Part 128: Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 5Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 5
They say there are two great forces in life that make the multiverse go 'round: love, with all its devoted, enveloping pleasures; and hate, the all-consuming obsession. A good philosopher could give a good argument that all action in life is built around one of these two forces in some way. Creation and Destruction. Life and Death. Ying and Yang. Eros and Thanatos. Personally, I think there's a third option that cleaves between the two.
Cold, directed purpose.
I mean, let's have an earnest coversation here. Even with my feelings for Annah at one side and Morte's jabbering on the other, the axis becomes less of a principle of contemplation and more like something you grab at a moment's need so you can impale a critter with the pointy end (probably the "hate" part of it). It isn't love that I feel when the resonance of the multiverse is flowing through me, nor is it hate that causes me to turn a trelon into a bubbling smear spread across ten square feet of masonry. It's just the annoying fact that I need to get from point A to point B and these damn things are blocking my view of the destination.
Though if we're on the subject of trelons, might as well say this:
I hate these things.
Trelons are more claw and fang than they are flesh, come at you in swarms, and their only two forelimbs end in giant claws. Punching one is like swinging into a sack of razors. How do these things even mate? Their existence is either one of lifetime chastity or a brutally kinky cycle of murder-suicide.
The blasts had broken the horde's charge and softened them up, and I simply ran into the fray while Nordom unloaded his seemingly endless supply of bolts into their flesh. Dak'kon and Annah tried to help, and for a moment I was worried my screaming would've made them more eager to leap into the orgy of blood and rending flesh. Once they were able to parse out my words through the wet gushing sounds, however, they reluctantly stayed behind. Morte was unusually obedient in this regard.
I couldn't regenerate as fast as they could hurt me, but like many melee battles I was engaged in it was one of attrition.
"Ow..." I grunted, sitting on a trelon corpse and waiting for my wounds to knit shut. We were far from any safe haven, with no immediate place to rest. We needed to ration our resources, and that meant hoarding our magic, from my force blasts to Grace's healing.
It made for slower going since I had to sit down and take a long breather each time we encountered trouble, but ironically charging into a storm of teeth and claws was the safer alternative. Immortality has a terrible way of changing the mechanics of war.
Of course, this didn't mean we were wasting time while I was waiting for my sinews to reconnect.
"Annah, could you go scout out the area?"
She gave a proud nod as if eager to put her unique skills to good use, and immediately vanished around the corner. Even knowing she was just around the bend I had to strain to hear the slightest padding of her soft leather boots.
I had to admit that I was nervous for the first ten minutes or so. If she'd been spotted and hurt because I'd ordered her out I didn't think I would be able to forgive myself. But an hour of nail-biting and foot-tapping later, I felt a tap on my shoulder and glanced up at Annah. My wounds had mostly healed over by then.
"Find anything interesting?"
"Monsters a-plenty," she replied, biting one lip, "Nasty collections o' demons to tha north. Big flabby things a-quiverin' like jelly, an' a horde o' creatures round as they're tall, wit flesh pebbled like stone. One o' the big winged ones might've caught me scent, looked like an abishai's great-uncle he did."
"Lemures and Nupperibos, chief. Foot soldiers of the baatezu."
"And a cornugon, if we extrapolate to guess what the winged creature might be. Strange," Grace murmured, "That here we encounter the forces of law and evil in such numbers. Particularly odd to see a cornugon so far from the schemes of Baator. And Dona Quisho had summoned a glabrezu, a demon of mindless chaos."
"What do you think it means, Grace?" I asked.
She shook her head, "The schemes of the baatezu require careful reading and study of their strategies, something difficult given our lack of information and time to pursue the matter. Needless to say Curst hides more in its heart than any would let on."
"Save perhaps the deva," Dak'kon intoned, "If it is his knowing that we must seek for your sake, we may probe his knowing of this city as well."
"Aye, but there be some people down 'ere as well. One southwards, th' other far west. I donnae know how they've avoided the nasties, or if they be friend or foe."
"Hmm. What did they look like?"
"T'chah. One's a hermit. Th' other's... well, let's settle on the fact that he's donated ta a greater cause, aye?"
"You've done splendidly, Annah." I pondered for a moment. I knew full well the extent of my power. Dak'kons tutelage and emphasis on knowing oneself had served me well. I'd perused plenty of books about the variety of planar creatures in the libraries of the Great Foundry. Nupperibos and Lemures were minor concerns. An abishai wouldn't live much longer than a pack of trelons, if that. A cornugon... well, that one would be troublesome. Doable, but troublesome. They were cautious schemers, however, and wouldn't engage in combat against an unknown foe unless they were sure they had planned out a solid strategy beforehand.
Might as well get that out of the way first.
Dealing with the Baatorian hordes was a minor matter. It was no small amount of energy I expended with that, but sometimes you just have to send a message.
If the cornugon was angry at me for slaying his mindless underlings, he certainly didn't show it. The power baatezu sought came from the mastery of their anger, after all. It was vaguely humanoid, covered with grotesque scales, with huge wings folded to make him look smaller than he was. A long, prehensile tail slid along the floor with a sinuous, rhythmic motion, and keen eyes watched me approach with amusement.
It barked out a laugh and smiled at me. "Yes... greetings to you, little human."
"Who are you?"
"My name is not important. If there were a reason for you to know me, you would. If you need to attach a name to me, you may call me Tek'elach." The creature smiled.
"I've been told that you're a cornugon. A greater baatezu."
Tek'elach glanced at Grace, the flesh of its maw curling into a partial sneer. Those sinister eyes twinkled then, and sniffing the air it shifted its gaze to Morte. If he had a colon, Morte may have just emptied them. "Yes... does this surprise you?" Tek'elach looked at me expectantly.
Something was definitely up here. You don't see lords and barons mucking about in the caves beneath a planar backwater, "I just don't see why you'd be here. Aren't you supposed to be fighting some Blood War or something back home?"
It frowned. "Yes... there is the Blood War. But, that is far away for now and need not be spoken of..."
"For no other reason than I choose not to... for now." It glared.
"Then what are you doing here?"
"My business here is my own; I don't see it as a concern or yours." It smiled knowingly at me. "I suggest you change the subject."
"I don't understand, why the secrecy? You give me the impression that something else is going on here."
Tek'elach looked at me with mock surprise. "Do I? Or do you choose to interpret my words or actions to suit your own needs? Either way, I have answered your question. I will speak no more on this matter."
"Then what can you tell me about the city of Curst?"
It frowned and gave serious thought to my question. "It is a forsaken place... a place of betrayal and chaos... a city balanced on the edge or disaster. Travel wisely within its borders."
"Balanced on the edge of disaster?"
It sighed and looked away. "This is a border town, little human. On one side, are the outlands. On the other, is the plane of Carceri. So long as the status quo in Curst remains balanced, this will continue to be a border town." It paused for effect.
"I've heard as much. Go on."
"If things get out of hand in the city, it could slide into Carceri and become one with the plane. Impose too much order, and it ceases to be a border town by sliding into the Outlands." It shrugged. "That is the way of such places."
My eyebrows furrowed. I'd heard of such before, and seeing the planes had strained my sanity time and again. But for an entire city to move was hard to believe. "You're saying the city could actually be... displaced?"
A mock smile curled on Tek'elach's maw. "Yes..."
"If that were to happen, what could be done about it?"
It shrugged. "Determine which way the city has slid and apply an opposing force. Too much order? Instigate some chaos. Too little order? Impose more law. If you were persistent in your efforts you could pull the city back to its border status... or slide it to the opposite side."
It smiled again. Tek'elach certainly seemed amused, and I was certain I wasn't going to like the reason for it. "You've been very helpful... Which brings up another question... Why?"
It gave me a confused look. "Why what?"
"You baatezu are supposed to be the incarnations of evil. So why are you being so helpful?"
It barked out a laugh. "Do not mistake my help as kindness, nor me as anything other than evil. I am helping you because it serves my needs... nothing more."
"How does helping me serve your needs?"
For a moment I stared him down, through eyes black as sin and bone-yellow teeth of a jagged grin. No, I didn't have time for this. I had other things to do.
Voorsha was a rat-faced, middle aged man in shoddy clothes. One hand rested on his dagger, the other fiddled with his collar. He hadn't expected to see anyone else down here, and wariness warred with relief until we made introductions. After that, what sparked in his eyes was opportunity.
"What are you doing here?"
He stared at me blankly then shrugged. "I'm a... trader. This is my storage area."
I looked around. A still, some goods covered with a tarp... it certainly wasn't hard to figure out what was going on. "What do you store here?"
"I don't see that that's any concern of yours."
"I'm just curious..."
He shrugged. "Well..." He gestured vaguely. "Ale, mead, and... other goods."
"What are you so nervous about?"
Voorsha began to fidget. "Nothing... Can we change the subject?"
"No, I think you're up to something and I want to know what."
He glared at me then sighed. "I'm... bringing the stuff in through... alternate channels. The guards don't know..."
This guy was either a great sneak or very good at bribing, because he as hell was a terrible liar. "You're a smuggler."
He frowned. "I'm a bootlegger. Sounds better than smuggler, don't you think? Say... how'd you like to help me out... for a piece of the business?"
"What kind of help?"
"Well recently there's been an unusual amount of... activity down here. Loads of trelons swarming in, this stink of sulfur that wasn't here before. I think I even saw a few fiends through one of the deeper tunnels. Mostly they keep to themselves but... there's a gehreleth nearby. It's been trying to kill me and that makes it hard to get my stuff out. I need someone to take care of it."
I blinked, "What's a gehreleth?"
He shrugged. "It's just some dumb creature intent on eating everything it sees..."
"Why don't you deal with it yourself?"
"I'm not a warrior, it would kill me outright." He glanced at my scars. "Anyone who can survive what you obviously have should be able to deal with it."
"What do I get if I take care of it for you?"
He smiled. "I can use a partner. Business is good and I can't distribute everything by myself. We'll split the profits down the middle. What do you say?"
"Sure, why not."
His smile broadened. "Great. Anything else?"
"I'm looking for a deva. I've heard he's in Curst."
Voorsha frowned. " A deva... I've heard rumors..."
He shrugged and looked away. "Some digging was going on down here to expand the prison. Word is they broke into an unknown chamber by accident..." He turned back to me. "Found something or someone there, imprisoned. Some say it was a deva that was found. Others say if was baatezu, and others say it was a tanar'ri. Don't care myself. Whatever it is, I intend to stay away from it."
"Where is this chamber?"
"I have no idea. Keep poking around down here and you're likely to find it... not that that would be a good thing, mind you."
The gehreleth was a tall, slender creature with long arms and an elongated head. Several fangs protruded from its oversized mouth and its fingers ended in long claws. It gazed at us steadily as we approached.
Nasty as it was, the creature was in no hurry. It leaned forward and sniffed me, then reached out with a clawed hand and pinched my shoulder. It licked its lips. "Ye're a little tough, but may be tasty none the less."
"I have some questions "
Its mouth split into a toothy grin. "Conversation before dining is fine. What do ye want to know?"
"You're going to eat me?"
Its smile grew even larger. "Aye, as soon as ye finish with ye damn fool questions."
"What are you?"
It lifted one arm and scratched his armpit lazily. "Gehreleth... Farastu. Name's Ghrist..."
I blinked, "What's a farastu?"
"I am a gehreleth. My station is farastu," it said, pointing a finger to itself. With that Ghrist belched and a noxious odor filled the air. Yech, smelled like gar-bar farts.
"What are you doing here?"
It yawned and a wave of fetid breath washed over us. "Lookin' for deva. Good eating. Suck the marrow from his bones."
"There's a bootlegger down here who wants you dead."
It gazed at me blankly then nodded. "I know... tried to eat him the other day. He got away. Tried to catch him, but he has his place trapped." It shrugged. "I'm patient. One day he'll make a mistake."
"He sent me to kill you." Might as well be honest. It's not like this was going to last very long anyway.
Ghrist blew its nose into its hand then flung the result aside. It wiped the hand dry as it answered you. "Oh... just one more reason to kill him then... and ye."
"You're not much of a conversationalist."
It gave you a broad grin. "Good. Tired of questions, time to eat."
The moment its jaw dropped to snarl and leap, Annah's punch-daggers carved two new smiles along Ghrist's throat. Venomous blood spurted from its wounds as those filthy hands clutched at the lacerated flesh, bilious black fluid spurting from between its fingers. A stab of a dagger and a swing of thought-honed karach was all that was needed then.
I gave Annah a thankful nod as I wiped the mess from my hands. Our group was a well-oiled machine by now. Annah was able to read the real purpose behind the chat without the slightest signal.
I stuffed the severed head in a fresh sack. Not much of a conversationalist, but good enough for my purposes, I suppose.