Part 88: The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 20The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 20
She was a tall, slender woman, willowy and delicate. It was clear she was out of her element: as she sipped wine from a small ceramic cup, her eyes looked about and she arched her neck high as if trying to look for someone. Her facial features were elegantly exotic and the woman's ears, though partially covered by her long hair, came to sharp points, like the wingtips of a bird.
The woman turned to face me, violet eyes flashing like flawless chips of amethyst. Her speech was as music; a faint, musical tinkling, like a hundred tiny crystal bells, sounded as she spoke. Each word lingered in my ears, as if they were unwilling to relinquish the exquisite sound. "Nemelle turned to face the scarred, dour stranger. She asked what he wished of her."
"Wow," Morte ogled.
"Pah!" Annah sneered at him. "Stop yer droolin', yeh leerin' skull."
"My, what a hot-blooded little chit! Starved for attention? I could drool over you, too, if you're just jealous..." Morte started floating towards Annah, making wet slavering noises.
"Get a hair's breadth closer, skull, an I'll see to it that not one o' yer chatterin' teeth lies within a hundred paces of another!"
With that Morte stopped abruptly, turning away while muttering unintelligibly.
"Are you looking for someone?" I asked Nemelle. The name sounded familiar.
"'Where could she be?' Nemelle wondered. Her companion, Aelwyn, was supposed to have met her here days ago." The woman sighed miserably; the air around her grew chill with her sadness. "How long must she search this vast, foreign city before she finds her dearest friend?"
"I could help you find your friend. What does she look like?"
Nemelle clasped her hands together and bowed her head to me. "She would be so pleased to hear news of her friend! She told the kind stranger what Aelwyn looked like, so that he would know her should he come across her." Though she said nothing else, an image formed in my mind -- a woman who resembled Nemelle, but with golden eyes and hair of fiery crimson.
When the image faded, it came to me. Glyve had told me before I laid him to rest, with a trickle of clear, pure water. "I was told you know the command word for this decanter."
The woman made no move to touch or examine the decanter, but again, only spoke. "Nemelle took it from the stranger, turning it in her hands. Had she seen its like before, she thought? Perhaps... yes, she remembered now. She returned the decanter, whispering into his ear as she did so..."
I felt a puff of breath that tickled my ear, and I realized that I knew the word, now: 'Nildenosaj.' She blinked at me. "Would the stranger leave her, now, satisfied with what she had told him?"
"Yes. Thank you, Nemelle."
Aelwyn was easy to find. There was no mistaking that same presence that Nemelle had: the glow of reality about her as if existence and will and word curled into each other.
Aelwyn was occasionally looking up from her cup of wine to scan the surrounding patrons and passers-by. Her facial features were as elegant and sharp, like blown glass. Her eyes -- a brilliant gold in color -- caught the light, sparkling as she looked about.
She regarded me carefully for a moment before replying. She spoke slowly and carefully, avoiding direct eye contact with me: "I, Aelwyn, return your greetings."
"Aelwyn? Your friend, Nemelle, is looking for you."
She began to smile, but then covered her mouth with her hand and looked down at her drink. "I, Aelwyn, am most pleased to hear of Nemelle. Might I, Aelwyn, persuade you to tell her of this place?"
She looked at me directly and -- for just the briefest of moments, before she cast her eyes back down to her drink -- my senses were awash with a warm, comfortable feeling: pure happiness. "I, Aelwyn, thank you."
"It's my pleasure. May I ask you about her, though?"
Aelwyn nodded slowly.
"The way she speaks, and what her words do... how?"
"I, Aelwyn, can only say that we come from another place, another world. We are not like the people here, whose words, thoughts -- very feelings, even -- affect nothing directly. I, Aelwyn, take great care so as to not affect those around me too greatly. Nemelle, she is new here, and cannot do so. It is something she must learn, should she choose to remain here much longer."
Her eyes stared into mine, suddenly sure and hawk-like. "There are many reasons. I, Aelwyn, feel it is not right to impose reality upon those without the ability to impose their own reality upon me, Aelwyn." With that she looked away, once again avoiding my gaze.
"Is there anything you cannot do by simply speaking of it?"
Aelwyn frowned; a strange, unpleasant feeling rose in the pit of my stomach. "Please... I, Aelwyn, would speak of it no more."
"Just one other question...."
She looked at me directly, my face reflected in the glittering golden discs of her eyes. "He would speak of it no more to Aelwyn, and thus would no longer force her to speak in such a way to him." I found myself unable to voice another question... the words caught in my throat like the spur of a fishbone as I tried to ask.
"Fine, then. Farewell."
Nemelle smiled as she greeted me, her beauty no less breathtaking than the first time I saw her. "Nemelle held her breath as the stranger approached her. 'Had he found Aelwyn?' she wondered."
I nodded, "I found Aelwyn. She was looking for you, too."
Nemelle's lips formed a perfect smile; an infectious happiness radiated from her, clinging to me like sweet-smelling warmth. "Nemelle was overjoyed to hear of her friend. Was Aelwyn close by?"
"She's at another cafe east of here, across this part of the Ward," I gestured, "I'd be happy to escort you, if you wish. Aelwyn said you were new to the city."
"Oh I'm sure she's new to lots of things..." Morte licked his teeth.
"Nemelle thanked the man for his wondrous news. Soon, she would go to visit her oldest friend, Aelwyn. Now, though, she would reward the stranger..."
"No, that's all right... I need no reward."
Nemelle touched her index finger to her lips, making a faint hushing noise. "She would draw the stranger close, laying her hand upon his chest and kissing the pale, leathery skin of his cheek. Life would flow into him, invigorating him... this, then, was to be his reward."
As I waited, there was indeed a light tingling sensation upon my cheek and chest. The feeling spread across the whole of my body, and I began to feel stronger, more animated.
"My thanks, Nemelle. Let's go."
Aelwyn clasped her hands together and bowed her head to me in thanks, tears of joy falling from her golden eyes. Just as my own eyes began to water, she wiped away her tears and smiled -- causing a wave of intense pleasure to wash over my entire body. The two women embraced, speaking excitedly in delighted, relieved chimes. "Aelwyn thanked the stranger! She had been reunited with her dearest friend, Nemelle!"
"It was my pleasure."
Nemelle performed the same gestured and looked up, smiling. Another burst of pleasure radiated through me-- the effect was almost dizzying. "Nemelle thanked the stranger once more; she only hoped he knew how happy she felt to be reunited with Aelwyn."
"I... think I do. Farewell, Nemelle."
They talked for just a moment, and as I was about to leave Aelwyn's fingers brushed my arm. I paused, looking back at her, and the warmth evoked by her smile faded away into pleasant memories. "I, Aelwyn, would tell you something now, stranger."
"Yes? Go on..."
She took a breath, little more than a sigh, but the air around us rippled with languor and distant regrets, "The name I, Aelwyn, chose for you -- 'stranger' -- is not so fitting. You and I, Aelwyn, have met before... in the Festhall. In a place you could not have been were you not a Sensate, yourself. Whether you recall or no, unless you betrayed the Society of Sensation at some point, you are a Sensate."
I blinked, "I see... tell me more."
She nodded. "You and I, Aelwyn, have met on two different occasions. The first was no less than two centuries past, the last more recently. Perhaps no more than fifty years ago."
"That's quite a long time ago..."
She nodded again. "My, Aelwyn's, people are extremely long-lived, Forgetful One." Aelwyn sighed unhappily, causing a chill to descend over me. My skin prickled, and a tingle ran up my spine. "You seemed a different man, then... less grim, less scarred. So eager to see all that the multiverse had to offer. You courted me, Aelwyn, then, and was nearly taken as a lover -- but then you disappeared."
"Where did I go?"
"I, Aelwyn, was told you had been slain... murdered." She looked up for a moment to peer curiously into my eyes. "I met you only once more after that."
"Did I remember you then?"
"No." She shook her head sadly, then touched her throat. "No, you did not. You lashed out at me, Aelwyn, made to slay me. Screamed how I, Aelwyn, could not fool you, would not ensnare and murder you..."
I winced. Do I abuse and abase all my past lovers? "What happened?"
"We had met in one of the northern towers of the Festhall, on the seventh floor. Before you could choke the life from me, I, Aelwyn, used my powers and bade you leap from a window to your death. When I, Aelwyn, finally went in search of your broken body, you had already gone..."
"You did what?"
She nodded, the guilt and regret running down her cheek in a lonely trickle, "That is the whole of my, Aelwyn's, tale for you. We were not strangers, once, but have now become so. Farewell, stranger, and may fortune walk with you in your travels."
"Thanks, Aelwyn. I..." I tried searching for the right words, something to lay to rest whatever had been between us. Lost love, guilt, regret, shame... there was no way to compress all that into a single sentence. In the end I could only offer a tepid reply, and hoped that that was enough.
"I wish you well."
Aelwyn nodded, neither happy nor sad, neither relieved nor anguished, and said no more.
It was still early in the day in the Clerk's Ward, and I took my time sampling its wares. Street performers and acrobats carved out little domains, brightening the hodgepodge urban sprawl with life and color. I chewed on a fried lizard on a stick, the skin salty and crispy, its flesh tender and moist. The smell of sweet herbal tea from the cafes perfumed the air. There didn't seem to be such a thing as Carnival Season in the Clerk's Ward... who needed a day of festivities when there was celebration at every street corner?
I was picking the meat from the lizard's bones when we came to the shop. Rumors had abounded of this place. Not the nasty kind, mind you, just vague mentions passed through the grapevine that this was the place for talismans and spells.
I wiped the last bits of grease from my fingertips and entered.
Something was funny about the air, sickly-sweet like honey laced with poison. The alluring fragrance masked any venom that lay beneath I could almost taste it.
A downtrodden little man scurried about the shop, dusting, cataloguing, and moving things about for the place's proprietress. He smelled faintly of onions. He glanced up at me nervously, "Please, sir... I cannot speak with you. I've work to do, and my mistress simply won't allow it..."
"I just had a few questions..."
"I'm sorry sir, but I can't. Please, leave me be, before my mistress notices me talking to you..."
The little man nodded. "Yes... Mistress Vrischika. I am Standish, her servant... her slave. I committed a crime and was sentenced to slavery, then purchased in the Lower Ward, like many of her slaves... most of whom she keeps at her manor. Now please - I beg of you! Leave me be, or she'll become angered and beat me unmercifully!"
"Now Standish, I will not have you telling such nasty lies to customers," said a sweet, prickly voice.
I glanced off to the side. She was a demoness, sharp-featured and attractive though her appearance was somewhat disturbing. Her blue-black skin was smooth like cobalt, and bright yellow eyes glistened like a cat's. As she examined me, a small pair of bat-like wings unfolded from her back, then seem to settle back into her skin. Her eyes slid over to my companions and her lips pulled back into a cruel, treacherous smile.
"Well, well... a floating, disembodied, prevaricating skull, and Fall-from-Grace... or whatever it is you call yourself, now. Truly a pleasure to see you here. What do I owe the honor of your visit? I thought that you rarely trafficked among our kind, any more." She glanced at me for a moment with the same faint sneer. "Or is your assignment here almost finished?"
Fall-From-Grace bowed her head and spoke sweetly, "I do not know what assignment you are referring to, Vrischika, though your presence here brings with it many questions. Last I had heard you were a standard-bearer for the Company of the Vulture. How did you come to Sigil?"
She replied curtly, firing a question back like an arrow: "By choice. And you? Where will your orders take you next?" She suddenly turned to me. "You see, little man..." Vrischika smiled, as if savoring the words. "...the best temptress is one that can make you buy into the illusion of being both promiscuous yet virtuous at the same time; a prostitute-priestess, as it were. Mistress Grace is among the greatest..." She turned to Fall-From-Grace. "...are you not? You would not think that a score thousand years of slavery had left their scars, no?"
Fall-From-Grace spoke with a coldness I had never heard before. The air almost became ice as she dissected Vrischika with her gaze. "That is enough."
"Very well. Though you are the ones who came into my emporium." Vrishchika looks to me and narrowed her eyes. "You... you're the scarred man, who's been going around asking all the questions?" She looked me up and down. "You sure look lost. Did you want to come in, really, or are you just casing the place because you have nothing better to do?"
"Because Vrischika..." She indicated herself "...can help you."
I eyed her skeptically, "How can you help me?"
"I travel and trade extensively. I hear a great deal, I purchase a great deal, and I own a great deal. Perhaps I can make you a great deal. Is there anything that you desire?"
"Only answers to some questions..."
Vrishchika pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes into dangerous slits. "I'll entertain any questions about the merchandise, but I'm not going to be drawn into one of your famous twenty-questions-about-anything-around-the-spire, understood?"
"What are you, Vrishchika?"
Vrischika sighed loudly. "An alu-fiend... a half-demon. My mother was tanar'ri, a fiend, and my father a great king of mortals. Such a rude question... but then, you're rather rude-looking yourself, aren't you?"
"What did you mean by calling Morte 'prevaricating?'"
"Prevaricating... misrepresenting, perjuring, dissimulating, lying... oh, did I say that? I'd meant a floating, disembodied, pontificating skull. As in dogmatic - always stating an opinion in a self-important manner." Vrishika smiled innocently.
"You and Fall-From-Grace seem to care little for one another..."
"Oh, that baatezu camp follower whose made her home in Sigil? Curious, no? But then, what better a place to train her agents than that little 'brothel' of hers..."
"Baatezu camp follower?"
"Ever since her mother sold her into slavery, she has been a plaything of the Planes for many a century. She claims that she was able to free herself from her chains, but you may give that word as much credence as you would give the word of any other tanar'ri bitch. Myself excluded, of course." Vrischika lips pressed tight in a dark, pursed smile. Every word she uttered was a piercing barb, hitting home as much as they were casually tossed. Some demons destroyed their targets by seduction and honey-sweet words. Others did so by slipping poison in the subtle wounds they carved.
At least Grace was pleasant.
"It is the truth -" Grace started, but was interrupted by Vrischika's fiery tongue.
"Truth?! Truth?! One does not 'win free' of baatezu contracts, bitch cloaked in human skin. You speak lies, and all the tanar'ri hordes know it, from the lowest legions to the other comfort-suckling succubi as they cavort across the planes. 'Fall-from-Grace was but a baatezu slave from the moment she was born, and so shall she always be.' You still are an indentured plaything of the baatezu, to be tortured and commanded as they see fit." Vrischika sneered. "You even behave as they do."
Grace's voice was sweet balm over the cankers Vrischika spread, "One may win free of baatezu contracts if one is wary of the wording, and if one realizes that the baatezu are beholden to keep their own word. One must simply beware of any meanings that may be twisted to their ends... and I am well versed in language and its subtleties. Even so, it was not an easy matter..."
"Enough! I do not care to hear you speak your lies in my presence!"
Fall-From-Grace maintained her flawless composure and simply nodded... though when I caught her eye, she gave a slightly exasperated look, then smiled.
"What was it you said about her training agents, Vrischika?"
"Yes... they are her eyes and ears in the city of Sigil and across the Planes. What they do not see or hear they may coerce from another man that has seen and heard. And who could think humans capable of such deception and trickery? Oh, Grace is indeed a clever one. Not as clever as her mother, perhaps, but clever nonetheless..."
Grace interjected softly, "That is not the purpose of my establishment..."
"Oh, but of course not! Did I dare suggest such a thing? But perhaps you should let the man judge for himself." Vrischika turned to me, eyes blazing. "Do you not wonder, little man? Does the mephit of reason and curiosity ever enter your mind as to this matter? Does not the arrangement at the brothel seem strange to you?"
Vrischika went on before I could answer. "Occam's razor can leave a scar, but it can remove the cancer so often caused by poison of liars and imaginers. And now here she is, traveling with you. Most curious. Why would someone, a proprietress of such an establishment, leave it for any reason? And for a man she barely knows? Questions, questions..."
She hissed, "The answers may be painful, indeed."
Grace stood proudly, hands folded demurely in front of her, "He is well aware of why I agreed to travel with him, Vrischika... when he asked me to do so."
"Oh, I'm certain he did ask... what man could resist?" Vrischika sneered and looked away in disgust.
I sighed, "Perhaps I should just look at your wares."
The exotic goods sat behind clean glass cases on stands and velvet pillows like a woman's collection of jewelry. A demon's tongue lay moist and glistening, a stained lens, a small assortment of bottles, each with labels whose names were enigmatic, as plain as they were.
A bottle labeled as 'Elixir of Horrific Separation' caught my eye.
Smiling, Vrischika unlocked the case and presented it to me. "This stuff was compounded by a scholar who'd found she possessed a darker half - a side of her which took control, at times, and bade her do awful things. This potion was to have 'split' the darker half away from her, creating two separate beings. Mercykillers, however, found and executed her for a string of depraved murders before she could use it. I'd charge you only two hundred copper commons for the Elixir."
I knew the perfect use for it. "I'll take it."
"Yes," Vrischika purred, "a wise choice." The copper I poured into her hand seemed to disappear the moment in touched her palm; she handed me the item. "Please, enjoy your newest acquisition."
The bitter smell of herbs greeted me again when I entered the apothecary. The air was dusty, bitter, and aged. Behind the counter was Pestle Kilnn... his chaotic features made moist squelching noises as they shifted. He - or they - were as eerie to look upon as ever, as his flesh constantly changed and crawled across his face and body. "I welcome ye - snrf! - back, sir."
"I've got this Elixir of Horrific Separation... do you think that'd help you?"
Both his eyes suddenly snapped to the small bottle in my hands. He nodded, smacking his lips.
"Here you are, then..."
Pestle Kilnn took the bottle in both his hands and placed it beneath the counter. His left eye focused on me, while his right eye and hand concentrated on scribbling furiously on the countertop. "We can use dis ta make somethin' dat'll fix us - hgrk! - right on up. Now if you'll gives us a moment, when we got it all worked - gak! - out, we'll makes ya some healin' stuffs fer a reward." He turned to head to the back of the shop...
There are some things a sod shouldn't ever have to hear. The cursed bellow of a tortured god. The rattling breath of the undead. Cats yowling in heat in a dark alleyway, their cries like the shrill, terrified screams of a baby being tortured. The wet gags and gurgles that came from the back room were probably third down from the list. There was the warm slosh of guts, the sound of flesh tearing like paper. Part of me wanted to peek in and satisfy my own curiosity... there would've been a strange sort of comfort in that. It would've definitely been better than the horrors my imagination conjured to fill in the gaps. Seeing what was actually happening could only have soothed my overactive mind, like tearing off a bandage to see the wound beneath wasn't as bad as you feared.
When it was over, a rotund little man walked out. With one hand he wicked away the perspiration dewing on his forehead, then wiped his palms on a mustard-green shirt. The man closely resembled Pestle Kilnn, though without the crawling skin and constant, subtle mutations. He smelled like licorice root and pepper.
"Greetings again, sir, and well met. Now, what is it I, Pestle, can do for ye?"
"I was hoping to get some healing concoctions."
He smiled, "Yes, of course; yer reward, aye? Let's see, now... I'll manufacture them for ye for nothing, of course... but I'll need the proper ingredients. Hmmm... an oni's heart, or powdered hematite, or the hair of a deva, or a thread from an aasimon's robe, or the blood of a regenerating creature, such as a troll or..."
"Actually, my wounds heal very quickly."
Pestle raised an eyebrow. "Do they, now? Well, then, your own blood just might do. Here... give me a sample, if you would."
I nicked my forearm with my dagger.
After drawing a small quantity of my blood and retreating to the back of the store, Pestle returned with a number of what appeared to be hardened drops of blood - clot charms. "Placed upon one's tongue, these will heal existing wounds and aid the in the prevention of new ones, for a time."
"Farewell, Pestle, and thanks."