Part 82: The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 14The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 14
"There you are, sir... four Arborean firewines and a shiftspice tea." The paunchy little man behind the bar smiled as I dropped a handful of coins into his palm. Everything in the Clerk's Ward was a good deal more expensive, but I'd never seen glasses so clean.
"Here you go, Annah," I handed her a glass of wine. She had been sulking behind us a bit ever since we left the brothel, and I could feel those eyes burning into my back as we walked, "So..."
Annah just looked at me as I addressed her, and she frowned. She didn't take the wine, "Aye? What do yeh want now?"
I blinked, "Are you all right?"
She just glared at me.
"Er, I was hoping I could ask you about a few things-"
"Why don't yeh ask the stuck-up-ubus yer questions, then?" Annah's eyes narrowed to slits. "Why are we even traveling with her? We don't NEED her, we don't."
The other patrons glanced at us with practiced nonchalance, but their conversation halted. The silence was thick with the mass effort to ignore our little spat. "Annah, please. You're very important to me, and I need your help."
"Oh, aye, and why is THAT then? This should be rich, it should. Yeh pity me, is that it? Yeh think I slow yeh down? Go on, say it!" I was surprised she didn't slap or shiv me then.
"I don't pity you, and you don't slow me down - you're quick, you're skilled, and I really need all the help I can get."
Annah frowned, her tail flicking back and forth. "Aye... well... know I'll gut her if she starts sizing us up for a feast, I will." She glared at me. "And don't get any ideas I'm staying cause yeh want me to - I'm just helpin' yeh out, I am."
"Fine. Now... we need to think about where we're going."
"Aye?" she snatched the wine roughly from my hand, and a few splashes dribbled down the bulbous crystal. She took a good swig. Silently I wondered if her rough drinking habits had to do with her life in the Hive or if she just wanted to get a little alcohol in her to put up with me.
As our conversation lowered into a flat simmer, the other patrons began speaking again. Chats about the weather to get the ball rolling, and moving on from there. The denizens of the Clerk's Ward sure had some class. "I know you've picked up a lot of stories in the Hive. Have you heard of a night hag called Ravel Puzzlewell?"
At the mention of the name, Annah spat three times and made a semi-circle over her heart. "Hssst! Are yeh daft?! Don't be mentioning her name, if yeh value yer life!"
"She's the evilest o' the Gray Ladies, she is." Annah's voice dropped to almost a whisper, as if afraid of being overheard. "Filthy mean, an' with more power tae toss around than some Powers. It's said she's all a-brambles through and through - even her heart. It's said yeh can NEVER kill her, 'cause her body's like a tree - yeh lop off one limb, an' there's always another still growing somewhere else across the Planes."
"You speak as if she's still alive."
"A-course she is. She has t'be." Annah's voice dropped again. "How would yeh kill a thing such as her? That's why the Lady had to MAZE her, so it's said."
Annah was a bit more tight-lipped after that, and left to lean over the bar and swish her tail as she ordered a bitter-black ale. I cocked my head a little, gazing a bit at the firm crescent of her rump.
Damn that Morte for rubbing off on me.
"Remarkable girl," Grace said with a sigh, "Such a fire in her... perhaps it is the fiend blood in her veins."
"What's born in the bone with be bred in the flesh, eh?" I grunted.
Grace gave me one of those mysterious smiles, and gazed at me over the rim of her glass, "Well, I am hardly one to speak on the role of heritage."
I nodded, "True. What can you tell me about the tanar'ri?"
"The tanar'ri are fiends - some call them 'demons.' They have embraced evil for chaos' sake. They dwell upon the poisoned planes of the Abyss where they feed on their own rage and lash out across the multiverse, despoiling all they touch. They forever seek to tempt others into committing crimes of passion and vice."
"And how did you come by the name 'Fall-From-Grace?'"
"The meaning of names is a complicated subject. There is much to be said, and a great deal that is better left unsaid."
I turned to face Grace just as Annah struck up a conversation with a patron... a Sensate, by the look of it. "Is Fall-From-Grace your real name?"
"Perhaps." She smiled slightly. "Perhaps not. There are names which are given and names which are earned. Who is to say which is the real one?"
"I'm not sure I attach any value to a name."
Grace looked at me curiously. "Truly?"
I shrugged. "A name is a cloak of letters thrown across a person, nothing more. A name can sometimes you tell something about a fraction of the person, maybe even help define that person, but that's not who the person is."
"Your point is well-taken," Grace allowed with a nod.
"So why are you called Fall-From-Grace?"
"Would it matter?" She smiled. "It is but a cloak of letters."
"It matters to me. I would like to know how you came to be called that."
Those warm blue eyes looked away from me, and she stared into her glass in the aching contemplation that I had seen so much in others. Grace, with such poise, such self-assurance and wisdom, seemed lesser somehow. Neither Sensate nor mentor at that moment, Fall-From-Grace's tender demeanor was a that of a woman's, moreso than any I'd seen. "I have fallen from my people... some would say risen from my people, perhaps, but 'fall' feels more right to me." She looked at me questioningly. "Does that make sense?"
"Yes, it does. After all, 'fall' carries with it an underlying sense of loss."
Fall-From-Grace was silent for a moment, then nodded thoughtfully. "Yes... perhaps that is why it felt as it did. I... came to terms with the loss long ago, but the name has remained."
"Are you sure you've come to terms with it?"
Fall-From-Grace met my gaze, and I was once again struck by the brilliant shade of blue of her eyes. It was turbulent, like the ocean before a storm. "I had thought so. Yet, in speaking to you, you have caused me to realize some things." She smiled. "You have my thanks."
"Well, if you want to talk about it, let me know, all right?"
She nodded. "You are most kind. I will do so."
There was a thick pause, and I shifted awkwardly, not quite comfortable putting weight on one leg or the other, not knowing what to do with my hands. But Grace was patient, gazing into the distance as if musing on her own thoughts until I chose to speak again. "Can you teach me anything of the Art, Grace?"
Fall-From-Grace looked up and shook her head slightly. "No, I do not believe so. The Art... and the disciplines I practice are different."
"How do you mean?"
"My 'powers,' as you see them, stem from my faith, not from manipulating energies as the Art does. The Art is a mechanism by which the power of the multiverse may be harnessed, through gestures, rituals and devices. My 'powers' come to me through a different means. My faith and the nature of my belief allows some of the multiverse to reveal itself to me."
"The nature of your belief? What do you believe in?"
Grace's wings unfurled, and he bosom heaved as she took in a deep breath, "I believe in Experience. I believe a person may be changed - for the better - the more of the multiverse they are allowed to perceive and the more the multiverse is allowed to perceive them. My belief in the nature of Experience allows me to..." She paused for a moment. Her sigh was sensual but her lips pulled back in a chaste smile. "I suppose the best explanation is that my faith allows me to see things differently. When you see the multiverse in such a way, you learn how to 'change' things - mending wounds, seeing a person's heart, and so on - just by willing them to happen."
"But those 'changes' you make seem a lot like spells - how do you learn to do those things? Do you have a spell book?"
"No, my 'spells,' as you call them - they come to me after I have rested and centered myself. When I sleep and awaken, I can focus myself once more. The amount of faith required to 'Change' the multiverse around me can be quite taxing on the psyche, I'm afraid. Just being able to see how to Change things is not enough - you must have the strength to make the Change happen, and last."
I nodded and leaned in, curious. "Can you teach me to see things the way you do?"
"I cannot teach you to see the multiverse in such a way. One must learn to see it... and in their own way, not through the eyes of another." Her smile never wavered. "I do not think you of all people need my guidance in such a matter - I find myself beginning to learn much more from you than you from I."
Acrid fumes stung my nostrils, and my eyes watered anew. I narrowly avoided bumping into an abishai while walking down the street. The arch of the sky was overcast with the acrid yellow fog, and while it mimicked the run-of-the-mill prime world at least superficially, I had gotten so used to seeing a city when looking up that it was disconcerting to the point of claustrophobia.
The Clerk's Ward was too costly to live in, the Hive had no answers... all that was left for now was the noxious purgatory of the Lower Ward.
Giltspur the auctioneer had an errand for me, and I was happy to oblige if it meant I'd make some connections to help get some answers.
The man I ran into on the way towered over me. Slabs of muscle were layered over his thick frame and a solid, well-worn axe was strapped to his back. Though he stood with the resolute dignity of a warrior, he didn't appear to be in the best of health. The man's skin was pale yellow and there was an occasional pustule along his arms.
He turned and glanced at me from behind hollow eyes. His eyes narrowed in suspicion as he continued to glance around. "What d'ye want from ol' Korur?" His voice was raspy.
"I have some questions..."
He turned his attention to me. "Why ye botherin' me for? I look the part of a tout?"
"You seem to be a knowledgeable individual that I can learn from."
He sighed. "What ye be wantin' to know?"
"Are you feeling all right?" my eyes were fixed on a particularly large blister on his neck, practically swimming with white pus inside. I forced myself to look away. Getting a second tasting of the cranium rat I had for breakfast wasn't going to leave a good impression.
"Nothin' a few years o' death won't cure." He coughed and looked up. "Air's been getting worse in th' Ward o' late. By my reckon, it should level out once th' Great Foundry settles... or a wind blows through from the Spire."
"What is with the air here?" the smokestacks of the Great Foundry belched in the distance, "It can't be all from the Foundry."
He nodded, "It's mostly 'cause of all the portals." He had a coughing fit and then returned his attention to me.
"What do you mean?"
"Lots of doors to the Lower Planes here let'n in bad air an fumes an such from who knows what layer of the abyss. That's why this here's the lower ward." He laughed. "A jaunt through this area is like breathin' in a meal. Salt, smoke, pipeweed... it's all yellow-blankets of smoke and stinging sulfurous gas that this Ward spits out." He gave me a gap-toothed smile. "Pretty-pretty, hey?"
I forced a grin, and it was like smiling back at a shark. "Tell me about the Foundry. I have a letter to deliver there."
"Centa o' the Ward, pretty much. Look for the stacks. Them Godsmen make a buncha' things out o' iron; nothing fancy, but they work. Add to the bad air, too."
"The Believers. Have their kip in the Great Foundry, banging and singing and chantin' their barmy silliness on being Powers in the next ten upon ten and a buncha other ten lifetimes." He rolled his eyes, then spat a brown mass from his mouth. "All's they do is suffer and slave and work... I slave twice as hard, and no way am I going to be any sort of Power, you understand me, berk?" He laughed hollowly.
Korur's eyebrows climbed a little when I found myself examining his meaty frame. His hands were heavily callused, and old scars were slashed across his arms. Those old battle wounds, however, didn't reach his face or the bare chest that I could see... this man was skilled. "I want to be a better warrior. Can you help me better my skills?"
"Well... What exactly do ye want training in?"
I whipped out my favored knife, "Teach me how to use daggers."
"Daggers, eh? Well... I can teach ye if ye want."
"Yes, I'd like to learn to use this weapon."
It was a solid couple of hours of practice. I adjusted my stance, learned to grip my knife better, refined the good old gouge-twist-pull action that was the cornerstone of knife fighting. When we were done Korur leaned back and nodded, his duty done. "Well... nothing more I can teach ye right now. Not unless ye've devoted yer whole life to bein' a warrior. Ye've got to specialize in bein' a warrior if ye want to get better. Ye've not got that devotion t' the fightin' craft. Only when ye've turned yer body into a weapon can ye learn more from me."
"Thanks, Korur. I wish you the best."
The Mortuary squatted in the middle of the Hive like a necrotic boil... bleak, festering, unwanted. The Dustmen's whispers ate away at the edges of the Hive, consumed the denizens and reanimated their bodies as the faction's own. The Gatehouse clutched the vagrants of Sigil against its breast, doling out whatever pity the Bleak Cabal could afford to spoon out. They were the cathedral to what inevitably will come to pass, and the sepulchre to regrets of what might've been.
The Great Foundry was a different matter.
I showed the message to be delivered to the gatekeeper and with a stern nod he let me through with a gesture. Past the iron gate Godsman guards jogged in formation like ants scurrying around a hill. The high smokestacks of the Great Foundry dominated this region of the Ward: the weight of it pressed away the surrounding buildings and seemed to leave them squat and cowering at its might. Open windows blazed with the inner light of the forges and howled with the rhythmic clang of metal on metal, and the guards circling the court swung their weapons in tandem. It was the sound of iron tortured and fired until it was reborn, the chorus of what could be, if one has the will to act.
The din of metalwork was greater within the Foundry itself. Deafening clangs reverberated off the walls, and the Godsmen in charge had to bellow their orders over that and the roar of the furnaces. I stood in awe at the radiance of the great crucible, which portioned out rivers of molten steel like soup. The heat of the inferno blazed against my skin, the fire had me mesmerized. It felt good.
For a while I found myself contemplating the rumble of the gears, each turning rapidly with perfect smoothness and a steady song of clacking metal teeth. Like a child I reached out and touched one gear with a finger as it spun. The metal grazed against my fingertip until it went numb with the warmth of friction.
The Godsmen themselves were tall, well-muscled, and their skin bronzed with the heat. Sparks and oiled sand flicked harmlessly against the bare arms of the forge workers as if the embers were motes of dust. Their eyes blazed with the spark of potential divinity, waiting to be hatched in the warmth of the forge.
Of course, not all the Foundry workers were so high up.
So significant were the fires and the anvils that the main hall of the Foundry was second to the forge. The air was cooler here, and lacked the choking fumes of seared oil and white-hot metal. The floors were paved with the same heavy gray stone as in the forges of the Foundry.
Godsman guards stood at attention, and glanced at me suspiciously as I walked past. By one of the arches a young woman stood, with chalk-pale skin and graceful curls of brown hair. She approached, her elegant violet dress trailing behind her, and her eyes stared into mine. They was examining more than my eye color: her gaze seemed to penetrate far deeper than that, and I shivered a little when something seemed to barely brush my soul, like the flutter of a moth's wing.
"Greetings, stranger. How goes your day?"
"Well enough. I would like you to answer some questions for me."
She merely stared at me when she spoke, surrounded by an impenetrable calm, "What answers do you seek, half-man?"
I blinked, "Why do you call me half-man?"
"I call you half-man because I cannot see your spirit. All other mortals who pass through my life show their spirits to me as a shining spark or a smoldering ember. You show nothing at all. I call you half-man because I cannot see your spirit as I see those of others. Whether this is because you have no soul, or because you have transcended, I cannot say. One way or another, you are but half a man. What the other half is, I cannot say." She recited it as if she had practiced it many times before, but the sureness with which she held herself showed that she knew who she was, in a way deeper than most of the people I've met in Sigil.
"Who are you?"
"I am Sarossa, daughter of Sandoz, one of the factors of the Godsmen."
"Tell me of your family."
"My brother Saros is a child of the Foundry, yet I fear he has never embraced the philosophy of the Believers of the Source," there was nary a twitch of her lip, but I could barely detect the disappointment in her voice, "My father is a factor here - and his travels have led him far from the Foundry and into realms most mortals never even dream of achieving."
"Tell me more of your brother."
"Saros is a brash, impulsive lad, easily given over to his manhood. He is eager to prove himself equal of anything on the planes, full of the aggression of youth. I believe he feels himself more Sensate than Godsmen, further vindicating my belief that the Sensates are the most immature of all the factions of Sigil." Fall-From-Grace's demeanor never wavered, and Sarossa didn't even acknowledge her presence, but I could feel Grace's contemplative amusement.
"Why are they the most immature?"
"Why are they the most immature? Because, like children, they do not understand that there is more beyond the world of the senses, beyond what one can see, hear, taste, touch, smell. Look around you. You are in the Outer Planes. This is belief made solid - but that does not mean this seemingly rough matter can be comprehended by the senses. This is belief - no mere physicality can match it."
I chose not to debate the point.
In the lecture hall past the entrance I bumped into a sandy-haired youth. He was on the cusp between adolescence and adulthood, and from his eyes, it looked like he was trying to be as adult as possible without having the slightest idea how - in other words, he seemed innocent. "Hey, stranger. What can I do for you?"
The young man held a clear resemblance to Sarossa: the same sharp nose, the same curve of the chin, but the likeness ended there. His eyes were boyish, and his lips playful. His skin was a slightly coppery hue, and his demeanor so far removed from his sister's pearly calm. "You're Saros, aren't you? Sarossa's brother? Tell me about yourself."
He blinked, then nodded, "That I am. I grew up around here. Got to run through the Foundry, playing with stuff... I like pretty much everyone here, except for Thildon. He keeps saying I'm not raised right and that my father is a poor parent. All I know is that Thildon's the biggest sod I ever met."
"Tell me about the Great Foundry."
"I grew up here. I played in the main foundry area and ran through the barracks. It stinks and it's loud and people can be like Thildon... but it's still home for me."
"The Godsmen seem pretty impressive," I said with no small measure of confidence, "They are so sure of themselves, like they've got a goal in mind, and even if they don't know how to achieve it they'll work towards godhood."
Saros harrumphed. "They're smiths and workers. I think they mean well, but they're all so earnest and boring. They need to liven themselves up a bit. Like, say, the Sensates."
"You like the Sensates, huh?" I smiled.
"They know how to live life. They know what it's all about. Not like these people. They keep pretending there's some big noble purpose to it all, but I don't see it. My sister says that life is more than our senses show, but I don't see how she knows that, since all she knows is through her senses. I just don't get why people make this stuff up."
"I've met her. She seemed... well, very straightforward."
"Sarossa?" Sarod grumbled a bit. There was a touch of bitterness in his voice. It was the sulky disgruntlement of living in a sibling's shadow, "She can just look at someone and see what needs adding and what needs taking away. I don't know how she does it. My father always said it was something about her ascending to another level. He said she was a born Godsman."
A sturdy man stood behind the podium, who looked like he was just bursting with vitality. His face was tanned and lined, and his black beard was beginning to show hints of white. He was tapping down a ream of notes when I approached, getting them straightened for the next lecture. "Hail, stranger, and well met! What can I do for you this fine day?"
"I have a message for you from Giltspur the auctioneer," I pulled out the letter.
"A message, eh?" He took the note from me. "Very well. You can tell him the message is delivered. Was there anything else you wanted?"
"Tell me about yourself."
"My friend, I am Keldor of Durian, one of the factotums of the Godsmen, and nominally in charge of this place while our true high-ups are gone in conclave," he smiled broadly as he stared me firmly in the eye, "I know that look. The Foundry is impressive, isn't it?"
I nodded, "Very. What are the beliefs of this faction?"
Keldor stood up straight, proud and happy at the chance to explain, "We believe that the universe is a giant testing ground, a place where we prove ourselves through a series of tests. These tests continue throughout your life, throughout your many lives. Each step in each day may well be a test for you, and your reward in the next life depends on how well you learn your lessons in this life. We believe that a body learns from experience... and that experience extends through your lives, making you into something greater than just a single life.
"So. Life is a test. We take the test. When we pass, we move on to a new form. This might be the form of an archon, of a fiend, or of a power. The choices we make in this life, as always, help chart our course. Whether we have free will or not is still under debate." He smiled. "Of course, I'm on the side of the free will people... I hate thinking that my choices have already been made for me."
"So what's the point of it all?" I asked.
"We're not entirely sure. After all, we haven't gotten to the end of it yet, have we? The best we can figure is that we muddle through our lives, seeking to find the answers that are right for us, and in the end, we move on to godhood and beyond. What waits there is anybody's guess.
"It's commonly believed that we were founded by Perrine, before the Great Upheaval, when all the factions became fifteen in number. During the Upheaval, Augy of Faunel tightened the faction's beliefs into what they are today - she had been reincarnated a thousand times, and could remember each one of her reincarnations. She taught us how to treat our intuition, and led us to a new era. These two were the most important figures in our faction - we have plenty more stories, but those are the bare bones."
I nodded, "Are there those who oppose the Believers of the Source?"
"We don't have enemies, per se. Still, it is true that there are some who oppose our beliefs. The Bleak Cabal scoff at the idea that we evolve toward something more perfect. I figure that if they don't think there's a point, they might as well get it over with... like the Dustmen ought to. The Dustmen think that life is an illusion, preparing for the Big Death, and our belief champions the cause of life. They promote death, we celebrate life. What could be more opposed?"
"What do you do, anyway?"
"Well, we run the Great Foundry. We also run Harbinger House, where we train folks who seem to be powers-in-training... bashers who've demonstrated some sort of special ability that sets them apart from normal mortals. Some say we do it because we want a power on our side, but the truth is, we do it because we figure that's part of our tests as well. We do our best to make sure every creature faces up to its responsibilities - we want to see the multiverse move on," he paused and gave a moment to let it all sink in, "Are you considering membership with the Believers of the Source?"
"I'll think it over."