Here's my latest story. It's basically a reworking of Phantom, set in another world (but without elves, dwarves and other fantasy elements). The story will go through all the various places in the city, from the highest to the lowest. I hope you'll get the general idea of what this alternate reality looks like... or form your own idea from what I've given you here. Let me know if it works... and let me know what you think.


A Strange New World

Prologue

The Slums – Night

Down a quiet and dimly-lit street, a man sprinted, breathing heavy and hoarse and his feet loud on the dirty stone. His expensive clothes were in disarray, the sweat poured from his temples, but he was in no position to care. He reached the end of the street, and didn't stop to think about where to go next. He chose a direction and continued to run, aware of his pursuer who, like a monster in a nightmare, seemed to keep up no matter how fast he ran.

He made another turn, praying to lose the man in the darker alleyways. He came to regret the decision when, losing track of where he was, he came to a dead end, with no escape except over a high wall that no man could hope to climb.

He stood still, and heard the footsteps, calm and rhythmical, like the ticking of a clock. They drew closer. Frantic, the man clawed at the bare wall as if he hoped it would fall at his touch and let him through. He bloodied his hands against it until the footsteps reached him and he knew it was no use.

He turned, already fumbling in his pockets to make one last desperate bid for his life. But in the face of this… thing, dressed head to foot in black, with the black cowl pulled down to shadow his face… the unfortunate man felt as though he had come face to face with Death itself, somehow given flesh and life.

"Please…" he stuttered, painfully aware of his life slipping away. "Please… whatever they're paying you…. I'll double it…" There was no response from the dark, threatening figure before him. "I'll triple it!" he cried. "Anything you want! I'll pay it!"

"If you had money to give, I would not be here," said a terrifyingly calm voice from beneath the black hood.

"Please… I need more time!"

"That is not my concern. And besides… you have run out of time."

That was their final exchange. Before the desperate man could give voice to another plea a coil descended over his head and looped around his neck. It took less time to blink… and then the man was crumpling to the ground, cleanly and emotionlessly garrotted. The hooded figure, dressed head to toe in black, bent over the body and insensitively rifled through the pockets.

"I knew you were worth nothing," said the voice coldly. "Just like everyone else."

With disturbing ease he loosened the coil of rope from around the man's neck, leaving behind nothing but the red mark of the rope.

He turned and, without so much as a reflective glance, disappeared from the scene.


The Slums– Midday

A scorching sun hung in the sky, pouring its heat down on the poor people shuffling through the streets without mercy. With the heat and the crowds, there wasn't one person who didn't need to pause to wipe sweat from their forehead. Dust clung to the moisture on their skin and clothes were damp and dirty.

The slums of this great city were the home of the most decadent people to walk the earth. Every cut-throat and thief found their way there eventually, satisfying their corrupt needs in the brothels and shady taverns, concocting their dirty plans in the dark corners. Bets were made, innocence was taken, and deaths were arranged in that place, and the people dealt with it as best they could, each one simply trying to live their life as best, and as long, as they could.

A young girl picked her way through the crowd, as indiscernible from the rest as one might imagine. Her head and shoulders were covered by a dark, mud-coloured shawl to obscure her face. Her cream dress, covered in stains, was torn at the hem, which only came down to just below her knee, revealing pale, slender calves. He feet were enclosed in thin, worn shoes that were little better than scraps of cloth. But she moved quickly, accustomed to the feeling of sharp stones. Her two hands clutched the shawl around her neck. These were slender too… a little more so than was healthy, perhaps. A wisp of blonde hair escaped the shawl and was quickly tucked away again.

Eventually she reached a large wooden door, over which hung a swinging sign announcing the establishment as "The Dancing Herald Tavern". Pulling it open, she stepped into the tavern's front corridor, pausing to relish the coolness as she let the shawl fall down, releasing a blonde cascade of loose, unkempt ringlets. She wiped the film of moisture from her head, noticing that the parlour was crowded. Doubtless people were taking refuge from the blistering heat, although the sheer number of people amassing in such a small area really defeated the object. When the girl entered the parlour she felt suffocated by the overpowering combination of sweat, beer and pipe-smoke.

"Christine," said a voice from behind the wooden bar which stood against one wall. The young girl looked over and greeted the tapster, an ageing but still lively man covered in greying hair. "You're back early," he commented as she approached and brushed a hand through her knotted hair. He spat a lump of his disgusting chewing tobacco into the pot hidden behind the bar.

"Yes…" she said, bracing herself. "You look busy at the moment… does that mean that I'm needed?" she asked hopefully, plucking at the back of her shirt where the sweat had made it cling to the flesh.

The look on the man's sagging features told her the answer before he even opened his mouth and she slumped a little. "I'm sorry, Christine… you know I barely manage to give you the hours I do these days."

Nodding, the young girl begrudgingly conceded the point. It was only because of the man's generosity and friendship with her late father that she had been allowed to work there in the first place and have one of the rooms upstairs. She paid surprisingly little rent on it, but she received no money at all for the work she did either. It was an understanding they had… one that she was grateful for. She did work as and when she was needed, serving the customers their drinks, cleaning up and just generally helping in any way possible. It worked off a little of her guilt about leading this parasitical life-style.

"I'm sorry," he said again, and at least he looked as though he meant it.

"No, it's alright… I'll be fine," she said, waving the apology aside. The man had been good enough to her. How much more could she expect of him?

"How about some lunch? There's some broth in the kitchen… you can help yourself."

Christine smiled. She was not one to turn down a free meal. Thanking him sincerely, she stepped around the counter and went through the beaded curtain that led to the kitchen. There was a woman bent over a sink, scrubbing away, and another drying. Christine greeted them both politely and then went to the stove, serving a bowl of the hot soup that was bubbling away there and carving herself a slice of bread. She cleared a place on the long wooden table, which was as usual crowded with food and crockery, and sat down to eat.

She'd barely made it through her first mouthful of bread before a girl of her age came dashing down the servant's stairs with the swish of silk and the clink of jewellery.

"Hi Christine!" the girl said cheerfully, her pretty round face breaking into a smile. Christine waved back, continuing to chew on her bread. "What do you think?" The girl struck an elegant pose.

Christine swallowed her mouthful. "It doesn't leave much to the imagination, does it, Meg?"

Meg poked her tongue out and then laughed. "Apparently that's the idea… keeps the patrons happy." She shrugged gracefully and looked down at herself. "I just don't understand all this jewellery… it just makes a noise. It's very off-putting."

Christine smiled. Meg was the lead entertainment at the tavern. Nearly every day she was called upon to dance for the customers, and she was very much admired for her talent. She and Christine had been friends for nearly a year, ever since the young girl had started working there, and Christine was constantly grateful for her friend's bright and cheerful attitude to life. It was a breath of fresh air.

"When are you going on?"

"As soon as the minstrel gets tuned up," Meg said, making a face. Christine understood. The so-called "minstrel" was an ageing man who had trouble holding his guitar these days, never mind playing it. He had been excellent in his prime, but now his fingers were falling victim to arthritis and it wouldn't be long before he would have to lay the music aside.

"So how are you?" Meg asked "Is everything alright?"

Christine shrugged and mumbled an unconvincing "yes", which caused Meg to instantly sit down on the bench beside her.

"What's wrong? You look upset."

Nodding, Christine shrugged again. If Meg's word was anything to go by, she looked upset almost every second of the day. Well, she had good reason to, especially since she was going to have to go out again as soon as evening came and do her other job.

"I'm just worried," she said, then leaned close to her friend, lowering her voice so the other two women couldn't hear when she said: "I hate doing this, Meg. I've never felt so low and… wretched."

Meg's expression was sympathetic, but she didn't have the chance to say anything before the beaded curtain was pushed aside and she was called out to the front to begin her dance. Adjusting a piece of silk and making certain her black hair was all in place, she gave Christine's hand a small squeeze.

"I'll see you later, alright?"

"Yes… good luck," Christine replied, squeezing back and smiling half-heartedly. She watched Meg disappear, and couldn't help but smile when she heard the roar of approval from the people in the tavern. She finished eating quickly and made it to the front just in time to see the dance begin. In a swirl of silk Meg captivated her audience, and moved her body hypnotically to the music.

It was quite a sight, but Christine couldn't help but feel a little envious. Meg was always so care-free and, well… she just seemed to walk effortlessly through life. If only she could live like that… with no worries, and making her money doing something she loved rather than something that made her sick to her stomach.

After a while Christine turned and left with a heavy feeling in her chest.


The Dancing Herald Tavern

Even in the middle of her dance, Meg noticed her friend go, and didn't fail to see her saddened expression. Fixing her smile, she turned carefully on her feet.

She had been looking out for Christine for a while now, and noticed that recently she seemed to be struggling more and more to cope with a lifestyle that was almost completely in opposition to her gentle and caring nature. It was terrible to think of how her circumstances had brought her to this.

Meg often wished she could help out more than just by being a confidant and the occasional laugh. But she knew what Christine really needed. She was not by any means weak… a little naive perhaps… but more or less capable of surviving, even in this dark and miserable city. But the strain of fending for herself… dealing with the corrupt people she had to deal with… it was slowly building up, and Meg was worried one day she would snap under the strain.

What she needed was a man… someone to be her support. Up until 18 months ago it was her father who had been her corner-stone. She had been almost wholly dependant upon him, and then been flung into a harsh reality after his death.

And then she had gotten involved with him.

Meg had chastised her again and again for getting herself into that situation. But no amount of telling off was going to change the fact that this girl was in way over her pretty little head, and with no way to climb out of the hole she was digging deeper and deeper every day

One day, Meg was truly afraid there would be no way back for her friend.


The Lower City - Dusk

Christine had been wandering the streets around for a few hours before finally working up the nerve to make her way towards this part of the city. The crowds had dissipated a little, and she moved easily through them, keeping an eye on the sky as the light began to dim and the sky took on the colours of sunset. Now was the time when the wealthier men came down from the upper city to linger with the, well… the less respectable citizens.

She looked around at the people, trying not to really see them as human beings like her. Even though she hated thinking in this way, it made it easier to deal with them. They weren't people who had families and loved ones… they weren't real...

She walked forward, head down but her eyes up and looking out when, for no apparent reason, she tripped and fell. She would have hit the pavement were it not for a gentleman who had been close enough to catch her. He didn't appear too happy to have been bumped into, but set her back on her feet and asked her if she was alright.

"Yes," she trilled, a little flustered by the whole matter. "No harm done. I am sorry." The man, seemingly charmed by her looks and her sincere apology shook his head and said that no apology was necessary, but she should watch her step in the future. She gave him a smile and then, with another apology and a polite curtsy, went on her way until she was lost in the crowd once more.

The gentleman didn't realise until much later that his pocket-watch was missing.


A/N: Yep, Christine is a pickpocket. Don't worry, motivations and everything will be revealed as the story progresses... if people review, of course, hehe. Please enjoy!