Part 154: The Final Memories: Part 5The Final Memories: Part 5
The shamelessness of it all had me foaming nearly as much as the incarnation next to me, and I had to turn to him instead. Frankly, I couldn't talk much longer with the sociopath without trying to wring his neck.
This one looked up to me with hunting eyes. "THIEF! You wear my body like a CLOAK, and you SHAME me..."
"I am no thief," I said, standing my ground, "I stole nothing from you."
"YOU STOLE EVERYTHING! I AWOKE ON THE STREETS OF THE RING CITY, AND ALL WHO SAW ME KNEW ME!" He took a rasping breath. "All that you had done, all that you had harmed - they were waiting for me, blaming me, hurting me, until I couldn't TAKE the voices any more..." His fingers grasped at the air. "And had to make them SILENT."
My mouth went dry, and recognition burned in my mind. Those sudden urges to strangle Dustmen when I first woke, to silence pickpockets... that unusual talent I had for snapping necks in a fight... "You were the one... the one who strangled all those people, weren't you? I found your journal in the Lady's Maze... and I found the other journal, the dodecahedron covered with traps."
He affixed me with a wary eye - it seemed just looking at me was making him uncomfortable.
"And the Sensory Stone trap - you're the one who left it for me, weren't you?"
"Yes..." He smiled, low and evil. "Simple trap. Trap for someone who can't die - MIND trap." In a way I had to thank him... if it weren't for that particular experience I never would've escaped the crystal just now. Strange... the thing seemed to be built on the same principles, modified and expanded to split the mind before imprisonment like water sluicing down an aqueduct, dividing among many pipes before being stored in a multitude of cisterns.
"You're the one who set fire to Iannis' legacies, weren't you? Trying to destroy my legacy?"
He snarled, "I BURNED the false papers, yes. MORE lies, lies about my FALSE LIVES..."
"And you're the incarnation the Lady mazed, aren't you? I found your journal in the Lady's Maze." Days of starvation and blind wandering ebbed and passed like a fading dream.
"Simple escape, simple trap, broke her maze with ease, I did. I could have made it tighter, deadlier." He grinned madly. "She knew nothing of what it takes to trap ME."
"And you're to blame for killing the Linguist Fin?" I could still remember his kind manner, his patience in teaching, and scarred hands wrapping around his neck.
"There..." He seemed confused for a moment. "There were MANY that I killed. There were many that needed to be silenced." His eyes flickered to the black stones, as if remembering something - something unpleasant. Tremors shook his shoulders. "They claimed they knew me. Had to SILENCE them, stop their voices. Accusing. Always ACCUSING..."
"Stop this now," the other laid his hand on my shoulder. There was no warmth in that touch, just the cold grip of one used to command, "You are wasting our time with this prattle."
I shouldered him off and looked to the calm-eyed incarnation, "And you. I don't recognize you."
"Ah..." His smile faded, and concern filled his eyes. "To put it simply. I was once lost, now I am here again, as are these others."
"How is that possible?"
"I - do not know. Whatever you touched within the Fortress has brought pieces of yourself to the surface." He paused for a moment, thinking. "One of these others may know the means of how this came to be - but it is beyond me."
"Other incarnations - reflections of ourselves." The stoic one said half to himself, glancing at the hunched incarnation, and then to the one I was speaking to. "I will have them merge with me after I deal with you. Or kill them if they refuse; it is of no matter. They are not necessary."
"THIEVES. They are THIEVES - all of them. And THIEVES will DIE," the hunched man snarled.
The other incarnation stabbed an accusing finger at the him, "Do not threaten me, you fool - I warn you. If anyone is the thief, it is you - you sought to steal our chances to settle this matter by sabotaging all my work!"
"You are the THIEF! You stole my body and my life! And THIEVES will DIE!"
I shook my head, ignoring the argument brewing behind me, "But I have had countless lives. Why are there only three incarnations here?"
He shook his head calmly, "I do not know. Perhaps we were the three pieces that were somehow still present in your mind."
He had such a gentle manner. Strange to believe it could be so... I'd always expected all my lives were bathed in blood and pain. "I do not know for sure," he continued, "but I would guess that when we die, traces of the former personality may remain in your mind - and I know that sometimes we may make ourselves felt."
"When you are about to place yourself in danger, or were close to a realization, for example, I found that I could stir, help prod you in the right direction."
"So you were that crawling sensation I kept feeling in the back of my skull?" That itch, like ants skittering along my brain, always preceding a memory or a shadow of one.
"I would be at a loss to describe how it felt to you, but it is possible, yes."
"Do you know why I wanted to become immortal?"
"No, I do not. I think it was done out of fear. Perhaps one of the others knows, but not I."
I arched an eyebrow. "What makes you think it was done out of fear?"
The man smiled slightly, but there was no humor in it; if anything, it was a sad smile. "What man wishes to die?" He shook his head slowly. "But only the first of us will ever truly know the reason that brought us to this state."
"Then what was your life like?"
The practical incarnation threw his hands in the air and rolled his eyes in frustration.
"It was quiet, and long, and was filled with much of the pain and the joys that one would expect in life. I served as a cartographer for a time, and I walked the Planes for several years," he sighed, "In the end, as I traveled upon the fields of Bytopia, terrible shadows took on life as I lay sleeping. I died as I felt their claws upon me."
"They are the shades of all those that died in our place."
The man looked pained. "Yes, I know... I know that now. One cannot be in this place of regrets and not feel their agony."
That grip encircled my wrist this time, and the practical incarnation snapped, "You waste time. Or have you forgotten your allies?" Even the word 'allies' was cold on his lips.
I yanked my hand away, and he crossed his arms as if he was recentering himself.
"I fear your friends are already dead." The gentle incarnation looked pained. "This place bears a hatred for the living."
"Dak'kon may have escaped in my time," the other incarnation said coldly, and nodded at me, "Else how would he know about the Circle of Zerthimon?"
"Dak'kon and Morte," I agreed, "But Xachariah died."
"Is Morte still alive?" The incarnation stared for a moment in disbelief, then he started laughing. "Ha! That piking skull couldn't be trusted farther than I could throw him - claiming he had information when he didn't, then I had to go through the torment of prying him off the Pillar of Skulls, then he feigned ignorance once he was off of it." The incarnation scoffed. "I humored him, since he'd told me everything I needed from him."
"Oh, yes." The man smiled. "Once a liar, always a liar. It takes a stronger mind than the skull's to give me the laugh, though."
"What was his game? What more did he have to lie about?"
The incarnation smirked. "It is of no matter. Let the skull have his secrets - they are worthless to us."
"Tell me about Xachariah."
"The archer? Well, old sodden Xachariah could see things with his 'eyes' that I couldn't - and he could hit them with his arrows, too."
"Well, I was walking into this Fortress blind in some ways - I didn't know what my killer was, so I needed someone who could see things I couldn't in case the enemy was beyond my visual range." He snorted. "Xachariah ended up dying too fast, though, so he wasn't any use in the end."
"You've turned preparation into an art, it seems. You built that tomb beneath Sigil, didn't you? The one with the traps?"
"I'd almost forgotten - yes, what a waste that was." The incarnation seemed irritated. "Obviously, that didn't work. And it cost a lot of blood and coin, too."
"Worthless!" The second incarnation broke into uneven laughter, but more gleeful than mad. "It was EASY to breach that child's trap. I found it... and CHANGED it. To make it HARDER. Changed the WRITINGS."
The incarnation frowned at the paranoid one; he looked like he was barely restraining himself from attacking the other. "Yet another thing you will answer for..." He turned back to me. "Though I suppose it doesn't matter. It was shortly after the failure of the tomb trap that I decided to carry the battle to our killer rather than wait for him to show any longer."
"Were you responsible for the tattoos on my back? The ones I read when I woke up in the Mortuary."
"The directions?" He nodded, irritated. "Of course I was responsible - I knew there was a chance I might fail here and lose my memories. I wanted future incarnations to benefit from some... guidance. So I had the directions stitched on my back, since such things - like journals..." He growled, as if angry at himself. "Tend to be lost so easily."
My lip curled wryly, "The directions were kind of vague, though..."
"Are you a fool?" The incarnation looked exasperated. "The directions needed to be vague - I couldn't spell out exactly what was happening to us, so I left a signpost. What do you think would have happened if a Dustman had read them? Or someone even more barmy? How quickly do you think we would have been buried alive or cremated?"
"Very well," I nodded, "What about me seeking out Pharod, though? Why him?"
"Pharod?" The incarnation thought for a moment. "Oh, yes - the trash king with all the 'tough' bloods that thought I was easy prey..." He smiled slightly, as if recalling a pleasant memory. "After only a little bloodletting, I struck a bargain with him - he would see to it that if his men found me, they would take me safely to the Mortuary - and, of course, I needed the eyes and hands of his men to scour the catacombs beneath Sigil for me."
"For the Bronze Sphere?"
"Yes. I told Pharod it was the only thing that would save his miserable life... what a sniveling little dodger he was. You see, the old bastard was destined to end up on the Pillar of Skulls when he died, and he was desperately trying to weasel out of it. So I told him that there was an item beneath Sigil that would 'save' him from his fate, if he could only find it."
"But it wouldn't save him - it was just something you wanted him to find."
"Of course it was useless to him. One cannot dodge fate so easily. However, nothing motivates a man faster than telling him what he seeks will save his soul from eternal damnation. I intended to take it from him after he found it. It just that searching for it myself would have taken... too long." He smiled again. "And why should I do it, when I could have someone else hunt for me?"
The gentle incarnation shook his head. "'Too long?' Time is nothing to us. You've toyed with him with false offers of salvation when you could've tried retrieving it yourself."
"And what have you done with your life?" he scoffed, "Bumbling about not knowing who or what you were, only to end up murdered."
"At least I am at peace with myself."
The incarnation snorted, "Peace is nothing if you don't have the will to survive or progress in your short, miserable life." He suddenly raised an eyebrow to me, "What is it that you know of the sphere?"
I grunted, "Nothing but irony. Pharod ended up tricking me into finding it for him. Why was it so important?"
"Important? Do you not know?" The incarnation became silent for a moment. "Do you have it with you?"
"Yes, I do. I brought it with me," I gave my pack a little pat.
"You have it?!" His eyes flared, and suddenly I realized that I may have divulged too much. "Then your life had some use after all!" His eyes flickered, as if thinking, calculating. "When we merge, I will see about finding a means to unlock it. Perhaps all is not lost..."
"What is the sphere? Why is it important?"
"It is a dead sensory stone. Do you know what it contains?!" He smiled eagerly. "It holds the last experiences of the first of us. When we were one man, and not a string of incarnations." His voice dropped. "If there is some way of unlocking it, I will be able to see inside his mind..."
"And see why this all happened?"
"Yes..." The incarnation's face grew somber. "It is the answer I have always sought. Why this happened. Why we became immortal. When we merge, I will see about finding a means to unlock it. Perhaps all is not lost..."
The kind incarnation murmured again, softly under his breath. "Perhaps there are no answers in such a thing. Perhaps there never was."
"I don't deal in the realms of perhaps and maybe," the practical one sneered, eyes sharp with contempt. "I seek answers. It is what has allowed us to get this far. If we had left life in your hands, we wouldn't have even a fraction of the truth we now possess. And in that truth, lies power." He turned to me. "You will realize that when we merge."
"No. There must be another way out."
"You're being stubborn," he scoffed, "THINK. Each moment you delay, your companions' chances of survival grow slimmer."
"They would never survive with your guidance," I snapped, "I won't have you using them as tools before casting them aside." I turned to the former cartographer, "Do you know the way out?"
He shook his head sadly.
"You?" I asked, turning to the mad incarnation. "Do you know how I can leave this place?"
"I will NEVER tell you. And you will NEVER leave..." He smiled. "It is QUIET here. PEACEFUL."
"Do you see now?" the last incarnation said coldly, "If you fight me you will lose. I've had centuries of honing my skills and your experiences are but a flicker of a candle compared to my years. The only chance we have, the only chance your companions have, is for you to merge with me." He sighed, calm and placating, "I know how you feel. You fear for their safety more than your own, but when we are one that aspect of you will become a part of me. I will do everything I can to save them."
"You lie," I hissed, "I've seen what you did to Deionarra, how you poisoned her against her father and sweetened your venom with lies. You drove her to her death with words, and I won't allow you to do the same to me or my friends. I will save them, and YOU will merge with ME."
He dropped the warm facade, and it slid from his face like cracked plaster. "If you will not listen to sentiment then listen to reason. You know I can overpower you easily," his eyebrows furrowed, "But if you wish to stall and play this fool's game then we will wait as our enemy and the shadows murder them one by one. Once enough time has passed and all hope has gone, perhaps then you will understand that you have no choice."
My hands twitched to reach for his neck. My dagger was at the ready. But he was right... as powerful as I was he'd had centuries more experience at the Art, and even if I hadn't been so badly drained through my foray into the Fortress he may beat me easily still.
No. I glanced to the madman beside me. He flinched, but I leaned down, speaking softly in the lost language of the Uyo: the language that he had used to encode his dodecahedron journal, the language that only Fin the linguist had known, and the language he had been murdered for, to keep the journal secret for all time.
Let us speak in private, just the two of us.
The incarnation's eyes widened, and he stared at me. After a moment of silence, he replied in the same tongue. Only I know the language of the Uyo. How do you know it?
You are correct: you are the only one who knows the language of the Uyo. So if I know the language of the Uyo, I must be you.
He was silent, staring at me. The other two looked at us, confused at the odd exchange.
It is these others who are not you, for they do not know the language of the Uyo.
He nodded... slowly. I hear you.
This place confuses one's perceptions - we are both you, and now we must become as one.
His eyes darted to one incarnation, with his cruel and heartless gaze, then to the other, warm and supporting. "I..." To my surprise, he reverted to normal speech... and all the inflections to his voice were gone. It was calm, level, and much like my own. "I... no longer wish to live like this."
You have suffered much. You were born into a world where nothing made sense, where strangers claimed they knew you. They blamed you for things you knew nothing of, and they tried to hurt you.
He nodded - and the incarnation lost his mad gleam, and his eyes became more like my own. "Yes..."
I will protect you now. You will know peace. For that is all you ever wanted, isn't it?
The incarnation relaxed at my words, his eyes dimming as he locked gazes with me. There was the faintest of whispers, and he fell to the black stones, finally at rest. With his collapse, a crawling sensation wormed in the back of my skull...
And there was a FLOOD of memories, and strength, and emotions, cracking through me like a bolt of lightning. Memory seared me to the bone: fear, terror, and rage. The wild deluge threatened to sweep me away, but I clung tight to who I was. I steadied myself, dizzy for a moment, then my vision cleared, and I was myself once more.
"Farewell..." I murmured, before turning my eyes back to that cool, stoic gaze. "There is always a choice."
If he was shaken he certainly didn't show it. Instead he smiled incredulously. "I surrender to no man. You may have embraced him, but it is you who will be absorbed by me. I have no fear of a madman's power added to your own."
"I doubt it." The new memories still boiled and bubbled, clashing against one another in a disorganized chaos. It was difficult to make sense of any of it, but I felt more energized, more whole.
"Do you intend to fight me on this?" The man seemed more amused than anything else. "You are no match for me. There's little point in resisting."
"So be it, then." His eyes became gray like mist, and he gave a slight smile, as if in anticipation. "We shall see what your mind has in store."
I locked gazes with him. His eyes were like stones, and they stared into mine as steady as steel.
We were silent as we focused, frozen in place. Waves of pure will grappled against one another, and the pressure of it should've crushed anything that crossed between us. His brow furrowed in exertion, but that calm, cold smile still graced his lips. It was like pushing against a stone wall.
"Learn this before you merge with me, and I walk out in your skin," the incarnation said calmly, "Passions count for nothing. The greatest weapon isn't love, or envy, or hate... it is purpose. Cold purpose, direct and pure. And I've had centuries to hone that blade."
"Passion can lead to purpose as well..." I growled, sweat beading on my forehead, "a purpose that one like you could never attain..."
He quirked an eyebrow, and I felt that wall of his psyche pushing against me.
"...Revenge," I hissed. My arms snapped forward, and a single honed thought thrust forward at the same time: This is for Deionarra.
The force of his will suffered the slightest of cracks at that blow, but with lightning speed my hands lashed out around his neck. A sharp snarl rose from his throat, suddenly silenced as I squeezed. He clawed at my hands, trying to force them away, but it wasn't my grip that was choking the life from him.
I hammered at him with his sins. Dak'kon's enslavement. Morte's torture. Vhailor's imprisonment. Deionarra's murder and her condemnation to an eternity of mourning. One of his enemies long ago had shown me the strength I needed to defeat him, and I used it to full effect.
KNOW THIS: There is nothing on ALL the PLANES that can STAY the hand of JUSTICE when it is brought against them. It may unmake ARMIES. It may sunder the thrones of GODS. When your cause is JUSTICE, JUSTICE will lend you its STRENGTH.
I slipped through the cracks left by those blows and swam in the corridors of his mind. The first emotion I encountered was surprise, and his eyes widened. Memories of his slipped by, of unpunished sins and seductions. We struggled on the floor of the chamber, and I snagged those ancient crimes as they passed like rocks from the ground, bludgeoning him with the thousand injustices he had committed in his life. Sins he'd allowed to slide from his conscience now broke against his barrier in an unstoppable salvo. He'd given me much ammunition to work with.
There was a tug, and I felt him trying to slip away, but my will walled him off and dragged him back. Talons of thought speared his essence, and I dragged him screaming deep into my subconscious.
"This is the last time we shall ever speak," I snarled, "Return to death, where you belong."
He looked incredulous for a moment, then disintegrated, and again a RUSH of knowledge poured through me, fighting to the surface. It was almost too much to absorb at once, coming in black flashes and deafening groans. My head spun, and I rocked on my knees with my head bowed and sweating. So much knowledge - so many experiences, that -
...and as quickly as it occurred, the rush subsided. I steadied myself. The bits of knowledge swirled about in my mind, and I would need time to make sense of them. For now, only one piece of knowledge was important - that the incarnation did NOT know how to leave this place. He'd lied, to trick me into surrendering.
"Dammit..." I groaned, scrubbing my face.
The last incarnation knelt down calmly, placing a comforting hand on my shoulder.
"You've done it," he said with a smile.
I looked up to him, and the kindness in his eyes had the opposite effect he intended. I stood morosely. This was a death sentence I had little joy in giving.
"You seem to be a good man. If there was another way..." I shook my head, "I wish things could've been different."
"I understand, and it's no matter. I've been ready for this moment for a long time."
I breathed deeply, then looked up to him, "Before you said that when we die, traces are left in the mind. That's what caused you all to emerge. Right?"
"My understanding may not be complete, but yes, that seems to be the case."
"So," I continued, "is it possible that the first of us - the real one of us, before all the incarnations, might still be buried somewhere in my mind."
The expression on the incarnation's face flickered for just a moment, but it was like a window, and I took in a sharp breath as I suddenly realized who it was I was speaking to.
"You were the first of us," I gasped.
His eyes took on a haunted look, and his gaze turned away from mine. "I know what you are thinking - but it is not the case. You think that knowing the mind of the first of us will somehow help you here, in this place. It will not."
"But why - I have so many questions that YOU can answer. Why did we become immortal? Why?"
"Because if we die, truly die..." he looked up at me, and his eyes were grim and glassy. "Death's kingdom will not be paradise, not for us. You spoke to these others that were here. Know that the evil of their lives is but a drop of water compared to the evil of mine. That life, that one life, even without the thousands of others, has given us a seat in the Lower Planes for eternity."
"But you seem so much... calmer," I cocked my head, as if trying to see him from a different angle, "More well-intentioned."
"I became that way, yes. Because for me..." His voice took on a strange echo. "It is regret that may change the nature of a man."
He sighed. "But it was too late. I was already damned. I found that changing my nature was not enough. I needed more time, and I needed more life to make amends. So I came to the greatest of the Gray Sisters and asked her for a boon - to try and help me live long enough to rectify all the damage I had done. To make me immortal."
"And Ravel did. But when she first tested your immortality and killed you, you forgot everything. Everything."
His voice sounded broken, and he nodded, "And the Planes have been dying ever since. The crime is great, and the blame is mine."
"There are so many questions I have for you - who are you, what was your life like? Who-"
The incarnation shook his head, cutting me off. "When I become no more, when I merge with you, you will have the answers you seek. It may take some time to sort them out, but they are there." He smiled ruefully. "It is difficult to communicate a life with words."
"Very well, then..." I nodded, swallowing hard. I was unsure whether I could take this last step, "We shall become as one. Are you ready?"
"One last thing... just this..." The incarnation paused for a moment, searching my features. "Before I return to oblivion - there is something I would know."
"I can spare a little time for this - what do you wish to know?"
He studied my eyes, his expression somber. "Did you live your life - the brief life you have had? In the end... was it worth it?"
I thought for a good while, mulled over the flickering of time I had been given. Waking in that cold womb of the Mortuary. Escaping with Morte jabbering at my side. All the wounds I'd taken, all the strange beings I'd met, all the friends I'd made. So much sensation at my fingertips as a Sensate. So much toil and purpose as a Godsman. Could a mortal have lived so much in the scant few months I've had? Or would he have seen more by letting his death come to him rather than seeking it out?
I smiled, and looked up to the incarnation, waiting patiently for my answer. "It seemed so.... short. What little I experienced, I enjoyed, and I do not wish to forget it."
He nodded, and for a moment I thought he was going to say something, but then he collapsed. The life ran out of him and into mine. As he fell to the black stones a crawling sensation ran up the back of my skull. I shivered, and knew the incarnation was no more. There was no storm of memory, no torrent of images. He yielded, and I drank him in with no difficulty.
"Farewell..." I murmured.
I sat down, and opened my pack.