Part the thirteenth: Wherein the Clueless find that Hopeless is more than just a state of mindWith the crowd moving off and the guards deciding not to take any interest in them the party looked about their surroundings. They stood at the edge of the thick murky pool that was the gate to the grey Wastes in a large circular area similar to an amphitheater stage. A single street ran off from the courtyard, muddy with dark water and ash, and began winding upwards. They saw that they were at the lowest part of the city which ringed about them in ever higher circles, staid grey buildings staring down at them impassively, heedless and uncaring. A large building dominated the plaza, tall and grey with spiked buttresses lining it's walls, it stretched back into the city asserting it's presence on all that looked down upon it.
"Well Nug," said Shadow Flame, "where to from here?"
Unagi thought for a moment; he wasn't expecting to arrive in Hopeless so soon, but saw no reason to waste any time. "I say we go to the Flayed Petitioner and see if we can find that tiefling who saw me get thrown in that alley."
It was really their only available course of action, so without wasting any words they began to walk up the street that lead from the plaza. It sloped gently upward in a wide arc, lined by buildings of wood and stone, each seemingly greyer than the one before it. It was almost empty, and the few folk who were out kept their eyes to the ground, careful not to engage anyone they passed. An almost overwhelming sense of sadness, of surrender, permeated - it's name was well earnt, and each person they passed seemed to care nothing for them or their surrounds, they simply went about their way unhurried and uncaring.
A short way up the street they came upon a large group of wooden caravans, cargo trailers more than real travelling caravans, each pulled by an enormous green and yellow lizard. Six caravans in all were simply stopped in the street haphazardly, their lizard engines resting idly on the ground as several heavily armed and armoured men stood around aimlessly waiting for who knew what. They were a strange bunch, mostly human with a couple of tieflings thrown in for good measure, and appeared to be a group of mercenaries, swords for hire, as they wore no markings or symbols that identified them as part of a trading company or organised guard troop. They party was forced to walk between the caravans - their drivers had not bothered to pull them to the side of the road, and as they began walking past they noticed the caravans were much the worse for wear. Scorch marks marred the black wood of the cargo vans and arrows protruded from the sides, some broken off but most left where they hit. Spatterings of dried blood and the marks of weapons could also be seen mingled with the mud and dust of travel.
Taking an interest in this motley gang of hire-swords Shadow Flame approached the nearest of them, a squat human with a thick beard and greasy black hair, and tried to talk to him.
"Greeting my good fellow," he began, perhaps a little too enthusiastically. The man ignored him, not even turning to acknowledge his presence. Unperturbed Shadow Flame tried again, "can I ask what it is you are transporting?"
This time the man turned his eyes to look at Shadow Flame, but rather than answering him he cleared his throat loudly and spat on the ground next to Shadow Flame.
"It appears you ran into a bit of trouble out there, the caravans are a bit the worse for wear my friend," Shadow Flame continued, not letting the man's indifference stop him. However, this comment did raise the man's interest enough to get him to reply.
"Sod blasted Khaasta," he replied in a croaky voice, "were fightin' 'em off for the last 3 or 4 days."
"Khaasta?" Shadow Flame prodded, determined to mine this man for as much information as he could.
The man's eyes narrowed slightly, but he answered, "Khaasta raiders, trying to steal our shipment. Filthy lizards are a fact of life in these parts."
Shadow Flame nodded sagely. "If you don't mind me asking," he said jovially, "what is your cargo?"
This time the man fully turned toward Shadow Flame and stood a little taller, "are you the watch, basher?" he asked cautiously.
"Oh no my friend, definitely not," Shadow Flame laughed, "just an interested passer by really."
The man snorted derisively and spat again before turning his back on Shadow Flame and walking to the front of the nearest caravan to lean back, making a show of doing nothing. Shadow Flame let the man go without pushing further and turned to continue walking past the caravan with the rest of the party. He couldn't however, stop himself from approaching another guard.
"Well met to you my good man," he said loudly to a burly human in platemail. The man was balding, his remaining hair long and thin and his face wore evidence of too many brawls and battles. He looked at Shadow Flame as he approached, and taking that as a sign the man was interested in talking he asked further, "are you the leader of this caravan."
The man looked at him briefly before answering, "nup."
"Well, can you tell me who is?" Shadow Flame prodded.
"Could," answered the man.
"Err...but you're not going to?"
The man gave a half-smile in response and shrugged.
"Well then, can you tell me if you and your companions are part of a mercenary band or guard troop? I have need of sell-swords and am interested in knowing if you are available."
The man scowled at him, "look berk, folk'd be wise to keep their noses out of other folks business. Get it?"
Admitting defeat to himself Shadow Flame simply nodded at the man and walked off.
"What was the point of all that?" asked Unagi once they were out of earshot of the caravan.
"Can't hurt to find out as much as we can," replied Shadow Flame, "we might have gotten something useful out of them."
Unagi nodded, "doesn't seem the sort of place where anyone wants to help.People don't seem to like being asked questions."
With a wry half smile Shadow Flame nodded his agreement. "So where is this tavern anyway Nug?"
The gladiator looked around, and, not seeing anything familiar, he shrugged, "nothing is jumping out at me," he answered, "maybe we need to keep walking. Seems pretty simple to find your way around - this looks like the only road in the whole town."
They kept walking for several minutes, keeping a look out for the tavern, before a small group of armed and armoured men came out from an alley up ahead of them. They were walking in formation, and judging from the reaction of the nearby people, they were what passed for a guard or watch in Hopeless. The party walked toward them, and when they were near enough, Unagi hailed them.
"Greetings friends," he called heartily, "are you guardsmen for this town?"
A chain clad human with grey, washed out skin and hair held up his hand, calling the group to a halt. He stepped forward and said, "we are traveller. State your business."
"We are new on town," Unagi stated the obvious, "and we're looking for the Flayed Petitioner. Do you know it?"
The guard nodded, "up the street a ways. You'll find it easy enough."
"Can you give us directions good sir?"
"I just did," answered the guard shortly. "Follow the road, shouldn't be too hard for ya, there's only the one."
Unagi started to ask the guard another question but seeing the look of annoyance pass over his face decided against it, "OK then, thanks for the help."
The guard murmured under his breath as he gave the signal for the watch to keep going, and they all walked off without any further word.
True to the guards word the Flayed Petitioner was easy to find. They climbed steadily up the spiral road for at least a kilometer and when they looked where they had came from they could look down into the Gate courtyard through the break between houses. By their reckoning they were on the third spiral around, probably about half way up when Unagi pulled them up.
"This looks familiar," he said to himself more than anyone else, as he walked across to a darkened dirty alleyway. He stopped as he reached the entrance to the alleyway and looked to his left at a heavily boarded shut door. Looking up he saw the familiar sign that proclaimed the establishment as The Flayed Petitioner - he was definitely in the right place, but it seemed he had come at the wrong time. Looking closer at the door revealed that it had been boarded up in a shoddy manner - the boards could easily be pried loose, and there was even room toward the ground for a small creature, such as a Halfling to crawl through.
Turning back to the party Unagi said, "I don't really want to create any kind of scene here by smashing the door in. There is a side entrance in that alley there," he pointed, indicating the alley way he had woken up in only a few short days ago. The party nodded their agreement, it seemed that prudence was in order here, kicking the door in would only attract unwanted attention. They moved down the alley and found the door half hanging on its hinges, clearly unlocked. They walked inside into a broken and charred taproom; wooden chairs and tables lay about broken and splintered, the walls and floor had blackened marks from fire or magic, and in several places larges sections of floor, wall or supporting beam were completely missing, disintegrated cleanly and smoothly as if carved by a master woodworker. They began searching the place but it took only a few minutes before they realised there was nothing to find. The place was bare, consisting only of the taproom, a small kitchen and another small room that was clearly a kip. After searching through the place for several minutes they realised there was nothing there for them to find, apart from Shadow Flame who pocketed the only remaining intact bottle of alcohol, a particularly sour whiskey, left in the place.
"So what now?" Unagi asked, clearly frustrated.
"Maybe see if any of the neighbours can help?" offered Shadow Flame, "a little jink should be able to loosen somebody's tongue."
"I don't like our chances but I really don't see any other way," replied Unagi as they walked back out into the alleyway. Shadow Flame did not waste any time and walked up to the nearest residential appearing building and knocked on the door. They waited for a minute or so before he knocked again, this time louder and more insistent. After a moment the door opened a crack and the head of an old tiefling poked around to look out at them with suspicious eyes. His hair was white and very thin with two small satyr-like horns protruding from his forehead. The man's skin appeared to be about two or three sizes too big for his body and hung grotesquely from his cheeks and neck. Without waiting for the man to speak Shadow Flame held up a small purse full of jink and shook it a couple of times to make sure he had the tieflings attention.
"Greetings my friend," he said in a too cheery voice, "would you be interested in making a few coins for yourself? All is need is some basic information, it'll almost be like getting jink for nothing."
The tiefer's eyes narrowed slightly but he nodded to Shadow Flame to continue.
His smile broadening, Shadow Flame continued, "we are new in town and have come to meet an old friend of ours, maybe you know him? He worked as a doorman at the Flayed petitioner, just next door there."
"Place was stomped by the beholders just a couple days ago," answered the tiefling in a thin croaky voice.
"Yes sir, we know," he lied, "perhaps you could tell us what happened there?" Shadow Flame asked, again shaking the purse to let the jink rattle about.
Without taking his eyes from the purse the tiefling explained, "chant is a Cornugon and a bunch of Barbazu got in a scrape with a Cambion. The fight escalated to the point where the guard, with a couple of them beholders got involved smashed the place up. Disintegration rays and such flying about, plenty of bubbers killed."
Shadow Flame glossed past the fact he didn't know what a Cornugon or a Barbazu was and asked, "and what of the owner?"
The tiefer shrugged, "gone," he said simply. "Fled or disintegrated or something, don't rightly care."
"And what of our friend? The door...man?"
"Don't know, don't care. Maybe working at another pub?" answered the tiefer, his eyes still locked on the bag Shadow Flame continued to hold just out of his reach.
"Well then, maybe you could point us in the direction of these other pubs?"
The tiefer did not bother trying to hide his annoyance at the continuing questions, but that bag of jink kept his tongue loose. "There's only 3 pubs left in town now basher," he began, "back gate-ward there is the Castle of Bone, and spire-ward there is the Defenestrated Paladin and the Open Tomb. All easy enough to find if you follow the road."
Shadow Flame nodded and looked back at the party, who, one after another, shrugged to indicate they had nothing to say. Shadow Flame opened the purse and poured five gold coins into his hand. The tiefers eyes lit up - he couldn't believe his luck as he held out his hand.
"Thanks for the chant," said Shadow Flame as he dropped all five coins into the tieflings hand. Without any word the baggy faced tiefer closed his door.
Turning to the party Shadow Flame said, "well I assume that gate-ward means back down toward the centre of town, seems like as a good a place as any to start."
They all nodded their agreement as they started back the way they had come.
The Castle of Bone was an obvious land mark; rising three stories above the street it was made of the familiar dark grey stone of many other of Hopeless' buildings, but carved to give the appearance it was built of piled and stacked bones of all kinds. There were few folk about, and in answer to their first question, there was no doorman. They walked into the tower into a large room, a taproom where all tables had their own enclosure of a four foot tall wall. There were folk sitting about, eating and drinking, but the place was subdued, quiet, it held an air of hostile indifference as though the walls were telling them to mind their own business. They walked up to the bar and ordered a round of drinks from the too thin barman, his dark hair pulled back over the long curling horns protruding from the sides of his head.
"My friend," began Shadow Flame as their drinks were placed before them on the bar, "we have need of some information, and were hopeful you would be able to help."
"Hopeful hey?" the barman said from behind a forced smile, a smile that stretched his skin uncomfortably as though it were a rare thing.
Shadow Flame smiled back at his attempted joke, "the Flayed Petitioner?" he asked, "did you know the doorman there?"
With the uncomfortable smile gone from his face the barman shook his head, "can't say that I did," he answered as he began wiping down the bar with a light grey cloth.
"Right then, so I would guess you don't know where I might find him then?"
"You'd guess right basher. Got no call for doormen or bouncers or the like here, my patrons tend to keep to themselves and I prefer it that way."
Letting his frustration show for a moment Shadow Flame frowned as his placed a single gold coin on the bar. "Thanks for your time anyway friend," he said grabbing his drink and walking off to a nearby table. They sat and drank in silence for a while before Silvara noticed something.
"You hear that?" she whispered.
The party looked about, turning their ears trying to catch whatever it was Silvara heard, but their ears weren't as good as those of a werewolf.
"The whispering," she said, "there is a lot happening in here. I can't make out the words, but there is more to this place than a bunch of folk enjoying a quiet meal or drink. I would guess there is more to find out here than it would appear on the surface."
"Do we bother trying to talk to someone then?" asked Jean, "a coin or two here or there might get us something."
Unagi frowned, "I don't see the point. It's like we have a big sign over our heads that says 'BEWARE! CLUELESS!' Add into the equation that folk around here just plain don't like talking to strangers, and I think we'd be wasting our time. Maybe even getting ourselves into more trouble."
Shadow Flame nodded, "I tend to agree with Nug, I think this is not the place to go asking too many questions."
"But knocking an some random door was?" said Silvara.
"Well, we didn't really have any options there did we?" replied Shadow Flame, only a little annoyed at her question. "Now we've at least got a couple more pubs we can look in and hope they aren't also filled with a bunch of morose, near-corpses. Surely there are people in this place with some sense of...purpose? I don't know, but we can always come back here if we can't find something somewhere else."
They stayed and finished their drinks, the conversation having run it's course, and got up quietly and left.
Going back the way they had come from the Petitioner, they headed toward the next stop on their list - the Defenestrated Paladin. It was beginning to get dark though no sun was visible in the sky - it was as if someone was slowly turning down a lantern, starving the sky of the oxygen it needed to remain alight. As they neared the Flayed Petitioner a group of heavily armoured men walked toward them, or at least in the opposite direction to them. There were six of them, dressed in heavy platemail armour, each with several blades sheathed about their bodies. Their race and sex was hidden behind full faced heavy helms with fluted wing shapes sweeping from the sides. They walked, clearly as guards, for a tall man walked in the centre of the rough circle they formed as they walked. The party noticed this man, he was tall, with long silvery hair and golden skin that almost glowed in the dreary streets of Hopeless. The man wore long light grey robes, clean to the point of being white, and carried no visible weapons. As the group strode toward the party the man made of a point of making eye contact with them, looking at each of them in turn. It was not an attempt to intimidate, more an attempt to gain their attention, and it worked as the party slowed down and returned the man gaze. He nodded, to himself mostly, and held up his hand, indicating to his armed escort to stop.
"Greetings my friends," he said as the party walked over to him, "you look as though you are new in town. Can I offer you any assistance?"
Unagi stepped forward, "yes, we are new to Hopeless. We're looking for a friend, he used to work at the Flayed Petitioner."
"I see," said the man, "what is his name?"
Unagi opened his mouth to talk, paused and then closed it. He looked to the rest of the party who just stood there. Shadow Flame shrugged. "Well, I guess I don't know," said Unagi.
The golden skin man just smiled, a genuine smile, the first they had seen since they arrived. "Please don't take this the wrong way, but you are all clueless right? I mean, from some Prime world?"
"Yeah that's right,"answered Shadow Flame after a few moments of silence, "clueless..."
"There's nothing wrong with that, well, not really. It won't earn you any friends of course, but it's not as bad as all that."
Shadow Flame rolled his eyes, "I'm sorry, but you are?"
The man shook his head at himself, "forgive me my friends. My name is Jerison, I work with the Chapterhouse of the Sisterhood here in Hopeless."
"Sisterhood?" asked Unagi, just a little derisively.
Jerison gave a half-smile as he nodded, "yes, the Sisterhood. I didn't get to name it."
Silvara stepped up next to Unagi, "I am Silvara of Selune," she said, smiling at Jerison. The rest of them also introduced themselves to him in turn.
"What is it you do here in Hopeless," asked Silvara.
"Well milady, the Sisterhood tries to make a difference in this place where indifference reigns. We are...charity workers I guess you could say. We tend to the sick and infirm, those without homes, orphans, and those who just need a place to kip."
"That sounds great," she continued, obviously taking a shine to this golden skinned man. "My companion here, Unagi, has business with the doorman of the Flayed Petitioner, do you know of him? Where he might be found?"
"I'm sorry, but I'm afraid the Flayed Petitioner was recently destroyed milady. Seems there was a disagreement between some Baatezu and Tanar'ri that got a little out of hand, and the place was trashed in the ensuing fight - mostly by the beholders it would appear."
"Yes we know," said Unagi, a little testily, "I want to know where this doorman is."
Jerison was at least sympathetic and did not take offense at Unagi's tone, "only thing I can really suggest is for you to try and find him in the other bars in town. If I were you," he said, thinking out loud, "I would try the Defenestrated Paladin. It's the rowdiest bar in town and they always need new doormen or bouncers and the like. If your friend is still alive, and still in town, it's probably the best place to start."
Unagi smiled, "thanks. Thanks a lot!"
"Not at all," replied Jerison, clearly happy to have been of some help. "Listen, given you're clearly clueless I'd like to offer the assistance of the Chapterhouse to you. If you like we can help you out by giving you some information, especially about how things work out here?"
"Sounds good to me," answered Shadow Flame as the rest of them nodded their agreement. "I have a question, if you don't mind?"
"Well, honestly, this isn't the best place for us to be talking," replied Jerison as he looked around their surroundings. "These walls have ears my friends, I would much prefer if we could meet at the Chapterhouse later in the evening?"
"Do you know the location of a portal around here? A portal that will take us to Sigil?" asked Shadow Flame, seemingly ignoring the man's suggestion.
"The portals are currently locked down my tiefling friend," replied Jerison, "you won't be able to use them until the lock down is lifted."
"What? Why would the portals be locked down?" asked Unagi.
"The fight at the Petitioner has ended up with some restrictions being put in place by the Mocking. Seriously friends, this is not the place to have these discussions, and besides I am almost late for an appointment. Meet me at the Chapterhouse later this evening and we will discuss things then."
"Fine," said Shadow Flame, "where is this Chapterhouse?"
"It is only a short ways into Hopeless from the Screaming Gate. Simply follow the road spire-ward until you see a large grey stone building with large sweeping buttresses, it is the only one of it's kind in town, you can't miss it."
With that he nodded his head to the party in farewell and he continued down the road surrounded by his retinue of guards.
The party watched him go for a moment. "So, to the Paladin bar then?" said Unagi. They all voiced their agreement and began walking up the road toward the Defenestrated Paladin.
The Defenestrated Paladin was easy to find. As the party neared the tavern they could hear the sounds of revelry spilling out into the evening, the most noise they had heard since their arrival in Hopeless. The tavern itself was a long squat building of two stories made of wood and stone of the typical grey hue of Hopeless, and covered in soot from the several chimneys breaking through the roof. The courtyard in front of the tavern was filled with quite a few folk, mostly human or tiefling, but there was more than one fiend standing and talking with them. By their appearance most of them were guards or mercenaries as few were without some form of armour or weapon. As the party moved toward the front door they saw a sign hanging over it. It had no words, only a crudely painted scene of a silver armoured warrior being thrown through a window by a black scaly fiend - it announced the taverns name as clearly as any words could. The party drew the attention of those standing around, especially Jean and Silvara who steadfastly ignored the somewhat crude comments and suggestions thrown their way, but no one actually spoke directly to them or approached them. As they reached the door the reasons for that became clear. Standing either side of the door were two of the biggest fellows they had ever seen. Each was dressed in heavy leather armour and wore a blade and at least 2 daggers. The man on the left stood at least six inches above Unagi and was heavily muscled, and judging from the scars that covered his arms and face he had seen his share of fights. The other appeared to have some ogreish heritage for he was the ugliest man any of them had ever seen.
Unagi walked up to the human and asked him, "friend, we are looking for the tiefling who used to work the door at the Flayed petitioner, do you know him?"
The man nodded to Unagi, "Niltak," he simply replied.
"Niltak," Unagi said to himself, finally glad to be able to put a name to the tiefer they had been looking for all afternoon. "Do you know where I might find him?" he asked.
The big fellow just shrugged, clearly not interested in talking to Unagi.
"Is he inside maybe?" pressed the gladiator.
The human looked down at him and said, "how 'bout you 'ead inside and look for yerself berk!". The ogreish brute on the right snorted in what might have been laughter at the man. Unagi started to reply but both Jean and Silvara pushed him in through the front door before he could get a word out.
Inside the tavern they were greeted by a sprawling room with tables and chairs strewn haphazardly about. Booths lined the walls and were all filled. Folk of all kinds stood about talked and laughing - humans and tieflings, a few orcs stood near the bar, and there was even some fiendish creatures in a nearby booth, black and scaly they were similar in appearance to the first thing Unagi saw when he awoke in the alley next to the Flayed Petitioner. Unagi scanned the room for the tiefling but it was too crowded for him to be able to pick him out - if indeed he was there at all. They approached the bar and waited to be served. Eventually the barman, a squat, but heavily muscled human, asked for their order.
"Four of your best beers," Unagi ordered for the party. He waited for the man to pour their drinks and placed a gold coin on the bar. "My friend, we're looking for Niltak, haven't seen him about have you?"
The barman looked at the coin and nodded. He pointed toward the rear of the taproom at a booth in the corner. Unagi turned and looked where the barman had indicated. Sitting at the table was Niltak, the tiefling who worked at the Flayed Petitioner. He was sitting by himself, a large mug in front of him and two empty bottles beside it.
Unagi's eyes narrowed, "what is he drinking?" he asked the barman.
The man snorted, "bub, cheap bub," he answered.
"I'd like to buy a bottle," said Unagi. The barman shrugged and fetched Unagi a bottle. The gladiator settled with the barman and gave him the gold coin for his trouble, and they walked up to the rear of the taproom where Niltak was sitting.
"Well met Niltak," Unagi said, "remember me?"
The tiefling did not move, did not even acknowledge the presence of the party. Unagi slammed the bottle of bub on the table. "How about now?" he said, leaning down closer to the tiefling. He looked up at Unagi for a second before shrugging and returning to staring into his nearly empty mug.
"The bub is for you friend if you're prepared to answer some of my questions," Unagi told him.
This time Niltak looked up at the big man and then at the bottle he still held firmly by the neck. The tiefer smiled and exclaimed, "my friends, please, 'ave a seat. Join ol' Niltak in drownin' his sorrows."
They all sat down around the tieflings table, Unagi slid the bottle over the table toward Niltak, but didn't take his hand off of it. "So tiefling, do you remember me?"
Niltak looked hard at Unagi, trying his best to bring him to mind, but after a second he lowered his eyes and shook his head. "Sorry basher, but I don't recall ever meetin' ya before now."
Unagi flicked the cork from the bottle with his thumb and filled the tieflings mug with the murky brown liquid inside, grateful that he didn't have to drink any of it. He indicated to Niltak to drink and took a swig of his own drink as the tiefling raised the mug.
"Would have been about 7 or 8 days ago," he started, "I woke up in the alley next to the Flayed petitioner with nothing but a suit of armour and a sword."
Immediately recognition dawned in Niltak's eyes, "yeah right, I got it now basher." His eyes widened in alarm then, "hey look, I 'ad nothin' to do with that cutter! No way I'd try and peel a blood like yerself, I got more sense'n that!"
Unagi smiled, "relax friend, I know you had nothing to do with that, I just want to ask you some questions."
Niltak relaxed a little but still seemed a bit jumpy, "right, OK, ask yer questions."
Unagi slid the bottle over in front of Niltak and let it go. "You told me you saw the men who dropped me in the alleyway, did you recognise any of them?"
Niltak grabbed the bottle and quickly refilled his mug. He took a deep swig before answering, "there was four of 'em, tiefers and humans. Hadn't seen the three of 'em before, but the leader, I seen 'im about." Unagi waited for him to take another swig from the mug before motioning for him to continue. "Yeah OK," Niltak said, beginning to warm to the big man who had brought him the bub, "tiefer called Ternus, bit of a rough sort, got the backin' of some high up in town. Not one to mess with."
"Do you know where I can find this Ternus?" asked Unagi.
"Can't help ya there basher," replied Niltak, "but I do know he works for an ol' night 'ag down near the gate. Missa....Meezer...Misercardiam is her name, runs a potion shop or some such. Bunch of strange letters or somethin' on a big sign out the front, can't miss it," he finished, starting to look a bit worse for the bub.
Unagi seemed pleased with the tieflings words and looked to the party. Jean and Silvara were looking around the taproom at the folk standing around, but Shadow Flame leant forward and said, "do you know what happened at the Flayed Petitioner that night?"
"Ahhh, bunch of soddin' fiends got the place smashed up," Niltak replied, clearly angry. This time Shadow Flame found himself waiting for the tiefling to finish a swig from his mug. "Some Cornugon, a general or some such, got in a row with a Cambion. Usually those sort of things go nowhere, Baatezu and Tanar'ri might hate each other, but they know better than t' start anythin' serious, 'specially with all them beholders floatin' 'round the place. Anyway, Cambion can't hold his soddin' self back and starts a fight! There's a few Barbazu there as well, you know, backin' up the Cornugon, and a full on brawl breaks out."
"What did you do?" asked Shadow Flame, "isn't it your job to stop that sort of thing from happening?"
"First I heard of it was when some poor sod came flyin' out the door, knocked it clean off its 'inges! I looked inside and saw what was goin' on. 'Sod this for a joke' I thought to meself and got outta there faster 'an if I woke up in the Abyss! Was only gonna be a couple minutes before the beholders showed up and I didn't want to be anywhere close when they did."
Shadow Flame and Unagi both laughed, "yeah good call," said Unagi, "I probably would have done the same." They sat for a minute, drinking quietly before Shadow Flame leant forward, "we need a portal to Sigil, can you help us out there?" he asked Niltak, jingling his purse as he spoke.
"There's a couple around town," Niltak answered, "but the watch 'as got 'em locked down pretty tight. After the fight at the Petitioner all portals into and out of Hopeless are being watched. Ya can't use 'em without a pass now, ol' Thingol'll let the beholders flay ya if ya try."
Shadow Flame sat back in his seat and frowned - nothing was ever easy. He looked up at Unagi who shrugged in response, the big man had learnt what he needed to know, and it was clear looking at Jean and Silvara that they were keen to get out of that place. Unagi stood and dropped a gold coin on the table in front of Niltak before walking off with the rest of the party in tow.
"Hey thanks a lot," Niltak called after them, "you cutters are alright!"
They smelled Misercardiam's shop a good five hundred yards before they spotted it in the coming gloom - the bitter smell of almond and cinnamon, cloves and rosemary, and other more exotic and foul substances better left unnamed. True to Niltak's word the sign hanging over the door contained a number of symbols or letters that meant nothing to the party. Shadow Flame stepped forward and tried the door - it was open, so the Hag must still be taking customers for the day.
They stepped inside to exactly the kind of placed they had imagined from Niltak's description and the smell they had been breathing in for the last minute or so. It was crammed full of jars and bottles, pouches and sacks, barrels and bins, along the walls and upon shelves, piled in stacks on the floor. The contents of the jars varied from dried leaves to powders, to barks and roots to preserved plants and animals both dried and in jars of liquid, to more disturbing items such as preserved body parts or jars of eyes and teeth. The smell was nearly overwhelming and Silvara found herself quite light headed, her acute sense of smell assaulted by the myriad substances on display.
"I'm going to have to wait outside," she said, "the smell of this place is just too much." She hurried out of the store and up the street, close enough that she could see the store but far enough away that she could breath again.
"It's a pity your friend had to leave in such a rush," came an old voice, high pitched and croaky, "I could have provided a cloth for her to help cover the smell. I know her kind have sensitive noses." As the sentence was finished being spoken an old woman moved out from behind a series of shelves placed in the middle of the floor towards the back of the shop. The woman was old, no doubt there, but she moved quickly and almost gracefully - it was clear her age was no hindrance to her. She had a wrinkled face of dark skin and long matted black hair shot with streaks of silvery grey. The old woman walked forward confidently, swiftly and introduced herself.
"I am Misercardiam, alchemist extraordinaire, welcome to my store cutters. What may I have the pleasure of doing for you this day?"
"Greetings to you," Unagi started, "we have come looking for information."
"Information is it?" asked the hag, "information is one thing I do not trade in."
"What is it that you do trade in?" asked Jean looking about the store, it had a lot of potential.
"Well my dear where to start? I trade in potions and poisons, exotic magical substances; ingredients of all kinds for spells and items, magical inks and all manner of elixirs, and of course the meanest, ugliest, most hate-filled larvae in all of Hopeless. What have you in mind?"
"I think..." began Jean as a shelf of potion bottles caught her eye, "that I'll take a look around, there's so much to see."
"Of course my dear, please look around and ask any questions you have. If there is something you are looking for I do not have then ask, I have many friends," she smiled widely, perhaps a little too widely. Jean managed to get out a half interested nod as she began looking over some ornate crystal bottles.
"We have been told you know a tiefling named Ternus," said Unagi insistently, "can you tell us where we can find him?" Shadow Flame winced slightly at Unagi's bluntness.
"Ternus hey?" mused the Night Hag, "I know him, what of it?"
"I have...business with him," Unagi answered.
"Ternus works for me every now and then, if I have a job I cannot see to, maybe something that requires a forthright approach. Something I suspect you would understand."
Unagi frowned, "so where is he now?"
"I'm afraid he is out of town right now, is there something I can help you with?"
"Out of town? When will he be back," the gladiator pressed, not willing to leave without some kind of lead.
"He is in the gate-town of Torch seeing to some business for me, nothing that you need concern yourself with,"she answered, growing steadily more impatient with Unagi's manner.
"So you're his boss then?"
"You might say that, although he is free to conduct his own business. He is a useful instrument when a situation calls for a more...insistent solution."
Shadow Flame watched Unagi's reaction and recognised the big was beginning to get angry. "Tell me good woman what..."
"So he can set up his own dealings?" Unagi interrupted Shadow Flame.
"No, I do not allow it," the Hag answered quickly, beginning to suspect where this was going, "he is free to carry out my orders as he sees fit, but he does not do other work without my agreement."
"So I'm hearing that Ternus does nothing without your say so Hag? Is that right?" asked Unagi, now clearly angry. He had made the obvious inference and realised that this hag may well be responsible for him ending up in Hopeless in the first place. Who knew what else she might know.
Misercardiam nodded and smiled, "does that concern you in some way human?" she asked.
"Indeed it does hag, but I think that it should probably be bothering you more," he said, his hand moving quickly to the hilt of his sword.
The Night Hag cackled, a dry sound, like burning kindling, "my dear boy, you would be dead before you could draw steel. Think for a moment where you are and what guards the streets."
Jean had been listening in to the confrontation and was silently calling a spell to mind in case things got any more heated. She continued to browse the contents of the hags shelves but was no longer taking notice of what was on them.
Shadow Flame pushed in front of Unagi drawing the big man's ire. "Nug, go and help Jean try to find what she is looking for while I talk with Misercardiam will you?"
Unagi started to speak but stopped at Shadow Flames expression, but only for a moment. "But this hag knows..." he began.
"Nug!" Shadow Flame barked through clenched teeth, "I think Jean needs a little help over there," he nodded his head in Jeans' direction. Unagi looked over to Jean who understood what Shadow Flame was doing. She smiled at Unagi and waved him over. Unagi sighed heavily but did not press the issue. He often disagreed with Shadow Flame but understood that the tiefling was better at keeping his cool than he was.
As Unagi started walking over to Jean, Shadow Flame smiled apologetically at the Night Hag and asked, "so, tell me what poisons have you got for sale?"
Misercardiam watched Unagi walk over to Jean and frowned as the sorceress stood on her tip-toes and gave the gladiator a playful clip over the ear. Turning to Shadow Flame she answered, "why I have poisons for all occasions my dear. Poisons that will kill a man quickly or slowly, painfully or in his sleep, poisons to stop the heart or eat him from the inside. Poisons to paralyze, poisons to bring about sickness both curable and incurable, even by magic. Poisons to bring about madness and poisons to trick the mind. What is it you desire my dear?" she smiled menacingly.
"I think I would..." Shadow Flame paused as Jean loudly and pointedly cleared her throat.
"I don't think poison will be necessary do you Flame?" she said from across the room.
Shadow Flame furrowed his brow in annoyance at the mage, "just don't you worry about that Jean, just try and keep Nug out of trouble."
Jean started to answer Shadow Flame but he turned back to Misercardiam before she could say anything. "I'm thinking of some paralyzation poison," he said, answering the hags question.
She cackled quietly, "like to keep them still so they can watch the blade go in slowly hey?" she said, trying to get a reaction out of Shadow Flame.
"Something like that," he replied unperturbed.
"So do you want paralyzed and conscious or unconscious?"
"Surprise me," Shadow Flame answered, and Misercardiam smiled, seemingly pleased with his reply. She turned and walked toward the rear of the store, motioning with her hand for Shadow Flame to follow.
"So your friend, he seems very interested in Ternus, what has that half-wit tiefling done this time?"
Shadow Flame raised his eyebrow at the hag's question, "I guess I'd have to say, it's personal, but my friend has good cause to want to....uh, speak with Ternus."
"Fair enough," replied the hag as she bent over to grab a large jar full of a brown powder from a lower shelf, "the addle-coved berk has pretty much run out of uses anyway. Like I said, he is in Torch right now and likely won't be back for at least two or three weeks. As soon as he gives me what he was sent to do he's yours, how does that sound?"
"Sounds good to me," said Shadow Flame, surprised at the hag's words.
"Of course this means I'm going to have to charge you premium for the...poisons. You understand, right?" she smiled as she began measuring out doses of the powder into small paper containers.
Returning her smile Shadow Flame nodded, "fair enough." He thought for a moment before asking, "so what you said back there, about Ternus not doing anything without your OK, is that true?"
Misercardiam stopped what she was doing and looked at Shadow Flame closely. "It is. What of it?"
Sensing her change in attitude Shadow Flame thought for a moment before asking, "could he have maybe made the odd deal on the side, without your...consent?"
"Not a chance tiefer," the Night Hag answered, "that leather'ead wouldn't be able to scratch his arse without my approval." She looked at Shadow Flame hard and gently shook her head to indicate that his line of questioning was finished.
Taking the hint he looked down at several small packets of brown powder resting on the shelf, "well, that should do it wouldn't you say?"
Misercardiam looked down at the packets, "hmph! If you say so. Not going to last you too long though is it?"
"Only needs to work once," Shadow Flame smiled.
She closed each packet carefully and placed them in a small glass jar. She handed the jar to Shadow Flame and said, "150 jink should cover it dear."
Shadow Flame smiled and nodded as he began counting out the coins for the hag.
When the last coin was in the old hags wrinkled hand he looked at her and said, "thanks for your time," and turned and left, pausing only to tell Unagi and Jean they were leaving. Jean started to argue - there was a lot of good stuff here - but sensed this wasn't the time, and walked out after Shadow Flame and Unagi, looking back over her shoulder with a little bit of disappointment.
Silvara walked over to them as they left the store, but did not say anything - she could sense the tension in the air.
"What was that?" asked Unagi.
"Nug, don't try and tell me that wasn't going to end with you drawing your blade on the hag?" said Shadow Flame.
Unagi paused briefly before saying, "maybe...."
"And you don't think that would have been, oh I don't know...the worst possible idea?" he continued.
Unagi nodded slightly.
"Yeah, I don't really want to have to fight a beholder right now," said Shadow Flame, "and I doubt anyone else does either."
Unagi nodded. He knew Shadow Flame was right, but he was just so close...
"So did you find anything out?" he asked Shadow Flame.
"A little," replied the tiefling, "the hag pretty much told me we could have Ternus if we wanted him, although it cost me, I reckon, maybe a hundred gold for that."
Unagi smiled, "that's pretty sweet," he said, and then paused, "but he's not really the one we need to speak to now is he?"
Shadow Flame shook his head. "She didn't come out and say it, and I think she may well have chosen to fight it out if I had pushed the question, but I'm pretty sure she knows a lot more than Ternus will."
"Figured as much," said Unagi, "but I think this time we're going to have to plan our next move."
Shadow Flame laughed, "good one Nug!" he said, clapping the gladiator on the back, "I'm impressed."
Unagi tried to look annoyed but couldn't help smiling at the tiefling. "We should wait for Ternus to come back and see if he knows anything. He might be a bit more clued in that the old hag gives him credit for."
'That he might," replied Shadow Flame, "but the hag said he was at least two or three weeks away. I don't think we have the time to sit around Hopeless waiting for him."
"Not that I'd want to sit around this place for three weeks anyway," Jean piped in, "it' depressing."
Unagi sighed. He agreed with Jean but he was starting to realise he wasn't going to find out anything about how he ended up in Hopeless with no memory any time soon. "OK", he said after a minute, "let's head to this Sisterhood house and see what they can do."
"In a minute," said Jean turning to look at Shadow Flame. "What was that with the poison? What are you planning on doing with that?" she was a little angry at the tiefling. Silvara raised an eyebrow at Shadow Flame at the mention of poison, and even Unagi looked at him, a little concerned.
"Oh guys, really," said Shadow Flame, "sometimes you have to play the game. I'm not going to use it, I just bought it as a way to smooth things over, to relax the old hag a bit. After Nug nearly tried to go her I had to do something. It worked too I might add," he finished with a smile.
They all relaxed and smiled at him. Poison was the weapon of an assassin, of a coward. It was a cheap and weak way to beat an opponent, there was no honour in it, it was simply premeditated murder. They all hated its use.
Satisfied at his answer they began to walk back up the road for the third time that day.
The Chapterhouse of the Sisterhood was indeed easy to find. It stood 3 stories high, a strong square building supported on all side by sweeping buttresses fashioned to appear as curved blades. It was walled in Hopeless' grey stone and armoured guards in the style of Jerison's guards patrolled both the wall and the perimeter. The main gate was still open so it was clear that the Sisterhood was still accepting visitors. The party walked through the gate unchallenged, but with no clear indication of what they should do they approached a nearby guard.
"Well met," Shadow Flame said, "we met Jerison earlier in the day on the street and he suggested to us that we come here and see him this evening, can you tell us where we might be able to find him?"
The guard thought for a moment before answering, "I'm fairly sure he isn't back yet. I've been on duty since he left and I would have seen him return."
Shadow Flame hid his frustration well as he asked, "well is there someone else we can talk to? We are here at Jerison's invitation after all."
"OK,I tell you what basher, I'll take you to see Dianna, she is second in command here, so to speak. She'll be able to sort you out."
"Thank you," replied Shadow Flame letting a little bit of annoyance sneak into his voice.
The guard lead them into the main building. Central to the compound it was really a large keep more than anything, with heavy gates opening into a defensible guard room. They were lead through a large common room and into the back end of the first level. Many rooms they passed were acting as hospital rooms, the sick of Hopeless finding priestly aid beyond their means. Eventually the guard stopped in front of an unremarkable wooden door at the end of a long corridor. He knocked and it was almost immediately opened. A tall woman with silvery hair and golden sparkling eyes stood there to greet them.
"Milady, these folk claim to have been invited by Jerison. I wasn't too sure what to do with them so I have brought them to you."
"Thank you Illniom," the lady replied with a soft, melodic voice, "you did the right thing."
The guard blushed a little bit before bowing slightly and taking his leave.
"Welcome friends, I am Dianna, priestess of Athena. I look after the sisterhood, I guess you could call me its mother, insofar as I look after everyone and make sure everything runs smoothly. Please, come in."
She opened the door to them into a large utilitarian room that seemed to serve two purposes. There was a large desk at the end of the room surrounded by bookcases and other shelves, a curtain was partially drawn across to separate it from the front of the room. A low desk surrounded by plain yet comfortable chairs sat beside a fireplace, a decanter and glasses ready for drinking sat on the desk. The party introduced themselves as they took their seats and recounted their encounter with Jerison earlier that day.
"Ah Jerison," started Dianna as she poured the party a drink each, "he can be a little forgetful, or perhaps he can get a little preoccupied with things. He had some business to attend to this evening and I expect it will be quite late by the time he gets back. He will no doubt want to see you though if he asked you to come back here."
Shadow Flame took his glass and raised it in thanks to Dianna, "I think his intention was for us to get some information," he said after taking a sip of his drink, a warm but sour liquid similar to brandy. "We are...new in town and in need of some...guidance," he explained.
"So you are Primes then?" asked Dianna.
"Clueless I believe is the term," Unagi said with some humour.
Dianna smiled, "only the clueless refer to themselves as such, most folk try their best to appear not clueless, but here it makes things easier. I am happy to answer your questions, helping those in need is my job after all, and Athena wills that those in need of protection, especially from themselves, should receive it." There was a trace of amusement in her voice that the party picked up on and it helped relax them a little. They looked at each other for a moment, unsure of how or where to begin.
"Perhaps you could tell me how you came to Hopeless," Dianna prompted, sensing their uncertainty.
Shadow Flame nodded and recounted the tale of the portal in the abandoned abbey that had taken them to the courtroom of the Yugoloths and the ensuing battle that they ran through. The other party members chimed in here and there adding their own memories to the story. Dianna sat silently through their tale, seemingly a little surprised, and when they had finished she took a long drink from her own glass.
"That is quite the tale, and I think I can answer at least the immediate unspoken questions you have. I would say that you found yourselves in both the best and worst situation you could hope for as your first stop in the planes. The worst because, I'm sure you can guess, you found yourselves in the company of a large number of Yugoloths, and subsequently embroiled in a large running skirmish of the Blood War. Surprisingly, this worked in your favour this time as it meant, in the scheme of things, that you were considered unimportant enough that you...slipped through the cracks so to speak."
Shadow Flame nodded, "it would seem to be the case," he said, "but it begs the question - what is the Blood War?"
"A big question indeed," answered Dianna, "one of the biggest in fact. I don't want to swamp you with stories and histories just yet, and this is of minor consequence to you, at least for now. Suffice to say the Blood War is the oldest and biggest war in the planes, and in the multiverse itself. The Tanar'ri and Baatezu," she paused as she named the fiendish races to gage the parties knowledge of them, and seeing that they at least new of them she continued, "the fiends of chaos and of law, have been at war since before history began. None alive can remember why they fight, and that is not the question any more as the answer is hate. There are those who speculate upon the averse natures of their races - a battle chaos and law, of primal forces, but these are the ideas of scholars and philosophers. I believe they fight because that is what they have always done, because it is what they know. Hatred does not diminish for creatures born with a heart set to evil and a hand set for war."
Shadow Flame sat, clearly intrigued by this Blood War, it spoke to him at a deeper level, but he also recognised that this was not the time to try and delve deeper into it. "What of the place we were in? Why would these fiends be fighting there?"
"The where was no doubt Oinos, first layer of the Grey Waste," Dianna answered, raising her eyebrow at Shadow Flame who nodded his answer to her question. "So you know of it, good that will save some time. The why of it is perhaps harder to answer, but there are some immediate reasons. Oinos is a popular site for Blood War battles as the Grey Waste lies in between the planes of Baator and the Abyss, well as much as it makes sense to say any plane lies between any others. The planes of Gehenna, the Grey Waste and Carceri are where the bulk of the fighting occurs - you could call them middle grounds or the no mans land of the Blood War, although that isn't strictly true either, for the Yugoloths claim Gehenna as a whole, and Oinos itself as their own, but that is perhaps a tale for another time. The thing that makes Oinos such an attractive proposition is the fact that no teleportation magic works there..."
Shadow Flame half laughed, "well that explains that," he said to himself as much as to everyone else. Dianna nodded to him as she continued.
"All fiends have the innate ability to use teleportation magic at will, and Oinos is the great equalizer - it guarantees a victor. For that is how victory is determined - by annihilation. There is no surrender and there is no mercy." She stopped her story there for she had answered the most obvious of questions, and waited for them to gather their thoughts and ask questions more directly.
Eventually Shadow Flame spoke again, "Dianna, is it possible to change the destination of a portal via magic?"
Dianna thought before answering, "yes it is, but it is difficult and requires powerful magics indeed. It is really something that only the most powerful of archmages can accomplish. Why do you ask?"
Shadow Flame elaborated upon the story of how they happened to find themselves in Oinos in the first place and how Silas had seemingly changed the destination of the portal at the ruined abbey before they could use it.
"So you say he changed the destination via magic? Are you sure?" she asked, a little concerned. Shadow Flame looked to the rest of the party who mostly shrugged in response.
"Well, that's what it looked like," he answered.
"There are portals that can be tied to several destinations," Dianna explained, "depending on which key is used. Are you sure he didn't use a different key to change the destination of the portal?"
Shadow Flame thought about the question for several seconds, but it was Unagi who answered, "he did throw something at the portal before it changed colour," he said. "I had assumed it was a spell or some kind, but it could have been a portal key."
"That would be the better explanation," said Dianna, "unless you really have got yourselves mixed up with a creature of tremendous power."
Shadow Flame laughed, "wouldn't surprise me," he said, still smiling, "perhaps you could shed some light on that for us then?" he asked. As Dianna nodded he gave a good description of Silas Coldstone in his true guise as a tiger headed beast whose hands appeared to have been put on backwards.
"Rakshasa," Dianna said simply. None of them said anything so she continued, "a race of fiendish creatures native to the plane of Acheron. They are masters of illusion and have some innate ability to use divine magic - very powerful, but I have never heard of a Rakshasa having the ability to alter portal destinations. They are a clan like race, and, like all evil races I suppose, consider themselves to be superior to all others. Luckily they are relatively few in number. They often cast their lot with the Baatezu when there is profit to be made, their lawful nature anathema to the Tanar'ri. They are also often found as mercenaries or hired spell-slingers, which would seem to be how you encountered this...Silas was it?" Shadow Flame nodded. "Almost certainly not his real name," continued Dianna, "they prefer long winded, difficult to pronounce names with ostentatious titles, but it makes sense for him to have chosen a short name to deal with Primes."
With the question about Silas answered Shadow Flame changed the topic of conversation as he didn't want to get too involved in a discussion about Silas and the Three Wheels as that would entail talking about the Staff of Knowledge and he didn't want to broach that subject at all.
"You said that the Yugoloths claim the Grey Waste as their own? What do you know of them, we have had the odd run in with them ourselves but know little."
"With the gate to the Grey Waste in the centre of Hopeless we see our share of Yugoloths," began Dianna, "they are not common on the streets of Hopeless but they do come here. It is surprising in fact that we see so few fiends in town given the gate to Oinos, but I suspect that the Yugoloths prefer it that way."
"And what of Hopeless?" asked Unagi changing the topic, "why are beholders patrolling the streets?"
"Hmm..." Dianna thought out loud for second, "Hopeless' ruler is a sorceress who goes by the grand title of Thingol the Mocking," answered Dianna.
"Human?" asked Unagi.
"By all accounts yes, but it is not know for certain. Whenever Thingol appears in public she wears a heavy iron mask fashioned into a wolfs head and robes draped in heavy chains that seem to move of their own accord - she is quite an imposing figure. And the beholders - quite the way to ensure that your law is followed wouldn't you say?", the party nodded together at her question, returning her smirk. "Chant is the beholders were given as a gift by some dark power in return for, well the stories don't say, but speculation is that it is the reason she wears the mask, not out of choice but as a direct result of the bargain that she made in return for the beholders. Like most in Hopeless Thingol has long left behind any dreams and seems only to exist to inflict pain upon those who break her laws, laws that are not always known of before they are broken. I have also heard stories that the Yugoloths are the real rulers of Hopeless, they are seen entering her palace from time to time, but speaking such things aloud is a crime punishable by death. In fact Thingol often holds public executions. The accused is given the opportunity to do or say something, anything that may make her feel some emotion, and if they succeed they are freed. None have been freed."
"And it is at her command that the portals have been locked down?" asked Jean, speaking for the first time since they sat down with Dianna.
"Yes it is."
"How exactly do you lock down a portal?"
"There are magics that can be used to lock a portal for a short time," Dianna answered Jean's question, "but in a place like Hopeless they are not needed. Portals require a portal key to activate as you know, and knowledge of the key is simply kept secret by Thingol's lackies. When the portals shift, or one disappears and another appears in its place, which doesn't always happen mind you, knowledge of the portal key is leaked out on Thingol's command. But there is also the old fashioned way. Since the fight at the Flayed Petitioner the other night all known portals have guards on them and no one can use them without a pass - a pass issued by the palace."
The party looked at each other, Jean and Unagi swearing under their breath. "We have need to get to Sigil," said Shadow Flame, "is there no portal in town we can use to get there?"
"Not presently," answered Dianna, "all known portals are guarded and access granted only by pass."
"So how do we get to Sigil then?"
"There are other portals, in the outlands for example that can be used. You should speak with Jerison about it when he returns."
Clearly frustrated, Shadow Flame simply nodded and changed the subject again, "what can you tell us of Sigil?"
Dianna smiled, "that is a big question my friend. Sigil is a big place, do you have a more specific question in mind? I could speak of Sigil for hours and not even scratch the surface."
Shadow Flame shrugged, "not really," he answered, "we are clueless after all, any information would be useful."
Dianna thought for a moment. She poured herself another drink and offered the party a refill which they all took. As she finished pouring the drinks she started, "the city of doors as it is called is considered by many to be the centre of the multiverse. Even though it makes no real sense to call anything the centre of an infinite number of infinite planes, Sigil is as a deserving a place as any of that name. The one piece of advice that you should take with you is to leave your prejudices at the door. At any given time there are one to two million folk in Sigil of all races, and I mean all races," she emphasised the all of her sentence. "You can walk down the street and see a group of Baatezu walk past a group of Tanar'ri and exchange nothing more than a sneer. You can see a Deva offer advice to an orc, a thri-kreen trading with an ogre or a hag with a cart load of larvae for sale, and everything in between."
It took a moment for the comment to sink in to them. "How is the order kept in such a place?" asked Shadow Flame a little incredulously.
"Well, nominally the Hardheads are the law in Sigil, and it is..."
"Hardheads?" interrupted Jean.
"The Harmonium," explained Dianna, "they are one of the Factions that rule Sigil."
"Oh, I have heard of these Factions," said Shadow Flame, "can you provide any additional details?"
"Of course," smiled Dianna. "There are 15 Factions that between them see to the day to day governing of the city. Each Faction is based around a particular belief or world view that often sees them suited to a particular role in the multiverse. One thing you will need to understand my friends, is that out here in the planes things are different to the Prime, and I mean fundamentally different. In the planes belief is the currency of reality - beliefs shape and change the nature of the multiverse, and strong belief can literally change reality. This is why folks align themselves with Factions, and to a lesser degree sects. If enough people believe in something strongly enough then that belief can become real, and I don't just mean things like if enough people believe they're happy then they really are happy. I mean, for example, if enough people believe strongly enough that you, my dear Shadow Flame, do not exist, then it is entirely possible for you to cease to exist. An extreme example for sure, but one that is not outside the realm of possibility."
He looked at the rest of the party who were sharing an amused look at Dianna example. He narrowed his eyes at them and then burst out laughing, the rest of the party joining him.
After a moment Dianna continued, "so the Factions are where the real power lies in Sigil. Each has it's own agenda which it must try and balance out with the others Factions while simultaneously trying to subvert them. It is called the kreigstanz by those in Sigil - the hidden war between the Factions as each seeks to establish itself as the dominant force in the multiverse, and as the ruling Faction of Sigil."
"But how does that work?" asked Jean, "surely there must be open warfare on the streets of Sigil if that is the case."
"The key word is hidden," answered Dianna, "the Factions dare not risk open warfare lest they draw the gaze of the Lady of Pain."
Shadow Flame nodded, "we have heard of this lady of pain," he said.
"She is the real ruler of Sigil, it is her will that keeps it from exploding into constant warfare."
"How can she do that?" asked Unagi somewhat incredulously, "if she is just one woman."
"The Lady is an enigma," answered Dianna, "she is a being of immense power. It is her will alone that prevents the powers from entering Sigil, she controls all the portals to and from the city, opening and closing them at her will. Little is known about her, who she is, where she came from, nothing. For as long as Sigil has existed the Lady of Pain has ruled over it, keeping it safe from those that would desire to control it for themselves. Many have tried, for you can easily see how a city with portals to every possible location in the multiverse would be desirable, but none have succeeded. You cannot get into or out of Sigil except via a portal and she controls the portals. Those of immense power such as Arch-Fiends and the Gods are forbidden entry into Sigil, and in all memory, living and otherwise, none have done so."
"So the Lady is the queen of Sigil?" asked Jean.
"Not as such no," Dianna explained, "she does not involve herself in the day to day governance of the city, that task is left to the Factions who do so at her will only. She makes no decrees, creates no laws and receives no visitors. She is, as I said, an enigma. But make no mistake, her justice is swift and brutal."
"So what does she do?" asked Jean, fascinated by this figure.
"The Lady appears to punish those who put Sigil at risk, whose actions cause harm to the city. It is the Factions job, the Harmonium, The Mercy Killers and the Fraternity of Order, to enforce the law, punish the offenders and create the law respectively, and these laws are largely similar to those in most cities. But crimes against Sigil, subversion or large scale destruction draw the Lady to action. The leaders of such crimes are sent to the mazes whilst those who play a lesser part are flayed alive."
"Mazes?" asked Shadow Flame.
"Flayed?" asked Jean.
Dianna smiled at Jean, "yes, flayed. If it is her will, when the Ladies shadow falls upon an enemy of Sigil the skin is flayed from their body on the spot, a painful and gruesome death. And the mazes," she turned to Shadow Flame, "are pieces of Sigil, said to be cast off into the deep ethereal, along with the offender who is trapped in them forever. Chant is that each maze has but one hidden portal through which folk can enter and exit, but any berk sent to a maze can live forever and never find it. It is the ultimate prison."
They all sat for a moment and took in what was said in silence. "So this Lady is a god?" asked Silvara.
Dianna looked at Silvara for almost the first time and smiled, "nobody knows my dear," she answered, "but I think it unlikely. See, without followers, and more importantly, the belief of those followers, Gods die. It is the power of belief that sustains them, that provides their power. If no one believes in or worships any given god then that gods power dwindles as does their existence until eventually they die. The Lady actively discourages folk from worshipping her by flaying any who try."
"That's quite the deterrent," Silvara almost laughed.
"So back to the Factions for a moment," interrupted Shadow Flame, "you mentioned the Harmonium and....some others? They rule Sigil?"
"Not rule, govern," replied Dianna, "there is an important difference. With 15 Factions there is no single ruler, and each Factions controls some part of the cities governance. As a brief example, the Harmonium, a Faction who believe that the path to happiness, the point of existence is for all to work in harmony, are the law enforcement in Sigil. The Mercy Killers, a Faction who believe that the point of existence is the pursuit of justice and that perfection can only be found when the law is absolute and those who break the law are punished, it is their role to, unsurprisingly, carry out the sentences given to the cities criminals, they run and control Sigils prison. The Fraternity of Order, who believe that the multiverse is knowable via laws and their applications. They believe if you know the law, you can control reality - they control the judicial system and run the cities courts. That should give you some idea of the roles the Factions play. As I said, there are 15 of them so I won't go into more detail...unless you really want me to?" she asked with some trepidation.
She breathed a slight breath of relief when Shadow Flame changed the subject back to the Yugoloths, "we got a little side tracked earlier, can you tell us more of the Yugoloths?"
"Thank you for not making me go into a lesson on Factions," Dianna smiled at the party. "Of course I can tell you about them, I have met a few in my time. There is an old saying on the planes - when dealing with Yugoloths, if you find yourself on the better end of the dealing, then you should be concerned."
"We have heard that," said Jean, "even all the way on the Prime."
"It is good advice. For you see, they come cloaked in promises and wearing the guise of friendliness. They ask what it is you want and claim to be able to provide it. But you must know, they bear a poisoned tongue with the foul breath of deceit. They are not to be trusted, for their cloaks are made of half truths. Not lies, for they have no real power. You can cause much more pain with the truth than you can with lies and they come to you with both in equal measure. They are the mercenaries of the lower planes, planning and conniving in the name of Evil for they pursue it as a goal unto itself. They are hated by all, but have positioned themselves as indispensable as well. They sell themselves, their armies, to the highest bidder and at a whim betray them, sometimes in return for more gifts of power and sometimes for their own amusement and dark ends. But the Tanar'ri and the Baatezu continue to court them for if one does not then the other will, and often their aid can be decisive. Do not trust the Yugoloths my friends, but do not ignore them either, if they have taken some interest in you then you must find a way to bend that interest to your own ends."
"You paint a bleak picture Dianna," said Jean, "but our experience agrees with you," Unagi and Shadow Flame both snorting agreeably in derision at Jean's reference to their past dealing with Shemeska in particular. "It seems they come to the table knowing more than you and ply you with promises of wealth."
"Precisely," replied Dianna. "Understand that they have millennia to learn all they can and have neither the impulsiveness of the Tanar'ri or the rigid adherence of the Baatezu and are unbound by moral or societal strictures, dealing only when they wield more power than their collective foe if they can at all help it."
"It is as we have been told and come to expect," said Shadow Flame. "We have heard stories of others, the Baernoloths? What do you know of them?"
She gave him a quizzical look in return.
"What?" said Shadow Flame a little self consciously.
"Well, they don't exist do they?" Dianna answered a little incredulously.
"Really?" Shadow Flame sounded surprised. "But how could we be expected to know otherwise?" he asked, a little offended at Dianna's tone.
"I'm sorry," she apologised, "I didn't mean to offend. The Baern are a myth created by the Yugoloths to justify their claims, if they ever existed they have long since passed into legend."
Shadow Flame raised his eyes and looked at the party meaningfully. It would seem not-Fallon may not have been the authority he claimed to be. "It's just we were told, on authority, that they were real."
He deflated just slightly, "...we don't know."
"Well," said Dianna relaxing her tone, "be careful what you believe, especially when it comes to the 'loths. They know more than you could ever know, but do not give anything away - everything has a price."
Shadow Flame nodded his understanding. "Lesson learnt I think," said Unagi, "is there anything else you can tell us concerning the 'loths? It seems that the old adage of knowing your enemies seems particularly poignant here."
Diann thought for several moment before answering, "they are a hierarchical race, and each kind of 'loth has it's place in society. Mezzoloths are of course the lowest kind. They are spawned directly from Gehenna and the Wastes, and chant is their numbers are constant - whenever one dies another is spat forth from the Wastes to take it place. It is why the 'loths do not fear death, and the higher castes thoughtlessly sell them as commodities, for that is what they are."
"Mezzoloths are the lowest?" said Unagi, "they are incredibly strong. We have met lower Tanar'ri before and have killed them ourselves, but every time we have faced a Mezzoloth it has crushed us."
"They are the lowest caste yes, but they are not the weakest," explained Dianna, "although they are not far from it. Thing is, Mezzoloths are remarkably stupid and can be beaten with cunning and sound strategy. They are brutes and nothing more. At the top of the chain are the Ultroloths, beings of immense power. They have considerably psionic abilities and can get in your head and kill you from within. They are feared, rightfully, by all races."
"So the being who appeared to be Astyaril, a high priestess of Selune, in the throne room in the Waste, was an Ultroloth?" Silvara said, mostly to herself. "It was very convincing, but lacked some basic knowledge to complete the effect."
"You did a bit better than me or Flame," said Unagi, "all I could do was stand there and stare. My mind was still my own but I could do nothing but stare at it as if it were a naked Jean." Jean blushed slightly and blew the gladiator a kiss. He smiled back, and after a second turned back to Dianna, "how do you fight such a creature?"
"You don't, or at least you try your best not to. They are cloaked in enchantment magics so some protections against them are helpful, but unless you are certain you can win you don't fight - you deal. Like all beings with that kind of power they are paranoid, and they will not waste resources. Make yourself useful to them or offer them something they may want. What that might be is anybodys guess, but treat them with the respect that any creature with power demands."
As Dianna finished her sentence there was a loud knock at the door. Everyone jumped a little bit, immersed as they were in the conversation.
"Enter," Dianna called out just a bit formally.
The door opened and Jerison walked in. The party stood stiffly, they had been sitting talking much longer than they thought they had.
"Well, hello to you all," he smiled warmly at the party. He looked at Dianna and his smile broadened as he walked over and took her hand. He lifted her hand and kissed it. His eyes sparkled as he looked at her and spoke, "I trust you've been keeping my new friends entertained my dear?"
"Of course," she smiled back, "they have been very kind to listen to me rave on for so long."
"Nonsense," said Silvara, "you have proven to be a font of knowledge, we are much enlightened for your words."
The rest of them voiced their agreement with Silvara. "You are all too kind," Dianna replied to them all. "I think, now you are here," she said to Jerison, "that I will take my leave and see to our charges."
"Of course," replied Jerison, "they all miss their mother so," he said teasingly. Dianna rolled her eyes at the golden skinned man and took her leave.
They all say back down and Jerison poured himself a drink. The rest of them had been so caught up in the conversation with Dianna that their second round sat untouched for the most part. They all drank together, raising their glasses and finishing their drinks in one go.
"I imagine that Dianna was able to provide a good amount of information to you," Jerison half asked, "she is very knowledgeable, even though she won't admit it. I will be happy to answer any further questions you may have, my day has been long and I am in the mood to relax and share stories."
"I'd firstly like to thank you for your hospitality Jerison," said Silvara bowing her head slightly, "it has been a warm reception in an otherwise cold and dreary place."
"Not at all my friend," Jerison replied, "it is what we do here, I am happy to help."
Shadow Flame did not waste his words as he said, "earlier we asked Dianna about a portal to Sigil. She told us that all the portals in town were under guard after the brawl at the Flayed Petitioner," Jerison nodded at Shadow Flames words. "Dianna told us to talk to you about finding a portal when you returned, and, since, you are here, I'm asking."
He nodded again at Shadow Flame forthrightness and then spent a few moments thinking about the tieflings question. "It is true, you cannot use the portals in Hopeless," he began, "but there are portals in the Outlands you could use."
"Can you tell us how to find them?" pressed Shadow Flame.
"I can," answered Jerison, "but I think I would like you to do me a small favour first."
Shadow Flame had to stop himself from rolling his eyes, "and what might this small favour be?" he asked.
"Nothing major friend, just a small delivery. There are some in town who would like to see us removed, or even arrested, and consequently those of the Sisterhood are being watched at all times. On occasion we have need to deal with some whom it is best Thingol and her cronies do not find out about. This is one of those dealings." Shadow Flame nodded and indicated for him to continue. "All I would ask is that you take a message, a written note, to someone in Hopeless. A simple enough task."
Unagi spoke up, "I'm in, what do we need to do?"
"Hang on Nug," said Shadow Flame, "I'd like to find out a bit more about this first."
"What's to find out?" asked Unagi, "we take the letter to whoever, find out where the portal is and how to use it, and then go to Sigil. I'm sick of all this sitting around and talking, it's time to get on the horse."
"I tend to agree," said Jean. "Sorry Flame, but I want to get going as well, it seems like a simple enough request."
"Then it's settled?" asked Jerison, mainly to Shadow Flame.
Rather than press the point, Shadow Flame simply nodded.
"OK then," Jerison began, "this message," he pulled a rolled scroll sealed with wax from his robes, "must be delivered to Mealle the Just, a friend of the Sisterhood who lives on the second spiral of Hopeless' road."
Unagi quickly grabbed the scroll and began to stand.
"Just a second my big friend," Jerison said with a wry smile on his lips, "the message must be delivered as discretely as you can. As I said, the Sisterhood is being watched at all times, and I would prefer that our friend Mealle not be brought under the same scrutiny, for several reasons. Mealle is a weapons dealer which very nicely provides a group of planewalkers such as yourselves with a good excuse to be paying him a visit. You will need to make a show of buying weapons from him. Since you have spent some time with us this evening you can expect to be followed, but do not try and spot your tail; you are adventurers going to look at weapons and nothing more."
"Fine," Unagi agreed. Turning to the rest of the party he asked, "is there any reason why we shouldn't do this right now?"
As none of them had any reason to continue sitting and talking they all stood and took their leave of Jerison.
Once they were on the street and clear from the Chapterhouse, Shadow Flame asked Unagi for the scroll.
"I want to read what the message says," explained Shadow Flame.
"Why?" asked Unagi.
"So I can be sure we are not simply walking into a trap."
"Oh come on," Unagi said incredulously, "what reason could they have for that?"
"Just because we don't know the reason doesn't mean it isn't a possibility," answered Shadow Flame.
"You know Flame, there are limits to prudence. There is a point where caution becomes paranoia and I think you have reached that point," said Unagi, clearly becoming frustrated with Shadow Flames suspicions.
"I want to read the note to make sure we aren't being lead into any trouble, what possible harm could come from that? It'll take me a couple of seconds to pop the seal, read the note and reapply the wax."
"I don't see it Flame," interjected Jean, "you would need to be a master forger to pull that off I think, and I know no magic that we could use to do it."
Shadow Flame frowned at Jean before turning to Unagi, "look Nug, just give me the scroll and I'll head into the alley there and check it out, it'll only take a couple of minutes. You'll thank me if this is indeed a trap."
Unagi muttered under his breath before thrusting the scroll toward Shadow Flame, "fine," he said, "here you go. Let's just get on with it, all this prancing around delivering messages and having conversations over tea is making me edgy."
Shadow Flame took the scroll and they all walked into the nearby alley. He looked over the seal for a while before taking a dagger from his belt and moving it into the gap between the wax and the edge of the paper.
Jean was watching intently and gently grabbed Shadow Flames wrist as the point of the blade slid under the scroll, "done this before a few times have you Flame?" she asked quietly.
Shadow Flame paused and turned to her, "well, no, I haven't. But it doesn't look too hard - a quick flick to open it and a little heat to seal it back up."
"And if you mess it up?" she pressed. "We don't have the emblem pressed into the wax, so if this doesn't work out the way you envision it then what? We go back to Jerison and say 'frightfully sorry old bean but I slipped and fell on the scroll?'"
"Even if it is a trap we can handle whatever gets thrown at us," said Unagi, the glint in his eye indicating that perhaps he'd prefer to fight anyway.
Shadow Flame tensed slightly and thought about just popping the seal and to hell with the consequences, but he realised Jean was right. If he botched this up then they basically lost the trust of Jerison and their portal to Sigil - it was a high price to pay given that he had no real reason to suspect something was wrong. He relaxed and quietly slid the dagger back into its sheath.
"OK fine, let's go then," he said a little defensively as he handed the scroll back to Unagi. None of them said anything as they walked back out to the street and continued down towards Mealle the Just's kip.
The kip of Mealle the Just was right down towards the centre of town on the second spiral of Hopeless' road. As the party approached they recognised the large number of flat caravans they had passed earlier in the day just after arriving in Hopeless. It was late, but that was all they could be sure of - time didn't seem to pass the same here as it did back on Toril, and there was no sun or moon, all they knew was it was dark and it was cold, but their best guess put the time at around midnight. There were less guards than when they had first come past, most of them probably asleep now with only a couple standing watch over the caravans. The party walked through the caravans to the door of Mealle's shop. It was easily recognisable as a dank wooden sign hung above the doors; it had two black blades, crossed, carved into it. There was no writing but it made it clear enough that they were at the right place.
There was light coming from inside and the door was not locked so they entered. There was no doubt as to the shops purpose - weapons of all descriptions hung from the walls and racks and shelves, and several suits of armour stood on stands about the floor. Of more immediate interest were the two tall, blue skinned goblin-like creatures standing at the counter talking in an unknown language with a fairly rotund grey haired tiefling. The tiefling wore simple grey clothes and wore a large long knife on his belt, the long thin ribbed horns sprouting from just above his glittering green eyes marked his heritage. Although the party understood nothing that any of them were saying it was clear from the tones of the goblin-like creatures that there was some disagreement. The tiefling was clearly doing his best to remain civil and soothe the tall goblins, but it all came to end when one of them drew it's sword and pointed it at the tiefling speaking in a low and menacing tone.
The tiefling wasted no time on an obviously lost cause, "Guards!" he called loudly, "guards!"
With the two creatures gone the guards turned their attention to the party, weapons still drawn, their stance still battle-ready. Unagi's hand was already on the hilt of his blade, but both Shadow Flame and Silvara had their hands held out in front of them to indicate they weren't there to cause any trouble. The tiefling motioned to the guards, indicating that the trouble was over and they should lower their weapons.
"Excitement's over boys, thanks for the quick action. These cutters here were just in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said jovially, "or rather, they're in the right place at the wrong time." He turned and smiled widely at the party as the guards sheathed their weapons and went back to the caravans. "Welcome cutters to the shop of Mealle the Just, weapons dealer extraordinaire! If you're lookin' for weapons you've come to the right place, I have the finest blades in all the Outlands and in quantities to suit most purposes. What can I do for you this fine evenin'?"
Unagi stepped forward and held out the scroll from Jerison, "greetings to you tiefling," he said, "we come bearing a message."
Mealle took the scroll from Unagi and looked at it. He smiled wryly as he saw the seal of Jerison, "canny basher that Jerison," he said, "be sure and give him my thanks, along with this," he produced a small coin from his pocket and slid it across the counter, "it'll let him know I received his message well enough."
Unagi took the coin and put it in his coin purse with a nod. Shadow Flame moved up to the counter to speak with Mealle.
"Well met to you Mealle," he said extending his hand to the tiefling who took it firmly. "If you don't mind me asking, what was all that about?"
Mealle chuckled to himself, "competition basher, just the competition. I've set meself up pretty well here and I'm well connected, some sods take exception to a berk doin' better 'an them."
Shadow Flame smiled and nodded, "and those creatures? They looked like big goblins"
"Barghests," Mealle explained, "and yer right, nothin' but big goblins," he smiled at what might have been a joke.
"Starting a fight here doesn't seem like the best idea to me," Shadow Flame continued, "what with those beholders floating around..."
Mealle shrugged, "ah well, you know those Gehennan petitioners," he said matter of factly.
Shadow Flame didn't know what a Gehennan petitioner was but he nodded anyway before changing the subject, "so what have you got for sale here exactly?"
"Weapons of all shapes sizes to suit pixies to Pit Fiends, for slicing, for dicing, for stabbing or just plain ol' bashin' in skulls. I've got weapons of silver and cold wrought iron and even Baatoran greensteel, you name the blade I've got one here somewhere," Mealle finished his pitch with a wide smile.
The party spent some time looking through Mealle's wares, trying out some of the blades for weight and feel. The Baatoran greensteel weapons were of particular interest. The weapons were forged of a metal found only in Baator on its first later of Avernus. The Baatezu mined the ore and sold the surplus on the market, and there was quite an underground market for the metal as well as the weapons that were forged from it were lighter and stronger than those of any other metal. It was not as light as mithril nor as strong as adamantium, but it could be forged to such a fine edge that those weapons forged of greensteel could inflict grievous wounds; a long sword of greensteel could strike with the weight of a two handed sword but remain as quick as fluid as one forged of iron.
Mealle also hinted that there were weapons with magical enchantments available if the party had enough jink, and they were all pleased to note that they did indeed have the coin to purchase such weapons. However, given the lateness of the hour they decided it would be best to return to Jerison and secure the knowledge of the portal they desired. Mealle would still be there on the morrow, and besides, at the prices being asked, each of them had some thinking to do.
Unagi handed Jerison the small coin that Mealle had given him to prove they had in fact delivered the message as promised.
"Ah excellent," said Jerison, placing the coin in a pocket of his voluminous robes. "You have kept your end of the bargain and now, so shall I. Let me begin with what will likely be considered bad news. You cannot use the portals in Hopeless, we have no way of acquiring the required documentation for you to use them, and I would not recommend you try to secure it by yourselves."
Shadow Flame nodded, "we expected as much, the situation has been explained to us in some detail. What do you have in mind?"
"Well, your only viable course of action is to make use of a portal in the Outlands," Jerison explained as each member of the party let out a groan of frustration. "I know it is not ideal," Jerison apologised, "but I'm afraid you have little recourse."
"Fine," said Unagi shortly, "where is this portal?"
"I have taken into account the fact that you want to get to the Clerk's ward of Sigil, and to that end I can suggest a portal in a small village not too far from Hopeless."
Shadow Flame's brow furrowed, "what is 'not too far' meant to mean?"
"Distance is...malleable in the Outlands my friend. A journey that takes 5 days one time may take 10 days another time, there is no guarantee that you can ever take the same route twice, although you will most usually end up at your desired destination."
Jean was incredulous, "oh come now, that is ridiculous. You mean to tell us the land changes? How is trade accomplished?"
"It is the way it is milady," said Jerison. "The Outlands are vast and ever changing, it is one of the mysteries of the multiverse and it is best not considered too deeply. Some things must simply be accepted. There are of course well known trade routes that can more or less be traversed in known time, but these tend to make use of many close and well known portals about the Outlands. Normal travel is variable and it is something you must simply accept, there is no explanation for the nature of the land."
Jean was about to continue to argue the point, but Silvara interjected, "if that is the way it is then fine. Please just tell us what we need to know." Shadow Flame nodded agreeably at her words, as did Unagi. Jean sat looking puzzled more than annoyed at being interrupted, but she let the matter drop.
"You must seek the village of Seop Nardis which lies along the river Ma'at. It is a small village, mostly populated by human petitioners of the god Thoth, of the Egyptian pantheon. You must seek the Library of Lesser Light and carry an ancient piece of parchment through the door of the librarians office. The parchment is the required key to activate the portal to the Clerk's Ward in Sigil."
Jean noted down the information provided by Jerison and nodded to the party that she had it under control. "Jerison, is it OK if we sleep here for the remainder of the night and head out in the morning?" asked Silvara.
Jerison nodded, "of course milady, I'll see to some quarters for you all." He stood, "now if there is nothing else?" he let the question hang for a moment. The party looked at each other, and as none of them had anything else to say Jerison finished, "I'll see to your quarters. Someone will be along to show you to them shortly." He walked from the room, nodding goodnight to each of the party as he passed.