Part 6 - Delirium

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She had never seen the streets of Malakesh so empty, not even on those dark and thankfully rare days when plague stalked the city. Most everyone must be huddled inside, Vessa supposed, out of the unnatural light and hoping that if they ignored this strangeness then the sun might decide to saunter back into the sky as if nothing had happened. Even the galagan lizard from the previous day had finally abandoned the festering remnants of the dog's corpse, which now sprawled alone and forlorn in the middle of the road. Vessa was suddenly struck by an odd thought: just as rats flee sinking ships or fleas a corpse, perhaps the vermin of Malakesh were streaming from the city in a chittering, writhing horde, some animal impulse telling them that this eternal twilight portended an onrushing calamity.

She couldn't blame them if they were. Fingers of lavender stretched from the horizon into a sky mottled by patches of black and purple. The colors shimmered and twisted, some growing lighter while others darkened, but night – or the dawn – never seemed truly imminent. The city was trapped in an interstitial moment, the kind that usually comes and goes in an instant, barely noticed, like the blink of an eye. Seeing something that should have been so fleeting continue to linger was disconcerting, and made her skin crawl.

She left the main road and entered the narrow, twisting side streets and alleys of the Rat Quarter. Shapes huddled under piles of rags, and small, fierce-looking children crouching in the shadows paused their games to watch her pass. Most of the doors of these listing houses were shut tight, but a few were flung open, revealing the lives of the Rat's inhabitants. Through one doorway she saw a young mother bend to hack a chunk of meat from the corpse of a small pig, her babe's thatch of black hair just visible atop the basket slung across her back. The girl looked up and caught Vessa's eyes and nodded a wary greeting. Vessa glanced up at the sky and felt a flush of shame for accidentally bringing such fear and disruption into their already difficult lives.

She needed to find Del and figure out what in the seven abysses was going on. Instead of recovering the Eye for the faithful of Aradeth, they had in fact been deceived into stealing the artifact from them. But by whom? The Night Brotherhood? Certainly, they would be the obvious suspects. One of the shadow societies? Perhaps they were behind all this, and after being hired to find the Eye, they would simply sell it back to the high priest for an outrageous amount. She and Del would serve as very convenient scapegoats in that scenario. And what about Sahm? She had seemed so young and innocent. If it all had been a performance, then the girl deserved a spot in the most celebrated troupe of mummers in the city. Vessa shook her head, trying to order her thoughts. She didn't want to descend into a dreamsmoke den while confused, lest an accidental whiff of the drug trap her within the labyrinth of her own mind, endlessly following the twisting threads of these mysteries but getting nowhere. She needed clarity right now.

Down an otherwise empty alleyway, Vessa paused in front of a small, nondescript door of red wood. Taking a deep, steadying breath – how long it been? – she knocked loudly.

"Where does the balobo bird nest?" The words were faint, muffled by the thick wood.

Vessa cleared her throat. "In the temqua tree, the roots of which trail into the poison water."

The door swung open sharply, and Vessa took an involuntary step back, her hand going to her sword hilt.

A small, gnarled woman with skin the color of teak stood in the entrance, blinking up at her. She smacked her gummy lips and smiled toothlessly. "By the last lord of Hardlight, tis Vessa. Haven't seen you round so much, girl."

"I was in the south. The Silken Cities."

"Thought you might have been tryin' to slip the golden serpent's coils." The old woman cackled. "Not so easy, is it?"

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