Part 120: The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 20The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 20
"What can change the nature of a man?" I murmured, repeating her words even as she spoke them.
"I see you have not forgotten..." Ravel smiled, her yellow fangs gleaming. "What is your answer?"
The words came out in a crackling hiss, like crumbling ash flaking away from a guttering fire. Hundreds, perhaps thousands had died because of those words. Each one was a petitioner for Ravel's wisdom, each daring to think that they could provide the answer. Each died slowly and horribly, driven mad with nightmares or wracked with blinding agony until those nearby could slit the poor sod's throat out of mercy. It was almost hard to fear her, this squat and senile wart-skinned creature. Nothing could possibly live up to the stories of her evil, and this was perhaps what made Ravel so dangerous. Those would-be apprentices must've underestimated Ravel's cruelty.
I prayed that I wasn't so foolish.
The answer came gently, with a soft certainty to it, but it rang true as I looked her in the eye.
"You, Ravel. As you changed my nature forever."
Her lips peeled back in to an evil smile, and she cocked her head, teasing and coy. She seemed neither eager nor offended at the answer, and for a moment that made me unsure. "And that is your answer...?" The veins in Ravel's eyes began to shift slightly, "Be certain before you say."
"It may not be your answer, but it is my answer," I said, setting my jaw. My fingers itched and I felt the power of the Art welling up in me, just in case.
"And that is all I wished for, my precious man." Ravel's smile relaxed. "A simple answer, and in the end, many are the men have I laid low while they sought MY answer."
I paused, stunned for a moment, and the tension fell away like rainwater trickling off a roof. "That's it...? I thought..."
Ravel cackled. "Countless times has the question been asked, and not ONCE did the pathetic shells who came a-fore me answered with THEIR answer, but always sought to creep inside my mind and find what I thought... tchhh! There is no truth in that."
"I... don't believe you. In fact, I don't think they ever could have answered you true, even if it was true to them."
Ravel fell suddenly, strangely, silent. She watched me warily.
"You never cared about any answer other than mine. Ever. Did you? Yet still you asked the question, knowing that no matter what the answer they gave, they would die by your hand."
Ravel hissed. "Of COURSE your answer was the only one I sought, for you were the ONLY reason I asked the question! Did you think I cared for them...? Tchhh! Did you think I even cared a fraction of the amount for them that I cared for you, my precious man? Answer me that!"
"I'm through answering your questions, Ravel. Now you'll answer mine."
"Of course... ever questions, ever questions..."
"What is this place?" I asked, looking around. This maze didn't seem to be of the Lady's doing.
Ravel gestured around her. "Once a maze of lifeless stone it was, featureless, but a small black seed was wound in my hair when I came to this place, and it grew strong amongst the stone, flourishing, flourishing, until it ran thick throughout the maze like the unraveling hair of a crone... and so this maze of another becomes MY garden."
"Why were you imprisoned, Ravel?"
"I tried to help a Lady and a-kindly she did not take to it."
"The Lady of Pain? You tried to help her?" Grace said, shocked.
"My offering of help was unwelcome. I tried to set her FREE; Sigil is the CAGE, a City of Doors and Locks, is a prison for her. It must be, mustn't it be? Why else call the city of Sigil 'the Cage?' And who is caged? The Lady! A prison so small for one so great. Unjustness, wrongness, intolerable to torment a woman thusly!"
"I think I know who should be in a cage..." Morte murmured.
"I tried to break the Cage, let the Lady go free." She made a shooing motion, her expression becoming pained as she scattered invisible birds. "Shoo, shoo, o pained woman, let Sigil's ring be broken so you might fly far from its filthy streets and the stupid dabus that dare not speak in words for fear their thoughts would be overheard!" Ravel's hands slowly stopped their 'shooing' motion, and she gave a slow sigh. "Before I could finish, I a-found myself here, and my memories none the better for the trip... much has slipped away, much forgotten, yes it was... is? Was?" Ravel smiled with her yellowed teeth. "The dwindling of memory has become a comfort to these old bones. Much have I forgotten... I am fortunate in that I still remember you."
"Ravel, but... WHY did you try to free the Lady of Pain from Sigil?"
Ravel's voice dropped, almost reprimanding. "I resent anyone, even a Power, being imprisoned and think that all, everyone ...whether stones, shores or quiet bladed ladies... should be FREE. Some have said more fool, I. Why risk such a thing, they said?"
"I think you did the right thing trying to set her free, Ravel," I lied. Still best to butter her up.
"I'm glad that we share a like mind and view like-minded on this matter. Yet... when I cannot let matters well enough alone... it seems to mine eyes that many are the lives and dreams that are a-left in pieces on the ground."
"Is that what you were trying to do when I met you so long ago? Were you trying to set me free?"
"Quite possibly, possibly quite. Life's chains and fear-of-death may have gripped too-tightly on the man I new... knew? Knew then, hmmmm-hmmmm?" Ravel picked at one of her jagged gray hairs, wrapping it around her finger. "No liking for chains and cages does Ravel have..."
"Ah, so I was caged somehow? Or chained? It sounds to me as if your memory is stirring, Ravel..."
"Yess..." Ravel blinked for a moment, and her black-veined eyes became duller, as if she has been struck with a heavy weapon. Her talon tightened around the gray hair, so tightly it looked like she was about to tear it from her skull. "Mayhap... you were a-trapped? But it was no normal cage that held you..."
"Do you have any idea what held me?"
Ravel looks confused, and her face twisted, as if she was fighting an unpleasant thought. "I have forgotten... mayhap a promise...? No, no..." Her finger tightened around the gray hair, and to my surprise, there was a snap like a twig breaking, and Ravel tore the hair from her head. A trickle of black blood wormed from beneath her skull cap, and she hissed in anger.
"Ravel...? Are you all right?"
"No MORE will I say..." Ravel's face wrinkled in pain, the talon covered with the blood-tipped gray hair - even plucked from her head, it looked jagged and stiff. "I do not know, and no knowing shall I share!" She stared down at the gray hair wrapped around her talon, and then she hissed, and flicked it to me. "Take this, and leave the past where it lies, half-man!"
"Ravel... who are you? Where did you come from?"
"I? Ravel am I, a maker and breaker of puzzles, a solver of what cannot be solved, a mind raveling and unraveling until the threads of thought are tied up like knots in a drunken man's hair." Ravel picked at another one of her jagged gray hairs, wrapping it around her finger. "It is enough, enough it is."
"But what are you? Some have called you are a 'night hag,' whatever that is."
"Night hag...?" Ravel gaves a ghastly smile, her yellowed teeth like needles. "I am but a woman who has sorely... soarly? Soarly missed her beloved creation. Some have named me crone, gray lady, Yaga sister, night hag -- but MYSELF is my name, Ravel, Ravel who puzzles well, providing conundrums to decipher and laying impossibilities low. But..."
"MANY things are said about we gray ladies. A race are we 'night hags,' but an individual am I. Some call us evil of Old, stalkers of mortal dreams, the kindly ones, ugly, hideous things whose homes lie in the dark places of men's minds." Ravel's eyes narrowed to reddish sparks. "But that means NOTHING to me... what would one such as YOU call one such as I, pretty thing?"
"I find you beautiful, Ravel. Not perhaps to the eye, but your mind seems sharp and vibrant," I lied.
"Tchhh! Do you think I care for such truths?! A hex on inner beauty, no matter how long it may last the flesh. Think you ugly am I...?"
"Ravel, you are not ugly..."
"Yet ugly I need not be, pretty thing. My shape is but water to my will, and I may re-weave its fibers to a more pleasing tapestry..." Ravel glanced at Fall-from-Grace, then smiled and licked her lips. "Yes..."
Ravel had... melted into Fall-From-Grace, taking on her demeanor, her features, her clothes... "Is this shape more pleasing?" Ravel smiled, her teeth now a brilliant, perfect white, the lips with just a hint of red. She had Grace's sweet voice, musical as the sound of chimes. "So cultured and breathtaking?" She motioned me to come closer. "Come, my precious man, my lips do not burn with Abyssal torments. Lay your lips upon mine."
"Mayhap... is it the rougher woman that you crave, the one of passionate fire?" Ravel glanced at Annah, who stiffened as Ravel's gaze pinned her. "Mayhap it is HER that whets your appetite..."
"Ravel, stop this. I've no more time for your g-"
And then Ravel melted into Annah's shape, taking on her demeanor, her features, her leather vest... "Is it the rough-edged woman that you crave, the one for whom age has not yet tempered her passions?" Annah's... Ravel's... tail flicked, as if in anticipation. "Come, caress my lips with your own, and I shall please you."
"Ravel, stop these games... I have neither time nor patience for them. Resume your form."
I blinked, and Ravel had twisted back into her original form. "A difficult man to please are you! Pah! And wonder do they why there are no males of our kind!"
"What other shapes can you... have you turned yourself into?"
"Maybe some, Mebbeth none." Ravel seemed confused by the question. "I've not a-membered such, I've neen, I-vene, Ei-Vene, mayhap? Neither smarta nor Marta... so many threads and branchings, so many Ravels... always stitching and mending and growing are my forms."
"Mebbeth? You were Mebbeth?" I asked in shock. It couldn't have been...
"That may have been one of my names... yes?" Ravel looked more confused, her black-veined eyes becoming misty. "Names are difficult to remember..." Her voice became faint. "Like calling across a great distance..."
"Mebbeth was kind to me and helped me, Ravel. That means YOU helped me. I thank you."
At the mention of Mebbeth, all the color bled out of Ravel's face until she was gray and ashen -- literally. It was as if the color just... vanished. "And who might ye be, hmmmnnn? Does yer path bring you back to Ol' Mebbeth's door, child...?" Her face was that soft plump mound of gray, her voice that sweet old creak, gentle and motherly.
"Yes, it does... Mebbeth... I, uh, came to learn more of the Art. Can you teach me any more?"
"Pah! I am but a midwife, child, such power as the Art commands is much beyond me..."
"I... don't think so. I think you may have more to teach me than you may realize. Much more."
Then came the question like an echo: "Ye want to learn the Art, ye do? Why do ye want to learn such things?"
"Because I may need it to solve the mystery of who I am," I murmured again. The words echoed back to me from the past, when I was still so new to the world, pleading at Mebbeth's door for help.
After a moment, Ravel... Mebbeth... nodded. "The Art may help, it may not, and ye must not rely on it ta solve all o' yer problems." She sighed. "Child, it's most like only going to add another chip to yer pile o' questions..." She leaned in close. "But if ye'd know, then listen..."
Mebbeth... Ravel... whispered something, and I felt different, changed somehow. It was something horrible she had whispered to me, something about how the Planes worked, but my mind had shut out her words, and I couldn't recall them. Just thinking about them set my heart pounding... It was a secret I'm not sure anyone was ever meant to know. Ravel watched me, studying me.
"I-In her own way, Ei-Vene helped me as well, Ravel. That means YOU helped me. I thank you," I said, swallowing hard.
Almost unconsciously, Ravel's hand reached out for me, and just for a moment, I could swear they were Ei-Vene's talons...
Ravel's left hand plucked a hair from her head, hooks it around her talons, and lightning-like, she jabbed another talon into the skin near one of my scars. It was barely more than a pin-prick, but it looked like she was about to start stitching me up.
As it was with Ei-Vene, the sensation was curiously painless, but the thread and stitching seemed to be going much deeper, almost INSIDE me, without actually going beyond the surface of the skin. In moments, Ravel's talons drew back, and I felt... better, stronger. Ravel muttered in Ei-Vene's voice: "Dum zomfie..."
"Marta was barmy, Ravel, but she was not unkind and not unhelpful. If you were her, then you mean me no harm. I thank you."
And as I said her name, Ravel's face seemed to shift... her blue skin sagged, until she was wearing the same sour, curd-faced expression I had seen on Marta's face. "C'mon, now... don't be all-difficult on Marta..." She raised the talon of her index finger like a scalpel and advanced upon me. "False, nasty, corpse."
Ravel's filthy talon jabbed into my abdomen, then pulled it brutally downwards in a saw-like motion... but there was no pain. I watched as my skin peeled slowly back from her touch -no blood issued from the wound. "Look at this, Marta... look at this..."
Ravel's free hand dug into my chest, where she looped my intestines up like yarn, and plucked them from my stomach... as she did, my stomach sealed up, as if time was going backwards. Marta... Ravel... held up my intestines like a trophy. "Pretty, pretty, eh, Marta...? One shouldn't swallow such a thing, no, no..."
I felt my stomach, whole and pebbled with criscrossed scars as before. There hadn't even been the slightest tugging feeling in my guts. "Uh... can I have those back, please? I might need them later."
She handed me the ropy mass... despite the freshness, the fluids surrounding my intestines had dried like resin. It felt more like a loop of glazed... rope.
"Uh... thanks. I'll treasure this always."
Marta... Ravel... nodded slowly. "As well he should, shouldn't he, Marta? Yes... yes, he should, Marta. Powerful magic to be found the guts of an immortal, yes... not like teethies... or eyes..."
I nodded, and her Ravel's face had become her own again, as if nothing had happened. "You helped me thrice already. Would you help me again, then? The legends claim you are a powerful mage, Ravel. Can you teach me some of the Art?"
Ravel frowned disapprovingly, her bluish skin twisting like a rag. "Does Ravel know the Art?! Is your mind gone a-way of the mortality, a thing all up-and-lost?! I have forgotten more of the Art than you shall..." She jabbed me with one of her talons. "Ever." She jabbed again. "Know."
"Can you teach me some of the Art, then?"
Ravel narrowed her black-veined eyes, studying me. "Mayhap I could be persuaded by one such as you... though any other would NOT have such a chance, nor the boon I offer. Are you a rudimentary student in the arts or am I facing a tried-true-and-tired... attired? A-tired master?"
I shifted, "Somewhere in between, beautiful Ravel. I still have much to learn."
"Flatterer... and yet your words warm me." Ravel's voice changed, alternating in pitch, like someone plucking a stringed instrument. "Much have I learned tending this garden. Charms and incantations, distilled from the barbs..." She began to hum slightly to herself. "...rhyming, swaying ways of the consonants constants and motions that bring the briars to your aid... listen, the branches will speak of it."
I closed my eyes and listened.
A great trembling passed through me then, as if dozens of barbed snakes were burrowing beneath my flesh. My veins writhed, sinew twisted and stretched from muscle and bone. Just when I thought the pain was more than I could bear, I suddenly, instinctively, began humming, the same tune that Ravel did... and the pain ebbed. In the distance of the maze I could hear the clicking of the tree creatures, as if responding to my call.
I continued to hum.
Ravel watched with a curious light in her black-veined eyes. "Such power..." She gave a soft hiss, as if in wonder, and her lips peeled back in a smile. "It a-touches all that hear it. You are powerful, my precious man, so powerful... one day even the Planes may bend to your will..."
I opened my eyes and shook my head, "I do not wish such a thing, Ravel. There are many who would walk that path, but not I."
Ravel nodded, then nodded at my hand, which to my surprise, held a number of black-barbed seeds. "Take those seeds. Use them as you will... and to this, I grant an additional boon." She plucked a hair from her head and took a handful of the seeds, placed them in her palm, then crushed them. A small trail of blackish blood ran from her hand, but when she opened it, there was no wound... only a necklace of black-barbs, woven around a lock of Ravel's gray hair. "Take this; it is of me, and it will serve you well."
I took the seeds and the strange barbed charm. I recognized them, then... they were of the same seed that Mebbeth had given to me so long ago, when I was training to become a mageling.
"Save those seeds, precious man... use not all of them, for they may prove more useful in other places in this maze... but if powerful you are, these places you will find."
I tucked it all away, and sighed. So she was amenable. "Why did you make me immortal, Ravel?"
"It's what you wanted, seedling, and you asked so sweetly... now how could Ravel say 'no' to one such as you? Immortality was your solution and your challenge to me."
"My solution? But why?"
"I don't know, seedling. Time has chipped away at my memories as well, it would seem... seam? If you remember, tell me... I'm a-curious myself. It must have been something important... isn't it in the nature of a man to want to live forever?"
"Only if what lies on the other path carries greater pain," Dak'kon said. His voice was soft and certain.
"Ravel... this is very important; do you have any idea why I asked you to do it?"
"Death was a thing you needed to dodge. An easy thing to say, mayhap, but to DO, it is not! Immortality, even with its flaws, was the best solution this withered mind could untangle..."
"Yet..." I probed.
"Lead is not easily a-changed to gold, but it is possible, thought the unwise... un-whys? ...Ravel. If water can be drawn from blood, mortality can be taken from a mortal, peeled back like a sticky film...."
"So you pulled it off?"
"The gulf between man and unman is great. You traveled the distance. I provided the means, but you crossed on your own." Ravel slapped her head and raked her hand through her hair. "Bad Ravel! Mortals are too flawed to be made to last. Still they break! They must be dragged kicking and screaming into an unhealthy new mold."
"Unhealthy...? So the ritual was flawed?"
"Shortcuts must be made, and they can break the molded... for it is not always the mold that breaks, but the substance poured within it. Force something into a shape it was not meant to be, and it breaks! I thought the material was of stronger stuff, but you have been broken."
"But I am immortal - surely that was a success?"
"You have survived long, immortaled one, but you have become the prey of the creature that is life." She cupped her palms, then reversed the motion, forming a canopy with her hands. "The body is but a hut for the soul. But now no one dwells in your hut."
"What went wrong with the ritual?"
"Puzzle-fleshed broken, beautiful, beautiful mortal man, the ritual was not... knot? Knot... not a finished thing." Ravel's brows wrinkled, and her talons picked at her hair again, tugging on a lone strand. "The ritual gave you what you wanted, but ..."
"The ritual gave you what you wanted, but great were the costs... the casting of shadows, the quiet, violent deaths of the mind, and the pain-taking emptiness... these things, a-dangerous were are in such a fragile vessel, no matter how strong a mortal man. Regret them and the ritual do I."
"Casting of Shadows?"
"Ungrateful shades... but ungrateful without cause? The shades... they hate you, Nameless One, for they are fathered by you, your children, once forsaken, they will never forgive. They will do everything they can to destroy the parent... such is the way of children."
The shadows... the words chilled me to the bone. My eyes scanned the maze, watching for a flicker of darkness or the flutter of a shade, like the hem of a robe. "How do I father shades... these shadows?"
And then I felt them, writhing in the corners of existence, wedged in a sliver between being and nonbeing. For a moment they clawed along the walls of existence, hungry for vengeance. The hate poured off of them in waves, and as they welled up from the lightless depths of Ravel's maze, it seemed as if a tide of hatred was rolling in to swallow me up. My throat seized, my hands went to my dagger, but suddenly lost the strength to grip it. The thrumming of the Art, so often like the resonance of a glass struck with a spoon, was suddenly silent.
And as quickly as they came, they disappeared back into nothing.
"You cast shadows on existence, Nameless One. With every death, a shadow arises fresh from the fields of your flesh. They a-wander for a time, but always they a-return, looking to murder their parent. Such is the way of many offspring..." Ravel pursed her lips in disapproval, then suddenly poked me in the chest with a talon. "...and thankless young men such as yourself."
I shivered, and the strength returned to my muscles, "Then what do you mean by the quiet, violent death of the mind?"
"A thousand deaths, and you recover from each. Not so the mind, the mind is much more fragile. Its scars run deep and do not heal. The brain is encased in a hard bone shell, difficult to breach, but with no defense against that which eats at it from within."
Deionarra had spoken of such. I had already known the answer to the question the moment I asked it, "And the pain-taking emptiness?"
"You have a whole where... wear? Wear your mortality once lay within your shell." She made her hand into a fist and shook it. "Rattle-rattle goes the hollow man, a baby's plaything, with naught but a tiny stone that a-clatters and clacks in your frame."
"Despite these problems, it seems like the ritual worked..."
"Do you doubt Ravel? Of course I delivered on what was promised! Not long after the spell a-drew to a close, I killed you to see if it had worked. You struggled so, but I kept my grip tight and watched you die your first of many deaths." Ravel clacked her teeth. "Then was I a-learned in its flaws..."
"Ego enwraps us like a prison. Forgot I did that it ofttimes serves as a shield." Ravel clicked her tongue. "My pretty, pretty thing, there is much wisdom and understanding in the truth that life is a preparation for the ultimate goal: death. Our life is a means by which we learn how to die. If we FORGET such things..."
"So that's when you discovered I lost my memories when I died..."
"Yess..." Ravel nodded. "Unfortunate... without the mortality to hold such memories tight, the shell a body is..."
"So you took my mortality from me... is it still intact?"
Ravel seemed surprised, her eyes widened in recognition. "Yes, yes, yes! Fear not for a broken mortality... if you are here... hear? Hear a-talking at me, intact your mortality must be. Such a thing can not... knot... not be destroyed as long as you exist. You are an anchor of your mortal soul. As long as you are intact, so shall it be. Made to last are you..." Ravel smiled and gave a wheezing laugh. "For life swallowed you and spit you out!"
"It swallowed him, but I don't know if he came out of that end," Morte muttered.
"Enough of this -- look, Ravel, you took my mortality from me, and it has caused more harm than good. I would take it back now - you have had it overlong, I think."
"Ah... you make a demand...?" Ravel's black-veined eyes sharpened and twisted, taking a disturbing awareness, and she bared her yellow fangs. "No, no, no. That, Ravel, I, will not do. What is undone cannot be done."
"Ravel cannot give such a thing to you, my precious man, for Ravel has nothing to give... I never possessed you or your mortality... though I wished to keep them both in my garden as selfish affection's keepsakes, trace the patterns of your flesh... but such things Ravel could not bring herself to do..."
"Yeh loved him!" Annah broke her silence - she sounded astonished. "Yeh loved him, yeh did!"
Ravel gave a low, wide smile. "Is that so hard for you to believe, fiendling...?" She cackled softly to herself. "Does Ravel being Ravel, and thus, a myth, not deserve to carry such a feeling in her black-brambled heart...?"
"No creature is undeserving of such a feeling, Ravel." Grace spoke softly. "The histories do not paint such a compassionate picture of you, however..."
"Tchhh! The past is past, and histories care little for a-speaking the truth of it..." Ravel frowned, then her voice dropped slightly, threateningly, as she studied Grace. "The feeling brushed me, yes... and now hold your silvered tongue, Abyssal daughter. I need not your soft words to cloud the air here - the man and I shall speak, and you shall bow out of this. I shall attend to you shortly."
"Enough, Ravel: If you don't have my mortality... where is it?"
"I don't know, sweet thing. But if I were you, I'd get it back quick-quick. No telling what horrible things someone could do to you if they held your mortality for RANSOM." Ravel clicked her talons together. "It would like be holding someone's sweet, succulent soul... a puppet dancing on someone's strings, would you be, and a most sad puppet, too... two? Know where it is, I do not."
"Hold a moment... you say YOU don't know where my mortality is. Do you know someone who DOES know where it is?"
Ravel smiled horridly, her tusks gleaming. "Clever, clever, clever you are... yes, there is ANOTHER who might know the things that Ravel does not..."
"'Another may know?' Who?"
Ravel's eyes dimmed, as if she was staring at something in the distance, and her voice slowed. "A... fair-skinned one... must you ask. An angel, a deva, one who soars on the wings of morning and with his hands, is the architect of horizons. He lies, lies beyond my keeping, in another cage, in another prison... in his knowing is the knowing of what you wish to know. Ask him your questions, listen to his answers, use them as guides."
"Where can I find this angel?"
"In a-leaving this prison, to another cursed prison will you arrive... though it may not appear as such to casual glances. Step a-lightly, and find the golden link in the ever-shortening chain. The light shall give the dark of the matter, and new paths shall open to you."
"Delightfully cryptic... though not surprising. Thanks."
Ravel cackled. "Of the past I am not held to particulars... you are fortunate to receive anything, o caustic one!"
"Oh, am I? It's just that the chain of who knows what and where they are never seems to be a smooth series of links," I grumbled.
"Ahhh..." Ravel smiled, holding up one of her talons. "And that is why you must keep each link safe, for if they are not smooth now, imagine what the chain will be like when MORE links shatter... time and death are not as patient with others as they are with you."
"What are you saying?"
"What if one of your precious links was to die? And what if you forgot yourself again? What would you do then? Where would your stolen mortality be, then... it would be LOST forever, for there would be no one left to ASK how to reach it. Tracing your path would become harder... mayhap IMPOSSIBLE..."
"True enough," I said softly and stood there a moment, puzzling over whether there was anything else to ask. "Thank you for the information you have given me, Ravel; I must leave now."
"Hold..." Ravel's voice dropped to a low hiss, like that of a serpent. "The most important question you have YET to ask, my precious man. Has it occurred to you yet?"
And it came to me, one last piece of knowledge that I needed, "Yes... I need to know how to leave this place. Do you know the answer to this question?"
"I know the branchings of this place, the twistings and bendings and burrowings. Though there are no leaves here, one may take their leave when they wish it."
"So you DO know how to leave?"
"Wrap your hands about you like branches, make them encircle your chest like a cage. Step from the edge of the maze into the darkness, and into another cage your body shall go - a simple leaving, but there is NO return when that final step is taken, so TAKE heed and TAKE what you need before you take the step."
"Which of the edges of the maze do I leave by?"
"Which, a question posed to the witch... which? One of the edges knows, not I. The remembering of which has failed me, and the edges of the maze have had little to say on the matter."
I blinked, surprised. "You've known how to leave? All this time? Then... why don't you leave?"
"Why stay when one can leave is your question to me?" Ravel broke into a crooked smile, displaying a row of fangs. "I turn the question upon its head and send it a-scurrying back to you. The answer lies not in the staying or leaving, but in the causes and reasons, my precious half-man."
"Don't you want to leave?"
"It is a want, a once-want, but not a now-want, and more and more a not, naught, knotted-want. What do I need that lies beyond my brambled walls? It is a cruel, jagged world beyond the edges of this maze, and Ravel has pulled enough of its shards from her skin."
I gave her a polite bow, "You have done me a great service, beautiful Ravel. Thank you for hearing my request and sharing your knowledge with me."
Ravel gave a crooked smile, all tusks, and then cackled softly. "Ah... it is I who thanks you, my precious man. Long has it been since such sweet flattery has been brought to this maze... I wish to grant you a boon, my songbird."
"No boon is necessary, beautiful Ravel."
"Your protestations have no place here, songbird. Shhh... I would tell you a secret..."
"Very well..." I said with a gulp. She had yet to hurt me, and few had such opportunities as this.
"Then listen to me... close your eyes, and I shall let you see the nature of the multiverse..."
I closed my eyes, and as I did, a sharp, stabbing pain lanced through my right eye. My eye... one of my eyes... opened... and I saw Ravel before me, her own blood-red eyes gleaming with delight; one of her talons was extended, and is tipped with my blood... and an eyeball. Mine.
"What... did... you... do...?" I moaned, putting a hand to my face, feeling the eyelid indent unnaturally under my touch.
"A boon I have granted, songbird. A twist of perception, a tap into the branches of the mind, a tap into the roots of Ravel's knowing have I granted you... a piece of me..." She took the eyeball, and I watched in disgust as she pulled forth a black seed and placed them both in her left palm. With a grotesque smile, she crushed the two of them with a sickening crunch that left me tense. "Ahh..."
"Give... it back..."
"Of course, precious man..." Ravel opened her palm and my eye lay there, seemingly untouched, staring at me. She placed it between her thumb and forefinger, then before I could react, she stabbed it into my empty eye socket.
For a moment there was an assymetry to my vision... my normal eye saw things normally, but the one Ravel had jabbed back in felt heavy, weighted somehow as if it were made of lead. But through that orb the world around me seemed to hum, shadows dancing among objects, auras branching and twisting, dancing like seaweed moved by the waves. The visions danced as if they were afterimages burned into my retina, and slowly they faded. Even after everything readjusted, the Planes seemed different, as if I were seeing the Planes through Ravel's eyes as well as my own.
I'd better be careful about who I flatter from now on, especially if they're within stabbing distance.
"A piece of me lies in your good eye, precious man. When you see the Planes through that eye, you will understand MORE than you once did... wiser you will be, and more experience of the Planes and their turnings will you understand... and that is all."
I nodded, massaging my face and wiping the blood away, "Very well... thank you, Ravel. I must bid you farewell."
As I uttered my farewell, a crawling sensation ran up my skull - and Ravel's black-veined eyes took on a strange, predatory fire.
"You're not going to let me leave, are you Ravel?" I murmured hoarsely.
"A perceptive question - yet it not the real question." Ravel's voice lowered to a grim whisper - sad, and mournful, that sent a faint echo through my mind. "The question is do you wish to leave me, half-man?"
"I do not wish to be trapped her in this place, Ravel. It is your home, not mine. I need to find my mortality, and become whole once again."
"No, know, no... know THIS..." Ravel raised a taloned finger, as if warning me. "Know it is OUR home, my precious half-man. Two immortals shall we be in this black-brambled garden, and I shall keep you safe from the Planes."
"Fair Ravel, you helped me when I came to you so long ago, and you have done so again. I shall not forget what you have done. But now I must leave - I have to know more about myself."
There was a terrible shimmering in the air around Ravel - and the sound of snapping twigs and cracking tree limbs, and the horrid sound of the trees bending and splintering...
Ravel's lips peeled back and her voice became shrill, like a howling wind. "What do YOU know of KNOWING, half-man?! KNOW this: KNOW you will stay here until the END DAYS in my brambled garden, never to leave, and you shall LOVE me, as you were MEANT, as you PROMISED!"
I opened my hands, tried to calm her down, "I'm afraid I would be poor company, Ravel. And I cannot stay in any event. I'm afraid you must allow me passage."
"I shall NOT let you leave -I have the power to KEEP you here, and I shall USE it. My black-barbed maze shall NOT allow you to travel beyond it while I LIVE, my precious, precious man..."
"Ravel, I don't want to fight you... don't do this. Allow me passage, and I shall return to visit you. You need not be alone in this place," my voice became pleading, desperate. Behind me I could hear the nervous unsheathing of blades.
"RETURN?! RETURN as you CLAIMED you would so LONG AGO?! No... no, you shall not LIE to Ravel TWICE! No more CENTURIES will I WAIT for you..." Ravel's lips peeled back as she shrieked, and her talons grew, lengthening into fiendish claws. "Here in my garden you will STAY, and a-wander the Planes you will NO LONGER...!"
"Ravel, calm yourself, there's no NEED for this..."
"You have forgotten your PLACE, HALF-man. Humility is in order."
"Ravel, don't DO this..."
"Attend me, my pets!" she crooned, making a twisting motion of her hand. The soil trembled beneath our feet, the walls writhed with animalistic life. The pungent scent of rotting vegetation and damp moss grew thick in the air, and in an eruption of soil Ravel's tree minions came to her aid.
"Trigits..." I said quietly, suddenly knowing their name. Ravel may have been their master, but I now shared her power. I could feel the pulse of sap along the walls, the curve of each wood fiber. Each branch, each twisting, could be mine to command if I could just focus...
"Gather to me..." I intoned, in my hoarse gutteral voice, attempting the same twisting motion with my hand. With that same thrumming, that same shudder of soil and rot, three more trigits pulled themselves from the soil, at my command.
Ravel cackled, "Need you more PROOF, sweet manling, that you and I were meant to be together?!"
Branch crashed on branch and vine tangled vine. The air was filled with the sound of splintering wood and flakes of falling leaves. I felt the air hum with Ravel's power as she raised her hands, and a shield of violet-black nettles curled around her, and my bolts of force crashed impotently against her shield.
"Take care of the trigits!" I cried to the others, "I'm moving forward!"
The witch's mad cackling pounded in my ears, and lightning cracked down on the enemy trigits. Fall-From-Grace's incantations had taken on a deadly edge, and now her powers were channeled towards combat. The shock was enough for me to get in close to Ravel...
With a flick of Ravel's claw, a mass of thorny brambles burst from the earth and encircled my leg, their barbs carving deep into the bone and holding me in place. I howled in pain, like a wolf caught in a bear trap, writhing on the ground and trying to pull my leg free. Held fast, my hand hacked away at the bone as much as I could, desperately trying to sever my leg to free myself before Ravel could kill us all. For the first time I cursed my regenerative power... muscle and sinew was snapping back into place as fast as I could cut, and each stab of my dagger could only ever dent the cartilage of my knee.
"Let us be alone together now, sweetling," she hissed, forming her hands into a circle and pressing down. Her palms trembled with the force, and a black ichor of liquid shadowstuff drew towards the heart of the chamber, forming an orb that hummed with power.
"NO!" I screamed, as the black sphere burst.
In a flash it crystallized, like hardening sap or cracking ice. The stuff creaked as liquid shadow became solid, and my friends became encased in what looked like violet glass. Dak'kon, Annah, Morte, Grace, Nordom... frozen stiff in glassy shadow.
"I will never let you go again, sweetling..." Ravel hissed. She approached me eagerly, talons clawing at the air, lips hungry and wet from her serpentine tongue.
Mebbeth's hut smelled of dry herbs. "I returned with those herbs you wanted... now maybe you can get this damned bramble-patch off my wrist."
"Is that so?" Mebbeth glanced at the barbs that surround my wrist. "If so, think it off, then."
Creaking and snapping, the black-barbed branches unraveled themselves from my wrist and formed into a tangled ball of brush and twigs; it looked like a nest of dead black snakes.
With that thought the thorns digging into my leg withdrew and the brambles crumbled away. She was hovering over me, blinking in surprise, when I hurled one final bolt of force, compressed as thin as my little finger.
A bright nimbus of light surrounded my hand as the ray of force shot forward, shattering her barbed shield, spearing through her black heart.
For a moment Ravel looked down dumbly at her chest. Dark blood was pouring from the small wound already, running down her blouse in ebony rivulets. She looked up to me, the fire in her eyes dimming, lips turned down in a sad frown. Her mouth opened as if to say something, but slowly, quietly, her eyes rolled back and she fell with a quiet thud against the earth.
The legend was dead.