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Torment - Chapter 1

He was floating—silent, suspended—in a warm, dark place. Suddenly, something reached in and throttled him. It was an odor that filled his nostrils, sped through his sinuses, and spilled down into his mouth, choking him. The smell of disinfectant stung his senses first, but it was the underlying heavy scent of mold and decay that smothered him as if he was wrapped in a wet blanket. He couldn’t breathe.

His eyes flew open. The first thing he saw was a sky of smooth black marble, reflecting faintly in the gloom. It was a ceiling, hanging far above. Dozens of rusty iron chains stretched down, taut, as if holding a huge chandelier. He followed down the line of the chain closest to him until he had to turn his head to the side to see where it ended, inches from his shoulder. The last link of the chain hooked onto a slab, which he now realized he was lying on. He could feel the flat steel beneath his body, uncomfortably cold against his skin. He was naked. He also couldn’t move.

Where was he? His eyes struggled to grow accustomed to the dim, yellow torchlight of the chamber and focused past the chain. They settled on a wretched, leering face as purple as a bruise, its bloody eyes bulging in surprise. He tried to cry out, but no sounds left his throat. Then he noticed that the eyes didn’t move, didn’t even blink. The violet-black creature to whom they belonged lay nude on a platform suspended next to his own, her bloated torso curled up on its side like a dead bug. The stink of rotten eggs surrounded her moldering corpse, and the wrinkled skin of her body seemed covered with sores that oozed a thick ocher glop.

He tried to bolt upright, to move away, but his body still wouldn’t respond. From the other side of the hag’s slab, he heard the squeak of rusty metal wheels. A stout, dark-robed figure moved into view, pushing a wooden cart. On the cart sat a large tray cluttered with sharp metal tools, next to which stood a corroded tank with a black hose connected to a glass container full of clear liquid. The robed figure—a pale, chubby woman with the fresh scalp stubble of a newly shaven head—stopped the cart between the hag’s slab and his own. Out of the corner of a half-closed eye, he watched as the woman lifted from the tray a dark-stained corkscrew about three feet long.

“Don’t move,” said a hushed voice on his other side, whispering almost in his ear. The pale woman turned, giving him a better view of the corkscrew—a sight that made him shut his eyes again. “What is it now, Morte?” she asked. “Nothing, Bogs. Just flapping my bone-box.” The strangely echoing voice—a man’s voice, he thought—seemed to hang in the air on the right side of his head. “So, er, what’s the chant on this sod?”

He could feel the chill of the pale woman’s eyes surveying his body, feel her heavy breath brush against his skin. “It’s wrong, for starters. The sheet lists him as having only one leg. A collector dragged him in from an alley.” The voice to his right spoke again. “Looks like a pack of cranium rats had him for lunch.” “It’s none of your concern.” He could tell from the woman’s voice that she had turned away from him. He opened his eyes a crack and saw her looking over the hag’s body. She picked up a clipboard that hung from a nail on the end of her cart and studied it. “Now be silent or leave.”

Opening his eyes fully, the man turned his head slightly to the right to see who had spoken to him. He made out what looked like a white oval bobbing in the air just out of his field of vision. He angled his head for a better look, and the hovering shape quickly darted in front of his face.

He was eye to eye socket with a floating skull. It seemed to be—or to have been—human, though the worn and slightly yellowed bone betrayed great age. He tried to turn away from the grim sight, but it kept adjusting its position to block his view. Although it was eyeless, he got the distinct impression that the skull was staring him down.

“I said don’t move,” it whispered in a tone of urgent menace. Cold, dizzy, unable even to think of his own name, much less how he got wherever he was, the man lay on the slab, tensed but motionless. He stared at the pitted skull and tried to think about something else. What had happened to him? Had he been knocked out? Kidnapped? What was going to happen to him? A hide-gloved hand suddenly pushed the skull from his view, and he found himself staring up into the crystal-gray eyes of the pale woman, Bogs. They were as cold and flat as the steel slab beneath him. Dried crimson stains on her flab-creased scalp seemed to indicate that she hadn’t taken much care in shaving her head.

“Now!” shouted the skull, bouncing up and down excitedly. “Now what?” he murmured, painfully sitting up on the platform. His muscles burned, but at least they’d started to come alive. His voice, low and raspy, somehow struck him as odd. Was that what he sounded like?

Bogs, clearly startled, drew in her breath and stepped back, bumping into her cart with a clatter. “Put her in the dead-book!” yelled the skull. “A spell! A killing blow! Something! What can you do?”

He didn’t know. He madly flipped through the pages of his mind, but most of them were blank. Bogs grabbed hold of his wrist tightly and reached back to the cart with her other hand for a serrated scalpel.

“Pike it!” The skull reared back and hurled itself forward like a stone thrown from a sling, ramming the woman’s head with a sharp crack. A fresh puddle of blood darkened her pasty forehead and ran down into her eyes. She let go of the man’s wrist, took one step backward, two, then fell to the ground with a heavy thud.

“Move it, leatherhead!” said the skull. “We’ve got to give this place the laugh!” The man swung his legs over the edge of the platform and hopped the few feet down to the cold stone floor, his unsteady legs trembling from the impact. The slab began to swing slightly, its old chains groaning. For the first time, he could see that all around him, a dozen or more similar platforms were suspended from the ceiling, some empty, some holding corpses in varying stages of decay. Cool, dim torches lined the walls of the chamber, interspersed with dull metal shelves and doorless cabinets loaded down with jars, bottles, and tubs, most filled with fluids. At one end of the large, long room, a thin archway opened into darkness, and at the other, a black-tiled balcony overlooked a huge space filled with white light.

“Hurry! Hurry!” The skull danced impatiently in front of his face. “The Dead’ll be here any minute! Take her robe!” It turned and sped quickly toward the balcony, weaving from side to side as if dodging obstacles only it could see.

The skull wasn’t giving him time to clear the fog in his head. He tugged at the dung-colored cloak, bending the woman’s doughy form this way and that until he freed the garment. Gagging slightly, he wrapped the rank, musty robe around himself as best he could, gathering the extra cloth so it wouldn’t drag.

Something—several cold and wet somethings—moved within the cloak and skittered across the skin of his back. A few coins jingled in one pocket, and a sharp lump poked him from the inside of another. He pulled out the painful object: a barbed-wire loop, on which hung three bone keys with small skulls attached. As he examined the keys, he noticed a green string tied in a tight knot around the index finger of his right hand.

“Timlin’s eye,” muttered the skull, peering over the edge of the balcony. “A funeral party’s passing through the grand parlor. We can’t go downstairs till they’re gone.”

“Where are we?” the man called out as he took a few steps toward the balcony. “How’d I get here?”

“This,” declared someone behind him, “is a place for the dead.” Startled, he turned to see a pale man, much taller and slimmer than Bogs, standing just inside the narrow doorway. He had a full head of stringy hair that looked like a writhing nest of black spiders. “And it could be said that you’re here because you signed a contract.” His voice hissed like the sound of sand flowing from a jug.

The man shoved the keys back in his pocket and looked to the skull for help, but it flew past him toward the new arrival. “Crepin!” it cried. “Quick—this deader peeled us and smashed Bogs! You handle him, and I’ll fetch help.” The skull plunged through the doorway’s curtain of darkness and was gone.

The pale figure, Crepin, glided smoothly across the floor toward the man, his loose, raisin-dark robe hiding any legs he might or might not have had. “Don’t be afraid,” he said gently, as if comforting a lost child. “I’m here to help. Life starts when you’re dead. You’ll see.”

As Crepin drew closer, the man could see real spiders in his wiry mane—perhaps more spiders than hair. He took a step backward, toward the balcony, wondering if he’d survive a drop to the floor of the grand parlor below. A few yards away, the limp, nude woman on the floor began to murmur. “Bogs?” Crepin called out, turning toward her. “Are you all right?”

The man lunged forward and shoved the wooden cart hard into the pasty figure’s side. Crepin cried out sharply and fell onto the cart, knocking the glass container to the floor with a shattering crash. Instantly, the room filled with an antiseptic smell so potent that it seemed to draw all the oxygen from the air. The stinging fumes filled the man’s lungs, and through watering eyes, he saw Crepin lift a wide, bladed tool from the tray.

“Skull!” the man yelled, rubbing his eyes and jerking the cart to keep it between the two of them. Crepin grabbed a handful of spiders from his hair and flung them toward him; most hit the cart with a sound like raindrops. “Skull!” The man climbed onto the hag’s slab and kicked at her hideous shape, pushing it off the edge toward his attacker. The platform’s chains began to complain as the slab swung back and forth.

From his new vantage point, he saw that only five or six slabs hung between him and the dark doorway, none holding bodies. He jumped to the next platform as Crepin slashed up at his legs with the blade, tearing his cloak and nicking the side of his left calf. The new slab swung mightily with the force of his landing.

Crepin came at him immediately, stabbing the air with violent strokes. The man leaped again to the next platform, and the next, fearing that he’d be grabbed and yanked to the floor at any moment. But a quick look behind showed that Crepin had moved to help Bogs, who was clumsily struggling to her feet. Both of them grabbed more gleaming instruments from the ground and started toward him.

The man held up the hanging folds of his cloak, hopped down to the cold, hard floor, and ran for the archway. Beneath the robe, something inched down his back. He ran into the enveloping blackness on the other side of the doorway . . .

. . . and stumbled forward, hard, nearly falling on his face as a narrow flight of steps spiraled tightly down and to the left. His bare feet practically slid over the slick stone, and the winding staircase was all but pitch-black. One hand brushing along the rough wall to guide his descent, he ran down the dark steps as quickly as he dared. He turned once, twice, and halfway again before coming out into a well-lit hallway. He peered left and right down identical corridors.

The slap of feet padding down the stairs behind him made him dash to the left, ducking into the first open doorway he came to, to get out of the line of sight. It was a small room, little more than an alcove, and almost completely dark. Flattening against the wall, he tensed, fists clenched, ready to swing at the next person through the archway. A moment passed, then another. He heard no footsteps, no voices in the corridor outside—nothing.

Then a skull bobbed into the room at eye level. “There you are!” it hissed at him. “If I’d known you liked hide-and-seek, I’d’ve let Bogs gut you!” “What?” asked the man. “You ran away from me!”

The skull rotated and floated back into the hallway, looking left and right. “I had to make sure it was clear. I don’t know why the hall’s so empty, but hide your mug and stick close.”

He stepped out into the long bright hallway, pulled the floppy hood of the cloak up over his head, and winced as warm liquid trickled down into his right ear. The skull was already some distance down the corridor, flying past the entrance to the steps, nearly disappearing in the murk.

The man walked briskly, trying to keep his guide in sight as the skull sped through the hall, which curved slightly to the left in a long arc. Here and there, open archways allowed him glimpses into rooms on either side of the corridor, where pairs of greenish undead things lugged shapes wrapped in white sheets, and bands of black-clad mourners stood by elegantly carved doorways awash in blistering flames. What was this place?

The skull rounded a corner to the right, and he followed—then nearly stopped short as he spotted two bald men in long black coats loitering in the hallway up ahead. Their coats hid everything but their heads and hands, and they wore oversized spectacles with round black lenses. In the torchlight, their smooth, gleaming gray skin looked almost rubbery. One of them traced luminous patterns in the air with a slender finger, sketching with light, while the other nodded solemnly. Their movements seemed off somehow, their limbs and necks bending in unexpected places. Behind them stood a horned skeleton, and within its rib cage, a skinned, monkeylike beast chewed on the bone bars of its prison.

The skull, a dozen yards ahead, floated calmly onward. The creature drawing in the air paused as the skull sailed through the trails of yellow light, which dissipated like smoke. “Pardon me, bloods,” the skull said. “Sorry to interrupt.”

Steeling himself, the man plodded down the hall. The bald figure who’d been nodding took off his glasses and looked at him as he brushed past; there were no eyes behind the spectacles, just featureless skin. The monkey-creature suddenly exploded in fury, spitting and howling and reaching for him through the skeleton’s ribs with long ropy limbs.

Were they on to him? The man fought the urge to break into a run; that would provoke a chase. Instead, he kept his pace, unwilling even to turn around to see if the bald figures were following. He heard no footsteps behind him, though, and as the monkey’s screeches subsided, he chanced a look back. The two black-coated men had resumed their conversation.

He let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding and blotted his sweaty forehead with his hood. The torchlit corridor curved to the left for fifty or more yards before ending at a crosshall and an iron-plated door framed by two black buttresses. The skull hovered at the intersection, and as the man drew closer, he could see that a lock was mounted in the door and that a solid iron rod, held by rings, barred its width.

“This is the lesser gate,” whispered the skull. “The back door. Deaders usually come in this way. Start trying to twist out the rod, and I’ll pinch the key.” He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out the wire ring of keys, cutting his palm on its barbs. “These were in the cloak.”

“Those’re for the deaders in the catacombs,” said the skull. “Bogs kept the vaults where the Dustmen store their own. They don’t like outsiders pawing at their corpses. Now get at that door!” It zipped off to the left down the unlit hall. The man stuck the keys back in his pocket and grabbed the rod. The iron bar was nearly four feet long and half a foot thick, and it filled the rings tightly. Still, he gave it a mighty yank, and . . . it slid out, almost easily. The surprise nearly made him drop it. As he laid the rod on the scuffed marble floor, he caught the murmurs of an argument some distance down the hall to the left. The rumblings grew heated and then stopped with the sharp crack of bone on bone.

A moment later, the skull emerged from the darkness and spit a brass key at his feet. “Hurry!” The torches lining the walls of the long corridor suddenly flared with a rush of crackling flame.

The man fumbled with the brass key and pushed it into the lock with a click as footsteps resounded from down the curved hall. The key turned stiffly, and he leaned against the iron door, which creaked open a few feet—more than enough to bathe him in blinding daylight.

“Time to tall-step it!” The skull flew through the narrow opening. He followed, eyes little more than slits, pushing the heavy door shut behind him. The sudden cool air of the outdoors rushed into his lungs. He stumbled down five or six steps, passed under a spike-topped gate, and raised his hand to shield his eyes. All at once, he was assaulted by so many sights, sounds, and smells that he couldn’t wrap his senses around them. Everywhere he squinted, looming and moving shapes fought for his attention: leaning hovels, smog-streaked air, disheveled people, unnameable creatures, tattered flags, bits of ash and refuse blowing in the brisk wind. The deafening din filtered down to a jumble of voices and cries in different languages, at different speeds, in different tones—did he hear musical notes and clicking gears, too?—backed by a low hum, as if some great energy pulsated beneath it all. He smelled smoke. No, bread baking. No, sweat and dung and urine.

It was a city. He stood in the street of a teeming city.

A slender woman clothed in nothing but silver tattoos strode past, her horselike tail snapping behind her. Then came a bone-colored insect, ten feet tall, walking upright on two legs. It was followed by a woman the size of a child and a taller man who pushed a wooden cart full of giant worms. They both gave a wide berth to what looked like a golden-furred jackal, standing upright and wearing an ornate robe, that rubbed its spectacles as it listened to the baritone words of a small blond boy—no, of a giant mouth on the boy’s bare stomach, a pair of thick black lips that did all the talking.

A swirling ball of yellow and purple light passed over the man’s head, and he looked up into the smoky sky. An extremely thin, human-looking creature with rocky skin and glittering white eyes drew in its stiff metal wings and soared through the small open window of a tall, tilting tenement. Then another flier caught the man’s eye, a huge, nearly circular, white fish drifting in the currents of the wind, along with bits of paper and feathers and soot. The fish silently passed over him, and he could see that it was as thin as a book. He looked at the white shape in the gray sky. Where was the skull?

Hastily, he surveyed the area and spotted the back of a bone-white oval weaving along above most of the pedestrians’ heads. He chased it, bare feet squishing through the thick mud of the street, staring straight ahead to avoid meeting anything’s gaze, which caused him to step on toes, tails, and other unknown appendages.

The skull glided through an open doorway in a run-down wooden building, and as the man ran to catch up, the frame suddenly flared and crackled with bright light. Out stepped a seven-foot-tall frog, lurching forward on massive hind legs. The fat creature was covered in wet, spotted green skin from the top of its wide head to its slightly webbed toes, and its large jellylike eyes doubled in size as the man dug his heels into the muddy ground to avoid a collision. The thing had seemed to simply appear in the doorway. It glared down at him, and the wattle of skin that hung beneath its tremendous mouth and chin filled like a bubble, then deflated, filled and deflated.

Do you challenge me, brown-wrapped mortal? The man felt the voice resounding somewhere between his ears and looked up into the frog’s glistening, expectant eyes. He shook his head. Then to the mazes with you! The creature shoved him aside and strode clumsily into the street. Behind it, the glow of the doorway faded and died. The man peered through it, into what looked like a shadowy alehouse crowded with bodies.

“Gad so! I thought I told you to follow me,” said a familiar hollow voice at his side, and he turned to see the skull, the one that had led him out of that terrible roofed graveyard. “Or can’t you tell one skull from another?”

How many floating skulls were there in this town? He studied the human skull, finding its bony framework slightly yellowed and littered with pits and ruts. Its teeth were fully intact—perhaps that would separate it from other skeleton heads. The man wished he could drape a sheet of skin over the front of the skull and see something more like a face. What would the thing look like as a man? It had been a man before it died, hadn’t it? It had a man’s voice now. How did a voice come out of something hollow?

The man looked back into the alehouse, then at the wooden frame of the doorway where the frog creature had suddenly popped into existence. The doorway seemed ordinary enough. What had happened?

“New to Sigil, are you?” asked the skull, noting his confusion. “They don’t call this burg the City of Doors for nothing. It’s lousy with portals that lead all over the whole sodding multiverse. Doors, windows, sewers, closets—just about anything that makes a hole can be a portal. They don’t open without the right keys, though, so I doubt you’ve got to fret about getting whisked away to somewhere else when you least expect it. But like you just saw, planewalkers coming from somewhere else might pop in anywhere. So look alive if you want to stay that way.” The skull rose a few feet and glanced around. “We’ve gotta keep moving. Where’s your kip?”

The man looked down at his robe. “My what?” “Your kip! Your case. Your—oh, sod it. Just follow me!” The skull glided along the winding road, floating just above the man’s head. It moved steadily forward, forcing him to trot to keep up since he had to weave around people and carts. A number of figures draped in robes like his own moved this way and that, and he realized he was blending into the crowd.

“My name’s Morte, by the way. I’d shake hands, but, well—you know.” The man still couldn’t recall his own name. He looked back over his shoulder at the building he’d just fled. A handful of windowless stone vaults clustered around a large blue-black dome that swelled up from the ground like a ripe boil. Jagged black buttresses adorned the roof of each structure in the small compound, giving the impression of horns or bat’s wings. A crooked line of tall poles topped with jawless skulls made a crude fence around the whole area. “What is that place? Why did you help me escape?”

“Ah, to feel the wind rushing through my eye sockets again! Almost makes me feel alive!” The skull turned back toward him. “Which you wouldn’t be if I hadn’t gotten you out of there right quick. Old Bogs would’ve scooped your insides out, maybe turned you into a zombie. That was the Mortuary—you probably noticed all the deaders on the slabs. Then again, you can hardly tell them apart from the Dustmen—the handlers in the robes. And I guess I helped you because when a basher can’t eat or touch or feel anything, every day’s like the next. This was unexpected. I just got caught up in the moment!”

The man looked up at the empty hard skull and wondered: Was it lying, trying to confuse him, lead him into a trap? It seemed to think he was new to the city. If it realized that he knew nothing about himself, not even his identity . . . He thought it best to conceal his vulnerability, to ask little and volunteer even less.

The narrow street they traveled—little more than a muddy path, really—felt even smaller and tighter thanks to the decaying structures that loomed on both sides of the road. Each crooked tenement was a riot of styles and building materials, its levels piled together like the carelessly stacked blocks of a child.

Stained rags and boards covered broken windows, and carpets of tough-looking vines on the exterior walls seemed to be all that kept some buildings from crumbling. Everywhere, the poor and the sick flopped on stoops or in the street, either dead or well on their way. Amber pools of watery sludge made small sinkholes in the road’s gray mud.

“The Dustmen kidnapped me,” the man said cautiously, as if stating a well-known fact. “Something about a contract.” He hoped to prod the skull into saying more.

“Happens all the time,” Morte allowed. “Not the kidnapping—the contract. Bashers figure it’s a way to make some fast jink. I mean, the Dustmen take care of all the corpses that stack up in Sigil. That’s enough to drive anyone barmy. So they try to make their job a little easier by cutting deals: You sign a piece of paper that says the Dustmen get your body after you drop, and you walk away with a handful of silver. In your case, maybe they got itchy and snapped you up before you were due. But I ain’t going back to the Mortuary to find out. They’d kill me for springing you.”

The man felt a stinging drizzle on his face and looked up into the haze that stained the sky. Through the smog, he could just make out faint lights and what looked like the roofs of buildings hanging down from above like stalactites. Reflections in the smoke? Then he noticed that the road curved slightly uphill ahead of him. Turning around, he saw the street rose gently upward in that direction, too. He stopped walking for a moment and looked up again. There was no mistake: Upside-down buildings faced him. Or was he upside down?

Suddenly, he felt as if he was going to be sick. He sat down in the mud, so quickly that the hood slipped back off his head, and put his hands flat on the ground. A reptilian creature, one that looked like a crocodile walking upright, cursed and stomped around him, passing over a brownish puddle as it did so. Several pairs of clawed hands shot up from the muck, grabbed its scaly ankles, and pulled its whole body down into the puddle. Its yellow eyes grew wide as its head sunk and disappeared.

“C’mon, c’mon,” said Morte, who’d flown around behind the man and was butting him on the back. “Just look at your feet, and you’ll be fine.” The man rose slowly, training his eyes on a fixed location—a sturdy stone building farther up the street, a butcher shop where dried-up carcasses hung on rusty hooks outside a smeared window. He rubbed his face and took slow, deep breaths of the cool air. The city seemed to be built on the inside of a ring. It was above him right now. If he kept walking, wouldn’t he be upside down? Wouldn’t he fall? He looked up again.

“Don’t worry,” said Morte. “To them, you’re the one who’s upside down. Keep walking.” The skull started back up the road. “Clueless about portals, clueless about Sigil—better stop gawking and make like you know the dark of things. This is the Hive, the worst part of town, and no place to look like an easy mark. No wonder the Dustmen scragged you.” The skull shook back and forth disappointedly; the gesture looked odd without a neck and body to support it. “Say, what’s with the string tied around your finger, there? What’re you supposed to remember?”

The man held up his index finger and studied the thin green knot. It meant nothing to him. “I don’t know.”

“Maybe it’s to remind you to buy more string!” Morte turned down a wider, more populated street. “Let’s get off Blackshade Lane. Too many robes, if you know what I mean.”

Near the corner of the two muddy roads, a humanoid creature covered with short metal quills and spikes was engaged in something with a female whose furry torso grew out of the body of a ram. They seemed to be threatening each other over the right to a dead body that lay between them. As he and the skull passed by, the man could see that the spiny creature’s body was rigid with tension, its fists clenched at its sides. Then its eyebrows drew down over its dark eyes and spittle began to fly from its mouth as it shouted unintelligible phrases into the face of the ram-woman. Anger. The man recognized it but couldn’t remember having ever felt it.

“You’re welcome, by the way,” Morte said. The man looked up at the skull. “What?” “That’s what I figured,” it muttered, sailing on ahead. “Keep a barmy out of the dead-book, and what thanks do I get?”

Suddenly, the man realized his debt to the skull, something he’d not considered until that moment. He knew that he should feel grateful—no, that he should shower his rescuer with praise. Even if it had some ulterior motive, the skull had saved his life. Had anyone else ever done as much? He had no idea. “Thanks,” he said. The word fell flat in the mud. “Sure, sure,” Morte tossed back. “All in a day’s work, right?” The man stumbled after the skull in silence for a few moments, trudging through a litter-strewn open square, trying to figure out how he really felt—how he should feel.

“Say, that githzerai’s giving you the peery eye,” Morte said, looking off to one side. “Do you know him?”

The man looked in the direction the skull had turned, examining the passersby, not sure what a githzerai looked like. He focused past the busy crowd, his eyes drawn to the one being in the area who wasn’t in motion. Twenty or so yards away, a slim, sallow man leaned against a tremendous wooden post plastered with hundreds of different sheets of paper. The stranger wore a suit of olive-green leather armor and had pulled his long, black hair back from his jaundiced, angular face. Arms folded across his thin chest, he stared at them calmly. Then he glanced at a notice near him on the post and pushed off, slipping into the crowd.

The robed man hurried toward the giant wooden pole, hoping to catch a glimpse of his observer—maybe the yellow-skinned man knew something about his past. But the stranger was gone.

Morte glided up behind him. “He must owe you some jink.” The skull floated closer to the post, which stood at least fifty feet in diameter and fifteen feet tall, and surveyed the overlapping handbills. “I wonder what he was looking at. We should keep— Hey, pal, this is you!”

“What?” The robed man stopped scanning the crowd and turned toward the post. Morte bobbed excitedly in front of a faded, rain-streaked piece of red parchment, covered on all sides by other notices so that only the center showed through. It was a sketch of a man with medium-length brown hair—held in braids by small beads—and large, wary eyes. The person in the sketch appeared to be young, despite obvious wrinkles—he must have lived a tough life.

The skull nodded toward the sketch. “That’s your mug, all right.” The overlapping papers were stuck fast to the wood, and the man peeled them up slowly so as not to tear the red one beneath. He removed the notices from above the face first and uncovered a large headline:

Adaire, alias Kester, alias Sigimundis Stig, alias Leontes, alias Chancellen the True.

Hands trembling, he ripped down the sheets that covered the lower half of the red handbill. Under the face hung a block of small print, but his eyes flitted past it, drawn instead to the larger line printed across the bottom of the leaflet:

Wanted for fraud, theft, and murder, by order of the Harmonium.

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