The dark, shadowy outlines of men hung in the air, reaching out towards Sheen even as they keened their wrath. She stumbled backwards, raising her claws, but one of the shadows touched her almost casually, it’s fleshless shape passing through her armor without resistance. There was no real pain, just a chill and the sense of her will draining away. Sheen stared blankly.
“They’re incorporeal!” Joris yelled. “You need magic to hurt them!” He waved his holy symbol furiously in front of the creature’s ‘eyes’, and one shrank in on itself, burning away like a puff of foul vapor. The sound of his voice cleared Sheen’s head and she raked her claws through her attacker, tearing it to ribbons. Joris brandished his symbol again and the remaining shape was blasted into dust.
“Thank the Lady!” the cleric announced. “Sheen, are you all right? Where’s Talan?”
“I’m here,” Talan said, reappearing and adjusting his cloak. Ari barked happily.
Sheen blinked slowly for several moments. “Afrgl,” she announced.
“What?” Joris asked. “Did it hit you?”
“Um . . . uh . . . something like that.” Joris pressed his palm to her forehead and rattled off a peculiar chant. Sheen felt some of the fog recede from her mind.
“Better?” Joris asked.
“Yes, thank you.” Sheen looked over at the table, at the mask and the gem. “They were protecting those items. I’ve seen something like them before, actually. A lot of psions use similar objects in their work. We’d better take them with us; we don’t want them falling into the wrong hands.”
“At least we’ve found the portal,” Talan said, pointing at the second arch in the room. Sheen nodded and opened her belt pack, pulling out a black rose while she stuffed the mask and the large spherical gem inside. The rose burned to ash almost instantly when she held it up and the portal yawned like a hungry maw. Sheen took a deep breath and stepped through in a blast of frigid air.
Joris grimaced. “I don’t care how many times we walk through one of these things, I’ll never get used to it.”
Talan grinned. “Wanna hold hands?” Joris chuckled and they both stepped through.
They arrived in a cold, dank room. The floor was dark and sticky with some foul-smelling substance. Massive carcasses hung on hooks from great chains.
“This can’t bode well,” Talan said, fending off an enormous slab of meat.
“We need to keep a low profile until we can learn more about this place,” Sheen said, struggling towards what appeared to be a door. It opened onto what looked like the back room of a shop, a grocer, apparently. Sheen looked around nervously, seeking some egress.
“I’m not getting a good feeling about this,” Talan muttered.
“Why couldn’t that Armory portal have worked?” Joris asked.
“Be quiet!” Sheen hissed, opening the door to the shop proper. Her eyes met the gaze of an adolescent human, tall, gawky, and covered in spots.
“Hey, Rothwell . . .” he said, startled, but he didn’t really look alarmed. An older man in a blood-smeared apron appeared and studied Sheen for a moment. Then he raised his fist to his temple in some sort of salute. After several nudges, the boy copied him.
“We weren’t expecting no agents,” the older man, Rothwell, said. “Our reports made it back all right, then?”
“I know nothing of your reports,” Sheen said brusquely. “We are in some difficulties and request any assistance you can provide.”
“Right,” Rothwell said. “Our safe house is your safe house.” Talan winked at Joris while the boy scrutinized them with great care.
Sheen adopted a haughty look, “Is there some problem?”
“Maybe. What if they ain’t agents, Rothwell?”
Rothwell popped the boy on the back of the head with a fleshy hand. “Then they wouldn’t be usin’ our portal, you sod. No one outside the League knows about it.” He looked at Sheen. “Do they?”
“I doubt it’s been compromised, but it doesn’t hurt to be careful,” Sheen managed.
“Roight,” Rothwell said, seeming satisfied. “Anyway, if my report didn’t make it back, I can sum up ther situation thusly: soddin’ awful.”
Joris and Talan both looked at Sheen desperately. She sighed internally, recalling what a miserable liar she was, and said, “You mean, even worse than it was? What happened?”
“I was just tellin’ how some of the cutters who was plottin’ against the Arch-Lector got writ in the dead-bock last night. That teamster, Onuris, got hisself crushed by a load o’ fallin’ barrels. Kyna was poisoned, and Hallfred got hisself a knife in the back in a bar brawl.”
“Our handler back in the Cage was concerned lest all this agitation cause . . . slippage,” Rothwell added.
Sheen exchanged glances with Joris and Talan. “We weren’t expecting this, but if you have a safe place where we can rest and recover for a bit, we’ll see what we can do to help you while we take care of our own business.”
“Sure,” Rothwell said, “upstairs behind the armoire. Call me if yeh be needin’ anythin’.” A bell jingled in the front of the store. “Zigor! Counter!”
The boy turned and hurried away. Sheen began climbing the stairs wearily, wondering what to expect, Joris and Talan following.
“I’m not sure what’s happening,” the cleric said uneasily.
“I’m a bit confused, myself,” Talan said, scratching Ari behind the ears. The upper floor held a tiny apartment that, indeed, contained an armoire. It opened on a rack of clean, worn clothes, and a small crawl-hole that led to a hidden room. Sheen went through on her belly, cursing the awkwardness of her armor and Ari, who thought this a grand game and squirmed through before Sheen had finished extricating herself on the other side, planting a paw firmly on the back of Sheen’s head.
“So what’s going on here?” Talan asked Sheen when they’d all squeezed through and closed the door behind them. “You seemed to have a decent idea.”
“Specifically? No. But isn’t there a faction that calls itself the League? Free League, maybe?”
“It seems very cloak and dagger for them,” Joris said, “Unless they’re hated in Plague-Mort.”
“Mmph,” Sheen said. “Haden would know better, of course. Anyway it works out in our favor and I’m not going to complain . . . at least, not until after I’ve had some sleep and a bath.”
Talan frowned in thought. “Isn’t there also a faction called the Revolutionary League?”
“Could be,” Joris said. Sheen sat down on the bed and fiddled with the stone and the mask for a bit. The stone lifted off her hand and began a slow orbit around her head.
“I have a moon,” she said, startled.
“Is that supposed to happen?” Talan asked, laughing.
“Ohhh,” Joris breathed. “That’s an ioun stone!”
Sheen watched the stone for a few moments, then shrugged when it didn’t seem eager to do anything else. Her head felt a bit clearer, her will sturdier. “I wonder if the leaguers are aware of the Illuminated here. Assuming they are here. In any case, let’s rest and see what we can find in the morning.”
“Let me see where that shadow hit you,” Joris said unexpectedly. Sheen looked down at her chest.
“Um . . .” Joris rolled his eyes at her and made her pull her shirt up over her head so that he could probe the “injury”. The flesh was a bit purple, like a bruise, but it didn’t hurt. Joris lit some incense and made Sheen eat some foul-tasting herbs that made her cough. “Now get some sleep,” he admonished.
“I don’t sleep,” Sheen grumped, and settled down to meditate, the stone still floating erratically through the air. She fidgeted for an hour or two after the rest had restored her energies, then finally went downstairs, hoping it wasn’t too early. Zigor and Rothwell were hanging around behind the shop’s counter, gossiping like fishwives.
“Feeling better, ma’am?” Rothwell asked.
“Yes, better,” Sheen said. “So tell me more about what’s going on in this town. We’re looking for some nasty individuals who have been causing trouble in Sigil proper.”
“Now, I don’t want to hear the specifics of your assignment,” Rothwell said. “Plausible deniability and all that, but I’m still here to help.”
“This burg’s full up with nasty individuals,” Zigor added.
“Quite,” Sheen said.
“Any one of those ne’er-do-well’s in particular?” Rothwell asked.
“One of them is named Margram, we think,” Sheen said. “There were others, but we wrote most of them in the dead-book.”
Rothwell just shrugged, but Zigor nodded. “Good for you, milady.”
“You know the name, then?”
“Aye, he’s got his kip not far from here. Sold him a haunch off a stench kow before the blight, milady.”
“Don’t ‘milady’ me, just point me in the right direction,” Sheen said, a bit of irritation creeping into her voice.
Zigor blushed. “Sorry, mi—ma’am. I just don’t see many women-type cutters in here.” Sheen waved a hand dismissively and looked away, realizing Talan and Joris had both come down the stairs and were grinning at her. Talan rolled his eyes at Joris.
“Oh, like no one ever fawns over you,” the cleric said, chuckling.
“That’s different,” Talan announced decisively.
Blushing even more furiously, Zigor pulled out a rough map of the city and marked a spot near the northwest corner. “It’s just off Rich Man’s Row,” he said.
“Thank you,” Sheen said. “You’ve been very helpful.” Zigor smiled. Then Rothwell cleared his throat noisily and ordered the youngster to sweep the floor.
Outside, the air was bitter cold and the streets were full of people standing around in small groups. The glances they shot at Joris, Sheen, and Talan were dark and suspicious. No one spoke, but the tension was palpable. They entered a square where several streets converged. A woman was addressing a sizeable crowd.
“How much longer are we gonna take it? These wicked berks claim to defend our town, but they’re rotten with corruption, and their so-called boss is no better!” They skirted the edge of the crowd, listening to angry mumbles.
“Rothwell wasn’t kidding, was he?” Joris asked.
“I’m wondering if we should try saying something,” Sheen said.
“It might just make things worse,” Talan said.
“You’re right. I’m not eager to be the guest of honor at a lynching.”
“Father always said that the nail that sticks out is the one who gets pounded,” Joris muttered.
“We should do a little listening and scouting before we try anything,” Talan said. “We already stick out. Low profile, remember?”
“We need to find Haden, that’s what we need to do. Let’s go,” Sheen declared. They cut through a few streets of obvious slums, arriving at a modest home on the edge of a wealthier district. It had a shut-in look about it, as though the door wasn’t often open and the curtains had covered the windows for some time. Sheen pounded on the door with her usual assertiveness, making the wood tremble and conveying, as always, that if someone didn’t come open the door, she’d continue pounding until the wood got out of her way of it’s own accord.
After a minute or so of this treatment, a voice inside the house shouted, “I’m COMING!!” There were loud clicks and grinding noises as several locks and bolts were unfastened. Then the door creaked open a few cautious inches, revealing a young man with a thin, pinched face. He wore drab brown clothes, except for a small, brightly-painted peacock feather on a string around his neck. His face screwed up in alarm. “Who are you lot?”
“We’re here to see Margram,” Sheen said evenly.
“Good for you,” Sheen said. “We need to have a little chat.”
“Regarding?” Margram quavered. “I’m, uh, pretty busy.” He shifted his weight slightly, blocking the door.
“Regarding something we can’t talk about in the street, thank you. But you might be interested to know that Brandal won’t be troubling you any more.”
“Oh,” Margram said. “Well, come in.” He stepped gingerly out of the way to let them inside, then glanced up and down the street before closing and locking the door securely. “Tea?”
“Thank you,” Joris said politely. Margram bustled into the kitchen while Joris and Talan sat down on dusty but serviceable chairs. Sheen browsed around the house, curious. She pointed out a small female statue, possibly of a goddess, to Joris.
“Hera,” he said after a quick look. “Olympian pantheon, isn’t she?”
“Correct,” Margram announced, bringing out a tray of tea and setting it on the table. Sheen took a cup and sipped it carefully. “You lot are the ones who found Toranna out, aren’t you?” Margram burst out miserably. Sheen almost choked.
“Good guess. How did you wind up getting involved with the Illuminated? You seem a bit atypical.”
“I made a huge mistake, is how!” Margram lamented.
“How did you recognize us?” Talan asked.
“I was in the Citadel when she came through the portal,” Margram explained. “Most of us were evacuated. If you got rid of Brandal, then you’re welcome in my house! I want no trouble with you!”
“They acted like they expected an army to come through with us,” Sheen said mildly.
“It’s Baltazo’s way. He’ll do anything to avoid a confrontation, even when it’s not really to his advantage. I was duped into thinking I was helping those poor barmies . . . I mean, I was, but not like I thought I was.”
“Can you tell us where to find the other Illuminated here in town?” Sheen asked. “We’re getting a bit tired of this entire affair.”
“You’re not here to kill me, are you?”
“No,” Sheen said. “Why should we?”
“Is that why you didn’t want to let us in?” Talan asked.
“I don’t know,” Margram said miserably. “I keep expecting someone to try. Ever since I left the Citadel, I’ve been waiting for a new assignment. I keep hoping that they just forgot about me. If you want to stick it to the Great Eye, you should go to the Bell and Whistle. Baltazo keeps his case there.”
Sheen blinked. “I don’t think we’re that interested in his luggage.”
“No, that’s where he lives. What are you, Clueless?” Margram suddenly looked alarmed. “I-I’m sorry. That was rude.”
Joris and Talan both smirked, trying not to laugh. Sheen harrumphed to herself. “I’m not the one hiding from a ruthless organization hoping they might have forgotten about me, thank you. If anyone merits a few pejorative terms . . .”
“Right,” Margram said nervously. “Anyway, he has some sort of secret cellar there. I’ve never been in it, but I heard them talking about it sometimes.”
“Who else has he got with him? I’m assuming he has . . . people.” Sheen said.
“He has, but I’m told he doesn’t like people, living people, that is, to be his bodyguards. Too risky. So he has constructs. There’s a few bashers in the tavern, but you can probably handle them. Baltazo will bolt at the first sign of trouble, anyway.”
“Great,” Sheen said. “We should go, people in the street have seen us. Moving quickly is our best plan now. You should really consider getting out of here, yourself.”
Margram looked down. “They’re sure to figure out that it was me who told you. Maybe I can try to get my life back on track now, who knows.”
Sheen pursed her lips. “Do you want to go back to Sigil with us?”
“I . . . sure.”
“Get your stuff packed, then, and we’ll come back for you on our way out of here. It’s the best we can do.” Margram’s face lit up, and he hurried away into the house.
“That was . . . charitable of you, Sheen,” Joris said as they closed the door behind them.
“Are you sure about this?” Talan asked.
Sheen shrugged. “Baltazo’s assassin may have a way of catching up with him wherever he goes, but I figure this gives him a fighting chance.”
“All right,” Talan said. “Makes sense.”
They cut across town again, looking for the Bell and Whistle. In the far distance, they could hear other assembled crowds chanting. It was not an encouraging sound. A sign hung above the in, displaying a massive tocsin and a silver flute, but someone had painted a massive blue eye over the picture.
“So, any suggestions for how we get into the cellar?” Sheen asked. Ectoplasm formed and ran over her skin as she manifested powers, preparing herself for a battle to come.
“If it’s a secret cellar, there’s probably no way in from out here,” Joris said.
“Do you think there’s a hidden passage or a portal?” Talan asked.
“We’ll find out,” Sheen said grimly. Joris mumbled a few spells, then they pushed the door aside and walked in. The tavern was a dark, depressing place, with crude wooden tables and dim, smoky lamps. A few bulky uniformed men eyed them, but said nothing.
Joris surveyed the room and gasped. “Isn’t . . . isn’t that Toranna?”
“Uh oh,” Talan murmured. Sheen shrugged and walked directly to the table, surveying Toranna and a woman she didn’t know.
“Well, isn’t this interesting.” The women stopped talking, and Toranna looked up.
“You seem to be leading a charmed life,” Sheen said.
Toranna gestured to the other woman. “Kalisa, this is Sheen.”
“Hello,” Sheen said shortly, not taking her eyes off Toranna.
“Toranna and I have a shared interest in dismantling the Illuminated,” Kalisa said quietly. Her face and voice were almost perfectly unremarkable. “So I wager you and I have something in common.”
“It’s possible,” Sheen said, “but the reasons for our interest probably diverge. Maybe we can form an alliance. A short-lived one.” Kalisa glanced over Sheen’s shoulder at Joris. A strange expression passed across her face briefly. “We’ve been informed that Baltazo has digs in the cellar of this very establishment. We’re about to stage a raid. Would you ladies like to join us?”
Kalisa and Toranna smiled carnivorously. “Let’s . . .” Toranna began, when the door abruptly banged open, letting in a blast of cold air.
“Murder!” a voice screamed. “The Hounds have murdered the Arch-Lector!” Panic spread through the crowd, and people began stampeding towards the door.
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