Sheen looked down at the strange groveling creature briefly, then around at the blasted landscape. “They really need to hire some landscapers around here,” she announced. Her voice trembled only slightly. Probably the best she could hope for in the circumstances. Assured of self-control if not peace of mind, Sheen turned to the prostrate devil.
“What do you think you’re doing? Get up! At least pretend to have some dignity.” Sheen took a few steps down from the platform, striking an arrogant pose with her arms crossed and feet braced apart. The creature rose slowly to its feet but it wavered on its feet uncertainly. “Well? Do you have a name?”
“Halitsu,” it said in a voice like glass grinding together. Its eyes darted towards a large brass-bound horn positioned at the far end of the outcropping. It attempted a disarming smile. Sheen could hear Joris step forward to take up position beside her. He looked a little white, especially around the knuckles and the face, but he seemed to gain strength from her unyielding position.
“What do you know about this portal, Halitsu?”
The devil shrugged. “You’ve come to Avernus. I don’t know from where, I only know that it’s a one-way trip. The Bronze Citadel, fortress of Bel, is not far away.” Sheen glanced over at Joris to see if the name made any impression on him.
The cleric grimaced. “Bel is Lord of the First, the archduke of this layer.”
“He keeps the demonic invaders at bay,” Halitsu ground out. “All Glory to Bel!”
“Right,” Sheen said. So he’s in charge here? He sounds like just the devil we need to speak with, then.”
“Heh heh. It’s your funeral.”
“Have any other humans come through this portal recently?”
Halitsu grinned, seeming to relax a bit. “There was a half-elf a couple weeks ago, but he got away before I could get help. The other one, though, the other one was delicious.” The devil waved toward a heap of peasant clothing and well-chewed bones.
“Cari,” Joris said, sighing.
“The half-elf was some Clueless sod, not a couple of bloods like you two.”
“We happen to be looking for a ‘clueless sod’. Where exactly did he run off to?”
“East, towards the mountains. Prolly to see the mad witch. That’s what I told him when he asked about another way out of here.”
Sheen rolled her eyes. “Well that’s just so very helpful. I’m sure your important responsibilities prevented you from detaining him, so we’ll just have to track him down ourselves. Goo—er, Evil Day,” she spat and stalked away from the portal and the devil. Her spine tingled and itched; turning her back on the creature was sheer torture. “Come along, Joris.”
“Right, right . . .” the cleric muttered and hurried to keep up. “What if he calls for reinforcements?” Joris whispered.
“Can we do anything about it?”
“Um, probably not.”
They walked steadily until they were out of sight, then Sheen sat down on a rock to let the strain out of her limbs. “Are you all right?” she asked Joris. She could almost imagine that she could see faces frozen in the rock, screaming in endless horror.
“I think I’m so afraid that I can’t even feel it any more.”
Sheen chuckled dryly. “Exactly. I thought it was better not to correct that devil’s misapprehension of the situation.”
“That was probably wise.” Joris wiped sweat off his forehead and swallowed some water. The landscape was hot and parched. Sheen found herself very glad that simple energy sustained her. She could imagine how miserable it might become in a short while. As they crested a rise they could make out a black mass to the south, an army of fiends wandering around on the plain below. They walked for what felt like a long time, climbing towards some large rocks that might pass as mountains.
Squinting into the distance, Sheen thought she could make out a humanoid form approaching. She gripped the haft of her longspear tightly and loosened her short sword in its sheath with a feeling of deja vu. Joris shielded his eyes with a hand, trying to make out the newcomer. It looked like a half-elf wearing a suit of studded leather armor. His bright green eyes watched them uncertainly and he fingered the bow over his shoulder.
“Hail, traveler!” Sheen called, feeling, again, that she’d done this before. The half-elf stopped and regarded them for a time.
“Hail yourselves! From where do you come?”
“We are most recently from the Larch Hills, near Waterdeep. I am Sheen, and this is Joris.” Joris nodded politely.
“Well met. My name is Talan.”
Sheen nodded. “We all seem to be in the same difficulty. Might I ask how you came to be here?”
“It is funny you should mention the Larch Hills. I am from the High Forest, on my way to visit friends when bad weather made me seek shelter in an abandoned home under a hill. I then, somehow, found myself here.”
“That sounds familiar,” Joris remarked.
Sheen nodded again. “We have just come from the same place. That mound was home to a wizard interested in planar travel. He built a large portal in his workroom that has thus far transported several unwary persons here. I would like to find this wizard, if possible. We would welcome your company; this does not seem like a good place to wander alone.” A fireball burst nearby, sending a wave of heat rolling over them.
“I accept your offer on one condition,” Talan said. “I am looking for a witch, a sorcerer who may be able to help us all get back.”
“That sounds like a good idea to me. I have no idea where the wizard may be, a search for him may take some time.”
“Judging from the condition of his house, he left years ago,” Joris affirmed.
Talan drummed his fingers against his arm briefly, then pulled out a wand. “Does this look familiar to either of you?”
“I fear I know little of the arcane,” Sheen said, waving the wand away. Joris frowned thoughtfully.
“Do you know the command word for it?”
“I think Hexla used the word ‘repastus’ to make it create food. Before I lost her, the witch told me to visit the Pillar of Skulls and ask about a portal and a key.”
“Did she mention how to find this pillar?” Sheen asked.
“She left me a map with directions before she disappeared.” Talan unrolled a bit of cloth and the three of them looked at it.
“All right, then I suppose we’d best be on our way,” Sheen said after a moment. The three of them turned and began walking. “This place isn’t so different from Faerun. Arrive, get lost, someone gives you directions, and you end up walking all over the place. Well, apart from the foul stench and the bleak landscape, I mean.”
“Sometimes we walk back the way we came, too,” Joris said.
“It does leave something to be desired,” Talan said. “So, Joris, how did you and Sheen meet?”
“I was on my way to Waterdeep with some friends, and we decided to help the villagers in Red Larch when some children went missing. We . . . we ran into an owlbear. I was the only survivor.”
“As for myself, I encountered Joris on the path much the way we just encountered you.”
“I am sorry, Joris, it was not my desire to cause you pain by dredging up evil memories, but do you think the villagers you were looking for could possibly be here?”
“No, we found all three. Dead.”
“It would seem that our only current task is to rescue ourselves,” Sheen said quietly. “I am here because the wizard Morard was implicated in a . . . plot . . . of sorts.”
“You knew the wizard?” Talan asked just as Joris said, “Is this the duty you were talking about?”
“No, I did not know him. He was building a device for a frie . . . an acquaintance of mine. Ex-acquaintance. It seemed prudent to investigate.” Sheen coughed a bit and looked away. Joris shrugged it off, but Talan stopped dead in the path. Sheen raised an eyebrow at the half-elf.
“What is it?” Joris asked.
“If we are to guard each other’s backs, it would be best to get the secrets out of the way. Anything that has no bearing on my safe return can rest, but if it affects our chances of getting home, I would like to hear it.”
“It is nothing that will cause you any difficulty,” Sheen explained, pulling a large moonstone out of her belt pouch. “It came to my attention that the wizard Morard was building some kind of destructive item. I know little else about it. It was intended to be used in Waterdeep, I believe, but I don’t even know whether the wizard completed the device.”
“We didn’t see anything like a weapon in the mound,” Joris said. Talan leaned forward to get a better look at the stone. Pulling one of her gloves off, Sheen touched the otherwise ordinary-looking rock. It vibrated and began to speak. She shivered as the sound of Gyderic’s voice washed over her again.
“It is an item that can record messages, nothing more. I played the message accidentally some time ago, that is how I discovered the existence of the wizard. I had nothing else to do and nowhere to go, so I thought I would have a look.”
“So are you the pawn this Gyderic speaks of?” Joris asked.
Sheen gritted her teeth. “Yes, to my shame. I made a mistake, I have paid for it, and I’d rather not discuss it any further.” Joris patted her arm a bit awkwardly. “At least he didn’t get away with it.”
Talan smiled. “We all make mistakes, even elves.”
“Where is he now?” Joris asked.
“Dead.” Sheen chuckled sharply and without humor. “Who knows, he may be around here somewhere.”
“If nothing else,” Joris said, “this excursion has restored my faith that the wicked get what is coming to them.”
“Who is Baltazo?” Talan asked.
“I do not know. I never met him.”
“I am not asking from idle curiosity,” Talan explained. “This destructive device, do you have any idea what it might be? I have no wish to see Waterdeep come to harm.”
“I know nothing. Maybe I can ask this pillar about it.”
They climbed a hill to the southwest and descended into a fuming pit where a massive pillar stood, the Pillar of Skulls. It was not truly made of skulls, it was a pile of living heads belonging to creatures of all descriptions, some not even identifiable. They were all in various stages of decay and decomposition and they argued constantly, their voices shrill and manic.
“How are we going to get any sense out of something like that?” Sheen murmured. Sighing, she stepped forward. “Hail, creature or creatures! Attend!” The heads fell abruptly silent and their eyes swiveled towards her. Joris swallowed nervously. Then, all the heads began to talk at once.
“Hey . . . I know . . . you want . . . I can . . .”
“ENOUGH!” a booming voice cried. The heads fell silent again. Talan tugged on Sheen’s arm, then whispered in her ear.
“I just remembered that Hexla said we will have to offer them something in return for information.”
An immense head that must have belonged to an ogre or a giant force itself to the fore, rolling its eyes grotesquely. “State your business,” it slurred.
“We wish to know two things,” Sheen said. “The whereabouts of the wizard Morard, and the way to exit this plane—specifically a portal, and a key. Tell us your price.”
“We also wish to know where Hexla is,” Talan said.
“So many questions,” the ogre head muttered. “Serve me and I will answer all.”
“Serve how?” Sheen demanded. Instantly, all the heads began to speak again.
An elf cried: “Knock him out, and I’ll tell you about the portal!”
“Bring back a fiend, and I’ll tell you about the wizard!” shouted a chubby human.
“For magic I will tell you of the witch!”
“So many answers,” Talan said.
“I hunger. For knowledge,” the ogre continued. “Give me. The smartest of you. And I will answer. All.”
“What do you mean, ‘give me’?” Talan demanded.
“Press him. Into the Pillar. He will be mine. Truth will be yours.”
“Absolutely not!” Sheen yelled. “Joris, give me your mace!” The cleric thrust it at her and she grasped it, concentrating. Then she swung it directly at the Ogre head. There was a loud *crunch* and it drooped, unconscious. Sheen handed the mace back to Joris. “Hmph. As if we would hand over one of our companions.” She pointed at the elf skull. “YOU! Tell us about the portal!”
“The portal leading from Avernus lies to the west, and the key is a fiend’s spine.”
“You leatherhead! That portal’s five days from here! The nearest portal is south! The key is a brick from the Great Avernus Road!” Several other heads spoke their agreement.
“Where is the Great Avernus Road?” Talan asked.
“And where does the portal lead?” Sheen added.
“The road is southeast of here, past the river. If you want to know where the portal leads, that’ll cost extra.”
Sheen held up the moonstone. She didn’t really need it any longer. “If I give you this, will you tell me where the portal leads?”
Talan grabbed her hand. “Wait! If we give you the stone, we want more information.”
“About the witch? We will share the payment. We will tell you.”
“That works for me,” Sheen said. She pressed the stone into the pillar, glad she was wearing gloves.
“The portal leads to Sigil, the Cage, the City of Doors. It opens in the Bazaar.”
Sheen turned to look at Joris. “Is that an improvement over here?”
“Yes. It’s supposed to be the city at the center of the universe.”
“I thought that was Waterdeep.”
“Heh, and I thought it was Silverymoon.”
“As for the witch,” the heads continued. “She is in the Bronze Citadel. She has an . . . agreement with Bel. She could not survive here, otherwise.”
“So she’s still alive,” Talan said. “Good.”
Sheen rubbed her head tiredly. “If Morard went around exploring the planes, he probably went to Sigil at some point. I think we’ve dealt with this . . . thing . . . long enough.
The river was easy enough to find, but it contained no water. The banks were filled with a sluggish flow of blood. It took them some time to find a place shallow enough to ford, and even then the blood was waist deep. They secured their belongings and began wading across.
“How is this reasonable?” Sheen demanded. “Nothing could bleed this much. Pfaugh.”
They trudged on for some time, their feet squelching in foulness on the river’s bottom. Then Talan gave a horrified yell. A leech the size of a small dog had attached itself to the small of his back. He tore a dagger off his belt and began trying to cut it away from his skin. Joris moved to help him, and with some effort they managed to cut the creature loose. It burst, sending a gout of fresh blood downstream.
“Gah, I’ve got one too!” Joris yelled, and they repeated the process. Sheen looked around and realized another leech was swimming slowly away from her. She stabbed it with her spear and it exploded. She realized she was feeling a bit lightheaded. All three of them raced up the far shore and collapsed.
“This place,” Sheen announced, panting. “Is REALLY stupid. Giant attack leeches living in a river of blood? COME ON.”
Talan laughed. “It’s challenging, I’ll grant you that.”
“Let’s go find our brick and get out of here,” Sheen announced and shot to her feet. Her eyes crossed and she listed heavily to one side, propping herself up with her spear. She burned off the last remnants of her power and managed to get upright once more.
By the time they’d limped to within half a mile of the Road, they realized that retrieving a brick might be trickier than they expected. A vast army of devils was assembling, apparently mustering for battle. They covered the road from edge to edge and far into the distance.
“Right,” Sheen said. “So who is really, really sneaky. Not me, in case you were wondering.”
“I doubt Mask himself is that sneaky,” Joris said. “But it looks like they are getting ready to move out.”
Sheen nodded. “Why don’t you two try to get some sleep while we wait? I’ll keep watch.”
Talan nodded. “Wake me for second watch, you need your sleep as well, right?”
Time passed. Eventually Sheen reached over and nudged Talan. He awoke instantly. “Did anything happen?”
“Not really. I’m going to get some rest. If they don’t start moving, I guess we’ll have to come up with something else.” Sheen made herself as comfortable as possible and drifted off. She awoke, slowly, to Talan shaking her shoulder. The fiends had been joined by a wing of flying devils and a huge figure that might well be their commander. Slowly, the train began to move. After far too long, they were out of sight.
The three of them sprinted towards the road, Sheen pulling out a hammer and chisel. She pounded the chisel into a gap between two stones and began trying to lever it out.
“Not to rush you, but . . .” Talan said, pointing. Another mass of flying devils was approaching fast. Sheen grunted, but the stone moved only a little. The devils grew closer as she continued to work. Then a hideous cry rang out.
“They’ve spotted us . . .” Talan hissed. The stone came free. Sheen dumped it into her pouch and they ran for their lives. The devils were faster, but they had a lot of ground to cover. Ahead, they could see the portal atop a great rise. Joris began to lag behind, slowed by his armor. Talan and Sheen grabbed his arms and hauled him along by main force.
“If . . . I . . . ever . . . find . . . that . . . wizard . . .” Sheen panted. They were almost to the portal when a tall, slender figure seemed to rise up out of the ground. The flying fiends shrieked and began to slow, circling overhead like terrible buzzards. The figure looked almost human, with black hair, angular features, and a penetrating gaze. He held up his hands in welcome and it appeared that his fingernails were three or four inches long.
“What ho, travelers! I bid you good health and welcome you to this portal! I am Ar’kle-mens, its guardian. What can I do for you.”
“We’d like to pass through?” Sheen said uncertainly.
“We have a brick,” Talan announced.
“If you wish to pass through, I ask that you do me a small favor.”
“And that would be?” Talan asked.
“Take this through with you,” Ar’kle-mens said, holding out a small brass orb. “I promise it will not harm you.” Sheen stared at it. For some reason, she was certain this was Morard’s weapon.
“Oh yeah?” She said. “But it will harm someone else?”
“If you do not take it, you will have to fight me. My friends”—he gestured at the sky—“would not appreciate that.”
“I’ll take it,” Sheen said. Ar’kle-mens’ face contorted into a terrible smile. He handed her the orb, which was light and strangely cold in her hand, then stood aside.
“After we cross, what happens to that orb?” Talan asked.
“That question would be better answered by the wizard who gave it to me. He’s somewhere on the other side.”
The portal leapt to life as they stepped through. It was disorienting, but not as bad as before. They emerged from an archway into the bustle of a city. Buildings stretched in every direction, including upwards. The horizon curved in on itself. The crowds were full of creatures, humanoids and fiends, men with goat legs and horns and even stranger things.
The orb in Sheen’s hand grew colder still. Cracks formed in the surface and it abruptly turned to dust and blew away. She sighed, too exhausted to care. “Is that an inn?” she asked quietly. They turned and began to walk in that direction.
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