Through knowledge comes power.
Greetings, extro Nam'tba. This memorandum concerns the recent expedition through the 232nd portal and the events that took place upon the prime. In accordance with the laws and traditions of our guild, I do relate the circumstances surrounding the termination of Na'Clu'qa, in hopes that such information will enrich our knowledge. The accepted reparations have been made to his relatives and I consider the matter closed with the delivery of this account. I have also enclosed several items involved with the incident, including a manuscript. This manuscript was the only item of value found within the stone's extra-dimensional space, and (unlikely as it may seem) should be considered the reason for Na'clu'qa's behavior. I urge you not to reveal it in the company of any of his ilk, for they are valuable to the guild, and not soon wasted.
Extro na'casun'nok. first among all jade wolf clan.
Portal Number 232:
Record of Extro Na'Casun'Nor
First among all
Through knowledge comes power
On first exiting the portal, our clan's runners immediately used their tracing skills to find the item that we were sent for. Their first reported to me that it was at least four days travel to the south east of our present position. As the portal had dropped us in an isolated land, I instructed that sto'vor'ka should be used whenever possible, and termination of any life should be secondary to intelligence gathering. I then deployed the infiltrators in a circular formation and broke camp. We headed towards the Items location.
Sto'vor'ka seemed to function normally on this world, and no strange effects of any kind have been reported by the destroyers. However, Na'Clu'qa has told me that this world prevents detection of any psionics of greater power. Samples of the soil and wildlife have been collected. Takers have been placed on standby status.
Intelligent life has yet to be contacted by any of the runners. They have reported that the native flora and fauna are exceptionally vicious, with several species that can apparently sense our presence. they have been forced into action several times to protect themselves. No injuries or termination of contracts have occurred. The terrain of this world is also rough. Several lakes have been found composed entirely of acid. We have also been forced to slow our movement due to the extreme mountains of this region. However, our runners assure me that we shall still be able to reach the item as long as sto'vor'ka remains active. I foresee no problems ahead.
This world seems suited to some kind of colonization. The terrain would preclude any major settlement without drastic action, but a small camp would not be a large undertaking. Perhaps we should consider establishing a Na'Bul here; our young would benefit from the challenges inherent in this world.
Na'clu'Qa seemed pre-occupied today, he had to be reprimanded during a council for not responding. The other takers seem to be enjoying this world as much as the rest of the clan. granted, they are not near the power of Na'Clu'Qa, but that is no excuse for his behavior.
The runners have reported signs of life in the distance, including what seems to be rural areas, heavily defended. The inhabitants have not been encountered yet, but I have ordered that standard precautions should be taken. I do not want to loose any on this chase. Our objective seems to be somewhere deep within the border of the civilized area. Infiltrators have been activated to assess the strength of the opponent. Their reports should arrive by tomorrow's afternoon.
Na'Clu'qa has continued to act strangely. Several times today he has enquired if he make take a small band of takers back to one of the acidic lakes we passed. I refused his request. We are too close to the objective to risk no psionic protection. However, Na'Clu'qa repeatedly expressed his intent to return several times during the day. When asked for justification of this act, he gave nothing specific, simply stating that he felt something was there. Considering that Na'clu'qa has been responsible for several discoveries in the past, I have granted him permission to examine this lake on our trip back to the portal site. he did not seemed satisfied, but kept his peace.
The objective was located in the midst of a heavily fortified city, about a mile and a half across. The infiltrators performed their required tasks admirably, acquiring the object without much fuss. Several of the natives had to be terminated during the acquisition and an infiltrator's, na'casun'ra, contract was terminated. We managed to retrieve the body from an armed force of natives, but several pieces of magery and a piece his sto'vor'ka was taken and our runners have been unable to narrow its location past within the city. They suspect their tracers are being foiled by magic of some type. I have consulted with the destroyers, who have informed me that a fault lies almost directly underneath the city. Being unable to locate the sto'vor'ka I have ordered the destroyers to begin the sto'kar'vy . Our clan has retreated to a safe distance from the city and await the end of the rite.
It was with great regret that I was forced to terminate the contract of nas'clu'qa today. He insisted that he must be allowed to return to the acidic lake immediately and went so far to desert his post during the acquisition. Fortunately, the contract breaker did not get very far before being noticed by a runner. When brought before me it was obvious he had been driven mad by something. He refused several direct orders from both the myself and the second and continued ranting about something powerful at the lake. Having no other choice, and sufficient evidence under our laws, I terminated him and had his body stored with Na'Casun'ra's. It shall be conveyed back with honor and no blot shall be made on his families honor. I consider his termination to be the work of outside forces. if time permits, I will send a group of takers to the lake on the way back to the portal to investigate Na'clu'qa's claims.
the destroyers finished sto'kar'vy earlier this morning. After the explosion and fires, the runners seemed convinced that anything that was left behind would have been destroyed. No trace of the missing sto'vor'ka has been detected. Satisfied that our presence had been concealed by the disaster, I ordered a return to the portal's entrance. The destroyers counsel caution, as they are not sure of the geographic ramifications of the sto'kar'vy. The landmass might remain unstable for several days, or even disintegrate.
However, I still wish to find out what exactly nas'clu'qa thought he would find, and why it was important enough to abandon his clan. To this end, I have instructed the destroyers to keep this landmass together for as long as they can. they grumbled a bit during council, but destroyers have long had a reputation for being grouchy after the sto'kar'vy.
we reached the acid lakes early this afternoon. The ash clouds from Sto'kar'vy made it difficult to search very efficiently, but around dusk the runners reported finding a large block of an unknown metal floating in the middle of an especially large lake. knowing of my passion for metallurgy, the first-of-runners invited me to accompany them back for a further look. I confess I was eager to examine the composition of the monolith and so left the camp in the hands of the second for an evening.
On returning to the lake, i found that the metal was indeed unknown to us and was successful in securing a sample, although I broke my second best blade doing it. While I was examining the grain and sharpness of it, a runner cried out that he had found a series of shapes on the obelisk. He had only discovered the heat sensitive glyphs when became solid for a few moments to deal with a sensitive species of wildlife.
On finding the glyphs, we soon managed to trigger the opening of an extradimensional portal through the obelisk. After negotiating right of discovery with the first-of-scouts, I entered the portal and found myself in a small cavern. On a pedestal in the middle was a manuscript, bound in a reddish material. After disarming several wards on both the book and the floor, I was able to retrieve the manuscript from its resting place.
I wonder about that book. Is it the source of Na'clu'qa's obsession? The wards were certainly more powerful than anything we have encountered on this world so far, and the binding is of a substance unknown to me. Perhaps the seekers back home will make sense of it.
The destroyers informed me that the sto'var'ky had damaged the mantle of the landmass beyond recovery and the most we could hope for was 12 more hours of stability. Regretfully, for I was still intrigued by that block, I gave the order to return. The last of the clan should be through the portal by the setting of the moon.
Although we recovered our objective, I still feel that this place is hiding something from us. Perhaps when the masses have settled again, we will return here. I would have the secret's that this world holds.
But, I have the manuscript. Perhaps that is enough.
End of record
" So, when are you heading back to the Cage?" Veronal asked.
Asuric leaned back on his chair and smiled at her. It was just like Veronal to cut to the point quickly. His smile widened as his eyes fell from her soft brown eyes, past her finely featured face, to the bulge of the fat money purse that lay concealed inside her tunic. He smiled wider, thinking of a couple more reasons that he liked her.
" Are you listening to me, Asu?" Veronal demanded.
"Hmmm? Oh, tomorrow perhaps.." replied Asuric, still examining Veronal's moneypouch. He glanced disdainfully at the merchants that occupied much of tavern.
"I can see why you like this burg, but honestly Ver, it's just not my kind of place."
Veronal regarded Asuric skeptically. "Now why would a place with solid laws not appeal to you?"
Asuric put his feet up on the tavern's table, prompting stares from several of them. "Probably because its pretty dammed boring?" "Or maybe because an honest day's work is something you'd never touch with a ten foot pole." Veronal shot back acidly. "I don't know why you can't see the value of a steady plane to work with. But you seem happiest when the Blood War is taking place outside your kip." Veronal's expression softened and she reached across the table to take Asuric's hand. "One day you're going to get caught in the middle of a deal that you won't be able to wriggle out of. And I'd hate to see you get hurt. Then who would I get for my specialty items?"
Asuric gently eased his hand out of Veronals.
"Thanks for the concern, Veronal, but I can take care of myself. Now let's not quarrel on my last day here hmm?"
Asuric reached down for his pack underneath the table and pulled out a flat package about a foot and a half long and covered in greenish canvas. Looking cautiously around him, he rose and pulled the curtains around their booth, cutting them off from the rest of the tavern. He pushed the package towards Veronal.
"One copy of the Factol's Manifesto, Ver. And don't ask me how I got it."
Veronal unwrapped the canvas covering and examined the book carefully.
"Is it warded?" She asked, about to open it up.
"Not anymore." Asuric replied. "I do have some talent."
Veronal drew a deep breath, and opened it slightly. She let out a sigh as the book opened without incident.
"I'm always afraid you've missed something Asuric."
Asuric waggled his fingers dramatically.
" Mark of a professional: I can still count to ten."
Veronal smiled and removed her money pouch.
"Now how much did we agree on? 200 gold? Or was that 150?"
"200, Ver. You know that anyone else would charge you double for a complete copy, with that kind of protection. And tell Gorst that he still owes me for the Moigno's calculations he got last week."
"I'm sorry about that. He'll get you the money soon. He's had some trouble with the Harmonium recently."
Asuric groaned and clapped his hand to his forehead. "Are those leatherheads still nosing around this burg?" He shook his head ruefully. "I swear, if those berks got any stupider they could give zombies a run for their money."
"Shhhh!" Veronal shushed him. "You don't want to say stuff like that around here. The Hardheads have moved in quicker than you think. Last week they got Korvos."
"Korvos?!" Asuric looked at Veronal in surprise. "He's been in the market forever! How did those leatherheads ever scrag him? Are you planning to get him out?"
Veronal looked at Asuric sadly. "Didn't you hear? They didn't just scrag him, Asu. They put him in the dead book. Just like that."
Asuric stared at Veronal in astonishment. Then he slowly patted her on the shoulder.
"Poor basher..how's his family holding up?"
"We got them out a few hours before the squad came in. We tried to get Korvos out too, but he just went barmy. He said that he was tired of living under their boot."
Asuric shook his head slowly.
"He'd shouldn't have gotten involved with Anarchists in the first place. The factions are nothing but trouble. Look at the way I live in Sigil. With the kriegstanz taking up the factols, at least there a bashers got a chance to get away. Out here they've got nothing better to do than go after us small fish." Asuric paused, clearly troubled, and looked into Veronal's eyes.
"Why don't you come back to the Cage with me? This place isn't safe anymore, Korvos proved that. You could even stay at my kip for a while, at least until you got on your feet. A scribe as good as you could find work easily."
"It's a nice offer Asu, and if I was another kind I might pick you up on it. But I like Arcadia. Even with the Hardheads moving in. And I won't leave my friends behind. Besides, Sigil isn't called the Cage for nothing. Even if you can't see the bars."
Asuric sighed, and pushed back from the table.
"I had a feeling you might see it that way. The offer still stands though, if you need it."
He stood up and put the heavy purse on the table inside his tunic.
"Will you join me for a drink anyway? I'd hate to spend my last night in Arcadia sitting by myself."
"Of course I will Asuric. You can get me some ale."
"Who said I was buying?" Asuric said with a grin.
"That purse I just gave you does."
As Asuric pushed through the curtains surrounding the table, he was struck by the silence that had suddenly permeated the place. His eyes slid towards the exit at the back. A glimpse of a red leather breastplate gave him pause. As casually as he could, he turned around. Just as he had thought, a trio of Harmonium guardsman were walking around the room quietly asking questions of the merchants. One of them nodded and pointed in his direction.
"Damn the Gods. Not now!" He whispered to himself as he glanced in the opposite direction. Another trio were canvassing the other side of the tavern, moving closer to his table and, unfortunately, cutting off the route to the back door. Asuric stuck his head back behind the curtains.
"Harmonium!" He hissed urgently. "Hide the book!"
Veronal grabbed it and looked around for a hiding place. She tore at the seat's cushions, but to no avail. They were securly tacked to the chairs. Her eyes darted from the scarred wooden table, to the solid looking walls and then back to the chairs again. "Asu!" she whispered "Asuric, there's nowhere to put it!"
Asuric glanced back at the approaching guards. They were only one table away and headed towards him. Only a few seconds left.
He stepped back behind the curtain and grabbed Veronal around the waist. Swinging her in front of him to block the Harmonium's view, he grabbed the book with his free hand.
"Asu, what are you doing?" Veronal whispered frantically in his ear.
"Sorry about this, Var." Asuric said and kissed her. With his other hand he pressed two certain points on the books cover. The book shrunk to the size of his smallest finger joint. He slipped it into Veronal's tunic just as the Harmonium patrolman swept the curtain aside.
"Hey berk! Do you mind? We're trying to get a little privacy here!" Asuric said indignantly.
The patrolman looked from Asuric to Veronal suspiciously. Then he asked. "We're looking for a berk. He's about 6 ft., with white hair and blue eyes. You see anyone like that around here?"
Asuric thought for a moment. "No, can't say that I have. What about you, love?"
Veronal, still a little off balance, simply shook her head.
"Well, if you do, be sure to come down and see us." The patrolman raised his voice. "We're offering jink for this one. He's a threat to the law."
"Thank you sir." Asuric said. Reaching over, he vigorously shook the surprised patrol mans hand. "I just like to say I really think you Harmonium bashers are alright. You're doing a fine job here and I hope you catch the berk!"
The patrolman nodded to him. "Thanks, citizen."
With a long, last look around the tavern, the guardsman motioned to rest of the Harmonium to follow him out. Asuric let out the breath he had been holding. As he and Veronal sat back down, the rest of the tavern's customers started talking again.
Veronal was seething.
"I can't believe the nerve of those leatherheads! Coming in here! Next thing you know they'll be putting up gallows in the center square!" Asuric nodded. "You know, I can't believe them either. At least in the Cage the sods got my hair color right. I mean, does this look white to you?" Asuric fingered part of his black hair. "Don't worry about me." he said as Veronal opened her mouth to protest his levity. "I'll be back in the Cage before those leatherhead's even get my description sorted out."
"You're incorrigible, Ausric. I don't know why I put up with you sometimes."
"Because I've got the dark of it. That's why. Now, what kind of ale did you want?"
The tavernkeeper tapped Asuric lightly on the shoulder. " I'm sorry sir, but we've got to close up now. Rules are rules you know." Ausric nodded to him.
"We'll be done in two minutes. My room upstairs is still good?"
The tavernkeeper nodded and went off to close the shutters.
Asuric turned back to Veronal with a smile. He couldn't remember the last time that he had spent more enjoyable time. They had traded gossip on the factions and speculated on the next moves in the kriegstanz, the endless maneuvering to take control of Sigil, his home town. Veronal had shared tales of her childhood in Bytopia and her travels throughout that plane. He, in turn, had told as much as he dared of his growing up in Sigil, the people and things he had met at that crossroads of the multiuniverse. He even lfound himself relating some of the less public predicaments he had managed to get himself into. She had laughed at them and he found himself staring at the easy way she smiled. She had caught him, and they had spent a quiet moment gazing into each others eyes.
Now, Asuric yawned and stretched and realized how much time had gone by. He stood to help Veronal out of her seat.
"I can't remember the last time I spent an evening talking without trying to get a dark out of the berk sitting in front of me," he admitted to Veronal as he pulled out her seat for her. She smiled and slipped on her cloak.
"Neither can I. I enjoyed tonight a lot."
"Me too. Although next time, I won't invite the Harmonium."
They both laughed at that, then the silence lengthened and grew awkward.
"Well, I guess I should be getting to bed." Asuric yawned. "The tavernkeeper likes to close up on time."
Veronal nodded. "Marduk's famous for that. No late parties. It makes it easier to sleep."
Asuric nodded and then blushed as he remembered. " Ummm...about that kiss..."
"Well....I hope you didn't take it the wrong way....I just didn't have time to tell you and.." Asuric looked down at the floor as he blushed even brighter. He hated when he did that. "well...next time I'll tell you beforehand, I mean, well, not that they'll be a next time, but, well, just in case-" He realized he was babbling and trailed off into silence as he felt her finger on his lips. He looked up. Veronal stared directly into his eyes.
"You know," Veronal said huskily, "now would be a good time to shut up."
He put his hands around her waist and kissed her.
A few moments later they broke the kiss.
"You don't have to leave," he whispered.
The tavernkeeper was blowing out the last candles as they walked quietly up to Asuric's room.
Gorst saluted. He was fat and obviously out of shape, but he held himself very straight as he recited his report, from either fear or respect, he wasn't quite sure.
"...and we believe he stayed there tonight in the company of a assaimion named Veronal." He finished.
The figure sat silently, his face conceal by shadows. All that could be seen was a wide chestplate, made of a reddish metal, with the symbol of the Harmonium elaborately embossed on it. The figure considered what had just been told to him.
"You're sure that he didn't tumble to your act?" He asked in a flat voice.
Gorst shook his head fearfully.
"Nosir! I believe we successfully kept him in the dark."
"And he was able to undo the wards on the manifesto?"
"He is the finest warder I know sir!"
The figure leaned back in the chair, deep in thought.
Gorst began to fidget, no longer able to keep his anxiety in check. He wasn't even sure why he had been summoned here. He hadn't really joined up with the hardheads, not really. He just passed things along from time to time, little pieces of information. It kept the Hardheads off his back and let him operate his buisness in peace. Now he waited, shivering in the early dawn light.
Finally, the figure spoke.
"You don't like the Harmonium, do you Gorst? Go on, be honest."
Gorst considered for a moment. Then he puffed out his chest and saluted again, even more crisply than the last. "Nosir! I enjoy and respect the Harmonium and hope to serve it the rest of my days sir!"
The figure chuckled. "Gorst, if you're going to lie to me, at least be creative. I think I've heard the first line of the handbook enough already, don't you?" The figure waved his hand. "I don't care, not really, you know. Berks like you can't grasp the beauty of it. But I do, Gorst. I do. That's why I'm where I am today." He patted the desk fondly. "I've seen this desk many times in my dreams, did you know that? When I was just a recruit, I dreamed that one day I would be behind this desk. Bringing harmony. Bringin peace. Because that's what this is all about. Peace."
The figure got up and started to pace.
"I know what you're thinking. 'Crazy old fool. How can he lead this mob and call it harmony?' And you're right, you're right. It is complicated. And sometimes, it is a mob. But I can see the bigger picture, Gorst."
The man stopped and turned to face Gorst. Gorst took a step back fearfully, but the figure was ignoring him, caught up in its own oration.
" I can see a universe where there is no hate, no anger. A universe where drow works with elf, and goblin with dwarf. Do you know how many deaths there across the universe each second? Countless! Hundreds of species, hating each other and willing to do anything to kill. And they call it peace! Ha! As if there has ever been such a thing. But we're here to change it Gorst. We're taking a stand and saying No More! No more killing. your neighbor because he's different than you. No more babies smashed against rocks because they were born with blue eyes! The Harmonium is going to have peace. Even if we have to take it by force!"
The figure stopped, breathing heavily. He then turned, and thrust a finger menacingly towards Gorst.
"You know Asuric better than any of us. Bring him to me. Take as many men as you need, but keep them quiet. No one must know why we want him."
"Yessir!" The man saluted again and turned away, eager to leave the room. As he reached the door, the figure rose out of his chair, bringing his face into the light.
"Leave no witnesses."
As the light of day streamed in through the open window, Asuric streatched and rolled over on his bed.
As the darkness from Arcadia's sphere swept across the town of Marduk, the citizens streamed towards their well tended bedrooms. Within a few minutes, the streets of the orderly town were empty of life; leaving only the stars and the shadows behind.
In the alley behind Asuric's tavern, a stray cat nosed through a pile of trash. Suddenly a mouse jumped from the pile and ran towards a crack in a plank of the tavern. The cat's paw slammed down an inch from the mouse's nose, but the mouse managed to dodge the blow and ran towards a crack in one of the planks of the tavern. The cat, intent on its escaping meal, did not notice as one of the shadows began to move.
Despite the cats best efforts, the mouse managed to squeeze its way through the crack in the plank. Frustrated, the cat leaned down, trying to poke its paw into the small hole. Unable to reach its prey after a few tries, the cat lost interest. Looking up, the cats eyes narrowed, as part of the shadow pulled itself away from the wall with a slight sucking sound. It backed away, hissing at the dark shape as it crouched in the alley.
The creature lifted what seemed to be its head and regarded the hissing cat for a moment. Two silver eyes appeared where a head seemed to be. Then there was a flash of sliver and a whistling sound as something cut through the air, a meaty thump.
Much later, after the shadow had moved away, the rat emerged from its hole. After a few moments of cautious examination, the rat padded through the puddle of blood and began to chew on the ear of the cat. It would get to the rest later.
The starlight fell upon Asuric's face, lighting up his pale face and highlighting the scaly patches on his chest. Veronal smiled to herself as she reached for her tunic. She hadn't guessed that Asuric was a tiefling, but she wasn't complaining. In fact, she thought to herself as she pulled the tunic over her head, she was liked him even more for it. Not many people had angelic or demonic blood running through their veins. It was nice to meet someone that understood how quickly people judged you when they found out who your parents were. In fact, she thought as she reached over him to grab her breeches, maybe she would take him up on his offer, at least for a couple of days. Veronal had always disliked Sigil's cramped and smoggy roads, but they took on a whole new dimension when she thought of strolling through them with Asuric at her side.
She was still smiling to herself as she reached down and picked up the Manifesto from the floor. It had fallen there during their mad rush to the bed and Veronal checked the spine carefully for any cracks. Her clients were demanding, but ever since the Harmonium had cracked down on smuggling, she was the only one that could successfully fulfill their needs. And she charged them dearly for it. Over the past few months, she had accumulated quite a lot of jink. Maybe she should go spend some of it. Her compatriots could handle the requests for at least a week, she could certainly handle a week away from this plane. Not that it wasn't a great place to live, polite merchants, quiet nights, but she still couldn't get used to the little things. How the trees grew only in straight rows, how the livestock lined up for the butcher without complaint. But what she really missed was the moonlight. No moon here, just an abrupt transition from light to darkness, with nothing in between. Veronal believed that laws mattered to people, but she found the all embracing conformity of this plane slightly distasteful.
"All right." she thought to herself as she got off of the bed and pulled on her boots. "After I drop this off, I'll come back and tell him. And then we can out of here for a while."
Veronal was still deep in thought as she started towards the door, but not so deep that she didn't hear the thump as something thudded against the door. Instantly, she froze. There was one other thing about this plane. No matter where you were, all law abiding people went to bed when the night came. The only ones out after dark were the Harmonium patrols. The Harmonium, and whatever they were patrolling for. She was sure she didn't want to run into either.
Veronal bent down silently and pulled a dagger from her boot. It flared brightly in the darkness and Veronal took comfort from the light. Most magical items lost power when carried from one outer plane to another. Her long sword, which had taken down more than its share of thieves and competitors in Sigil, did not cut half as keenly here. But the dagger she had just had enchanted by a local mage. Whoever was on the opposite side of that door was in for a surprise.
She glanced back towards the bed and debated waking Asuric. She decided against it; whoever was outside that door was definitely listening for movements inside their room. Waking him up might alert them. Instead, she stalked carefully towards the door, her dagger held confidently in one hand.
Veronal crouched down to the left of the door and waited. The door opened outwards, into the corridor. She wanted surprise to be on her side. She waited and watched the doorknob for the any sign of movement.
The knob began to rattle. Someone was fiddling with the lock. Veronal leaned back in preparation as it gave way with a slight pop. As the doorknob began to turn, Veronal pivoted and kicked the door outwards into the corridor. Brandishing her dagger, she jumped into the corridor.
And felt something cold brush against her face. She stabbed underhand with the dagger, hoping to wound whoever it was. Then she stopped in confusion, blinking her eyes rapidly. The corridor was empty. She lowered her dagger. Someone had to of opened the lock. Where were they? She paced down the corridor carefully, looking intently at the walls, searching for someone hidden in the shadows.
She was so intent on scanning the corridor that she almost missed the movement to her left. She spun around, pulling back her dagger for a strike. She watched in disbelief instead, as part of the shadow pulled away from the wall.
Veronal snarled as the shadow pulled a shining sword from somewhere on its form and ran towards her without a sound. It was hard to keep track of it as it charged through the dark corridor, but Veronal stood her ground as it neared her. Then when she judged the time to be right she pulled back and threw.
The dagger hissed through the air, right on target. But Veronal paid no attention to it, grasping the hilt poking out of the top of her other boot. With a snikt of metal, her long sword magically expanded to its 4 foot length. Veronal brought the sword into a defensive posture just as her dagger hit the approaching creature in its silver eye.
And continued through to hit the end of the corridor with the solid thunk of metal embedding itself deep into wood. Veronal gasped in astonishment. That dagger had pierced the hide of Ghosts, for powers sake, she thought in horror. How could it have passed through without even leaving a wound? Then Veronal had no more time to think; as the shadow reached for her.
Asuric tossed and turned in his sleep. Then suddenly he awoke to a flash of light and a terrible, drawn out scream. He jumped out of the bed and shook the disorientation of sleep from his head. The scream continued, chilling him to the bone. It sounded a lot like Veronal....Veronal! Asuric glanced around the room. Seeing no sign of her,. he grabbed his sword from the clothes piled at the bottom of the bed and charged out into the hallway.
And stared in terror at the sight of Veronal.
She was suspended in the air by some...thing, a blackness that seemed to flow within a humanoid shape, glowing with a holy radiance and screaming. Years later, Asuric would be able to recall the exact timbre of that scream, how it seemed to contain all the suffering of the multiuniverse in one single, piercing note.
"You bastard! Get away from her!" He yelled as he charged at the creature. But before he could get within range, Veronal's light abruptly stopped and her screaming ceased. The creature released its grip and, as Asuric looked on in disbelief, stepped back into the shadows and faded from view. The last thing Asuric saw was its eyes, looking at him, with absolutely no emotion. Then they too were gone.
Asuric stared at the wall for a moment more, then ran to Veronal's side. He looked down in horror at her. Her long black hair, the same hair that had lain across his bed like a ravens wing earlier that night, was turning white before his eyes. Her dusky skin grew paler and paler as he watched. He cradled her in his arms and gently brushed the now brittle hair from her face. She was shivering constantly.
"Shhh, shhh. Its all right Ver. Its gone now." He said gently. He gasped as he looked into her eyes. They were loosing their color, the iris turning black.
"Asu? Is that you?" she shivered. "Oh Gods, Asu...."
He stroked her cheek tenderly and realized, to his surprise, that he was crying. "Don't worry Ver..we'll get you back up in no time. We'll find a cleric. I know people..they'll fix you up..don't worry..." He sobbed. She was so cold now. So very , very cold.
"Asu?" She said, very faint now. "Will you ....let ....me .....come ....to .....Sigil..... with ...you?"
"Yes, of course. We'll leave right away."
"I .....would ........like ........that..."
"Oh Ver..please don't go.."
She gasped. Her eyes moved to look out the window, up into the night sky.
She swallowed once and shuddered. Then Asuric felt the breath leave her body for the last time. He sat there for quite a while, crying, as the cool starlight shone through the windows.
As Asuric came back to himself, he heard the tromp of feet. Several pairs of them. He looked up from Veronals face towards the stairs where the sounds were coming from. He could see shadows now, and hear their voices. They sounded gruff and to the point, the way the Harmonium patrolmen sounded. He had to get out of here. If the Harmonium caught him in Arcadia he would be hung before the morning had passed. He wiped his tears away with the back of his hand.
He glanced around and then suddenly remembered Ver. He couldn't just leave her there like this. Asuric wiped his face again as tears sprung back into his eyes. Then he grabbed Veronal's wrists and quickly pulled her back inside his room. He shut and locked the door. That should give him a few minutes. The Harmonium was a bit less quick to resort to violence here in Arcadia. In Sigil, they would break down the door in a heartbeat. Here, it might hold them, at least for a few moments. And that was all the time he needed. He pulled out the copy of the Factol's Manifesto and went to work.
Harmonium Patrolman first class Herwick Serger was not a happy man. When he had joined the Harmonium, he had hoped to be assigned somewhere where he could do some good. The Sigil City Barracks, for example, or even the faction stronghold in Melodia. Now there was a place a man could rise through the ranks. But instead, he found himself endlessly patrolling his old home town. He could understand why the Harmonium had placed him here, not many in the faction had his knowledge of Marduk's streets. But, he admitted to himself as they climbed the steps, Marduk was boring. There wasn't much going on that was illegal. Lately, Herwick had found himself wanting something bigger, something challenging. Not that he was asking to go up against the tanari or anything, he hastily reminded himself, but just once he would like to run into something unusual.
Now he had drawn some kind of 'special duty'. His excitement had been dampened by the fact that after a while, this special duty seemed a lot like the old duty, except they were now following a fat, sweaty man named Gorst. And he was following some crazy old mage with a scrap of some poor sods tunic clutched between his fingers. And so it had gone throughout the night. Herwick had almost given up hope of anything happening when the mage had suddenly gone rigid and pointed to a tavern across the street from where they walking. They had pounded on the door for ages before the tavern keeper had come to the door. He was shaking and stammering about some scream coming from upstairs. Herwick had his doubts though, after he saw the bottle, half full of rot gut, on the table behind the bar. Probably had a bit too much to drink and had a nightmare, the poor bubber. But, once again, he found himself slogging up the stairs of a tavern, checking out a disturbance. The same as every other night.
"Join the Harmonium and see the world" Herwick thought to himself as he reached the top of the staircase. "Yeah, right."
Gorst looked at the mage angrily. "I thought you told me he was here. Well, we're here. I don't see him. Do you?"
The mage looked haughtily back at him. " My spells are guaranteed to find the subject to within 30 feet. Don't blame me if you can't see someone that's within thirty feet of you. That' s your eyesight, not my dweomers."
Gorst sighed and rubbed his eyes with his palm. It had been a long night of walking the streets. The damned mage claimed he had to get readings from three different parts of the city to find Asuric. Gorst thought it was so much baaztezu droppings, but he'd played along. Just as long as they found Asuric soon. He would hate to disappoint his superior. He had heard tales about what happened to people that did.
Gorst turned back to the tavern keeper. "All right sir. Can you show us the room that this fellow and his lady friend were staying?"
The tavern keeper extended a trembling finger to point at the third room from the left.
"They were staying there sir. He seemed all right when he first came here, but after I heard that scream...well, I'm just glad you bashers showed up when you did. I was about to go find you myself!" He laughed weakly, then drew back towards the staircase.
Gorst sneered at him. Let the old bubber stay back there. Gorst had nothing to fear from Asuric. He had studied the man the few times they had met and found nothing that indicated he was anything from what he claimed to be: a procurer of rare and illegal books. But still, there was no point taking unnecessary chances. He motioned to the patrol at his back.
"Right. You two stay back here in case he gets past. You two, come with me." He strode up to the door and knocked loudly. "Asuric?" he yelled " Asuric, is that you? Its me, Gorst. I've got the money I owe you." There was no answer. Gorst pounded on it again. "Asuric, come on! I've come a long way you know!" Gorst waited another minute, then tried the doorknob. It was locked. He shrugged and pointed at the door. "Break it down!" he ordered the two patrolmen. He stood aside as the two guardsman stepped up to the door.
Asuric heard the crash as the door broke in. He let go of the rope, dropping the last few feet to the ground. He took cover behind a pile of barrels. It wouldn't be long now.
Herwick felt the door give under his shoulder and he crashed into the room. The first thing that caught his attention was the rope that lead out the window. The second was the string that had run from the door to the cover a large book, now open, propped up on a chair pointed at the door. The third thing was the book was glowing rapidly and getting brighter. He had just enough time to wonder why before it exploded.
Gorst felt himself being thrown to the floor by the force of the explosion. He watched in amazement as patrolman Herwick flew back out through the door, pursued by a huge gout of flame. Herwick smashed through the door on the opposite side of the hallway and came to rest, groaning, against the far side of the room. Gorst stood stunned for a minute, then rushed into the room. The entire place was destroyed, the bed and several other parts of the furniture ablaze. He ran over to the window, searching for any sign of Asuric. The street was deserted, although neighbors of the tavern had started to emerge from their houses, pointing and shouting. Gorst pulled his head back in, cursing. How the name of the nine hells had Asuric managed to pull that off? He was sure that the berk had only minor magics, certainly nothing as powerful as what he had just seen. He walked back into the hallway. His superior wanted this kept quiet. A fireball going off at three in the morning probably didn't qualify. He had planned to mindwipe the patrolmen after they had captured Asuric, but doubted he could do that to half the crowd outside. This was going to require some quick thinking.
He pointed to the two patrolmen closest to the stairwell .
"You! Go downstairs and control that crowd! Make sure that no one comes in and no one gets out," he gestured at the tavern keeper, who was crouched halfway down the stairs. "And take him down with you! I don't want anyone to know about this."
He pointed at the uninjured patrolman. "You! Run back to headquarters and get a healer. But don't tell anyone. Just grab him and bring him back as quick as you can." The patrolman started to form a protest, but stopped when he got a closer look at Gorst's expression.
"You!" he pointed at the mage. "Can you still trace him?"
The mage shook his head. "The sample was nearly at the end of its life when we started the chase. Now, it's power is exhausted." he opened his hand, letting a fine brown powder run through his fingers. "I will need a new sample if we are to continue this."
Gorst growled in frustration. "What about this?" He said, gesturing in the direction of the room. The mage looked inside, and shook his head.
"I need recognizable samples, not ashes. Something that has been near to him in the last few days would be ideal, but anything that he has held is adequate."
Gorst thought to himself. Could he find a goblet or something Asuric had eaten out of? No, the tavern keeper would have washed them already, according to city ordinances. His eyes flicked restlessly. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash as something caught the light from the flames. He walked back to the stairs and pulled a dagger from the wall. He saw it was glowing faintly.
He examined it thoughtfully, then thrust it towards the mage. "Will this do?"
The mage took the dagger in his hands and concentrated briefly, his eyes shut. "Yes. The aura is still fresh .... it will be considerably easier to track him down with this."
Gorst nodded, his face breaking into a savage grin. "Asuric, my old friend," he whispered to himself, "you have just bought yourself a boat load of trouble."
Asuric crouched in the back of the bar, half hidden by the swirling clouds of smoke that floated through the air. After the fireball had gone off he had quickly shouldered his burden and headed out towards the northern ward of the city. Ordinarily, he wouldn't frequent this kind of place, but right now he didn't have much choice. It was the only thing in Marduk that was still open. He didn't want to risk attracting more attention by breaking into some house for the night. He sighed and sipped his ale, grimacing as the foul tasting stuff burned a trail down to his stomach.
He glanced over at Veronal's body. He had wrapped her in a carpet and sheet from his room before he had run off into the night. He sighed aloud and held his head in his hands as he thought about her.
Why did this have to happen now, by all the Powers? Here he was, planes away from any kind of clerical aid, with the body of a women, he admitted, that he cared very much about. Even if he had been in Sigil, Asuric doubted that he would have enough contacts to find a priest of sufficient power that would bring her back. How was he going to do it here in the outer planes, where he had even less friends? And he knew, even as he sat here thinking, her spirit was getting farther and farther from the physical world. It would get harder and harder to call her back.
Even if he did manage to find a priest that would help him, Asuric was doubtful that a resurrection would work. He had never seen someone die that way. Swords and magic were fine, as deaths go. A thrust through the heart or a disintegration ray were quick and relatively painless. But having life drained from your body until the very color was sucked from your skin.... he wasn't sure that it was even possible to repair something like that.
Asuric looked around the bar in despair. He saw no one he knew here. Maybe it was time to move on. Just as he was about to get up, he saw a flash of a face he thought he recognized. Was it? Yes, he thought it was. Asuric hadn't seen Gorst in a couple of months, but the chant was he had contacts around the plane that let him move almost anything, anywhere. At least he had enough jink to indulge in several unhealthy habits, including, it was rumored, several lower plane mistresses. And he owed Asuric money. With any luck at all, Gorst would have a way to smuggle him and Veronals body back to Sigil. Once Asuric was there, he would have a much better chance of getting Veronal back.
Asuric smiled grimly to himself. One way or another, Gorst was going to do him a little favor. He slid out of his chair and into the shadows.
Gorst choked on the thick, smoky air and cursed all Harmonium high ups for the thousandth time. Since he had left the safe confines of the faction headquarters, he had been cursed at by beggars, chased by guard dogs, nearly blown up by a magical book and had almost broken his leg sliding down the slick stone steps that led to this dive. He was lucky that he had survived this long. He still couldn't se any sign of Asuric. He squinted and tried to see the furthest alcoves of the tavern, but then gave up.
Asuric had to be in here somewhere, the mage was adamant of that. Someone would simply have to go in and look for him. Of course, the sight of Harmonium uniforms in a bar like this would have quickly led to violence and Gorst was the only one in plain clothes, so he went in alone. He was confidant he could shout for help if he got in trouble, but that would alert Asuric that they had found him again. Something he wanted to avoid if could help it. Gorst shuddered as he noticed two drunken fellows staring at him from the other side of the bar. He looked down quickly. Maybe he should head outside and ask the mage for a more precise reading. Yes, that sounded like a very good idea. Gorst turned to go, but found himself face to face with the man he had been searching for.
Asuric smiled broadly at Gorst, letting the man see all of his teeth, even the sharp ones further to the back.
"Gorst, my old friend! Imagine finding you here! Don't you owe me some money?"
Asuric pushed forward as he spoke, forcing Gorst further towards his alcove in the back of the inn.
"Ahh yes, yes I do. Asuric, to tell you the truth, I - I didn't expect to find you here." Gorst felt himself starting to sweat. He had expected to have the Harmonium at his back when he confronted Asuric. Now that he was all alone, he found himself painfully aware of the fact he had not brought any weapons beside a dagger in his boot. And he hadn't sharpened it in a while. He had to get Asuric out of this place and into the street, where the guards would take care of him.
Gorst felt a seat pressing the back of his knees and as he automatically sat down, Asuric did the same across from him. Something wrapped in a carpet lay beside him Gorst swallowed. It looked very much like a dead body. They regarded each other for a moment. Then Asuric spoke.
"So how have you been?"
"Fine, just fine."
"I heard the Hard heads were giving you trouble."
"Nothing special...just the usual harassment. I can handle those sods."
"So how much did you owe me?"
"550 gold. But I'll tell you up front, I don't have it with me."
"I wouldn't have expected you to, Gorst. But I need that jink. I need it quick."
Gorst blinked and considered for a moment.
"That might be difficult. I could have it for you in a few days."
"I don't have a few days. I need it now. Tonight."
"I don't know if I can do that."
"Gorst, I'm in deep trouble here. I need that jink to bribe my way out of this burg and back to the Cage. Either you get it for me tonight or the Harmonium finds some interesting reading on their desk tomorrow morning."
They stared at each other for a long tense minute. Then Gorst leaned back and sighed.
"What if I could get you back to the Cage? Tonight. With no bribes needed?"
Asuric looked at him closely. Gorst must have more pull than he thought if he could smuggle things right out under the hardheads noses.
"That would clear the board, I'd say."
Gorst stood up.
Asuric did. He really didn't have any other choice
Gorst released the breath he had been holding. By the Powers! He didn't think that he would be able to lie that smoothly. But it looked like Asuric had believed him. He walked quickly to the exit of the bar and held out a hand to stop Asuric.
"Quiet. I have to check something."
Asuric nodded and stood back. Gorst noted absently that he was still carrying that carpet with him. He stuck his head back out, nodding to the patrolmen in the alley across the street. Then he stuck his head back inside.
Gorst started out on to the street. He glanced back over his shoulder. Asuric was following him closely. He walked across the street and waited for a second. Then, nodding to Asuric, they walked smothly past the front of the alley. He heard the clatter of heavy armor as several Patrolmen tackled Asuric to the ground.
Asuric knew something was wrong as soon as he started to walk past the alley. But by then it was too late. Three burly Harmonium patrolmen ran into him like a runaway carriage. Veronal's body crashed to the ground and Asuric was buried under them. But he still struggled to escape.
"You bastard! You set me up!" He screamed at Gorst, as the three Patrolmen brought him upright. Holding on to his arms, they quickly manacled his hands. He caught a glimpse of Veronals body. Veronal! Now there was no chance of resurrecting her. Asuric glared at Gorst.
"I'll get you if it's the last thing I do, you bloated turd." He promised Gorst.
Gorst glared back at him. "You've led me on a merry chase Asuric. But now you're mine. And so is a promotion. I'm the high up now. How does that strike you?"
Asuric struggled against the patrolmen. "How could you do this Gorst? How could you betray us like this? When this gets out, no one will deal with you. You'll be cut off from the network, alone. The Harmonium will eat you for breakfast. Do you really think they'll take in a smuggler like you? Especially after your reputation is gone?"
Gorst sneered "And who is going to tell them? You? You died in that explosion, didn't you know? Tragic loss."
"They'll come looking. The network doesn't forget its own. You know that. They won't stop until they find my body."
"Oh they'll find a body all right. Just not yours. Face it Asuric. From now on, you belong to the Harmonium."
Gorst nodded to one of the patrolmen. Asuric felt a soundless explosion as the patrolman slugged him in the back of the head. Then everything went dark.
Asuric came back to himself, slowly, fighting against the blackness that threatened to claim him again. By the Powers! He hated getting slugged in the back of the head. It was even worse when it was by the Harmonium. He wasn't sure, but he suspected that every member of the hardheads was required to take a course in it. He groaned as he shook his head back and forth. He hoped they wouldn't use anything too painful this time. He still had scars from the last time he spent with the hardheads. Then he winced as a bright light was directed at his face.
"Wake up, you. We don't have all day." a stern voice commanded him. Turning his head away from the light, Asuric tried to open his eyes, but groaned again as the light sent stabbing pains to shoot through his brain. Why couldn't Gorst just have paralyzed him or something?. The voice, spoke again, maintaining the same flat monotone. "Gorst, if you have damaged him, you will have made me very angry."
"I'm sure that he's just faking sir." Asuric recognized Gorst's gruff voice. Despite his pain, he snarled and spoke.
"Gorst, you better hope you're far away from me when I get out of this." He managed to force his eyes open and looked around. He was strapped tightly into a chair at hands, waist and feet. He turned his head to the left and saw Gorst watching him arrogantly, in full Harmonium uniform.
To the front of him, shielded by the light ,he could see the figure who had spoken before, surrounded by several larger silhouettes he assumed were body guards. Asuric kept his outward scowl, but inside he was smiling. He had been bound tighter than this before and still managed to wriggle free. He started to flex his arm and leg muscles, trying to slacken the bands.
Gorst laughed. "Brave words from you, gutter rat." He raised his hand to strike, but a sharp command from the other figure stopped him in mid-blow.
"Stop that. I want Asuric to be attentive when I speak to him, not unconscious." The figure paused, and then spoke again. "You may leave now, Gorst. The Harmonium will remember your actions today." Gorst saluted the figure and left the room, but not before he sneered one last time at Asuric. The figure looked thoughtfully after him for a second and then motioned to his guards.
"Leave us. And be sure to take care of Gorst for me." The guards nodded and quietly left the room. The figure regard Asuric for a moment while the lights dimmed. Then Asuric felt the straps start to loosen by themselves. He rubbed his wrists as the straps fell to the floor, trying to restore circulation.
"I think that we two can talk like civilized berks, don't you think?" the figure asked him, as he glanced casually towards the door. Asuric heard a clunk as the bolt swung home. When he glanced back, the figure was holding out a goblet. "Arborean whiskey. Your favorite, I believe." When Asuric hesitated, the figure laughed softly. "You know, if I wanted you dead, I would of handed you over to the Mercykillers already. Drink up. I promise that you won't find its like again." Asuric shrugged, conceding the point, and took a sip. It was indeed Arborean whisky, but with a smoky texture to it that told him that it was a finer vintage than he had ever encountered before.
"If you agree, we can conduct this business in a more suitable setting?" The figure gestured to a door set in the far wall of the room. Asuric nodded to him, anything was better than this cold and dark cell. The figure unlocked the door and then opened it, ushering in Asuric before him.
Asuric couldn't help but smile as the warmth from a roaring fireplace hit him full in the face. He stopped his shivering and looked around him, admiring the rich furnishings of the room. Large tapestries, emblazoned with the Harmonium logo covered the floor and rich, dark paneling the walls. Asuric spotted a comfortable looking chair and sat down with a sigh. He tried to think positive, but the only other time he had been treated like this by the hardheads was just before they had tried to summarily execute him. Usually they left that pleasure to the Mercykillers, but he guessed that he had casued one to many embarrassments. That time he had given them the laugh with the help of a lockpick he had concealed in his hair. He ran his fingers through his hair. Somehow, he didn't think he'd be able to pull that off this time. He turned back towards the door and finally caught a glimpse of his host.
He was a large and solid looking fellow. His red tunic and pants (though finely tailored, Asuric noted) were unable to hide the bulge of finely tuned muscles hiding beneath the skin. His eyes met Asurics with amused detachment, bulging out from underneath reddish eyelids. Red hair, cut short and sticking only slightly out from the skull gave his head a square shape. He moved slowly, but with the grace and caution learned only after thousands of successful battles. A faint scent seemed to hang in the air around him. Asuric sniffed the air, thought for a moment and then spoke bluntly.
"I didn't know the Harmonium still accepted tieflings."
From the expression of surprise on his hosts face, Asuric assumed that he had scored a direct hit. The stranger recovered quickly though, and bowed slightly in acknowledgment.
"You are just as perceptive as we hoped you to be, sir Asuric." The fellow moved another chair opposite him and sat down. "Your .. reputation" he chuckled "among the Cagers seems to be true."
"And what reputation is that?" Asuric asked, stalling for time. He scanned the room carefully, but could find no other exit from the room except for the one that led back to the cell.
"That you're the one that can fix things. 'Need a pass from Grazzt? See Asuric. Want to find someone? See Asuric. Want to dig up some dirt on the factol? See Asuric. Need to steal something? Something valuable, something that no ones even seen before? See Asuric.' They say you've even given one of the Red Deaths Justicar's the laugh."
"She had me confused with someone else."
"Quite. The Harmonium has wanted to see you hanging from the leafless tree for several years now. But I convinced them you could be an ... asset to our cause."
Asuric smiled grimly. "You'll be waiting a long time before I join up with the hard heads. They're just not my type of berk."
The fellow smiled grimly and rose from his chair. "Normally I'd agree with you. But these are unusual circumstances." He leaned over and knocked on a certain panel in the wall, then moved aside as part of the wall moved soundlessly aside. He motioned Asuric to follow him and stepped through. Warily, Asuric did.
He found himself in a large open chamber. The walls were made of rough cut stone and the air felt cool and dry. But what drew his attention was the slab of rock in the middle of it. A white sheet covered what looked suspiciously like two bodies, lying side by side. Asuric watched as his host walked up and grasped one side of the sheet.
"You'll work with us for two reasons. The first is you have no choice. The second ... " here he paused as he pulled the sheet away.
Asuric felt his jaw drop in amazement. He looked at his host in confusion, then walked forward to take a closer look. The first body was Veronal of that he was sure, but the second.... Asuric's eyes moved upwards from the polished red boots, past the swarthy hands now turned white, to the black eyes of the man he had seen so often standing in Sigil's Hall of Speakers, railing against his acts.
The eyes of Factol Sarin.
His host looked at him gravely.
"is that we have the same problem."
The Main Chamber