Part 83: The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 15The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 15
Down past the lecture hall stood a bushy-haired man, clad in the height of fashion -- if one could consider fashion to have died fifty years ago. His clothing looked like they consisted entirely of tattered street urchin rags, and he affected a disdainful manner toward those around him. The man's lips were curled around a pipe, and he puffed away steadily, releasing a sweet blue-gray smoke. He didn't even glance at me until I approached, and then his eyes began searching my face carefully. "D'ya want something?" he drawled. He huffed, exhaling smoke through his nostrils.
"Er, hello. Who are you?"
"Who am I? I am Nihl Xander, great-grandson of the artificer Xero Xander, engineer, dreamer, creator. I am the engineer of all engineers. I studied under the tanar'ri smith Kazan, who tempered words on a forge of hate, quenched them in a trough of despair, and sent them forth to slaughter stupidity. Elements of phrases, caustic words, were brought to him, and he created weapons of terrifying magnitudes - weapons that would lay an enemy low and destroy the malformed ideas of others. I'm sure you've seen his work."
I blinked, "So you create evil weapons here?"
"Not at all!" he said with a hearty smile, spreading his hands out, "My forge is not built on hate, but on understanding. I have also studied under the archon artisan Terasaphirea, who created the healing touch of a gentle thought, ideas that would still any fiendish, spitting heart. He worked his will with love and devotion. My work blends theirs, as all mortal psyches blend elements of the demonic and the sublime."
"Are your co-workers as well trained as you?"
"Bah." he gave a dismissive wave, then spat out an angry puff of smoke from the corner of his mouth, "They do not possess a true fire. They speak of creation, and they boast of their potentials, but they do not create anything beyond the mundane. Their imaginations are poor, limited, obsessed with the small details. A true dreamer, I say, creates a grand scheme and then concentrates on the details. Starting with details is for the ants of the imagination... the small insects who aspire only to be fed," he blinked, "Say stranger... what's yer name? You look familiar."
"I have no n- er, Adahn," I lied.
"No, no! I recognize you," he insisted, stabbing a finger towards my chest, "Of course! Argh, I should've known the moment ye set foot here. I have finished my great-grandfather's work -- the work that you commissioned -- the dreambuilder! Are you ready to claim the use of it now?"
"A dreambuilder? What's that?"
"It is both machine and ritual. It is a state of mind and a construct of steam and blood. It grants dreams to those who enter its confines. It was built for you, and it's waiting for you. Are you ready to finish it off? It has been waiting for you for decades."
I raised an eyebrow skeptically, "How do you know it was built for me?"
"Because my great-grandfather, Xeno Xander, set your face in stone so that we would know you when you returned for the work you commissioned. He always thought you'd return, but no one else truly believed you would. Our family completed it because we said we would... and now, here you are," he paused, looking me up and down, "Well, minus a few scars and that gods-awful hair, you're the spitting image."
I ran a hand through my bead-woven dreadlocks. What was so bad about my hair? "Do you still have this stone?"
He shook his head sadly, "No. It was stolen from me a year ago. I saw only a shadow flitting away. It was the only item taken from my home. I have no idea who'd take it, but I'd memorized the features."
A shadow. For some reason, the mention of it made my skin crawl. The thought had hit that primal, reptilian part of my brain that said something was wrong.
But to be able to dream again... after all those sleepless nights turning over in bed too terrified to face the gaping void of unconsciousness. To finally know what it feels like to encounter flights of fancy as I slept. Until now I'd been living like an amputee, resigned to the loss of that part of my soul. I had tried to adapt, occasionally fumbling at the ragged edges of my psyche as one would finger a cauterized stump.
I nodded, "All right. Let's finish the dreambuilder."
"What I need to begin the final stages of the dreambuilder is a piece of your skin immersed in your blood, so the machine can familiarize itself with your physical essence. It must be in a blue-green bottle, to symbolize the dream sea on which you will float."
"Flesh, blood, bottle. Right. I'll be back."
"So Grace, do you know where I might be able to get what Xander wants? I mean, unless you're willing to cut me up a little."
Grace shook her head, "I am no surgeon, and I do not possess the thirst for blood that the rest of my kin thrive on."
"I'm sorry Grace, I didn't mean to offend."
"Not at all," she beamed, "One must work with what he has. However, I believe Pestle and Kilnn may be able to help at their apothecary. The pair have no shortage of bottles and Pestle has the expertise to perform the operation with minimal damage." Her voice sounded unsure.
"Is something wrong?" I asked.
"Well, a lady does not put too much weight into gossip, but I have heard rumors that the pair have been having troubles as of late," she smiled, "I suppose we shall have to see for ourselves."
A small silver bell chimed as I nudged open the door. There was the bitter scent of dried herbs and the chemical smell of alcohol and other solvents. Hideous leopard-spotted rugs were arranged with neat precision on the floor, the kind that forced the eye to wander so that the pattern gave you a headache if you stared at it too long. The rug squished under my boots, and even Annah seemed to need to find her balance the first few steps into the apothecary. The lighting was too dim, the air musty with old medicine and ancient leather. It was like visiting an unpleasant old aunt.
Standing at the counter was a wall-eyed fellow whose skin writhed and rippled across his entire body. He was smacking his chapped lips with a blotched tongue. As I watched, his right eye moved independently of the left, focusing on me. A second later, the left one flicked to look my way, then reverted to its original position. The right eye blinked. A strange gurgling came from his throat.
The man gave a lop-sided grin and pointed at himself with his right thumb. "Pestle, I'm called, the - gugh! - alchemist." He pointed at himself again, this time with his left index finger. "Da name's Kilnn. Hgrk! Need ye somethin'?"
In the back of my mind I filed away a few notes. For one, the fact that Fall-From-Grace had a knack for understatement despite her mastery of elocution. "Are you all right?"
"Aye, I am. Hgak!" His throat convulsed for a moment, then relaxed. A large, green-glowing pustule suddenly burst from the side of his neck. "Something ye needed then, sir? Ghok!" His throat clenched again, and a wave of quivering flesh swallowed the blistering green pustule back beneath the skin of his throat. He coughed violently for a moment, then relaxed. "Phew."
"Powers above, chief!" Morte hissed in my ear, "Let's find someone else. You're don't trust a skinny chef, and by the Hells you don't trust this berk to scratch an itch, much less play doctor."
"Point taken, Morte," I turned to the- well, the apothecary and something. Was an assistant buried this lovely mess? "May I ask what happened to you?"
The left eye rolled upward in exasperation. The right eye looked askance. "Too much ta drink."
"Too much of what, though?"
"Potions, I drank. Too many potions. Fgaohg!" His mouth slid down beneath his chin; his left nostril formed another one. "Da most I ever drank, dat's for certain! Of polymorphin', dey were, an' brewed... Hgrk! ... in Limbo."
Dak'kon stared the man flatly in the eye, "It would be wise to exercise caution when you next handle that which is craft in the chaos of Limbo."
"Anything I could do to help?" I offered.
The man's eyes turned inwards to look at each other, then back to me. "Dunno. Fng!" He shuddered; the mouth below his chin moved up to envelop the one his nostril formed. "This sort of thing happens quite often; we can't seem to - Fnug! - help but sample the stock. If ye find a way to help, the two of us would - guhkahk! - be grateful, sir."
"Yes, I was hoping you could help me..."
Half of his mouth curled downward into a frown; he shook his head. "Work in da stock-room all day, I do. Gaaaahk!" He shuddered violently; suddenly, a third eye popped open over the bridge of his nose... the left one shifted sideways as the new eye took its place. "I speak only of the - fnahk! - store, sir." That said, the skin of his face seemed to 'eat' the new eye, and the left one returned to its old location.
"The old engineer in the Foundry tells me I need to get a sample of my blood and skin for his machine to work. I need you to do that for me."
"A scraping? Very - schnik! - well." His right hand took up a razor blade; his left, a wide-mouthed bottle. There was something about the surgical removal of skin that was infinitely more disturbing than getting a knife to the guts. Maybe it was the deliberate precision to it: how it reduced my body to a fleshy machine, like I was some doll that could be taken apart and stitched back together. Nonetheless, I clenched my jaw as he removed a small section of skin from my forearm, placing it into the bottle along with a small quantity of blood. He then placed some gauze over my wound and handed me the bottle. "Ye need anything - guh-gack! - more, sir?"
"No, that's all. Thanks, and farewell."
"I've got it right here," I said to Nihl eagerly, "Take it. Show me my dreams."
Nihl rolled the bottle in his hands, nodding. "This was only the first step. The machine also requires a birdcage, adorned with razors, fine-wrought, to mimic the destructive power of dreams, and their ability to capture our hearts and imaginations. Search in the Siege Tower for a cage I have commissioned."
I blinked. "The Siege Tower? That big razor-lined and acid-pitted boil squatting in the middle of the Ward?"
"It looks like a cancerous polyp on Sigil's anus," Morte retched, "How exactly are we supposed to get in there?"
Nihl's lip curled into a stern half-smile, "You have proven yourself to be resourceful. Find a way."
"Ropes and grappling hooks?" I offered.
"Nope. Damn walls are lined with razors," Morte replied.
"Annah, can you break in?"
"Do yeh see any locks t' pick, yeh sod?"
"Dak'kon, I need your wisdom."
"I do not possess the knowing of the workings of the Siege Tower. I cannot aid you."
I sighed, "Grace?"
"Might I recommend the art of dialogue?"
She smiled, "Ask the locals."
The marketplace was abuzz with activity. Under the watchful eyes of the Harmonium the shoppers bumped and rubbed shoulders with relative confidence that no pockets would be picked today. Red-beaked fowl were hung by their legs, and large baskets of fruit had been set out, bright and plump delicacies gathered from the corners of existence. I selected a Bytopian pear and tossed the merchant a copper. With a mouthful of nectar and a chin stained with juice, I prodded the merchants for clues. All things flowed to them from the rest of the ward, and eventually I'd find someone who would know something about the Tower.
Working at a furnace in the corner was a young boy with pale, yellow skin. His clothes were dirty and in need of mending, but he pumped the bellows to maintain the heat while the shopkeeper busily pounded away at a heated ingot.
The boy turned and gave a half-smile as he set down his work. "Hail... do ya need some help?"
"Yes, I have some questions..."
"Aye, aye, I'd be pleased ta help ya if I could..." The boy looked grateful not to be toiling over the furnace. "Th' name's Lazlo. What is it I can answer fer ye?"
"Can you tell me about this ward?"
He nodded. "Oh, aye, this here's the Lower Ward. Common folk live here, like me an me Da." His eyes widened a bit and he looked excited. "Do ya know why it's called the Lower Ward?"
"It's the portals, isn't it?"
He nodded, "As it's reckoned, the ward's got a mess of portals ta the Lower Planes all riddled through it like cheese, so it does, so I s'pose that that's why the name stuck." He smiled proudly.
"Why are there so many Lower Plane portals here?"
He shrugged. "It's a mystery ta me as it is ta you, cutter. Not sure if there is a reason fer the Portals as much as just circumstances. Could be the Lady's will, could just be chance, s'pose." He shrugged again.
"What can you tell me about the Lady of Pain?"
Unlike others, Lazlo didn't shrink back at the mention of her name, "Don't know much about her... she keeps the Powers out of Sigil, keeps the fiends out, and talks and deals with nobody... 'cept maybe the dabus. She'll pen ya in the Dead-Book damned quick if ye worship her or try and hurt Sigil. Her face n' the blades surroundin' it would be the last ye'd see..."
There was that tingling feeling again, like a thousand insects crawling beneath my scalp. At the mention of a face surrounded by blades a memory forced itself into my consciousness.
My boots slap against the pavement as I flee past the tailor's, past the closed-up eatery. I run past the abandoned carts, the shops and apartments whose darkened windows stare at me like jet-black eyes.
Not even the cranium rats are about... there's nary a squeak, not a groan of a vagrant or the sound of a footpad's knife dragging against a leather sheath. There is only my heavy breath, the sound of my footsteps, and the chill wind that blows through the darkened alley.
I lean against a wall. My lungs feel as if they had been raked with razors and my throat is raw. My legs collapse from under me, no longer buoyed by the momentum of my flight. I try to find the breath to sob as She floats towards me: an uncannily beautiful woman, her face shrouded in blades and her eyes cold as pure, distilled purpose. There is only the shudder of my breath, the pounding of my hearbeat, and the tender keening of her blades...
The memory faded, and I was talking to the lad once more.
I shuddered, shaking off the phantom sensation of razors caressing my flesh, and tried to think of something, anything to focus on. I rubbed my chin and thought back to my encounter with Sebastion. The man was tight-lipped and would've offered nothing, and Grosuk was dead, so they would've been of little help. "Do any creatures ever come out of these portals?"
The boy's eyes grew a little wider. "Aye, they do. Most of 'em jest stoppin' through..." He swallowed nervously and looked worried.
"You look nervous, you've seen this yourself?"
"Aye, I've seen it..." He paused and swallowed again. "T'was just last week or so, I saw a couple abishai come through a portal. They talked a good bit an' then one of em went back through. The one tha' stayed is still there..."
"What were they talking about?"
"I dunno for sure, ta me it was just hissin' an such, but I think they was talkin' about the Tower." He shrugged.
Ah good, we were getting on the right track. "What do you know of it?"
"Tha's one of the strangest sights ta be in the Ward. No one really knows how long that scarred old tower has been around... ye can't get into it, y'know. Bolted up tighter than a chastity belt. I'd be curious ta know what's in there..." He thought for a moment. "The abishai was gesturin' at the Tower an the portal. They was lookin' for the key, I bet."
"I know of the abishai. But what of the key?"
"I's the key ta the portal tha' leads ta the Tower. Every portal has a key tha opens it ta somewhere. The key can be a gesture, an item, or even a thought... many 'ave tried hard ta get inta the Tower. No matter how hard ya try, ya fail."
Suddenly a thought struck me. "Maybe the secret to getting in is to not want to get in..."
He shrugged. "I dunno, cutter. Maybe..."