Part 131: Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 8Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 8
The gate that the deva directed me to was held in place by massive locks and barbs. Annah studied the mechanism for a minute, stood, then shook her head.
"'Tis locked by magic rather than gearwork. I cannae get past it," she grumbled sourly.
That was no problem. I spoke the three syllables that Trias gave me. At the first the gate creaked and groaned. The metal barbs twisted and pulled on the second, and on the third, the gates sprung open.
The guard on the other side blinked at seeing us. "What in the Nine Hells are you doing down here?" he growled, "Are you the berks that've been settin' off the alarms?"
"The deva sent me," I shrugged.
He smiled, "You'll be joining the celestial choir soon enough, berk."
They were dealt with quickly.
We walked down halls devoid of hope, where desperation and isolation drove men mad. They reached out from between the bars with unwashed hands, screaming obscenities. The hallway was a gauntlet of curses and screams. A faint fecal stench was in the air, and my head swam with nausea at the stink of human bodies. The ranks of prison guards broke against us in waves. Even though we were soaked in the blood of their companions they fought with a cornered desperation as we continued deeper into the prison.
The screams died down in the bowels of this rotting cage, as cells became occupied with dried husks of men: some still lived in catatonic fugues. Others were more fortunate, and they lay in bloated repose, a fine nesting place for flies and maggots when they weren't whittled away to bone by time's blade.
The worst of the traitors were housed here, and a couple of fresh new faces gave cold greetings through the bars.
"Dog!" Siabha spat at my feet, "You dare poison my life with your presence again when your false words imprisoned me here! Traitor! I hope the Styx swallows you and spits your bleached bones on the shore, that they might be whittled into flutes for an army of dung-eaters!"
An'izius glared bitterly at me and said nothing. He merely spat on the ground at my passing and turned away.
We finally reached the heart of this monstrosity, and the grandiosity of it was somewhat spoiled by the assorted crates piled up against the walls and old ore carts left to rust. Once this might've been the inner sanctum of a neat, organized prison. Now it was just a storeroom that housed a big pile of crap, though there was one exception.
A curved silver blade hung in the air at the center of a platform, its edges lined with runes that hummed with power. It cast motes of light as it spun, suspended in the air with the sad beauty of a caged bird. If there was anything else in the planes that carried the same perverse wrongness of seeing this celestial blade bound and locked away like a trophy, I've yet to see it. A moment's admiration and disgust, and I began to reach out for it.
It was then that a grossly corpulent man, with folds of fat oozing every which way, sidled up to us. His eye slowly turned, and when it landed on me I stopped, suddenly hit with a feeling of unspeakable danger. "I hold the true essence of the sword. What you see there is a shallow shell. The blade is in me. You must defeat me to reach it."
"Who are you?"
His deep voice rolled out from the layers of fat. "My name is Cassius. I was the greatest weapon of a dead Abyssal Lord, and his heirs seek me yet. I am a dread secret in the heart of the chaotic planes, and I am the guard of this blade."
"You were a weapon?"
"I was once the most effective weapon in all the Abyss, shaped to my master's will. I could take the form of any creature's doom. I have slain more foes of my dead lord than most have moments in their lives. My brother, my pale shadow, my Xekiel, slays still in the depths of the Abyss."
"Why did you leave?"
"My master sank into the heart of the Abyss while I was out a-slaying. When I returned from the assassination, he was gone and his heirs came baying to claim me. None of them could tame me, and so I left. This duty is pleasant. Those who come - I slay. It is not an onerous task."
"I have come for the blade." I was wrong. An abyssal weapon guarding a celestial one... irony abounds in the Planes.
His voice was cavernously deep. "This sword powers the Prison of Curst. Its removal shall free all the prisoners condemned to be forgotten. I am charged to prevent this from happening. Do you wish the blade?"
"Then these are the rules. You must choose between three options: Strength, wits, or speed. Should you fail at any of these, I shall destroy you."
"I choose wits."
"Then I shall ask you three riddles. Should you fail, I will destroy you and fashion pipes from your skull, and play a song of torment on your spirit for eternity."
"Very well. Ask your riddles."
"We begin with a classic riddle: What walks on four legs at dawn, two legs at noon, and three at dusk?"
This was easy. "A human, who crawls on all fours at birth, walks on two legs during youth, and leans on a cane during old age."
"That is correct. For the second riddle: I groan, but words never escape my lips. I may be empty, but never am I full. What am I?"
"Are you hunger?" I answered.
"Yes. The third riddle is this: What flies, and cannot stand still? What devours all it touches, yet eats nothing? What can never be lent, yet is always wasted? What is always spent, yet never earned?"
I knew the answer for this as well, "The answer is time."
"You have bested me. Your appearance led me to believe that your wits were a match for your scarred exterior. I have failed in my duty, and I yield the blade to you. I must depart this place."
"Thanks," I muttered as he burned away in an angry flame, leaving only a greasy black streak upon the floor. Celestial Fire hummed in my hands. I'd ended one injustice. It was time to end another.
"What need you, mortal?" Trias intoned, eyes closed as if trying to grip onto every ounce of self he possessed.
"I have your sword."
He looked shocked for a moment. "Celestial Fire? You have recovered my blade? Will you free me? Then strike a blow against the chain!"
I held the blade awkwardly in my hands for a moment, balanced on the edge of indecision. Something felt wrong about weilding something so otherworldly: it would've been like swinging a piece of art, or dulling a ritual blade against a rock. I hefted the unease aside on one hand and squelched that giddy, primordial sense of mischief that craved destruction on the other. I did this because it was right.
The chains sundered easily under the blade, and the sound of a thunderclap resonated between my ears. I tumbled from the dais, the blade slipping from my grasp. I was dimly aware of the line of whirling light, the blade spinning from me, and snatched by the hand of its master. With that my vision swam with opalescent light. I must've caught myself instinctively, because when my senses returned to me I was propped up on my elbows and looking up to the deva, who unfurled his charred wings, bare bone slashing the air.
"I thank you for freeing me. I owe you much." Trias breathed. His voice was beginning to take on a sense of clarity, like a man finally awake and about, freed from his sickbed. His eyes were alight with recognition, looking about his surroundings. "I remember now... the lost souls I had tried to redeem. The traitors, bitter, the condemned... whether or not they deserve their condemnation. Such battles to be fought..."
Fall-from-Grace broke in suddenly. "You refer to the Blood War then, Lord Trias? What are your thoughts?"
"You are perceptive, tanar'ri." His eyes flashed lightning. Whether he was displeased at the uncomfortable topic broached or that he was speaking to a member of a species so ideologically opposed to his own, I wasn't sure. "The hosts have let their hearts falter, for they dare not confront the fiends directly. Where is their spirit, their love of purity? My lords direct the war from afar, manipulating the fiends into costly battles with one another, giving them weapons and filling their minds with the knowledge of how to hurt each other more effectively so that they might not look up and see our golden fields."
"How can this be changed?" I asked, brushing myself off.
Trias settled back, though his charred wings rustled slightly. "There are ways to change even the minds of immortal generals, mortal. Someday, they shall see, of that I have no doubt."
I glanced up at him, "If I may ask, how did your wings get burnt?"
"It was part of the grand betrayal of this city - they seared my wings as they manacled me, that I might not flee them even through the earth. It is the nature of this place that things of beauty are not tolerated." He stretched his limbs and sheathed his blade, "The people of this town - traitors all - know nothing of truth and beauty. They cannot tolerate it. They lured me here and chained me. Mortals do not possess the perspective that allows them to grow the strength of character to rise above desires, as I sought to teach them."
"I disagree, Lord Trias. You simply had an overabundance of trust in your spirit for them," Grace rebutted.
A sneer twisted his beautiful face. "Surely, mistress tanar'ri, you don't believe that mortals can ever gain that perspective? Not when you are what you are - your very nature cries out to subdue any chance mortals might have to rise above their base instincts." He turned away from Grace, "Now what would you ask of me, mortal? I'm afraid I can offer little in the way of boons. Do you seek power over the minds of your fellow mortals? Do you hope for wishes to be granted? Do you want wealth? Do you seek more souls to torment?"
"I seek knowledge, not power or wealth."
"Then speak your desire."
I stood, looking up at him, "My mortality has been stolen from me. I wish to reclaim it."
"You speak foolishness," Trias waved a dismissive hand, "Yet... there is one who might be able to help you with what you seek. It is a fiend, named Fhjull Forked-Tongue. He shall aid you." The deva's lips quirked in a small smile. "He is under an obligation to do charity."
"How do I reach him?"
"There lies a portal to the north of this prison. Its key is a broken chain link." He looked meaningfully at the shattered links around his feet, stooped, and plucked one up and pressed it into my hand. "An appropriate key for one who seeks to leave Curst."
"My thanks. Farewell."
"Farewell, mortal. I have... business... to attend to." He looked meaningfully at the ceiling of his prison, and leapt into the earth above him like a diver into an ocean, leaving behind only motes of starlight.