Part 31: Journal of The Nameless One: Part 26Journal of The Nameless One: Part 26
The next day brought with it a malodorous encounter the likes of which I'd never expected.
Now, the Hive was far from being all blossoms and daisies. The air had a sulfurous char to it, thickened with the grating smell of burned oil and sour, unwashed flesh. It was the festering wound of Sigil, decaying so that it was collapsing in on itself despite the efforts of the Dabus to stitch it together. The smell was of the rankled pus of the city, moldering beneath a dirty bandage.
Dak'kon, in his quiet, cool manner had recommended that we ask the slummier characters in Sigil about Pharod.
"One must know the ways of a rat to find another."
Dak'kon was smooth yet iron-hard: a sword sheathed in silk.
The man had squirreled himself into a corner, glancing furtively at the passer-by. The man was looking at us with a strange, bug-eyed stare. His eyes were huge... so huge they looked ready to pop out of his sockets and roll across the cobblestones. He nodded eagerly as we approached, bobbing his head like a bird. As we neared him, we were greeted with the smell of urine and feces. I could've cut the stench with a knife and buttered my toast with it.
I tried not to breathe through my nose. "Greetings."
"Phaugh!" Morte spat, "Sometimes I think you relish in wallowing about this tripe, chief. This guy smells worse than a burst boil on a fiend's arse."
I breathed in short puffs. It helped, a bit, "You don't have a nose, Morte. How can you smell anything?"
Morte spat again, gagging, "Chief, I can taste it."
The man sniffled, wiping his nose on his sleeve, then opened his mouth to reveal blackened, rotted gums. "Stories-for-coin, sirrah?" His breath reeked; it smelled like this man had been keeping rotten meat stored inside his mouth. "Stories-for-coin?"
I took a step back, "Who are you?"
The man snorted, thick with phlegm. "Names, names... who you are, who you are..." His head twitched slightly every time he repeated himself. "Names... dangerous, dangerous." He glanced at the ground and stirred the dirt with his foot.
"Knowing a name or bein' stuck with one, both's a mess of trouble." He looked back up at me. "My name's a given name, not one asked for. Reekwind." Once again I become conscious of his reeking breath and the latrine-stink that surrounded him. "A given name, a given name."
I glanced at Dak'kon, who stared ahead placidly. The smell bothered him little.
Reekwind, eh? "Is that your real name?"
"Not my true name, true name." Reekwind mumbled on, his head twitching every time he said the word 'name.' "A true name's a dangerous thing, gives others power." He stared at me with his huge eyes and wagged his finger. "Keep your name secret, keep it close, never let it out."
"What do you mean?"
"Names are like smells... things can track you with them." Reekwind coughed, his eyes almost popping out of his skull as he did so. His cough seemed to loosen his bowels, as he broke wind loudly, as if to accentuate his point. "If someone knows a true name, it gives them power." He licked his lips. "The power to hurt."
Was this why I remained nameless? Anyone else would've taken Reekwind's words with a grain of salt; the words of an addled vagrant meant little. But in a city of addled vagrants, Reekwind's words cut deep.
"I don't know my true name."
Reekwind's eyes widened; seeing his eyeballs bulge even larger made me even more uneasy. "Then you are blessed, blessed. Remain nameless, and you shall be as a spirit on the Planes, untraceable, untrackable, unseen, undiscovered." He smacked his gums wetly. "A name chosen, a name given... it allows others to find you and hurt you."
A shudder ran through me: a vestigial fear, perhaps, of a long-forgotten terror that might've hunted me. Something I might've escaped from by casting my name into the lots of oblivion. "Have you been hurt?"
Reekwind gave a twitching nod, then scratched himself. "Let my name slip once, once, only once, only once." His eyes filmed over at the pain of the memory before glancing at me uneasily. "Tell you the story I can, I will, but three coppers must I see." His face split into a smile at the word coppers, and his reeking breath hit like a hammer.
My coin pouch was full enough. "Very well. Here's three copper."
Reekwind got into a stance, looked left, looked right, then faced me. His face clenched, then with a grunt, he broke wind again. The smell nearly leveled me, but he took no notice. "Cursed, I! Walked the wards in splendor..." He stood up stiffly, nose high in the air. Reekwind sauntered back and forth, nodding to invisible passers-by.
Reekwind froze, his arms akimbo. "Crossed paths with a crossed one. Had the looking of a pumpkin, his seeds, curses!" Reekwind then thrust his belly out so as to appear fat, slicked back his hair with his filthy palm so he looked almost bald, and began drumming his fingers on his 'fat' belly. He then walked about, circling the spot where his 'stuffy, upper class persona' used to be. "All-a-jumble with curses, this one was." With a sneer and a careless gesture, Reekwind tossed an invisible curse at the 'stuffy persona.'
"Knew my name, let it slip I had, I had, all it took, took it all!" He stiffened up again, inhaling deeply and resuming his 'upper class' persona. The persona suddenly crumpled, and Reekwind broke wind violently, then exhaled, filling the air with his foul, reeking breath. "Cursed with stenches, smells, excrement! Came here to tell tales, all good for, all good for now. Now Reekwind is the name, given name, given name..."
Poor sod. I tapped my chin with one finger. "Can you tell me where I could find someone named Pharod?"
Reekwind suddenly hunched over and leered at me. He walked around me for a moment, dragging his leg as if lame. "A king! A noble tale, a noble tale! A tale I can tell, but three coppers must I see..."
The coppers clinked humbly into his palm.
Reekwind remained hunched over, staring. "Once a man of respect, Pharod was, a man, a man of goals, and position. All became nothing, nothing, turned to air." Reekwind squinted, then broke wind, filling the air with a gut-churning smell. "Turned to air... and stink."
"A liar, a cheater, a man who twisted law, Pharod was." He hunched over, as if writing at a desk. He 'wrote' for a moment, then suddenly stopped, afraid. "Then one day, he found that he had twisted himself!"
"Such a liar he had become, that when he died, he was to go to a horrible place..." Reekwind shook his head sadly, then hunched over again and looked wildly in all directions. "Pharod would not accept it, would not, would not! He had cheated others, he would cheat his fate, too!"
"He read, dug in books, and consulted seers..." Reekwind stalked back and forth, his hand over his eyes as if staring off into the distance. "...and they told him that only in trash could he find that which would let him cheat his fate." Reekwind broke wind again, then gave a reeking cough. "Perhaps they lied..."
Reekwind stood up stiffly, then began to fling off imaginary clothes. With every piece of 'clothing' he threw away, he became more hunched. "Pharod threw away his position, his goals, and took up a new title..." Reekwind stopped, then leered at me. He clawed at his rags, shaking them. "And became a King of Rags! He would rule the trash, have his subjects search it all, and find that which he needed." He shook his head. "He looks even now, even now..."
Sigil ground the high and mighty into the dust like a millstone. "Uh... do you know where I could find him?"
Reekwind shook his head. "He lives amongst rags and trash. There, you will find him, find him..."
The drone of flies replaced the cacophony of the Hive masses. One squelched under my hand as I slapped it from my neck, leaving a biting pain and an itch where it landed. With all the strange things in Sigil I'd seen the past few weeks I wouldn't be surprised if these things were demonspawn from the Seventh Layer of the Abyss or the like.
Meandering cautiously through the piles of trash, one thing looked promising: a wooden walkway hidden in a nook behind the huts and the filth. I had only noticed it out the corner of my eye as we dug through a mundane little region, previously unexplored. It was a place you wouldn't have given a second thought to... the perfect site for a kip's entrance, especially for a hermit like Pharod.
With the boards creaking underneath our boots though, things became less revealing and more mundane. Garbage was piled high on either side. Some of it was fresh: bones with scraps of moist flesh, half-filled jars whose contents still held some color and were yet to be touched by mold and mildew. Now and again I saw the corpse of a cranium rat, the flies just beginning to gather. This must've been a walkway for wheelbarrows so more trash could be dumped aside.
I looked around cautiously. This was a city where its citizens fought over corpses and thugs lurked at every corner. I wouldn't have been surprised if the scavengers of this square hid amongst the filth and refuse so that they could pounce on any unsuspecting, naive explorer. Funneled down this narrow walkway, it would've been a simple matter to outflank the three of us.
But nothing came of it.
At the end of the path, an archway led only inches into a small building before becoming blocked by a solid wall of refuse. The rubbish was packed so tightly it may as well have been stones and mortar.
Morte piped up, "Hold up, chief... look at this." Peering down, I noticed a number of dirty footprints that led into the archway... and did not turn around. "There must be a portal through here or something."
"A portal? How do we open it?"
"Haven't the slightest, chief. It's got to be a common key, though- look at all the traffic that's gone through! Maybe one of the low-lifes around here will know."
Leaving was quicker than entering, and much more pleasant. How Pharod, once a nobleman or official of Sigil, could bear living in these environs was beyond my imagination.
The tall, spindly man near Sharegrave's kip kept his eyes on the ground at his feet; he occasionally paused and knelt, as if searching for some object or clue hidden in the rubbish. Despite his odd, lanky proportions, he appeared quite quick and lithe.
As I spoke, he whirled and dropped into a half-crouch... though whether he was ready to spring at me or in some other direction, I couldn't tell. Dak'kon rested one hand calmly on his blade as the squirrely little fellow spoke. "What? Speak quick, now..."
"I had some questions..."
"Well I don't got answers. Pike off!" I hadn't noticed it before, but he had a long, curved dagger in his hand.
I crossed my arms and made my voice level. "Are you threatening me?"
He smirked. "Why? Does Ratbone scare ya? Ya feelin' threatened, berk?"
"No, I'm not," I said, my gaze boring into his. I'd be damned if I was going to bloody my hands any more today.
"Heh heh! Figures, lookin' the way ya do. All right, whatcha' want from me?"
"Who are you?"
"Me name's Ratbone, cutter. I'm a thief-fer-hire in the employ o' Sharegrave, the boss o' the Collectors ye see 'round this square. He pays me mostly ta learn his lads ta be real quiet-like, an' how ta fight if they runs inta a spot o' trouble. That's likely the only questions I'll answer fer ye, cutter." He sniffed and shrugged.
I relaxed, "Thief for hire? Could you train me?"
He nodded and pursed his lips. "Sure, fer a spot o' jink. Been trained before?"
"No, I haven't."
"That's fine. I'm gonna cuff ye, now, so dodge it." He suddenly swung his open hand at my head, and I lept back in time.
He gave a nod of approval. "Not bad, cutter. Now about that spot o' jink... fifty commons an' I'll see ye trained right up."
"Sounds good. Here," the coins clinked thickly into his palm.
I had already spent too many hours and done too many jogs between Mebbeth's hut and the marketplace for training, but Ratbone made things short and sweet. His lessons on the basics of thievery were detailed, but I found myself picking up the subtle nuances of the trade quickly. The stances and techniques were oddly familiar, like the handshake of an old friend.
After a long period of training, Ratbone nodded at me in satisfaction. "I must say, cutter - never have I run across a faster learner. I'd almost say ye've done this all before!"
I dusted off my hands. A good set of skills if I ever needed it, but for now magery would probably help a bit more. "Thanks, Ratbone," I said, and pointed back to the pathway. "Do you know how to get through that trash-packed archway northwest of here?"
Ratbone blinked. "Eh? Nay, I don't. Say... ye could ask Creeden, the Rat-Catcher. Sometimes he goes pokin' about up there an' disappears for an odd while. Creeden's usually in the Hive, right outside the Office o' Vermin and' Disease Control."
"Oye there, cutter; well met again. Have ye changed yer mind? Come back for one a' Creeden's deeee-liscious ratsies?" Creeden piped as he jangled his rat-pole enticingly.
"No, not today. I had some questions, however..."
He shouldered his rat-pole casually. "Wot's yer question, cutter?"
"I was told to ask you about the trash-filled archway in Ragpicker's Square. Can you help me?"
He thought for a moment. "Aye, I know wot ye're speakin' of. There was a lass, name o' Nalls, who I saw walk through there, once, while I was lookin' fer rats. Don't know how she did it, though. Ye can prob'ly find her northeast a' here, rootin' around a pile o' lumber for nails an' the like."
I nodded, "Thanks, Creeden. I really appreciate it."
He touched my arm: "I see ye're leavin', cutter, but a'fore ye go, wouldst ye like a nice, deee-liscious ratsie? One for the road, ye might say?"
I winced. Might as well to thank him his help. "Why not..."
Creeden grinned from ear to ear. "Good, cutter, good! Wot sort wouldst ye like?" He pointed to each in turn with a grimy fingernail. "I got them baked, spiced, boiled, an' charred! All fresh, all scrumptious... and only three coppers for two!"
"Spiced." Maybe that might cover up whatever odd aftertaste there was.
I handed over the coppers and, in one swift motion, he ran a pair of spiced rats through with a wooden skewer, unhooked them, and placed them in my hand. I let up a small prayer that he didn't handle them with his grubby fingers. Creeden winked at me: "Enjoy, cutter!"
"I don't suppose you want one, Morte?" I asked, handing the other skewer to Dak'kon. He accepted it silently and dug in with a stoic calm.
"You really love taking me past my comfort zone, doncha, chief?"
The rat-meat was aromatic and quite spicy, apparently marinated in some sort of herbal mixture before being cooked. It was a bit greasy and rather rich, tasting of some... other... meat I was sure I had before. The man looked at me expectantly. "Did ye like? Wouldst ye like another?"
I picked a few scraps of meat from the rib cage, "Er. No thanks, we should be going."
Iron Nalls was right where I left her. Gripping a nail with a callused thumb and bracing against the board with her foot, she yanked the thing out with one pull. By the look of her burly shoulders, she could've knocked out a few teeth on the backswing if I stood behind her.
Iron Nalls straightened up and put her hands on her hips. "Back again, eh? What need ye this time?"
"I was told to ask for you about the trash-filled archway in Ragpicker's Square. Can you help me?"
Nalls nodded slowly. "It's a portal, ye know. Stumbled on it quite by chance, I did... alls ye need ta do is have a handful o' junk on ye when ye walks up ta it, an' ye'll be able ta pass right through. There's a small open space past the portal, an' a gate leadin' underground, but I figured no sense in askin' fer trouble so's I just turned around an' went right back. Here..." She tossed me a handful of junk. "Use this, if ye likes. I was gonna toss it away, anyhow."
It was a few hours after peak when we returned, and the heat of the day made the garbage molder, belching up a vile stench. I covered my nose and tried to filter the air through my teeth, but it left a greasy feeling in my mouth. Now and again I spat, and a few times the wad would sizzle as it hit metal cooked by the afternoon heat. With the decay quickening about me I glanced back and forth. Not even Reekwind would've buried himself and hidden in this rot (though it might've improved his own stench). No, I was listening for the groans and creaks of a pile that might collapse and bury me in its foul grime and juices.
As I approached the archway its outline began to shimmer. The junk in my hand pulsed, shimmering as well. The two auras pulsed against one another like a slow heartbeat in blue-white throbs and flickers of pale sparks.
I thrust the junk into the archway.
The wall of refuse flickered, wavered, and seemed to fold in on itself. With a familiar whoosh the portal opened, revealing a space beyond it.
That rat-bastard Pharod had better have my journal.
I stepped through.