Copyright 1997
by Brannon Hollingsworth

Chapter 1 - `Out of the frying pan...'

The couple shouldered their way into the tavern, their senses reeling from the constant bombardment, both from the streets of the strange city as well as it's establishments. All about them roamed beings unlike they have ever seen or heard described, as well as those conjured forth from their deepest legends, prayers, and nightmares. Doubt still clung to their minds like a thick fog as to whether they were still alive or sentenced to wander some abstract hell for eternity. For the time being, however, they knew one thing for certain: the pangs of hunger and thirst do not dim either in life or supposed death...

The ancient, weathered sign above the door hung limply in the thick, sulfurous smog; it's coppery-green hinges nearly decayed in two, seemingly held together only by a strange, jagged-leafed black vine that grew everywhere a non-trodden upon surface existed. The words long since dissolved away in the stinging rain that misted about them. Only a vague, nearly sadistic artistic impression of a bedraggled, bespeckled rat remained, hinting at the ale house's name: The Speckled Rat.

"By Droga's Beard, the lot o` this place stinks o' the Pit, suren!", swore the black-bearded dwarf; the silver symbol of a warhammer within a circle bounced upon his thick, beard-covered chest with every breath. His darkly tanned face, which seemed pinched between the great growth of beard below and a set of bushy eyebrows from above, openly displayed the disgust he felt despite it's many life lines.

"Aye, Dorn", agreed the flaxen-haired woman at the dwarf's side, her bright blue eyes darting warily about them, "but we must first find out where we are, so that we might find the others. I pray only that they have survived whatever cataclysm it was that brought us here." Stepping from the smog filled streets into the smoke filled tavern, she pulled up the hood of her weather-stained cloak, hiding the mass of golden ringlets that she wore pulled back into a woolly tail. "Please, Dorn, try to hold your temper here, we no more know the customs here than they know ours. In our current condition -", she said, patting a nearly empty pouch at her shapely waist, "we can afford no troubles to befall us."

The dwarf grunted in reply, and chuckled, a sound much like that of a tiny avalanche, as he patted the head of his trusty warhammer, Ire, "We'll not be causin' problems, me dear Myr, only solvin' `em, if they raise their ugly heads. By Droga, I'll hold me tongue as best I can."

They could barely make out the inn's patrons through the multi-hued haze that purposefully permeated every corner of the room. Ranging from monstrous, winged forms to small smoking semblances of consciousness, they sat, floated, or hovered near diamond shaped tables, all roaring and hooting with the familiar sounds of drink. `It matters not where one goes...', the human thought sourly to herself.

Myr could not tell whether it was because of their sudden appearance, or her unvoiced thought, but suddenly, all eyes in the tavern were on them. It was as silent as crypt. Dorn held his breath for a moment, his palms beginning to sweat, as he tried desperately to remember exactly how many steps that had taken into this accursed place. Somewhere off to their left, what sounded like a large talon chipped on wood three times. Time suddenly began to crawl by, each moment taking eons...

"Next round's on us!", shouted the dwarf without thinking, throwing his hands, palms up, to his sides. Immediately the room sprang back to life, as if nothing had occurred. "When I asked you not to kill them", Myr snapped, "I did not think that you would make friends with them!" She gave her old friend an exasperated slap on the back of the head as she strode towards the rear, to the bar. The old dwarf could only stand there, a blank look upon his face, as mugs filled with bubbling ichors were raised in honor of him, receiving many taloned claps upon his broad back.

Myr, shaking her head with disbelief, neared the bar and began elbowing her way in. She was careful to pick a couple of the inn's smaller and less strange appearing patrons, however, as not to spoil what little good fortune that they had encountered. Myr had learned long ago not to trust the tides of an ale house, as they could quickly change, and most often, for the worse. Behind the bar was a wrinkled up old creature with sickly yellow skin and eyes. His thin, greasy-looking black hair fell unkempt around his thin, bird-boned face and intermingled with his wispy mustache. Immediately, Myr was reminded of a tale that she had heard that spoke of a terrible wasting disease that had befallen a large group of people in her home kingdom a long time ago. It was said that this particular disease affected not the heath of the people themselves, but their blood, causing their skin and eyes to turn a sickly shade of yellow shortly before they died. Myr wondered to herself if this poor soul was infected with this disease, and crossed herself with the sign of Thylssa, the goddess of healing.

"Well, berk, ya need me ta run a tab for th' bub, or ya wanna pay up now?", slurred the bartender, his accent so foreign that Myr could barely make out his words. Wherever they were, it was a long way from home...

"Thank you, no.", she said nonchalantly, "Actually, you could help us with some-"

"Kaf!", a strange, deep voice called out to her right, interrupting her. "Kaf!, you ol' prune, you! How's about some bub for a blood?" The speaker was a blue skinned, extremely tall and skinny creature that, even standing still, seemed to have a few to many joints. It created a slightly disjointed effect that seemed to basically, summarize this queer creature. Myr noticed that as he made his way to the bar, even some of the larger, more fearsome looking patrons moved quietly out of his way. He came to a lax stop, flopping his long, slender arm upon the bartop, openly displaying a extensive string of sparkling jewelry encircling it. Despite his unusual physical appearance, his dress, as well as his overly confident air, marked him as a merchant. Or someone wanted to appear as a merchant, Myr thought dryly...

"Alvaro! What cranium rat horde belched you up? I'd heard that ye'd been scragged and put in th' book outside Ribcage!", said the bartender, who appeared to be more surprised than excited to see an old acquaintance.

The tall blue man's right eyebrow arched slightly, but then returned to it's original nesting place. "I ran into a bit of a scuffle, but nothing that Alvaro `the Apt' could not handle. Tell me, old friend", at this, Myr noticed that his voice took on a less than friendly manner, "how did you come to hear of Alvaro's ...misfortune? Did the news of my demise spread clear unto Sigil? Is Alvaro so well known as-"

The bartender interrupted rudely, gesturing towards the patrons with a filthy rag, "Some bloods came in the other day, moanin' `bout some trouble from some Hardheads commin' outta Ribcage. Seems that they were lookin' fer you and yer crew. By the by", said the emaciated-looking creature, jerking his thumb towards the back of the bar, "gotta package fer ya."

The merchant's eyes lost a bit of their hostility, and took on a gleam of their own, "Really?", he said following the bartender around the far end of the bar. Myr followed their conversation until she could no longer hear them, and stood at the bar, shaking her head in disbelief. Just then Dorn walked up, apparently trying to convince a small, winged something-or-another that he was not it's friend, and moreso, was definitely not it's master. The tiny creature jabbered in dwarven faster than Myr could translate, clinging to the dwarf's short cropped hair like a sailor to a silkie. Myr chuckled, "So, I see that you have been taken right into the fold, Dorn. A new traveling companion as well?" The blond woman said jokingly, and her eyes smiled, despite the despair that seemed to hang over them like this strange city's smog.

The dwarf sighed audibly, resigning from the task of dislodging his new `comrade', at least for now. In his opinion, they had larger fires to tend to... "Aye, lass, it seems so", he said despairingly, trying to ignore the constant babbling at his right ear. "I've found naught. What of ye?" He pointed towards the bar with his bearded chin, as he felt for his belt pouch.

"Missing something, old friend?", the woman asked, indicating with a tip of her hooded head the grayish-white creature upon Dorn's shoulder. The dwarf, catching her signal, glanced at the winged annoyance, only to find it cackling with glee as it held up the dwarf's purse. Myr, shaking her head again in disbelief, snatched the purse quickly, too quick even for the little creature to anticipate it. The little thing hissed fiercely, a light, but pointedly stinging wind hitting her in the face.

"Now see here, ya little runt!", the dwarf began, moving to grab the creature and throttle the life from it. After all, enough was enough... "Hold, Dorn, perhaps we should take this to a less.....public arena." Dorn grumbled in response, but moved to follow his lady companion. They managed, with their newfound `popularity', to find a seat in an out of the way corner. Dorn made sure that there was a relatively clear path to the door, in case he and Myr would suddenly have need of it. They sat and spoke in hushed tones.

"How do you propose we make good on our promise for the drink?", she asked, placing the emphasis not on her acidic tone, but upon the fact that the problem was not Dorn's, alone. It told the dwarf two things: one, that she was already getting over what had happened, and two, that she was, in no way, going to let him forget what he had done. That is one of the things that Dorn liked and appreciated about his human companion, she was direct and efficient, but was also, painstakingly just and fair.

"I know not, lass.", the dwarf glanced about the room, his pinched eyes nearly disappearing as he narrowed them. His bearded lips frowned slightly as his gaze returned to his old party member. "Worse than that, suren, their tongues are gettin' no looser for the drink!" Grumbling a negative answer at a passing barmaid, or at least what he thought was a barmaid, he continued, "Myr, where in th' Pit are we? I've ne're even heard tales of creatures such as these", the dwarven priest gestured slightly around the room, and towards the creature upon his shoulder; which was curled into a tight ball, fast asleep, "...and by Droga, suren I have ne're seen them!"

"I know not, Dorn. Their speech is strange in accent and yet familiar for the most part, although it seems that they have some phrases misunderstood. If only Or'fal were here, he could cast something that would help us understand.", the ranger sighed, slipping her hood from her head, her hand going to her forehead, as if to ease a pain that had sprung to life. "I wonder where the others are... I'm sure that Gims is more frightened now than when we faced those Gorgons...", she chuckled just enough for her companion to hear, who joined her in remembrance of their old halfling friend. Eventhough he often wore their patience thin, either one of them would have given more gold than they both possessed to see him again. The thought of gold brought new life to their dilemma. Myr sighed. Deep in thought, Dorn stroked his black beard with rough, callused hands.

"Seems like you have a slight... problem, perhaps I could assist?", the voice was smooth and deep, much like a placid river, masking its inexorable currents below. It had an almost feral tone; it was also much closer than Myr thought it could have been. She jumped, her hand moving like a striking snake to the dagger upon her belt as her head whipped around towards the voice. She could hear Dorn's familiar growl low in his chest.

A bright, sharp smile set into a deeply tanned, handsome face met her scowl. "Not exactly what you were expecting, no?", said the smile. Myr blushed slightly, not really understanding why, her hand slipping away from her dagger.

"Not exactly", she replied, a slight, unfamiliar smile crossing her lips. "We are-"

"New in town...", he interrupted, "It was painfully obvious", he said gesturing towards the throng of patrons, all of whom were still drinking from the flagons that Myr and Dorn had bought. Myr looked closely at the stranger as he glanced over the crowd. Shoulder-length auburn hair, sharply pointed ears and high cheekbones marked him as either a half-elf, or perhaps even one of full blood. His stature, even sitting, was much greater than one with elven blood, however. Standing, this one would be nigh seven foot tall, and nearly as thick of limb as Dorn. Something powerful and underlying drew her to this man, but there was something that was not quite right...

The stranger turned his face back upon the companions, and Myr saw what it was that disturbed her about this man, his eyes! Two pools of the brightest silver, upon a field of deepest black! Never before had Myr seen eyes such as these, they called out, straight from her deepest fears, unsettling her beliefs, almost unto the point of the world falling away from beneath her. Myr cast her eyes downward as he looked upon her, indicating with a tilt of her head for him to move closer and to join them. "Please, sit, Stranger, as we are new to your fair city, perhaps you could tell us of it."

The stranger chuckled, stood, and pulled his ratty chair towards the table, reversing it before he re-perched, resting his crossed arms upon the back. He motioned for the nearest serving wench, and ordered "the usual", and returned his piercing gaze towards the woman and her companion. "I assume your offer for free drinks is still open", he added a wicked smile, showing rows of slightly pointed teeth. Before the two could reply, he continued, "Allow me to introduce myself, I am known as Is'do `the Artful', and welcome to the fair city of Sigil!" The last came with a keen smile and a grand flourish of his hands, as if something of profound importance had just been conveyed. He paused for a moment, taking in their blank expressions, and leaned forward conspiratorially, nearly whispering, he added, "...the center of the multiverse..."

Authored by: Ken Lipka
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