Part 73: The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 9The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 9
The cold night air muted the stink and the smog somewhat. Stepping out from the ramshackle hut I breathed a sigh of relief at seeing Morte bobbing happily right at the door.
"If this the part where I cry your name and we hug, can I do it with Annah instead?"
"How do yeh even get a chance to take a breath when yer talking so much?" she growled and flicked her tail.
"I stopped breathing the first time I saw you, fiendling."
I chuckled, "We're just glad to have you back."
"Ach. I'm not, don't yeh speak fer me."
I was going to be squeezed between quick-witted yammering on one side, insults spat in a tongue-curling brogue on the other. I smirked. For the moment, at least, it was a good place to be again.
"I don't suppose you learned anything at Lothar's? Or did you spend all that time chattering?"
"Hey! Chattering's my best trait." Morte rattled his teeth for a moment, then 'grinned.' "Eh? Eh?"
"Yeah, I know about the Litany of Curses, Morte - I'm more curious about what you got while you were down there."
"Well, I made some friends when I was sitting on the shelf in Lothar's waiting for you to bail me out - thanks for taking your sweet time about it, by the way - they said if I needed any help, I could just call on them."
"Friends? What do you mean?"
"Well, I just whistle, and they kind of show up. They're a good bunch of bashers - bite like snakes, too."
It sounded useful.
"Well," I said awkwardly as I turned to our resident tiefling, "I know you didn't have to stay with us until we got Morte back... thanks."
Annah's blood-black lips curled and she rolled her eyes. "Ach, yeh put me through skillet an' fire and have chats with bashers best left buried. Ye've got th' Lady's shadow on yeh, ye do," her expression softened, "But... I guess that's why I couldn't leave yeh a blade down. Idjit like yeh would get killed twelve times o'er without a skilled aul sneak at hand, aye?"
Escorting Annah back to the Buried Village was the least I could do. Any other girl like her would've spat in my face at the offer, but when we walked together back to the Hive, she didn't complain.
"Annah... didn't I meet you in the Hive, before I found Pharod?"
She nodded, a little warily. Her tail flicked. "Aye, yeh did -- I haven't forgot yeh."
"What were you doing by the Mortuary?"
"It's me territory - I was lookin' for deaders, I was." She looked me up and down, then smirked. "Found a walkin' one, I did."
"When I asked about Pharod, you told me he was south and west of the Mortuary - when he wasn't," my lip curled wryly, "It was a nest full of cutthroats."
"Aye, I did - and yeh'd have done the same if some scarred wreck came to yeh an' asked where he could find your Da." She shrugged. "Yeh found him anyway, so I don't want tae hear yeh carryin' on about it, I don't."
"All right, all right..." I put my hands up defensively. "Can you tell me anything else about him?"
With a twist of her hips, Annah flicked her tail sharply so that it speared the foramen along Morte's base. Caught trying to take a gander at her goods, Morte attempted to stammer out an excuse of some sort when with another twist Annah flung him squealing into an alley. There was a crash, the squeal of a cranium rat or two, and a series of curses that I filed away for later use.
Ah, it really was good to have him back.
"Been at the Village longer than I," Annah said without skipping a beat, "Came there a stone's age ago, maybe even found the place, some o' the villagers say." Annah frowned. "Pharod's a shrewd one, he is. Has a way of squeezin' more outta copper than most, an' he never was at a lack for jink."
"Was he searching for that bronze sphere all that time?" I asked as Morte bobbed over at my side, keeping me between him and Annah. He shot her a sour look and flicked his tongue, as if he were lapping at certain unmentionables of hers.
"I s'pose." Annah shrugged again. "I don't know why he was all a-fire tae get it, I don't. I could smell it as soon as yeh brought it to him." She wrinkled her nose. "Foul custard smell it had. Still... it must have been something right valuable for him tae carry on about it like he did - almost a half-score o' Collectors got penned in the dead-book tryin' tae fetch it."
"I think he was searching for it because he thought it would save his life."
She blinked. "What d'yeh mean?"
"Pharod didn't lead a good life, I gather," I said, repeating what I remembered of Reekwind's tale, "He was once a 'Guvner' in one of the Upper Wards. He apparently used his position to lie, cheat, and hurt others in the process - so much so he was destined to go to the hells when he died. He thought the bronze sphere would save him somehow - so much so he threw away his title, his wealth, and his position to try and find it."
"Really?" Annah became silent for a moment, then shook her head. "No accountin' for Pharod's foolishness, there isn't. A trinket won't save yeh from fate's hand. If the stains on yer soul are black enough, no amount o' washing will get 'em out." She paused. "Still, if he thought it could save him, maybe it was important somehow... or at least worth a bit o' jink."
A bleak air had settled on the Village when we arrived. The lanes were quieter than usual, and the villagers hid in their huts and tents. The flick of curtains revealed half-obscured faces, gazing out in fear for a moment before vanishing behind age-yellowed cloth. The few that ventured out looked over their shoulders when they didn't glance at me and hustle into trash-filled alleys.
It was as if a plague had visited the Buried Village for the streets to be so sparse of thugs and blades and for silence to echo along with our footsteps.
"Somethin's wrong..." Annah whispered, and her pace quickened.
"Kelm, What's been goin' on here now?" She asked one of the guards.
Kelm's eyes shifted uneasily, "Oh, Annah. You're back... we... didn't expect to see you again so soon..."
Annah frowned, "Wot's got the village creepin' on eggshells? I've only been gone a day or two an' get greeted back as if we've been carryin' the plague."
"Oh, uh-" Kelm stammered, "It isn't you, Annah. Really."
"Ach, yeh say that but yer eyes haven't crept below me neck." She glanced at me from the corner of her eye, as if I had brought this on the village.
"Hey I'm always happy to take up the slack, there," Morte clacked his jaw as his eyes crawled over the milk-pale curve of her thighs, "Not that there's much slack that I can see."
Kelm bit his lip, "No, it's... I don't know. Pharod had just closed Illwind Court, demanded that no one disturb him. And soon after..." he trailed off.
"What? Spill it, aye?"
Kelm glanced at the other guard, who was perfectly content to remain silent. "Annah. Something's... colder about this place. One moment I'm trading dirty rhymes with Vruk here and the next I feel this chill down my spine like someone's dug and smoothed my grave."
"You do not feel it?" Dak'kon muttered to Annah, "The echo of bleak oblivion, like a null point in the foam of Limbo, where thought and spirit bleed dry."
She bit her lip, and I began to feel it too. It wasn't the emptiness of the village that was unsettling... it was the dark air that emptied the village: regret and hopelessness, thick enough that I could almost taste it.
"We need to speak with Pharod," I declared.
For just a moment Kelm paused, as if by instinct he wanted to repeat Pharod's edict that he not be disturbed. But with a tired gesture he waved us past the gate.
There are chills that prick at the flesh, like needles of ice. They cause one's hairs to rise, they settle into the skin and numb it. When the cold creeps into one's flesh it becomes paralyzed with shivers, when it seeps into bone and joint it carries the creaks and weariness of age.
And then there are chills that burrow past the flesh, and into the soul.
Pharod's mangled body lay limp at the base of his blood-spattered throne.
"Da!" Annah choked out, "What happened? Who did this to yeh?!"
Like lightning Dak'kon's hands shot out and grabbed Annah's wrists. His skills were considerable if they could match the speed of Annah's hands.
"Look away," he said softly as Annah struggled in his grip.
"Pike off, gith!" Annah snarled, "I should shiv yeh right now!"
Dak'kon adjusted his stance and held her tight. Those thin, frail-looking limbs held a deceptive strength, "It is a kindness for some things to not be seen. It is a mercy for some things to not be known," his voice was like the murmur of a stream, calm, placid, "You know the fate of your father. Let that be enough."
She collapsed into his arms in tearless fury, nails digging into his skin and drawing blood. Dak'kon didn't flinch.
"I hate yeh, yeh mold-faced gith," she growled with a cold fury, "I hate yeh so much..."
"Uh, chief? Maybe you shouldn't do that," Morte chittered nervously as I knelt beside Pharod's body.
"I'll be fine," I grunted.
I turned him over, lifted the bloodstained cloak that his body had become tangled in. I winced. It really wasn't pretty. Dak'kon was right to hold Annah back from seeing this.
"He didn't struggle," I said, "His arm is still clutching the orb... and there isn't any fresh damage to his crutch. I can only hope that it was quick."
"Jes take it," Annah growled, "Doesn't 'elp him now, and it isn't any worse than he's done ta others in the past."
I stuffed the orb in my pack, and the crawling sensation it left on my palm only added to my sense of unease.
"Annah, do you have any idea how Pharod might've died?"
"I..." She shook her head and rubbed her wrists. That spitfire fury had quelled enough for Dak'kon to let her go, "I donnae. No one with half-a-mind would - Pharod got a long shadow, he does. Yeh cross him, an' yeh end up getting th' stick, yeh will."
"You don't have to accompany me anymore, Annah. If you need to stay with the Buried Village, I -"
"Nay..." Annah interrupted me. "I don't need tae be in the Village - an' I was wonderin' what I'd do if Pharod got penned in the dead-book, I was." She snorted. "Oh, well; he's probably mounting someone's wall in the hells, he is."
My jaw dropped, "But... he's your father. Don't y-"
"Not me real Da, he wasn't." Her eyes took on a hard look. "He was greedy, an' he was stupid, an' he was selfish, an' he was weak. An' now 'ee's dead. And that's all."
I sighed, hefting the crutch in my hand. The rickety wooden staff had a crosspiece nailed across the top, itself wrapped in rags presumably to keep the damn thing from jamming too sharply into Pharod's armpit when he leaned on it. Not surprisingly, the crutch smelled terrible, and every inch of it was covered in dirt, sewage, and unidentifiable remains.
Something about it made me wonder: despite its fragile appearance, it had held up rather well. I even tested it with my weight and it held up without so much as creaking. Considering Pharod's scavenging nature, the crutch probably had some value beyond its surface appearance for him. Perhaps it was a weapon (even if he didn't defend himself in the end), or...
I wandered around the Court, holding the crutch in one hand, pointing and gesturing and hobbling on it. I only had to search for a few minutes before...
The air took me by surprise when we entered the portal. It was musty and stale, but clean of the foul sewage stench of the Buried Village. High, graceful alcoves contained books, books, and more books, all indexed and placed in neat order among the shelves. They were free of dust, subject to meticulous cleaning by a hand that knew how to arrange things. I pulled a few tomes out, looked over the faded ink. A few had patches of yellow-brown paste carefully applied to mend tears.
This was Pharod's hidden side... an library deep beneath Illwind Court, the sad remnant of what glory this place used to bear.
How often had Pharod closed off Illwind Court so he could walk these halls undisturbed, reading ancient books and sighing wistfully over his lost days as a Guvner? Did he try to rebuild something he once had here, patching up lost annals and archives?
I put the book back.
"Ach, so this is Pharod's great treasury, aye?" Annah sniffed, "Well, I might as well pick up me inheritance while we're at it."
Morte clicked his teeth as he floated along the shelves, "Something tells me the old fart should've bought you that pony when you were a kid, tiefling."
There was scant little to be found in the Treasury, or Pharod's gold was too well-hidden for me to find. A few scrolls, a smattering of charms, even a wedge of brick-hard cheese.
When we were done, we looped back around for the exit.