Part 25: Journal of The Nameless One: Part 20Journal of The Nameless One: Part 20
I had been wary of this corner of the Hive ever since I fled from the Dustmen.
I had remembered seeing a tavern here right outside the Mortuary, but the stylized skull that was the symbol of the Dustman faction had driven me away. But now that I needed a few more traveling companions either for a blade or for a hand to help drag my corpse off so that I could revive in safety, I was left with little choice.
After all, what were the Dustmen going to do? Kill me?
A zombie stood swaying not fifteen feet from the entrance. The filthy-looking corpse was in sad shape; its shoulders were slumped, and one of its legs was broken, causing it to lean to one side. Stains covered it from head to toe... judging from the smell and the texture, the stains ran from rotten fruit to mud and bird droppings. To add to the indignity, graffiti had been carved into its body, and several notices had been nailed into its chest, back, and head. An undead bulletin board.
I winced, "I thought I was in bad shape. Don't all those nails hurt?"
The corpse stood silent.
Despite the many stitches, the corpse's rotting skin was peeling in several places, revealing long stretches of muscle and bone. My guess was that the zombie was frequently used as target practice... the fruit and mud stains aside, some of the tears in the skin still had rocks and bits of glass lodged in them. One wicked-looking cobblestone was still embedded in the side of its head.
Might as well do a favor.
I grabbed hold of the cobblestone and pulled it out of the corpse's head. Traces of brain matter and rotting flesh slowly dripped from it... it looked like whatever was in its head had turned to ooze long ago.
I looked the corpse over.
A number of the leaflets had been ruined by rain, but some of them were still legible.
"To Those Hive Citizins Wishing Gainful Employ with the Most HONRIBLE and JENROUS Sigil Government: Inqwire Forthwith at Office of Vermin and Disease Control to help stem playge of brain ratz. BOUNTIEZ PAID! Copper Given for each rat tail brought. (Tails must be ginuine and from rat only. No cat, dog or fiend tail acceptd.) Office several streets SOUTH AND WEST of Mortuary Gate, in lower Hive. Ask for Official Inspecter-in-Charge, the RESPECTED PHINEAS T. LORT, XXXIX."
Hrmn. It was as Creeden had mentioned.
Someone had posted a bill of fare for the "Gathering Dust Bar," but the bill of fare couldn't be read, as the words 'SMOLDERING CORPSE BAR' had been scrawled in charcoal over the bill.
"'Smoldering Corpse Bar?'" I muttered. Could it have been the bar where Porphiron had been mugged?
The zombie immediately jerked its left arm upwards and pointed far to the southeast. A moment later, the arm fell back to its side with a THUMP.
"Huh. It even gives directions."
"Reminds me of a job I once had." Morte seemed embarrassed. "Well, I mean... without the arms."
I chuckled and continued reading.
"PUBLIC NOTICE: By the Order of the Judiciary Council and in Accordance with the Citizenry of Sigil, Let it be Known those Defacing a Registered Servant of the Dustmen, either by Graffiti, Malicious Attack, or by Posting Notices, will constitute FELONIUS ASSAULT and the Perpetrator will be Answerable for the Vandalism of Said Servant." - By Order of The Hall of Speakers -
"WANTED: Able-bodied person willing to investigate a matter of the utmost importance to the Dustman cause. Will offer suitable compensation upon successful completion of said task. Interested parties inquire with Initiate Norochj, Gathering Dust Bar."
"Looks to be good jobs, Morte."
"Yeah, ones that actually pay. You know, wuth more than a nice stroking of your conscience," He tilted in the air, intrigued, "We could make a few hundred commons from that Dustie one... if you're barmy enough to deal with 'em, that is."
As an afterthought I glanced over the graffiti. It ran from obscenities about the Dustmen to slogans glorifying what appeared to be local gangs. One piece of graffiti caught my eye... someone had carved the name "Pharod" on the corpse's left arm, then slashed an "X" across it.
"Pharod?" I whispered.
As before, the zombie jerked its left arm upwards and pointed far to the west... and downwards. I waited, stunned, until the arm fell back to its side.
"He's... under Ragpickers square?" I didn't expect an answer, though a nod would've helped, "The guy must've burrowed deep in there. No wonder he's so damn hard to find.
The walls of the Mortuary had been rust-red. It was the shade of metal aching with the weight of centuries, a body ever dying but never dead, ever rotting but never renewed. The sharp fumes of formaldehyde had been rich in the air, the floor speckled with blood and bodily fluids lazily wiped away, leaving a grotesque blush to the stone. The shelves and tools had been as dust-covered as the Faction's namesake.
Here though, the Dustman architecture, of shattered bricks stitched together with mortar, showed a new side to death. The floor was laid in a pattern of razor-sharp stones of a mourner's blue-gray veil. The tables and counters were dull in the pale light of the bar, polished as they were. Where the Mortuary was the wet crimson slosh of gore on cold rusted slabs, the Gathering Dust Bar was the icy touch of the grave. The air was chill and dry, moreso than the Mortuary itself, if that was possible. Again that shiver crawled up my spine.
Perhaps I simply needed one of those thick gray robes.
The Dustmen here sat quietly at their tables. Those few that were talking hunched over their plain clay cups and muttered in hushed tones. For some reason the air seemed thicker, muting noises to a dull whisper. An enchantment, perhaps, to protect the peace and solitude of the bar patrons.
Much like in the Mortuary, zombies served the Dustmen here. With shuffling, awkward steps they meandered back and forth, laying down cups with fingers worn down to bone and dusting tables until they were spotless.
A spindle-thin man in dirty black robes sat at one table. His stiff black hair sprang forth from his skull like a crown of spikes, and his leper-white skin was drawn sharply across his skull. He was frowning into his drink and mumbling to himself.
Might as well start with him, "Greetings."
The Dustman looked up, blinked once, then looked me up and down, studying me. As he gave me the once-over, he took one of his spiked locks and pointed at himself with it. "Norochj. Initiate. Dustman. Guard."
I jerked a thumb towards the entrance, "I'm here about the posting outside."
The Dustman looked me up and down again. "Many troubles have I. Help can you. A mausoleum awakes, the dead walk, the dead disturbed, the Dustmen disturbed. Find out what disturbs the undead, and copper coins will I pay."
Anything that pays the bills. "Very well. Where is this mausoleum?"
Norochj nodded. "Mausoleum by Dustman memorial. Go north and west from black monument, go to arch and a semi-circle over your heart with this finger this make." He wiggled the index finger on his right hand. "To the mausoleum, go you will."
There was no rush. Curious as to what the Dustmen had on tap, I strode towards the bar. The zombie behind the counter lazily turned to me.
"Er. I'll have what's most popular here," I said.
"Anything alcoholic for me, thanks," if Morte had eyelids he would've winked at the corpse, "So where're you buried, beautiful?"
I rolled my eyes and sipped from the cup the zombie handed me. It was tea. Cold tea, weak and bitter as if drawn from the dregs of leaves that had been re-boiled every day for a week. The bitterness was dull like the edge of a worn dagger, but there was an unusual body to it that I couldn't quite place. I couldn't see myself taking a second sip.
"Excuse me, do you have any honey?" I asked.
"Shh. Chief, I might be able to get a little meat in motion here."
With a sigh I turned away, giving the brew another taste. Perhaps it'd grow on me.
A woman harrumphed beside me, "Looking for something with flavor in a Dustman's bar is like looking for a loophole in a baatezu's contract."
I looked over to see an elderly woman who, in turn, blinked and stared at me, "La, look who's come a-calling on Sere today... death's dearest son." She looked me up and down, then shook her head in disbelief. "By every Power and its mother, boy... what crypt did you crawl out of?"
I smirked, "Well, the crypt was losing its charm, so now I'm looking around for the right place to die. Know of anywhere?"
To my surprise, she barked a laugh that rattled my ears. "Ha! Not here... unless you want to die of boredom." She pointed to my cup then raised her own, "Three-Ashes Tea. Stuff calms the mind, helps in meditation. Me, I just like the taste."
"What's wrong with here?"
Sere grimaced, "Tchhh. Someone pinch your sense and your sight, boy?" She waved her hand around the bar. "Look around. What do your eyes tell you?"
I cocked my head, "A bunch of fun-loving Dustmen, drinking happily and conversing merrily, celebrating life to its fullest."
"You've got a clever tongue there, boy... mayhap your tongue is cleverer than you are?" Sere squinted at me, then snorted. "That'd explain the scars."
I looked her in the eye, ""But it doesn't explain why a Dustman is standing here ridiculing other Dustmen. Care to answer that one? Are you a Dustman?"
"A Dustman? I s'pose." Sere sniffed. "Tchhhh. I've seen enough sand pass through the hourglass while wearing these robes. This body's almost ready to pay the ferryman." She chuckled, but there wasn't much mirth in it.
"Are you afraid of dying?"
"'Course I am, boy! Who isn't?" She frowned and glanced around. The words didn't prick any other Dustman's ears. Perhaps there was some sort of ward after all, "Well, except Dustmen. They're not afraid because they've been swallowing so much of their own bat droppings over the decades they've blinded themselves into thinking that death is some kind of 'release.' Tccchhh."
"You don't sound much like a Dustman."
She shrugged. "I guess the Dustman robes don't fit me as well as they used to."
"So what sparked this crisis of faith?"
She shrugged. "Life, I s'pose. It... eh..." She frowned. "Ha! Never you mind. I won't bore you with the niggling details."
"I'd like to know, actually," I said with a smile.
"Oh, would you?" She looked at me skeptically. "Tchhhh. How old you take me for, boy?"
The wrinkles in her face ran deep, and her skin had grown pale and blotched with age, "Old."
She snorted. "Well, you're wrong. I'm really old. Now, I've spent most of my long years teaching Dustmen. I've seen many Dustmen whelps grow within our order, taught them the ways of the faction, kept the faith, preached the tenets of the faction..." She frowned. "...and so on and so on. No questions. No doubt. This life was merely an antechamber that led to the True Death."
"Well... a half-month back, I went sick with the fever." She sighed. "I thought it was the end. It... eh, it rattled my cage."
Her face became as stone. "There's something about having your faction members circle around your deathbed like a pack of pale-faced ghouls, nodding and agreeing that your suffering and dying is all for the best. 'Oh, Sere is so fortunate! She shall soon be relieved of the burden of life!' Burden of Life? That's when it struck me..."
She paused to take a sip from her cup. "There's something..." A queer expression came over her features. "...addled about not appreciating your life. The Dustmen keep saying that life is misery and suffering... is it? That we should be happy to pass on into oblivion... should we?" She shook her head. "Questions, questions... and precious few answers."
"It doesn't sound like you believe in the Dustmen philosophy anymore."
"I suppose I have got a swarm of doubts all buzzing in my skull." She rubbed her temples. "Hard to get them all to be quiet sometimes. They need to be fed some answers, and I haven't got them all worked out yet."
"What will you do?"
"To be square, boy, I don't know." Sere sighed. "That's the problem with doubt. I can't even trust that what I'm feeling is true, or if I'm scared of death only because of my brush with the fever, or even what I should do. Is this a passing thing? I don't know."
We stood there at the bar, silently contemplating. Part of me could accept something of the Dustmen philosophy. After all, it was part of what I was trying to understand about myself. But I still looked forward to the taste of another fire seed, felt good about making lives a little better for others. Life couldn't be as bad as the Dustmen said.
"Sere," I said, breaking the silence, "if you had truly believed in the Dustman philosophy then your brush with the fever would not have left you with such doubts."
Sere stared at me, then nodded slowly. "Maybe so... maybe so." She frowned, her face wrinkling up in concentration. "I'll have to chew it over some more."
"You should. It's no small matter."
"La, now... enough of me rattling on about my woes!" Sere stared at my scars. "You look like you've shared a few handshakes with death yourself. Hasn't that changed your views somewhat? Doesn't it make you appreciate life a bit more?"
She nodded, taking another sip of her tea, "And well it should. Nothing comforting about death."
I smiled. Sere seemed to be a nice woman, and trustworthy. "Well, my brushes with death are a lot closer than those of other people. I can't seem to die... at least, as far as I know."
Sere blinked. "Yer rattling my coffin."
She shook her head, her voice dropping to a murmur. "Strange are the ways of the Planes, and I've seen too much to throw any tale out with the wash." She studied my face. "If it's true, why does this happen?"
"All I know is I woke up in the Mortuary with no memory and covered with enough wounds to kill me three times over."
"Now don't be saying that too loud." She glanced around. "Most peculiar. Never heard of anything like that. Shame about the memories."
"Do you have any idea why this happens?"
"Nay, not a one. Never knew anyone who death wouldn't take... until now."
I sighed. If a wizened Dustman couldn't help, I really wondered how a dirty old Collector like Pharod could. I took a sip of my tea and winced.
It really was quite horrible.