Part 35: Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 3Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 3
Once the initial disgust and horror washed over me, the ordeal of trying to make sense of the tangled, soupy mass of my entrails was more troublesome than grotesque. There was no pain aside from the initial incision in my belly (well, that and the medley of other wounds and tortures I suffered) and the deed had already been half-done. There was no way to stuff the fleshy ropes back inside my abdominal cavity in the manner they were originally packed. The cleanest thing to do, ironically, would be to just call it a loss and cut the rest out and stuff my own entrails into my pack.
Morte gagged. But strange as it was to carry around my own guts with me, it felt stranger to leave a piece of me behind like that. Who knew what a necromancer would do with the entrails of an immortal? Actually, I didn't want to think about it.
This damn ring had better be worth it.
Outside I took a moment to gaze at my surroundings. Floor to ceiling, what once was a warren of ancient garbage carved like the tunnels of a termite became a cavernous village. Not a single brick of the place looked to fit cleanly atop another. Rather, the buildings had been cobbled together with anything that could be scavenged: rotting, mismatched planks, patchwork and stained tarps. And if the unwashed denizens of the Hive were grubby, the people of what I came to know as the Buried Village didn't even have the dignity of walking the streets above. This was a village of vultures.
A ragged man walked past, clad in patchwork clothes. He reeked of smoke and trash, and had a yellowish cast to his skin. I waved to him, "Pardon."
He looked askew at me as I approached, "What d'ya want from me, cutter?"
"Just the answers to some questions... who are you?"
The villager shook his head, "Ain't important, cutter. Slipped 'twixt the cracks too long ago - or maybe that was me da. One way or another, m'just another one tryin' to make a living any way I can."
"Well, I had some other questions..."
His voice grew slightly pitched in annoyance, "Make it fast, cutter. I got mouths t' feed."
"What are you doing?"
"Tryin' to make a living. What's it look like? Only I keep gettin' asked questions, and it's stoppin' me from that. You done yet?"
I said my apologies and went on my way.
Some of the villagers seemed to have a better lot in existence. Fortune was tough meat to find when living off the scraps of others. One woman with a lined face and decked in drab clothing looked off into the distance from where she stood. Her eyes were faraway, and there seemed to be a new vitality rising up under her skin, as if she'd been given a new life. There was a patterned tattoo around her neck. She started when I spoke to her. "Eh? What do you want?"
"I just wanted to ask you some questions..."
She tilted her head in a fey manner, "Mayhap I got answers for you, and mayhap I don't."
"Tell me about yourself."
She smiled proudly, "Me? I got two names now, and I'll show you only one - don't want you stealin' the new one, hee hee! You can call me Radine, pet, and I'll hold this other name tight to myself, I will."
I felt the slightest stab of- well. I wasn't sure what. Need, perhaps. Envy? Looking at a blank-eyed villager walking past, with no past and no future, part of me knew that he and I were alike in some ways. Nameless drifters on the wind. I looked back to Radine. "Two names, eh? Must be nice to have them."
"Aye, poppet, it is," she said with a proud nod.
"Tell me about this place."
"The Buried Village?" she looked at the ramshackle buildings, "Nice enough place, I suppose, if you don't mind the stench of corpses being torn open, garbage heaped on the roof, and the constant scurrying of rats 'round here. Much colder with only a name and no number to protect you, that's for sure."
"Tell me about the number," I asked, glancing at the tattoo.
"This squirmy thing? It's an identifyin' number. It's my number, gave to me by a kind man who saw me cold without the protection of numbers to back me up. Now I got it and I'm happier'n I ever been before."
I leaned in a little closer. "Interesting. How does it work?"
"Safety in numbers, and with safety comes warmth, and with warmth comes comfort. Numbers can do it all for you, dearie, as long as you respect their power."
Radine was a lucky woman to know who she was, and more. I was almost on the edge of asking her for her extra name, rather callous really. But the ache in me might've been filled with a name. Such were my thoughts until I met another village-dweller.
He was a drab man with a perfectly moon-shaped face, who looked at me without expression, and didn't speak. He looked as though his voice would've been as flat as a meadow.
"Are you all right, sir?" I asked. The poor man seemed even worse off than the other villagers, who had at least an inkling of who and what they were, "I don't suppose you could help me?"
The man gazed flatly at me, "I can barely help myself, but I will do what I can. What do you wish to know?"
"Tell me of this place. I'm hoping to find a man named Pharod."
Again his tone was flat, like the voice of a dead man. Dak'kon was a bard compared to him. "I know nothing of it. I do not know this place. I have no name. I have no number. I have no memory of this place. I am cold. I am scared. This is strange, to be so naked. I fear I will die."
"What do you mean?" I asked, but I was already beginning to have my suspicions about what had happened to the poor sod.
His voice was hollow, "I once lived in a land of metal machines and doors that opened at a word. I dream of the pristine metal cities and the empty shells that are our people. I had a number and a name there, and now I have neither. Like all my kind, they are all I have. They are all I have had of my own all my life. They were stolen from me. Without them I am nothing. I request your aid."
"You have it," I offered, but needed to confirm my suspicions, "Who has your name and number?"
"The one who used to be Radine. She stole them from me. I offered her the shelter of my name and number, and she stole them from me. They are mine lawfully and by right. Find her. She is in this Village."
The woman had returned to her faraway stare, but her mind hadn't wandered as far this time - she was not nearly as startled by me. "You again, eh?"
"Radine? The man whose name you took wants it back now," I growled.
Her voice grew shrill and a pink flush came to her cheeks. "Well, he can't have 'em! He offered 'em to me, and I kept 'em. He never said nothing about no loan of 'em, and he never said he needed 'em back! He ain't gettin' em! You can go tell him so! He really needs a name, you tell him he can have mine... the name 'Radine' should be good enough for anyone!"
It was hard not to poke a firm finger against her chest, "It wasn't good enough for you... why should it suffice for him?"
"It's a world of difference between growing up in a name and having someone else's, dearie. A new attitude behind an old name can change it all. See what I've done with this one?" That mad smile came to her face once again. She wasn't going to let this go easily.
"Very well. I'll talk to him about it. Farewell."
The nameless man gazed up at me as I approached him again, "Have you located the woman with my name and number? She will tell you she won the name from me, but she did not. She stole it. I require my name and number. She is in the Village, somewhere."
I nodded, "I have. She doesn't want to give it up."
He paled for a moment. "She must. They are mine. She stole them from me. I request your assistance." It was beginning to sound like a mantra.
"You're getting it."
"I require assistance. Any assistance you give me will be remembered with gratitude. Please help," he pleaded.
Radine looked blankly as I returned, and then shook herself out of her daze. As she did, the tattoo around her neck squirmed. "You again, eh, cutter? I tell you I won't give the name and number back. Tell you what - using this name and number's increased me fortunes. I'll pay good money for it, and he can buy hisself a nice new one, how's that?"
I shook my head. "I don't think that'll cut it. Give me the name and number."
"How about a nice twenty coins? That should tide the wee dear over 'til he can get a new set, eh? Be a dear and go ask him if that's what he wants for it."
"How about if I buy it from you, if you're so willing to put a price to the name?"
She looked at me as if I were mad. "Are ye totally barmy? O' course I won't sell me name!"
"Because it's me name, berk! Ye don't sell yer name!"
"You- you contrary woman!" I snapped.
Her crooked smile faltered, but she still managed to make one, "There are worse things I've been called, dearie."
The despondent man looked up to me, a glimmer of hope in his eyes, yet he spoke as emotionlessly as ever. "Has she given you my name and number? She has offered money, has she not? I cannot live. Money means nothing without a name. Get me my name. Has she given it?" His eyes crawled across your face, watching intently.
I nodded, "She has offered money for them."
"No money can buy a name. No amount can buy a number. Coin is scant consolation for identity. Surely you can understand."
I sighed, rubbing my temples, "Yes, I can. I'll do what I can. Farewell."
Radine's face crumpled as she saw me again. "He has refused again, hasn't he? And sure you've come to take back what's rightfully mine."
"Rightfully yours?" it was hard to keep the fire from my voice, "You have no right to that name and number. You stole it. You don't need a number to live. He does. Even if it hurts you, you have to give it up. It will be better for both of you in the long run."
Radine pressed a few fingers to her forehead as she knuckled down and thought about it. Her voice cracked when she spoke again, "I suppose... you're right. I've been a bad person, sure I have, and I can't keep this. Here." She peeled the rippling tattoo from around her neck handed it to me. She shivered as she did so. "And you can tell him his name now. He was and will be Ku'u Yin. Now let me go."
I nodded. I pitied her, I really did. When you live in a world like this who wouldn't steal to make a living? "Here's some jink for your trouble. Buy something to keep you warm."
"My thanks, cutter." She pocketed the money, looking more drab by the moment as the magic of the tattoo left her. "'Twould be best for me to be leaving here, then... and with the aid o' the jink you gave me, mayhap we'll meet again under happier circumstances for the both of us."
I smiled. "Don't steal any more names, Radine. Farewell."
"She has returned your name and number," I said.
"May I have them?" His voice was hoary, his features drained.
It was then that the fear and the temptation came over me. Is this what happens when one's name is stolen? Was I destined to die little by little, drained of life and hope until I was a mere shell of what I once was? I wondered if the man before me felt that same wound deep inside the space where the essence of his being should've been. I wondered if he had terrifying dreamless nights where he'd slip into darkness, and that horrifying void of oblivion was just past the corner of his eye.
Already I could feel that stolen identity trickle into me. Ku'u Yin, of the Asekelar Circles. Ku'u Yin, inventor of the Seelic Glimmer and Dreamer Third. It was a new beginning, draped in the warm skin of another.
I kept my voice steady, but the words were hard to force out. "Yes. Your name is Ku'u Yin. Take your number." I handed him the scrap of a tattoo.
Life and warmth trickled back into Ku'u Yin's skin, and he stood up fuller, taller, and his voice grew strong with the authority and power of knowing who he was. No smile twitched at his lips, but soft contentment framed his features as he bowed slightly. "I thank you for my name and number. Yes. Ku'u Yin. Yes. But no. I now realize I no longer require a number here. I will find myself a new number, if necessary. I give you my old number. It can help you. It is a mantle of law. It is protection. Do you accept it?"
I bowed politely and held the tattoo in my hand gingerly. "Yes. Thank you, Ku'u Yin."
"Let it warm you. Trust in it. It will protect you. Farewell." He turned and walked away.
With the tattoo on my forearm I felt a rigid aura wrapping about me, protecting me from the ravages of chaos. There was a warmth to it, a feeling of safety. It lacked the self-awareness of having a name, momentary an experience though it was, but the satisfaction of returning an identity to someone who needed it more was enough.
And so I made my way to Pharod's makeshift palace. The guard narrowed his eyes and looked my way as I approached, but said nothing.
"What's through that archway?"
He gave me a stern look, one that knew that I was trouble. The guard recognized me. "Pharod an' his court, cutter. Mind yerself in there, an' watch yer tongue; he's in as foul a mood as ever."
The recesses of Pharod's court were cooler still, the air cleaner. The musty smell of incense was light in the air, the slight smokey scent was barely detectable. Perhaps this place had been a temple once, or a library. But now the chamber, far too great to serve one man, was empty and gutted by the hands of looters. The slabs of stone that paved the floor thrummed with each step, and a mystic violet light wept from the crevices between. Long cracks had split straight fissures along the floor, and strange energies swirled like lavender milk between the planks laid haphazardly over them forming careless walkways.
There was greatness in this court once, and now it was a scarred shell of what it once was, its memories, grand or cruel, had been eaten away by time.
The throne at the opposite end of the room, perhaps once an altar, perhaps once a sculpture, was a stone hand twice the height of a man. Cushions padded its cold palm, and its fingers were curled forward gently like the loose grip of a dead man. The archway curled over the palm were decked with lanterns that gave off a lurid, orange glow.
"So I see you've returned, corpse." The voice was hoary and tired, but the room was large and empty, and Pharod's greeting carried over well.
I turned to see an elderly man leaning heavily upon a crutch; his left leg was twisted, as if he tried to walk two directions at once and paid the price. His maggoty-colored skin was bunched heavily upon his skull and is flecked with liver spots. He was mumbling and smacking his lips as his eyes made a circuit of the room, but ultimately his gaze returned to a stone sundial set carelessly beside a pile of broken stone draped in faded cloth.
The man's eyes lit up as I walked over, standing before him with arms crossed. "Tisn't my steady crop of jink come to Pharod's waiting arms again! Greetings, corpse." He smiled a wicked grin. "Have you come to ask Pharod for another jaunt into the Mortuary walls?"
I had been searching for him for so long that I had a tough time thinking what to say. "You're a tough man to track down, Pharod. I've come for information. I've been told that you know something about me."
"Know somethin' 'bout you...?" The light in Pharod's eyes dimmed. He studied me, mumbling slightly as his eyes flickered up and down my frame. "Corpse...? No? Yes?" His eyes meet mine. "Ah! No..."
"Pharod? What is it?"
Pharod was studying me with a dead-even gaze. "Tisn't a mummer's fair, corpse. No time for games, no time for Pharod to play the wheel... what are you asking such questions for?"
"I have forgotten myself, and I was told to seek you out. That you would know something of me," I said truthfully.
"Eh..." Pharod licked his lips; they made a rasping sound, like dry parchment on sand. "Now who told you such a thing, corpse?"
"Well, no one told me, exactly. There were these tattoos on my back... they told me to seek you out, if I ever forgot myself."
"Ah... so little said, so much told..." Pharod fell silent, and suddenly, I had a feeling that Pharod was dissecting me, like a corpse on a Mortuary slab. "I know much you would know. Much, yes. Much, indeed..." Pharod smiled slowly, the folds of flesh on his face peeling back like a curtain.
"What do you know of me?"
Pharod licked his lips again, then settled himself upon his crutch like a vulture. "No, no... not free, the question you ask." His pasty-white hands tapped the edge of his crutch. "Much I can tell you, but the telling has a cost."
I grumbled. "Go on, Pharod..."
Pharod tapped the flagstones with his crutch and sneered. "This village is not all that lies buried beneath Ragpicker's Square."
"Chambers, vaults, corridors... filled with the dead, all a-sleep in their coffins. Somewhere in those halls, somewhere there, lies something miss-placed. Something mine."
"What is it?"
"A small thing, a trinket, such a trifle..." As Pharod spoke, his words started echoing, as if two people were speaking... I knew I'd heard them before... from my own lips. Gently, I touched the memory, and it was enough for me to recall...
"...it's a sphere. Made of bronze. Ugly. Feels like an egg to the touch, and it smells of rotten custard. Am I right?"
Pharod fell deathly silent for a moment, then nodded. "Yes... how much do you hide from me, corpse?" He chuckled. "Did you return to see if I remember what it is I want?"
"Why don't you get one of your Collectors to search for it?" I asked suspiciously.
"Because the corridors need no more dead from this village." Pharod tsks. "Strong, fast, clever... these are qualities my villagers do not have. They go below -- they do not return." Pharod glanced at me. "Perhaps the dead will welcome their own, hmmm? That is what I think, corpse."
"Do you know where this sphere is?"
"Ah..." Pharod's sigh was like shifting sand. "And why do you suppose I ask you to look for it, corpse? I do not know where it is. I know it is buried deep, far deeper than any villager has ever gone." Pharod tsked. "It may be in the catacombs where the waters run deep, deep..."
"Very well... I'll do it. But I want to know what I'm buying with this trinket."
"There's a lot of knowing rattlin' around in my brain-box, corpse." He held up a withered finger. "One of them is this bit of wisdom: everyone wants something, whether they know it or not. There is much I know about you... much that you would want to know..."
I scoffed. "I doubt you can tell me anything of value, Pharod." The bluff made me antsy. I needed his knowledge as much as anything.
"I've learned another priceless bit of wisdom... for you, I give it for free: A man is often wrong about a great many things, and a dead man is one who has been wrong one too many times." Pharod licked his lips. "Much do I have to tell you that one would consider of value."
He had a point. "Very well, I will see about finding this sphere for you... in exchange for what you know."
"Very well, a deal struck, a deal made..." Pharod cracked his crutch sharply against the flagstones. "A sphere for a peek inside my brain box. Now, corpse -- there is no time to waste. Go to the gate at the south and east and tell those slumbering fools to open it for you -- make haste, make haste."
"Hold a moment... I had some other questions for you before I leave..."
"Then ask!" Pharod smacked his crutch on the cobbles, as if passing sentence. "Come, come, corpse, time's short and so's my patience."
"When you greeted me, you said something about taking me 'on a jaunt to the Mortuary.' What did you mean?"
"You tell me, corpse -- perhaps the Dusties that live there are more to yer likin' than some sweet-bosomed wench?" Pharod tapped his crutch on the floor, the clacking echoing throughout the court. "Most forgiving of the Dusties, to let you stride in and outta there as you please, considerin' you don't have the decency to stay in the dead-book."
The image of those grim chambers came to me. Who would want to go there? "I wanted to get into the Mortuary? But why?"
Pharod scoffed. "Corpse, you were so bent to git in there, now you spill that you don't even know why's you wanted in there in the first place? Sometimes it's a wonder why the Planes turn..."
"What is this place?"
Pharod's eyes rolled in his sockets, scanning across the ceiling, walls and then the floor. "This here's Ill-Wind Court -- not a name of my choosing, thank you kindly -- and the kip outside this Court is the Buried Village, corpse."
"What is the Buried Village?"
"Well, now, there's a story..." Pharod licked his lips again, then shrugged. "But to tell true, the story bores me. The short of it? It's a piece of the Hive that got bricked over one day, a piece-o-Sigil got penned in the dead book."
"What do you mean?"
"Y'know them floating goat-heads that serve the Lady, them dabuses? Well, no matter if you do or not -- they go all 'round fixing, breaking, burying, building all the time. D'you follow?"
I nodded, "Yes, go on."
"Well, as the chant goes... and a dusty chant it is too, being so old... them dabuses just damn well bricked over a section of the Hive one day and all bodies just forgot 'bout it. Dump a lot a trash onnit, and soon, nobody even knows it's here." Pharod smiled. "Wicked, no? A piece of Sigil all-forgotten?"
"How did you find it?"
Pharod tsked. "I still have my eyes, corpse, and I still have my ears, and when you have enough sense to tie the two together, then finding the dark of any matter is not as hard as some make it out to be." Pharod rubbed his filthy cloak. "Now, was there somethin' else you wanted to pick my brain-box 'bout? You didn't come just to hear 'bout this raghole, did you?"
My skin was beginning to crawl. Pharod knew much, but it made me uncomfortable talking to such a wretched, twisted figure. "When I awoke in the Mortuary, I was missing a journal. Do you know where it is?"
Pharod squinted at me, the folds of flesh coming down almost over his eyes. "A journal you had when we spoke last... has it lost itself?" Pharod chuckled dryly. "These eyes have not seen it... but keep them peeled, I will. I would love to read such a magnificent work..."
And finally, to the heart of the matter. The one question that many asked, that many wanted to know. "I heard you have found a wealth of bodies, Pharod. Where do they come from?"
"Does a mage tell the secrets of his craft? So it is with the Collector..." Pharod frowned, studying me. "Perhaps I will tell you... but you must promise that it is for your ears only."
I gestured, weaving my hands through the air. My fingers crackled with the small spells I had prepared, but Pharod seemed unimpressed. "Are you comparing yourself to a mage, Pharod? I think you're insulting the craft."
Pharod flushed nonetheless, and he tapped his crutch against the ground. "Collecting is as much a skill as any petty mageling can hold a copper to."
"Pharod, finding a bunch of dead bodies and selling them can hardly compare to the study of magic," I let the energy dissipate and waved dismissively, flicking aside the sparks with a careless hand.
"Was it not skill that found this place?!" Pharod's voice rose to a bellow, and his fingers tightened around his crutch. "It took sense to find this place, it did, and it took sense to make the most of it!"
I laughed, playing the old man like a fiddle. "The Buried Village? Come on, what's the secret of that?"
"Very well..." Pharod tapped the flagstones with his crutch and sneered. "This village is not all that lies buried beneath Ragpicker's Square."
I nodded, intrigued. "Go on..."
"Chambers, vaults, corridors..." Pharod gave the faintest of smiles, and his eyes gleamed like gold. "Places, black as pitch, filled with weeping stones and the precious dead, all a-sleep in their coffins. Sleeping..."
"Where do all these dead come from?"
Pharod affixed me with a lopsided stare. "Corpse, corpse... everything dies. Life is so short, but death lasts for so very, very long. Many people, many deaths..." His stare traveled past me. "Such a waste for their deaths to be useless in a Dustie's arms, eh?"
I raised an eyebrow, "What do you mean?"
Pharod smiled, greedily. "Not all the dead that goes to the Mortuary gate is fed to the furnace, corpse. The Dusties bury some of the dead in the city's bowels. Under the village... so near, so close... is such a place. I would have been a fool not to see opportunities..."
Worse than a vulture. A defiler of graves, one who disturbed the dead. Not even to pry the gold from their teeth or steal the gems interred with them, but to pick the bodies from their resting places and sell their bones like scrap. "So you rob the catacombs of the dead the Dustmen placed there, sell them back to the Dustmen and they bury them again?"
Pharod nodded, then chuckled lightly -- the sound was like shifting sand. "These catacombs are as deep as a Dustie's pockets."
"And as deep as the greed of man," I said, disgusted.
"Oh, yes..." Pharod sneered. "And the greed of man is something that shall always be counted upon when naught else is left, eh?"