Walls of stone, can't keep out everything. It had long been whispered amidst the paranoid denizens of The City, that strange things lurked within the repugnant corners of their world. More, than just mere murderers and thieves. Spirits and beasts of unexplored realms, and lost lore. Beings, which their tyrannical baron, had tried so aggressively to purge from their wondering minds.
As ludicrous as it sounded, the rumors were indeed true. For what purpose, none could truly say. But their kind had walked amidst the manfools for a millennia--never leaving so much as a footprint, but always turning heads. Taking the guise of a young, impressionable maiden, even the most observant of souls were fooled by their lying flesh, and haunting eyes.
It was a dance as old as time, as unpredictable as a storm. But regardless of what Northcrest wanted his dreary citizens to believe, there was no quelling suspicion when it came to blatant fact. And the fact remained--fantastical beasts of woodsie lore, did indeed exist. They had come exploring that stone jungle of smoke and anguish before, and they would continue to do so, until the end of all things eventually came.
Upon an otherwise uneventful night in late September, the curious cadence of such spectacular tidings, began anew. The herald of these shifting times, these wondrous and terrible changes, entered the dismal confines of Stonemarket upon trembling legs.
She wasn't at all like her predecessors. Neither fleet nor clever was she, but rather clumsy and lost. Blind to the ways of old, incapable of sustaining herself within the woods after nearly two decades of the unspeakable: Domestication.
The rainy skies overhead had since cleared away into the deep purples and velvety blacks of nightfall, leaving the slums quiet and dismal. Town guards stood huddled around the fire pits; laughing, telling tales, and warming their frigid bones. Most didn't even notice the cloaked being slipping with ease through the streets.
The figure stooped just beyond the shadows, and undid their hood. Dark red hair flowed over the navy fabric like fiery blood, as the curious beauty panted, desperation and terror having stolen away her breath. Intense, sparkling green irises looked up at the hazy night sky, as the escaped creature revolted against the loud and uncertain world she now found herself lost within.
The sight of the smoke-laden heavens couldn't help but leave her thinking: What was she doing here?!
It seemed so surreal, like the feeling one got after waking up from a realistic dream. Bolting up in your bed, only to feel relief at the sight of a familiar room. Only in this case, relief did not come, and in its place, was a numbing emptiness. A blinding emptiness that ate away at her heart with jagged, terrible teeth.
Did she really want to do this? More importantly, could she do this? Was being that noble's pet and possession really worse than this new, all-encompassing fear? A single tear fell from her eyes, as the forsaken creature released a loud, mournful sigh.
Yes. Yes it was. Anything would be better than that life she had finally managed to flee. Even death would have been better than that. At least now, the girl had a chance to set things right before she died.
Turning away from her depressing thoughts, she continued on her journey.
As she reached the seedier parts of the neighborhood, a loud ruckus caught her ears.
"Hey Chuck! Just lookie what we got here!"
The curious girl crept out of the alleyway, only to fall back into the phantom grasp of shadow, as she recoiled from a most horrific sight. Across from where she now hid, clutching at her rosewood heart, two guards were brutally kicking a man dressed in tattered rags. The girl creature's mouth gaped in abject shock at the repulsive scene.
"We warned you old man, keep yer nose outta our business!" shouted one.
The victimized vagrant shakily raised his head, and sneered up at his armed attackers. There was an unbridled defiance within his glassy eyes. A daring rancor befitting of any hero.
"You...were going to slaughter that woman...she has a child, and she's five months pregnant with another mouth...I'd sooner die than let you do--"
A sharp kick to his abdomen silenced his gallantry. The hidden girl sneered with disgust. She trembled, her body reacting to the mindless persecution of the poor human. Something boiled deep within her, as those silver-plated demons began to befoul the midnight air with wicked laughter.
"Well ain't you just a taffing white knight?" the older guard chuckled, before hoisted the man to his feet, and pounding his bony frame up against the brick wall. "Too bad you ain't smart enough to keep your head down, and your mouth shut! That wench has been stealing bread from the village shop for the last three months. Enough is enough!"
"Yeah. You know the Thief-Taker General's new rule," the other bluecoat spoke up, "first strike--a night in prison. Second strike--death by hanging. Third strike--cut 'em down in the street!"
"Second and third strikes both equate to death. Why have a three strike system at all?" the homeless man retorted, not a hint of fear present within his fiery brown eyes.
"The only reason she didn't get hung up, was because YOU helped her escape!" the bluecoat spat on him. "Besides, if she didn't want to be hungry, then she should take a job in one of the factories. Or, at least whore herself out. I'm sure she'd make a killing that way!"
"Cowards who hide behind the visage of justice will never prevail," the man shouted. "You cannot silence righteousness with fear!"
The guard sneered at that, obviously irked by something within the brazen drifter's words.
As he produced a wicked looking blade from its scabbard, the surveying girl felt cold dread overtake her heart. The guard revealed a devious grin, as he positioned his blade just below the man's ribcage.
"Yeah? Well, let's see if that righteousness can help you now, taffer. I'm about to spill yer guts right here in the streets, so the rest of the filthy gutter ilk can feast. I'd say that's right noble of you..."
The man's eyes remained vigilant, though the girl could smell his fear. And she could stand it no longer. She closed her eyes and focused her mind, allowing the darkness of her bloodline to overtake her weak form. It crept across her arms, in a sensation that resembled dozens of crawling insects. She then ground her teeth, and violently thrust her hands outward.
Despite the outside temperature being frigid and blustery, the air around her grew muggy with a bizarre heat. A crescendo of apparitional insects buzzed and chattered, as a sinister liquid oozed forth from the girl's fingertips. It trickled and slithered across the midnight streets, stalking the murderous bluecoats with a voracious hunger. It hissed as it found their feet, before engulfing the two guards in a vicious spell of acidic blackness. It instantly tore away at their armor, and began melting their flesh.
The homeless man was dropped as the guard incapacitating him began to convulse and scream. He fell to his knees, as true fear finally consumed his person. He watched through wide, traumatized eyes as the bluecoats twitched and screeched. Flesh began to dissolve from bone, exposing oozing fat and inflamed muscle tissue. Their armor began to corrode, the leather melting itself against the dissolving skin. The older guard tried in primal desperation to wipe the goop from his arm--only to end up degloving the extremity completely.
More bloodcurdling screams echoed throughout the night for a time, haunting every unfortunate soul who heard them. But eventually, the spell subsided, and two decayed skeletons were all that remained of the brave man's tormentors. He yelped and shook, dragging his battered body away from the gristly scene.
That's when she decided to make her presence known. A dark shadow fell over his person, and as the overcome vagrant looked upward, his heart threatening to leap out of his throat.
Little did he realize, that this was his savior whom he feared.
"W-what do you want?" he asked the cloaked entity, in a voice barely above a pitiful whimper. His fearless disposition, was all but diminished.
"Are you alright?" a soft, treble female voice asked.
The man raised an eyebrow at the bell-like sound, beyond confused by how such a girlish voice could possibly emanate out of a nightmare.
"I-I am," he stammered. "Is this...your doing?" he questioned, quite apprehensive.
"Yes," she replied, watching the man's eyes grow wide at her words.
"M-miss, please..." he pleaded upon his knees, fingers interlocked as he marveled up at her.
Praying to the woman, as if she were one of the old gods. Begging her not to use her unknown source of volatile power against him next.
"Huh? Are you sure you're alright?" she cocked her head.
For a moment, she'd completely forgotten how terrified men became of her when she used her magic in front of them.
"Please miss, I beseech you...don't take my life!"
"Hey! It's not like that!" she urged him to regain his composure. "I-I only did that to help you! I normally don't like to do that stuff, but those guys were gonna--"
She stopped herself, deciding that relaying such a statement would be a moot point. The cowering bum at her feet was already well aware of just what the guards had intended. So instead, she decided to change the subject.
"Hey, I've got a great idea! Let's start from the top, okay? My name's Gwenevere! What's yours?" she inquired.
The vagrant stared up at her, only then realizing that her features were quite delicate. It was almost like looking into the face of a young child--her eyes alive with luster and exuberance. Had he not seen the magic subside back into her unassuming form, he would have never considered such a girl capable of such ghastly powers.
That, made what had just transpired all the more horrifying.
"Umm...F-Fredrick..." he choked out. "Is...is that the right answer?"
"Well, that depends. Is that your name?"
"Taffin' awesome! That's a wonderful name!" the girl cheered, unexpectedly. "Hello Frederick," the girl waved.
"Umm...hello..." Frederick gave a rather uncomfortable wave.
"Hey Frederick? Can I ask you a question?"
"Sure, I guess..."
"Well..." the girl looked up at the ivory moon, placing a finger to her full lips in contemplation. "You do live here in the slums, correct?"
"Uh, yeah. Yeah I do," the man replied, still slightly shaken.
"Great! I came here looking for a man named Basso. Do you know him?"
The beggar rose to his feet, and gave her an odd stare.
"Basso? You're looking for Basso?" he asked. "Why sure I do! Everyone knows Ol' Basso the Boxman!"
"The, boxman?" Gwenevere's nose twitched. "Weird, why is he called that?"
"It'sa...kind of a long story," the homeless man shrugged.
"Oh," she shuffled her feet. "Well, do you know where I can find him, Frederick?"
"Well, Basso's usually hanging around the Crippled Burrick tavern. If he ain't there, folks say he has a room rented out just beneath the place. Don't know why anyone would choose to live in a basement, but suppose it's none of my business anyway," Frederick shrugged.
"Oh, I dunno. Maybe it's super comfy down there or something?" Gwenevere chimed. "Well, anyway thanks for the help! You be careful, okay?"
"No problem at all," the man began waving weakly at his savior. "You too..."
He watched as the strange girl skipped down the alleyway, until she disappeared from sight. Frederick was left with his life, and a foreboding sense of inpending dread. Just who or what sort of being possessed such evil magic? Why had she been so kind to him, despite having such formidable powers at her disposal? And perhaps the question which haunted him most of all--just what did she want, with Basso the Boxman?
The tavern had been a loud, bustling place. But it was devoid of any man named, 'Basso'. A woman with perky breasts, and curly blonde hair that bounced as she walked, had pointed Gwenevere in the direction of the downstairs basement. Just as Frederick had mentioned before, the boxman apparently made his home down there.
The building's windows were dark, but a faint glow of candlelight could be seen from within. Gwenevere took a deep, cleansing breath. Pushing away the last of her fear and doubt, she knocked on the basement door. It opened shortly thereafter with a low creak, and a short stocky man with ripped clothing, and an odd smell poked his head out.
"Can I help you?" he asked, rubbing his forehead.
Gwenevere squinted, trying to examine his facial features in the dim light. He was a rather robust fellow, in his mid forties. A scraggly mess of whiskers covered the lower portion of his face, in some meager attempt at a beard. His eyes were tired, and large bags clung beneath the sunken sockets.
The girl wondered what cruel fate had befallen this poor man--or when he'd last gotten a full night's rest for that matter.
"Are you Basso?" she asked, stepping closer.
"Who wants to know?" the man emerged from his hovel, crossing his arms.
"A man in the alley told me that Basso lives here."
"Yeah? And who are you?" he snorted.
"I'm Gwenevere Simmons. I'm looking for work," Gwenevere proclaimed.
Her introduction caused the man to raise an eyebrow. Then, rather abruptly, he began to laugh.
"Simmons, eh? That's what yer goin' with?" the middle-aged pauper gave the girl an incredulous look.
"Should I go with something else?" Gwenevere asked, feeling ambivalent about the way Basso was reacting. She expected him to be surprised, or perhaps intimidated by the mention of the prestigious family. Not laughing!
"So, you're a Simmons, huh?! As in, a member of one of the most influential families in town?"
"Yep," Gwenevere nodded, growing jovial again.
"Is it Foolsday already?"
"Um, isn't that in Summer?"
"The point I'm tryin' ta make here kid, and the very point that you seem ta be missin' rather exquisitely, is that this HAS to be some sort of a joke," the boxman remarked sardonically. "It's a joke, right?" he winked.
"No! I am being serious!" Gwenevere retorted, her nerves budding into tiny fireballs of rage. Basso frowned at that.
"Look, I'll prove it and everything!" she squawked, producing something from the knapsack around her waist. It turned out to be a folded piece of parchment. Basso raised an eyebrow at the paper, before giving the girl an unimpressed snort.
"What's this?" he asked when Gwenevere handed it to him.
"Open it and see," she smiled.
Basso did exactly that. What he saw however, caused his pupils to dilate and his mouth to go dry instantaneously. It was a wanted poster, though not of the sort he was used to. This one, was for an innocent. It read:
Missing since last Tuesday night, one Gwenevere Simmons.
Please contact Lord Simmons at his private estate in Auledale with any information.
A reward is being considered.
Sure enough, the girl in the picture was identical to the one standing before him now.
Basso's fat fingers trembled, as he neatly re-folded the poster. He surveyed the young woman before him, pressing his lips together in deep contemplation.
If this was indeed a noble's daughter, then what the hell was she doing down here?!
"Ok, sweetheart, I believe ya," he murmured. "So, now that you have my undivided attention, mind tellin' me what this is all about?"
"Umm, well...someone told me that you have an...operation?" she tried. Basso's eyes narrowed.
"Oh? And just who told you that?" he demanded gruffly.
"M-my nana. She's been good to me for many a year now, sir. She's the reason I was able to escape the manor! She told me to go and seek you out."
"Uh-huh. And why'd ya do that, kid?" Basso asked, stroking his beard with one hand.
"Well, I..." Gwenevere turned away, biting her lip in genuine apprehension. "I-I want to help out with it. I want to learn how to be a thief!"
If Basso's jaw hadn't been firmly attached to his skull, it would have fallen right off his face in that moment. Mouth still ajar, he leaned closer and cupped a hand to his ear.
"Mind speakin' into my good ear, kiddo?" he asked in a vexatious tone. "Because I could have sworn that you just asked to be a thief."
"Well, that's because I did!" Gwenevere giggled innocently. Basso sighed, his comedic stylings clearly lost on this girl.
"And why the taff would you want to do that?! You're rich, you already have everything at your fingertips!" he argued. The young woman winced at his words.
"Not really. I know everyone assumes that, but it's just not true," Gwenevere started, fighting back the teardrops that pricked at her eyelashes.
"Whadda ya mean?" Basso leaned against the doorframe, his arms crossed.
The girl lowered her head in defeated surrender, and allowed her messy red bangs to conceal her tears. No, she couldn't tell him that. Even if she could, it wasn't as if he'd believe it.
"It doesn't matter. The point is, I ran away, and I'm never going back," Gwenevere looked up at him, allowing the boxman to watch the tears stream down her cheeks. "I want to be free..." she whispered.
Basso's disinterested scowl melted when he observed the blatant sorrow written within her emerald eyes.
The kid was serious about becoming a lackey. More importantly, she appeared to be very adamant about the decision. The boxman squeezed the folded parchment he still held within his hand. The decision was a maddening one to make. If he turned the girl over to the bluecoats--to her father--he'd be a wealthy man indeed. He could finally afford to escape the squalor he'd been fermenting in for good. But one look into the girl's face, and Basso knew this would be difficult. He'd always been a sucker for a pretty face, and this one was riddled with genuine trust and aspiration. He knew that if he did turn her in, he would feel beyond rotten about it.
Aside from the moral dilemma of the situation, Basso had another reason to hesitate. The City watch. He had enough trouble with the guards already. If he so much as spoke to one, chances were good that he'd end up getting thrown into prison for a very, very long time. Twenty years of hard crime had a way of viciously besmirching a fellow's rap sheet, after all.
"I'll think about it, kid. But just tell me one thing: Why should I help you, instead of just turning you over to yer daddy?"
Gwenevere's heart leapt into her throat. She took one, imperiled step backwards, her large eyes glistening with panic.
One look into those eyes, and Basso knew that there was something frightfully amiss in regards to the runaway's current situation. He had seen such fear, reflected in the eyes of men on their final walk out of the prison--and down to the gallows. This, wasn't the reluctant annoyance of being returned to the embrace of a doting parent. No, something within Gwenevere's eyes in that moment, conveyed a genuine crisis. Although he couldn't for the life of him figure out just what said crisis was, the worldly boxman knew one thing: The child before him, was authentically mortified at the prospect of returning home.
Basso's entire body grew tense. He was about to explain to the girl that he was sorry for even mentioning the idea. But Gwenevere spoke first.
"Because I have a talent which you might find very much helpful to your organization," she spoke in a muted, almost monotone voice. Basso crooked a thinning taupe eyebrow at her.
"Oh? What is it?" he asked.
Gwenevere's posture began to soften, as a playful tingle raced down her spine. It was happening again. That untamed spark of mischief was taking hold of her. Her green eyes pierced into the expectant gaze of the ragged hooligan before her. Even in her whimsical state of untempered vivaciousness, Gwenevere realized that what she was preparing to do, was superfluous. She could simply explain her skill to Basso, or perhaps show him with a minor demonstration.
But after his rather disquieting threat, Gwenevere wanted to secure his interest. She needed to make absolutely sure, that the boxman viewed her as valuable. As a person of interest, whom he couldn't afford to throw back to the wolves.
She closed her eyes and lowered her head. All the while, Basso continued to stare at her, now mildly bewildered.
"Hey, what are ya doin' kid?" he finally just asked.
At that moment, Gwenevere's eyes met his, though her head was still bowed. The look she gave him must have been intimidating indeed, because it caused the man to recoil backwards into his hovel. The girl followed in after him, as her eyes began to glow a stark white. Basso's face contorted in unspeakable dread.
"Oi! Girly! What the hell's wrong with y--"
But Gwenevere didn't answer him. She didn't have to.
With a burst of primal passion, the young woman thrust her arms up from her sides. They were accompanied by a quick, but brilliant pulsing light. The boxman cried out in a mixture of both surprise and pain at the blinding incandescence. The spectacle lasted only a moment, and when it was over, she bounded giddily upon her toes. Basso got up from the floor and gaped at her cherubic grin.
"I can do that," she giggled, sticking out her little pink tongue in jest.
"Do...what exactly?" the boxman shook. "Was that...was that...magic?" he asked, in a voice barely over a whisper.
"Sort of." Gwenevere grinned.
Basso blinked, before narrowing his eyes in quiet aversion. Gwenevere gasped, and nearly misfired a second, far more lethal spell, when he grabbed her unsuspecting wrist.
"Sort of?! Is that a joke?!" he shouted, furious at this point. "I just saw you use magic, girl! No use lyin' about it!"
Gwenevere's lips parted. Though his grasp on her arm was intense, it barely stung. She wondered what had caused the seemingly mild pauper to react so harshly to her fantastical reveal. Perhaps she had frightened him? Or, was he perhaps, against the arcane arts? Either way, the girl regretted startling him so.
"I'm sorry if I frightened you," Gwenevere offered. "And I certainly wasn't trying to make a joke, sir. Your question just...confused me a little."
Basso gaped at her collected reply, and abruptly released his hold on her.
"Huh? What question?"
"Regarding if what you just saw was magic or not. If you're so sure it was magic, then why did you ask?"
"I..um..." he scratched his head. "Er, well I guess I just wasn't expectin' it, is all," he replied sheepishly.
"Ah," Gwenevere nodded, closing her eyes.
"Anyway, yeah. Magic is pretty great, and certainly rare nowadays, outside of the factions and all. I can see why you'd think such a talent would be useful to me."
Gwenevere felt her posture slump at his words. She'd been expecting a, 'welcome aboard!' or maybe even a, 'I might be able to help you'. But this...this was starting to sound like a flat 'no'.
"Just give me the bad news already..." she huffed. Basso offered a sympathetic smile, then sighed.
"Hey, I'm sorry kiddo. But I'm just not too sure how using magic is gonna help my organization. I usually look for rogues; those who are quick on their feet and dexterous. Magic is kind of a...a big distraction. Ya get what I'm sayin' here?"
Gwenevere looked up at him, her vigor renewing itself before his very eyes. If that was the only issue he had...
"Well, what if my distractions came in handy?" she offered. "Like, if you guys are trying to break into a place, and there are too many guards around? Would that be useful?"
The boxman began to chuckle at her eager little spiel. The kid certainly had moxie. She was scrappy too; eager to take risks to get what she needed. But even at that...
"Alright, alright. Don't go twistin' my arm there, kiddo," Basso mused, straightening his dusty top hat. "If yer indeed serious about this, I think we might be able to squeeze ya in. Just because I've never worked with a genuine mage, doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad idea. I say we give this a shot!"
To say that Gwenevere was ecstatic, would be a gross understatement indeed.
"Really?! Oh, thank you!" she bounded with glee, clapping her hands together like an exuberant child. "I promise I'll do my best! I won't let you down, sir!"
"Yeah...I'm sure you will," Basso smiled. "Only one hitch: You mentioned prior that you wanted to learn how to be a thief, correct?"
"Yes?" the girl's heart grew turbulent again.
"Well, I'm in a bit of a quandary here. You see, I can't just let people who work with me run around the city if they're novices. Eventually, they'd get caught, and then they might talk. About me. Ya get what I'm sayin'?"
Gwevevere nodded, her heart proceeding to slump deeper within her chest. She knew where this was going. Or, so she thought.
"But, I'd also be lying if I said ya hadn't already surprised me. I love yer spunk, and I really do wanna see if I can help ya out. It took some real guts comin' this far from Auledale all by yer lonesome. I don't know what yer home situation is like, girly, but if this is somethin' yer serious about, then perhaps you'd be game for a little, 'on the job training'?"
Basso leaned towards her, and motioned for her to come further into his abode. His eyes were warm, beckoning to the little lost soul before him.
"Of course!" Gwenevere agreed with aught hesitation. If it would save her from Lord Simmons. If it could mold her into a midnight vigilante who could deliver the poor. If there was even a chance, the determined little creature knew she had to take it.
"Good. I'm glad to hear you agree," Basso dipped his head in approval. "So, what's gonna happen here, is this: I'll send you off with one of my fellow, 'entrepreneurs' so you can learn the ropes. His name is Garrett. We go way back, him and I. No doubt he won't be particularly pleased about it, but if I offer him a big enough purse of coins, I'm sure he'll come around."
Gwenevere shivered inside, her soul jubilant with her recent success. Although, she was a bit concerned as to just whom she'd be working with.
"This, Garrett," she began, half petrified. She had come this far--the last thing Gwenevere wanted to do, was change Basso's mind. "He's a thief then?"
"Aye, and the best out there at that," Basso affirmed. "You ain't gonna find yerself a better teacher nowhere."
"That...sounds amazing!" Gwenevere's entire face seemed to sparkle with admiration.
"Just wait until ya meet him. Maybe then you'll change yer tune," Basso grumbled under his breath. When she shot him a puzzled glance, the boxman shook his head and laughed. "Anyway, welcome to the family, Gwenevere."
"Thank you," the girl blushed.
"Oh, and just so there's no worries, let me just clarify," the older man removed his tophat, a genuine candor present within his eyes. "You seem like a swell gal, so I'll let you in on yer first little underworld secret, kid. Ever hear of the saying, 'there's no honor among thieves?"
"No," Gwenevere shook her head. Basso waved his hand about in an unbiased fashion.
"Eh, doesn't matter. Basically, it's an old adage made up by taffers who don't know squat about us. You know--bluecoats and them stuffy nobles," the boxman startled, then looked over at Gwenevere with a worried blush. "Erm, no offense!"
"None taken," Gwenevere reassured with a kind smile.
"Anyway, they got it all wrong. There is indeed, honor among thieves. At least the ones I know," he smiled down at the girl again, and patted her shoulder. "We never sell out our own. You'll be safe with us, kid."
The shady man then winked. If she hadn't expelled the last of them from her eyes over the course of the last several days, Gwenevere would have cried. Ironically, she did indeed feel safe, here amidst these vagabonds and vagrants. It was the first time she'd experienced a genuine sanctuary, in almost two decades. She bit her bottom lip, and locked eyes with Basso. She wanted so badly to hug him in that moment, but Gwenevere suspected that such a forward gesture would be most unwelcome.
So, instead she just continued to smile.