Part 56: Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 15Puzzle-Box of the Nameless One: Part 15
The lingering residue of energy crackled through my fingertips as I looked down at the corpse in sad satisfaction. The hole in his chest trailed smoke, and his eyes were still wide and bright with madness.
Xaositects. A faction as barmy as they come. When they weren't trying to paint me with a blade, they were speaking utter nonsense.
In one room I stumbled across an aging man dressed in tattered rags. As I drew nearer, I discovered that he was missing both of his eyes. The scarred tissue of his eyelids had receded into his empty sockets, giving his features the macabre appearance of a decaying skull.
The old man turned in my general direction, his arms outstretched as if feeling for me. "Darkness who be in voice? The friend words I'll speak of you and call chaos."
"Speak the words of chaos and you'll call me friend? Is this jumbled up scramblespeak really necessary?"
"Ugh, it's just a barmy old Chaosman," Morte grunted, "Pike it, just leave him alone before he tries to send the other dogs after us."
The old man cocked his head to one side, his sightless gaze fixed on empty space. "Chaos of you are not. Not! Pot! Snot!"
I groaned, "Has everyone here lost their minds?"
"That's kind of the point, chief."
"Walk, not talk. Talk is complete. Completed to completion!" The old man gave a dismissive wave and turned his back to us, apparently done with the conversation.
I shut the door behind us as we left, and headed towards another, "It's obvious we'll get nowhere asking these madmen. We'll have to find our own way."
"Maybe not," a voice whispered. I jumped.
As I looked closer I noticed a figure hidden amid the shadows in the corner of the room. When I drew near, a young woman stepped out to reveal herself. She was dressed in a loose-fitting tunic, which, together with her short-cropped hair and slender frame, gave her a rather boyish appearance. "I must say, it's quite a relief to see some sods who don't knot their words or chew at the walls. And I wouldn't go in there if I were you." She nodded in the direction of the door on the south wall.
"Why? What is beyond the door?"
She winced at the sound of my voice, putting a finger to her lips to indicate silence. She paused for a moment, then answered in a hushed voice. "A whole mess of them howling lunatics, that's what. Looks like they're having some sort of gathering. Won't be able to get through to the alley until they clear out."
"Who are you?"
"My name's Sybil." She whispered quietly, then spat into her palm and reached out to clasp my hand. I shook it reluctantly as the wad squelched against my palm.
"What are you doing in here?"
"What does it look like I'm doing? I'm hiding. I came in here looking for... food." Yet I noticed that as she spoke, her right hand moved instinctively to the pouch at her waist. "Only the barking idiots in the next room showed up and decided to throw a party on the front doorstep. Now I'm trapped in here and can't get out."
"You're looking for food, eh? What's in the pouch?" I said, pointing to her belt.
She seemed about to respond, but stopped herself short. She eyed me for a moment, then shrugged her shoulders. "Alright, alright... so I'm a thief. A girl's got to earn a living somehow. What's it to you anyway? You're obviously not Harmonium, and you're definitely not with the savages in there." Sybil looked over my shoulder, "Well... hello, Annah."
I looked behind me, and for a moment I couldn't spot her. Annah had slipped into the shadows as we were speaking. I'd had no idea she was hiding as well.
Her black-red lips twisted into a sneer, "Well, I can't say I expected t' see yeh here. But t' get trapped like a Lim-Lim in a wet sack, that's ol' Sybil for yeh, aye?"
"Hmph. Well, with your bumbling about you would've given up at the front door. Then gone off to scavenge more deaders, perhaps?"
Annah hissed, "At least I can fight me way out, yeh alley rat!"
"Oh of course. Brawling like a drunkard was always your style, wasn't it? No need for grace, or sly ghosting about," Sybil smiled, "Nothing better than a thief that's hammer-sharp and just as quiet, eh? And one that can only handle marks that're cold, stiff and ready for the slab."
A muscle in Annah's cheek twitched, and for a moment I was sure they were going to come to blows. Instead, Annah stabbed a finger at Sybil, "I can handle yeh just fine, if that be an offer!"
"You know girls," Morte whispered, "as arousing as this little row is we're still in a haven full of lunatics."
With that Annah's mouth snapped shut. Sybil blushed in embarrassment.
I stepped to place myself between the two and addressed Sybil, "Do you know of another way to get through to the alley?"
She sighed, "There may be another way to get past those animals without a fight. There is another door that leads in there. From what I was able to see, there are stacks of wooden crates along the same wall as the other door. It may be possible to sneak from that door to the exit on the other side of the room. There's only one problem..."
Morte chuckled, "There's always a problem... wouldn't be much fun otherwise."
"The door's locked... I tried it. My guess is that key is on one of the thugs upstairs. I'm not addle-coved enough to go up there looking for it, though." Sybil folded her arms across her chest and stared at me expectantly.
I nodded my assent, "If the key is up there... I'll find it."
Sybil smiled, relieved, and stepped back into the darkness, "If you do manage to live long enough to find the key, the door is in a room to the southeast. I'll be watching from the shadows. If you can unlock the door and make it out to the Alley in one piece, I'll be right behind you."
We searched around for a way upstairs, our fingers sticky for any scraps we might find. Some loose coin here, a few clot charms there. It was easy going until we came across a certain crate.
"Hssst! Watch yer ugly bones, yeh clueless sod!" Annah whispered, grabbing my wrist as I was about to take a peek inside, "That one's trapped, it is."
"How can you tell?"
"A thin thread... an' a trigger beneath th' lid. These eyes don't lie, they don't." With that, her eyes followed the thread, leading her to a dust-covered crate on the other side of the room. Slipping a dagger under the lid so it kept the trigger down, Annah lifted the lid and pulled out the small pouch of coins within.
"No need. I'm keepin' this one for meself."
I didn't argue.
With only a little more poking around, we found the stairway up.
"Oi, d'ye hear that? Th' bones of wickerwood are bleak in sound, and they've sweetened the marrow of the dancing land," a gruff voice murmured.
"Nay, 'tis a rat. Get away ye sod it's mine! Has a message for me, it does, from the whispering council to see which to kill next."
"It's jess a rat ye barmy sod! Best te eat it before it tells them where the Nimbus of Nine hides tonight."
"NO! NO they fly with crimson wings, and will put all the laughing ones in the abyss if we do not appease in blue-blurred smiles!"
With their mad, inane chatter in my ears I had trouble focusing. By the Powers I could feel my forebrain trying to eat its way through my skull just to silence the insanity.
I opened the door and came upon two unsurprised thugs. Their hair was in disarray, and their lips were flecked with blood as one held the mangled corpse of a cranium rat in hand. Soft blue eyes gleamed and swirled with the motes of chaos as they stared at me as if they expected my arrival.
"Hello," I said, and blasted the nearest thug with four rose-hued magic missiles.
Two against one... it was too easy. Dak'kon moved swiftly and his blade shot upward, impaling the thug's head through the chin, pinning his jaw shut so he couldn't scream, even in death. Morte barreled over my shoulder, head-butting the wounded one and sending him crashing into the wall.
We stood silent for a moment as I held a finger to my lips. When no thudding of boots or the clatter of approaching guards came our way, however, we continued upward.
Blood for blood we traded blades with the Chaosmen. They howled madness as they fought, moving their hands and feet in random patterns that were hard to guard against. Their jerking steps had become an intricate dance to dodge our blows, and in the distance, an unfamiliar chanting grew in volume even as I felt the familiar thrum of the Art snapping into reality.
Their skills were directly counter to the Way of Zerthimon, but effective in their own way. Under the weight of our magic and steel, however, the Chaosmen collapsed, and sifting through the smoldering robes of the dead wizard I retrieved the key.
From there, it was a simple matter to sneak our way past the remaining Xaositects, creeping behind the crates to safety.
We stepped out to the brisk night air, and while it wasn't quite the same relief we felt when getting back out to the stink of the Hive after being trapped in the Dead Nations for so long, it was soothing nonetheless to be out of that warren of madness.
"I must say, cutter... I'm impressed. I thought for sure those animals would chew you up good," chirped a familiar voice behind me, and again I nearly jumped a foot in the air.
Sybil smiled, "Sorry. Well, I guess I should thank you." She paused for a moment, then reached into her pouch and pulled forth a small, green gem. "Here... this one's on the Dogs. See you around, cutter."
"Ach. I do hate that lass," Annah growled.
The Alley of Lingering Sighs.
The empty abodes were dust-filled and dingy. Here and there doors were half-open, some barely clinging to rusted hinges or locks. Some were barely fit to stand in, others were in near-ruin. What huts and buildings that did stand proud were sagging under the weight of years, held together with nails and boards pounded in by a relentless servile hand.
I could hear the hammering from afar.
A dabus floated among the old houses hammering boards and patching in holes its relentless duty. Just as I saw nothing remarkable about it (the creature looked like any other dabus I'd ever seen) it saw nothing remarkable in me, or any of us for that matter. Never did it once look up from its work, even to glance at a stranger that had just wandered into its barren domain. All it knew was its duty, which it performed with metronomic grace.
Clang. Clang. Clang.
As we walked past the hammering grew most distant, and a chill wind blew through the narrow street. As it whipped past the decaying buildings it sounded to my ears much like a groan. The buildings creaked in response, as if they ached for the agony and bliss of release.
One building, however, looked like it had stood the test of time.
What else could we do but enter to investigate?
While well-kept, this building was no more habitable than the rest. The floor was damp and green with ancient mildew, and what furniture there was had rotted away long ago that they should've fallen apart if not for the lingering strength of the wood.
Dak'kon whispered something I couldn't make out, and Annah stood stock-still, moving only to draw a circle over her heart when she recognized what lay in the corner of the room.
It was the shriveled corpse of a dabus, flesh mottled and yellow with rot. The stench of its decay was overpowering and, from the looks of its rigid, unnatural posture, extreme rigor mortis had long since set in as the rest of it putrefied. That great shock of white hair clung loosely to the scalp, as if it could be pulled out with a gentle tug like weak-rooted grass from damp soil.
I raised my hand, reaching out with the Stories-Bones-Tell power I had learned from Stale Mary.
"What are yeh doin'?" Annah whispered, "Th' creatures are under th' Lady's protection, they are! We cannae be bossin' about with nary a care, aye?"
"I just want to speak to it," I said calmy.
As I reached out with my power there was a faint stirring in the air, and the dabus' body blurred for a moment. I felt a strange, wrenching pain in my skull, as if someone was hammering on it, sharply, desperately.
I tried to focus, and the effort was like trying to swim through a field of cold iron shards, sharp and piercing as each hammer blow that sounded in my brains.
My vision went black for a moment and the hammering pain faded, until it sounded like it was coming from outside my skull. The darkness cleared, and I could hear the hammering coming from outside the building. The entire building seemed hazy somehow, confused, as if I was seeing it through a mist.
The hammering died, and out of the corner of my vision a spectral version of the dabus floated into view, entering the building. As it did, the windows and the doors became like water, suddenly sealing over the entrance the dabus came through. within, the dabus turned, paused, and then began a slow circuit of the room, examining the walls and hammering on each one once, as if testing it.
The dabus completed its circuit of the room, then paused by the "door" it once entered. It began hammering, chipping away the stone, but with every blow, the wall repaired itself. The vision faded to black, and the hammering continued, first at a steady pace, then slower, then slower...
"Think I should bite him? He's not coming to... I think I should bite him."
"Slappin' him around hasn't helped. An' he isn't dead, he's not. Ach, this is bad..."
"Oh I dunno, fiendling. Everything looks good from this angl- EEEEE!"
My hand shot up and grabbed Annah's wrist before she could gouge out Morte's eyes. "Nngh... I'm fine," I said, swaying as I stood, "Dabus don't communicate in words... I guess speaking to its spirit has strange results as well..."
"What have you come to know?" Dak'kon intoned as Annah tossed Morte aside, sending him clattering over the floor until he could right himself.
"This building... is alive somehow. It trapped the dabus, and let it wither away here," I ground a knuckle into my temple to edge out the rest of the haziness. There was little more to be said as we hastily made our way out.
"Well if yer done trading chant with deaders, follow me, then," Annah said, guiding us the rest of the way.
Down a couple of twists and turns, we stopped at a high, solid gate of ancient wood. Somehow, the hinges rolled smoothly without the slightest hint of a squeal when Annah pushed, revealing a stairway down to an open courtyard.
Descending down the stairs I grew nervous, as if I was beginning to uncover something best left hidden. There was something taboo about discovering the fate of my previous incarnation. I felt as if I were trying to recapture a dream, evanescent as a forgotten memory and as impossible to grasp as smoke snagged on my fingertips.
"This is the place," Annah said, stopping on a lone spot and turning around to face me, "I found yeh lyin' right where we stand."
I would've expected a bloodstain, or an outline where I had lain.
Another breeze stirred the dust from the ground, stronger this time. There were no shutters to rattle or scraps of loose cloth to flutter, but the alley itself seemed to breathe. It was a bloated wind that gusted past us, aching with the groan of a creature brimming with pain and paralyzed with stifling aches.
At the corner of my vision the walls seemed to bend and warp ever so slightly, just past my gaze. When I turned my head to catch a glimpse I saw nothing, but looking at my companions they seemed to feel the same.
When the wind died down a section of the wall shuddered, warping and extending as brick became smooth and stone softened. Fixed to the spot I watched as the stone shaped itself as if out of clay and smoothed into a dull bronze glow in the dim, starless night.
I stared, awed by the bizarre spectacle. What had appeared to be an ordinary, unremarkable bricked wall throbbed, pulsating with movement. The wall expanded with curious elasticity, heaving outward as if some unseen force were trying to push its way through the barrier from the other side. Slowly, the undulating mass began to settle, its curves becoming more and more pronounced, and we found ourselves at eye-level with the stony caricature of a human face.
"What is that...?" I muttered. Dak'kon stood in awe... perhaps this city does know itself after all...
"I donnae know," Annah stared at the face in disbelief, her hands nervously fingering her daggers, "But I'm fer leavin' 'fore we find out, aye?"
Something nagged at the back of my mind, "Not just yet. There is something..."
Suddenly, a strong breeze began to blow around us and the air was filled with an eerie sighing. More mournful than the wind and louder than despair, the rushing wind grew stronger, carrying other sounds as well: the creaking of boards, the rustling of leaves, and the grinding of stone upon stone. After a few moments, the clamor ceased to be a cacaphony of individual noises and began to blend into one articulate sound. I could make out a voice, a voice that spoke softly, yet seemed to come from all around me at once.
"YOU? IT CANNOT BE YOU."
Hesitant but eager for answers, I approached the entity and spoke, "Do you know me?"
The wind around us had stopped, but the voice was still somehow present, "YOU ARE RESTORED AGAIN? I SAW YOU DESTROYED."
"Who are you?"
"I AM I," the voice said simply, as expressionless as that stone face before me.
"Where am I?"
"YOU STAND ON ME, IN ME. THE STONES, MORTAR, THE AIR... ALL ME UNDIVIDED."
"Are you... the voice of Sigil itself?" Dak'kon asked. His voice, cold and even as the breeze, seemed to mesh against that of the Alley's.
"I AM I," it responded, and Dak'kon remained silent, neither satisfied nor unsatisfied.
"Things in Sigil almost never speak the plain Chant," Morte grumbled.
I glanced at the spot where Annah stood, "You said you saw me destroyed... where?"
"I SAW YOU DESTROYED HERE, IN FRONT OF ME. I SEE ALL WITHIN ME."
"Do you know what happened to me?"
"THINGS THAT CAST NO SHADOW... WERE SHADOW. THEY ROSE AROUND YOU. TORE YOU DOWN. DO YOU NOT REMEMBER?"
I concentrated on the strange voice composed of sounds around me. Somewhere, in the deepest recesses of my mind, there was a brief glimmer of recollection. I felt as though there was something vaguely familiar about the sounds...
Answers. No... I needed answers.
They swarmed around me, with talons of mist and eyes full of hate: hate for every living thing and for what was stolen from them. As that noiseless throng surrounded me the Alley grew silent, and merely watched as they closed in the flesh they so envied.
Those sharp spirals of shadow cracked like a whip, and the dagger-like tips pierced me through the throat and the chest. My hands grew clumsy, vainly cupping the blood and attempting to pour it back into the wounds as I swayed.
Another crack, searing a wound across my back.
Another, tearing open my belly.
I was vaguely aware of my body hitting the ground with a heavy thud, and at the dim edge of my flickering awareness I was thankful that I wouldn't feel those talons as they began to tear into my flesh.
Death in the Alley (Video)
A tail flicked through the crack in the gate, as if to lure any prey out to investigate. But the abandoned streets were silent save for the wistful sigh that permeated the entire alley, and after a few moments the gate swung open a little further, as a lithe young tiefling poked her head through and crept in.
She was beautiful, with rust-red hair and skin pale as milk, her armor creaking little more than plain leather as she moved.
Kneeling over the corpse, her tail flicked again. Another deader for the Dusties, and that was that.
"YES... YOU REMEMBER." The voice of the Alley rang in my ears, scattering the images from my mind and returning me back to the present, "DESTROYED. AS SOON I SHALL BE. I CANNOT DELAY DIVISION MUCH LONGER. PRESSURE BUILDS. SOON STONES WILL CRUMBLE AND THE FLOATING ONES WILL REPAIR ME TO DESTRUCTION."
"PRESSURE IS TOO MUCH. TOO MANY PLACES FOLDED INSIDE. NOT ENOUGH SPACE. MUST DIVIDE."
"Divide?" I asked, genuinely confused.
Annah's lip curled, "Uh, it must be in the 'way."
I blinked, "What are you talking about?"
"I think it's pregnant."
"Freaky," Morte chirped, "So where are we technically standing right now?"
"I really don't want to know the answer to that, Morte."
The voice continued as the wind grew in volume, drowning out our chatter, "HELP ME TO DIVIDE. BRANCH OUT. EXPAND. NEW APERATURES WILL OPEN. YOU MAY USE THEM TO TRAVEL TO THE LOWER WARD."
If that was the only way to get through, I nodded, "What do you need to divide?"
"THE FLOATING ONE IS UPON ME. REPAIRING. IT PREVENTS ME FROM DIVIDING. I UNDO ITS REPAIRS. BUT IT RETURNS AGAIN AND AGAIN. REPAIRS ANEW. MUST REMOVE FLOATING ONE."
"You want me to kill the dabus in the Alley?"
"REMOVE IT. ONLY THEN CAN I DIVIDE."
"Oi, chief... I really don't think that's a good idea," Morte cautioned, "Those hornheads might be irritating as the crotch-rot but they're still under Her protection." Annah nodded reluctantly as she found herself agreeing with the skull.
"We don't have any other choice," I said, walking up the stairs.
Following the dabus' continuous hammering was a simple matter. Getting rid of it, however, wouldn't be quite so easy.
The creature was hammering a board into place when I approached, "Greetings."
It turned to face me, and a series of symbols appeared around its head, I must attend to my duties. No time to speak.
What came next was hard to say, honest words though they were. As much as I tried to convince myself that all I did was tell the truth, and that there was no evil in doing so, I couldn't help but feel guilt deep in the core of my being. "I understand. I just thought you should know that I discovered the body of a dabus in this Alley."
The dabus cocked its head slightly to one side. A number of symbols streamed above its head, most of which indicated surprise and distress rather than words. Dead? Where?
"It lies in the abandoned building not far from here. It looks as though it got trapped inside somehow."
The dabus stared at me briefly, then bowed slightly and floated off in the direction of the abandoned building.
"Farewell," I murmured, and in its shock the dabus couldn't pick out the tone of finality in my words.
I returned to the stone face feeling drained. I'd had to kill to protect myself before, but this was something akin to murder. Greater and more terrible, perhaps, to do so to a dabus. Surely these streets had seen worse in their time, but in the pit of my stomach I felt... queasy. The silence after such an act was unbearable, and once or twice I looked over my shoulder, as if the whole city knew what I had done. Yet even if the Lady herself was witness to my actions, she would've rent the flesh from my bones the instant I spoke.
Best not to dwell on such things, but I was afraid that I would have to do worse in times to come.
The various ambient sounds of the Alley once again assaulted my ears, and through them the voice spoke, "YOU HAVE RETURNED."
"I spoke with the dabus. I told him about his dead brethren and he left to investigate."
"YES. THE FLOATING ONE NO LONGER REPAIRS. IT IS NOW WITH THE OTHER. I HAVE CLOSED MYSELF AROUND IT. IT REMAINS INSIDE ME FOREVER."
I shuddered, "You can now divide without interference, right?"
"STILL CANNOT DIVIDE. TOO WEAK. CANNOT UNDO FLOATING ONES REPAIRS. ITS CHANGES MUST BE REVERSED BEFORE I CAN DIVIDE. YOU MUST UNDO THE FLOATING ONES REPAIRS FOR ME. SEEK THEM OUT. REVERSE. MUST BE EXACT. PRECISE. ONLY THEN CAN I DIVIDE."
With that I sighed, sifting through my pack, withdrawing a prybar, then a hammer.
"Let's get to work, guys."
With his lack of hands, Morte cheered from the sidelines and Annah and I sweated and grumbled, and Dak'kon went to work with stoic silence. Boards were torn down from one building, hammered back into another. The ground shook ever so slightly as it seemed to sag in relief, and the buildings creaked as if stretching tired old bones.
We returned to the face just as the sky was beginning to glow with the new dawn.
"I have reversed the repairs as you have asked."
"YES. ALL IS IN ORDER. I AM GRATEFUL." Again the wind began to blow around us, this time with fierce intensity. The omnipresent sounds of the Alley began to increase in volume until the soft murmur of the voice is nearly drowned out by the ensuing racket. A section of the length of wall that the face rested on crumbled, falling away neatly until not a stone remained upon another stone. A fresh, clean wind blew through, carrying the scent of wet mortar, fresh-cut wood, and crisp, new metal. We stood at the new entrance hesitantly, but as the walls began to warp and old buildings began to crumble, the voice urged us on, "NOW YOU MUST GO. DIVISION BEGINS. THE WAY IS NOW OPEN TO YOU." With those final words, the face crumbled away.
The ground underfoot rocked violently as our boots cracked against the pavement, rolling like water and stretching like taffy. The wind intensified all around us, howling, urgent in an almost human-like moaning like a man on the edge of a sneeze or on the precipice of orgasm. Stones crashed and boards snapped all around us as we dashed through the passageway, and lightning crackled in the air as the old city gave way to new, streets birthing new streets, houses splitting into new houses.
Cobblestones popped along the road like bubbles as the new section of the city gave one final quake, expelling the four of us like afterbirth. Tumbling through the air in a cloud of gray and yellow dust I screamed. The girlish shrieks and obscenities echoing behind me could've been either Morte or Annah for all I knew.
Alley Birth (Video)
All I knew was that when I landed it was flat on my tailbone, which cracked under my weight. Annah tucked and tumbled gracefully past me, stumbling only slightly as she rolled to her feet, while Dak'kon slid through the dust until he came to a stop at my side. A small white sphere tumbled past me, shrieking as it cracked against the pavement, bouncing once, twice, before rolling to a stop in the distance.
I groaned, rubbing my backside as Dak'kon helped me up, and a very surprised merchant in fine beige garb gawked down at me, "Well... good day, sir." He looked me up and down at the dust and grit, the tattered kilt and sash of bones. "You look like you might be interested in some fine clothes."
In the distance Morte coughed, and scraped the dust from his tongue with his teeth. Lips or a soft palate would've been a blessing, but he might as well have wished for a body if he was going along that line of thought.
This one's crazier than the rest of them put together, Morte grumbled to himself, But at least he's getting farther than most of those other poor sods.
He got up, and it was as simple a matter as standing would've been. Imagine one leg, then the other, and just think about moving. Looking around Morte whistled a breath of air through his teeth. The Lower Ward... what delights awaited here. He couldn't wait to introduce the chief to the Sensorium, or the Twelve Vushilla Dancers. With the coin they had now they wouldn't have to scrounge for rats or sleep on smelly sheets anymore. No, silk and mammy pillows it'd be, if he could get the chief to just loosen the purse a little more...
In the darkness two voices whispered to each other, pitched and squeaky and breaths fetid with the stench of rotting flesh.
"Is this the one?"
"It's a skull, ain't it? That's what HE wants. Grab it."
Morte turned around just as a sack popped over him and snapped shut.
"Hey! What are you-" he struggled, tumbling against the stale burlap. His teeth slid uselessly against the thick and smelly cloth.
"Hey! Let go! Help! HELP!" Morte screamed. In the back of his mind, he despaired that this time, he just might lose all hope of ever nestling between a pair of bouncy mams ever again.
With Morte's pitched squeals in my ears, I pushed past the merchant whose sharp, cultured accent contrasted starkly against his muttered oath. One hand cradled my shattered coccyx as I shuffled. Looking around all I could see was a wormy tail as it flicked around the corner of a building.
My feet were numb and leaden as I tried to follow, but taking a few steps already proved too much. I fell to my knees as Dak'kon raced after Morte's voice, fading into the distance far too quickly for him to catch.
I pounded the pavement with my fist, cursing myself for adding another broken bone to the list, and cursing those who abducted my companion. The first friend I'd made in this bizarre new life.
Annah crouched next to me, saying something I couldn't quite hear through the haze of pain and anger.
The dawn was clear and bright over the clean, well-kept district. Sigilians in richer garb, of silk and velvet and in bright, fresh-dyed colors, stared at us. The air smelled clean, if a bit acrid with the slightest hint of smoke and savory with the richness of fresh-baked bread. In the distance the murmur of the city was growing. Sigil was stirring with the morning light.
It was going to be a beautiful day.
Bones aching and twisted with age, Pharod sat gingerly in the palm of his throne. The fingers curled ever so slightly inward, and once with the proper cushions they had supported his spine just right. Time, however, had not been kind to him. His bones had bent with the weight of years, and every time he rose from this seat he ached.
He gazed into his reflection cast by the orb in his lap. His face, tainted a sickly mustard by the bronze, was as warped as his body.
Gingerly he sucked at a tooth. Yet another was loosening, yellow and moldy, rank with the sour taste of flesh rotting as it still lived. In the Clerk's Ward he could've called for a dentist. Perhaps the healing services of a cleric. A potion to cure his ills would've been a pittance, but those days had withered long ago when he fled to the depths in desperation, seeking a way to cheat the damnation that would follow in death.
Pharod had the mocking laughter of the other noblemen at his back and the knives of the thugs at his breast when he first fled into these decaying warrens. He had sold his businesses and whittled his gold to gain a foothold and a reputation here. The rest was politics, and Pharod had been quick to learn how to pit Backalley Shivs against Bloodringers, Black Hands against Edge Dogs with those same whispers and lies he had perfected when dealing with rivals or magistrates. So much had been sacrificed, so much blood shed and lives lost like chaff in the wind for one man to escape the mad cruelty of damnation.
Pharod caressed the surface of the orb gently, and the metal crawled beneath his fingertips. All he needed now was to learn how to use it. Perhaps an oracle, or-
A chill swept through the room. Illwind Court had earned its name from the dusty scent of ancient detritus, not from odd drafts. Drafts were no good for his old bones. But cold there was, the kind of aching cold that comes slowly, devouring the warmth of a flickering brazier as a father huddles in a blanket during the winter, mourning his sons all lost to war. It was the cold that numbs a mother upon seeing the pallid face of her stillborn infant, and wondering what she could've done to have kept it alive. It was the frost that drifts upon a dead village, blanketing the stiff corpses lying in the streets with only a lone survivor wondering why he was spared.
It was the chill of regret.
Pharod tugged the blankets closer to him with gnarled fingers. As the braziers dimmed he drew a circle over his heart as if he could ward off the encroaching darkness.
And they came, flickering into substance from the shadows. One by one they drew themselves from the darkness. Their bodies were warped and misty, eyes gray with unshed tears. Serpentine wisps trailed from their scalps like the hair of bloated corpses swaying in the cold sea. Their fingers were long and needle-tipped, and they flexed as if eager to taste the softness of living flesh.
Pharod's voice creaked when he spoke. "If- if you've come for me-" he paused, trying to find the words, and they came out in a whimper like the whine of a starving alley dog, "I have the sphere. I have it!"
Pharod held up the bronze orb, and that sickly yellow surface distorted those bent and misty forms further. The creatures floated over to him silently, and Pharod clung to the desperate hope that the sphere would hold them at bay somehow.
"I have the sphere..." he whined. His throat ached, and tears welled up in his eyes.
Pharod's Destiny (Video)
The sounds of smoke whipping against flesh filled the high hall of Illwind Court, and there was the wet crack of meat and bone under a butcher's knife. Somewhere in the din was a wet scream.
By the time the blood had grown cold on the stones, the braziers had flickered back to life.