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We left the galleria. From the doorway, I saw steps a short distance away leading up to a small building. Fall-From-Grace told me it was the Curiosity Shop, although she had never been inside.
As we climbed the steps, Fall-From-Grace asked Morte a question.
"Morte, I must confess, I am curious as to how you became a floating skull."
"It's a long story involving the Head of Vecna. I don't want to talk about it."
"That was you?"
"Could we *please* change the subject?"
As I entered, I saw only a single person, who I took to be a customer. Then I saw he was not examining the object he was holding, but cleaning it. His status as worker was confirmed when a female voice called out from the back, "Standish! Break that and I'll be selling your tanned hide!"
As I looked about for a few minutes, I also watched this downtrodden little man scurry about the Curiosity Shop, dusting, cataloguing, and moving things about for the place's proprietress. I noticed he smelled faintly of onions. He glanced up at me nervously as I approached him.
"Please, sir... I cannot speak with you. I've work to do, and my mistress simply won't allow it..." I said 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..." I questioned what he meant by his mistress.
"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!"
By this time his mistress had come to the front of the shop. The sharp-featured woman's appearance was attractive though somewhat disturbing, with her blue-black skin and bright yellow eyes. As she examined me, a small pair of bat-like wings unfolded from her back, then seemed to settle back into her skin.
"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 replied to her.
"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?" Vrischika 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." Vrischika looked to me, then 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 asked how she could help me. She replied, "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?" I indicated I only wanted the answers to some questions.
"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?*" I was curious, and I saw no reason to waste politeness on her.
"What are you, Vrischika?" 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." Vrischika smiled innocently.
In my heart, I trusted Fall-From-Grace without hesitation or question. Intellectually, however unreliable a source Vrischika was, I needed to listen and consider what she said.
"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." She smiled slightly. "Myself excluded, of course." Fall-From-Grace spoke up.
"It is the truth -"
"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."
Fall-From-Grace had regained her equanimity, and calmly responded.
"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!" Vrischika retorted, "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 me a slightly exasperated look, then smiled. I turned back to the shopkeeper.
"What was it you said about her training agents, Vrischika?"
With a quick glance at my companion, she replied, "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..." Fall-From-Grace again felt compelled to counter.
"That is not the purpose of my establishment " Vrischika overrode her.
"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..."
"The answers may be painful, indeed."
Fall-From-Grace said, "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 asked her about the shop itself, to get off this topic.
"What you see within this shop is the result of much trading and traveling across the Planes." She made a sweeping gesture of the shop. "Weapons, charms... and other *specialty* items are for sale here, as well... everything that is rare and oh-so-exquisite fills this emporium. Your needs. I sate them."
I examined the items in the shop itself. I asked Vrischika about those that intrigued me.
I saw what appeared to be a tongue floating in a jar of brine. Vrischika frowned at it. "This is a fiend's tongue... a cornugon's, I think, but who really knows? It's said that, placed into the mouth of any living thing, it will give the ability of speech, even if there was none before. I'm selling this oddity for only sixty-six coppers, should you want it."
That could be quite useful I bought it. "Yes," Vrischika purred, "a wise choice." The copper I poured into her hand seemed to disappear the moment it touched her palm; she handed me the item. "Please, enjoy your newest acquisition."
I examined a bottle labeled as 'Gorgon Salve.' Vrischika held it up for me. "I traded for this with some sword-slinging Prime Worlder... Perseus, I think, was his name. Smeared onto the surface of any being turned to stone, it will revert them to flesh. Only one hundred copper commons; a bargain, considering how handy it might come in should you ever find a friend of yours transmuted to rock." I had a plan for this as well, so I bought it.
A small, metal replica of a cube-like creature with huge eyes on one of its faces. The toy had two legs, two arms, two folding wings, and at least eighteen points of articulation. Vrischika smiled as I picked it up. "A collector's item, perhaps, or a piece of artwork. Who knows? But I like it. If you do buy it, ask around... someone might know more about it than I. You can have it for only fifteen hundred copper coins." I recognized the toy as a depiction of a modron. There was something fascinating about it. Despite the high price, I had to have it as well.
A plain-looking jug... despite its common appearance, I felt reluctant to touch the thing, as if it might bite me. Vrischika watched me, chuckling, then shrugged. "It's a jug. It's got some sort of monster trapped in it - that's why your hair's prickling up like that. If you'd like it, it's only one hundred and twenty-three copper." Finally, an item I could ignore. I turned down her offer.
A number of small bottles, each labeled as 'Baby Oil.' Vrischika picked one up and presented it to me. "Interested? It's the real thing, of course. Thousands of mewling, mortal babies went into the making of the stuff." I wondered if what she said was actually true, but anything was possible if it originated on the Lower Planes. "Eh... no thanks." I replied.
A twisted little imp-like creature, sculpted out of pure, milk chocolate. "It looks delicious, does it not? Imported from the Lower Planes. These are rare, you know, and quite prized by lovers of chocolate and confections. It's a real quasit - a fiendish familiar - polymorphed into chocolate by powerful sorcery. It's only one hundred and ninety-nine coppers." Except for an unlikely encounter with a chocolate connoisseur who happened to also possess information I must have, I so no use for this.
A rather unassuming book held closed by a tiny brass lock. "That," cooed Vrischika, "is the Codex of the Inconceivable. I'll only say that it's just... just... well, I can not explain it. Mere words simply won't suffice! You can own it yourself for a mere one thousand copper commons... and believe me: it is well worth it." Not to me.
A small glass phial labeled as 'Deva's Tears.' "These were collected from a deva who was captured during a Blood War skirmish. The fiends tormented the imprisoned angel for eons before he at last escaped - this small bottle holds the twelve tears he shed in that time. Their price is but one hundred copper commons." Perhaps later.
A bottle labeled as 'Elixir of Horrific Separation.' Vrischika 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." Some other time.
A stained, ground glass lens the width of my hand, held in a brushed steel ring. A small, geared protrusion coming off the ring made it look as if the lens should attach to some sort of clockwork machine, and it smelled faintly of a horrible perfume. Vrischika held it up for me. "I've no idea what this really is, but it radiates fairly powerful magic. An old soldier named Ghysis brought it up to me from a Lower Plane battlefield - he'd murdered his own men in order to escape his tour of duty there, and brought me a number of interesting items he'd collected over the course of the campaign. I've kept it mostly as a conversation piece, though you may have it for one hundred and forty-nine copper coins, if you'd like." Useless without the rest of the machine, I judged.
A ring in a small, padded case. Vrischika held it up so that I could see it more closely. "This is Yevrah's Ring of Almost Invisibility. It makes its wearer invisible - well, almost. I will part with it for the meager sum of three hundred and forty-nine copper commons." Almost invisible - I was sure Annah could achieve that on her own, with inaudibility as well.
An oddly shaped dagger presented on an ornamental display rack. A placard beneath the rack read 'Sword of W'hynn.' Vrischika tapped its pommel with her fingertip. "It's also known as the Cheater's Blade. Merely holding it aloft will win you the game. If you're certain you'd like it, I can place it in your hands for fifteen hundred copper commons."
"Win me the... what do you mean?"
Vrischika narrowed her yellow eyes at me. "Oh, come now. You know *exactly* what I mean. Buy the Cheater's Blade, you beat the game. It's that simple... for only fifteen hundred copper commons. Do you want it, or no?" I still wasn't sure what she meant, but I declined. After all, what challenge or fun would be left to any game that could be won so easily?
A large pewter ale stein covered in strange runes. Vrischika held it up for me to see more closely. "An ale mug of unusual manufacture, which keeps its contents - usually beer, of course - icy cold whatever the surrounding temperature. Two hundred and ninety-nine copper commons, and you'll enjoy the frostiest ale you've ever had outside the paraplane of Ice." I had met a mageling at a café in this ward who had such a mug.
A doll. The years had not been kind to this tiny rag doll; it was coming apart at the seams, and it looked like its threads were unraveling. It was obviously intended to be a replica of the Lady of Pain, but the button eyes and its plush softness didn't strike much fear into my heart. Vrischika held it up for me. "This was found in a well-trapped strongbox sunk deep beneath the surface of Sigil. It was part of a small horde of treasure and forbidden magical texts, though I don't know what it's for. If you like it, it's only ninety-nine copper coins." If tales of the Lady of Pain were true, worshipping even so harmless a replica of her could be fatal. One experience of being mazed had been enough for me; I wasn't interested in testing her again.
I left the shop, although I knew I would be back later, to
examine the sale items again.
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