Part 18: Journal of The Nameless One: Part 14Journal of The Nameless One: Part 14
My nose wrinkled at the sour stench of sweat, thick and clinging as if it had been wiped up with a damp rag and left to molder in a box under the hot sun for a week. A rodent, its head throbbing with exposed pink brain matter, scuttled over my boot. I took short, shallow breaths, filtering the air with my teeth. It helped a little, but I could taste the grime still.
Here and there a Collector wandered. One with a wheelbarrow near-filled, fresh limbs hanging from the planks. Others squatted in the garbage in their ragged rust-brown robes. It slowly dawned on me how easily that umber hue could mask the filth and blood that stained the cloth.
One such Collector wandered past, muttering to himself. His eyes were sunken and dark-rimmed, but they glinted with a touch more sanity than the others here.
Not wanting to touch the man, I stepped in his path instead, "Greetings."
"Someone comes ta speaks ta Nodd, speaks ta Nodd, aye..." He suddenly broke into a fit of hacking coughs, then nodded to himself.
"I have some questions," I said politely.
He nodded. "What?" He sniffed, then squinted at me, then Morte. "Jink. Ye wants t'know sumfin -- jink. Aye, jink-jink."
I already had a couple of coppers in hand for this, and I dropped them in an outstretched palm, still moist with the juices of whatever he handled recently.
"Jink fer Nodd, jink-jink." He mumbled for a moment, hiding the copper coins away in the folds of his robes. "Ask, Nodd tries ta answer, aye." He coughed for a bit, spitting something off to the side.
"Do you know of a man named Pharod?"
Nodd looked frightened and started to shake his head. "Pharod, Pharod, Pharod... What? What 'bout him?" He frowned, then shook his head, as if he was not sure he should've been be speaking to me.
I spat. The air here was filthy. I was no dainty lass, but I sorely wished I had brought a perfumed kerchief with me. Morte made a face. "Do you know where I can find him?"
The Collector shook his head, then mumbled. He glanced quickly at me, then began to murmur again to himself. It sounded like he was uttering a prayer against evil. "Nuh-nuh-not here. In Square..." He frowned, as if unsure how to explain it. "...but not in th' Square." He shook his head again, then coughed.
"Well that was remarkably useful. I do wonder how we ever could get anywhere without yammering to these addle-coves, chief."
"Be patient, Morte. Tell me about this area, Nodd."
He pointed to ground, nodding. "Th' square, Ragpicker's Square, trash everywhere, aye, Sharegrave's square."
Morte clicked his teeth, "I think I've made my point already."
"Pox mentioned him, too. What can you tell me about Sharegrave?"
"Sharegrave's shadow long, falls over Nodd, it does, aye. Nodd gives some a' his jink ta Sharegrave, Sharegrave tell others in his shadow: 'watches out fer Nodd,' aye." He sniffed, nodding slowly.
"Eh... eh..." He shook his head, coughed, then resumed his nodding. "Ye'd ask a' Nodd, aye, Nodd'd ask a' ye... question fer ye, aye..."
Fair enough, I suppose. I kept an eye on his hands in case he was going to stick me like every other suspicious creature I met, and I didn't relish dying and having my corpse dragged through this disgusting square.
"Nodd has a sister, aye, Amarysse. Ah-mahr-eece... lives in th' Hive, away from here, away from th' Square. So long, long ago Nodd was separated from his sister, taken away..."
I began to wonder how long I could hold my breath. Pretty long, I suppose, "You've been separated from her and you'd like me to find her?"
"Oh come on, chief! Are you going to run errands for every sap we come across in this city? We're going to spend half our lives fetching and chasing after lim-lims at this rate!"
I shifted my weight and didn't quite look Nodd in the eye. Morte was right, much as I'd hate to admit it.
"Ye don't know her?" He shook his head sadly for a moment, chewing his lower lip. "If ye sees her, if ye does, tell her Nodd, her brother, worries about her, aye, he does, he worries."
"Why don't you go find her?" Morte could barely keep the annoyance out of his voice.
"NO!" Nodd covered his head with his arms, mumbling to himself. "Nodd... Nodd can't speaks right no more, he can't, nay, an' he smells a' corpses an' th' dirt a' the Square, Ragpicker's Square... NO!" The outburst sent him into a fit of hacking coughs.
I looked up at him, "What happened to you, Nodd?"
Nodd sniffed, looking at the ground quietly. Finally, he began nodding to himself, speaking softly: "Nodd was young, aye, he was, an' started hearin' voices, tellin' Nodd 'do this! do that!' Bad things, bad, like chewin' on Nodd's fingers..." He held his hands to his face, revealing old bite-scars beneath the caked-on filth. I winced and hoped he'd quit that habit by now. Ugh.
"So Nodd's parents takes him aways, they does, puts him in a dark place, a Winged Tower, where they pokes needles an' hooks in Nodd's head... voices stop, aye, they do, but Nodd can't think right, can't talks right. Nodd escapes the place, he does, wakes up in th' Hive, aye."
"Where is this winged tower?"
"Dunno, dunno. Bad place, bad!" He shook his head violently, clutching at his temples, before resuming his usual nodding. "Nodd wakes up, there's Collectors, aye, Collectors pokin' at Nodd, sayin' 'Look! Not a deader, deader he's not! Takes him back, takes him!' An' they takes Nodds back, they does, back ta th' Square. So long... years, long years ago."
"Morte, we have to help him."
He growled behind his teeth, but in the end Morte relented, mumbling, "As much as I like ya, chief, don't expect me to mop after your bleedin' heart too much."
The Collector smiled crookedly, the corners of his lips twitched, "Nodd thanks ye, he does, Nodd thanks ye. Amarysse was pretty, so pretty, lives in th' Hive, now. Fair skinned, she was, hair like jet, an' always in blue, blue... she was always in blue..."
I left Nodd to his head-bobbing and shuffling, wandering past the broken-down huts here that barely deserved the name. Sharegrave. If he was in charge here he might know where we could find this Pharod, the squirrely bastard.
Sure enough, I came across the front porch of a (marginally) well-kept kip. It was snarled with razorvine to deter intruders. The Collectors at the door glanced at me, their hands at their knives, but they held back, if only by a whisker. Their gazes darted back and forth between me and one bone-thin thug pacing back and forth.
Tall and lanky, the pale, grim-looking man exuded authority despite his gangly and somewhat awkward frame. A good portion of his left ear was missing; what little that was left was a ragged mess of scar tissue, as if the ear was bitten off, rather than cut. His narrow, shifting eyes - almost mere slits - looked clever... and dangerous.
He spat out a reply and glared at me, "I don't know you, berk. What do you want? Answer quick, before I call in some men to make quick work of you."
"Are you Sharegrave?"
He scoffed, and looked at me incredulously. "Berk, who I am is the second thing you should have known before you stomped your shivved-up, corpse-looking self in here."
I blinked owlishly, "What's the first thing?"
"That I hate visitors, and I loathe strangers. You're both." He sneered and tapped his finger to his temple. "Figure the rest out on your own."
"Calm down. I don't mean any harm," my voice was smooth as spun sugar, but still he snarled in my face.
"Oh, you don't say! Well, that makes it all piking better then, don't it? Now, I'm going ask you one more time before your arse hits the street - possibly in several pieces - what do you want?"
"I'm looking for a man named Pharod," my jaw snapped shut the moment the name slipped.
The tension in the room suddenly rose, and Sharegrave's glare sharpened to a razor's edge. His lips were tight as he spoke "Now, what a funny thing to be asking about. What do you want to know about old blood Pharod for?"
I could see Morte floating towards the door. Might as well be honest, "He has some things of mine, and I want them back."
Sharegrave was silent for a moment, then cracked a smile. "He steals from us all, doesn't he, whether we're living or dead?" He chuckled.
Morte was still edging away. I fixed my gaze on Sharegrave, though, "What do you mean?"
"Our main source of... living... around here is the dead. You follow?"
I nodded, "You're a Collector."
"Aye, that's right." He looked at me as if he was considering something. "Now, there's only so many deaders at any one time. My bloods and I can only gather so many. If somebody else is gathering deaders, that's that much less jink that goes into our pockets."
"I heard that he's been coming quite a few bodies."
Sharegrave nodded, "The rub is that that he's found a mother-lode of them. Now, I haven't heard of any massacres in Sigil." He frowns, tapping at his chin. "So I'm quite interested in knowing where all the deaders are coming from."
"I could find out for you, if you'd like," I offered cheerily.
He raised an eyebrow, "Oh, aye? And how would you do that?"
"All I need to do is find him. Let me worry about the rest," I shrugged.
"Hmm. Heh. You got it; I'll even give you one hundred copper commons for your trouble. Go up on the platforms, follow them to the North and West, and you'll come to a gate that leads to Pharod's bolt-hole. Getting in and getting the information is your deal. And if anyone asks, you don't know me, and we never had this talk, hear?"
Morte sighed and shook his head as we left.
Morte floated in front of me and looked me in the eye, "You know, chief, it probably isn't a good idea to make promises like that before we know the whole deal. You'll be wearing a braided rope necklace by being too helpful."
Mmh. Perhaps he was right.
A sharp, bitter scent pierced through the stink. It was partly woody, partly fragrant. There was the smell of burnt paraffin, the sweetness of good wood-smoke. Strangely, I was reminded of fresh-cut greenery, and the rank scent of newly budding sap.
Fresh herbs? Here? I couldn't quite believe it.
Curiously, I approached a hut that actually looked habitable. Straight wooden planks were tied in a circle with metal wire, like the sides of a barrel, while a banged-up sheet of metal, perhaps once the section of a wall, served as a roof. The steps to the door creaked as I walked over them, dark and brittle as they were with age. These planks were more accustomed to a lighter step.
The painted sign on the door was faded with age so that the letters were unreadable, but a list of prices had been etched into the wood. Midwifery, ten coppers. Poultices and wound-binding, six coppers. Leeches, five coppers.
The good-sized hut was both home and shop. A bed, sheets threadbare but clean, sat at the other end of the room. Next to it an upright rack held herbs that had been laid out to dry, filling the air with a sweet woody smell. The stove where an old woman stood at was made of some sort of petrified wood, and a small pot bubbled with what looked like bits of fish and giblets.
The squat old woman looked like she had all the color bled out of her -- everything from her hair, to her shawl, to her robe - all were shades of gray. The only splotches of color on her came from several strange herbs, which were tied to her belt by their stalks. The herbs made a swsshhh when she moved, like a broom.
The door creaked shut, and the elderly woman turned and stared at me... and it looked as if the gray shades that blanketed her body extended to her features as well. Her hair was a wispy gray, and her eyes were like chips of granite. She frowned when she saw me. "And who might ye be, hmmmn?"
I mulled it over, a lie at my lips, "Er- my name is Adahn. Who are you?"
With a sly cackle, she wagged her eyebrows. "Have ye not heard of Ol' Mebbeth then, the midwife of the Square? Have ye not now?" She narrowed her eyes, and her voice dropped. "Well, now ye have, fer I be Mebbeth."
"I noticed the pricing list. What do you do?"
"I set bones right, drive the cough outta the sick, yank out squealing, stubborn babes, mend cloaks or a rag or two, make cures and herbs and other such." She squinted at me, studying my scars. "Be needin' a cure or three, do ye then?"
"Aye, ye be needin' some cures ta lookatcha. D'ye want ta buy some, do ye...?" Mebbeth glanced at the scars covering my body again, then shrugged. "Too late ta be askin' for them, I think."
I looked over to Morte. He was still a bit scuffed and scratched from our last encounter. Did he even heal? "Actually, we could use some healing..."
Mebbeth nodded. "Very well, then." She reached for one of the dried herbs at her belt, snapped it off at the stalk, then ground it in her callused palms. Small wisps of dust and pollen rose from her hands. She then mumbled to herself, then blew the dust into the air...
I took a deep breath as the gray pollen swirled around the room. I breathed deeply, taking the dust into myself, and less than a moment later, I felt strangely refreshed. Looking to Morte, he looked like he was freshly-skinned from a corpse. Strange how that would be a compliment to someone.
"Thanks, Mebbeth. Before I go, I had some other questions for you..."
The midwife turned to stir her pot of stew, "Go on n' ask, then."
I was blunt, "Are you a witch, Mebbeth?"
Mebbeth turned to scrutinize me. Her eyes narrowed slightly, a flicker of fire in those pools of gray, "I say naught as to what I am and isn't, but whatcha be wantin' ta know so fool bad for that ye hound an' ol' woman, barkin' and sniffin' fer a juicy bit of gossip?"
I mused bitterly on how easily I was taken down by a band of thugs earlier. And by a rash-covered Collector before that.
"I want to learn about magic. Could you teach me?"
"What? Tooth and claw not good enough for you?" Morte snapped, "Need to just wiggle your fingers and breathe fire in the face of the Hive thugs to keep 'em from stealing your purse?" he scoffed at the mention of the somatic components needed for wizardry. Mostly things like that just glanced off of Morte, but I was beginning to find that on rare occasions he had a glass jaw when it came to hints of his own limitations.
Mebbeth laughed at us both. "Pah! I'm no teacher, no school-mistress all set up ta teach like them in the big Festhall! There's others somewhere I'm sure that'd spill the dark of it... ye'd be wastin' yer time with ol' Mebbeth, so ye would."
I smiled politely, "I don't agree. I think you'd have a lot to teach."
Mebbeth looked at me intently. "Oh, aye? Why do ye want to learn such things?"
Because I don't want my ass handed to me again by a gang of smelly thugs. "Because I may need it to solve the mystery of who I am."
After a moment, Mebbeth nodded. "The Art may help, it may not, and ye must not rely on it ta solve all o' yer problems." She sighed. "Child, it's most likely only going to add another chip to yer pile o' questions..."
I bowed politely, a humble disciple before an aged midwife, "I understand. Will you teach me?"
"Pah!" Mebbeth shook her head. "One should make songs rather than make magick. Songs have more beauty. Magick's been made dull, common-place, soiled by the mob of people that have tromped through it... hmpppph." She squinted at me, as if she couldn't quite believe the situation. Few came to midwives and hedge-wizards for real knowledge. "I'll teach ye... but first ye'll need to do some things for me, ye hear?"
"My legs aren't good fer walkin' about Sigil, and there's errands I'd have ye run. I need ye to fetch me some herbs from the market... it's spireward -- easterly and southerly from here -- in the Hive market. Here's a sample..." She took a black seed from her coat and flicked it to me.
I twisted the black seed in my hand... as I did, I felt a small bite, then a small drop of blood oozed from my thumb... there were tiny barbs on the seed, like teeth. Mebbeth snorted. "Careful with it... show it to one of the fruit merchants at the market, they will know what herbs ye seek."
"Very well, then. I'll return when I have the herbs."
Somehow, I had a feeling this would be a long, annoyingly drawn-out apprenticeship.