Part 24: Journal of The Nameless One: Part 19Journal of The Nameless One: Part 19
Ash-Mantle may have been a sorry excuse for a Dustman, but he ran on his skinny little legs with the skill of an experienced thief. He dodged past Hive dwellers who didn't spare a second glance for a fleeing rogue, and bumped into a man carrying a basket of soft, purple fruit. Flinging the fellow behind him, Ash-Mantle spun nimbly on his feet and fled. The basket flew from the man's hands, scattering the soft pear-shaped bulbs across the ground.
They squelched underfoot, slippery as lard, and I nearly fell as I skidded forward.
"Morte!" I yelled, "Quick!"
"Chief?!" he cried back, and with one flailing hand I grabbed onto him by the jaw.
Morte spun through the air as he flew, whirling like a pale white top as he spiraled towards the false Dustman...
And whizzed past his ear.
For a split-second my breath caught, until I heard a pitched, girlish scream. Ash-Mantle's hands flapped as he slapped at Morte, who now clung by his teeth to the man's rust-brown mane of hair. When he spun and tugged, Morte came free with a mouthful of stringy brown, flecked with bits of blood and flesh that had torn from the man's scalp.
"Give back what you stole!" I snarled, grabbing a fistful of his robes.
He looked at me calmly, as if about to comply, "With pleasure." With that, he slid my own dagger deep into my belly.
I looked down to the torn flesh and blood trickling around the wound. It hurt like the nine hells, but a gut wound like this was a slow death if fatal, and with the right doctor it rarely was. I looked him in the eye as pure horror made his pupils shrink back.
I grunted as my hands wrapped around his skull, "That tickles."
With a quick twist and a satisfying snap, Ash-Mantle's scream cut off in his throat, the dying moan a mere whistle that echoed in his windpipe.
Morte cracked his jaw, "You're a real class act, chief."
"I'm really sorry, Morte," I looked over to the corpse, "It's just after all those thugs... no one should have to deal with this stuff. I'm sorry." The guy certainly didn't deserve to die, necessarily. I mean, all he did was steal from me. And stab me with my own dagger.
It was something I had to remember if I was to find my way in this world. Sometimes, it is true, one had to kill in order to survive. Death is a faculty just as true to life as breathing or eating. But when someone appeals to convenience rather than necessity... I stared at the corpse.
"Yeah, well. It's not like I use my noggin' for anything else," Morte muttered.
My stomach growled, "Come on, I'll buy you lunch."
A foul-looking man nearby was quick to notice he'd caught my attention; in moments he was upon me, hawking his 'wares.' He carried a long wooden pole; dozens of skinned and cooked rats dangled from it, swinging like plump, fleshy fruit. As he spoke, he gestured to them with a broad, filth-encrusted hand, smiling a yellowed, snaggle-toothed grin all the while. "Oye, cutter, 'ow ye doin' there? Name's Creeden. Wot sorta deeee-licious ratsies is ye interested in this fine day?"
"Oh by the Powers, chief. Why can't we ever go somewhere nice, huh? Like the Topless Dryad or Mammy Marm's House of Many Mams," his voice was jokingly cheerful, but there was still a bit of bitterness at our current poverty.
"I really don't think we have enough coin for those places, Morte," I sighed, "When in Sigil-"
I gave the man's wares another look.
Each rat had been skinned and gutted, their feet and tails removed; they dangled from the pole by hooks punched though their necks. As I examined the various manners in which they've been prepared, I noticed their heads were slightly misshapen -- a bulbous knot of bone protruded from each cranium, covered in whorls that gave them the appearance of brain tissue.
"Those are strange-looking rats."
"Ah, ye've got a keen eye there, cutter! All I sell is brain vermin, I do... I'm sure ye'll find they've got a much richer flavor than yer usual rat. Quite nice, really!" He proffered them to me once more, waving the pole before my face enticingly... the rats swayed to and fro, hooked like tiny sides of beef.
"Brain vermin?" Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all.
"Aye, cutter, brain vermin. Foul creatures, they are. Now, yer normal rats, they just eat stored goods an' multiply, spread disease an' all that... a nuisance, really, no more. Yer cranium rat, though - brain vermin, wot I go after - they're just trouble. When ye get more than a 'andful a' the little pikers together, they start to get smart on ye... sometimes real smart."
Those bony whorls caught my eye again, "They become more intelligent?"
"Sure as I'm standin' here before ye, they do! If I ran across any more than two score of 'em, I'd flee for me case like that..." He snapped his fingers, to emphasize the point. "...I would! Ye get that many of 'em in a pack, why... why, they gets smart as a man, they do!"
He leaned in close, "Here's my best advice for ye, cutter... if ye're bent on catchin' brain vermin, stick to small packs. A dozen or so, at most. But I'll tell ye..." He stepped close, his breath fetid in my face, and he spoke in a hushed tone: "Ye run into more than that... more than a couple dozen... ye run like ye're in the shadow of the Lady!" He backed away from me again.
I stepped away as well, "Why? What is there to fear?"
"Sorcery, cutter... sorcery! Ye gets enough of those lil' fiends in a space, they gain all sorts a' odd powers! Make a basher's brain pour out 'is ears, they will! Downright frightenin'... it's just wrong, I tell ye. That's why Sigil's so eager to be rid of 'em... the bounty, an' all."
The word was music to my ears, "Bounty? Someone pays for rat's tails?"
"That's right, cutter! There's a berk in the Office of Vermin an' Disease Control, name a' Lort, who pays a bounty on 'em. A copper a 'ead -- er, tail -- it is, ey. But they gotta be brain vermin, they do... not just ordinary rats."
"Tell me more about this Lort fellow."
"'Is name's Phineas. Phineas Lort. Think 'e was some sorta 'ighup, he was, put down by 'is rivals an' stuck 'ere in the arse-end a' Sigil. The berk sits in there alone all the night an day, it seems, waitin' fer folk to bring in tails an' payin' them the bounty. Ye know the best part? Poor sod must be allergic to rats, 'cause he's always got a 'uge rash goin'! Ho ho! Powers be praised I ain't that fella."
"'Put down?'" Any idea why that would happen?"
"Well, 'e's right chatty, 'e is -- 'e'll rattle 'is bone-box fer hours on just 'ow smart 'e is an' the like. Mayhap that's got somthin' to do with it." He shrugged.
I chuckled, "I think I can handle that."
"So," he grinned, "Think ye'll be willing to try a gool 'ol ratsie? They's fine eatin' they is!"
"I think I'd rather eat offal," Morte retched.
I winced. Perhaps Morte was right, "Er. Another time."
Creeden shrugged and went happily on his way.
"Don't think that a hot meal is gonna make us square, chief. I expect some prime attention from a gal later."
I dipped a hand into my pouch, gauging how much we had, "Well, I'm afraid it won't be Mammy Marm's, but I'll see what we can get."
Two steaming bowls of stewed offal later, we were headed to Mebbeth's to hopefully complete my training.
When I returned to the hut Mebbeth was tugging at the mass of greenish-lime starched rags I had brought from Giscorl... she seemed to be purposely fraying the edges, as if to peel them apart somehow. When she heard me approach, she turned. "Aye, child?"
"Here's that ink you wanted."
Mebbeth took the tankard of ink from me, then sniffed it. "Prime ink, fresh it is, aye..." She nodded at me. "Ye've done well, child. All I've asked. Now, I ask ye again: after all ye've seen, do ye still want to learn the art?"
I smirked knowingly, "Yes. After all, the guiding goal of your errands was to test my persistence, was it not?"
Mebbeth smiled, then nodded. "Yes... mayhap, child, mayhap."
"And that's not all; you knew who I had to see to accomplish each errand, didn't you?"
Mebbeth nodded again, slower this time. "Mayhap, child, mayhap... iffen so, what did yer senses tell ye about them?"
I ticked off the points on my fingers, "Mourns-for-Trees showed me that my beliefs affect the world around me, Giscorl taught me that ritual is a wasted effort if the purpose of the ritual is ignored, Meir'am taught me that no matter how much I think I know, there is still much I can learn from another's eyes."
Mebbeth was silent for a moment, then she walked slowly over to me and touched me tenderly on the cheek. "Oh, child..." She sighed. "Ye will be a master sorcerer one day, ye will. Ye have the knowin' of it, yet... ye've come to Ol' Mebbeth for help, ye have. What could a midwife teach such a one?"
My hand was warm and gentle against her shoulder, "Much, Mebbeth. I want to learn all you have to teach."
"So ye'll walk the path then..." Mebbeth paused. "Well, first things firstly: jest havin' the knack for the Art isn't enough. Ye need some means of givin' it focus: usually 'spells.' The spells are usually in a book. So the Art demands ye have a spell book or its like a-fore ye ken cast spells. Ken ye read?"
I shifted, "I think so."
"Then let's test it, ken ye read this?" Mebbeth drew forth a small tattered card... it looked like a recipe.
As I gazed on it, the writing on the recipe swam before my eyes, each symbol twisting out of focus whenever I tried to read it. Almost instinctively, I relaxed my eyes, allowing them to take in the page all at once... and the symbols suddenly bled together: the recipe listed measurements, ingredients... it appeared to be some minor divination.
I looked up to Mebbeth, "This is a minor divination, isn't it? It looks like it's a spell that allows the user to see the 'nature' of an item... to see whether it's enchanted or not."
Mebbeth's eyes widened and she took a step back, recoiling in fear. "Who are ye to test Ol' Mebbeth so?! Are ye some fiend?"
I stepped away from her, "No... well, not to my knowledge. What's wrong?"
"Well... not expectin' it, was I..." She nodded at the recipe, clutching her chest. She took a deep breath then plucked it out of my hand. "What ye see, it's written in the language of the Art. If ye're not a mageling yet, it should be all-a-swirl-jumble of mish-mash." She snapped her finger. "Yet, clear as crystal, ye pluck the sense of it right up. Mayhap ye tell Ol' Mebbeth why that is?"
That odd itch crawled along the inside of my skull again, "I think I may have known once, but forgot... seeing the symbols just jarred my memory."
"Or else a natural gift, ye may have... no matter, no matter, ye've just shaved seasons off of yer learning, ye have." Mebbeth harumphed. "An I'd been lookin' fer someone to handle the chores around here, I had..."
I grinned "If you need help with anything around here, you can still ask... it's the least I can do in exchange for you teaching me. Just, er... will I be going to the marketplace again?"
"No, no, don't worry yerself about that..." She frowned. "Well, ye ken read spells well enough, but spells are no good to ye without a book to put them in..."
"Do you have one?"
Mebbeth glanced around the hut, and then she caught sight of the black-barbed picture frame I made. She picked it up carefully and studied it. "This'll do."
"That thing? It's just a frame."
"Ah, but so are ye, child..." Still holding the frame, she picked up one of the starched rags I got from Giscorl. With a yank, she pulled off the greenish starched surface film; it fluttered in the air like a wispy bit of cloth. "Whatever Giscorl uses in the wash, it works better than curing, stretchin' and stonin' does on a normal rag. Can't afford parchment, I can't..."
She took the starchy film and pulled it over the black-barbed frame, latching the rag's edges onto the hooks around the frame until it looked like a small greenish-black painter's canvas. "It's missin' something..."
"Well, it needs something painted on it."
She nodded. "Aye, or written on it..." Mebbeth took the tankard of ink I'd given her and set it down next to her. She dipped one of her fingernails into the tankard, then drew it out, mumbling to herself. Still mumbling to herself, Mebbeth began to scratch symbols onto the frame, one by one.
"All's done." Mebbeth stood, drying her ink-stained fingernail on her robe. She tilted her head, regarding the strange, framed page in front of her. "A page fer yer spell book, it is." She gestured towards me and I picked it up.
"Inside yer spell book are yer recipes... yer 'spells'... if you will. As long as they sit in the book, though, they're jist words." She tapped her head. "The Art demands ye pluck the magick out of the book and put them in yer attic... yer head, a-fore ye ken tap their power."
"Ye put them in yer attic by studyin' 'em, memorizing them. Ye usually need ta rest first a-fore ye ken do this, though. Any questions?"
"Oh, no questions, eh? Well now, ye should have questions! Ye know all's about how to memorize spells do ye? Yer a sharp one! Ye sure don't need any more of Mebbeth's words all-a-gobblin' up yer precious time... yer a master sorcerer already!"
I put my hands up defensively, "Forgive me, Mebbeth. I meant no questions on what you'd said. Please explain how to memorize spells."
"Hmmph. All right then. Here's the dark of how ye memorize the spells: Pick the spells ye want to stick in yer head from yer spell book a-fore ye goes to sleep. When ye wake in the morn, they'll be buzzin' in yer head like flies, ready ta be let out."
I ran my hand along the picture frame, "How many spells can I cast?"
"Ye ken cast only one, mayhap two spells a-fore needin' to rest again... as a tiny flitting mageling, there isn't much room in yer attic. So's use yer spells wisely until ye get wiser in the art. As yer power increases, ye'll get more room in yer attic for spells."
"All right... go on..."
"Ye ken only cast spells ye've memorized. So if ye want to use the Art to say, Mend somethin' twice, ye need to memorize the spell... how many times?"
Mebbeth nodded. "Aye, twice, right enough."
"How can I get more spells?"
Mebbeth shrugged. "Keep yer eyes and ears out for learnin' - even common folks might have some minor magicks to teach. There's also scrolls, recipes, books and even some stranger items that have spells inscribed on 'em. If ye find one, just examine it close and copy it into yer book if ye want it. I ken also show ye more spells if ye return, especially when ye've a little more o' the planes in ye."
"I'd appreciate it. Thanks."
"A-fore ye go, child, ye'll need some magicks for ye to whet yer appetite..." Mebbeth rummaged in her robe, then pulled forth three small recipes, which she passed to me. "Ye should copy these into yer book, so they ken go into yer attic as soon as possible..."
"Wait... there's more..." Mebbeth fished a tiny bundle of black cloth from her apron and unrolled it, producing a pair of amber earrings. "These'll protect ye on yer travels, child... I no longer wear them meself, so go ahead an' take them."
"All right child -- don't tarry here any longer. One such as ye has other ways to spend one's time rather than hang around Ol' Mebbeth."
I gave her a warm smile, "Now, come on, Mebbeth, you're not old."
The corners of her lips twitched into a smile, and she blushed pale, bringing her fingers to her lips "Pah, ye flatterer! Yer tongue is so lined with silver it'd shame a Baatezu! Get ye hince!"
I bowed to her, "Thanks for everything, Mebbeth."
"Pah! Ye ken thank me by not playin' the addle-cove with what've learned. The Art's damned many a fool who sought to bend it in ways the Art weren't meant to bend. Now get along with ye!"
"Well well, finally a fancy-pants mage, eh? Good for you, chief. Though honestly, I think we still need a bit more manpower. I think I feel a tooth coming loose."
I grunted in agreement, looking over the recipe cards. Hmm. Chromatic Orb? Blood Bridge? Identify? Sounded interesting, "We'll need to make a friend or two, Morte. It's time to go barhopping."