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I entered a room just as a lecturer was starting a speech, "Sigilians, welcome! Please, take your seats, and listen to the 'darks' of which I speak!"
"'Darks?!'" Morte spoke, "Gimme a break! 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 eyes in anticipation. I ignored him and kept listening to the speaker.
The speaker outlined his theories on what one could expect when they died, such as what plane of existence they would end up upon. He seemed quite sure that one who had lived a goodly, or at least a proper, life would after death find a new life on a pleasant plane.
He was finishing his talk, and said, "No matter where you go, know this: You shall be embarking on a *new* life. A new life, my Sigilians!"
Morte whispered: "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 speaker continued. "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!"
Morte whispered again: "Oh, this is one, big steaming load."
The speaker ended his talk. "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!"
Mort said, aloud this time, "What wash!"
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 to me and whispered.
"Go ahead, chief. Tell him the dark of it." Morte was not alone in being dissatisfied with the lecture. I decided to put the lecturer to the test.
"Prove what you say is true."
"Eh?" The lecturer looked taken aback. "And how might I do that?"
"Die. Here. Now."
The audience became silent. Feeling the pressure, the speaker swallowed slightly. "Well now..." He smirked suddenly. "If you go first, I shall do so." The audience chuckled.
I smiled slightly as I replied, "Agreed."
The speaker's face was stone for a moment, then it brightened. "Come up to the stage, my friend!" He turned to the audience, smiling. "A rare treat, Sigilians! Today - and today only - we shall have a live demonstration of how to become a petitioner."
I moved to the front of the room. I killed myself, then got back up.
The speaker turned white at this, taking a step back. "By the Powers...!"
I simply smiled, turned, and started walking from the room.
I heard him eagerly trying to wrap things up behind me. "...then I shall end this session... um, I shall continue to lecture here at the Hall, so... eh... tell all your friends." I was sure the audience would talk about this lecture to their friends.
I had gotten only a momentary satisfaction by venting my frustration over the journal I could not read on this hypocritical speaker, and resolved to try to find a more useful release for my feelings.
In the next room another lecture was about to begin. Thin and sharp-featured, his yellow skin covered with tattoos, this lecturer looked over the room and its inhabitants with cold, black eyes.
"I am *known* as Three-Planes-Aligned, a githzerai scholar. If you are here for my lecture, it begins in a few moments." He spoke in a very low, somber tone. "Today I shall speak of the power of alignment and belief, and how they shape the Planes."
"First, I shall explain the concept of alignment."
"Alignment is a descriptor of one's beliefs, and how one acts upon those beliefs. At their core, all creatures predominately behave in one of three ways: with good in their heart, with evil in their heart, or indifference - or neutrality - in their heart. They predominately express each of these core behaviors in one of three different ways: in an ordered manner, in a chaotic manner, or in an indifferent, neutral manner. Thus, there are nine core alignments that one is capable of. The nine alignments, then, are lawful good, neutral good, and chaotic Good... lawful neutral, true neutral, and chaotic neutral... and lawful Evil, neutral evil, and chaotic evil."
He continued explaining how alignment, and the beliefs it engendered, could affect one's environment, or how a deity gained power from the faith of worshippers. A deity without worshippers could die, its corpse ending up on the Astral plane.
He then gave the example of gate towns, which are located on the neutral Outlands, but which share beliefs with an adjacent plane which a portal in the town opens onto. He then discussed the sliding of a gate town.
"'Sliding' occurs when there is a high concentration of belief in an area of differing belief. When this occurs, the area itself will move - or slide - to a Plane that matches the new belief."
"Now, the gate towns usually have a strong belief that matches the Outer Plane beyond the portal, but the belief is not yet strong enough for the town to slide from the Outlands and into the Outer Plane."
"For example, the town of Ribcage borders the portal to the lawful evil plane of Baator. As expected, the residents of Ribcage are largely lawful evil residents, but the entire town's alignment and beliefs are not strong enough so that Ribcage will slide into Baator."
"For example, Ribcage might one day see the sudden rise of a lawful evil order of clerics, promoting their dark beliefs and converting many citizens to the worship of their lawful evil god. Were this to occur, there would be a good chance that the town would slide off the neutral Outlands, becoming part of the lawful evil plane of Baator."
"Whole layers of Planes may move this way. Thus, many wars are wars of belief and faith by necessity. They are the tools by which territory is obtained and held."
"This, then, is the power of alignment and belief to shape the planes. This session has ended."
"May belief guide your actions and shape the Planes to your will. Farewell, all of you."
The speaker refused any questions, and left the room.
I overheard in the hallway outside the room that another lecture, on the Blood War by Ghysis the Crooked, was about to begin. My fascination with that conflict had convinced me I must have some connection to it, and I hurried into another room where the lecture was to be held.
The squat, hunched old man who was to give the lecture still had the broad shoulders and scarred, callused hands of a worker or warrior. An aura of weary despair seemed to hang about him. The speaker started his lecture.
"Right! Now lissen up... this is th' seminar on th' *War.* If ye're 'ere ta lissen 'bout th' Blood War, take root. If ye're not, ye're in th' wrong 'all and ye'd best 'ump yer soft, comfort-lovin' Sigilian limberstembs outta 'ere."
Morte commented, "The Blood War? More boring than listening to a Guvner recite laws. Let's find some young Sensates who need to be indoctrinated in the ways of passion!" He waggled eyeballs in anticipation.
I had missed a few words while listening to Morte, as the speaker continued, "It just tells the Blood War from the 'uman point o' view. I's not promotin' one side or another, 'cause they *both* stink in different ways."
"So... what's left o' ye're wantin' ta lissen ta some Blood War stories... tales about th' *War.* 'Ere ta 'ear the *'orror* of it all, no doubt. Th' floatin' fortresses wove and weaved o' 'uman skin! Th' Planes-wide battlegrounds th' Blood War be fought on!" He bared his yellowed teeth. "Tales o' fiends lockin' fangs with other fiends! Grar! Snrarrrr!" His snarl faded, and he looked suddenly bored.
"Well, lemme peel back yer lids an' crack yer bone boxes: 'tis all a steamin' 'eap o' barmy nonsense ta be dwellin' on that forge-dung." He spat in derision, rolling his eyes wildly.
"I'll tell ye *this,* though: Ye can't *imagine* th' scale th' Blood War is fought on. Nothin' ye've seen, 'eard, or participated in - *nothin'* compares: time, numbers of 'legions,' sheer bloodshed... nothin' compares, berks. Ta try an' imagine it - forget it. My advice? Simple: Stay away from th' big bloody mess all together."
"Th' only thing ye needs ta know is this: fiends are killin' fiends. Baatezu are slaughterin' tanar'ri, tanar'ri are butcherin' baatezu. Right now." He spat again. "Neither's winnin'. Don't think either *can* win. Biggest stalemate this side o' eternity... thank the Powers."
"That's it." He shrugged. "That's it. I'll be answerin' any questions ye gots fer me, now..."
Evidently he had decided to terminate the lecture already, before he had barely begun. No one else in the room seemed to be interested in asking anything of the speaker, but I had questions enough for all of them.
"So you'll tell us no tales of the Blood War?" I asked.
"All right, one: let me give ye an example of what 'meat' means ta them. They'll get some mean-spirited mortal mercenaries together, maybe a drop o' a few million strong an' let them slaughter each other for no real reason at all - a pointless battle over some Power-forsaken piece o' land. Guess where *all* those souls go?" I asked the rhetorical 'Where?' so he could continue.
"Their souls sink inta th' Planes o' evil they fight on, where they can be ripped from th' soup o' th' Plane an' set ta fight again as lemures or manes or whatever the pikin' sod those little fiendish dung-heaps become. The more of those soddin' petitioners they get, the more troops they 'ave."
I asked for more information on the Blood War itself, to which he replied, "If I were ta boil it down, it'd be this: th' Blood War's been goin' on damn-near-forever, an' will keep goin' on until damn-near-forever itself gets penned in th' Dead-Book. Th' tanar'ri, th' champions o' *chaos* an' evil are tryin' ta stomp th' green-colored dung out o' th' baatezu, the champions o' *law* an' evil. They butcher each other over 'ow each o' them thinks evil *should* be, if ye can believe that. Hah!"
I asked what would happen if someone stopped the Blood War, to which he said "Ye can't make any pikin' difference in the War! It's too soddin' *big.* Ye're a stone, a pebble in an ocean that's a pebble in another ocean which is a pebble in another ocean an' so on and so forth 'til th' stenchkows come 'ome. As a pebble, yer goal is ta be not noticed an' sink ta th' bottom with th' rest o' the dregs..."
"If ye could make a difference - which ye *can't* - ye shouldn't *try,* 'cause then th' Planes would tumble on down." To my questioning look, he held up his hands like pillars. "Th' Blood War's like a big, bloody support beam proppin' up th' Planes... kick it down, an' a lot o' th' Planes'd come tumblin' down with it. Lot o' baggage rests on th' back o' th' War." He suddenly brayed like a donkey, laughing bitterly. "Th' biggest, nastiest pack animal on th' Planes..."
He grinned cynically. "Besides, as some say, war's *great* fer business." He laughed hollowly, then looked as if he could suddenly cry. "Eh... never ye mind that... another question?"
I asked if he was all right, since he seemed pained. He smiled sadly.
"Aye, aye... listen, cutter: I'm no priest, nor would I want ta be one, but 'ear this: keep evil out o' yer heart. When ye die with evil in yer heart, yer spirit falls inta th' Lower Planes, where ye become a petitioner..."
"Any guesses as ta what 'appens then? Petitioners in th' Abyss an' Baator get twisted inta footsoldiers... an' get ta fight in th' Blood War fer all eternity." He chuckled, shaking his head. "So that's th' dark as ta why th' baatezu an' tanar'ri try an' corrupt all they touch; 'cause they need more troops. 'Eed this: keep evil far from yer 'eart, berk."
I questioned what had started the Blood War. He replied, "Ye got a right ta be curious what started this big ol' soddin' soupy mess in th' first place: what set th' fiends ta lockin' 'orns in the first place, bitin' an' clawin' at each other until that was the only reason they were alive..."
"Simple: they met." He sighed. "Tanar'ri an' Baatezu crossed each other one day an' like two drunken bigots, they set ta fightin'. That simple." He frowned. "Well..."
"Naw, pike that: imagine two drunken *priests* who believe each knows th' *only* way ta live. Now make those priests ripped with scales an' fangs an' horns an' a cruel streak seven leagues wide an' put them in an itty-bitty soddin' cell... an' ye 'ave a good idea o' th' love that can spring forth. An' there ye 'ave it! The origin o' th' Blood War."
I asked why it was two evil races which were fighting. "One believes evil should be nice an' orderly. One believes evil should be chaos, runnin' rampant across th' Planes. Both evil, but doesn't mean they can agree on anythin'. Bad blood, bad blood... each wants ta exterminate th' other so only their 'brand' o' evil remains. They hate each other, like... like..."
He wrung his hands together, trying to find the right words. "Ye see, they don't hate like *we* hate. We don't even know what hate *is.* We have one, *one* word fer 'hate.' They 'ave..." His voice dropped. "...thousands, upon thousands, their meanin's twisted an' piled like... bodies. *That's* why they fight."
To my question where the Blood War was fought, he responded "Plenty o' places... *usually* th' Lower Planes. Anywhere along th' River Styx... the nine layers o' Baator, th' four furnaces o' Gehenna, the Gray Waste, cold, red Carceri - the prison plane - an' the pikin' near-endless well o' evil that's th' Abyss." Somehow, the Gray Waste sounded familiar to me...
He described the Gray Waste in more detail at my request. "Also called th' 'Glooms.'" He shrugged, then shivered, as if by reflex. "Gray in every sense o' th' word. Colors burn yer eyes there; they shout, are too loud, and yer dreams are pulled ta th' surface an' poured on th' ground, lost forever. Only th' night hags rule there... the Gray Ladies o' th' Waste."
I asked about the tanar'ri. The man nodded. "The tanar'ri pay better than baatezu, but ye need ta be two or three-faced an' have a bunch o' eyes sprinkled all over yer body, 'cause ye can't ever turn yer back on them: they're chaos, the ones with whim an' whimsy in their hearts. Trust, or upholdin' their word, aren't high on their list..." He sniffed, then shrugged. "They don't care what happens, so long as *somethin'* happens an' 'tis evil. Mostly they attack th' baatezu ta keep from killin' each other."
He then described their enemies, the baatezu. "They don't usually pay as much as th' tanar'ri, but they don't break their written word. They're smart, though - several hundred, hundred, *hundred* fold smarter an' they been makin' contracts since time began. They know 'ow ta peel someone with words, they do. Sign, an' most likely ye'll be peeled an' hung ta dry in their legions..."
"They plan like bastards. They put more thought an' preparation into a single, strategic skirmish than most 'uman armies devote to an entire campaign." He sniffed, and scratched at his chin. "They usually assemble their forces on Avernus, the first layer of Baator."
He described Avernus in response to my question. "Avernus? Hrm..." The man grimaced, as if recalling the place caused physical anguish. "'Tis inhabited by th' damned an' those that prey on th' damned. Th' red-flecked lands, of noxious sands and blisterin' fires that scream across the landscape. That was my taste o' Baator, th' layer o' Avernus. Terrible place."
I was particularly interested in one type of fiend, succubi, because of my companion. He described them, "Tanar'ri - lovely but dead evil, they are. They seduce mortals ta try an' drag them inta th' Abyss." He nodded to Fall-From-Grace. "No offense, m'lady."
She replied, "None taken. You are quite correct."
I asked how one survived the Blood War. "Ye wanna know 'ow ta survive th' Blood War? Three things, cutter:" He held up a maimed hand with only two fingers.
"First off, ye stay th' pike out o' it. Secondly, keep yerself th' pikin' 'ells out o' it. An' lastly... ye stay the bloody, pikin' sod-pike out o' it."
"If any part o' th' War rolls yer way, let yer imagination give yer bum a kick an' run as far an' fast as ye can. If ye can't run, then lies *really* still an' pray it passes ye by." He paused for a moment. "'Cept, there's no place it don't touch an' there's almost nowheres ye can run ta get away from it."
I asked why the War wasn't being fought in Sigil, to which he said, "Aw, now, cutter, look: they 'ave fought here... a few times. Sometimes we get a lil' spillover from the Blood War. Our Lady of Pain, bless 'er steel-ridden heart, puts out th' fires..."
"...*some* o' th' time." He sneered. "There's been times, some horrifyin' drizzle-on-yerself-ye're-so-sodddin'-scared-times, when they've smashed an' burnt an' clawed their way through whole soddin' city blocks in Sigil afore she decides ta clean house." He clucked his tongue and winked cynically. "So she ain't always as keen on stoppin' the Blood War as it might seem, see?"
"Why don't the fiends just take Sigil?" I asked.
He laughed, but it turned into a sputtering cough. "Don't get me wrong now: both th' tanar'ri an' th' baatezu want Sigil fierce. 'Tis th' most precious stagin' ground in th' pikin' multiverse - th' Cage is th' City o' Doors an' connects *everywhere.* Ye can't ignore it, an' if ye're servin' in th' Blood War an' wanna win, ye *gotta* have it." The man coughed again. "'Tis just th' fiends aren't goin' ta *get* it while th' Lady's in charge, 'tis all. She's tough as nails, 'er blades'll cut ye deeper than any fiend's fang. An' that knots th' fiends' stems like ye wouldn't believe. One quiet Lady, 'er 'ands tucked in 'er sleeves, 'oldin' back th' Blood War all by 'erself." He laughed bitterly.
Fall-From-Grace commented in a low voice to me, "I don't find it hard to believe that a woman can stop the Blood War."
I noted that fiends were still allowed in Sigil, to which Ghysis replied, "Oh, damnably certain. They can't brawl in th' streets... too much. So as neutral ground, Sigil allows them ta rattle their bone-boxes without tryin' ta murder each other. Sometimes they'll chat it up with each other 'ere. The peace don't stay that way fer long, though..."
"Also, just 'cause they can't butcher each other in th' streets don't means spies, recruitment an' back-stabbin' don't still go on 'ere. They fight battles with lies an' words, berk. Sometimes 'tis all in th' bluster an' blather. An' there's safe houses about, too. Places where they can cool their talons afore th' next skirmish..."
"An' they like ta recruit 'ere, too. Lookin' fer boys fresh off th' Planes with a little greed in their 'earts that they can make part o' their glorious army." He stopped speaking to peer closely at me. "Mayhap they recruited ye once, eh, cutter? Ye look like ye've tasted th' War."
"Perhaps." I replied noncommittally.
"The War leaves a scar on ye, cutter. Ye'd *know.* And ye'd know ye *never* want ta go back." My temples begin to throb painfully as I considered the man's words... a memory began to surface...
The lecture hall began to fade from view as terrible visions began to seep up from the base of my mind... visions of a place where seasons were like nothing I'd ever felt, or heard, or tried to shut out. A place where prayers went unheard, falling like stones to the earth... vein-colored lightning flashed across things that were once sky, but now boiled beneath my feet and screamed when I brushed against them...
I ran at the head of a large band of men, passing through dark canyons where the walls quivered moistly and beat like a heart, wearing only my own blood as clothing. At last I stood in a place where the ashen gray terrain slithered like a mass of snakes, coiling around my ankles and whispering my evil to the earth. I marched endlessly, silently, through this colorless land, where fatigue seemed to *live* and hunt me like a shade over the wastes, whipping me with despair...
In time, I and the ragged men who followed me came upon a hag sitting upon a mound of gigantic, writhing larvae, poking at one of the slime-covered things with a broken talon. I indicated for one of the men to run forward and speak with her; the hag's grating voice carried to my ears...
"I would speak with him," she said, then cackled. Her eyes gleamed as she pointed me out to the man. "The handsome one that leads your ragged column. I would speak with him." ...and that is all I could recall.
Ghysis had noticed I had faded out, asking, "Cutter? Ye feelin' all right, there?"
I assured him I was fine, and deflected his concern by asking if the fiends recruited often. He nodded grimly. "Ye can be sure o' that. Sigil's th' best source o' fodder on th' Planes. Beats milkin' planets o' all their prime inhabitants... too much work."
I asked if he had any other advice on surviving the War. "Aye: whatever ye does, don't *talk* about th' Blood War with *any* fiend... or any deva or archon fer that matter. Just don't talk about it, period, 'cause ye never know who in the 'ells ye're really chattin' with. And all o' them get mighty touchy when ye bring up th' War. It's their reason fer livin'."
"Don't go through any portal unless ye're pikin' sure ye know where it goes. Maybe ye 'aven't 'eard tales o' clueless planeswalkers steppin' through a portal an' endin' up smack-dab in the middle o' a Blood War skirmish. Know why ye 'aven't 'eard o' them? 'Cause those sods are dead, dead, *dead.*"
"An' whatever ye does, never sign on fer a tour o' duty, no matter 'ow much jink they flash in yer mug. Certain death an' signin' on fer a tour in th' Blood War are th' same thing, cutter."
"Chances are when ye sign up, they peel ye so yer tour o' duty is 'til time itself grinds ta a 'alt. Even death wouldn't be a release, 'cause then ye sink inta th' Lower Planes an' get dredged back up as somethin' worse'n ye were before. Then they got their talons on ye fer all eternity."
I asked how one could get out of a contract. "Unless they don't want ye, ye don't 'ave much chance. I never heard o' it bein' done with mean-spirited recruits, or somebody they really wanted ta keep their talons on. Outwittin' a tanar'ri is risky but can be done... the baatezu are much more dangerous with their contracts. Ye sign one o' those, ye're dammed fer life..."
"Ye might try a little garnish, try an' dawb them, an' they might let ye make a run for it... but where would ye go? There are so many 'ells..."
I questioned how one got hired into the Blood War. He replied, "Ye know, every once-a-when some leather-headed berk comes 'round askin' about a job in th' Blood War. They want some jink, they want a quick stint an' then ta get along with their lives. Mayhap I was one o' these leatherheads. Mayhap I was a sellsword, an' 'eard there was a little jink ta be made in th' War. Got me interested..."
"Taught me a lesson, it did: we're like ants runnin' around th' heels of dancin', sod-pike gods. I saw big men, who claimed ta be big soldiers..." He shook his head. "*Paper* soldiers. Wars' a *furnace* fer them. Makes them wake up or *burn.*"
I asked, then, how he had survived the war. The man's face darkened. "I... well, that's th' one thing I won't speak of, cutter. Suffice ta say a man does what 'e 'as ta do ta escape the War."
I had heard a hard story of his survival. "But a woman named Vrischika told me you had to murder your own men to escape the War."
The man's face became red with anger. "Watch yer mouth, cutter! That's a lie! Foul, foul lie! Are ye *barmy,* jawin' with a fiend over th' War and believin' 'er every word o' it?!"
I simply replied, "What happened, then?"
"I'll tell ye what happened, berk!" He sighed and calmed down slightly. "I was part of th' Company o' the Blazin' Effigy... a part of its original number was fifty-three mortal mercenaries, though only nine o' us remained. Camped somewhere in Avernus, we were, awaitin' reinforcements fer th' next battle..."
"Well, my tour was nearly done, then... in fact, I was ta leave after that battle. Th' trouble was, had I died there, I would 'ave been theirs forever - too much blackness, too much evil in my 'eart. I would 'ave ended up a petioner in Baator, an eternal soldier in th' War." He shuddered at the thought.
"Me an' two other lads fled like dogs, that's what 'appened. We scurried across the Plane fer a handful o' days afore we came to this great pillar o' livin' 'eads... an awful sight, it was... they jabbered an' hissed at us, callin' fer us ta come closer. That night I stole away from the others an' went ta talk ta th' pillar." Ghysis shut his eyes and rubbed at his temples.
"I... I asked this pillar 'ow I might be freed, 'ow I might escape Baator... an' it told me in exchange fer th' two o' my brothers." He was quiet for a moment, biting on his knuckles as if fighting back tears. "Ta me... at th' time... t'was just math."
I felt sudden compassion for the tormented soul in front of me. I softly said, "That's a terrible choice to be forced to make."
He nodded. "Not sure if I'll forgive m'self. Now I'm just a soldier who's lookin' fer a place ta die. Tryin' ta erase th' stain o' evil, cleanse my inner Ghysis afore I die an' return ta th' Blood War. I lecture 'ere ta keep people away from it all, ta prevent them from ever havin' ta make a choice like that." It didn't escape my notice that his story wasn't that far from what Vrischika had said.
"Right... this is th' last bit, then. Some o' ye are Sensates, so's I got one thing ta say ta ye: don't sign up ta see 'what th' pikin' Blood War is about.' Don't be a barmy idiot. Use a sensory stone if ye gots ta know, but stay the 'ells away from anythin' ta do with th' Blood War fer real."
"'Tis just not worth it. 'Tis..." For a moment, a look of great pain crossed the man's face; it looked as if he was going to weep. "...not worth it, at all. That's the end o' this session, so farewell."
The day was far advanced, so I retreated to a room at the Festhall to rest for the night. As we walked to the room, Annah turned to Fall-From-Grace, who she had ignored up to now.
"So, how long will yeh be traveling with us, succubus?"
"As long as I am permitted, I suppose," came the reply, in Lady Grace's even voice.
"Well, ye're not permitted. I don't trust yeh." There
was a note of triumph in Annah's voice at this petty victory.
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