Part 123: Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 1Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 1
Dry clay cracked beneath my boots, the land mummified and brittle like an old scab. The air carried a coppery scent, like tarnished metal. Now and again my scars tugged at me: the arid clime was drying out my skin, shrinking it so that the crisscrossed mesh of puckered flesh shrank back, tugging against me tight like a net. A figure in brown linen flickered in the corner of my eye, tugging a scarf tight to keep the dust from his nose and mouth. Aside from that and the scattered pockets of civilians whispering among themselves, the streets were mostly barren.
The silence unnerved me. Sigil was a bustling metropolis, and Ravel's maze a labyrinth of singing vines and crooning plants. The starkness of Curst was jarring, and every scratch or creak of a dooor had me on edge. It was a city of traitors, and I could feel the knives pointed at my back already.
A two-legged, green-scaled bird pecked at a tuft of grass and a chirp sounded from its throat.
"Trichas," Morte said, and that was all. Whether they were wild critters or livestock I didn't know.
"Hey you!" a gravelly voice cried out, "Where the blazing Hells did you come from? Don't you know there's a lockdown?"
"What can you tell me about this place?" I asked.
"We're under lockdown right now because of the plague. Don't know what's causing it, but we're quarantining sections of the town 'til we find out. You want something else?"
"Well... I AM looking for a deva."
The guard scoffed, "Then you're looking at the wrong end of the Great Ring, berk, because even if there were one here, you'd not be finding it. It'd be locked away like a miser's gold."
Annah was standing beside me, and with the barest movement she nudged the side of my boot with hers. For a moment I almost checked my coin pouch, when it hit me. In a town like this, you keep a span away from anyone who looks at you, and give twice as much space for the guards. Who knows what they would do?
Muffled noise from one of the alleys we walked past confirmed Annah's suspicions.
"Where'd you hide it, Jansen?"
The dull crack of flesh sounded in my ears.
"Just tell us!" another guard snarled.
"I can't!" Jansen wailed.
One of the guards spotted me, and he paused long enough in administering the beating to give me a cold stare, "You didn't see nothing, not if you know what's good for you." He turned back to his victim.
I knew I was going to regret it, but I turned away. I asked a few more seeking out the deva, but most were... less than helpful. Going at it alone wasn't going to work.
Conjure up the smell of bilgewater and mildew, of rags rank with both yet using them for scrubbing glasses so filthy it's still an improvement. Imagine the dozens of black-rimmed eyes flickering upon you for half an instant, so quick that you barely realize it'd been done and you wonder what's going on behind that feigned disinterest. See yourself counting out exact change, because you know the coin you'd recieve in return otherwise would've in all likelihood been nestled between the scabby breasts of a pox-ridden whore recently.
That's luxury compared to the Traitor's Gate Tavern.
I sat down at the bar. The cushion of the stool was so worn that I might as well have been sitting on bare wood with a crusty leather sack layered over it.
"Carceri whisky, please," and for once I was glad for the coarse grumble in my voice. It scared off most of the rats. Note that I said 'most.'
"Oi, boss," a hooded man greeted me. His robes were stiff with sweat and grime. A mold-black tongue flicked out over teeth as yellow as butter, "Ye look like ye had a tussle. Need a rest, boss?" His hand was already sliding beneath his robe.
"Don't worry about me. The other guy looked much worse by the end."
And in a flash he was gone.
I looked back to the barkeep as he grunted, a shotglass full of some reddish spirit. I tossed it down with a grimace... it was as spicy as anything I'd ever tasted before. It was only later that I learned the whiskey here was distilled from fermented Carceri rust-peppers.
"Looks like you can hold your own in more than one way, berk," he said with a curl of his lip, "You looking for work?"
I scrubbed my tongue against my teeth, the heat of the drink still on my lips, "I'm already burning the candle at both ends. I will in a an hour or two, at least."
He chuckled, a haggard and grim man. His coarse face was lined and weathered, and his eyes were red-rimmed. "Welcome to the Traitor's Gate. I'm Tainted Barse, the innkeep."
I caught the strain in his voice, "What's wrong?"
"What's wrong is that my daughter got herself kidnapped by slavers, and now the place is going to fall behind on its bills and I'm going to lose the place to one of those rich pikers in the first circle." He looked at me more closely. "You're the fellow asking about the deva, ain't you? Tell you what. You help me out, I'll help you."
I blinked. "What do you know about the deva?"
He smiled craftily. "You're looking for him, ain't you? I can tell you that he's hidden far beneath the prison. I can tell you how to get there, too, apart from being arrested or trying to bribe your way in - which wouldn't work anyway."
"What do I have to do for this?"
"Go over there and talk to Marquez. He's the ex-Harmonium fellow. He knows about these slavers - and he holds the first part of the key that'll put you on the path of seein' the deva. There are five parts to the Key, but it ain't a physical key. When you've got the parts together, you come tell me - and it unlocks knowledge in my mind. 'Til then, though, it stays secret. You got to satisfy the keyholders."
"Why was the deva imprisoned?"
He looked at me closely to see if I was joking with him. "I told you they discovered him buried in the earth, right? That means I have no idea how he got down there. I wish I was powerful enough to trap a deva. That'd be some power worth havin'."
I gave a wry nod. "Seems like such a friendly town, though. Still, doesn't seem like the folk here are the type to be capable of offering a deva that sort of... hospitality."
Tainted Barse shook his head, but he seemed to agree. "What this place is, more than anything, is a hotbed of rumors and innuendo. No one trusts no one. Y'don't do favors for someone without makin' sure they're in your debt. Everyone hates everyone else, and everyone's looking for a hold to get on everyone. Someone like you... you're a ripe target of opportunity for people, because you don't know the politics. And I guarantee you'll be sucked in."
I grunted, "What's with the town being so abandoned?"
"Heh. Troubles a-plenty, as always. First, they keep digging holes in the ground to make the prison bigger - and they discover this deva, wrapped up in a big obsidian bubble, chained to the floor. They take his sword and use its power to keep the criminals in their cages. They're busy debating what to do about the celestial, tearing their hair out trying to figure out how they can make a profit off its discovery and cross their 'friends'... and then the plague hits."
"That's right. Something that lays folks low. Makes people all ornery and bad-tempered - and too weak to do anything about it. The guards've closed off portions of the town, and they're all tight-wound. They'll take you into jail on the slightest pretext these days. I don't know how you got in to town, but you ain't getting out unless you find a portal." He scrubbed a glass impatiently, his hand so tight on the rag that it squeezed out a bit of the drippings. Green-brown water trickled down the inside of the glass, "Ye'd best talk to Marquez, cutter."
"Will do," I nodded. It was as much eagerness to get started as it was the need to get away from the nauseating sight.
Marquez was a burly blond man wearing the armor of a Harmonium officer. His face was rosy with drink, and behind his smile, his eyes were filled with bitterness. He launched into speech without preamble. "Here's the deal. Slavers have kidnapped Barse's daughter. It's your job to get them back. I'll tell you where to find them; you go kill them and report back to me, and I'll help you find the deva you're looking for. I'll even teach you weapons. Agreed?"
"I have a few questions about this, first..."
"A few questions? No. There are only two possible answers. Are you for slavery, or against it?"
"I'm against it." I could hear Dak'kon's karach blade sharpening at those words, and even standing still and silent his thoughts seemed to cut the air.
"Then you'll help, right? Yes... or no."
I looked him up and down, the red-laquered armor making his allegiances clear, "Who are you?"
"I'm Marquez, formerly a Measure Three of the Harmonium. Formerly, I said, because I quit not so long ago."
"Why? What's your stake in this slavery thing, anyway?"
"I found out that the Harmonium - a group I'd believed in from the start - was buying people, kidnapping them, taking them against their will and ruining their lives. It was sucking the life out of people for daring to be different, and I couldn't take it anymore. The slavers you'll be fighting are old comrades of mine." He spat on the floor. "Berks. Liars. You can't trust anyone anymore."
There was no lack of alleys in Curst... the buildings squatted next to one another as if they were themselves too suspicious to get closer, to wary of one another to be further apart. Most were set up on the fringe of the town like a man keeping his back to the wall so that no one could plant a dagger in it. In this way suspicion bred suspicion, as the filthy crevices that were formed were rife with the detritus of humanity.
The Harmonium in Sigil weren't exactly the most friendly of factions, but even in the seediest corners of the city I could trust that they, at least, would uphold the law.
Two of the soldiers held the girl, a slip of a woman in a torn dress. Tears bled the makeup onto her cheeks, and her face was wet with weeping. She looked up and gazed at me with red-rimmed eyes, "Please... please... save me from these men..."
The girl's voice was so quiet, so broken.
A Harmonium officer, older and more scar-faced than the rest, caught me staring. He was dressed in his ceremonial armor, and the fact that he was in charge of the slavers made it all the more obscene. "What do you want?"
My eyes narrowed. "What are you doing here?"
He grinned, "Hardly the appropriate way to greet a Measure Two Harmonium officer. Skatch be the name, and my men and I are gathering recruits to teach them about right and wrong. As you can see, they're not always willing... but we'll make them see the light eventually." His voice had an unctuous tone to it, almost soothing, "You'll make a good recruit, I imagine."
"I'm not interested."
"That's too bad." He gestured to his men. "Ignore the girl. Take him."
The power of the Art was boiling in my veins before I knew it, a moderately-difficult twist of fate that I could best be described as a karmic inversion. Balance in All Things, as Dak'kon so often intoned, a spell that had been scribed in the Circle of Zerthimon itself. It was useful, if limited for a githzerai. But for an immortal the effect had few downsides.
The Harmonium rushed me, axes swinging, spears stabbing. A polearm's pierced edge impaled me, and I felt the blade tear through my belly and rupture my organs. My stomach clenched, the fluids gushed deep inside. Just as I coughed and tasted the blood on my lips I could see the Harmonium officers around me doubling over with gurgling screams, the same wound appearing on each of their bodies. Those that didn't double over in agony let the momentum of their attacks carry them, and an axe smashed down my shoulder, shattering my clavicle and leaving a deep furrow from back to chest. Another spear, catching me lower, in the kidneys, as the soldier doubled over in pain.
Those three wounds were enough to kill the less seasoned slavers, leaving only Skatch on his knees, blood spilling from his mouth.
"What the Hells are you?!" he gurgled.
I said nothing, too busy tugging the spears from my guts to bother answering. I snarled as I twisted the one higher up... damn thing had a head that caught between two ribs.
Unable to attack me Skatch twisted around, lunging desperately at the girl, his knife drawn. It was the flailing of a bitter man bent on destroying what he couldn't have.
Karach rang against armor and bone, and Skatch's head fell to the ground. His body swayed and fell over it, blood still spurting from the stump of his neck. Dak'kon's eyes were cold as he wiped his blade. He had no love for slavers.
This woman could only stare at us. "You've saved me... thank you so much! I would be dead or worse without you..." She opened her arms and moved to embrace me.
My wounds were already beginning to knit shut, but I grunted as she she squeezed tightly; her cheek, wet with tears, pressed against my chest. After a time, she stepped back and looked up at me, smiling. "I must leave... but let me say 'thank you.' I shall not forget your kindness. Farewell, traveler."
Annah rolled her eyes and gave a sour "Hpmh."
I nodded simply, spitting out a wad of blood and saliva, sucking the iron tang of it from my tongue before spitting again.
She flinched slightly, and gently stepped over the bodies. She gave a slightly distraught, nervous smile. "Uh... farewell, stranger, and thank you. I... I shall not forget your kindness."
"Sure. Farewell," I grunted.