Part the sixteenth: Wherein something somethingAfter passing through a small parlour they stood in a modestly decorated sitting room, watching as the Githzerai spoke quietly with a young human girl. The girl was dressed in the grey robes of the citizenry of Automata with long red hair tied back quite severely in a pony tail. After a brief moment she nodded and moved into the back corner of the room, crouching over a large, deep rug. With a strength belied by her size she flipped the corner of the rug aside revealing a trapdoor that she quickly opened. The Gith turned and smiled at the party and motioned them toward the trapdoor silently.
The basement was carved from the earth and was not bricked. The floor was loosely paved and several large crates and boxes lined the walls, their contents and purpose well hidden. A passageway lent downwards in front of them, and with a genial smile and a nod, the Gith indicated that was where they were headed as he grabbed a torch from atop a crate and lit it from one that was burning on the wall.
"Now it is time for proper introductions," said the Gith, clearly pleased that they were off the streets. "My name is Leggis Scrog and I am one of the three heads of the Council of Anarchy in Automata." His heavy Sigilian accent had all but disappeared, and his tone was much more cultured than before. The party introduced themselves by rote, and Leggis smiled at each, seemingly happy to make their acquaintance.
"I'm guessing you would be wanting to know just what in the hells is going on, am I right? Well, I shall try and answer all your questions as we walk." He paused for several moments to gather his thoughts as he lead them further down into what quickly became a warren of connecting tunnels, each carved from the earth and adorned with little more than evenly spaced torches set into ornate sconces.
"I think first I owe an explanation of why I am helping you out this way. I suspect that perhaps some of you were less than credulous at my explanation, " he turned and winked briefly at Shadow Flame. "Well, in all honestly, I will say again, you helped me out a great deal back there. See, that woman, Jezrene One-Eye, works for one of my colleagues, an Erinyes who calls herself Aurach the Fair, and whilst we both sit on the Council, that does not mean our ends are always in agreement. On the subject of Heiron Lifegiver we are at odds, and not only did you thwart her attempts to capture the wizard, you held her off long enough for him to make good an escape. Heiron is a victim of circumstance and is indebted to me for a large amount of jink, so you can see why I am keen for him to stay alive and out of the hands of my enemies. So, if you believe nothing else, you may believe you saved me considerable effort and gold. So, here I am, repaying your efforts by trying to see you safely from Automata. Which brings us to the next part of the tale."
"The modrons?" asked Unagi.
"I suppose," returned the Gith, "I had been going to bring up the unexpected March, but if you want to know about modrons," his inflection betrayed only a hint of his disdain for the creatures, "then I will tell you what I can."
"That sounds good to me," the big man replied as he moved aside to let a blue skinned tiefling and a thin robed human pass in the other direction down the corridor.
"Modrons are the creatures native to Mechanus, and as you no doubt noticed they scramble about from place to place doing whatever it is that modrons do. I don't pretend to understand them, filled with law and purpose, I find them distasteful. They live on great cities built upon the gears of the Plane of Law, fulfilling the orders of the One and the Only, Primus, their leader and god. Now, every two hundred and sixty nine years, that's seventeen cycles by their time keeping, each of seventeen years, the modrons pour forth from the Gate in the centre of town and go galavanting across the Planes for what purpose only they know. These so called Modron Marches are great events and garner a great deal of interest from all kinds, some trying to learn the dark of why they do it, some trying to thwart them, so try to kill them, and yet others desire little more than to follow them around as a grand excuse for revelry. I myself have been part of the latter group previously, but lacked the stamina to keep up with them and their followers. Each march can take many years to complete as they wend their way from Plane to Plane and through the Outlands, and often only a handful return to Mechanus at the end."
"Why do they do it?" asked Jean.
"Nobody knows my dear, it is one of the greatest darks of the Planes. The cutter who learn that will become very rich indeed for there would be no shortage of bloods happy to pay whatever price was asked for the knowing of it. Normally you can set your clocks to the march, but," he paused melodramatically, "it has only been a little over one hundred years since the last one."
His smile faded on his lips as the party looked at him blankly. No doubt a planar would have grasped the import of his statement, but as they were all Prime born, none in the party really understood what the gith was saying.
"The modrons are marching early friends," he explained, " much too early. This is most unusual, and possibly quite frightening. The Planes will be concerned for this does not bode well. I will not enter into speculation as to why they are marching early," he answered the parties unasked question, "for it could be anything, and most likely as dark as the march itself." He smiled then, "the bloods who bring the news of this momentous event will at the very least find themselves kept well for an afternoon in the local inn, for there will be few that will not want to know that the march has begun."
They walked in silence for a short while as the party thought over what they had been told.
"I cannot help but wonder what this has to do with us," Shadow Flame broke the silence.
"Why, it has nothing to do with you tiefer, you were just in the right place at the right time. The modrons don't care about you, or your friends, or indeed about any of us. They are as alien as a creature can be, for what can flesh know of the motivations of machine?"
Shadow Flame nodded his agreement to the Giths words. "So, if this modron march is as momentous an event as you say, why would you go to such lengths to tell us this tale?" He knew the answer even as he spoke the question.
"Why, because you are Clueless the lot of you, the expressions on your faces bespoke such as you made your way from town." It was not spoken as an insult, but as a matter of truth. Shadow Flame accepted his explanation without disagreement - there was no point making them appear even greener than they already did.
"It would not have taken long for the town guard to start dragging folk in for questioning to see if they knew anything, and once they spotted you lot, and found out you were Primes, then, well, let's just say you would be in for an extended stay in Automata's finest locked door establishment."
They had been walking for about fifteen minutes as they spoke, the traffic around them growing ever thicker with the comings and goings of folk of all kinds. This culminated in the widening of the tunnels and an increase in sound as they came upon a wide natural cavern, filled with folk both rich and poor, fiend and mortal, as they went about their business in the bizarre.
Leggis pulled them up. "My friends, this is the underworld, a market where you may find almost anything your heart desires, or at least you may find someone who can get it for you. I felt that perhaps after your day you might like to browse around and part with some of your gold, a certain percentage of which will of course find its way to my purse," he smiled genially.
They were all thankful for an opportunity to gather some supplies and quickly made plans between themselves to meet back in a half hour. Shadow Flame elected to stay with Leggis, ostensibly to ask him some further questions, but the party recognised the tiefling was more interested in keeping an eye on the githzerai than anything else. They moved off to see what they could find with Shadow Flame staying back and making small talk with the Gith. The market was held and organised by the Council of Chaos who pocketed not only stall fees and taxes but also took a cut of any successful thieving endeavours plied in the crowds. There was little in Automata, above and below ground, that they didn't know about, and Shadow Flame was quite surprised at how free Leggis Scrog was with his words.The Council of Order knew of the bizarre and the tunnels of course, it was in their best interests to do so. The chaos of Automata's underbelly served a useful purpose besides giving the element that may otherwise had worked on the streets above somewhere to go; it also kept Automata rooted firmly in the Outlands. The party had been told before that it was possible for Outlands towns to slide completely into an Outer Plane should the prevailing mindset of the town and its people follow too closely to that of a given Outer Plane. The rigid law of the town above would force Automata into Mechanus in short order if it were allowed to run unchecked without the underground of the Council of Chaos, and the criminal element they nurtured. This was an event that even the mostlaw abiding of citizens would not be comfortable with.
The time passed quickly, and the rest of them made their way back to Shadow Flame and Leggis a little poorer in coin, but richer in supplies, including several potions they could use for healing, and other magical effects. Once they were ready Leggis lead them past the bizarre and through into still more tunnels. After a time their conversation moved to what they would do next.
"How can we get back to Sigil from here," Shadow Flame asked the Gith.
"There are portals in town that will take you to Sigil, but I'm sure I don't have to council against returning to Automata at the moment."
"So what are we to do then?"
"I had planned to see you safely to the Outlands foremost," the Goth thought as he spoke, "but after that I guess I had just assumed you would be resourceful enough to find your own way."
Shadow Flame sighed quietly, "well let's suppose that we are not. We can't very well wander the Outlands hoping to happen upon a portal that will coincidentally take us where we want to go."
The Gith chuckled, "true enough friend. That being the case I would suggest you head towards one of the nearer Gate-towns. If the gods smile upon out then it shouldn't take too long to make your way to one of them. From here you have a choice. You can turn to your left with the intent of heading to Rigus, or you can turn to your right with the intent reaching Fortitude. Perhaps it is not much of a choice after all," he mused, "for Rigus is the Gate-town to Acheron and in keeping with the violent and militant philosophy of that Plane, it is little more than a military encampment. If you don't keep your wits about you there it is easy to find yourself pressed into service of one of several armies."
"Yes, let's not go to the army town," said Jean with a faint smile.
"Then it is settled," laughed Leggis, "Fortitude awaits. It is a pleasant little burg, full of happy and helpful folk, as is the way of the Arcadians. You shouldn't have much trouble learning of a portal to suit your needs. You just need to stay out of the way of the Hardheads," he scowled at the word, "they are just as present and ever annoying as those in Sigil. Perhaps more so."
Before long they found themselves in a large natural cave with light spilling in from the Outlands.
"It looks like midday out there," exclaimed Silvara. "It was just after dusk when we entered the tunnels, and we weren't down there a whole day and a half!"
The Gith laughed loudly, "oh my, you are Clueless!" Silvara frowned at him, but did not hear any note of mockery in his voice. "Days come and go in their own time in the Outlands friends, and given the clamour that must be following in the wake of the modrons it is no surprise that the night passed as quickly as it did. There would have been a lot of folk keen to get moving this morning."
They didn't really understand exactly what he meant, so Shadow Flame asked, "so how do we go from here? How can we find our way to Fortitude? I'm guessing there aren't any sign posts to guide our way?"
"No friend, there are no signs, but you do not need them. It is the nature of the Outlands that folk find their way to their destination, it is just the time for travelling that changes from trip to trip. All you need to do is set off purposefully toward Fortitude, and sooner or later you will find your way their."
They had experienced the same thing on their journey from Hopeless to Seop Nardis, but it still very strange to them.
"Before you go friends, I would like to find if you would be interested in working for me in the future should the need arise? I know you are settled in Sigil, and I find myself there often as business demands it. If I ever find myself in need of folk such as yourselves, would you find it acceptable for me to call on you?"
The brief look they gave one another told them that they were all in agreement on the question.
"I am sure we would Leggis," replied Shadow Flame. "What harm could there ever be in the asking?" he smiled.
The Gith returned his smile, "well then friends, may the Outlands smile upon you and give you speed to Fortitude." He bowed with a flourish, and after the party had said their farewells he slipped quickly and quietly back into the cave.
Two days walking through the arid Outlands had left the party in a dour mood. Each of them was keen to return to Sigil and claim the small home that Jysson had promised them would be theirs upon their return. The Outlands were not inhospitable, and the weather was pleasant as they march, but they had been two days now in a rocky badlands filled with stunted bushes and steep inclines, and they desired very much a warm bed and a warm meal. They had marched for several hours after their midday meal on that second day of travel when they came upon a small mound. Upon the mound sat a man with his back set to them, arrayed in leather and weapons, his skin was a deep golden color that contrasted strongly with his thick black hair, long and tied up in a warriors knot. The man did not move at their approach save for a small incline of his head to indicate he was aware of them. The party looked at each other, gaging their feelings. The consensus was that he presented no immediate danger, so at that Shadow Flame moved forward a step, but paused as Unagi's hand fell upon his forearm. The gladiator did not understand quite what was happening but he felt it was of some import. As Unagi walked up the mound toward the man he took surprise as he leapt to his feet and turned, a long sword and short sword coming free of their sheathes in a single fluid movement. The man's features marked him as a Githzerai, and his lithe frame and smooth movements marked him further as a warrior with great skill.
"Unagi the Gladiator of the world of Faerun" the gith spoke, a statement of fact more than a question.
Unagi nodded in reply, his face filled with curiosity. It was all the recognition the gith needed as he tumbled down the slope with two long and graceful steps, blades singing about his body as he came. Unagi had barely cleared his blade from its sheath before both of the giths blades clanged loudly against his armour. He swung his long sword at the spot where the gith had just been, but sliced nothing but air. Shadow Flame had begun to draw his own blades as the gith had moved down the mound, but he saw the attack, the flats of the giths blades striking the gladiators armour, and recognised that the gith did not intend to draw blood.
Again the gith moved in , blades swinging in a blurred arc, and easily bypassed Unagi's defenses, easily avoiding Unagi's reposte with an ease that would have embarrassed him if not for the circumstances.
"You must free your mind, and let the cadence surround you, let it guide your strokes," the gith spoke, encouraging Unagi like a teacher.
Unagi had never heard of the cadence, but he nodded to the Gith to signal he was ready. The gith moved before Unagi had finished his nod, dancing to the gladiators left and effortlessly striking him twice, once on the body and another across the big mans face with the flat of his blade. Unagi wore an expression of chagrin as the strike caught him completely off guard, and he missed any opportunity he may have had at a return thrust. The gith tumbled and came to his feet again facing Unagi.
"You think before you move when there is not place for thought. The song of the Planes is all around you should you but open your ears to its cadence," the gith said, his voice free of any taunt. This time Unagi moved first, lunging forward in a clumsy attack that the gith easily parried with a calm swipe of his long blade. Unagi smiled as his ruse seemed to work and his moved to allow his blade to slice up from the giths stomach to his throat. It was a clean, perfectly timed attack and would have eviscerated any other man, but the gith simply placed his short sword in the road with a movement that made it appear as if it belonged there. The flat of his long blade struck Unagi across the shoulder in an attack that was almost an insult with the ease of effort it required.
"You can touch the cadence but you are no cipher," chided the gith. "But you can learn to release your mind into the torrent." He leapt at Unagi before the last word had even cleared his lips, and while the gladiators weapon was there to parry the gith's blades, a savage kick to his chest sent him stumbling backwards several paces, and he was barely able to keep his feet. The gith sheathed his blades swiftly and bowed to Unagi.
"Time will come when you will seek out my wisdom. I am open to you for the cadence has whispered your name. There is a place in the Gymnasium for a cipher such as you." With that he calmly turned his back and walked away. Unagi stood for a second watching his go, and after sheathing his weapon, turned to the party with a look of pure incredulity on his face.
"What in the nine hells just happened?" he asked loudly, of himself more than the party. They all returned his look, wry amusement evident on all their faces.
"Who can say Nug?" chuckled Shadow Flame.
"Thanks for the help," he returned sarcastically.
Shadow Flame held his hands up, "whoa there Nug, that was clearly nothing to do with us. You were in no danger and are uninjured. Except maybe your pride," he added after a moment. Unagi's brow furrowed, but try as he may he could not stop it turning into a smile. He turned back to toward the gith, but he was gone, disappeared into the twisted foliage that clung to life through the hard soil.
They awoke the next morning feeling refreshed. After the mysterious gith had left they had marched for several more hours and were rewarded by the terrain as it smoothed out into a much friendlier valley of rolling hills and long grass. Their travels became much easier and relaxed, and each of them let their mind wander over the events of the past couple of days. When they finally did stop to rest they found a quiet glade in a small copse of trees adjacent to their path. The ground was covered with old leaves, soft and inviting, and they slept well. After an unexciting meal of trail rations they headed off, hopeful of encountering some sign that they travelled in the right direction, and that Fortitude would not elude them for too much longer. The soft hills gave way back to the badlands of the previous days before lunch, and they were forced to pick their way through the inhospitable terrain. There were tracks to follow, but they often wound along rocky hillside, and provided enough loose ground to make their footing treacherous. It did not take long for their spirits to once again droop, but they had little choice but to trust to the Outlands and hope that they would not be forced long on this path before they came upon their destination.
They had been marching for a little over an hour past their midday meal when Unagi stopped them.
"Did you feel that?" he asked.
They all stopped and stood still, unsure of what he had felt. Just as Jean was about to chide Nug they all felt it. The ground shook. Ever so slightly, but they all clearly felt it.
"What in the...?" Shadow Flame started, but let the words drop from his mouth as the ground shook again, more insistently.
"Maybe we should try and get out of sight?" suggested Jean. Silvara could only nod at her suggestion. It was not difficult to find some cover as the nature of the land afforded them plenty of choice. The shaking was getting much more vigorous and was now accompanied by crunching sounds that slowly turned to loud booms that echoed across the air. It did not take long before they knew what was shaking the ground so. Cresting a hill in front of them that was obviously much deeper than the dell they crouched in was a tall stone tower. It swayed gently in between each echoing crash, and it was evident that it strode though the Outlands upon giant legs. Bird legs. The walking tower moved purposefully toward them upon three enormous legs of dirty orange, each of which ended in a three toed foot similar to a game bird. The tower itself rested on a small island of rock from which the legs grew, and was about 4 or 5 stories tall. Overall the walking tower stretched a good four or five hundred feet into the air. It paused at the top of the hill and seemed to sway slightly about as though surveying the terrain. Silence settled over the Outlands as it waited for the tower to decide what it would do. None had to wait long. The tower lurched forward, almost appearing to stumble as its legs caught up with it, and with a sick sinking feeling Unagi saw it was coming straight for him. The tower would be upon him in less than 3 gigantic steps, so rather than wait to be crushed like an ant under its path he broke from his cover and ran crossways to the tower hoping it would not notice him. His hope was in vain. The tower was quick, incredibly so for its size, and it changed its path as soon as Unagi moved, and with two almost graceful steps it stepped on the gladiator, crushing stone and man alike, leaving little but a small smudge of blood upon the ground. The rest of them sat stunned at what had happened. It was clear that the tower had purposefully changed its movements to crush Unagi, and now it was moving toward Jean. With a single step it pulverised the rock around her hiding spot before she could even recover to stand. Silvara and Shadow Flame had little chance. It was all over in less than a minute. The tower stopped and sat when its foot had fallen upon Shadow Flame and stared mutely out over the Outlands.