Part 36: Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 4Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 4
A repulsive man. Clever. Devious. But most of all repulsive. The mood set by the name "Wormhair" was fitting for him.
At the gate barring our way was a massive human, dressed in castoff, patchwork clothing and reeking of old ale. He was truly huge - it was obvious he was chosen for this job for his brawn, not his brains. "What d'ya want?"
"What lies beyond the gate?" I pointed to the dark tunnels across the bridge that lay on the other side of the gate.
"The Weeping Stone Catacombs. Lotsa deaders, lot of crypts to loot."
"Why do they call it the Weeping Stone Catacombs?"
He scratched his neck. "Lot of water drips down from above, make it look the walls are crying. Name follows."
"Pharod gave me his leave to go down to the catacombs. I need you to open the gate."
With that the fellow gave a curt nod and unbolted the gate.
Sigil truly was a city of disarray if, even when supported by a whole faction providing services for the dead, a village of graverobbers could be built up next to one of its ancient crypts. Urns had been smashed, offerings at biers looted, and coffins and graves were smashed and torn open for even the slightest glint of copper. The thick layer of dust over many of the broken bones was testament to how long ago they had been disturbed.
The squeaks and scuttles from the shadows told us that we weren't alone.
"The damn things have just about infested the city," Morte grumbled, "Eighty years ago they tried to eliminate the cranium rats. Called a few beast lords, a poisoner, a piper... each time the city was clean for two weeks, but after that the things just crawled right back. No one knows where they come from."
"Once the answer to such a puzzle is known, the problem can be solved."
I stomped on a rat and it crunched without a squeak underneath my boot, "I doubt we'll be able to figure that out right now. I'd rather just find that damn sphere and get this over with."
"Yeah, it's not like some random half-addled codger had asked for your help in finding the breeding ground of these guys. But oh what a hero you'd be!" Morte teased.
A distant, inhuman noise, half-growl and half-shriek, caught my ear.
"Keep your guard up. I'll keep ahead and take the first blows. Morte stays in the back and keeps an eye on things there. Dak'kon is quick and agile, so he can skip to the front or back with ease."
He smirked. "Tired of my sage advice and snarky commentary already?"
Finally he gets it. "No, but we do need someone to watch our backs."
Another cry in the distance. The noise was pitched yet subdued, and gurgled as if the creature's vocal cords were in the process of rotting away.
"Vargouilles," Dak'kon whispered under his breath, but if the word was supposed to mean anything, I didn't pick it up.
And yet there they were right around the corner: three of them. Vile creatures they were: heads fluttering in circles with ichor-dripping fangs and tongues fat and long like those of a hanged man. Flapping, membranous wings held them aloft, with talons tipping each jutting bone. They were chalk-white, ghastly, with screeches like those of a dying hawk's.
If I said these were the most horrifying things I've yet to come across, I'd probably jinx it.
"They are of the weaker variety," Dak'kon said sagely in his hollow voice.
"Then we fight," I growled, and threw myself into the fray.
The tactic was brutal yet effective. With my ability to regenerate torn flesh and broken limbs, I soaked up most of the damage as I was surrounded. Outside Dak'kon and Morte could flank and hack away at the enemies' backs.
"Be warned!" Dak'kon called as the heads slavered over my flesh. The saliva of the dead was thick and foul- with a ropy quality best left forgotten, "Those who die from a Vargouille's fangs arise as one themselves!"
"NOW you tell me?!"
Surrounded by Vargouilles, I was in a poor position to play to my strengths and lob bolts of furious doom onto the critters. Hell, I was saving them for something I thought was more threatening.
If I died, would my head detach and float around biting my allies? Would I be consigned to a fate of eternal damnation fluttering around these halls and attacking unwary Buried Villagers looting the tombs? "The Eternal Vargouille," they'd call me. "Watch out for the one that's scarred and ugly, as opposed to the ones that are just ugly." Well, at least then Morte and I would have something in common.
But enough philosophising... time to kill with something sharp and/or heavy.
There was no real weight to the critters, and thus my dagger knocked them away as much as it stabbed them. But bowled into Morte's butting forhead or cleaved in half by Dak'kon's keen blade, it was effective enough.
And then there was another chorus of screeches from down the hall.
One arm hung uselessly at my side as I lay against the wall. The ancient stone was damp and cold, and the rubble itself was moist with stray trickles and condensation. A large hunk of flesh had been torn from my bicep by hungry fangs, and slowly the pink flesh beneath was knitting together. If I looked closely I could see the pulse of blood flowing through the tissue.
I chose not to look closely.
Morte made a clicking sound with his tongue, "Damn. That hurt, chief?"
"They severed the nerve," I said flatly. Perhaps I was being stingy with the blood charms, but all I needed was a few hours and I'd be in top condition again. Those were best saved for Morte or Dak'kon.
"While we're waiting..." I cleared my throat, "...Dak'kon?"
"What is your will?" he intoned.
"Perhaps this downtime would be good for me to study up on the Circle of Zerthimon."
Dak'kon stared at me a moment and, with a simple utilitarian nod, slid the plates into the proper configuration for me. I accepted it with my functional hand, and Dak'kon leaned back with his Zerth blade laid across his lap. Looking down at it he entered a focused, meditative trance. The black-edged blade became smoky, rippling until it became clear as polished glass and keen as thought itself. Again it rippled, and the blade took on an obsidian hue with fierce, serrated fangs lining the edge.
Leaving Dak'kon to his mental excercises, I began to read.
"Zerthimon labored many turnings for the illithid Arlathii Twice-Deceased and his partnership in the cavernous heavens of the False Worlds. His duties would have broken the backs of many others, but Zerthimon labored on, suffering torment and exhaustion."
"It came to pass that the illithid Arlathii Twice-Deceased ordered Zerthimon before him in his many-veined galleria. He claimed that Zerthimon had committed slights of obstinance and cowardice against his partnership. The claim had no weight of truth, for Arlathii only wished to know if flames raged within Zerthimon's heart. He wished to know if Zerthimon's heart was one of a slave or of a rebel."
"Zerthimon surrendered to the illithid punishment rather than reveal his new-found strength. He knew that were he to show the hatred in his heart, it would serve nothing, and it would harm others that felt as he. He chose to endure the punishment and was placed within the Pillars of Silence so he might suffer for a turning."
"Lashed upon the Pillars, Zerthimon moved his mind to a place where pain could not reach, leaving his body behind. He lasted a turning, and when he was brought before Arlathii Twice-Deceased, he gave gratitude for his punishment to the illithid as was custom. In so doing, he proved himself a slave in the illithid eyes while his heart remained free."
"By enduring and quenching the fires of his hatred, he allowed Arlathii Twice-Deceased to think him weak. When the time of the Rising came, Arlathii was the first of the illithid to *know* death by Zerthimon's hand and die a third death."
I looked up. I was hesitant to disturb Dak'kon in the middle of his meditation, but he noticed my flickering gaze. "Er... I have read the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon. I want to speak to you more about the Way of Zerthimon."
He took the blade up from his lap and gave me his full attention, "What did you come to know?"
The moral of the story was simple. It was a prayer I had heard Dak'kon utter many times in battle, "Endure. In enduring, grow strong."
The words seemed to strike Dak'kon strangely... as I spoke them, his forehead creased, then resettled into its normal passive expression.
"Your will has brought you the knowing of the Third Circle of Zerthimon. With this knowing, I impart this to you." He took the Circle and with a deft motion, twisted one of the links so one of the plates slid forth. He handed the plate to me. "Meditate upon its teachings, and the knowing of it shall give you strength."
"Very well... I will study this Circle. Is there more you can teach me?"
As I asked the words, I suddenly noticed that Dak'kon wasn't looking at me. He was holding the Unbroken Circle in his hands, studying it. His blade had taken on the same texture as the Unbroken Circle... and Dak'kon suddenly seemed older somehow.
Dak'kon's black eyes rose from the Circle and looked at me. "Know that I did not believe you would come to know the teachings of the Circle. It is... a difficult path you will walk in learning the Way of Zerthimon. Is your mind focused on this matter?"
I nodded, "Yes. I wish to learn more."
Dak'kon's fingers felt around the edges of the stone circle, and he twisted it clockwise, the links clicking until they have settled into a new configuration. He handed it to me as it was. "The next Circle of Zerthimon is open to you. Study it, then I will hear your words."
I glanced at the plate he had given me before looking over the new circle… a meditation that would grant me the strength Zerthimon took with him in his year of punishment. "Thanks. Get some rest. It may take me a while to meditate on this."
Again he nodded, and leaned back with his Zerth blade held in the crook of his arm. Eyes closed, features placid, I could never tell if he truly was asleep or not.
I began to read.
"Know that the Rising of the People against the illithid was a thing built upon many ten-turnings of labor. Many of the People were gathered and taught in secret the ways of defeating their illithid masters. They were taught to shield their minds, and use them as weapons. They were taught the scripture of steel, and most importantly, they were given the knowing of freedom."
"Some of the People learned the nature of freedom and took it into their hearts. The knowing gave them strength. Others feared freedom and kept silent. But there were those that knew freedom and knew slavery, and it was their choice that the People remain chained. One of these was Vilquar."
"Vilquar saw no freedom in the Rising, but opportunity. He saw that the illithid had spawned across many of the False Worlds. Their Worlds numbered so many that their vision was turned only outwards, to all they did not already touch. Vilquar's eye saw that much took place that the illithid did not see. To the Rising, the illithid were blinded."
"Vilquar came before his master, the illithid Zhijitaris, with the knowing of the Rising. Vilquar added to his chains and offered to be their eyes against the Rising. In exchange, Vilquar asked that he be rewarded for his service. The illithid agreed to his contract."
"At the bonding of the contract, a dark time occurred. Many were the betrayals Vilquar committed and many were the People that the illithids fed upon to stem the Rising. It seemed that the Rising would die before it could occur, and the illithid were pleased with Vilquar's eye."
"It was near the end of this dark time when Zerthimon came to know Vilquar's treacheries. In knowing Vilquar's eye, Zerthimon forced the Rising to silence itself, so that Vilquar might think at last his treacheries had succeeded, and the Rising had fallen. He knew that Vilquar's eye was filled only with the reward he had been promised. He would see what he wished to see."
"With greed beating in his heart, Vilquar came upon the illithid Zhijitaris and spoke to his master of his success. He said that the Rising had fallen, and the *illithids* were safe to turn their eyes outwards once more. He praised their wisdom in using Vilquar's eye, and he asked them for his reward."
"In his greed-blindness, Vilquar had forgotten the knowing of why the People had sought freedom. He had lost the knowing of what slavery meant. He had forgotten what his illithid masters saw when they looked upon him. And so Vilquar's betrayal of the People was ended with another betrayal. Vilquar came to know that when Vilquar's eye had nothing left to see, Vilquar's eye was useless."
"The illithid gave to Vilquar his reward, opening the cavity of his skull and devouring his brain. Vilquar's corpse was cast upon the Fields of Husks so its blood might water the poison-stemmed grasses."
"I never understood how you could bear to read that junk," Morte grumbled.
"Go to sleep, Morte," I paused, "On second thought, why don't we talk. It's been a while since we just chatted." Might as well keep him awake as long as I could... his snoring might've lured some more Vargouilles our way and I was already short one working arm.
He clicked his teeth eagerly, "Well, in that case, let me tell you about the time I worked for the Archwizard Khelebak. Now this guy was getting on in years, and stingy as a goat, though really in the sense that I can't think of a good analogy for either of these things right now. Anyways, he set me up on a shelf as a cheap burglar alarm, and one day this cute elvish rogue decided she'd try a robbery with as little encumbering her as possible..."
Ten agonizing minutes later he was snoring away tucked inside a rag-filled sack with our packs piled on top.
I whittled away the hours reading over my makeshift tome bleary-eyed, copying the new spell and memorizing others, practicing the basic excercises of magery: focus, gesture, chant. Focus, gesture, chant.
In between the arduous tasks of preparing my spells, I looked at my companions and wondered how it came to this: a nameless wanderer followed happily by a floating skull and an aging Githzerai that looked as if he'd be more at home in a monastary than risking his bones in a dank crypt as this. I was grateful for my companions, true, but at times like this I had to wonder what made me so fortunate, or what made them so cursed or daft to join me.
With a sign, Dak'kon's eyelids lifted. He nonchalantly glanced at the snoring pile of goods, then looked to me. Sitting up straight as a spear, the man was all business and discipline.
"What have you come to know?"
I had thought about this long and hard. "When one chooses to see only what is before them, they see only a part of the whole. They are blind. And just as Vilquar was blinded by his promised reward, so were the illithids blinded to the true Rising. For when they heard Vilquar's words, they turned their sight outwards again, didn't they? And the Rising was free to strike?"
Dak'kon nodded, "Know that you speak truly. Vilquar's Eye blinded both Vilquar and the illithids. The tentacled ones thought the Rising to be no more. When the Rising occurred, the ground drank deep of illithid blood. So was victory born from treachery."
I stroked my chin, "It is a curious lesson. Why would it be part of the teachings of Zerthimon?"
Dak'kon's blade bled into a dead, night-black, and his voice deepened - for a moment, I thought he was angry, but I was unsure. "There is much about the Way of Zerthimon and his path that is difficult to know."
"Do you know why Vilquar's Eye is part of the Way of Zerthimon?"
"It is part of the telling of how our People came to know freedom. It lets us know that there are those, even among the People, who are not of the People. And that even in the greatest treachery, a greater knowing may be achieved."
I nodded, "Very well."
"You have come to know the Fourth 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. He handed the plate to me. "Meditate upon its teachings, and the knowing of it shall give you strength."