Part 61: The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 1 (for reals this time)The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 1 (for reals this time)
I tried to lose myself in the din of hawkers and buyers, merchants crying out their wares and the rabble of hagglers in heated debates over the proper price of the goods. One would think that in a crowded marketplace as this one less voice would go unnoticed.
I sighed, feigning interest in an Arborean apple.
"I dinnae understand what yer down about. 'E was just a stupid skull."
"He's a friend, Annah."
"E's obnoxious, talks too much."
"Morte is one who endures well in the dance of blades," Dak'kon said firmly.
"Oh fine, so we loose a damage sponge, aye? Yeh're too eager to play pincushion anyways yeh barmy sod."
I tossed the merchant a couple coppers and bit into the fruit. Its flesh was slightly tart, with a sweetness that seemed to fairly glow as the juices trickled over my tongue. It alleviated my dour mood just a bit, "Morte has answers... and I want to know why he's been lying to me."
Annah huffed. Dak'kon said nothing.
As soon as I had crawled out of that ancient crypt I had looked for a mirror. Craning my neck and twisting a little I had taken a look at the tattoos on my back for myself. While the marks were there and deeply-etched, the mass of scars and burns had rendered many of the words nigh-unreadable, unless one knew what the message had said in the first place. No wonder Annah and Dak'kon had said nothing about the grim instructions and the dire warning that followed. They couldn't have read it easily.
Don't trust the skull.
It was certain that Morte had read that message off of me before. It was possible that he was a treacherous mole. I had put off the question for far too long out of simple sentiment. The thought of having to deal with him if he betrayed me was... unpalatable.
I was growing too fond of the little guy.
"Take a care, cutter," Annah mumbled, pushing close to me. I could barely hear her over the noise of the crowd, "Th' Lower Ward may be more peaceable 'an th' Hive, but yeh might be better off not stirrin' up th' trouble yeh do when those Hardheads are about."
She nodded in the direction of one of the heavily-armed guards at the doors of the marketplace. They were clad in heavy red armor, crimson as the blood of sinners, and stood stern-faced and tight-lipped.
In the Hive the denizens walked heavy-footed and the rogues swaggered through the streets proud as tomcats. In the Lower Ward when the locals weren't hunched over with sickness they swept through the streets quickly, staring straight ahead with grim certainty. The city guard, however, patrolled in groups of four or five like lacquered juggernauts, with jaws set in stone and fists tight as if ready to break any dissent.
"The Harmonium," Dak'kon said as he leaned in, "The Fraternity of Order writes the laws of Sigil. The Mercykillers deal with the guilty, executing the punishments with neither tenderness nor tears. The Harmonium... enforce what they can within the walls of Sigil and conquer what they can without. They are not a force to be trifled with... their ways are to sweep across the planes, bringing their knowing of order to all, willing or not."
He scowled, "A distasteful philosophy, to enslave worlds so."
I glanced at a long-toothed axe, a crimson mancatcher. Not a group I would like to cross anytime soon.
Looking away, I noticed a pretty, young woman wearing simple clothes. She wandered about the market and examined everything, but didn't seem to be making any purchases. People seemed to be avoiding her, focusing on other things as if trying not to make it obvious. She flashed me a warm smile as I approached.
"Greetings. I don't suppose you could help a stranger to this ward."
The girl's smile broadened. "Hello, I'm Karina. It's a pleasure to meet you, cutter." She continued to smile. "What do you want to know?"
"Well... I had a skull and it's been stolen from me. Do you know anyone who would do such a thing?"
She blinked, and pressed a delicate hand to her bosom, "A skull? Why do you want such a thing? That's rather morbid, isn't it? Oh well, if you want a skull I guess you could get one from the Mortuary... well, maybe not. They don't like to give those things out now that I think about it... anyway, I don't know who would take your skull. Why do you want a skull?"
"He's a friend of mine."
Karina gave me a quizzical look. "Really? A skull? That sounds weird, you know. I've never heard of anyone having a skull for a friend. I've seen people with pets and all, but never a skull. But then, you didn't say it was a pet, you said friend so that just makes it weirder." She paused to think.
I sighed, "Well... where can I buy some weapons?"
She smiled and pointed to one of the counters. "Anze over there sells weapons. All kinds of weapons. Are you a warrior? How silly of me, of course you are. I mean, how could you not be with all those scars... oh, I'm sorry, I shouldn't mention those. You're not sensitive about them, are you?"
I shrugged, "No, I've gotten used to them."
She looked relieved. "Oh good... I didn't mean to hurt your feelings, or anyone else's for that matter. You just have to be careful what you say to someone, you know? I mean, people are different and you never know. What may offend one person may not offend another. So... anyway." She paused for a breath and smiled at me.
"Where can I buy some magic?" My skill had begun to outstrip the spells I knew, and the Hive had offered little in the way of high magery.
She smiled and pointed to one of the counters. "Aalek over there sells magic things. Are you a mage? You don't look like one, but I guess looks can be rather deceiving. I don't know what a mage really looks like, now that I think about it. Do you?"
I chuckled. The girl was hardly daft, but she certainly seemed to have a talent for saying so little with so much, "Yes. They wear robes with funny symbols and a pointy hat."
"Really? That's good to know. I mean, mages scare me so I want to know what they look like. I guess it's all that power they have, and they can do really incredible things and all, but you don't know what they look like. Warriors and priests and... and... you know, other powerful people just look powerful with all that stuff they carry around that says they are powerful people. But not mages." She paused.
"You, uh... really like to talk, don't you?"
She shuffled her feet and looked embarrassed. "I, uh... Well... I've been told that I probably talk a bit too much and, well... People tend to avoid me... and I don't really have any friends or male friends courting me... sometimes I get lonely..." Her voice became lower and lower until she was finally silent. She stared at the ground at her feet.
I smiled, "I don't think you're a bad person, Karina. I happen to like you."
Annah rolled her eyes and huffed.
She gave me a hopeful look. "Really? Thank you so much... I don't know your name."
I smiled as I lied through my teeth, "I'm Adahn."
She smiled back. "Thank you, Adahn. It's nice to know I have a friend."
"All righ', if yeh be wantin' ta look for th' skull we'd best be quick about this," Annah said, annoyed.
Annah followed her own advice and kept her fingers clean as we shopped. A few fancy spells caught my eye.
The large, blustery merchant tapped the glass counter and smiled at me. He was totally hairless, and his pale yellow skin was scarred as if from burns. "Greetin's. I'm Cinder. I heard aboutcha'. Ye be the scarred Clueless fella that be goin' around the Wards askin' questions."
"You look like you have a few scars yourself."
He frowned then began to laugh, "Aye, that I do. Few years' back I had me a kip set up in the Hive. Some barmy mage decided ta burn the ward right out o' Sigil. Almost took me with it. Sick fer a month, I was."
Ignus. For a moment I stood a little confused, and mulled over the span of time, "A month? That's not all that long."
He nodded and took on a far away look for a moment, "Aye, it coulda' been worse. Local mage healed me, fixed the scars'n all. Coulda grown my hair back but I kinda like the look."
"It is quite dashing. Do you think this mage could help me with my scars?"
He looked me over, then shrugged, "I don't see why not. Yer scars don't look that bad..." He looked at me closely, "Aye, now who's ta say. Ye should talk to 'em yourself. Names Sebastion, an' he sets his kip up over by the foundry."
"Thanks," I glanced at the half-unfurled scroll in the glass case, "Now... as for your merchandise..."
"High magic, this is!" Cinder proclaimed proudly, "Pierce enemies with missiles of force, or surround 'em with crackin' spheres of the heavens distilled. Or mayhap a touch of madness be more to your liking..."
"Here, Dak'kon," I handed him a scroll when our purchases were made, "You might need this. An attack spell to soften a few enemies from afar."
His eyes slid over the scroll casually, "The ways of this form of Art are not known to me."
"All paths converge at some point. Besides, I'm of Mebbeth's school and Zerthimon's and I do just fine."
Dak'kon nodded and accepted the scroll, "That much is true."
"Speaking of which..."
Dak'kon nodded, and handed me the Unbroken Circle, "The Fifth Circle of Zerthimon is now open to you. I wish, as you do, that its wisdom may aid us in finding out companion."
I slid the plates into the configuration Dak'kon showed me earlier, and a new ring was revealed.
I began to read.
"Zerthimon was the first to know the way of freedom. Yet it was not he that first came to know the way of rebellion."
"The knowing of rebellion came to the warrior-queen Gith, one of the People. She had served the illithids upon many of the False Worlds as a soldier, and she had come to know war and carried it in her heart. She had come to know how others might be organized to subjugate others. She knew the paths of power, and she knew the art of taking from the conquerors the weapons by which they could be defeated. Her mind was focused, and both her will and her blade were as one."
"The turning in which Zerthimon came to know Gith, Zerthimon ceased to know himself. Her words were as fires lit in the hearts of all who heard her. In hearing her words, he wished to know war. He knew not what afflicted him, but he knew he wished to join his blade to Gith. He wished to give his hate expression and share his pain with the illithid."
"Gith was one of the People, but her knowing of herself was greater than any Zerthimon had ever encountered. She knew the ways of flesh, she knew the illithids and in knowing herself, she was to know how to defeat them in battle. The strength of her knowing was so great, that all those that walked her path came to know themselves."
"Gith was but one. Her strength was such that it caused others to know their strength. And Zerthimon laid his steel at her feet."
I slid the plates closed.
"What have you come to know?" Dak'kon asked as he himself finished reading the scroll.
"There is great strength in numbers, but there is great power in one, for the strength of the will of one may gather numbers to it. There is strength not only in knowing the self, but knowing how to bring it forth in others."
"You have come to know the Fifth Circle of Zerthimon. With this knowing, I impart this to you." He took the Circle and with a deft motion, twisted one of the links so one of the plates slid forth. "Meditate upon its teachings, and the knowing of it shall give you strength."
"I would know more of the Way of Zerthimon," I intoned, as per the ritual we had adopted.
Dak'kon's fingers felt around the edges of the stone circle, and he twisted it clockwise, the links clicking until they had settled into a new configuration. He then reversed the motion, resetting the stone. "The next Circle of Zerthimon is open to you. Study it, then I will hear your words."
"Perhaps later," I looked over the new meditation of the Zerth. The Power of One... a strength-enhancing spell greater than any I'd seen.
A Harmonium guard stood next to the exit. His armor was that unusual construction with spikes flaring from the shoulders, elbows, and forearms. Though he seemed distracted with eyes wandering about the market, he nodded as I approached.
"Good day, citizen. I am guard Corvus. How may I help you, citizen?" He gave me a friendly look, but glanced over my shoulder.
"Who are you?"
He gave me a slight bow. "I am Harmonium guard Corvus, citizen. I help keep the peace here at the market." He glanced about for a moment, then looked at me.
"Tell me about the Harmonium."
"Our belief is simple: We are the light. We are the Way. We are Order. We are Truth. We maintain and enforce order here in Sigil. We police the city." He looked about again.
I followed his gaze.
Glancing over my shoulder I saw Karina wandering nearby. Corvus seemed to have his eyes locked on her as she wandered about.
I smiled, "Her name is Karina."
He snapped his attention back to me. "I beg your pardon, you know her, citizen?" He looked at Karina again. "Voice of an angel and such a pretty young thing..."
I winked at him, and out of the corner of my gaze Annah rolled her eyes, "Yes, and she's also lonely... I'm certain she would welcome the company of a gentleman..."
He glanced at me, then back at Karina. "Excuse me a moment, citizen." He stepped around me and headed towards Karina.
When Corvus returned he was smiling brightly. "Thank you, friend. A wonderful young lady..." He looked a little glassy-eyed.
I chuckled, my mood brightened, "Anytime, Corvus."
Of course, my mood didn't last when I stepped outside.
The air of the Lower Ward, though clear of the smell of garbage and rank, unwashed bodies, had a foulness to it that grew strong the deeper we went. While the edges of the ward were bearable, the monolithic Great Foundry squatted in the center, belching metallic fumes into the sky. The streets were pitted with the acid rain that fell, the walls of the buildings looked as if they had their surfaces peeled away. It seemed as if even the Razorvine struggled to grow here, though perhaps it was due to more diligent weeding by the locals.
The mark of the Foundry lay heaviest on the people. Yellow-skinned as a githzerai, no few of them were emaciated, or coughing into rags thanks to the slow poison being fed into their bodies with each breath. Such was the price of being a craftsman and enjoying the scant luxuries offered, and the peace that the Harmonium brought.
And then I saw her.
Standing in the shadow of the large gate that surrounded the Great Foundry was a sickly githzerai woman. She was hunched and bent, and her constant coughing was obviously a source of pain to her - she held a handkerchief that was practically soaking with blood, tissue, and phlegm to her face. She spied us and hissed.
She stared at me, and spoke a few mumbled words to Dak'kon.
Dak'kon glanced at me, "She cannot understand your speech. She says she is dying."
I reached into my coin pouch. There wasn't much left after purchasing those spells, "Who is she?"
"Her name is An'azi. She says she used to work in a meat-curing house here until a half-month ago when the illness became too much for her to bear. She was abandoned, evicted from her home, and left for dead. Speech pains her and her illness has crippled much of her mind. She says there is nothing she can give you of value."
"Know that she will not recover. I can put her out of her misery. That is all. As a zerth of the People, it is my responsibility to provide an alternative."
I was about to protest. Surely there was a healer at hand, or a potion we could fetch. A short quest would do well to help me forget about Morte's absence, if only for a little while.
But Dak'kon spoke with a rare, grim certainty that I found difficult to argue against, "Then be merciful, Dak'kon."
Dak'kon drew his blade, and waited for the woman to prepare herself. She touched the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon he wore for a moment, and her face was stoic. His blade is a blur, and when he has completed the stroke, she lay bleeding on the hard stone of Sigil's streets. Her face was blank... she felt nothing.
I swallowed and stepped back from the corpse on the ground. "I think... it may be best to separate. If only for a little while. If we spread out it'll be that much more efficient to find word of Morte." Dak'kon nodded as he focused, and the blood slid cleanly off of his blade.
"Ach, I'm not going to play fetch-quest for your mimir, cutter," Annah growled, "Jes come back to Pharod and say I'm done wit' yeh... 'e won't let go o' me ear until he hears it straight from yer lips."
"Please, Annah," I said pleadingly, "Just let us find Morte and I'll be happy to let you return to the Buried Village."
Her lip curled into a sneer, but she agreed.
"Aye. Fine, we'll look for that pet o' yours."