Part 132: Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 9Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 9
The northern tunnels were ancient, the shoring crumbling at the edges. Any moment the place could've caved in on us, and we had to step carefully, checking the integrity of the walls frequently. A knock on stone here, a prod of a beam there. When we did pause I tried to focus, sifting through the bog of forgotten thoughts in an attempt to conjure up some familiarity. Nothing. If I had been a miner in a previous life, it didn't seem like I picked up much. Pity, that. It would've been useful, if only to prevent myself from being trapped for a few centuries under a mass of rubble.
Even the roaches didn't dare come this deep. Anything living had abandoned this place. Anything dead had long ago withered into dust. Even the drip of water, so faint and rhythmic in the higher tunnels, was gone from here. Our footsteps were grave and lonely such that even Morte shut up by now. It was like walking through the hollow of a dry old bone, the marrow cored out long ago so that not a scrap of flesh remained.
"Still nothing, Nordom?" I asked, breaking the silence so suddenly that Annah jumped.
"Negatory," he chirped in that sexless drone, "No portals detected. Confidence interval at 99.9998205%."
"Three significant digits is enough, Nordom."
Well, at least someone was cheerful doing his work.
We had stopped at an intersection when something snagged at my consciousness like a barbed hook.
Was there an instability in the walls I had noticed? A weak support beam? I paused for a moment, head tilted and trying to listen to the echo of memory. No... it was something deeper than that. More primal, akin to the animalistic fear of the dark and the terror of predators in the night.
There's nothing to be afraid of... I told myself. There were no signs of life, and decades of dust coated the ground... not even the undead would leave a trail so unmarred.
But still that familiarity dug deep, an insistent buzz that deep down this passage, danger lurked.
Well, I never had a sense of self-preservation.
The moment I passed through the arch I could smell it, the stagnant musk of old magic crumbling with age. The walls of the chamber were unusually smooth, as if hewn by an unnatural force. Yes, there was enchantment here, ancient wards that seemed to be binding something tight. I probed a little, feeling for the little threads, and each spiraled into the center like cobwebs.
It was there that it stood: a towering, empty suit of armor - but the plates were suspended in space as if secured over an invisible frame. Red veins ran across the length of the metal greaves, and a huge, double-edged executioner's axe rested in its hand. Engravings decorated the surface of the armor, the most prominent of which was a crimson serpent with its wings outspread.
Morte hissed at the sight of that crest.
The armor was archaic and the shoulder blades were just that - a great ridge of blades sprouting from the shoulder plates. I almost would have taken the ridged blades as decoration, but they looked too heavy and dangerous to be anything more than an additional weapon on an already menacing suit of armor. The armor itself bore dents and other marks of battle and its surface has been scarred by age and rust. It seemed to carry those pits and gouges as marks of pride, like a thug whose skin was crisscrossed with his past.
I stepped forward and took a closer look at the battle axe. It was reminiscent of an executioner's weapon; the head had been forged into the likeness of a blood-red serpent with its wings outspread, the outstretched wings curling to become the edges of the axe. The axe itself was huge; even wielded two-handed it would require tremendous strength to use effectively. Yet it rested in the disembodied gauntlet of the armor almost casually.
I looked up. The helm resembled the skull of some creature; curved metal teeth lined the bottom edge of the faceplate, hanging down over empty space. The helm rested in the air, its interior hidden in shadow.
The name spilled from my lips in a shock. It was the barest whisper, but it echoed strangely in the chamber. I had no idea where the name came from, but I knew it belonged to the armor. The air stirred, just enough to send a crawling sensation swimming through my skull and a knot to tighten in my heart.
I opened myself to the memories and they rose like a miasma bubbling up from the bottom of a swamp. As I stared upon the suit of armor the shadows beneath the visor took shape... coalescing into the features of a powerful, ebony-skinned man. His eyes were like fires and he bore numerous scars... was this 'Vhailor,' when he wore flesh? He seemed hauntingly familiar... both as a suit of armor AND as a flesh and blood human.
"Chief- maybe this isn't-"
I needed to know.
"Vhailor..." I murmured, placing a hand on the chest plate, "Awaken."
A flare of brilliant red light from beneath the helm burst like a sickly crimson dawn, lancing out to almost blinding intensity; I shielded my eyes from the glare - when I uncovered them, two embers burned within the shadows of the helm.
I have AWAKENED.
The voice was spectral, hollow, and echoed within the suit of armor. It was not a human voice... more like a presence, force. It didn't sound like anything alive... or like anything that ever lived.
"Who are you?" I murmured.
I am VHAILOR.
"What are you?"
I am a MERCYKILLER.
As Vhailor pronounced the word 'Mercykiller,' Annah and Morte stiffened. Even Dak'kon and Grace pulled back a step.
"Mercykiller?" I knew of these. They were the grim, dark-armored executioners of Sigil, but I had always thought it a title. Vhailor pronounced it with a weight that was more than that: it carried a cold sense of purpose, direct and keen as a blade.
Mercykillers serve JUSTICE. Justice PURGES evil. When ALL have been cleansed, the multiverse achieves PERFECTION.
"Why are you called 'Mercykillers?'"
Mercy is a shield used by the WEAK. Mercy is WEAKNESS. Mercy is DEATH. NO ONE is innocent. Mercykillers slay mercy and its WHORES wherever their plague has carried them.
"I disagree," I said shaking my head, "Mercy is strength - and there are times when even justice can be unjust, especially when carried to the extreme."
"Chief... if you want to keep breathing, please don't contradict the Red Death," Morte said in a whisper.
Vhailor dismissed my words and stared down at me, MERCY eats at the heart of JUSTICE. NO ONE that lives is INNOCENT.
"How long were you imprisoned?"
Time FLED as I lay imprisoned. Time bears no MEANING. Only JUSTICE.
"Do you know why you came to Curst?"
Much is lost of my journey. I traveled in search of BETRAYERS. They found me and imprisoned me. An act of TREACHERY.
Curst is a CITY of BETRAYERS. It is a city that defies JUSTICE. I came to CLEANSE it.
"How were you imprisoned?"
Vhailor was silent for a moment. The embers in his eyes flickered.
"Vhailor? Do you recall how they imprisoned you?"
I do not KNOW.
A crawling sensation ran up the back of my skull then, and I realized something was wrong. Vhailor didn't realize that he was dead. I held my tongue on this... if this was revealed, it could be dangerous.
I quickly changed the topic. "You say you serve justice, Vhailor. How?"
JUSTICE uses Mercykillers as her EYES. JUSTICE uses Mercykillers to dispense her WILL. When SENTENCE is passed, she LENDS us her STRENGTH.
The STRENGTH of JUSTICE depends on the harm the INJUSTICE has caused.
"So... the greater the injustice - the greater the crime - the more strength 'justice' lends you?"
When the INJUSTICE is great enough, JUSTICE will lend me the STRENGTH needed to CORRECT it. NONE may stand against it. It will SHATTER every barrier, SUNDER any shield, TEAR through any ENCHANMENT, and lend its servant the POWER to PASS SENTENCE.
As Vhailor intoned the words a crawling sensation passed through my body - so strong it made me shiver. I had heard these words before, and I knew them to be true.
This could prove useful. "Can you teach me how to use an axe as you do, Vhailor?"
There is nothing I can teach you. It is not the HAND that wields a weapon. It is the WILL.
"What do you mean?" I asked. It sounded so close to what Dak'kon had taught me. Indeed, Dak'kon gave a respectful nod at Vhailor's words.
When the WILL is strong, the BLADE is strong. When the cause is JUST, the blade strikes TRUE. When MERCY eats at the heart, DOUBT, HESITATION, COMPASSION follow. The blade becomes as DUST.
"My will is strong, Vhailor. My conviction lends my blade strength."
Vhailor's ember eyes fell upon me. A heavy silence hung in the air as he weighed me.
Your WILL is strong. Your DISCIPLINE is strong. Your WILL is the will of LAW.
"Then how do -?"
KNOW THIS: There is nothing on ALL the PLANES that can STAY the hand of JUSTICE when it is brought against them. It may unmake ARMIES. It may sunder the thrones of GODS. Know that for all who BETRAY justice, I am their FATE. And fate carries an EXECUTIONER'S AXE.
NO, you do NOT see. Vhailor's eyes burned like two torches in the shadows of his helm. PRAY you never WILL.
"Then teach me, Vhailor."
Open your eyes to me, and you shall SEE the PLANES through the eyes of JUSTICE.
"Very well... show me what you see."
I gazed into Vhailor's eyes, and the twin fires suddenly FLARED...
The fanatical zeal crashed against me like a wall of iron: a cold direction of purpose and loveless law distilled into its purest form. For a moment we were linked, my vision to his. Where Dak'kon's mind was like a well-forged blade, disciplined will tempered by the fires of knowledge, Vhailor's was pure, brute force: unthinking, unbending, a massive boulder crushing everything in its path. The flare blinded me and when I opened my eyes everything seemed to carry an EDGE to it, as if reality had gained an extra angle. I could feel the smallest flaws in the threads of existence, see the weight of imperfection in every shadow.
It was as if I could somehow CLEAVE every object I saw just by looking at it. There was no remorse, kindness, love, or even hate... just monolithic purpose.
"Vhailor... is this...?"
SEE all things. SEE their strength. SEE their WEAKNESS. JUDGE all things. If MERCY has eaten their hearts, they will FALL beneath JUSTICE. Your WILL gives you the RIGHT. Your DISCIPLINE gives you the RIGHT.
I felt sick.
I shook off the residue of what he shared with me. No, I couldn't harden myself as he did.
"Power doesn't grant us any right to judge, Vhailor," deep breaths now... "It is the knowing of who we and others are that does. You're mistaking strength for law."
JUSTICE sees through my eyes. The EYES of a MERCYKILLER can see the CRACKS of WEAKNESS, the FRAILTIES, the wounds of MERCY upon the HEART. In SEEING, I KNOW the guilty. he rumbled coldly, I KNOW their FEAR.
"You claim to be the avatar of justice, Vhailor, but what do you know of it?"
All I see is JUDGED. I may look at the heart and mind of another and KNOW them. The eye of JUSTICE sees through ME. He pointed his axe to Morte then, The skull knows MUCH. Yet it knows NOTHING of justice. Many with hearts like the skull's now lie within PRISONS and GRAVES.
Morte yelped, then floated to hide behind me.
He looked to Nordom. The MODRON is of no consequence. It can DEFINE justice, but it does not UNDERSTAND it. It is not satisfactory. But it is ENOUGH.
He turned to Grace. TANAR'RI are BORN from chaos. They care NOTHING for JUSTICE. The SUCCUBUS knows of JUSTICE, but she has TURNED from it. MERCY has POISONED her heart.
"Stop this, Vhailor!"
But Grace stood proud and spoke calmly, "I know of justice, Vhailor. I temper it with experience and wisdom, and when justice is tempered with those two truths, it becomes stronger. I know of mercy and forgiveness as well, for without them, the Planes would be a much crueler place."
Vhailor's eyes flared. MERCY eats at the HEART of JUSTICE. MERCY devours all that is PERFECTION. COMPASSION and FORGIVENESS are MERCY'S POISONS.
"No, Vhailor they are not," Grace continued, as if she were debating over a cup of tea, "They are instruments by which another soul may be redeemed, elevated and strengthened. In so doing, the multiverse is strengthened. Therein lies the perfection you speak of."
You are WEAK, SUCCUBUS. You are as WEAK as all your KIND. Where your KIND seduces with the FLESH, MERCY has SEDUCED you. You are MERCY'S WHORE. You are NOTHING.
Fall-From-Grace drew herself up at this. "Am I, Vhailor? Then judge me with your sight, see if you find me wanting. See if you can find the weakness that you claim eats at me."
Vhailor's eyes flared as he stared at Fall-From-Grace, the two embers burning like torches. Fall-From-Grace met his gaze steadily, her eyes crystal and determined.
The ROOTS of WEAKNESS are there. You BELIEVE yourself STRONG, but MERCY will feed upon the roots. It will DEVOUR your WILL. Vhailor paused for a moment, and his next words fell like a hammer. Yet... OTHER weaknesses do you HOLD in your HEART, SUCCUBUS. That is what MY eyes see. You CARE. In CARING, you have become WEAK.
"On that point, we are divided, Vhailor."
For a moment I thought that would be the end of it, but Vhailor was silent for only a moment before he faced Dak'kon. This githzerai's heart lacks the PREJUDICE that poisons his KIND. Yet he exists in CONFLICT with himself, for his WORD is his WILL and his LAW. Where the githzerai thrive in chaos, this one suffers.
"Prejudices? What do you mean?"
The githzerai race burns with PREJUDICE. There is no place for PREJUDICE in JUSTICE'S eyes.
By its nature, prejudice TAINTS justice. Githzerai are prejudiced against the githyanki, their racial cousins, and the illithids, who were the OWNERS of the gith peoples. Hatred for BOTH the githyanki and illithids burns in the githzerai heart.
"Prejudice taints justice, eh?" I looked to Grace, who still stood confidently before Vhailor. Her features were smooth, but there was a hardness to her now. She was wary. "What about what you said about Fall-from-Grace?"
My words did NOT stem from prejudice. They stem from OBSERVATION and REMEMBRANCE.
Annah stepped back when Vhailor's cold gaze fell on her. Her fingers twitched, itching to unsheathe her punch-daggers, but it was never wise to bare steel in front of a Mercykiller. The tiefling is TAINTED by the Lower Planes. Her blood leaves no ROOM for loyalty to JUSTICE. She understands JUSTICE, but she IGNORES it. Vhailor's eyes flared to torches. She will not IGNORE ME.
Annah's eyes narrowed. "Yeh best be keepin' yer blind eye off me, spirit! I'll have no dealin's with yeh, so I won't."
Vhailor's eyes took on a blood-red light. Tiefling, ANSWER me: Have you ever committed an INJUSTICE?
As Vhailor's eyes fell upon Annah, she flinched, as if burned. "Nay, spirit, and yeh've no business a-questionin' me, yeh don't."
JUSTICE gives me the RIGHT.
"Aye? An' what justice might THAT be?! Yer justice is not MY justice -- it's as hollow as yer suit o' armor! Yeh make yer OWN justice which yeh blindly ignore when it comes tae judgin' yourself!"
Mercykillers ARE justice. Our actions are ABOVE question, TIEFLING.
"Oh, aye?" the heat in her voice grew, "Well, yeh and yer Mercykillers swung many o' me friends from the leafless tree in the name o' justice when the inclination struck yeh! Burn in Baator's fires, yeh cursed half-dead thing, and may the Powers water on yeh fer good measure! I wish yer armor ta be dropped inta the Foundry's vats an' melted down so that not a plate remains!"
For the LAST time, tiefling, have you ever committed an injustice? REFUSAL to answer is an admission of GUILT.
Annah looked desperate. "Nay, so I haven't. Now leave me be, damn yeh!"
You have REFUSED to answer to JUSTICE. I will PUNISH you.
"No, Vhailor, you won't," I stepped between them, "You have no right."
JUSTICE gives me the RIGHT. Guilt CLOAKS her like a second skin.
"Stop your questioning, Vhailor." Fall-From-Grace's words were spoken without the slightest hint of a threat, but somehow, they felt dangerous. "This is not a court, and you will not place her on trial in my presence. Leave her alone."
She WILL be JUDGED.
"To do so, Vhailor, you must go through me," Grace's wings unfurled, "I will not allow her to be harmed."
All that stand in the PATH of JUSTICE shall be SENTENCED. You have EARNED your fate, SUCCUBUS.
"I won't let you harm either of them," I answered. Dak'kon unsheathed his blade silently. Morte's jaw chittered in anticipation, or perhaps it was fear.
It looked like we were about to see what happens when an immortal being meets an all-destructive force.