Part 108: The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 12The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 12
The crowd's murmurs filled the room. Though the lecture hall was modestly large, I squeezed through a Byzantine maze of protruding elbows and skirts. Women glared at me for the occasional treaded dress hem, while those noblewomen in more scant clothing shot piercing looks when I brushed past as if I were trying to feel them up.
I grumbled and ignored their gazes. If they dressed themselves in less cotton than I could dig out of the top of a pill bottle they could hardly blame me for bumping against a little bare skin.
I should've let Grace take the point instead of trying to be a gentleman. For her the crowd parted as much as they could. The Sensates knew of Grace's prestige in the faction, while the more ignorant at least knew not to cross paths with a Ta'nari. The Clueless might not have been quite so tactful, but not many of them attended this lecture, apparently. Too bad: they would've benefited the most.
A squat, hunched old man stood on the podium, still bearing the broad shoulders and scarred, callused hands of a worker or warrior. An aura of weary despair hung him about him, by his furrowed brow and bitter scowl. The name on the sign that advertised the lecture outside read "Ghysis the Crooked," and by his gnarled features I could see why.
"Right! Now lissen up... this is th' seminar on th' War. If ye're 'ere ta lissen 'bout th' Blood War, take root. If ye're not, ye're in th' wrong 'all and ye'd best 'ump yer soft, comfort-lovin' Sigilian limberstembs outta 'ere."
"The Blood War? More boring than listening to a Guvner recite laws. Let's find some young Sensates who need to be indoctrinated in the ways of passion!" Morte waggled his eyebrows in anticipation.
"No, Morte... I want to hear this," I said, hushing him quick, just as the rest of the crowd let their conversations die in the air.
The man suddenly threw a dark eye over the audience, as if looking for something. "An' further, if ye're tanar'ri or baatezu, 'ump yer scaly 'ides out th' door. I's not lettin' ye ornery bastards bend an ear ta this an' then lissen ta yer barmy arguments..."
Grace tilted her head ever so slightly, drawing a delicate finger along her cheek in thought.
"...'cause this is no discussion on who's right." Behind us, I could hear the sounds of something large leaving the lecture hall. "It just tells the Blood War from the 'uman point o' view. I's not promotin' one side or another, 'cause they both stink in different ways."
The speaker became somber. "So... what's left o' ye're wantin' ta lissen ta some Blood War stories... tales about th' War. 'Ere ta 'ear the 'orror of it all, no doubt. Th' floatin' fortresses wove and weaved o' 'uman skin! Th' Planes-wide battlegrounds th' Blood War be fought on!"
He bared his yellowed teeth: "Tales o' fiends lockin' fangs with other fiends! Grar! Snrarrrr!" His snarl faded, and he looked suddenly bored.
"Well, lemme peel back yer lids an' crack yer bone boxes: 'tis all a steamin' 'eap o' barmy nonsense ta be dwellin' on that forge-dung." He spat in derision, rolling his eyes wildly.
"I'll tell ye this, though: Ye can't imagine th' scale th' Blood War is fought on. Nothin' ye've seen, 'eard, or participated in - nothin' compares: time, numbers of 'legions,' sheer bloodshed... nothin' compares, berks. Ta try an' imagine it - forget it. My advice? Simple: Stay away from th' big bloody mess all together. Th' only thing ye needs ta know is this: fiends are killin' fiends. Baatezu are slaughterin' tanar'ri, tanar'ri are butcherin' baatezu. Right now." He spat again. "Neither's winnin'. Don't think either can win. Biggest stalemate this side o' eternity... thank the Powers."
"That's it." He shrugged. "That's it. I'll be answerin' any questions ye gots fer me, now..."
A young Sensate raised his hand.
"What's yer question, cutter?"
"What started the Blood War?" he called out from the crowd.
"Ye got a right ta be curious what started this big ol' soddin' soupy mess in th' first place: what set th' fiends ta lockin' 'orns in the first place, bitin' an' clawin' at each other until that was the only reason they were alive... Simple: they met." He sighed. "Tanar'ri an' Baatezu crossed each other one day an' like two drunken bigots, they set ta fightin'. That simple."
He frowned. "Well... Naw, pike that: imagine two drunken priests who believe each knows th' only way ta live. Now make those priests ripped with scales an' fangs an' horns an' a cruel streak seven leagues wide an' put them in an itty-bitty soddin' cell... an' ye 'ave a good idea o' th' love that can spring forth. An' there ye 'ave it! The origin o' th' Blood War."
"Why are two evil races fighting?" another asked.
"One believes evil should be nice an' orderly. One believes evil should be chaos, runnin' rampant across th' Planes. Both evil, but doesn't mean they can agree on anythin'. Bad blood, bad blood... each wants ta exterminate th' other so only their 'brand' o' evil remains. They hate each other, like... like..." The speaker wrung his hands together, trying to find the right words. "Ye see, they don't hate like we hate. We don't even know what hate is. We have one, one word fer 'hate.' They 'ave..." His voice dropped. "...thousands, upon thousands, their meanin's twisted an' piled like... bodies. That's why they fight."
"Can't you give me a little more on the Blood War itself?" I called out. Morte rolled his eyes. I could've asked him just as easily.
"If I were ta boil it down, it'd be this: th' Blood War's been goin' on damn-near-forever, an' will keep goin' on until damn-near-forever itself gets penned in th' Dead-Book. Th' tanar'ri, th' champions o' chaos an' evil are tryin' ta stomp th' green-colored dung out o' th' baatezu, the champions o' law an' evil. They butcher each other over 'ow each o' them thinks evil should be, if ye can believe that. Hah!"
"What do you think would happen if someone stopped the Blood War?"
"Ye can't make any pikin' difference in the War! It's too soddin' big. Ye're a stone, a pebble in an ocean that's a pebble in another ocean which is a pebble in another ocean an' so on and so forth 'til th' stenchkows come 'ome. As a pebble, yer goal is ta be not noticed an' sink ta th' bottom with th' rest o' the dregs... If ye could make a difference - which ye can't - ye shouldn't try, 'cause then th' Planes would tumble on down."
I was glad I was taller than most here, so he could see me clearly. "The Planes would tumble down? Why?"
He held up his hands like pillars. "Th' Blood War's like a big, bloody support beam proppin' up th' Planes... kick it down, an' a lot o' th' Planes'd come tumblin' down with it. Lot o' baggage rests on th' back o' th' War." He suddenly brayed like a donkey, laughing bitterly. "Th' biggest, nastiest pack animal on th' Planes..."
Ghysis grinned cynically. "Besides, as some say, war's great fer business." He laughed hollowly, then looked as if he could suddenly cry. "Eh... never ye mind that... another question?"
"Are you all right? You seem pained..."
The man smiled sadly. "Aye, aye... listen, cutter: I'm no priest, nor would I want ta be one, but 'ear this: keep evil out o' yer heart. When ye die with evil in yer heart, yer spirit falls inta th' Lower Planes, where ye become a petitioner... Any guesses as ta what 'appens then? Petitioners in th' Abyss an' Baator get twisted inta footsoldiers... an' get ta fight in th' Blood War fer all eternity." He chuckled, shaking his head. "So that's th' dark as ta why th' baatezu an' tanar'ri try an' corrupt all they touch; 'cause they need more troops. 'Eed this: keep evil far from yer 'eart, berk."
The questions came, mostly from the front of the crowd where we mingled. A few questions were shouted from the back of the room, carried over only by the polite silence of the attendees. "Where is the Blood War fought?"
"Plenty o' places... usually th' Lower Planes. Anywhere along th' River Styx... the nine layers o' Baator, th' four furnaces o' Gehenna, the Gray Waste, cold, red Carceri - the prison plane - an' the pikin' near-endless well o' evil that's th' Abyss." Somehow, the Gray Waste sounded familiar...
Luckily, someone else was just as curious apparently. "Tell us about the Gray Waste."
"Also called th' 'Glooms.'" Ghysis shrugged, then shivered, as if by reflex. "Gray in every sense o' th' word. Colors burn yer eyes there; they shout, are too loud, and yer dreams are pulled ta th' surface an' poured on th' ground, lost forever. Only th' night hags rule there... the Gray Ladies o' th' Waste."
One particularly callow, fresh-faced youth had an insouciant smile on his face. He was either Clueless or spoiled rotten. "How does one get hired into the Blood War?"
"Ye know, every once-a-when some leather-headed berk comes 'round askin' about a job in th' Blood War. They want some jink, they want a quick stint an' then ta get along with their lives. Mayhap I was one o' these leatherheads. Mayhap I was a sellsword, an' 'eard there was a little jink ta be made in th' War. Got me interested..."
He shook his head, "Taught me a lesson, it did: we're like ants runnin' around th' heels of dancin', sod-pike gods. I saw big men, who claimed ta be big soldiers... Paper soldiers. Wars' a furnace fer them. Makes them wake up or burn."
The young man wrinked his nose, as if sizing up Ghysis, "So, how'd you survive the Blood War?"
The man's face darkened. "I... well, that's th' one thing I won't speak of, cutter. Suffice ta say a man does what 'e 'as ta do ta escape the War."
"Surely you could advise us on how one is to survive the Blood War?"
Ghysis stabbed his gaze at me, "Ye wanna know 'ow ta survive th' Blood War? Three things, cutter:" He held up a maimed hand with only two fingers. "First off, ye stay th' pike out o' it. Secondly, keep yerself th' pikin' 'ells out o' it. An' lastly... ye stay the bloody, pikin' sod-pike out o' it. If any part o' th' War rolls yer way, let yer imagination give yer bum a kick an' run as far an' fast as ye can. If ye can't run, then lies really still an' pray it passes ye by." He paused for a moment. "'Cept, there's no place it don't touch an' there's almost nowheres ye can run ta get away from it."
"If there's nowhere to run, why aren't their fiends fighting in Sigil?"
His expression seemed to soften, "Aw, now, cutter, look: they 'ave fought here... a few times. Sometimes we get a lil' spillover from the Blood War. Our Lady of Pain, bless 'er steel-ridden heart, puts out th' fires... some o' th' time." He sneered. "There's been times, some horrifyin' drizzle-on-yerself-ye're-so-sodddin'-scared-times, when they've smashed an' burnt an' clawed their way through whole soddin' city blocks in Sigil afore she decides ta clean house." He clucked his tongue and winked cynically. "So she ain't always as keen on stoppin' the Blood War as it might seem, see?"
"Why don't the fiends just take Sigil?"
He laughed, but it turned into a sputtering cough. "Don't get me wrong now: both th' tanar'ri an' th' baatezu want Sigil fierce. 'Tis th' most precious stagin' ground in th' pikin' multiverse - th' Cage is th' City o' Doors an' connects everywhere. Ye can't ignore it, an' if ye're servin' in th' Blood War an' wanma win, ye gotta have it."
Ghysis coughed again. "'Tis just th' fiends aren't goin' ta get it while th' Lady's in charge, 'tis all. She's tough as nails, 'er blades'll cut ye deeper than any fiend's fang. An' that knots th' fiends' stems like ye wouldn't believe. One quiet Lady, 'er 'ands tucked in 'er sleeves, 'oldin' back th' Blood War all by 'erself." He laughed bitterly.
"I don't find it hard to believe that a woman can stop the Blood War," Grace chimed, and instantly Ghysis looked mildly chastened.
"But fiends are still allowed in Sigil?" I continued.
"Oh, damnably certain. They can't brawl in th' streets... too much. So as neutral ground, Sigil allows them ta rattle their bone-boxes without tryin' ta murder each other. Sometimes they'll chat it up with each other 'ere. The peace don't stay that way fer long, though..."
"Also, just 'cause they can't butcher each other in th' streets don't means spies, recruitment an' back-stabbin' don't still go on 'ere. They fight battles with lies an' words, berk. Sometimes 'tis all in th' bluster an' blather. An' there's safe houses about, too. Places where they can cool their talons afore th' next skirmish... An' they like ta recruit 'ere, too. Lookin' fer boys fresh off th' Planes with a little greed in their 'earts that they can make part o' their glorious army." He stopped speaking to peer closely at me. "Mayhap they recruited ye once, eh, cutter?" Ye look like ye've tasted th' War."
"The War leaves a scar on ye, cutter. Ye'd know. And ye'd know ye never want ta go back."
A pressure built in the recesses of memory, and my temples throbbed with agony as I considered the man's words...
This is the place where hopes go to die.
This is where prayers go unheard, falling like stones to the earth... vein-colored lightning flashes across things that were once sky, but now boil beneath my feet and scream when I brush against them...
I run at the head of a large band of men, passing through dark canyons where the walls quiver moistly and beat like a heart, wearing only my own blood as clothing. At last I stand in a place where the ashen gray terrain slithers like a mass of snakes, coiling around my ankles and whispering my evil to the earth. We march endlessly, silently, through this colorless land, where fatigue seems to live and hunt us like a shade over the wastes, whipping us with despair...
I want to scream, but futility drags even that urge into its depths.
In time, I and the ragged men who follow me come upon a hag sitting upon a mound of gigantic, writhing larvae, poking at one of the slime-covered things with a broken talon. I gesture for one of the men to run forward and speak with her; the hag's grating voice carries to my ears...
"I would speak with him," she says, then cackles. Her eyes gleam as she points me out to the man. "The handsome one that leads your ragged column. I would speak with him."
"Cutter? Ye feelin' all right, there?"
For a moment the storm of color, texture, and scent assailed me. I suppressed the panic that welled up like stale vomit. Coming back to the Festhall straight from what I could only surmise to be the Gray Waste was a shock to the senses. "Yes... I'm fine. So, do the fiends recruit often?
Ghysis nodded grimly. "Ye can be sure o' that. Sigil's th' best source o' fodder on th' Planes. Beats milkin' planets o' all their prime inhabitants... too much work."
"So, any more advice on surviving the War?"
"Aye: whatever ye does, don't talk about th' Blood War with any fiend... or any deva or archon fer that matter. Just don't talk about it, period, 'cause ye never know who in the 'ells ye're really chattin' with. And all o' them get mighty touchy when ye bring up th' War. It's their reason fer livin'."
He nodded. "Don't go through any portal unless ye're pikin' sure ye know where it goes. Maybe ye 'aven't 'eard tales o' clueless planeswalkers steppin' through a portal an' endin' up smack-dab in the middle o' a Blood War skirmish. Know why ye 'aven't 'eard o' them? 'Cause those sods are dead, dead, dead."
"An' whatever ye does, never sign on fer a tour o' duty, no matter 'ow much jink they flash in yer mug. Certain death an' signin' on fer a tour in th' Blood War are th' same thing, cutter."
"Chances are when ye sign up, they peel ye so yer tour o' duty is 'til time itself grinds ta a 'alt. Even death wouldn't be a release, 'cause then ye sink inta th' Lower Planes an' get dredged back up as somethin' worse'n ye were before. Then they got their talons on ye fer all eternity."
"How would you get out of a tour contract?"
"Unless they don't want ye, ye don't 'ave much chance. I never heard o' it bein' done with mean-spirited recruits, or somebody they really wanted ta keep their talons on. Outwittin' a tanar'ri is risky but can be done... the baatezu are much more dangerous with their contracts. Ye sign one o' those, ye're dammed fer life... Ye might try a little garnish, try an' dawb them, an' they might let ye make a run for it... but where would ye go? There are so many 'ells..." he trailed off.
"And dying in the Blood War would be an especially bad thing?"
"If ye were evil, sure. If ye're good, ye'd go ta another Plane ta spend yer afterlife. But ye'd still be a deader. Now fer me, I still got a lot o' evil ta wash from me soul, so if I'd died in th' Lower Planes, they would've had me lock, stock an' barrel."
Ghysis scanned the crowd one last time, and when there were no more questions he gave a firm nod. "Right... this is th' last bit, then. Some o' ye are Sensates, so's I got one thing ta say ta ye: don't sign up ta see 'what th' pikin' Blood War is about.' Don't be a barmy idiot. Use a sensory stone if ye gots ta know, but stay the 'ells away from anythin' ta do with th' Blood War fer real. 'Tis just not worth it. 'Tis..." For a moment, a look a great pain crossed the man's face; it looked as if he was going to weep. "...not worth it, at all. That's the end o' this session, so farewell."
Rumor had it this man was a linguist.
He was a short, scholarly man, with a tight, nervous frown on his face. He looked me up and down as he sifted through the sheaf of papers on the table. It was an attempt to appear busy on his part so that I might leave him alone. "Greetings; I am Finam. I must beg you pardon, sir, but I care little for guests - invited or otherwise - so unless you've business with me, I would ask you to leave."
"I was hoping you could help me, actually."
"I would have you know that I am a scholar and a linguist, sir," he huffed, "While I shall happily entertain any questions regarding my field of study - language, and the like - I can be of no help to you in other matters."
I unfolded the dodecahedron to a page with 'writing' on it and presented it to him.
Finam took the unfolded dodecahedron in his hands and examined it closely. "This language is a long-dead one, known to virtually no-one. I believe my father - a linguist, like myself - knew this language, and may well have been the only man in Sigil at the time that could understand it. I recognize it from his notes, but I cannot translate it."
"Do you have those notes, still?"
Finam shook his head. "They'll be of no use to you if you're looking to translate anything... and the few actual books he had pertaining to that language disappeared around the time of his murder, I believe."
"Your father was murdered?"
Finam nodded. "Strangled, he was. He had left to tutor someone - he taught various languages to supplement his research income - and was discovered dead in a side-chamber of the Civic Festhall. The killer was never found. This was some... oh... perhaps fifty years ago, now. I was but a child."
"He knew the language, though, and could teach it?"
"Surely he did and could, were he alive today. My father was said to be a great teacher." Finam sighed sadly. "I've his skill with language, but not his patience for others, sadly."
"Is he... interred at the Mortuary?"
"Why, no... his ashes are kept here." He pointed to a bronze urn sitting atop a cabinet beside a bouquet of purple flowers. "Why?" A wry smile crossed Finam's lips. "A necroscope, are you? Speak with the dead?"
"Er, no. Just wanted to pay my respects, is all." I turned to Grace with a wink. 'Distract him,' I mouthed.
With a light flap of her wings, Fall-From-Grace presented herself grandly, hands open and head slightly bowed. "Finam, I have heard much of you. You lectured at the Civic Festhall, as I understand it. On the phonetic differences between the dialects of Bytopia?"
Finam snatched off his cap immediately, giving Fall-From-Grace a deep bow, "M-madam Grace! It is such an honor to have you in my home. Oh dear, please forgive the clutter..." all businesslike pretense had been abandoned, "I'm afraid I've been busy you see. I didn't realize you were interested in my work."
"I am interested in all matters of discourse," Grace smiled, "Though I'm afraid I had been preoccupied with other things. Such a pity I missed your lecture... I must imagine it was fascinating."
"Well, I'm glad you think so at least... well, you and Vivian of cour-" he mouth snapped shut, "That is to say, I- er..."
Grace laughed, sitting down on a chair the moment Finn cleared it of a small pile of books, "Master Finam, I as am glad to have you as a guest in my establishment as you are to have me. I know that among all her patrons, you are one of Vivian's favorites. Come," Grace smiled, gesturing for the linguist to sit down, "Let us talk."
The urn sat atop a small cabinet, no doubt full of ashes and charred bits of bone. Etched into the base of the urn were the words 'Fin Andlye - Beloved Husband, Father, and Scholar of One Hundred Languages.'
I glanced over my shoulder and, reassured that Finam was preoccupied, I gently opened the lid.
Probing the barrier between this world and the next, the ashes seemed to stir faintly as if moved by my breath. A far-away voice whispered up from within the urn. "Why, why have I been summoned to these ashes, cold and grey as the heart of a hag?"
Now that contact had been made, I no longer needed to keep in such close proximity. Leaning against the wall and attempting to appear casual, I murmured in the breathless voice of the dead, "To answer some questions, spirit..."
"Ask, then, so that I might return to my most quiet thoughts..."
"Who were you?"
"I was Fin, a linguist and scholar. I was murdered - murdered! - by a student of mine... murdered so that I could not teach another the language that I taught him. The tongue of the Uyo, it was, one of the rarest in the multiverse. I knew of none who spoke it, save myself and that one, damnable, murderous student..."
With the dodecahedron still unfolded, I described to him the strange lettering.
"I could teach you this language, yes... it would please me to do so, in fact, if only to spite that bloody-handed student of long ago. First, tell me what languages you do speak..."
As the spirit spoke to me of the lost language of the Uyo, a throbbing sensation pulsed in my temples as a memory began to surface... memories of the language. It all came back to me... letters, words, phrases, until - like a Spire-wind blowing away the blanket of poisonous smog over the Great Foundry - the language was once more revealed to me in its entirety.
But even as that memory faded I could sense another one layered beneath, bubbling to the surface... a darker one. Its presence stirred my heart, filled it with unease and unexplained pangs of guilt...
"Very good," Fin Andlye smiles. I had repeated the poem. Near-perfect inflection- yes, yes. His voice is gentle. Kind manner soft gaze. The corners of his eyes crinkle the way they do when he is impressed skin peeled back into wrinkled folds.
"Amazing, is it not? To hear it on new lips brings such fresh life to the culture once again," his voice swells. He is proud, "I have great faith that with your fluency you'll be able to do many things. Perhaps one day the Uyo can live again in books and speeches. Perhaps you can pioneer the field."
Need to fake obsequious grin. Cast my eyes downward, act hiding an embarrassment at high praise. Keep together still need him just a little more just a little.
Soon yes soon.
Festhall a mash of colors and textures place too crowded need to find secluded spot. Sights and scents and sounds too much. Taste the colors, feel the scents. Rings red and green and the music ever-present haunting the halls with ghostly echoes. Feast is on tonight, halls abandoned save for the mindless sensations that fill it.
Silence is best but music helps. Soothes.
Nails dig into my forearms. Carve small half-moon wounds into my flesh. Hands tremble in determination, gnarled and scarred and wrapped around Fin's frail throat. Firm cartilage beneath supple flesh and muscle resist compression. Press him down against the floor and put weight into it throat crushes against my palms and pressure causes blood to well up in his eyes burst capillaries.
Gagging sounds sicken me. Shut up old man shut up shut up shut up.
When he is cold and still I crouch next to him trembling at the physicality of it. Breathe. Safe, finally safe the journal hidden in a thrice-trapped dodecahedral puzzle-box and penned in the obscure language of the Uyo. Forever safe from prying eyes.
The music continues to play.
The spirit seemed mildly confused at my apparent proficiency in the language of the Sidhi. "You seem to possess some grasp of the language already, student..."
"Fin... I must tell you... it was me who murdered you."
The spirit was silent for a time, the ashes rustling softly within their urn. When it spoke once more, its voice was full of sorrow. "But... why... and why would come to me once more? Did you forget what you had been taught?"
"No... well, yes. It is difficult to explain, but it must have been a former 'self' of mine that murdered you. Each time I die, I reawaken, as if from long sleep... but having forgotten everything... who I was, or what I'd done..."
"I think I understand... I sense your regret, and would forgive you. May peace be with you, pupil of old, and may you prove kinder in this life than in the one which saw an end to mine..."
"Thanks, Fin. Farewell."
I returned to my room to read. Written by a murderous and paranoid madman I didn't expect much to be of real illumination. I wasn't really disappointed.
"The whispers are not the shadows MOVING. They are SPEAKING PLOTTING TALKING to each other. I can understand some of what they say."
"The book tells me things, whispers things. It tells me to avoid the ghost girl, avoid her. I DONT KNOW HER and she TORMENTS me."
"And so I SWALLOWED it, hoping it'd CATCH in my BOWELS. I can make someone REMOVE it when I need to."
"I have learned that MY LIFE IS NOT MY OWN. I will NOT allow you have my life..."
"YOU will have to pull my life from my BROKEN BODY if you want it..."
"It's YOU who will DIE, if I cannot have it NEITHER will YOU."
"YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS TREASON OF FLESH, YOU WILL NOT LIVE TO LIVE MY LIFE."
"The accursed TATTOOS will not leave my SKIN! I have tried to burn them off of my skin - FAILED, failed! I try and CLOAK myself, but I always feel that people are READING my FLESH, reading me like a BOOK. Whenever they LOOK at me I WANT TO TEAR THEIR EYES OUT pluck them from their sockets and CRUSH THEM BENEATH MY HEEL.."
"WHY CAN'T I DREAM?!"
"I used the Goblet of Semir to force a WAKING DREAM. I saw a HAG. She TEMPTED me, THREATENED me with SHADOWS! I have never SEEN her, but she came when I DREAMT. I must NOT dream again. I must always be AWARE. I DESTROYED THE GOBLET."
"She says she is someone of POWER, and that she will HAVE me, will FIND ME. Get away, HAG! Stay FAR from me! Leave me in PEACE! I want NOTHING to do with you!"
"Her voice reeked of evil's TALONS, talons like SPIDERS, they BURROWED into my gray matter, and I needed her OUT of my MIND. OUT! OUT, hag!"
"She was a MYTH, a FAIRY TALE who alone CHALLENGED the LADY OF PAIN! How can one FIGHT someone who is a MYTH? I don't have the WEAPONS. I need weapons that will KILL her should she FIND ME. I need a STRATEGY so she cannot defeat me when she COMES FOR ME. I must DEVISE, and THINK - I shall BEAT her."
"Fear NAMES. NAMES have power in identity. NAMES can be used as WEAPONS by OTHERS. They are a HOOK that can be used to TRACK YOU FIND YOU HUNT YOU across the Planes. Remain NAMELESS, and you shall be SAFE."
"I went to the Festhall, looking for the path of my FALSE SELF in its halls. So GLARING was it, that those I did not KNOW, the FALSE ones, WELCOMED me into their confidence, treated me as a FRIEND, showed me MY ROOM, attended to my NEEDS. I had to restrain myself from launching out against them. That would have been premature. First, I needed to PROTECT my IDENTITY. I found one who knew the exclusive language of the Uyo, learned it as I could, then KILLED him. Then I went to the sensorium and prepared to END the matter. Soon, soon..."
"There is NOTHING he can do. Memories are GONE, he says, NEVER to return. He says/lies and tells me this is what he told me! LIES! He says my mind is WEAKENING from every death! LIES! He sat there, BETRAYING my CONFIDENCE with every turn.
He says that only after THREE MORE DEATHS, THREE MORE LIVES will I gain the benefit of keeping my memories, but that I, MYSELF, I will DIE when I die. DIE! How can one be immortal and still DIE?! He could not answer, so he was of NO USE. I BUTCHERED him so that no other incarnation will ever benefit from his USELESSNESS."
"So the GHASTLY HEADS said:"
"YOU have been DIVIDED. YOU are ONE of MANY men. (One in MANY MEN?) You bear many NAMES; each has left their scars on your flesh..."
MAN OF A THOUSAND DEATHS
THE ONE DOOMED TO LIFE
ONE OF MANY
THE ONE WHOM LIFE HOLDS PRISONER
THE BRINGER OF SHADOWS
THE WOUNDED ONE
"YOU are silvered glass that has CRACKED and the pieces scattered across history"
"ONLY ONE PIECE is of import. Regain that, and your LIFE will be yours again. There will be a price. This price will buy you a chance. Without the chance, you are DOOMED..."
"YOU HAVE LOST THAT WHICH IS NEVER MEANT TO BE SEPARATED FROM MAN. YOUR MORTALITY HAS BEEN STRIPPED FROM YOU. LOST. IT EXISTS, BUT YOU MUST FIND IT BEFORE YOUR MIND IS LOST TO YOU AS WELL."
"A LEGACY, the note read, 'FORGET NOT TO COLLECT YOUR LEGACY,' and a small CODE scratched beside it: 51-AA..."
"A TRAP, no doubt, set by yet another of my FALSE SELVES. I'll see it DESTROYED, I will."
Most of it meaningless, some of it disturbing, all of it barmy. But the legacy number was interesting. I planned to return to Iannis tomorrow, after some window shopping.
"Attention: Morte. I have a question. Do you have a destiny? A purpose?" Nordom chirped.
"Is Annah still wearing clothes?"
"Then the answer is yes."
I rolled my eyes and went back to examining the wares at the back of Vrischika's curiosity shop. She was a damn skilled merchant. Knowing how much stuff I buy she was always able to keep an eye on me to note my interest and swoop in to explain the item's history and its price when it came to a peak. All the while it would've been almost impossible to tell that she was hovering.
I had been examining a tiny rag doll. The years had not been kind to it; it was coming apart at the seams, and it looked like its threads were unraveling. It was obviously intended to be a replica of the Lady of Pain, but the button eyes and its plush softness didn't strike much fear into my heart.
Vrischicka smiled, noting the interest she aways pried from my eyes and unlocked to case, pulling it out and holding it up for me. "This was found in a well-trapped strongbox sunk deep beneath the surface of Sigil. It was part of a small horde of treasure and forbidden magical texts, though I don't know what it's for. If you like it, it's only ninety-nine copper coins."
The once-colorful cloth had been grayed with age and dust, and as I reached out and touched it the barest hint of familiarity tingled through me.
"I'll take it."
As always, Annah kept her distance.
"That's ill luck, it is," she muttered.
"'Rargh! I dare you to pray to me!'" I teased, wiggling the rag doll at Morte.
"The Lady doesn't talk, chief. And I don't think she'd sound like a giant toad gargling a cauldron full of old broth even if she did."
"Why the Hells did you buy that thing, anyways?" Morte muttered, floating beside me.
I shrugged, "I don't know. It just seemed kind of familiar..."
I focused, trying to snag the ragged hem of memory. For once though it seemed elusive, so unlike that eager upwelling of nostalgia. It evaded my curious probings, but once I snagged its rough edge I knew something was wrong.
By the hunger of change and emotion
By the thirst of unbearable things
By despair, twin-borne of devotion
By the pleasure that winces and stings
The delight that consumes the desire
The desire that outruns the delight
By the cruelty deaf as a fire
And blind as the night
The profane litany came in brief flickers: vulgar poetry trickling from scarred lips and brewed with a half-crazed and desperate mind. I could feel the rough stone against my bent knee, the fresh cloth of the rag doll in my hand as the incarnation of memory whispered in a voice mocking, pleading, and insane.
By the ravenous teeth that have smitten
Through the kisses that blossom and bud
By the lips intertwisted and bitten
'Till the foam has a savour of blood
By the pulse as it rises and falters
By the hands as they slacken and strain
I adjure thee, respond from thine altars
Our Lady of Pain!
"Run..." my lips were dry.
I took off at a dash, fleeing down the streets as my companions called out to me from behind. With my limbs light with panic, even Annah couldn't catch up. I darted down one alley, then another, knowing full well that the Lady was as familiar with each path as one is with the veins of his own hand.
My boots pounded on pavement worn away by acid rains, throwing up dust blown in from desert worlds. Air bittersweet with the nectars of Celestia and the effluvium of the Abyss gnawed at my lungs, and they burned as I continued my mad dash through the ward. Of course it was futile, but what could anyone do but run?
The normal cacophony of the Sigilian crowds died with horrified gasps and mute whispers. Many froze in place, too shocked to flee but aware enough to draw semicircles over their hearts. They were quick to part as the cold razor-edged shadow behind me stretched out with merciless purpose.
And then the paths began to change.
The buildings I passed were empty, and with each step they became more warped. The streets became jagged and bent, as if space had begun to curl in on itself like a dried-up leaf. The world was painted with strange colors and silent hums. And once the path before me began to evaporate like sublimating ice I stopped. There was nothing to be done now.
I turned around.
She floated, robes flapping in an unfelt wind. Her eyes were half-lidded and pale, her face was smooth and expressionless as if it were nothing more than a mask framed with a halo of blades. This was the one that could slay gods with a glance, whose displeasure drove mortal and immortal alike mad. She was the one that caused love to sour into despair, and whose blades carved away possibilities and left regrets.
"It wasn't me..."
She floated towards me... ever enigmatic, ever serene. The half-world I was caught in rippled away, and with something akin to a snap of pinched flesh everything solidified around me.