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Tide of Darkness: Chapter 12

Chapter Twelve

"What in the Nine Hells..."

Gwydion had stopped cold, staring up at the towering building that stood hulking before them. The steady and constant rain hid most of it in misty gray shadow, and with twilight deepening there was little of it to see beyond a vague shape. But that shape was enough. "Looks like... looks like some kind of giant turtle!"

Brianna went on several paces before realizing he had halted. She turned and looked back at him, a questioning look on her face mixed with a measure of irritation. She hadn't heard what he had said, but by her annoyed expression it was plain she had some idea why he had suddenly halted.

"Broken Trust," said Tap from beside him.

"But it looks like..."

"Blood and hells!" she snorted. "What is it now?"

Tap grinned. "Noble paladin is touched with awe."

Brianna snorted. "'Noble paladin' is just plain touched. I'm cold and I'm wet, and we're not fifteen yards from shelter and warmth. So of course..." Her voice fell to a low grumbling.

Gwydion was still staring up at the building looming overhead. It was still fifteen or twenty yards off, a sliver of dim orange light outlining the huge double doors, but it was tall enough that it seemed to loom overhead nonetheless. It was a square structure, or at least the first three stories were. Above that level... It looked like someone had slain a gargantuan tortoise and dumped the body atop. Through the rain and darkness, not much of the gigantic creature was visible, but the scaly, serpent-like head projected out over the blocky wall, hanging over the street, supported by a number of metal struts, and the two black-clawed forepaws hung over either corner of the building. Gwydion could see the shadowy dome of the creatures humped 'shell', if that was what it was, rising behind.

"Is it real?" he asked, staring up at the unearthly creature.

Brianna muttered a curse. "It's real. And real dead. So if you're afraid it's going to suddenly come to life-"

"Never have I seen any creature so gigantic," said Gwydion, still staring. "Where can such a thing live? On what does it subsist?"

Brianna shrugged. "Look, cutter. I'm not some sort of planar biologist, and with the mood I'm in, it wouldn't matter if I was. Ask a guvner. Right now I just want to get inside instead of standing in the rain discussing architecture like a piking barmy."

"Truly this is a city of wonders," said Gwydion as she turned away.

"The other side of wonder is terror, paladin," said Brianna over her shoulder. "For all our sakes, I wish you would start to respect that."

She led them up the steps onto the wooden porch, under cover from the relentless drizzle. She paused at the entrance, which was a pair of stout-looking doors mounted on hinges that swung outwards, with handles to pull them open. The doors weren't wooden or metal, at least that Gwydion could see. Rather, they looked like they were bound in some kind of soft black leather, crisscrossed with iron bands.

Curious, he reached out to touch one of the doors, but pulled back his hand as if bitten at the scowl on Brianna's face.

"Listen cutter," she said, "this place doesn't cater to clueless primes much. There's going to be some dangerous bloods in here. Real dangerous. And they ain't likely to be friendly either. So the last thing I need is for you to walk in there and gawk at everything." She glanced at Tap. "Bad enough to bring a child with us."

Gwydion considered this. "What do you want me to do?"

Brianna took hold of the hood of his cloak, tugging it back so that the hilt of tylith-senshai was visible. "For one thing, keep this thing handy, and in sight. If you look capable with it, we probably won't need to use it. But don't overdo it. If you look like you're searching for a fight, there'll be ten or twelve bloods in there that will gladly give it to you."

"My left arm is still numb from that... shock," said Gwydion ruefully. "The last thing I want is to charge into battle."

Brianna nodded. "Good. Just don't look weak, or they'll be on us like a pack of wolves. Don't lock gazes with anyone; they consider it an insult here. That doesn't mean to keep your eyes on the floor, either. You've got to look confident. And most important of all, don't gawk. Most of these cutters aren't human. Most don't even look human. So at least try to look as if you aren't entirely clueless."

"I'll try," Gwydion said sardonically.

Brianna grasped the handle and pulled the door open.

The darkness outside made the central room seem bright by comparison, but the corners were filled with murky shadows. Candles guttered on the tables and flickered on the walls, and there was a roaring fire on the right-hand wall, not far from where they stood, but the light seemed to enhance and deepen the shadows rather than dispel them.

As they stepped within, they were immersed in a strange sort of noise. It was not the roaring and clatter of 'The Game' in Ribcage, but rather a more subtle wall of noise, much like that of a large room full of people conversing - yet the voices were more sibilant, more flowing, more... threatening than any human voice Gwydion had ever heard before.

The bittersweet scent of incense hung heavy in the air, blanketing the place in a thin haze that made the farther details of the room blurred and indistinct. If Gwydion judged correctly the entire center of the structure must be hollow, for the walls were at least four stories high and met a domed ceiling that arced higher still. The far end of the room was lost in the smoky haze, but, if anything the place looked larger on the inside than it did on the outside.

There were a series of graceful wooden arches marching down the center of the room, support beams for the ceiling, each inlaid with runes and disconcerting carvings that Gwydion's eye couldn't quite bring into focus. They were alien and unsettling, and his gaze seemed to... slide away from them.

There were a series of five descending wooden steps leading into the room, and as they entered Gwydion could see that the room itself had no clear 'main' floor, but rather a series of raised and lowered platforms hanging suspended from the ceiling by iron chains of various sizes and connected by wooden walkways which appeared thin and frail but must have been fairly sturdy to support the weight of some of the creatures he saw present.

And what creatures! Creatures from fables, from stories, from nightmares... The elf girl at the inn had been one thing, but this was quite another. At least she had looked somewhat human. It was difficutl to see more than vague shapes in the murky light, but...

On the nearest platform there squatted a spiderlike being on an elongated and specially shaped stool. Eight spindly legs were tucked under the arachnid body, and a long, leathery neck sprouted from the thorax, a thin, lizard-like head at the end of it. It looked a little like the statuette that had proved to be the key to Dima's portal.

Directly across from it sat some sort of humanoid creature with faceted, insect-like eyes and a toothy, vertical slit for a mouth. Otherwise it was nearly human in form, with arms, legs, fingers, etc - with the exception that it wore no clothing that Gwydion could see. Its skin was dark blue, so dark it was nearly black, but when the thing took a breath, a pair of gills on either side of its neck flashed open and the flesh beneath glowed a bright luminescent green.

Behind their table and just above, on a platform farther back, a pair of red-skinned women with black, leathery wings sprouting from their backs lounged. Both were strikingly beautiful, with lustrous black hair, arresting green eyes, and full red lips. The wings were small, almost vestigial, and he thought for a moment that perhaps they were false, or an extension of the black leather armor each of the women wore, but one of the women's wings quivered and moved by itself, and she reached back idly to scratch it.

And to the right...

A black-skinned giant of a man, naked and at least eight feet tall, hairless and gleaming like a statue, with glowing blue eyes...

A trio of creatures that looked like a cross between a praying mantis and a man...

A bull-headed creature like the one who had tried to ambush them in the alleyway, slightly taller and missing fur in places, as if it had the mange...

An albino human with flowing white hair, normal in every way that Gwydion could see and wearing purple-tinted spectacles. He sat at a table by himself and Gwydion wouldn't have noticed him at all except that when his gaze passed over the man's table a black tongue shot out of the man's mouth flicking across the table and snatching up a morsel from the man's plate...

And farther back...

A blocky thing that looked like a clockwork machine with arms and legs and vestigial iron wings-

Brianna elbowed him in the ribs. "Don't lock eyes, basher," she hissed angrily, and Gwydion quickly turned his gaze away. It was difficult not to stare at the myriad of strange shapes and forms surrounding them, but when he happened to glance down at where he stood, he started.

Brianna was leading them across one of the walkways which were strung around and between the multi-level platforms. It wasn't that which caught his attention, though, but what lay below.

Darkness yawned below them in a straight drop of what must have been sixty feet down. A grey mist hung at that point, hiding anything that might lay farther down. The mist wasn't motionless; it pitched and roiled as if it were a thing alive. Gwydion blinked. He had the feeling there was something down there in the mists, something large and restless, and just for a moment he thought he saw the vague outline of a huge body.

"Watch your step, cutter," muttered Tap. "Don't want to fall just here. Tap knows. Seen it happen."

"What's down there?"

Tap shook his head. "Screams," he said. "Then silence."

Brianna threaded her way across the vast room, making her way towards an empty table on a small round platform by itself close on the left-hand wall. Gwydion was still staring around himself as he followed. There were lengths of chains hanging from the domed ceiling everywhere, some dangling straight downwards, attached to platforms or hanging bridges, some angled off randomly and attached to various bolts in the walls, and still others which appeared anchored to nothing at all in particular, just trailing down into the darkened abyss that yawned below.

As he looked around the room he also noticed that spaced unevenly near the walls, and hanging above even the highest-level platforms, were a series of man-sized iron cages. In fact, there was one not too far from the platform to which Brianna was leading. It looked empty, save for a bundle of tattered rags at the bottom... Then suddenly a flash of yellowed white caught his eye. Bone...

"Sit," said Brianna, and abruptly he realized they had arrived. Hurriedly Gwydion took his seat. The table was rectangular, planes so that the corners were rounded and curved, and at a normal height. The chairs, though, were a mis-matched lot. There were five of them, jumbled haphazardly around the table. Two were straight backed and thin, not at all unlike those of his homeworld. A third was low and wide, with a cushion but no clear back that he could see. But for the cushion, it looked more like an endtable than a chair. The fourth was a round stool, not much more than a three-legged rod with a wooden seat at the top. It was high enough that the seat stood at least a foot above the level of the table. The last was the most perplexing of all - a great iron monstrosity shaped like a wide upside down arch. There was a low back formed by a thin strand of lacy-shaped ironwork, and the arms stood at least higher than Gwydion was tall, though the curved seat was lower than a conventional chair.

Gwydion elected to take one of the straight-backed chairs. They looked mildly uncomfortable, but at least they were familiar. Brianna took the other. Tap settled in on the cushioned couch-thing, though Gwydion had half expected the boy to take the high-seated stool. When he sat in the low chair, only the top of the boy's head was visible on the other side of the table.

Gwydion quirked an eye at Brianna. "Interesting chairs."

"I told you cutter; they don't serve humans here much. Lucky to get any chairs at all."

He was silent a moment, scanning the room. "What's with the cages?"

Tap snorted from the other side of the tables. "Cages in The Cage," he said merrily, as if it were a joke.

"There's thirteen of 'em, all told," said Brianna. "Little inside laugh of the owner's. Nine of them have been filled, the rest stand empty."

"Filled with what?"

Brianna shrugged. "I don't know the story too well. Former companions of his, I guess. He's a cutter named Diabrand - don't know much about him other than he's not human. They left him to die somewhere deep in Pandemonium, but he managed to escape and he's been hunting them down since. Of course, he'd been gone two hundred years by the time he escaped. A lot can happen in that long a time."

Gwydion stared at the nearest cage. "Former companions," he said. "Why the cage?"

"Revenge. Artistic style. Sense of humor. Statement of power. Who knows for sure? He puts them in the cage and there they stay. Usually takes a couple of weeks before they starve. Sometimes longer. Depends on what species they are." She shrugged again. "Not my business; I only know this second hand. He hasn't filled a cage in twenty years at least. It's always a big deal when he does. There's always entertainment of some sort, but most of the patrons share a lust for vengeance and twisted justice. Nothing like a 'screaming cage' to draw crowds of taunting customers."

Gwydion's eyebrow quirked. "'Screaming cage'?" he asked, eyeing the nearest cage in a different light. The tiny white sliver of bone which protruded from the bundle of rags at the bottom... Was that a finger?

Brianna shrugged again. "Yeah, most of Diabrand's 'caged ones' didn't die quiet. Look, none of this matters. It isn't any of our business. What we have to concentrate on..."

Her voice trailed off into silence. There was a small whooshing sound and Gwydion started out of his seat as a blazing ball of fire darted across the room, angled towards their table. It darted and jagged, veering back and forth in mid-air as it approached, then came to an abrupt halt atop the high stool across the table from him. "What the-!"

"Whaddya want, cutters, whaddya want?" came a high-pitched fast-talking voice. A tiny creature squatted there, standing less than a foot high, naked, with red skin and featherless wings on its back. It was basically humanoid, with two arms and two legs, though it squatted as if the muscles in its legs were structured differently than a humans, and its face was grotesquely elongated. Red and yellow flames rippled continually over its body, creating a perpetual halo. Tiny flames also danced in its eyes. "What's wrong with your friend, hey? Looks prime. Don't serve primes here, cutters, no indeed."

Gwydion had come half out of his seat at its approach. He stood staring at it, the hilt of tylith-senshai gripped in his hand, two inches of the steel blade clear of the sheath.

Brianna gave the thing a scornful look. "Watch yourself, mephit. Not good streaking up on us like that. My friend gets nervous easy, and when he gets nervous useless and stupid creatures like you get dead. You're lucky he didn't cut you in half already. Don't make it worse by slinging names. You want to take our order?"

The thing blinked, looking at Gwydion. "Sorry, sorry. Didn't mean to cast aspersions, cutter."

Slowly Gwydion relaxed his grip on the hilt, easing back into his seat. He did his best to give the little creature an irritated look.

"So wat'cha want, cutters? Don't serve humans much, but got a few things. For eating, you know? Also got a few pleasure slaves for humans too, huh? Though mostly exotics, you know? And you need a mind-enhancer or hallucinator, just speak up. Got plenty, but we don't claim to be expert in what will or won't kill a human, see?"

"A pitcher of Arborean wine," said Brianna crisply. "Maybe a room later." She gave a nod toward Tap. "We don't need any pleasure slaves, exotic or otherwise."

The creature's mouth twisted into a leering and grotesque smile. "Oh sure, sure," it said, misunderstanding. "Self-contained, eh? You need any other children, just shout. Can get anything for a price here. Strictly under the table, see? Guvners don't hold with child pleasure slaves. But here in Broken Promise-"

"Pike it," said Brianna. "Give us wine and give us privacy. Catch?"

The little thing jerked a quick bow, bobbing its head. "Name's Bartish," it said. "Need anything, just say the name. I'll hear it anywhere, even another plane... you know how it works."

And with a 'whoosh' it zipped away from their table, disappearing into the hazy air on the far side of the room.

"Nice, cutter," said Brianna acidly. "I tell you not to act like a prime and you jump out of your skin at the sight of a lowly fire mephit."

"Sorry," said Gwydion. "It just gave me a start."

Brianna shook her head. "Never mind. We've got other problems."

She took a deep breath. "Alright, let's get down to business. Whoever it is that wants you dead... well, there's just no way they could have found us that quickly. This is Sigil, not Ribcage. I know this city; it's my second home. Whatever this is about, this... Icon of yours, it's important. Important enough that now I'm wrapped up in it too."

"I never meant to put you at risk," said Gwydion. "You don't-"

Brianna waved it off. "Spare me the noble paladin bit. I've helped you and so has the boy. We've both been seen with you. It doesn't matter whether we split from you now or not. If this is as important as it looks, our lives are forfeit whether we're with you or not. In fact it could go harder for us if we aren't with you, since they'll torture us to find out where you are. So don't thank me for standing by your side and helping you out, cutter. It's the only way to go. We've got two ways to go on this thing. Either we lose ourselves completely, go to some forgotten prime world and live like peasants - and even that might not work - or we solve this thing. Find out who's after you and why. Recover your precious Icon. Accomplish your mission."

"I'm with the paladin," said Tap quietly. "Tap goes with him."

Gwydion glanced at him, then back to her. "I'm on a sacred mission. I won't abandon it."

Brianna shrugged. "Fine. Never cared much for prime worlds anyway. Now, let's work with what we've got. The people in the tower. They had this Icon thing?"

Gwydion nodded.

"Then that's our link."

Tap spoke up. "The man who is not escaped. The portal is warded. How then can we follow?"

Gwydion looked doubtful. "Tap's right. The ones that didn't escape through the portal are dead."

Brianna shook her head. "Try using your head for something besides bashing, paladin. Those were just guards. They know less than nothing. We can't get through the portal, maybe, but we don't need to. We've got a name."

"A name?"

Brianna nodded. "A tiefling named Ryde. I've never heard of him or seen him before, but if he's passed through Sigil before, which I strongly suspect, we can trace him. And there's more."

"Like what?"

"Like whatever it was you saw when you looked through that portal."

Gwydion was surprised. "What I saw?"

Brianna nodded again. "Maybe you saw something that could tell us where they went. At the least, we should be able to rule out some of the other planes. Now think: what did you see?"

Gwydion was silent for a moment, trying to remember. He had only caught a glimpse before the portal closed, before the shock of the warding had thrown him across the room and into the wall. The man in the cloak had been looking at him, and the one called Ryde. Beyond them... "I remember it was dark. Like night, but darker. I don't remember stars. Maybe it was underground. But there was some light..."

"Yes?" Brianna's eyes were intense. "Concentrate, cutter."

"It was like... like fire, but not quite. Lava, maybe, or sparks from a forge. I couldn't tell where it came from, but it made their faces - Ryde and the cloaked man - visible... painted them with a dull orange light. The ground that I could see was rocky and uneven. And black. Not just black like dark dirt, but more like... like obsidian, or black stone. And off in the distance there was a building, a structure. I could only see it because some of the windows were lit from within, but the general shape... It was like a castle, sort of, but not like any castle I ever saw before. If I saw it again I think I would recognize it."

Brianna considered. "Not much to go on," she admitted after a moment of silence. "Could be any of a dozen planes, most of them lower. It could be this plane, for all I can tell. Well, we've at least got a name, we can follow that up." She raised her eyes to his again suddenly. "Do you think you could draw it?" she asked. "This castle you saw. If we had paper and ink, do you think you could sketch it?"

Gwydion considered. "Some of it maybe, but I don't know how reliable it would be. If we had paper, which we don't at the moment-" Suddenly he sat bolt upright. "Wait a minute!"

"What is it?" asked Brianna.

Quickly he dug through his pocket, producing the little brown scrap of paper he had discovered in the broken tower. "This," he said, handing it over to her. "I found it in the bedchamber. In Ryde's bedchamber. I can't read it, of course, but maybe you can."

Brianna squinted at it for a moment. "Not me. Looks like an eldritch language though." She passed it to Tap, who looked at it for a few seconds and then passed it back, shaking his head.

"What is an 'eldritch' language?" asked Gwydion.

"One of the planeborne tongues. Tanar'ri, modron, guardinal... never mind. I can't read it, but I know a man who might be able to. Contacting him might be problematic, though. He'd sell his own mother to the baatezu if the price was right, never mind us."

She was interrupted by the rythmic pounding of hoofbeats clattering across the wooden bridges.

A creature was crossing the room, bypassing the other platforms nearest it. It was unlike anything Gwydion had seen before. In form its lower body was very like that of a mottled-brown goat, though it was larger than any goat he had ever seen, at least as large as a large pony or small horse. But where the neck and head of a goat should have been, instead was the muscular torso and upper body of a man. The head was human, and male in appearance, with a thin wispy mustache and beard, but it also had two massive ramlike horns sprouting from its temples. It pulled up to a halt, its head swiveling slowly as it scanned the room.

Its eyes locked with Gwydions. It snorted once, then began sauntering straight towards their table.

"Don't stare, leatherhead," hissed Brianna under her breath. "You'll draw unwanted attention... but keep your sword handy," she added a moment later as the thing continued to advance. It had passed several empty tables already, and was nearly to the walkway that led to the platform they were seated on.

Gwydion slid his chair back a few inches, so that if he needed to rise and fight he wouldn't be hampered by the table. He measured the thing mentally assessing its strengths and weaknesses as it approached. It was bare-chested and large, but very muscular.

It passed the last of the other platforms and started onto the bridge connected to the place where they sat. It halted halfway across, staring at them.

"Yes?" asked Gwydion.

"You," it said in a raspy, flat voice. "You are Gwydion Talienvar, a paladin, yes?"

Gwydion came to his feet. In one smooth motion he had unsheathed tylith-senshai. "What do you want."

The creature stared at the blade. Slowly it reached into a pouch slung at its hips, withdrawing a small metal tube. "Courier, cutter," it said, holding up the tube as if it were an explanation. "I'm just a courier. Told to deliver this to one Gwydion Talienvar, a human paladin of your general description, here, at this place and time. I don't want trouble."

Gwydion and Brianna exchanged glances. She too had risen, and the naked blade of her dagger was unsheathed as well. "Put it on the table and go," she said.

The thing looked from one of them to the other, then heaved a shrug. "Makes no difference to me," it said, tossing the tube in the direction of the table.

The throw was wide of the mark, and the tube bounced once on the tabletop and then skipped off the other side, heading for the empty space beyond the platform. Tap caught it in midair.

The goat-centaur had already turned away, clumping across the bridge and heading back the way he had come.

"Wonderful service," said Brianna wryly.

"What was that thing?"

"A bariaur. Sort of like a centaur. They come from the Outlands somewhere. They aren't too uncommon in Sigil."

"It said it was a courier."

She shrugged. "It was. There's plenty of couriers here. The message?" She extended her hand towards Tap. The boy had unscrewed the top of the metal tub and removed a rolled up piece of paper. He passed the paper to her.

She unrolled it and eyed the elegant handwriting critically.

Gwydion leaned over. "What does it say?"

She shook her head. "I can't read it. The language... it is strange."

Gwydion took it from her. "Let me see... I can read it."

She stared at him. "I thought you said your 'talent' didn't apply to the written word."

He shook his head. "No, no. This is my native tongue. But how...?"

"What does it say?"

Gwydion scanned it quickly, then read it aloud.

You are a man with powerful enemies. But with powerful enemies come the powerful enemies of the powerful enemies. Enemies who may perhaps become allies, if not friends. I can help you in your quest. I know how to find that which you seek. Room 52.

- W

"Impossible," said Brianna, shaking her head in amazement. "We haven't been here fifteen minutes. No-one could have found us that quickly. No-one."

"Room 52?" Gwydion asked.

"Chamber 52 in the Broken Trust," said Tap. "The Sealed Room."

A chill went racing up Gwydion's spine. "The what? You mean it's here, in this place?"

Brianna was very quiet. She was staring at the paper as if it might attack her. "I don't know what this is about, paladin, but if you want my advice we leave right now and don't look back. No-one could have found us that quickly. Not even a Power. No-one."

Gwydion considered. After a moment, he shook his head. "No. If this person, this... W. already knows where we are, then it doesn't matter where we go. He'll find us. And if he bore me any malice or was working with the men who are after me, then why this invitation? Why not simply kill me?"

"I don't know," admitted Brianna, "but I've got a very bad feeling about this. Room 52... that thing has been sealed for years. No-one even remembers why it was sealed in the first place. It's dangerous to tamper with things like that."

"He... it, whatever it is... may be able to help find the Icon," said Gwydion.

"Or it could be a trap."

Gwydion gave a slow nod. "Sometimes it is better to face the wolf than flee from the tiger."

She snorted. "What is that - a saying from your homeworld?"

He shrugged.

A moment of silence passed between them. "Alright," she said at last. "We go. But we do it my way, understand? And if things get peery-"

"Gentlebeings!" cried a deep sonorous voice from across the room, interrupting them.

There was a big square platform some distance from where they sat which had no chairs or tables on it of any kind. As far as Gwydion could tell from their vantage point, it was also hung lower than any of the other platforms. He had seen it earlier but taken no real notice of it.

But now, as the booming voice startled them, his eyes were drawn to it. It had been darkened and unlighted before, but with a blue flash, flames suddenly ignited on posts that stood at each of the four corners. Had the posts been there before? He wasn't certain.

Nor was the platform empty now. A short grey creature - it looked like it was made of stone - squatted in the center of the platform, grotesque wings pulled back from its body. Its eyes glowed blue when it spoke. Beside it stood a dusky-skinned man, whipcord slender, with flowing silver hair that hung well past his shoulders and down his back. He stood with his arms crossed of the supple leather jerkin he wore, the hilt of a sword jutting above his shoulder and an arrogant smile painted on his face.

"I give you Bleys Theraind'var, Master of Blades, Grand Councilor of the Trancendent Order," the little grey creature was saying. "Unsurpassed in swordsmanship, undefeated in more than one thousand battles. Wager!"

"Wager!" cried someone from the dark across the room, and the cry was picked up.




Gwydion leaned over to Brianna. "What are they yelling about?"

"Piking wonderful," she said distractedly. "I hadn't expected this. A bloody contest of arms with a master cipher. You stay clear of it, paladin, whatever happens."

"Don't worry," said Gwydion. "The last thing I'm looking for is a fight."

The grey creature let the chant build for several moments, then held up a finger. "But wait, good bloods! With no prize there is no risk! Perhaps you would like to see the prize?"

"The prize!" someone called.

The grey creature nodded, then gave an elaborate flourish, gesturing towards a slowly lowering cage. "I give you the prize!"

This cage was newer than the others, much newer. The steel still gleamed and shone. As it lowered, the occupant became visible.

"A virgin princess, for your pleasure!" the creature shouted. "A genuine aasimar, offspring of a celestial union! Collared and chained, a pleasure slave of the highest order!"

The woman in the cage was unlike anyone Gwydion had ever seen before. Silky fine golden hair spilled down, framing an exquisitely beautiful face. Her skin was almost marble white, and her eyes were blazing blue. She was lovely almost beyond words. She wore a silver collar around her neck and for clothing she had on less than some of serving maids at the Game. She stared defiantly out at the leering and cat-calling crowds surrounding her, chained but never broken.

Her gaze met Gwydion's and for a frozen moment she held him. Something passed between them, some unspoken plea. And Gwydion suddenly realized he knew her. He didn't know how, but... he knew her, in another lifetime perhaps.

"Piking hell," muttered Brianna under her breath. "Keep your seat, cutter."

Gwydion shook his head. "I can't."

"Bloody paladins," she groaned.

"He's a cipher, paladin," said Tap, and there was a warning in his voice.

"A what?"

Brianna nodded towards the dusky man. "See his hair? How long it is? Ciphers don't have long hair, paladin. They trim it short for ease in battle, and whenever an opponent so much as lands a blow, they trim it again. Matter of honor. Look how long his hair is. It means that for years - years - not only has he not lost a fight, but no-one has managed to even land a blow on him. Ciphers live for battle, Gwydion. You're good, but you go up against him and he'll put you in the dead-book."

"But first, gentlebeings!" the grey creature called out. "First, the challenge! In order to claim the prize, you must defeat Master Bleys! Do I have a challenge? Do I have a challenge?"

While the creature spoke the dusky man suddenly went into motion. His sword came out of its sheath so quickly that it almost seemed to materialize in his hand. He spun through an elaborate series of manuevers, the sword dancing through the air. It was a practiced series of combat strikes, blocks, and manuevers. It was similar to some of the weapon-forms Gwydion had learned from the blademasters on his homeworld, though he was not familiar with it.

"He is fast," said Gwydion, studying the man's motions. "Very fast." The man was superb, Gwydion's trained eye told him that. His martial style was slightly different than anything Gwydion had ever seen before, fluid yet strong, graceful yet deadly.

"Don't be stupid, cutter," said Brianna. "You said yourself that you were in no condition to fight. Just because the slut has a pretty face doesn't mean you have die for her. Slavery's legal in Sigil, cutter. Put aside the 'knight charging to the rescue' scree and don't do anything foolish."

Gwydion's eyes locked with the girl in the cage. "I can't leave her there."

"Why not? Who is she to you?"

He shook his head. "I don't know. But I know her. It's strange..."

"What, no challengers?" the grey creature was asking. "But how could this be? Is there no-one present who will risk Master Bleys blade for the succulent prize?" It swiveled about, scanning the crowd.

Its eyes fell on their table. "You sir," it said, seeing that Gwydion was standing. "How about you? That looks a fine blade you wear! Will you test your luck and skill?"

The dusky-skinned man had whipped through his sword-dancing display and was again standing in place. He gave Gwydion a contemptuous look.

"Don't do it," hissed Brianna.

Gwydion nodded at the creature. "I will," he called.