Part 34: Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 2~~~~~~~
Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 2
I'm beginning to notice something.
When a body wakes, the first thing that comes to mind is light. Vision. The radiant glow of the dawn. There are the sounds of birds outside chirping, or the creaks of the bed as your companion or lover rolls over. Then comes tactile sensation: the cool air, still slightly damp even after surrendering the morning dew. After that, the crisp, clean smell of dawn. Finally, as you stand up a sour tang fills the mouth, one that you rinse out with a swish and a gurgle of water.
This is the serene dance of waking.
I've heard some say that sleep is the way the body prepares for death. A rehearsal, really, where the body slips into torpor and the soul slides to dip a finger into the world beyond, whether it's the scintillating chaos of dreaming (a concept I only know snatches of secondhand) or the strange burbling lands of the dead: dark, dry, and rattling with silent madness.
Maybe there's some comparison, maybe not. I've seen no light at the end of a tunnel, or heard the voices of my loved ones, if I ever had any. There were no angels or devils or winding roads to lead me to whatever metaphysical journey's end where my soul might rest. Still, I can see the appeal of the analogy.
Because when my body twitches back to life, everything is very much the reverse.
The visceral senses come first. There's the iron tang of blood in my throat and the dry, foul must of decay on my tongue as the saliva begins to trickle back into my mouth. There's the smell of week-old flesh: sour, rank like a butcher's shop where the poor sod had lain dead for a week and his goods lie spoiled and crusted with fat white maggots and sour with mold in that time. After that, splintered wood presses against my flesh as the vertigo clears and I can feel up from down. Warm blood fills my cold limbs. My muscles ache, stiffened with rigor mortis. Then there's the buzzing of flies that accompany the hundred itches crawling over my flesh, and the lurid orange-yellow glow of fickle light.
I groaned, and with a clink of armor, a slight breeze stirred against my flesh. The feel of six hundred tiny feet tickling my skin floated away with a chorus of buzzing.
"Dak'kon?" I croaked. The light, pitched rattle of his armor was distinctive.
"You live," he intoned flatly, neither pleased nor disappointed.
"In a manner of speaking," I coughed and slid off the table, twisting this way and that, trying to flex my fingers. It would still be a few minutes before I could form a proper fist. "The gas... what-"
A familiar, annoying chirp answered me, "Stiff-as-nails tried to go in and save you. Guy got a whiff of the stuff, so when he went down I had to drag him the hell out of there. Got to a nice, secluded corner far away, too. Could've died if I hadn't stuffed him full of clot charms."
My vision was still blurry, but Dak'kon didn't even twitch at Morte's telling.
"How many clot charms-"
Morte paused, as if hesitant to say, "Eeeeeh... six. And let me tell ya, putting them on his tongue without any hands is trouble enough. I'd rather not think too much about that."
Neither did I. Those things were expensive, but as long as they had saved a life they did their job.
"Dak'kon," I groaned and felt at my face. The cartilage had grown back, and it felt funny, as if I were wearing another man's skin, "There's no need to walk straight into the meat grinder with me... I'd be the only one that comes out again."
His tone was flat yet sure, "As you say." Sometimes I wished the man would react.
It was rather apparent that we weren't in the Mortuary. There was no formaldehyde scent, no groans or shuffles of zombie workers. The musty sterility of death and the dust of time were lacking here: there was only the smell of blood and the rank stench of rotting flesh.
Where the Mortuary was a shrine of reverence and protection for the dead, this was a vulture's den. Corpses, hacked to pieces and their crevices and folds of flesh picked over, lay haphazardly in a pile at one end of the room and a tub at the other. Most of the blood had drained away long ago and crusted over on the floor in a thick layer. The moist flesh had crusted over and though dismembered, still, and silent, the corpses were teeming with life. At each gentle curve of pink and red, fat white maggots wriggled and feasted, while flies circled and landed in an intricate dance, both partaking in the repast and furiously breeding further into the silent mass.
This was going to be one of those experiences that causes one to never eat meat ever again.
A shuffling sound brought to my attention a blockish woman dressed in a heavy burlap robe. She lumbered about the room, her joints popping as she bent over to pick up objects from the various tables. Her hair was bound back from her head with a bone hairpin, and she had a sour, curd-faced expression. As the woman worked, she mumbled to herself in a sing-song voice.
I twisted, trying to undo a few knots in my back as I spoke, "Greetings."
The woman didn't appear to hear me - instead, she stumbled back to one of the long tables and began picking at one of the corpses. "C'mon, now..." She clicked her teeth. "Don't be all-difficult on Marta... he's bein' difficult isn't he, Marta...? Yes, yes he is..."
From what I could see, it looked like she was digging teeth out of the corpse's mouth... with only her hands and fingernails. When that didn't work, she pulled out a splintered wooden chisel and a mallet and thwacked at the gums until the tooth snapped free, then put it into a bag at her waist.
"Uh... what are you doing?"
Marta leapt away from the corpse, startled, and gave a piercing shriek. "Aighh!" She caught her breath, then hissed angrily -- at the corpse on the table. "If dead you were not, ye mights have said somethin' earlier, false corpse, nasty corpse, yes! Haves you no shame?"
Might as well have a little fun with the old bat. Looting a fallen body on the street was one thing, but ripping and cutting it apart for goods was another. Kicking my voice up an octave and tossing in a ridiculous accent, I threw my voice, "You are the one who should be shamed. Knocking out my teeth like that... have you no respect for the dead?"
"Hah!" Marta put her hands on her hips and puffed up indignantly. "Likes you cared for yer teeth! All rotted and scored and syrup brown -- wonder theys hadn't plopped out of your bone-box!" She scratched her head. "Isn't that right, Marta? Aye, all rot and gone they are..."
Again I squeaked, "Ooooooh... you will be punished for your evil teeth-taking, Marta. I shall haunt you until the end of your days..." Next to me, Morte was biting his tongue and his chalk-white bone seemed a little paler at the effort to not burst out laughing.
"Hah! Yous hear this, Marta? Do yous?" Marta's face scrunched up like a wrung rag. "I hears it, Marta! I hears it!" With a grunt, she started pounding the corpse with her fists, making meaty thwacks with every hit. "Haunt me, will you! Take this! And this!"
"Ooooooh... stop... stop... I will haunt you no longer... forgive me..."
"Dammable deaders..." Marta took a deep breath and let the chisel fall to her side. "That's more likes it, eh, Marta? Yes, yes... corpse quiet... yes."
I coughed, "I am the one who spoke, not the corpse."
Marta squinted and turned. "Eh? How's you get over there so fastus?" She mumbled to herself. "Marta, how dids he do that? No glimmer, no glimmer."
Morte rolled his eyes "This gravebait's blind and near-deaf."
Marta was still mumbling to herself, something about corpses and gratitude, which I didn't quite catch.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"Marta, dids this one asks whose I was? Aye, he did, he did..." She started humming. "Nobody but mine, I am Marta, Marta the Seamstress... hmnnnn... Mar-ta - the - Seam - Stress... Mar-ta - the - Seam - Stress..." She turned away, back to the corpse, singing her name to herself.
"What are you doing?"
Marta turned back to the corpse with a huff. "I'm trying ta gets this berk to give up his stitchies and his teethies, and he isn't recoop-erating, no, no..." She wagged her finger, as if lecturing a small child. "Stubborn as stone, isn't he, Marta?" She pouted. "Yes, yes, he is..."
I raised an eyebrow, "Stitchies... and teethies? What are you talking about?"
"Gotta pulls the stitchies out, the teethies... eh, Marta, perhaps you could gives me a hand... I have beens giving you a hand, old battie... no needs to take that tone with me... pulling out the stitchies and teethies, yes. And the thingies inside."
Morte floated over the corpse she was working on, looking over the breaks and incisions, "I think she means organs. I hope she means organs."
"Thingies," Marta corrected.
Morte turned to Marta. "Yes, 'thingies.'" He then turned to me. "It's all semantics."
The crone's handiwork was messy, unlike the quick, graceful slices and stichings of Ei-Vene back at the Mortuary. "Marta, why are you pulling out the corpse's teeth and stitches?"
"Put 'em aside, Marta, that's what I does here." She scratched her head. "Aye, Marta, we do... stitchy-thread and teethies are precious, can be turned into jink-jink. 'Strip the corpses we bring ya,' they tell Marta: 'Pull out teethies, stitchies, thingies inside the corpse, strip 'em cold and then we'll sell 'em to the Dusties."
And I thought a Collector's trade was bad. At least dragging corpses to the Mortuary for disposal was a necessary function, this was pure scavenging. "Who tells you to do this?"
"Fat-faced gimme-pig Quint, n' the other crutch-hobble, hobble-crutch Fair-odd Pharod, innit that right, Marta?" She gave a queer smile, and nodded. "Aye, it is, Marta..."
I leaned in, suddenly interested, "Pharod? Where is he?"
Marta shrugged. "Where's Pharod, this one asks? He's heres, Marta, isn't he...?" She nodded. "Aye, Pharod is heres, Marta. One of the buildings here, he is..."
"What do they do with the things you dig out of the corpses?"
"Sell. Sell for shinies," she said simply.
I ran a hand along my belly, suddenly caught with the feeling that there was something caged inside my flesh. Whew knew what odd bits and pieces had found their way deep inside me with all the dagger thrusts and broken bones? Or perhaps I once hid something within for safekeeping. The feeling was like an itch in the small of my back, just beyond my reach, persistent, irritating, until I knew I needed some help if I was to satisfy that odd urge that had just come upon me. "Marta, can you dig around in my body for anything?"
Marta squinted at me. "Hmnnn." Then nodded. "Marta can do that, cancha Marta? Yes, you can."
Morte made a gagging sound, "I am not going to watch this."
"Where? Where..." Marta was studying me, as if looking for the best place to crack me open.
I gulped. Well, better start with the obvious, "Let's try the stomach, shall we..."
I lay upon the table, and Marta stood over me, a rusty knife at the ready. I closed my eyes and waited for it... there was a stabbing pain as she sliced into my abdomen, then cut brutally downwards in a saw-like motion, exposing my innards as skin and flesh parted to reveal my glistening guts. I made a choked gurgle, and despite the pain, watched in morbid fascination as she lifted up my stomach...
My vision slowly returned... to see Marta standing over me, shaking her head. "Nothing, nothing, found, eh, Marta?" She shook her head. "No, nothing, Marta, no luck... should we try again?"
It was some strange delirium that guided my next words, "Huh... huh... How about my rib cage...?" Instantly I regretted opening my damn mouth.
Marta swiftly took up a chisel and mallet. There was a sharp crack, as she split my ribcage open. I choked back my screams as she began to fish in my lungs... those sacks of air fluttering uselessly as I tried to gasp for air. It was a mercy when I went numb, then blacked out from the pain.
When I awoke again, Marta was still standing over me. Her pursed lips matched the disappointed look in her eyes. "Nothing. Find nothing."
Third time's a charm. "Cr.. cr... Crack open my skull, if you would."
"By the Powers, chief! Please stop!" Morte was on the verge of screaming, his voice rich with desperation.
The last thing I saw while lying on that table was Marta standing over me, chisel and mallet at the ready. There was a sharp crack, and I screamed as that cold iron spike drove into my brains. The world became a scrambled mess of colors and noise for a moment before everything went black.
When I awoke Marta gave a slight shake of the head, and that was enough.
It was almost too much, so much pain. Cycles of it, turning over like the seasons. Flesh parted and bones cracked and tendons tore as quickly as they regenerated. It needed to end soon.
Weakly I choked out the words, "Chu... chu... check the intestines... anything could be lodged in there."
And Marta held up that rusty knife again. There was a stabbing pain as she sliced into my abdomen, then cut brutally downwards, gutting me like a fish once again. I stared, trying to keep conscious as she hummed to herself, reaching her shriveled hands into my guts.
"Ah!" There was a wrenching pain as Marta lifted up the ropy mass of my intestines, blood and other fluids streaming from it. "Look at this, Marta... look at this... I see, I see, cut there, cut there..." Marta made a small, deft incision in the side of one of the intestines, and I heard a tnnng as something small and metallic struck the floor.
"Urhhhkk..." I gurgled. Morte winced and turned away. Dak'kon watched coolly.
Marta then dumped the soupy mass back into my torso, then reached down, picked up the object... a ring, it appeared, and she flicked it to me. "Pretty, pretty, eh, Marta?" She nodded. "Yes, Marta, one shouldn't swallow such a thing, no, no..."
I tried making sense of the slippery tangles, to no avail. Apparently Marta wasn't going to give me a hand in stuffing them back inside me. "Th - thanks... was... there... anything... else...?"
Marta shook her head. "Nothing more, more nothing, eh, Marta? Should we try someplace else, Marta?"
I laid back, breathing heavily and gazing up at the hard mud-brown ceiling. "Nuh... nuh... no more..."