Part 5: Journal of The Nameless One: Part 3Journal of The Nameless One: Part 3
The Mortuary (Music)
"Scarred Shell," it said, in the middle of a long list of bodies. By their description the corpses I had been laid next to were ancient, possibly less than skin and bone.
"Morte, take a look at this," I held the note up to him.
Morte's teeth clacked slightly as his eyes darted across the page. His way of mouthing the words, I guess. "Wow. 'Scarred?' Either someone's flattering himself or the Dusties have a knack for understatement."
"No, look! It says my Collector was Pharod, whatever that means."
"Yeah, I saw that, chief. Huh, looks like something funny's goin on with the bodies. Seems like you aren't the only guy to die twice."
I read over the note again. When I saw "scarred" and "Pharod" not two lines from each other I had skipped over the rest. Morte was right, though. The Dustmen were receiving bodies that had already been prepared or had died once again. Perhaps it was related to my plight, but for the moment I couldn't afford to concern myself with such matters.
The next door creaked ominously as I pushed it open, the squeal of metal on metal piercing the air. Then it hit me.
The stench. The nauseating, sickly-sweet smell of rotting flesh mingled with the rich, coppery tang of blood. I looked to my side and retched.
A pale corpse lay on the slab next to the door, arms uplifted just slightly in rigor. The skin of his chest had been peeled and stretched back with small rusted hooks. Someone had split open the chest cavity and hadn't yet removed the organs.
The saliva in my mouth thickened, and I turned away, stumbling to the door and gagging.
"Uh... you okay chief?"
I spat a couple of times before I answered in a wet croak "Yeah... yeah I'm fine..."
"Good, 'cuz we're not alone."
I looked up quickly, stomach churning and head swimming, cursing myself for being all too oblivious of the dangers that I was facing as a trespasser. Who knew what this guild did to interlopers? Considering their trade involved dealing with the dead, I was quite confident I didn't want to find out.
A young woman stood beside a slab in the middle of the room, dressed in drab, dusk-gray robes. A wild mane of unkempt earth-bronze hair barely swept over her shoulders: the collected filth that was the result of neglect had caused it to stick out in all directions. The Dustman was turned away from me, her arms moved in a quick, intricate pattern focused entirely on the task before her. I paused, waited, and counted the seconds before she would say something.
It took a minute to realize that I had entered unnoticed, despite the initial commotion. Slowly, quietly, I slinked over towards Morte, keeping a wary eye on the Dustman. At a good angle I saw that she was dangerously pale, her slight frame emaciated with the flesh about her cheeks and neck sunken and gray. Then her hands came into view.
She had been intent on dissecting the corpse in front of her, sliding her palms along its bloodied chest. As I got closer, the flicks of long bloodstained talons couldn't be more apparent. Her fingers darted in and out of the corpses' chest cavity, slicing skin and parting sinew as surely as any knife.
It's rather amazing how quickly a body can adjust to these surroundings, as a more academic side to me kicked in and curiosity bent me over to whisper to Morte.
"What's wrong with her hands?"
"Eh... she's a tiefling, chief. They got fiend blood in their veins, usually 'cause some ancestor of theirs shared knickers with one demon or another. Makes some of 'em addled in the head... and addled-looking, too." A soft ripping sound punctuated the last few words as the tiefling tore a hunk of liver from the body and placed it in the urn beside her.
There was nothing to be done, then, and quite content with my luck I motioned Morte to follow me away.
A clicking sound from behind me halted us in our tracks, "Hst! You!"
I turned around to see her pointing a bloodied talon at me, bits of gore and bile trickling down her palms. She cocked her head as she took me in. If her talons weren't odd enough, her eyes were a rotting yellow, with small orange dots for pupils. Within a flash the look on her face turned from surprise to irritation. She frowned.
"Uh- hi?" I said lamely.
She didn't seem to hear me, and instead leaned forward, squinting, as if she couldn't make me out right. Mad and near-sighted, definitely to my advantage.
"You," she clicked her talons, then made a strange motion with her hands, "Find THREAD and EM-balming juice, bring HERE, to Ei-Vene. Go- go- go." Her voice was a hoarse, moist hiss.
If she thought I was one of the zombie servants, I might as well play the part for now.
Finding some thread and embalming fluid didn't involve much more than sifting through the cupboards for a few minutes. When I returned to Ei-Vene she was back at work slicing the corpses' chest open rhythmically, peeling off strips of skin and stripping muscle from bone. Slice, strip, peel, slice, strip, peel. The pattern was familiar, but I couldn't quite remember wha-
A prickling sensation tingled along my scalp, like a few ants crawling inside my brain. Then ten ants, then a hundred, and suddenly my vision was swimming, blurring, until...
A freshly-slain corpse lies spread on the dissection table, rigor mortis making a mockery of its smile; the number '42' had been stitched onto its scalp. The zombie lies on a slab, and I finish stitching up its chest. I had placed something inside, something that may prove useful if I come this way again...
Hopefully this investment might prove worth more than the trouble I had to go through. Still, not my fault the idiot tried to mug me. Might as well make it useful. Now all I have to do was fake the paperwork and the Dustmen would take care of the rest.
I lean over the handsome young man's face, now taking on a blue-gray hue, and whisper into its ear...
'Keep these things safe and wait for my return...' The voice echoed. MY voice...
I cross my arms in front of my chest, and as expected, the corpse does, too. After a moment, its hands fall back to its sides. Excellent. It's working. Now to get those papers...
The vision faded... and I was watching Ei-Vene's hands making their stitching motions once more. I shook off the last bits of the vision: a memory, I was sure. I had been in the Mortuary before.
I tapped Ei-Vene's shoulder gently, and she looked up with a frown. "Dum zomfies." She clacked her taloned fingers together impatiently, then made a stitching motion with her fingers. "Thread and embalming fluid."
I held out the items dumbly.
Without missing a beat, Ei-Vene snapped the thread from my hands and hooked it around one of her talons, then began sewing up the corpse's chest. She then took the embalming fluid, applying a layer to the body. I was about to turn away when she had just finished. A quick worker.
A smear of cold blood and embalming fluid dragged along my shoulder as Ei-Vene tugged at me, spinning me around to face her. She clicked her talons, and to my surprise, she extended her hand and dragged her claws along my arms and chest. It tickled numbly through the puckered half-healed skin.
"Uh, it's not that I'm not flattered, but..."
Morte snickered, "Heh. Looks like you've got a new friend, chief. You two need some time together, or...?"
"Stow it, Morte. "
As she traced my body, it suddenly occurred to me that she was examining the scars. Ei-Vene withdrew her talons, clicked them twice, then bent forward and examined some of the tattoos on my chest. "Hmmph. Who write on you? Hivers do that? No respect for zomfies. Zomfies, not paintings." She sniffed, then poked one particularly prominent gray slash along my belly. "This one bad shape, many scars, no preserfs."
Her talons hooked into the thread I brought, and lightning-like, she jabbed another claw into the skin near that big slash. However I got it, it must've been fatal. Probably spilled my guts into the street, too.
Aside from the sudden shock of getting stabbed with a talon, it felt barely more than a pin-prick. The sensation was curiously painless as Ei-Vene began to stitch up that long, unhealed wound.
When she finished, she sniffed me, frowned, then stabbed her fingers into the embalming fluid. Within minutes, she has dabbed my body with the fluid... it was slick, cold, and my skin tingled where the harsh preservatives were smeared, but strangely enough, it made me feel better somehow.
Morte seemed to wince at that, "This may be the second time in my life I'm thankful I don't have a nose. "
Ei-Vene put on the last touches, nodded, then made an awkward shooing motion with her talons. "Done. Go - go."
"Wait a minute," I made the motion of a key turning with my hand, "I need an embalming key. Do you have one?"
She leaned forward, looked at the hand motions, then sniffed. I mused over how she was beginning to resemble a dangerous cat, with her talons, yellowed eyes, and propensity for scent. Her hand darted into her robe, then emerged, a key hanging from her wickedly sharp index finger. She flicked it to me with surprising dexterity. 'Bring back when done. Go - go."
With the key to freedom clenched in my fingers, we hurried to the nearest door, zombies our only companions. The Mortuary was deserted here, an empty shell itself filled with mainly wandering husks. Those few sparks of life that were here seemed dim and faded... Dhall for one, and Ei-Vene, one failing in body, the other fractured in mind. The bleak existentialism of their philosophy gently pressed down on me, cold and oppressive.
This is but a shadow of life...
A rat squeaked. Well, at least something here still survived for survival's sake.
The stairwell was gated with shiny iron bars, as if newly installed. An odd contrast to the rust and blood of the rest of this place. As I approached, key in hand, I found my eyes darting to the stairwell upwards.
"Uh... chief? First floor is down."
There was that sense of familiarity again, a slight prickling crawling along my scalp, "I think I left something..."
"Chief, don't go crazy on me here. If you'll take a look at me I don't have ANY HANDS! Can you at least open the door? Chief? Chief? Oh gods dammit..."
Morte's curses and insults faded behind me as I made my way upwards. Then it ended with a resigned sigh as Morte floated up to join me.
Actual furnishings made for a refreshing sight on the third floor of the Mortuary. Even a charnel house still needed something more mundane, if at least for respite from the tang of blood, flesh, and formaldehyde. The floor was cobbled with green stone, the walls still cold iron, but softer, somehow. More muted.
I didn't exactly expect gardens through the door, but the stark contrast still surprised me. A wave of hot air blasted in my face, and with my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, the fires of the crematorium were blinding. The flames within that grand chamber roared with the fury of a sun, crimson as blood, and I was momentarily entraced. Terrified, but entranced.
"You there! Hold!" cried a voice.
The Dustman that walked up met me with a stony gaze, his unkempt blue-gray hair a wild mane that framed a dead-gray face, "Are you lost?"
I had to keep him talking, or he might've alerted the guards, "No, I'm not lost... I just need some help."
"If you are not lost, what is your business here?" He eyed me suspiciously.
I had to think quickly, "I was here for an internment, but there seems to have been a mistake."
"Who was being interred? Perhaps the services are taking place somewhere else in the Mortuary."
I nodded knowingly, "That could be. Where are these other services taking place?"
He gestured quickly, annoyance marking his voice, "Several internment chambers line the perimeter of the Mortuary. They follow the curve of the wall on the first and second floors. Do you know the name of the deceased?"
I stumbled a little, and made a mental note to get better at lying. I pulled a simple mash of syllables out of the air, "Uh... Adahn."
"That name is not familiar to me. Check with one of the guides at the front gate... they may be able to direct you better than I," the Dustman replied, shaking his head.
I thanked him and turned to leave, only to face an annoyed Morte, "You know, chief, I'm just starting to like you, so do us both a favor and don't put your own head on a pike until get out of this place, at least."
I shrugged, "Hey, I'm immortal, remember?" As strange as it sounded, that was something I was certain of. Perhaps it was an instinct, or a memory of my flesh; it had been slashed, cut, crushed, and torn, abused beyond all imagining, yet here I was. I looked back at the raging inferno of the crematorium. I might even survive that.
But Morte was right. No need to get cocky, now.
I explored the place, passing even more bodies, these wrapped and prepared for incineration. There were just as many zombies here, but more Dustmen. Many more. Every other corner I turned a Dustman stood within sight. I held myself confidently, striding not too quickly, lest I come across as an intruder. If any asked though, I was sure I could talk my way out of it.
There must've been some clues to my origin, and so I entered the southern chamber, a small library or perhaps a storage room. "Morte, quick, give me a hand with these shelves."
"Sure, chief. I'll just thumb through those books with my fingers. Should I dance a jig while I'm at it?"
"Just shut up and look for anything interesting."
A few crystallized drops of blood, a rag, and a wrinkled old report were the result.
Worker 42. There it was again... and it was still here.
I found the corpse making a circle around the center of the floor, as the note stated. It was old, all the flesh had rotted away, and the bones were yellowed and brittle with age. The number "42" had been chiseled into its forehead, its bones and joints were wrapped with leather straps to hold it together, and a black smock was draped over its body.
I tilted my head, "I have to ask: Why the smock? I mean, it's not like you have anything to be modest about." Morte chuckled.
At the sound of my voice, the skeleton suddenly straightened, crossing its arms over its chest, its fingers hooking into its ribcage.
The skeleton's arms dropped to its sides.
"Uh... hello? Do you remember me?"
The skeleton crossed its arms again.
"Would you cut that out? His arms are going to break off," Morte snapped.
Enough. I mimicked the gesture, and in response, the skeleton dropped its arms to its sides. The leather cords securing the skeleton's torso snapped, and the ribcage folded outward like a pair of double doors. I couldn't explain why, but a sudden urge came over me to reach inside the ribcage.
I slid my hand inside, and an unsettling feeling of my hand being somewhere else came over me. An extradimensional space had been built inside this thing, probably when it was first made. Probably made by me. I shivered a little, but explored, and my hand bumped against something hard, about the size of a fist and attached to the skeleton's spine.
I pulled. It was stuck.
I tugged a little harder, harder still, bracing a hand against the skeleton's clavicle, when suddenly the object snapped from its base. The sudden release threw me off balance and I stumbled backwards. The skeleton wasn't so agile: its light frame flew away from me and shattered against the floor, sending bits of bone and joints scattering. His skull bounced once, twice, before it rolled and came to a rest next to a mute zombie.
I looked down at the object in my hand, a simple black lump of iron. A piece crumbled off, then another, and with a long hiss the metal evaporated, leaving behind a strange dagger, a handful of coins, and two more crystallized drops of blood. Blood charms, I now knew... vital life force locked into a solid form.
"Uh... I say we get out of here before anyone notices."
"Yeah," I gulped, tucking the dagger into my belt. This was enough exploring for now. It was time to escape the Mortuary.