At first Gwydion thought it was the smoothest portal crossing he had experienced yet.
There was no nausea, no disorientation, no electric shock. There hadn’t even been that ever-so-subtle shift of gravity. He felt a slight tingle course across his skin as he stepped through the hole that Whisper had opened from the darkened room back into Sigil, but nothing more.
He stepped confidently into the small alleyway, sword drawn, balanced on the balls of his feet…
…And swayed unsteadily to his right, lurching off balance, stumbling into the cobbled wall, and scraping his shoulder painfully.
“Not much of a planewalker, are you?” asked Brianna with a hint of sarcasm as she helped Gwydion back to his feet. “Well, at least you didn’t throw up this time.”
Gwydion gave a grunt, trying to make the alleyway stop spinning. His ears were ringing for some unaccountable reason. The damn portal had somehow thrown his sense of balance. “I’m getting the feeling that portals just don’t agree with me.” He glanced around. “Where are we?”
“Sigil,” she answered tersely, looking around herself. “Or at least I hope so.”
They stood in a jagged little alleyway – if it could even be called that – between two towering walls. The street underfoot was cobbled, but so roughly that jagged stones stuck up here and there, making the footing uneven. The rain that had been drizzling when they had left Sigil had died, leaving the streets and buildings slick with moisture, and runnels of dirty gray water puddle between the jagged cobblestones.
“Is Sigil,” confirmed Tap. “Clerk’s Ward.” The boy was wearing the ridiculously oversized backpack that Whisper had given them, bulging with the valuables the sorcerer had loaded it with. Gwydion had originally offered to carry it, but Tap had insisted, telling him that he should keep himself unencumbered, in case more fighting lay ahead.
Brianna was dubious. “Clerk’s Ward? I don’t know… it doesn’t look familiar.”
“Clerk’s Ward,” Tap insisted, pointing upward. “See? Hall of Speakers.”
Gwydion followed the line of Tap’s finger. The tips of two slender spires were just visible over the top of the high wall to the left. They were only a vague outline in the darkness to his eyes, but apparently Brianna recognized them.
“The Hall of the Speakers,” she agreed.
“What does that mean?” asked Gwydion.
“It means we’re in Clerk’s Ward, or near enough so it makes no difference. Apparently your new-found friend didn’t lie about where the portal went, at least.”
“So you know where we are, then? And where this ‘Collection’ is?”
“Give me a second to get oriented,” she snapped. “Okay, the Hive is that way, so if I remember right…” She turned slightly and pointed. “That way, past the Hall of the Seekers and nearly to the Gymnasium.”
Tap nodded brightly. “Yep.”
She gave Gwydion a pained look. “You certain you want to go through with this? I mean, all we’re going on is the barmy word of some shady sorcerer who won’t even give out his real name.”
“Selithera claimed he spoke truly,” he countered.
She rolled her eyes. “Oh yes, the virgin princess. Exactly when did her advice count for so much? If you want my opinion, we’re well rid of her.” At Gwydion’s look, she threw up her hands. “Alright, alright. I should have known better than trying to talk sense to a paladin. I suppose we march straight into the Collection like lambs to the slaughter then? Well, no use standing about. If we’re going to commit suicide lets get it over with!”
And she turned on her heel and stalked off, not looking to see if they followed.
Gwydion was left with his mouth hanging open. He exchanged a glance with Tap, who grinned at him and shrugged, then trotted after her.
“Never understand that woman,” he muttered, then hurried to follow.
The alleyway cut sharply to the right, then to the right again, and then seemed to come to a dead end.
Brianna never halted though. Instead she turned to the left and seemed to walk straight into the wall. Tap followed without a word.
“Hey!” said Gwydion, starting forward.
Brianna’s head popped back into sight. “What now?” she asked, still irritated.
As Gwydion drew level with her he saw that the alley didn’t end after all, but rather folded back on itself in an abrupt nearly one-eighty degree turn. Beyond that it opened into a larger avenue.
“Uh… sorry,” he said sheepishly. “I thought… never mind.”
Her lips set in a disapproving line. “I don’t know which of them has you the more turned around, paladin. That girl with her fine hips or that sorcerer with his lies… between the two of them you’re left so addle-coved you can’t even follow a body down the street.”
“What are you so upset at?” he asked, following her out into the wider avenue. “I thought you were starting to warm to his plan, there at the end of the meeting.”
She snorted derisively. “Of course I warmed to it. He gave us gold, paladin. A fair amount of it, and that’s not something either of us has had up till now. And he took that pleasure wench off our hands. We could have walked away from the whole situation in a winning position. But oh no, not us. Because I’ve signed on with the most clueless paladin in the planes, we’re going to be going on a scavenger hunt for this Whisper character.”
“The Icon-“ Gwydion started, but she cut him off.
“Yes yes, I know. Your Icon must be recovered, and if this is the way than this is the way.”
And she turned on her heel again, stalking down the street. Gwydion followed, reflecting ruefully that she had started using the word paladin again when referring to him. It was odd that a term that was supposed to have such good connotations always seemed to come out when she was ridiculing him.
The avenue widened into a street, lined evenly on either side by unusually tall lamps, flickering in the darkness. The buildings and storefronts they passed were as varied in style and shape as they had been in other parts of Sigil – here a marble palace topped with turrets and spires stood; next to it was an obsidian tower, and farther down was a wooden building not much different than those in the cities of his homeworld – but here they were looked in better condition, mostly clean (though perhaps it was inevitable that some grime still persisted) and looking fairly well maintained. The cobblestones here were smoother too, and while there were still a few places along the gutter where trash and garbage lay cluttered in the main it was free from the waste and human filth that seemed to fill the other parts of this extraplanar city. Maybe it was just because of the recent rain, but even the night breeze didn’t smell too bad here, even to Gwydion.
“They keep it cleaner here in the Clerk’s Ward,” he mentioned to Tap.
“You should see the Lady’s Ward,” the boy shot back. “It’s where the high-ups and temples are. It ain’t half as dirty as this.”
The street was long and fairly straight, so they could see some way ahead, the line of lamps slowly curving upwards with the curve of Sigil. Perhaps it was the time of night, but the street was empty for nearly as far as Gwydion could see. Far off in the distance down the curve, there were a few dark shapes moving between the puddles of light, but they were so distant that it was impossible to make out anything more than shadowy forms.
They had barely gone thirty yards when a series of whirring clanks brought Gwydion up short. A smaller avenue connected to the larger street they stood on, and out of its mouth trundled a bizarre being made mostly of metal.
It had the general shape of a cube, with two spindly mechanical legs sprouting from underneath and a pair of similar arms dangling from either side. From the cube’s top stood two small wings, mostly metal but covered at the tips with gray feathers, which fluttered slightly as it moved. The front of the cube had a face that seemed to be a combination of gray flesh, metal, and glass. The eyes were wide and alien, each encased in a surrounding layer of metal and under a circular disk of glass, and the mouth was a flat line, lips pressed together.
Despite its ungainly appearance it moved swiftly, the gears of the legs moving them up, down, up, down in a forward manner. It raced out into the street at a dead run, coming immediately to a halt a few paces from where they stood, emitting a loud hiss of steam from somewhere behind the wings.
“What in the world?!” said Gwydion, reaching for his blade.
It stood there staring at them for several seconds, blinked once, and turned to the right, then took off again, racing down the street in the direction from which they had come.
“Easy there cutter,” said Brianna, seeing that Gwydion had drawn tylith-senshai at its approach. “No need to get jumpy; it’s just a modron. Keep out of its way and it’ll pass us by. There’s no sense courting trouble by threatening it; we’ve got problems enough as it is.”
Still Gwydion kept the blade bared, watching it trundle off. “What was that thing?”
“Modron,” supplied Tap. He made a circular gesture with his finger near the side of his head. “Not right.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Brianna. “It’s gone, and we’re less than two blocks from the Tower of Eyrie. That is where we’re going, right?” The last bit was said with sarcasm.
Gwydion thought about it. “Actually, no. First I want to see the exit portal we’ll be using. That way we know our exit strategy going in, just in case we need to use it fast.”
Brianna was taken aback. “Well… smart, cutter,” she said begrudgingly. “Come on then. The Street of the Weirdling isn’t far.”
* * *
The Street of the Weirdling was more a trench than a street. It dipped down beneath the normal level of the surrounding area by about ten feet and was criss-crossed along its winding length by a series of arching iron bridges that connected streets above.
There were a few shops and housefronts with doors or windows that were on the same level as the street (all dark at this hour) but for the most part it was lined along its length only by grayish-black stone walls, still dripping wetly from the earlier rain.
There were a total of eight bridges that crossed over the street along its three block run, though there was also a building under construction at one point, and several wooden beams had been laid across the top of the street there by the workers for ease in crossing back and forth above. Each of the true bridges was constructed of smoky-black wrought iron, arching over the street below, and the metal had been worked into various exotic designs on each bridge.
It was the third bridge in that Gwydion, Brianna, and Tap stood before, gazing up at the underside of the arch. The iron there had been curled and bent into the shapes of grains, trees, and leaves. All of the leaves were same unique shape, a jagged triangular heart with a hook at the tip instead of a point. Gwydion held three identically shaped leaves – not metal but real vegetation – in the pouch at his side. The sorcerer had given them to him, claiming that they were the only key that would trigger the portal.
“That’s the portal?” asked Gwydion.
Brianna shrugged. “Your friend Whisper claimed it was. Could be. Guess we’ll find out when the time comes.”
Gwydion pulled out the leaves. “And these are the keys.”
“So he said.”
He took one of the leaves and turned it over in his hand. “So how do we activate it?”
“If it works at all, all we need is to be holding the key to activate it, then just walk through.”
Gwydion looked back up at the bridge. “But I’m holding the leaf now, and I don’t see any difference.”
Brianna glanced at him. “So? Try walking under and see if you make it to the other side. Sigil’s the city of portals. Any doorway or window, or even the passage under a bridge’s arch, can be a portal. If you’re lucky or unlucky enough to be holding the right key, you can get to just about anywhere if you find the right portal. Course, that means that a lot of bashers have ended up places they didn’t want to go, just because they wandered through the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Gwydion looked back at the leaf in his hand. “It just looks like an ordinary leaf.”
“It is,” said Brianna. “From a Vellum Moss tree in Arborea. And if we walk under that bridge holding it, that’s where we’ll be going. Well, if the sorcerer told us the truth, and there’s no telling about that.” She looked back at the second bridge. “Any of these bridges might be portals, if we had the right keys.”
“Got the portal, got the key,” said Tap. “Time to get the bracelet.”
“Or we could pike this whole half-baked idea, find a good inn, and get some rest,” said Brianna, then rolled her eyes and answered herself before anyone else could speak. “I know, paladin, I know. The Tower of Eyrie.”
* * *
The building was taller than Gwydion had expected but more slender. The main base was low and wide, but above that loomed a square obelisk-shaped tower that stretched up and up, finally ending in a peaked brown-shingled roof. There were no windows on any part of the building, but covering nearly every part of the tower were a series of clocks – big clocks, small clocks, clocks with pendulums, clocks, clocks without, round clocks, square clocks, clocks with numbers, clocks without numbers, clocks without hands, clocks with symbols that might have been numbers, clocks with too many numbers, even clocks with too few numbers.
The whole structure looked like it was cut from a single pink marble block with blue veins running through it, the sides so smooth they were glossy and reflective. There was a huge pair of black doors set at the top of a series of steps, and as far as Gwydion could see they were the only way in or out.
“Well, here it is,” said Brianna, “big as life. What exactly we’re supposed to do now, though…”
“What’s with all the clocks?” Gwydion asked.
“The master of the collection is called the Keeper of Time,” said Brianna. “Least, that’s how he styles himself. Who knows what goes through a rilmani’s head? They’re all barmy anyhow.”
“Too right,” muttered Tap.
“What’s a rilmani?” asked Gwydion.
“The Keeper of Time is, or at least that’s the word,” said Brianna. “Don’t ask me what they look like; I’ve never seen one. All I know is the same chant everyone does: they can’t be trusted, they should be feared, and they’re unpredictable. Sometimes they’ll help you, sometimes they’ll kill you, and sometimes they’ll just plain ignore you. As for the Keeper of Time, they say he’s spent a couple of centuries grabbing up valuable items and storing them away in his private museum. That’s the Tower of Eyrie. They also say he’s never yet given out anything from his collection, and that he’s killed a lot of berks stupid enough to ask.”
“We aren’t asking for a handout,” said Gwydion. “We’ll offer to pay for it.” He motioned to Tap. “Give me the backpack,” he said.
“Tap can carry it,” the boy answered, looking a little puzzled.
Gwydion shook his head. “Hand it over. You aren’t going in. If this goes south, things could get dicey.”
Tap looked both hurt and defensive. “Tap can fight. Tap is not fearful!”
“Tap stays right here,” said Gwydion. “If we fail, then we need you to find Whisper and let him know what happened. One way or the other, the Icon must be found.”
Sullenly Tap handed the backpack over. “Tap will stay, for now,” he said reluctantly. “But he will rescue brave paladin himself, if need be.”
Gwydion slung the backpack over one shoulder. “Alright,” he said with a sigh, “I guess there’s no sense standing about. We’re on a timeline.”
“Oh yes, wouldn’t want to miss an appointment with the dead-book,” said Brianna, following him up the steps.
Gwydion halted at the doors, glancing back at Tap. “Better get out of sight.”
The boy backed off a few steps.
Gwydion regarded the door. “Should we knock?”
Brianna simply lifted a fist and gave three sharp strikes with the back of her knuckles. The knocks sounded out as crashing booms, more as if she had struck a cymbal than a metal door, and Gwydion stepped back in surprise.
“What kind of metal is that?” he asked, but she looked nearly as shocked as he.
And then the door on the right swung open, and a gigantic stone man in golden armor was revealed. He gazed down at them with eyes that glowed a baleful red.
“WHO DARES?” it said, it’s voice booming and low.
“Keep your sword in its scabbard, cutter,” hissed Brianna from behind Gwydion when she saw him reach for the hilt, “or else you’ll put us both in the dead book right now.”
The giant stared down at them, straight-backed and unmoving.
“I am Gwydion Talienvar,” Gwydion said at last, “and this is Brianna, a resident of Sigil. We seek the Keeper of Time.”
“TO WHAT PURPOSE?”
“There is a token in his collection, something called the Bracelet of Amithor. We have come to obtain it.”
“WHY SHOULD I NOT DESTROY YOU OUTRIGHT FOR YOUR INSOLENCE?”
“Oh pike,” said Brianna weakly.
Gwydion bristled. “Why would you? We may have something to offer your master in return for the bracelet. Take us to him and let him decide for himself whether to give it to us or not.”
The gigantic man just stood there, staring down at them balefully. It occurred to Gwydion that he had not moved once since opening the door.
The moment stretched.
“Well?” asked Gwydion at last. “Are you going to let us in or not?”
Still the giant did not answer.
“Hello?” Gwydion asked after another couple of minutes of silence.
Abruptly the giant man stepped back, turning aside to let them pass. “COME,” it boomed. “FOLLOW.”
* * *
Tap watched from the street as Gwydion and Brianna entered the building. The gigantic door closed behind them.
He stood there for several minutes before he made his mind up. “Trouble,” was all he said, and scampered forward.