Part 129: Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 6Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 6
Voorsha glanced up at me. "Hello... again. What can I do for you?"
"I've killed that gehreleth for you.
He looked surprised but quickly recovered, and his throat bobbed with a heavy swallow. "Uh... that's great. Good job."
"You said you'd make me your partner. I'm ready to collect."
"Yes... I did say that." Voorsha nodded, staring at us for a moment before he began to fidget.
After all the crap I've been through, I had my doubts as to whether Voorsha would keep his end of the deal. "You didn't think I could kill the gehreleth, did you?"
He stared at me a moment longer then sighed. "No, I didn't... It seems you've exceeded my expectations... I was hoping the gehreleth would deal with you and save me the trouble. Now I guess I have to take care of you myself."
The moment his hand slipped behind his back my arms had already shot out, gripping him in a headlock. Stupid bastard. If we could take down the gehreleth what chance did he think he had against me with the little pigsticker in his hand? Held as he was he drove it into my kidneys in quick succession. Wounds like that and you'd bleed out in thirty seconds usually, but all he inflicted was a dull trickle as arteries and veins knit shut as quick as a pinch of my fingers.
This was the last time someone in this city was going to use me. It's poked the bear one time too many.
I did it nice and gentle, adding the pressure just a bit, working a moment to get the grip right. It was a favor no one else ever gave to me... though given how ungrateful this little weasel was I doubted he'd appreciate it. One quick twist, a wet pop, and it was over. Easy. Painless. Like dipping him into a pond.
I let his body slump gently to the ground, head flopping around a neck freshly endowed with a few more degrees of freedom. Then I picked his pockets for good measure. Chump change, really. Sifting through his goods just turned up a bunch of black lotus and other assorted narcotics. Nothing useful.
But Annah had said that there were two people down here.
He was a dirty man, hunched and crabbed with age and darkness. His lank, greasy hair flew from his shoulders as he saw us, and his eyes went wide with fear. His fingers began twisting through arcane patterns. I recognized the somatic components... vaguely. Something painful, but a spell of divine origin.
I put my hands up, "It's okay... I'm not going to hurt you."
He stopped mid-gesture, "Ach, another visitor, eh? You'll all be wantin' to scare the ol' hermit half to death, eh? These tunnels're no place for a casual spring walk, y'know. What d'you want from me?"
"I'm looking for a deva."
He shook his head "Heard rumors about it, but this ol' hermit ain't seen it. I thought it might be underground, since this place locks up all good things, but I still can't find it. If I could, I'd ask if it'd heard about my god." He rattled off another sigh, and looked down the hallway. "Somehow, it feels like it'd be off to the west there. But I still haven't found it. It must have a guardian." He winked at me.
"What can you tell me about this place?"
"This place? Full of monsters, criminals - I'm not one of 'em - and other folks who mean a body harm. Still safer than the city above, though. At least down here you know where you stand. Up there? Nossir."
"What are you doing down here, anyway?"
He sighed noisily, caught himself, and looked around wildly for a moment. "I came to Curst because my god was exiled to Carceri. I've been movin' closer to him alla the time, but I'm not goin' into the prison plane after him. I'm tryin' to find a way to get him out. Since he's a power o' good, he shouldn't even be there, but that's how exile works, I guess."
"How long have you been here?"
"Too long, too long, in the service of a god who's all but forgotten. I remember him, though... I'll find him, if I have to duck all the monsters around forever. I'll find him." He stared off, mumbling.
I looked him up and down. The little man hardly looked like the type who was able to defend himself properly, "How was it that you survive down here anyway?"
A grin split his face, "My god may be imprisoned but he still grants some measure o' power. This ol' one has set up wards, he has. Not too powerful mind, and hard to maintain, but they serve well enough. If yer as friendly a group as y'seem, I'd let you stay here the night to rest up."
We'd been working hard to conserve our strength, but a little rest wouldn't hurt. If the deva was heavily guarded, we'd need every drop of strength to make our way through.
A ragged curtain cloaked a small corner in solitude, and the light of a single candle cast Grace's shadow against the tattered cloth. She knelt in prayer, still and silent, but the flickering of the candle's flame made her silhouette dance.
"I sense you, old friend," she murmured, "Please, come if you wish to talk."
I cleared my throat. My gutteral croak was a rough contrast to her own sweet voice, "I'm sorry if I've interrupted your meditations."
"Not at all," she said as I peeled back the curtain, "One can only experience silent meditation so many times. There are few new sensations for me to draw from solitude."
I held back another apology, this time for taking her so far from her duties running the brothel. After all, she would consider it a fair trade... collecting fresh new experiences from our journeys must've benefited her in ways I couldn't imagine.
"You must miss your students."
"They will manage without my presence," she said, snuffing a stick of incense in a small bowl of sand. "Perhaps Ecco would need some guidance, now that her voice has been restored," Grace smiled at that, "She will benefit from finding her own way. Nenny and Kimasxi were always quite independent... though perhaps a little more meekness would do them well. And Yves... well, there are some tales I cannot tell her."
The pause snagged at my mind, "Why is that? Is it a story you don't possess, or one you won't give?"
Her rosebud lips quirked in a soft smile, "Ah! You do have a way of drawing answers from others. But a lady must have some secrets."
"I'm sorry if it's impertinent, Grace. I'd just like to know more about you. I know Morte so well, and Dak'kon, and Annah. I have no idea what goes through Nordom's head- that's his nature I suppose. But I don't know much about you."
The smile faded from her face, and she used the lingering stub of the candle to light a new one. Her eyes stared into the budding flame, and shone with a pained sobriety, "That is correct. Yves needs no more tales adding to her misery... and my tale would not serve her search for truth."
"Would you tell me?"
"It is a long tale, and not as interesting as some would make it out to be." She sighed. "It is intertwined in other tales of war and slavery - it is not a pleasant story."
"I would still hear it."
"Very well... know my past is not a long one, at least by tanar'ri standards. I do not know if you are familiar with the tanar'ri, but we are a race of the Abyss, a staggered series of Planes filled with chaos and evil hearts."
Her hands folded in her lap, and she looked up into my eyes. I felt a little lightheaded, and was held in place by her gaze. "I am a tanar'ri, a fiend, a succubus... I grew up upon the first plane of the Abyss. My mother, Red Shroud, was a succubus herself - as I'm sure you are aware, succubi tempt mortals to bring their souls to the Abyss. My mother was among the finest, seducing countless mortal men to their eternal damnation. She now dwells in the Abyss, selling her children into slavery."
I felt my hands tighten at my sides, "Your mother sold you into slavery?"
"Yes, she sold me to the baatezu, the blood enemies of the tanar'ri. I think she rather expected that they would kill me -- despite her knowledge of other subjects, she knows little of their culture and the delight they take in tormenting others."
"How did you escape?"
"The baatezu are a proud species. The thought that a tanar'ri could best them at anything was intolerable to them. So I challenged one of the proudest of the balor to a contest of improvisation, and my tanar'ri nature afforded me an advantage - you see, the tanar'ri are creatures of chaos, wild and unpredictable. The baatezu are more cunning, with orderly hearts. They understand improvisation, but they are not its best practitioners. And thus, I won my freedom - and my path brought me to Sigil. It was there that I established the brothel, to give those lustful fevers that strike the mind more avenues of expression rather than the simply carnal."
I knelt down next to her, "When we were in Ravel's maze, Ravel said you were tormented... are you in pain?"
Fall-From-Grace was silent for a moment, her gaze becoming distant. When she turned back to me, her eyes were a strange shade of azure, a shade that mirrored sadness and tears.
"I will tell you this: the baatezu are not human. Their lusts lie in power, not for the flesh, and they care nothing for raping or rutting as humans do when they hold another human prisoner. The torments of the baatezu are far more subtle and far more damaging than any violation of the flesh, and the scars last far longer."
For the first time she paused, as if uncertain of what to say. A cold chill ran through my bones... for Grace to be struck silent, even for a moment, was disturbing. It was a relief when she finally spoke, each word slow and deliberate, "Ravel sees much with her black-brambled eyes, some things which are hidden to other's eyes, even things about their own natures." She shook her head slowly. "Sometimes... sometimes, the pain makes itself known. I have learned it is a difficult thing to turn on one's nature."
"Are you all right?"
She smiled, very faintly, and she met my gaze. "Yes... you are kind to ask. The pain still makes itself known, but I came to terms with my nature many centuries ago."
"Very well, th-"
Grace stopped me before I could continue. "I thank you for asking about my well-being. Your concern is not unwelcome."
Were those my hands that wrapped around her body, I wondered? Was I really that bold to hold her, the way a man would cradle a woman, crossing the invisible barrier that separated a student from a teacher?
But she sighed, and the confused tension melted away as her hands held my shoulders. Her wings draped around us like the folds of a cloak. She was soft against me, in a way I never thought was possible with another. We shared our warmth, just for a moment. There was nothing to be said, no more to be explained. For a pair of Sensates, the experience was enough to pass understanding between us.
It was then that I felt it on me... the eyes, the sharp tang of pain, the barbed hook that snagged at the soul.
I looked over my shoulder, and spied the a milk-white tip of a tail flicker around a dark corner.
"Annah?" I stood up, and Grace's wings unfolded from us. I pulled away, suddenly noticing the tightness of her bodice against my chest for the first time.
"You should go," she murmured. Mentally I thanked her for understanding- I couldn't bear the guilt of leaving her in the cold.
Down the tunnels I crawled, tasting the air for the presence of the wards. I could still feel their resonance down these side passages, so it was safe, but far enough down and it would end. I was thankful for the lessons I shared with Annah so long ago. Though the going was hard the small signs were there: the stirring of dust, the slight swish of dirt left by a snaking tail. She wasn't even trying to hide.
But then the taste of the wards began to thin, like watered-down broth.
"Annah!" I hissed, seeing the flash of red hair, the flick of a white tail, "Come back!" But my voice seemed to only spur her on, like the crack of a whip.
"Annah, it's not safe here! Damn it, come back!" I growled, but I couldn't keep the strain from my voice. I'd dragged her back from death once, and I wasn't about to do it again, "Please!"
My heart drummed against my chest, the blood pounded in my ears, heat swelling behind my eyes until I was almost blind from the panic and worry. I was going to lose her, oh Powers above I'd never be able to find her if she really did try to escape. The girl could squeeze through a crack half the size of what I could get through, or lose herself in this maze of passages if she got her head together and covered her tracks.
But then I saw her, huddled in a corner, hands wrapped around her knees. I was panting by then, relief intermixed with caution... if I said the wrong thing, she might bolt again.
"Annah..." I breathed, "Would you come back? Please? It's dangerous here." We had left the limits of the wards long ago.
She mumbled something.
"I can't hear you. Let's go back and talk about this."
"I always thought yeh were th' idjit," she murmured, "Thought I was th' clever one."
"You're not stupid, Annah. It's... just a misunderstanding. Grace was just so hurt, she's been through so much. All of us have."
"Aye. Yer gonna try an' convince me she's just a friend?"
"She's- it's complicated."
She was silent for a moment but slowly got to her feet, "It's not her I worry about. I jes cannae do this anymore. It's too hard a-knowin' what path yer goin' down, seeing yeh take one step after another t' yer end," she couldn't look me in the eye, "We're done when this is over. I have me own way t'go."
I nodded. Maybe it was for the best. "Come on. I've got some sea-plum wine and crimson lotus petals in my pack."