Part 20: Journal of The Nameless One: Part 16Journal of The Nameless One: Part 16
These things couldn't be good for my teeth.
My jaw was aching from chewing, and the sweetness of the Gar-Bar was beginning to get ever so slightly nauseating. The gummy, sticky wad was clinging to my molars like glue, tugging at them with each bite. I idly probed my teeth to see if they had been loosened. Yeah, this was going to be my last one.
I held up another piece, offering it to Morte, but he shook his head.
"So Morte, what's your story, anyway?" I asked as I chewed.
"Me?" he turned his head, blinking, "Well, let me boil it down for you: when you've been as dead as long as I have... without arms, legs, or anything else, you spend a lot of time thinking, y'know? I figure it's been a few hundred years since I got penned in the dead book, but time doesn't really tally up the way it used to..."
"Yeah, I can see what you mean," I unconsciously popped another piece in my mouth. Damn. Why did these things have to be so addictive? I felt my jaw pop uncomfortably as I bit into the piece, and my head was starting to ache.
"...without the mortality thing pressing down on you," Morte continued, "all the days and nights kind of blend together. So you think about this, and you think about that... and the most important piece of wisdom I've learned over the past hundred or so years is this: There's a lot more obscene gestures you can make with your eyes and your jaw than most people think."
I laughed, and the gummy wad of Gar-Bar went down the wrong tube. I hacked a bit, coughed, and spat the gunk at the boots of a pasty-faced old chap that looked a good deal like Dhall. His eyes narrowed into slits at me, but the fellow merely muttered something and went on his way.
"You've got to be kidding," I choked, still clearing my throat and wiping a few tears from my eyes.
"I'm serious! Without resorting to insults or taunting, you can really light a bonfire under someone just with the right combination of eye movements and jaw clicking. Drives 'em barmy!"
I nudged a molar with my tongue. Yep, definitely loose, "You've certainly got a knack for pissing people off."
"Hey I don't need a lesson in eloquence from a guy who's been speaking in one-sentence bits this whole time, " he smirked as I raised an eyebrow to that, "I'll tell ya what, if you ever get be beheaded and your skin flayed from your skull, I'll show you how it's done. I've got some real gems, chief- they'd drive a deva to murder, they would."
"You must miss your body, though. I mean, being able to walk and breathe and stuff."
Morte cocked his head in the way he did to show he was shrugging, "Some people get all depressed about death- they haven't tried it, of course- well, I mean, you did chief, but you still got a pulse. But one thing they never seem to realize is how it changes your perspective on things; it really makes you take a second look at life, broaden your horizons."
Speaking of which, the gold-lit sky was just beginning to fade into the hints of dusky copper. Now and again the hot air was parted with a cool kiss of a breeze.
Morte continued to yammer on through the Hive. It made for oddly pleasant company, him with that wry, chittery voice of his. Annoying company, yes, but I was glad he had decided to tag along, though I wondered when we would be parting ways.
"For me, it's pretty much made me realize how many dead chits are in this berg and how few sharp-tongued men like myself there are to go around- you spin the wheel right, and your years of spending nights alone are over!"
"Ugh..." I scrubbed my hair with one hand, "Morte, you've got to be kidding me. For one thing I can't imagine the sheer awkward mechanics of it- and I really don't think I want to- but it seems kind of, well..."
"'Well?' Well what?" he snapped.
"Kind of shallow."
"Shallow?" he gasped, and reeled back as if insulted, "I'm not shallow. I just don't get caught up in all that philosophy and belief and faith wash that every berk from Arborea to the Gray Waste rattle their jaws about. Who cares? The Planes are what they are, you're what you are- whatever that is- and if it changes, fine, but things aren't bad the way they are- and I should know."
"I'm sure you do," I said dryly.
"Go on, then! Ask me some questions about the Planes, or the chant, or the people, or the cultures. When you end up like me- without eyelids, that is- you end up seeing a lot of things, and I can tell you almost everything you need to know."
"Until you spot the next harlot on the street."
"Harlot? Where?!" he chirped, looking around for a moment. He then turned, cocked his head, and looked at me through the corner of his eye with a grin, "Just kiddin.' Seriously, though, it's like this: We're in this together, chief. Until this is over, I stick like your leg."
Cheered after being given the opportunity to do what he does best, Morte continued to chatter on as I listened. He spoke of races with thirteen different genders and the hundreds of ways that they copulated, of snake-women with no less than three rows of breasts, of religions in which the Goddess of Love slew her enemies by a sensual, mind-shattering dance. I was beginning to detect a pattern here.
Yet with all his experience, Morte couldn't say where we might find the nearest gardener. "Maybe in the Clerk's Ward," he said, "but not in this dump. I usually don't travel in such lowbrow circles as this."
As I've begun to learn, the Hive dwellers themselves were of little help. Most mumbled and went their own way, too busy with their sleazy, broken lives to help a stranger. Most laughed in my face at the mention of a gardener, but a Dabus seemed to consider that there might be one such person in the Southeast portion of the Hive.
I had struck up a quick conversation with a Bariaur, a creature that was half-ram, half humanoid, when I noticed the glint of metal out of the corner of my eye.
"Oi, lads. Lookit wot we have 'ere."
The Bariaur slipped out of sight as I coughed awkwardly, "I don't suppose you'd take a half-eaten sack of Gar-Bar root to leave us alone?"
The thug at the front of the line pulled his lips into snaggle-toothed, yellow grin. Another behind him licked the blade of his dagger.
I put my hand on my knife, "I guess not."
I stepped aside as the first thug attempted to stick me, and as he stumbled I brought my blade into the middle of his back. With a gurgle and a spurt of blood, he fell over as Morte tore out a second one's throat with his teeth.
He spat the skin and blood from his mouth, "Did you see that?" he cackled.
Witnessing the quick carnage, one of the gang fled on foot as I grabbed the last thief's gawking head with both hands. A tug and a twist, and he stopped struggling with an oddly satisfying crack. The rogue slumped bonelessly to the ground. A tingle ran through my scalp... there was something oddly familiar about feeling that body go limp in my arms.
"Well that was easy," Morte whistled, "Who needs that fancy magic?"
I cleaned my knife on the clothing of one of the corpses, "They weren't pouring out of the alleys this time. Come on, let's leave these to the Collectors." I checked their pockets for whatever I could get. In a world where people survived by scavenging, I couldn't be faulted for taking my share.
Without the element of surprise these guys were pushovers. In the back of my mind though, there was little comfort. I had seen hints of things far more bizarre, more terrible than I could know. They were the footprints of powers that made the Hive dwellers look like ants. Even though I was a proficient fighter, my mind was keener by far, and I needed to hone that edge of mine to its sharpest.
That sharp mind of mine, for example, recalled quite readily the description of a beautiful, jet-haired girl in blue.
Amarysse was a lovely young woman dressed in a tight leather bodice and leggings of faded azure, the gray-blue of a dying sky. She smelled faintly of cheap perfume and her face, though pretty, was painted with garish make-up. She smiled coyly as she saw me. "Seeking some company, love?"
Morte waggled his tongue, "Whoa! Good taste, chief!"
"Are you, by any chance, Amarysse?"
She stared at me silently for a time, then spoke: "I was called that, once, long ago. Who are ye?"
"I was sent to find you by Nodd, your brother. He's worried about you, and hoped I could tell him how you were."
Her eyes widened, "N... Nodd? He's alive? Where? Why didn't he come ta seek me out himself?"
I scrubbed the back of my hand uncomfortably. I suppose the truth couldn't hurt so much, "I think he's ashamed. He's a Collector, now, living in poverty in Ragpicker's Square. He doesn't seem quite... right. In the head, I mean."
She nodded, "Aye, he was a bit touched, even as a child, when his name was Thodus. Oh, I've missed him so! Ashamed, though? Ha!" her smile made her makeup-smeared face clearer, lovelier, "Me own work's no more proud! Ah, well, at least I'm doin' well fer meself - fer a Hiver, at any rate, eh? I must visit him, soon." She looked at me closely for the first time since I had spoken. "Are ye a friend a' Nodd's, or...?"
I thought about it for a moment, "Of a sort, yes. Why?"
"Could ye..." She frowned, biting her lip, as if considering something. "Could ye give this to him?" She stepped close to me and offered a pouch of what looked to be about one hundred copper commons. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Morte's jaw drop.
I bowed my head, "Yes, I swear I'll get to him."
She handed me the pouch. "I thank ye. Go speak ta Nodd fer me, an' tell him how I worry about him so!"
Morte's stare was burning into the middle of my back as we continued down the street, "Please tell me we'll be buying some company with that."
"Not our money, Morte. Besides, a good deed is it's own reward." He clicked his tongue, disappointed.
We circled around this portion of the Hive, cleaner than Ragpicker's square though not as lively as the other streets we'd been. The smell of cheap ale and pipe-smoke wafted out from some of the doors, and at every corner a couple of thugs stood, keeping an eye out for targets. At the north end of this street, though, a tree had been planted.
It was a sad, sickly thing, brown-leafed with branches curled in on itself. It grew fitfully in the shade, poisoned as it was breathing in the foul stench of Sigil.
There was a tired-looking, sorrowful old man gazing at that ash-dead tree in front of him. He was mumbling to himself and tapping his chin, as if trying to figure something out. Occasionally, he shook his head sadly.
The man seemed momentarily startled as I interrupted his train of thought. He spoke in a calm, unhurried tone, but one full of sadness. "Oh... greetings to you too, friend. How's this day find you?"
Leaving out the corpses I left on the curb, I smiled, "It finds me well."
He smiled back, but sorrow still lay in his eyes. "That's good, friend. Hope your good fortune continues." He seemed about to turn back to the tree.
"And how's this day find you?"
He shrugged slightly and proffered a bit of a smile. "Fortune finds me well, though I'm saddened just the same."
He patted the tree beside him. "It's the trees, here, in the Hive. They're dying, friend- and no one cares." Seeing the look on my face, he held his hands up, as if to silence me for a moment. "It may not matter to some, but it's important to me. I feel it's a shame to see the last tatters of life and beauty in this ward left, uncared for, to die. That is why they call me Mourns-for-Trees. Can you understand that, friend?"
I looked to the tree, "Yes... you're right, it's a sad thing."
He seemed surprised, and blurted out: "Really? Oh! I mean, wonderful! Perhaps you would..." He paused, and seemed suddenly suspicious. He recomposed himself, speaking in his usual, slow manner. "In any case, that's good. I suppose you 'have some questions' for me, now..."
He had been about to say something, "No, not just yet. What is it you were going to ask?"
For the first time, the man seemed genuinely happy. Beaming, he explained: "It's difficult for anything to survive here... just look around and you'll see what I mean, friend. I'm not sure if it's possible for the trees to thrive here, even if they somehow were to get enough light and clean water..."
He nodded enthusiastically. "But if enough people care... really want them to live... I just know they'll survive! They'll turn green again, and flourish!"
It sounded asinine, "What? That makes no sense."
He smiled knowingly, shaking his head. "You're new here, I can see that now. You don't understand how things work in Sigil, friend. Belief is everything here... everything!"
I had to admit to myself I didn't know much about Sigil, and nodded, "You could be right."
"I am right, I'm certain of it." A sense of conviction surrounded him like an aura; he seemed so unlike the man I first spoke to. "That's all I'd ask of you, friend... just care for them, hope for their recovery. In time, should enough people want it, it will come to pass. Can you do that for me, friend?"
"Yes," I said, looking at the tree, focusing on its well-being, on it flourishing, "I'll help."
"Excellent, my friend, excellent! I thank you... you've given me back my confidence, my purpose. Perhaps I can find others like you, who'll listen... perhaps we'll make a difference. What about your companion, friend? Would you speak to him on my behalf?"
"Morte? What do you think?"
"Huh?" he blinked, "Oh, yeah, chief, sure- whatever you say."
"I'm serious, Morte. Can you make the effort?"
Morte looked at me for a while, silently, then nodded. "Yeah, I can. If it's that important to you, I'll do it."
"Thanks, Morte," With that, I turned back to Mourns-for-Trees, "Well, I suppose you're the closest thing to a gardener in the Hive, then, Mourns-for-Trees?"
He chuckled, "Well, my interest in the flora of the Hive isn't limited to removing the razorvine, if that's what you mean."
I fished the seed out of my pouch, "I need some herbs sprung from this seed. Can you help me?"
Mourns-for-Trees took the seed from me and held it up to his eye. "What an odd seed... are those teeth along the edge? Barbs, perhaps... where did you come by it, friend?"
"Old Mebbeth, the midwife of the Square, needs some herbs sprung from that seed. Do you know where I could get some?"
"No..." Mourns-for-Trees continued to stare the seed in his hand. "This is the only seed of its kind I've ever seen... I... ah!" He winced, and a spot of blood glistened on his thumb. "The barbs on it are sharp, indeed. Perhaps you should hold it."
I took it back, "Yeah, I should've warned you. Sorry." I stared at it contemplatively, "So you can't help me, either?"
"Unless you can make that one grow, I cannot... again, I've never seen a seed of its like before, friend."
"If we wanted it to grow enough, is it possible to make it grow?"
Mourns-for-Trees looked at the seed and nodded. "Perhaps... if you cared enough to see it grow..."
I held it in my hands, then, focusing on it, willing it to grow. I silenced that nagging voice of skepticism in the back of my head, planting all my attention on the black-barbed seed I held gingerly in my fingers. I prodded it gently with my mind, neither forcing nor urging.
To my surprise, there was a crack and the seed split, twigs splitting from its surface like fingers. Instinctively, I dropped the seed, but the talon-like twigs wrapped around my wrist and wouldn't let go.
"What the hells?!"
Mourns-for-Trees and Morte both stared at the barbed branches wrapped around my wrist, stunned. "I... think the barbs on those new branches would be more than enough for what your friend needs."
I shook my arm, trying not to move my fingers wary as I was of the thorns, "I hope she can get this damn thing off of me. Until we meet again, Mourns. Do you happen to like Gar-Bar root?"