Part 22: Journal of The Nameless One: Part 18Journal of The Nameless One: Part 18
The corpses of my enemies lay splayed about my feet. Blood trickled from my fist, dripping freely from the tip of my dagger and my knuckles. It splashes and mingles in the upturned dust on the ground. The handle of my blade was still stable in my grip despite the slickness of the blood. I stepped over a corpse, his belly slit open so that his guts sloshed wetly onto the worn pavement.
I searched the bodies, picking out a few copper rings and bracelets no doubt lifted from their victims. I pocketed those, part of me glad that they would no longer harm another. A rag, smelling faintly of rancid oil, sufficed to clean my hands. I offered it to Morte who was probing a tooth with his tongue to see if it had loosened on the thugs' armor.
"Eh, no thanks, chief," he spat, "You never know where those things've been."
Whenever I was ambushed by a group of thugs, most of the Hive Dwellers walked a wide circle about me. One man, however, gazed admirably as I dispatched with the rogues. Every inch of the man's skin was covered in a web of black lines; it was as if some artist chose to accentuate every crease in his flesh with a quill pen. The overall effect was such that even when his face showed no expression, he appeared to be frowning.
I looked up to him, "Greetings."
"This one has a name: This one is called Porphiron." The man's voice was like a gong; as he spoke, the lines on his face bent and settled into a series of spherical patterns. "This one would know: why do you address this one?"
"Well, you were watching me. I guess I'm a bit curious what you're doing here."
"This one would have you know: This one cannot answer your questions." The lines on his face twisted into angles, then split into a mess of scribbles. "This one has only recently stepped foot in this place of walls."
"All right, then. Uh, but I have to ask you this: why do those lines upon your face... move?"
"The lines show anger: Do you take offense?" The lines slowly straightened, forming into gentle curves. "No offense was meant: Will you accept the many apologies of this one?"
I smiled softly. Part of me wished I could adjust my scars like that, "No offense taken... why are you angry?"
"This one tells of event recent: Did you know this one was beset by three?" he looked at the corpses in disgust, "The three demanded an item of this one. This one feared an attack: What does this one do? This one surrendered the item."
I nodded, aware of the burning wounds patching my body that had yet to heal, "Well, you were right to be afraid. If there were three, then they might have killed you had you not given up the item."
"This one has been misunderstood." The lines on his face became angled, then smoothed into curves again. "This one did not fear being killed: This one feared killing the three."
I raised an eyebrow, "Well... if you could have killed them, why did you let them rob you?"
"This one walks the path of a warrior: Many weapons have walked with this one. The fist, the blade, the stave, the hatchet, the smiter: These tools are all known to this one."
"That's not much of an explanation... again, if you're a warrior with that much training, why let them rob you?"
"This one is forbidden to attack." The lines rippled across his face as he spoke, "If this one had struck at the three in anger: The vow of non-violence would be unmade."
"Vow of non-violence? You're a warrior and a pacifist?"
Porphiron blinked, "This one is unfamiliar with your speech: What is this 'pas-ivisst?'"
"Never mind. Why did you train so much if you are not permitted to attack another?"
"This one is of the Order of Erit Agge: We await the Final Days where all will be called to battle. The training and skills of this one: They are to be kept silent until then."
"In the meantime, you will let yourself be robbed in the street, without defending yourself?"
Porphiron bowed his head, "This one will clarify: The item is of value. The discipline of the Erit Agge is of greater value."
"Since you won't fight, any chance you could talk these thieves into returning your item?"
He scowled, "This one addresses the three thieves: What happens? The requests of this one are met with scorn: The three will not return the item."
Despite Morte's grievances, I was feeling helpful, "I could go see if I could get the item back for you."
"This one must ask: Would you bring violence to the three that have robbed this one?"
I shrugged, sheathing my blade, "Well, if they aren't smart enough to hand it over when I ask, things could get ugly."
The lines on the man's face formed into a series of overlapping ellipses. "If that is the message they understand: Then that is how the message may be conveyed."
"All right then. What is this item you've lost?"
"The item is this: A rope of black and red prayer beads worn around the neck. The worth of these beads is not measured in copper: The worth of these beads is measured in faith."
"All right then. I'll see if I can find this necklace. Do you know where these three thugs might be?"
"This one knows where the angry words were traded and the item lost: By the bar that burns inside? The three were outside the place: Dressed in black and red."
"Three robbers, dressed in red and black, outside a bar that burns on the inside? That can't be too hard to find. Farewell."
That particular errand would have to wait. While sticking a blade through the tender parts of a thug had its simple, brutish effectiveness, I could tell I was getting quite close to learning how to shoot fire from my fingertips instead. Less messy, and more efficient. That is, if Mebbeth could start teaching me instead of using me as an errand boy.
Kossah-Jai was a toothless old crone who reeked of fish and brine. Spying my approach, she gave me a wide, pink smile. "Fish, my child? Fish-heads, mayhap?"
"Oh yes, yes! But a child ye are, to my years! Hee-hee, youngsters..." her giggle was pitched and squeaky.
I leaned forward with a calm smile, "I believe you're mistaken. Take a closer look."
She shuffled up to me; the fish-stink was nearly overpowering. The old woman squinted at my face first, frowning, and then into my eyes. Only then did she recoil in surprise: "Oh, my! How many years have those eyes seen?"
I shrugged, "I do not know... how many do you think?"
"Don't know, don't know. Too many, I'd say. But no matter!" She leaned close, to whisper in my ear. "It won't do to rattle the passers-by; let's keep it our little secret." She resumed her normal tone of voice. "So: fish, my child? Hee-hee!" She poked me in the belly.
The old woman jabbed firmly, and had a bony finger. I rubbed my stomach, "What are you offering, exactly?" I looked over her cart.
"Why, fish, my silly child! Fish of all sorts - and fish heads, for those too short of jink for the whole ones. Teeny-tiny fish-heads! Hee-hee!"
I decided to humor her. The woman sure loved her job, "Where do the fish come from?"
"They're brought to Sigil from all over the Planes, my boy! Would ye like some? I sell only the heads, should ye be short on jink..."
"Mebbeth said you sell ink. She sent me to purchase some."
"Ink?" She chuckled. "Nay, sir, I sells no ink, I sells just fish..."
"Are you sure? Mebbeth... the midwife in Ragpicker's Square... mentioned you specifically."
"Heh! Well, Kossah-Jai was me Dam's name, and me Grandam's name, so could be any of us... yet they're both in the dead book, so only this Kossah-Jai matters. No idea what's she on about... a midwife in the Picker's Square, ye say?" She thought for a moment. "Don't know her, I don't."
I threw my hands in the air, "So... you don't have any ink? Well, I can't say that's much of a SURPRISE. I swear Mebbeth is having me run in circles-"
"Now hol' on... yer midwife friend's not all wrong. I know how ye can get ink... but it may not be the ink ye're lookin' for... the ink I'm thinkin' of bleeds from the gills of a brogota-fin, it does."
"This brogota-fin... it bleeds ink?"
She frowned. "Aye... thing is, that fish's not for eating, it's gots a horrible taste, scalds the tongue... you can asks Meir'am, she pitches her fish-sell down the street a southerly way." She cackled. "She mights have one o' them fish ye needs on her pole..."
A broad-shouldered woman was shuffling amongst the huge beams lying on the street as I walked past. She kicked at the beams with iron-shod boots; every once in a while, she bent down and wrenched a nail from one of the boards with her bare hands. She held each one up, appraising it, then dropped it into a leather sling bag.
Damn this woman was tough as an old boot.
I whistled, impressed. Morte quirked an eye, then waggled his tongue as if anticipating what those tough, callused fingers could do.
Upon noticing me, the woman straightened up. She was smiling politely, but from her stance and the way her hand rested close to the hilt of her weapon, I could tell she was ready for trouble. She was built densely, and one of her eyes has a milky film over it. "That's close enough there, cutter... what do ye need from me?"
"Er, I'm sorry. I just noticed you ripping out those nails. That's pretty impressive."
She pulled three nails from her sling bag, tossing them spinning into the air and catching them in her palm. "Aye. Iron Nalls, they call me." She dropped them back into the bag with a muffled clink.
I looked over the boards, riddled with rough holes. The wood inside many of them were still a pale yellow color, as if freshly revealed, "Why are you collecting the nails?"
"I sell 'em to a man, name a' Hamrys, in the Lower Ward. Maker of coffins, he is."
"Tell me more of this Hamrys."
"There's not much to say... he's a bit chatty -- he'll rattle his bone-box 'til ye're barmy, if ye let him."
I glanced at Morte, "I think I know what you mean."
"That's harsh, chief. "
She smiled, "Aye. He's a fair bargainer, though. He needs the nails, I need the jink, an' that's about as far is it goes."
"Where's the Lower Ward? I've been wandering around the Hive for a couple of days and I'd like to explore a bit."
Iron Nalls pursed her lips, "Eh... I used to know the way, I did, but the dabus have changed the streets 'round again. Don't know how to get there, now -- I'll need to chart a new path -- but I figure the dabus'll straighten things out eventually."
"Does anyone else here scavenge nails?"
She grinned and shook her head. "No one was clever enough or had the will to do it before me, an' I've shoved off anyone who's tried to jump me claim since." She patted the long-bladed dagger hanging at her side lovingly.
"Aye, that's what I call it! Honest labor's hard to come by in the Hive, an' I'm not about to let some soddin' piker peel me of me work. I've sent more than one berk runnin' an' howlin', holdin' their guts in... or off with the Collectors, if they were unlucky." Her dead eye gleamed maliciously. "The Hive knows this spot is Iron Nalls', it does."
With the glut of streetwalkers and thieves throughout the Hive, you really had to respect someone who did good, honest labor. In the back of my mind, though, I didn't think she could turn a trick if she tried, unless she was planning on beating the poor sod and robbing him after. She was rather blocky for a woman.
I had gotten so used to scars and wounds by now, however, that my tongue slipped carelessly, "Is that how your eye was ruined?"
Nalls' face turned hard. "None a' yer business, berk. Why? Would ye like a matchin' wound for yer collection?"
I smiled, "No, that particular one's not quite 'me.'"
She laughed heartily. "Aye, an' I don't think ye have much room for another scar, besides!"
"True enough, Iron Nalls. Well I'm on an errand, so it's been fine meeting you. "
When I rounded the corner, the faint, oceany smell of fish greeted me. The cloying scent stung sharply against the dry, dusty air of the marketplace. An old woman stood silently by the wall, staring off into the distance. She seemed to be unconcerned with the flow of traffic around her, and clutched a wooden pole from which dozens of small fish dangled.
"Oh... 'lo, sir." She squinted at me for a moment, trying to discern my identity. For a merchant, she seemed unusually unconcerned about buyers. "Oh my! 'Ere I was, thinkin' ye one o' me regular customers." She proffered her fish-pole. "Tuna, sir? Mackerel? Sea cucumber?"
"'Sea cucumber?' Aww, now you're just making that up," Morte eyed the pole.
I waved away a little brown squiggly thing, moist and shaped like a large, lumpy black pickle, "No fish, thanks. I had some questions..."
"Hrmm..." Her mouth pressed down into a tight-lipped frown, and she stared off over my shoulder.
I turned around to look at what she was staring at, but there was nothing of interest behind me. As I turned back to the old woman, I caught her looking at me... she looked away quickly, resuming her staring off into the distance once more, as if gazing into the past.
"What? Do I look familiar to you?"
"I doubt she'd miss a tall, gray-skinned berk scarred up and ugly as sin."
"Goodness, no!" She paused for a moment. "Aye, ye do."
"Have you seen me before, then?" I couldn't keep the urgency from my voice. A link to my past, any past, would be rare indeed. I had been wandering this huge city for a couple good days now and to find someone that recognized me, even if it was an addled memory, excited me. Such luck!
Her words were cautious, "I think... ye, or a man with yer very likeness, sir. T'was so long ago."
"Well, sir, ye see... me sight's not so good now, t'wasn't back then, neither. But I thought I saw ye walkin' past with a small group trailin' along behind ye."
"What did these people look like?"
"It's hard to say, sir... t'was so long ago, and ye walked by so quick-like. But I remember, now, the way ye held yer head up... there was a woman followin' ya, tryin' to stop ye. To get ye to turn around, speak to her... but ye pushed her away."
Deionarra... a chill breeze whisked across my chest, as if the name had caressed me. I had to work a bit of moisture in my mouth, "What happened then?"
"Beautiful woman, she was... looked so sad, so angry, all at once. She stood there for a moment, then followed along behind ye just the same, hustlin' to catch up."
A group? "You had said there was a group? Who else was there?"
She shrugged. "There was at least two other gentlemen with ye, sir... the only one I remember too clearly, though, was tall, thin. Reeked of bub, he did; I smelled him from across the way. Looked like he hadn't bathed in ages, too. He followed ye close, he did, an' never said a word. Acted like the woman wasn't even there, even when she bumped against him, tryin' to stop ye. That's all I remember, sir."
I dropped a handful of coins into the woman's palm, "Thank you. That was most informative."
She smiled, "Oh, my! Why, thank ye, sir, most kindly. May the Lady's shadow pass ye over."
"Now, have you heard of a Brogota-fin? I was told it bleeds ink from its gills."
She blinked, then nodded. "Aye, that fish... that fish is a strange one, it is. Not many have heard of it and less'd want to eat it... difficult to kill, and even in death it still seems to live. Not many want to latch their teeth around somethin' that still writhes."
"Do you have one?"
"Aye... but the ink, ye'll need somethin' to carry it in. Have ye a bowl or cup, perchance?"
My hands still searched my belt, even though I knew I had nothing, "Great... I'll go look for one, then I'll be back."
A quick trip to one of the merchants at the marketplace got me what I needed. The young lady didn't ask for coin: the battered tankard wasn't something she could sell. It was covered in dents, and the handle looked like it was about to fall off.
"Uh... this looks like it was used on someone's skull."
She just smiled slightly.
Meir'am nodded as I presented the sorry mug and plucked a fish from her pole... it twitched as she grabbed it, then started lashing about as she began to twist it like a rag. She wrung it until bluish-black ichor began to trickle from the fish's gills. When the tankard was almost full, she relaxed her grip and threw the twitching fish into a sack at her side.
I smiled, "Thanks, Meir'am. Good business to you."
"Aye, ye as well."
As I turned, I bumped into a man in long black robes and a pale face. I tensed instinctively. He looked to be one of the same people in the Mortuary, a Dustman, but unlike them, this man looked confused and was glancing about. When he spotted me, he raised his hand to attract my attention.
Well, as long as he couldn't call the Mortuary guards on me, I should be fine.
"Can I help you?"
The man seemed relieved that I was speaking to him. He bowed slightly. "Thank you for hearing me, traveler. I am known as Ash-Mantle, one of the Dustmen sect. I was wondering if you could direct me... I don't know the area very well, and I'm looking for a certain establishment, a bar, that those of my sect frequent. Do you know of such a place?"
I raised an eyebrow, "'Sect'? Don't you mean 'faction'?"
The Dustman nodded. "Well, yes, faction, I meant faction... sect, faction, they are much the same thing, really... do you happen to know of this bar that my faction frequents?"
I had a hunch this fellow was hiding something, "Well, I'm afraid I can't help you there. But I'm curious, could you answer some questions?"
He nodded. "Your request is reasonable."
"Can you tell me a little about the Dustmen?"
He paused for a moment... then nodded. "It would be my pleasure. We... the Dustmen... recognize this life for what it is: an opportunity to experience our passions before the next life. We sift through the dust of our past lives for meaning before the next."
I coughed, "Uh... that is an unusual view for a Dustman."
The man blinked. "Well... I am not a common Dustman."
I shifted my weight as the awkward silence hung between us. If I knew more about the Dustmen I could perhaps gauge what was wrong, but until then I had best leave it alone, "Well, perhaps I should be going then."
The Dustman nodded and gave a final bow. "Thank you for your time."
I was about to turn away, when I suddenly had a feeling that something was amiss. Suspicious, I glanced at Ash-Mantle again, just in time to see him tucking something into his sleeves... it looked like something of mine.
"Hey! What do you think you're doing?!"
The man looked at me innocently, but I saw him tense up. "I'm sorry?"
I snarled, "You're no Dustman. You're a pickpocket."
His face was calm, expertly placid. For a moment he looked like he was about to respond with a denial, but quick as a whip he leapt and took off running.
"Hey! Get back here you rat-bastard!"