Part 46: Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 9Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 9
Down the dimly lit halls of the Dead Nations and through the gates I entered the Drowned Nations as Hargrimm suggested. Hopefully Pharod's bronze sphere would be somewhere down here, but if I hadn't gotten any clues combing through the rest of these damn catacombs, it seemed even less feasible that I'd find it in this dank little corner of Sigil.
A ghoul greeted me as I entered. His eyes were wary, and he waved me away with a hiss, "Sss... Meat creature, no place for you thisss isss."
"What are you doing here?
He gestured, taking in the entire red-bricked maze of tunnels. Slabs and ancient furniture were scattered about the place. Before the coffins were moved in it might've been a tavern until it sank beneath the city. "We look to exsssspand our home. Eliminate enemiessss... find food to keep from chewing on walking meat, yessss? The Silent King tellsss usss... no walking meat."
"Are these the Drowned Nations?"
"Thiss? Thisss iss the Drowned Nationsss, yesss," he hissed, "Thisss iss our new hunting lair. Thisss... thissss is our larder."
Totems were set up in several corners craft from bestial skulls and rags scrounged from shrouds or ancient tapestries. If they didn't ward off the more savage creatures of the Drowned Nations, they likely served as signs to mark out sanctuaries that had been cleared of such dangers.
The ghouls here didn't eye me or lick rotting lips with serpentine black tongues as others did. There was some measure of control here: while the ghouls glanced furtively at the shadows and crept warily for hidden dangers, there was a contentment that came with the hunt and the satisfaction of being well-fed.
These ghouls didn't have to live on rats with just enough meat on their frames to pick out of their teeth. The prey here was larger, more rampant, and I would have to be careful.
Searching down one chamber, I came across just such a monster.
"Are you... ssscared of thiss creature? Ha ha!" one ghoul barked a laugh.
His companion scowled, "I will try. It is... fassst."
As I watched, the second ghoul crept towards a hulking beast at least eight feet long from nose to tail. Mottled white skin, fishbelly pale, was drawn tight on its heavily muscled frame. A mouth held rows of dagger-sharp teeth that sprouted from its jaws like weeds fresh after a rain, and two large bony spines protruded from its mandibles. The thing could've taken an arm in a snap and a tug, and as the ghoul crept closer I winced, expecting a snarl and a wet, ripping sound as those jaws tore grisle and tendon.
At the last moment the creature growled, and the snarl sent the ghoul running with a pitched "Yeeeeeeeeee!"
His companion howled, "Ha ha! Coward!"
When his laughter died down he glanced at me with quite possibly the friendliest grin I had ever gotten from a ghoul. While I'd rather not see that sort of snaggle-toothed grin again, it was better than the Acaste's snarls and furious ramblings, "Sss... meat creature... trocoptoca keeps us from treasure, yes? The troco must die. You keep treasure. We get body. Yesss?"
"What is that creature?" I couldn't tell whether it was undead or not. Then again, the thought of large reptilian monsters keeping a comfortable ecological niche in a network of sewers was ridiculous.
"It'sss a trocoptoca. White. Hornssss. Nasssty. Trocosss eat flessssh. Our enemiesss. Kill it, yes?"
"What's with your friend?"
He grinned, "Ha ha... coward, he isss. Afraid of troco. Ha ha. Kill it for us, yesss?"
The second ghoul snarled, "Not friend! Braggart! Big ghoul! Afraid of nothing, he saysss! You see him getting clossse to troco? No! He coward! You kill it and show him who brave isss!"
I leaned to get a better look. A motionless lump lay behind the tocop-something, a mangled corpse draped in a Collector's robe. "I'd rather not get in the way of such a thing if I can help it."
The second ghoul hissed, "Hsssst- we not interested in coins or things that go clink. Just the flesh... Kill the troco for usss, yesss, and you take itsss money. We take itsss food. You like, yesss?"
Well, we could do a favor I suppose. The more content the ghouls are here, the less they'll bother me.
The thing snarled, trying to drive me from its territory the way predatory beasts do. Such creatures are rarely interested in fights. Much better to butt heads and scare an enemy off than risk crippling wounds open to infection if things got really nasty. If all it had were snarls and grunts, perhaps I could-
My thoughts were cut off when the thing swung its head and gored me with one of those mandibular spikes.
"Oh son of a-" I screamed as I landed, gripping a deep puncture in my leg. The gush of blood wasn't as bad as it could've been... a quarter of an inch off and the artery would've been spewing my scarlet life over the stones.
"We're coming, chief!"
Karach sang and teeth chattered as my companions came to my aid. The creature screeched and hissed as black blood spilled onto the stones. Half-blind and frantic I groped around as the creature's clawed feet stomped. Now and again those razor talons missed my arms by a hair, and twice they grazed my flesh.
My fingers curled around the bone dagger's hilt, and taking advantage of the troco's confusion I thrust the blade up into its heart. The first blow merely earned an agonized screech, but with the second and third stabs its movements began to slow.
I don't recall how many times I gouged pale flesh, but by the time the frenzy was over I was covered in a good layer of bilious black blood.
I did what I could in those catacombs. It was a tenuous alliance, born kicking and screaming and soaked in the blood and fluids of the mortal dangers that lurked in these catacombs. I fought only to carve a way deeper into the dank tunnels with the slim hope that I might find the bronze sphere, while the ghouls fought only to spread their dominion so that they might sate, even for a moment, their neverending hunger.
And once they achieve their goal, I would be useless to them, protected only by the edict of a dead King.
Some days, I just really need a hug.
Room after room I slew the creatures. By the outdated totems in troco-filled chambers it seemed that the monsters of the dark were taking back their territory. Even with the edict in place I hoped the ghouls would value my aid when we drove the creatures back. I'm sure of it.
Standing in the middle of a crossroads, a pair of ghouls waved me away. "Ssss! Come no closer, human!" the female hissed.
"Wait, I can help," I insisted as I stepped forward.
And then that chorus of screeches gave substance to the warning.
I crept away from the mangled corpses of the ghouls and continued down the hall. The large hall, with a floor shining and rippled as if it had been poured, was ensconced with deep arches along the walls. The murmur from the openings made me wary, and as we walked I glanced to the side, ever wary of enemies. Dak'kon was tense, creeping forward with a fluid sidestep so that he could watch our backs. Morte floated silently behind us.
Halfway down the hall a corpse came into view... a ghoul, a mummified yellow by the look of it. Waving a hand and pointing I gestured for Morte and Dak'kon to stay where they were.
Creeping forward I knew it was too convenient, a single body in the middle of the floor, conveniently placed, a clear outline against the floor.
And those damn screeches only verified my suspicions.
Chanting in an ancient tongue, Dak'kon's body thrummed with the strength of ten men. While he was swift and sure as always, his blade struck with a force that cracked stone.
The black-edged blade shrieked, slicing a vargouille in twain with each passing. As Morte rolled through the air his gnashing teeth ripped the wings from one vargouille, then another, and as Dak'kon passed that keen obsidian tip would follow with a downward stroke to end the beast's wails. The forms of the blade were graceful even in these improvised opportunities, as if Dak'kon were connecting the heavens with the earth.
Of course, I had little time to admire his battle skills when nine of the fluttering horrors were gnawing on my scarred backside.
As always I sponged up the damage as Morte and Dak'kon picked off the stragglers. While much of the flock focused on me the two circled the room, slaughtering vargouilles with each pass until they centered on the flock gnawing and tearing at me.
And then it was just a matter of killing them faster than they dealt damage to me.
"Yer not looking so great, chief."
"I'll be fine," I muttered as I sewed my flesh back together.
"It would seem those that did were not slain have fled," Dak'kon intoned, prodding a dead vargouille with his boot. With that he nodded with the satisfaction of one who had done his duty, cleansing these chambers, at least, of the flapping vermin.
"Pain in the ass, these things are, chief. Almost as bad as cranium rats when they swarm. Twice as annoying as acid pidgeons."
"They might just be a little of both," I grumbled, bandaging up my arm, "Rodents and birds have one thing in common..."
"Aside from abandoning their leavings in and on your walls?"
I nodded at the dull glint coming from one alcove "They have an inordinate fondness of shiny things."
I picked it out among a small pile of twisted bits of metal and scraps of pounded foil. The bottle was heavy in my hands, and as I turned it over I couldn't see a single bubble floating from the cork. The glass was a dull mustard-yellow, but with an idle shake the bottle seemed to thrum as if it contained the seas of a thousand worlds. Glyve had mentioned that a command word was required to activate it, but still I felt somewhat unsafe holding the thing... a Decanter of Endless Water. A fool or madman could consign a world to a watery doom by merely misplacing the cork.
"Ooooh. Those things are rare, chief," Morte murmured, "That could fetch a nice bit of jink if we could find a buyer. There are desert worlds that would sell kings into slavery for this..."
And so we continued down, deeper into the Drowned Nations into caverns too dark and perilous for even the ghouls.
There were rooms high with graceful pillars, built by men who yearned to touch the sky with their creations.
There were halls with walls ensconced with mummified bodies, holding bones and shrouds like babes returning to a mother's cold breast.
There were crypts that held the shells of men long forgotten, their dust held in sarcophagi whose features had been long-eroded by the waters dripping from above.
And lastly, there was a crumbled, hollowed-out lair fetid and foul with the dung of the blubbery reptilian denizens here.
And with the last battle's end Dak'kon's supernatural strength faded, and he sighed a weary sigh, leaning against the wall with a heavy hand. Morte probed his teeth with an idle tongue, searching for a molar or two that had been loosened with the chain of battles we had endured.
I don't know how or why a Collector had found his way so deep into warrens that even ghouls would dare to tread. Perhaps he had been slain in the catacombs above and dragged down here through a side tunnel. I didn't care.
All that I could see was that bronze sphere he clutched tightly in his hands in fingers frozen in death.
"Finally," I whispered in satisfaction.
The sphere was light to the touch, as if hollow. While it was unremarkable in any way, it made my skin crawl at the touch. The surface curdled under my fingertips, and the mere feel of it gave me the impression that it was an egg just about to burst open. To make matters worse, the faint smell of rotten custard emanated from it, so putrid and thick it made my eyes water.
"Yes!" Morte cheered, "Now we can go make ourselves sodden with drink and bounce coppers off the bar girls!"
While I was in a celebratory mood, I didn't care to raise the sphere aloft and cheer. Tucking the disgusting thing into my pack I led the way back to the surface, where things might not have had a semblance of normality, but at least there was warmth, food, and a good mattress if we could spare enough coin.
The feeling that gripped me then was a cold talon curling around my heart, piercing with terror and haunting like a memory lost to the ages.
And there, to our left, was an old, forgotten gate. Like the sphere it was utterly unremarkable at a glance, but as I touched it the black metal seemed chill and unforgiving. It was the echo of a dirge, the face of a forgotten passer-by. It was a stranger you once knew, the name teasingly coy on the tip of your tongue.
"Chief...? Chief we have the sphere! What are you doing?"
As I opened the gate, a cold wind rushed forth. I began to shiver as I heard the sound of a voice whispering, although I couldn't make out what it said. In a second, it was gone and all was silent... and I realized that I had been here before, and there was the strong feeling that my companions musn't follow me in.
"I'm going in alone... Wait out here for me."
"Oh no, chief. No way are you going in there without me! I'm not letting you run off on some barmy tangeant by your lonesome self!"
"I concur," Dak'kon intoned, "I asked to join you so that I might lend my knowing of these strange lands. I cannot leave you to enter territory unexplored by any of us on your own."
"Just trust me!" I said sternly, stabbing a finger at the two, "Just stay here and wait 'till I come back."
"But chief-" Morte protested.
Dak'kon straightened. "As you will," he said smoothly, crossing his arms. While glad I didn't have to argue further, I was taken aback by Dak'kon's sudden shift. Did I disappoint him? Was he angry that his disciple would take such a tone with him? I didn't know, I merely felt ashamed that I would treat a companion and mentor so.
Morte sighed, "All right. If the gith is gonna stay I might as well too."
I nodded, "Good. I'll be right back."