Part 119: The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 19The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 19
It was like jumping into a pool of cold water on a hot summer's day. The leap from my cozy apartment at the Civic Festhall to the dimness of Ravel's maze left my head spinning, not knowing up from down, right from left. As in my own maze the air was cold, but whereas mine held the maddening chill of emptiness, here the air was moist. The dampness made it all the more grotesque.
The ground was unusually soft here, and as it squelched beneath my boots upon landing I stumbled, catching myself on hands and knees. My flesh landed softly, and beneath my palms there was cold moss. The earthy smell of rot was thick down here, the cold detritus clammy against my skin. Somehow, the moss seemed to move beneath me, writhing as if eager to lap up the warmth of my skin.
In the distance, there was the squeal of vines tightening and wood creaking.
"This..." Dak'kon murmured, "this maze is will made flesh."
"Oh the wonderful places you take me to, chief. Thanks. Really."
Nordom chirruped, "Portal detected."
"They're everywhere, Nordom," I grumbled, "Don't bother mapping the place... space has curved in on itself and all the roads lead back to the center. Hell, it might be easier to find Ravel than to avoid her in here."
"Yer not makin' us feel better about it, yer not..."
"It's okay, Annah," I said, standing up and brushing the dirt from my palms, "So long as we're together we'll be fine."
"A-aye..." she muttered with a shiver.
Where once there were stone walls coated with a thin net of vines, now it was more plant than mortar. The walls breathed as we walked past, and the branches that grew layered over one another bent toward us, as if curious. There was something sinister about the foliage, something tamed but cruel about them. No woodland was this, wild and guided only by the balance of nature, but cultivated with a demented hand so that cruel, gnarled branches and poison thorns flourished.
This was Ravel's garden.
I turned to my companions "Did you hear that?"
Annah gasped as the floor rumbled beneath us, and the earth cracked open as pale wooden branches curled out from amidst the shards of soil and rot. The creatures came with a keening, their cries shrill and crackling like dry wood. Sharp claws arched out, anchoring against the ground to pull their bodies from hiding. Standing full height they looked like leafless trees, with dull glowing eyes and winged horns where there should've been branches.
Dak'kon's blade silently cleaved through one, slashing off talons and branches and spraying long ropes of sap across the walls. The other creature shrieked, closing in with an unnatural, if clumsy speed. Too close to use magic safely, I thrust my dagger into its face. The force of the blow rebounded as the tip of my blade struck hard wood, and despite my grip my hand slipped along the handle, and the raw edge of steel cut against my fingers and my palm.
Pain lanced through my hand as the dagger clattered to the ground. Scarlet drops sprayed over the creature, and where they landed they sank into its wooden skin as if it were thirsty for blood. Screw this.
One hand outstretched a missile of force erupted from my palm, shattering the one that had been crippled by Dak'kon into a rain of splinters. I turned to the one now looming over me, and pale while light bloomed against its body. The shock wave of the blast rattled me from my teeth to my boots. When the world came into focus again I stood up unsteadily, head still spinning from the concussive explosion. Morte was already spitting out bits of wood, teeth smudged with sap.
The plant-creatures fell one by one, and we wound our way through Ravel's maze.
We crept past muddy plains, fought through lush green lands hauntingly silent of insects or birds, inhabited only by bloodthirsty flora. Brambles tore at our skin, our clothes became sticky with sap and sweat and blood. Our boots grew slick with the juices of crushed moss.
And there, at the heart of it, was Ravel Puzzlewell.
She didn't look much like a myth, this plump, hook-nosed crone; outfitted as she was in a simple (if dirty) brown shirt and leggings, with a number of pouches hanging from her frayed belt. She seemed oblivious to our presence, more concerned with the tangled black roots woven together to form the floor of the maze than anything transpiring around her.
A tangle of jagged gray hair jutted from beneath the crone's hood, spreading down her shoulders like a mass of twisted gray roots. Sickly blue-gray flesh hung in loose folds from her face; her narrow chin, long and sharp, jutted forward in an extreme under-bite, and two filthy yellow canines protruded from her lower jaw, like small tusks.
"Ah... visitors." The crone's voice was thick and scratchy, as if trying to force its way past layers of dust. Her eyes were a dull, bloody red, with black veins running through them like tree branches. As she gazed at me, a strange crawling sensation drew up my body, like snakes burrowing beneath my skin.
"Greetings... Ravel," I rubbed my tongue against the roof of my mouth, trying to work up some moisture. My lips felt suddenly dry.
"Well, now, my pretty thing, have you returned at last?" Ravel's face split into a grotesque smile, displaying a row of chipped yellowed fangs. "You were a-gone so long, I a-feared you forgot poor, lonely Ravel."
She sounded like a lonely old woman, waiting and pining for her children to visit. Would she pinch my cheek with those grimy talons? Offer me tea and candies from a dusty bowl, stuck together in a single sugary wad? There was power in those eyes, and age, and need... and if I could sweet-talk my way into her heart maybe she wouldn't flay us all alive. "How could I forget you, Ravel? I missed you, but you hid yourself in a place that was difficult for me to reach. Come now... did you not wish my company?"
"Ahhh...." Ravel's yellow smile widened, peeling back the folds of her skin, and she cackled softly. "Such sweet words... you already are a-knowing the answer of your asking, my precious man. I scattered clues like caltrops, and these were my means of a-guiding you to my garden. I a-feared it was YOU who had forgot I."
"I assure you, I did no such thing. I have returned to you at last."
"Have you? But WHAT has returned?" She squinted at me with her black-veined eyes and hissed softly. "Let Ravel see how you've a-fared in this life." She reached out, as if to caress me, and my eyes were fixed on those talons, each fingernail filthy and wickedly sharp.
With a gulp I let her feel me over, as if she were examining a prize horse.
Her ragged talons traced their way across my skin, and in their wake I felt the same strange tingling sensation from when Ravel first looked at me. Her eyes dimmed somewhat, and her talons slid gently along the contours of my face, lingering on my scars.
I was beginning to remember something, a memory bulging near the surface as if it were a bubble near bursting. I reached out to touch her and feel her features.
My hand touched Ravel's cheek as her talons caressed my face, and instinctively, I mirrored her touch - as her talons dragged along my left cheek, my fingers dragged along hers. Her eyes closed, and mine followed.
When my eyes opened once again, it felt as if all the color had bled out of the trees and the maze; everything was a featureless, dusty, dead gray. Ravel's eyes were still closed, but as I watched, they slowly opened and she smiled: a sad, gray smile. I felt words rising to my lips, echoing something I had said in the past, in a different place, on another plane...
"It is said you are the greatest of the Gray Sisters, Ravel. I have traveled far to reach you," I say to her, hands upraised in peace.
She nodded, but slowly, too slowly, as if through a dream. When she speaks, her words are muted, as if being spoken underwater. "But why have you traveled so far? Your need must be great... yet you seem to have brought nothing that would interest me. You must PAY for my services..."
"My need is great. My currency is this: a challenge. Perhaps an impossible challenge... one I fear is beyond even your abilities...." My words are coy and sweet as honey. Try to barter with a night hag and you end up with your skin stretched out to cure in the dust of the Waste. Flatter, it is said, cajole and please, and you may come back alive.
The subtle twist to the words are just right to pull her strings. Ravel's eyes blaze a fiery gray, and the gray that is eating the landscape seems to ebb from her features. Her flesh becomes dark with her fury, black blood blooming at her cheeks. "There is NOTHING that is beyond me, foolish man! NOTHING! Pose your challenge, I will hear you!"
"Death waits at the end of life for all men. I need it to wait for me no longer... can you do this, beautiful Ravel?"
The vision cleared, the gray bleeding away from the maze, until the color resumed, my hand still cupping Ravel's cheek. Her eyes were closed, and she sighed. I withdrew my hand slowly, and after a moment, Ravel's eyes opened, and she gave a rasping hiss. "Yessssss..."
Ravel's finger peeled back, and she looked at me sadly. "Oh, sad, sad, broken half-thing. All-a-pieces." She squinted at me again. "No longer the one Ravel knew are you... are you still a-broken, after all this sad, sad time?"
"Broken? What do you mean?"
"A body you possess, but a body of knowledge you do not?" She pointed her ragged talon at my chest, at my scars. "Many and such, such scars you have, all a-scrawled on your skin. Many tales does your skin tell."
"What tales does my skin tell?"
"Your scars and tattoos shout to me, 'here is a man in confrontation with the world.'" Ravel made a crooning noise, not unlike a dying bird. "Yes, such tales as would shrivel even a hag's ears..."
"Tell me these... tales. I would know them."
"The tales are many. They echo of balance imbalanced, trials of war, battles with fiendish elements, and a creature that feeds on others from a-far to sustain itself... and of torments. Such torments flesh has never known..."
"Divided in two you were, when your mortality was peeled from you. No longer balanced, much a-broken in the separation... both a blessing and a mistake... but more mistake than blessing, Ravel thinks."
"You took my mortality? How?"
"Forgotten the how of it, I have... have I?" Ravel's gaze dimmed for a moment, the black veins swimming in her eyes. "And even if I a-membered it, I would never do it twice. Not forgotten the moment have I, after the break, a-seeing the pain stream from your veins, your cries like a wailing child, every bit of your being filled with emptiness. Terrible, even for these eyes."
I mentally probed that space inside, felt the jagged edges along that border between being and nonbeing. The void beyond always made me shudder, and now the emptiness sang even moreso.
Dak'kon would've disagreed, but some things are best left unknown. Knowing that the void was where my mortality had been torn from me by those talons, rough and raw and bleeding from the edges of spirit, made it all the worse. I could almost feel it again, like flesh being peeled away, layer after layer, until those claws hit bone, then went past... "What... what then, did you mean on Trials of War?"
"Great, great trials of war... much too much to be born by any, any mortal thing."
"This war touches ALL, my precious half-man. There is no place where its caress is not felt... did it touch you?" Ravel's voice dropped, almost bitter. "To this, Ravel says 'aye.'"
"That would explain the scars... what of these battles with fiendish elements?"
"Two fiends butt heads..." Ravel sniffed, as if in contempt. "Their tiny heads filled with ideas of how the Planes should be, yet can never be or the Planes they would be no longer. Such foolishness!"
And suddenly, the lecture Ghysis the Crooked made so long ago rang true. "You mean the blood war..."
"Aye..." she hissed. Her lips writhed with distaste. Some things were too terrible for even a night hag to stomach.
"What about this creature that feeds on others from afar?"
"No base hungers do you feel, but far, far more terrible ones boil beneath your skin. And such a cost..."
"Hungers? What do you mean?"
"I know not... knot? Knot the nature nor the cause of these hungers. But heed this: Coming events cast their shadows before them, my precious half-man... there is no a-saying of what these events will be, not even with Ravel's eyes."
"And these torments... what are these torments you speak of?"
"A lodestone pulls iron to it... and so do you, my precious half-man, but it is not iron, but tormented souls. As others suffer, they are drawn to you, and your path becomes theirs." She made a sweeping gesture. "Do you not see them in the eyes of those that have traveled here with you?"
"My companions? What do you mean?" I looked back to them, and already I knew what Ravel meant, and how deep those words would cut.
"Do you wish to explain, gith?" Ravel threw a burning glance at Dak'kon, tempered with a fanged smile. "Vows may prove tighter than any chain, no? The manacles of a race once enslaved, now a slave again?"
Dak'kon was silent, but his blade shifted at Ravel's words... the blade darkened, the edge sharpening until the karach itself seems to carry a horrible malevolence about it.
"Watch your words, Ravel..."
"The cog-box..." Ravel's gaze drifted to Nordom. "Once it knew only suffering's definition, but now it feels its sting. There is no room for '2' in the world of 1's and 0's, no place for 'mayhap' in a house of trues and falses, and no 'green with envy' in a black and white world. When it discovers how the planes turn, when it discovers the TRUTH behind loyalty and ill-logic, more torments will it know..."
"Ravel, leave my companions alo--"
"The chattering skull..." Ravel didn't bother to even look at Morte, as if he was beneath her notice. "Are the quips enough of a shield for what lies buried inside your brain-box, hmmm? Why speak truths when lies suffice?"
"The Abyssal temptress..." Ravel sneered, her yellowed fangs piercing her purpled lips as she squinted at Fall-From-Grace. "A skin so fair, lips so rich, eyes that might cause you to forget Ravel herself... and yet she suffers, more than any other. When one turns on their nature, many are the torments that arise from such a betrayal."
"Ravel..." Grace replied softly, almost cautiously. "I have come to terms with m-"
"You LIE, succubus!" Ravel's lips peel back in a snarl. "You LIE! Do not DARE lie to me, when your heart is a BOOK to me! Every word you SPIT screams of your torment!"
"Have a care with your words, Ravel! Enough of this!"
"Ah..." Ravel gestured at Annah, as if she was for sale upon on auction block. "Look upon the feisty tiefling... such fiery hair and voice..." Ravel smiled, baring her rows of yellowed teeth. "Shall I speak of your torment, tiefling?"
Annah seemed paralyzed, her eyes wide as Ravel turned her black-veined gaze to her. I could see her trembling, her heart beating fast.
"No... no, I shall not speak of it." Ravel's voice dropped, almost in exhaustion, and the smile faded from her face. "Grown tired of cruelties and torments, Ravel has... the world is a-jagged enough place..." She turned again to me, her bloody eyes dimmed, and she sighed. I looked back to my companions, their old wounds opened, laid out for all to see. They looked at each other nervously, as if something profane had been revealed between them.
"And my precious, precious half-man... for you, the greatest torment of all... life forever-more. Can it be life a-cares for you as Ravel does?" She gnashed her yellowed tusks with a horrid clacking noise. "One so brave, so passionate, so terribly lost, sad, sad."
"Ravel, why did you make me immortal? I must kn-"
"A puzzle of bone and skin were you, always, intriguing, and the most beloved of all who came to me, petitioning, requesting, pleading... pleasing? Pleading for help." Ravel stared hard at me, her black-veined ember eyes narrowing. "So hard to see a-past the scars, to dig up the man-who-once-was underneath..."
"Ravel, can you tell me anything about who I once was?"
"A shadow with substance, a-seeking that which casts the light. I know you more and no... know..." Ravel paused, her eyes dimming. "No more than I know the nature of ANY man. Crossed pasts have we... a man tainted with un-death, still feeling the pangs of separation, and an old withered crone, now all-imprisoned."
"Seems it that we are a-meeting for the first time? No, no, not, not... knot?" Ravel seemed confused for a moment, then shuddered, as if throwing off a weight. "Knot at all. An echo of a future meeting this is... or a past meeting, depending on which way time is facing."
"So this... this meeting echoes a meeting in the past?"
"The now and then - very... similar? So tangled the now-and-then is, both mirrored in each other... once and again, you come a-fore me with a problem, to challenge me for a solution to an IMPOSSIBILITY." Ravel hissed at me, and her eyes blazed. "Beautiful, ungrateful, beloved man!"
"What was this impossibility I asked you to solve?"
Ravel didn't seem to hear me - she still seemed to be in the past, for her eyes dimmed, as if looking far away. "Such fire in your eyes, enough to stir a Gray Lady's heart... passion to be free, but when freed, the fire in your eyes guttered out. With the separation, your life has shed all meaning, I fear." Ravel smiled with her yellowed fangs, then clicks them together, as if laughing. "Mayhap you should sit on your hind legs and limp your forepaws -- mayhap Ravel will give you a another scrap of knowing."
I looked back to my companions, then to Ravel, and knelt, "If begging will bring me answers, then I beg you, Ravel: Tell me what you know. I need your help in remembering what happened."
"Ah... a gentled heart now?" Ravel's black-veined eyes glinted, and the corner of her mouth twisted upwards, like a snake. "Has life a-softened you... ah, but one can hope."
"Ravel, I have many questions I wish to ask you..."
"Oh, MORE questions do you have?" Ravel crooned softly, but there was an edge to it, as if she was reprimanding me. "Tchhh-tcchhh. But you have already asked soooo many." Ravel's black-veined eyes take on a curious gleam. "The time for MY questions is now, half-man."
"Very well, Ravel... ask your questions."
"Know this and know Ravel's law: if you do not answer my questions, no more of your questions will I answer, my precious man. Step a-lightly with the answers, or the asking shall TEAR you apart..."
"Your rules are fair. Ask your questions, Ravel."
"I would know why you traveled here with these others... know not the place they were traveling to?"
"Of course they knew. Who would not want to travel here to meet with you, beautiful Ravel? Few opportunities does life provide for such a meeting. They wished to see if the tales of your power and beauty were true... as I knew them to be," I laid it on a bit thick, but she seemed barmy enough to be capable of falling for it.
Ravel stared at me for a moment in silence, then her face split into a horrendous grin, her row of yellowed fangs glistening in the faint light of her eyes. "Ahhhh... my precious man, you carry only words..." A blackish tongue darted from her purple lips, and rolls around the rim of her mouth, as if anticipation of a meal. "...but you are WELL armed, indeed..."
"Only truths do I speak, Ravel." Behind me I could sense Morte rolling his eyes.
She nodded slowly, and her grin faded. "And they travel with you willingly?"
"They chose to walk my path with me. As I said, who wouldn't wa-"
"Chose? Ahh... a dangerous word. Is it so?"
"Yes?" Ravel threw a black-veined glance at Dak'kon, her voice like an arrow. "Is it choice, gith? Is it? Or is it a matter of two skies?"
Dak'kon's blade bled into a vicious dead black, mirroring his eyes... and to my surprise, the karach edge silently split into jagged fangs.
"Ravel... leave him be. I will answer your questions, not them. "
"What of the cog-box?" Ravel turned to Nordom, sneering. "What does IT know of choice?" She snapped her fingers, like the sound of cracking bone. "There is only obey and obey, hmnnn?"
"Query: What does Nordom define /choice/? Define: CHOICE: The act of choosing, selection; the right or opportunity to choo-"
"Nordom, stop. This is between Ravel and I. Look, Ravel --"
Ravel turned to Morte. "Skull, skull, skull..." Ravel clicked her tongue after each word, and her smile widened. "Your expression is difficult to read without the skin wrapping, but I feel your FEAR from here. Coming here was not your choice."
"Well, I didn't have anything BETTER to do except go to one of the Lady's mazes and meet one of the evilest creatures ever to set foot in Sigil, so I said 'sure! Why n-?'"
"Morte, be quiet. Ravel, I..."
"'Be quiet?!'" Morte clacked his teeth. "Like the hells I will! I think we've listened to this crone rattle her bone-box enough, and now she's got some pair of stones, saying I haven't got any skin! So WHAT if I don't?! Obviously the fact SHE has skin has done wonders for HER looks! Does she think I like being NAKED all the time? And another thing-"
"Morte! Cut it out! Ravel, look --"
"The succubus..." Ravel squinted. "Did she have a choice? Mayhap in her smooth-skinned mind of soft silks and hard truths, MAYBE choice... tchhh. But no. A Sensate MUST experience all, and to refuse to come - NOT a Sensate would you be. Still no choice!"
"Ravel. Enough of this..."
"The tiefling. The FIERY one." Ravel cackled softly, and her eyes kindled, as if amused. "No choice. At. All. When you feel instead of think, there is little room for choice."
Annah made no response - Ravel's mere presence seemed to have silenced her. Her tail had stopped flicking, however, and her eyes had lost their hard edge.
"Annah...?" No, no I had to focus, "Enough with this, Ravel. What other questions did you have?"
"Shhhhhh... there will be time enough for you to speak, my precious man." Ravel tapped a talon against one of her yellowed tusks. "This question next: What do you feel for these that have come with you? Do they MATTER in your heart?" She smiled, black veins dancing in her eyes. "Or are they TOOLS for your will?"
"Why do you want to know such a thing?"
"Tchhhh... thick and stubborn as a githzerai! That is yet ANOTHER question, but the answer shall cost you nothing - my answer is because I WISH to know, no other reason. Now, surrender your answer from your skeptical heart."
"They matter to me."
"Even the gith?" Ravel's ember gaze fell on Dak'kon, then slid off to lock with my eyes again. "Speak what he means to you, and say it true, or blanketing my garden he will be."
"He is my ally. I know him. He is my friend," I replied, as firmly as possible. I was not going to let Ravel hurt anyone, least of all my friends.
"Ah..." Ravel nodded... then she smiled again, her talons tapping against each other.
"Does that surprise you?"
"What of the skull?" Ravel didn't even bother to look at Morte. "Surely he matters not to one such as you! Or... does he?"
"I like him... he is my friend."
"Curious, curious-er, curious-her..." Ravel smiled. "Quite the puzzle box you are a-shaping up to be. What else lurks in the dark places of your mind?"
"I hide nothing."
"Ah..." Ravel's voice took on a threatening weight, and she turned to Fall-From-Grace, her red eyes blazing. "And here is the core of it - the Abyssal temptress... does she rise above the merely carnal to you, or is she something else in your eye, hmnnn?"
Grace said nothing. She seemed to be studying Ravel intently... and I was suddenly struck with the feeling that Grace was sizing up Ravel for weaknesses. I hoped that if this degenerated further, the others would be as ready.
Ravel turned back to me, clacking her yellowed tusks, as if in anticipation. "Speak, precious man, but have a care where your words fall."
There was a hidden sharpness to her voice, like the serrated edge of a knife scraping against the inside of its sheath. Things had suddenly become quite a bit more dangerous. "What is she to you, beautiful Ravel? She cannot even compare to your looks, your intellect, your power," I asked.
Ravel slid her gaze off of me and narrowed her eyes at Grace. "Hmmmmnnn... so if I were to strike her down, snuff her infernal heart, you would not stir? Answer carefully..."
"I... retract my words. I do not wish her harmed," I said, licking my lips nervously. There was no lie about my feelings for Grace... I hadn't said anything at all on the matter.
"Pah! Contrary man!" Ravel's eyes smoldered, and as she turned back to me, the veins in her eyes had sharpened. "Which thought a-rattles about in your skull now?"
"I spoke falsely - I knew not what I said, but I have had enough of death... mine or any other... to last several lifetimes."
Ravel slid her gaze off of me and narrowed her eyes at Grace.
"On Grace... I like her. She has many good qualities; I consider her a friend."
"Hmnnnn..." Ravel turned, clacked her tusks, then glanced at Annah with a sneer. "And what of THIS slip of flesh... the fiendling, the tiefling with the scarlet hair and the fiery passion. What is SHE to you, my precious man?"
Ravel had touched a tender spot with those words, as if she had pressed against an old bruise. Annah, who had lied to me the first time we met, and sent me down an alley full of muggers to my death. Annah, who was forced to guide me to where she had found my corpse, who scoffed at my oafish ignorance and clumsiness as she tried to keep several paces ahead of me. And she was the one whose lips tightened when I spoke to pretty women. She was the one who taught me how to sneak and steal on a cool night in the silent darkness of the Clerk's Ward, our bodies pressed against each other innocently in an attempt to pick each other's pockets.
I remembered the flush of her skin, her sudden shyness, her half-spoken confessions that ached to be heard, and were always brushed off as jest...
"Do yeh know I like the way yeh smell? Oh, aye - it drives me barmier than a Chaosman, it does." She sniffed up the side of my cheek, and she gave a low, eager hiss. "I see the way yeh look at me, and I like it. Yeh've got hungry eyes, yeh do. It makes me a-fire..."
And I remembered how I cradled her body in the alley, desperately trying to staunch the blood with my hands and keep the warmth from spilling out onto the cobblestones.
"I could fall in love with her," I murmured, and I knew it was the most honest thing I had ever said.
Ravel glanced at Annah, then snorted, her black-veined eyes gleaming. "Hmmmmnnn... so be it."
"Enough of these games, Ravel. Look -"
"My NEXT question is this..." Ravel's voice dropped, almost whispering. And suddenly, I had the strange feeling that she didn't want to hear the answer. "Why did you wait so long to return to me? Ravel grew a-lonely without you, precious man."
"The way to this place is difficult, beautiful Ravel. Efforts have been made to insure you have little company, and many were the trials I was forced to undertake in order to stand before you. Yet I am glad to see you once again, Ravel - time has not dulled your beauty, I see."
"Your answers..." Ravel's eyes glinted, and her lips peeled back in a grotesque smile. "Your words are soothing and have not been heard in such a time... they stir even my black-brambled heart. No matter where your memories be, your charms remain, pretty thing..."
"Nay, it is your charms that persist, beautiful Ravel."
"Of charms, enchantments, beguilements... all these Ravel has mastered... yet, there is much it seems you could teach I..."
"Ahhhh, yessss. The third and last question... is this..." As Ravel opened her mouth to speak her final question, I was suddenly gripped with the terrible realization that this final question had murdered many others to whom it has been asked. I knew what it was, and I felt it welling up within me, compelled to ask it.
"What can change the nature of a man?"