When he was a boy of twelve or so, he had often taken service as a swamp guide with visiting nobles who wished to hunt the Rift Marsh. He had been born in the marshlands, the third son of an ex-soldier who had migrated to the marsh from the more civilized province of Annwyn and founded a meager homestead on its border.
His family had been poor, and his two older brothers had both died from the black fever when Gwydion was still an infant, leaving only him and his father to provide for his mother and three younger sisters. The farming was difficult near the marsh, as the soil was poor, and he had toiled many long hours alongside his father trying to eke out sustenance from the land. The work was hard, but they had always managed to avoid starvation. Still, Gwydion was enterprising as well as a hard worker, and when he realized that he might earn a few extra coppers as a swamp guide to some foreigner hoping to brave the dangers of the swamp, he had eagerly jumped at the opportunity. The swamp was well known as an excellent hunting ground for waterfowl and other exotic wildlife. Though it may have appeared dark and forbidding to the foreign merchants and noblemen who wished to hunt it, to Gwydion it was a second home. He and two boyhood friends from neighboring farms had, as boys are wont to do, thoroughly explored the swamp at an early age, and he was well-familiar with it. Certainly it had held its dangers, but Gwydion had known them and how to avoid them. The swamp crocodiles were rare, and more likely to duck beneath the inky black waters and flee than to menace passing humans. Patches of sinking earth dotted the swamp in places, but Gwydion knew how to spot and skirt them. As for the stories of swamp hags and bog monsters which abounded among the local tavern crowd, Gwydion never saw a shred of evidence that either even existed, and gave no credence to the wild rumors.
In his dream he was there again, although no longer a boy. And the swamp was not as he remembered it either. No longer did he find its depths welcoming and familiar. Instead, they were treacherous and forbidding, and he percieved that peril lurked within the murky depths on all sides of him. In the dream he was lost, wandering blindly through darkened paths. Twisted marsh trees loomed overhead, their winding branches creating an unbroken canopy which shut out all light from the sun (if, indeed, it was daytime at all), and spiky growths of marsh grass clutched at his clothing as he passed, attempting to drag him down as he fought through the undergrowth.
Again and again he came to the edge of the inky black waters which ran through the swamp. Though in real life he had often forded them easily, wading across their shallow lengths, here he did not dare to tempt their depths, for in the dream he knew that terrible things lay waiting just beneath the still surface. There was movement all around him, and though he could see nothing in the twilight darkness, he knew he was in surrounded by creatures of darkness which slavered and hungered for him. He could hear their growlings and terrible keenings.
He reached for his sword and found that he was unarmed. In terror, he fled blindly, hoping to fight his way clear of the swamps and make for drier, more familiar ground. Instead, his wild flight only bore him further into the murky depths.
He pulled up short at the edge of an earthy embankment covered with rotting leaves, beyond which lay a small stretch of the inky water. Before him, standing on a similar embankment on the other side of the dark water, stood a man. At first the man was blurry but gradually his features became more distinct. Gwydion gasped as he realized he was looking at a reflection of himself, but a reflection which was twisted in some malevolent way.
"Come," said the other Gwydion with a malicious smile, gesturing at him.
Gwydion felt an icy terror grip his heart, and sought to flee, but discovered his feet were frozen in place. Horrified, he realized he no longer had control over his limbs. He felt the pull of the other Gwydion's will, and desperately fought it.
"Come," the other Gwydion said again, and Gwydion began to move. Jerkily he stepped forward, down the embankments and towards the waiting waters. Something moved just beneath the surface there, stirring ripples. Gwydion caught of something pale, the color of a week-old corpse, deep beneath the black waters, stirring in hungry anticipation.
Just then, when he was beginning to think all hope was lost, a single ray of light pierced the darkness of the swamp, falling on him, and his body was his own again.
"Come!" the other Gwydion cried in dismay, fury etched on his face as he realized he had lost control. "Come!"
Gwydion started to flee, then stopped. The single wan ray of light was coming from somewhere off to his right, and it beckoned him.
He started towards it, but was brought up quickly. The path which led towards the light was the darkest and most treacherous of all. He could see nothing of it, but knew that it was filled with danger. He tried to look at the ground before his feet, but could not make it out.
Instead, he looked back up at the light, and started forward. The light, he knew, would guide him.
He walked a narrow path, and on either side lurked terrible creatures, vast places of sinking earth, even great precipices from which he might plummet to his death. A single mistep would mean death. He knew all this even though he could not see the dangers to either side. The ray of light, however, did not fail him, and as long as he kept his eyes on it, the ground beneath his feet was safe and firm. The monsters and creatures which waited hungrily for him on either side wailed and moaned as he passed beyond their grasp.
The ray of light led him to a small clearing which was brightly illuminated by sunlight which streamed down through a hole in the canopy above. In the clearing were two beautiful flowers; one a stately and cultured rose, the other a hearty wildflower. The two flowers strove against each other, but he knew somehow that he would need them both, and that they were equally important.
Beyond the flowers was a man in gleaming full-plate armor, the helm down. The man bowed, and Gwydion nodded, for he knew the man would make a noble companion, though he also knew the man was cursed in some terrible way.
Beyond the brightly lit glade an inky shadow lurked above all. The shadow stood tall and powerful, though no man was there to cast it, and though it was greatly malevolant and radiated a palpable sense of danger and evil, it too stood as a companion, and guarded him. This, of all that he had seen, was the most baffling, for the shadow surely meant harm to all. As Gwydion looked at it, two glowing red eyes appeared in the midst of the shadow.
"Your command," it spoke. "I await."
* * *
He awoke to the gentle
pressure of Brianna's fingers on his arm. The transition from sleep
to consciousness was instantaneous; one moment he was dreaming, the next
he was fully aware. There was none of the fuzziness or sleepiness
that normally attended waking. He wakened to full clarity, as if
he had never slept, and recalled each detail of his dream as if it were
a real event he had just lived through.
He glanced over at Brianna. Though she must have turned some during the night, for she now lay on her side facing him instead of her back, she slumbered still. It was well past dawn, and the rose light of the early morning highlighted her sleeping face. The makeshift bandages he had wound about her head had shifted during the night, some having fallen away and the rest hanging askew. In the morning's light he saw how pitifully ineffectual they really would have been. If not for the miracle, she would be dead now.
He pondered on that for a few moments. Of the terrible wound that had been there the night before there was no sign, not even a faint bruise to mark its passing. Her face was a little smudged with dirt and faint streaks of dried blood, no doubt left over from his panicked and inexperienced efforts to wash it in the darkness last night, but other than this there was no sign that only hours ago she had been on the brink of death.
He found himself gazing at her face. It held a peaceful expression now, serene in sleep. Had he thought her exotic, alien? She had said she was as human as he, and with her eyes closed, it was difficult to see any differences. If not for her strange glowing eyes, she might easily have passed for an ordinary woman on his homeworld. No, that's not quite true, he thought a moment later. Ordinary? No, never that. She was beautiful, lovely in a way that was difficult to describe, and that alone would have made her anything but ordinary. She was strikingly beautiful, and he wondered that he had failed to notice it before. He sat there for a moment, enraptured, regarding the contours of her face, losing himself in the delicate sweep of her nose, the sensual swell of her lips, the elegant lines of her cheekbones. His appreciation, however, while full and unreserved, at the same time was entirely innocent of any impure desire. His was not the hungry stare of a man overcome with lust who desires to bed a woman, but rather the respectful and quiet appreciation of someone admiring the natural beauty of a particularly striking work of art.
He glanced down at his forearm. Her right hand had closed on it sometime during the night, and even now he felt the gentle pressure of her fingers there. The miracle that had joined them so briefly last night had forever changed how he would view her. For a split instant, he had known her inside and out, in a way he had never known another person. Was it possible, then, that she had experienced something similar? She seemed to draw some comfort from his presence, as evidenced by her touch. When she awoke, would she recall the miraculous joining? Or would she remember nothing of what had passed between them? She had, after all, been unconscious when the healing had been performed. And what should he tell her of it, if she didn't remember? What, for that matter, did he really know of it himself? The strange power that had flowed through him was as much a mystery to him as it would be to her.
The miracle. He remembered the healing with a sense of wonder. Roughly eight hundred years had passed since the prophet Manti had been gifted with divine power and used it as a weapon against the foes of light, leveling mountains with a word and smiting the armies of darkness, so the histories said. And that had been the last recorded miracle. Eight hundred years since the last miracle, and he had been chosen as the instrument to perform another one. It was a sobering thought. Surely the importance of his mission must be very grave to warrant such an event. And Brianna's importance must be equally great.
Of a sudden, he became aware that they were not alone. And though initially he was surprised, he was not alarmed. Somewhere in the back of his mind he had been unconsciously aware that they were not alone ever since he had awakened. Only now did it register consciously.
Slowly he rose to a sitting position, looking across the small clearing.
Laying on its side and staring back at him with yellow unblinking eyes was the largest cat he had ever seen. It had tawny brown fur, a black mane and a tufted tail. Its mouth was massive, and though it was closed and he could not see its teeth, Gwydion had no doubt that its jaws were powerful enough to crush a man's skull. Its paws were crossed over each other, and the claws were retracted and not visible, but Gwydion was certain that when enraged, the cat would make short work of opponents, rending them with its powerful claws.
Yet, for all that he realized the great cat could be a dangerous opponent, Gwydion was still not alarmed. The cat's expression was peaceful, and though its eyes were alert and attentive it did not seem hostile. It almost seemed regal.
Though Gwydion could not say why, he sensed that the great cat was an ally.
Brother, its eyes seemed to say, I have watched over you. You have not slept unguarded.
For several long minutes the two regarded each other, unblinking.
Then, almost lazily, the cat rose to its feet. Leisurely it turned and began to pad away. It stopped once at the edge of the grass and looked back at him, then turned and slipped away.
Gwydion sat unmoving until several minutes after it had passed out of sight.
"What," said Brianna in a shaky voice, "exactly was that all about?"
He looked down at her, a little surprised to find her awake. Her grip on his arm had tightened and she was staring wide-eyed in the direction the great cat had gone. "I'm not... completely certain," he replied. "It was one of those creatures you were telling me about yesterday, wasn't it? A lion, I mean."
She nodded. "Looked like, though I've never seen one that large before. And we're well out of their territory." She swallowed. "I don't know why it didn't attack. They're supposed to be ferocious. You'd better keep that oversized sword of yours ready. It might come back."
Gwydion shook his head. "He didn't mean us any harm."
"And how do you know that?"
He shrugged. "It's a feeling. I just... know. It watched over us while we slept. If it had any hostile intentions, it would have attacked us then, while we were both helpless. Neither of us could have put up much of a fight, not after... well, not after what happened last night." How much will she remember?
She gazed at him, a curious expression in her eyes. "Last night," she murmured, as if struggling to recall a dream. "Something..." Suddenly her expression changed as the memory came flooding back. "The fiend!" She looked frantically about. "What happened to it?"
"Dead," said Gwydion.
"Dead?" She was disbelieving. "How?"
Gwydion touched Tylith-senshai. "The sword took him."
She looked at him in amazement. "You slew it?"
He shook his head. "The sword did."
"I don't understand. Where is the body?"
"Tylith-senshai's touch is death for the unworthy," said Gwydion. "The demon touched it. It consumed him."
Her mouth fell open. "The... sword consumed him?"
She stared at the blade as if seeing it for the first time, and drew back from it as if it might suddenly spring to life and lash out at her. "Gods!" she breathed. "The power that would take! When you said your weapon was magical, you weren't joking, were you?"
Gwydion shook his head solemnly. "It is a holy relic. The power it commands should not to be taken lightly."
"Apparently." She considered. "A Clueless wandering around with an item that powerful is bound to attract attention in high places."
"I already have."
She looked at him. "What do you mean?"
"The demon," he said. "It was sent for me."
"How do you know?"
"It spoke to me."
She was flatly disbelieving. "It spoke to you? While it was trying to slay us?"
"Yes. It didn't consider us much of a threat, and decided to take its time killing me. Apparently it was arrogant."
"Not unknown among fiends, arrogance" she admitted. "What did it say?"
He shook his head. "Not very much. It seemed surprised at my weakness. Apparently it had been sent by a superior to eliminate me, and it wondered aloud what 'they' could fear in me. But it was sent for me," he stressed with a shudder, "and whatever force could command that thing must be powerful indeed."
"Yes," she said after a moment of considering, "you are right. If it is as you say, then you have a very powerful enemy."
"Or enemies," he added.
"Or enemies," she agreed. "First the sword, and now this. I am beginning to doubt my wisdom in joining you on this quest, paladin. You certainly attract powerful attention, and that's something I could do without."
"Someday," he said, brushing himself off and getting to his feet, "you'll have to tell me more of these 'paladins' you keep comparing me to." There was some stiffness in his neck muscles and a dull aching in his knee, but other than these minor complaints he found himself to be in good working order, well-rested and physically whole. He was a little surprised by this, after the rough treatment he had recieved from the demon last night. Perhaps the healing worked both ways, he mused.
Brianna was still looking around the campsite. She glanced at her scattered clothing and gave a surprised yelp of outrage. "Who dumped my stuff all over the place?" she demanded. "Here, look, they're covered with dirt and ashes from the fire. And where's my blouse?"
"Oh," said Gwydion, a little sheepishly, "um, well, I guess I'm sort of responsible for that."
She glowered at him. "Sort of?"
He cleared his throat. "Yes, well, yes. It was me. I was searching for bandages."
"Yes. You didn't have any."
She gave him an irritated look. "I know I don't have any. Why were you looking for bandages? And why don't I remember any of this?"
"You were unconscious. After the demon struck you, I thought you were dead."
She looked at him as if he were speaking another language. "After the demon struck..." her voice trailed off, and the light of understanding came into her eyes as she remembered the terrible blow. "I was wounded," she said.
"Badly," said Gwydion. "I thought you were going to die."
Hesitantly, as if fearing what she might find, she lifted her fingers to her head. They encountered the lumpy bandage he had hastily wound around her head, and she jerked them back as if shocked.
"It was my first try," said Gwydion. "I did the best I could, but I'm afraid it isn't much of a bandage."
"How bad is it?" she asked. "I can't... I don't feel any pain."
Gwydion started to answer, but she had already started to unwind the bandages. As the first strip of cloth came off, she stared at it. There was dried blood staining it, a lot of it.
"You were bleeding pretty badly," explained Gwydion. "I did what I could to clean it up."
The rest of the strips of cloth were off a few moments later. Each was more saturated and stiffened with dried blood than the last. Steeling herself for the worst, she raised her fingers to her forehead. "I don't... Why don't I feel anything?"
Uncertain of exactly what he should tell her, Gwydion kept his silence.
She touched her forehead in wonder. "There's no pain." Her fingers traced the region where the wound had been. "I don't feel any..." she muttered, then abruptly scrambled over to her backpack and began rifling through her discarded possessions, searching hastily for something. After a moment, her hands emerged from the small pile holding the small mirror Gwydion had tossed aside during his panicked search the night before. She held it up and examined herself critically, turning the small mirror this way and that as she looked over herself.
"I don't believe it," she murmured a moment later, astonished. "There's no mark. Not even a bruise." She looked over at him. "But I remember the blow. I should be dead."
"The wound is gone," said Gwydion. "It has been healed. I'm not really certain I understand it well enough to explain it any better."
"Healed?" she asked. "How?"
Gwydion hesitated, choosing his words. "It was a miracle, the first in eight hundred years. I bore witness."
"You did this?" she demanded.
Gwydion shook his head. "I was merely the vessel."
"You did this." Her tone was final, and tinged with a spark of anger. "Why?"
Gwydion was taken aback by the hostility in her tone. "I couldn't stand by and let you die. Would you have had me do nothing?"
"Listen to me, paladin," she said, "I am bound by no oaths, to you or anyone else. I make my own way in the world, and I ask nothing from anyone."
He was confused. "What has that got to do-"
"I pay my debts," she said angrily, "and I don't ask for charity from anyone. I don't owe anyone anything. I never have and, if I'd had my way, I never would have. But now, behind my back, you do this," - she gestured at her forehead - "and put me in your debt."
"There is no debt owed," he protested.
"Yes there is," she countered. "You've gone and kept me from dying. That's a pretty big debt, as I see it."
Gwydion was a little flustered. He had not expected this reaction at all. "But it wasn't me that healed you. I was just the instrument-"
"I like the thought of being in debt to your god even less," she said, cutting him off. "Very well, done is done, and you can't very well go back in time and un-heal me."
Was the woman mad? She talked as if she would rather have died!
"Look," he started, "I didn't-"
"Don't try to apologize," she said, forestalling him with an upheld palm. She sighed. "It doesn't matter now anyway. You were just doing what all paladins do: what you thought was right. You didn't know any better. There's no hope for it. I shall simply have to find a way to put things square again."
"I wasn't going to apologize," said Gwydion, a little nettled. Apologize? For saving her life? "Look," he said, after a moment, "you've guided me through a hostile land, provided me with priceless information. You've probably saved my life a dozen times over. So let's just call the whole thing even-"
"Not a chance," she said, shaking her head. "You saved my life, I just served you as a guide. And I didn't do it for free, either. No, we can't just call it even."
A thought flashed into Gwydion's mind. "Why don't you guide me to Sigil in payment. Release me from my debt to you and take me there for free. That way it's a fair trade; one life-saving for one leading-me-to-Sigil..." his voice trailed off as he realized how silly he sounded. "You understand what I mean?"
She nodded. "I think so, though I'm not certain that would be a fair trade. I planned to make a lot of jink off this little venture, and now I'll make nothing. It seems like I'm coming out on the minus side."
"But you've got your life!" protested Gwydion. "Surely that would be worth a little 'jink'."
"I didn't say a little jink," she corrected him. "I said a lot of jink."
The woman was mad. "What difference," he asked, "does it make whether it was a little money or a lot of it? Either way, you can't spend it if you're dead. We never really talked about a specific price anyway."
"Never talked about a price!" she cried, taken aback. "Gods above, I must be slipping! First rule of any negotiation is to settle price first. Grandam would have a fit if she knew I'd given service before payment! Next I'll be handing out charity!" She looked at him. "All right, deal. I take you to Sigil in return for what you've done. But remember this, paladin. The moment we arrive in Sigil, all debts are off. I owe you nothing, and you owe me nothing."
Gwydion nodded, relieved that the matter was settled. It was, he reflected, probably a very good thing that she had agreed to guide him for free. He had had no way of paying her for her services anyway, and, as highly as she seemed to value her 'jink', he doubted she would have been pleased to discover that fact after she had led him to Sigil.
Still, he felt a pang of guilt that he had decieved her at all. Quickly he forced it down. The matter was settled, after all. There was no need to speak further of it now, especially when it would only lead to trouble. She was better off not knowing.
She knelt beside her pack, quickly folding the remainder of her clothing and stuffing it in. A moment later she was on her feet. "Well?" she asked, looking at him. "Let's get a move on. We've still a long way to go, and there's precious little sense in dawdling here all day."
* * *
They struck out boldly,
Brianna again leading the way. At first they made even better time
this day than on the previous, as the grasslands fell behind and they entered
a fairly level plain which favored their progress. But as they continued,
the ground became more and more broken and rocky, until eventually they
were forced to slow their pace to a crawl to negotiate the treacherous
rocks. Here, only a few scraggly patches of coarse grass grew, windblown
and struggling tenaciously to hold their place in the rocky ground.
The soil here was dry, of a reddish-brown color and a rocky consistency.
And more and more often they passed by looming spires of jagged rock which
were thrust upwards towards the sky, carved into eery shapes by the constant
pressures of wind, rain, and time. There was no clear path to follow,
and now and again they had to alter their path as they encountered pits
or high piles of rocks, or even the occasional boulder. It was slow
and difficult going as they struggled to wend their way through the increasingly
difficult terrain. At one point Brianna led the way down a shallow
ravine and into a dry riverbed. For several hours they followed its
winding length, making better time on the former river bottom, which was
for the main part smooth and flat, then they would have had they chosen
to pick their way across the broken terrain which lined the dried river.
The sky, too was different. Although mostly clear except for a few withered clouds which wandered aimlessly, it seemed darker than it had yesterday. It was not blue in color as might be expected, but rather a dull lifeless red, which illuminated the broken terrain in a baleful manner and made the shadows among the rocks twist weirdly in the corners of Gwydion's vision.
The very air itself seemed to hover oppressively over them, and more than once Gwydion had the uneasy feeling that they were being watched, but each time he halted and stared about him he saw nothing. The day was silent, save for the scratchy sounds of their progress. They seemed to be moving through a dead land.
"This is an evil place," said Gwydion to himself, halting for the fourth time and looking about him, his flesh crawling.
Brianna shrugged. "Some cutters are more sensitive to that sort of thing than others, I guess. Don't worry, where we're going is far worse."
Around midday they sighted mountains in the far distance. While not as strange to Gwydion as the Spire which still pointed up to the sky like a knife behind them, they were not like the mountains of his homeland. Those had looked like gigantic waves, capped with white patches of snow and dotted with greenery on the lower slopes. These, by contrast, seemed some how taller and more threatening, while not quite as broad, and had no snow that Gwydion could see and absolutely no greenery. There were two main ridges of mountains, and though it was difficult to tell at this distance, they seemed to curve towards each other in some unnatural fashion.
"What's that?" asked Gwydion, pointing at them.
"Our destination," replied Brianna, "the Vale of the Spine."
"There's something wrong with them," said Gwydion. "They are not like other mountains."
"No," said Brianna. "They are not."
She led on, and he trailed behind. Eventually they abandoned the dried riverbank and returned to the rocky terrain that had been so difficult to negotiate earlier. It was not much further before they came across a trail which cut through the broken land towards the mountains. It was a wide path, well-worn from the looks of it.
"Humans have passed here," said Gwydion, bending and examining the sandy dirt, "and not long ago. I see the marks of wagon wheels and the imprints of horses hooves, though I cannot be certain how many of each passed. We are only a few hours behind them. This is a road?"
"A trade road," Brianna confirmed. "It's what I was looking for. We should make Ribcage before dark. No doubt these are the marks of a merchant train, though they could have passed here days ago." She glanced at him. "Things work differently here. This part of the Outlands is called Kestrel's Vengeance. There is little weather here to disturb the tracks of those who pass, and the merchant train you see signs of may have passed weeks ago."
Gwydion accepted this with a nod. "Why is it called Kestrel's Vengeance?"
She shrugged. "Who knows? Doesn't really matter anyway."
"And Ribcage?" he asked. "What is that?"
"A real nasty place," she answered. "But that's where we've got to go, if we want to make it to Sigil."
Brianna started to lead on, then suddenly halted, looking at him. "I've been thinking," she said. "About what you told me about last night. There's something I've been wondering about; something that I can't settle in my mind."
He was surprised by her sudden shift. "What's that?"
"The demon," she asked. "You said that it spoke to you."
Gwydion shuddered at the memory. "Yes."
"It spoke planar common?"
He was unfamiliar with the term. "Planar common?"
"The language you and I are speaking now," she supplied impatiently. "It spoke the same language we're speaking? I ask because, although most fiends can speak it, it's kind of unusual for them to do so in the midst of battle."
He shook his head. "No. Either it did not speak this... this planar common, or it chose not to, perhaps assuming that I would not understand it. No, the language it spoke was... darker."
"It spoke in its native tongue then?"
Gwydion shrugged. "I can only assume so. Though any place where they speak a language like that is a place I would very much prefer to avoid."
Her eyes narrowed. "How, then, did you understand it? Very few mortals know anything of the fiendish tongues. I know of only three people who might - might - be able to decipher it if they saw the written version of it, and I'd lay odds that if they heard it spoken aloud, they wouldn't recognize it. And they are experts, sages who've studied the ancient chant on fiends for years." She shook her head. "But you are a Clueless who doesn't know anysthing more about fiends than what I told you yesterday."
"I was born with the gift of tongues," Gwydion said simply.
"The gift of tongues?" It was plain from her tone that she had no idea what he was talking about.
"I can speak foreign languages as if I was born to them. I only have to hear someone speak, and I understand."
"Indeed?" she was fascinated. "Such abilities are usually reserved for Powers and their immortal minions. I have never heard of any mortal possessing such a talent. This is not magic?"
He shook his head. "I know nothing of sorcery. Such arts are not within my realm of experience."
"And you are able to speak any language?"
He shrugged. "Any that I hear spoken aloud."
"You only have to hear it, once, and you can speak and understand the full language?" She shook her head. "But what about words you don't know, differences in sentence structure, subtleties in context? Surely you cannot speak a new tongue flawlessly from hearing only a few words."
He gave her a wry grin. "As a matter of fact, the language in which you and I are conversing now was foreign to me until yesterday."
She was surprised. "You mean that you never spoke planar common until yesterday?"
"I had never heard it before you spoke to me on the black staircase," he admitted. "It is an unusual tongue, beautiful in its way, flowing with rich subtexts."
She goggled at him. "Remarkable. You understand all languages, then?"
"All that I've encountered so far. I suppose it is possible that someday I might run into a language that I don't immediately comprehend."
"Then... you might read wizards symbols and understand them. Or communicate with the secret hand signals of the underdark. You could break codes and decipher ancient languages. Or..." she paused, then looked at him. "You spoke to that lion this morning, didn't you? That's how you knew it intended us no harm!"
He smiled and shook his head. "No, that was something else... a feeling. My gift is for the spoken word only. It does not extend to written languages, I'm afraid, nor can I communicate with plants or animals. It is not magic."
"Still, it is a remarkable skill." She was silent for several moments. "Is this... trait... common on your homeworld?"
He shook his head. "I have never met another who possessed it." He shrugged. "I have never really thought that much of it; I was born with it, and it is simply part of who I am."
She turned and started down the well worn path. "Nevertheless, paladin, you would do well not to take it for granted. It is a valuable skill." She glanced back at him. "It may well be that it will be more valuable to your quest than that great sword you carry."
* * *
Gwydion. "I have never seen its like before. This is Ribcage?"
They crouched next to a stand of rocks, gazing out over the valley that stretched beneath them. It was difficult to judge the exact time of day, for this seemed a place of eternal dusk, but several hours had been spent since they had left the broken lands of Kestrel's Vengeance and entered the mountains themselves. The track through the winding mountain pathways had not been easy, but neither had it been too difficult. The well-beaten path they had followed had proved level and sure, and relatively clear of debris. Strangely, the dry air had grown warmer rather than cooler as they gained elevation and made their way further into the mountain passes.
She nodded at his comment. "Yep, that's Ribcage all right. You can see where it gets its name."
Indeed he could. From where they stood, at the mouth of the pass, they could see nearly the entire length of the valley which stretched out below. The city which dominated the center of the narrow valley was small, but impressive. Its black walls towered over the little valley, reaching impossibly high, with a gate and barbican which stood even taller, and towers and spires within which stood even taller. Even from this distance Gwydion could see the cruel barbs and spikes which seemed to line every wall and tower within the city, jutting out malevolantly at different angles. Something like ripped cloth fluttered from the spikes here and there; he couldn't be certain of what it was from this distance but he had the uneasy feeling that it was bits of dried flesh. From place to place along the wall were stationed the bleached yellow-white bones of human skeletons, no doubt impaled on the spikes as well, and placed there as both a threat and a warning.
The mountains which lined the valley were extremely narrow and curved, and the way they jutted up over the city and curved over it made them appear as if they were the massive skeletal remains of some titan who had lain down here long ago and died. They had a faint reddish tinge to them, and the long shadows they cast over the city were desolate.
"Listen up, cutter," said Brianna, looking over at him, "we're about to enter one of the meanest burgs in all the planes. Greed and power are what makes the difference here, and this city's filled with bad sorts. Murder, extortion, rape; that's the sort of thing you can expect here on a good day. But that's just the way it is here, so don't do anything stupid. Stay behind me, keep your mouth shut, and don't lock eyes with anyone. And above all, follow my lead. Got it?"
He nodded. "Mouth shut, follow your lead."
"And none of that 'charge at evil' stuff you paladins seem to go for so much."
He smiled. "No worry of that. I'm not a paladin, remember?"
She was unconvinced. "Yeah, right." She looked back down at the narrow valley and took a deep breath as if steeling herself for something unpleasant. "Hopefully I can get you through this in one piece," she muttered. "All right, let's get this over with."
Together they made their way down the rocky slope and into the desolate valley, to where the mouth of the gate of Ribcage yawned ominously.