Part 117: The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 18The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 18
Kesai-Serris smiled warmly as I drew near her, pushing a wavy lock of hair away from her bright, crimson eyes. "Well, greetings once again... something I can do for you, hmmm?"
Could she really be Ravel's daughter? I looked her up and down... she certainly didn't look very haggish. Kesai-Serris smiled, probably taking my studying of her features as ogling. No few patrons must've given her such treatment. "If you don't mind my asking, what are you?"
Kesai shook her head. "What, can't you tell?" She drew herself up, thrusting her ample bosom towards me. "A woman!" She raised an eyebrow. "I can see my answer doesn't please you... I'm plane-touched, actually, like your friend here." Kesai indicated Annah. "That's all you need to know."
"Do you know anything about Ravel Puzzlewell?"
Her lips thinned. It was the barest hint of displeasure, but it was there. For someone so smooth and sensual she was very curt with her response. "No. Nothing."
"Are you sure? You seem suddenly upset..."
She narrowed her red eyes at me. "Of course I'm sure! Don't ask me of her again."
"Kesai? Are you Ravel's daughter?"
Kesai suddenly bared her teeth, her eyes narrowing to slits of blazing crimson. "What?! Where'd you hear such a thing?"
I licked my lips. I doubted this girl had her mother's power, but it was still best not to anger her. "Just a rumor, that's all."
"Ridiculous! I think I'd know if that wicked hag was my own mother! Now stop bothering me about it."
"Who is your mother, then?"
"I don't know, all right? My father raised me; I never knew her. But do I look like a night hag, to you?!"
"Well... there is the skin... and the eyes... and maybe the teeth, too..."
Kesai-Serris glared at me, her eyes blazing. "Perhaps we'll speak later, but I'm no longer in the mood. Farewell."
I really wish I was better with women.
If Kesai wouldn't speak to me about the matter, there were plenty of others to talk to. Gossip has a nasty habit of being molded as it's passed down from one person to the next nine times out of ten, but as with the tale of Ecco that last sliver often held some truth. If I was going to look for a story I might as well go to the source.
"I heard that Kesai-Serris is Ravel's daughter. Is that true?" I asked Yves.
"Once upon a time, an elderly man from the Clerk's Ward vanished, and his body could not be found. To conceal it, the murderer buried beneath him another body in the cemetery. A diviner told of where the body could be found, and so they dug, and uncovered a body, but not that of the elderly man. They were confounded. They were forced to release the man, and it was not until they continued to dig to re-bury the older man's body that they found the second body.
"Sometimes one must dig deeply to find the truth."
Dig deep. Got it.
If it took one hag to find another I might as well go to the scariest chit I could find in the brothel. Marissa's red eyes gleamed at me from the blackness of her room. "Yes?" A faint hissing accompanied her query.
"I heard that Kesai-Serris is Ravel's daughter. Is that true?"
"I do not know... but I, for one, would not be surprised. For Hera's sake, look at the girl! Ask Juliette, though - the two of of them were once friends... before Montague came along."
"I heard that Kesai-Serris is Ravel's daughter. Is that true?" I asked Juliette.
She suddenly looked up to me, that distant, wistful gaze was replaced with the sharpness of recognition. "Ravel... hmm... ah! I thought I might have heard that name before. I know not the truth of it, but I have heard such a rumor. Thou may wish to ask Kimasxi Addertongue that very same question... they are half-sisters, thou see."
"Are they? Interesting..."
Really. It took a hag to find a hag.
"Oh, it's you again. Just can't get enough of me, huh?"
"I had some questions..."
She looked annoyed. "Fine, whatever.... ask."
"I heard that Kesai-Serris is Ravel's daughter. Is that true?"
Kimasxi shrugged. "Far as I know, yes." She looked suddenly suspicious. "Why?"
"I asked her about it, and she denied it."
"So? Not as if it's any of your business in the first place."
"I also heard you're Kesai-Serris' half-sister."
She harrumphed, "Yes, I'm related to that chubby, mewling, hook-nosed day-dreamer. Same father, different mothers. So?"
"I was hoping you could help me find out if Kesai is really Ravel's daughter."
Kimasxi frowned. "Normally I'd be loathe to help you like this, but I've a feeling it'd upset that flirting, preening doxy good and well. Tell her to ask our father... he's a powerful cambion, so she ought to be able to call to him right then and there. That'll get you your answer."
"Yes, cambion." Kimasxi rolled her eyes. "Didn't hear me the first time? Ears all stopped up with last of your brains running out of them?"
"I'm asking what one is..."
"My, you're Clueless." She shook her head sadly, tutting all the while. "A half-fiend, berk; sort of like you... but you're half dung, I think. You smell it, at any rate."
"Better that than half you, Kimasxi."
"You wish you were half-Kimasxi, sod... even if you ended up with a goat's bum on your shoulders it'd be better than that scarred-up face of yours."
Kesai-Serris smiled warmly when I returned, pushing a wavy lock of hair away from her bright, crimson eyes. "Don't worry; I don't stay upset long. Something I can do for you, hmmm?"
"Kesai, I talked to Kimasxi. She told me she's your half-sister, and that Ravel's your mother."
Kesai snarled, her eyes blazing with malice. "That... that... hells, how I loathe that woman! Why would you even believe that sort of tripe?"
"She says that you deny it, and in fact may not know it, but that it's true. She said you could ask your father... that he would tell you."
Kesai stared at me silently for a time. "Give me a moment." She turned away, and began to mutter softly... the air seemed to shimmer around her slightly, and a coppery smell began to fill the room, like the scent of warm blood...
I strained my ears, and tried to overhear what she was saying.
"Haughazanenel, Banished Prince of Ithag, Marquis of the Bloody Shadow, my father, hear me, for I call upon you... Yes, beloved father, it is I, Kesai-Serris. I would bid you answer me one question, a question I've asked you time and again..."
"Yes, beloved father. I cannot bear to have another ask me and not know myself. You must tell me... I have asked for nothing save this. Tell me, I beg of you..."
Again, she stood still for a moment.
"Y-yes... yes, beloved father, I understand. I thank you... farewell..."
I leaned back, "Well? What did he have to say?"
Kesai remained turned away for a moment before finally coming to face me. "I did not want to believe that wicked hag may have been my mother. I have lived long, I do not appear to age, and have... disturbing dreams, sometimes." She shuddered. "But still... I do not wish to be the inheritor of the evil she caused, nor draw the Lady's gaze as my mother did. Such evil things she did!"
"Tell me what you know of her, will you?"
"I heard she would pose impossible riddles to people, riddles she could answer but no one else could. She would devour the person if they answered incorrectly, or leave them dangling in her horrifying gardens as examples to all. Those few who somehow escaped she tormented in their dreams, riding them like steeds, breaking their wills and hurling their souls into the colorless oblivion of the Gray Waste...
"Her magic was said to be beyond anything most had ever seen; it was imagination woven from nightmare and given substance. Stone and solid shapes bent to her will like soft clay; the laws of the Planes would bend beneath her feet and from nothing she could weave illusion... and from illusion, weave realities that could horrify and kill and confound.
"She was a mistress of all the Dark Arts, mistress and master of them all. She hounded a Guvner that dared quote Sigil law to her with shadows that devoured him all but his tongue, his fingers and the flesh of his face. She turned Mercykillers inside out, and shattered buildings of those who displeased her. Terrible, terrible powers were at her command. She changed her shape like water, and would use it to destroy some for amusement, and to steal knowledge from others. She was a monster, like all that has been spawned from the Gray Waste."
Kesai stopped to breathe, shuddering and wrapping her bare arms around herself as if cold. "In the end, she threatened to open the Cage and let the fury of the Planes come rolling in, like a wave. Fortunately, she did not succeed. She existed solely to cause malice... I do not know if she is dead... but I know, now, that she was my mother." Kesai's shoulders slumped, and her head hung down. "Oh, that I had tears, so that I could weep with sorrow!"
I reached over and tried to comfort her.
She suddenly fell into my arms, shuddering and wracked with sobs. For a time Kesai simply stood there, clinging to me... but then she pushed away. "Thank you, but... I'll be fine. I just need some to time think about it, that's all."
"I hate to ask this now... but I need you to give me a piece of yourself, Kesai."
She looked alarmed. "Pardon?"
"The portal key to Ravel's maze is a piece of her, and you are of her blood. It is close enough."
Kesai gasped. "You intend to seek her out?" Her surprise quickly changed to an expression of wariness. "What... what would you need of me?"
"Your blood, most likely. Only a drop or two, I'm sure."
She nodded. "But... do you have some way to carry it? A piece of cloth, like a handkerchief or something, you know?"
"One moment..." I dug around in my pack. Luis the Armoire had shot every wad of cloth he had at us when we wrestled with him... I must've tucked one piece carelessly into my pack. "Yes... here..."
Kesai took the handkerchief and gingerly pricked the tip of her finger on one of her fangs. After letting several drops of blood soak into the cloth, she returned it to me. "You're placing yourself in grave danger, you know. Even if the stories of my mother are greatly exaggerated, she's horribly powerful and completely evil. Good luck."
There were many things to be done before we left. It was the quest for the rough balance of packing for a journey: as much stuff as you can carry to cover all realistic contingencies, while keeping your pack light enough to not be bogged down with a couple hundred pounds of junk. Given the richly varied nature of the multiverse, it wasn't possible to cover everything. However, with a little advice from an old friend it might be possible to narrow down the range of what I had to cover.
Even though Ignus was gone, the Smoldering Corpse Bar was as hot and muggy as always, the air sharp with the tang of burnt metal. I was probably the only one sweating. Nordom and Morte didn't have any skin, Annah and Grace had enough fiend blood that heat didn't matter, and Dak'kon was... Dak'kon.
It was the kind of place where you'd peddle the darkest of secrets over a mug of watered-down ale, and seedy enough where a barfight can end up in a decapitation. A smiley old face was more than welcome here.
"Back for more, eh?" Ebb Creakknees leaned back in his chair. "Good t'see ye again, lad."
"Who's this, aye?" Annah eyed Ebb suspiciously, "I don't drink with hardheads, I don't."
"Former hardhead, lass, har!" Ebb laughed, patting his hefty paunch, "Too fat to chase you down the streets of the Hive, not fat enough to keel over dead. Workin' on that, though." With that he bit into the roasted lizard haunch he'd been dining on.
Annah pursed her lips, but eventually took a seat.
"Now, tell me what you've been up to, boy. You don't seem as green or clueless as you were when you first stumbled in here all goggle-eyed and askin' your barmy questions."
"We've been looking for Ravel Puzzlewell."
Ebb paused, teeth gnarled around a piece of thick cartilage. For a moment he stared at me dumbfounded, until a dribble of spittle wet his lips and he swallowed quickly, "Why the hells would you be chasing a chit like that? Women are always trouble, er... beggin' my pardon, madams," he indicated Grace and Annah, "But Ravel'll live up to her namesake with what she'd do to your entrails if you step wrong around her. If she still lives, that is."
"I think she may be holding my soul, or whatever allows me to die, prisoner. If I'm going to find peace, I need to seek her out."
Ashen-faced, Ebb stared at me, his bluff and friendly demeanor gone. I squirmed. It was oddly disturbing to see someone so naturally cheerful suddenly so quiet.
"OI! CANDRIAN!" he barked across to the next table. Half the patrons jumped and looked up, the other half were too sodden with drink to raise their heads. In fact, the guy in the corner was probably dead, "Get yer immaterial arse o'er this way!"
Candrian strode over, his limbs wavering like hot desert air as he moved. The chains and spikes and knives arrayed around him should've clinked, but the insubstantial nature of his entire body rendered his implements mute. He turned his pale blue eyes on us and took a seat at our table. It was getting rather crowded, and I didn't quite want to know what would happen if I bumped his shoulder.
"Ah, greetings again. Have your travels brought forth what you need?"
"You look great, by the way," Morte bobbed, "More substantial. Been working out?"
"We're on it. Thanks for helping again with Ingress' situation," I added.
"It was nothing," He waved a misty hand, then directed his attention to my other companions, "Ah, you found new friends I see. Quite an eclectic group... necessary in the Planes. Greetings, I am Candrian Illborne, traveler, dreamer, talespinner, and so forth."
"Ah, stow it, Candrian," Ebb pointed a thumb at me, "These addle-coves think they'll be struttin' into Ravel Puzzlewell's gardens and sniff her daisies or somesuch."
Candrian's eyes widened, "Truly? Hmm. Not even I would dare undertake such a quest. I fear trying to claw free of Carceri may be an easier task, or struggling free of the Negative Material Plane once more."
"I must, nonetheless. Do you have any advice?"
"Aside from suggesting that you turn back now? No, I am afraid not. However, some basic knowledge of the planes may help, and that I can provide."
Ebb harrumphed, "Aye, but keep it short. The lad'll need your advice, not your long wind."
Candrian's lips quirked into a wry smile, "Of course, part of the problem is getting into Ravel's maze. That is something few, if anyone, could shed light on. The issue is escaping, and how to survive on whatever plane you end up on if, by some miracle, you can."
"I've escaped one of the Lady's mazes. Hopefully I can pull it off again."
"Best you don't advertise that, berk," Ebb suggested, "Most wouldn't want anything to do with you after, and I suspect the the Mercykillers would hunt you down for escaping the Lady's 'justice.'"
Candrian nodded, "Well, the Inner Planes are a relatively simple matter, whereas the Prime Material is of infinite varieties, it would be impossible to describe how to navigate among all of them. I suspect a thorough knowledge of the Outer Planes may be the most useful."
"Sounds about right. You mentioned Carceri... is that one of them?"
He nodded, "Ah, Carceri and its poisonous jungles, acid swamps, destructive waters, strung like a string of rotten pearls nestled within one another..." He paused and looked at me carefully, again fixing me in place with his eyes. "Remember this, seeker: Carceri is a prison, home to the gehreleths, one of the most dangerous types of fiends there is. The strength of the prison is the strength of the captor, as strong as the prisoner lets it be. Destroy the prisonkeeper, and a body can escape the Red Prison. There is almost no other way out, not when the gates close themselves against you and watch you spin off into the vast space surrounding the orbs. Be wary of Carceri, traveler, for its bonds can be greater than flesh."
We continued talking long into the night.
The squat little woman pursed her lips and looked up to me, "You've grown much since I last saw ye, child. I sense the power in ye is strong."
"Only because of your teachings, Mebbeth."
"Ach, flatterer," she waved a dismissive hand and rearranged the herbs on her rack, "ye re-remembered more than I ever taught, if I reckon correctly."
"Still, it was because of your help."
"Hrmph. So yer off then, on that barmy quest to find the one who tried to break open the Cage?"
I nodded, "I just wanted to say goodbye, Mebbeth. Hopefully not for the last time."
She drew a semi-circle over her heart and sighed, "I'm afraid that unless ye need healing, Old Mebbeth is useless to ye. Me charms and cantrips are but small magics compared to what ye can wield now."
"I didn't come for those," I said, then leaned over to plant a soft kiss on her pale cheek, "You were like a mother to me, Mebbeth. I just wanted you to know."
She stared at me, stony-faced, then nodded sadly, "Go on, then."
"So..." I said after outlining my plans to Fell, "Got any advice?"
It is unwise, he said in the string of rebuses. It was an unusually deadpan bit of advice from someone who knew the Lady's wrath firsthand. Did he mourn what he lost, I wondered, this dabus who is not a dabus?
"Trust me, I've heard that plenty already."
All I can offer is my range of tattoos. You have come far, and brought more tales that I may etch into your skin.
"Let's see 'em, then."
There are some who would say that this last loose end to tie up was the most important.
She strolled up to us, gliding like a swan on water. She was beautiful, seductively attired for a prostitute, a far cry from those I saw in the Hive. She smelled of expensive perfumes, and the lines of her face were subtly accentuated with lightly painted lines of soft, warm colors. She smiled as I approached her and curtsied gracefully. "Greetings, good sir. Seeking to quench a lust Mistress Grace's Brothel cannot satisfy, I hope?"
"No... but I had some questions..."
She puts her finger to your lips to hush you. "There is but a single question I answer, good sir, and the answer is this: 'yes, for only five hundred coins.'"
"Five hundred?" I blinked, "That's quite a bit..."
She smiled. "Oh, I assure you, good sir..." She leaned in close, to whisper warmly in my ear: "'tis worth every last copper."
"No thanks. I've got to buy some charms elsewhere."
"A pity. Please return should you have a change of heart, good sir - I'll be eagerly awaiting you. Farewell."
"Eh... say there, chief... what do you say?" Morte wagged his tongue eagerly, "How about spotting old Morte a bit of jink? It's been more a while, you know..."
I shrugged. We might not be coming out of it alive, so we might as well enjoy it. "Sure, why not. Miss?"
The young woman examined Morte critically for a time, then nodded. "Yes... yes, I think I could do that. Well, I could certainly come up with... something. All for the same fee, of course - a petty five hundred commons."
"Of course. Here you are..." I counted out the coin and some extra. She seemed nice enough to be worth it.
"All right! Thanks, chief!" Morte turned to follow the woman away.
"I must say," Grace said meditatively, "I have not had the experience of waiting for a skull to be serviced so before."
"Unpeeling the mysteries of the universe one sticky layer at a time, eh?"
"Query: What is the nature of this service?" Nordom chirruped, "Addendum: Would Morte require assistance?"
"Um. No, I don't think your tools are compatible for the job at hand."
"Nordom's utility kit can conform to eight hundred and ninety-three functions," he buzzed, "and with appropriate modifications can be increased to handle 22% more."
"I'm sure that someone, somewhere, would be aroused by that in this multiverse."
The courtesan finally returned, Morte bobbing dizzily along beside her. He was coated with a glossy sheen -- as if he'd been waxed and buffed -- and had a red smudge on his crown in the shape of a pair of lips. "Your... mimir? ...seemed to enjoy himself, good sir."
Morte seemed only dimly aware of my presence, and alternated between giggling to himself and sighing pleasantly.
"All right... I guess things went well, then. Farewell, miss."
Breakfast was just a glass of lychee juice.
It was part of Candrian's advice. On the night before a big jaunt, stuff yourself with a large meal, then eat little to nothing the next morning. Keeps your energy up but your stomach light, if you need to run like hell. I looked over the leavings of last night's feast: the picked-clean carcass of a roast duck, a platter of empty oyster shells, a leftover crust of herb bread, and a now-empty pot of stew. There was a giddy, fluttering feeling in the pit of my stomach... I couldn't help but get the sense that this was our last meal.
"All right. Are we ready?"
"I've got your back, chief."
"My blade is yours."
Grace nodded, and Nordom simply peered into his lens and blinked. That's all I needed.
"Hang on to your blades. We're going in."
I unfolded the shimmering metal sculpture, and immediately it began crackling with life. Stretching and creaking like old wood, the metal stretched out into a circle, hovering in the air.
Here we go.