Part 121: The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 21The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 21
I could feel them gathering the moment Ravel died, scuttling along the edges of reality and billowing in like black mists from the edge of oblivion.
They were coming for us.
I was numb standing over Ravel's corpse. The blood continued to trickle from her body, and the blue-violet hue that tainted her skin was draining away. Those eyes, once filled with fire and barbs, were glassy and pale, like a doll's. I made quick work searching her body for whatever we needed to get the hell out of here.
A scroll, a devilish-looking eye, a shard of Ravel's fingernail that looked cruelly vicious as a weapon... strange charms, but what else could I expect to dig up from a crone trapped for centuries in one of the Lady's mazes?
"Ye've got what yeh wanted now, let's give this place the laugh, aye?" Annah seemed just as stunned. She didn't even bother to make the sign she usually did to ward off evil.
"Yeah," I grumbled. For a moment I was tempted to run my fingers through the hag's hair... I almost pitied Ravel now, fragile as she seemed lying in the moss with a trickle of blood crusting down the corner of her lip. I'm not sure she lived up to the legends of her cruelty, "Let's get the Hells out of here."
"Portal detected!" Nordom whistled.
"I'm telling you, Nordom. They're ev-" I paused. Something in my pack felt... active, as if it were setting off the nearby portal Nordom detected. This wasn't something I expected: in the first maze I'd escaped from the portals were ever there.
I pulled my pack open.
The space beneath one of the overhanging branches began to glow softly, and flickers of the nascent portal revealed what looked like a small brambled room beyond. The strange black-barbed charm Ravel gave me was writhing, like a dying snake.
Keeping my pack open, I moved closer to the overhanging branch.
The strange charm, using its barbed seeds, bit gently into my skin. Using its barbs like treads, it climbed up my left hand, where it wrapped itself tightly around my index finger. In response the light grew brighter, beckoning us to step through.
Fortune favors the bold.
The floor of the new chamber was puckered with rough polygonal indentations, like the scales of a wrongly-healed scab. Here and there mounds of violet dirt lay barren save for three sickly twigs in the center... it looked as if they had devoured all the other vegetation around them.
They were like thin, grasping fingers, and had none of the black barbs that coated the branches elsewhere in the maze. As I examined them however, a magical vibration in them thrummed with a melancholy song, like the faint vibrations in the rest of the maze. Yet they were more insistent, like the wailing of tiny children.
"Hey chief, when you're done playing in the mud there we should probably get going..."
"One second, Morte," I raised a hand to shush him. I swayed with the rhythm of the vibration, and once I recognized the nature of the resonance I began to hum, the same tune Ravel had used to call upon the Maze's power.
As I began to match the timbre of the vibration with my own voice, the twigs suddenly began twisting within their dead circle, the fingers thrashing, grabbing for something. I knew, instinctively, they were clutching for a black-barbed seed.
Still humming, I tossed one of the seeds into their midst.
The seed flew right between the branches, and the three twigs twisted around it with a crack, splintering it. The twigs stopped thrashing and slowly grew, thickening to become branches. The branches twisted around each other, then with a crack they snapped at the base, rolled across the floor, and stopped, deathly still.
The three-twined branch still hummed in my hand, like a heartbeat. It was obviously magical, and powerful. I could feel the branch responding to my humming, and a tremendous amount of power lay in it: a trace of Ravel's power, but perhaps mostly by my own force of will.
I grinned at Morte, "Very."
I repeated the process a few more times, but saved one seed for later. Who knew? It could come in handy.
Exiting was like most bodily functions: the way out was harder than the way in. Sharp and misty predators, with serpentine hair and whiplike limbs, hounded our every step. There were greater shadows, with claws of darkness honed and rareified into midnight blades that burned with frost. And then there were the trigits: the every blood-hungry trigits.
If every once of crippling nausea and fear-induced incontinence hadn't been sliced, gouged, and beaten out of me long ago I would've soiled myself until I bled over facing the shades. They shrieked when they came, their hisses incomprehensible to my friends I'm sure, but to my ears there was the underlying hiss of unbridled fury.
I could almost understand what they meant, like overhearing the whispers of a deadly secret. They screeched of stolen futures, of fates unmade, of fury and vengeance and thirst for agony. It terrified me, but I still took point: my body had increased its regenerative capacity, and if I should die that would be the least of our problems.
Every inch had been won with blood and sweat and the sizzle of mana coursing through my veins. Missiles of rage burst open wispy black shadows, and storms of lightning arced down halls thick with foliage. We left behind a swath of sublimating shadowstuff and smoldering plant matter as we went, until Nordom chirped:
I completed a gesture and the hall was seared in a storm of fire and ice, and then circled my hands around my body like branches, as Ravel had told me. Space rippled out before us, and with hot desert wind blowing against our skin, we were gone.
To say that Ravel was a twisted creature was to speak truth layered over truth.
It was as much a paradox as her name. To ravel is to ensnare: She is the one who enwraps her victims in vines and nightmares, riding dreams like steeds and breaking those captured in her black-barbed garden beyond breaking. To ravel is also to unbind: she is the one who unstrings truth from its bonds and opens up puzzles better left unsolved.
Ravel is a twisted creature in more ways than one. While it was true that Ravel had always been perverse, she of all night hags had been a master of bendings. Ravel bent reality to her will and cultivated the brambles of the Art. Root and seed, fruit and vine had all been mastered by her while mortal lives fell like autumn leaves. Yet she had only learned that no thorns could go as deep as a rose's when she met him.
Her shrieks rattle the cobblestones of her home. Brambles shiver and gray dust shrinks back at her cries, boiling away at her inhuman screeching.
"WHY?" she howls, and none could answer.
The tears, thick and greasy, carve fat runnels down her face. They drip from her long nose and down her chin, despair splashing to the earth drop by drop. Long scratches had been gouged in the soil and stone around her, and her nails are filthy and worn from rending the earth and tearing her garden to shreds. Shattered glass and ceramic litter her lair, and old potions bubble and sizzle on the stone where they had mixed haphazardly.
When the thrill of the ritual had finished thrumming through her, the giddy satisfaction of finishing such a task was not there. Such a terrifying thing to see, even through a hag's eyes. How he had twisted and writhed, chained to the altar, his screams of agony shaking him to the bone. The mortality twisted in her claws as she pulled, ripping it away and tearing the sinews of the soul. The sound of its bindings snapping under her fingers, the slick, wet feel of resistance... it seemed an eternity of struggle before it burst free, like pus from a lanced boil.
When it was over he lay trembling: mewling like a kitten, tender and vulnerable and shuddering like a newborn babe. He was limp against the cold stone, eyes vacant and pleading for the pain to stop.
Yet as with all things Ravel was thorough, and she had plucked up the dagger without a thought. Numb and cold from the struggle, she found her hands moving on their own: holding him down, pressing the cold tip of the blade against his breast.
He mewled weakly, tried to fight off her grip. But his palms were slick with sweat, his muscles had been drained of their strength, and his flesh was so tender and soft...
"Hushhhh child..." Ravel murmured, surprised at the softness in her own words even as the blade slid in with merciless purpose.
His breath rattled in his throat. His head rolled back. His limbs flopped to their sides.
Already the pricklethorns were blooming, sharp and venomous, nourished by his blood.
He lay still. Something was different. A strange feeling trickled through her, something that made her black heart quicken, her gnarled fingers trembled. Little by little, the horror crept through the dark recesses of her mind. A chill she'd never known before siphoned the little warmth she kept in the core of her being.
Already the moistness of his skin was growing clammy beneath her palm. His skin was growing pale, his lips blue-gray. The heat of his flesh was seeping away.
"No... no no no no..." she murmured, eyes wide, too panicked to move. "What has Ravel done? Can she fix this? Can I fix this?!"
And then she felt it. A pulse, faint as the squeak of a baby mouse, but the next was stronger, and the next stronger still.
Ravel had known that mortals could weep with joy, but it was only now that she knew what it meant. Blood-red and black-brambled eyes damp, heart warming, she laughed with delight. Giddy as a maiden, Ravel fell to her knees. The trembling of fear that all had gone wrong was trickling away, and for once her laughter was sweet, her fingers tender on another's flesh as she cradled his head gently.
"Oh beautiful man..." she had blubbered through the warm tears, "Oh sweet, beautiful man... you have come back to me." In her heart she promised that he would never feel pain again, that all he wished she would pluck from the threads of reality, if only he would walk with her through the garden, hand-in hand.
But the first three words from his lips made her blood run cold.
"Who am I?"
She lies curled on the floor, trembling with sorrow. When the sobs taper off into the soft, quiet weeping that comes when there are no more tears, she shrieks again, forcing them out... the earth is stained black with her agony. It will be days until there is nothing left, when all that remains is a hollow core that, for a moment, dreamed of love.
In the ages to come the Planes will tremble at her name. Men will break in her talons, their souls will be snagged by her barbs. Sigil will bend with her power and the Lady will be summoned in the chaos. Ravel was strong in many things, but if she had one weakness, it was that she never had the strength to end it herself.
Of all puzzles, she would never know why until he returned.
Her mazes were cold and still. Already the songs of the trigits had gone silent. The brambles grew wild and twisted, and leaves fell like shedding flakes of skin.
The brambles grew into the flesh of her corpse, desperately nourishing themselves on her cold blood even as they die. Roots dipped into the gaping wound in her breast and into lips parted by a tongue fat and swollen in death. Her once-burning eyes stared off into the distance, glassy and blank.
The shadows creeped from the corners of the maze, sweeping through the brambles like a tide.
With the grim determination of an executioner he floated forward, reality rippling as he moved. Existence itself screamed in his wake.
Ravel's body lay still. Yet there was a twitch, a disembodied swishing motion of her arm as if trying to wave the creature away. Her voice was distant and hollow as she hissed, "Off wit ya! Dead I am."
The creature was not amused, and its voice tolled like a deep, sonorous gong, "THEN DEATH'S KINGDOM HAS SEALED ITS GATES TO US BOTH. ARISE, CRONE."
"Sh-sh-sh... away wit ya - I'm dead, and no traffic with the living may I have."
"I CARE LITTLE FOR HOW YOU DIE, BUT I WARN YOU FOR THE LAST TIME: ARISE, OR I SHALL SLAY YOU WHERE YOU LIE."
The brambles crumbled away and flaked into ash as she stood, dusting herself off. The swollen tongue withdrew, the redness blinked back into her eyes once more. With a clean hand she wiped away the wound, and stain and tear were wicked away like a smudge, leaving the flawless cloth of her blouse beneath. "I had thought that dying at his hand would fulfill the requirements the past put forth," Ravel hissed.
"YOU CANNOT HAVE THOUGHT THAT ONE WOULD HAVE A CHANCE... YOU WERE INDULGENT WITH HIM TO LET HIM THINK HE WAS SUCCESSFUL."
Ravel pursed her plump, warty lips, and placed both hands on her hips as she pondered in wonder. "Powerful this incarnation is, and kill me he could've, but for a few tricks I possess. Fortunate was I."
"FORTUNE ABANDONED YOU THE MOMENT I FOUND YOU. HAS YOUR LIFE PREPARED YOU FOR WHAT IS SOON TO COME, HAG?" the words resonated in the chamber, the creature's voice certain and final.
"I am not afraid, not of the likes of you, ragged thing!" she snarled, stabbing a finger at the creature as it floated, "Weak Ravel may be, but a few tricks has Ravel learned over the years, and I have known you would come!"
Flames roared forth from the executioner's talons, spearing through Ravel's body. Her skin shriveled, her flesh split in the heat, and vines and leaves spilled forth to be consumed in the fire.
It took a moment for the thing to recognize the brambled corpse for the illusion it was, but it was all Ravel needed, peeling herself from the shadows behind the creature. Thorns circled her in a shield, plates of force surrounded her body. With a gesture she called for every ounce of power she could, splitting space and time, milking the elements, fusing agony to fuel her magic. From every inch of the maze the black shadowstuff poured, breaking against the creature in waves. The storm of it all sent a blackblast that shook Ravel's crystal shield, and would've crushed towers into powder, turned mortals into damp red mist.
"Witness Ravel's anger!" she shrieked, and lightning speared through the mist.
But then Ravel saw it... its pale limbs twisting, swimming up from the morass. Without a word the creature's talons curled, and the resonance that thrummed gave her enough warning to refocus, drawing the threads of protection upwards.
The missiles came, one by one, planar energies battering the shield of vines and force. The shriek of each approaching bolt came just as the last blasted with the force of a ballista. The momentum carried through to her hands, shook Ravel to her bones.
It was cracking. Her armor was cracking.
At first they were hairline splits, but along the growing web of crackling energy pieces flaked off, sublimating into nothing. Ravel refocused, murmuring another incantation. The shield would hold, but she would need to re-weave it if she wanted its full protection.
But then the small, green threads began to invade those hairline cracks.
It was all the thing needed, a razor-thin crack, a small hole a needle could slide through. Ravel shrieked as the threads caressed her, leaf-green flames burst from her flesh wherever they licked. The salvo of planar bolts had ended but Ravel fell to her knees, clawing at the flames and screaming as they began to eat down into her bones.
Fire bloomed around her. Ice crackled and crushed her bones against the ground. Blood misted the air over her pulverized body.
And it was over.
It floated over the corpse in triumph. "NO LONGER SHALL YOU TROUBLE EXISTENCE WITH YOUR PRESENCE, WITCH."
Ravel's Death (Video)