Part 28: Journal of The Nameless One: Part 23Journal of The Nameless One: Part 23
"When we're done with yeh, yer gonna wish yeh were as pretty as yeh are now."
We were outnumbered three to one. Thugs in their gang colors: red and black, grey and blue, misty scarlet, rust-brown: the representatives of no fewer than four bands stood toe-to-toe against us in that cramped alley. Part of me hoped the worst that could happen was that I would wake up on the slab again. The other wasn't so sure I'd have such a happy ending. One way or the other, men would fall like chaff today.
If only I had had time to meditate over my spellbook. Gain an edge with sorcery. "I really didn't want you in this, Dak'kon."
He eyed the leader. "He does not know his companions: an acolyte who does not know his blade and handles it clumsily. They will fall." He unshouldered his karach blade. "In Zerthimon's name." His whisper creaked with the stiffness of decades, cool and sure as a windblown forest.
They came at us with daggers drawn, howling with lips scarred by the pox and teeth filed to shark-toothed grins. Daggers glinted dully in the sickly yellow daylight, piecemeal armor clattered and boots kicked up clouds of dust as they charged. I was silent. Dak'kon was still. Morte cackled in a rattle of teeth and chittering bone, and raced off with jeers and taunts, drawing away three or four men who went red with anger.
I felt a dagger bury itself into the middle of my back and grunted in pain. Something gushed inside, that nicked blade puncturing deep enough that I could feel the warm blood trickling into my lung.
The large gang coming at us from our right was a feint: a handful of rogues had snuck behind while we were distracted. I growled, spinning around as that blade withdrew, its barbed edges tearing away flesh and sinew in a horrible squelch.
My dagger slid through the soft spot on one thug's armor on the first strike, the tip cracked against dented steel on the second.
"Morte needs your help!" I shouted, "He'll be killed!"
Without hesitation, Dak'kon raced toward the fray with his weapon in hand, sidestepping one thug and slicing the man through with the casual grace of an ebon-eyed hawk.
He was a warrior of wind and steel: focused, precise, swift. Four thugs surrounded Morte and Dak'kon, but the githzerai danced among the slashing blades and spiked knuckles, knowing the crude simplicity of their motions, knowing the frailties of their patchwork armor. A thrust of his black-edged blade parted flesh and bone like a hot knife through butter, an upward slash slit the rogue from navel to nose. The man's guts sloshed to the dusty earth, and a merciful stroke of that karach blade ceased the agonized twitching.
Dak'kon moved with unparalleled purpose: he turned just enough for a dagger to glance off his armor, he sliced with such precision that not an ounce of strength he used was more than necessary. Each drop of sweat he shed, each splash of blood he scattered across the paved streets was done with the same divine focus that brought order to chaos, that forged a razor-edged blade from the proto-matter of Limbo. His swirling forms, one hand firmly twisting the blade, one palm smoothly guiding the shaft, brought a spiral of death into the cramped confines where his walls were the armor of his enemies, his barriers their flesh.
It was the Art of War, in its purest form.
My humble dagger twisted clumsily in my grip, the tip chipped and the edge long dulled by the armor and bone of my foes. The first rogue lay dead at my feet, the second leapt at me, hoping to score a lucky hit across the neck or through my unprotected chest to force a victory as quick as death.
The dagger handle had already grown slick with blood in my grip, and with a clumsy parry it twisted from my fingers. The thief looked up at me with a smug smile of victory on his face. Taking down an unarmored opponent would be simple.
That is, if your opponent feared a death-wound.
The man let out a ululating shriek, leaping forward with a quick slash and a thrust. I embraced the blood-wet steel like I would a harsh lover, and as he pulled it from my belly with a squelch and a spurt of blood, I grabbed his skull. With a twist and a snap, it was over.
I coughed, the iron tang of gore filling my mouth. I really shouldn't use this strategy too much.
I turned to join Dak'kon in the fray, and in the confused melee a meaty hand grasped my neck.
Iron and steel clashed in the distance as the thug's fleshy fingers dug into my throat, shoving me against the ground while his other hand gripped that axe close to the blade. The man's neck was too bullishly thick to break.
"No dagger, no fancy magic. None o' them yeller Ert-Agh brothers to back ye up. Outnumbered t' boot. Things 're lookin' grim, aye?"
My voice came out in a croak, more pitched and soft than my normal gruff rumble, "You- can't- kill me..."
"Nay, that's why I'm gonna mess ye up nice 'n slow. Say yer prayers, ye hideous freak." The blade edged towards my face.
I groaned. "I'm not particularly religious." With that, I plunged my thumb into the man's eye socket.
He screamed, his fingers losing their grip on the heavy axe, which tumbled down and bit into my other shoulder. I winced as the thug reeled back, my thumb still gripping him from the inside of his skull. We tumbled over each other until I straddled his chest, forcing my thumb deeper until it broke the eggshell-thin bone at the back of his eye socket, probing into his brain until he gurgled and foamed at the mouth, his words melting into an incoherent ramble.
"But if that's what you want, I wish you peace in the afterlife..." one last shove silenced him forever: a quick death. I pulled my thumb out in a spurt of blood and brain-fluid. Thick and foamy spittle bubbled and trickled from his mouth.
After that, it was simply a matter of taking care of the stragglers.
With their leader fallen and Dak'kon's blade felling them like autumn leaves, the thugs fled so quick that even Morte's more colorful jeers (regarding their sexuality and their ancestry back three generations) could do nothing to draw them back to the meat grinder of battle.
"You okay, chief?" Morte had a crack here and there, and a fracture forming along his jaw. Dak'kon looked to be untouched.
I swayed, giggling stupidly from blood loss, "I'm- fine. But you need a healer." I coughed up another gobbet of blood, but already I could feel the familiar itch as my body kicked into gear and began to regenerate. It wasn't going to keep me from feeling as if I were just squeezed out of the tail end of a tanar'ri, though.
We made our way to the northern quadrant of the Hive as quick as we could. With each step my pace was a little quicker, and I gained a little more of the strength that would allow my body to make a much-needed vomit.
We found Ingress huddled inside her cloak of dirty rags, her teeth chattering. She was glancing furtively about her, as if expecting to be attacked at any moment.
I coughed and spat, clearing my throat before speaking, "Greetings, Ingress."
"Eh? You!" She squinted at me. "What issit y'wanta me now?! Y'wanta me t'leave? NOT leaving this city, so I'm not. I can't, tried, it's not a city, it's a prison t'everywhere."
"Ingress, I found someone who can take you back to your home plane." I coughed again.
Ingress fell silent. "I wanta go. Wanta LEAVE this place."
"His name is Candrian. He should be along shortly to help you... trust him, all right?"
She said nothing, only giving a quiet nod as the teeth chattered in her mouth.
"I'll go back and meet Candrian at the Smoldering Corpse Bar and make sure everything turned out all right. Be strong, Ingress."
I had quite a few loose ends to tie together.
Porphiron was still standing grimly on the street when I next saw him, paying no heed to the passers-by. The web of lines on his face were staggered into a series of right angles.
"This one addresses you, Porphiron."
As I spoke, the angles in Porphiron's face relaxed into a series of strange curves. "This one would ask: Do you have the neck rope of beads that was stolen?"
"I think so. Is this it?" I held the rosary out.
"This one sees what you hold: Those are the beads once missing." As he took them, I noticed his hands had the same tracery of lines upon them as his face. "This one has a question: How did you get the beads from the three?"
I shrugged, "I convinced them it was in their best interest to return the necklace."
Porphiron scowled, "This one would know: One who fights with words carries a name in the Order of Erit Agge." Porphiron's face breaks into angles again. "Those ones are called diplomats: It is a path without discipline and without honor."
I smiled grimly, "Oh, I still killed the thieves."
His scowl melted as he nodded then, "This one is content: The message of violence has been conveyed. This one bestows: Several welcome thanks, yes?"
"The pleasure was mine. I have a question for you, though: if you cannot enter combat, how did you get your warrior training?"
Porphiron stood up proudly, "This one clarifies: The Erit Agge may train with one when there is no anger between them."
I scratched my chin. "I see. Could you teach me how to use those weapons?"
"This one could instruct you, yes. But this one warns you: With knowledge of violence comes temptation to use it."
We practiced stances and forms in the middle of the street for a few good hours as he taught me the art of the dagger. Slash and stab, thrust and gouge. My clumsy movements became more refined, and slowly I adjusted to the weapon as if it were a part of my own hand. When we finished, Porphiron nodded as one who had done his duty proudly, and we parted ways with smiles and thanks.
A quick word with Baen the Sender was all that was needed to assure that the message had been relayed, earning me another handful of coins, as well as the urge to spend it.
Mebbeth furrowed her eyebrows as I shuffled into her hut in that sorry state: flesh torn and only beginning to knit together, bloodstained and brutish. "Tch, what happened t' ye, child?"
I had coughed up the last bit of blood right outside Ragpicker's square, but my voice still creaked, "A fight with local thugs. A lot of them."
She shook her head. "Very well, then," and reached for one of the dried herbs at her belt. Mebbeth snapped it off at the stalk, then ground it in her callused palms. Small wisps of dust and pollen rose from her hands. She filled the air with her chanting, and blew the dust in the air.
I sighed as her soothing magic settled through me, easing away my wounds and bleeding the nausea from me. Words could never convey how refreshing it felt. Morte sneezed.
She scowled, "I ought t' slap ye, running around so irresponsibly. I warned ye t' be careful, aye?"
I straightened up defensively, "I didn't abuse my training, Mebbeth. Didn't even get a chance, though it's not like I would."
She scoffed, "The Art conveys wisdom and power more than just a wiggle o' fingers and a burst 'o flame, boy. Best remember that."
I nodded humbly, "Do you have any spells and charms I might buy?"
When I was done poking about her wares, Mebbeth practically forced us to sleep the night. I took this as an opportunity to study, memorizing the spells she had given me.
In the morning, we left to buy whatever else we could to finish the task ahead of us, selling the copper jewelry I had lifted from the corpses of the thugs I had killed. There was no honor or pride in living like a vulture, but necessity drove me to it. I wasn't very proud of the new bulging weight of my pouch that day.
I made my way back to the Smoldering Corpse. The bodies of the massacre just yesterday had been dragged away by collectors, but scarlet smudges and dried-up puddles were still smeared along the cobblestones. Those thugs milling around eyed me warily, but none made any bold moves. It would be a while before they worked up the gall to try again.
Candrian stood as I approached him. "The tooth woman wanted you to have these," he said, holding out his hand. "She wanted to express her thanks, even out the balance book as it were, and be done with the damned things." It was a small green bag which he smoothly deposited into my palm. "Enjoy them, seeker."
I smiled softly, happy for Ingress, "How did she take it?"
Candrian smiled, "I've never seen one so elated. She kept crying and weeping. 'Home! Home!'"
I sighed, "I hope she finds her family again, or her friends."
"We gave her that chance, seeker."
I poured the contents of the cloth bag out onto my hand as we left. Ugh. Her teeth. "Hey Morte, check these out."
He floated over. "What's the chant, chief?"
"You see these?"
He glanced at my palm, morbidly fascinated. "Yechhhh."
The teeth clattered as I rolled them in my hand, "Ugly little berks, aren't they?"
"Bar that." Morte shuddered. "Would you want those things in you?"
"Come on, Morte, they seem to like you. Look at the way they're staring at you," I teased, waving my hand towards him.
"Those little pikers better not come anywhere near me, or I'll..." Morte paused. "You know, I have no idea how to threaten teeth."
Something twitched in my hand.
"What's wrong?" Morte floated in closer and glanced at my palm. "Hey... they look like they're planning something, don't they?"
"They sure do, don't th -"
What happened next is difficult to describe... and painful to watch. Faster than I could close my palm, the teeth hopped out of my hand and swarmed onto Morte's jaw. Morte howled as Ingress' teeth promptly ripped out his old ones and then jumped into the exposed cavities.
"Morte!" I cried, utterly horrified. Dak'kon stepped back, his eyes widening.
Morte continued howling. The teeth settled in, adjusting themselves and planting their roots with a horrid drilling noise.
I grabbed him by the sides of his skull to steady him, wondering if I should try ripping the damn things out with my fingers. "Morte? You okay?"
Morte didn't seem to hear me... he kept howling and howling, then suddenly started smashing his teeth together. He got in three powerful bites before the upper and lower teeth locked together and prevented him from opening his mouth.
I blinked. "Wow."
Morte mumbled something at me, his eyes wide.
"Morte, are you okay?"
They teeth suddenly unlocked, and Morte took a deep breath. "I will kill you for this! You planned that! I know it!"
I looked him over, wincing. "Look, I didn't mean that to happen... I even warned you. Uh... how do they feel?"
Morte moved his jaw around experimentally. "Odd. But not bad." Suddenly, the teeth extended into fangs. "Ooooooh! They change!" They shrunk down to normal, then to fangs again, then normal... "I think I'm going to like these."
"I'm sorry, Morte. I didn't mean you any harm."
"Oh, I'll still get you for this," Morte replied. He grinned, his teeth turning into fangs again. "Just you wait."
I didn't like the sound of that. "Revenge never helped anyone, Morte... uh, let's go."
For the next few days I took odd jobs here and there: delivering letters, escorting visitors, fending off thugs and gangs and selling the goods collected. It wasn't a proud life by any means, but it was something to help scrape us by.
The run-down flophouse we stayed in was poor shelter, and part of me was worried that the owner would try murdering us in our sleep for our paltry coin. Yet with Dak'kon at my side and the scars mounting on my flesh, those weaker-willed backed away. I soon reasoned out that despite the blanket of numerous wounds on my flesh, thugs could tell that I was inexperienced in the ways of the city, perhaps even a little naive.
"They know your inexperience by your poise," Dak'kon had said.
When dusk fell I stayed awake most of the night as Morte snored away and Dak'kon dozed quietly, his blade propped against his shoulder, leaning against the wall as if in meditation. I always dreaded that terrifying dreamless void when my eyes closed, that wound deep inside me with its ragged edges where something was missing. Something vital.
When fatigue finally took me into its cold embrace, it was all I could do to keep from screaming until the feeble light of morning seeped through the cracked windows.
I sat up groggily, shivering and trying to clear my head of that terrible black fog. Today was the day that I would enter the tomb, and I needed some supplies.
The sign outside had said "Fell's Tattoo Parlor."