Part 38: Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 5Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 5
I've fought against gangs, hordes, and flocks. If you're good with a blade and happen to have the ability to tap into the fabric of the cosmos and bend the laws of physics to your will, all it takes is a few bolts of focused rage or a chromatic orb, and the crowd scatters like chaff on the wind. Of course, this strategy depends on the fact that your enemies can feel fear.
So it's quite easy to conclude that undead are another manner of beast entirely.
Individually, each one of us was a seasoned enough warrior that we could handle a couple of Vargouilles ourselves. With a makeshift phalanx, the winged beasts faced us head-on, unable to flank or surround any one of us completely. Those that tried to fly past risked a severed wing.
And when the last Vargouille fell, the path was open to us.
The metal gratings of this alcolve were crusted over with old, dried blood, as if this room had been used to store the leavings of a charnel house. I could imagine the floor covered with splayed severed limbs and gutted torsos. If this was a warehouse of flesh, perhaps the initial waste disposal for Marta's chamber of horrors, then it has seen frequent and recent use. The stench of rotting meat was thick in the air, and scuttling sounds rose from the darkness below.
The sanguine decor also served to hide the triggers for some traps in the metalwork.
While the coffin at the end of the chamber yielded only a grotesque collection of limbs (who the hell wanted to store such things?!) stomping on the flanking metal grating a little yielded a passageway down.
Yep. Just as bad as I expected.
Within seconds I found myself doubled over in the corner, spilling my guts into a puddle of what once had been blood, time and filth had transformed the crimson pool into a ruddy, foul-smelling ooze. The sight of yellow vomit splashing into that mass set my stomach spasming once again.
"Oh good gods- HURGKKK!!!" Splash.
The chain reaction had me going until I was weak in the knees and trembling. Trying not to look at the mess on the floor, I spat the remnants of my last meal against the wall. Even Dak'kon looked queasy. Then again the yellow pallor was natural for him.
"Ugh. Chief, I really really hope we don't have to dig through this stuff to find that sphere of yours," Morte took another look around, "And by 'we' I mean you." I pushed the thought of the crimson midden heap from my mind. No one could be cruel enough to order Morte to dig through that with his teeth.
I can't think of anyone who would willingly descend into this gore pit. As Morte would describe it later, by the look of things it was "Sigil's rotting cootch at that time of the month." Yet something drew me here, as if I were led on a string.
And that's when I saw the corpse.
The features and flesh had rotted beyond recognition, but by his garb the man was a thug. By the hair and bone remaining, certainly wasn't human. More than that though, the man was out of place here: his body hadn't been picked over, stripped, and dismembered. What caused his death I couldn't be sure, but I knew there were at least some clues I could find. I sifted through his belongings.
A bird's claw, dried into a husk and enchanted as a wand, and a severed arm. The former was a simple matter of identification. The latter... was intriguing.
Petrified, scarred, and gray with age, the arm looked as if it were a fitting club. Now, at least, I can chuckle at the thought that "I'll rip your arm off and beat you to death with it" could, in fact, be a genuine threat. Intricate tattoos spiraled up from the wrist and onto the shoulder, beautiful patterns that had been drawn with care. I ran my hand along that mummified limb... I should take this to Fell when I can.
Morte disagreed. "Gross."
Thankfully the next chamber we explored, the Mosaic Tomb, was much less interesting. A poison trap or two, a simple enchanted hammer (which would probably fetch a good price), and a few coins and we were set.
Perhaps I should feel a little guilty about taking these treasures from their resting places, but necessity guided my hand. Perhaps I was too quick to judge Pharod and his ilk. Then again, I don't plan on peddling bones and manhandling the dead themselves.
It was when I was traveling down one corridor that things got really interesting.
I had yet to meet any real life in these catacombs, with the exception of the cranium rats. Most of the things that moved bit, fought, or snarled, undead born of the otherworldly stirrings of dark and dismal planes beyond. You can't exactly have a friendly conversation with any of 'em. Of course, I was exploring with an eerily quiet warrior-mage and a skull who turned inane, mindless chatter into an art.
So of course I was surprised when the walls started talking to me.
Down one of the corridors the stone sweated with the damp air, and stale, moldy-smelling water flowed along the cracks. Over the years they had carved deep runnels into the walls. The carved stone faces that decorated the tomb, perhaps as guardians or watchers, were heavily scarred by their ceaseless weeping.
As I passed one of the twisted stone faces on the walls, it called out to me in a creaking voice that sounded like the shifting of boulders. Its voice was a slow groan, as if it wearily struggled to force out each word, "Immortal... regard me. I am... Glyve. I would have... words with you."
I jumped, "WH-- H-How did you know I'm immortal?"
"I see... a burning purpose... within your shell. I see... many things in the falling... dust of these... tunnels. You lack... something essential... and that keeps you... from death's sweet embrace."
Regaining my composure, I straightened up and listened. There were stranger things in the Planes, after all. "What did you want to say to me?"
"Listen: This place holds... much danger for you. Treachery awaits you... on the surface... and your way is... long and winding. At the end... you will find... what you have sought... but you may not ... want it then."
I blinked. "Are you some sort of oracle?"
"Oracle? No... I observe. That is all."
"In that case, perhaps you can answer some questions I had..."
"What... did you want... to know?"
I looked around. "What can you tell me of the catacombs around us?"
"The catacombs were carved... eons ago... to house the dead of the city... who did not wish ... the tender ministrations of the Dustmen. They have become... the refuse ground of the city... where dwell monsters barely seen... where humans prowl like... scavengers among the scavengers. Many-as-One patrols these tunnels... and has turned many against ... their natures. The Dead Nations... prowl as well... guarding against... the depredations of ... the humans ... who come among them."
A nation of the dead protecting these catacombs? Fascinating. "Tell me of the Dead Nations."
"The dead... have achieved life... in their own way. They rule... a portion of these... catacombs. They struggle with... Many-as-One... for the heart of these... tunnels."
"Tell me of Many-as-One."
"You have heard... of cranium rats? When they gather... they become more powerful... a shared mind. They and their servants... wererats... seek mastery... of these undertunnels. They war with ... the Dead Nations." Yech. Best to stay away from those things then.
"Tell me of yourself. How did you come to be in this situation?"
His sigh was mournful, and weary with the weight of ancient memories. I felt sorry for him. "I was once... a respected leader... of my community... in the Lower Ward. A petty lord... sought to increase his power... at the expense of my people... my friends... my relatives... and friends and I spoke... against him."
I had yet to see the heights of the class divide in Sigil, but by its depths the gulf was sure to be wide. "That was very unjust. What happened then?"
"And then... he captured us... one by one... and bound our spirits and senses... into these screaming faces... under the Ditch... where all filth in Sigil... comes eventually. And then... he let the polluted waters above... flow through our mouths... and noses... and eyes."
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
"I am cursed to... remain here until... fresh water passes my lips... There is a ... magical flask of water... in the ... Drowned Nations. Bring it to me... and give me a taste of it... and I shall tell you... of someone... who can help you unlock... its full potential... and you shall never... lack for water... again."
That could be useful. "Where is this flask?"
"I do not... know. There was ... an artist named... Chad who frequented... these tunnels. He knew. Find him... and he may tell you."
"And how do I get there?"
"Through the Dead Nations... where the dead walk ... and rule... or through the Warrens of Thought... where Many-as-One holds sway... Neither is without... its risks."
I nodded to him, "Thank you, Glyve. I'll see what I can do to help you."
Scouting ahead and braving the dangers so my companions wouldn't be hurt, I watched as a lumbering form hunched over, gnawing at a fresh corpse. The leathery sound of meat tearing and bones crunching softly were so basic and animalistic that I forgot that the creature's victim was human once. It made it easier to watch in mute fascination.
The thing's movements were too quick and sure to be those of a zombie's, and its form was much too large to be any normal humanoid. Its thick body was draped in rags, and where cloth fluttered away thick fields of gray-brown fur covered its massive, thickly muscled frame. A fat, wormlike tail flicked and dragged behind it as it feasted on the corpse, possibly a buried villager or thug dragged down from above somehow.
A giant rat. Ugh.
So when it started sniffing the air I knew it was too late to creep back. I frantically waved my hand to signal Morte and Dak'kon for help as in my mind I prepared a nasty little something for this overgrown rodent.
Snarling, the creature leapt blindly in my direction, raising a crude axe to cleave whatever hid behind the coffins. With a gesture and a whisper I spread my fingers, and three bolts of violet light flew in sharp curves, homing in on the monster and blasting it straight in the chest. With a shrill squeal the rat-creature, carried forward by its momentum, stumbled and crashed face-first into the stone wall. A couple of yellowed buck teeth clattered against the floor, scattering amongst the dust and ancient debris.
My dagger was unable to pierce its thick, greasy hide, and instead I focused my efforts on dodging its clumsy blows. Blood trickled down its snout and the thing snarled at me as it swung, blinded by fury. That axe never landed, but a swish of rusty steel past my ear and a swift tug on one of my braids was a reminder that the thing could get pretty damn close.
Thank the Powers the reinforcements arrived.
While Morte was willing to sink his teeth into many things to save my scarred ass, it seems like a hulking rat-monster was his limit for now. With Morte balking, it was up to Dak'kon.
Rusted metal clashed against karach, and as Zerthimon learned how steel was stronger than flesh, as Dak'kon pressed forward the axe began to squeal. Slowly the black-edged blade sunk into the broad head of the axe, and the rat's grip tightened while its arms trembled. It was as if the creature was unsure whether to press forward, or step back and risk a deadly riposte. All it knew was that it was losing, as karach proved stronger than steel.
I simply made the decision easier.
Another triple bolt of flickering violet lights shot from my palm, and the rat shrieked in pain as those magic missiles pierced its flesh. In a flash the Dak'kon's blade broke through the resistance, cleaving a chunk from the axe head before it slit a wound across the creature's belly.
The rat's guts sloshed onto the wet stone, and it pawed blindly at the ropy innards as if making a last attempt to stuff the slippery mass back inside him. Another slash ended its suffering.
"Cripes. I never thought I'd see a wererat here," Morte muttered.
I looked at him, "There are such things? Lycanthrope rats?"
"Yeah," he said as he floated along with me towards the next arch, "You'd think better, fiercer critters would be more successful in the lycanthrope world. Weredragons, weresharks..."
The circular chamber was lined with coffins all about, but the central coffin across the room was hinged along the sides such that it would swing open like a pair of double doors, or the body of an iron maiden. Rust-red smears and blotches drew a line up to the metal sarcophagus.
Morte's eyes popped out a little, "Oh no, chief. NO. A thousand times no. For all you know you could be opening up the arse-hole to the Nine Hells and get slaughtered by a mob of winged barbed wire demons or something."
"Or it could be a portal to a sylvan paradise where unicorns shower us with candy."
"ARSE-HOLE. TO. NINE. HELLS."
My curiosity was getting the better of me. Surely it couldn't be as bad as Morte described. Could it? "You'd better stand back, then."
Feeling along the patterned surface, my fingers probed for a crack. A way to open it. The strange material, smooth and shiny as metal, but stable and solid like stone, was neither warm nor cool to the touch.
With just my hands pressing firmly against the hinged lid, I pried, pushed. Slowly, and with an eerie silence, the heavy lid began to part, making a noise only when the thing was fully open and the hinges locked.
Sarcophagus. Sarco. Phagus. "Eater of Flesh." The name had never been more apt.
The small chamber held the corpse of a man with a surprised look on his beak-nosed face. It was hard to tell how he died: whether from the numerous horrific slashing wounds across his abdomen and throat, or from the blood loss incurred when his right arm was nearly severed from his shoulder. So mangled was his flesh that I was unsure how well I'd come through if I suffered as much.
I felt sorry for the poor man. It was a hell of a place to get locked into, clamped into a coffin with a lid snapping shut with the fang-toothed jaws of a demon. If he didn't live to be sealed into this pitch-black tomb, I would have considered him blessed.
Morte waited a moment, then floated up to take a closer look. Dak'kon stood where he was, coal-gray eyes gazing at the body impassively.
"Ugh. That's a bad way to go," Morte muttered.
I nodded, "If we could talk to him, he'd surely have a hell of a tale."
It was then that we heard the hungry snarls from the shadows, and three ghouls materialized from the darkness.
Several bolts of eldritch sorcery, a few fierce bites, and a few graceful swings later, the ghouls lay twice-dead at our feet. The battle had almost killed Dak'kon, and halfway through I had to order him to back away and swallow a blood charm before he died. The ghouls' talons were razor-sharp, their fangs dripping with ropy saliva as they tore at us with an unnatural hunger. Morte, fleshless and swift, came out relatively unscathed.
I spent the next hour helping Dak'kon bandage his wounds, and transferred a good portion of my own life force to him. Wheezing, his eyes were downcast and dull. The slump in his shoulders told me all I needed to know. He was a great man once, but age and despair had drained him of much of his vigor in youth, and bitterness had blunted his wisdom. Part of me was surprised he still had the strength to shape and wield his karach blade.
His spirit may be drained, but his mind was focused.
We needed some rest.
Okay, let's review. Cranium rats. One or two are easy to handle. A handful, sure. Just stomp the little buggers if you're quick. A dozen and you're in trouble. The bolts of lightning I could take, the crushing psychic blows were a nuisance. And yet I continually had to reevaluate the true extent of cranium rats' powers.
"BEES!!!" Morte screamed, and to my horror I watched as the rats huddled together, and a cloud of buzzing insects materialized above them. Brown and gray specks swirled, a thousand wings beating in a terrifying hum. The rats could summon.
Morte might not have much in the way of fleshy parts to puncture, but the primal horror of being swarmed by a cloud of stinging doom never left him, even after death.
Of course, at least Dak'kon and I had eyelids...
"Ow ow ow ow! I can't see!" Morte cried, snapping blindly at the swarm. Now and again he crushed a bee or two between his molars, but more often than not Morte's attacks served as an invitation to his tongue. His efforts merely enraged the swarm further.
"Just attack the damned rats!!!" I yelled. With the insects blinding and biting, I couldn't gather the focus necessary to cast my spells. Could the little bastards have been learning? I hoped not.
We continued exploring after the battle ended, scratching the bug bites. Morte moaned. His tongue was patterned with small, bleeding specks and his eyes were so lumpy with stings that it looked as if they had been put through a pickling jar.
We soon stumbled across a long-abandoned alcove, perhaps a preparation room for the Dustmen. The shelves were ancient and carpeted with dust, but rooting around there were still a few stray supplies left. A jar od embalming fluid, a few bandages...
"Hey, do you think this embalming fluid would help with the itching?" I grumbled, scratching away.
"Wuh? Thath thupid. Uour thupid." Poor Morte. That was the wittiest he could be in his condition.
"Take a clot charm already, Morte," and eagerly he floated over to my pack and nuzzled around in the depths, probing for one of the tear-shaped crystals. I smeared a little of the fluid on my arm experimentally to see if it would help with the itching.
Amazingly, it worked. Of course, it was replaced with a somewhat painful burning sensation in my wounds, but it was certainly less annoying.
"That's surprisingly effective," I said, slathering the foul-smelling chemicals over my itching flesh. If the stuff poisoned me, I'd recover, after all. And if it ruined my skin, well. I don't see myself getting prettier anytime soon.
With a clot charm, Morte's swelling went down, "Auuuuuuugh it still itches!" he scraped his tongue against his teeth. I held up the jar as I applied more embalming fluid with my other hand and gave it a little shake so the greenish contents sloshed within.
Morte grumbled, still trying to scratch his flesh. It might've worked better if he tried rubbing up against the rough stone walls, but I might as well ask him to tongue-wash these coffins while he was at it, "Yeah. Apply that stuff to mucous membranes. Brilliant, chief."
I shrugged, "Hey, it was just an idea."
I offered the jar to Dak'kon, and he politely waved it away.
"You're full of brilliant ideas, chief."
I hissed as the burning chemicals faded to a dull warmth. Damn I was lucky the damn bugs didn't go up my loincloth... "I suppose you have better recommendations?"
"Look, how about I pick out the next path? I've got a sixth sense about these things."
"Well, considering you've lost two of your other senses, I guess something else had to pick up the slack."
He grunted, "Hey better than a blood-soaked flesh-pit and a ghoul-filled tomb."
Morte chose a brass arch with blunt metal teeth curving towards us. Somehow the metal had survived the centuries of moisture... it was too unlikely that someone would've chosen to install a fresh new archway here for the sake of aesthetics. The soft yellow luster, so unnatural against the dull stone walls, was somehow inviting with a cold warmth that bordered on surreal.
The large circular chamber was high-domed and empty, encircled with stone cobbles and slabs pointing inwards like two dozen fingers. Our steps echoed as we entered, and on the other end of the room a patch of white came into view.
Bones. A pile of polished white femurs and ribs, skulls and skeletal hands. They were crowded together with a purpose, as if they were a nest.
A cacophony of familiar screeches echoed from around the room.
"Uh... chief? I think I'll leave the leading to you from now on."
I let my arms fall helplessly and groaned. "Oh son of a-"