“Well, there’s no sense in wasting the rest of the day,” Sheen said. “We should go see if we can find a scale and a feather, then.”
“That sounds like a trip to Tivvum’s to me,” Sly Nye said cheerfully. “Give Lu my love, would you, Haden?”
“Why, are you suing her?” Haden asked.
“No, but I represented her in the Court of Woe a few years back. She’s a sweet old bat.”
The cab dropped them outside Tivvum’s Antiquities a little before lunchtime. The shop was crowded with daytime traffic, but Alluvius managed to locate a bright green scale and brilliant white feather among the heaps of junk and bric-a-brac.
“Well, should we go, then?” Sheen asked as they climbed back into the cab.
“I’m all for putting this off as long as possible,” Haden said quietly.
“I think I’ll have to agree with Haden,” Talan said. “I’m in no hurry.”
“Putting it off isn’t going to make it nicer,” Sheen chastised them. “It will make it worse.”
“We don’t have to go right away,” Kal said, “but Sheen’s right.”
“It’s like pulling out a splinter. If you wait, it’ll just get infected.”
“Yes, dear,” Haden said, endeavoring to sound resigned to the idea.
The cab trip across the Cage to the Shattered Temple was long and tiresome. The afternoon was well under way by the time they pulled up outside. The ruined husk of a building was almost entirely covered in a massive tangle of razorvine, giving it the fearsome appearance of a dire beast crouching in wait. A pair of guards stood outside, but they didn’t appear all that interested in guarding. They didn’t notice Sheen until she was almost on top of them.
“Ahem!” Sheen cleared her throat imperiously. “We’d like to use a portal in your temple, please.”
“And that’s all?” the left-hand guard asked her skeptically.
“That is all.” The right-hand guard scrutinized them carefully, then raised a reed pipe to his lips and blew out a quick line of notes.
“Caylean’ll show you around.” Within minutes, a think young tiefling appeared in the entrance. He had large dark eyes in a bony face and a wide, toothy grin.
“If you’re looking for the portal to the Astral, that one closed several years ago,” Caylean said.
“There’s a portal here to the Elemental Plane of Air,” Sheen explained. “It’s supposed to be on the second floor, just off the stairs.”
“I know the one you mean. Upstairs in the Old Temple Wing, I think. Follow me.”
“So why is it called the ‘Shattered Temple’?” Sheen asked as they walked.
“Because Her Serenity shattered it, luv,” Caylean said, laughing a bit. “See, they used to worship Aoskar here. The God of Portals. Then one day Aoskar poached one o’ the Lady’s dabuses—that Fell berk—an’ made ‘im one o’ ‘is priests.”
“I guess I can see why she might be annoyed,” Sheen conceded.
“He was plannin’ on kicking Her out an’ takin’ over the Cage for hisself.”
“Seems like a misstep, in retrospect,” Kal remarked.
“It didn’t work out so well for him,” Haden said.
“The Lady kilt Aoskar and laid waste to this Temple. An’ that makes it perfect for us—it’s a whassa, allegory. The gods ain’t as all-powerful as they’d have you believe. The portals certainly seem to be getting along jus’ fine without a god to represent them. You take me, fer instance. I was born with withered legs, couldn’t walk even a single step. The day I renounced the ‘gods’ as frauds an’ joined the Athar—that very day—I started walkin. I ain’t never looked back.”
“An atheist miracle?” Haden asked. “Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?”
“I wonder if the Sensates would consider joining the Athar as a new experience?” Kal mused.
“Um, the factions get pretty upset if you try to join more than one at a time,” Haden told him.
“Curses,” Kal said cheerfully. “For being so open-minded, they sure are close-minded.”
“All the factions are like that, friend,” Caylean said. “Turnin’ stag ain’t the best way to demonstrate loyalty. Folks might think yer one’a them blasted Anarchists.”
“Anarchists? Like the Revolutionary League?” Sheen asked.
“Yeah, buncha tosspots.”
“People don’t like the Anarchists?” Talan asked.
“They’re always tryin’ to tear down everything we’ve built up. Can’t say I care much for that, no.”
“It’s hard to like someone whose only interest is in causing trouble,” Sheen said.
“Everyone deserves the chance to practice their beliefs,” Talan said stubbornly. “Even if I don’t agree with them.”
“It’s hard to live and let live when someone else’s beliefs consist of trashing yours,” Haden said. “Like that Pazuzu mess.”
“You mean the Xaositects,” Mal said.
“The Xaositects just act randomly on principle. They’re not a problem on the same level as the League,” Haden explained.
“You mean there are two factions that go around disrupting things? Fantastic,” Kal said.
“Don’t forget the Sinkers,” Caylean said. “They disrupt things ‘cos they think it’s the natural state. Anyway, here we are. I never knew the key for this portal.”
Sheen brandished the lillend scale and the archway flared to life. The scale instantly burst into flame and burned. They stepped through the portal into near-blinding brightness. They were standing on a flagstone patio under a spectacular blue sky that extended apparently forever in all directions. Small wisps of cloud hovered in the middle distance and a faraway storm seemed to hover around a floating castle.
The patio was part of an earthen sphere that seemed full of a tropical garden, a riot of extravagant colors, shapes, and smells. A tree seemed to hang downward from roots buried in a floating marble sphere, its leaves cast shade over a statue of a bull rearing over a naked woman, caught in the act of penetration. Beyond the garden a closed door flanked by two torches stood at the base of a tower, but this received little attention. Haden reached out with one hand and covered Sheen’s eyes.
“I don’t think it’s going to hurt me to see it,” Sheen said, laughing. “And anyway, it’s too late.”
“It’s hurting me and I should know better,” Haden grumbled. “At least I tried.”
“Nice statue,” Talan remarked, clearly disgusted.
“The mystery of the minotaur now resolved?” Kal asked.
“You just *had* to go there,” Haden groaned.
“Well, it seemed reasonable,” the wizard explained.
“It certainly doesn’t look very comfortable,” Sheen said staunchly. Haden gave her a horrified look. “You don’t have to be so upset. It’s not your fault.”
“I know,” he said. “I’ve been working very hard to leave all . . . this . . . behind me. Sometimes it feels like I’ll succeed.”
As they passed the tree, Talan turned to look curiously at several large dark patches in the trunk. A loud, droning buzz seemed to emanate from inside the wood. He stopped and peered closer, then jumped back as a thousand miniscule ruby red insects began to pour out of the hole. Before he could even cry out a warning, they had enveloped Sheen in a stinging cloud.
Talan swatted at the insects, but there were so many he didn’t seem to be having any effect. Haden tried to help, only succeeding in getting himself stung, while Kalenthor backed away. The wizard fetched up against the door to the building and smelled a hideously powerful chemical stink. He grabbed one of the torches and waved it experimentally: the stink intensified.
“Aha,” he said and charged back toward the swarming insects, swinging the torch like a weapon. The wasps recoiled and fled back into the trunk of the tree. “Ha! Take that!” the wizard enthused. Sheen dropped to the ground, holding her head. The many red welts covering her skin gradually began to fade.
Haden lifted her gently. “Are you all right?”
“Well . . . let’s not do that again.”
“Agreed. What did you do, Kal? It was impressive, in any case.”
“I think there’s something in these torches that repels them. Don’t want hellish stinging bugs inside the house, after all.”
The door to the tower was locked, but Sheen simply inserted two fingers into the keyhole and turned the metal apparatus to slag. The base of the tower was a luxurious parlor, a circular chamber about thirty feet in diameter. The walls were covered with crimson curtains of velvet so exquisite that it begged to be touched. Two archways led to short corridors on either side, and a narrow ironwork staircase spiraled into the ceiling.
“I’d like to clear something up,” Kalenthor said. “In what capacity are we here? Is your mother likely to welcome you?”
“The hellwasp swarm didn’t clue you in?” Haden asked.
“Many have guard dogs.”
“Well, let me enlighten you. We’re breaking and entering. And no, Mother isn’t likely to be happy about it.”
“Ah, so it’s capture and interrogate, then. Very well. Shall we start with her?” A woman in her mid-thirties had just emerged from behind one of the curtains. She had a kind of exquisite, ageless beauty that suited the surroundings perfectly. Behind her, a naked young man was shackled to the wall. He would have been handsome, but his expression was wild and crazed, barely conscious.
“Katrin,” Haden remarked.
“You know her?” Sheen asked.
“In a sense,” Haden replied. “So Mother finally got you a job that suits your talents?”
Katrin rotated elegantly on the sharply-pointed toes of her boots. “Hello, Haden. Finally come back, have you?” She shifted her gaze to smile at Kal, Talan, and Sheen. “Get them once and they always come back, sooner or later. So what do you want?”
“Where is Margone?” Haden demanded.
“That’s no way to speak of your mother. And I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t know where she is. She left a while ago, to go back to Sigil, I think. She said she had a new assignment.”
“But she has been here?” Haden asked. “Good. Show us her office, or wherever she conducts her business.”
“Are we just going to leave that man there?” Sheen asked. “Why is he here, anyway?” There was a faint groan from behind another curtain. Sheen crossed the room and tossed it aside, staring with shock into a familiar face. “Margram?” she asked, shocked. The ex-Illuminated just stared at her blankly.
“Don’t ask me,” Katrin said. “The only name I have for them is Mud.” Sheen set to work cracking the shackles and collar open, grimacing at the sight of the torn flesh beneath. Mal found a third man behind another curtain.
“This one looks familiar somehow,” he said. It was Bendon.
“It’s just as well, Her Ladyship was getting bored with these,” Katrin said.
“Then she won’t mind if we take them with us,” Haden spat. “Office. Now.”
“Suit yourself,” Katrin said., leading the way up the stairs. Haden followed her; at the top of the stairs, briefly out of the sight of those below, Katrin crowded against him. “You always were such a . . . fighter,” she hissed biting her lip. “Didn’t we have such wonderful times together? I wonder what they’d think of you, if they knew?”
“Shut up, Katrin,” Haden said shortly.
“This front you put up, it’s such a lie. I know what you really want.”
“No, I really don’t. Now shut up. Lie down on the floor.” He placed one food on the back of her neck, holding her down while he examined the room. Kal and Talan climbed up the stairs to join him. It was a bedroom, furnished with exacting taste, from the wide unmade bed to the ceiling fresco of a woman passionately embracing an octopus. A single enormous book occupied most of the desk, instantly drawing Kal’s attention. From the tousled bed came a faint snore. Haden drew his rapier and pointed it at the occupant’s throat.
“Wake up, Splinter. Let’s see you join your friend Katrin on the floor here,” he said sharply. The tiefling lazily opened one eye and glared. Talan pulled a sheet off the bed and began tearing it into strips, then began tying the two women up securely.
“Wow, this book . . .” Kal said, then read aloud: “GENESIS: Being a True and Complete Accounting of the Origin of the Planes, the Gods, and Mortal Life. Volume the first: The Unity of Rings, The Rule of Three, The Center of All, the Twin Serpents, The Eye of the Dawn, the Tear of the Night. Volume the Second: The War of Law and Chaos. Apocrypha: The Lady of Pain.” He paused for several moments.
Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.
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