Tide of Darkness, Chapter Nine
There was a steady, soothing thrumming sound; rain drizzling and pattering on a wooden roof.
None too gently, Brianna tossed something warm and soft onto Gwydion's face, and he came awake with a start. "Wha-?" he said, pulling the cloth from his face.
"About time you woke, cutter," she said. "It's nearly afternoon. Did you think to sleep the day away?"
"Sorry," he mumbled, his mind still whirling in post sleep confusion. The room was a mess. It was small, with one bed, a small table and chair, and a soot-blackened fireplace that looked like it had seen better days. Brianna had taken the bed, he remembered, and he and the boy had stretched out on bedrolls beside the fireplace.
"Where's Tap?" he asked, noticing that the boy was gone.
"The boy?" Brianna shook her head. "He took off this morning. I don't know where. Said he had something he had to do."
"Oh. What's this?" he was gently probing the pile of cloth she had thrown at him.
"What's it look like? Clothes, cutter. I went out and got them this morning, while you slept."
She shook her head. "You've got people after you, leatherhead. Remember? They're gonna have your description. I thought a change of clothes might be in order. You've worn that uniform, or whatever it is, since the day I met you. Besides, it's starting to smell."
Gwydion glanced down at the tabard of the Order he wore. It was smudged and travel-stained. He gave it a cautious sniff, then wrinkled his nose. Quickly he slipped it over his head and tossed it to the side. His undershirt was in no better condition, and it too came off moments later.
He stood and stretched, sifting through the clothing Brianna had brought. A cloak, two pairs of breeches and three shirts, all various shades of brown and gray. They weren't fancy, but they looked comfortable. "Thank you," he said.
"What?" She seemed startled. Abruptly, he realized she had been staring at his chest, and his ears reddened with embarrassment.
"I... I apologize," he said, quickly donning a gray shirt. "I hadn't... I didn't intend any indecency."
She stared at him as if he were speaking a different language. "What?"
"On my homeworld... men often go bare chested," he explained haltingly. "I did not intend offence. I wasn't thinking... I mean..." His voice trailed off.
A smile twitched on her lips. "You didn't offend me," she said. "Men go bare-chested where I come from too. I don't consider it... any kind of indecency."
"Oh." Now he was embarrassed he had brought it up. "Thanks for the clothes," he mumbled. "I appreciate... everything. I really mean that."
"Yeah well," she said, turning away. "Just repaying a debt, that's all." Damn! She was blushing! Angry with herself, she hoped he couldn't see. "They're just travel clothes."
But Gwydion had moved to the small window. He stared at the little rivulets of water spilling down the pane. "It's raining," he said, his voice tinged with wonder. "It rains here?"
"Does that surprise you?"
He rubbed his eyes. "Actually... yes. You said Sigil was like a wagon wheel - that when you looked up, you just saw another part of the city. If there's no sky, then where can rain come from?"
She shrugged. "What kind of question is that? It comes from clouds, where else? Come on, get dressed. I don't have time to stand around with you all day, answering idiot questions."
Ruefully he reached for a pair of breeches. Then stood there awkwardly. She was still staring at him.
"Er... could you, um... turn away?" he asked.
She rolled her eyes and turned. "You paladins are so uptight."
Quickly he pulled off the pair that he was wearing, then wrestled the new breeches on. They were a little tight, and it took him longer than he would have liked, but once they were on they fit like a second skin. "I told you, I'm not a paladin."
"And I told you: you are." She turned to look at him, eyeing the breeches critically. "Well, looks like I got the fit right. And they don't look too bad. How do they feel?"
He moved cautiously. "Actually, they're more comfortable than I would've thought. Thanks. I hope it didn't cost you much." He reached for his swordbelt, slinging it over his shoulder and buckling it.
She sniffed. "Can't buy clothes without jink. Or meals. Or rooms in an inn, either."
He gave her an apologetic look. "Sorry about that-" he started.
"It gives me a chance to pay what's owed," she said, cutting him off. "Though I do wish you'd told me before last night that you were destitute."
She hadn't been happy then, learning that he had no gold, no valuables of any kind. She'd paid for the room, and the food they'd eaten, but she hadn't been pleased about it. When Gwydion had offered to do without, she'd angrily insisted.
She turned to the little door. "We've got this place for four days. The innkeep'll want money after that, and I haven't got any more to give him, so before that time you'd better find a way to make some jink. You coming?"
He pulled on his boots, snatched up the cloak, and hurried to follow her down the wooden staircase and into the inn's common room. "And what do you suggest, as far as earning... jink?" he asked.
"The way I see it," she answered. "You've got two skills that count. First, there's your sword-arm. You're pretty good with that thing; I saw it last night. There's always a market for sell-swords, and a good mercenary can name his price, if he's not squeamish about his work."
That didn't sound very appealing to Gwydion. The thought of putting his sword at the service of anyone who could pay, no matter the purpose... "I don't think-" he started, but she cut him off.
"Spare me your paladin ethics. I didn't think you'd go for that, valuable a trade as it is. Luckily, you've a skill that's even more valuable. You can translate."
"Think about it, cutter. Sigil's a city filled with thousands of different races, from all over the multiverse. Communication can be a problem, when you've got creatures speaking hundreds of different tongues. That's why there's planar common. But not everybody speaks it; in fact, most don't. So a basher like you, with your... 'gift of tongues' or whatever you call it, is in a unique position here."
Gwydion pursed his lips. "Translator. Yes I could do that. Not written words, though. Like I told you, the gift doesn't work that way."
She shrugged, halting at the base of the stairs. "Leave writings to the scribes. That's what they're for."
The emerged into the common room. It was busier than Gwydion imagined it normally would be, with nearly three-quarters of the tables occupied. Perhaps the majority of the patrons had come here in escape from the rain, for a sullen, somber mood hung over all. They were humans, mostly, but scanning the assembly, Gwydion spotted three other races scattered among them - all strange creatures he had never seen before, even in paintings.
A serving girl passed them on her way to the kitchens, and Gwydion found himself staring at her ears.
"Is that an elf?" he asked, staring after the girl. She could not have been the same serving girl who brought their meals last night; surely he had not been so tired he would not have noticed those ears.
Brianna shrugged. "More likely she's half-elf. Why?"
A faint smile came to his lips. "They don't exist, not on my world. But we have legends, ancient histories. When I was a youth, I always dreamed of meeting one - a fairy princess, you know? Then after I had rescued her from an evil wizard, of course, she would take me to her palace, and we would wed-"
"Yeah well, in real life they're not much different than you and me; just a little more snotty, that's all." She stamped to the door. Gwydion was left wondering whether he'd said something wrong.
"Well?" she asked, looking back at him "Are we going to get your Icon or not?"
Gwydion shrugged on his cloak, trotted past her and pulled open the door. Beyond, a light but steady rain fell, masking the streets in a brownish-gray mist.
Gwydion pulled the hood of his cloak up, shifting it so that it rode his shoulders comfortably, and stepped out into the street.
Brianna seized him from behind, jerking him backwards, just as a gigantic wagon trundled past. It was the size of a small cottage, a great black monstrosity, with iron grillwork curling out from all sides. It must be some sort of enclosed carriage, though Gwydion had never seen anything like it before. He didn't see the driver, but he got a fairly close view of the animals that pulled it as they shuffled past, snorting. They were not horses. They looked like gigantic rams the size of elephants, with shaggy yellow hair hanging down nearly to the ground.
"Watch it, leatherhead!" Brianna said. "You sure you're awake?"
He nodded as he watched it pass on down the street. "What was that?"
"Carriage for a high-up, I guess," she said with a shrug. "How should I know?"
"But those creatures... I've never seen anything like them."
"Yeah, me neither." She sounded unimpressed. "So what? You see a lot of things in Sigil. This time I'll go first. Try to keep from getting put in the dead book."
* * *
"What are you doing?" asked Brianna, speaking loudly to be heard over the noise-dampening rainfall.
Gwydion had unsheathed his sword. "Checking to make sure it hasn't been moved." The two stood a short distance from the unfinished building, the gray rain making the upper parts of it seem to vanish in a gray haze.
Gwydion checked the thummim.
"Well?" she asked.
He nodded. "It's there."
A few minutes passed. "Now what?" she asked.
"I don't know," he admitted. "I could just charge in, I suppose."
"That would be a clueless thing to do," she said. "You don't know what you'll be facing."
He nodded reluctantly. "Perhaps I should wait, and see if anything happens. It's possible that someone will come out of there; maybe they'll even bring the Icon with them."
"I wouldn't count on it, not in this rain."
He nodded again, more glumly. "I wish I had some idea who was in there."
There was a moment of silence. Then a youthful voice behind them spoke. "Perhaps that favor I can do, oathgiver."
Gwydion whirled. "Tap!"
The boy grinned. "Tap," he confirmed, tapping his chest.
"Where did you come from?"
Tap gave them a smug look. "Tap has been here since the dawn. Better I should ask where you come from."
"Since the... You mean you came down here this morning, and waited all this time in the rain?"
Tap nodded. "I wished to repay your favor. But Tap is no gully. No need to wait in rain. That is for foolish paladin."
Tap turned and pointed. "Shelter from the wind that blows, yet you can see through ragged holes." A line of three four-story buildings stood in a row behind him. Gwydion wasn't sure which one the boy was pointing to; all of them looked to have suffered a major fire some time ago, and the wreckage had several ragged and gaping holes, as well as broken windows.
Brianna nodded grudgingly. "Smart, boy, smart. From there you wouldn't be seen."
"And Tap did watch, oh yes, and saw."
"What did you see?" asked Gwydion.
"This morning, early, not long after dawn, three men approached and three men emerged," said Tap. "Seemed a time for changing of the guard."
"What did they look like?"
The boy shrugged. "All different, yet the same. Armor, swords, you see? Minders, like."
Gwydion glanced at Brianna. "Minders?"
"Bodyguards," she said. "Hirelings. Sell-swords."
Tap nodded. "Yes, Minders. But ones that emerged were not all men."
Tap nodded again.
"Could you be a little more specific?" asked Brianna.
Tap shrugged. "One, he looked like a man, but he was not. Tap can tell."
"Beautiful," asked Gwydion intently. "Was he beautiful? Inhumanely beautiful?"
Tap nodded. "Beauty, yes. Male epitome. But dark beauty. Evil behind his eyes."
Gwydion recalled the prophet's vision ...something that walked in the form of a man. There was something inhuman in beauty of the man's face, in the way he flowed rather than walked.... "Yes," said Gwydion. "He is very dangerous, that one."
Brianna looked from one to the other. "Would you mind telling just what the Abyss you're talking about? 'Beauty'? What does that mean? What did the man look like?"
"Not a man," said Tap. "Tap can tell."
Gwydion shook his head. The memory of the prophet's vision was intense, vivid... yet for some reason he could not remember any other details of the... the thing that walked like a man. "I'm sorry," he said, "I'm not sure I understand it myself. I don't know what he looked like, just that he... I would know him, if I saw him."
"Then you've seen him?"
He shook his head. "No. Not first hand. Only in vision."
"Vision." She said the word as if it soured her mouth. "I'm not much on visions, cutter. Who is he?"
Again he shook his head. "I don't know. But I think he's the key to this whole thing. I'm sorry, I don't know any more than that."
"Apologies, wise mistress," said Tap. "Paladin speaks truly, as truly he must. Not a man, but something else. Tap knows."
She stared at them, then threw up her hands. "Fine. Whatever. I'm standing in the rain like a barmy, speaking of visions and 'men who aren't men'." She turned to the buildings Tap had pointed out. "Can we at least get out of the rain? It's doing wonders for my patience."
* * *
The building Tap selected turned out to be even more ragged than it looked from outside. The interior was scorched and blackened from the flames of some long ago fire, and great, gaping holes lay in the walls, ceiling, and stretches of the floor. The floor beams that remained shifted under their feet as if they might give way at any moment, and constant drips of water leaked from the worn and patch ceiling. And though they were out of the main force of the rain here, the dampness brought a chill to the skin.
Tap led them through a small hole in a rear door, which had been boarded up. The opening was too small for the adults, but the boards were old and the nails had loosened their hold, and a few kicks from Gwydion knocked some of them away.
Once inside, they skirted a yawning, darkened pit in the floor (where it appeared the floor beams had collapsed) and gingerly climbed a rickety, unsteady staircase. There was a relatively undamaged room on the second floor, with a window that looked out directly at the unfinished tower, and they settled in to wait, Gwydion at the window, Brianna pacing the room, grumbling, and occasionally scowling out the window.
Tap picked a spot out on the floor and, unmindful of the dirt, curled up on his side. After a time the only sound, aside from the steady patter of the rain, were the soft snores of the boy.
Although the room he had chosen had survived the fire relatively unscathed, it was still coated in greasy, grimy soot from the smoke. Gwydion was careful what he touched, for the soot seemed to cling to human flesh, coating it.
He glanced over at Brianna and saw she had somehow gotten a black streak of it across her left cheek. For some reason, he found it funny; the way it contrasted with her serious scowl as she gazed out the window.
She is beautiful, he thought, in a smudged sort of way.
"What are you smirking at?" she asked, catching him looking.
He stifled his smile. "Nothing," he said, studiously returning his attention to the window.
She frowned, but said nothing more.
Time passed slowly. Gwydion reflected that it always did, when one was waiting.
"This is some plan, paladin," Brianna grumbled once. "We waste all of our time in a miserable damp room, watching nothing. Sodding wonderful."
Gwydion was about to reply, when a slight motion caught his eye. "Wait! Someone's coming!"
She moved the window, peering out intently.
It was a single dark shape, blurred by the watery windowpane, coming slowly down the street. It was a solitary figure, long and thin, and as it approached Gwydion was shocked to realize it was not walking. Rather it floated above the ground, ghosting along like nothing he had ever seen before.
It was humanoid, but tall, with a dark cloak that hung from its shoulders past its feet (if it had feet - Gwydion couldn't tell). Its long face was alien, with somber, flat features. A white shock of hair stood up from its head like a flame from a candle, and appeared to be unaffected by the constant rain. Four horns sprouted from its forehead - the two in front long and thin, jutting straight upwards. The other two, closer to its ears, were short and curled, like a ram's.
"That's just a dabus," said Brianna, as it passed closer. She tried to sound as if it were a common sight, but he saw she was staring almost as much as he was.
"A dabus," she repeated.
He sighed. "I heard what you said. I just don't know what a 'dabus' is."
"Oh.. right. It's... it's a little hard to describe, I guess. You could call them the city's caretakers. They clean up messes, remove trash, that kind of thing."
Gwydion gave their surroundings a look. "I don't know who pays them, and I don't want to be critical, but from what I've seen of Sigil so far, they don't seem to be doing a very good job."
She considered that. "Well, they pick and choose their work. Nobody pays them; they just do it. No-one knows why. They don't... they don't speak, not like most creatures. Probably they've got some kind of deal with the Lady."
She nodded. "Yes, the Lady of Pain. Didn't I tell you about her?"
He shook his head. "'Lady of Pain'. That's a lovely name. Who is she?"
"She's the high-up of high-ups," said Brianna. "Everybody knows about the Lady."
"Well, that's because you're clueless," she snapped. "And if you wouldn't keep interrupting me, I'd tell you."
"Pardon, pardon," came Tap's voice, interrupting them from behind. "New guardsmen approach."
They stared at him for a moment, then turned back to the window.
A small group of three men had appeared while they had been talking, headed for the unfinished tower. By the time they turned, the three had nearly reached the massive iron doorway.
The three were all wearing cloaks, no doubt to keep off the rain, but Gwydion could tell that two of them wore armor beneath, from the way they moved. The third man, though...
Gwydion swore. "That's him!" He couldn't see more of the man than a vague outline, but he could tell by the way he moved.
Tap nodded. "The man is is not a man," he said somberly. "Tap knows."
The thing that walked as a man lead the other two to the door. He leaned forward, placing his face next to the portal.
"Password," said Gwydion. "I wish I had a spyglass."
"Why?" asked Brianna, "can you read lips?"
"No," he admitted, "but I still wish I had a spyglass."
A moment later, the iron door opened, and the three disappeared into the darkness beyond.
"Tap can read lips," said Tap. "Can tell what message slips from lips."
Gwydion sighed. "Unfortunately, we still don't have a spyglass. And the moment's passed anyway."
The iron portal was closed again.
"Spyglass?" laughed Tap. "What need of far-eyes have I? It is not so distant, not for Tap's sharp eyes."
Gwydion looked at him. "What do you mean?"
"Tap knows the secret word of entrance."
Gwydion was amazed. "You could see their lips from here?"
Tap shrugged. "Sharp eyes," he said, tapping the side of his head.
Gwydion looked at the distance. He accounted himself sharp eyed, at least on his homeworld, but he had scarcely been able to see more than three vague darkened forms in the rain. "No kidding," he said.
Brianna, too, had been eyeing the distance in near-disbelief. They exchanged glances. "The boy has sharp eyes," she said with a shrug. "What now?"
Gwydion considered. "We have to go in," he said at last. "I have to, at least."
"What?" Brianna shook her head. "My hearing must be going. I thought we just agreed that that would be the most addlecoved thing to do. You don't know what in there, remember?"
"I know he's in there," said Gwydion, with a meaningful nod to the window. "That changes everything."
"I fail to see how. If anything, I would think that would be one more reason not to go: if he's as powerful and dangerous as you say, we should bide our time, and wait until he leaves again."
"No," said Gwydion. A strong sense of urgency was building in him. "No. Something's not right. I can't explain it, but... No, he's here to take the Icon."
"You can't know that!" she protested.
"Is true, clever lady," put in Tap. They stared at him. He shrugged, tapping the side of his head again. "Tap knows."
Gwydion gave a nod, and started for the stairs.
"Barmies," muttered Brianna. "A leatherheaded paladin and a delusional boy. Wait a minute! Don't think you're going without me! You need someone with some sense to keep you from harm!"
* * *
Moments later, the three of them stood before the iron portal. It was a massive thing, towering nearly fourteen feet in height, hinged so that it opened inward. The metal was rusted and tarnished. There was no handle.
He stepped forward to knock, then stopped himself. "What was the password?" he asked the boy.
"Malakrath," Tap answered. "Something like that."
Gwydion looked at him. "Something like that, or that?"
The boy shrugged. "I saw the way the lips moved. I didn't hear the sound. Consonents are certain, vowels not."
"Malakrath," said Gwydion. He glanced at Brianna. "Sounds like a name. You ever hear anything like it."
She looked thoughtful. "No... try a different pronunciation."
"Malikrath," he said. "Maylakrith. Melakreth. Molikrith. Mulakrath?" He shook his head. "Damn it, there's a hundred different ways to say it. How do I know which one it is?"
"It sounds familiar, somehow," said Brianna. "Don't stop, keep trying. Maybe I'll recognize one."
"Mekalreth," he said, then reddened. "Sorry. Tongue slipped. Um... Milekrith, Meeleekrath, Moleekreeth, Malakrath... I'm starting to feel a little silly about this."
"Never mind that, cutter," said Brianna, "keep naming. This thing's right on the edge of my brain."
He sighed. "Malukruth, Mulaykreth, Molikroth-"
There was sudden grating sound, and Gwydion leaped backwards, his sword coming out of its sheath and into his hand in one smooth motion. The door was slowly opening inwards. Darkness lay beyond.
"What the-?" he muttered after a moment. No guards were leaping out at them.
"Guess you got the right one," said Tap, his voice hardly more than a whisper.
"I didn't even knock," said Gwydion. "Doors don't just open themselves,"
"In Sigil," said Brianna grimly, "sometimes they do."