<=Previous | Contents | Next=>
I passed through the doors, glad to be free of the Mortuary at last. I passed through a small courtyard in front of the building, and walked out into a city. This must be the section known as the Hive. My eyes traveled across the buildings in front of me, then up. And up. The city arced overhead. I realized the city must actually form a circle, and join with itself. Morte, noticing my stunned expression, offered an explanation.
"The city is Sigil, the city of doors. Sigil's a ring-shaped city that's squatting on top of an infinitely tall spire in what some claim to be in the center of the Planes... of course, *how* it could be at the top of an infinitely tall spire, and how the city could even *be* at the center of the Planes raises some questions."
"Sigil's called the 'City of Doors,' mostly because there's a LOT of invisible doors that lead in and out of it - just about any arch, door frame, barrel hoop, book shelf, or open window might be a portal under the right conditions. It all depends on if you have the key to open it."
"See, I guess the best way to explain it is - most portals are 'sleeping,' right? You could walk through them, by them, on top of them, and nothing would happen. Now, every portal has something that 'wakes it up.' That could be a tune you hum to yourself, a loaf of week-old Bytopian bread, remembering what your first kiss was like, and then - BAM - the portal gets its juices flowing, and you can jump through it, to whatever's on the other side."
"Anywhere, chief. Literally. Any place you can think of, there's a portal there. That's why Sigil's so popular across the Planes." As I started to walk away from the courtyard, a passing woman started upon seeing me. She seemed to recognize me instantly; she stepped back in horror, and cried out.
"After all this time... ye *bastard*! May all th' fiends in Baator take ye! One day ye'll be sorry fer what ye did ta Aerin... by all the Powers I *swears* it!" She turned and fled.
I just let her go. I realized I might run into many in the city who recognized me, and I would have to be on my guard. But it was critical that I gain as much information as quickly as possible, and I resolved to ask anyone I met about the city, and particularly about this Pharod.
I ran into a few others that day who would not talk to me, who just made a sign against evil and ignored me.
A harlot was particularly helpful, after accepting a few coins, that is jink. She told me the collectors congregated in a section of the Hive not too far away, in an area known as Ragpicker's Square. Morte spoke up as I finished with her. He was becoming predictable on certain subjects, I realized.
"Chief, can you sport me some jink... it's... eh... been a long time, it has."
"I'm not even going to ask how you intend to accomplish this."
The woman broke in, "It's twice the cost fer the mimir... or any other degenerate."
At my questioning look, Morte replied, "Mimir's a talking encyclopedia. That's me, chief." I motioned to Morte to forget his idea.
"Don't sweat it, Morte. From the looks of her, I'm probably saving you from dying twice." At this the woman cursed at us.
"May a pox shrivel yer innards! Ye have the stink and fashion sense of a goatherd, and ye're twice as ugly!" She continued cursing us for several moments. Morte stared, hypnotized, as the harlot let loose this stream of obscenities. At the end of the verbal avalanche, Morte was silent for a moment, then turned to me.
"Wow, chief. Got a few more taunts for the ol' arsenal." He turned back to the harlot, who was catching her breath. "I'm also in love."
Chuckling at Morte despite myself, I moved off.
I decided that although I now knew a general area to look for this Pharod, it would be better to learn some more about Sigil, and maybe fill in a few of the holes of my past, before searching him out.
I continued questioning those I met. Some of the local toughs must have taken my questions as a sign of an easy mark, because they drew knives and attacked. As I drew the blade I had found forgotten in a drawer in the Mortuary, I realized that I had used a blade before, and knew it well. Although I suffered a few shallow cuts, soon I was standing over the body of one tough as the rest fled. I also realized I must have killed before, perhaps many times.
The next Hive dweller I talked to was frightened, no doubt from the scars and the blood of my recent fight. He had little to say I hadn't already heard, but I felt sorry for him, and gave him a few coppers. He glanced around to see if anyone saw the exchange, then tucked the jink in the folds of his robe.
"Thank ye kindly, cutter! May the Lady's shadow pass ye by!" This piqued my interest.
"Wait a minute... Lady? What do you mean?"
"The mistress o' Sigil? Ye've not *heard* o' her? Ye must be blessed or more cluel... eh, know little about Sigil, indeed." He laughed weakly. "Lady's word's law here in Sigil." He thought for a moment. "'Cept she don't say much. Dead silent she is, actually." He looked at me warily.
"Don't want ta be talkin' too much about her, cutter... ye don't want ta cross her shadow nor be singing her praises, all right? Now, let's say no more about it. Rattlin' yer bone-box about the lady is dim, dim indeed."
I came across a small Dustmen memorial not far from the Mortuary, just four walls around a central plinth. Dustmen stood outside, chanting about their 'True Death.' Curious, I stepped through an arch in one of the walls, and saw that the interior and the plinth were covered with thousands and thousands of names. I recognized the plinth from the dream or memory I had had before awakening in the Mortuary. I asked a man standing staring at the central plinth what it was.
"It's a tombstone for the Planes." He scoffed. "Graveyards of names are scratched on that rock. Can only hope my name's the one that'll split this stone in 'twain." He pointed at the base of the monolith. "'Quentin,' right there, hammered in just hard enough to send the damned thing crashing down."
"The Dusties scratch the names of the dead on this monument here..." He gestured around him. "And on the walls of this place. Not enough space by my reckoning, but no matter... they do their best. Can barely read half the names." I asked why he was here, especially since he was hostile to the Dustmen. His reply was illuminating.
"Reading the new arrivals. Try and find a new one every day, try and remember if I knew 'em, nothing more."
"The Dustmen record the names of all that have died on this monument?"
"Aye, they scratch 'em on this rock... and scratch 'em on the walls in this place, too." Quentin scowled. "I don't know why they take the trouble to take a counting of the dead... the Dusties have more care for the living."
"Aye... y'know about the Dustmen mourners that come to this place? They aren't mourning the dead, see, they're mourning the living. You can barely get a word in them edgewise without 'em asking to mourn some poor *living* berk for ye."
"Seems to me the dead are thrice-worth the pity of any poor sod living in this pit." He nodded at the monument. "Every name on there is blest in my book, it is." He returned to his brooding, ignoring me.
As I was leaving, on a whim I stopped and spoke to one of the Dustmen mourners. I told her that my 'friend,' Adahn, was feeling anguish over a person who had died. She promised to mourn his pain. A smile quirked my lips as I walked away, as I heard the name Adahn mixed in among their chanting.
I continued questioning those I met in the streets of the Hive. One in particular had an interesting story, a haggard woman wrapped in rags. Her hair was disheveled and dirty, and her complexion was extremely dark. Burns covered her arms, and her right hand was a fused lump of flesh... it looked melted, like wax exposed to a great heat. I greeted her, to get her attention.
"What issit y'wanta me?" The woman's accent was thick, and I had difficulty making out what she was saying. "Y'wanta me t'leave? NOT leaving this city, so I'm not. I can't, tried, it's not a city, it's a prison t'everywhere."
"Everywhere?" I asked.
"There's Worlds, there's..." Her eyes gleamed madly. "...planes that be sinking sands, fields thirsty nettles be, sightless worlds where y'limbs are given life and hate, cities of dust whose people are dust and whisper ash, the house without doors, the Twilit Lands, the singing winds, the singing winds..." She started to sob quietly, but she seemed all out of tears. "And shadows... the terrible shadows there be."
"Where are these places?"
"Where'z? Where'z them places?" She flung the lump of her right hand in an arc, gesturing at the cityscape. "They'z all HERE be. Doors, doors, here to *everywhere.*"
"You! You're not knowing this?!" She squinted at me, and her teeth started chattering. "Tell you, I will: Beware every space you walk through or touch in this thrice-cursed city... Doors, gates, arches, windows, picture frames, the open mouth of a statue, the spaces 'tween shelves... Beware ANY space bounded on all sides. ALL these're doors t'other places."
"Every door has a KEY it does, and with this key, they show their true nature... an arch becomes a portal, a picture frame becomes a portal, a window becomes a portal... all eager t'take y'someplace ELSE. They steal you away..." She raised the lump of her right hand. "And sometimes what's on th'other side takes part of you as a TITHE."
"What are these keys?"
"The keys, the keys number as many as the doors of this city. Every door, a key, every key, a door." Her teeth started chattering again, as if she were cold. "And a key is...? A key is *anything.* It may be an emotion, an iron nail held 'tween y'second and fifth fingers, a thought thought three times, then thought once in reverse, or it may be a glass rose." She clenched her mouth closed to try and still her chattering teeth, and squinted her eyes. "Can't leave... can't leave..."
"How did you get here?"
"From..." She seemed to calm slightly, and her eyes took on a thousand-league stare. "Came from a place else from here, almost a life-ago, hummed a tune by a glade with two dead trees that had fallen together. A brilliant door opened in th'space 'tween the crossed trees, showed me this city on th' other side... I'z stepped through, ended here."
"Why can't you go back?"
"Tried! ALL doors here lead to OTHER places." She shuddered and gripped her melted right hand. "Went through thrice-ten portals, some a-purpose, some a-accident, none a-them right. Can't find way back..."
"There must be a portal that can take you back."
"Can't even leave here! This square! And there, th'place of death behind th' gate waits for me!" She pointed at the Mortuary behind the gate, then turned back to me, her face desperate. "Can't go anywhere in this city!"
"Anythin' could be a door. Any arch there, any door here, could be a portal, don't know the key, could get a-sent t'another horrible place..." Her teeth started chattering again. "...got t'stay way from the closed spaces, all could be doors, could have a key on me, an' I not be knowing it..." I found this hard to credit.
"You... you're afraid to go through ANY door or arch because it *might* be a portal?"
She nodded, her teeth chattering.
"How long have you been afraid of this?" She squinted, pondering.
"Since the last time I walked through th' last portal, th' place where m'hand..." She stops. "Since m'tenth Turning... I'm in me fourth tenth Turning that, now." Her teeth begin chattering again.
"Thirty years? You've haven't walked through *any* *door* for thirty years?"
Her vision seemed to clear slightly. She looked up at me, her teeth still chattering.
"If you got here, there must be a portal that can take you back. It's only a matter of finding it --"
She smiled. Her teeth weren't chattering because she was cold... they were moving around inside her mouth, her gums twisting as the teeth shifted about. They rose and receded as I watched, chattering as they rattled against each other. She hissed at me.
"Only takes ONE portal you steps through a-accident, t'drive th' FEAR into you. I went through thrice-ten, lost m'hand, burned m'flesh, and lost m'sense." She looked at her feet. "N'more, n'more."
"I'm sorry... if I can find some means to help you, I will. Farewell." I hoped I didn't promise to help everyone I met in the Hive. I suspected the city generated unfortunates faster than anyone, even if he were immortal, could hope to help.
I passed by the Gathering Dust bar, but it was a Dustmen hangout. I had had enough of them, so I didn't go in.
"Looks like the Dusties lost one of their deaders "
I realized the comment was referring to me. The speaker was a striking red-haired girl dressed in leather armor. Her right arm was covered with a series of interlocking plates that looked as if they were taken from the skin of some creature, and a horned shoulder piece protected her left arm. Oddly enough, she had a tail... that was flicking back and forth as I watched. She noticed my interest.
Ignoring the comment, I greeted her, asking who she was. The girl sneered, then made an obscene gesture with her tail.
"Pike off, yeh clueless sod."
The girl herself was well worth looking at, but did she know she had a tail? I realized I must have actually blurted out what I was thinking when she replied.
"*Do* I now?" The girl looked at her tail. "So I do! An here I was thinking that it was a trick of me eye. My, aren't yeh a sharp cutter?" She bared her teeth. "Why don't yeh piss off ta whatever hole yeh crawled out of and leave me be?! Me nor me tail is for trade, jig?" As I fumbled for a reply, Morte interposed,
"It's just as well neither you nor your tail are for sale. You couldn't squeak out a living with 'em, anyway." Fortunately, his voice was too low pitched for her to make him out, and she just looked questioningly at Morte. I'd already made a fool of myself. Might as well try to satisfy me curiosity.
"He didn't say anything... but I'm still curious... *why* do you have a tail?"
"Are yeh *daft?* Can it be that yer dumber than stone, or mayhap yer the Power o' ignorance? May the dabus brick yeh over and make yeh a street!" Morte answered my question.
"She's a tiefling, chief. They got some demon's blood in 'em, and that makes 'em paranoid and defensive... nice tail, though. Shame it's plastered on such an ugly body." I tried to interpose a comment, uselessly, as she replied.
"Yeh better latch yer bonebox, yeh foul-mouthed mimir, 'fore I splits it from yer jaw, jig?"
"Why don't you *try* and split my jaw, chit?! All I'm hearing is a lotta chatter from some Hive trash! Throw a punch! I dare you! I'll bite your legs off!"
"Enough!" I finally got out.
"Aye, that's right. Leash yer mimir, 'tard, or I'll bury him with his body, jig?" I figured I wouldn't get anything more out of this one.
"Aye, pike off ta wherever yeh came from, then."
I wondered on. A street vendor caught my eye. This foul-looking man was quick to notice he'd caught my attention; in moments he was upon me, hawking his 'wares.' He carried a long wooden pole; dozens of skinned and cooked rats dangled from it. As he spoke, he gestured to them with a broad, filth-encrusted hand, smiling a yellowed, snaggle-toothed grin all the while.
"Oye, cutter, 'ow ye doin' there? Wot sorta deeee-licious ratsies is ye interested in this fine day?"
I examined the 'ratsies.' Each rat had been skinned and gutted, their feet and tails removed; they dangled from the pole by hooks punched though their necks. As I examined the various manners in which they'd been prepared, I realized their heads were slightly misshapen -- a bulbous knot of bone protruded from each cranium, covered in whorls that gave it the appearance of brain tissue.
"Those are strange-looking rats."
"Ah, ye've got a keen eye there, cutter! All I sell is brain vermin, I do... I'm sure ye'll find they've got a much richer flavor than yer usual rat. Quite nice, really!" He proffered them to me once more, waving the pole before my face enticingly... the rats swayed to and fro, hooked like tiny sides of beef.
"Aye, cutter, brain vermin. Foul creatures, they are. Now, yer normal rats, they just eat stored goods an' multiply, spread disease an' all that... a nuisance, really, no more. Yer *cranium* rat, though -- brain vermin, wot *I* go after -- they're just trouble. When ye get more than a 'andful a' the little pikers together, they start to get smart on ye... sometimes *real* smart."
"They become more intelligent? "
"Sure as I'm standin' here before ye, they do! If I ran across any more than two score of 'em, I'd flee for me case like *that*..." He snapped, to emphasize the point. "...I would! Ye get that many of 'em in a pack, why... why, they gets smart as a man, they do!"
"Here's my best advice for ye, cutter... if ye're bent on catchin' brain vermin, stick to small packs. A dozen or so, at most. But I'll tell ye..." He stepped close, his breath fetid in my face, and spoke in a hushed tone: "Ye run into more than that... more than a couple dozen... ye run like ye're in the shadow of the Lady!" He backed away from me again.
"Sorcery, cutter... sorcery! Ye gets enough of those lil' fiends in a space, they gain all sorts a' odd powers! Make a basher's brain pour out 'is ears, they will! Downright frightenin'... it's just wrong, I tell ye."
"Who are you? "
"Wot, me? Why, I'm Creeden, sometimes called Creed -- the Butcherer-of-Rats!" He smiled grandiosely, exposing ill-matched rows of yellowed, broken and crooked teeth.
"You certainly seem... friendlier... than most around here."
"Well, cutter, I try. Result a' my business, I thinks... most folks around 'ere are a peery an' downright unfriendly lot, but I want every cutter to know that Creeden's always got a warm smile an' a pipin' 'ot, fresh-cooked ratsie for 'em!" He winked at me, and touched my arm.
"I see ye're leavin', cutter, but a'fore ye go, wouldst ye like a nice, deee-liscious ratsie? One for the road, ye might say?"
"Why not "
"Good, cutter, good! Wot sort wouldst ye like?" He pointed to each in turn with a grimy fingernail. "I got them baked, spiced, boiled, an' charred! All fresh, all scrumptious... and only three coppers for two!"
"Charred," I replied. That should hide any nasty taste.
I handed over my coppers and, in one swift motion, he ran a pair of charred rats through with a wooden skewer, unhooked them, and placed them in my hand. He winked at me.
The rat was burnt and crispy outside, but tender and juicy within. It was a bit greasy and rather rich, tasting of some... other... meat I was sure I'd had before. The man looked at me expectantly.
"Did ye like? Wouldst ye like another?" Motioning
that I didn't, I continued on.
<=Previous | Contents | Next=>