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When the group arrive at the wall, Vechs prepares to throw his hooked rope, but Etho says,
“No, we don’t go over the wall.” He kneels down by the wall as the rest look on in curiosity. Etho presses a few bricks with his palms and they come loose. Zisteau’s eyes widen before his mouth curves into a smile, watching as Etho pulls away bricks from the base of the wall.
Etho steps aside to reveal the small hole he’s created, leading into a pitch black cavity. “Ta dah.”
“We’re going in there?!” Aurey asks.
“Yes,” Etho says. He crawls into the hole and the rest watch him disappear. Zisteau hears the creak of a trapdoor.
“I guess we go in then,” he says, grunting a little as he bends to follow. Inside the wall’s cavity he can see a trapdoor on the ground, barely illuminated from beneath. He opens it and climbs down, the ladder creaking under each footstep.
“Last one down replaces the bricks,” Zisteau hears Etho call from below him. His voice carries up the ladder well, and echoes in the sound of a large chamber.
Zisteau’s eyes widen once again at the foot of the ladder. The underground world he’s entered is entirely disconnected from the one above him. In a low-lit cavern dug into the earth, tunnels and passages twist off from all angles. Around this large, presumably main cavern, several stalls are dotted around – some hastily constructed, some, more permanent looking, built into the dirt walls. There are signs hung up advertising each stallholder’s specialties and services.
Crooks mill around, mostly whispering to each other and at the stalls. Many stop and stare as the members of Naziv reach the base of the ladder and stand there behind Etho, looking around.
Etho waves to a man across the room and he hurries over. It’s Bdubs. Another man follows him, with a long white beard and a crooked grin.
“You weren’t s’posed to bring them here!” Bdoubleo hisses loudly at Etho.
“I’m sorry,” Etho says. “But I ran into, a sort of situation.”
“Is that what took you so long?”
“I can explain,” Etho says, rocking on his feet. “Want to go somewhere more private?”
“They need to take the pact. If you bring newbies here, they need to take the pact.”
Bdubs chuckles. “I know that, I’m no fool. Naziv or not, it’s the rules. They all need to take the pact.”
“Hey hey,” Vechs speaks up for the first time. “I didn’t think we were planning to join this… guild. We’re just visiting.” His eyes flick to Bdubs’ face and he’s satisfied to see the bruise on his nose.
“What part of ‘kidnapped’ don’t you understand?” Etho retorts. “Both of you. Bdubs, you got your thieves, so I think I’ll take my payment now.”
“They don’t look very kidnapped to me,” Bdubs says, squinting at the group. “And there’s an extra.”
“Hey!” Aurey says, finally coming out of the silence she’s been in and pointing to the man beside Bdubs, who’s been cackling to himself at the conversation. “I know you!”
“Oh hey, I know you too!” He steps closer to Aurey and sticks out a hand. “I’m GenerikB. You came into the bakery once.”
Aurey shakes his hand nervously. “If you work in a bakery, what are you doing here?”
The man laughs. “Listen, all of us run side businesses. I ain’t no innocent old baker, just trying to make my living selling loaves!” To demonstrate, he shoves a hand in his pocket, pulling out a small fistful of glimmering emeralds. Aurey’s eyes widen. She’s seen gold plenty, but precious stones are a rarer sight, even in Corax.
“Welcome to the Underground,” he says, returning the emeralds to his pocket.
Aurey turns back to look at Zisteau, who is arguing loudly with Etho and Bdubs. He stops talking defeatedly, and looks at Aurey.
“Seems we have to take a pact,” he says. “Nebris, Vechs, Blame, you too.”
“What do we have to do?”
Bdoubleo turns to face all of them, his eyes shifting around the group. “It’s only a blood pact, just a little…” He mimes slashing his wrist with a knife.
“We have to do it, see? It’s just a formality really.”
“It’s not just a formality!” Etho argues. “Being in the Underground is serious business. You have to take this pact seriously. All of you.”
“Come this way,” Bdubs says, directing them across the large cavern. His bearded companion follows and Etho does too. As they cross the room, Aurey feels the eyes of every person in the Underground on their group. They know who we are.
Vechs isn’t walking near the front but Bdubs somehow gets beside him anyway.
“You look different since the last time I saw you.”
“I could say the same to you,” Vechs says. “How’s your nose healing?”
“It’s great, thanks.” Bdubs pauses. “So he got his revenge, huh?”
“How do you know about that?” Vechs asks quietly, coldly. His hand automatically goes to his face, feeling the bruises. They’re still there, hurting.
“Oh man. Listen, I met Blame even before he came to beat you up and, well, he told me everything. How he was so incredibly torn over your betrayal that he escaped death and walked all that way just to get revenge.” A smile comes onto his lips. “Seems he’s joined your group now, huh?”
As they turn into a tunnel off the side, Bdubs and Vechs are squeezed closer together in the small space.
“Why are you so fixated on me?” Vechs asks. “I know you hired that ninja to take the whole group, but why me?”
Bdubs doesn’t answer.
The group enters a small room, dirt-walled just like the rest. A large pot rests in the center, and a rack of various knives is set to the side. Nebris glances into the pot and recoils back.
“That’s kind of gross,” he says.
“I don’t even want to know,” Aurey says, but glances into the pot anyway. At her reaction, Vechs can guess what she’s seen.
“Ok, you need to…” Generikb scans a dirty piece of paper, mumbling parts of it under his breath. “Recite the oath, let your blood mix with that of your brethren… who wrote this thing?”
“You know how old it is,” Etho says.
“Who’s in charge of this place?” Zisteau asks.
“Nobody. That’s the whole point,” Bdubs says. “Back when this place was built it was decided that nobody should be in charge. Goes along with the whole ‘all-criminals-are-equal’ thing.”
“That not everybody agrees with,” Generikb points out.
“Well, let’s get on with the pact,” Zisteau says. “I’ll go first.” He steps up to the pot and pulls out his dagger in preparation.
“Is he allowed to use his own?” Bdubs asks.
Generikb scans the paper. “Doesn’t say he can’t.”
“What are you doing?”
All heads turn at the sound of someone entering the room.
“Oh, just initiating Naziv into the Underground,” Bdubs said, striding up to the black-clad man. “I dare you to try and stop us.”
“You can’t just bring those people in here!” the man says, stepping up to Bdubs, his dark eyes glinting. “That’s a Grax.”
“Half-Grax,” Zisteau says in a bored tone. “Keep your prejudice to yourself. We were invited in here, invited to take the pact. I imagine it was much the same for you.”
“They’re Naziv, Pakratt,” Bdubs stresses. “Y’know? The group we’ve been talking about ever since they pulled off that escape in Feretan?”
“I don’t get the hype,” Pakratt says, glaring. “Whatever. It’s not my place to tell you what to do, Bdubs. Just be careful.”
Bdubs frowns as he leaves. “Dunno what he means by that,” he says. “Whatever. Zisteau, go on.”
“Cut your arm and allow... allow the blood to flow into the pot, then repeat the pact as I say it,” Generikb says.
Zisteau draws the dagger across his arm fast, grimacing for a second before the red blood bubbles up and flows down his patched skin.
“I vow, as a newly initiated member of the underground,” Generik begins, and waits, looking at Zisteau.
“I vow, as a newly initiated member of the underground,” Zisteau repeats.
“To never speak of the underground to non-members. I vow never to turn in any of my fellow members to the police. I must remember that this place itself has no authority. It is my right as a member to freely roam the underground and make use of it.”
Vechs tunes out as the man reads the pact, Zisteau’s voice echoing it as his blood drips into the pot. He pushes back the feelings of something sinister, of this Underground feeling slightly cultish, feeling slightly too exclusive to be just a hideout for criminals.
Nevertheless he holds his tongue as Aurey and Nebris cut their arms and repeat the words. Finally he glances at Blame, who has been standing silently, his arms folded as he leans against the dirty carved out wall.
Blame looks back to Bdubs and the pot. “You go,” he says quietly to Vechs. Vechs nods and makes to step forward when Blame continues, “I’m heading back. I don’t want to take the vow.”
Vechs stops, and looks back. He keeps his face calm and steady.
“You don’t want to be part of this?”
Blame shakes his head, says “Goodbye, Vechs,” and walks towards the door.
Vechs is pretty sure he’s the only one who sees Blame leave.
“Go,” Etho says from beside him, nudging his arm. “I don’t need to do this again.” Etho pulls up his sleeve, indicating a pale scar across his forearm.
Vechs nods, and gulps before walking hesitantly towards the centre of the room. It’s not that he’s afraid of the pain, or of dedicating himself to this… this club of criminals. All he can think of is Blame, and where he’s gone.
He doesn’t feel much as he cuts his wrist and repeats the words, hardly taking in the meaning. He stares towards his feet and as soon as he’s finished, he steps down and goes to Zisteau, wiping his arm on his shirt.
“I’m going to go check on Blame,” he says.
Zisteau sighs. “Don’t blame me if he beats you up again. But if you really must, do it. Me and the others are going to stay down here. I want to figure out exactly how this place works.”
Vechs nods and practically runs out the door, nearly bumping into a man as he barrels around the corner.
He quickly apologises and keeps running up towards the entrance. He knows people are staring at him but all he can do is climb quickly up the ladder, squeeze out of the space in the wall and replace the bricks.
Maybe he shouldn’t be so worried about Blame. Vechs pushes back the word ‘obsessed’ from his mind and walks quickly towards their hideout. He plans to try to talk to Blame. Maybe he can make the man trust him again.
Vechs opens the entrance to the hideout and warily pulls it back, and descends the ladder.
“Blame?” he calls tentatively into the small space. He’s probably in the bedroom, or something. Vechs goes into the bedroom.
Blame isn’t there.
There aren’t many places in the tiny hideout Blame could be, and Vechs’ heart is already sinking into his gut. Blame’s left.
He’s ready to sink into his hammock and cry, but the small determined part of him that won’t ever go away speaks up. Look for a note or something. He might have left a clue as to where he’s gone. He searches the hideout again, looking everywhere until his eye passes over the map still lying on the makeshift table. A note is scribbled beside Corax in black.
Gone to Mes. Don’t follow me.
Vechs’ heart sinks. Mes is north, across the desert. Blame will never make it, especially not on foot. Vechs doesn’t stop to think as he grabs his bag. His clock is missing, and he doesn’t want to stop to look for it. He hastily shoves food and a flask of water into his bag and grabs a pencil to write beside Blame’s note.
Gone too. Back soon, Vechs.