Milo caught a glimpse of the hand on his arm, it was the size of his whole head. Large scarred knuckles continued into fingers with thick and dirty nails. As he was spun around, he saw hand matched its owner. At nearly 8 feet tall, Ralph was a mountain of muscle and scar tissue. Milo barely came up paste his waist.
Fight or flight reflexes kicked in, equally worthless in this situation. Luckily, he had to do neither. "What have I told you about heading out without checking in with me? I've got a message for you." The hand fell from Milo's arm and pulled a folded piece of paper out of a pocket. He looked around before talking in a voice barely above a whisper. "Squint wants to see you. One of his kulags dropped this off."
Ralph started ponderously moving back towards the wall of the inn and sat in a huge rocking chair. "That's right, you're new here. Grab a seat for a minute and I'll tell you a few things that might, just might, keep you alive for a day."
Milo grabbed a three-legged stool and sat down. Ralph continued, keeping his voice low.
"Kulags were a low-level gang of thieves and smugglers who operated out of the lower docks. Not a bad bunch of guys at all, hard working. They did nearly as much normal trading as they did smuggling. Squint was just one of them. Not a bad shot with a bow, but none to sharp otherwise, if you catch my drift."
Milo just nodded. Ralph continued, keeping his voice low. "Squint came back after a raid one time, just himself. He was a bit strange, strutting around like he owned the place and a couple of the boys decided to put him in his place. They say he just smiled at them and then they fell to the ground dead with slit throats, and Squint was cleaning the blood off his blade. After that, when Squint said he was in charge, none of the other Kulags argued."
"Kulags did good after that. Squint found odd jobs that paid well. And the other gangs didn't mess with the Kulags after a couple of entire gangs just disappeared. And shit got weird." Ralph stopped his story and pulled out a worn wooden pipe, packed it with tobacco and lit it. Milo looked on with interest. He'd never seen someone do this before. After a couple of puffs, Ralph continued.
"Some of the boys say Squint went into the dark and went deep down. He went past the last gate and to the stairs that go to the Black. No one expected him to come back. Bad times for the Kulags as the gangs decided to take back the territory they'd lost. Poor decision. Squint was back three weeks later and he wasn't alone. He had two huge cat-things with him. If he was a terror before, he was worse now."
"Now he calls himself 'Lord of what i can see.' He took over the Lights End and made it his base. Anyone who argues gets a bad case of dead. Funny guy though. Instead of taking over all the gangs and smuggling houses, he still just runs the Kulags."
"Anyway, story time is over. Head on back to the End. You can't miss it. Just keep going back into the darker areas and look for a big whorehouse decked out in lanterns. Hard to miss it in the dark end. And I wouldn't keep him waiting, if you know what I mean. So, git!" This last statement was punctuated by a huge foot launching Milo into the air and over the railing. He managed to grab a rung of a ladder as he sailed past, and flipped around, his feet finding support. He quickly climbed down to the ground level.
The sun was starting to set. More and more lights were being lit along the main streets while the alleys and rooftops went from shadows to darkness. Milo's sight changed slowly. Things grew sharper, but colors faded. He looked around the city. It was like someone had taken four or five cities and just put them on top of each other, connecting them with walkways and ladders. Far above he could even see structures that started from the rocky roofs extending downward. He looked at the message. There was a crude map drawn on it. It showed the harbor, the building he'd woken up in, and then an arrow pointing to deeper into the cavern. A scrawled message said "See you soon. -Your buddy Squint… Kulag!!"
This was so outside of Milo's experiences that he hesitated. Even talking to Ralph and being near people was odd. He kept telling himself it was just a game, no matter how real it felt. Still, best to not keep this person waiting. He moved to the darker side of the street and started walking further into the cavern.
The streets were a mix of stone and packed gravel. A few times he crossed over bridges spanning chasms. The streetlights in front of the better-looking buildings seemed to be automatic. In other places people were hanging lanterns or refilling ones atop lamp posts. The city had an uneven look to it. Older buildings were often of stone, taking up an entire city block and soaring up several stories with few windows down low. Wooden buildings surrounded them, their rotting structures leaning drunkenly against their sober stone compatriots.
The road his was following came up on a large stone bridge that arched over a substantial crack in the ground. Milo could hear the sound of rushing water. The lights on the bridge showed several people on the bridge. They weren't going anywhere, simply leaning against the stone rails, watching and talking. He decided to go around. He didn't see any other bridges, but there were walkways high up. He moved into the alley under the bridge, tossed his sandals into his pack, and started to climb up the side. His fingers and toes easily found handholds as he scrambled up six stories to the walkway across the chasm. He paused to look around his surroundings. He liked it better up here. More dimensions in which to flee.
The bridge was dark. A small lantern shed light on his end, but the center of the bridge and the other end were dark. He started across, the bridge swaying beneath him. He could see down to the dark water moving swiftly through the chasm. Where did the water go? Did it dig a path deeper into the earth? Or simply drain into the bay?
He was nearly across when two dark shadows moved from the deeper darkness. They creeped to spots on either side of the bridge end. Another shadow moved in the area between the buildings that the bridge led to. If he had worse sight, or hadn't noticed them, he would have ended up ambushed by three directions. The two nearest him were holding knives, he doubted they just wanted to talk.
Milo could go back, but would other ways be guarded as well? Probably. They'd seen his coming, probably the reason why that pitiful little lantern was there. His night vision might be much better than theirs. His stamina had recovered enough that he could change to his other form. If he was getting into a fight, he wanted a tail.
He felt more in control after the change. Fighting with just a rusty dagger had felt suicidal. Add a tail and claws? A better chance. His plan was to attack one of them, and if the fight went badly, just run forward or retreat. Not much of a plan, but the best he had. He skulked silently forward. The attacker on that side was blocked from seeing him by the railing on that side. When he was twenty feet away, Milo jumped onto the railing, rushed forward and then leaped for the left side attacker.
Snakebite was surprised as hell when someone dropped on him suddenly. He'd heard Bearbait's sudden cursing and started to move forward to put his dagger into their mark's kidneys. That's how they did it. Bearbait would stand up and swing at them, the mark turned, and Snakebite got a free shot at their back. This 'run along the railing and attack without warning' shit was cheating! He swung clumsily at his victim-now-attacker as a dagger stabbed for his own side. Claws made furrows down his cheek, and something grabbed his knife hand.
You attack Snakebite. (+20% bonus to hit first round for surprise attack, +10% bonus for superior night vision.)
Milo dodged the clumsy attack and his tail wrapped around his opponent’s wrist. He quickly stabbed him again and the human collapsed to the ground.
"Shit! What the hell?!" Bearbait couldn't see well in the dark, but it was obvious they had ambushed something out of the ordinary. Bearbait preferred a machete. He swung clumsily at the thing in front of him, but it stepped back over Snakebite's corpse, staying out of reach. On his next miss the creature dove at him. A dagger buried itself in his forearm and he dropped his weapon, something tripped him, and then the thing was on top of him, clawing and stabbing. "Roach! Dammit Roach, I need some help here.! Roach!"
Roach was smarter than he looked, and he didn't like Bearbait. He decided he wanted no part of this fight. He took his chances and sprinted across the bridge. He'd take his chances on the docks. Behind him, Bearbait's screams ceased.
Milo stood up. The second attacker wasn't moving, and the third was fleeing in the opposite direction he needed to go. He had a small cut on one arm, but was otherwise unhurt. What was he supposed to do with these guys? Were they players like him? He quickly went through their pockets. He came away with 3 copper coins, two rusty daggers, and a machete.
Bearbait also had a silver necklace in his pocket and Snakebite had a set of lockpicks hidden in a shabby leather bracer on his forearm. Maybe from someone he'd collected toll from? Milo put the necklace and extra weapons in his pack, and slipped the bracer onto his left forearm. Maybe he could sell the extra daggers. Time to get moving.
As he started to leave, he saw the bodies disappear, and two small headstones take their place. So they had been players. Interesting.
He kept to the rooftops after the fight. It was easier than getting into more fights by traveling known routes through the dark city. After an hour, he took a break on the top of a tall roof, in an alcove by a chimney.
Congratulations on surviving your first fight. You have obviously stepped upon the path of glory and fame.
Milo wanted to sit and figure out what all this meant, but he had an appointment to keep. Ralph had emphasized not upsetting this guy. After a short rest, Milo hurried on.
He came to the end of the rooftops. The buildings just stopped. In their place was a large open area like a plaza. Buildings ringed it. All were lit up somewhat, but the biggest at the far end of the plaza was ablaze with hundreds of lights. Beyond that, the large cavern was unlit.
Climbing down to ground level, he changed back to his human form. He was thinking he really preferred the other one. He missed his tail and claws already.