Part 91: The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 1The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 1
Annah merely gave me one of those long, piercing looks.
"What? Don't think it'd look good on me?" I pulled the eyepatch from my face. It had a rose pattern along that oval of black cloth. Perhaps it would've looked good on me. Ironic, at least.
"Just save yer jink," Annah said. I nodded in reply, tossing the eyepatch back onto the counter.
We walked for a while through the market. At first I had hoped that it would give the two of us a chance to talk, to calm Annah down a bit. Ignus' freedom had been unnerving to all of us, but Annah was especially on-edge. She walked more stiffly, ducked so as to keep me between her and Ignus, like a girl hiding behind her mother's apron.
"I won't let him hurt you. Besides, he seems to be perfectly loyal to me for freeing him."
"I can take care o' meself," she snapped, "but yer an idjit. Yeh consort with fiends and devils, people die where e'er yeh go. It's gonna get yeh penned in the dead-book soon enough."
"Well it would if it didn't keep spitting me back out."
"That Ignus is trouble, mark me words. Didn't yeh see the wounds he inflicted on yeh?" she touched my hands. They were still blistered and burned by his flame. The healing had been slow to come. I winced.
The flutter of two rosy wings caught my eye.
"Grace, so nice of you to join us."
Her voice was smooth and sure as always, but a troubled undercurrent bubbled beneath those smooth waters, "It is good that you are discussing the matter of our new companion... I have concerns of my own to contribute."
Annah's lip curled at the thought of finding herself in agreement with Grace.
Fall-From-Grace continued, her hands folded demurely in front of her, "You would be wise to travel with him no longer. He is insane, and he has proven capable of great acts of destruction. As I understand it, he was transformed into a conduit to the elemental plane of fire... such a transformation would have killed many mortals."
"I know..." I murmured.
"Not only did he survive such a trial, but he thrived. He possesses tremendous power - should he be forced into a confrontation, I would fear for the chances of anyone who stood against him. I pray it does not come to that," her gaze steeled towards mine.
"If Ignus is so powerful, why doesn't he just attack everything he sees?" I wasn't sure if it was my curiosity or a defense of Ignus, but it had to be asked, "Why does he even travel with us?"
"I do not know. But I do not think it is because he likes our company; in fact, I think he considers all of us irrelevant except for you."
"Me? Why me?"
"Again, I do not know. Still, haven't you noticed that when you ask him to do something, he obeys? Without question. Were I to make the same request, the last thing I would receive would be his compliance."
"We'll deal with that problem when we come to it."
The woman smiled pleasantly as I approached the counter.
"Greetings, sir. How may I help you?"
"I was wondering if I had quarters here. I was an old member long ago. My rooms might've been reassigned or something but..." I trailed off. The cramped room I had been given in the Great Foundry was fine enough, functional and utilitarian. But I couldn't happily consign my friends to the lingering smell of burnt oil or the distant clang of metal, especially when the Civic Festhall might've had much more opulent quarters. "If not, my access to the Sensates' facilities has been renewed, so perhaps you can find me something."
She closed her eyes and flipped through a large ledger, stopping at what seemed to be a random page before opening her eyes once more. "Ah... here's your room key..." she handed me a small key. "The easternmost chamber's been waiting quite some time for your return. Would you like to rest now, sir?"
"No... but what do you mean, 'waiting for my return?'"
The clerk gave me a strange look. "My ledger indicates that this is your key, sir, and has been for a good, long time. If that is not so, then perhaps I'm merely mistaken. Would you like to rest now, sir?"
"I'll take a look myself, thanks."
She nodded simply, and let me on my way.
Sigil had its heights and depths, its beauties and horrors, but they were usually so distant. It was an ancient city, and many of its wonders were more often than not the skeletal remains of even older structures. Its people lived like hermit crabs, nestling in distant, ill-fitting shells that hadn't been built for them.
My quarters were a different matter.
It wasn't some room at a fancy inn... more than that, really. It wasn't the graceful columns or the high ceiling, nor the fancy canopied bed with its golden sheets and scarlet curtains. It wasn't the balcony, which granted a bird's-eye view of the Clerk's Ward below, with people scuttling like ants.
For the first time I felt I was returning to someplace, and that this domain was my own.
"Never thought I'd set up kip in a place like this," Annah murmured.
Even Grace was impressed, "Quarters such as this are reserved only for the highest Faction members. Perhaps I should be jealous."
Already I was poking through the cupboards, filled with old charms and potions, and a few parchments with ancient words of power.
One pair of double-doors, however, clicked and rattled, but wouldn't budge.
"Uh, Annah? I don't suppose you could give me a hand here?"
With a little jiggling and a twist of her lockpicks, the door clicked open.
On the shelf sat a small... well, I wasn't sure what it was. Sculpture or container, talisman or charm, I had no idea. It was a dodecahedron, a twelve-sided shape with pentagonal sides. It was cold and heavy in my hands, and whether it was metal or stone I couldn't tell. Familiarity pricked at my skull, like the distant buzzing of a fly, and a tension ran over the object as if it were ready to spring into the air.
I stuffed it into my pack before I left.
They stood, many chatting with one another. Sensates and nobles, clerks and the occasional commoner. The mass of colors was dizzying: blue and green silks, scarlet and yellow velvets. White trim and black embroidery. Food had been prohibited. It was a lecture hall, not a circus.
The speaker that waddled up before the crowd was a short, plump little man, his gray-white hair little more than a fringe around his head. His tunic was tight against his belly... a gray-blue reminiscent of a cloudy sky. There was a certain naivete in his grin, and a bit of soft-headed dramatic wonder in his voice. He sounded like a muddle-headed child that had grasped his first philosophical abstraction, and was eagerly yammering a mangled version of it to everyone he came across.
"Sigilians, welcome! Please, take your seats, and listen to the 'darks' of which I speak!"
"'Darks?!' Gimme a break!" Morte groaned, "We're really not going to listen to this rattletrap, are we? C'mon... let's go find some Sensate chits that have never had the pleasurous sensation of tasting the fiery passion of a skull's lips." He waggled his eyebrows in anticipation.
"Quiet down, Morte. We're staying... for a while, at least," the man looked like an idiot, but I wanted to at least give him a chance.
He began speaking with a somber tone: "Death. It is what awaits you at the end of life's journey." He coughed slightly, then raised his eyebrows dramatically, waving his hands at the same time: "Death is not an end! But a beginning!"
"Beginning of more suffering," Morte whispered.
"For when you die, you shall not cease to exist, no! Far from it! The Outer Planes shall welcome you to their breasts! There, a new life... one such as you have never known, awaits you there!"
"That's for sure," Morte added again.
"You shall cast away the tattered cloak of this life and become one of the faithful, a petitioner! As a petitioner on this Outer Plane, your life's journey shall truly begin!
"If you have been a goodly sort of gentleman, steadfast in charity and goodwill toward your fellow bloods, perhaps the light-blanketed slopes of Mount Celestia shall house you when you die. Your spirit shall pass on to this place, dwelling as a petitioner in the beauty of golden mornings, soft sunlight that caresses..." He sighed dreamily.
"And eternal boredom," Morte muttered, sticking his tongue out.
"Perhaps you lived your life to betray others and get ahead, giving lies instead of truths, back-stabbing others, all to accomplish your own goals. Cold, Blood-Red Carceri, the Plane where all turncoats fall when they pass on, shall be the cage that imprisons you. As a petitioner on this Plane, you shall live a life of treachery and treacheries, of lies and lying, knowing a life without trust."
"Looks like we know where we both are going to end up when we die," Morte added, rolling his eyes.
The lecturer hunched over; his eyes darted back and forth. "And perhaps you have lived a life of bloodthirsty evil, contemptuous of your fellow man, laying others low and doing as you pleased without a care for who or what you hurt...
"...then it is perhaps one of the Lower Planes - Baator, or the chaotic swirling layers of the Abyss - that shall welcome you! Evil to the core are the spirits that come to this plane, and most are doomed to mindless cruelty and suffering or servitude in the dreaded..." He whispered dramatically "...Blood War."
Morte whispered, "And that's if you're lucky."
Blood War... the phrase tingled with familiarity, but the feeling was gone a moment later.
"No matter where you go, know this: You shall be embarking on a new life. A new life, my Sigilians!"
"And that's supposed to be an incentive? We get to do this all again? Gee, I can't wait to be a floating skull all over again. Whee! Pike him. What a tard. Spoken just like someone who hasn't died before, huh?"
The lecturer continued, unaware of the heckling at the back of the crowd, "You shall be able to start anew without the burden of memory or your past life. Your 'soul' goal, if you will..." He smiled at his own humor. What kind of person chuckles at their own jokes? "Is to merge with this new Plane that you are on, becoming one with the ideals and the very substance of the Plane itself!
"You shall be one of the inhabitants, the petitioners, on this Plane or, ideally, one of the building blocks upon which the Plane is built! It is the goal of all petitioners! To accomplish this goal, you..." He clapped his hands together for emphasis: "...MUST clap! HOLD clap! TO clap! YOUR clap! IDEALS!"
"Oh, this is one, big steaming load." I found myself nodding in agreement with Morte.
"Your ideals! Good or evil, law or chaos, or somewhere in between! As you approach the alignment of the Plane, your journey will end as you become part... of... the... plane... itself! 'Tis a glorious existence, my Sigilians!
"And that is what awaits you after 'death,' my audience! Have a care as to how you live your life, but know that it is not oblivion that awaits you after this life!"
"What wash!" Morte cried out aloud.
The speaker's head turned to face Morte, frowning slightly. He leaned out, trying to see who spoke. "A question? A question from one of the living, perhaps?"
Morte ducked below the lecturer's field of view, then turned up to me with a whisper, "Go ahead, chief. Tell him the dark of it."
"Yes, I have a question..." I said, raising my hand.
He indicated for me to continue.
"The Dustmen say that this life is where we end up when we die."
The speaker chuckled derisively... some members of the audience chuckled, as well. "There are countless petitioners, my friend, Dustmen among them, who would disagree with Dustman... 'philosophy.'"
"What if someone can't die?"
He laughed. "Nonsense! Everyone dies, friend. Even gods die."
"I can't die," I declared with an innocent shrug.
"Oh, truly! Look, everyone, a rare treat: one of the great immortals has graced us with his presence! Greetings, o immortal!" The audience laughed.
My eyebrows furrowed in annoyance. For someone who spouted the exotic wonders of the multiverse, Death's Advocate was a closed-minded idiot, and I wasn't going to let his half-baked tripe pass, "I can prove it."
"Oh do! Do!" There was more laughter from the audience. "What sport! Take heed, my audience. I think we shall have a rare display of my lecture today! Come up here, o immortal, and we shall see who is right and who is dead!"
Oh that pompous bag of wind.
Soft chuckles greeted me as I walked up to the stage, a small smile on my lips. The crowd had their eyes fixed on me, some thinking I was moronic, some thinking I was mad. A woman in a green silk gown fanned herself delicately, more to busy her hands than to cool herself down. A man with golden eyes and a crooked smile shook his head, as if disapproving of such nonsense. The more mature Sensates in the crowd, however, leaned forward, their smiles curious rather than mocking, as if eager to savor the sight of what was about to happen.
It was only when I stood next to him that I realized how small he was, in stature and in philosophy. The doubt nagged at me, as to whether it was really worth it to prove this man wrong.
He saw me hesitate, and his mouth curled into a plump, mocking smile, "I thought as much."
Well, that's the last straw, then.
I stood up straight, gave a broad smile to the crowd, and put on a show none of them would forget anytime soon.
I jammed the knife into the side of my throat, rocking it back and forth. Meat and sinew parted like butter. Dully, in the back of my mind and past the bursts of crimson pain, I mused that this dagger was Godsman-made... high quality, razor-sharp. Its efficiency was impressive.
When I hit cartilage I paused a moment. The pain was almost as unbearable as the lecturer's smug, pompous grin, and at the thought of his arrogant blustering I continued to cut. The blood ran down my chest, cascading down my belly until it draped me like a warm, scarlet apron. The screams of the crowd swelled like music, their retches and the thuds of fainting bodies added rhythm to the sound of a metal knife edge scraping against bone. It was a grim symphony that I was performing to, but it satisfied me as I hacked the rest of the way through my throat.
I collapsed over the podium, the heat fading from my limbs. I wasn't shy about making that deep, gurgling sound. The viscous mix of blood and spittle bubbled from my lips, and rolled warmly down my cheek.
Mortals die so easily... and I suspect part of it is because they expect to. The moment you receive a fatal injury you're possessed by the expectation of death, and it gnaws at you as surely as the wound. It's all downhill from there, quickening and hastening your way to the darkness. Me, I knew I was going to get up in a few minutes, so I wasn't eager to resign myself to death again that quickly.
The crowd's shrieking reached a crescendo as, with my last ounce of strength, I pressed my hands to the sides of my head and twisted, snapping my own neck.
Morte would tell me later that my head had dangled by a the loose flap of skin at the back of my neck. It had swung back and forth, mouth agape, eyes open and staring blankly into nothingness before I slid from the podium. It was horrifying.
He sounded so damn proud.
The initial shock was over by the time I awoke in a pool of my own blood, and the cries had been replaced by terrified murmurs. A turned my head this way and that, popping the joints back into place as muscle fibers curled into one another like vines, knitting lacerated tissue back together.
A low, wet grown made its way through my throat, and I coughed up another dollop of blood. The woman with the fan was being supported by her companions, and vomit stained the front of her dress. Another gentleman had clapped a hand over his mouth and his cheeks heaved as he himself retched. Most of the crowd had gone pale as bone, but the Sensates who bore the sign of the Faction stood wide-eyed and impressed. A light chorus of applause rose among the bitter sobs and nauseated gagging sounds, like flowers blooming among the midden heaps.
Death's Advocate had turned white as a sheet, and it took him a moment to compose himself. "By the Powers...!"
"I think it's only fair that you prove your point, now..."
"Eh..." The audience watched in morbid fascination as he stammered. "W-W-Well now..."
"Go on, die." I approached him menacingly, still turning my head this way and that, working out the kinks. My voice was low, the rumble had a coarse hiss to it from the neck wound, "Here. Now. Prove your words to be true. Embrace your life as a petitioner."
He gulped. "Now... eh... hmmmn." He offered weakly: "Heh. I must confess that I'm not quite ready to depart this life just yet."
The speaker flinched when I leapt towards him, clasping his eyes shut and screeching. The knife fell in an arc, a bright flash like a crescent moon. His shriek echoed throughout the chamber, even as my knife stopped just short of his neck. When his wailing died into a muted whimper, all that could be heard was a faint drizzling sound as he soiled himself.
"So, this great new life on the Outer Planes may not be all it's supposed to be?"
The speaker was aware of his hypocrisy, but was afraid of the alternative. "Perhaps not. Heh." He glanced quickly at the audience, tugging his tunic down to obscure the growing stain on his pants. "Eh... well. Certainly not now."
"That's what I thought. I've no more questions." I sat down, aching a little from reviving, but satisfied.
He looked eager to wrap things up. "...then I shall end this session... um, I shall continue to lecture here at the Hall, so... eh... tell all your friends."
Someone in the audience shouted: "Sure! So they can come see you mess your tunic again!" The room filled with laughter.
The doors swung open, and the crowd parted with mixed reactions. Many chatted excitedly at what they had seen, bright-eyed and enlightened as if to say "Ah, so that's what it's like." Others were more jaded, debating back and forth that while it was a fine performance, whether there was anything particularly new about me committing suicide. But most managed to exit with weak smiles, at best, while a few were much less dignified.
"Good sir," a pretty woman addressed me, swaying to block my path with her fire-red gown. She had a heart-shaped face framed with brunette curls, and wore the brooch of the Sensates on her breast, "Exquisite... most exquisite. Do you believe that the experience of an immortal's death is much different from a mortal's? What of the pain?"
"Kind sir," another girl came up to me, this one in a sea-blue coat. She was prettier than the first, with silver hair and eyes like sapphires, "What were your emotions? Was there fear? Anticipation? Excitement? What flavor of the first and what shade of the last? Does it come in an aroma or a caress?"
A raven-haired woman laughed as she wedged in between them, pushing them away with her broad plague-green gown. Her face was sharp and angular, and there was a terrifying beauty to her, "Such silly questions can only come from novices! Tell me, gentleman. What is it that an immortal senses after he dies? Do the waters of the afterlife lap at your heels? Do you stand on the high crest of the Silent Shore? Oh, perhaps I could modify a sensory stone to record such memories..."
The girls mobbed me, assailing me with questions and excited chatter, asking me what the experience was like, to describe it in detail. They peppered me with the wonder of whether they could feel it too.
Back and away from the crowd Annah sneered and rolled her eyes, blowing a strand of rust-red hair from her face.
She padded silently across the tiled floor, her soft boots not making a sound as she ghosted from shadow to shadow. Whatever sound her footsteps made would've been drowned out by Morte's snores, and if her moon-white flesh shone in the dim light, Ignus' roaring flames would've caught the eye more readily from his resting spot on the balcony.
"Hsst!" she hissed, snapping her head to me, "What are yeh doin' up an' about? Yeh been watchin' me?"
I shifted my weight, stepping out from the shadow of the pillar, "I've been feeling restless, too."
She just stood there, her tail flicking, arms crossed in front of her. That moment, by the dim light of Ignus burning through the window, she looked statuesque. There was a mute tranquility about her, and she stared at me like a stone.
"It's a clear night out," I said, "want to take a walk?"
The air was still and crisp, quiet as the grave. It was only the occasional lighted window and the rare clank of Harmonium boots that gave any sign that the Ward was still inhabited. Even then as the night wore on the lights flickered and winked out. The sound of Harmonium patrols grew more distant. Silence was king then, and no one would disturb us in our prowling.
Annah's tail swayed as she padded quietly down the street next to me, and I strained to keep my movements straight and smooth so that my sash of bone wouldn't clatter or the beads in my hair clink. Sanctity hung in the silence, and I didn't want to spoil the moment with my clumsiness.
Annah tucked her hands into the crooks of her arms as if unsure what to do with them. Tonight would've been a night for the cunning ways... of picking locks and jimmying doors, pawing through the jewels and gold of the nobles of Sigil. True the Harmonium would've made things difficult, but there was no harm in casing a joint. If she were alone, that is.
"Annah, can you train me in thieving skills?"
"Eh?" She frowned. It wasn't a question she would've expected, "What are yeh on about?"
"I'd like to shelve the Art for a while and try my hand at stealthier pursuits."
She looked me up and down - once - then looked at me with a queer expression. "Are yeh serious?"
I nodded, "I'd like to tuck the Art aside for a while and return to the thieving profession. Can you teach me?"
She looked skeptical, then rolled her eyes. "Aye, I can... but to do it, yeh'll need to shut yer trap and lissen to me... and follow my lead, jig?" She circled me, tail flicking under the pale light of a window a floor above us as she examined my posture. "The first thing yeh need to do is change your stance, none of that loin-juttin' and leading with yer stem that yeh seem to favor..."
Annah put me through the paces. At the end of a short while, she took a step back and nodded, impressed. "Aye, yeh've got the hang of it. Quick to catch on, yeh are. 'A course that's only th' beginnin'. There are four skills any good cutpurse needs ta know..."
"Stealth, lockpicking, pickpocketing, and finding traps, right?"
She nodded, "Aye. Yeh got the basics down, I'll give yeh that. We can begin with vanishin' from sight. 'Tis me specialty." Her lip curled into a crooked grin.
"Aye, well, the trick to being not-seen is knowing where yeh are and how quick yeh can become PART of where yeh are. There's some tricks I've learned - one is tae hide in a place where someone's not expectin' to look - like on the ceiling of a room -- or even change yer hiding place when they're lookin' for yeh..." She smiled wickedly. "There was one time I was hidin' from this brace of hardheads... the 'law'... an' what I did was..."
We went through the motions as she told her tales, ducking behind shadows of old pillars, pausing between one dash to another. We even put it to the test... prowling quietly from shadow to shadow as the Harmonium passed by, their clanking armor distraction enough from any soft-shoed padding about we would've made.
Annah continued as we leaned against the wall of the Civic Festhall. The stone was strangely warm against my back even as the still night air pecked at my skin with cold, "...an' so, there the hardhead was, face down in ditch water, his breeches gone, and the rest of his three fellas locked in the great-grandam's room, with her howling to the skies." Annah takes a breath. "An' there yeh are. If yeh can put the same thing to good use, it might help yeh hide when yeh really need to."
"So let's see: be sure to fall back to places you know well, preferably in surrounding where there are other distractions - and if there aren't any, make some."
She nodded. "Aye, that's the dark of it. Now, on ta lockpickin'. Pickin' at locks -- well, I can tell yeh what NOT to do. First is, be sure yeh carry a little oil or something else to wet the tip o' yer lockpick in case the lock's stubborn; one other thing I've learned - from ol' stutter-crutch Pharod, no less -- is many of the locks in Sigil are actually patterned by this one locksmith from a stone's age ago, an' they have this common catch yeh --"
There were no locks about, but the lecture was just as informative as the last. I soaked up her stories, chuckled at her jokes. Her shoulders relaxed then, and she was less stingy with her smiles and laughs. She really was pretty when she laughed.
"...so it was getting' near Peak, with the first fingers o' dawn creepin' in, an' I knew they'd be searching the attics for me. But because the attic lock was Sigil-born, I knew how to jam the catch so they couldn't force it, and it bought me enough time to scarper away across the roof with the silver, it did."
"So that lock tumbler 'type' is the one on which a lot of locks are based... that should help if I ever need to pick a similar lock, then."
"Aye, but if there be a trap there, yeh need ta know what to do. Now that's an easy one tae give the knowing on - the most important thing is that someone had to SET the trap, and that they KNOW about it once they've set it, so be sure to look for signs of it when yeh're walkin' where someone keeps their valuables. There was one time, when I was enterin' the Grand Demense in the Clerk's Ward, an'..."
She was proud of her craft, and so skilled in putting the art of thievery into words that she must've lain awake many a night, with a smile on her lips and the satisfaction of a job well done comforting her through her life in the Hive. She was the essence of freedom.
"...an' the fact the carpet was new around the floor of the cabinet told me he'd had it fitted recently, so I pried it up with me dags, an' dead-sure there were acid stains on the stones beneath. So I knew to look for an acid blossom when I popped the cabinet and nicked his coppers."
"So when looking to find and disarm traps, not only look for signs that they've been set, but look for signs for what someone would have had to do to avoid them once they've been set."
She nodded. "Aye, yeh've got it now."
"Do you have any advice on how to pick someone's pocket?"
"Well, nicking someone's purse isn't as hard as yeh would think..." Annah shrugged. "It's mostly a-matter o' doing it quick and gentle-like, so they don't feel their purses gettin' lighter. If yeh're havin' a hard time of it, it may be in the way yeh're doin' it." She nodded at me. "Show me."
I looked around, "It's rather late and no one's about except the Harmonium. Besides, I don't want to pick someone's pockets just randomly with you watching."
"Nay, try and nick some jink from me. I'll tell yeh what yeh're doing wrong," it was a much more patient response than I expected for such a thick question.
"All right... uh, where do you keep it?"
"That's what yeh have to find out, if yeh want to a true-blooded thief."
My tongue suddenly felt thick, and a touch of warmth flooded to my cheeks, "All right... let me try and nick... er, pick pocket you for it."
As soon as I made a move towards her, Annah held up her hand. "All right, stop - yeh've already messed up, yeh have."
"Yeh have to watch yeh're approach, yeh do - yeh can't just be a thokola an' muscle yer way up to yer mark - especially when yeh look like yeh do." Annah suddenly put her hands on her hips and turned to look off to my side, as if disinterested. "Yeh got to act like the mark is nothin' to yeh - less than nothin'. Yeh don't care what he's got at all."
"All right - so I act like I don't care," my fingers twitched, as if my nerves were failing me, but I posed as she directed, "What then?"
"Then yeh got to make sure yeh strike at the right time - I usually do it when I move by someone; yeh should do it right after yeh move by someone, 'cause they'll probably be too frightened tae turn around to see where yeh've gone. And another thing yeh should do..."
As she completed her lesson, trickles of memory flowed back. Sometimes her words became a muted buzz, other times what she told me seemed to echo with haunting familiarity.
I'd done this before, I was sure of it.
"...so dress down a little, maybe try not to look so threatenin', and yeh might catch yer mark off his guard - or off his gourd, if he's been hitting the bub."
"All right. So try to act non-threatening, relaxed, like the target means nothing to you, then strike when you're just out of his sight?"
"Aye, that's the dark of it. Now what?"
"Well... I thought I might be able to teach you some things."
"What? Are yeh serious?" She raised an eyebrow. "Yeh? Teach me? Yer a quick learner, I'd say, but yeh're still a bit green ta teach me anythin'."
I shrugged, "I thought I could give you some pointers."
"Aye?" She smirked, not quite believing. "Like what?"
"Well, I think your tail gives you away a lot more than you realize. I've noticed you twitch it when you're being watched or nervous; it's enough so someone looking in the shadows for you might notice. And another thing..."
When we were done I shared all I knew of lockpicking...
"You're using the wrong lockpicks when you try and pick locks. The ones you have could use the following: one with a Y-tip, and another with..."
To know-how of trap disarming.
"Not only should you look for signs trap have been placed, but there's other signs you can tell as well, from sulfur in the air, to changes in temperature, to -- "
At the end of my instruction, Annah nodded quietly. "Aye, I hadn't thought of those things, I hadn't." She frowned. "I would've figured it out eventually, so don't think yeh're some Festhall teacher or anythin', jig?"
"Just trying to help."
Annah scowled, turning away. Her voice came out in a low, sharp hiss, "More like yeh're tryin' tae make me look like a fool, yeh are."
I blinked, "What in the hells are you talking about?"
"Here yeh come, stridin' inta Pharod's Court, an' him all bowing and curtseying to yeh, playin' the boot-lick, then he ORDERS me tae go with yeh, which he's NEVER done, and yeh start puttin' on airs about how yeh know more than me... what gives yeh the right?," she snarled, baring her fangs. "Who do yeh think yeh ARE?"
The woman truly was a coiled viper, calm one moment, snapping and hissing the next. I never knew around Annah if my next word would earn me a smile or a stab, but for some reason I never asked her to leave. I was beginning to wonder exactly why I had asked to go out with her in the first place, "I'm JUST trying to help you, Annah."
"Oh, aye? Are yeh sure that every time I nick somethin' from someone's purse, or spring a lock, yeh aren't just shakin' your head behind your back, going, 'clumsy, stupid girl, she doesn't know how it's done.' Does that make yeh feel better about yerself, does it?!"
"Annah, I only showed you those things to make you even better than you are - I wasn't lording it over you. I don't think you're clumsy, and I don't think you're stupid."
Annah frowned, her tail flicking back and forth as if she still wasn't quite convinced. "Aye, well - yeh'd best be careful. I don't take kindly tae pity, I don't."
"Let's try pickpocketing now," I sighed. She seemed calm enough now. If the girl needed to she could shed anger like a snake shed its skin, "When you try and pick someone's pockets, you should use your body to better effect; it shouldn't be too hard for you to distract a mark from his belongings. And --"
"Eh?" Annah blinked. "Are yeh sayin' I should play the harlot?"
I looked her up and down, arching an eyebrow, "Well, why the hells' else are you wearing that thing? I thought that was your whole plan."
Annah followed my gaze, looking down at her outfit, then back up. "I just get hot, I do; it's my blood, I think. This vest lets my skin breathe."
It certainly takes my breath away... "Well, you add a few more slashes to the front of that, and your marks aren't going to care if you're picking their pocket or not. Now, watch my hands - when you are about to cut the purse, you need --"
As I reached out to show Annah, she stiffened.
"I cannae help it - it's your fault!" Annah squeezed her eyes closed. "Yeh shouldn't have said anythin' about the vest, now I'm all a-thinkin' about it, I am."
"Look me in the eye -- now just calm down."
Annah gaze locked with mine. She was still stiff, and her fangs were exposed, biting her lower lip.
"Look, I'll show you quick, and we'll be done with this."
I leaned in, and as I did, Annah suddenly pushed herself into me, and her hands wrapped around my back. She held me gently for a moment, then squeezed tightly, her light limbs firm yet supple like willow branches. She sniffed slightly around my neck, then up along my cheekbone. Her breath tickled. "I... I like the way yeh smell, I do." Annah's brogue was a little softer then, that sharp tiefling edge was muted, and her voice was low like the whisper of a woman.
She rubbed her cheek against mine. Her skin was smooth as milk, and her rust-red hair grazed the tip of my nose. It still smelled smoky and sharp, but there was a softness to it, something feminine despite the steel edge to her, "Yer skin's like leather, it is."
"Are you... wearing perfume?"
Annah paused, smiling into my ear. "Just a dab from an ol' vendor..." she murmured, "Guess it lingers it does."
Her fingertips trailed along my back, nails gently grazing my scars and sending electric jolts of sensation whenever they found a rough lump along that puckered, twisted flesh.
She was right though... I could feel the fiend blood in her, pulsing like liquid fire in her veins, flooding the heat through her body. It came through that slit in her vest, and radiated from her bare skin in waves. Powers above she was warm, and soft. So soft...
My hand reached down to check my purse.
I reached down in time to grab Annah's tail, then slowly unwound it from my pack. Annah stepped back, and the sudden rush of cold air left me chill, but I doubted the shiver was from that. She gave a grin. "Is that what yeh meant? Nickin' a purse offa a mark like that, aye? Dead-easy, it is."
"Yes..." my voice creaked like that of a lad on the cusp of adolescence. "I, uh," I deepened back into that coarse rumble, "I think you've got the hang of it."
A cold wind whipped up from the street, carrying an unnatural chill that seeped deep into my bones. Whispers of sins long forgotten ate at my soul in little nibbles like ants pecking at a still-living animal, beginning to strip away the skin. Then it kicked in, that primal, reptilian core of my brain that shrieked for every cell of my being to-
"Run..." I whispered hoarsely.
Annah blinked, clutching her bare arms. Her eyes flicked back and forth, "What are yeh on abou-"
"Run!" I screamed, drawing my dagger.
They rose from the corners of the ward, tendrils snaking out from the hidden depths of the night. The first slash slit me across my back, and even after the talon left my skin I could feel the wound cutting deeper. The cut was fueled by vengeance, the midnight claws had been honed with hate.
I didn't need to repeat myself a third time.
I had been chased by thugs, pursued by angry rats, mauled by the undead. But there was always the padding of footsteps or pitched squeaks. There was always the sound of clattering bones or mindless groans echoing through the halls. Somehow, the silence of the Shadows were more terrifying.
Arcane missiles sizzled the air as I shot them behind me, bursting in a pops of gray-black mist as they struck. I wasn't even sure if I wounded them or not.
And then the tendrils wrapped around my throat and squeezed.
I shouldn't have been afraid... I had endured whatever the Planes threw at me so far, after all, yet the Shadows were a sign of something deeper, more primal. In the back of my mind I knew they were relentless hunters. Impossible to hide from, massive in their swarms. They were relentless in their hatred, as if tearing at sins unpunished.
I could feel my strength leaving me in a trickle, as if those tendrils were drinking the warmth from my body. Those claws speared into me, again and again, in a rain of pitch-black fury. The shadow had no voice to scream with, no tongue to curse me, so it clawed and speared as if it would never be enough pain it could deal me.
The tendrils stretched, then snapped with the sound of a blade slashing through the wind.
I was still weak, but whatever held me dissolved into mist. Shaking as I stood I watched as Annah slashed at the mist, trying to pull away from the ebon claws. Each touch sapped her of strength as it did to me.
I acted fast. Pulling axioms and spells as fast as I could I blew holes in the Shadows, tore them apart in eldritch fury. One by one they were torn asunder, vanishing into mist and leaving a dark, ghostly stain where they fell. The dying keens of the monsters sent shudders through me, as if with each kill I had brushed death incarnate.
"Once, many shadows dwelled among us," Hargrimm had said, "But they come to our halls no more. They left long ago - and we know not where they went. Some say they wander the planes."
"They wander the planes?"
"I asked about it once. Mary says that she has seen their fate in visions. She claims they have all been drawn to a wrecked fortress that drifts within the Negative Material Plane, a graveyard of regrets from where they cannot escape."
When the last shadow fell the chill in the air was gone, and my wounds began to knit. The cuts were so sharp that they were almost painless, but they spread a cold sensation through my flesh that receded with aching slowness.
"It's done, Annah. Let's get back to the Festhall... Grace can heal your wounds there."
Only silence greeted me.