Haden hauled himself up the stairs to the second floor of Chirper’s, grinning at the muddy smudges he left behind on the stairs, the banister, and the walls. “You know, I think I could really start to like this intrepid wilderness explorer gig,” the aasling said cheerfully. Sheen made an incredulous noise.
“No, really!” Haden persisted, pausing on the landing to make an expansive gesture with his arms. “I could roam secret glens upon which no man hath laid eyes since the very dawn of time, and yea, listen to the mysterious wisdom of the noble beasts that dwell therein . . .”
Talan grinned. “You’d be bored out of your mind within hours,” he said.
“Not at all,” Haden announced, waving a dismissive hand in Talan’s direction. “I could while away the hours, conferring with the flowers . . .”
Talan laughed outright. “And consulting with the rain?”
Haden rolled his eyes. “And that, my friend, is why you’ll never be a poet. It almost scans, but what sort of rhyme scheme are you going toward here? Rhyming couplets are passe. You’d have to start a new phrase there.”
“Give it up, Haden,” Joris said. “You’d never stand for all the vermin. I saw you cast that spell on the hut. You can’t de-louse all outdoors.”
Haden shrugged. “So my head I’d be scratching while my thoughts were busy hatching . . .”
“If you only had a brain?” Sheen suggested. Joris choked and Talan doubled over laughing, nearly tumbling headfirst down the staircase in the process.
“A born critic,” Haden announced, sniffing contemptuously and pointing his nose at the ceiling while sweeping his cloak dramatically over his shoulder and prancing up the stairs. Then he stopped short.
“What is it?” Sheen asked, hurrying up the steps and looking around cautiously. The door to the room Haden, Joris, and Talan shared was slightly ajar.
“I know I locked it,” Sheen whispered.
“Housekeeping?” Joris breathed.
“I don’t think it’s housekeeping,” Talan said. “They’d be making some noise.”
“Right,” Sheen growled, drawing her short sword, and threw open the door. The man sitting inside on Talan’s bed jumped in alarm and shrank against the wall as Sheen stormed in. He waved his hands desperately.
“I’m unarmed!” He had short hair and a thin mustache, which, coupled with a pair of half-moon spectacles, made him look almost like a caricature of a harmless clerk.
“This had better be good,” Haden remarked conversationally, peering around Sheen’s shoulder.
“Please, I’ve been looking for you!”
“And you can’t wait for us downstairs like a normal person?” Sheen demanded, sheathing her sword again and looking disgusted.
“How did you get in here in the first place?” Talan asked.
“Housekeeping,” the man said. “And I couldn’t wait . . . they’re looking for me. I’m Shillman. I’m so grateful to you for rescuing me . . .”
Talan glanced at Joris and said, quietly, “We need to have a word with housekeeping.”
“We didn’t rescue you,” Haden said, chuckling. “At least, I don’t think we did.”
“Oh, but you did!” Shillman said. “The Citadel of Fire, remember?”
Sheen scrutinized the man’s face for a moment. “Oh, that was you? Um, you’re welcome, I guess.”
“I don’t suppose you came looking for us just to thank us, though,” Talan said. Haden flopped on his bed and propped his feet up on the footboard.
“You were hoping we could be persuaded to save you again, since we’re obviously such nice people and all that?” Haden asked.
Shillman hesitated. “Well, it’s about the Illuminated.”
“We’re listening,” Sheen said grimly.
“I’m sure they’ve sent someone after me, so I thought you lot might want to hit them first while the opportunity is still there.”
“So, basically you’re telling us that you’ve lead them straight to us?” Talan said, crossing his arms and frowning.
“I’m not worried about that,” Sheen said. “We can take care of ourselves. Hit them how?”
“Well,” Shillman said, still hesitating, fingering a holy symbol hanging from a chain around his neck. “I was pretty devout before I went barmy, so their programming didn’t work well on me. They still thought it would take eventually, though, so they didn’t care what they said in front of me. I can tell you where they’re based: in Plague-Mort.”
“Oh *that* ought to be fun,” Haden said immediately, rolling his eyes. “The gate-town to the Abyss? Yech. Might as well just jump into a pit of burning sulfur and call it a day.”
“I don’t know where they’re based in Plague-Mort, but the portal in the Citadel that only Marvent and Baltazo knew how to open . . . that’s where it went.”
“And how do you benefit from all of this, exactly?” Sheen asked.
“Well, I’d like to see them pay for what they did to me, to all those poor sods. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to be sane again, but I can’t say I appreciate their reasons for doing it.”
“So, assuming we’re interested in risking our lives by bearding the enemy in his stronghold—again—how would we go about getting to Plague-Mort from here?”
“There’s sure to be a portal somewhere in Sigil. I also know one man you can look for, Margram . . . he was a cleric, too, he hated Brandal, just hated him. He left the Citadel before you showed up.”
“You still would have been safer waiting downstairs,” Sheen said. “What if a bunch of Illuminated had showed up? We would have just found a corpse in the room, that’s what.”
Shillman shuddered. “I tried that, but there were so many people *watching*!”
“It’s not like their eyeballs are going to hurt you,” Sheen said.”
“They always talked about ‘loose ends’ in the Citadel. ‘Tie off your loose ends. Send Fade to write them in the dead-book.’”
“Right,” Haden said, standing up abruptly and making everyone jump. “Thank you so much for coming, it was so nice to see you, we need to talk. Privately,” he rattled off, hustling Shillman out the door and closing it emphatically. “Do we have any idea whether this fellow actually IS entirely sane?!”
“I’m not sure I trust him or his story,” Talan said. “If anything bad happens, I’m going after him myself.”
“If it is some kind of trick, it’s an incredibly stupid one,” Haden said.
“It doesn’t really seem like Baltazo’s style, does it?” Joris asked. “Are the Xaositects pulling our legs?”
“Bah,” Haden said, throwing himself on the bed again and resuming his ostentatious more-casual-than-thou position. “Even if we wanted to check out his story, we couldn’t. Knowing there has to be a portal to Plague-Mort is not the same thing as being able to find said portal.”
“What about your friend?” Talan asked. “The one who catalogs all the portals in Sigil?”
“Lissandra?” Haden asked. “We’re not exactly friends.”
“Well, if not friends, then at least acquaintances. She know something we can use.”
“She might be harder to find than the portal, to be honest,” Haden said. “The only place she regularly visits that I know of is Tivvum’s Antiquities, here in the Market Ward.”
“I’m in favor of checking it out, at least,” Sheen said.
Talan nodded. “What do you say, Haden?”
“All right,” Haden conceded, “but first ?I want a bath and a hot meal and some sleep in a real bed. THEN we can go check it out.”
“Agreed,” Talan said. Sheen nodded, resigned.
“I’m going to go down to the Hands of Time while you gentlemen do whatever it is that you do. Dr. Rhas still has an open room there and I’m not that interested in sticking around here if it’s that easy to get in.”
“Probably a good idea,” Joris said.
Some time later, after she’d transferred her few belongings to the small, but tidy and serviceable room above the Hands of Time, Sheen climbed the stairs at Chirper’s again and knocked on the door. Haden opened it, wearing only a towel above the waist, his chin about half-covered in shaving suds.
“You could wait downstairs like a civilized person, you know,” he quipped immediately, then waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “I’m naked.” Sheen laughed. “So what do you want?”
“I brought you something. I helped Dr. Rhas make it, but the guy that paid for it got himself killed, so the doctor said I could keep it.” She held up a long, thin package to Haden, who took it and shredded the wrapper with the unselfconscious abandon of a young child.
“Oh,” he said, startled. “It’s a sword.”
“A rapier,” Sheen corrected. “Like the one you already have. I’m not really into the whole pathetic skinny little sword thing, but I figured you might be.”
Haden drew the blade from the simple black leather sheath and swished it through the air experimentally. “Good balance, but it’s . . . purple. Still, a glass rapier, that’s fairly unique. I can work it. I’m manly enough for purple.” He leaned over and bussed Sheen on the cheek, smearing her face liberally with shaving cream. “Now go away and let me get dressed,” he told her and closed the door in her face.
Sheen rolled her eyes and walked off down the hall, scrubbing at her face with the back of her hand.
The door started banging loudly first thing in the morning, and Talan rolled over in bed to give it the evil eye. “You’ve got to be kidding,” the half-elf announced.
“I can only wait for you three slugs for so long,” Sheen said, her voice only slightly muffled by the intervening wood. “Let’s go.”
“The shop won’t even be *open* yet,” Haden groaned, pulling the blankets up over his head.
“There’s no use arguing,” Talan said, already pulling his clothes on.
“We need to get her a hobby,” Haden grumbled.
Tivvum’s was impossible to miss, a five-story cylinder of greenish marble. The name was chiseled into the exterior in curving letters that reached to the roof. An archway led inside, to a room crowded to bursting with barrels, crates, and bins all overflowing with an amazing assortment of absolute junk: marbles, bone chips, feathers, flower petals.
“What is this, a kleptomaniac’s rummage sale?” Sheen asked, gaping at the trinkets.
“Most of these things are useful as portal keys, dunce,” Haden grumbled, making his way up a narrow spiral staircase to a counter covered in swaths of multicolored fabric. Three women had their heads together, talking. The one behind the counter, and thus most likely to be the proprietor, was a tiny, elderly tiefling with frizzy white hair, dark spectacles, and long leather gloves. She was talking to a lovely forty-ish human with a head of carefully-tended auburn hair. The third woman was Thea.
“Faerie dust?” the tiefling asked. “I believe I have some upstairs . . . it isn’t a common key. Had another fellow looking for some just the other day . . . I may have sold him the last bit I had.” The auburn beauty opened her mouth to speak, then spotted Haden and stopped. Then she smiled, displaying perfect white teeth.
“Hello, Haden!” she purred.
Haden grinned widely and threw his arms around her. “Annali! Goodness, I almost didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.”
“Oh, it’s good to see you, Haden! My house just isn’t the same without you moping around with your lost little puppy dog expression,” she said, pulling Haden’s face down and kissing him rather thoroughly. Joris glanced nervously at Sheen and saw her face freeze into something resembling a statue.
“Yes, well, I don’t like to become too predictable,” Haden said. “I’m adventuring now. Everyone, this is Annali, a friend of mine. Annali, these are Sheen, Joris, and Talan. And Ari.”
“Ooh, how charming,” Annali cooed, freeing a hand from Haden’s neck to offer it to Talan. “And what a delightful way to experience everything the multiverse has to offer.”
“I’ve certainly gotten to experience getting up early in the morning several times, although it wasn’t my first choice of experience by far,” Haden said. “Have you seen Lissandra around? We were just trying to figure out how to get to Plague-Mort so we can do some adventuring there.”
“Oh, can’t say that I have,” Annali said. “Lu might have, though,” she offered, nodding her head in the elderly tiefling’s direction. “Oh, where are my manners? This is my friend Thea . . .”
“We’ve met,” Thea said feebly.
“Maybe I’ll bring the group by your place some time and we can make a day of it,” Haden said cheerfully.
“Oh, please do. I’m tired of rutting with the same dull old bores, and your crew looks young and juicy. Just what we need!”
Talan blinked. “Haden never mentioned that he was so . . . adventurous.”
“I hardly think we’d be interested!” Sheen declared hotly, her face brilliant scarlet.
“Oh,” Annali said, sounding disappointed. “No? Too bad.”
“Speak for yourself,” Talan said, giggling.
Sheen pointed an accusing finger at Haden’s face. “I can’t BELIEVE you!”
Haden stiffened and gently disentangled himself from Annali. “I beg your pardon?”
Sheen ignored him and turned to glare disapprovingly at Annali. “I’d expect as much from him, but aren’t you a little old to be running around like a painted jezebel and making a disgrace of yourself?”
Annali laughed. “Oh, honey, clearly you’re new around here. You’re never too old to have a good time. And I hardly think it’s disgraceful. Oh, it’s not for most, but neither is being a virtuoso pianist. That doesn’t make it immoral.”
“You will apologize to my friend,” Haden said, his voice low and threatening.
“I will not!” Sheen retorted instantly. Annali laughed.
“No need, in any case, I’m not insulted, dear.”
“Nevertheless, you will apologize,” Haden snarled. Sheen crossed her arms and stuck out her jaw stubbornly.
“That’s not going to work . . .” Joris started to say hastily.
“I will *not* apologize. If you want to engage in all manner of lewd and disgusting behavior, that’s your business, but don’t think for one minute that I’m going to tolerate her parading around like some kind of . . . umph!” Sheen finished incoherently and turned her back on Haden abruptly.
Annali caught Haden’s arm as he started to lunge forward. He breathed heavily for a long moment, then stood stiffly and looked down at Annali. “If you will excuse me, madam,” he said, turned, and stalked out of the store. Annali gave a low whistle and examined a broken fingernail in the stunned silence that followed.
“Now *that* was *hot*. I’ve never had a man defend my honor before. I ought to talk them into it more often!” she declared happily, flipping her luxurious hair and waggling her hips. “But I’d have to get some honor, first, and that would be a crashing bore. Oh well.” She sighed. “Supposedly it’s good for men to get their hearts broken every once in a while, but don’t you think that was going a bit overboard? Haden’s always been a bit fragile, after all. I’d hate to see him break apart. He’s a sweet kid.”
“Fragile?” Sheen sputtered. “Him?”
“Of course,” Annali said. “Isn’t it obvious? Ah, I see Lu has my fairy dust. Do really come by some time and we can chat. Or screw. Or some mixture of the two, whatever you’re into. Ta-ta! Come, Thea!”
“What can I do for you, dearies?” Lu the tiefling asked.
“We’re . . .” Talan hesitated, looking at Sheen, but she was glaring at something no one else could see. “We’re looking for Lissandra, we need to find a portal to Plague-Mort.”
“Of course, of course,” Lu said. “The only portal I know of ain’t there no more, but Lissandra knows that better’n me.”
“Have you seen her?” Talan asked.
“Yep, she came by last night and said she’d be in the Lower Ward lookin’ for another new portal. She usually stops by Vander’s when she’s over there. You need a key when you’re done talkin’ to her, you come see ol’ Lu.”
Talan found himself smiling slightly on hearing the name of the inn. “Thank you,” he said, bowing, and hurried toward the door. Joris tugged on Sheen’s arm and she started walking.
“We should, um, probably go on without Haden for now?” the cleric ventured.
“Fine,” Sheen said abruptly. Talan hailed a cab and they climbed inside, silently.
Vander’s was a fairly typical inn/alehouse, not too dark, not too rough. It felt a bit crowded with twenty or so people filling the rough tables in the common room. Lissandra sat talking to a tiefling woman near the corner where Hexla sat reading through stacks of notes. Talan’s attention was instantly riveted on Hexla when she looked up and smiled at him. The ranger grinned hugely, looking more than a little goofy.
“Hey, it’s you!” Lissandra said disingenuously as Joris and Sheen walked over.
“Sorry to bother you again, but it seems we need to go to Plague-Mort this time,” Sheen explained. Behind her, Hexla continued to smile at Talan.
“Hello again,” The witch said softly.
“For someone I never thought I’d see again, you seem to keep turning up,” Talan said.
“I could say the same thing about you,” Hexla replied, chuckling. “Here on business, I suppose? I went by Chirper’s the other night, but you weren’t around.”
“You did? I did . . . I mean, I was out. Um, maybe you could come by again. Later, I mean.” Talan stared down at his feet and blushed.
“I’d like that,” Hexla said. “I’ll try to catch you at home.”
“Okay,” Talan mumbled. “It was really great seeing you, but I should probably . . .” he gestured toward Sheen and Joris.
“Oh, of course,” Hexla said, reaching up to grip Talan’s armor and pulling him down so that she could kiss him gently. He blinked and wavered a little on his feet. “I’ll see you soon, though.”
“Okay,” Talan mumbled again, wobbling away from her table.
“Ugh, Plague-Mort,” Lissandra said, opening her book and leafing through the pages. The tiefling beside her sat forward and put out a hand.
“I’m Jazra. Lissy told me about what you did at the Masque. Great work, that!”
Sheen blinked, startled, and shook the offered hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Sheen.”
“Jazra hates Officer Ringhammer more than just about anyone else in the Cage,” Lissandra said idly.
“True enough, lousy piking sod,” Jazra affirmed.
“What?” Sheen asked. “Why?”
“He jailed a friend of mine for a crime she didn’t commit. Sure, the Guvners found her guilty, and the Mercykillers run the prison, but he’s the lousy berk what pinched her.”
Sheen looked at Joris for help threading this conversation. “That sounds . . . unfair? Why don’t you appeal then?”
“Cos she’s dead.”
“Give it a rest, Jazra,” Lissandra said.
Jazra resumed her seat. “Sorry if I’m a bit preoccupied. Things haven’t been going that well today.”
“There used to be a portal to Plague-Mort in the Armory,” Lissandra said, “But something happened to it. I think someone closed it.”
“Only the Lady can do that, Lissy,” Jazra remarked.
“I *know* that! It isn’t the only one, either. I have a hard enough time keeping up with new portals without having to worry about them disappearing.”
“Is something strange happening?” Sheen asked. “We found a portal in Kirigala that had clearly been defiled somehow. It was pretty grim. We destroyed it.”
“Really?!” Lissandra demanded.
“A bunch of fiends were using it to steal dinosaurs. The locals didn’t appreciate it much.”
“Nothing like that,” Lissandra said, “but that’s pretty interesting. Wait, here we go. There’s another portal. It’s down below, but it’s the only one I’ve seen.”
“Down below?” Joris asked.
“What the Clueless call ‘UnderSigil’,” Jazra explained.
“Like you Cagers have a better name for it,” Lissandra said, laughing.
“This place has a basement?” Sheen asked.
“Yeah, the whole flamin’ Cage has a basement,” Jazra said.
“A lot of basements, all connected to each other in a way only a barmy monkey could appreciate,” Lissandra added.
“Sounds like the Underdark,” Sheen said. “I grew up in Undermountain, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.”
“Oh yeah?” Lissandra asked. “What was that like?”
Joris grinned. “Oh, that’s right, you’re from Faerun, too.”
Sheen shrugged. “It was dark, mostly.”
Lissandra chuckled. “I haven’t been down there to look at this portal in years, but I can give you some idea where to go.”
“If you can tell us what the key is, too, that would be great,” Sheen said.
“It’s a black rose, of course. It’ll be consumed when the portal opens, though, so you’ll need more than one.”
“Black roses?” Sheen asked. “That sounds difficult to come by.”
“Not necessarily,” Jazra said. She opened her pack, pulled out a heavy book, and began leafing through it. Hundreds of roses were pressed between the pages. “I collect them,” Jazra explained, “but I can always get more.” She withdrew a pair of black roses and handed them to Sheen, then as an afterthought added a single red one, making a sort of bouquet. “When you see Haden, give him this one for me.” Sheen’s face instantly purpled.
“We’ll do that,” Joris said. “I’d hate to tackle Sigil’s underbelly without Haden along.” Sheen gave him a black look.
“Yes, but he decided to wander off, so we’ll just have to make do,” Sheen said archly.
“We may still run into him,” Talan said.
“You cutters are lucky, she usually charges for chant like this,” Jazra remarked.
“Thank you,” Talan said. “If we can ever return the favor . . .”
Lissandra waved them away. “Some other time.” Talan grinned at Hexla again as they left. Once they were outside the inn, Sheen exploded.
“Look, I don’t care what you two think, but we are not stuck with that cretin and we do not need him!”
“I beg your pardon?” Joris said stiffly.
“We’re probably better off without him if he’s going to be this irresponsible.”
Talan held up a quelling hand. “We all expect more from people we care about,” he said.
“I don’t care about him! He’s been driving me insane since we met him!”
Joris scowled. “I do.”
“He can be a bit maddening,” Talan said, “but he’s proven himself to be a valuable ally when it mattered.”
“He’s gone anyway, so there’s no sense talking about it,” Sheen said.
“Do you really think he isn’t coming back?” Joris asked.
“I think we should be prepared for the possibility,” Sheen replied after a pause.
“I’m sure there’s a valid reason why he left,” Talan said. “It wasn’t just random.”
“He left because Sheen made him angry,” Joris said tiredly.
“Oh, come on,” Sheen growled.
“He *has* feelings, Sheen. You did kind of walk all over them. Regardless of the *nature* of his relationship with Annali, they were close and they’ve known each other a long time. I know *I’d* be furious if I heard someone insulting *you*.”
“Mmph,” Sheen said.
“I have to say Haden would likely defend your honor just as furiously,” Talan said. “I think we owe it to him to give him a break.”
“It’s a weird world here in the Cage, we can’t expect everything to be like it was in Faerun,” Joris pressed. “And, like it or not, Haden knows this world better than any of us. Better than all of us put together, really.”
Sheen glared at both of them equally while they held their breath. Finally, she threw her hands up and rolled her eyes. “All right, all right, FINE, I screwed up. But I don’t see how it matters because he’s *not here*.”
“I think she meant that,” Joris said.”
“Maybe we can at least take a quick look around for him,” Talan said. “Or leave a message at Chirper’s. Heck, let’s steal one of his tricks and send one of these kids back there with a message.”
“Yes, yes, fine, do whatever you like,” Sheen grumped.
Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.
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