Part 133: Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 10Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 10
Vhailor hefted his axe towards me, So the whore that is MERCY shows itself. WEAKNESS has poisoned your heart.
"Mercy is not weakness, Vhailor, nor is it incompatible with justice," I challenged him, "How well have you served the greater good by abandoning it? What do you see when you look at yourself?"
I am VHAILOR. I am a MERCYKILLER. My ACTIONS speak my heart.
"That's not what I asked."
A heavy silence stifled the air... but Vhailor didn't break it. His ember eyes matched my gaze without a flicker.
"I asked what do you see when you look at yourself. What do you see when you judge yourself, Vhailor?"
I do not JUDGE myself. I am a MERCYKILLER. My ACTIONS speak my HEART. My WILL is JUSTICE'S WILL.
"So you're beyond justice?"
I SERVE justice. I am never BEYOND justice. NOTHING is beyond JUSTICE.
"Then take a look at yourself, Vhailor. What do the eyes of justice see when it looks at its servant?"
The embers in Vhailor's eyes suddenly went black, and there was a terrible SILENCE in the air.
Just when I was beginning to wonder if Vhailor's eyes would re-light, there was a FLARE, and I was forced to shield my eyes.
I am VHAILOR. I am a MERCYKILLER. My ACTIONS speak my HEART. I am JUSTICE'S SERVANT.
"But... Vhailor, what did you SEE when you looked inward?"
His voice grew into a roar, I AM NOT FOUND WANTING. WHERE MERCY LIVES, I SHALL KILL IT. WHERE COMPASSION POISONS THE HEART, I SHALL BLEED IT FROM ITS VICTIM. WHERE LIARS AND BETRAYERS OF TRUTH FOSTER LIES, I SHALL ANSWER THEIR LIES WITH JUSTICE'S BLADE.
"But what I asked was..."
WHO ARE YOU TO QUESTION A SERVANT OF JUSTICE? YOU ARE NOTHING. YOU ARE A SHELL. I WILL NOW SEARCH YOUR HEART. WE SHALL SEE IF YOU ARE FOUND WANTING.
Vhailor's burning red eyes fell upon me, tearing at my skin, blistering it, then peeling it back - but there was no pain, just a wash of dizziness and a sense of drowning. My head snapped back, and a familiar electrical tingle ran through my scalp...
I run the checklist through my head to make sure everything is in order. It's a short list... I have a much larger body of random contingencies to execute if things go wrong. If I'd learned anything in all these years, it's that the best-laid plans go out the window the moment they're executed.
A temporary setback, I remind myself, and not for the first nor last time I chastise myself for going too far. It was necessary, of course. It always is. If I had been a bit more careful however, they wouldn't have had to chase me out of Sigil. Ah well. Just wait a generation gathering information in the Outlands and even the Harmonium and the Mercykillers would forget. Time and patience were often keener weapons than a Doomguard's blade.
And how powerful a weapon do I wield, if I have all the time in the multiverse?
The slow, rhythmic clank of armor echoes down the hall, heralding his approach.
He steps through the portal, glancing this way and that with the wariness of a hunter. Then his cold, piercing eyes direct their gaze at me, bloodshot with the labors of his tireless crusade. His ebony face is bedecked with scars, carving puckered flesh into a cruel scowl that terrified his prey into submission. Just watching him enter I could feel the force of his presence, as if reality were bending to the will of his judgment.
His armor gleams in the dull torchlight, and his face is locked in fury. He has come for me.
"You have found me, Vhailor. You have traveled a long way... I imagine it was not easy finding me."
"Justice led me to you. Where you walk, you leave a trail of SUFFERING." The man's voice rumbles, full of anger and fury and flesh and blood... he is dangerous, but still he is only a man, and I have defeated many such men. "I will see you brought before the Sigilian courts and punished. If you deny it, then SAY it, and I shall judge you."
I scoffed, "I deny it. Judge me... then I shall judge you."
"Judge ME?" Vhailor's eyes burn and he grips his axe tightly, the muscle cords in his neck and arm tightening as he begins to swing it, slowly, menacingly. "You have no RIGHT to judge me."
"Yes, I have, Vhailor, for I know your heart - and my power gives me the right to judge you. But I shall not judge you now: You must rest within this cage until the day I can set you free to walk the Planes once more."
Vhailor turns from me, staring at the walls coldly. The wards are snapping into place, rooting him to the spot.
"I eluded you up to this point, Vhailor... why do you think I agreed to meet you here? Did you think I was surrendering? Or wished to fight you? No... this is the gate town of Curst, Vhailor. It borders the prison plane of Carceri, where even Gods are held prisoner. You are powerful, Vhailor, but the energies of this place allow even the mightiest to be caged here."
Vhailor turns, but some of the fire has died in his eyes. "This is treachery."
"Treachery runs through this place like veins, and it is that treachery that lends me the strength for this enchantment - that is why I was forced to meet you here in Curst. I can leave this cell, Vhailor, but until I come for you, you cannot. Your crusade for justice is truly remarkable, but it will be forgotten, and perhaps in time - even justice will forget you."
"You go beyond denying yourself justice, but you are denying my crusade..." his voice is cold as steel.
"I know of your mission. But that will have to wait until I am done with my mission, and this is the second time you have found me and attempted to judge me. I will not allow it to happen a third time."
Vhailor says nothing - never has something sounded so FINAL. It is a terrible judgment on him, a judgment that carries no justice at all.
"I am immortal, Vhailor - but you are a... strange one. Justice has touched you, and that justice may be more powerful than whatever it is that sustains me. Still, take heart: I do not wish you to die... perhaps one day I will have need of someone who has the power to kill me. So here you will remain until I come for you."
I give him a friendly smile and walk past. He strains to turn his head, the bones of his neck creaking as he watches his quarry leave out from the corner of his eye. His jagged teeth are bared, his breath strained as he huffs through his flared nostrils. Vhailor bites his lip, and blood intermingles with the foam that flecks the corner of his mouth.
My footsteps are soft against the bare stone. They had deemed these shafts too dangerous to explore just last week. A word with the foreman, a little gold pressed into his palm, and he would happily board up the entrance. I hum a merry tune to drown out Vhailor's roars of fury fading behind me.
The memory blackened, running into darkness, and suddenly, I was facing the spectral Vhailor again, his armored visage empty of flesh - only the burning embers. I had dragged myself back from a span of many years. So many years, enough for a man to die many deaths. Or perhaps just one.
You shall be JUDGED.
Vhailor's burning gaze fell upon me along with a strange sense of detachment, almost as if I was stepping back outside of my body. There was a faint whisper, a crawling within my skull, and suddenly I knew that no matter what Vhailor claimed to see, he would only see what I WISHED him to see. Even the simplest of deceptions he had to accept - I was a closed book to him.
Have you ever MURDERED another?
"No," I lied, even as I recalled the kindly face of the linguist Fin Andlye.
Have you ever committed INJUSTICE to another?
"No," I said simply, and Deionarra's voice seemed to whisper in my ear.
Have you ever WRONGED another?
"No, I have not."
Morte howls - howling in pain, screaming for someone to stop, to stop killing him... and my hand, lashing out, again and again and...
"DAMN you, skull, you LIED to me. I'll THRUST YOU BACK IN THAT DAMNABLE PILLAR AND LEAVE YOU TO DIE THERE."
"I swear to you, Vhailor."
"Dak'kon, zerth of Shra'kt'lor-Drowning, last wielder of the karach blade, know that I have come to you with the words of Zerthimon, carved not in chaos, but in stone, carved by the will in an Unbroken Circle."
Dak'kon's eyes flicker over the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon.
For a moment, I think that he might be too close to death to recognize it. Then the right hand twitches, and he pulls it slowly from its earthen prison, the clumps of earth streaming off it become water in Limbo's chaotic winds. His skeletal hands clutch the stone, like a drowning man grasping a branch, and his eyes flash.
"Know that I have saved your life, Dak'kon, zerth of Shra'kt'lor."
Dak'kon's eyes turn from the stone and flicker over me, and he hisses again, throat too dry for a moment to muster the words. He blinks, slowly, then speaks, his voice barely above a whisper, but the words are what I wanted to hear. "My... life is yours... until yours is no more..."
"I have never harmed another..."
"Look into those flames, supplicant!" I snap, growling in his ear, "Raise your head, look!"
The boy is shuddering from the pain... tears blur his eyes as he raises his head to look into the fireplace. The flames cast his face in a red, gaunt glow...
"Is that what you wish to hold, supplicant? Is the shaping of flames what stirs your heart? Know that flames can burn, and if you would learn their power, you must suffer their touch."
The boy is silent, staring into the flames. He seems mesmerized. His tears have dried in the heat, and the shaking is gone. The flames are his focus. He is not LISTENING to me, he has never LISTENED. The fury washes over me.
"If that is what consumes you, enough for you to intrude upon my meditations, then I shall teach you of the shaping of flames, supplicant."
My hand lashes out again and clamps onto the boy's wrist. He howls as I drag him closer to the fireplace, then thrust his hands into the coals - there is a crackling, a hissing of burning flesh, and his screams - so terrible, yet -
"To learn, you must suffer, supplicant. You must allow yourself to be burned by the power of that which you wield. Know its torment, and you shall know how to use it against your enemies."
"...not in all my lifetimes."
I hum a merry tune to drown out Vhailor's roars of fury fading behind me.
It took all I had not to vomit at the barrage of memories hammering my conscience.
Vhailor stared at me, his eyes burning brightly. I felt the same stare as before, the tearing and peeling back of the skin, as Vhailor seemed to dissect me. A wave of nausea swam through me, churning the bile in my stomach and turning my guts to water. I could feel myself drowning, in his gaze, deeper this time... until my vision almost faded to black...
KNOW THIS: There is MUCH that CANNOT be seen in you. I shall WATCH you. You may not HIDE from punishments for CRIMES to come.
"So we can leave?" I coughed, propping myself up on my hands and knees. When had I fallen? My head was swimming.
NO. I have judged the guilty. Vhailor's eyes flared, and he raised his axe, his gaze searing Annah to the bone. She stepped back, the spit and vinegar now tepid and dull. You have EARNED your fate.
Too slow... I reached out, the weaves of magic slipping from my grasp as the heavy blade fell. Strong enough to cleave through flesh and bone as if it were butter, force great enough to sunder the barriers of treachery. He was fueled by a will that clung to this world to correct an injustice he couldn't name. So much power.
And I was too slow.
The crack of white-hot light, like burning metal, blinded me for an instant. A cold terror chilled me as my vision swam into focus. Would I still be able to pull Annah back and bind her spirit to her shell, I wondered, if the final judgment of a force like Vhailor was what killed her?
And then I saw it, the frail old warrior standing between justice and the condemned, karach blade trailing sparks in deflecting the axe.
Vhailor roared. All that stand in the PATH of JUSTICE shall be SENTENCED.
Dak'kon spared no words, and Annah backed off, giving room for the two to circle. Dak'kon danced from one step to another, his forms flowing and light. I recognized the stances: Thel'dekon's Pace, to dodge the heavy blows. Four Leaves Falling, the two-handed grip for parrying. The sharp song of his zerth blade played a harsh duet against the heavy slams of Vhailor's axe. Focused as he was, it was only a matter of time before he was overwhelmed. Even the sharpest sword couldn't protect one from the force of an avalanche.
Annah was circling, trying to find a weak spot. Grace was bolstering Dak'kon's strength with spell after spell, until a nimbus of light shone from him. It wouldn't be enough, and I was still struggling, slowly, with the Art. It was a contest of Wills, and we needed every drop we could milk out.
"Nordom!" I called, "Nordom, listen! As Creative Director, I have some orders for you!"
"Status: Awaiting orders," he chirped, as if a behemoth wasn't breaking against our allies not ten paces away.
"Nordom, I order you to listen to me closely. I have some things I want to say to you."
Nordom froze. "Awaiting: Talk."
Vhailor's axe gouged deep wounds in the walls of his prison and splintered beams into twigs. Dak'kon was skilled, but each dodged blow, every axe swing deflected down an angle drained his stamina. Vhailor was tireless, his juggernaut strength beginning to overwhelm the Zerth.
"I order you to be MORE than you can be, Nordom," I gasped, feeling the power begin to flood back into my hands, "I order you to become stronger, faster and more focused than you've ever been. I KNOW you can do this, because I BELIEVE you can do this."
Nordom stared at me in silence. His crossbows had also fallen still.
"Now repeat the following words: 'I am a strong modron.' 'I am a fast modron.' 'I am a powerful modron.' 'My Creative Director believes in me.' 'I am focused for my Director.' Come on, repeat it!"
Nordom spoke, but his voice no longer carried the normal metallic wobble: It was flat. Focused. Emotionless. "I am a strong modron. I am a fast modron. I am a powerful modron. My Creative Director believes in me. I am focused for my Director."
With a mighty heft, Vhailor swung an overhead blow. With one hand on the hilt and the other on the dull side of the blade, Dak'kon blocked Vhailor's final judgment. The force of the strike brought the Zerth to one knee, the thought-honed edge gouged the axe blade an inch deep. Vhailor withdrew the weapon, his roar of retribution sending a rumble through my being.
Another overhead swing and the force of the blow hammered on Dak'kon's blade, down his arms, his spine, and through his leg. The strain was too much, and with a roar of pain his knee shattered against the stone floor. White slivers of bone splayed out like the thin roots of a tree. Dak'kon's blood spurted from the shattered joint, and it took all his strength not to collapse.
Morte gnawed on one shoulder spike, but with a yelp he was thrown aside.
Annah had circled around by then and leaped on Vhailor's back with both daggers drawn, stabbing down on each shoulder blade. Where the wounds would've collapsed the lungs of a living being, on one such as Vhailor it was useless. He spun, the blades of his armor slashing Annah along her middle as a gauntleted fist cracked across her cheek. She was thrown back by the force, slamming into the wall where she slumped, silent and bleeding.
"Now FEEL those words, Nordom!" I demanded, and finally the bolts of force shot from my fingertips, shattering against Vhailor in hollow cracks, "BECOME stronger. BECOME faster. BECOME more powerful. Let that energy within you SURFACE and use it to make you NORDOM."
Nordom's eyes widened, and I could FEEL my words taking hold - a spark, just a spark of the energy inside of him... if I could coax it out... bring it to the surface...
KILL, Vhailor roared.
Spears of frost blossomed in Vhailor's path. They slowed him, cracking against his armor. But each swing of the blade felled those blades of ice like wheat.
"Come on, Nordom... Strength! Speed! Power! Focus!"
"AFFIRMATORY." The pupils of Nordom's eyes suddenly kliked and became brilliant white dots, like tiny suns. His hands cranked, raised above his head in a curious flying motion, and then settled back to his sides... when they descended, Nordom seemed more... definite. Sharper to my senses, somehow. Something had changed.
"ORDER PROCESSED." Nordom blinked, and suddenly the crossbows snapped forward. His voice was uncharacteristically deep, as if he were speaking from within a huge stove, and then it resumed its normal tone. "O-o-o-rder processed!"
Steam spurted shrilly from his vents.
The bolts flew from Nordom's crossbows in a storm of missiles, three-pronged and barbed, designed for piercing armor. They peppered Vhailor's body, dressed him in dozens of quills that staggered him as my fire and lightning seared seared away. For a moment it seemed as if it would be enough. He crumpled, steaming with streaks of fire, crackled with electricity. Metal creaked and warped under the strain. Spiderweb cracks began to grow where the bolts had pierced.
But he stood, lumbering, shouldering aside the magics that raged against him. With one swing he knocked Nordom aside. With another I felt bone shatter, stunned at the odd sensation of numbness as my severed arm flew aside, twitching on the ground. The momentum of the strike knocked me from my feet, and a deep-throated scream rumbled from my throat as I felt the axe fall again, cleaving through the joint of my shoulder. A heavy boot kicked aside my other arm. Vhailor turned away, leaving me gurgling in agony as he made towards Grace.
"We're not finished, Vhailor..." I coughed. My boots scraped against the blood-slick floor as I tried to stand. It only served to nudge me towards the wall.
Grace knelt beside Dak'kon, hands on his knee. The warm light of her faith flooded around his leg. She looked up even as her lips murmured the prayer, features calm even as the avatar of justice stormed towards her.
"Vhailor, you lumbering abomination! I was your greatest prey, and I killed you long ago!"
That got his attention.
Vhailor stormed over to me, dragging me up by the sash of bone I wore. He stood me upright, slamming me against the wall with one hand. The blade of his axe was raised in the other. His gaze burned into mine silently.
"That's right, Vhailor. Your final crusade. You hounded me through the planes because of my crimes, because suffering trails in my wake like a jilted lover... but I killed you an age long past. I can still kill you now." I coughed wetly. The blood from my useless stumps trickled warmly down my sides.
You have hidden your GUILT well but you have no WEAPONS with which to SLAY ME.
"There are weapons more powerful than justice, Vhailor. The truth, for one..."
"You died long ago," I spat in his face.
LIAR. I LIVE.
"Then what happened to your physical body?" my leg twitched. My head rolled as my consciousness began to ebb. No, I needed to focus. Needed to talk.
I LIVE. While those CONDEMENED still require PUNISHMENT, I LIVE.
"Do you FEEL alive, Vhailor? Remove your gauntlet, see if your eyes see skin," I chuckled, the weakness making me giddy, "Touch your axe to your arm - does it draw blood? And your eyes - they burn like fire, but can they shed tears? Your spirit remains, Vhailor, but you no longer live."
For a moment... just a moment, Vhailor's eyes flickered.
And then the bleeding stopped. The regeneration was kicking in. My wounds were beginning to knit, sluggishly. New blood began to pump in my veins, and my coarse voice grew in conviction. "Do you even RECALL what you once looked like past the armor, Vhailor? I do. You were once a man of flesh and blood, dark of skin, eyes like fires... numerous scars you bore on your flesh, and many were the justices that were committed in your name. But now that man is dead. And only the tormented shell remains."
I... remember. Vhailor's eyes flickered, more erratic than before. His axe fell to his side. The memory is... DIFFICULT to remember. There was a DEATH... and I have CHANGED. I am not that ONE any longer. What AM I?
"I don't know, Vhailor. The man that was Vhailor is dead... you are something else, now."
JUSTICE was my cause. The FLESH... the FLESH could not remain. Yet JUSTICE needed to be SERVED. There was the DEATH of flesh, but the WILL would not let go... there were MORE to be punished. ALWAYS more. JUSTICE... JUSTICE would not have been served by my DEATH.
"Then you are only LYING to yourself by thinking you live. You're DEAD, Vhailor. What JUSTICE is served when the servant of justice lies to itself?"
CRIMINAL... he rumbled, but it was only an echo of his once-formidible presence. The GUILTY must be PUNISHED. I LIVE to bring RETRIBUTION to those that defile JUSTICE's name... the blade edged towards my neck.
"But you DID die, Vhailor, long ago. And now it's time to let go."
My words seemed to echo, gathering power as I spoke them. The truth rang like a gong, resonating between us both. The embers in Vhailor's eyes flickered - and then guttered out. His armor collapsed, the axe and the metal plates clattering to the ground with a crash. As they struck the earth, however, they rose clouds of dust - ash and rust particles rising from the metal as the plates and axe aged, decayed, and disintegrated right before my eyes. All that remained were a few pitted metal plates as gravestones that Vhailor ever existed.
"Rest now, Vhailor," I murmured, slumping to the ground with a groan.
The adrenaline trickled away, and left agony in its wake. Cheek pressed against the stone I grunted, tried to breathe.
And then I felt it. The crack of stone. The growing tremors as the shoring of these tunnels began to buckle under the strain. The battle had left their mortal wounds on this abandoned mine shaft.
Dak'kon was limping towards me, Annah's body slung over his shoulder.
"We need to get out," I groaned, "The tunnels are collapsing. Can someone pick up my arms?"
"Portal detected!" Nordom chirped, my severed limbs flopping into his pack.
"About damn time," I grunted, "Which way?"
It took an effort to stand, and I stumbled down the hall with Grace supporting me. I could feel the chain link growing warm in my pocket, resonating in answer to the portal's call. And there it was, a bending of space, a twist of blue-white, and a long, broad desert opened out in front of us.
We stepped through, and the caverns behind us crumbled in a crash of stone.