Author: Paul aka Darth Pacula
Rain fell like the tears of a bereaved god from a sky that was dark and unwelcoming, laden from one horizon to the next with thick, ominous sheets of storm clouds. While the rain was fat and heavy, cold enough to chill a grown man to the bone, the torrential winds made it worse still. Swirling gusts of air, blown in off the icy seas to the north hurled the rain to and fro in a madcap, chaotic dance, so that it never fell in the same direction for more than a minute at a time.
The storm had swept in, seemingly from nowhere, venting its rage upon the hapless citizens of Northport, bustling mercantile metropolis and northern gateway to Sumner, largest of the Starfall Isles. The full force of Nature's fury had driven even the most stubborn citizens in search of shelter; neither pickpockets nor whores could ply their trade when there were no customers upon the cobbled streets. Even the scarlet cloaked City Guard were scarce this inclement night.
All this meant to Willow was that there wasn't anyone to get in her way.
Scarcely seven years of age, hardship and privation had left its mark on the scrawny urchin's slender frame. Flat chested and skinny, face drawn and filthy from life on the streets, Willow was still possessed of the desperate speed and strength of a street-rat, one whose next meal often depended on their ability to outrun an angry shopkeep.
Willow ran full pelt up the street, uncaring of the icy rain that pelted down upon her, freezing her flesh and soaking her ragged clothing. Neither did she pay attention to the myriad of cuts and bruises upon her body from an uncountable number of slips and falls she'd suffered upon the rain-slicked cobblestones.
For Willow was desperate, and she had a mission. Back in the Dregs, the vast slum that ringed Northport's great harbor like scum around an uncleaned drain, in the filthy hovel that she called home, Willow's mother lay dying.
Sheila was a whore, and an unsuccessful one at that. She'd been beautiful once, voluptuous and seductive, and had worked in one of the grand brothels, entertaining the great and powerful of Northport. The temper tantrum of a spoiled lordling had ended all that with one stroke of a riding crop that had scarred Sheila's formerly perfect cheek.
Unwilling to sell damaged goods, the brothel's madam had turned Sheila out into the streets, and her fortunes had floundered ever since. Sheila had sunk down the rungs of respectability that even the world's oldest profession possessed, passing from brothel to bawdy house until she was nothing more than the meanest streetwalker, hoisting her skirts in filthy alleyways for a handful of copper pennies.
Willow had been whelped upon her during this fall, fathered by a customer, some unknown sailor or soldier, but even still, Willow had always been the light of Sheila's miserable life. It had been for Willow's sake that they had finally struck rock bottom, thrown out of Northport's cheapest knocking house because Sheila had refused to pimp her then five year old daughter to a lecherous merchant.
Her beauty lost to the ravages of age and hardship, Sheila had recently fallen ill, wasting away to a pale mockery of her former self, and even the money Willow had been able to beg, borrow or steal had been insufficient to pay even the cheapest of the drunken sots the Dregs called physicians. So Willow's last hope lay with the priests of Anoila, Goddess of Healing.
These priests were famed for their ways with herbs, tonics and simples, and even more famed for the healing powers that their prayers granted to their most faithful members. In theory, their services were supposed to be free and available to all, but as always in life, the reality was much different.
The wealthy of Northport, with their generous 'donations' to the temple, monopolized the services of Anoila's followers almost without exception. There had once been a priestess of Anoila who had kept a shrine at the heart of the Dregs, ministering to the poor, but she had been raped and murdered by a drunken sailor years before, and no member of the priesthood had set foot in the Dregs ever since.
But if they would not come to her, then Willow would go to them.
In this respect, the inclement nature of the storm lashing Northport was Willow's friend, for the Temple of Anoila lay upon the summit of the Godsmound. Thus named for the fact that most of the city's temples were situated upon it, the Godsmound was again, in principle, free to all, but the City Guard tended to discourage the presence of riff-raff ... with swift and merciless spear butts.
Since Willow, along with the entire population of the Dregs, was counted among this riff-raff, anything that kept the Redcapes off the street made her mission of mercy an easier one. She was shouted at by a pair of Guardsmen as she sprinted through the arch of Daybreak Gate, but they declined to abandon the safety of their guard post to give chase, and Willow ran on, breath heaving in her narrow chest.
Legs burning, Willow's sprint had become more of a stagger as she neared the summit of the Godsmound, and the rain was coming down even heavier, turning the other temples and buildings to either side into looming, half-seen shapes. An imperfection in the cobblestones pitched Willow to the ground hard, opening a gash on her forehead as she crashed headlong into a seemingly randomly placed statue of some nameless dignitary, likely long dead.
Lurching to her feet, Willow forced herself onwards, ignoring the sheet of warm blood that trickled down her face, for she knew her destination couldn't be far away now. She only managed a handful of steps before she fell again, as a puddle turned out to hide a much deeper hole than Willow imagined.
Her ankle was wrenched as she fell, and Willow gasped as her shoulder slammed painfully into the stone verge of an ornate fountain, overflowing with the bounty falling from the heavens. For a moment, Willow lay sprawled on her back, panting and stunned as falling water blinded her. Then desperation forced her to scrabble upright again and hobble onwards.
Finally, shivering with the cold, Willow reached her destination. A vast, but graceful edifice of gleaming white marble, replete with carven pillars and a domed roof, brilliant even through the gloom, loomed up before her. Sobbing with relief, Willow staggered up the wide sweep of steps that led to the massive, gilded doors that led inside.
With the last of her strength, Willow hammered on the nearest door with her small, grimy fist. For what seemed like hours, she flailed desperately at the door as her strength began to fail and she slowly slid towards the marble floor.
The door swung inwards abruptly as Willow was sagging to her knees, neatly depositing her in a sodden sprawl upon an intricately mosaicked floor. Within moments, the excess water dripping from her prone body had insolently left a number of puddles marring that formerly pristine surface.
A plump foot jammed into a brocade slipper tapped on the floor in front of Willow's nose, drawing her attention and directing it up past a ponderous paunch to a broad, moon-like face peering down at her in surprise. A small, pick tongue flicked out, running over scarlet hued lips that sat on that pudgy face like a pair of somnolent slugs.
"Goodneth thild!" lisped the priest effeminately, fluttering a beefy hand in front of his hand as if it were a lady's fan. "Whatever are you doing out here in thith weather?"
Clawing her way upright, Willow lunged forward, clutching at the fat priest's cloth-of-gold cassock. "You 'ave ta help me, ya lordship!" she blurted, her uncouth speech revealing her low origins. "It's me Ma! She's dyin'!"
That same pink tongue slithered over the priest's lips as his gaze fixed on the young girl's face, a strange, almost hungry look coming into his small, piggish eyes. "Yeth, you are a pwitty young thing, aren't you ..." he murmured softly, as if he hadn't even heard Willow's plea.
Even at her age, Willow had seen that look before, though she could scarcely countenance it appearing in the eyes of a priest. But for her mother's sake, she was prepared to suffer a few lecherous looks.
"Please ya lordship, ya gotta help me!" she begged, forcing an uncharacteristic note of servility into her voice. On the streets and alleyways of the Dregs, any such display of weakness was more likely to get you killed than see you receive help.
Licking his lips again, the priest nodded absently. With fingers like plump little sausages, he reached out and brushed a sodden clump of Willow's dirty red hair away from her eyes. Though she inwardly shuddered, Willow let him cup her chin in a hand so soft that it had obviously never done an honest days work.
"I'm thertain we than thome to an agreement, my thild," the priest murmured, that obscene pick tongue flicking out yet again. "Thome with me to my quarterth, my thild, and we than dithuth your ... manner of renumeration."
Willow tried to pull backwards, shake her head, but the priest's grip upon her jaw tightened painfully. "No," she countered, desperate enough to bargain even that if it would see her mother aided. "After. After you help me Ma, I'll do whatever ya want." She shifted her weight awkwardly in an uncomfortable child's attempt to mimic the soliciting stance of a streetwalker.
The priest's cherubic face lit up with a beatific smile, but after a moment it turned cruel and arrogant. His other hand came out of nowhere to deal Willow a heavy blow to her cheek. The sound of the blow, and Willow's exclamation of shock and pain mingled together, echoing from the high, vaulted ceiling.
"You thilly, thupid bitch," declared the priest with a disturbingly childish giggle. "You'll do what I want now, whether I help your thlut of a mother or not! If you please me, I might thonthider helping you."
The hand that had struck her fell upon Willow's shoulder, trying to force her downwards. "Now, my pwitty little fwlower, get on your knees and thuck ..."
Willow punched him in the groin with all her might.
The priest squealed like a stuck pig, high and shrill, but rather than release her, his hands tightened on Willow's slender frame. So she punched him again, in exactly the same spot. Squealing again, the priest let her go now, flopping to the floor with a meaty slap, the flab of his swollen stomach rippling repellently.
"You little thlut ..." he began to shrilly wheeze, but Willow interlaced her fists together and clubbed him in the cheek. The impact was enough to knock the priest to the floor with a pathetic wail. A crimson haze of rage clouded Willow's vision, and she found herself kicking her attempted molester, over and over. She drove her feet into his fat, yielding belly, stomped on his pallid, quivering limbs, smashed her heels into that blubbering, hateful face.
She was crying as she raged, sobbing, words intermixed with nonsensical exclamations of hatred and fury, pain and grief. "You're supposed ta help me!" Willow screamed with a final kick, before spinning on her heels and fleeing back out into the storm, leaving the pedophile sprawled on the foyer's marble floor, bloodied and unconscious.
Willow was to never know, but a few moments after she left, another figure crept, trembling, into the room. Of an age with Willow, the tow-haired girl was a temple initiate, and one of the fat priest's earlier victims. An orphaned niece of a temple patron too busy and uncaring to look after her himself, this unnamed girl had been given to the temple to raise, in supposed safety as a worshiper of Anoila. Five nights had she been in their care, and each night had she suffered the fat priest's attentions. Now, she stood over her tormentor, staring down with terrible fascination at his battered visage.
And with shaking, terrified hands, she drew her belt-knife and slit his throat from ear to ear.
Somehow, Willow was twice as wet when she finally staggered into the basement hovel that she called home. At the bottom of a flight of crooked, moss-slippery steps, the room she shared with Sheila was so low roofed that Willow was the only one who could walk inside without being hunched over.
The floor was naked soil, hard packed and unyielding, the wall and roof unfaced stone blocks that trickled with moisture every time it rained. In the current deluge, there was very nearly a narrow stream dividing the room.
Weary and despondent, Willow brushed aside the length of stinking, unwashed hide that served double duty as curtain and door, and entered her home. A single precious candle lit the room with a paltry, flickering light that guttered disturbingly until Willow let the curtain fall closed with a wet slap. An opportunistic rat skittered in alarm at her arrival, and scurried for a far corner, easily avoiding the unenthusiastic kick Willow aimed at it.
Rodent infestation was nothing new to Willow, so she otherwise ignored the interloper and hurried across the room to the bundle of rags her mother called a mattress. Halfway there, she froze.
A native of the Dregs her entire life, Willow was no stranger to death, not in a place where a man might have his gullet slit open for a single copper penny. Finding an alleyway anywhere at all in the district that hadn't played host to a corpse at some point would be a hard task indeed.
So as soon as she saw her mother lying there, oh-so cold and still, Willow knew without a doubt that she was too late. Her mother was dead.
How long she stood there, unmoving, staring blindly, lost in denial, Willow couldn't even begin to guess. But when she finally did move, when she finally did admit that she was utterly alone in this cold, cruel world, it hit her like a thunderbolt.
Suddenly, the room was too small, closing in on her, crushing, smothering her. Grinding her to a fine paste, like the shells they crushed on the docks to make the powder for the noble ladies to paint their faces with.
Willow found herself panting like a dog, desperate, one step removed from hyperventilating. All at once, it was too much, and Willow was running blindly, without plan or destination, tears streaming from her eyes as she sobbed.
All she could think as she ran was, never again. I will never love again!