Oh, she hasn't hit the peak of her vain, pampered, self-important, godless abomination self yet.
She gets much, much worse. "Public appearances being what they are, I can only indulge myself in this way so very rarely." - it's rare that she gets to act as cold as she actually is, and the scene here is an example of her being true to herself rather than presenting an evil but acceptable public persona.
Except for the being made from people part, the menu sounds rather yummy I'll admit. I'll blame re-watching some of this season's Hannibal and some dishes I've had in the past week (the pork pate with dried cherries and pistachios on a baguette with arugula, mustard, and sorghum was actually something I had).
The otyugh roared with gibbering, incoherent rage, sending forth a shower of discolored, foul-smelling spittle as it charged forwards out of the sewers on a wave of filth. Above and around it, a quartet of very-much-on-fire vargouilles circled, shrieking in pain and glaring down at the party with malevolent fury.
"Someone please kill that thing before it slops poop all over us!" Zenia cringed as she clung to an outcropping of bricks just above the water level. "I set the flying heads on fire, I'm done!"
Corwin, Ashlanaya, and Surefoot glanced at one another for a moment before they flew into action. The druid began by hurling what seemed to be a random handful of forest debris, chanting softly in the time it flew through the air until it hit the water at the otyugh's feet and expanded into a tangled morass of sticky, snarled marsh vines. The beast roared and struggled to continue its charge, then slowed, and then stopped, held fast in place.
"My turn." Surefoot hefted his sword in two hands and charged. Rather than recapitulating the otyugh's awkward wading through the sewer water, the bariaur floated an inch above the surface, suspended by the four faintly glowing horseshoes upon his hooves.
"Beautiful cheater!" Zenia shouted out, giving a thumb's up to Surefoot's magical shodding. "If I had horse...tiefling... goat... whatever legs I'd totally want shoes like those! Hell I want shoes like those now! Just not nailed into my feet!"
Surefoot didn't have time to chuckle as he charged the otyugh, swinging his blade and dodging a swipe of one of its tentacles as he did so. The creature's roar changed from rage to pain, and it reflexively lashed out, biting deep into the bariaur's hip.
"Son of a b..." Surefoot's equally reflexive yelped cursing was cut off by a flurry of purple missiles that rocketed past his head, slamming into the flock of vargouilles with uncanny accuracy. "Second time today you've done that!" Further back down the tunnel, the Xaositect laughed.
Taking advantage of the spell cast against the vargouilles and the otyugh's pained reaction to Surefoot's attack, Ashlanaya charged into the fray. With her sword held high, the paladin vaulted past the bariaur with a hand on his side, slicing her sword into the otyugh. The beast screamed and bled a sludge almost as foul as the sewage it made its home within.
Unnoticed and lost in the fight, Malcolm shivered in terror, still stunned by the fist vargouille's scream. Whimpering, he dropped his dagger and collapsed to the ground, unconcerned by the mayhem around him. He cried and shuddered even as Ashlanaya and Surefoot butchered the otyugh and Zenia's spells plucked the vargouille's out of the sky one by one. One by the one that is, except for the original. Badly burned and snarling, its eyes light with venomous intent, it swept down from the ceiling and connected its lips with Malcolm's.
"Hey hey!" Zenia exclaimed as she watched the vargouille's die and fall from the air. "We got them! All four of... wait... sh*t." She spun around and saw the last remaining one perched atop her companion's face. "Sh*t! SH*T!"
A shower of magical bolts exploded atop the vargouille, sending it spinning off to the side and away from its victim, but the damage of its intent was almost done. No longer cursed with magical terror, Malcolm's emotions and the scream he gave were now for very real reasons.
Back down the tunnel, the otyugh shuddered and died as Surefoot slammed his sword deep into its own mouth. Burbling and twitching, its entire body shuddered as it died, and then it promptly vomited forth gallons of sticky brown sputum. "Oh gods that stinks..." Surefoot dodged as best he could and then gingerly retrieved his sword with a grimace.
"Some help back here!" Zenia's sudden sense of rational urgency caught the others' attention.
Looking back, the genasi knelt over Malcom's body, holding onto his head and furiously trying to keep it attached as his flesh discolored, his ears began to elongate, and the vargouille's bizarre method of reproduction moved through the stages of its ultimately lethal progression. Surefoot's expression moved to horror as he watched the all-too-rapid transformation take place, even as Ashlanaya's hands on his injured hip repaired the injuries he'd suffered at the otyugh's teeth.
"Hurry!" Zenia shouted as Malcolm's head shuddered and a depression began forming around the base of his neck. "How the freaky f*ck do you stop this!? Oooooff!"
Corwin pushed the genasi to the side and replaced her hands with his own, deeply and rhythmically chanting even before he did so. Zenia watched in horror and then relief as the changes that she'd watched and felt occur slowly stopped and then reversed. Within a minute Malcolm's head was normal and healthy, without any lingering sign of the vargouille' cursed kiss.
"I don't normally fancy regaining consciousness and looking into a face like yours." Malcolm laughed at Corwin, then looked and smiled at Zenia. "I'd much have preferred her. But anything is better than that flying demon head thing."
The druid stood up and reached out, helping the rogue to his feet. Malcolm brushed away the worst of the sewer's detritus and after wiping the hand clean on his shirt, belatedly extended a hand to the druid, "Thank you by the way."
"You're welcome." Corwin shook the offered hand and smiled. "You're much better as a human than another vargouille and a headless corpse."
In the meantime, the dead otyugh had continued its postmortem spasms and continued vomiting up a dozen more gallons of ammonia-rich half-fermented waste, sending forth an eye-watering cloud through the immediate vicinity.
"Now that I'm no longer in danger of having my head fly away on its own accord," Malcolm squinted his eyes, "Can we please move forward and get past that thing?"
"I could always set it on fire you know." Zenia's voice rang high and nasal as she pinched her nose shut. "That usually improves things."
"Be my guest." Surefoot nodded, "But after we're at a safe distance please?"
"No argument from me." Ashlanaya shrugged, "Just make sure the smoke drifts the other way."
Corwin nodded, "The wererats will appreciate I'm sure. Plus, anything following us isn't going to be able to smell us, or anything else, for a while."
Twenty minutes later and the group still moved interminably through the old sewer tunnels. Thankfully at least the water level had receded, now only an inch deep at most, and for whatever reason the air was cooler and more neutral in smell. No longer held away by the threat of the territorial otyugh, an almost normal subterranean fauna of rats and insects now scattered at the approach of hooves, footsteps, and conjured light.
"So it looks like the passage here splits on the map," Surefoot frowned and put the map away. "And of course if doesn't specify which branch to take, just a vague arrow in the direction they both seem to head. All I can tell is that somewhere past here is where we'll find the old, buried portion of the Ward."
"Where under the city are we do you think?" Ashlanaya asked.
The bariaur held the maps side by side, "The overlay isn't perfect, but somewhere between the Shattered Temple and the Mortuary, on the Lower Ward side of that."
"Any idea of where either of the two branches goes?" Malcolm squinted and stared down each.
"I can't see much difference between them," Corwin shrugged. "But the one of the right slopes up slightly, and the one on the left feels more like what we've been slogging through than not."
The paladin smiled, "And this is why I'm glad that we have a druid with us. Anyone object to taking the right fork?"
Zenia shook her head quickly, leaving ephemeral afterimages in the passing of the flames in her hair, "I'm up for leaving the damn sewers!"
"No argument from me." Still rubbing his hands along the band of swollen flesh along his neck, Malcolm nodded happily, "That's the best thing I've heard all day!"
Down the right fork they went, noting a rapid change in the walls on three occasions as brick shifted to worked stone and then back to brick.
Malcolm kicked at the walls in a few places, testing their strength. "This is so bizarre."
"Everything down here isn't exactly stable." Surefoot explained, pointing out the physical dissonance between the brick and stone. "The dabus move things topside but normally they don't do it so overtly and they prefer not to disrupt normal folks' lives. Down here it doesn't matter, and so things shift and slide as they, or the city, or the Lady sees fit."
Other than the shifting tunnel walls, there was little to note for some time as they proceeded down the passage. Growing drier with each minute, the air seemed to fill with a tangible static that none of them could truly describe. Off-putting and disconcerting, like the stench carried on the air before the approaching otyugh, it portended something much worse.
Surefoot's ears twitched on their own accord, and in fact they'd been doing precisely that for the past fifteen minutes. Like those of a grazing ruminant they'd perked and tracked something without his eyes or the rest of his body language giving any outward sign that he'd noticed anything untoward at all out in the gloom beyond the edge of their light or their darkvision. Ahead of him, Corwin slowed, paused, and looked to his left for a moment before the bariaur caught up, gently pushed him in the small of the back, and leaned in.
"They've been there for a solid half hour or so." Surefoot whispered nervously.
Corwin stiffened and smiled, acting as if nothing at all was amiss. Inwardly his heart skipped a beat from the brief glance into the shadows. He'd heard a tiny, ever so faint scratching sound of claws on masonry, a brush of fur on stone, and a series of sharp, barely audible murine squeaks. Staring out at him had been a moving series of tiny, yellow orbs - rats.
A swarm of rats could be exceedingly dangerous if they attacked en masse, crazed with hunger. But the risk of being eaten alive or being exposed to any number of diseases they carried was the least of Surefoot's concerns. Each and every one of the rodents skulls were spit open at the sagittal ridge, exposing an oversize, glistening brain, all of them pulsing and glowing with the same eerie, mental heartbeat as their fellows, synchronized and unified.
"How many of them do you think there are?" The druid's voice was thin and worried.
"We're surrounded." Surefoot whispered. "At least fifty I'd say. Enough that they can probably hear my thoughts better than my whispering."
Cranium rats were a scourge within the City of Doors, though most assumed them to be only a more advanced version of simple vermin. Whatever their bizarre appearance and whatever bizarre abilities they might possess, they were still nothing more than vermin. Below the streets however they teemed, multiplied, festered, and infested. Madmen and the tongues of corpses spoke of the Three Great Minds, titanic gestalt entities, psionic godlings dressed in the flesh of rival hordes of rats. All of them loyal to Illsensine, but like rival religious Patriarchs each sought to anathematize the others and claim singular hold of Sigil's endless, lightless warrens below the streets - and after all, in the eyes of the Godbrain, conflict could only breed strength.
Between ten and twenty of the vermin were visible at any given time, always staying just at the edge of the light, never intruding too close and doing little more than watching except for the brief flickers of mental static and a slight brush of something ephemeral against their minds. The one exception was a brief moment when a dozen of them looked at Malcolm, concentrated, and then collectively recoiled. From that point on they avoided the thief, though he remained blissfully unaware of their attention.
"So the walls are changing again." Malcolm tapped a dagger at the junction between the old, time worn brick of the sewer passage and the newer tunnel. "Better quality certainly. Weren't we going into a completely ancient portion of buried city though?"
True enough, the brick abruptly stopped without any sense of conventional merging. By whatever means the city, the dabus, or The Lady had simply merged two passages into one another like puzzle pieces clicking together seamlessly. The new passage's walls were high quality, polished and bore not a single scratch or chip despite the implied passage of centuries or more as evidenced by the inch of dust upon the floor. The architectural style was elaborate, bordering upon the baroque, with carvings of abstract patterns resembling wind, water, or tentacles reaching down from the ceiling to halfway down the walls.
"That's... odd..." Ashlanaya glanced warily at the walls as she touched her holy symbol reflexively. She glanced back behind them, in the direction of the trailing rats, and then continued her nervous glance at the walls.
"Not odd, just creepy." Zenia pointed up where the ceiling was carved with not only the same patterns as the walls, but a multitude of eyes. "Give a sculptor some acid and they'll make some crazy stuff. And I say this having known people that like crazy stuff for the heck of it."
"Notice anything?" Surefoot nudged the paladin and inclined his head towards her holy symbol. "Ahead I mean."
Ashlanaya shook her head. "Nothing in range. The rats though..."
Surefoot gave a worried look at her pause.
"... there are many, many more of them that aren't showing themselves." For the first time that the others had seen, the paladin looked genuinely worried. "Hundreds of them."
Almost as if on cue the darkness behind them seemed to move, turning from damp brick to a carpet of fur, teeth, eyes, and pulsing brains. As a unified entity, the rats stared at them, and paused, not moving any closer.
"They're falling back..." Corwin whispered. His tone was mixed with a strange juxtaposition of relief and unease. "They're just sitting there."
Sure enough the cranium rats had paused. Twelve of them sat calmly in a neat line twenty feet back down the passage, precisely at the point where the tunnel had transitioned from brick to cut and polished stone. The vermin refused to proceed past that point, almost as if hedged out by some form of warding.
"Why aren't they attacking?" Ashlanaya's left hand was on her sword and her right tightly grasping her holy symbol.
"There isn't anything magical in place." Zenia stuck her tongue out at the cranium rats, smiled, and then frowned as she realized the implications. "That's not a good thing though..."
"How so?" Malcolm raised an eyebrow. "We don't have a hive of mutant rats chasing after us. That's a good thing."
"Because it means that there's something up ahead that frightens a cranium rat hive." The flames on Zenia's head flickered and dimmed, "What could do that?"
If not for the agonized screaming that erupted in fits and bursts, the chamber would have sounded like any other high-class dining room in Sigil with an open or adjacent kitchen. The rich smells of food though were undercut with blood, perfume, and the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh, and all the while the air filled with the sounds of sizzling pots and pans, the sound of knives on cutting boards, and the more refined and elegant clink of dinnerware on fine porcelain and soft murmurs of appreciation.
"The second course of milk-poached sweetbreads was spectacular." The Marauder smiled and held her hand off to one side to accept a small shot of crisp raspberry sorbet. Her palate thus cleansed, she gestured to the chef. Ignoring the suffering mortal only a few feet away, his blood spattered her dress, stained her teeth, and congealed upon her bejeweled finery. "What then for the next course?"
The chef's eyes sparkled as he smiled with unmitigated pride, "Her Fiendish Majesty will be dining upon a human Chateaubriand cooked with white wine and shallots moistened with demi-glace, topped with a tarragon butter and lemon."
Through the preparation and consumption, the fiend seemed to lick her lips more from the agonized screaming than from the dish itself, though both were truly inseparable as far as a meal concerned an entity such as herself. Over the next two hours the process continued with three further preparations of haute cuisine, interrupted only by a lengthy monolog on the fiend's part. Chuckling and sipping appreciatively on a glass of brilliant green Chartreuse liqueur, she speculated with rapt self-absorption on what prominent fashion trends bubbled upon the horizon of Sigilian high society, which she approved of, and which she desired nipped in the bud rather than have to endure wearing it.
Without magical intervention, Malcolm would have long before died of shock or hemorrhage. Mangled, posed, and harvested, only his face and digestive tract were intact, with much of the rest of his body broken, carved out, excavated, or amputated for the fiend's table or simply for her perverse aesthetic pleasure. What she allowed to remain intact however was only there to allow him to see, hear, and taste each and every dish during its preparation and then forcibly fed a portion by the fiend that stood behind him, all while providing his own screaming, wailing feedback.
"Am I boring you Malcolm?" The Marauder stood and walked over to the weeping mortal. There she paused, sipped the digestif in her hand and smiled. The meal was over, the pitch of the mortal's suffering had reached some subtle inflection point of agony, and it was time for something else.
Dressed in blood-spattered gown and glittering regalia, Shemeska kept a hand on her chest above the corset, holding herself steady and in place, breathing deeply, nearly erotically so as she approached and for the first time lowered herself to eye-level. Eyes wide she sniffed like a hungry jackal, tilting her head first to one side and then the other in a remarkably bestial fashion before leaning in further, closing her eyes and licking the tears from Malcolm's face. He could smell her breath with its mixture of blood, ash, and the assertive aroma of herbal liqueur, and for a moment her mind brushed his and he felt the paradoxical dichotomy of adoration and abhorrence filling her mind as she tasted that visceral manifestation of his suffering.
Purple painted lips peeled back to show jackal's fangs, her eyes glowed fiercely, and then the veil of culture reappeared as she took a cloth and delicately dabbed her lips clean of blood and alcohol.
"Malcolm," Her voice was cold and tinged with the faintest hint of amusement, "What exactly made you think that you could steal something from me?"
"It had nothing to do with you." Malcolm's tortured voice repeated an answer that he'd made a dozen times before that evening.
"How arrogant does one have to be to steal from a being of arrogance made flesh?"
"I didn't know that I was stealing from you!"
Sever his left foot. Shemeska's telepathic call rang out to every mind but her victim's.
"Where did you intend to sell the items that you stole?"
"Anyone who would buy it. It didn't matter! I don't know!"
Sever his right hand
"What was the first thought in your mind when you saw me smile upon your hood being removed?"
"You are beautiful madam. Truly beautiful!"
Shemeska smiled and leaned forward, kissing him upon the lips and leaving behind a trace lipstick, "Keep that memory treasured and well in mind then..."
Pluck out his eyes one by one, and set them in a bowl of Armagnac That statement was spoken to everyone, Malcolm included.
"One final question for you," Shemeska put a finger to his throat, feeling the blood irregularly pulse through his jugular. "Are you afraid to die Malcolm?"
"Yes, yes I am." He shuddered and momentarily his eyes rolled back in his head as his body -magical healing or not- threatened to simply collapse and die. "Please have mercy. Please don't kill me."
"You're beautiful Lady Shemeska," Malcolm's voice broke and he descended into pleading, half-coherent platitudes. "I'll do anything for you. Anything! Say it and I'll do it. Anything. Please! Please! ANYTHING!!"
"Good..." Smiling coldly, Shemeska slowly and deliberately removed the multitude of rings and bracelets from her hands, placing them upon a golden tray carried by one of her servitors. One by one the others exited the room, leaving her and Malcolm alone. She licked her lips, stood up and stretched her head side to side. She cleared her throat twice while Malcolm wept in thanks, whispering prayers to every power he yet remembered the names of. His error was momentary as the Marauder spoke her next words. "Then I think that we're finally ready to truly begin then!"
Snapping her fingers, the lights extinguished, leaving the room in darkness cut only by the purple, ethereal glow of her eyes and the inner light of the soul gems dangling from the jewelry upon her ears and throat. Placing her hands upon his remaining fingers, she removed the ring of regeneration and spoke, not in planar common, not in the language of magic, but using words learned from another, Shemeska spoke in Baern. The words rattled the air, bringing tears to the fiend's eyes and the trembles of ecstasy thereafter, while the target of her blasphemous speech received the opposite. Upon the edge of death, Malcolm heard her words clearly through his fading consciousness, but otherwise he saw only fragments and snapshots of imagery through the pain: her fangs, her tongue across her lips, flame within her eyes, and the palpable touch of the words like slithering tongues and nimble, razored fingers as they broke down his mind, his memory, and seated themselves within his brain as a second, nearly autonomous creature, watching for the moment when it would take control.
Light spilled out of the windows and open doors of the Fortune's Wheel, streaming and multicolored upon the marble paved streets of the Lady's Ward. Dozens of men and women, mortal and immortal walked past on their own tasks while the artificial stars of Sigil glittered overheard, the fires and lamps of the Guildhall Ward dimly piercing the gloom and fog. They went on their way, ignorant and unknowing of the ongoing horror within a private room above the Wheel in the Azure Iris. Likewise they ignored the trio of dabus that congregated at the street corner opposite the Wheel, so used to their ubiquitous presence that their actions were irrelevant. Passersby gave no notice, nor did the target of their attention, when at once the three of them looked up and directly at a point therein, where had the walls been transparent they would have gazed upon the Marauder.
Glancing at one another for only a moment, with neither a rebus or expression passed between them, the dabus departed, drifting out of sight into Sigil's gloom.
And yet my tummy rumbles and I salivate nonetheless... Hmm, some of this lothyness is rubbing off on me. Or maybe it's just my inherent drive to hunt and satiate myself on my own kills. Regardless, bon appetit!
I was fortunate enough to discover your work years after you began ... I had a similar discovery when I started reading Game of Thrones, where I got to skip much of the initial waiting due to my late arrival.
Of course, now that I've read everything you have produced, I can't wait till the next update. Your writing reminds me of GoT in that you have clearly planned all possible conclusions to this story for years. The large, overarching plot takes on a sense of grandeur, with the barely-witting characters proceeding like well-armed mice through enormous, ancient vaults, passing monsters and titans they barely comprehend. It adds something special when they survive and proceed.
Of course, unlike Martin, you have to leave enough room for free will to operate. Please keep playing/writing.