Part 145: Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 16Sensory Stone of the Nameless One: Part 16
Curst flew from the blasted plains of Baator in its iridescent shell, surface rippling and shifting colors like the skin of a soap bubble. Beneath us the blasted peaks of Carceri bled away, and in a flash we floated above the gloom of the Gray Waste. Just looking at it I could feel hope and aspiration draining from me, bled in steady runnels. Beneath us the world seemed to turn, and in an instant we floated along the veins of a single leaf, its waxen surface broader than an ocean. Looking up we could see the branches curling up to impossible heights, on which worlds hung like dew-kissed fruit.
"Yggdrasil," Morte gaped, "Wow, never seen it from this view before."
In another flash Curst hung between two cubes a thousand miles long, their surfaces peppered and scarred with old battles. The two flat planes were quickly pressing in on each other, and for a moment the denizens of the city let out a massed cry of terror before we winked out again. The echo of a world-shattering crash seemed to linger in my ears.
In another moment Curst spun on the outer edge of a giant gear, among the great clockwork realm of Mechanus. In another we dangled, floating down gently as broad rivers and meadows spread out above and below, open air sandwiched between two paradises. In the distance a flock of sheep glanced up at us from the top of a hill, then returned to grazing.
We spun through an amorphous mist, where isles of earth and water hung, where air crystallized and fire frosted over. Dak'kon gazed out at the expanse, eyes misting with nostalgia as the wind rippled against us.
We passed through realms of howling winds, between mountains spewing fire to the stars. Curst floated along great rivers where the dead sang their pale lamentations and streaked past verdant peaks where the Powers and devas dwelt. Curst's equilibrium had been disturbed, and now it swung among the planes like the weight of a pendulum, slowly honing in towards the center with each tick.
Finally, in a satisfying pop like the cracking of a joint, the city flew over a desert plain where broad mountains stretched into the distance. On it flew, over windswept dunes and waterless sands, its shadow chasing away herds of sohmein and wild trichas. Spiraling in on a single point the bubble paused, the heart of it stirring like an egg about to hatch. My heart skipped a beat, and it began to crack.
The buildings fell in clusters, dropping down with neat precision as lightning forked between the original stone foundations and their walls. The strain was too much for some, and more than one tower collapsed with a squeal of twisting metal and splintering brick. For the most part we landed safely: the government building we ourselves stood in gave nothing but a simple lurch. The last huts fell home as the final droplets from a pitcher.
Moments of silence passed, until one shout sounded. Then another. And another. Soon the entire city was screaming in jubilation, laughter and tears mingling as the people bounded into the streets.
Behind us, the portal waited.
As beautiful and terrifying as our journey was, I never thought I would miss the stink of the Hive so much.
The door creaked as I pushed it open. I had been hesitant to come, anxious that I might face her again. Or worse, I wouldn't see her at all.
As I entered Mebbeth looked up from her bed, her face ashen as if she were gravely ill. As I watched, creases spread across the folds her face like cracks and her gray eyes flickered, as if having trouble focusing on me.
"Mebbeth, are you all right?" I knelt down next to the layers of woven mats she used as a bed. The air smelled dusty. The medicinal scent of the drying herbs had turned stale.
"Aye..." She smiled weakly. Her voice was scratchy, as if trying to force its way past layers of dust. When she spoke, it was like an echo. "I have... a little longer..."
"Mebbeth..." I took her hand in mine. It was cold and dry, and flecks of her skin fell away and clung to my palm, "did you know you were Ravel?"
She took a deep breath... her words came slowly, her voice rattling in her throat. "Mayhap... Mebbeth has forgotten herself many times over... I have dreamed that I was someone else..." Each word was heavier than the last, as if centuries of weight were pressing down on them. Her body seemed to shift slightly, as if wanting to relax, let go.
"How could you not know who you are?"
"How is it ye do not know yerself?" Mebbeth licked her lips. "Many things... even bits of the self... they fall through memory's cracks, shadows of things forgotten, these memory thing-pieces, maybe bad... maybe good."
"But why Mebbeth? Why the disguise when you could have been Ravel again?"
"Here, in this place, all I did was the mendin' of things and bodies, settin' bones, deliverin' babes... in all these things, I was content." She sighed. "As for being that other, that Ravel..." She licked her lips again. "I think... ye take for granted what a comfort it would be, oft times, to misplace a memory or two."
"I wasn't sure if you would be here, Mebbeth, after what happened..."
Mebbeth nodded - every movement was pained. "Aye, my precious one..." She winced as she took a breath. "Seeing ye here... it is like an echo. Little time remains... the threads, these Ravels... they are unraveling as we speak."
"Are you in pain?"
She nodded. "Yes... yet it is the irony which hurts the most..." She gave a sickly smile. "An act of kindness, thrice repaid... it is the way of the Planes that my few acts of kindness should be the death of me." She laughed softly. "Yet I have no regrets..."
"I have questions, Mebbeth. I need to know who did this to you. Can you t--"
She held up her hand to silence me. "Precious man... I would have ye hear me, this last time..."
"Mebbeth, there's not much time..."
"Precious man..." She sighed. "All's I wished to do was set the Lady free of her Cage... for ye, all's I wished for ye was to live... and for me daughter, I..." She sighed. "There is a saying on the Planes... that a hag's kindness is crueler... than her hate, and poisons all it touches..."
"I'm sorry things turned out as it did. If I could have saved you, I --"
"I am dying now..." She blinked her rheumy eyes. "My end... it's traveling from all of time's directions, all of Ravel's threads are unraveling..." She coughed. "Yet..." Her gray eyes locked upon mine. "Mayhap not all is lost... one of my black-barbed seeds from the maze... did ye bring one with ye?"
"Ah..." She took the seed gingerly, and she slipped it into her graying locks. "So the Unity-of-Rings is served..." With a flickering glance, she raised her hand and beckoned me to come closer.
She whispered something softly under her breath, then clasped my head in her hands and placed a paper-thin kiss upon my forehead. I closed my eyes as her lips touched my skin...
"May the Planes receive you kindly, Mebbeth."
She sighed, long and slow as her chest fell for the last time. Little by little her skin flaked away, drying up and shedding like autumn leaves before crumbling into dust. I sat beside what remained, the closest thing I'd had to a mother.
That afternoon, one more name was chiseled on the black obelisk before the Mortuary.
Those who look forward tend to prepare for their own deaths. They purchase a plot, visit the gravesite to check the view. In a way what I was doing wasn't much different.
It would be a while yet before I stepped through that portal. My visits to the Mortuary were brief, merely testing the waters of what I was about to do. The smell of incense greeted me like an old friend. Then the sharp, cold fumes of formaldehyde cut through the sweet smoke as I ascended the staircase. It brought back old memories. Strange to think of this as home, but it was the closest I've ever had to one.
Always a place I could reliably come back to, I thought wryly.
"So... you return once again. Have your memories left you as they have so many times, Restless One?" Dhall took a rasping breath, then broke out in a fit of coughing. Despite the wet hacking his quill never blotted the page he had been writing on.
"No, Dhall," I smiled softly, and he returned with a gaze that spoke of his weariness with the world, "You've always said I would return here... that it's the way of all things flesh and bone."
"For what purpose?"
"To thank you for saving me so many times, old friend. Now I know what I have to do to break this cycle. I've sound information as to where my mortality has been trapped, and soon my journey will be at an end."
"As is mine," he murmured, "Soon... very soon I will meet the embrace of oblivion."
I nodded. In a way, Dhall had been waiting for this longer than I had.
"We are all dying, Restless One. Where others struggle some accept. If I could muster hope I would wish you peace," he coughed, lips wet with phlegm. Dhall paused, looking up and gazing out at my friends, "And if I could lament I would mourn for your companions. You have condemned them, as you have condemned others before."
His tone was flat and unaccusing, stating simple fact.
"Deionarra..." I murmured. Unconsciously I clutched my chest.
"She spoke to me of a prophecy... that I would meet enemies three. Creatures of Evil, Good, and Neutrality that have been warped by the Planes," Were they Ravel, I wondered, and Trias? They seemed to fit the pattern. If truly they did I had one foe left, one I knew nothing about...
"She spoke to you?" Dhall's voice dropped to a whisper. "Are the fevers upon you, Restless One? She has reached the True Death and passed well beyond your reach."
"She spoke to me, Dhall. Her spirit resides here."
Dhall slowly drew a semicircle in the air front of him with a finger. "This is an ill omen, Restless One. It would be best if you merely dreamed the conversation... yet it bodes ill if you did not."
"I didn't come to speak of omens, Dhall. I wanted to ask if you knew anything about the Fortress of Regrets and its master."
For a long while Dhall stared at me, then shook his head, "You seek the forbidden, Restless One."
"My existence is an aberration. I am the forbidden."
Dhall wheezed, clutching his chest. I waited patiently for him to catch his breath, and when he looked up to me again his eyes were cold and dreary.
"The records we Dustmen keep have noted little of it. All we know is that it is ancient, that it is the nest of countless tortured souls, flitting through the shadowed halls like wasps..." he coughed, pulling a rag from his robes. It came back yellow with sputum and speckled with red. "Two hundred years ago the Doomguard planned an assault on the inner sanctum. Three of their Nether Ships could not breach the walls, and nothing remained of the assault to tell exactly what happened."
There was little more Dhall could say, and we left unsatisfied.
We walked through the embalming rooms, the only sound aside from the occasional groan from a zombie was that of our footsteps. It was a cold, hard sound... hauntingly rhythmic in what would otherwise be silence. Only occasionally would I see the gray swish of a Dustman robe, gliding past archways and behind columns like the trails of a ghost.
I spun around quickly, whipping out my dagger. Annah and Dak'kon followed suit. Nothing but zombie workers. The whole chat with Dhall had left me unsettled if I was this jittery.
Morte had been the one to speak up, and he had just floated over to one of the zombies, "Chief, check out this one."
"Not this again."
"Naw, chief. Look. I think we know this guy."
I leaned in. His features had withered, with flesh pickled and gray-blue with preservatives. Yet there was something about the arch of that chin, the remaining tufts of those brows that did seem familiar. The number "331" had been chiseled into his skull and his eyes and lips were stitched closed. A gaping hole had been torn in his throat, and he smelled foul.
My eyebrows furrowed in curiosity. I leaned in, whispering in the soft murmurs of the dead. The words were dry and creaked with age, but the zombie's head creaked up in recognition. Those who weren't practiced in the Stories-Bones-Tell would never be able to recognize that sliver of consciousness that remained.
"Wh-wh..." The zombie was awkwardly getting his voice back, and he sounded alarmed. "Who's there?! Answer me!"
"Can you not see me?"
"Blind I am, in death as I was in life... now answer me. Who are you?" He calmed down a bit on hearing me, and the voice was familiar.
"Who are you?"
"I..." The zombie became silent. "...my name... has fled me. I... can no longer remember who I am."
I cradle her body, pressing my hand to her side to keep the girl from bleeding out. A dark red stain pools beneath her, staining the sky-blue dress. I click my tongue... what an annoyance she is. Cost a small fortune to get something so nicely embroidered yet cut for travel, and she had ruined it with her own clumsiness. Damn girl's useless in battle. This would never be worth it if she dies before I need her to.
"The last of them are dead," our companion reports, that hood obscuring his face. Damn fine thing that he's blind as a bat. I'd learned to school my features to look as calm as possible, but with him that control slips frequently and I find myself grimacing. I can never fully trust someone I can't look in the eye.
"My love..." she murmurs in my arms.
"Shh, it's all right," I wave at the man standing over us until I realize he can't see my gesture. Tch. Another one of those slip-ups.
"We'll need some blood charms to heal her up. Good work with the guards there..."
"...Xachariah?" I murmured.
"Wha... you!" The zombie seemed shocked, but gladdened. "By the Lady's Gaze..." His tone took on a sense of wonder. "Aren't you dead, cutter?"
"What are you doing here?"
"I am a stable hand in the most lifeless place of all. Be it that I could pass beyond the Eternal Boundary and have a Plane to call my home, but much of my soul was squandered, and now I am here."
"What can you tell me about our travels?"
He cocked his head, "Why? Have you forgotten yourself?"
"In a manner of speaking... yes, but I know that we were companions once."
"A motley crew we were... a half-dead man who couldn't get himself penned in the dead-book if he tried -- so ugly all the Powers of death wouldn't take 'em -- a wailing advocate's daughter, a gith exile, a bobbing jackal-tongued skull, and a half-sodden blind archer like myself."
"My love..." "Wailing advocate's daughter?"
"That feisty chit-who-would-be-a-soldier swore she'd follow you to Baator and back, and by the Powers, she was so addled by the thought of you without her she did just that. Cared little for me or the gith, and a bare little it was. She was wild with heart poison for you, she was, proof she was barmy. I don't understand what the womenfolk saw in yer scarred mug, but it set their blood a-boil," Xachariah chuckled, "She was some rich scut from the Clerk's Ward, and you needed something from her, and the only price was that she came with you."
I winced. Deionarra's fate had eaten at me for so long. The things I'd seen, the snatches of memory I'd experienced, that terrible encounter with her Sensory Stone that left me crumpled on the ground and weeping in Grace's arms... what did my past incarnation plan for the poor girl? "What did I want from her?"
"One of the darks I never did bring to light, cutter. Perhaps you tell me?"
"Sorry, Xachariah," I sighed, "You said you were a blind archer?"
"That I was. You truly have forgotten, haven't you? All men see with more than their eyes, cutter... some of them better than others. I sensed the hearts of my foes - your foes - and my arrows always struck true. Ah, those were some times..."
"And what about Morte and Dak'kon?"
"Wait, what? That pickled meatsack better not be talking crap about me, chief."
"That filthy-talking skull was hankering for a bruising, so it was!" Xachariah hissed, "Always smarting off, it was, and making fun of my condition!"
"Uh, he says he misses you, Morte." I was pretty sure that sounded convincing.
"Hmm. Guess we got the wrong deader after all."
"And the grim-lookin' gith..." Xachariah continued, "unfriendly and silent, like all their kind. Didn't trust that gith a lick, I didn't. See, cutter, them spindly giths care only about two things: keeping out of slavery and killing them squid-headed illithids. Everything else is just lower down the slope, and he didn't give a damn about any of us other than you. Always on guard, even when you wanted to be alone to scribble in that damn journal..."
"My journal? What about it? What happened to it?"
"That scrapbook that you'd stitched together outta yer own flesh and had more pages than I had years in my life! Good fortune indeed if you've lost that ghoulish book! Always scribbling in it, you were, and it smelled a fright. It was like you were afraid that at any moment someone would take it away... you wrote in it 'til skin tore from your fingers and I wondered if you were trying to spill out your brain box through your pen. Sometimes we would hold up for days while you wrote. I hated that infernal book. It seemed to hold you by the heart, and not in a kind way. The last I heard of it, cutter, it was in your possession. If you don't carry it, I don't know where on the Planes it could be."
Damn. "What led you to this state, anyway?"
His voice dropped, as if ashamed. "It's a hard path following in your footsteps, cutter, and many terrible things did I see. I took to drink, and became half-sodden with the stuff. Once, when I was sodding drunk, I signed my body off to the Dusties. Fate decided ta kick me when I was down, and I died shortly afterward."
"What can you tell me about my previous life?"
"Well... you were a strange one, always suspicious and watching for something... reckon somebody like you had got enough enemies in yer lifetimes. And there was no denying that anybody who messed with you ended up in the black chapters of the dead book."
I nodded, "Anything else? Any specifics..."
"You could be damnably ruthless, too... like when you made me sign that contract, or abandoned that one mewling chit on Avernus. We had a Balor of a time, as well," he laughed... a creaking, dry sound, "None of us ever even entertained the notion to jump ship on your watch, son."
"I... see. What else? Anything you could tell me would help."
"At your core, you looked at what happened to you like taking territory in a war; everything was like a battle to you, and you were the most ruthless bastard I ever near met. Naught else mattered except for solving that goal. Poor Deionarra with her sobbing and pleading with you didn't sway you none, the gith warning you about your strategies, and poor Xachariah just trying to hold on when we hit the Planes. You were tough like you couldn't die, but we were only human. Now I guess we're all in the dead book... or in and out of it, so to speak.
"You left something when you left us, cutter... you left Dak'kon without a master, and the skull without a friend. Me? You stabbed something so deep inside me, it never came out when I was alive. Caused my blood to run cold, it did, that thing sitting like a lump of lead in my chest."
"What is it?"
"I... I don't know. But it changed me, somehow. Changed my insides. I was already dying when you put it in me, so I wasn't too concerned about it at the time."
"Can I have it back?"
Xachariah shrugged, "It's buried pretty deep, but I have an idea of where it is. Without a scalpel and some directions from me, you won't be able to get it out. You got a scalpel?"
I unsheathed my dagger, "I've got this."
"Then open me up half a hand's width below the sternum, and feel around for it."
I slit the stitches of his body cavity and reached in. His torso was surprisingly wet and cold.
"A little more to the left... a little more..." My hand closed on an object, and I pulled out a zombie liver.
"By the Lady's gaze! Apologies, cutter... I thought them Dustmen took all those organs outta us before pulling us out of the Dead Book. Give it another go. Maybe it's to the right."
I winced and stuck my hand in again. Morte made a retching sound and Annah's face twisted in disgust.
"Don't suppose you want to experience this, Grace?" I grunted.
She laughed. It was a musical sound.
"There ya go... now go a little to the right and back...a little more..." there was something hard and cold inside, slightly larger than I expected. "I think that's it. Pull it out."
I twisted my hand and tugged it free of his body. His gauze-wrapped fingers curled around it, feeling its hard contours. "That's it all right. Huh. Bigger than I thought it'd be. Is that... what is that? Feels like... a heart."
Yech. I pulled a rag from my pack and wiped my hands clean. Always good to pack a load of rags for just this purpose with the places I go and the things I end up doing.
"What's it like being a zombie, anyway?"
"It's honest work..." The stitching came undone from Xachariah's mouth and the flesh around his lips peeled back in a smile. "...I care little for it."
We chatted for a little while longer on smaller things, telling him of my own recent travels. He seemed to find comfort in meeting someone familiar once again, but eventually the day had been stretched to its limit, "I have to go. Farewell, Xachariah."
"Before you go: I need you to do me a slight favor, cutter."
"What is it?"
His voice dropped, as if ashamed. "I made some mistakes, some damned bad ones to be sure, and one of my biggest was signing that Dustman contract. If I hadn't been so sodden with bub, I never woulda done it. I regret it, and I was hoping you could set it aright."
"Way I reckon, this body's gonna last a long time... and every day's too long to me. Couldja maybe gut me again, cutter... for old time's sake? The thought of spending another batch of years here in the Mortuary with these whitefaces is a mighty cold one. Can you see fit to put me back in the Dead Book where I belong?"
"If that is your wish..."
I look around, and certain that no one was watching I gutted him. Xachariah fell to the floor with a heavy thud. There was a faint hiss from the body, and the chest heaved once. Then, with a faint rattle, the corpse fell silent.
I spun a web of fire over the body, cremating it on the spot. "Rest in peace, Xachariah."