"That was a piking stupid thing to do, cutter. Taking on a cipher in a rigged contest. You're sodding lucky to be alive." Brianna's cold gaze slid to the girl who Gwydion had rescued. "Thinking with your sword arm," she said in disgust. "Bloody impressive. What exactly are we supposed to do with her now?"
Gwydion glanced at his beautiful captive. The girl had not yet spoken; he was not certain that she understood what Brianna was saying. She stared at Brianna and Tap warily, as if they might strike her. "I did... what I did, had to be done."
"Right," said Brianna contemptuously. "And of course the fact that she's a pleasure-slave who has the curves of a goddess never entered your mind. Tell me: Would you have been so swift to rescue her if she were an old man?"
Gwydion was surprised by the bitterness in her voice. It almost sounded as if Brianna were jealous. "As a matter of fact I would," he said evenly. "Now drop it. The deed is done, for ill or good. I will set the girl free and the affair will be finished. The stone creature gave me the key to her collar, should I desire to have it off."
"Unlock that girl's collar," warned Brianna, "and every patron here will rise against you. It is the law, cutter. Slaves must be collared in Sigil. I don't care what the gargoyle gave you."
"Then I will take her outside, beyond their sight, and set her free."
"No good," interjected Tap. "Bold paladin has won the day against all odds; many there are who will be watching him now."
"He's right," said Brianna. "You've drawn attention to yourself, and with the people who are looking for us already - competent people, trust me - you're going to get noticed if you do anything else foolish."
"I'll risk it," said Gwydion.
Brianna shook her head. "The penalty for freeing a slave is slavery." She jerked a thumb towards the captive girl. "For her it's even worse. Death. Not to mention the boy and me. So don't talk about what 'you'll' risk. Talk about the risk to which you've put us all. You should have listened to me before you dashed off to the rescue, paladin. You should have listened and sat tight. Like it or not, you're saddled with that pleasure slut until we leave Sigil. Which means I'm saddled with her too, since I'm saddled with you."
"I have a name," the collared woman said quietly. "It isn't 'slut'."
Gwydion and Brianna alike turned to stare at her. She had been so quiet and demure, following him submissively when he had led the way back to their table from the fighting platform even though a quick movement of resistance could easily have jerked the leash from his grip and a lucky dash across the crowded room might have meant escape, that both of them were startled by the sound of her voice.
It was soft, yet filled with quiet strength and resolve. And it was musical, pleasing to the ear - certainly the most appealing and feminine voice Gwydion had ever heard.
"I apologize, lady," he said, chastened, though Brianna still wore a sour look. "What is your name?"
"Lady Trystessa," she answered. "Daughter of Hendra, Son of the Light and Heir of Righteousness."
Gwydion stared at her. "You are a noble, then?"
She gave a slow nod. "I am, though I was stolen by Outland bandits and sold into slavery."
"Fine," said Brianna shortly. "Your name is Trystessa. Wonderful. And plainly you speak planar common. Now that that's straightened out, little virgin queen, let me clarify something for you: We didn't ask for you and we don't want you. All you are to me is dead weight." Her finger stabbed the air in front of the other woman's face. "So I don't give a modron's smile whether you’re a 'lady' or the lost Princess Secora herself, walked straight out of fairy tales. You're a useless bit of fluff sold as a pleasure slave, and like as not you'll be nothing but a burden. So keep your pretty little mouth shut and if fortune favors us we'll be rid of you soon."
The woman flushed but cast her eyes down, nodding subserviently. "As you wish."
"Brianna," said Gwydion angrily. "You can't-"
"Don't get in an uproar, paladin," she said, cutting him off. "Your stupid bravado in accepting the contest has already drawn more attention than we want. I know a few people - friends - who may yet get us out of the city. All we need is a portal, though thanks to your display of chivalry we'll have to move fast to stay ahead of those who are after you. First things first: we clear out of this place, right now, and concentrate on finding a safe portal. Doesn't matter where to. Once we're out of Sigil then you can do your 'noble knight' routine and free the pleasure tramp. Give her a bloody party for all I care - but until then you'd piking well better keep low and do as I say. Now let's go."
"We're not leaving yet," said Gwydion. "At least I'm not."
Brianna looked at him blankly. "Paladin, there are people after us. People after you. And with your little exhibition you have drawn notice here. We cannot tarry."
Gwydion held up the note the centaur-creature had brought. "Have you forgotten the message? The one addressed to me and penned in my native tongue?"
She nodded grimly. "And delivered to you by courier at this particular table not twenty minutes past. I told you before: such a feat is not possible. No-one could have tracked us that quickly, that precisely. And the summons to a mysterious meeting in Room 52, of all places. I told you before, paladin, don't go. We've trouble enough with the people after us and this fool girl you rescued. We don't need more. My advice is we leave right now and don't stop until we're well clear of Sigil."
Gwydion shook his head. "I told you before. I won't risk losing a chance to track the Icon. Whoever or whatever sent that message could have sent men to kill us instead, had it meant us harm. As for your 'Room 52', I'll risk it."
Tap had been looking from one of them to the other. "Dangerous place, cutter, filled with legends and hauntings. Wise lady is probably right, but Tap will show you the way if you decide to go."
"Forget it, whelp," said Brianna with a snort. "If the dumb basher is determined to put us all in the dead-book..." she grumbled, "well, at least it'll be an interesting ride. You want to see Room 52, cutter? Come on then, let's go."
* * *
The main room of the Broken Trust was adjoined on all sides by several tunnel-like halls that appeared randomly scattered around the room, some higher and some lower. The openings to the halls were strange; small irregular circles and oblongs that looked like they had been burrowed into the walls, each unique. They reminded Gwydion more of the intricate and alien holes burrowed by nesting insects on his homeworld than of any man-made structure, and it made his skin crawl. Some of the halls glowed eerily from fitful flickering of torches from within, but most were pitch dark.
Brianna led the small party across one of the lower hanging bridges that led to one of the holes. The bridge was made of old wood, and the planks shifted and groaned beneath their weight.
The aperture leading into the hall was roughly oval, and looked like it had been bored into the hard stone-like wall. Brianna snatched up the torch that was wedged into the final post of the bridge and ducked her head, entering. As Gwydion followed he glanced down at the edge of the hole. There were marks in the stony surface, cruel and irregular lines. They looked like claw marks.
Within, the ‘hall’ seemed more like a tunnel tunneled through the earth by some wild animal than any human construction. The walls were rounded, and mostly smooth, and it ran jaggedly, sometimes sloping downward or upward, or pitching to the side. There were no doors that Gwydion could see. “What manner of creature would choose to stay in a place like this?” he asked aloud. “It seems more a cave than an inn.”
“Some creatures prefer caves, paladin,” said Brianna shortly. She glanced back at him. “Keep a tight rein on that bit of fluff; we don’t want her running off. If you can’t keep a solid grip on her leash, I will.”
Gwydion was loosely holding the end of the leash attached to Trystessa’s collar. She had followed quietly and without protest, though she looked frightened. Tap was just behind her. “I’ve got her,” he said quietly, not wanting to argue.
But Brianna had already turned away, leading the way with her flickering torch. The tunnel took an abrupt left turn and suddenly the rest of the small party was left in semi-darkness as the light was swallowed.
“Hurry on, paladin,” said Tap, pushing forward nervously. “In a place such as this, light is not good but darkness is far worse.”
Gwydion hurried forward.
As they rounded the corner, they were confronted with the end of the hall. It ended in a rounded wall.
Brianna stood before it, her torch held high. She turned and looked at him. “Room 52, cutter,” she said, and stepped back.
There was a door there, a stout wooden one made of some dark, twisted oak. Instead of being set vertically into the wall, it was set into the slope of the wall as it curved to the floor, pitched at such a sharp angle that it lay nearly horizontal.
“That’s it?” asked Gwydion, stepping forward. It looked a little like one of the trapdoors that led down into the cellars of some of the neighboring farms on his homeworld.
She nodded grimly. “That’s it. Now you’ve seen it. Can we go?”
He shook his head, not bothering to answer, and reached down to grasp the rounded handle. The metal was rusted nearly green, but it was firm and smooth beneath his hands.
“Forget it, cutter,” said Brianna, “Room 52’s been sealed for years. That means nailed shut, and worked with sorceries to keep it closed. You won’t get it to budge-”
Gwydion twisted the handle, feeling the mechanism disengage. With a groan and a shudder, the door began to pull open slowly.
There was a sudden puff of stale air from within, and suddenly the door swung wide, revealing a small darkened chamber. Dust motes danced in the flickering light of Brianna’s torch.
Her eyes were wide. “That... shouldn’t have happened,” she said faintly.
Gwydion glanced back at her, then motioned for her to bring the torch closer. When she didn’t respond, he reached back and took it from her, then extended the flame through the doorframe and into the room.
The chamber within was small, with a wooden floor and fairly regular dimensions. From where Gwydion stood he could see a small bed and the edge of a dresser with a mirror set atop. In sharp contrast to the tunnel-like hall they stood in, the walls and floor of the little bedchamber were of normal dimensions, and constructed for the most part of wooden beams and planking. A thick layer of dust lay over everything, and it looked as if nothing here had been disturbed for some time.
“Looks normal enough to me,” said Gwydion. “What did you say happened here?”
“Which time?” asked Tap from behind.
“Does it matter?” asked Brianna. “People who go in don’t come out again. It’s that simple.”
“It looks empty,” said Gwydion.
“I agree,” said Brianna. “So there’s no reason to go in.”
Gwydion shook his head. “The message said ‘Room 52’.”
“We came; there’s nothing here. End of story. Now let’s go.”
Gwydion looked back at her, then handed the end of Trystessa’s leash to her. He pulled tylith-senshai from its sheath. The sword was cold and dark.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
He didn’t answer, only extended the torch into the room again, ducked his head low to get through the sloped door, and stepped forward.
An electric shock shot through his body as he stepped through the doorframe, and he gasped as if he’d been doused with freezing water. His foot didn’t come down on the floor as he’d expected, for the floor was no longer in the same place, but nearly six inches lower. Gravity had shifted as well, so that ‘down’ was no longer straight beneath his feet, but rather beneath and slightly forward.
He stumbled into a sprawl, nearly dropping tylith-senshai. He knew instantly what had happened, for he had not stepped into the small bedchamber at all. The room he had entered was large and spacious, though only dimly lit.
A portal! he thought in surprise.
Tylith-senshai was alive in his hands, thrumming angrily against his palms, the blade glowing with a bright inner light. Danger! He knew the sword was reacting to the presence of evil.
The room was wide and dark, filled with the shapes of tables and chairs. The ceiling was high, and there were wooden pillars supporting it spaced evenly in ten foot intervals. It was familiar to him...
An icy prickle slid down his back. It was a familiar room, yes. In fact, he had been here before. It was exactly, in shape and dimensions, the same as a tavern his compatriots had frequented when he was a young cadet in training, within the city Nauntin on his homeworld. He remembered it well, for he had hated it. All the templars had come here, for wine or women, and it had been the scene of one of the most humiliating events of his young life...
Angrily he forced the thought down. He was in danger in the here and now. Besides, this was not - could not - be the same place. The tables here were covered in cobwebs, the dust on the floor was undisturbed. There were no men here. And beyond the windows a greenish, unearthly light pulsed steadily.
There was a single candle lit on a table on the far side of the room. A cloaked man sat behind it, watching him with dark eyes.
Behind him Gwydion heard a thrum, and a muttered imprecation as someone thumped to the floor behind him. He shifted slightly, sword held ready, unwilling to take his gaze from the man at the table, and glanced back with his peripheral vision.
Brianna was just picking herself off the floor. Her eyes were wide as she looked around herself, and the naked steel of her dagger was visible in her hand. Behind her the portal shimmered like the surface of turbulent water, the cloudy images of Tap and Trystessa beyond it.
Immediately Gwydion was focused forward again.
The man at the table watched him in silence, unmoving. The hood of his cloak was pulled forward, so that only his face was visible. It was a younger man’s face, handsome and slender, with something about it that suggested elven blood. His eyes were shadowed, and the flickering of the candle’s light played across his features, lending them a sinister air. “Greetings, Gwydion Talienvar,” he said at last. He gestured to the chair across from him. “Won’t you sit?”
“Who are you, and how do you know my name?” Gwydion asked warily, not moving.
There was a grunt and a thud behind him, and the man looked past him, his lips twisting into a thin amused smile. “I see your companions have arrived. An interesting company you have chosen with which to wage war against the forces of darkness. The Clueless, the Fool, and the Traitoress.” This last was said with barely-concealed menace, and directed towards Brianna.
Gwydion took an instinctive step to place himself between them, but the cloaked man’s gaze had swung to the side. His expression registered faint surprise. “This is unexpected,” he said. “Greetings, lady.”
Gwydion glanced back again. Trystessa was standing behind Tap. She must have followed Tap through the portal, though he could not imagine why, or how she had done it without stumbling as the rest of them had. Her leash dangled loosely from its collar. She looked frightened and wary.
“The fourth companion has been chosen, then,” murmured the cloaked man. “This complicates things.”
Gwydion took a step towards him. “Who are you?” he asked again. The nearer he came to the cloaked man, the more the angry vibration pulsing through tylith-senshai’s hilt grew.
That faint smile reappeared on the man’s face. “You could never pronounce my name,” he said, “even were I inclined to give it, which I am not. Suffice it to say that I am an ally in your cause.”
Gwydion stepped closer, his sword still held warily. “How did you know my name? My language? How did you know where to find me?”
The cloaked man gestured to the chair opposite again. “Please, sit. We have things to discuss. Must you brandish your weapon? I find its presence... distasteful.”
“As it does yours,” Gwydion returned evenly. “Who are you? A name.”
The man was silent a moment. “Call me Whisper,” he said at last. “It will serve.”
Slowly Gwydion seated himself. Deliberately he lay Tylith-senshai on the table between them. The cloaked man didn’t move, but his eyes were locked on the blade of the sword, and Gwydion had the distinct impression that he wanted to shrink back from it.
“Most distasteful,” he repeated.
“How did you know where to find me?” asked Gwydion. “How do you know my name?”
The man was silent for a long moment. “Those who oppose you, those who have the Icon... they have not acted without preparation. Many of the prophesies have been destroyed and are lost to me. Enough remain that I have been able to find you.”
“Prophesies?” asked Gwydion, suspicious.
The man gave a slow nod. “I have followed your exploits, Gwydion Talienvar, from the moment you entered the Outlands through the portal from your homeworld. I have walked your dreams to learn more of you, and I am convinced. You are the One.”
“The one what?”
The man gave a small half smile. “The one who may recover the Icon. And I am the one who can show you how.”
“Gwydion,” said Brianna from behind him. “I don’t like this man, if that’s what he is. You hired me to give you guidance. My advice is that we leave this... this place. Right now.”
The cloaked man gave her a scathing look. “The traitoress speaks,” he said acidly.
“I trust her judgment far more than yours,” snapped Gwydion. “Tylith-senshai doesn’t like you and neither do I.” He stood. “I’m inclined to follow her advice and take my leave of you as swiftly as possible.”
“If you go now, oh noble paladin, how will you find the Icon? Only I can tell you where it is.”
“Don’t listen to him, cutter,” said Brianna in a low voice. “We’ve got plenty to go on. The tiefling’s name, the scrap of paper, what you saw through that portal... This man is dangerous. I can sense it. Any deal you make with him will lead to destruction.”
The cloaked man gave that bitter smile again. “A ringing endorsement, considering it is the traitoress who gives it. Oh yes, the girl is right. I am quite dangerous, and not at all to be trusted. But the question, paladin, is am I dangerous to you?”
“Where is the Icon?” demanded Gwydion.
The cloaked man gave a low, throaty chuckle. “Why should I tell you that? It is the one piece of information I have that you need. That is what we are here to barter.”
Gwydion shook his head. “Barter? What do I have that you want?”
“Just yourself,” said the cloaked man simply. “You are the One. And I would be one of the seven.”
Again that mysterious smile played across the other man’s
face. “Let me ask you something,
paladin. If I were to tell you where
the Icon is being held, what would you do?”
“Go after it and retrieve it, of course,” said Gwydion guardedly, sensing a trap.
The cloaked man shook his head. “That would be a very unwise course of action, paladin. You would die. Worse than that, you would fail, and the only hope of retrieving the Icon from those who have stolen it would die with you.”
“What do you mean?”
The man’s eyes went hooded. “‘Seven companions there shall be,’” he quoted, “‘each chosen by the One. The task achieved by seven hands, or else achieved by none.’ The prophecy is clear.”
Gwydion shook his head. “What prophecy? I’ve never heard that little rhyme before in my whole life.”
The cloaked man gave him a sharp look. “You heard the chant as a rhyme?” he said, a little surprised. Immediately he nodded. “Further proof that you are the One.”
“What did he say?” asked Brianna in a low voice. “It sounded like some kind of spellcraft.”
With a little shock, Gwydion realized that when the cloaked man had spoken the rhyme, he had not been speaking planar common. Instead it was a low, warbling language, filled with rich contours and hidden meanings. It was reminiscent of the tongue that the demon in the Outlands had spoken, though different, more pure, less threatening.
“There are always prophets, paladin,” said the cloaked man, “and ever through the millennia there have been prophecies. Prophecies of what is, what has been, and what may yet be. You must choose seven companions if you are to succeed in your quest.”
There was a beat of silence. “And what do you gain in all this?”
“What do I gain?” asked the cloaked man, an ironic edge to his voice. “I make no claims to sainthood, quite the opposite. I am essentially an evil being, and I make no excuses for that fact. But I do not relish the thought of being subservient to any man, beast, or god. I prefer the multiverse as it is - with my own free will to act intact. And in aiding you on your quest, I hamper certain powerful enemies of my own. So you see, I am acting only in my own self-interest. You understand?”
Gwydion said nothing.
“As for what I want from you, that is something else again. I have labored to retrieve the few prophecies concerning the Icon that still exist, but our mutual enemies have gone to great lengths to destroy them, and I fear they have done an excellent job. The few hard facts I possess suggest that only you may recover the Icon, and only then after you have chosen your companions. Though the roles of the companions are hinted at, they are not named. This suggests to me that your choice may be influenced. The reason I am here, Gwydion Talienvar, is that I propose to become one of them.”
“One of the companions?” asked Gwydion suspiciously.
The cloaked man nodded. “I have watched you for some time now, paladin, and while I do not think you are a fool, I do certainly find you foolish. Already your choices reflect poor judgment.” His eyes flicked to Brianna, Tap, and Trystessa. “A boy, a pleasure slave, and a tiefling. This is who you propose to take into battle. Poor judgment, as I say, but what has been done cannot be undone. Once chosen, a companion cannot be replaced.”
“I know nothing of this ‘seven’ you speak of, stranger, but I have chosen no companions. Those who accompany me do so by their own free will, and I do not consider them bound to me.”
The cloaked man laughed. “Did you think they would not? ‘They shall be twice chosen; once by the warrior and once again by themselves.’ You have chosen the tiefling and the boy at least, and they have chosen you. And I suspect the pleasure slave will bind herself to you as well. Blood debt is one her people do not ignore, and she owes you her freedom and life.”
Gwydion was silent.
The cloaked man leaned forward slightly, and then immediately was brought up short when tylith-senshai’s blade flared brightly and buzzed angrily. “What I propose is simple, paladin. Choose me as a companion and I will guide you to the place where the Icon is being held.”
Gwydion was quiet, a frown tugging at his lips.
“You’re not seriously considering this, cutter?” said Brianna. “He as much as told you he was evil. You don’t hold a poisonous serpent to your breast, not unless you’re a fool. You want my advice, we leave this place now, and find the Icon on our own.”
The cloaked man didn’t even glance at her. “I am an extremely powerful sorcerer, paladin. My knowledge of the planes is virtually unsurpassed. I have talents that you will need. I can be a very powerful ally to your quest. None of the companions you have chosen have even moderate battle skills, while I am a trained war mage.”
“I trust them,” said Gwydion. “How do I know I can trust you?”
“You can’t,” said Brianna. “Don’t be a fool, cutter.”
“You cannot trust me,” cut in the cloaked man smoothly, unruffled. “Or rather, you may trust me only to do what is in my own best interest. As I have said, my best interest is to see that the Icon is retrieved from those who hold it now. And with that knowledge, you may choose me as a companion and trust that I will not betray you.” That ghostly smile played along those thin lips again. “Of course, if my intention was to betray you, you would already be dead.”
Gwydion was quiet again.
“My proposition is simple, paladin,” said the cloaked man. “You need help, and I can be of tremendous aid to you. What is your answer?”
There was a beat of silence, and then Gwydion gave a slow nod. “I choose you as a companion, then,” he said, “though I’m not certain I even believe any of your talk about this ‘seven’.”
A look of triumph flashed across the cloaked man’s narrow face and he gave a feral smile. “And I choose you, paladin,” he said.
On the table, tylith-senshai flared brightly, still buzzing angrily.
Brianna stared at Gwydion as if he’d lost his mind.
“Oh, foolish paladin,” said Tap in a low moan. “What have you done?”