Part 140: Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 13Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 13
We loped through the blasted valleys of Baator with the shrieks of the damned behind us, but they were muted by the troubles that lay even more distant in the past. A ringing horror sent shudders through my chest, the kind that resonates when a niggling doubt blooms into full, terrible realization. It was much like leaving a fire unattended when leaving the house, only to realize partway through your day that the hut you left behind, an hour's walk away, may now be a pile of smoldering ash.
The race back seemed to take twice as long, each step lengthened with that sense of panic, each moment stretched thin with the tension that gripped me.
Lured by the scent of tanar'i blood, they came in a horde of fangs and claws. Thinking they were facing a Blood War invasion, the cornugon and his abishai lackeys expected a concomitant amount of brutality.
We didn't disappoint them, with me choosing to vent my frustration on the field of battle.
The strange, sulfurous musk of Fhjull's abode burned my nostrils. He looked at me through slitted eyes, an uninvited guest come to rummage through his belongings and upset the tidiness of his home. "Feh! So you've returned! And what did the Pillar speak of? Did it answer your insipid questions?"
I grimaced, saying nothing, but Fhjull caught my mood and a dry cackle shook his shoulders. He wiped the tears from his eyes and grinned at me, "Ah, when the rare idiot does go to the Pillar of Skulls to seek answers, he rarely enjoys the answers he receives."
"Trias was the one who sent me here under false pretenses," I snapped, "I wouldn't have set foot in Baator if it weren't for him."
Fhjull stiffens, his sudden mirth dead in an instant. "Trias? Trias the Betrayer sent you here?" His claws clenched and unclenched. "This is the final indignity! That self-righteous bastard! Kill him, and I will reward you with all that I have at my disposal! Flay his skin and bring it to me so I might wear it as a cloak... hurkkk!"
He gagged, eyes bulging. "I mean... no, no... do not harm the deva. It would be wrong to do so...I was mistaken. Mistaken, I was."
"What did Trias do to you?"
"Feh! Years of service as an Advocate Infernus! Painstaking detail and organization. I never questioned my superiors. I did ALL that was asked of me. I punished those below me with the cruelest and most inventive punishments when they failed. THEN... one slip, and it all comes crashing down! All due to CHANCE. CHAOS. RANDOMNESS. And the lesser races wonder why the baatezu wish the multiverse to be an orderly construct."
He paused, hissing in anger."The deva lied. It lied. Trias the betrayer tricked me into signing a contract, and I, blinded by the possibility of capturing him, walked straight into his trap. If he dies, the contract is over... but I have not been able to find him, and if I did, how would I harm him?! What am I to do? Even these treacherous thoughts make my mind burn in pain. I was so sure I had that paragon of self-righteousness. That short-sighted greed cost me the rest of my centuries of glorious conniving and entombed me in this sinkhole of good will. Bleh."
Fhjull scraped his tongue with his teeth, trying to clear the bad taste of those words from his mouth, "And now I am cursed to do good deeds, to aid those in need of aid. Feh! An eternity of curses on Trias! A pox on his blessed aid! May all the dung heaps of Maladomini rain down upon his head!"
He ranted for a few more moments longer. "That skulking pseudo-child of light! That contemptible... aggh... I mean no harm to him and his treacherous, lying, no-respect-for-the-law ways! Feh! He is a deceiver, mortal, and you should trust him in nothing. I mean this, of course, with all due charity and..." Forked-Tongue spat on the ground, "... kindness. His deception has cost me an eternity... unless he should die."
His toothy grin was surprisingly hopeful.
"As much as I like what I've seen of his work," I said, and Fhjull grunted sourly in response, "I have to agree. Something is... off-balance."
"So perhaps... you would have to kill him. For the greater good, of course."
"We'll have to see. But don't think you can go back to ravaging the planes, Fhjull. I know where you live. And I have all your weapons, your spells."
"We'll see..." he hissed, as if pondering my demise.
"Now I'll need a way out of this Powers-forsaken place."
"Feh... does this mean that you shall leave me to my solitude once again? Then I proclaim, with as much delight as possible, that the portal lies under the arse end of this creature's bones. It will return you to that groveling hovel town of Curst, from whence you came, and I can think of few more befitting ways for you to travel."
What fresh hell is this.
A cold desert wind blew through the ruins that once held Curst. Fractured foundations and pillars sprouted like jagged teeth. Splintered posts curled up from the ground like the remaining fibers of an uprooted tree, still bleeding with sap. There was a freshness to the damage. It was clean and new, and I looked around warily, wondering what could've done this, and whether it was still here.
"It's shifted..." Morte murmured, "The whole city's been shifted."
Still numb with the shock of it all I found myself fiddling with a handful of dust, watching it spill from between my fingers. That wind carried the sand away, whipping it into ribbons until it vanished in the distance.
Curst must've been right on the edge of Carceri, held back only by the thinnest margin of belief, the faintest flicker of good. Trias didn't have to do much to break that tenuous link, but I was certain he had something to do with it nonetheless.
I stood up, alert as a hound and scanning the rubble.
"Do you smell that?" I whispered.
"What? Smell what, chief?" Morte turned around.
"I'm... not sure." My gaze shifted, head flicking this way and that, trying to trace it. There was a faint miasma in the air that smelled of dread and rotting dreams. And it was familiar.
"If you're going to spook me chief, you could at least be specific about it."
"I sense it as well," Dak'kon's voice was low, almost muted by the unsheathing of his blade, "We have encountered its like, bound as the condemned on the Pillars of Silence."
"Seeking to remove yourself from this box, eh? That spell is the worst of them all. Basically, that particular spell draws energy from the current owner of the box and uses it to power one of the spells of confinement. That isn't the worst of it," Shilandra smiled softly, as if in pity, "The fiend inside can smell this energy and would more than likely hunt down that person should it escape. It's really a no-win situation to own that box. Either it drains you dry of your energy, or the fiend within kills you."
"That damn barmy dreg-sipping priest said he'd banished it..." I growled.
I swallowed, "I'm sure a fiend of such power that it required so many spells to contain it will have no problems making its way back here. And when it does it's going to be looking for you..."
"I have taken that into consideration. You see, each side of the pyramid contained a portal to a different plane. In effect, I scattered its essence far and wide across the multiverse. Did you know there are races out there that consider demons a sort of delicacy?" He began to chuckle softly as he reached into the pyramid and sifted through the ashes of the box, removing the gem that was attached to it. "Payment for my services. I will use this to help rebuild my beautiful cathedral."
"...Said he'd scattered the remnants all across existence..."
A roar echoed in the distance, feral and furious, and thrilled with the blood of the hunt.
It clambered over the broken rubble of the city, and its screams sounded like a cheese grater drawn across my brain. Immediately the force bolts sprung from my hands, sending thunderclaps against the creature's chest. Some seemed to punch through its hide, others slid uselessly past its skin, like a stone skipping across a pond.
I spiraled through the air, several ribs crushed and splintered bits of bone punching through my lungs. I was thankful for the sand even as I spat it out. If it was stone I had landed on, I would've left a crimson smear five feet long. I picked myself up, sand shifting beneath my feet.
Dak'kon dodged beneath the fiend's swings, blade flashing and sticking its hide like a pin. Annah circled around, tail flashing and flicking up arcs of sand. Crossbow bolts peppered its body. If there was anything I hated about my life it was this: first to be hit, last to join the fray.
Unfortunately, I got exactly what I wished for.
Its nostrils flared, sucking in the dry desert air and devouring the scent of battle, tasting the smell of its prey. Then it looked to me with those feral eyes, burning with an cruel and alien intelligence.
I licked my lips, and spun around on my feet, breaking into a run as it barreled past Dak'kon. The gith blinked in confusion, Annah picked herself up and cursing up a storm after being thrown off.
And I ran.
I turned around periodically, a jet of force flaring from my hands each time. In one breath I murmured a prayer of thanks to the spellweaver who designed the Force Missiles to seek out its targets, precluding the need to aim. In the next breath I cursed the creature's magic-resistant hide.
We made a ridiculous train with me dashing ahead in a panic, leaping over rubble and dodging around broken pillars and leftover masonry. The demon lumbered in pursuit, smashing through any obstacle in front of it. The others trailed behind, ducking past rocks and splintered beams hurled by the fiend's fury. Adrenaline and regeneration gave speed to my limbs. Each twisted ankle popped back into place with newly-growing sinew. Each fractured tibia or bruised shin mended even as I limped along, leg flopping to one side.
It's an ancient instinct, the chase. We see it between wolves and deer, bears and men, even with children at play. Once something runs, something sparks in the back of the primal consciousness. The urge to chase rolls forward, building momentum with each step, until you've got something barreling towards you in a mindless game of catch.
Until you face it.
I turned around, my lungs searing with each breath. My vision swam, but I could see the heavy bruises and sheared skin left by the missiles I had slung over my shoulder. I kept the mantra in mind: Face your enemy, and it will stop. Stare down your aggressor, and it will give pause.
Doesn't work with fiends, though.
It crashed into me, all claws and teeth, breath fetid with the scent of rotting flesh from past meals. My last spell went off between us, and lightning bloomed in a crack. I felt my limbs spasm, my arms grow numb, pain lacing along my spine like a skewer through a boiled rat. When I blinked and took my first breath after, the smell of burning meat filled my nostrils. A weight lay over me, something wet and foul-smelling...
My hand shot into the gaping maw just as it clamped shut... the dagger was tight in my fist, the blade turned up towards the roof of its mouth.
The force of the bite drove the dagger tip into the hard palate, lodging it into a wedge of splintered bone. The creature shrieked, every instinct telling itself to open its mouth. But still it held fast, refusing to let me go. Those dead-pale eyes stared into me, brows arching with hate.
"You can't move your limbs can you?" I coughed, "Still numb with shock?"
A rumble bubbled in its throat, and I felt a pressure in the front of my mind. It invaded my consciousness, and its twisted thoughts pressed against mine. My hunt is tied to my liberator, and I will devour him to restore my strength. Did you truly think that any box with a pretty trinket on it should be opened? You freed me, you stupid little primate.
"I don't think you'll be doing much devouring as you are," I grunted, and the creature's jaw tightened against my arm as if in denial. Yet the blade scraped just a little deeper. "You'd think that we're in a stalemate..."
Your strength is gone. Mine is growing with each drop of your blood in my belly. The taste of an immortal is sweet.
I ignored him. "...but you should know about the most powerful weapon we stupid primates have."
A sense of amusement filled my mind. More of your small hedge magics?
A grim smile spread across my lips. "Opposable thumbs."
And then I drove one into its eye socket.
It screamed, limbs spasming, claws twitching as the crawled forward, trying to gather the strength to gut me. It was a race between us... what would meet its mark faster, my digit worming its way to break the eggshell-thin bone of the socket, driving slowly in to stir its brains? Or would it be the fiendish claws still creaking with electricity, eager to pierce my chest and rupture my heart?
We'll never know, because in that instant a pair of daggers punched through each side of the fiend's neck, and the creature's head rolled forward to slap me in the face.
Its breath really, really stank.
"Don't know what I'd do without you guys," I grunted, working to shove the colossal beast off of me. When I cleaned myself off I had Nordom pin it with a few more bolts for good measure, then sliced it apart in case some power allowed it to revive once again.
"Well hello," I declared happily, "What's this?"
"Imagine what treasures you'd find if you searched through things other than a creature's guts," Morte grinned, "Now if you're finished, I've found something you might want to see."
Past the fallen remnants of the gate to Inner Curst, in the heart of the ruins, squatted the four-legged set of arches that held the gate.
As I approached, the rotting heads on the gate began to speak, chanting words back and forth between themselves to form coherent sentences. "Gone, gone. Lost to the betrayer, lost to the light."
Their moans bubbled and broke incessantly, like waves crashing against a dead shore. "Gone on the wind, swept on a tide of evil. Through the gate, gone, gone. The town, gone, lost to its own hatred. Through the gate, into the Red Prison, the prison plane... Carceri."
Their keening song built, weeping rising to a peak, "The prison plane... chaos, evil... worlds within worlds, orbs within orbs, strung out like malign pearls in the skies... the Red Prison, doom of titans and gods alike."
"Can't you speak normally?"
The heads continued to moan, "Beyond the veil all is... shadowed, illuminated. Nothing translates. Nothing easy. No."
"Then why are you still here?"
"Betrayed, despised, framed... punished, executed, made an example of. Hung here by enemies. Lost, lost, lost." Their breaths rattled as one.
"Is it just me, or are there far too many talking, disembodied heads around these days?"
The heads paused. They looked at each other for a moment, and then back at me. They hung shamefully from the gate.
"Never mind that," I sighed. I needed answers, and this wasn't going to be a pleasant trip, "Do you have any idea how to get there or get it back here?"
"Through the gate, into the prison... no return from the prison, no return. Go through the gate, go through the gate... your destiny awaits you there."
I looked up, gaze firming. Those words sounded much too prophetic for my comfort, "What do you know about my destiny?"
"The deva awaits you." The heads fell silent then, leaving only the thrum of the portal to be carried on the wind.