Part 52: Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 13Puzzle-Box of the Nameless One: Part 13
"Are ye daft? What is wit ye and talkin' to every soddin' basher in the city?!" Annah snapped with that tongue-curling brogue, "Yer just askin' fer trouble ye are!"
"The chief's just like that. Sure he stirs stuff up but we end up doing more good than harm... intentional or not."
Annah snarled and turned to Dak'kon, "Well? Don't ye have anythin' to say?"
Dak'kon merely gave Annah a passive glance and said nothing, returning to his meditation. The smooth sound of Karach sharpening and flowing helped soothe my troubles.
I had set the box on the rickety end-table earlier and examined it. It was a small wooden cube, with intricate designs etched into its surface. At one time it would've been worthy enough to be displayed at any aristocrat's estate, but over the years neglect had taken its toll and the thing was falling apart: wood was creaking and splintering, the hinges were rusted, and the gold finish was flaking away. If not for the large ruby mounted to the front of the box, it'd be worthless. Thinking better of it, I set the box down carefully and slid it under the bed.
While the ruby glittered with a comforting shine when the light hit it just right, the box itself seemed to emanate feelings of dread. Soon after I had accepted it I could bear to hold it no longer, and bought a sack packed with rags to hold the damn thing. Mar's box made the bronze sphere seem like a ball of smelly yarn in comparison.
"Bloody addle-coves," Annah growled, "The Nine Hells can have ye, I'm not restin' me eyes next to yer thrice-damned souls." With a flick of her tail Annah strode towards the other end of the bunkhouse and took a bed there.
"We've been through worse, right?" I said, looking to my remaining two companions.
Morte was embarrassingly silent. Dak'kon continued to stare at his blade, shifting between fluid and black chaos-steel.
Moving from crate to crate, the sole worker in the warehouse seemed to be totally immersed in counting boxes and scribbling results down on a piece of parchment. It had taken several queries and a few dead ends trying to untangle the conflicting nest of directions the Hivers had given me... 'southeastern section of the Hive' was a description that was next to useless. The man looked annoyed as I approached, interrupting his work. "What is it now? Can't you see I'm busy taking inventory? Go bother someone else."
"Are you Ku'atraa?"
He raised an eyebrow, "Well who wants t'know? If yer trying to worm your way out of owing me money I'll remind you that Thog the Collector has a two-for one special on kneecaps this week."
"I was told to deliver this box to you."
His eyes brightened, "Well, why didn't you say so in the first place? Let's see what you got for me. I'm sure it'll need to be inventoried."
"Mar told me to give this to you," I reached into the rag-filled sack.
As I held the box out for him to take, Ku'atraa's expression turned from one of interest to that of intense horror. The blood drained from his face, and his lips trembled as he stumbled back. "No! Please... get it away from me!"
"I don't understand... why are you afraid of this box?"
"I said... g-get back! Death... evil... had to d-dupe Mar... couldn't take it any more. Please... take to Brasken... lives southwest... Hive... me... noooooo!" Apparently the sight of the box was just too much for him as he ran screaming from the building.
"Wait! What am I supposed... to... do... with..."
I stood there dumbfounded and holding the creaky wooden box in my hands.
Annah looked up to me from the corner of her eye and gave her tail a little flick, "Idjit."
'Lives southwest' wasn't a very good description either, but I with a little luck we were able to find Brasken's kip well before the day's peak.
I gave a firm rap on the door. No answer. Another knock, and the door creaked open. For a city that was so dangerous to its denizens it was unusual that the door wasn't bolted or locked... but by the rumors I picked up Brasken was someone that no one really wanted to cross.
As I entered a warrior in loose armor grunted from his seat, shaking his head at the light that suddenly flooded in. His head was rolled back in sleep and a trickle of drool had crusted at one corner of his mouth. Upon noticing us enter though, Brasken leapt to his feet and shook off the grogginess in an instant. In loud, booming voice he growled, "What in the name of the abyss are you doing in my house?! Leave now, before I make you even more ugly than you already are."
"Whoa! I'm sorry... I was just asked to deliver this box into your care," I said, holding out the sack.
"Well, why didn't you say so? Let me see it and you can be on your way," Brasken shrugged off his temper as quickly as he did the fog of sleep, and only a grunt of annoyance punctuated his words. As I pulled out the box for Brasken, however, his expression changed from one of anticipation to that of amusement. "Whoa there! I won't fall for that trick a second time. Put that thing away and leave."
I shook my head and looked him in the eye. A full head taller than I was with hair wild as a lion's mane, I wasn't about to take any chances with him, "I don't understand; why won't anyone take this box? First Ku'atraa, and now you."
"Did you say Ku'atraa?" Brasken let out a great bellow of laughter. "Why, that's the fellow who bought the box off me. Thought he got the best of me when he bought it. I guess he figured the gem alone was more than worth the price he paid me. Poor fellow didn't realize what he'd gotten himself into 'til it was too late."
"Just what's so horrible about this box?"
"You mean you really don't know anything about that box you're holding? Well, I guess it won't hurt to tell you what I know," the floorboards seemed to quake with each step as he made his way to a cupboard where he pulled out a bottle of cheap wine, guzzling down a third of the stuff before looking back to me, "First off, so you don't get any ideas in your head, the curse on that box only affects the current owner of the box and to be the owner of the box you have to willingly take possession of it."
Sigh. "There goes the idea of just leaving the box for someone else to find... so, what's in the box?"
"Now that is a good question. That box has been around the Hive since anyone can remember. There are many rumors flying about. As you can imagine, over time the truth has been warped a little bit further with each retelling of the story," by the hint of vinegar in his breath as Brasken loomed over me, it seemed as if the wine was beginning to turn. He took another good swill, however, not quite caring if he was downing something more suitable for salad dressing.
"I've heard many a story about that box, and they all seem to have a recurring theme. The name given that that foul thing is 'Moridor's Box,' and the owner of the box will die should he or anyone else open it. As to the contents, who knows? Some say it's an ancient dragon, while others say it's the evil soul of Moridor himself. I cannot tell for sure, but just by looking at it any soul can tell it's something evil and one would have to be a fool to open it."
"What am I supposed to do with it?"
He shrugged, and looking at the empty bottle he seemed to ponder whether to shatter it against the wall like some wifebeating drunkard just for kicks. "I would suggest you go see Shilandra. She lives in the northeastern region of the Hive. It was from her that I 'won' the box. Who knows, maybe she will have more knowledge of what do with it. Or you can find some other clueless berk to take it off your hands. It's up to you. I wish you luck."
I'd had enough of running around the damn Hive.
Shilandra's home was a tall, slim tower wedged into the northwestern corner of the Hive, built right against the wall that encircled the Mortuary. Razorvine had covered much of the walls, and was well tended to as if to discourage thieves or burglars. Despite this, a Dabus floated nearby, carefully clearing away the overgrowth.
Shilandra's home was not much richer than others I'd seen in Sigil, but it was tidy and well-kept. A few bottles and a twisted wand lay on a table across the room, and along the walls diagrams had been pinned. I recognized some of the symbols... the woman was a mage of some middling power.
Unfortunately I had barged in as she was in mid-gesture for some sort of ritual. She looked up in surprise.
"Blast! I almost had it that time. Don't you know it's dangerous to interrupt spell casters while they are evoking a spell? Luckily for you I was only practicing." Shilandra flicked her fingers, as if to clear away the residual energies she had been drawing upon. Honey-haired and a bit on the pretty side, the sorceress seemed to be slowly approaching the age where most women would've been growing a bit desperate for a wedding band. Her skin was still taut and her breasts firm, revealed as they were in those lavish robes, but there was age and wisdom in her eyes, and enough confidence in her own power that she was not put off by a heavily scarred man barging into her home with three well-armed companions. "Well, what is it you want?"
"Er, uh... sorry," was my lame reply, "I just wished to learn more about this box..."
Shilandra recognized the box at a glance. "Ah yes! I remember this artifact well; I acquired it some time ago. What do you wish to know about it?"
"Who did you get this from?"
"Hmmm.... Let me think. I don't recall whom I got it from. I just remember I was down in the marketplace looking for some spell components when some person offered me this box. After testing the box, I found it to be cursed, but was intrigued by the spells woven into the box, and so I purchased it anyway."
I gave it another look. As far as I could sense there were some spells binding it, though the essences were too subtle for me to catch. "If you were so intrigued by the box, what made you decide to give it away?"
A small smile quirked at Shilandra's lips, and for a moment she relived the memories of being a mere journeyman wizard, "I was young and brash back then. In my relentless pursuit of knowledge, I carelessly undid one of the spells. Look closely at the box, it was like new when I had it. The signs of decay are an indication that the spells are weakening. I realized I was in danger if I kept the box any longer. So I held a contest to get rid of it."
"It was the most expedient way to rid myself of it. I simply invited all the bashers in the Hive to fight each other to determine who was the best. Bashers are notorious for having big muscles and not much upstairs, if you know what I mean," Shilandra said, tapping the side of her head, "They came like flies to honey. I offered some money and the box as a prize. I believe some basher named Brasken won the contest."
"Do you know the history behind this box?"
She shrugged, "The only thing I have been able to learn is its name. It is called Moridor's Box. As to who this Moridor is or the origins of the box, I do not know."
"You seem to know something about magic. Can you tell me what spells have been put on this box?"
"For many years I studied the box and tried to learn its secrets. Spell upon spell upon spell has been woven into it. To my amazement, my studies revealed that all the spells are of the type used to confine fiends," Shilandra said it casually, with the same calm with which she arranged several reams of paper covered with formulae and scribbles. As if she had no problem at all with the idea of holding the legions of the Abyss in one hand.
My hands trembled at the word, and my fingers clenched against the wood. "Fiends!? You mean there are fiends trapped within this box..."
"No! Not fiends. A fiend," she gave the box a tired glance, "And judging by the sophistication and power of these spells, it would have to be one of significant standing and power in its realm."
"I told yeh..." Annah mumbled, her voice quivering, "I TOLD YEH!" There was real fear in her voice now, the kind of bone-chilling terror that came with the first inkling of forbidden knowledge. Annah drew a half-circle over her heart, smoothly and quickly enough that it must've been a force of habit to attempt to ward off evil with such a gesture.
I wondered how badly a fiend could hurt me. "Can you safely remove the spells on this box?"
"Seeking to remove yourself from this box, eh? That spell is the worst of them all. Basically, that particular spell draws energy from the current owner of the box and uses it to power one of the spells of confinement. That isn't the worst of it," Shilandra smiled softly, as if in pity, "The fiend inside can smell this energy and would more than likely hunt down that person should it escape. It's really a no-win situation to own that box. Either it drains you dry of your energy, or the fiend within kills you."
"Is there a way to safely dispose of Moridor's Box without hurting anyone?"
She shook her head, "I am not strong enough to fight or banish such a creature. It's been ages since I've been there, but there was a cathedral located in middle of the Alley of Dangerous Angles. A priest or someone who gains their power from a higher source might be able to help you."
I stifled a groan. "You've been a great help. Thanks."
With fire and steel we forged a path through the Alley of Dangerous Angles. The more I handled the Art the more adept I became, and by now I was a formidible foe by myself. With Dak'kon, Morte, and Annah behind me, the once-proud clan of thugs that had burrowed deep in here had been cleared out. Soon another gang would move in on this newly cleansed territory, but for now we could traverse the Alley safely, approaching a burned-out shell of a building that might have once stood tall and proud.
The old priest smiled as I entered. In one hand he held a grand staff, and was draped in noble black robes trimmed with violet. He pulled gently at a well-oiled beard snowy with age and greeted me, "Welcome to the cathedral of Aoskar... I am High Priest Aola. Have you come to worship Aoskar with me? You can be his second disciple."
I looked around. The run-down shack was just as delapidated within as it was without. It was less of a cathedral and more a hermit's hut, "Why are there no other disciples of Aoskar?"
His smile never falted as he stared off into the distance, "Over the years I have had many disciples. Unfortunately, they have all disappeared. It's quite frustrating, actually. As soon as they become initiates I never see them again," he clicked his tongue, "Lately, there has been a rumor going around that the Lady herself is the cause. Now no one comes by any more. You are the first soul I've seen stop by in a long while."
"Tell me more about Aoskar."
Aola's voice took on a tone of adulation and his eyes brightened as he gazed upwards in reverence. "Aoskar is the Keeper of Gateways. Within Aoskar lies the power of portals, doorways and opportunity. Sigil, also known as the City of Doors, used to be the home of Aoskar, until he was 'cast' out by that accursed Lady. Now there are few worshippers of Aoskar here because the Lady forbids it. That will soon change, however, as I help the people to see the greatness of Aoskar. She cannot stand against the will of the people!" He rapped his staff against the floor for emphasis.
Annah hissed. Morte glanced side to side. Dak'kon closed his eyes as if to center himself. Few natives were so bold as to speak of the Lady in such a manner, if at all.
The man must've been half-addled, and I was skeptical of whether he could help me at all. Still, the trail seemed to end here, and I was at my wit's end. "I come seeking counsel concerning a box and a fiend."
I explained to him my predicament. Aola seemed to consider things for a moment before speaking, "I, a humble disciple to the great Aoskar, can indeed help you. First you must relinquish the box to me."
I handed it over, with some concern. If this priest underestimated the power of the fiend or the nature of the curse, I didn't want to be responsible for his grisly demise. Aola seemed unconcerned, however, and placed Moridor's Box within a wire pyramid-shaped structure, muttering a prayer to Aoskar. The familiar shimmering of a portal soon filled in the sides of the pyramid. Aola then casually reached through the portal and flipped open Moridor's Box.
I screamed in an attempt to stop him, but it was too late. Almost instantly the box began to disintegrate as a sickly smoke curled in the interior of the pyramid. A feeling of immense dread filled the room, and it was all I could do to keep myself from bolting from the tent. I could hear Morte's teeth chittering, Annah's muffled curses, the keening of Dak'kon's blade as he himself uttered what may have been a prayer invoking Zerthimon's name.
But as the tendrils of smoke touched the sides of the pyramid they were drawn into the swirling vortex of the portals. As the last spiral of smoke disappeared the feeling of dread passed. Aola smiled a bit nervously at us, triumphant. "Witness the power of Aoskar, the Keeper of Gateways!"
I swallowed, "I'm sure a fiend of such power that it required so many spells to contain it will have no problems making its way back here. And when it does it's going to be looking for you..."
"I have taken that into consideration. You see, each side of the pyramid contained a portal to a different plane. In effect, I scattered its essence far and wide across the multiverse. Did you know there are races out there that consider demons a sort of delicacy?" He began to chuckle softly as he reached into the pyramid and sifted through the ashes of the box, removing the gem that was attached to it. "Payment for my services. I will use this to help rebuild my beautiful cathedral."
I sighed in relief, "Keep the gem; you have more than earned it. Farewell."
I wished Aola well before we left, but out of the corner of my eye I noticed Annah slinking behind the old priest.
"Okay, hand it over," I said when we exited the building.
"I don't know what yer talkin' about."
"The ruby. I know you nicked it from Aola."
"The man accepted the box, Annah," Dak'kon murmured, "The dangers as well as the rewards. It is his by right."
"Hey hey lighten up, wrinkles. Who do you think needs it more? Some barmy old priest in a burned-down hut or our gang of monster-slaying wrong-righting do-gooders?" Morte clicked his tongue.
"The man's a danger to us all!" she snarled, stabbing a finger at the hut, "Dinn't ye hear?! He seeks ta spread the word of the L-" Annah glanced this way and that, then dropped her voice to a whisper, "Her rival."
I rubbed my chin, "I know nothing about the rivalries between gods, b-"
"Don't yeh say that!"
"BUT- look, just hand it over and let's get going."
Annah's tail cracked against the ground, "Nay. I'm not followin' some clueless addle-cove anymore! Ye've got the mark o' doom on ye, yeh do! And yer not draggin' me to the depths wit ye."
"Pharod said you'd help me! We still need to find that alley-"
"Pharod can pike it for all I care. Mebbe this'll pay off another sod ta take yeh. It's not worth goin' another two steps wit-"
I grabbed her shoulder. Her skin was milk-white, and soft under my rough grip. But there was steel under that beauty, like a rose forged from metal by a skilled artisan. And quick as a whip she turned, with a sound of metal sliding against leather. There was a sharp stabbing pain in my gut and looking down I stared dumbly at a punch-dagger buried right in my solar plexus.
I looked up at Annah, whose eyes had grown wide with shock, as if she'd just surprised herself with her own instincts. The only words that could come to mind were, "Nice form..." but the blood that bubbled to my lips drowned them in a gurgle.
Oh sweet pavement, here I come again.