Part 101: The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 7The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 7
While it was nice to have the store to ourselves while browsing, I did wish we had the benefit of more customers about to dilute Vrischika's predatory stare. Most store owners had that impatient look in their eyes, weighing you and wondering whether you were a customer or a loiterer. If you were alone with them you stood on a knife's edge, balancing between gushing and obsequious service or bitter asperity to get the hell out and make room for real patrons.
Vrischika reminded me of a spider, with that fang-toothed grin, squatting behind her counter and waiting for me to look like I'd been snagged by a piece of bait. And- yep sure enough, she swooped in just as I had shown some interest in an old tome.
It was a rather unassuming book held closed by a tiny brass lock. In a shop where shrunken heads, cat knuckles and aphrodisiacs brewed from gorgon musk were the norm, the plainness of the book really stood out.
"That," cooed Vrischika, "is the Codex of the Inconceivable. I'll only say that it's just... just... well, I can not explain it. Mere words simply won't suffice! You can own it yourself for a mere one thousand copper commons... and believe me: it is well worth it."
I nodded, but my attention was already shifting to a small, metal replica of a cube-like creature with huge eyes on one of its faces. The toy had two legs, two arms, two folding wings, and at least eighteen points of articulation. Vrishika smiled as I picked it up. "And that... is collector's item, perhaps, or a piece of artwork. Who knows? But I like it. If you do buy it, ask around... someone might know more about it than I. You can have it for only fifteen hundred copper coins."
"I'll take both."
We left quickly, before Vrischika could complain about Fall-From-Grace's "ta'nari stench."
I flipped through the tome as we made our way down to the street again. What first looked to be a rather unassuming book held closed by a tiny brass lock was, in actuality, bound in strange leathers and enchanted bronze. It was labeled simply: 'The Codex of the Inconceivable.'
I opened it... and began to read!
My jaw dropped at the tome's contents. I stood there, spellbound, devouring every word, each more riveting and amazing than the last. My eyes could barely move fast enough to keep up with my fingers, eager to flip to the next page. Its contents were simply too much to be described - mere words would be powerless to explain the wonders the Codex held.
"That was... that... I..."
Morte bobbed up next to me, "What? What? What was in it, chief?"
"Nothing that concerns you, Morte," I muttered dumbly.
"WHAT?! You've got to be kidding me, right? C'mon, lemme see it!"
I held up the Codex for him.
Morte floated over my shoulder to examine the Codex's contents. His eyes nearly popped from their sockets as they scanned the pages. "Ooo. Ooooooo. Oh, I... but... wow."
I stood thoughtfully for a moment, looking down at the Codex, before closing it and reverently putting the tome away.
The art gallery that Fall-From-Grace had recommended had an expected urbane simplicity to it. The walls were plain, the floor paved in a muted pattern of azure and bone-pale gray. Many of the art pieces moved or swayed or swirled with color, as if stirred by an unfelt current. Made me a bit dizzy, really.
A well-dressed, elderly woman in a gown of peach-colored and golden thread stood close to the entrance, hands folded primly over her belly. She nodded in my direction. It was then that I noticed that she had no pupils - her eyes were entirely white. There was a certain familiarity about her, the pointed features of her face and the way she held herself. "Greetings, sir. I am Yvana; welcome to my galleria. Feel free to look about, spending as much time here as you like; should you have questions regarding any of the pieces, do not hesitate to ask me of them."
"One moment, sir... your voice; it is heavy with age and wounds. Would you be so kind as to permit me to touch your face?"
I knelt down a little, "Yes, go ahead."
Yvana smiled, gently running her old hands over the skin of my face. She frowned, looking slightly puzzled. "So many scars... both old and new. They seem to..." She touched the side of my throat, flushed, then pulled away. "Pardon me, sir. I was curious to see how far they went."
"It's fine. And they're everywhere; my whole body is scarred. What is this place?"
"Why, it's my galleria of the Planes." She smiled and gestured around her. "These pieces have been brought from far and wide. Some I sell, some I keep - all I display, at one time or another. Please, enjoy them... and again, should you have questions regarding any of the pieces, do not hesitate to ask me of them."
"It takes someone special to appreciate art when they can't see it. If you don't mind me saying, Yvana."
"I believe she is blind by choice, and not by circumstance," Fall-From-Grace observed. She seemed pleased... it certainly was a whim that a Sensate would embrace.
Yvana nodded, smiling. "Your friend is quite correct, sir... I cannot see, but only because I do not wish to. In time, I will allow my vision to return so that I can re-experience the contents of my galleria with the benefit of new, fresh eyes."
"You look familiar to me... do you know someone named Yves?"
"That is my daughter." For a moment, there was a hint of sadness in the milky whiteness of her eyes. "We no longer speak to one another."
"Why is that?"
"There is nothing to be said between us. She has gone off in pursuit of stories... all for reasons I am unaware of."
"She told me a tale that might answer that question..."
Yvana raised her eyebrows. "Oh? Tell me, would you please? I'd most appreciate it, sir..."
I told her the Tale-Chaser's story, and of her endless quest for the tale that held the truth she sought.
Yvana nodded slowly. "I... had no idea. I will see her, now. I thank you, good sir, for bringing me this news of my only daughter." As she spoke, color slowly bled into her pale irises until her eyes were a brilliant shade of green.
"Your eyes... can you see now, Yvana?"
She nodded, smiling, and her skirts swished as she left.
Art galleries have a habit of attracting the worst pretenders, who make a habit of studying art for the sake of pomp. I found myself becoming one of them, crossing my arms and tapping my lips and trying to act as if I knew what to look for.
The abstract paintings weren't nearly as interesting as the sculptures. A ruby statuette... a battle-horn that begged to be blown. Whoever came up with the old apothegm of "feel with your eyes, not with your hands" had obviously never met a (former) Sensate.
I didn't leave a single painting or statue unmolested, and I had been beginning to do the same with the sculptures and other oddities when I came across the Dark Birds of Ocanthus.
It was composed of several shards of black crystal - or ice - swirling within the freezing wind that the ornate pedestal gave forth. Each shard looked razor sharp; touching or grabbing one was perilous, but curiosity got the better of me.
As I reached out to grab one of the whirling shards, my fingers entered the icy wind that rose from the pedestal. Instantly, a coat of numbing frost formed around them, and I momentarily drew back.
I took it as a challenge.
With a determined grunt I thrust my hand into the frigid, numbing wind. Unbeknownst to me, my entire hand froze solid as I wrapped it around one of the Dark Birds. As another of the black shards spun into my fist, my hand broke off at the wrist with a sharp crack and went clattering across the galleria floor.
My jaw dropped as I stared dumbly at the clean plane of my wrist squirting blood over the floor. As soon as I recovered, I picked up my frost-covered fist and stuck it back onto the bleeding stump. The Dark Bird I grabbed - a razor-sharp shard of black ice - had already melted away to nothing. It looked like I'd have to catch it in something that would keep it cold.
Eventually, warmth and feeling returned to my hand as my tissues thawed and regenerated.
"Hope no one saw that," I muttered under my breath, walking away swiftly.
"Oh I did," Morte sniggered. If he went jabbering to Yvana...
I stopped in my tracks.
The portrait hung from the wall of a dark, hidden-away corner of the gallery. Her face framed with shadows and thorny vines, the grotesque, hook-nosed old crone stared out at me as if from a window. Her flesh was a sickly blue-gray color; her eyes glowed red like the embers of a dying fire. Her chin, long and sharp, jutted forward in an extreme under-bite; two yellowed canines protruded upwards from her lower jaw, like small tusks. The smile upon her withered, purplish lips spoke of horrible secrets.
I was able to tear my gaze away just long enough to look at the placard. 'Gray Hag of Oinos.'
"You dream again! Again!"
A chill ran up my spine, and even Morte was suddenly silent. That crude, reptilian part of my brain was screaming to get away.
As I began to turn away from the painting, the shadows shifted in the corner of my eye. My eyes darted back to the portrait, mouth dry, skin pebbled with a deep and terrifying chill. That, tingling sensation arose in the back of my mind like a building sneeze...
A distant creak echoes down the hall, a sound of old wood bending and plants pushed and urged into growth. Everything in this maze of briars and thorns is wreathed in a muted unreality, neither alive nor dead. It had all the substance of a vivid dream, and the barbs of a nightmare.
The hideous old crone sqauts before me, hair as frayed and tangled as moss, skin as gray a corpse's. She cackles, a sound like daggers being flung down the halls, and the halls sing back. She is sheathed in screams and nightmares, doted on by the blood-fed roots she tends, the dark mother of her domain. The musk of rotting earth and mildew hangs around her like an old cloak.
"My poor, dear, lovely man-thing!" she croons. Her voice warps even as she speaks, twisting and snapping to match the distant creak of the maze's changing paths, "Why, that was your first wish!"
The hag raises her hand and points a single bony, clawed finger at my forehead, and the pain throbbing at my temples sends me into a fit of screams...
It was times like this that seemed to explain why I wore a kilt... if I hadn't gotten used to this sort of thing already I would've gone through so many pairs of knickers long ago.
Yvana returned in a swishing of skirts and a pleased smile on her face, content at being reconciled with her daughter at last. I had been waiting for a good hour, far too long if I wanted to keep Annah from getting into trouble out of boredom. "Greetings, again. Do you have questions regarding one of the pieces?"
"Yes, I do..."
"Oh? Which one? One of the paintings?"
"Yes, one of the paintings... 'Gray Hag of Oinos.'"
Her smile faded a bit, and her voice was level when she spoke. I hoped it was just her professionalism as a curator shining through, "This is said to be a portrait of Ravel Puzzlewell, very likely the most evil hag ever to have terrorized the Gray Waste and beyond."
"What do you know of Ravel Puzzlewell?"
"She is a night hag, one of the eldest Gray Sisters of the Wastes, who came to Sigil many centuries ago to pursue arcane experiments. It was believed that these experiments were against the Lady's will, and that Ravel was thus banished from Sigil, imprisoned within one of the Lady's mazes on the ethereal where her body rests to this very day..."
"Ravel was said to have been a master of riddles and puzzles, but it was believed that one riddle - one question in particular - was said to have plagued the ancient night hag: 'What can change the nature of a man?'"
The question batted around in my mind, tickled something at the back of my brain, then faded.
"She issued a challenge to any who were interested: She promised to instruct any who came to her in her craft... if they could only answer the question to her satisfaction. If they could not, they consented to be her next meal. Many died coveting Ravel's teachings, and it is believed that until her final hours in Sigil, Ravel never discovered the answer to her question.
"Ravel's crime was believed to be some means of trying to shatter the Cage, trying to crack open Sigil itself for some unknown reason." Yvana sighed. "This is all I know of her."
The Hive was just as smelly as before, moreso now that I wasn't bathed in the stench of it all hours of the day. It took a little practice, but soon I was filtering the air with my teeth again in order to breathe without tasting the foulness in the air.
With some new tattoos from Fell's shop we made our way back to the Clerk's Ward.
A plump, white-haired old man waved at me from down the block, the bright green of his clothes made him stand out like an oasis in a desert.
Mourns-For-Trees smiled widely upon seeing us. "Ah, my friend; you've returned! And doing well, by the looks of it!"
I smiled, "Annah, Grace, this is Mourns. The one I told you about, with the caring and the trees."
Fall-From-Grace bowed her head politely, "It is good to meet you at last, Master Mourns, though I suppose you may be considering a new name soon."
He chuckled, "No, no, my lady. I am much too old to change... all I have to offer is dusty old words of advice to pretty young ones like you."
Annah seemed slightly distracted. It must've been strange for her to return to the Hive... she'd clearly outgrown it like it was an old pair of shoes, and the Clerk's ward didn't quite fit just yet either. A little time and maybe it would've broken in enough for her.
"So how are the trees doing, Mourns?"
He clapped his hands together happily, "Oh well enough, lad, well enough! It's a bit slow but I can't complain... especially since it's all thanks to you. Look! New buds here and here, and the leaves are flourishing. Even the air seems a little cleaner now."
I smiled, "Annah, could you help too?"
She blinked, "What? Yeh can't be serious, now!"
"I am, Annah. I'd be grateful if you could just see to give them a fair thought or two... as a favor to me, if for no other reason."
Her smirk at last gave way to a smile. "Ah, ta Baator with it! If yeh're so soddin' caught up in it all, why not? Sure, I'll 'care' about yer trees, cutter. But yeh owe me for me time, yeh do!"
"Thanks. Grace, would you consider it?"
Grace nodded. "Certainly. I think that is an excellent idea."
Silently we waited beneath the branches of the trees. The shade seemed cooler, as if the foliage had thickened to block more light. The burned sulfur smell that permeated the ward was still there, but it was muted somewhat, and the slightest of sweet nectar scents trickled through in a perfumed undercurrent.
And there it was. One of the first buds was beginning to bloom. Slowly, with the warmth of a cupped hand, the outer leaves began to peel back, revealing a steadily growing edge of pink.
And then the air began to grow hot... uncomfortably, terrifyingly hot.
"Yesss..." he hissed.
Gouts of flame flooded from his charred teeth, "Buuuurn..."
"Stop this, Ignus! You will stop this right now!"
Mourns-For-Trees stared on in horror as he realized what was about to occur. Suddenly, he leapt into action, thrusting himself between Ignus and the trees: "No! Stop! You can't!"
"Oh! I can't watch!" Morte wailed, turning away.
Ignus laughed horribly; flame erupted from his throat. "You ssstand between me and thing that burnsss? Youuu, tooo, will burnnnn..."
My scream was just a whisper next to the roaring of flames, the thunderous shriek of Ignus' victory. In an instant the rolling fires washed over Mourns-For-Trees like a thousand crimson tongues lapping hungrily at his flesh. The flames drowned out his screams, poured into his lungs when he tried desperately to breathe, searing him inside and out. The savory scent of cooking meat and smoldering grease filled the air even as the waves of heat washed away both the sweetness of the trees' blossoms and the stench of the Hive.
But that poor, sad heap of smoldering meat wasn't his target.
Sap hissed into steam in an instant, and the veins of the plants burst: leaves shriveling, bark being swept away in a cloud of white ash and crimson embers. The waves of flame stripped away the thick green covering of the bud, and for an instant the naked pink cone of folded petals looked like they were about to bloom... but it was only the heat peeling back the delicate folds, like an old scab or a snakeskin flaking away.
When it was over the ward was eerily silent... everyone else had fled. There was only the crackle of dying embers, and Annah's soft whimpers as she knelt over the corpse of the kindly old man. Grace murmured a prayer.
And that was all.
None of us wanted to be alone. Dak'kon sat in meditation, Grace sat on the couch trying to contemplate a single rose. Annah sat in a corner, in the shadow of one of the pillars. She always seemed more comfortable there. Ignus himself had been banished to the balcony for now... and until I could figure out what to do with him, he'd have to stay there.
Clearly he was too dangerous to let loose, and too insane to keep around. But if we tried to kill him... well, with his power one of us would surely die, and I wasn't confident I could call back anyone from the dead with what he could do. Ignus' power seared someone deeper than bone, left burns on the soul...
But for now, I had other battles on my mind.
The small metal toy I held in my hands was the Modron Cube I bought from Vrischika, a replica of a cube-like creature with huge eyes on one of its faces. The toy had two legs, two arms, two folding wings, and at least eighteen points of articulation. Maybe it was a collector's item. Not in its original packaging, so it was certainly free for play.
I moved the arms and made sword-fighting noises. Swoosh, whish, k-ching.
The toy clicked and whirred as I moved its clockwork joints. Within moments, the tiny cube had vanquished every imaginary opponent I had sent against it, and settled back to its normal position.
I waved its arms and made cheering noises. Raaaaaah. Raaaaaaaah.
Hordes of imaginary creatures from across the Planes cheered the cube's victory. I could almost see a tiny oily tear brimming on one of its eyes... it was a hero, the greatest cube ever to roam the Planes, and everyone loved it. In my mind, Fall-from-Grace and Annah hugged it and showered it with kisses.
I sighed, and tucked it quietly on my lap to rest for future battles against the multiverse.
Morte stared at me and shook his head.
"What's that, cube hero? 'Morte's a stupid skull?' Why, yes he is, isn't he, cube hero?"
Morte sputtered, "Hey! It didn't say that!"
"Yes, it did! It said it just now!"
"Wh --?! Gimme that thing!"
I held the Modron Cube away from him, "No, it's mine. He only wants to hang out with me anyway. Don't you, cube hero? Yes, you do!"
"I. Just. Want. To. Hold. It. For. A. Second."
I grinned, "But you don't have any hands."
"I'll hold it in my TEETH."
"No, I think I'll just put it away for now," I said, sticking out my tongue.
"I'm gonna smash that modron cube to bits," Morte grumbled under his breath.
"Did you hear anything, cube hero? Neither did I!"
I was fiddling with it for just a bit longer, before I had to put it away, when upon bending the left knee there was an odd pop! and the toy shuddered in my hands.
I toyed with it some more.
The wrong movements would reset the limbs to their original positions, but one by one I worked out the correct sequence of manipulations. First there was the knee.
I extended the left wing, and the toy made a soft whirring sound.
I extended the right wing, and the toy hmmmmed slightly, growing warm to the touch.
I rotated the right arm. There was a whirrrr, a click, then a blinding white light suddenly exploded in my hands...
Oh what fresh hell is this?