It took her a long time to find them all. But, after all, if there was one thing she had plenty of, it was time.
Rumours were, Annah had found work in the Foundry. When Grace came there to see her, she looked changed - clad in heavy leather, her shoulders broader, traces of soot on her reddened skin. Her gaze seemed heavier; a slanting scar crossed her face, forming a dent in the bridge of her nose. But there was still something in her bottle-green eyes, a restless and stubborn spark, that Grace was secretly pleased to see.
"There's a face ah haven't seen in a while," said Annah testily, putting aside her hammer. Something intricate and dangerous glowed white on the anvil before her, all edges and spikes. "What is it ye want?"
"I have given a promise and now I will fulfil it, Annah." Grace wrapped her wings tighter around herself to shield her skin from the heat and the acrid smoke of the Foundry. "I would you come with me."
A change passed over Annah's features - hope mixed with anger. Her tail flicked slightly, raising a small cloud of metallic Foundry dust, and stiffened against her hip. But she said nothing.
"He's a friend to both of us. His chances are highest if those close to him are near."
"How easily ye say that." Annah looked at her without blinking, her mouth twisting bitterly. "What good did we do 'im last time, succubus?"
"Don't ye Annah me. Have ye nae thought, in all these years ye were a-wanderin' Planes know where, of what it is you and I share?"
"Pain," Grace said, quietly.
"Corruption," snapped Annah. "There's corruption in us both, there is. Don't ye think I forgot that I came from yer kind. All that e'er brought to me was grief. And what good is this pretty face if all it does is attract the perverted lust of evil men?"
"That is not true."
But what she thought of was a smooth green stone hidden at the very bottom of the painted wooden box she kept her possessions in. The stone, wrapped in layers upon layers of thick satin, as if to keep something dangerous in, contained a memory. Grace rarely took it out; rarely remembered it even existed. But on her worst days, it was always there, fitting snugly into her cupped hands, dark and cool like river water.
A cold flash, and she was once again in the red sandy Planes of the Abyss. Hot wind kissed her cheeks; and someone's hand grabbed a fistful of her hair and forced her to the ground. Kneeling on the wooden floor of the Marnac market before a crowd of her would-be owners, young Grace managed to turn her head a little and look up at the one holding her. That was the first time in her life she didn't think of her mother as beautiful. Instead, her face seemed to Grace stained and mangled by evil as surely as by any deformity. It struck her as ugly beyond all words.
Grace wondered if Annah, too, at times found herself avoiding mirrors for fear of seeing the features of someone rotten and deformed. If the thought of others coveting her body sickened her.
"That is not true," she repeated, with some effort. "We forge our own paths."
She didn't always know if she believed that. But the only path she could follow that she did not forge was back to the sweat-drenched wood and sands of Marnac, and that was no path at all.
When she turned to leave, she heard the steps of Annah's ironshod boots behind her.
Her old friend Dak'kon she found in a small nameless Plane thousands of portals away from Sigil. He was fighting a large catlike creature with red tusks gleaming within its unnaturally broad mouth, and Grace shielded him with her body from a blow that would have surely broken his neck. Her own flesh was far more forgiving; all those crooked claws had done was create a gash in her left wing. It bled profusely from hundreds of ruptured little arteries, but her life was hardly in danger.
As Dak'kon's thin long fingers worked deftly on her bandages, she looked at his bowed head and mused on what had happened. Countless times they had saved each other's lives, and there was never any change in their bond; never any dependence on or infatuation with the other. She wondered if that was why she respected him - why she cared for his company so much. He looked at her perfectly formed lips and thought of conversations; saw her elegant small hands and was reminded of her healing spells. Her pearly skin, her beautiful hair - he looked at all those things and all he saw was his friend. That knowledge was, to Grace, precious beyond words.
"I've come to take you with me to the Outer Planes," she said.
"This one should be silent," said Dak'kon sternly. "I would suggest rest before any such conversation."
"Come now, Dak'kon, I am not so gravely wounded," reasoned she. He frowned and raised his hand, and she saw that he would brook no disagreement. And so she complied, curling up in a patch of soft plants whose name she did not know. Dak'kon covered her with his cloak. She did not know that she wanted to sleep, but the gesture brought her peace and comfort, and she didn't object.
She lay awake for a while, looking at the gentle blue stars of that world she knew nothing of. Dak'kon stood a few feet away, leaning heavily on his blade. His narrow back was straight, however, betraying alertness. Grace didn't have to see his face to know that he, too, was looking at the sky. She knew better than anyone what longing those impossible depths could inspire.
She needed no sensory stones to remember looking at the sky of the Abyss for the last time in her life. After regaining her freedom, she had briefly come back to her home Plane. But standing before the portal that had taken her through dozens of worlds, she looked up and experienced the strangest sensation. The skies of the Abyss held a familiar purple tinge; the clouds shrouding them, smoke-like, drifted lazily in the wind. But the shining pinpricks of light within these clouds looked suddenly and strikingly unfamiliar.
Over the years spent with the baatezu she had forgotten these constellations. Her tongue strained and could not pronounce their names; her mind tried to trace them and became lost and confused. She looked at them like one looks at the words of a language they used to speak as a child, and a profound sense of loss consumed her entire being.
Grace looked at Dak'kon and knew that in looking at that sky he was trying to remember words he'd once loved.
Morte had, of course, never left. He sought Grace out almost immediately after she returned to Sigil and somehow made himself at home in the Brothel. In the absence of The Nameless One, they found themselves in an awkward semi-antagonistic friendship, with Grace often losing patience with Morte.
"I tire of your crude remarks, Morte," she'd tell him, and he'd pause guiltily, only to resume his commentary five minutes later.
"If you're only here to gawk at my body, I can send you to a friend in the Old Ward," she said once, coldly, in response to some innuendo or other. She expected him to humorously agree; but her words seemed to have a striking effect on him.
"No! Please don't send me away." Grace looked at him in surprise. He was floating agitatedly around one of the tropical plants she'd bought for the Brothel from someone in Baator. He turned to her, and his ever-grinning face looked suddenly vulnerable. It was as if someone stretched a laughing mask over the features of a creature sick with fear.
"I don't know what to do now he's not here," Morte said pitifully. His eyes rolled frantically in their orbits. "And you're nice... and kind... and- Grace, please."
Grace put her cup of tea with sea plum wine down, although her white fingers still held the handle.
"I didn't know this was how you felt," she said.
"Give me a chance," pleaded Morte. "I'll try to learn. I've done awful things before, to the chief, to others. I try to be better. I don't know how you do it. It seems to come so naturally to you."
She laughed without merriment.
"Naturally! To me! Surely you're joking, Morte." She took another sip of tea and reached out to give him a little awkward pat on the mandible. "We'll find him one day. We'll find him and bring him back. I promise you that."
Their relationship changed that day. Of course, there were still fights and disagreements; she still rolled her eyes at his jokes, and he mocked her seriousness. But there were other times, too, when she would sit down on one of the ornamental wooden benches in the centre of the Brothel to eat some wild fruit from the Outer Planes only she found tasty, and Morte would float by her and they would talk. Grace taught him the art of refined conversation; Morte taught her swearwords. She laughed at them as a child would. He'd bring her bottles of sea plum wine from the cellar, holding them between his teeth, and she'd uncork them and pour a little into his mouth. Where exactly the wine went from there she wasn't entirely sure, and upon reflection she decided she didn't want to know.
Perhaps one day she would tell him about her dreams. There was blood in them - another's blood - and sand, and smoke, and fire. And she walked through that fire, invincible like the wrath of gods, and struck down everyone who stood in her way. The heavy sword in her hands shone red, the intricately carved iron warm to the touch, and she felt no remorse; no fear. Blood rained upon the earth before her, soaking it and feeding the roots of the poisonous plants covering the meadows of the Lower Planes.
She awoke from them with a heavy, sour feeling in the pit of her stomach, emptiness ringing in her ears. They were nightmares; and yet a part of her felt as if they were glimpses into another life, one that still went on somewhere behind a locked door within her heart.
When the Zerth blade pierced her heart, the tanar’ri opened her wings. It was an instinctive attempt at flight, the last effort of a dying creature; a moment later the wings went slack. Dak’kon pulled the blade out and wiped it on the dusty hem of his garments.
He felt strange looking at that thin-limbed body lying mere inches away from the pointed tips of his shoes. His skin and his soul bore upon them countless marks from every city and every Plane; his scars, left by so many manners of weapons, were each a unique shape, like so many letters of a curious alphabet. And yet he looked now at that single creature dead by his hand, and he found himself unnerved in a way he had never been before.
Thin cool fingers touched his shoulders just below the spaulders. He turned around hastily and saw Grace standing beside him. A thin film of cold blue covered her eyes, her lips forming silent syllables. And for a moment the reality before his eyes shifted, in that horribly familiar way that brought a sick sour taste to the back of his throat, and all he saw was the face of the tanar’ri he’d slain, eyes glazed over with death, beyond any hope, beyond any doubt. For a moment, Dak’kon knew again the fear of a mind fractured.
Then he felt Grace’s magic dart through his bones, through the liquid in his joints, through each vessel and ligament. So delicate it was that it was more of a sound than a physical sensation. Yet there was something so powerful about that simple healing spell that the world around him clicked back into place, and once again all he could see was the face of his friend.
“You seem unsettled, Dak’kon,” Grace observed mildly.
He thought of answering but did not. Grace felt other people as one might feel a sensory stone. She did not need Dak’kon’s words to know his mind.
They stood in silence, looking out over the endless expanse of the Abyss. The landscape of it was dizzying; it obeyed no law and acknowledged no harmony. Here and there sheer cliffs disappeared into the dust clouds far below, and astonishingly crooked trees grew atop peaks of blood red stone. Wild exotic flowers, purple and blue, crawled through rock towards the blinding moon of the first of the six hundred and sixty six Planes. The dust swirling endlessly around their feet smelled like tea and incense, and Dak’kon’s lungs burned with it.
Not so with Grace. She seemed revitalized; almost delighted. Her breath came freely, as if that dust was better than air to her. Her wings were spread slightly, their roughened skin exposed to the wind. It took no mind-reader to see that the Abyss had power over her.
“This one seems different here,” murmured Dak’kon.
“Ye’d be different, too, if we were in yer Plane,” came Annah’s voice. Grace turned in surprise. Annah stood a few steps behind them, her tail tense and wrapped around her legs. Its tip flicked rhythmically back and forth. Morte floated beside her, and for once she didn’t seem to mind.
Annah’s pupils were widened, almost turning her green eyes black. She looked nervous, but agitated, too, like a child in unfamiliar surroundings.
“This is where ye are from, isn’t it, succubus?”
“This is where I was born,” said Grace. She was observing Annah intently.
“Me mother’s mother might’ve lived here, once.” Annah was silent for a while. “O’ course, I doubt she was the sort I’d like tae meet.”
Grace smiled sadly. Dak’kon looked for a hint of bitterness in that smile but saw none. Perhaps it was altogether too well concealed for his eyes. Perhaps it was not there.
“No one here is the kind one hopes to meet.” She nodded at the dark form of the dead tanar’ri lying in the shadow of a cliff some distance away from them.
Morte produced a vague sound of disagreement, but it was half-hearted. Grace looked at him.
“And you, Morte,” she said. “You remember nothing of your previous life, don’t you? You may as well count the Pillar as your home.”
“I’d rather jump off a cliff, thank you very much,” objected Morte, and paused. “Float off a cliff. Whatever.”
“We have all of us lost a home,” said Grace. “In one shape or another.”
The fractured realities of Shra’kt’lor were forever burned into Dak’kon’s mind. He saw them now, collapsing before him into something no one could ever hope to know.
“Is that why we’re looking for the chief in this godforsaken snake pit of a Plane now?” grumbled Morte. “So that we can all settle down in a nice little manor by the Citrilian Sea?”
“I doubt that’s what he’ll do if he comes back,” laughed Grace.
What would he do? What would the man made of memories want with these Planes after going through a million and one lifetimes? They none of them knew. They were chasing the unknown – perhaps an unknown that didn’t exist. After all, The Nameless One promised them nothing, bound himself to no one. It was they who were bound to him.
But after they have known so much loss and grief, the unknown was their only hope.
Grace slowly walked back to the fire that burned in the centre of the camp and lowered herself on the heap of straw and dusty leather that had served as her bedding for the past few weeks. The fire burned bright, and the branches of black saxaul within it cracked and deformed with heat. In a while, Morte joined her, unusually quiet; then Dak'kon, too, came and sat by her side. Annah was the last to return. But there was no hostility in her eyes when she looked at Grace through the flicking blue-hot flames. She looked wistful.
"What's for dinner?" quieried Morte. "Not that tanar'ri, I hope."
Dak'kon used a crooked stick of saxaul to maneuver two pots off the fire. One of them contained stew made from a variety of gnarly roots and the meat of a local bird Grace had pointed out to him; the other was full of sharp-smelling bitter leaves and spices. Morte, who had, of course, no need of drinking, nevertheless insisted that Grace pour a cup into his mouth, and proceeded to make a whole show of spitting and coughing at the taste of the drink.
"It's traditional Sigil tea, ye daft skull," snapped Annah. "And if ye don't like me tea, we can eat yeh for our next dinner."
"But there's no meat on me," Morte objected. "Surely you'd prefer something more nutritious than a skull."
"Well, there are yer eyeballs," said Annah ominously, and Morte hastily floated closer to Grace, who gave Annah a mildly reproachful look.
Grace spread her wings a little. The tip of her left one touched the sand next to Annah; the right one shielded Dak'kon's figure from the harsh light of the moon. It was as if she were embracing them all - her companions; her friends. And it may have been that none of them had a home, but for that night their home was there, in the depths of an unfamiliar Plane, by each other's side.
The sparks from the fire floated up into the sky and died away in its purple depths like so many distant stars. Grace liked to think that rather than being extinguished, they simply floated upwards indefinitely until she could no longer see them, eventually sinking into the cold clouds stretching miles above the Abyss' surface.