Part 155: The Final Memories: Part 6The Final Memories: Part 6
As I held up the sphere up this time and examined it, the memories of the first of my incarnations stirred within me. It wasn't an insistent or driving force - it was calm, like the thoughts of a man walking across a great distance to speak to a friend he hadn't seen in ages.
His presence in my mind was a comfort, and through the vague fog of his memories the sphere seemed to now stand in a different light - not ugly, or hideous, but as something precious, like a newborn child. The sphere was the repository of my last moments, before I had met Ravel on the Gray Waste and asked the impossible of her.
I now knew why I asked her. And I now knew that all I needed to do was touch the surface of the sphere with both hands and feel regret, and the stone would open itself to me...
I clasped the stone, and allowed the regrets to well up.
The sphere wrinkled in my hands, its skin peeling away into tears and turning into a rain of bronze that encircled me. With each droplet, each fragment that entered my body, a new memory stirred: a lost love, a forgotten pain, an ache of loss. With them came the great pressure of regret: regret of careless actions, the regret of suffering, regret of war, regret of death.
The regrets piled on with the weight of a mountain, howled with the fury of a storm. My mind began buckling from the pressure - so MUCH, all at once, so much damage done to others... so much so an entire FORTRESS may be built from such pain. I had to focus, had to keep my center... but the tears were flooding down my cheeks like blood, the pillars of my mind were beginning to crack...
And suddenly, through the torrent of regrets, I could the first incarnation again. His hand, invisible and weightless, was upon my shoulder, steadying me through the storm. He didn't speak, but with his touch, I remembered my name.
...and it was such a simple thing, not at all what I'd thought it might've been. A deep comfort settled in me, of something becoming complete. In a way, I'd regained the most important part of myself.
Somehow in knowing my name I knew myself finally, knew there was nothing I could not do. The first incarnation's hand lifted from my shoulder, leaving a lingering warmth. He watched me with a slight smile.
"That was my name all along? But if I was-"
He held his finger to his lips, silencing me. He nodded at the symbol at my arm.
The symbol - the symbol of Torment - seemed brittle somehow when I looked down at it, as if it was only barely holding itself to my skin. Unconsciously, I reached out and peeled it from my arm. It gave way with a slight resistance, like pulling off a scab. It seemed to pulse quietly and fall silent as I held it, and I knew I could harness its power. It no longer ruled me.
"I no longer wear the symbol. Does that mean...?"
Halfway through my question, I realized a heavy silence was all that was left within my mind -- I could no longer feel the presence of the first incarnation within me.
The incense smoke curled through the air, smelling of ash and finality. There were no mournful chants, no dirges for this in the Mortuary. The Dustmen initiates stood in a circle, murmuring simple catechisms by rote until the words grew numb on their lips and the meaning of them fell dead. There was no meaning, no purpose, other than the slow tread towards True Death.
The embalmers washed Dhall's body: naked and pale and spotted with age, withered with time yet delicate as a babe's. His quill had run dry. His coughing had ceased. His suffering was at an end. One wiped the blood from the corner of Dhall's lip. He would be given the same treatment as the greatest king or most wretched beggar today. All were equal in the eyes of Death.
The eldest embalmer placed the scalpel against the corpse's chest, and prepared to press.
One of the clerics blinked and looked up. Another licked his lips and turned his head, as if suddenly nervous that something was staring over his shoulder. One of the morticians recoiled from the corpse, and the jar of embalming fluid he held shattered on the ground.
Even the initiates fell silent and glanced about nervously. They could feel it too.
A chill was in the air with silent fangs and ages of hunger, clawing blindly for its prey.
The Dustmen should have found its presence familiar, perhaps even comforting among the younger acolytes. Yet to a head they pulled their robes close, not daring to meet each other's eyes at the ancient and alien force that swept through. The long sticks of incense snuffed out, and the threads of smoke vanished in the air.
Soon the chill was gone, but the initiates still trembled.
The eldest of the embalmers closed his eyes, scalpel paused over the corpse's sternum. He considered delaying the ceremony. A message needed to be sent to Factol Skall.
Death was coming.
The first few hours I circled the prison, clinging to its curved pillars as I looked out over the vastness beyond. Nothing but darkness existed outside this island, swallowing and negating all substance and light. Now and again I returned to the slab I'd woken up on: sitting in meditation and refilling my mental reserves, preparing myself with the Art. Then I would return to my exploration once again, wondering how to escape.
It couldn't have been more than a few hours. That's all it took to restore my spells in full. But by the end I knew that everyone who had followed me here was dead.
This was no time for lamentations. It was no place for regrets. I wouldn't add another brick to this Fortress that way. All I could do now was focus on escape, and the oncoming confrontation.
My heart skipped and I leaped up to my feet as a familiar figure materialized in the corner of my vision.
I could've wept with relief upon seeing the ghostly form of Deionarra: her snow-white hair cascading down her shoulders, her spectral gown stirred by some ethereal breeze. Her gaze rested on mine, and a strange, disjointed sensation swept through me, as if I was looking at several pairs of eyes at once.
"My Love, at last I have found you... I searched for you after you were divided by the crystal - this Fortress spans hundreds of miles, and I feared you were lost to me." Her ghostly eyes took my measure, searching my body for new wounds. "Are you well?"
"I think so - the crystal divided me, but I am one again. Now I am trapped here, however."
"I suspect trapping you here was the crystal's true purpose. But it poses no barrier for one such as I." She closed her eyes. "Much do my eyes see, and the halls of this Fortress are well known to me. If you are trapped here, my Love, I shall see to it you are set free."
"Deionarra," my fists tightened, and I swallowed the lump in my throat, "I wish to speak to you for a moment, and tell you how you died... and why."
Hargrimm, high priest of the Silent King and leader of the skeletons of the Dead Nations, rested his bony hands on the altar. If he had lungs he would have sighed. Many years laid in the span between his old life and this new existence, and the ways of the living were alien to him now. Yet certain habits decayed more slowly than the flesh.
Hungry ones grow bolder. Stale Mary murmured. The deception hangs by a thread. Cannot maintain much longer.
"I know the truth of thy words all too well," Hargrimm sighed, and a whirl of dust left his teeth, "Acaste grows more diffult to reason with. She no longer sees the need for balance."
The ghoul matriarch had been bold enough to attack him recently, threatening to tear off his head and suck the dry marrow from his bones. If it had not been for the skeletons tending the cathedral the threefold alliance may have collapsed in that instant.
Hargrimm pounded the altar, and he felt a wrist bone crack. He would have to restore that later, but for the moment he had no care for his own well-being. He loathed the fact that he and Stale Mary had to walk with a retinue of guards now. He hated that zombies and skeletons had been assaulted, and he could do little to retaliate except issuing stern condemnations in the name of the Silent King. Hargrimm was disgusted by the fact that only the ferocity of the ghouls could hold the cranium rat invaders at bay.
Once he had been able to reason with Acaste, show her the need for caution. Drive the cranium rats too far and the population would dwindle, and the ghouls would go hungry and turn on one another. Many would fall in the chaos, and their population was small enough already. This she knew. Little by little she began to believe that their alliance meant nothing, that she could govern the ghouls herself without the need for the skeletons or zombies. Each unpunished assault fueled that conviction further. But if she could not even control her own ravenous hunger...
Hargrimm had seen the void that lay on the other side of the veil once, and had been only just strong enough to pull himself back. He did not want to die again.
He looked up suddenly. Few sensations were left to him, but this one seemed to scream through the cathedral. The guards shifted nervously in a clacking of bone and creaking dried sinew. It was the howl of something they all knew well, something they had both embraced and escaped. The unseen hound of oblivion swirled through the temple of bone, as if catching an old scent. Hargrimm's grip on his staff tightened. He had no knowledge of how to banish such a thing.
Yet quick as it came, the cold emptiness was gone in a flash. All in the Dead Nations must have felt that. Perhaps... perhaps Hargrimm did have something to bargain with now. Yes... maybe Acaste could be convinced that it was the rage of the Silent King that swept through these halls this day.
He shelved that thought into the back of his mind. "Something terrible is happening," Hargrimm intoned, looking up to the wall, empty sockets staring past the grim mosaics.
Or perhaps something beautiful Stale Mary murmured.
He looked down then, at the rotting hand that clasped his. Her touch was cold, and her body was so delicate: brittle and dry like ancient parchment. He turned his palm up and their fingers clasped gently.
Slowly Hargrimm set his staff down and turned to Mary. His bony white hand touched her cheek, and she returned the gesture, drawing mummified fingertips gently along his skull, tracing along his jawline. His ribs creaked softly at her embrace, and his robes rustled beneath her sinewy arms. They pressed together, cheek-to-cheek. Loose strands of what remained of her hair brushed against his bones. He wished he could drink in the scent of her: the earthiness of the grave, the tender musk of mold and age.
Mary was ancient and wise and beautiful, and her lips cracked as the words bubbled in her throat:
The shadows are returning...
Hargrimm nodded then. Hargrimm, high priest of the Silent King and leader of the skeletons. Stale Mary, wise counselor and mother of the zombies. Whatever came of it, they would face it together.
Deionarra floated silently at those words, and when she spoke her voice was soft. Perhaps even frightened, "What are you speaking of?"
"When I brought you to this Fortress in my previous incarnation, it was my intention that you die here. I needed someone to remain behind so that they would serve as a link to this place. I knew because you loved me so much, that your love would stave off death and allow you to become a spirit. And that is why you suffer now."
Deionarra's face was a mask as I spoke.
"He lied to you, Deionarra. He used you as a tool... intended for you to be his eyes on this plane."
I'd faced hordes of undead, slavering demons from the lowest planes, faced a dark legend who had mastered the shadows and a corrupt deva who had drawn a pact of betrayal. Yet turning my face up, looking her in the eye, was the my most difficult struggle yet.
"I am sorry, Deionarra."
He gown rippled as she floated towards me, raising a hand to my lips. I felt only a chill at her incorporeal touch. Her voice was desperate, pleading. "Do you love me? If you say yes, my Love, then nothing that has happened matters."
It was a long time before I could answer, "Though I did not know you at first, your suffering has become mine. I have found that I will do what I can to help you. But I can't love you... I can't love anyone knowing where I'll go."
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.
The words were sharp and bitter in my mind. "I wish I could have known you. I wish I could've made you happy. But after this I will free you from this prison, as I promised your father, and you will go to your rightful place of rest, and I will go to mine."
Her eyes were downcast, and when she spoke there was nothing of that naive young girl I'd known, nothing of that blind passion and fire. There was only calm sobriety, and acceptance. "Then... this shall be the ending of things between us, my Love. I have remained here for you - for no other reason. I will help you one last time, then I shall travel beyond the Eternal Boundary, as I was meant."
"I wish to rejoin my friends."
"As you wish," She stretched out her hand. "Touch my hand, and the walls of this Fortress shall be walls no more."
I reached out. Where there once was a chill at her touch there was now only comfort, like dipping into a warm pool. Sensation bled away, and she looked to me with sad eyes, knowing this was the end.
"I... forgive for what you have done. I shall wait for you in Death's halls, my Love..."
And with those words, the world around me vanished.
Everyone knew the deep languor that Advocate Iannis had fallen into. He had never truly recovered from the sudden, unexplained disappearance of his daughter. For a month after he learned of her death he was inconsolable, locking himself away in his home for days at a time.
No one in the Fraternity believed that he had recovered once he returned. While he was a hard worker and a strict practitioner of the law, he soon demanded more cases than most men could handle. Indeed, many believed he would drown under the sea of paperwork he'd accepted. Yet they said nothing, knowing he wanted to smother his sorrows with sweat and fill his sleepless nights with toil.
A few of his friends noted that he had been traveling to the Civic Festhall frequently as of late, and somehow had gained admittance to their private sensoriums. How and for what reason they did not know, though many were curious as to how the Sensates' own procedures were circumvented.
And then there had been that strange visitor, the one that rumor claimed was immortal. Many thought the rumor was rubbish... it was a simple law of existence that all things would die eventually. Still, the Planes were vast, and many more bizarre rumors attached themselves to the nameless stranger.
A few knocked on Iannis' door the day after the Nameless One's most recent visit, hoping to learn what that was all about. Yet the old Advocate would only snap at them and harry them out. His face had been pink with weeping, eyes sagging and dark-ringed from lack of sleep. The poor old man seemed so broken, so mad with distress.
It was unbecoming of a member of the Fraternity, and the visitors left him alone save for one.
It prowled through the Advocate's offices, unwelcome and unbidden, but it was not Iannis that it was hunting. Its fangs were keen and thirsty, its belly rumbled with an ancient and unfed hunger.
It would find no meat here today.
Papers were crumpled and spread about the room, books and bowls scattered as if a by a storm. Scratches lined the old wood of the table and dents marred the walls. Yet the center of the room was cleared, saved for an overturned stool, and the motionless boots dangling above it. The noose still creaked with each soft sway of the weight it suspended.
Soon the presence vanished, and office was empty of life.