Part 137: Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 11Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 11
The Outlands (video)
The pale desert noon blinded me, and I stumbled. I'd fallen to my knees, and out of instinct I almost tried to catch myself with my hands. The searing pain was a fast reminder though, and I had to snap my torso back to maintain my balance and keep from getting a mouthful of sand.
"The Outlands again. This place never loses its charm does it, chief? We'll probably want to find some shade and get you stitched up since you've been... well you know."
"Don't even say it, Morte."
"You're thinking it. That's enough for me," Morte grinned.
It only took a few minutes to get myself fixed up. Nordom held my arms in place while Grace sewed me back up. I didn't need much to be held together: with my natural regeneration the splintered bone was regrowing, blood vessels and muscle tissues were already knitting together. The nerves were always the last to heal, however, and in that time my fingers twitched with unconscious spasms as they wired.
Still hurt like the Nine Hells, though.
Annah was the first to see it.
"Oi. What's that, now?" she murmured, pointing to a line of dust thrown up along the horizon.
"Sandstorm?" I murmrued. It didn't quite make sense. The air was still with a dull, dry heat... not the sort of air that would brew a storm.
"Uh, chief? You should know something about the things that live in this part of the outlands."
"They're always hungry."
I could barely curl my bicep, much less make a gesture. It would still be a good hour before I could cast the simplest of spells, and in the rush from the Prison and the battle against Vhailor we'd been left feeling like a lump of butter freshly pounded from a churn. It was then that we turned to the most reliable combat strategy in such times.
"Let's run like hell!"
Panic tends to call up certain reserves of stamina you've never realized you had, and our flight took hours with us swallowing blood charms like candy to keep our strength up. Dak'kon's leg was crippled until Grace could mend it properly, but he was still able to grip my neck. My own arms flopped uselessly behind me as I carried him, and the absurdity of the situation left him mumbling some bitter oaths in the Githzerai tongue.
Grilligs scaled the cliff faces like insect swarms, leaping towards us with talons thirsty for fresh blood. Gronks roared at our passing, teeth eager to crush bone and suckle the sweet marrow within. The sohmein, though, were the real pissers. Running like the wind with wide, toad-like grins, they pursued in a mindless stampede at the sight of our movements, and tried to run us down seeking our flesh.
Then, little by little, the packs broke away like slivers of melting ice.
We bent down then, Annah fairly collapsing as she took in ragged breaths. Dak'kon nearly leaped off my back, eager to stand on his own again. Even Grace seemed a little out of her normal composure. I could almost taste the blood in my lungs, as if I had been sucking down air so hard it had sliced the inner lining of my trachea.
The massive skeleton of some dead creature loomed before us, and Nordom gave a confused chirrup, "Anomaly encountered. Readings abnormal... un-un-unable to process."
Whatever it was, its presence drove off the hordes that chased us. Outside a ring of stones had served as a campfire, and a tripod of metal beams suspended a copper cauldron over the unlit coals. A few skulls and ceramic jars had even been carefully arranged, not so much a threatening set of decorations as much as it was... domestic. We took a quick breather, enough to quench the fiery ache from our muscles. I didn't trust first appearances: if there was a fight ready within we couldn't nap and get a full rest and wait for it to come to us.
The entrance had been hollowed out from the side of a skull wide as a cart. It led down a flight of stairs into an impressive burrow, with walls of dirt packed so densely that they might as well have been stone. The air was keen with the acrid smell of bitter herbs and the musk of abyssal worms, gutted and hung to cure like hams.
This was indeed the home of Fhjull Forked-Tongue, and he wasn't happy to see us.
He was a broken fiend, with one tattered wing and covered in scars. His voice was clenched, angry, and despairing, issuing from behind gritting teeth. "A tanar'ri in my home!" he hissed at Grace, "Of all the indignities! Why don't you invite your whole filthy species in?! Feh! The fetid stench of a tan'nari! I can smell it for leagues! Show some respect for my home! Can't you find some fumes or acidic vapors to try and drown your scent? Feh! I'll never get that tanar'ric stench out of the place. It'll draw baatezu from all over the planes."
"I like the way she smells. It's pretty," Morte quipped.
"Oh, and it's not just any tanar'ri, but a tanar'ri whore who's just walked into my home... things can't get any worse. Come in! Come in! Please, my home is your home!" He waved his hands in the air in despair. "Why don't you invite all the rest of your Abyssal harpies into my home to torment me?"
"I extend my greetings to you, Advocate Infernus Forked-Tongue," Grace nodded with a slight bow. "I will take your suggestion under consideration."
"Have you come to kill me?! Torment me? If so, know that I still have much power at my disposal!"
I raised an eyebrow. I'd met fiends cruel, malicious, and cunning. But I'd never encountered one that seemed so bitter until Fhjull, "I have not come to kill you."
"Feh! We shall see, we shall see! If you do not intend to kill or inflict pain upon me, I fear that the torment is of a subtler nature... by far, the worse of many such pains."
"A friend told me that you're under obligation to perform charity. I'd just like the answers to some questions..."
He winced at that. Apparently it was true. "Feh. Speak. Speak your piece."
"Where is this place?"
"Feh. A blasted crater in the Outlands that reflects the emptiness and hollowness of my life. Feh. I need little. Marrow from the creature supplies me with food and the peculiar energies of the place prevent scrying fools from finding me... though idiots apparently can still find their way here."
"What is this creature?"
"This is the skeleton of Ul-Goris, the father of the goristro. They're living, bearlike siege-towers, juggernauts of chaos, huge, practically unstoppable, highly resistant to magic... and Ul-Goris' bones, in the crater where he fell to his death, radiate much enchantment that prevents magic to spy me, keeping this pitiful frame alive for a few more desperate years. Feh!"
"What makes your life so empty anyway?"
"Had you walked the scalding streets of Dis and smelled the sweet stench of burning of flesh, breathed deep the poisonous vapors of Stygia's ice floes, led armies through the night-lit palaces... you would not ask this question, near-man."
I'd had enough of his grousing. Fiends were dangerous enough to face off, and even talking to a baatezu could mean disaster. They had a reputation for twisting the smallest of promises or hints of obligation against others, after all, "I was told that you would know of my mortality. It has been stolen from me."
Forked-Tongue scrutinized me closely for the first time. "Memories run like hollow canyons through my mind, almost-human. Many creatures have I met in an immortal's time... though I do not believe you were among them," he shrugged, "You all look alike to me... and I think I would have remembered the scarred flesh of your body... it is much like the breathing paintings that bedeck Bel's gallery of skins in Baator, except with less grace and more passion in the scar strokes."
I stepped back when he reached a clawed hand out, but he pressed forward, tracing those yellowed talons across my puckered flesh, "The violence is great, nearing acceptable levels, but the scars are applied with almost tanar'ric crudity, without any care for maximizing the pain of the recipient. A baatezu artist would be much more devoted to the following the paths of pain across the body. Some of these wounds look to be clean kills, others look as if a blind butcher were carving up human steaks."
He scoffed, as if I'd offended his aesthetic sensibilities. "Feh. Human art makes me ill sometimes. Such potential, wasted."
Grace sounded bemused. "Is Advocate Infernus Forked-Tongue implying that we tanar'ri are a crude people?"
"Feh! To say that tanar'ri are crude is to insult crudity. Any lesser race that revels in chaos, allows itself to be pulled and drowned in its stagnant tides, and calls it 'evil' are not a race at all. They are beasts."
"Surely you simply object to the implementation of evil, rather than the degree. Many among the tanar'ri would claim that the closer one is to the primal nature of evil, the more true they are to the ideal."
"Feh and double feh! The tanar'ri beasts want to strip law and order from the face of evil! Inexcusable! Intolerable! I cannot --"
"From a baatezu point of view, it may indeed seem intolerable," Grace began to counter, "However... Advocate, many tanar'ri philosophers would argue that the baatezu are to be no less excused for excising passion from violence, excising passion from the very essence of evil. The baatezu would replace rage with cold methodical cruelty. And thus, the old debate continues: Which is the greater evil? Efficient evil or passionate evil?"
"Feh! You say that simply because you are... what you are." Fhjull wagged his eyebrows at her, then waved his claw dismissively. "At least I am still allowed to be cynical."
"Great," I interrupted before this went too far, "Let's get back to discussing my mortality, instead of my scars." Grace inclined her head slightly in concession.
"Very well, very well." Fhjull scratched his head. "If I recall correctly - and there is so much I do not! - I have heard of a case such as yours. It makes you immortal, does it not?"
"If so, then death itself is no longer sacred. Feh. In my day, mortals remained so and knew their place... now everybody and their mother has the disease of eternal boredom. We should have a gathering and invite everyone across the Planes and offer them immortal contracts... it would save all of us hard-working baatezu a great deal of effort. Feh."
He prodded my chest. Hard. "You know that if everyone was immortal, this entire petitioner system would be up the famed fecal creek. Feh. Immortality is not a trinket to be given to unruly children such as you."
I nudged his claw aside, "Be that as it may, but tell me what you know of my mortality."
"Feh... as I was saying, I recall hearing somewhere about a place called the Fortress of Regrets." He thought for a moment. "Yes... yes, that's it."
"What do you know of the place?"
He smiled widely, hissing with glee. "I am pleased to inform you that I do NOT know. Not at all! I cannot help you to get there, and that chills my heart in such a delightful way. No. I. Cannot. Help. You. Oh, how I have longed to say those words. How sweet they tas-"
"Do you know someone who does?" It was mildly disturbing to see a fiend so... giddy.
"Eh? Enough of your cross examinations! Yes, yes, I know somebody who might know... on Baator lies a pillar of betrayers, liars... and sages. Despite their nature, their knowledge is considerable. They might know where you can find this Fortress of Regrets." Fhjull's face curdled into a sour snarl, his tone bitter that I'd been able to pry that one out of him.
"How do I get to Baator?"
"Hold on, chief... Baator is BAD news," Morte floated over between me and Fhjull, "This fiend is probably holding out on us... and even if there we find the Pillar of Skulls, we can probably find somebody else who knows how to reach this Fortress without going to one of the most dangerous planes in the multiverse."
I mulled this over. Morte would know best on this matter, "Are you holding out, Forked-Tongue?"
"Feh! I have not told you of the nature of this cursed contract, but understand this! I can NOT withhold this information. The Pillar... is your only hope. There is a portal outside my home. It lies in the hand of this giant creature. Go through the arch formed by the left arm of the creature and you will be taken to the Pillar of Skulls. The portal will be active for you now."
"And how do I return once I have gone?"
"Eh? Return? Why, I hadn't thought of that. To return from Baator, you need knowledge and a piece of jagged obsidian to cut your tongue. That knowledge you will gain from the Pillar. But there is no reason for you to return here. And no desire on my part to see you again."
Morte waved side to side mimicking a shake of the head, "It's a dangerous place, chief. I'd rather not go. I've been, and it isn't pretty. All right?"
"We have no choice, Morte. But I have need of more..."
"How can MORONS speak so much?" Fhjull grunted. "Speak. Speak. Feh!"
"I'm in need of some aid."
He emitted a strangled croak. "I have some few... very few... items that I have accumulated over the years. They are... precious to me... but if you need them..."
"I sure do. Let's see what you've got."
He snarled. "I entertain no thoughts of strangling you and leaving your corpses for the trelons."
He had a nasty collection of fiendish weapons and charms: from cruel blades to collections of worms.
"Feh... that is Hatred's Gift," he said of the axe, "a fine weapon for one such as yourself. I don't think you'll want it... there is a curse laid on it. Perhaps you would reconsider..."
Cursed perhaps, but I didn't like the idea of a fiend having a weapon such as this.
"Those? They are kassegs," he pointed out when I asked of the larvae, "parasites that will lodge in your brain and devour your mental energy with no appreciable benefit... Feh! Cursed contract! They boost your mental power, something you surely could use! Take them! Take them!"
"That old thing? Feh! That is the Gordian knot," he said when I curiously eyed a complicated loop of string," Cut it, and you become twice the leader you are already, heh heh. And of course it comes with its own price, one I am thankfully powerless to stop."
And then I looked through his collection of scrolls.
"Bah! You will strip me of all my possessions! You want spells? Feh! This is what I have, bloodsucker!" He rattled off an impressive list.
By the time I was done he was close to tears, "You have ruined, destroyed, eviscerated one of the most unique spell libraries in the multiverse... for all the good it will do you. I have no more spells to give you."
For a moment I'd held some measure of sympathy for him, but a being like Fhjull hardly deserved any shred of pity for the evils he's wracked the planes with across the eons. There was just one last thing we needed before we trekked off to Baator.
"I need a place to rest."
"WHAT? I must endure your presence even longer? Will this torment never cease? Feh! Fine, then, fine! Spread out across the floor! Raid my larder! Knock over my experiments! I'll just be over here fuming! Feh!" He stormed off.
I'd been told by sages and prophets alike that I'd spread torment wherever I went. For once, though, that sat nicely with me.