Part 55: Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 14Puzzle-Box of the Nameless One: Part 14
Annah's Theme (music)
The first sense to return was touch, and I could feel my blood wet and cold on the paved ground.
The second was sight, and as my eyes cracked open I could see the blurry whip of a slim milk-white tail, and the motion of struggling limbs.
The third was hearing, and in a flash the sound of a dozen obscenities that would put Morte to shame burned my ears.
"Oi! Let go o' me ye pikin' slaad-skinned gith! Gettoff if ye wan' t' keep yer shriveled yellow-skinned stones!" Annah snarled.
I gurgled, my throat once again clotted with blood, "Urghlll." Annah yelped in shock and finally held still, and was thankfully quiet.
I coughed to clear the crap from my mouth and shifted to roll over. Stumbling to my feet I leaned against a wall, giving Annah a good, chastening look though I probably ended up looking more petulant than authoritative.
"He lives again. Did I not tell the truth?" Dak'kon murmured.
Annah's tail ceased its twitching, and Dak'kon released her wrists, confident that she would not be fleeing now.
"Like I was saying..." I coughed again, "Nice form."
A muscle in Annah's cheek twitched, and her eyes bored into mine. With the way her tail moved she looked much like a cat trying to tease out whether I was predator or prey.
Her eyes slid over me, sharp and keen as a razor's edge, and clicking her tongue she pulled the gem out from a small nook in her armor, "Fine yeh sod. If it'll satisfy yeh, take it and we'll be done." There was an edge of fear in her voice when she spoke, as if she had found herself unwittingly dealing with a devil.
I held the ruby up in my hand. It was a glorious shade of rose, and it glinted pure and clean even in Sigil's smog-fouled daylight. I looked back at her, "The gem is a small matter, actually-"
"GHCK!" Morte's eyes widened.
"I really just need to pick up a few more protective wards, some new weapons, and we'll go to the hidden alley where you found my body. You can keep the gem if you want."
"I don't need charity from the likes of yeh!" she snapped, growling and thinking it over. Trying to refuse the request of an immortal mage is one thing, it was another entirely to say no to one that was proven to be troublesome and who knew where you lived, "Fine. But just until then, aye?"
"Great. Now that that's settled..."
If a good meal had smoothed things over with Annah earlier, a little alcohol may do even better.
"Ach, now thar's a sight these old eyes have missed," Ebb Creakknees chuckled as Annah swayed past his table, "I don't suppose I could buy a drink for you, lass?"
"There ain't enough ale in the planes for that, yeh fat sack o' wrinkles."
Ebb pursed his lips, "Well now that's harsh, lass." Ebb smiled at me, "Oi, it's good to see you again, my old friend. I don't suppose a clueless berk like you still needs a tout?"
I shook my head, "I think I can make my own way around for now. Thanks, Ebb."
He smirked, and leaned in close so that his paunch pressed against the creaking table, "Well, I'll give you this bit for free. The bartender's been staring daggers at you since you've arrived. He's asked me a few questions about you the last time you were here."
"What did you tell him?"
"Nothing too incriminating," he slapped the table and let out a loud, bawdy laugh at the look of shock on my face, "Ahhh! Sorry lad, yer just too easy. No, there was nothing to be said. We had a few drinks, I spoke a little of the chant, and you left. Though if I recall correctly you painted that alley red on your way out."
I had the sudden urge to scrub my hands. They itched with those old bloodstains, "Well... I really had no choice-"
Ebb gave a dismissive wave, "Bah, don't worry your ugly little self about that. The Harmonium can barely keep in check the number of worthless berks in this corner of the Hive- er, don't tell 'em I said that, mind. In any case, I'd be wary of the bartender if I were you."
I nodded, "Thanks, Ebb."
Behind the bar was a leather-skinned man with just a hint of ashen color to his face. His teeth seemed sharper than normal, and his eyes were filled with the boredom that came with having seen too much. His voice was nasal and clipped, and simmering with anger as if I had done him wrong. "You again, eh? Whaddya want this time?"
I blinked, "What do you mean?"
"Yeah, 'you again'. You got a hearing problem or something now? You was in here 'bout fifteen years ago, got all bubbed up, smashed up the place, and left a pile o' coin that wasn't enough to pay for the damages. So you plucked out your own bleedin' eyeball and tells me you'll be back to reclaim it when you got two hundred coins together. With fifteen years of interest, you got about five hundred coins. You got the jink, pal, I got your eye."
I sputtered, "Five hundred? That's ridiculous!"
He paused for a moment, considering. "That it is. Tell you what. Give me three hundred, and the eye's yours."
I thought it over, I really did. But hells, if it was a piece of my past I couldn't afford to be stingy, "It's a deal. Here's your money."
"It's a deal." He produced a darkened, wax-stoppered, wide-mouth bottle from his pocket. There was the sound of liquid sloshing around inside it, along with a heavier, squishier noise. Opening it, the stench of some sort of preservative agent nearly made me gag... Powers above this damn city should sell more nose-clips and perfumes. Floating in the viscid muck was an eyeball.
"You'd better figure out what you want to do with that..." the barkeep said sagely, "now you've exposed it to the air, you might as well put a pickled egg in the jar for all the good it'll do you. Make up your mind, cutter... pickled egg or not?"
This was going to hurt.
With a moment's hesitation, I reached into my socket and popped my eye into the palm of my hand. The pain was incredible. My vision distorted, and for a moment I was slightly overwhelmed with a sense of vertigo as my plucked-out eye pointed in an odd direction, the two images I read not quite blending cohesively. The bartender helpfully severed the optic nerve, and directed my hand to the jar of goo that sat on the bar. I deposited my still-living eye in the preservative, wrapped my fingers around the old one, and slid it into my empty socket.
I hissed at the sensation of the brine soaking into the tender flesh of my naked eye socket, but after a moment I could feel the optic nerve reattaching itself to the new eye... and suddenly a flash of memory cracked like a whip.
Flicker. I looked down at the vast expanse of chaotic, ever-changing wasteland stretching down below, a group of humanoid vultures plummeting toward me, cruel weapons ready to strike, and held my own shining blade clutched tight in my fist...
Flicker. Three toughs surrounded me, in the colors of an enemy I couldn't quite place. Long daggers glistened in their hands, and the light glinted cruelly from their exposed teeth. I glanced at my scarred hands, and knew that soon they'd be covered in blood...
Flicker. An enormous frog-like creature came bounding over/through/under chaos-stuff, headed for me with a mouth full of teeth. I hurled my javelin through the shifting matter and pinned the creature to a sudden stone plinth... and I KNEW the ways of fighting once again.
I found myself slouching over the bar, groaning as the memories receded like water trickling from stone and the barkeep grumbling as if I hadn't just ripped out my own eye and replaced it with a pickled one, "Hurry it up, will you? I got paying customers."
I blinked that eye a bit. Things were a bit blurry, but even as the seconds ticked on the images were gettling clearer as the flesh regenerated, "Give us a few drinks."
Satisfied that we weren't about to loiter, the barkeep nodded, "You want a drink, you got a drink. This is what we got for you: Beer, bitters, mead, Elemental water, Arborean firewine and fireseeds, Curst heartwine, and Baatorian whiskey. What'll it be?"
Morte chirped, "Mmm... mead."
"I shall request a cup of shiftspice tea."
"Ach, if th' boss is payin' I suppose I could settle for th' firewine."
I nodded, "Whiskey."
The bartender placed a shot of some steaming substance that lookd like boiling urine in front of me. The fumes that wafted my way, however, were exquisitely tempting. The taste, though nearly unbearably hot, was as smoky as the scent - the feel of the liquor burning its way to my gut was nearly painful, yet even this pain was sweet. The barkeep's eyes widened. "Still standing? Most folks can't even make it halfway through the first shot."
I shrugged, "I feel fine. I don't even feel anything."
The barkeep considered me carefully as he set down the other cups. "Y'know, cutter, there's some as have a natural immunity to poisons and such. Some folks call bub a poison. If that's the case, chances are good you got yourself a handy little defense against poisoners."
I smirked, looking at the empty glass, "Well, how about that..."
The sweet kiss of incense greeted us as we entered the tattoo parlor. with a click of beads and the light creak of the floorboards, Fell walked out of the back room, parting the beaded curtain to face me as I approached. Next to me, Annah stiffened as she caught sight of Fell.
"Annah... what's wrong?"
"Are yeh daft?!" Annah turned to me... and I suddenly realized she was frightened. It was more than the edge of wariness she had around me. Annah wasn't the type to become truly afraid. A childhood scraping a living off of the streets of Sigil had hardened her to many things, but somehow, the sight of Fell pierced her to the core of her soul. "Are yeh so pig-eager to dance in the Lady's shadow yeh'll bandy words with this one?! Let's give this place the laugh before we get penned in the dead-book!"
"What's the problem?"
"It's Fell." Annah threw a fearful glance at the Dabus. "Let's be away, aye? No good'll come of being here, so it won't!"
"I'll ask again... what's the problem?"
"He's a dabus who's not a dabus, aye? He walks on the ground..." Annah's voice dropped to a whisper, and she started trembling. "No more questions, let's give this place the laugh, aye?"
"Annah, no harm will come to you while I'm here. Now tell me what's wrong.'" My voice might've been more reassuring if it had less of that coarse rumble to it.
Annah threw a frightened glance at Fell. "Fell's a dabus who angered Her. It's said he's a dabus who isn't a dabus, and the time's close when the Lady's gaze'll fall on him, so it will."
"'Her?' You mean the Lady of Pain?"
"Aye... and heed yer tongue." Annah made another semicircle in the air in front of her as I mentioned the Lady's name. "The dabus work for the Lady, an' she protects them... 'cept Fell." She shudders. "Let's be away, aye?"
I shook my head, "We need the supplies, and I have some important questions for him."
Annah grabbed my arm. "Please, nay, nay! No good'll come of it -- anyone speakin' ta Fell could draw the Lady's gaze. I donnae want t'die, I don't!" To my surprise, Annah looked close to tears.
I placed my hand on hers softly even as she clutched hard enough for her nails to dig into my skin. Dak'kon was busy examining the wares, Morte looked away, probably embarrassed upon seeing Annah's terror. I looked down at her, gentle but firm, like a man soothing a frightened girl, "Annah, no harm will come to you while I'm here -- I promise. I just want to speak to him for a moment."
For a minute, Annah just looked at me. Then, something in my gaze seemed to calm her, and her grip loosened even as she steeled herself. "I donnae why I..." She shook her head. "Go on, then, talk ta him! I donnae care!" There was an undercurrent of fear in her voice, but that rare moment of vulnerability was gone.
Fell waited patiently, his hands tucked into his sleeves. A series of symbols materialized above his head, then dissipated and a question mark appeared.
I could read rebusspeak well enough, though it curdled my eyes and tested my brains. My vision in that orbit was still blurry, however.
"Morte, can you translate for me?"
He turned in the air, "What? why me?"
"Because I've only got one good eye right now and my head's spinning. I'd appreciate the help."
Morte scoffed. "I'd sooner be strained through a tanar'ri's bowels than unravel what these floating goat-heads are trying to say. You want a translator?" He nods at Dak'kon. "Get holier-than-thou-and-twice-as-silent to translate."
I grumbled, "Dak'kon?"
"Ask him if he did the tattoos on this dismembered arm I found."
I unwrapped the petrified hunk from the butcher paper I had packed it in. A mass of scars crisscrossing the pallid gray skin seemed to mimic my own. Time and dessication had rendered it slightly withered, yet heavy and dense with immortal flesh.
Fell examined it for a moment, tracing the patterns with his finger. He then looked up, and a series of rebuses formed, hazy at first, then coming sharply into focus. I could barely make it out. The arm is yours. The tattoos are mine. One tattoo speaks of a time when your path was shared by four others.
Dak'kon studied the symbols, but he remained silent.
"Dak'kon? What is he saying?"
"The arm is yours. The tattoos are his."
I looked at him levelly. Did I mistranslate? Add some figment that wasn't there? "Did he say anything more than that?"
Dak'kon was silent for a moment... and suddenly, instinctively, I knew Dak'kon was lying to me. He continued on with a dead-level tone. "The rest of the symbols are not known to me."
The silence between the three of us was pregnant with tension. Annah backed away as both Fell and Dak'kon stood calmly, looking at each other without a bead of sweat on their heads.
"Why are you lying to me?"
Dak'kon fell silent again; he did not turn to look at me -- he seemed to be staring at something leagues away. "The symbols... there is no good in knowing the answer to what you ask."
"Since when has not knowing the truth of something ever really helped anyone, Dak'kon? The counselor who councils ignorance betrays his station."
He breathed a long sigh, dry and hoary with the mists of age-old memories crisp and painful as a knife's edge. "There is truth in your words. That truth... should be known to me." Dak'kon was silent for a moment, then he turned to me, his eyes hardened. "The symbols speak of four you have traveled with in the past."
"Go on... what four are these?"
The symbols swirled before me, and I pieced them together roughly as Dak'kon translated:
One unloved who loves one who does not love.
One who does not see what others see and sees what others do not.
One who is familiar and bound with duty.
One who is a slave and his chains are words.
As I finish translating, the four strings seemed to form themselves into links, and they merged into a chain... the chain bent and warped, into a symbol that I knew all too well.
Dak'kon wasn't even looking at the symbols. "The tattoo speaks of four minds. One was a woman, who loved a man who knew her and knew not love. The other was a blind man, who saw things no mortal eye could see. Another was a familiar, a mage's pet, bought and bound. And the last was a slave."
"Why did you not want to tell me this?"
He closed his eyes, "The four are bound with a symbol that is known to me."
The symbol sharpened, gaining edges that were almost painful to your eyes. The lines were thorn and razor-edged, as if it were a blade twisted in upon itself. It is torment. It is that which draws all tormented souls to you. Fell nodded at my left arm, at my shoulder. The flesh knows it suffers even when the mind has forgotten. And so you wear the rune always.
"The flesh knows that it suffers, even when the mind does not."
"Enough about the symbol. Tell me everything you know about those four that are on the tattoo."
Dak'kon was silent again, and he looked older somehow, not with the wisdom of age or the ripeness of season, but weathered and chipped as the sands of time eroded a mountain face. Those hands were strong, I knew... I had seen them raised in battle. But it seemed that at any moment then Dak'kon could've crumbled into dust. "I will not my speak of it here. Ask when what we speak of will only be for the ears of those that walk with you."
I nodded. His pain was his own... it would do no good to speak of it here. "Very well. Fell, what of the tattoos on the arm?"
Fell examined the arm again, tracing the other faded tattoos upon its surface. As he did, they each appeared as a symbol above his head, hazy at first, then coming into focus sharply. He turned to face me. Ones forgotten, now remembered. You may wear them again if you wish.
"So where's the place where you found my body?" I asked Annah as we left Fell's parlor.
She pointed down the street, "The spot where I found yer body lies behind the Painted Door in the Hive Red-Light District - the door's on that northern street, north and east o' the Smoldering Corpse Bar. Beyond the door is an alley where I found your body. Strange place, it is. Not many berks'll go there."
"Strange place? How?"
"Some berks with less courage than names say it's all a-haunted, it is." Annah spat and made a semi-circle over her heart. "It's wash. Sometimes the wind blows through the alley and makes weird sighing noises, but that don't mean there's spectres and haunts and the like."
Dak'kon's coal-black eyes stared off into the distance, "Perhaps they are the whispers of lamentation, from a city that does not know itself."
Morte bobbed in a nod, "Mmm. Sigil's a pretty barmy place, and it's probably more alive than you might think. Spooks aren't anything special, of course, but I don't think I'd like to run into a spook from a dead piece of Sigil itself." He shuddered.
Annah shifted a bit uncomfortably at their words, but said nothing. I turned to face her, "Annah, did you find anything on my body before you brought it to the Mortuary?"
She looked at me warily, and her tail stopped flicking for a moment, then resumed, slower than before. "Aye, mayhap I found somethin'. But if I found anythin', it's mine by right, it is -- the other bits are in Pharod's keeping."
I shook my head, and as much as I didn't want to prod her too much I needed to know, "Annah, I don't have time for games... what did you find on my corpse?"
"Well, yeh had some fist irons, yeh did... an' a little bit o' jink, but I left that for the Dusties so they'd think I was a wee bit honest. Yeh had an ugly ring that I kept..." She dipped her finger into her arm bracers and pulled forth a small ring with a stone mounted on it. "Worth thrice-more than the jink an' the irons, it was." She studied the ring and squinted. "Too bad it's too ugly tae wear."
"I'd like that ring back."
She studied the ring with a frown, glanced at me, then back at the ring. With a sneer, she flicked it to me. "Dinnae want the ugly thing anyway, I didn't."
"Thanks. Now when you mentioned that some stuff from my body had gone into Pharod's 'keeping,' what did you mean?"
She nodded, "Aye. Pharod takes a bit off each corpse we find, he does. It's his right, being lord o' the Village n' all."
"Off of every corpse you all find? That's a lot of corpses."
"Oh, aye - tae hear tell, ol' stutter-crutch has got a stash pit somewhere close tae him. It's the only reason I can see why he's set up kip in that filthy, drafty hall, it is. Nothing but stink and shadows."
"Really? And that's where he puts the tribute he gets?"
"Aye." She squinted at me. "Now what are yeh on about? Yeh plannin' to bob him?"
I chuckled, "After all that running around to get that sphere for him and then getting next to nothing in return, I'm tempted to."
"I'm warning yeh against such a thing, I am. Pharod can be daft sometimes, but he's mean as all fiend spit when he gets worked up." She frowned. "An' he loves his keepsakes, he does."
"Eh what can that old bag of bones do? Cough at us? Send his thugs?" Morte's grin withered under Annah's piercing gaze, and he floated over to keep Dak'kon between them.
"But where would he keep it all?" I wondered, "If he's been at the Village for as long as he says, he would have amassed quite a collection."
"Well..." Annah was silent for a moment. "I know he's never left his hall to get his tribute when he needed it."
"He wouldn't want to walk far with that lame leg of his, though."
"Aye, that's true - but only if yeh don't watch him careful. He isn't lame, though he puts on a fair show about bein' weak in the leg."
A sudden flash of insight hit me, "So that crutch of his... could be a portal key?"
Annah frowned in thought for a moment, then slowly nodded her head. "Aye... there's a thought." She shrugged. "I wouldn't know how yeh'd use it, though. Maybe yeh just need tae have it."
"Ach, here we are."
I walked up the short flight of steps and felt along the wall. what I had first taken to be a door in the archway was actually a painting. The artist had made use of the shadows of the overhanging arch and some subtle texturing effects to give the door the illusion of substance.
"Are you sure this is the door, Annah?"
"Aye... it's been smeared with barmy paints from the Starved Dogs, it has - it's a real door until yeh look at it, then it turns into a painting."
"How did they do that?"
Annah shrugged, "There's stranger things in th' Planes." She suddenly frowned, "Ye might as well as how yeh got yerself out o' the dead book after I was sure you were dead."
"So this door... I just don't look at it? And then open it?"
Annah glanced at the door, the nodded, "That's the dark of it, if chant be true."
"All right then... I'll do what you say. You just -"
"Houl' on!" Annah stopped me before I reached for the door. "This is the only path I know ta reach the place I found yer corpse, but it's not the safest road, aye? Yeh sure you're ready? I'm not here to play yer minder, no matter what ol' stutter-crutch says."
My hand paused an inch away from the portal, "What's beyond this door that's so dangerous?"
"Chaosmen," Annah whispered. "Barmy as they come. Barking wild into th' day and night, ready to either paint yeh with colors or crack yer brain-box with a chamber pot. Dangerous bloods, they are."
Dak'kon's brow creased in disapproval upon hearing the word, and Morte rolled his eyes and stuck out his tongue. None of them had much love for whatever these things were.
I looked at the door, harmless on its surface, but suddenly it seemed as if it was a gate to madness itself. I had no idea what a Chaosman was, but I didn't like the sound of it either, "If they're so dangerous, then how did you get through?"
"I crept in nice and quiet-like. Can't paint yeh or kill yeh when they can't see yeh." She looked me up and down with a frown, "Doubt I can pull that twice with yeh around. Yeh look right clumsy, yeh do."
I nodded, "We've been ready for a while, Annah. Just stay behind me. Now let me open the door..."
I closed my eyes, reached for the door, and fumbled around. To my surprise, I found a handle. With a slight tug, the door opened. A narrow passage led into the building, and from within, I could hear distant howling.
"Time to head in..."