The rain came down in a relentless gray drizzle, pattering dully against the broken cobblestones in the forgotten courtyard. Here and there, between fallen columns and crumbling arches, small pools of black water had formed, only a few centimeters deep but appearing bottomless. In contrast the small fountain in the center of the place, with its cracked and broken retaining wall, seemed to hold no water at all, despite the downpour.
Perhaps this place had once been a garden; one could almost imagine flowers and shrubbery in bloom here, hanging from the trellis or sprouting from the pots and beds. Now the trellis was collapsed and the pots broken or turned, and the only vegetation was the razorvine that snaked its way between, around, and over nearly everything.
There were many places such as this in Sigil; forgotten corners of the city surrounded by abandoned buildings and broken monuments. Places passed by, unknown, where no being had set foot in ages.
Brondor gazed forlornly out into the hazy gray rain and tried not to think of the water squishing in his boots when he shifted, or the coldness of the rain that pelted down, plastering his shirt wetly to his skin despite the cloak he was wearing. “We been here hours, Tolbin. No sign o’ anyone, to my eyes.”
Tolbin didn’t answer; he just leaned on his pole arm and shifted his hooves slightly, pretending he hadn’t heard. The bariaur was like that; he had a bad temper and didn’t talk much when he was irritated. Brondor knew Tolbin was just as miserable in this rain as he was, but Tolbin wasn’t the sort to disobey orders.
Brondor sighed. “There’s a slab of stone toppled over to the side there,” he said, pointing backwards to where it lay, less than fifty yards distant. “We could shelter beneath that while we watch, and get out of this cursed rain, heh? And we’d still be able to see nearly the whole courtyard-“
“Pike it, Brondor,” the surly bariaur cut him off. “We go nowhere. The dabus give the order to wait here; we wait. That’s it, so shut your bone-box. Besides, I’m not pricking my arse on that razorvine getting to it.”
Brondor sighed again, but kept his silence. Still, he looked forlornly at the toppled stone, and the cover it provided.
“There!” said Tolbin suddenly, pointing across the way. “There! You see?”
There were a series of stonework arches on the far side of the courtyard, most crumbling and broken but a few intact. Tolbin was pointing to the third one in from the left. As Brondor watched blue lines of light sparked along the sides of the arch, playing up and down randomly and increasing in brightness.
“It’s a portal, alright,” said Brondor, “though I’ve not seen its like. Must have been activated-“
“Shhh, stop prattling,” said Tolbin. “Here he comes.”
And the blue light had built in intensity and brightness until it seemed multiple lightning bolts were shooting from one side of the arch to the other all at one time, forming a glassy blue surface. Suddenly there was a flash of light more brilliant than all the former flashes combined.
Brondor blinked. The light was gone. In its place was a man, dimly seen through the rain. Even as he watched, the man stepped from beneath the arch, fully into the courtyard.
“Faerie lord,” said Tolbin under his breath, though Brondor had no idea how the bariaur could tell from this distance.
“Well… maybe,” he said. “We were told it would be a celestial of some kind.”
“We were told it would be the Avenging Angel,” said Tolbin. “I was expecting a deva, or an archon. Faerie lords can kill you with a look, so they say.”
* * *
Brendian stood in place, watching the two approach through the rain. The leader was a bariaur, tall and proud, but his companion was a human.
Like most mortal beings they projected their emotions freely, and while Brendian was not a mindbender to read their thoughts he was able to sense their mood and feelings. They were both wary, and a little nervous – perhaps even afraid – but they meant him no immediate danger.
They know what I am, but not who, he realized
From a distance, Prince Brendian Erendyl might have been mistaken for an elf; he had the delicate and beautiful features of that race, with pointed ears, high cheekbones, and long silvery hair that tumbled past his shoulders. But any closer inspection revealed that he was no mere elf. His was an utterly unearthly beauty, the kind that left mortals stunned and afraid, and he seemed almost to glow with an inner power that radiated to a nearly tangible silvery aura. Too, he was taller than any elf, standing at just over six and a half feet, and his eyes cast a golden glow, even in the darkness.
The aura of light he shed was not an illusion; it was a very real manifestation of his celestial power, and could be used as a weapon. Consciously he cloaked his aura, dimming it so that the mortals could approach without feeling its effect. It would not serve his purposes to frighten them.
Brendian differed from most of his people, who traditionally clothed themselves in shimmering robes of shifting colors. In contrast, the clothes he wore were dark and functional; supple leather armor dyed black, that fit his form like a glove, coupled with dark cloth, black knee-high boots, and a hooded cloak he wore of some unknown material that shed the water from the rain and yet appeared dry. They were hunter’s clothes, made to blend into shadow, and the only item that seemed out of place was a small silver token pinned to his cloak near his throat. It was shaped into the form of a small lyre, and twinkled brightly, even in this uncertain light.
The bariaur came to a halt several feet away, and his human companion shifted a few steps to the left. Both were armed; the bariaur held a pole-arm at the ready, and the human had a hand resting on the hilt of his sword, which was sheathed at his side.
“Hail to you, cutter,” said the bariaur. “Welcome to Sigil, center of the multiverse and protectorate of the Lady of Pain, all respect to Her name.”
Brendian gave a nod.
“I am Tolbin, anointed servant of the dabus, and this is my comrade in arms, Brondor of Tarth… also a lawful servant of the Court, and both of us by extension countenanced in our authority by the Lady herself.”
The bariaur spoke as if the titles should mean something to him, but Brendian had never heard the dabus referred to with anything approaching respect before. As for the Lady of Pain… well, Brendian had heard of her, of course, but only spoken as a legend that was sighted occasionally in the city. The bariaur had referred to her as if she held some political power here now, which Brendian found unfathomable, given her reputation.
“We were charged to wait here for the specific arrival of one celestial, traveling alone, and to escort him in safety to the High Judge.”
Brendian looked from one to the other. “I am a celestial, and traveling alone. I assume then that you are referring to me?”
The bariaur nodded. “Um… yes.”
“Am I in some kind of trouble?”
The bariaur was quick to shake his head. “No, no. Nothing like that. This is strictly a courtesy escort.”
“And if I do not wish to go?”
The bariaur glanced uncertainly at his companion. “Er… your presence has been requested by the High Judge, cutter. It is not… the sort of invitation one turns down.”
The big man to his left spoke for the first time. “Tolbin and me’s got orders to bring you in. Neither of us is stupid, cutter. We know you can give us trouble, maybe even put us both in the dead book. But we’ve been given orders by the High Judge himself, and we can’t turn no blind eye to them.”
“We would appreciate it if you came peacefully,” the bariaur added.
Brendian considered for a moment. “Very well, then. As someone has gone to the trouble to send you, I should hardly be polite if I declined the invitation.”
The two men looked greatly relieved.
“Good, then,” said the bariaur, “if you’ll just follow me, sir, we will escort you.”
* * *
The rain had died away, leaving behind a damp mist which clung to the soaked streets and the steady dripping of water from the surrounding buildings. They were on a slight rise in the road, which snaked off in front of them in a gentle twisting curve to the right, lined on both sides by buildings and structures of every description, both tall and proud, small and plain, ordinary and exotic, straight or tilted, some with no roof, others with many. Away in the distance to the left, over the rooftops of the buildings, a few great clouds of smoke were chugging upwards in a continual stream, lit from below by the reddish-orange light of the Foundry.
A few people were out on the street - pedestrians of all races hustling by in either direction; a few divans carried by slaves, ringed with curtains so the wealthy owners did not have to gaze upon the streets; even a few vendors with their carts, crying their wares - but Brendian was surprised at how light the traffic was; this was a major thoroughfare in the City of Portals, and usually choked with traffic, even late in the day.
“Pardon my asking,” said Brendian, “but aren’t we going the wrong way? Last time I was in Sigil, the Courts were that way, down the Street of Broken Clocks.”
“Aye,” said Brondor, “and so they are. But it isn’t safe to venture that way now. We skirt wide around the Foundry. It’s near dusk, and too many of our patrols vanish in that area when twilight comes.”
Brondor nodded. “A group of renegade godsmen have set up quarters there and we haven’t yet rooted them all out. We will eventually, never fear, and hang them from the walls of the Prison for crow food, which is the fortune of all traitors. The Lady is with us, and her power will not be mocked.”
Brendian had discovered that Brondor was the more talkative of the two. Tolbin had a tendency towards silence, and an edge of surliness to him when he did talk. Perhaps it was his bariaur nature, but he seemed more reticent. Brondor, on the other hand, had an easy manner and a loose tongue. “Renegade godsmen?” Brendian asked. “The legitimate Believers of the Source haven’t put them down?”
Brondor gave him a strange look. “You haven’t been to Sigil in a while, have you, cutter? Things have changed a bit. You might have heard of the war?”
“You never heard of the Faction War? You must have been very far away.”
Brendian was silent a moment. “Word travels… slowly, where I was. Still, I did hear tales of some squabbling between factions. I thought it gossip.”
Brondor shook his head. “No gossip. A genuine war, which nearly decimated the city. You don’t see many signs of it here, but nearly a quarter of the city was burned, looted, or destroyed.”
Brendian nodded. “Which factions were involved?”
“Nearly all, save the Athar and the Bleak Cabal, though some says the Dustmen and the Fated stayed neutral too.”
Tolbin snorted. “Bar that nonsense. They were all involved, every one of them. Some let other factions do their fighting for them, but they were involved. They participated, same as the others, and they were banished, same as the others.”
“Banished?” Brendian asked.
“Too right,” said Tolbin. “By the decree of the Lady herself, all honor to her name. All factions were declared seditious enemies of Sigil, all members required to renounce or be slain.” He gave the silver token on Brendian’s cloak another peery glance. “Which is why it might be wise for you to get rid of that trinket.”
Brendian touched it lightly. “This? You’ve been eyeing it strangely since I stepped through that portal. Why?”
The bariaur jerked his gaze forward again. “Well… meaning no disrespect, but it identifies you as a traitor to the city.”
“It’s one of the symbols of the Sensates,” put in Brondor quickly. “They were banned with all the other factions, and those who wear their tokens are considered enemies of the city.” He gave Brendian a nervous look. “You… you aren’t a Sensate, are you?”
Brendian shook his head. “It is the token of a fallen comrade,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the Sensates.”
“Nevertheless, it is one of their known symbols,” said Tolbin. “If I were you, I’d take it off, at least while in the city. The dabus will usually issue a warning on a first offense, if it’s a newcomer to Sigil who isn’t familiar with the law. Usually. But otherwise a basher can end up in the Prison, which is already full to bursting with the factioner war criminals, which means a basher might just find his end at the edge of an executioner’s axe.”
“I see,” said Brendian. He touched the silver token again, then, in a swift decision, unpinned it from its place and slipped it into his shirt. “I will conceal it, as you suggest. But it is dear to me, and woe betide the being that tries to make me surrender it.”
Tolbin nodded, and led on.
* * *
The City Court was not merely one gigantic building; it was many buildings in one. From outside it appeared to be a towering edifice of gray stone rising on pillars and columns of marble. Within, there were many smaller buildings, for this place was meant to be nearly a city unto itself.
In front of the gigantic building, which towered upwards into the sky at least five stories on marble pillars (whole flocks of ravens made their homes on the stonework of the roof), stretched a broad open-air square with a fountain of turgid green water at its center.
The streets, which had been lightly traveled elsewhere, were choked with traffic here, and Tolbin and Brondor had to push to clear a path. There were hundreds of merchants spread about the square, their carts of wares piled high with everything from pots to poultry to jewelry. Most of the assemblage was waiting in long lines to get into the City Court itself, many soaked to the skin from the recent rainfall. To the right was a long line of beings (mostly humans) who were collared and chained together like slaves, herded into the building by armored warriors who all wore a red armband on their left sleeve. Most were not only chained but also bound with their wrists behind them. Brendian noticed that the crowds of free people surrounding took every opportunity to spit and hurl insults (or in a few instances, even rocks) at the line of prisoners; the guards were performing double duty – both guarding the prisoners and protecting them from the others in the square.
Brendian tapped Brondor on the shoulder. “Who are they?” he asked, pointing.
Brondor’s face soured. “Captured factioners, renegades and war criminals. The Courts will sort out their fate from here; most will end rotting in the Prison, others will be sold as slaves, and a few will meet their end on the executioner’s block.”
Brendian shook his head. “Not the prisoners. I meant the guards with the red armbands.”
“Oh, the Minders. Scum sucking mercenaries, the remnants of the Mercykillers. They renounced all ties with their former faction and so escaped justice. Now, they serve whoever offers them coin. But they have been useful in restoring order.”
At that moment a winged erinyes baatezu pushed by in the crowd, her cold eyes locking with Brendian’s in a challenge before she passed on, purposefully pushing her breasts against him as she passed in a lewd gesture. All fiends radiated malice; he wasn’t certain whether she had recognized him especially or just his race, but he felt her gaze on his back as they moved on. He felt the cold rage descend on him, as it always did in the presence of fiends, but as always he stored it away in a distant space within, and ignored her.
Tolbin looked on the quick scene with worry. Fiends and Celestials never mixed well together, under any circumstance. But Brendian gave no sign he was bothered by the sudden close contact of the female baatezu.
“Lead on,” he said, when he saw the bariaur was looking.
* * *
The Chamber of the High Judge was gigantic, a hall nearly unto itself. As wide as it was, it still seemed narrow, for the ceiling was so far above it couldn’t be seen in the darkness above, lending the chamber a chimney-like feel.
Glowing white spheres moved up and down in the air, illuminating the room in some manner. They were close to the walls and moved vertically, up and down, up and down, though what magic had formed them or made them move was a mystery. The light they cast was bright, but focused in only two areas of the room.
There was a small raised dais with a wooden railing just before the judgment seat, where petitioners to the court were heard, and this was the first (and most brightly illuminated) place where the light shone. The second was the judgment seat itself, where the panel of judges sat. It was raised nearly ten feet off the floor, an imposing stone structure with plush wooden chairs built into the top, and those who stood at the petitioner’s dais were forced to look up at the judges hearing their case. The light here was from behind, throwing the judges’ forms into faceless silhouettes.
Brendian’s eyesight was far better than that of any of the mortals who were present, and he could see what they could not. There were five judges atop the stand, though there was seating for seven, and four of the five were human, middle aged men with bitter faces. The fifth was an elf, older in years than the humans but far younger looking in appearance.
Behind them all a being hovered in the air, tall and slender, clothed from the neck down in a dark gray robe which covered every part of its body except for the head and neck. Its face was roughly human-like, but at the same time alien and inscrutable, the skin a gray so dark it was nearly black, the features stern and unmoving. Four horns jutted from its forehead, the two in the center straight and tall, like those of a billy-goat, the two on either side twisted and curving, like that of a ram. And the creature’s hair was bone white, full and standing straight up, waving like a flame.
Brendian recognized it as a dabus, one of that strange and mysterious race of beings that had tended the city since the beginning of remembered time. Never had he seen one in an official building before, much less holding sway and authority, as this one seemed to be doing now. They were known for cleaning the streets, trimming razorvine, and repairing broken stone in the buildings, and they almost never communicated with the folk of Sigil.
Until now. For this one was obviously acting as High Judge. It was plain that the five judges seated below it were acting merely as interpreters of its will. Even more odd, Brendian could feel the judges’ emotions regarding the dabus. There was a great quantity of respect in those feelings, mixed with not a little fear.
Dabus did not communicate verbally. If their mouths ever opened, it was to eat (and even this was only speculation, as no-one had ever witnessed a dabus eating). Instead, when a dabus communicated, pictograms and symbols representing words appeared in the air above its head.
But, though many of the symbols and pictures represented words easily translatable into planar common, it was difficult to decipher a dabus’ thoughts. There were a few scholars that had made intensive studies of dabus language/pictograms and who could make rough translations, but it was not an easy task. And that, apparently, is what the five judges who were seated below the dabus were doing.
Brendian had the gift of tongues, as many celestials did, and could comprehend almost any language, that of the dabus included. So he was easily able to understand the judgments of the dabus, and even caught a few times when the five judges made slight errors in translation.
He stood with Tolbin and Brondor among the other petitioners who crowded the rest of the chamber, waiting for their cases to be heard. They stood ringed about the bright illuminated petitioner’s dais, quiet and respectful, shifting in the darkness and occasionally whispering to each other.
Though Tolbin had shouldered his way to the front of the line, they still had to wait for three other cases before it was Brendian’s turn to step forward.
Two of the cases were property disputes, and it took only a few minutes in each case for the dabus to reach judgment. The third was a half-giant who was brought forward in chains, accused of murder, rape, and looting in the recent faction war. The big brute blubbered like a baby, pleading for his life and maintaining his innocence, but after allowing him to have his say the dabus sentenced him to two days in the Prison, pending an execution date that would be set at that time. And the five minotaur guards who had brought the prisoner in hauled him out again, though the creature still howled for mercy.
And then it was Brendian’s turn to step forward.
Tolbin led the way, as usual, and after stepping up on the dais first rapped the base of his pole-arm on the floor, then bowed. “Tolbin Althbreda and Brondor Prenson, servants of the dabus, who have escorted one celestial to this High Court as commanded by the High Judge.” He remained bowed, waiting.
The dabus did not speak at all, but instead merely waited. One of the five interpreter-judges spoke instead. “Stand forward, Brendian Erendyl.” It was the second man from the left who spoke, his face stern and his eyes unforgiving. His voice rang out sonorously in the gigantic hall.
Brendian stepped forward, and Tolbin stepped back, off the dais.
“You have been summoned to Sigil to answer for one Tretius Myosum, an aasimar merchant. You are aware of the man?”
Brendian nodded. “I am.”
“And what relation is he to you.”
Brendian shook his head. “No relation. He is… was… the brother of a former companion of mine.”
“Nevertheless, you are the only person alive who may claim kinship rights to him, for he named you as a successor to his estates. It is so written in the Hall of Records. You are aware he is now dead?”
Brendian nodded. “Word had reached me of his death, but not the manner of it. I came to find out how he died, and why, for when last he wrote me he was in good health, and had survived this latest faction conflict unscathed.”
“The reason you came to Sigil is a matter of indifference to this Court. Know this: Tretius Myosum was found slain, flayed by our Lady of Pain herself. It was so determined by the investigative body, in this case Captain Jannaros of the Sons of Mercy. As only traitors to the city receive such a death, his holdings and belongs were summarily confiscated by the city. As his lawful successor you assume his debts in this case, including the traitor’s tax which has been assessed posthumously.”
“Traitor’s tax?” Brendian asked.
The judge nodded. “As it was written into law by the hands of the dabus themselves, the traitor’s tax is assessed against those who perform acts so vile that they necessitate the intervention of the Lady herself. Those who perish by her hands incur a tax that their successors, family, relatives and blood kin must pay. If they cannot pay, their own holdings will be confiscated to pay it. If their holdings alone are not enough to pay the debt, they themselves will be sold into slavery to pay the debt. It is for this reason the Court has summoned you, Brendian Erendyl, for you are responsible to pay the debt Tretius incurred.”
Again Brendian felt the anger growing within him, a white-hot rage, building. “This is your justice? To accuse my friend of treason, merely because he was found slain?”
“He was a traitor, and died a traitor’s death. The Lady would not have struck him down otherwise. This Court will mete out justice as it will; it is none of your concern. But the debt falls to you. Will you pay, or will you suffer the penalty for refusing?”
Brendian reached into his cloak, and produced a single gold coin. “I will pay the debt,” he said. “But I will also see justice done.” He tossed the coin contemptuously down before the judgment seat. It rang out on the stone floor, rolled, and came to rest. A general murmur of surprise arose among the surrounding petitioners at Brendian’s disrespect.
The judge’s face darkened with anger. “Such insolence-“ he began, but at that instant the dabus spoke, and all five judges whirled to watch the words appear, and to translate them.
Brendian read and understood the symbols that appeared before any of the judges could translate.
You seek justice, eladrin, it said. How then, when it has already been done?
“I am not satisfied,” he replied, speaking directly to it.
What would it take, to satisfy you?
“I would investigate the death myself.”
How would you do such a thing? It asked. The death was nigh a month past; the body has long been consigned to the Mortuary, consumed no doubt.
“First, I will find an expert on such matters, perhaps from among the ranks of the Fraternity of Order.”
“The Fraternity of Order has been banned from Sigil,” said the judge who had addressed him before. “They no longer exist here.”
“Surely there are former members.”
“There are,” admitted the judge. “Serving sentences of indentured servitude to work off the debt they incurred during the Faction War. They are prisoners of the City now, and work for its good. They are not free to serve your purposes, even if they wished it.”
The dabus spoke again. And if you have this expert, what then?
“I would investigate Tretius’s death, to determined exactly what happened to him and why.”
This is already known.
“Not to me, it isn’t.”
The dabus was quiet a moment, apparently considering.
“What expert would you request, then,” said the human judge derisively, filling the silence. “On what would he be an expert?”
“On the Lady of Pain, and her methods of killing.”
A mutter of shock and surprise went through the chamber at Brendian’s words.
“Blasphemy,” said the judge. “The Lady is not to be invoked lightly, nor are her methods to be examined. Those who try such things are flayed or mazed for their troubles. You would bring her wrath upon this Court.”
If you were given such an expert, said the dabus, and were allowed to conduct an investigation, would you then leave Sigil in peace?
Brendian nodded. “If I am satisfied it was justice that he should die. And if I am satisfied that it was the Lady’s hand that slew him.”
And you will pay his debt in full?
“Outrageous,” said the human judge. “This Court will not be bartered with. We pronounce justice; it is not open for interpretation by any being, celestial or no.”
Give him an expert, said the dabus, and let him be on his way so that we may hear the next case.
The five judges looked at each other, nonplussed.
“Well… ah… well, the dabus has spoken, and it shall be so,” said one of them at last. “But who to send? One moment, celestial, while we confer.”
“I will go,” said a young man’s voice.
Brendian looked, and saw it was a human, sitting low in a scribe’s chair to the right of the judgment seat, who had apparently been taking down notes of the judgments. He was a young man, with sandy hair cut short, and wore spectacles, a white robe, and a slave’s collar at his throat.
The judges peered down at him.
“You, Milo?” asked one, bemused. “And why should we allow you to go? Are you an expert on the Lady?”
The young man shook his head. “No, my lords. But I was servant and apprentice to Galan, the cuprilach, who was learned in many things, and had taken down many records of the Lady’s dealings down through the centuries.”
“Who shall scribe for us, if you are given to this celestial?”
The young man shrugged. “You have many scribes, my lords. I am not so useful to you here. I volunteer for this very reason: my loss to you is no loss at all.”
“Very well, then,” said the elf judge. “It shall be so. You shall go.” He turned to Brendian. “This one is Milo Ventalos. He is a slave, and property of the City. If loaned to you, you will bear full responsibility for his upkeep, and must return him to this Court unharmed.”
“You have one week. After that you will return Milo to us and depart Sigil. That should be ample time to satisfy you that justice has been done in this matter.”
Brendian nodded. “Agreed.”
* * *
It was nearly a half hour more before Milo was released into Brendian’s custody. There was paperwork to be filled out, and forms to sign, and at last the slave was unchained from his work desk and led out to where the celestial waited. Milo’s arms were piled high with tomes and books as he came.
“You want a leash?” asked the guardsman who brought him. “I can get one if you need it.”
“Not necessary,” said Brendian.
The guard shrugged, shoved Milo forward and turned away. “He’s all yours,” he threw over his shoulder.
Milo nearly stumbled at the shove, barely retaining his hold on the books he held.
“What are those?” Brendian asked.
“Er, the books? Well, just some reference materials I thought might be useful.”
The human was surprised. “But… well, like I said, I’m not really an expert on the subject. I have some theories, but no-one’s ever really paid attention to them before-“
“Leave the books. I want your theories, your ideas. I don’t want a walking library.”
Dutifully Milo brought the books back to his desk, and left them there.
“One question before we begin,” said Brendian. “Why did you volunteer?”
Milo looked a little sheepish. “I… well, no one’s ever really done much of a study on the eladrin, so not much is known of your race-“
Brendian frowned. “You wanted a chance to observe me? As a test subject for a thesis, perhaps? You won’t get it.”
Milo shook his head. “No, no. Nothing like that. I just… well, I recognized your name, or I thought I did.”
Brendian said nothing.
“Well… I mean, I’d heard of the Avenging Angel before, but… The bards tell of a tulani lord who was forsaken of his kind, who roams the lower planes hunting fiends…”
“Bards say a lot of things,” said Brendian noncommittally. “It doesn’t make them true.”
“Than the tale is false?” asked Milo. “Or are you not the one?”
Brendian shook his head. “What I am is irritated. I’ll ask the questions, from now on. Now let’s go.”
They threaded their way through the crowd, heading for the murky daylight of the gigantic entrance hall. Milo was actually hard pressed to keep up.
Brendian pulled to a sudden halt midway down the steps to the city court. There was a woman, waiting near the fountain, and a spark of recognition passed between them.
She was eladrin, but of a different racial stock than he. Her hair was lustrous and black, and her skin was flawless and smooth, but of a slight ashen color. Her eyes were pearl-white, and glowed with a soft opalescent light. She was dressed in a white robe, and nodded at the sight of him.
“So,” she said, approaching slowly, her eyes fixed on Brendian, “it is true. The renegade prince has returned.” She utterly ignored Milo’s presence.
He inclined his head in a slight bow. “Lady Cylithera,” he said coolly.
“Are you at last returned from your long exile, Brendian Erendyl?” she asked, fixing him with her gaze. “Are you at last to return to your people, your home?”
“I have no home, Lady, as you well know. If you will excuse me-”
She stepped in front of him, blocking his path. “How then? Are you not a son of Arborea? Are you not a Tulani prince, a fellow subject of our wise queen? Has she not commanded your return?”
“Morwel may do as she pleases; it is nothing to me.”
“Queen Morwel,” she stressed, “Lady of the Lake, your lawful liege and ruler.”
Brendian gave her a level look. “Your queen,” he corrected. “I bend no knee to her.”
She sighed sadly. “She is still your lawful queen, wise and just, whether you will serve her or no.”
“Wise and just she may be, but she holds no rule over me.”
“Are you now a fallen celestial, drunk on glory and bloodlust? I had heard it was so, though I hoped otherwise.”
“If you like,” he said curtly. “Label me as you will.” He stepped around her and continued on his way.
She trailed behind, matching pace and still ignoring Milo’s presence entirely. “Even the mighty can fall to pride, Brendian. One needs look no farther than Triel to see that. Once he was beloved of heaven; now he is lord of the Seventh Hell.”
“You will compare me to one of the Nine Lords of Baator?” he asked, amusement tingeing his voice.
“Perhaps not so fallen as that,” she admitted. “But even Triel started as a son of light, and fell to pride.”
“He fell to ambition,” corrected Brendian.
“Does it matter? He fell. And so will you, if you persist in your course. Come back to your people, prince. You are no archon like Ysifel or Killyanthis, drunk on dreams of glory and bloodlust.”
Brendian stared at her. “I know them both,” he said. “Ysifel is a fierce warrior, it is true, but he does not seek for glory. As for Killyanthis, he was slain, with all his host, in a retaliatory strike by the fiends.”
She nodded. “I know, and all good beings mourn his passing. But it was his quest for glory that brought him low.”
“I do not seek glory.”
“No,” she said, “You seek revenge. But you will never find it. Seltyra is gone, Brendian. You will never kill enough fiends to bring her back. No matter how much you drown your blade in blood, you will find no peace in it. Hatred is a fire that consumes its maker.”
“Very poetic,” he said, unmoved.
“I am eladrin, as are you. Poetry is our lifeblood, art our sustenance. Come back to your people, renegade prince. You were a great bard, once. Return to the art you love.”
“The sword is my art now; its dance my song. Leave off, Lady. I am busy with other affairs. Go back to Morwel, if you will, and tell her that I am well. Or tell her that I am dead. It matters little to me.”
She halted in the street, and shook her head sadly. “All of this, for a mortal. She is gone, Brendian.”
He whirled on her, for the first time displaying anger. “No! She lives on, in me! Her work goes on, through me! And I will not fail the promise I made to her!”
Even Milo, who had watched all in silence, was shocked by the sudden anger and intensity in his voice.
Cylithera backed a half step, silent in the face of his rage.
Abruptly he recovered himself, and turned away. “I bid you well, Lady,” he said, not looking back at her. “Come, Milo. Let us go.”
“Your exile is self-imposed, Brendian,” she said sadly to his back. “Your people mourn your loss more than if you were dead.”
* * *
“Who was she?” Milo asked. “I mean, I could see she was an eladrin, but…”
“She was a ghaele knight,” said Brendian curtly. “A former acquaintance, nothing more.”
Milo’s head was fairly spinning with questions. Who was this Seltyra that had sent Brendian into impassioned rage? What was this self-imposed exile the lady had spoken of? The eladrin were a secretive and mysterious race; among the celestial races they were perhaps the rarest and most elusive. And now Milo had met not just one, but two, and on the same day. And they were the two rarest and most powerful subraces of the species… “But she said you were a tulani prince-“
Brendian shook his head. “Once but no longer. Leave the subject; it is dead.”
They had broken free of the crowds in the plaza, heading onto the Street of Hanged Men, which led down to the Prison. Brendian pulled to a halt, surprised by what he saw.
Gibbets had been erected on either side of the road, spaced about ten feet apart from each other. Dangling from each one was a corpse, swaying gently in the evening breeze. They lined the street in the distance for as far as one could see.
“Not in a thousand years has it been so,” said Brendian.
Milo nodded. “Lovely, aren’t they?”
Brendian glanced at him. “More dabus justice?”
“Actually, no. The early days of the Lady’s decree, there was pretty much mob rule. One of the mobs got itself organized, decided they would visit ‘justice’ upon the faction leaders. But there weren’t many faction leaders left by then. Most were fled, or mazed, or flayed. So they took vengeance on anyone else they could get hold of.” He was silent a moment. “Most of them aren’t even faction members. Just people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They put them here because of the name of the street.”
Brendian shook his head. “This is why I need you. I was in Sigil not five years ago, yet everything has changed. You will be my guide.”
Milo brightened. “Well, that I can do. At least I think so. Where are we going first?”
Brendian did not answer. “Who are the Sons of Mercy?”
“The Mercykillers. Or what’s left of them, anyway.”
The tulani looked at him. “I thought the Minders were the remnants of the Mercykillers.”
Milo shrugged. “Well, they are. But so are the Sons of Mercy. See, during the war, the Mercykillers split right in two, and fought on opposite sides. And after brother had fought against brother, there was no reconciliation between the two sides. One became the Minders and the other became the Sons of Mercy. The Sons are the better half, in my opinion, but then my take is probably colored by the fact that they fought on the same side as the Fraternity of Order.”
“If both sides are former factioners, why aren’t they wearing slave collars now, like you?”
Milo gave a rueful smile. “Because they were military orders, with well trained soldiers, and that was sorely needed in the early days after the war… to keep some semblance of order in the chaos and death of the mobs. Most of the city didn’t burn during the war, but afterward, when the rioting and looting started.”
“So what do the Sons of Mercy do now?”
Milo shrugged again. “Just about everything. There are still riots on a weekly basis, in one part of the city or another. Plus, they run the Prison, and keep the peace, and there are still some pockets of resistance in the city of former factioners. Why do you ask?”
“The judges said that one of their members, a Captain Jannaros, investigated Tretius’s death and determined he was flayed by the Lady. I would speak to this man.”
Milo nodded. “Actually, Jannaros is well known. Last I heard, he was leading a strike force against Xaositects in the Hive.”
“Lead me to him.”
* * *
Jannaros was a human just coming into his middle years. His hair was thinning and unkempt, his face was unshaven and smudged with dirt, and his eyes were tired.
“Damn you, Telbar!” he shouted down the street. “Get those men moving, and lend a hand here!”
He pulled himself out of the waist deep pit he was standing in, and met Telbar and his soldiers halfway. “The second level is ours, save for a few rooms to the north of the warren, and there the Xaositects have erected a wooden barrier of fallen and smashed timbers, buttressing it with whatever they can find. Never mind that, we’ve enough men there that the barrier will be overrun within the hour. It’s the fourth level that’s giving us trouble now. Seems the bastards had a reserve of men and weapons there, and they’re giving us stiff resistance.”
Lieutenant Telbar gave a grim nod. “I’m on it,” he said, striding towards the entrance to the pit.
“Be wary; there are traps down there waiting to be sprung. Five men were lost to a spring blade earlier today, and the walls have been caving in in some rooms. Lady only knows whether the Xaositects rigged them to collapse or whether it’s just bad engineering. But don’t charge in blind, take it step by step, and buttress the walls as you go.”
Away in the distance were the tinny sounds of men screaming, and fires burning. For five days now the Xaositects had held out in the squat stone tower that stood in the square no more than five minutes walk from where Jannaros stood, and for all that time the Sons of Mercy had surrounded the place, laying siege to the building.
But that wasn’t where the real battle was being fought. The Xaositects had constructed an underground maze of passageways and tunnels that ran through the ground below their feet, and had used these secret passages to ambush Mercy soldiers time and time again. Jannaros had found an entrance to these tunnels in the floorboards of one of the hovels in the area (the hovel itself was gone now, smashed to splinters and cleared away to reveal the entrance tunnel) and for days his troops had been engaged in a pitched battle to root the traitors out of their hiding holes. The tunnels were more extensive than originally thought; there were levels below levels, and each step of the way the Xaositects seemed to have new and deadly surprises waiting.
Telbar and his men hurried to the tunnel entrance, filing down into the darkness. Jannaros headed over to a small wooden table, where two of his aides waited. Unrolled across the table were several parchments, maps drawn by his men of the tunnels they had taken so far. He bent over them, seizing a pen and making changes to the overall map.
“Thirty men at least bottled here, but with no exit maybe we can keep them contained by collapsing this wall. And this turned out not to be a dead end after all; Gredix found a trap door beneath two inches of dirt. That explains how they kept getting to us from the rear, but we’ve put a squad on the door and that problem’s contained now. If we could just breach the fourth level here and here, that’d take the fight out of the bastards. Unless there happens to be a fifth level, even further down.”
“I’m busy,” said Jannaros in irritation, glancing up. Then his eyes widened at the sight of Brendian. “Faerie lord,” he muttered under his breath in surprise. Then: “What do you want, cutter?”
“I understand you are responsible for investigating deaths.”
“Among other things. What of it?”
“I want to ask you a few questions about Tretius Myosum, who was found slain nearly a month ago, and ruled by you to have flayed by the Lady’s hand.”
Jannaros stared at him. “I’m in the middle of a pitched battle just now, cutter. You want to ask me about some corpse that was flayed a month gone? Do you have any idea how many corpses I’ve seen in the past month alone?”
From the distance came the rhythmic thump of catapult shot striking the Xaositect’s tower, followed by the answering blast of a great bombard. The ground trembled, and a few rocks pattered down from one of the shattered buildings nearby, all ignored by both Jannaros and Brendian.
“This one was an aasimar.”
Jannaros shook his head. “Sorry, cutter. I just don’t recall.”
Brendian held out a hand. “He was about so tall. Golden hair, sparkled like sunlight, worn long. Your report stated he’d been flayed by the Lady.”
Jannaros was irritated. “Look, I don’t…” but then a thoughtful look crossed Jannaros face. “Oh, wait, I remember. Yeah, flayed is right. Wasn’t much skin left on him, and some of the cuts were so deep you could see bone splinters.”
“How did you determine it was the Lady?”
Jannaros snorted. “People are murdered every day in these streets, cutter. But the Lady’s the only one who chops them up into a thousand pieces. I see a body like that, I write it off as a flaying. End of story.”
Just then there was a tremendous ‘WHUMP!’ from the ground below their feet and Billows of smoke and dirt went flying out of the tunnel entrance.
“What in the Nine Hells?” shouted Jannaros, running for the entrance. “Damn him! I told him to be careful!”
Two of Telbar’s soldiers came stumbling up out of the ground, lurching to the street, coughing.
“What happened?” Jannaros demanded.
One of them pointed back down the tunnel. “Tunnel… collapsed,” he said between coughs. “Men… buried… alive.”
“Diggers!” shouted Jannaros, turning away. “Get me some piking diggers here now!”
Brendian watched for a moment as desperate soldiers came from all directions, wielding shovels and spades, and charged down the hole. He turned away. “Let’s go,” he said to Milo. “Twilight is upon us, and this is not my battle.”
* * *
Brendian was thoughtful and quiet after the discussion with the captain. Full night had enveloped the city in darkness, and he led the way down blackened and abandoned streets.
“Where are we going?” Milo asked at last.
Brendian glanced at him. “Somewhere I should have gone from the very beginning. There is a tavern in Lower Ward that caters to fiends.”
Milo gave him a worried look. “Fiends?”
“Baatezu, to be specific. The name of the place is T’kara Nes Muk, or, in planar common: Scorched Flesh of My Enemy.”
“When last I was here, it was run by an efreet assisted by scores of fire mephits. But the owner was a pit fiend named Krawdor. He ran a small crime syndicate, with a few brothels and gambling houses on the side, but his specialty was assassinations.”
Milo was quiet a moment. “And why are we going there, assuming it still stands?”
“Because Krawdor has a vested interest in revenging himself on me, and I want to find out whether he knows anything about what happened to Tretius.”
* * *
The tavern was a large building of black basalt, wide and low to the ground. The front doors were heavy and iron, and set below the surface of the street that ran in front of the place. It was exactly the same as Brendian remembered it, and he reflected on the irony of war, how it seemed to visit destruction on sites of beauty and goodness and yet pass over the festering pits of evil.
Brendian paused for a moment at the steps that led down to the entrance. “Stay close,” he instructed Milo, “and don’t be afraid. You’re with me. Besides, fiends can sense fear. It makes them bolder.”
Milo nodded, and followed the eladrin down the steps to the front doors.
The iron doors were massive, but gave easily enough when Brendian pushed. With a shriek of protesting metal it opened wide, and every eye in the room turned to face them.
The eladrin had said the place catered to baatezu, and Milo saw it was true. The place was huge, and dark, save for the candles on the tables and the glowing orange lava pits spaced throughout where fiends lay soaking in heat. There were glowing red fire mephits fluttering from table to table, bringing trays of disgusting looking and smelling food, and over to one side behind the bar a gigantic efreet stood, wreathed in flames.
The place was not filled with customers, and many of the tables were empty, but there were still far more fiends present than Milo would have preferred. He saw at a glance all manner of baatezu: osyluths and hamatulas, many barbazu and a pair of winged cornugon. There was even one of the insectoid gelugon seated at a table in the back, across from an arcanoloth. He could not recall ever seeing so many fiends in one place before, and felt shivers race up the back of his spine at the sight.
Brendian scanned the room and strode forward. There was a huge table set along the right hand wall, plushly appointed and surrounded by naked erinyes. Seated there was a gigantic humanoid creature, red in color and with wings folded about him like a cloak. His face (for it was definitely male) was difficult to see, though it was not even vaguely human-like, and the eyes glowed a baleful purple color. A pit fiend, one of the greatest of the baatezu race.
A red fire mephit came racing up to them angrily, its wings working furiously. “Your kind not served here, berk!” it said in a shrill voice. “Except on plates, to the master races!”
Brendian turned his gaze on the little creature and his eyes blazed with sudden power. He said nothing, nor did his expression change, but the mephit howled in sudden fear and pain, and sped away, ducking beneath a table at the far end and hiding there, howling mournfully.
Brendian continued to the pit fiend’s table, halting in front of it. The naked erinyes hissed challenges at him as he approached, then, at a motion from the pit fiend, they dispersed, leaving the table and casting spiteful looks at Brendian and Milo as they headed for other parts of the room. The last to leave was the same erinyes that Brendian had encountered earlier, in the square before the Courts. She made a vulgar gesture with her tongue before backing away.
“Krawdor,” said Brendian.
The pit fiend smiled, exposing row upon row of jagged teeth. “Brendian.” His voice was like a mixture of burning gravel and distant screams. “You must be the dumbest basher ever born, to wander in here. Don’t you know a pretty little celestial like you can get perished in a place like this? I had just heard from a little bird that you were in town. I was going to send some of my men to kill you, but now you’ve come to me, instead. Couldn’t wait to be tortured to death?”
“Let’s skip the threats,” said Brendian, pulling out a chair. “They don’t impress me anyway.”
The pit fiend laughed, a low growling sound that raised the hairs on the back of Milo’s neck. “Alright, I’ll play along, little eladrin. At least until you bore me, and then I’ll eat you. What do you want?”
“Justice, for a fallen comrade.”
“That’s rich,” said the fiend with a booming laugh. “You coming to me for justice?”
“His name was Tretius. Did you order his death?”
The pit fiend shrugged. “Of course I did. And then I ground his bones for my broth.” He patted his stomach. “Good eating. If it’s any consolation, he died whimpering like a frightened child, screaming like a stuck pig. Just like you will, in a few minutes.”
Brendian shook his head. “You’re lying, as always. But it may be that you know something.”
“Oh, I know many things, little faerie lord. Many things indeed. But I’ve yet to see a reason to tell them to you. In fact, last I remember, you and I were enemies.”
“And still are,” said Brendian with emphasis. “But even enemies can make common cause.”
The pit fiend smiled again. “Common cause? You want to make a deal with the Devil, then?”
Brendian ignored the barb. “You may imagine yourself safe here, surrounded by baatezu underlings as you are. Just remember that you’re only two feet away from me at this moment, and the illusion of safety will fade.”
The pit fiend’s smile only broadened. “Oh, now it’s you threatening me? Coming from a puny little thing like you, that is amusing. True to tell, though, I might very well help you. You’ve been such a great aid lately to our side of the Blood War.”
Brendian nodded. “I have been poaching on tanar’ri territory lately.”
“Oh, more than poaching, I should say. I’d heard several of the Abyssal Lords were pretty worked up over you. Rumors tell of Grazz’t himself sending out three retrievers to hunt you down.”
“Three?” Brendian shook his head. “You flatter me. There was only one, and I dispatched it to the hell from which it was spawned.”
“Abyss,” corrected the fiend. “It was spawned in the Abyss, not one of our Hells. We baatezu do not hide behind mechanical spiders when it comes to revenge.”
Brendian stared at him. “What do you know of Tretius’s death? Was he truly slain by the Lady?”
The pit fiend ignored the question, instead lifting a huge tankard of some foul-smelling green liquid. “Your health,” it said, downing it in a gulp. “Now,” he said, setting the tankard back down, “let’s talk about what you’re willing to do for our side of the Blood War, hmm? We could use weapons, of course, and always gold. More than that, we could use souls.”
“What if I were to give my pledge that I would hunt only tanar’ri from now on?”
The pit fiend sat back, considering. “It’s a start,” he said after a moment, “though I would be a fool to ask for that alone.”
“So you know the truth behind Tretius’s death?” probed Brendian.
“Of course,” the fiend said. “I can even tell you who did it and why, so that you can take proper vengeance. And I know how you feel about vengeance.”
Brendian stood. “Another lie,” he said calmly. “You are a fool, Krawdor, and always have been. Come, Milo, we are done here. He has nothing to offer but lies.”
The fiend was surprised. “What, breaking off negotiations already? We haven’t come to terms. Don’t you want to know who killed your ladyfriend?”
“Tretius was male,” said Brendian coldly. “And you have made it clear through your lies that you know nothing of his death.”
The enormous fiend came to his feet. “Hold! We have other things to offer, other darks, other secrets, power to rival that of the gods, pleasure even sensates never dream of-“
Brendian halted at the door to look back at him. “Cease your petty temptations, they are nothing to me. Hide here in Sigil for as long as you want, Krawdor. When you leave I will be waiting for you, and death will be waiting with me.”
“But you are bound by your word! You said that you would hunt only tanar’ri!”
“That was my lie,” said Brendian, and then he turned to leave.
* * *
Milo was terrified.
He had stories of the awful vengeance that even the least of the baatezu extracted from those that crossed them. And now he stood next to an eladrin who had insulted and threatened one of the greatest of their kind. He hurried out the front doors ahead of Brendian, then turned to look back at the renegade tulani.
“Shh,” said Brendian, placing a hand gently over Milo’s mouth before he could speak. “Come.” And so saying he wrapped an arm around Milo’s back and lifted him easily.
Milo’s eyes widened as he realized they were both rising up off the ground, into the air. There was a rushing sound, as of distant wings, and suddenly they were standing upon the roof of an abandoned cathedral to a forgotten god, which stood diagonally across from the fiendish tavern.
“Shh,” Brendian cautioned again, and Milo fell silent.
Across the way, the tavern doors flew open with a grating shriek, and a half dozen baatezu emerged. Four of them were towering hamatula; two, skeletal osyluths. As Milo watched, they scanned the streets, then spread out in two groups, one heading right, the other left.
They watched in silence until both groups had vanished in the darkness.
Brendian made a contemptuous sound. “That’s all he sent after me? Hamatula and Osyluth? I’m almost insulted. Look at the way they moved. Inept. I could hunt them all down before daybreak, and deliver them in pieces on Krawdor’s doorstep. Such easy prey… but wait!”
“And now two more baatezu exited the door. These were both gelugon, and as Milo watched the towering ice devils leapt up onto the roof of the tavern, their multifaceted eyes glowing green in the darkness as they scanned the surrounding area.
“Still,” warned Brendian. “They won’t see us from this distance unless we move. Yet at least they’re looking in the right direction.”
Milo thought his heart would burst with terror; the creatures seemed to be looking right at him. But after a few long minutes the two creatures bounded off, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, each going in a separate direction, following the direction the lesser baatezu had gone before.
“So,” said Brendian when they had gone. “The first group was merely bait for me to follow.”
“How…” Milo took a breath to steady his nerves, then sank down lower onto the rooftop. He had a tremendous fear of heights, and now that the immediate danger from the baatezu had passed, he was quite dizzy. “What… I mean, I don’t understand what just happened in there.”
Brendian shrugged. “Krawdor knows nothing of Tretius.”
“But… how did you know he was lying?”
“A little trick a deva taught me once. Krawdor prides himself on his ability to deceive and lie, as most baatezu do. But where his province is deception, mine is the discernment of truth. When I tricked him into giving direct answer to my question I knew he was lying, and knew nothing of Tretius.”
Milo took another breath, steadying himself on the roof. “Then… well, then if he wasn’t involved in your friend’s death, and doesn’t known anything about it… where does that leave us?”
“Exactly the problem I have been pondering.” Brendian was quiet a moment. “The judges said that Tretius’s body was disposed of at the Mortuary. I don’t suppose the dustmen still work that place, do they?”
“Actually yes,” said Milo. “Though they aren’t dustmen, anymore. The faction dissolved, but most of the members still work there. No one else wants the job, especially as many corpses as there are to dispose of these days. There’s a dabus overseer, of course, much like in the Courts, but otherwise the place runs just about the same as it did before the War.”
Brendian nodded to himself in the darkness, though Milo couldn’t see it. “Then, we shall pay a visit on the morrow.”
“If your friend Tretius was flayed over a month ago, his body won’t be there any longer,” Milo pointed out. “And what… what do we do in the meantime? I don’t mean to complain, but I do hope you’re not planning on staying up on this rooftop.”
Brendian gave him an apologetic look. “I’m not used to having a companion, especially a mortal one. You need food, rest, as all mortals do. We shall find a safe place to pass the night.”
* * *
The Portal’s Rest was an inn of fair quality, which catered primarily to humans and half-elves, even though the owner was a retired dwarven adventurer. The common room was much like that of any inn on any prime world; sturdy tables and chairs, serving girls, a brightly burning fireplace, and the smells of well-cooked pheasant and fresh-baked bread.
There was the familiar low talk and occasional laughter from the men and women at neighboring tables, and all in all the place felt safe to Milo, though he could not forget that somewhere outside there were ferocious baatezu prowling the streets looking for him and his companion.
As for Brendian, he had declined ordering any food for himself, though he had paid well for Milo’s supper, and now he sat in a moody, troubled silence, brooding.
“Tell me of the Lady,” he said at last, breaking the silence and startling Milo. “This Lady of Pain that haunts your city, for I have been thinking of little else, and I would hear your thoughts.”
Milo lowered his fork. “Well, what do you want to know, exactly? I mean, surely an eternal like you has at least heard of the Lady before.”
“Pretend I haven’t,” said Brendian. “Pretend I’m a prime, newly arrived and clueless. Tell me about the Lady.”
“Well… The Lady of Pain is her full title, first of all-“
“Where did the title come from?” he asked.
Milo was taken aback by the unexpected question. “Er… well, it’s nothing she gave to herself, as I suppose you know. History doesn’t tell us much either; as far back as our records go they seem to label Her by that title. I assume it was just a descriptive label given to her by some sod who’d seen what she could do.”
Brendian nodded. “You mean the flaying.”
“Yes. Apparently those the Lady disfavors are flayed alive. The death of a thousand cuts.”
“And how does she do this?”
Milo shrugged. “Unknown. She looks at you, and the cuts begin to appear, as if you were being sliced by invisible blades. At least that’s what the legends say.”
“And how often does she take the skin?” he asked pointedly, “or leave cuts so deep that bone is exposed?”
Milo shook his head. “This is not clear. What she does is called flaying, and yet it is not the same as the torture practice known by the same name, whereby skin is cut away from the body a little at a time. Does she do this? From the history, the legends, I would say no, never. The condemned person is merely cut hundreds, thousands of times by very sharp blades, which seldom cut deeper than the outside muscle tissue. Traditionally, victims die immediately from the shock or linger for a time before loss of blood kills them.”
“And yet Jannaros made special mention of the unusual depth of the cuts, and the fact that very little skin remained.”
Milo pursed his lips thoughtfully. “True, but he may have been wrong. With that many wounds and that much blood flowing, it is possible that the skin was still there, not flayed off, but hidden by the blood and gore.”
Brendian nodded. “Hmm. And how often is the Lady sighted?”
Milo shrugged again. “Unknown. Verified sightings, by more than one person? Almost never. But ask any cutter on the street, and he’ll tell you he knows someone who knows someone else who saw her floating down the street in the moonlight.”
Brendian cocked his head thoughtfully. “There isn’t any moonlight in Sigil, is there?”
“No, and that’s the point. Ninety-nine out of a hundred stories are just that: inventive tavern tales. But there’s no denying that people’s bodies turn up flayed, now more than ever.”
Milo nodded. “After the Faction War, I mean. Fallout, I suppose. The Lady was pretty irked by the factions.”
Milo was perplexed by the question. “Well, because of the destruction to the city, I imagine.”
Brendian shook his head. “No, I meant, why do you say she was irked? What did she do to prove it?”
“Oh. Well, after the Faction War ended the Lady herself appeared to each of the faction leaders in turn, and told them they and their faction was no longer welcome in the city. They were given an ultimatum: leave Sigil or die.”
Brendian was surprised. “She spoke?”
Milo shrugged again. “I wasn’t there, understand. This is just the story I’ve heard circulating through the streets. Supposedly there was a dabus at her side when she appeared to each leader; maybe the dabus spoke on her behalf, and made the Lady’s will known that way. Or maybe the whole story just a political lie. Whatever the case, most of the factions packed up their things and left immediately. And those that stayed renounced. Or are being hunted down and eliminated.”
Brendian glanced at his collar. “Is that what happened to you?”
Milo smiled. “Me? No, I’m no troublemaker. I’m just a scholar. I was pretty low level, back when I was a Guvner. Low enough so word didn’t come down fast enough about the Lady’s decree for me to move kip out of Sigil. You’ve got to expect that, with the Fraternity of Order, where knowledge is hoarded like gold, and wielded like a sword.” He shook his head. “But surely you don’t want to hear this.”
“Go on,” Brendian urged.
“Well… I have family here. Actually, I’m Sigilian, born and raised. Never even been through a portal, though I did once help to categorize… well, never mind that. I could have left, but not really. I had a mother and three younger sisters, and my mother was in her deathbed, and couldn’t be moved. If I had left, then my debts would have fallen to them. So I stayed, and faced the music.” He laughed, and tapped his collar. “And I got a new bit of jewelry for my trouble.”
Brendian nodded. “Sacrifice is a noble quality, especially among mortals.”
Milo shrugged. “It isn’t so bad, really. I’m still in the Courts, doing the almost exactly the same job I was doing before. It’s just now I don’t get paid, and I’m not allowed to leave. It’s too bad I never studied dabus before the War; maybe I’d be up there on the judgment seat instead of scribing beneath it. But then, who would have expected the dabus to rise to such prominence?”
“Who indeed?” Brendian wondered aloud. “Aside from the Lady herself, who lifted them to their present position. So, she spoke, or at least made her will known.”
Milo nodded. “And then the factions were outlawed, and the mobs arose, and the dabus took over.”
“But we’re skipping ahead. You were telling me of the Lady of Pain, and her history and purpose.”
Milo smiled. “Well, of course no-one knows her history or purpose, or even what she is. But I’ll field a few ‘common wisdom’ answers if you like. The Lady is the protector of Sigil, though she doesn’t seem to care anything about it, and she guards the portals and keeps the Powers out. She either flays or mazes or ignores those who meet her. Depending on who you talk to she’s either a fallen celestial or a risen fiend, but most think she’s completely neutral, and uncaring to the ways of men.”
“Neutral?” pondered Brendian. “Hers are hardly the actions of a neutral being. If the histories are correct, I would say clearly that she is more likely to be an evil creature.”
Milo was interested. “Really? Why do you say that?”
“Consider her methods. If she really flays people, why? You said yourself that it is a painful and sometimes lingering death. Nothing like a quick sword thrust to the heart, for example. What but an evil creature would take delight in the sufferings of others? Surely if she were a neutral being, and utterly uncaring, she would kill in a swifter and more efficient manner, and it would be less likely she would send people to the mazes, too, for that matter.”
“Consider: a few people do escape the mazes. It happens from time to time. But these are the exceptions. Most people who are condemned to the mazes wander in them until they die, always seeking a way out, eternally frustrated. Does it seem the action of a neutral being to condemn someone to that fate? Why? We know from those few accounts of people who escaped the mazes that there is always food and water available there. It appears, as if by magic, each day, guaranteeing that the person won’t die of thirst or hunger. Consider the enormous effort it must take to create a maze in the first place: an entire demiplane, created in the form of an unfathomable labyrinth for the express purpose of imprisoning a being who somehow offended the Lady.”
Milo nodded. “I see your point. But there are those who think that the Lady is not intelligent at all, more like a wild beast who roams where she will, and these things she does are not done from malice but from a mindset that is so utterly alien that no other thinking beings – save perhaps the dabus only – can even begin to comprehend it.”
Brendian was silent a moment. “I will tell you a story, of something that happened long and ago, on another plane of existence. Long ago, in Elysium, the guardinal encountered a being of tremendous power. It was the Hydra – not a hydra, but the Hydra, the beast of mythic legend of which all other hydras are but pale shadows.
“The Hydra was an uncaring beast of tremendous might who destroyed everything in its path. It was uncaring of anything but its own appetite, and though the guardinals are a mighty celestial race they were unable to stop it, or even to harm it, though it slew many of their number. Thus matters stood, until a great leonal, wisest of his kind and leader of the guardinals at that time, devised a plan.
“The guardinals could not destroy the Hydra, or even halt it along its destructive course, but they did make war with it. Thus enraged, the creature pursued them, seeking revenge, but they lured it through a gigantic portal into a place where no exit portal exists, and there it is kept even to this day, to the protection of the multiverse.”
Milo was nodding. “And you are suggesting the Lady is perhaps the same? Such theories have been made before; maybe there is a spark of truth to them. But if so, if the Lady was lured into Sigil and trapped here, how? And by whom? This is the city of doors, after all, and she does control the portals, at least in the legends. Couldn’t she leave whenever she chose?”
Brendian shook his head. “No, that isn’t what I’m suggesting. I’m saying that if she were like the Hydra, an uncaring beast who was too powerful to be stopped, the masses would still have risen against her, and found some way to mitigate the danger she represents. But instead, they seem to venerate her, though they do fear her anger.”
Milo considered this. “An interesting theory,” he admitted at last. “But then, everyone has a pet theory on the Lady.”
“I haven’t heard yours yet.”
Milo had lifted his fork again. Now, instead of eating he gazed thoughtfully at the piece of roasted chicken he had skewered there. “Well… mine. Alright, then, here it is: the Lady doesn’t exist.”
Brendian quirked an eyebrow. “She doesn’t exist?
Milo nodded. “You wanted my theory; that’s it. She’s a myth, a fairy tale… er, no offense. She’s a bedtime story, used as an authority figure and a scapegoat, and whatever else by the powers that be.”
“Who keeps the Powers out of Sigil then?”
“Who says anyone does?” Milo countered. “Sigilians like to think they live in the center of the universe, but I fail to see what there is to prize about this city. Why would a Power want to come here? Don’t they dwell in unearthly comfort in their own realms? Besides, we do have clear records of Powers entering Sigil in the distant past, and finding it unpleasant here. There is something about this place that is anathema to the divine; it’s rumored that it actually causes a Power physical pain just to be here. If that’s so, then it’s likely Powers who do come to Sigil leave all by themselves.”
“And what of the sightings throughout the city? What of the historical sightings? What of her appearance to the factols?”
“There are sorcerers and mages aplenty who could conjure an illusion of the Lady. That would account for all major sightings. And everyone knows that most word of mouth sightings are just plain fiction.”
“And the mazes?”
“What of them? Sigil is the city of portals. There are plenty of portals to unpleasant places, some known, some not. Some poor berk blunders into a demiplane somewhere and eventually escapes, then later blames the Lady for putting him there, when it was his own damn fault. Ever notice how the Lady’s never even around when someone gets mazed, and yet she always gets the blame?’
Brendian shook his head. “The flayings, then. That seems a manifestation of real physical power, if nothing else does.”
Milo nodded. “Yes, but whose? You already suspect that your friend’s death was not the Lady’s doing. How many more murders are disguised to look like the ‘hand of the Lady’? A simple flayed body isn’t enough to convince me, nor even if I saw the Lady wandering by when it happened. Again, any good mage would be able to replicate the Lady’s work while casting an illusion of her image.”
Brendian considered. “All good points, but I’m not convinced. A myth that sustains itself for millennia? It doesn’t make sense.”
“If you study the histories, as I have, you’ll find there are gigantic periods of time when the Lady makes no appearance at all in the City. She seems only to emerge in times of great political and social turmoil. Again, I would suggest she is a fictional tool used by behind the scenes political powers to bring the citizens in line. You’ll even find that the artwork of the Lady has changed, down through the centuries, so that one picture of her looks very little like another.”
“Different artists, drawing the same being, will produce different portraits,” Brendian pointed out.
“True enough,” admitted Milo, “and it is only a pet theory, and a blasphemous one at that. But I still think I could be right.”
“If that is so, then the dabus must be your masterminds, sowing tales of the Lady all this time, and then using her to seize power.”
Milo chewed his food thoughtfully. “That part I haven’t figured yet. The dabus… I don’t know. They just don’t seem suited to perpetrating bloody coups. Maybe there is some hidden faction, somewhere, that orchestrated the fall of all the others…”
Brendian shook his head. “Even the yugoloths couldn’t match such a conspiracy.”
Milo ate quietly. “What will you do, if you discover it was the Lady of Pain that flayed your friend?” he asked at last.
Brendian seemed lost in his thoughts. “Then I will find away to hunt her,” he answered distractedly.
“And if it was not the Lady that slew him?”
“Then I will find the ones who did, and exact vengeance. It is what I do.” And the eladrin fell afterwards into a troubled silence.
Milo finished the rest of his meal, and a serving girl came to clear away his plates. She offered them both a glass of after-dinner wine. Milo accepted but Brendian did not answer.
“It is elven wine, sir,” she said. “Straight from Arborea.”
The eladrin shook his head. “I do not drink Arborean wine. It reminds me… of pain I wish to forget. Whose instrument is that?”
The serving girl looked in the direction he indicated. There was a lyre propped against the wall a few feet away; Milo had not noticed it before, but now realized Brendian had been staring at it pensively for some time.
“I don’t know, sir,” the girl answered. “It’s been there for ages. Do you play?”
“Once,” he answered.
* * *
Brendian stared at it for several minutes more before he finally rose from his place and approached. Gently he lifted it, and ran his fingers along the strings.
Hesitantly he stroked one of them. The sound was light, but discordant; the instrument had long been untuned.
And Brendian bent himself to the task of tuning it.
Milo watched, in fascination. Brendian’s fingers moved deftly, but gingerly, coaxing the strings to their proper notation.
And then the eladrin closed his eyes and began to play.
The first chord sent shivers down Milo’s spine. The second, and all thought of food was forgotten.
Talk in the inn hushed, then stilled completely, until only the pure sounds of the eladrin’s song filled the air with mournful music.
The song was haunting, beautiful, unearthly… heartbreaking. Sorrow unspoken of wafted in the air, tragedy too deep for human understanding.
Milo realized he was crying.
It was a story, this music. A story of a love cut short by tragedy, betrayal and loss. And somehow, Milo knew that it was Brendian’s story.
Throughout the common room those assembled sat enraptured, mourning the loss, sharing the heartbreak.
Then, in a last lingering strain, the music stopped, though it seemed the echo of the song lay trembling in the air, and a nearly magical stillness descended upon the company, each fearing to break the silence. Brendian was still lost in another world, of memory, pain, and sorrow. “Forgive me,” he said softly, and in that moment Milo was not certain whether the eladrin was speaking to him or the memory of a lost loved one. “I forgot myself.”
“No,” came the soft answer. “You remembered.”
It was the lady they had met earlier on the steps, the female ghaele. When she had entered, Milo did not know. He had not been aware of her until she spoke.
Brendian was silent. Slowly she approached him.
“I heard your song, even from across the city. It spoke to my heart, prince. We feel pain as no other creature under heaven may,” she said. “It is who we are, the other side of the coin that casts us as beings of joy and light.” She laid her palm gently against his cheek. “Come back to us, renegade prince. Let there be an end to mourning and a beginning to celebrations again.”
Gently he took hold of her hand, and pulled it away. “That life is dead to me now. I cannot return.”
Inexpressible sadness shone in her eyes at his words.
She might have said something more, but at that moment the door opened, and a human entered.
He was a young man, perhaps twenty-five, and his eyes met Brendian’s as he entered.
Both stood stock still, regarding the other, and Brendian rose from his place, for a shock of recognition passed between them. “You,” said the eladrin.
The human turned and fled.
* * *
The door nearly flew from its hinges as Brendian burst out into the night. Ahead, maybe fifty yards, was the human, running in a full sprint.
“Halt!” cried the eladrin, and his voice was like a thunderclap, but the human only ran faster.
Brendian sprinted forward, and with a hum a shimmering blade of multi-colored light sprang into being in his hand. A sword of light, where none had been before.
The eladrin ran up onto the side of the building to the left, his body parallel with the street below, and passed above the fleeing human’s head, then ran down, coming to a halt before him.
“Stand in place!” he commanded.
The man whirled to flee in the opposite direction, but there in a blurring movement suddenly Brendian was in front of him again.
Desperate, the man ripped his sword from its sheath and struck at Brendian, but the eladrin was quicker yet, sweeping the attack aside with his own weapon.
The instant the two blades met there was a roar and a flash of light, and the mortal blade rang out, shattering into white-hot pieces.
The man howled with sudden agony, flinging the glowing and broken hilt away and clutching his burned palm.
Brendian seized him by his tunic and lifted him off the ground with one hand.
“Why did you flee?” he demanded, his eyes blazing with power.
The man began to cry. “Please… please, please, please, please… Don’t kill me, don’t kill me. Don’t.”
“I know you,” said Brendian. “I saw you when I was last in Sigil. You worked with Tretius, I saw you in his shop. Why did you flee?”
“They were going to collar my family!” the young man cried, hysterical. “I had to pay the debt! I had to! It was the only way!”
The young man’s emotions were confused, frightened, angry… but Brendian could read them easily, and what they meant. “You murdered him.” It was not a question.
“You don’t know what it’s like, when they’re going to collar your family! I have sisters… oh, gods above, they would have been sold to tanar’ri pleasure houses!”
“Why? Why did you do it?” Brendian demanded, trying to make sense of the young man’s nearly incoherent thoughts.
“I… had to.” The man collapsed in sobs. “I had to. It was the only way. Had to get the money somehow. I was just going to take a few things, enough to pay the debt… I would have paid it all back. But he caught me.”
“And so you slew him, and made it look like a flaying.” Brendian dropped the man, who crumpled to the street.
“Please… please,” the man said, taking hold of Brendian’s boot. “Please… protect me.”
“Protect you?” Brendian asked, amazed.
“The Lady… oh gods, the Lady will punish me for what I’ve done…”
Brendian felt a sick fury descend on him. This was why Tretius had died? This… spineless cowering human had done it? For money? He pulled his foot away. “Nay,” he said coldly, and raising his sword. “Not Her.”
“No, prince!” cried Lady Cylithera, who had come from the inn and was watching, Milo behind her and on the steps. “What good will it do the dead to take personal revenge?”
Brendian considered. Then, he lifted his unearthly sword high.
“For Tretius’s sake, and for the sake of his sister, who I loved, will I spare you, wretched mortal, though the Courts may not, for I will cast you to their mercy, and thus vindicate his name.”
And he began to haul the man to his feet, when suddenly there was a new sound, like rushing winds coming together, coupled with arcane whispers.
Suddenly Brendian felt himself lifted from the ground, and hurled away to crash into the wall of the inn.
In the darkness above, a dark shape moved, floating serenely. Brendian caught only a glimpse of it, passing, though it had the general form of a woman in flowing robes.
And the man on the ground shrieked.
He jerked to his feet, a long cut on his forehead suddenly appearing, leaking blood.
On the steps, Milo had thrown himself to the ground, hardly daring to breathe, and even the female eladrin had covered her face, looking away from whatever being it was that was in the air.
The man began to run, but even as he did so, more cuts bean to appear, more blood began to flow. And he must have been blinded by it, for he ran straight into the wall next to Brendian, screaming all the time, and collapsed, going silent and still.
A minute passed, then two.
At last Brendian picked himself up, still staring upwards. Whatever it was that had passed was gone now; the sky was just empty night air now.
At his feet the human lay silent and still, blood leaking through his clothing. With detachment, Brendian noted that none of the clothing itself had been torn or cut.
Milo picked himself up, shaking. He glanced down towards Brendian, wide-eyed. “Are you alright?” he asked, hardly daring to lift his voice above a whisper.
Brendian checked himself over, then nodded. “You?”
Milo thought it over. “I think… I think I’d like to revise my theory.”
Lady Cylithera had approached the flayed man, and was now looking down on his remains, a mixture of pity and disgust on her face. She glanced up at Brendian.
“There are beings in this multiverse that live only for hate, to cause misery, or to be revenged,” she said. “And there are other beings who will always prey on them. Come back to your people, prince. Come back to your ways. You are not one of these.”
Brendian was silent
“I will think on it,” he said at last.