Part 50: Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 11Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 11
I left the Dead Nations happily, eager to taste the foul air of Sigil once again. At the portal, however, I passed by that corpse once again. The sandy-haired Collector was covered with nasty bites, and still the dead man's neck writhed, as if it were trying to twist itself off his body. He spoke with an effort, but thanks to the Stories-Bones-Tell that I had learned from Stale Mary I could understand him with perfect clarity. "Hey... I'm Chad... need your help..."
I squatted next to him, "What's wrong with you?"
"See... this... neck?" It was stretching like taffy and contracting. "Damn vargouille bit me. I'm dead, and... I need to hold my head on if I don't want to be... one of those damnable... things. You gotta kill the vargouilles down this passage... all of 'em... t'save me from that."
I nodded. I had worried about this very fate the first time I learned of the vargouille's terrible bite. "You got it."
"In return... I'll give you ... directions to... a powerful magic item... deadsight tells me... you might need it..."
"What is it?"
"Find it and... then I tell you. Not before."
I had faced hordes of the things already, fought giant sewer lizards in the dank tunnels of the Drowned Nations. I had been threatened by slavering ghouls, had hacked apart a wererat in these tunnels. Slaying a small swarm of vargouilles was a simple affair. They were little more than flying rats to me now.
When I returned I noticed Chad's neck was better... it no longer bulged out as if it wanted to separate from the torso. "Thanks, friend... at least now I know I ain't going to be a vargouille for eternity... You want your reward now?"
"All right, here's what it is: There's a reason the Drowned Nations are called that. There's a magic bottle that never stops its flow, a decanter, hidden in the Drowned Nations catacombs. You get that, and you got all the fresh water you'll ever need."
"You mean this one?" I pulled it from my pack, holding it before his dead, motionless eyes.
"Wha- oh cripes. I'm sorry I can't offer you anything else to thank you... wait! Someone down here might know how to get the command word... a guy by the name of-"
"Glyve? Face in the wall, speaks like he's got a mouth full of molasses?"
"Powers above I feel so useless."
I shook my head, "No. I needed to be reminded that I still have a few things to do here. Thanks, Chad. Rest in peace."
With that I felt his spirit fade, passing into the planes beyond. If I had to I could always drag up the memories from his bones, but there was no need for that now.
"'Things to do here?' Unless there's a mammy bar and about ten other ways to fulfill my eleven-plus vices we're getting the frickin' hell out of Sigil's arse-hole!"
"We have some obligations, Morte."
Such as revenge against a goddamn vargouille swarm.
By now the population must've been decimated. Those few scattered pests would have to kill a lot more Buried Villagers to become a real threat again. Hopefully I could warn those vultures away by telling them that the Dead Nations protected these warrens.
I sifted through the scattered bones of the dozens of adventurers that must've been slain here. Most of their goods were damaged, but an exquisite pair of punch-daggers still looked good.
I returned to Glyve.
Glyve spoke in that slow rumble, like stone scraping against stone, "Have you found... the flask of which... I spoke?"
A note of eagerness crept into Glyve's dead voice: "You have it? Pour some of ... its water across ... my lips... and I shall tell you... what I promised ... to tell you."
"Here you go."
The clear water from the flask trickled across the stone lips, diluting the filthy flow that spewed from the holes. As we watched, the Ditch's water slowly dissipated entirely, the dirty taint of it replaced by clear, fresh water. Glyve groaned in ecstasy. After a moment, he spoke, "My thanks, Nameless One. In gratitude, I gift you with knowledge that will allow you to harness the full power of the decanter."
His voice began to fade even as he spoke, "Seek out... the woman called... 'Nemelle'. She resides in ... the Clerk's Ward... in Upper Sigil. I know not... where exactly... Best of luck ... in your quest... immortal."
"Thanks, Glyve. Go to your rightful rest."
The stone face was silent. A trickle of clear water ran from the corner of its eye, and the grimace carved into the face had loosened. Another soul freed from its torment.
"Very well, then."
"You know, boss, I was getting really sick of his... constant... pauses... anyway... it's a ... good thing... he's shut up... now."
"Very funny, Morte. Let's go."
I wasn't expecting any fanfare when I returned, and indeed I wasn't disappointed. When I came to gate that huge, hulking thug was still standing guard, face creased into an ugly grimace.
The guard straightened up. "You gots what Pharod wanting, berk?"
"Show it to me, berk, and I'll raise the gate. But not until, right?"
I glanced him over, suspicious of his intentions. I bled and died and starved for this orb, and I wasn't going to let someone else take it. "It's for Pharod's eyes only."
The thug barked a laugh, "Then you ain't getting in."
A muscle in my cheek twitched, but I tried to stay calm, "On the other hand, I do have something you might be interested in."
He raised an eyebrow, "Yeah? What might that be?"
"Jink. How's twenty-five coppers sound?"
"You're getting warm, berk, but you ain't there yet."
I sighed, "All right. How's fifty sound?"
A smile wreathed his ugly face. "That's good enough. Pass it through, and I'll open the gate."
I pulled out a fistful of coins, giving a rough count before tucking them in a rag and tying it off quickly with some leftover thread. I held out the small satchel, offering it just past the gate. "Grab it and it's yours."
He reached through the gate for the coins I held out.
In a swift motion I deftly pinned his arm back against the gate and wrenched it. The guard screamed in agony as his arm creaked in its socket. Twisting it further the muscle and sinew strained on the edge of tearing.
"AIEEEEEEE!" he squealed like a piglet, "Gerrof! PLEASE!"
I let him go. "Now let me in or I'll tear you to pieces. We'll have no more of your games. I'm tired, aching, and I haven't had a hot meal in days and I'll be damned if I'm going to let a flimsy iron gate and a graverobbing rat get in my way."
He hastened to open the gate before I made good on your threat, and stood far out of my reach as I passed through the gate.
"Learned our lesson, have we? Let's see a little more respect next time. Farewell."
The other guards looked at me with mingled fear and loathing, but they readily gave me a wide berth. no one met my eye as I passed by.
I gave a friendly wave as I left them, "Top of the morning, lads!"
Keeping my pack close to me I led the way to to Pharod's throne room. I had gone through too much to lose it to a cutpurse now.
I licked my lips. Pharod had answers for me. I could taste it.
"Ah, corpse..." Pharod turned as I approached, his crutch clacking on the cobbles of the Court. He licked his lips and smiled expectantly. "Have you brought me what I asked for?"
I held it out. The surface curdled under my fingertips, and the nauseating stench led me to hold it at arms length. "Here it is. The bronze sphere."
Pharod's eyes gleamed as I handed it over -- he touched it gingerly, almost reverently. How Pharod could bear to show this sort of affection to such a vile thing was beyond me. Then again, maggots did breed best in rotting flesh.
"You..." He chuckled. "Ah, corpse, such a gamble you were, and paid off handsomely, you have..." Pharod studied his reflection in the sphere and tsked. "The years have been cruel to me, I see..."
"I did what you asked, Pharod. Now I want some answers."
Pharod didn't even look at me as I spoke... his attention was swallowed by the sphere he held. "Yes, yes, ask your questions..." Pharod turned the sphere in his hands. "Very important, your questions..."
"What do you know about me? Why was I told to seek you out?"
Pharod studied me with a critical eye. "Stay your weapons for what I'm about to say, corpse, for it could be your ears'll take offense..." Pharod smiled wickedly. "My ears no longer care, but yours are still fresh for the burning, it seems."
I placed my hand across my chest, "You have my word that I'll stay my hand, Pharod. I swear it. But I need to know what you know."
"The truth..." Pharod's tone softened, as if cajoling. "The truth was stretched a bit from my mind to my tongue when we first spoke, corpse -- in all terrible honesty, I know little about you." He raised a withered finger. "Yet, hear me out..."
"You're a cutter who plays at being dead, as I see." Pharod squinted at me. "Some time ago, you came to me, like you are now, but not, just strolled right into Ill-Wind Court and said you wanted an 'audience' with me."
"An audience with you?"
"Aye, an 'audience.'" Pharod chuckled, like whispering sand. "Like I was royalty..." He seemed amused, but there was an edge in his voice. "You knew the right things to say, you did, oh yes. You spoke the chant like a Guvner, born and true. And I listened."
"But you were royalty... at least a man of position, once, were you not?" Reekwind's tale was still fresh in my mind.
"Once." Pharod hissed. "Once. Titles, only words, NOTHING in the end..." He lapsed into silence, then tsked. "Knew that, too, my history, I think you did..."
"What did he... I... want from you?"
Pharod gave a mock bow, his crutch creaking as he leaned against it. "'Oh, Pharod, great Collector King,' you says. 'I have come before you to request a boon.' 'A boon?' I says. 'What could I offer a man of such obvious strength?'"
Pharod wagged his crooked finger. "And you asked for a strange thing: You says, 'Lord Pharod, I ask for courtesy. Your Collectors roam throughout the Hive. If they should find my body, I want it kept safe. That is all I ask.'" Pharod shrugs. "A simple boon."
I tried to urge him to continue, but before I could speak, I suddenly felt a prickling in my skull as Pharod spoke the word 'boon' and the smell of blood and fear rushed through your nostrils... Pharod was hiding something, something that happened in the past, involving me -- and it scared him. The boon he granted was no simple matter.
"So you granted my boon just like that? There's nothing to be gained from it, for you. Why did you even agree to do it?" I asked suspiciously.
Pharod fell silent for a moment. "A dead man can keep no promises, and promises to a dead man are easy enough to make, corpse."
"You're a merchant, Pharod, not a Samaritan. There must have been another reason..."
The memory burned as it returned in white-hot prickles, searing as it ate its way forward into my consciousness. Soon, though, it cooled, icy with the rigid calm I felt then. The stench of the Hive burned at my nostrils. A hand was curled around my sheathed dagger, and a cold sweat had made the handle slick...
The thug chuckled, "An 'audience' with Pharod? Did Sharegrave send ye?"
"No," I said simply, "I'm beginning to lose my patience, street-vulture. Where do I find Pharod?"
"The Collector King don't see outsiders, berk," he grinned, revealing two rows of moldy yellow-green teeth, "But I do think he'll be likin' that purse o' yours." Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the thugs moving, ten... no, twenty of them. Moreso. The Hivers could smell the sharp tang of danger, and down the streets window shutters snapped and doors slammed, finishing with a chorus of clinking as deadbolts slid home. I grumbled. It was a sad day when I'd have to waste my energy on these rats.
Ah well. Might as well have a little fun.
Swinging an arm back I gripped the neck of the thug that was maneuvering in to backstab me, the other hand snatching his wrist before he could slide the blade somewhere soft. His eyes bulged, and he struggled as I whispered a single word of power in his ear: "Insects."
I could feel the blood trickling from his nostrils, pouring from his lips and eyes and wetting my fingers as he collapsed, his insides liquifying as he was eaten from the inside out. His body convulsed, thrashing as a wet, bubbling scream gurgled from his lips. By the time he was twitching in his death throes the centipedes were writhing free from under his eyelids, ants swarming from his ears and spiders crawling from his lips, gleefully carrying bits of his tongue in their mandibles.
"Quick!" another thug screamed, "Grab his wrists! Cover his mouth!"
They weren't as stupid as I imagined. Showing their backs would've meant certain death. If they could reach me and pin me to the ground with manacles and gags, they might've had a chance.
But I make my own rules.
Cracking my fists together a wave of air and force battered the nearest thugs backwards, knocking them to their feet. I waved my hands, and one by one I plucked each of them up as if by invisible, telekinetic hooks.
One I threw into the wall of an abandoned building, and his body slid halfway into the stone before it solidified again, stone and flesh melding into a conglomerate that left his guts ossified. His screams were short and choked off, and he died slowly as his organs began to fail, half-merged into the brick as they were.
Another I speared mercifully with arrows of glass, leaving him dangling and still from the brick wall.
A third I entrapped in prison of crushing salt. He died in an instant.
I made a game of it, practicing my hand-eye coordination by juggling between the ones that tried to attack and the ones that tried to take flight, seeing how many I could kill and how creatively. Their screams of terror were silenced one after the other, in ripples of chaos and razor-edged blades of law. They fell with missiles of ash, weaves of pure light, and coils of metal that wound around bodies and limbs and tightened until they were sliced into medallions of flesh and bone.
The streets were drenched with blood and the scattered limbs of the thugs still twitched as I walked calmly towards the last one standing, facing me only because he was paralyzed with terror. It was the one who first mouthed me off, the one with the mildewed grin.
With a shriek he tried to flee, stumbling over the bodies and slipping on the blood of his allies.
I was glad I left one alive. With a flick of a finger he was dragged into the air, limbs flailing as I gestured, pressing him stock-still against a nearby wall.
"I'm not in a good mood today," I whispered, reaching out to grasp one wrist. The skin immediately blackened under my touch, bubbling over in hideous boils as a pox began to take his flesh. It distended in angry green spheres, the rot eating away at his flesh so quickly that by the time flesh sloughed from bone there was no blood left... only pus beating white and hot from his veins.
He shrieked. Oh how he shrieked.
I sighed. Art always came at the cost of precious practicality. "Look, this wouldn't have happened if you hadn't attacked me," I chided, and with a flick of my finger the last bones of his arms crumbled away, "Now you have three more chances to answer me. How do I find Pharod?"
He blubbered, sobbing, and was in the process of soiling himself if the warm stink that arose was any indication.
He calmed down by the time I was about to grasp his other arm. "P-Pharod! R-R-Ragpicker's square! Building to the north... portal! A fistful of junk is the key!" he wailed.
I nodded, "Thank you." And with that I turned and left. Someone else can take him down... I had a Collector King to greet.
I passed by a Dabus as I headed to the northwestern part of the Hive. It cocked its head in disapproval, frowning at the sight of the carnage. The Lady didn't like this sort of thing in her city, but everyone had the right to protect themselves. I was just lucky there were no Harmonium guards around to make things even more complicated.
"Sorry about the mess," I said politely to the Dabus. It never hurt to show a little respect to the servants of the ruler of Sigil.
The Dabus shook its head, rolled up its sleeves, and began to clean.
I reeled as the memory leaked away, the residue of that cold, analytical cruelty like a dagger sliding from a wound. Pharod was fuming, not noticing my sudden fugue.
"Aye..." his face suddenly peeled back in fury, his skin flushing red. "After you'd strung up a score of my blood on the Hive walls t'DIE, I had enough reason to promise you the PLANES themselves. Then your butchering self comes to my HOME, my KIP, to DEMAND a 'boon' of me..." Pharod calms himself, though his face is still flushed. "Aye, I agreed..."
The man was hunched over his cane, his face fishbelly-pale as he watched his bodyguard float in the air, rolling over in a smooth circle as he whimpered in terror.
"Pharod, I know you're debating on whether you should send your thugs at me. Spill some of my blood in revenge. Right now you're sizing me up and seeing whether you should take the chance."
The thug whined as I bent him over backwards, "Help me! PLEASE, Uncle!"
"But please believe me when I say I didn't take pleasure at the deaths of your men. I just hate wasting time, and that was the quickest solution, as is this."
"S-stop..." the man moaned as Pharod watched, mouth agape.
"How about I just demonstrate my power on this one man? Show you how serious I am and how I can sunder your entire court if I have to. It'd save both of us a great deal of time, resources, and yammering, wouldn't you say?"
"Enough! Enough, you wight! I agree! PLEASE, I agree!" It wasn't the fear for the lives of his men that made Pharod agree, nor was it simple, pure reason. I knew the look in his eyes well, as I've seen it many times in the eyes of men who betrayed their companions, from prisoners who killed their cellmates for food they had squirreled away. Pharod agreed only because he was afraid of what I might do to HIM.
It served my purposes just fine. The thug dropped to the floor in a clank of armor and scurried away.
"Thank you, Your Highness," I bowed politely, "I'm sure you'll find my terms most agreeable."
I swallowed hard, shaking the rest of the memory off. "I'm- I'm sorry about your people, Pharod. That wasn't me... but if I can make up the loss to you, I will."
Pharod tsked. "No matter, them bodies served me well enough. The Dusties pay the same for fresh deaders as for old..."
How long ago did I first meet him? Ten years? Twenty? Strange how the most horrific acts can cool in such a short time. What sympathy I did have was bleeding away if he treated his companions so callously, "Was that the only reason you agreed to my request?"
"You knew things about me... things only I knew. You knew I was greedy for somethin' beneath Sigil, and you put a name and picture to it: the bronze sphere, you said. I didn't think you would fetch it for me..." He chuckled. "Yet did you? Aye. The Planes turn in strange ways..."
"And that's all you know?"
"All I know? Nay... but it's all I know about you, corpse."
"Fine. Next question... what did you take off my body after I died?"
"I?" Pharod licked his lips. "Why, I took nothing, corpse." His face split in a grin. "Then, I wasn't the one that found your body..."
Pharod's smile widened, pulling the pasty folds of flesh back from his face like a curtain. "My daughter, the rose of my eye, the sweetest of my family, and the sharpest wit of them all..." He licked his dry lips and sighed in mock sadness. "Such a cruel tongue on her..."
"Your daughter? Who?"
"My darlin' girl, Annah. She found you, dead as deader can be, in a place where most Collectors wouldn't go for a mountain of coppers. Could be she plucked something off you, could be not...?" He leaned in, shaking his head. "You'll have t'ask her, for it's not her Da's place to say."
Something about him pricked at me, "Don't lie to me, Pharod. You're a merchant, and you always take a cut from your workers. What did Annah give you from my body?"
"Ah... yes... my tribute..." Pharod folded his withered hands over his crutch, almost protectively. "There's no telling what was from you or not, corpse. Most like, there was nothing."
As much as my past incarnation had done him ill, the man was rubbing me the wrong way. I needed the elements of my past if I was to piece anything together and here was this vulture hanging onto my possessions as little more than trinkets, "Pharod, my patience is at an end. If you don't hand over what was stolen from me, I will see to it the Dustmen know where to find you."
Pharod was silent for a moment. He tapped his fingers against his crutch... slowly.
"Where has the decency of man gone..." Pharod grumbled, shaking his head. "A courtesy I am doing for you, corpse... such a courtesy. Pharod parting with anything... it'd be the dead-book for me if anyone heard... wait here, move not a yard. I shall return."
He slunk off into the shadows behind his throne, "Hmmm. Wonder where he's going..."
After a long while, Pharod returned, his crutch clacking against the flagstones. In his hands, he held a number of items, which he passed off to me. "You will be silent on this and accept the blessing that I even remembered..."
My eyebrow twitched. He really was a vile creature, "A few hundred coppers, a scrap of paper, and a ring? Very well... now I'd like to speak to this Annah. Where is she?"
"Where's Annah?" Pharod shrugged. "She's hiding in the shadows here, I expect, listening to us trade the chant. I called for her after you went below... had to ask her if you were really in the dead book when she found you or not..." He chuckled dryly, then took a deep breath and called out to the darkness. "Annah! Stop mithering in those shadows and come greet our guest!"
There was movement in the shadows of the chamber. The almost playful flicking of a long, pearly tail caught my eye, and with that I could pick out the vague outline of a woman pressing against a wall, hidden and motionless in a sliver of darkness.
I didn't even hear her enter the chamber, even in the piecemeal armor that all the rogues here patched together. Her right arm was covered with a series of interlocking plates that looked as if they were taken from the skin of some creature, and a horned shoulder piece protected her left arm.
She stepped from the shadows, the sway in her walk and the sharp way she moved her shoulders betrayed her sass and vinegar. Her hair was the ember-red glow of a fire flickering with stubborn life, and her eyes were as piercing as the daggers tucked in her belt. Her leather armor left little to the imagination, and while she was lithe with catlike grace, she was as milk-skinned as any noble with an ample bosom that she carried well.
Annah's Entrance (Video)
"Whoa... guess there are mams down here after all..." Morte gawked.
"Ah, what now?" I recognized that thick, curling brogue, the sharp sneer of those black-red lips.
Annah's Theme (Music)
I gawked. "You're Annah? I met you in the Hive - outside the Mortuary! You pointed me down an alley that was swarming with thugs!"
The girl ignored me and turned to Pharod. "What's this about, then? I'm not playing the leash-pull with this scarred dog, so I'm not. Get one of your other gullies to do it."
"Do you know how many stab wounds I took?!"
"Annah, rose of my eye - have I not taught you to respect the dead?" A thin smile wormed across Pharod's face, and he made a slight bow towards me. "This resourceful corpse needs to know where you found him."
"Eh? What are yeh on about?" She squinted at me. "'Ee's not a deader."
"Ah! Yes, my mistake..." Pharod nodded, then his voice dropped dangerously. "Yet, my darlin' Annah, that still makes it YOUR mistake... for this one only had one foot in the dead book when you brought him to me." He tapped his crutch against the flagstones with a light tap. "He woke up, sought me out - MOST embarrassing."
"So?" Annah glanced at me, then shrugged. "He shouldn't be playing deader on the Hive while I'm about, or he'll wake up in a Dustie's arms, he will."
A muscle at the corner of my eye twitched as they talked over me, "Maybe you could have CHECKED to see if I was alive before dumping me off there," I growled.
"Oh, aye, and maybe YEH should have been more careful an' maybe yeh wouldn't have been lying face-down n' stone-still on the alley cobbles like a deader, aye?!"
I worked my jaw, trying to knead out that frustration. Waving my hands I dismissed it. Anger never solved anything, "Enough of this - where did you find my body?"
"Show him where you found his body, Annah." Pharod tapped his crutch again for emphasis. "Take him to the haunted alley." Pharod studied Annah for a moment, then grinned and turned to me. "If yeh happen to lose my darlin' Annah on the way to the alley, corpse, you come back and see Pharod. I'll guide you..."
"Tchhhh..." Annah sneered at Pharod, then threw a glance at me. "C'mon, then. And keep yer steps quick, jig? I've little time tae waste on the likes of yeh."
I shook my head, "Not just yet. The three of us have been pissing around in the catacombs for days and we're exhausted. We need to get a little respite in Sigil for a few days before we go anywhere as dangerous as you describe."
Her tongue snapped, sharp as the barbed tip of a whip, "Oh, aye? Well, then, yeh can sniff out yer grave on yer own, eejit! I'm not wai-"
"Annah..." Pharod's voice was quiet, but it cut through the girl's speech like a knife. "Be his minder. See that he comes to no harm while in the village. Then guide him to where he wishes to go."
Annah spat on the ground. "Pox on yeh both..."
"That's what I was thinking... now let's go," I said with a grumble. This smelled like trouble, I could tell.