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Under the Shroud

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Prologue

After several days of tight nerves and near silence among the crew, their ship had made it to safe harbour.

Now that they had docked, Merrin realised "safe" might not have been the most accurate description. She had never gone so far west of Spire Nephesis. If she could, she would have called her crew back on board the moment she stepped onto the rotting planks of this derelict Hub. It's berth was barely large enough to house the four ships crowding together, and she could see where the foundation ended and the craggy rockface began. A single, squat building sat at the end of the row of ships. The entire thing looked like one good stomp away from falling into the mist below.

"They'll be inside." The man beside her murmured.


"I didn't imagine they would be waiting out here." Merrin nodded to her first mate. Thesa fell in on their passenger's other side, and the trio picked their way with care towards the building.

"Mm." He almost smiled.


They walked in silence for a moment.


"Tell me something, friend." Merrin began. He nodded for her to continue. "I've chosen to trust you, despite the circumstances, and we're not dead yet. Which is something. But I'd like to know why I should to continue to do so now, when you look like you're walking to your death."


He blinked. "Do I?"


They had almost reached the door, and Merrin held up a hand before he could open it. She took a step closer. The quiet man who had been living with them, sharing their home and hardships for weeks, looked up at her. An Auroran that stood out like a sore thumb among her crew.


A steadfast and courageous man that belied the situation in which she had met him in.


"Tell me we're going to find a way through this mess on the other side of that door."


He met her stare, and gave her another almost-smile.


"There are people here that will help your crew. And mine." He gently pushed her arm aside. "They just may need to kill me before they do."


Thesa looked at her, alarmed, but Merrin let him pass.


"Merr?" She whispered.


The man disappeared inside.


"Just- keep on your toes. We're walking blind here." She rubbed her partner's arm reassuringly. "C'mon."


--------


Clouds of smoke tinted the air. The pair followed their guide to a table in the corner. Most of the rabble kept their heads down. Clothed in drab, weathered browns, these people were obviously smugglers avoiding catching anyone's eye.


Most of them, anyway.


A man and woman seated across the room stared back, making no secret of their focus. The silver haired man smiled at Merrin, nodding politely. The woman cocked her head with her chin on laced fingers, locking eyes with their passenger. Her smile was not so polite. Although they were dressed in the same colours as the rest of the pub, their clothes were of a markedly higher quality.
They stood together and came forward. The other patrons somehow became even more engrossed in their own conversations, and in short order the two strangers stood at their table with everyone else's back turned to them.


"I think we need two more chairs." Merrin said.


"Oh, you needn't bother yourself with that." The tall woman spared Merrin a glance before turning her eyes back to the Auroran man. "We're here for some information. You'll give it to us." She waved a hand. "And we'll go try to fix your mess."


Merrin took a deep breath and spoke in her most even tone. "I brought my crew here for the promise of assistance. And the guarantee of no violence."


"Of course." The short man agreed. "We know who tried to follow you here, and we're all fighting the same evil. Our resources are more than enough to keep you clear and safe."
She looked them up and down, taking in the sturdy cloth of their attire, and the gleaming pistols on their belts. "I think I believe you. We still need to discuss an arrangement before anything else." Regardless of how reasonable at least one of them seemed.


The woman laughed. "No, first we need to know for sure this information's good, and that we're not wasting time on this rock listening to a coward and a liar."


Her passenger spoke up. "My information is good, I swear it. I want to help."


The other man's pleasant expression slid off his face. "Help." He said. "You want to help."


Not good. His companion was grinning. Out of the corner of Merrin's eyes, she could see Thesa move her hand. She kept her own hands on the table, and the men kept their eyes locked on each other, calm brown meeting furious grey.


"I seem to remember asking for your help, once." The man bit off each word like they tasted foul. "To stop her. To save your crew. To help-" He took a few deep breaths, and spun on his heel. Thesa's arm came to a rest on her leg as the man continued, abruptly calm. "Calliope. If you would."


The woman, Calliope, tsked. She leaned on their table and said in a loud whisper, "And he's the one that talked me down before we got here. For shame."


"Calliope."


She tsked again. "Alright. Nobody's doing any shooting-" She raised an eyebrown at the spot of table above Thesa's gun- "So let's hear what you've got, and go from there." She pulled several sheets from a pouch, unfolding the maps and overlapping them. "What do you say?"


Merrin very much wanted to avoid anyone drawing their guns. "Alright." She said quietly. "Let's go over everything."


"Excellent." She glanced over her shoulder at the silver-haired man. "Love, why don't you take a breather. If we're both intimidating, things are going to get boring very quickly." He nodded and made for the exit.


"You'll have to excuse Alexander, usually he's quite the gentleman." She tapped the table. "Although I think he's being too generous, he means to let you leave here alive. I'm not so keen."


Thesa leaned forward, her spine a tense line and hands no longer in sight. "Stop threatening him. He made some bad choices, but he's a good man."


Calliope's eyes widened, and her tapping fingers found the gun at her hip. "Oh, dear. Captain Espira, how do you manage to keep fooling people into thinking you're decent?" The Auroran bowed his head.


Thesa scowled. "Because he is-."


"We know what happened at Hub Hallet." Merrin interjected. She pulled Thesa's arm onto the table. "We also know the difficult position that he was in there."


"Oh certainly, he was. But did you know he had a chance to put a stop to that madwoman, before he got there?"


Merrin couldn't help looking to Espira, and saw the look of regret etched into every line of his face.


"No, and that wasn't all you could have prevented, was it?" She bared her teeth at the Auroran captain as Alexander reached the door and slammed it behind him.


"You let Grimm die."