Part 141: Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 14Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 14
Bands of toxic gray clouds crept along the curve of the sky. For a minute all I could see were fleeting shadows scuttling through a blood-red mist. Moments ticked away with the pounding of my heart as my eyes adjusted, interrupted only by bestial screams and shrieks of agony. Yet too soon the world came into sharp, terrible focus.
Deep scarlet light seeped and rippled from the sky as if I were looking up from the bottom of an ocean of blood, watching the distant light ripple through ribbons of blackness. Now and again jagged flecks of lighting tore between the clouds like white-hot wounds. There was carnage. Everywhere, carnage... the few guardsmen of Curst fended off the hordes of the crimson night. The wounded crawled down streets flecked with acid, writhing as their flesh sizzled and smoldered. Scaled beasts galloped through the streets, devouring the dead and wounded with equal measure. The condemned citizens wailed in terror and despair, screaming against the madness that ate inwards from the edges of the city.
Some profited from the chaos. Thieves emptied houses with impunity, tossing the civilians into the streets and leaving them to the beasts' fangs. Thugs dragged screaming noblewomen into the alleys, their gowns torn and tears black with melted eyeliner. Wizards stood on rooftops, many leveling their magic not against the demonic hordes, but the citizens below. Flashes of cast spells lit up faces demented with glee... old grudges would be met today.
On a high balcony, floating above the stench of chaos and murder and death, was Trias, his skeletal wings unfurled and gaze hard with cold satisfaction.
And the burning question was this: where in all the hells do I start?
A familiar figure peeked around the corner, and recognizing me he loped forward. I backed away, but squinting a little I saw that I knew him too. It was that smelly old man, Kyse the Caretaker.
"You have returned to a town of calamity, traveler. The deva rises triumphant above the wreckage, having dragged us here to our dooms. There is only one way to return - and that is to strike the deva down, to cause the town to recant its treachery and deceit. The stronger the belief of the town in forgiveness, the weaker the deva."
"Trias did all this?"
"The deva rose from the ground and condemned the town's iniquities. A great confusion arose as the buildings tumbled around us - and then we arrived. There is only one way to combat Trias - and that is to weaken him by good deeds and turning the townsfolks' minds away from chaos and evil toward goodness. Otherwise, he shall surely triumph. I have work to attend to. Should you require resting, seek the old barracks or the distillery," he pressed a scroll into my hands, "Now take this. It will aid you."
We made our way through the streets, blood hot with battle. I had to fight hand to hand mostly... my larger spells could mean collateral damage, and we needed to save as many citizens as possible. Nightmarish horrors fell with slashed throats or snapped necks.
We cleared the sections of the town as best we could, and finally in a small eddy where the violence had shrunk into a trickle I heard a moan of agony.
Beneath the wheels of a wagon lay an aging githzerai... trapped during the chaos. He spat a bloody wad, and grinned up at me. "Not going to help me, are you? That's what brought us here in the first place..." He laughed weakly.
"Who are you?"
"He is a true traitor to the githzerai. He has cursed our people." Dak'kon drew his blade. "That is reason enough for him to die."
"Put the blade away, Dak'kon," I urged, "We don't have time for grudges."
"Yes, put the blade away, zerth dog. I spit on your teachings. Wear your chains a little longer." The githzerai turned his head toward me. "I am Tovus Giljaf. I used to be the Burgher of this town... until the accursed deva boke free."
"What can you tell me of the deva?"
"We had imprisoned it, oh so many years ago. I thought it perfectly hidden from all sniffing dogs and traitors. Suddenly it burst from under the earth, blazing, and my beautiful, beautiful home... slid." He looked at me intently. "I would have my revenge. Free me, yes?"
"You were the Burgher of this town?"
"My compatriots... and I... we were using this city as a base to return ourselves to power... but that is another story for another day."
"You and yours have peddled secrets of The People to Prime Worlders," Dak'kon declared coldly, "Exchanged knowledge of tactics and fortress locations for trinkets."
"I can't say I think much of your town," I said wryly, firing several purple bolts down the street at a passing gehreleth.
"I don't either... but it's mine, and to see it lost to that preening, self-righteous deva... it is more than I can bear." He coughed wetly. "Free me, and I shall aid you in your revenge on him. My guards can hold off the monsters for a time."
"Relax. I'll pull you out."
Dak'kon eyes hardened, "You cannot trust this one. Let him perish here, under the cart."
"No, Dak'kon, we're pulling him out."
Tovus' thin mouth compressed further still. "Then lift, damn you, and be done."
We gathered around him, two on each side. Grace knelt over him, administering healing and ready to pull him out the moment we unpinned him. Yet as we prepared to lift, a cry of agony sounded from the other side of the cart...
"Aieee! There's someone on the other side! You're killing me!"
The voice was familiar...
"Berrog?" it was that rogue... the self-described engineer who came searching for an imprisoned deva. "What are you doing here?" We set the cart down gently, and Tovus snarled in frustration as the weight bore down on him again.
"What are you waiting for?" he cried out, "Free me!"
Berrog Quickshoes moaned, "I only came to Curst to free the deva... creature of good.... but I was misinformed. I should never have come..."
I circled around the cart, and there he was. Coughing blood, the axle pressing down on his ribs. "What happened, Berrog?"
"I was... fleeing the city... when it began to slide. I was near... him..." he indicated Torvus, "and he grabbed me. The wagon fell from the sky, and he tried to shove me under it... while he escaped. But I still ask that you ... find a way to free him as well."
Dak'kon nodded to me coldly. Maybe we should just lift from this end and crush the damn gith.
"I still command the guards of Curst..." Tovus pleaded. His voice sounded frantic, no doubt with the fear that I would allow Dak'kon to execute him right then and there, "I can inspire them, aid them, slow the tide of monsters that stands between you and the deva... free me, and your tasks shall be easier. Free him, and you gain nothing."
"You gain nothing by freeing me... I confess to that," Berrog admitted, "But surely... the tide of goodness will swing... if you save me without thought of gain... better still to save us both."
"How about if I lift this off both of you? My companions and I can do it if we throw ourselves into it."
We couldn't count on leverage to free them both. We'd have to lift the cart straight up, and with the rubble weighing it down our task was all the harder. No time to clear the stones away either...
My muscles strained as I lifted from Berrog's end. Annah, Dak'kon, and Nordom lifted from the other. My knees buckled. The muscles of my lower back seemed to twist into a knot. But inch by inch the cart rose, until it was loose enough for Grace to help pull Berrog out, kicking and shuffling. On the other end of the cart someone let out a pained wail.
"Tovus?" I called, "Tovus!"
"The sod's fine, chief!" Morte replied, "I just had to bite on something to get him out."
"My thanks, mate," Berrog dusted himself off and checked his body quickly for wounds, "I've had enough of this burg. I'm back to Mount Celestia. I hope your good deeds stand you in... good stead wherever you're going." He gazed off toward the deva standing on the balcony. "I can't believe I came here to see... that." He shook his head, then ran off.
Tovus winced sourly and adjusted his now-frayed knot of hair. "You have my gratitude... human. I go now to the walls to aid my guards. My city shall not perish." He gave me a crooked smile and pulled a scroll from his coat. "I do not envy you the conflict with the deva. He is a fearsome opponent. Here. Take this. It may help."
A large guardsman bellowed orders to the civilians gathered around him. He glared at us through the slits of his helm. "What d'ya want, piker? An' make it quick, afore we get ta workin' 'ere."
"What's going on here?"
"What's it look like, ya sod?! We're about ta loot this warehouse. Ya want in on the action, or not? 'Cause this ain't gonna be some sorry-arse, disorderly mess... we're doin' it right, an' I'm givin' the orders."
"We've been pulled inta Carceri, yeh idjit!" Annah snapped, "Did yeh think ye could just go skippin' off down the road with a sack o'er yer shoulders an' be done wit it?"
The guard ran a finger along the edge of his axe, streaked with hastily-wiped smears of blood. "Oi, I've killed 'alf a dozen already t' get here. Don't assume I'd think twice about sendin' yer pretty head bouncin' down those steps."
I gestured subtly to signal Annah to tuck her blades away, "If we can calm things down, it'll help the town slide back onto the Outlands. Once Curst is wholly overrun with monsters, how long do you think you'll live to enjoy the spoils of your looting?"
"But..." he blinked. Treachery had been bred into the bones of these people for so long that they'd still live as thugs with the end of their world staring them in the face. "Ah, hells; ye'r right." He shouted to the looters who'd gathered around him: "Right! You heard the man, let's get goin'! And if anyone speaks o' this if we get the town slid back... ye're dead! Now let's go! Move!" He turned to me again. "And as fer you: ye've a better brain on yer shoulders than it looks. Good man."
I tried the door. Locked. If there was anyone inside they were either civilians that needed to stay hidden, or else they were skilled enough fighters that needed to get their asses out here to help clear the streets.
"Think you could open it quickly, Annah?"
"Tchah! Just yeh watch me."
The metal lockpicks slid home. In record time she gave a couple of scrapes, a twist, and a firm tug, and the lock clicked open. I didn't even have time to blink.
Dim lanterns hung about the warehouse, shedding a diseased orange light about the room. I'd expected yelps of fear, maybe even a few sods stuffing their pockets and packs with whatever goods they could carry. Hell, I even expected the ring of conspirators huddled together muttering their plans.
What I didn't expect was the slightly stooped old man. A full grey beard clung to his face and a lion's mane of grey hair flared out. What would've been warm lightning instead cast a hellish glow about his face, giving the old man a sinister appearance. He wore a couple of shoulder guards as armor, and in the other hands he held a helmet. Long gray curls of smoke trailed from his pipe, and he fingered the tobacco pouch at his waist. I'd seen him before: that misleading bulk, a band of belly fat hiding years of well-trained strength and military skill. There was the hefty wheeze, the friendly twinkle in his eye that now seemed disturbingly sinister.
"Ebb?" I croaked, my voice all the coarser with shock.
A halo of smoke wreathed his smile, "Well met by chaos, traveler. What brings you to these parts?"
"What are you doing here? I thought you'd retired from the Harmonium."
He bowed as low as his paunch would allow. "As you can see... I'd joined a different crew. You come to a warehouse full of plotters and schemers, lad. With the old order falling apart here, we think it's best to make sure its pieces are swept away and the people introduced to a new freedom. We're a dangerous bunch, you see."
I blinked, "You're Anarchists..."
"Correct, my friend," he tapped his head in a small salute, "Ebb Creakknees, formerly Harmonium Third Measure and currently leader pro tem for this cell of the Revolutionary League. With the order of the town toppled, we're in a... unique... position to ensure that our views are heard. And I'm in charge of this little band of adventurers - only for command purposes, of course! When the people see that their leaders've failed them, chances are good they'll crush the power structures that've repressed them and make something new, something beautiful. We're going to help them."
I ignored the diatribe. "Just as well that you're gathered together. There's a lot of chaos going around in this town, and I'm seeking allies in stamping it out."
"You seek allies against the chaos?" Ebb shook his head sadly, "Yet we seek to increase the chaos, to overthrow the old order, to ensure that the old schemes do not rise again. It's our job, after all..."
"It might be what you do, but you don't support destruction for its own sake. Anarchists destroy so that others may rebuild. There'll be nothing left of Curst if this keeps up."
His self-assured exterior slipped for a moment. "What do you mean?"
"What I mean is that while you've been plotting the overthrow of the city government, evil has come to Curst and is currently destroying what's left of the city. Just look outside!" I raised my hand, firing a bolt of lightning through the ceiling. Tiles and splintered wood rained down, revealing a gaping hole the size of a melon. The Anarchists unsheathed their weapons, but held their attack. The tortured red sky wept through, casting the group in a hellish glow. "The treachery of this town has turned on itself. We've been dragged into Carceri."
Ebb and his crew blinked, looking up at the swirling mass of gray and red, mouths agape. "I had thought... no. Not another sandstorm. But... we must do something! All our work will be for naught if they're all dead! Here. Take this." He handed over another scroll and turned to his brethren. "We must go, or all our work will be for naught! Come on!" He raced for the door, his companions in tow.