Part 86: The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 18The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 18
When you strip everything away, Sigil isn't a place, per se.
On its own it isn't a place any more than a road is a realm, or a bridge or an arch is a domain. No, Sigil is the junction between destinations, and calling it a place is like saying there's a meaning to the pause between words. It's like how four walls by themselves don't make a home. No matter how ornate a building is, how many rooms it has, it isn't a home until there's one simple requirement met.
It's belief that turns a tent into a living space, a house into a home. The idea that you own this little square of land, that this is a place to return to after a weary day of work. Ideas are what shape reality by giving a label to naked space, bedecking it in robes and regalia as a domain complete with king or queen. It's rampant belief that makes Sigil more than a waypoint or a road.
And so it was Factions, with their piety and philosophies, that populated Sigil and made it into a city. They crafted laws, carved out domains of power, saw value and worth in what they held, and yearned for more. It was time for me to join one.
It only made sense, really. Factions had power, resources far beyond what a group of five can achieve in their lifetimes... even if one of them was an immortal. They had knowledge, networks. And more importantly, they tied me to Sigil and gave me a place to come back to.
The Godsmen had been good to me, even if the fear of commitment pricked at my soul. The commitment to a cause and to its followers... I might've been born yesterday (well, recently anyway) but I wasn't going to peddle away my individuality so easily and wind up a fanatic.
But so far they were the best option. The ability to cycle through lifetimes, to test oneself through each incarnation and, hopefully, be better for it in the next life. Granted my soul stays in one spot throughout the whole process, but I have the added luxury of living and dying again while carrying the same lessons of the past. I'd bet not many Godsmen have that.
"If you wish to join the Believers of the Source, you must complete three quests," Keldor had told me, "The first quest is this: You must go to the forge, and create an item. This will show that you are capable of seeing the possibilities inherent in even a base lump of iron; that you are capable of bringing forth something that will stand the test of time. It measures your vision and your ability to make the potential actual. Talk to Alissa, the Foundry Supervisor, in the Main Foundry to see how it all works."
In the heart of the Foundry was a short woman with slight horns in her forehead and ears that curved sharply back on her skull. She smelled faintly of sulfur, even over the reek of the Foundry's fires. She had eyes like steel, and her gaze snapped onto me with an authority that made me wonder if I should salute or something, "Greetings. What can I do for you?"
"Who are you?"
"I am Alissa Tield, supervisor for this area - this area being the main foundry area of the Great Foundry, where much of our current, public work takes place. The Foundry is larger than this, of course, but we have a large contract we're working on, and we've been sworn to secrecy, so most of the work area is off-limits. My apologies."
"Keldor told me I need to use the forge."
She nodded simply. I would've thought she'd at least stare at me a little, size me up for my worth, but Godsmen apparently weren't so discriminatory as that. Everyone had the spark of potential divinity in them, after all. "Certainly. Just make sure you have the proper items for it: Protection from the flames, tongs, hammer, and, of course, your iron ore."
"Where would I get those items?"
"If you can't find them lying around somewhere, then you'll have to buy them from the clerk... for a nominal price, of course."
The clerk was a wizened old man with trembling hands and a cunning face. For a Godsman he seemed somewhat meek, less than he might've been in the past. There was a hunched-over humility that reminded me of Dhall. The man looked up from his scribbling and examined me, carefully, before speaking: "Hel... uh... have I seen ye before? Ye seem familiar to me somehow."
"From where? Do you remember where?" I prodded the back of my mind, searching for an old memory, but found nothing.
"Not so fast, lad. Takes a while for the mind to warm up to a task like this. I've lived a long time, and seen a lot more faces in that time, and it ain't so easy to remember. Memory's a fleeting thing, and that's some ye can bank on."
"Tell me about it, 'lad'," I muttered under my breath, "Then can you tell me who you are?"
"Me? I'm Nadilin, Godsman fighter extraordinaire!" He sighed. "At least, I used to be. Now I'm a clerk in the Foundry, breathin' in this sooty air and hastenin' my dyin' day along. Was there something else y'wanted?"
"I'd like to pick up some gear for the forge."
"Ah, ye're wanting to be a smith now, eh, lad? Very well. Ye'll need an apron - ten copper - some tongs - another ten - and a hammer - which'll be twenty. That comes to, let me see, fifty copper."
I checked the math in my head again, "I'm sorry, but that sounds more like forty copper to me."
"What am I thinking? Of course it is. I tell you, memory's an insidious thing."
"That it is. Give me the stuff."
"Don't forget to pick up some ore from Thildon if ye're wanting to work the forge. He's a miserly bastard, but he's the only person to get ore from."
Stomping about in the middle of the Foundry was a slab-stomached man with thick arms and a scraggly beard. He smelled as if he hadn't washed in ages... the man was practically enrobed in the smell of ash and soot and sour sweat. His breath didn't do much for my breakfast either. He was in the process of ordering around subordinates as I approached him, and he dealt a quick cuff to the ear of one of them. He turned to face me, hitching up his belt. "What d'you want?"
"Are you Thildon?"
He nodded, "Thildon the Grey, supervisor for this yard. My job it is to make sure my laborers get their jobs done - and to make sure people like you don't distract them. They work little enough as it is, the little sods, and they'd manage to lose the rest of the day in idleness if I weren't here. I'm tough... but I'm fair. Ask anyone."
"Why do they call you 'the Grey'?"
"Because I'm covered in soot most of the time from those blasted furnaces. It's a nickname my laborers have given me... out of affection, no doubt."
My lip curled, "Sure. That must be it."
"What's that supposed to mean?" he growled. I acted like I was impressed... hard not to in front of someone with that much rumble in his throat.
"It means that I'm agreeing with you."
"Well, good. The multiverse would be a better place if everyone did. Now I have to get back to work."
"I need to use the forge. Can you give me some ore?"
"Seems like they'll let anyone be a Godsman these days," he grumbled. "Ain't like the old days, when you had to show real potential to be a member. You want this iron for your poncey test? Take it, then, and get mazed." He thrust a lump of cold ore into my hands.
The apron was heavy over my chest, the stiff leather cold against my skin. For a moment my mind flashed back to the feel of the mortuary slab... cold, flat, rigid against my back, but as I approached the forge the blaze burned it away. I squinted a little, letting my eyes adjust to the hot yellow light. The heat buffeted my arms in waves, flushed my cheeks and sweat popped from my pores, tickling my puckered scars as the droplets crawled down my skin.
I picked up the ore with my tongs.
Coaxmetal had said that metal was like flesh... that both carried potential in their veins. There was the potential to create, like the hammer that I held in one hand, and potential to destroy, like the weapon I was about to forge.
To see the potential, and make it actual.
I thrust the ore into the forge. It reddened, then glowed a brilliant white-gold of hot iron as the pinching fingers of the tongs blushed with the heat. My hands were slick with sweat.
My hands rang with a haunting familiarity as I hammered. White-hot sparks danced through the air, sizzled as they pricked at my flesh and left tender, pink spots like a dozen insect bites. I ignored those little flashes of pain. The wounds would heal soon enough. The puckered surface of the ore flattened with each blow, until it became a smooth ingot that I stretched and shaped to my will.
I stretched the ore and gave it a spine with which to anchor its limbs.
I flattened out one plump end and gave it wings so that it may fly.
And when it was cool enough to handle, I took it to the grindstone and gave it a fang so that it might bite the flesh of my enemies.
I gave my creation a few test swings, then held it up to the light. The balance was excellent, and the tempering couldn't have been done more perfectly. All that it needed was a little burnishing and an acid-etched insignia and it would've fit the hands of the finest warriors of the Planes.
Like all parents I was proud of my child, and anxious for the criticisms that lay for it ahead.
"I have finished forging my creation."
Keldor took the battle axe from me and examined it carefully. "That is, without a doubt, one of the better pieces I have seen a recruit forge. You'll go far, my friend. Are you ready for the next test? I certainly hope so..."
I grinned, surer now that I had chosen the right faction. The memories of my past incarnations would be useful as I explored the Planes, and in concert with the Godsman philosophy, would serve to temper me for the trials that lay ahead. "I suppose I am..."
He continued grimly. "A murderer has struck in the Foundry, and I am forsaking the usual test in order for you to track this killer down. Go speak to the supervisor, Alissa Tield, in the main Foundry and proceed from there. When you have completed your investigation and are ready to name a culprit, come back to me."
"Because you are an outsider. There is no real possibility that you could be the murderer."
"There's no real reason to trust me, either."
Keldor's eyes were firm, but he was cautious and spoke softly. For someone with such a hearty voice, it sounded unnatural, the way a child might mimic the stern countenance of an adult, or a grown man might attempt to emulate the soft trill of a boy. "We have heard some rumors of a scarred man who awoke in the Hive. A good and honest, if clueless fellow- forgive me for saying so. I have heard that you have a keen mind. You will need that."
A distant rumble stopped the conversation there.
The stone floor pounded beneath my boots as we raced out to the Foundry proper, and my skin tingled with a panicked flush.
The forges were silent, the voices of the overseers were mute. For a moment the heartbeat of the Foundry paused, and the absence of the rhythmic pulse of a hundred hammers striking in concert echoed through the chamber. There was only the low murmur of a crowd that didn't know what to do at the site of a tragedy, before someone could come in and give orders on what was to be done.
And there she was.
"All right, everyone, you've seen enough!" Alissa snapped, "If you lot are just going to stand there like idiots I'll be charging five coppers a glance!"
Slowly the crowd dispersed, though a few glanced back to absorb a few extra details.
Machinery was so fragile. One halted gear or one wrench tossed into the cogs and the entire thing falls apart with clangs and squeals and the smell of burning grease. Flesh, however, wasn't nearly so strong.
I'd seen plenty of death, but nothing quite like this. There was something natural and easy about dying in battle: the way the body lies, still recognizable as humanoid. There was dignity there, a quiet nobility that one had had a chance to survive in the struggle, even if he faltered and failed.
It was nothing like this, a pulped bag of guts and splintered bone, pink-white and exposed like porcelain shards. The limbs were splayed as if independent of the body; the only thing recognizable was one upraised arm with fingers slightly curled. The poor sod's mouth was open in a distended O, the jaw set at an improper angle as the head had been crushed... his scalp barely held in the pink mash of his brains. Strangely enough his skin was the most intact out of everything... aside from a few long, ragged scrapes, it held the organs in like a pink leathery pink shroud.
Alissa was rubbing her temples as I approached, "You again? Either get the guards to clean this mess up or get out of my sight. I'm in no mood for dealing with newcomers."
"Under Keldor's authority, I'm investigating the murder that occurred here. What can you tell me about it?"
She hissed, "Well, no one saw what happened here, I can tell you that. But you want to know what I saw the night of the murder? Well... I was working late, when I heard the sound of a scuffle. When I came out, I saw a shadowy figure slip out the door into the meeting hall, and I raised the alarm."
"Do you have any other details?"
"I only know three people who had access to the building that night. They were Thildon, Saros, and Bedai-Lihn. The three of them have dramatically different builds, but in the haze of the foundry, I couldn't see clearly."
"How do I know you didn't do it?"
"I have an alibi. Not to mention that Keldor already ascertained the truth from me. I have nothing to hide. Apparently Thildon, Saros, and Bedai-Lihn do, though, because they wouldn't go under Keldor's spell."
Thildon shook his head, the rumble in his voice low as he spoke, "Shame about that poor smith Avildon, really it were. Still. He weren't one to keep himself to the grindstone. He weren't dedicated. 'Tis the way the planes turn, mark my words... every basher gets his due. Ah, well. What can ol' Thildon for you?"
"What were you doing the night of the murder?"
"What was I doing? Why, I was... I was sitting in my room, with a nice loaf of bread and jug of wine, staying in. Didn't go out that night. Didn't see no need."
"Do you know anyone who can swear otherwise?"
"No. Never saw the need to make sure of it. One place you might ask, if you're really looking for leads, is Saros. That little thieving knight goes everywhere, what with his father being such a high-up here. He always was into new experiences - boy's practically a Sensate, if you ask me. Probably wanted to kill someone and see if he could get away with it."
That fresh-faced lad... "Saros, eh? I'll remember that. In the meantime, I had some more questions..."
"You want answers? Like what?"
"What drew you to the Godsmen?"
"They took me in and trained me to be what I am today, and I got to thank them for that. They took my raw talent and shaped it into skill. I tell you, I'm a favorite of the factol's, and someday he'll show everyone just how important I am to this organization. They tell me that everyone has godliness in them. It's true for me. I think I'm closer than most folks, to tell the truth. That gives me the right to act like a god, and to expect total devotion from my inferiors. I'm learning t' take power and move mountains with belief in myself. When I rule the cosmos, you can bet I'll remember every one of the berks who stood in my way."
On the second floor of the inner chambers stood a severe woman with flaming red hair pulled back tight, giving her face a stretched, nervous look. She appeared to be deep in thought. At my approach, she glanced up. Her eyes were thin and weasel-like, and they bored into me as if she were wondering if I was worth her time, "Can I help you with something?"
"Who are you?"
She pursed her lips and spoke in a cold, determined voice. There was no pride in it, nor any pleasure. Just steel and conviction, edged and smooth. "My name is Bedai-Lihn. I'm a magical engineer - not a mage, mind you, a theoretician."
"Tell me what you know about the murder."
"Let's see... I asked the guards to head out for the night because I was working on some delicate engineering on the project in the next room, and I didn't need their psychic emanations fouling up some very crucial work. It was with some dismay that I found the body when I emerged from the room. Being as I have no other alibi, I realize I'm a suspect - and I suspect you've already found that I wouldn't consent to going under the spell to answer. The reason for that is that it would be violating the oath of secrecy I swore to protect the project."
"I think I'll check on that with Keldor."
"You do that. He'll verify what I've told you - he administered the oath to me, so he knows its power."
Poor Saros paced back and forth. If he was unsteady and young-looking before, he looked even moreso now, like a child terrified of being caught doing something wrong.
"That poor smith... I can't believe what happened to him..."
"Do you have any idea what might have happened, or have some leads?"
He blinked, "Who told you? The supervisor? She's right. I come in here at night sometimes when there's no one around." He looked around conspiratorially for a moment, and lowered his head toward me. "I saw Thildon, creepin' out of here. The main reason I know it was him is because he dropped something." He handed me an awl, with the name 'Thildon' etched into the wooden handle.
I wish things had been that straightforward.
I approached Thildon with a swagger and a firm, scolding tone, like a smarmy investigator seeking to rattle his suspect, "Saros - you remember Saros, don't you? - gave me an awl found near the body. Oddly, this awl has your name etched into the handle. How do you explain that?"
He looked momentarily flustered, and then his cheeks flushed pink with barely-suppressed fury, "Saros is a thief. Odds are he stole it from me. 'Fact, I been missing my awl for some time now - never mentioned it to anyone 'cause I figured I'd just lost it. Now I know that Saros stole it to frame me. Better go get him before he gives you the laugh." Seeing my expression, he added, "Before he escapes."
"Ah. Right. That sounds a little too pat. I'll just have to ask him about it"
"What have you found? Are you going to let me go free?" Saros asked nervously.
"Thildon says that you planted the awl at the murder scene, and that you're trying to frame him for the murder because you two disagreed."
"Of course he'd say that! Just 'cos he's guilty and he wants to make you look someplace else! I saw him kill that man! Sure we disagreed, but that doesn't mean I want him dead. Just because he's a total berk doesn't mean he should be arrested. He should be arrested for killing Avildon! Tell him he needs proof!"
"What'd Little Lickspittle tell y'now? I'm sure it were all lies."
"He tells me that it's not a frame. In fact, he says that he personally witnessed you killing the poor sod."
"He WHAT?" his meaty hands were balled into tight, pink fists, his knuckles were pale white. His cheeks were flushed just the same, and in the heat the musk about him seemed even more pronounced. I hoped he was the one... the man was tempermental and unhygenic, two things I'm not too fond of, "I tell you that the boy's a thief and a murderer, and you don't believe me? What if I told you the lad's an Anarchist, too, a member of the Revolutionary League?"
It took a moment for me to process the accusation. True, Saros seemed to be a fickle lad, but surely he couldn't go so far as to betray the Faction he grew up with... and his sister possessed a powerful, frightening perception, "Why should I believe that?"
A pious look crept onto his face. "'Cos I say it's so. 'Cos I'm about to say something that'll make a criminal of me, but I'll say it to see justice done." He paused. "I know he's an Anarchist because he tried to recruit me. Him and that engineer Bedai-Lihn. I told 'em I'd do it so's I could trap 'em, but then I realized I didn't have the stomach to harm poor Saros. I turned 'em down, and now they're trying to cover their tracks. That's why they want me gone. They're the killers. Not me."
"Assuming I believe this, why shouldn't I have you imprisoned too?"
"What? You're accusing ME? But I didn't do anything! Berk, you've got the wrong man! Please! I didn't do it!"
Sarod sat, one leg twitching, his eyes owlish and wide. The boy was so twitchy I was impressed that he hadn't wet himself by now. "Well?"
"Thildon tells me that you and Bedai-Lihn are Anarchists, and that you're trying to frame him because he turned down an offer to join you."
Saros paled, and his lips parted in surprise. I was grateful there wasn't a warm trickle on the floor by now... fetching someone to mop it up would've been another trip in this as-of-yet fruitless exchange, "She has nothing to do with this. I did it on my own. But the truth is, Thildon shoved Avildon into the gears. I put the awl there to make sure everyone would know he was there, because I'm just a kid and no one would believe what I was saying. All right? I admit that I planted the awl. But I only did it to make sure he got punished for his crime."
"Why? Why should I not think that you're doing this to get back at him for some other crime?"
"Because... because... I don't know why you'd think that. But I promise... go talk to him and tell him what I said, and then you can decide for yourself," the poor boy was on the edge of tears.
Bedai-Lihn was no happier to see me than she was the first time, "What do you want?"
"Thildon says you're an Anarchist, and that you're trying to pin the crime on him."
Anger sparked in her eyes - but a look of scorn replaced it so quickly I wasn't even sure I read it right. "An Anarchist? Right. Here's my other leg. Pull that one, too. Did you have some real questions, or can I get back to my work?"
"What was that flash of anger?"
She smiled slightly. "You don't miss much, do you? Allow me to put it this way: How would you feel if you were falsely accused? My anger stems from that, and nothing more."She seemed honest about this...
"I don't buy that."
"You'll have to, because you're getting no other answer from me." She turned stiffly away from me. "Farewell."
"He says that he planted the awl on the body, but only because he wanted to make sure that you'd be implicated in the death. He says you're a murderer, and he wanted to make sure you got caught."
The supervisor's face drained of color. "He ... what... he... I... he admitted he's an Anarchist?"
"Yes. He seems to believe you're dangerous to everyone around you, whether they be Anarchist or Godsmen, and that someone needs to stop you. He's willing to admit to his own crimes in order to ensure that you meet with justice," I twisted the accusation like a curved knife in his belly, "What was that you said earlier? That poor Avildon 'weren't dedicated enough?' That 'every basher gets his due?'"
His beefy face grew red with apoplexy. Rage flooded his veins, rolled off of him in waves like the radiance of the forges. "You're accusing ME? But I ain't the murderer! I'm just trying to expose Anarchists, berk! Damn you, you can't do this to me! You can't trust anyone who says they saw me do it, so you can't say I did it!"
I had to set my lips rigid to squelch a giddy smile. I almost wanted him to kill me on the spot, so that I could sit up again an hour later and make a testimony of his guilt in person. "Would you say the same thing under oath and under spell? I'm betting Saros would."
"Bugger. Can I at least take my stuff and give this place the laugh? Ol' Thildon'll make sure you won't regret it."
"Only if you can beat it out of here before I make it to Keldor. I don't make much of your chances."
And with that Thildon the Grey scuttled off in flight, tail between his legs as the noose was being measured. He's taken his test, was weighed and measured by the Planes. It could've been punishment enough... one day a Godsman, the next a failure. Nothing more pathetic than that.