Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Dec 5, 2007

Cold Blood: Session 6

“But . . . but . . .” Sheen sputtered, unable to bring up anything more articulate. The man squinted at her.

“I’m sorry, have we met? I haven’t been in, ah, ‘The Cage’ for long,” he said. His diction and the way he neatly slotted quotation marks in around Sigil’s nickname made him sound like a Prime.

Seeing Sheen was not going to offer any useful information, Haden nudged her aside. “You’ll have to pardon my friend here. She’s had a difficult day. My name is Haden.”

Eliath leaned forward to grasp Haden’s hand. “Well met, friend,” he said genially, adopting the type of hopeful smile that the elderly and the forgetful frequently wore in the expectation that someone else knew what was going on even if they didn’t. Talan eyed the other men at the table, noting the armor, the weapons, the extensive tattoos and artistic scars. They returned the favor with interest.

“We have actually been looking for you for some time,” Haden continued.

“Really?” Eliath sounded flattered. “How interesting!” Haden had just begun to marshal an explanation when he was knocked to the side. He landed on the floor with a curse as Sheen grabbed the front of Eliath’s shirt and nearly hauled him bodily over the table.

“WHAT THE HELLS WERE YOU THINKING?!” she demanded. Eliath shrieked in horror and tried weakly to fend her off. Talan gripped the hilts of his weapons as the Doomguards erupted to their feet, knocking their chairs down. The curtain at another table flew open and more Sinkers piled onto the floor. Haden shot Talan a horrified glance as the tavern fell still, waiting.

“Sheen,” Haden said, trying to keep his tone from rising in panic, “Let him go. Let him go right now.”

Sheen didn’t seem to hear him. “You designed that weapon for Gyderic! What were you thinking?! I ended up in Avernus because of you!” She punctuated each word with a bone-rattling shake.

Joris reached out tentatively and touched her shoulder with his fingertips. “Please, Sheen, do as he says!” Sheen’s eyes slid sideways and slowly took in the crowd surrounding them. She relaxed her grip and took a step back, holding her hands up in a peaceful gesture. Eliath sprawled on the floor, weeping.

“What is she talking about?” Haden asked blankly.

“She . . . she’s right . . .” Eliath murmured. Haden bent down to help the old wizard up.

“Is it remotely possible we could sit down and hold this discussion like civilized people?” he asked, glaring at Sheen.

“Thank you, er, Haden,” Eliath said. “I’m sorry. Let’s . . . let’s all sit down and talk, yes.” They moved over to a nearby unoccupied table.

“Would you like a glass of wine, Eliath?” Talan asked, gesturing to the waitress. The conversation began to pick up again as Salja brought over a bottle and some mugs.

“Normally, no, but it might help settle my nerves.”

Sheen’s hands gripped each other, her knuckles white. “I’m sorry I overreacted,” she said shortly. “What happened to you?”

Eliath patted her arm gently. “It is I who should apologize to you, my dear. Perhaps I should explain.”

Sheen coughed to cover her discomfort. “Don’t apologize to me, it was really my own idea to get involved.”

Eliath peered into the depths of his wine glass. “I’ve been . . . a very wicked man. I trafficked with devils, and I’ve done unspeakable things in my pursuit of knowledge. Fifteen years ago, I departed from Toril and came here, to Sigil. Three years ago, I read a book that shattered my mind. By the time death came for me, I was wandering the Hive with the other barmies, with know memory of who or where I was.”

“Wait, death came for you?” Sheen asked.

“Oh my, yes. About a week ago, I think.”

“Do you mean someone tried to kill you?” Talan asked.

“Oh no, sir, I was dead. I passed beyond the Eternal Boundary, into the House of Lathandar, the Morninglord. Can you imagine? And I hadn’t worshipped him since my youth!” Joris stared. Sheen turned in her seat and looked pointedly at the cleric. “He told me I had wasted the chances I was given in life, but in His infinite mercy He would offer me one more chance.” Eliath’s voice took on a tinge of awe. “He told me that there were deeds yet for me to do, that I might atone for my sins. Then he told me to return to Sigil and enlist in the ranks of the Doomguard, so I could serve him by serving them.”

Talan and Joris exchanged skeptical glances.

“I awoke in the Lower Ward, and my mind was my own once more! Tell me, young folks, is that not the strangest tale you’ve ever heard, even in this city of strange tales? I must make the most of this chance I’ve been given!”

“I don’t know much about this ‘Lathander’, but the thought of any god sending their worshippers, even lapsed ones, into the Doomguard strikes me as more than a little . . . absurd,” Haden said dryly.

“From what I konw, when you die your spirit goes to the place of the god you worship now. If you’ve lapsed, you shouldn’t be able to leave the Fugue Plane, you should go to the City of Judgment,” Joris explained.

“Didn’t they burn your body?” Talan asked.

“So what is it exactly that you’ve been doing for the Doomguard?” Haden asked.

Eliath looked around, trying to decide which question to answer first. “I’ve been casting spells for the Sinkers, that’s all. I’m afraid I don’t remember everything I used to know, but that’s a blessing in many ways, really. I don’t know what happened to my body, but surely the power of a divinity would not find matters difficult.

All three men exchanged a skeptical glance this time. Sheen scowled.

“Listen, I believe you. You don’t have any reason to lie to us, you don’t even know us. We’re just trying to figure out why such a thing happened.”

Eliath smiled with vague geniality once again. “It is miraculous, isn’t it?” Then his expression grew sad. “Poor girl. You must have found my teleporter.”

“Yes. We retrieved your weapon, too, but it disintegrated.”

“I . . . I don’t really remember. I think it was designed to breach wards of some kind. I’ve forgotten so much in my madness.” He patted Sheen’s arm again. “I’m so sorry, truly, for any pain I’ve caused you.” Sheen writhed a bit, uncomfortable.

Haden scooted his chair back while Eliath was preoccupied and leaned sideways, the image of casual boredom. His posture also conveniently brought his mouth close to Talan’s ear. “You’re not buying this, are you?”

“No, but I’m reserving judgment. What about you?” Talan said quietly.

“Quite frankly, I think this entire story is fabricated. The questions are, by whom, and for what?” Haden spoke up. “I have to say that the circumstances surrounding your death have been a bit . . . odd.”

Talan nodded. “You can’t blame us for being a bit confused.”

“That is actually why we’re here,” Haden said. “A fair number of barmies and bubbers have been dropping dead in the Hive, yourself among them.”

“I know what you must be thinking,” Eliath said.

“Well, let me finish. We caught the killer, but it turned out that he wasn’t killing people at all, but placing them in a form of suspended animation.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Eliath said. “Why would someone do that?”

“We don’t know, that’s the problem,” Haden said. “Do you remember anything about a key to the Isle of Black Trees, for instance?”

Sheen gaped at him. “What does . . . ?”

“Don’t interrupt,” Haden instructed her.

Eliath was frowning in concentration. “I knew it, once, but I forgot it while I was insane. The Isle of Black Trees. The demiplane where a cabal of faerie wizards hid their treasure. By the dawn, how I wish I could have seen that! I’m sorry, I don’t remember the key.” He sighed, closing his eyes. “However, I do remember where I learned it.”

“Oh?” Haden asked.

“Yes. In the letters of the wizard Talmizar, which were gathered in the collection of Rhaunades. Talmizar wrote of the Isle of Black Trees in his book, The Gray Realm. No doubt that’s where you heard of it, yourself.”

“No, I’m afraid not. I will have to obtain a copy of the book to learn more, I expect.”

Eliath smiled. “You might try Kesto Brighteyes. He’s got the best bookshop in Sigil! Hah! I remember that, at least!”

“I’ll do that,” Haden said. “Now, if you’re willing, I’d like to request a small favor of you.”

“Of course. What can I do for you?”

“We, or at least they, have a Sensate friend, a healer, that may be able to examine you and assist with any lingering difficulties you may have. We would greatly appreciate it if you would talk with her and her superior.”

“Certainly,” Eliath said.

“Excellent. Where can we tell our friend to come see you?”

“I have a room here at the Sail. If I’m not here, I’m at the Armory.”

“Do you remember anything about how you died?” Sheen blurted in frustration.

“Not really, but I can still see the dark angel floating above me.”

“Are we done here?” Joris asked.

“I don’t know,” Sheen said. “Talan, can you think of anything else?”

“No, nothing. Let’s go.” Joris tossed a few coins onto the table and the four of them headed towards the exit.

Sheen eyed Haden. “The Isle of Black Trees?”

Haden grinned. “Just curiosity. Bendon’s got it into his head to go looking for the treasure. Now I can tell him to go track down that book and stop bothering me.”

Sheen shook her head. “Let’s go find Thea.” They threaded their way through the Great Bazaar, looking around idly instead of conversing. Sheen caught a glimpse of flaming red hair atop a gangly-looking man. She grabbed Talan’s shirt, jerking the half-elf to a halt.

“It’s, it’s that guy!”

“Hey!” Talan protested, then looked in the direction she was pointing. “Oh that’s . . .”

“The Abyssal Lords shouter,” Joris confirmed.

“He’s certainly cleaned up well,” Talan said. Instead of a tattered brown coat, the man was wearing a suit of chain mail and his black boots were polished to a high gloss.

Sheen started barreling through the crowd in that direction, waving her hand and calling, “Excuse me! Excuse me, sir!” The man stopped and turned around. A smile lit up his face and he sketched a bow.

“Good day to you, my lady. Tylaric Stormwing of Furyondy, at your service.”

“I’m sorry, this is going to sound really strange, but would you mind if we asked you a few questions? I’m Sheen, and these are Talan, Joris, and Haden. You see, we’ve seen you before.”

“Have you? I’ve only been here a few weeks.”

“The circumstances were a bit different. At the time you were a bit . . . crazy. And then you were dead. Or, at least, we thought you were dead. It’s a bit of a long story.”

“Or a short story that makes no sense,” Haden added.

Tylaric chuckled. “Actually, I was dead!”

“You were?” Sheen asked. “What happened?”

“About five years ago, I took a wrong turn down a Lower Ward alley and wound up in the Abyss. I was screaming barmy by the time I got back. I don’t remember much other than that, just dying. The dark angel stood over me and laid the last sleep on my eyes. When I came to myself, I was in a brilliant place and a shining figure appeared to me—Saint Cuthbert himself!”

“And he sent you back to the living world to make amends for your mistakes?” Sheen cut in.

Tylaric blinked. “Why, yes, that’s exactly right! How did you know?”

Sheen grimaced. “It’s a . . .

“Long story. Yes. You said.”

“What did he tell you to do, exactly?” Sheen asked.

“He told me to serve him by joining the Sensates. Needless to say, I did so immediately! He also told me to watch for his messengers and heed their words. I haven’t seen any of them yet, though. Still, I’ve got a second chance, and I’m not going to make a mess of it this time!”

“Do you remember how you died?” Talan asked.

“Not really. It must have happened pretty fast, and I was out of my bloody mind at the time.”

Sheen sighed. “All right, well, thank you, sir. Would you be willing to do us a favor?”

“Certainly, my lady.”

“The four of us are staying at Chirpers. If any of these messengers do show up, would you come and tell us, please? We’re, um . . .” her mouth worked as she cast around for a plausible explanation.

“There have been some odd occurrences lately, and we believe it may be connected with what happened to you,” Haden explained.

“The Cudgel has many enemies,” Tylaric said. “I will till you anything they impart to me. You seem virtuous and true. Now, if that is all?” Sheen nodded and Tylaric swept away.

“Virtuous?” Sheen asked finally, after they’d stood staring blankly for several moments. Joris snorted and Talan burst out laughing. Haden choked on his own spasmodic laugher and bent over, wheezing. Sheen began walking, shaking her head.

“Did that seem remarkably coincidental to anyone else?” Joris asked, trotting to keep up.

“No, Joris, I’m sure these events aren’t connected at all,” Haden announced. Joris laughed a bit, relieved.

“I have a theory, at least,” Sheen said. “If someone were just curing crazy people out of the goodness of their heart, there wouldn’t be all this secrecy and elaborate misdirection.”

“I wonder how Thea fits into all of this,” Talan mused.

“Do you think she’s involved?” Joris asked, incredulous.

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. How could she be involved?” Sheen announced.

“Well, she just happened to ask us to look for Eliath,” Talan said, amused.

“Bendon asked me to look for him, too, and if there’s a guileful bone in his body then I’m a monkey’s uncle,” Haden said.

The common room at Chirper’s was crowded when they went in. The halfling waiter started to bustle towards them, spotted Haden, and immediately turned around, declaring loudly that he was going on break.

“Has anyone considered the most obvious explanation?” Haden asked while they tried to spot Thea. “Maybe they actually were restored by their gods.”

Joris shook his head. “I’d like to believe it, but I don’t think I can.”

“No,” Sheen said. “Some mortal agency is at work here. Anything else is too far-fetched. Mortals can go crazy and behave inexplicably, but even I’ve never heard of a god doing that.”

“Just checking,” Haden said.

“Hi there!” Thea said. “How’d it go?”

Haden smiled thinly. “Well, we found Eliath and he’s willing to meet with you.”

“Really? He’s not dead, then?”

“Not any more,” Haden said, smirking.

Thea blinked. “What do you mean? He’s come back from the dead? Wow, now there’s a sensation I’d like to try.” Her gaze went a bit distant, then she snapped out of it. “I should tell Annali that you found him. Was he at the Black Sail?”

“Yes,” Sheen said. “He said he’ll either be there or at the Armory.”

“Thank you so much! I know it can’t have been easy!” She dug through her healer’s satchel and pulled out a small sack.

Sheen shrugged. “All we’ve done is walk around and talk to people. It wasn’t hard, but it’s certainly been confusing.”

“Yes, but the Hive can be dangerous, though,” Thea replied. “One thousand in gold, as promised. I’ll talk to you all later!” The cleric skipped off.

“Oh, just a friendly scrap with some Xaositects, nothing serious,” Haden said under his breath. Sheen upended the bag onto the table and started dividing the coins into four piles.

“I suppose Haden does deserve a share,” Joris said. “Your help was very . . . helpful.”

“What he said,” Talan announced.

Sheen shrugged. “I’m not going to have him come back later complaining that we stiffed him.”

“My, aren’t you gracious. Keep your money, I don’t need it. This has been fascinating.”

“Fair’s fair. We split.” Sheen insisted. “I don’t care what you do with it, but you’re going to take it.”

Haden accepted the funds. “So where to next? I’m assuming here that you want to keep poking at this strange little matter.”

“We should go back and confront Toranna with this,” Sheen said.

The guards at the Mortuary gate were unfamiliar, but they were familiarly hostile. “What’s yer business?” they demanded from a good twenty feet away.

“We’re here to see Toranna,” Sheen said.


“We were here before and spoke with her about a dead barmy named Eliath,” Talan said. “We would just like a few more moments of her time.”

The guard shrugged and waved someone towards the building. They waited impatiently for what felt like a long time for the Dustman to return with Toranna in tow. She seemed surprised and not at all pleased to see them.

“Ah, there you are!” Haden said as she approached.

“What? Have you lost another barmy?”

“Not in the least, but you seem to have lost some of your corpses. Leastwise, they’re up and walking around again,” Haden replied. “A distressing situation for you, no doubt.”

“Oh really? How can that be?”

“We were hoping you could tell us. I mean, it’s not very usual for dead crazy people to get up and start wandering. They seem to have contracted some pretty strange ideas, as well.”

“We incinerate all the unclaimed bodies that come to the Mortuary. I do it myself!”

“Really,” Haden said, his tone implying considerable skepticism. “So you’re responsible for this, then?”

“I’ll show you if you don’t believe me.”

“Yes, I think that would be best,” Haden said. “Clear up this little misunderstanding.

“Fine,” Toranna announced and swept back into the building. They followed her up the stairs into the Mortuary’s great hall. Massive columns held up the vaulted ceiling, and their boots clicked over the floor of rough black marble.

“I have such a bad feeling about this,” Talan said, bringing up the rear.

“I’ve had a bad feeling all day,” Joris said. “So it’s only gotten worse.”

“I guess all we can do is stay alert,” Talan said, sighing.

“So,” Haden said conversationally. “Do you know anything about divine visitations?”

“Beg pardon?” Toranna said, her frustration beginning to show.

“Divine visitations. You know, gods and such.”

“My faith in the Black Sun doesn’t require such feeble proofs.” Haden looked perplexed.

“She means Cyric. God of lies,” Joris said.

Toranna shot a smug smile at him over her shoulder. “Cyric is god of many things.”

“Not death. Not any more.” Toranna’s smile vanished and she stormed up the stairs to the second floor. They entered a vast chamber divided by the vaulting that supported the roof. Several sheet-wrapped bodies lay on slabs awaiting internment, and a few zombies moved slowly around the room.

“Oh. Lovely,” Sheen remarked. She looked at the two Dustmen standing before a portal that spat tongues of flame, preparing to shove a body through.

“There,” Toranna said. “Elemental fire. Nothing can survive it.”

“That does look rather permanent,” Haden said.

“Yes. The fire always hungers! Four more bodies will do little to appease it!” Toranna shouted. She turned to the zombies. “Kill them!”

“Wow, that’s a shock,” Talan said, drawing his swords and hacking at one of the undead. Sheen held up her hands and a field of glistening ectoplasm erupted into existence, hovering protectively in front of her.

Haden smiled. “You’ve inspired me. Zombie Haiku.” He cleared his throat. “Dead bodies shuffle/Are they going to kill us?/It seems unlikely.”

Joris waved his holy symbol at the zombies. “BACK!” after a brief pause, they turned and began shuffling away in the other direction. Toranna turned to look at the Dustmen by the portal.

“Get help, you fools!” she yelled. They simply stared. Cursing in frustration, she ran across the room and took a flying leap into the portal.

“What in the hells?” Sheen demanded.

“What did you DO to her?” asked one of the Dustmen.

“Nothing! You saw, she just went crazy!”

“So she just leapt to a fiery death?” Joris asked.

The Dustman slapped his fellow on the shoulder. “Told you.”

“You told him what?” Sheen asked.

“That she was crazy.”

“I’m not buying this,” Sheen said. The portal shivered and then winked out of existence.

“Has she done anything else lately to make you think she was losing her grip?” Talan asked.

“Rindo here said she had too much passion to embrace True Death.”

“Yeah, but YOU wouldn’t listen.”

“Has anything come out of the portal?” Talan persisted.”

“Bodies go in. Nothing comes out.”

“Can you open it again?” Sheen asked.

“Toranna had the key. Red beads, I think.”

“Does she have an office or something?”

“Nah, but you might try her quarters. Should we go tell Komosahl?” the Dustman asked his partner, Rindo.

“Donneray, you sod, leave ‘im out of it! If it gets out that Toranna burned ‘erself up on our watch, we’ll be in for it!”

“I’m going to search,” Sheen said decisively. “Haden, you stay here in case she shows up again.”

“Oh yes, MA’AM,” Haden snorted.

Toranna’s quarters proved to be Spartan indeed. Sheen uncovered a holy—or unholy—symbol, a pair of heavy keys, a small pouch full of red glass beads, and a pair of gold earrings under the bed. In the pocket of a spare robe she also found a letter, but it was unintelligible. She grabbed everything on general principles and took it back to the crematorium. Haden took a look at the letter and chuckled.


“You can read it?” Sheen asked.

“Not in the least. Of course I can read it.”

“Well, what does it say?”

Haden cleared his throat dramatically. “Toranna, congratulations on your progress with the Dustmen. The Eternal Boundary plan has begun. Look for unknown or unidentifiable corpses marked behind the right ear. Make sure those corpses are cremated using the portal we discussed. Move quickly, as the Shadowknave’s spell will wear off after only a few hours. Finally, I should mention that I am now leader of our organization. Green Marvent has moved on to other pursuits. Best wishes, Baltazo.”

Sheen stared.

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