Tide of Darkness, Chapter Eight
"Why," gasped Gwydion a moment later, when he had sufficiently recovered himself to speak, "must travel through these cursed... portals be so... unpleasant?"
Brianna and the boy looked at each other. "The journey seemed normal enough to me, paladin," said Brianna. "Perhaps the problem lies not in the portal, but within you."
Gwydion groaned, then immediately regretted it as the sound caused a spinning sensation in his head. "It would seem that planar travel doesn't agree with me." He looked around himself. "Where are we?"
They were in a small, darkened alleyway. On either side darkened walls stretched upwards, the curling eaves of their rooftops curving outwards to such a length at the second floor that they nearly touched each other, making it seem like they were in some vast underground tunnel. There was moisture on the walls, and a dampness in the air, as if it had rained here recently, and as Gwydion looked about him, he saw that there was a stream of water trickling by in a gutter on the other side of the street.
A single light guttered from a nearby lampost, casting sporadic and unsteady light on their surroundings. There were other lamposts lining the alley, each stationed about ten feet apart, but most were broken and all were unlit. Small heaps of trash dotted both sides of the alley, mostly paper and vegetable waste. There were no doorways or windows that Gwydion could see, but the flickering light from the lampost only extended out about twenty-five or thirty feet in either direction, and it was impossible to know what might lie beyond that point.
"The Hive," answered the boy, "home of treachery and deceit for the Cage."
Gwydion had managed to stumble to his feet. His stomach was still heaving, but he managed to keep his composure. "What?"
"Welcome to Sigil, cutter," said Brianna. "This is the bad part of town." She looked around warily. "They call it the Hive." She looked around warily. "Let's hope we don't get a rough reception. To any gang of cross-traders that happened on us just now, we'd look an easy mark."
Gwydion looked around himself again. "Is it all like this?" he asked, a little surprised. "From what you said about it, I had expected something grander."
"Oh, you haven't seen all of it yet," reassured Brianna.
Tap, who had wandered to the edge of the lighted area, suddenly gave an alarmed cry and danced back. "'Ware!" the boy warned, not taking his eyes from the shadows, "we are not alone!"
From the edge of the darkness emerged two hard-faced men, one armed with what looked like an oversized meat cleaver with a jagged, serrated edge, the other holding a thick oaken cudgel with two iron spikes jutting from one end. The first was clothed only in a dirty kilt and narrow strips of leather which criss-crossed his muscular frame, buckled to each other at various points. He must have been terribly burned at some point in his past, for he had neither hair nor eyebrows, and his face was terribly deformed, with pocked skin that looked much like melted wax and twisted lips. The second man's face was painted with a grotesque frozen grin, and he licked his lips ferally as he stepped closer. He was costumed differently then his companion, wearing an oversized and rusty coat of mail beneath the ragged remnants of some sort of officer's uniform. The uniform, too, fit him badly, and it looked to Gwydion as if both had been stolen.
They moved slowly but deliberately, placing themselves so that they blocked that direction of the narrow alley, and halted.
Tap had scuttled back behind Gwydion and Brianna. "They mean us harm."
Gwydion had tensed at the sight of the two and backed off a step, but had not drawn his sword. "Easy, friends," he said. "We don't want any trouble."
The pock-faced man said nothing. The other man only grinned more fiercely.
"Trouble?" came a drawling voice from behind them. "No trouble here, blood. No trouble at all."
Gwydion whirled, to find that the alleyway behind them was blocked as well, by two more men... and something else, a creature that Gwydion had never seen before.
The second pair of men were dressed in as motley a fashion as the first. One wore a dark cloth cloak which fell from his shoulders down to his boots. The cloak was draped over the man, making it difficult to tell what he was wearing beneath, or, more importantly, what he might be armed with. The hood of the cloak was thrown back, exposing the man's mane of greasy black hair which tumbled down to beneath his shoulder. The other, the man who had spoken, was attired in a flowing white shirt and finely cut black breeches which were tucked into knee-high leather boots. His blond hair was stylishly cropped above his brow, and tossed to the side. A single scar ran the length of his face, giving his handsome features a sinister bent. A sabre hung at his side, but his arms were crossed arrogantly over his chest, as if he scorned the thought that he would have to draw it against them.
But it was the creature standing beyond them that struck Gwydion's attention. It stood upright, like a man, and towered over its companions, standing nearly eight feet in height. For feet, it had hooves, and though wore trousers which concealed its legs, it seemed to Gwydion that the legs twisted unnaturally, as if they were not jointed in the same way as a human's. It's massive chest, arms, and hands were manlike, though covered with a short reddish fur. Its head was that of a male bull, with red eyes which gleamed with rage and horns, each nearly a foot and a half long. In its broad hands it held a massive wooden club.
It snorted angrily as it eyed Gwydion, exhaling a puff of breath from its snout, and a deep growl came from its throat.
The blonde-haired man gave Gwydion a lazy half smile. "Geygnir doesn't like you much, blood. For that matter, neither do I." His gaze shifted to Brianna. "Hello, sweetmeat. Want to take a walk with me? There's not a woman birthed that can resist the charms of Telos."
Brianna had unsheathed her dagger. "That would be a short walk for you, berk," she told him icily. "You wouldn't like the ending."
The man chuckled, deep in his throat, his eyes as hard as black ice. When he spoke again, it was in a different language. "The sweetmeat has spirit," he said to his companions. "I like it when they have spirit." This second language was completely unlike planar common, gutteral and harsh, yet somehow lazy in form. Gwydion spared a glance at Brianna and saw from her expression that she had not understood the man. He couldn't see Tap, but he guessed that the boy would not have been able to comprehend the strange language either, and concluded that the man had shifted into this second language for that very purpose - so that he could communicate with his comrades without being understood by Gwydion and his companions.
"What do you want of us?" he asked, deliberately speaking in planar common.
The blonde-haired man laughed. "Clueless," he said, in the second language, and the three other men gave harsh snorts of derision. The bull-headed beast merely continued growling, and Gwydion began to wonder whether it was intelligent enough to understand this second language or not. "What we want, cutter," he said, shifting back into planar common, "is to make sure that you don't get put in the dead-book."
"I'm interested in that as well," said Gwydion calmly. He gave a quick glance at the two men behind him. They hadn't moved, although the pocked face one had shifted his gaze to Tap.
"You should be," continued the man. He gestured expansively. "This is a dangerous place, here in the Hive. Treacherous to outsiders."
"Why all this talk, Telos?" asked the man with the perpetual grin from behind Gwydion. The statement was made in the second language. "Let's take them now."
"Hold ready," barked Telos, responding in the same tongue. "Not before my order - I give the order." He smiled and shifted back into planar common. "You could use protection here, cutter. Protection honest, hard-working bloods like us can give."
Gwydion exchanged glances with Brianna. "You offer us protection?" he asked.
"They are weak!" insisted the grinning man, again in the second tongue. "One man, who looks ill, a woman and a boy! Let us take them!"
"When I say!" the blond man snarled back. "I am in charge!" He stared the other man down and returned his attention to Gwydion, smiling icily and speaking again to planar common. "I offer protection, yes... for a price."
"A bribe," said Brianna, "for safe passage."
The man shrugged. "If you would call it that, sweetmeat."
"I feel perfectly safe," said Gwydion. "Thank you, but no."
The man chuckled. "Clueless fool," he said, speaking in the second language, "you will feed the crows before morning." He changed to planar common. "You are certain of your decision?"
Gwydion glanced back at the other two men. "Absolutely," he said, trying to sound more confidant than he really was. There was a slim chance that he might be able to frighten them off if he appeared strong enough. He had run into men like this on the streets of Annwyn, a middle-sized city on his homeworld. They were vicious as a pack of wild dogs when banded together, but cowards individually. If they smelled weakness, they would attack, showing no quarter, but if they were shown signs of strength it was possible they might be frightened away. "In fact," he added, "I'm tiring of you and this whole conversation. Take your dogs and go, or you may find you are the one in need of protection."
The blond man was so taken aback by Gwydion's change of tone that he actually took a step back. Then he laughed, as though amused. "Your mistake, cutter. Your mistake. On my signal," he said to his men, switching languages. "The sweetmeat is mine - bruise if you have to, but no one kills her until I have done with her."
"I claim the boy," rasped the pock-faced man, also in the second language, speaking for the first time.
"Lay a hand on either of them," said Gwydion, drawing his sword, "and you will find it on the ground beside your head." He wished he were as confidant as he sounded. Five to one was not good odds, especially when they were able to attack from both sides at once. Of course, Brianna would probably help - he remembered how spiritedly she had attacked the demon - but he had recognized then that she had not been well trained in the arts of combat. It was ironic that she possessed the best weapon for close-quarters fighting. His own weapon, Tylith-senshai, awesome as it might be in magical might, was still a two handed sword, and wielding such a long blade effectively in the narrow confines of the alley would be difficult. He was already mentally measuring the distances between the walls, the distances between himself and his opponents. If it came to blows, he would need to be aware of his space.
"So!" said the man, a little surprised, but still amused. "You know, then! So much the better." He stepped back. "Geygnir! Crush him!"
Perfect, thought Gwydion. As he had hoped, the blond man was removing himself from immediate harm and sending his underlings forward. In Gwydion's experience most men who led such bands were cowards at heart, preferring to bully their underlings rather than expose themselves to risk. It helped the odds a little - the man might join the battle once it was in full swing, but for now they had been narrowed four-to-one.
The bull-headed creatured growled once again, taking firm grip on the club it wielded, and started to step forward. This was the unknown. Gwydion had fought men before, and, aside from the blond one, none of these men looked particularly dangerous or well trained, but this creature was outside his experience. It was large and looked like it would move ponderously, but he had no way of knowing for certain.
All of these thoughts flickered through Gwydion's mind in seconds, and he was only half aware of them. Battle was imminent, and his mind had automatically shifted into combat-mode, that dream-like state where he was hyper aware of everything around him and time seemed to slow to a crawl. Already he had considered and discarded several tactics.
The bull creature growled menacingly and lifted its massive club. It took its time stepping forward, brandishing its weapon, and roared a challenge.
Movement! From behind! his hyper-aware senses screamed in warning.
Gwydion could not have said what had told him the men from behind were going to rush him. Perhaps it was the faint rustle and creak of the pock-faced man's leather; perhaps it was a stirring in the air. It was enough; he simply knew. Immediately he saw the ruse for what it was - the bull creature was meant to seem the obvious threat, but was instead a distraction; the real attack would come from behind. After the two men from behind had attacked, hopefully surprising, those in front would immediately close in, finishing the job. It was a crude tactic, but it would have been effective, had Gwydion not anticipated it.
Time to seize the initiative. Thought was motion.
Gwydion whirled, his sword flickering out in a lighting lunge. The-hummingbird-strikes, that's what the instructors had called this move, a difficult and complicated manuever. And every instructor Gwydion had ever had would have forbidden him to use it in a situation like this. The alley was too narrow, they would have said; there are too many people too close, both friend and foe, he would be caught in the press. He might even strike the boy or Brianna by mistake; they were both unknowns in combat, and would certainly not be standing still when battle was joined.
But there was no time for uncertainty, and no room for error. Gwydion executed the move flawlessly. The blade whipped out, its tip seeming to dance through the air and striking just - there! - no nearer, no farther. The sword struck out like a viper, moving like a thing alive. Gwydion moved like a dancer; poetry in motion. And he connected.
For the first time the leering grin vanished from the uniformed-man's face as he staggered back, clutching at the gaping wound which had suddenly appeared in his throat. For a split instant surprise flickered across his face, then terror as he realized he had been dealt a mortal blow. He gave a burbling scream and collapsed against the far wall, blood spurting between his fingers.
Gwydion was aware of this only peripherally. He felt the tell-tale vibration in the hilt as the blade struck, using the momentum of his attack to reverse direction. He whirled, turning on the balls of his feet, striking at the second man. There was a soft crunching sound as the pommel of tylith-senshai struck the second man's nose.
It was the burned man; he reeled backwards drunkenly, his nose flattened against his cheek and his lips torn, droplets of blood spattering the air. He grunted as he fell, dazed by the blow. Brianna growled, pouncing on him. Her dagger stabbed, then stabbed again.
Let her deal with him, thought Gwydion. He had returned to his first stance, balanced lightly on the balls of his feet. Neither the beast nor the cloaked man had attacked. The blond-haired man had actually taken a step backward.
Despite the churning in his stomach, Gwydion forced himself to bare his teeth in a feral smile. "I think maybe you got it wrong about who needs protection. Who else wants to die?"
The beast growled again, plainly unimpressed, but the cloaked man shot the blond one an uncertain look. "That... that was pretty fast, Telos. Maybe-"
"Shut up!" the blond man snarled, reverting to the second language. "We can take him!"
"Try it," said Gwydion, still smiling. "My blood's up."
The cloaked man backed off a half-step. "Telos, I didn't sign on to die," he said, shaking his head.
The bull-headed creature took a step forward, lifting its club and snorting angrily.
It halted at a barked command from the blond man.
"Get back, Geygnir," the man repeated, a hard look in his eyes.
The beast gave a frustrated rumble, then fell back.
"Your pet is less a coward than you, it would seem," said Gwydion.
The blond man stared at him as his companions fell back. "This isn't over," he said. "Don't think it is. You may have the advantage now, but this is my city. Remember that."
"I'll remember," said Gwydion.
By now his two companions were behind him, already melting into the shadows. The man gave Gwydion one last hateful look, then turned and sprinted into the darkness. A minute later and they were gone.
"Cowards," spat Brianna.
Slowly Gwydion lowered his sword, his arm trembling. For the first time, he realized how exhausted he was. "Who were they?" he asked. "Paracs's men?"
Brianna shook her head. "No, the portal's closed. Paracs and his men couldn't have followed us through."
"Many portals there be," said Tap. "One closes; another opens."
"True," admitted Brianna, "and Paracs will follow us - he controls a permanent portal to Sigil. But his opens to a different ward of the city. And since ours was portable, there's no way he could have pinpointed us so quickly."
"Paracs isn't the only one who's after us," said Gwydion.
Brianna shot him a suffering look. "Let's not get paranoid and start bringing up 'demons' again." She shook her head. "They weren't 'sent' by anyone - it was just a gang of cross-traders, looking for trouble. This is the Hive. There are dozens of gangs like that."
Gwydion nodded slowly. "Then we are safe, for the moment."
"'Safe'?" asked Tap. "Not a word to choose for Sigil."
"Safe from pursuit, at least," said Brianna. "Now we just have to avoid getting killed by the local nightwalkers, and find a place to rest up."
Gwydion was staring at the two bodies. "No," he said, "Not yet. We're in Sigil, right?"
"Yeah," said Brianna. "So?"
"I came here for the Icon." Gwydion turned Tylith-senshai point down. The thummim pointed to the left, almost straight toward the wall. "It's here. Not far, either."
"Forget it," said Brianna. "We're exhausted; we need rest. Do you really think you're in any kind of condition to go after it? Your precious Icon can wait until tomorrow."
Gwydion ignored her. "You don't have to come. You've done your job - we're in Sigil now. But my duty is plain. I am sworn to recover it."
An angry scowl appeared on Brianna's face. "I've done my job? I don't think so, cutter, not by half. You put me in your debt, remember? So don't tell me I've done my job. I'll tell you when it's done. You wouldn't last ten minutes here, not alone."
He was surprised at the venom in her tone. "I only meant-"
She glared at him. "I know what you meant, Clueless. You want to go after your precious Icon? Fine, we'll go after it - even though we're all exhausted and tired, and we'll probably get scragged by the first cross-trader we come across."
Gwydion was flustered. "Brianna, I'm not saying..."
But she had turned away, and started stalking down the alley. Gwydion exchanged glances with Tap, who shrugged. They started after her, but she had halted almost immediately.
She turned and glared down the way they had come. "I'm not sure which way to go," she said at last, in a defiant tone that dared Gwydion to say anything. "I need to get my bearings."
Gwydion sheepishly pointed towards the wall to the left. "The Icon is in that direction."
She rolled her eyes. "Thanks. That's incredibly helpful and useful. Now if only we could walk through solid walls... I'm trying to find Lantern Way, leatherhead. It's a thoroughfare that should be somewhere nearby. Once we're on it, we won't have to worry about getting lost in the Hive."
"You want out of the Hive?" asked Tap. "Tap knows the way. Follow, follow."
Gwydion looked at him in surprise. "You've been here before?"
The boy shrugged. "Tap is no fool. All paths lead to Sigil."
* * *
The boy lead them a winding path, threading through the twisting alleys of the Hive. At first Gwydion feared he might be leading them astray, for each new turning seemed to bring a smaller and less-used street, but Tap moved with confidence and surety, as though he had walked these streets many times before.
Eventually they emerged on a much wider street, cobbled and lined on both sides with flickering and dirty streetlamps. The buildings here were even taller, stretching upwards five and six stories in come cases, and some had spires and turrets that sprouted up even further. Despite this, the street was wide enough that for the first time Gwydion could look up and see open air. Far, far above, a scattering of twinkling lights flickered, like faint stars. That must be the other side of the city - torches and lanterns, thought Gwydion, recalling Brianna's description of Sigil. What a strange place this is.
Here, too, the buildings had doorways. Most were shop-fronts, with signs hanging above the doors from intricate arcing metalwork. A few must have been private homes, and here and there stood a tavern or alehouse. There was no space at all between them, and though the architectural styles were wildly different, they marched down the street in an unbroken line, forming a wall on either side of the avenue which was broken only by the occasional side-street.
The street was mostly empty, and nearly all the houses and shops were darkened, but a few pedestrians still wandered farther down, and here and there light spilled from a window or doorway, telling that not all the shops closed for the night.
"Lantern way," said Tap proudly. "Just as promised."
Brianna nodded grudgingly. "I would have found it eventually." She turned on Gwydion. "Well? Which way?"
Gwydion realized he had been staring at the exotic buildings. No city on his homeworld was like this. Sheepishly he turned Tylith-senshai point down and conferred with the thummim again. "That way," he said, pointing down the street to the left. "Well, not precisely that way," he corrected himself a moment later, looking critically at the pointer. He straightened his arm, pointing at an angle slightly different from the way the street ran. "Straight that way."
"As the crow flies, you mean," said Brianna. "Unfortunately, we're not crows and we can't fly, so we'll just have to do the best we can on foot." She gave him an exasperated look. "You haven't changed your mind about this, have you? This could wait until morning. I can't remember the last time I ate, and we all need rest." Gwydion started to answer, but she waved it away. "Forget it. We'll find your jinxing artifact. Bloody paladins!" That last was a half-heard mutter as she whirled away down the avenue.
* * *
"What is it?" asked Gwydion in a half-whisper.
"It's a bloody building," said Brianna. "Do you think I know every building in Sigil?"
They crouched behind a pile of collapsed stonework and masonry, peering at a strangely constructed building.
It was tall, nearly seven stories in height, though the upper levels were unfinished, barely more than skeletal wooden beams stretching upward in the darkened sky. It was square, and though it was wide, its height made it seem thin and and elegant. The architecture was strange to Gwydion; he had never seen its like. On the lower parts of the building there was stonework, flowing and eerie. Strangely carved creatures played on a majestic freeze above the heavy iron door. Though it was aged and weathered, and looked abandoned, Gwydion felt an uneasy prickling at the back of his neck. There was something alien and menacing about this place, something unsettling about the way the planes and joints of the building seemed to flow uneasily into each other, forming angles that somehow seemed unnatural.
The journey here had proved interesting, if uneventful. Half the time Gwydion had merely gaped at the city as they'd passed through it, staring in wonder and awe at the alien sights and sounds. The thummim had led them unerringly, though several times they had encountered dead-end streets and been forced to double back. And now they were facing this building, which stood apart from the others.
A low vibration rumbled through the ground beneath their feet. Behind them, the streets were lit with a pulsing, dull-orange glow, mingled with the sounds of distant booming. A gigantic gray building lay in that direction, belching out the soot and greasy smoke which seemed to overlay everthing in this district. "The Foundry," was what Brianna had tersely answered it when Gwydion had asked, though what the place was for or what it produced was a mystery. Every once in a while, he found himself glancing back in that direction.
"What now?" asked Tap, from just behind.
"We've circled the place twice," grumbled Brianna. "Your sword points here. This Icon must be inside."
"I hope," Brianna continued, "that you aren't planning on charging in. Even you can't be that leatherheaded."
"No," said Gwydion reluctantly. "No, that wouldn't be wise. There's no telling what might be in there, and I'm in no condition to fight."
"None of us are," said Brianna. "We need rest."
Gwydion nodded, still staring at the towering structure. "I'll come back," he said softly. He turned to her. "Can you find us a place nearby? An inn, I mean? I want to be able to keep watch on this place."
"Finally," said Brianna, standing, "you're showing some good sense. Well, come on, don't just sit there. I know a place only a few blocks away. It isn't much, but it's clean and comfortable, and they serve some of the best mutton stew in the city."