Sheen glared at the enormous greatsword-wielding warrior, her eyes beginning to glow as ectoplasm rolled off her body. The basher yelled and started forward, and the battle began. Talan drew his sword and dagger, but his weapons simply scraped of the big man’s armor. The woman in priestess’ robes standing beside the big man gestured and cast a spell just as Sheen’s spear whizzed over her head. Joris’s hand emerged from behind her and grabbed the haft of her spear, causing the weapon to take on a faint glow. Then Sheen was nearly lifted from her feet as the greatsword collided with her shoulder.
Sheen staggered forward and thrust her spear into the priestess, nearly impaling the woman. She screamed and hurtled herself away, frantically casting another spell that caused her to disappear from sight.
Haden pressed himself back against the wall as five thugs charged up the alley and attacked him. He dodged one, but the other caught him a solid blow across the ribs with a longsword. He struggled to ignore the blood and the pain and skewered the man with his rapier. The other three barreled into Talan and took the half-elf down, leaving Sheen to face the big basher alone. A tense melee ensued while Joris dragged Talan out of harm’s way and cast healing over him. Haden pressed his arm against his bleeding ribs and cut another thug down.
Sheen stared, confused, as the big man abruptly lowered his greatsword and took a step back, causing a lull in the fighting. “Sharp you bloods, not are bad,” he said. “Where did you, who say you?” She held still for a moment, then relaxed her posture slightly.
“I’m sorry, but did you just ask who we are and where we’re from?” she asked, perplexed.
“Down stand you!” he said, gesturing to the other thugs, who backed away from Talan, Haden, and Joris.
“Right you’re, speech is confusing Xaositect Clueless to know I,” replied the big man. He offered Sheen a thick gauntleted hand. “Mordrigaarz Antill, Chaosman.” She nodded and accepted the hand, shaking it once briskly.
“I am known as Sheen, and these are Talan and Joris. And Haden, but he’s a local so perhaps he needs no introduction.”
Mordrigaarz cocked his head at Haden. “Him before seen I’ve think don’t I. That like face a remember I’d.”
Haden chuckled, then winced a bit as it pulled at his ribs. “Oh, come n ow, Mordrigaarz, everyone must have heard of me by now. I’m hurt.” The big man waved imperiously at the other Xaositects.
“Now Dalla find!” They disappeared down the alley.
“Hive brings afternoon what the to you fine this?”
“Haden, could you translate for us?” Talan asked cringing as he tried to follow the twisted sentence. Haden bestowed a condescending smile on the half-elf.
“Well, of course, if you need me to,” he said. Joris rolled his eyes as he reached out and healed Haden’s injuries. “It takes some more time that others to catch on, I suppose.”
“If my head didn’t feel like an eight hundred year old tree just fell on it, I might be following this a little better,” Talan grumbled.
“Frankly, I’m surprised she understands, but maybe her hardheadedness is a benefit here,” Haden added.
Sheen glared at him. “We’re here looking for a man named Eliath, he’s rumored to be a bit, ah, barmy? We’re concerned because of all the odd inexplicable deaths.”
“So are we,” Haden translated. “These are our streets, but we have to be careful. I’m sure you have been, too.”
“Right up until about five minutes ago, actually,” Sheen said. “Have you or any of your fellows seen anything odd?”
“The bodies we see have no cause of death, but we haven’t caught the killer’s scent yet.” One of the thugs came back with the priestess in tow. She was cringing behind the man, her eyes wide with fear. “I’ll deal with you later,” Mordrigaarz said.
“Why did you attack us?” Talan asked.
“Because we don’t know you. Strangers in our Hive could be the killers.”
“And here I was under the impression you were trying to mug us,” Sheen said.
“Antill here likes to fight,” Dalla explained. “I’ve tried to get him to talk first, but he’s one to leap before looking.”
“Really?” Haden said. “I’m shocked.” He smiled expansively. “If you folks can still totter, why don’t you join us all for a nice meal and a drink? We were just on our way to procure some dinner. No hard feelings and all that.”
Talan grinned. “I was just thinking that.”
“No hard feelings,” Mordrigaarz said, “but we have to continue our search. If you’re looking for a barmy, you might try the Mortuary. With all the murders. If we find something, we’ll let you know.”
“Capital of you, old chap,” Haden said. He tossed off a few spells that healed the rent in his clothing and cleaned off all traces of blood and dirt.
“I don’t suppose you could do that for the rest of us?” Talan asked as they resumed their interrupted journey. Haden laughed and pointed a finger at the ranger, causing blood and dirt to lift from his clothing.
“Here we are at the Butcher’s Block,” Haden said. “It’s a favorite watering hole for thieves and cutthroats, but it’s about the best place to eat you’ll find around here.” He pushed through the door and flagged down a scarred old ogre, who seated them at a table.
“Isn’t this where Derioch was going to wait?” Sheen asked, looking around.
“Yes, but it’s not dark yet,” Joris said, applying himself to the food. It was greasy and unremarkable in flavory, but there was plenty of it. Sheen took a few bites to show willing, but she found that food tended to make her feel ill.
“So where to next, my fine Clueless?” Haden asked after they’d more or less finished. “The Gatehouse?”
“Or we could go back to the Mortuary and see if Toranna is back,” Joris suggested.
“Another excellent idea.”
“Let’s go back to the Mortuary,” Sheen said. “Didn’t Derioch say she would check at the Gatehouse for us when she went back there?”
The rain appeared to be letting up as they wound their way through the streets, turning into a heavy mist that made the Hive even more eerie and threatening than before. The surrounding glow that passed for daylight was beginning to fade by the time they arrived. The guard recognized them and sent for Toranna immediately.
“Well, that was easy,” Haden remarked as they waited.
The captain leaned forward and remarked, “Have you considered the possibility that you might already be dead?”
Sheen blinked. “Being dead tends to put a damper on the ‘considering’. So, no.” Haden hid a chuckle behind his hand.
“I’ll have to admit, I’m a bit confused,” Talan murmured.
“That’s not what I meant,” the captain said. “See, what if this”—he made a broad gesture which seemed to indicate everything—“is the afterlife?”
“Then I want a refund,” Sheen announced. Joris chuckled while Talan frowned.
“What if existence is an afterworld test to see if we’re worth for True Death?”
“Then I should remember being alive before, yes?” Sheen asked, growing more irritated by this bizarre line of questioning.
“This is your faction’s philosophy, I suppose?” Joris asked. The captain snapped his fingers and pointed at Joris.
“Exactly.” Sheen harrumphed.
“Hello, I am Toranna. I understand you have some questions for me,” a youngish woman with oddly gray hair said, approaching them. Haden moved forward, took her hand, and bowed over it.
“Madam.” Talan rolled his eyes at Sheen and Joris. Toranna seemed more surprised than flattered, and reclaimed her hand while giving Haden a quelling look. “These poor confused individuals would like to ask if you’ve interred a particular individual recently,” Haden continued as Toranna turned away to address the rest of the group. She did a double-take as she looked at Joris, staring at the symbol on his chest. Around her own neck, there was another symbol on a chain, which Talan vaguely recognized as belonging to Cyric.
“Yes,” Sheen said. “His name is Eliath, but there was no one around to identify him, most likely. He had white hair, a squint, and wore blue robes, most likely.”
“He was pretty thin, too,” Talan added.
Toranna pursed her lips. “Yes, I saw him. We usually send someone’s body to the Outer Plane that best suits them. When they’re unclaimed, or . . .” she shrugged, “they’re incinerated in the Elemental Plane of Fire.”
“Somehow I knew this wasn’t going to be easy,” Talan said, grimacing.
“I’m sorry, but your friend went to the flames last week.”
Haden looked extremely disgruntled. “What about his personal effects?”
“Those are usually taken by the Collectors. He didn’t have anything but his robe when they brought him in. If you wanted that, I’m afraid it went with him.”
“Damn!” Haden swore. “Ah, well, I should have expected it.”
“Was there anything else?” Toranna asked. “I should be getting back to work.”
“How did he die, by the way?” Sheen asked. Toranna shrugged.
“I couldn’t tell. Three of us looked him over, but he didn’t have a mark on him.”
“We encountered a similar corpse in an alleyway, and Haden detected some traces of necromantic magic on the body,” Sheen said.
“Have you noticed a lot of these coming your way?” Talan asked.
Toranna looked surprised and vaguely uneasy. “Necromancy? That’s odd. Yes, there have been at least twelve that I can recall.”
“Why odd?” Sheen asked.
“That sounds like someone is using magic to kill them. I wonder why someone would do that?”
“Well, when we find them, I’m sure we can ask them. I’m more interested in how because it might lead us back to them,” Sheen said. “Are there any practicing necromancers in the Hive that you know of?”
“There are a few in the Dustmen,” Toranna said, but none of them are the type to run around killing berks. I’ll get one of our gravespells to look at the one that came in today.”
“Are there a lot of barmy in the Hive?” Talan asked.
“Well, yes, the poor sods always end up down here. No one else wants them, I guess.”
Sheen sighed. “That’s all I can think of at the moment. Let’s head out, shall we?” They left, waiting until they were well out of earshot before convening.
“I couldn’t tell if she was lying,” Joris said, fuming. “Cyric was the god of death until about a year ago, and he’s also the god of lies.”
“Does anyone else find it suspicious that Toranna had mysterious personal business right when that poor insane fellow was killed?” Sheen asked. “I smell a rat. I know it seems like a long shot, but I’d really, really like to keep a watch on the Mortuary and follow her the next time she goes out.” She glanced at Haden. “Are there any back doors? Or do you have to leave through the main gate?”
Haden smirked. “Sooner or later, whether they want to admit it or not, everyone needs my help. It would be better to hire a street urchin to follow her, or several, even. I think you’d be pretty noticeable hanging around.”
“You’d?!” Sheen demanded.
“I’m not exactly part of your little cavalcade here, am I?” Haden asked.
“So you’re planning on leaving?” Sheen asked.
“At some point we do need to meet Derioch at the Butcher’s Block. Maybe hiring a few street urchins isn’t such a bad idea,” Talan said, trying to redirect the argument. Haden gave a noncommittal one shoulder half shrug. “Have we ceased to be so amusing, Haden?” Talan asked.
“There’s a lot more to Sigil than we’ve seen, we may need you a while longer,” Joris said.
“Perhaps,” Haden replied, “but the question is, do I need you.”
“I’ve been wondering when this would happen,” Talan groused. Haden was watching Sheen with an odd expression on his face. She chewed the inside of her cheek a bit.
“What do you want?” she asked finally. Haden leaned forward until his nose was less than an inch away from her own. She concentrated on not moving back from sheer reflex.
“How about you ask me nicely?” he said. Sheen’s face contorted until she looked as though she had swallowed a lemon.
“Back to this, are we?” Talan said. Joris’ hand strayed towards his mace.
“Would you . . . possibly consider . . . sticking around to . . . help us out,” Sheen forced out. Then, after a considerable pause, “Please.”
Haden glanced over at Talan. “I don’t know, does that count as nicely?”
“For Sheen, I’d say yes.”
Haden smiled winningly. “I’ll take what I can get, I suppose. Well, off we go then.” He stopped to accost some street children, hand them a few coins, and ask them to keep an eye on Toranna, the entire transaction taking only a few seconds.
“Let’s go meet Derioch,” Sheen said. They made their way back to the Butcher’s Block through the nighttime Hive, which was alive with the lurid glow of a hundred fires and torches, shining through the ruins and slums. Talan heard a faint cry from a nearby alley and held out his hand for the others to halt.
“Hey! Get off me, ya berk! Get awa—ack!” Haden peered into the alley, but Sheen, more direct, simply drew her sword and began striding towards the source of the disturbance. A bit nervously, the others followed her. They found four thugs restraining a drunk just around the bend. A half elf in roguish costume supervised with a smirk. He cast a spell and the drunk went limp.
“Let’s drag him to the street so the Collectors’ll find him,” he said. Sheen pushed herself into a shadow behind a refuse bin and concentrated, psionic power energizing her for the battle she knew was coming. The others followed suit. The alley was so dark and twisty that the thugs walked right by them without seeing. Talan drew his sword and dagger and leapt from the shadows, throwing himself on the half elf. There was a screech of pain and Sheen followed, trying to take down the spellcaster before he had time to organize himself. She landed a solid blow.
Haden stepped out in front of the first group of toughs and recited a terrible bit of insulting poetry to their stunned faces. Smiling, he bowed and drew his rapier. Joris took advantage of the distraction to crack one in the back of the head with his mace. The thug went down.
Talan assaulted the half elf again, burying his dagger in the man’s gut and ripping it free along with most of his intestines. Sheen and Haden each dispatched a thug, leaving the last one staring at them wide-eyed with horror. Haden assumed a graceful fencing stance, pointing his rapier at the man’s throat. “I’d surrender, if I were you.” The thug looked at his sword, still in its sheath, and fell to his knees.
“Have you been a party to all the deaths of drunks and crazies?!” Sheen demanded viciously. “Well?!”
The thug flinched and pointed at the half elf. “It was him! That sodding Shadowknave!”
“What for?” Sheen asked.
“He hired us to hold ‘em barmies down while he cast ‘is spells on ‘em!”
“What spells?” Talan asked.
“I recognized it,” Joris said. “It was feign death. It makes the subject indistinguishable from a dead person.”
“So he’s just been rendering them unconscious?” Sheen asked.
“I think so. It lasts for a few hours.”
“Are you telling me they were all alive?!” Talan cried.
“I dunno what he was doing to ‘em, I only cared about the jink,” the thug said, shrinking away.
“Did he have a base of operations?” Sheen asked the thug.
“’E was keepin ‘is kip at the Butcher’s Block, but that’s all I know, I swear!” Talan looked even more furious than before.
“I’d take to my heels now before they get it into their heads to skewer you as well,” Haden said conversationally. “And next time, be a little more careful about who you accept money from.”
“Thank you sirs, madam, merciful bloods you is . .” the thug said, and ran for it. Haden began searching the corpses methodically.
“Let’s take this poor ‘corpse’ to Derioch,” Sheen said, hoisting the drunk over her shoulders with a grunt of effort. Her nose wrinkled reflexively at the stench of unwashed clothing and stale drink.
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