Part 33: Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 1Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 1
It's almost embarrassing to write this.
I had gotten so used to describing the foul, writhing stench of my surroundings at the beginning of each entry that now I had to pause and readjust myself. Down here in the cooler recesses below the Hive, the walls were dry and hard-packed. The air was stale, if not musty. Only the slightest whiff of garbage was in the air. I could have walked into a fresh, clean glade for all I knew.
As the door of patchwork wood creaked shut behind me, a dozen pairs of eyes snapped up to look at the new intruder. Collectors. Gutter-rats and alley-kin. These weren't much like their foolhardy bretheren on the surface. No, there was a shiftiness in their eyes, distrusting of outsiders and careful with their knives. These berks wouldn't think twice about sliding a dagger between my ribs, but they'd take care to do it out of sight.
A ragged, middle-aged collector approached as I walked in. "I..." He quickly looked us over and then sneered. "...don't know you."
I narrowed my eyes at him. "I don't believe I've made your acquaintance, either."
The collector continued to glare at me, standing directly in my path. Trying to walk around him might not be the best solution.
"I'm looking for a man named Pharod."
"What yer lookin' for is no concern of mine, berk." He spat. "What is concern'n me is that yer still breathin' in my presence."
Part of me considered threatening to crack his skull, but I thought better of it. If I were really going to show my strengths I'd shower him in flaming sparks, but then again that would probably be a little too loud.
I stared him down. "Collecting bodies before they're dead sounds like a really good way to meet the Lady."
It seemed to knock some sense into the collector, as he turned away from me. "Watch yer back, cutter. Most 'ere will talk to ya with their blade before their bone-box, and if ya stay much longer, I be doin' the same."
I snorted. "Whatever..."
The path through the Trash Warrens ran down a slight incline, and I was wary of where I stepped. Guided by curiosity, I prodded through abandoned shelves and nooks here and there, scavenging for what I thought might be of use. The path was long and winding, and several times we met a dead end and were forced to turn back.
I turned to Dak'kon. There was little I knew of our new companion, and I was hoping to change that if we were to journey together.
The pale githzerai turned to me, his eyes like polished coal; his blade mirrored his eyes for a moment as I addressed him, then he nodded. "What is your will?"
"There are things I would know, Dak'kon..."
His voice creaked like an ancient tree on a windy night, "I will hear you."
I had seen the man in action, casting bolts of furious light that devastated all that they struck. "Can I talk to you about your teachings? Can you teach me anything of the Art, Dak'kon?" I asked of my fellow mage.
He paused, considering. "Know that the way of the People is not the same as the Art you have come to know. It is not the energy that gives strength. It is knowing the self that gives strength. The teachings of Zerthimon speak of such things."
I nodded, digesting his words. "Would you teach me the Way of Zerthimon, Dak'kon?"
"Do you know what you have asked?" The texture of Dak'kon's blade flowed, until it became as stone. He raised his eyebrows warily, as if skeptical of whether he should teach me. "To walk the path of Zerthimon you must know of the People. The knowing of such things by one not of the People is a difficult matter. There are those not of the People who have heard the Way of Zerthimon, but they do not know the Way."
I mulled it over. If this journey was as abstract as Dak'kon implied, I must prepare to seek the deeper truths in what he has to offer. "Dak'kon, I want to know of the People and know Zerthimon's teachings. I believe there is wisdom to be learned in such things."
He inclined his head, "Know that I have heard your words, and I shall test them. To learn, you must know the People. To know the People, you must know the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon." Dak'kon held up the stone disk in his possession and his spider-like fingers hooked into its sides. Often I had seen him meditating over it, mulling over the words with a steely gaze. He had read them thoroughly before: the man had never needed to mouth the words as he read. There was a click from the object, and the plates of the Circle slid into a new configuration. He reversed the motion, sealing the stone. "Know the First Circle of Zerthimon is open to you. Study it, then I will hear your words."
The small round stone was cool in my hands. The Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon. I marveled at it, holding the strange mechanical tome carefully, lest I break it. Wouldn't that be a nice thing, cracking the sacred scripture of my new companion and teacher. It was made up of a series of interlocking circles that folded out from one another; the complexity of the plates and the intricacy of their links proved the text was constructed by a master artisan.
I mirrored the motions that Dak'kon made upon the Circle, and the plates gave way at my touch, the rings sliding into a new configuration. Upon the rings were a series of symbols; the script was like no writing I had ever seen: it was a series of interlocking geometries, with circles pre-dominating. Yet just looking at it, I knew the symbols and knew I could read them. I looked it over as we walked.
"Know that we are the First People."
"Once all was chaos. The First People were thought drawn from chaos. When the First People came to know themselves, they were chaos no longer, and became flesh."
"With their thoughts and knowing of matter, the People shaped the First World and dwelled there with their knowing to sustain them."
"Yet the flesh was new to the People and with it, the People came not to know themselves. The flesh gave rise to new thoughts. Greed and hates, pains and joys, jealousies and doubts. All of these fed on each other and the minds of the People were divided. In their division, the People were punished."
"The emotions of the flesh were strong. The greed and hates, the pains and joys, the jealousies and doubts, all of these served as a guiding stone to enemies. In becoming flesh, the First People became enslaved to those who knew flesh only as tools for their will. Know these beasts were the illithids."
"The illithids were a race that had come not to know themselves. They had learned how to make other races not know themselves."
"They were the tentacled ones. They lived in flesh and saw flesh as tools for their will. Their blood was as water and they shaped minds with their thoughts. When the illithids came upon the People, the People were a people no more. The People became slaves."
"The illithids took the People from the First World and brought them to the False Worlds. As the People labored upon the False Worlds, the illithids taught them the Way of the Flesh. Through them, the People came to know loss. They came to know suffering. They came to know death, both of the body and mind. They came to know what it is to be the herd of another and have their flesh consumed. They came to know the horror of being made to feel joy in such things."
"The Unbroken Circle is the knowing of how the People lost themselves. And how they came to know themselves again."
I turned to Dak'kon when I finished. "I have read the Unbroken Cricle of Zerthimon. I want to speak to you more about the Way of Zerthimon."
He nodded soberly, his coal-gray eyes rigid. "What did you come to know?"
I was careful in choosing my words. "Strength lies in knowing oneself. I learned that once someone does not know themselves, they are lost. They become tool for others."
He gazed at me for a long moment, then nodded in the satisfaction of a mentor who has done his duty. "You have come to know the First Circle of Zerthimon. You not only see the words of Zerthimon, you have come to know them." Dak'kon held up the Circle and hooked his fingers around the edges. There was a click, and the plates of the Circle slid into a new configuration. He reversed the motion as before, sealing the stone. "Know the Second Circle of Zerthimon is open to you. Study it, then I will hear your words."
As before, I slid the plates into the configuration Dak'kon showed me, and a new ring was revealed. The ring carried the same script as I read before, with the same geometries...
"Know that flesh cannot mark steel. Know that steel may mark flesh. In knowing this, Zerthimon became free."
"Know that the tentacled ones were of flesh. They relied on the flesh and used it as tools for their will. One of the places where flesh served their will was the Fields of Husks on the False Worlds of the illithids."
"The Fields were where the bodies of the People were cast after the illithids had consumed their brains. When the brain had been devoured, the husks came to be fertilizer to grow the poison-stemmed grasses of the illithids. Zerthimon worked the Fields with no knowing of himself or what he had become. He was a tool of flesh, and the flesh was content."
"It was upon these Fields that Zerthimon came to know the scripture of steel. During one of the turnings, as Zerthimon tilled the Fields with his hands, he came across a husk whose brain remained within it. It had not been used as food. Yet it was dead."
"The thought that one of the husks had died a death without serving as food for the illithids was a thought Zerthimon had difficulty understanding. From that thought, came a desire to know what had happened to the husk."
"Embedded in the skull of the husk was a steel blade. It had pierced the bone. Zerthimon realized that was what had killed the husk. The steel had marked the flesh, but the flesh had not marked the steel."
"Zerthimon took the blade and studied its surface. In it, he saw his reflection. It was in the reflection of the steel that Zerthimon first knew himself. Its edge was sharp, its will the wearer's. It was the blade that would come to be raised against Gith when Zerthimon made the Pronouncement of Two Skies."
"Zerthimon kept the blade for many turnings, and many were the thoughts he had about it. He used it in the fields to aid his work. In using it, he thought about how it was not used."
"The illithids were powerful. Zerthimon had believed that there was nothing that they did not know. Yet the illithids never carried tools of steel. They only used flesh as tools. Everything was done through flesh, for the tentacled ones were made of flesh and they knew flesh. Yet steel was superior to flesh. When the blade had killed the husk, it was the flesh that had been weaker than the steel."
"It was then that Zerthimon came to know that flesh yielded to steel. In knowing that, he came to know that steel was stronger than the illithids."
"Steel became the scripture of the People. Know that steel is the scripture by which the People came to know freedom."
I slid the plate closed, breathing a sigh and meditating over the lesson, seeking out the deeper meaning behind the tale. With the Githzerai, history and parable flowed as one, just as Dak'kon was one with his karach blade.
Dak'kon's gaze was serene, "What did you come to know?"
"I learned that not knowing something can be a tool, just like flesh and steel, if upon encountering it, you attempt to know its nature and how it came to be."
Again he nodded in satisfaction, a hint of contentment in his eyes that I was progressing quickly. "You have seen the words and you have seen beyond them. You have come to know the Second Circle of Zerthimon." He took the Circle and with a deft motion, he twisted one of the links so one of the plates slid forth - but strangely enough, the stone still appeared intact. He handed the plate to me. "Meditate upon this teaching, and the knowing of it shall give you strength. When you have absorbed it, you shall know more."
I read the slim plate, scribed with those circular runes of the Githzerai language. The Scripture of Steel. It was a spell, one of a form I was unfamiliar with. Its powers drew from the meditative calm of knowing, so different from the rituals of Mebbeth's recipes. I looked over the chants, the three thoughts of the ritual. Though alien, the words quickly melded together as one just as the script of Mebbeth's recipe cards did, just as the circular runes of the Githzerai language did. With a haunting familiarity, I then knew the Scripture of Steel.
I blinked, and Dak'kon looked on, his calm, stony face unsurprised at the efficiency with which I absorbed the teaching. "I would still know more of Zerthimon's teachings."
Dak'kon's fingers felt around the edges of the stone circle, and he twisted it clockwise, the links clicking until they had settled into a new configuration. He then reversed the motion, resetting the stone. "The next Circle of Zerthimon is open to you. Study it, then I will hear your words."
I nodded, "I'll look it over when the time is right."
I suppose it was too much to expect that the filthy rabble in these warrens would leave us be. But what else could I expect from a trash heap than a nest of rats?
They came at us in droves, gangs of ten against three in the hopes that a pincer attack would allow them to outflank us. We held firm as best we could, Dak'kon standing as a storm of focused steel while bolts of light burst from my fingertips, shattering against flesh and patchwork armor in a burst of blood and glittering motes. Ten wily scavengers came at us, and when the bloodlust cooled and the final sparks of magic fizzled, we stood over a mass of bodies and severed limbs. Blood was seeping into the stone and ancient masses of compressed garbage. The crimson pools did little to soften the crushed and petrified trash.
Dak'kon leaned against a loose and creaking wall of wood planks and rotting cloth, his breathing labored. Morte probed a loose tooth with a tongue. Compared to us, he came out unscathed.
"You could've drawn some of their blows," I scowled at Morte. Dak'kon looked to be only a few stepping stones from death.
He snorted, "Hey, it's not my fault they chose to go after Mister Moody here. I'm the smallest target out of all of us."
I grumbled. I'd have to gild him in coppers if he was going to help sponge up some of the dagger blows.
I shuffled over to Dak'kon. The warrior-mage's eyes were coal-gray, his skin a pale dusky yellow, thin and dry as parchment. I was bleeding from multiple gashes myself. One long dagger had punched a kidney, and no less than three slashes marred my chest and back. Yet the wounds were knitting at a remarkable pace. I would recover over time, Dak'kon would not.
"Here," I leaned towards my companion and mentor, "It's not exactly curative magic, but it might give you a bit more blood and breath."
He gazed at me with half-dead eyes, looking as if he was about to wave me off. Dak'kon gave a resigned sigh, and bowed his head as I traced a few glowing red symbols in the air.
"The years have not been so kind to me," he said hoarsely, "My blade has become slower. My joints ache with time's weight. I know this."
"Nonsense," I said as I completed the incantation, "Baseless recriminations aren't going to help."
"It was no recrimination," he muttered, "But an apology."
The thrum of sorcery shook us both as I touched Dak'kon's shoulder. I felt myself drain, my body empty itself of life like an old wineskin. My head spun, the world grew pale as my own life force flowed through the conduit I wove and into Dak'kon. The old gith shuddered, gasped, and his cheeks became fuller, his breathing easier. A moment of stillness passed between us as I swayed, groaning. Dak'kon caught my hand before I could stumble.
"See? You're faster than me still," I chuckled dizzily.
He said nothing.
Dak'kon had to support me as my wounds knit together slowly. I was hobbling along at his side, trying to keep my groans of main to a minimum. It wouldn't do to attract more attention.
One path led us towards yet another dead end, but with caution and curiosity in mind I eyed the arch standing there. A portal. It must have been.
At a touch the opening flared to life, a blue spiral, wavering like a pool of water that parted two realms. Glowing wisps framed the gate, and a dark, recessed room was on the other side.
We stepped through, and nearly stumbled back in shock.
Rats. Dozens of rats, pouring from the corners to nip at our heels. Those bony spirals that grew from their skulls like plump tumors gave them away immediately.
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.
Ye run into more than that... more than a couple dozen... ye run like ye're in the shadow of the Lady!
Sorcery, cutter... sorcery!
The way the rats held themselves, staring at us all as one entity with a dozen pairs of beady eyes, was testament to a sinister intelligence. Thoughts of communication were promptly cut off as a shrill, piercing scream filled my brain, rattling one thought against the next like dice in a cup. Already weakened, I stumbled, blood flooding from my nose and, by the warm trickle along my shoulders, my ears as well.
Frantically I snatched at the remaining spells I had prepared, tossing spheres of death at the heaving mass of fur and flicking, naked pink tails. As they fell the hive mind collapsed, and the shrill piercing muted to a dull buzz. Gathering focus and finding myself empty of any useful magic, I threw myself at the mass with a dagger, piercing one squealing ball of fur, stomping on another. The crunch of bone and flesh flattening under my boot was unnerving, yet oddly satisfying as the pain of their psychic assault fell another step. The small biting teeth were nothing before Morte's crunching jaws and Dak'kon's blade.
When enough were slain the rest fled, and I heaved a sigh of relief. Standing our ground seemed to be working.
"Filthy creatures," Dak'kon murmured, cleaning his blade.
"Taste fine though."
Morte spat, trying to clear the fur and skin from his teeth, "Speak for yourself, chief. Bleagh! Their little feet are colder than a witch's teat or a succubus'-"
"You know Morte, I really wonder how you know these things well enough that you can pepper them in as details." I tugged off the still-twitching carcass from my dagger and tossed it aside. I wondered if the creatures ate their own.
Morte cocked in a skull-shrug. "Practice."
"Well search the room," I said. The day's skirmishes were taking their toll on me. My voice was becoming a dull croak, and the sense of vertigo from the rats' assault was still making me reel, "This alcove isn't here for nothing."
We had already combed through every damn corner of these tunnels. Pharod's hideout must've been hidden here somewhere. Perhaps there was a hidden door, or another portal, or-
"A stash," Dak'kon declared. Tucked in the corner was an unassuming crate. The layer of dust that had collected on it was disturbed by the patter of rat prints and the swishes of their tails.
"Looks like some berk left these for safekeeping. Probably dead though, if he's been gone so long that this alcove was taken over by cranium rats."
I shrugged, "Might as well help ourselves, then. We'll need whatever we can get." A pang of guilt ran through me as I helped myself to the goods. I promised myself that I would return these things if I could, or reimburse the fellow who laid them here, if he was still alive.
It was an impressive little collection, to say the least. A good purse full of coppers, a strange picture frame of twisted metal, echoing with magic. There was a spiked mace, also magical perhaps. Two charms of healing, desperately needed, and a scroll. Excellent.
I helped myself to the lighter items first: the charms, the scroll, the purse, the frame. It was when I lifted the mace that I should've been more careful. Ah, if only I had but remembered my thief training, I would know of the cunning traps that could be placed, even in a hovel such as this.
An ominous [b]click was danger's herald, and I slid the mace into my pack quickly. To my horror, a button had been left under the mace's head, and another under the end of the handle. I froze in shock, only to be brought back around by the clicking and light rumbles emanating from the box.
"T-TRAP!" I choked out, but I was a few seconds shy of saving myself.
A foul brown mist billowed from the crevices in the crate, a bilious fog a rusty yellow. I was blinded as I stumbled back, and for a moment I felt nothing. Perhaps it was a dud, or the venom had degraded over the ages.
And then came the pain.
The first whiff of the gas gave me the smell of my own blood, at first dismissed as from the nosebleed I suffered earlier. But then there was the burning sensation, a quickening fire that spread through my nostrils.
My eyes were in flames, and I pressed my hands there only to meet a horrifying squelch as those tender orbs burst in my sockets, the milky vitreous humors flowing down my hands and cheeks like thick, hot tears. I struggled, trying not to breathe, but gasping in horror I had drawn the poison into my lungs. I could feel the fiery flush of blood, a torrent of crimson liquid iron flooding through my nostrils, pouring down my lips. The burning agony was spreading through my skull, reaching my brain as flesh and cartilage were dissolved, eaten away as I reeled in pain and terror.
I tried screaming to my companions, tell them to flee, but the poison had already begun its work in my lungs. My chest was charred by the venom, the inner lining of my lungs had liquified to the point that the best I could manage was a gurgle. The molten remains of my esophagus and lungs spilled from my lips, flesh sloughing off like fat melting from a bone in a cook fire.
I was glad when death took me and the wet noises I was making were silenced. The flush of acid in my lungs had grown cold even as the gas caressed my skin. All I could feel then were the dribbles of liquid trickling from my nose and lips, and the thud of boots in the distance.
The world was still.