Part 153: The Final Memories: Part 4The Final Memories: Part 4
"Oh Powers above! Lady's piking teats!" Morte wailed as he barreled down the halls. The screams of the damned surrounded him. The only reason he had a direction to choose from was due to the shadows skittering behind, giving chase. There were so many more than when he'd last been here.
"Come back to us Morte..." one of the voices hissed, "We have such wonderful pleasures for you, new ways of caressing you with pain..."
"I want to feel your eyes burst between my jaws!" howled another.
"I want his teeth..." the head of a hoary old man mewled, gnawing at Morte's mind with tender gums, stinking with rot and yellowed with age.
All around him he could hear the slimy tongues lapping against his bones, slavering and probing into now-moist crevices. They would pile on him, bury him in that tower of skulls and fill his mouth with lies and diseased cysts, choking off his screams for eternity.
"Cheeky lad..." another giggled madly, "Do you remember the games we played, Morte? Do you remember how hard it was to taunt those around you with the serpents writhing inside your cranium? Do you remember the worms?" it crooned. "We have worms aplenty, Morte..."
Something brushed his occipital bone. "NOOOOOO!!! NOT THE WORMS!!!" Morte shrieked in terror.
A black claw hooked up into his foramen magnum, where his spinal cord once attached, and snagged him. He was being dragged backwards into the darkness, the taunts, the deafening cackles of the Pillar of Skulls.
"CHIEEEEF!!!" Morte shrieked, whipped by horror to the edge of madness, "HELP ME! PLEASE HELP MEEEEE!!!"
The crack of bone and splintering of teeth filled the halls a moment, and then the Fortress went silent.
The taste of ash and futility.
The floating detritus of disconnected sensations bumped against one another. Thoughts lay splintered into slivers, each squirming and trapped in their own bubbles like a nest of frog's eggs. Divided mind... divided man... nothing unified to fill the body. Would've been as useful to fill the brain-case with loose gravel.
One thought began to squirm in its prison: of a trap long ago set by a madman to snare the mind of an immortal for eternity.
It wriggled. It squirmed. It had the knowing of how to open the trap, and with a little shove of willpower it burst free.
The lone thought knew only the need for freedom, and blindly groped along the other prisons. With the same prod and poke, another thought burst free. It tore through the mental foam and pricked each sphere, and with each thought released consciousness began to re-coalesce...
I gasped, breathing in deep as awareness of my surroundings was rebuilt. I still had to focus a little for the stray bits of mind that lay scattered, but one by one they clicked into place. I groaned, blinked in the dim lighting of the chamber, shifting limbs that ached against the cold slab I'd been laid out on. The air was stale and dead, and the taste of ash and futility filled my mouth. For a long span of time as I lay recovering, the only sound in the chamber was silence.
Footsteps began to approach from three different directions. I lifted my head weakly, trying to focus.
"He has awakened," a familiar voice said, calm and relieved as an herbalist next to a man in his sickbed.
"Finally," another voice hissed, "I thought I would die again waiting for him to rise."
"Perhaps... perhaps you will STILL die. NEVER forget I WATCH you THIEVES, you KILLERS - KILLERS ALL, all THREE of you..." yet another yowled.
"Have a care how you speak to me, you deranged wreck. He was fortunate to reach here with all those traps you scattered throughout the Planes. I swear, if I could have crossed the years to put you out of your misery, I w-"
"The two of you, be silent! Let us make sure he is all right and save the arguments for later," the soft-voiced one said again. Why were these voices so familiar? A hand tucked under my head, helping me sit up. I slid off the slab, still groggy, but looking up I blinked.
"Wh... who are you all?" I groaned. Around me three men stood, each with skin scarred and twisted as mine. They had the same hair knotted into stringy braids, clicking with beads. They wore the same sash of bone, the same rust-colored kilt, those same heavy boots.
"By the hells, he's lost his memories! Damnation! He's useless to us now!" one threw his hands in the air in disgust.
"Calm yourself. He's only disoriented, as were we all. Give him a moment to get his bearings."
The mad one snarled, foaming like a rabid dog, "You are all THIEVES... wearing MY body... MY body, and you will give it BACK!"
"I am at the limits of my patience with your howling! Be silent, or -"
"This arguing avails us nothing! Give him his space, leave him be. "
"Time is no longer in our favor. I will not stand here and squander another moment while our adversary is no doubt hunting for us. We waited long enough for him to awaken - I will speak to him now.
Had the crystal broken my mind? As my vision refocused I looked at the three more closely.
The one who helped me up resembled me, but his face seemed... calmer somehow. He gave a slight smile, and nodded as if in approval. "Are you all right?"
Another stood with his back was hunched, as if perpetually afraid of being struck. He watched me warily, and he hissed under my gaze, his hands clenching, as if wanting to strangle me. His arms were horribly gnarled and scarred, as if they had been dunked into a stream of acid - and his left arm looked like it was holding on by a thread, literally.
The last one carried himself more like a force than a man. His eyes were watching me carefully, and as I studied him, I felt him studying me. "So... it has come to this."
"Who are you?" I asked him as he approached. His eyes locked onto mine like steel.
"I will not surrender my name to you or any man." The man's voice was rough, like mine, and it rang strangely in my ears. "As for 'who I am,' you should be asking yourself that - you are one of my incarnations. You made it here, with my clues to guide you."
"Have we ever had a name?" the calm one said with a smile, chuckling softly, "Or was it just the first of us? Know that I am your ally in this - I, like these others, have died my death in your mind, and this figment is all that remains."
"KNOW that you will NOT last long in this place, THIEF!" Spittle flew from the paranoid one's mouth, and his face twisted in a maddening grin. "MAZES AND REGRETS AND DEATH are all that ARE HERE..."
"Do not waste your time speaking to that one," the other said coldly, "His thoughts are all angles and spite and nothing more. Come - there is much the two of us must speak of."
"THIEF!" The incarnation's hands twisted, as if strangling the other. "I will feel the bones of your neck SNAP beneath my fingers... take my BODY back." The stern one dismissed him with a wave of his hand, and looked to me.
I blinked, "We - we are separate incarnations? How is that possible?" Was my amnesia not as total as I thought?
The incarnation was silent for a moment, then his expression changed to contempt.
"If there is anything I have hated about you, it is your countless questions - your desperate fumbling for meaning and answers." The man's voice was like a hatchet, and anger flickered across his features. "The time for questions is past. Now, you will listen to me. I was the first to breach this Fortress, and whatever it is that awaits us here was somehow able to defeat me. It will not best me a second time."
"You... sound as if you intend to fight whatever it is that lurks here."
The man gave me a strange look, then studied me. "Of course. That's the only reason we're speaking now. I'll need you to be the shell - but your mind must be my mind. Do you understand me?"
"You mean you intend to possess me?" my eyes narrowed. If this man was who I thought...
"Yes." He glanced around at the spiked walls, then turned back to face me. "We cannot leave this place in pieces. Only one may leave."
"How are we to become one?"
"You must surrender your will to me - your knowledge and skills: whatever little you've managed to accumulate in your life may prove useful." He sized me up again. "It ultimately will be but a fraction of my power, but it might have it uses."
"And if I choose NOT to surrender my will to you?"
"You have no choice in the matter. You do not know how to escape this place. I do. If you refuse to surrender with me, I will refuse to surrender to you - and neither of us will ever be able to leave this place. Only one may leave, and it will not be you." He spoke with cold certainty, and a stubbornness that came from self-assurance.
"I could kill you."
"You could try." The man seemed amused. "You do not have the power to best me, nor do you have the will to force me to merge with you. I would prefer not to kill you to escape this place, but it is a small price to pay for our freedom. It makes no sense that one of us die, when by merging, I could be strengthened."
Hrmph. And he chose to use reason now? "Yet you came here previously... and were defeated."
The man frowned. "I was taken unawares. And I did not anticipate that my companions would be split from me upon my arrival... what happened after that... is confusing."
"So even if I were to surrender to you, then we could still fail?"
"Unlikely. I'm the only one who possesses the knowledge necessary to succeed - this moment is the culmination of centuries of planning. Many have suffered and died for us to be here... their sacrifices must not be in vain." The last sentence chilled my blood - it was delivered like a speech, with no passion behind the words.
"How do I surrender my will?"
"In simplest terms, we simply lock gazes, and you surrender yourself. You will merge with me, and we shall be as one, with my mind dominating."
I recognized him. I could never forget those cold, direct eyes, nor the way he had of rehearsing sentiments until the words lost all meaning. "You are the one who saved Dak'kon at Shra'kt'lor. The one who imprisoned Vhailor. And the one who led Deionarra to her death."
The man's eyes narrowed. "What of it? All of it was done with a purpose."
"You gave Dak'kon the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon. Why?"
"The Unbroken Circle? That collection of lies? Yes, it was a week's work to forge such a thing - it was necessary to make it so he would cease doubting himself."
I stood staring at him, dumbstruck. The plates I'd studied so reverently, the histories and words that renewed Dak'kon's faith and honed my own discipline in the Art... "You made it? But you told him -"
He shrugged, "Perhaps they carry some truth - I know not. I know that they were tedious writings, but the words were enough to give him faith."
"Your ignorance astounds me." The man looked incredulous. "Can it be that you not know what he carries in his hand? That blade he carries is shaped by his thoughts. Such a tool, when used properly, could slay the multiverse itself..." The man looked lost in thought, then his face sneered in disgust. "Though obviously, the gith became separated when we arrived in the Fortress, and I was unable to make use of his blade." The man frowned. "Unfortunate."
I rubbed my temples, and the idea that I'd scribed down the spells this incarnation had written left a bad taste in my mouth. "What was the purpose of imprisoning Vhailor?"
The man shook his head as if weary, and his lips curved in a humorless smile. "Vhailor was becoming... tiresome. Those Mercykillers dogs will hunt you across the Planes themselves in search of 'justice' - and Vhailor was an especially persistent hound." The incarnation's voice dropped slightly. "And he was much too close to justice for my tastes."
"Why was he hunting for us?"
"Oh, any of countless reasons, some of which lie with me - and others, which lie in the hands of other incarnations." He flicked a glance over at the incarnation who had been howling when I first arrived. "There have been many lives that have been blackened by incarnations with damaged minds. Some of us have created... problems. I believe in solutions."
"Was he a threat?"
"Oh, yes - or else I would have simply killed him. There is some link between him and justice itself, and that gives him power even over immortals such as us. Especially if our injustices are great... and ours are of the blackest sort."
It took a long while before I could speak again, but when I did the words came out drawn and quiet. "Why did Deionarra have to die?" I could still feel the tears dripping on her lily-white hands...
"Deionarra? That girl had little sense of the Planes in her, and that was what I needed her for. You see, the Dustmen have it right - sometimes when you feel too much passion, you cling too tightly to life to let go. And neither did Deionarra - as I hoped she would."
"That WOMAN - that GHOST?!" The hunched man's eyes welled up in fury, and spittle flew from his mouth. "She TORMENTED me for years, pursuing me, hating me, and YOU WERE THE ONE THAT KILLED HER?!"
The incarnation barely even glanced at the howling one, and merely sneered.
"You blaming me for anything is laughable." He turned back to me. "It wasn't out of malice - though she did become tiresome. It's just that when I arrived in the Fortress, I didn't intend to stay. I just wanted to get in, sacrifice her, then get out."
The kind-faced incarnation spoke softly, but he sounded pained. "Why did you do such a terrible thing?"
The words were more tender than I could've managed, and I had to swallow the bile and vitriol that was bubbling in my stomach. This one was self-assured, but from the scraps of memory I had from his lifetime it was well-deserved confidence. Not one to underestimate.
"I needed someone to be my eyes here on the Negative Material Plane, to serve as a scout and try and find out who my killer was. Only the dead can survive here for long - so Deionarra had to be sacrificed so that she could become something other than she was. A tricky business, but it worked - she helped you, didn't she?"
My teeth ground against one another. "You didn't have to kill her."
He looked at me silently for a moment, then his sneer returned. "And that is why you will be defeated if you confront our killer. It is because you are WEAK. And you do not see that some things are NECESSARY."
"You dare call me weak?!" I snarled, fury breaking free from the loose bands of self-control, "You orchestrated all these 'grand' plans for defeating this invisible enemy, and you got your ass handed to you ANYWAY, and some poor girl was murdered because of it. Maybe if you'd done your job the first time you were here, this wouldn't even be a problem! Deionarra's death wasn't necessary. It was merely convenient for you!"
"You DARE lecture me?!" he snapped back with as much force, "Women have always walked our path with us - whether Deionarra or Ravel or any other woman, and they have suffered, and it was always their CHOICE. Deionarra would have died for me if I'd asked her to. There was no CRIME."
My skin crawled at those words, and we met each other stare for stare, neither willing to give in.