemed fairly self-sufficient. He was an older fellow, his salt-and-pepper hair cropped short, his body lean and fit; the calloused hand hard and scarred in Paladin's when they shook. A working man, a far cry from some sweet-talking, backroom deal-making politician; not that Paladin had expected someone like that. He had watchful eyes, and the wanderer reminded himself that 'real' Mayor or not, this was a man to be taken seriously.
The conversation was a bit stilted at first as introductions were made and everyone settled themselves as best they could on the furniture. Siegfried offered tea and Paladin, remembering what Maria had said about shortages lately and their contacts in the city above vanishing in the troubles, politely refused. Then Maria surprised them both by raising her thermos of coffee and offering it.
Siegfried smiled, a little grimly. "I've never been much of a coffee drinker," he said. "Still, it's been a bit since I've had my caffeine fix." He fetched cups for all three of them, a comfortable mismatch, and Maria poured them all full with an air of self-satisfaction. "I suppose Maria's mentioned the... difficulties... we've had lately to you," he said, holding his cup close to his chest. Paladin pulled his mug towards him, smiling a little at its proclamation of 'World's Best Aunt'.
"She has," he said, cupping his mug between his hands much like Siegfried had. "If I may, I'd like to help. I carry a bit more supplies than your average traveler..." An understatement if ever there was one, but he didn't really feel the need to go into detail about his backpack. The look Maria had given him when he pulled a jug of fresh milk and a jar of sugar out had been more than enough. "And when I get back to the surface world, I'll be more than happy to arrange some sort of supply drop, as well. Someplace where you folks can pick it up without having to expose yourself any, get some sundries and groceries."
"That's very generous of you, Mister Paladin," Siegfried said when the wanderer had finished speaking. "But that presupposes you're going to make it back to the surface world." He held up a hand at Paladin's raised eyebrows and half-glance towards Maria, recognizing the thought even as it formed. "Don't get me wrong, nobody's going to hold you here. Hell, I'll show you the tunnel back to Rhydin City myself. But you came down here looking for something, and from the condition ol' Jack found you in, I'm guessing you didn't quite find it, did you? So, I doubt you'll be heading back to the city straightaway."
Paladin took a sip of his coffee and considered his response. "You're right," he said. "I came down here looking for that thing that's been snatching kids, up top. I don't intend to go back until it's dead."
Siegfried leaned back in his chair. "I can't say it wouldn't do my worries a world of good to see that thing dead. It's caused its share of troubles down here with us, too, since it popped up. Can't say that things are getting any better, either; it's bigger, these days, nastier too. Jack's the only one who will venture outside the city limits anymore, and he's had some pretty close calls." Siegfried rubbed his eyes. "But I saw the condition you were in when you came here, Mister Paladin, and I can't say I much like the thought of you going back out there and wasting so much of Sylvia's work and energy. Maybe you should just head back topside, wait for this thing to show its head again."
Paladin grit his teeth and hissed softly, biting back on his initial angry reply. He'd never been very good at arguing, preferring to bull through whatever difficulties were in his path, or slide around them. Debating wasn't his forte. "I understand where you're coming from, Mayor Baasch," he said instead, smiling a little inside at the man's wince. Two could play at the formality game. "And believe me when I say that I take your suggestion in the friendly spirit intended. But respectfully, sir, that's flat out not going to happen. I came down here to kill that thing, and I know that I can do it. I'll need a little help from your scout-" It was his turn to hold up his hand, now, forestalling the the reaction from both Undertowners. "I'm not going to put him in any danger. Or the rest of you, either, for that matter. I just need some information, about the creature if he knows it, and about the local geography." His knuckles went white on the coffee mug as he let some of the anger bleed through. It had been pooling since that thing had jumped him from ambush. "But there's no way in Hell I'm going to go back to town with my tail between my legs to sit and wait until that thing feels like coming back up and taking another Mina Beckett, or Toby Flynn, or Jonny Squall-" He stopped at the startled look on both of the Undertowner's expressions. "What?"
"You came down here looking for Toby Flynn?" Maria asked carefully.
"He was the last one taken," Paladin nodded warily. "I was afraid the creature may have already eaten him, since there was no sign of the boy when I fought it. Why? Do you know something?"
Maria nodded, slowly, and stood up. "Maybe we should take you to Rambling Jack sooner, rather than later," she said.
"I found him in the tunnels," Rambling Jack said, nodding at the lanky boy playing quietly with several Undertown children. "Not too far from where I found you, as a matter of fact."
The scout was the spitting image of a grizzled frontiersman, from his doeskin leathers to his coonskin cap. Even in the presumably safe zone of Undertown's Central district, he still wore a long flintlock rifle slung across his back and a short, stubby crossbow at his side, and the hilts and handles of knives and tomahawks protruded from sheaths and holders all around his body, sticking out like wood and bone thorns from the many pouches slung from belts and bandoliers.
About the only thing that spoiled the impression was that he was about four feet tall, and his skin an ugly puke green. "Yassir," the Goblin said, putting the stem of his long pipe back in his mouth and nibbling at it with yellowed fangs. "He was pretty dazed, as you might imagine, and one of his legs was burnt up pretty badly. Sylvia put it all to rights, though, just like she did with you."
Paladin nodded slowly. "I'll need to talk to him," he said, voice low to keep from disturbing either the playing children or the handful of adults keeping an eye on them. From their uneasy demeanor, he could tell that keeping a watch like this wasn't normal for them; even in the safeness of Undertown, fear had struck home.
Jack scowled. "What fer? I kin tell ya what ya wanna know. He said he got loose of that thing by giving it a hot foot with his lighter, and runnin' off down the tunnel when it dropped him. He heard shootin', and it never followed. Them gang boys did a bit of good, God rest their souls."
"Guess they did," Paladin nodded. "But I still need to have some words with him. About going home, if nothing else."
"Home, Hell!" Rambling Jack roared, nearly losing his pipe. The people nearby studiously ignored the outburst. "I've seen the WestEnd, boy, and those slums up there ain't a home to nobody. Why, anyplace where a boy can just get snatched down a sewer like he was-" He cut off abruptly at the look on Paladin's face.
"I know the WestEnd, and I agree with you." He said coldly. "But slum or not, Toby's got family up there, and whether he stays or goes is not your decision to make. Stick around," he added. "I need some information from you after I've finished talking to him."
Jack could only nod. He'd seen a helluva lot in his wanderings through the world, both above and below Rhydin. But there was something of the cold implacability of a storm in the stranger's rain gray eyes, something that screamed louder than words that he was no man to be trifled with. Paladin walked over to the playing children, and sensing why he was there, the native Undertowners quietly withdrew. He took a knee not far from Toby and waited for the boy to stop staring at the dirt and meet his gaze before he spoke.
"Mister Toby Flynn?" He said gravely, when the boy finally looked up. He held out his hand to shake. "My name is Paladin. I've come from up above to see you safe."
"I've seen you before," the boy said softly, staring at the hand before reluctantly reaching out and shaking it. He was a scrawny thing, like most slum kids, and his hand was tiny in Paladin's as the wanderer shook it and released. Paladin wouldn't have guessed him to be more than eight or nine, although he spoke with a maturity and intelligence that belied his age, and his eyes were much older than the face they peered from. "You're that Guardsman. The one that patrols the WestEnd on his own. The one the gangers are scared of."
Paladin nodded. "I'm in the Guard. I came down here to make sure you're okay, and to kill the monster that took you."
Toby flinched when Paladin mentioned the monster. "Don't wanna talk about it," he said sullenly.
"Alright," Paladin said soothingly. "We won't talk about the creature if you don't want to." He waited for the boy to nod in acknowledgement before he continued. "But there is a question I'm going to need answered before I can let you get back to playing, okay?" The boy nodded again, and Paladin considered how he was going to phrase it.
"Look, Toby..." he said at last. "There's some folks here that think you're going to stay with them, instead of going back to the WestEnd. I want you to know, that what you do and where you go is up to you. Nobody's going to keep you here if you want to leave, and nobody's going to drag you up to the City if you want to stay. The choice is yours, okay? But I need to know where you want to be, before I can leave Undertown and go after this thing."
Toby looked up and met Paladin's eyes squarely. "I want to stay." he said clearly. "There's nothing back in the WestEnd for me bit the streets and becoming a Mako. I didn't want - I don't want that." He looked away again. "My brothers are all Makos. My dad was one, too, I think. Linda - my mom, she doesn't care about much except the next hit, she's always strung out on something, and there's never anybody home, amd when you go out on the streets there's always people being hurt, and it's always so fething cold, except when it's too fething hot, and everything stinks, and you can't sleep 'cause there's guns popping off all the time-" He was red-faced, almost crying. "I don't want to go back. Don't make me go back!"
Paladin nodded, once, letting the boy run down. "Okay. But remember - this place is secret, hidden. I can't tell your mother, or your brothers, or anyone else that you're doing okay down here. They're going to think you're dead, that the monster ate you."
Toby rubbed his eyes with a hand, snorting. "They don't care, not really. My brother, Billy, maybe... he was nearby with his friends when that thing grabbed me. But he's about it... even he thought I was just a crybaby pest. My oldest brother, Viper, he won't even talk to me except when he's drunk, and he's tellin' me how great it'll be when I'm a big, tough Mako like him... Nobody cares about me, up there. Nobody'll miss me."
Paladin's gaze locked on the tattoo on Toby's hand. LOVE, printed across the knuckles of his right hand. "That's an interesting marking, Toby," He said quietly. "What's it for?" Toby looked at it and shook his head.
"It's something my brothers did. See, when you're a kid, all you got is love in your heart. Then, when you grow up, that love grows hard, turns to hate. Viper says that's what a man is, love and hate. We've all got 'em... when I turn sixteen, and they make me a Mako, they were gonna put HATE on my left hand. I told them I didn't want it, but they said I would, once I was old enough, once I learned what hate means. When I got tired of being weak, and I'm ready to be strong. Well, I think I'm strong enough right now, Mister Paladin, and I don't need Hate for that."
Paladin nodded again and stood up. "I reckon you are, at that, Mister Flynn." He smiled, a little sadly, and turned away. "These people will treat you right. Make sure you treat them the same."
"I will, Mister Paladin." The boy ran over to the other children, and they all resumed their game. Rambling Jack was waiting for Paladin when he returned.
"Notice ya didn' tell th' boy about his brudder," the Goblin said quietly.
"Notice you didn't, either," Paladin replied. "The boy's trying to build a new life for himself down here, just like everybody else. Let him think his family's all safe, upstairs. Let the dead bury the dead."
Rambling Jack nodded, a touch impressed despite himself. "Not somethin' I expected out of a guardsman. You're a strange fella, Mister Paladin."
"So they tell me," he said dryly. "And it's just Paladin. I'm getting awfully damn tired of people calling me 'mister'. And now, a word with you, Rambling Jack. About the tunnels around here, and just where I might find that monstrosity."
Jack sucked on his pipe speculatively. "Ya didn't come off ta well th' last time th' two of ya tangled, and I'll bet ya found weapons don't seem to bother it much. Mind tellin' me how ya plan on fixin' that thing?"
Paladin told him. Jack dropped his pipe and, after a moment of dumbfounded shock, began to laugh like a loon.
~End Part 3~
The hidden chamber was about twenty feet all around; worked stone walls thick with shrouds of dust and cobwebs, floor thick with bones, scattered helter-skelter around a large stone bier in the center. It might have been an altar, a sarcophagus, or something else entirely. Paladin wasn't quite sure, despite the close look he got as he landed on it. Stone crunched as he hit, and a sharp shock ran up his leg. He rolled desperately to the side on impact, barely avoiding the monster as it plummeted after him. He half expected it to splash; instead it bounced, pulverizing the stone bier on its first impact, scattering the rubble about like shrapnel on the second. Paladin surged to his feet as it shook itself like a wet dog, biting his tongue in pain as agony shot up his leg. It had been a rough week for the wanderer.
This is not going according to plan. Resignation filled Paladin's thoughts as he brought his blade up to high guard next to his head, planted his feet. The creature hissed - or maybe it was just acid dripping off the poised tentacles, burning into the stone - and tensed itself, ready to spring.
And both combatants froze as dry clicking filled the air. Paladin shifted his eyes from one side to the other, unwilling to turn away from the monster in front of him. Though the creature had no eyes, he got the distinct impression that it was doing the same, its tentacles twitching. The clicking grew louder, was joined by a rustling, then a steely grate of metal being dragged across stone.
Horror slowly dawned as Paladin realized the bones around his feet were moving. He spun before he'd even consciously recognized the movement at the corner of his eye, deftly reflecting the sword blow intended for his head. The skeleton kept up its horrible grin, even as his return blow separated skull from vertebrae. Headless it continued striking. He shattered it with a series of kicks and sword blows, injured leg protesting as he hacked it to pieces. More bones were coming together, completed skeletons rising from the heap with weapons in hand - rusted swords, dented shields, hooked axes. There were a lot of them. A fething lot.
"Frak, frak, frak!" Paladin swore desperately, heaving his sword into the air. The heavy Calico submachineguns filled his hands instantly as his contingency charm took effect, responding to his words and the frantic tone of voice. His fingers jammed hard on the triggers as the undead lunged for him. The guns were loaded for bear - depleted uranium bullets fired from Ramjet cartridges, powerful enough to chew holes through tank armour. Dry bone and rusted steel were no match for them, and the skeletons fell away as he spun, clearing a circle around him. Even then, the undead kept coming until every scrap of bone was blasted loose from one another - and even then, Paladin got the feeling the shattered splinters were still dragging themselves back together.
The barrels melted down before the guns had the chance to run dry, but he'd bought himself enough breathing room. He dropped the ruined weapons and kicked one of the discarded shields into the air, ignoring the bullet holes riddling its stained surface. A flashy roundhouse spun it across the chamber, until it slapped into the monster's gelatinous flesh. The creature had held its own, mainly be swallowing the skeletons that got too close; still, it was surrounded, its attention absorbed by the the mass of bones trying determinedly to hack it to death. It barely had time to react as Paladin rushed it, jumped, and planted his feet on the shield - using the footing and the creature's rubbery surface as a springboard to propel himself out of the sinkhole.
"Nyeah!" He called back over his shoulder, scooping up his sword. "Gonna stay down there and rot, slowpoke?"
Tentacles shot out of the hole, latching onto the sides. Slowly, laboriously - widening the hole as the edges crumbled further, but eventually finding solid ground to brace itself against - the creature pulled itself out of the crypt, writhing skeletons protruding from its body like bizarre, wriggling horns. Paladin was already off and running, his injured leg hardly slowing him as he strove to put as much distance between himself and the monster as he could, while still keeping within its sight.
The tunnel ended in a narrow metal arch, something like a hatch on a steamship. The heavy door lay under a pile of debris nearby, torn loose from its hinges by some long ago calamity. Paladin darted through without hesitation. The creature followed, bare seconds behind and closing fast.
It froze once through the door, sensing the trap too late as Paladin sprung it. The room was a large metal vault, sides gently curving away from the ground to rise to the ceiling, twenty feet overhead. Pipes protruded jaggedly from the overhead, and the far doorway - near which Paladin stood, sword still in hand - was an identical arch, its metal hatch intact. Before the monster could move to withdraw, Paladin's sword swung - severing a rope on the wall, releasing a heavy stone block to seal its escape, locking it inside.
"And here we find ourselves at last," Paladin said quietly. "Just you and I, at the end. You smell it, don't you? Feth if I know how, but you do." So many years ago, the vault had been a holding tank for volatile gases from all over the underside, methane and hydrogen sulfide most predominantly. The fumes were still drawn to the room, funneled in by the network of pipes in the ceiling. Maybe it had been a fuel tank for the ancient machinery scattered around the sewers, maybe its purpose was more inscrutable still, but it had been the first place Rambling Jack had suggested, when Paladin told the Goblin what he was looking for. The perfect fire trap, with Paladin himself for the bait - and the trigger.
"Get ready to burn, you ugly son of a bitch." Paladin stepped back and tugged the safety flare from its hiding place. The safety plastic had already been removed, and it needed only a hard blow to the ignition cap to bring forth its flame.
I DID ONLY WHAT I MUST TO LIVE, the thing protested. It was the first time Paladin had heard it 'speak', though he'd suspected it was intelligent. His sword wouldn't have reacted to some dumb beast or mindless abomination. Even the writhing skeletons couldn't conceal his view of the trapped skulls floating like flies in amber in its massive body.
"Your life's not worth the death of children," Paladin said, voice hard, and lit the flare.
~End Part Four~
"My god, you're still alive." It was a common refrain to his ears, since killing the monster beneath the streets of Rhydin City. The people of Undertown, especially Rambling Jack, had said it when he staggered in with his injured leg and bloodstained clothes, half-blind and reeling. The Guardsmen at the WestEnd chapterhouse had said it, when he limped in to give his report, returned to the city via one of the Undertowners' secret tunnels. And now, Remmie said it, dropping her helmet at the sight of the wanderer kicked back in his chair, drinking coffee and wrapping up the paperwork his latest adventure had produced.
"You say that like it's some kind of surprise," he said dryly, capping his pen. "Why does nobody ever have confidence in me?"
She stormed over to him, leaving her helmet on the ground, and gave him a solid punch to the shoulder. "You've been gone a fething week, you bastard!" she snarled. "What did you do, take a fething vacation while you were down there? Some people were worried about you, you jerk!"
"Hey, take it easy," he said, holding his shoulder and laughing. "I bruise easy, you know."
She started to say something, hesitated. "Hey... where's your coat?" It was the first time she'd seen Paladin without his long black coat; inside or out, he wore the leather armor like a second skin, a shield held fast against the outside world.
Paladin nodded at a nearby chair, where his coat lay neatly folded. His sword rested on top of it. "Over there," he said casually. "Got a little warm in here, yanno? Temperature's gone up a bit while I've been gone, looks like spring's taking a chance on us."
Remmie tilted her head and regarded him closely. He looked... well, like he always did. Maybe not as skinny as she'd thought, more the rangy, leanness of a wolf. The coat did a lot to hide him.
He noticed her look and raised his eyebrows behind the gold glasses. Those were new - round lenses about the size of an old American silver dollar in a skeletal wire frame. The gold, reflective lenses concealed his eyes like mirrors, giving him an uncomfortably insectile appearance, making him seem oddly cold and distant. She frowned at her reflection. "What's with the specs?"
He grinned, maybe a little ruefully, and rubbed the back of his head. "Hurt my eyes a bit. Stared too long into bright light after too long in darkness, and now I'm a little sensitive to the light." He shrugged and spun his pen lightly around his fingers. "They'll heal, soon enough."
She nodded, slowly. "That explosion, under the WestEnd... that was you?"
"That was the monster." His smile seemed cold and hard, though maybe that was just a false impression from the glasses. "I stood there and watched the fether burn, just to make sure it didn't pull a vanishing act. Nothing left but ashes. I made sure." He'd kept watching even after the creature lit up like a magnesium torch, burning bright as a sun. He probably hadn't needed the elaborate trap, leading it into a gas chamber to burn - could probably have gotten the same result from a thrown match. Better safe than sorry, though, and he'd stood there until even the wriggling skeletons from the crypt had finally given up the struggle and collapsed into ash. Until every scrap of the monster was gone. "[color=darkblue]Anyone get hurt up here?"
"Nope. No more than usual, at least." Remmie looked away from the uncomfortable stare, then back. "Did... did you find the boy?"
It was Paladin's turn to look away. He set his pen down, stood, picked up his coat and sword. "The boy's in a better place, now," he said quietly. Remmie nodded again, too jaded from life in the WestEnd to let herself get choked up.
"So, what's next for you?" She asked, rallying her usual jovial mood as best she could. "You're not going back to the beat right away, are you?"
Paladin shook his head. "Nah, lieutenant's put me on convalescent leave for a week or so. Just until my eyes get better." He looped the baldric across his body so that his sword hung at his side and hooked his coat over his shoulder. "I'm sure you'll see me around plenty, though. Gods know, it's not like I've got anything better to do than pester you guys."
Remmie laughed at that. "I'll have to drag you home one of these nights, see if my mom's cooking will get some meat on those bones." She teased. "Gotta be careful my brothers don't get the wrong idea, though."
"I'll look forward to it," he replied with a jaunty salute. "I'll see you around, Guardsman. Have a good watch!"
She watched as he left the building, her smile worried. He seemed okay, but... it was hard to tell, with Paladin. She'd realized a while ago that his cheery disposition hid some deep sadness, and she knew he had to be taking the boy's death pretty hard. She shook her head again and went to retrieve her helmet. Life in the WestEnd being what it was, chances were she was going to need it.
He wasn't more than a block from the Watch House when a voice from the shadows hailed him. He turned slowly, left hand still hooked in his draped coat, right hand resting on the hilt of his sword. The Mako stepped out of the alley, hands up defensively.
"Easy, easy," he said, wheedling. "Not looking for trouble." He was skinny, pale, huddled in his greasy gray leathers. His eyes were fever-bright as they fixed on Paladin's mirrored glasses. "You're the one that killed the thing in the sewers, right? Big damn hero of the WestEnd, right?"
"You could say that," Paladin said cautiously, not releasing his grip on his sword. Junkies were notoriously erratic, and the way this man's hands weere shaking, his body trembling, odds were he was craving something. "Who's asking?"
"A concerned citizen," the ganger said, sneering, and coughed. Or maybe it was a laugh; the sound was hard to tell, choked with phlegm as it was. He made a gurgly sound in his chest and cleared his throat, spat. Paladin's concern shifted. Maybe the Mako wasn't tripping, maybe he was sick. That happened plenty, too, down in the WestEnd. "So, you killed it? It's really dead?"
"It's dead," Paladin said. "Are you okay? Do you need some help?"
The Mako shook. "It's really dead? You're sure?"
Paladin reached up and removed his glasses. The skin around his eyes was puffy, red with burns. His irises had faded from storm gray to a pale color that more closely resembled silver. He winced, even in the fading, bloody light of a WestEnd dusk. "I'm sure. It's not coming back." They traded stares for a minute, before the Mako finally, reluctantly, nodded. Paladin put his glasses back on.
"That thing," the Mako whispered. "Took my sister. Poor Mindy... snatched her right out of the street. She was seven. Picked her like a flower... a bright, happy flower. Prime of her youth, man. She was... she was something special, you know? Everybody says that, but Mindy... she was different, man. Cared about people. Had this glow about her... just talkin' to her, made ya day better. Brighter. She was gonna be somethin', get the hell outta the stinkin' WestEnd..." Paladin shifted his feet uneasily, his strained knee bothering him. It was always hard, dealing with survivor's guilt. He should know. He'd done a lot of surviving.
"Owe you," the Mako said at last, swiping unshed tears from his eyes. He was shaking harder now, although whether from emotion or unfulfilled craving, Paladin couldn't tell. "For avenging my sis. For killin' her killer, when I was too weak to. Gotta do ya a solid."
"Look, neighbor-" Paladin started to step forward, stopped when the ganger snarled at him like a rabid dog.
"Owe you, man. Gotta pay ya debts. Ya ain't nothin' if ya owe people. Means they own ya." The junkie rubbed at his streaming eyes, looked at Paladin. Grinned wolfishly. An 'I've got a secret' grin. Paladin's interest sharpened. "Got somethin' for ya."
"I'm all ears," Paladin said quietly, shifting his feet again.
"Fire, down the Dockside. Bit less than a month ago. Guard says that lady carpenter did it, one what's been fixin' crap down there since the zombies." The junkie shook again, like a leaf in a gale. "She didn't."
"Who did?" Paladin came back quickly. He knew the case. He'd already taken steps to involve himself, but this was the first real lead he'd had. Too many other footsteps in the Guard had already muddled the trail, stampeding towards the answer they wanted to hear.
The junkie shook his head. "Wheels within wheels, man. Connections from the street to the Hall. Some of the killers, they're wearin' the gray dragonskin, but they're hidin' behind a silver shield." He didn't need to point at Paladin's chest to make his meaning plain. "Get yoursel' down to the Docks on a moonless night, you see Sugar movin' goods through the streets. Sometimes, people talk too much about cleanin' up their neighborhood, makin' things safe for kids. Sometimes, people get turned into examples." He shook again, so bad Paladin thought he might just shake himself apart and fall to pieces. "I can't say anythin' else. Gotta pay ya debts, but ya gotta have honor, too. Silence is the code." He spits. "Anyone sees me talkin' to a cop, my life ain't worth spit. But... ya did me solid. I did ya one. We're square, 'kay? The Brotherhood couldn't do anythin' for Mindy, or them other kids... even Viper's brothers got taken. But ya did it. So we're square." He stumbled into the alley, wailing softly, shaking. Paladin didn't try to follow him, just stood there listening as the cries faded away, drowned out in the normal night time noises of the WestEnd.
Laughter, screaming. Music, gunfire. Dogs howled at an unseen moon, and people howled right back at the dogs. Paladin rubbed his burned eyes, behind the golden glasses and swung his coat flamboyantly around himself as he put it back on. Convalescent leave... seemed a good time to start beating the pavement, tracking down some leads. He had information he hadn't had before, confirmation to some suspicions. More than that, he had a name.
Sugar, huh? He shook his head, grinning a little despite the turmoil of feelings inside. One adventure ends... the next one begins.
Paladin walked alone through the WestEnd night, and even the shadows gave way before him.