Part 39: Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 6Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 6
You know those mornings where you feel groggy and you simply don't want to wake up? Maybe you've drooled in your sleep and your cheek is resting on a puddle of cold saliva pressed into a ruined pillow. You happened to sleep in a funny position so that one arm was pressed under your body and by the time your consciousness flickers into being it's completely numb. Maybe you poke at that limp, motionless limb a couple of times thinking it belonged to someone else.
Now imagine something like that except you're covered in blood, your arm was partly severed and is inches from recovery, and you're coughing up and covered with blood. Crap, I think I lost a nipple to those winged jaws.
"Ugh..." I groaned, and flexed my fingers experimentally. There was no permanent damage, thankfully. That, and my head was still attached to my shoulders so there's another plus.
"Why do I feel like dog leavings?" I grumbled. How much damage did I have to recover from?
"Eeeeh, Dak'kon insisted on carrying you on his back when we fled. Luckily the things seemed a lot more interested in picking over your immodestly clothed bits and we kinda used you as a human shield until we were safe."
"Thanks," I grumbled. I meant it, grumpy as I was. The thought of being trapped forever in a chamber of clacking jaws, flesh torn apart and devoured by hungry teeth as quickly as it regenerated, was as close as I could get to a real nightmare. A scarred immortal would be an endless source of food.
The signs lay littered on the loosely cobbled ground as we descended deeper into the catacombs.
Skeletons and other corpses had been draped with loose clothes after death. Some gripped crude weapons in their hands, others bore wounds that never clotted or healed. I knelt down cautiously, examining one body. The skeleton definitely bore marks and wounds taken as an undead creature.
We were in the Dead Nations.
We passed by an odd corpse, dead for sure, but its neck still writhed as if it were trying to twist itself off his body. Some strange force held it back though, restraining the full transformation into a vargouille, and thus I decided to leave it be.
A pair of iron gates barred the entrance to the next chamber, but with a push and a creak the way was open to the next chamber.
If the Mosaic Crypt was an exercise in intricacy, this was a work of regal scale. Smooth blue-gray and violet stones were arranged in circular patterns in the floor, spreading outwards like the extensions of a spiderweb. Ancient columns, carved and polished, glowed dully in the fickle lamplight from the torches set in the walls. Much of the stone matched the material that the rest of the Weeping Stone Catacombs were made from, but where the catacombs were rough and broken with the ages, the clean angles and polished surfaces could have been found in a royal court.
But the halls were empty, and not a trace of life or warmth could be found, aside from the torches that lit the main hall.
"Spooky," Morte muttered.
It was as if the very word was forbidden, an incantation of summoning. The moment the first echo resonated back, a handful of ghouls scuttled from the shadows. Four of them. I remembered our last encounter, which left Dak'kon gravely wounded. We were hardly in the condition to fend off another four ghouls.
Then two more entered, slavering and growling, spurred on by their unnatural hunger.
And another three.
Well... they don't call it the Dead Nations for nothing, I suppose.
It was when the gate behind us slammed shut that I muttered the most profane oath I could think of.
"Oh by the Lady's sagging tits..." Even Morte bristled at that one, and all about the undead froze as if awaiting my inevitable doom. Hmm. Perhaps I should be more careful with my choice of expletives.
Before I could throw, cast, or swing anything, a commanding, hollow voice cried out to us, "Stop!" With that the ghouls stood quietly, eyeing us like fresh batches of meat.
Two skeletons strode forward, flanking another tall, royally garbed skeleton with glowing red eyes and a high helm. In one hand he held a tall metal staff set with a skull, which clacked against the stone as he walked. His robes rippled as he made his way towards me.
The creature's voice was dry, and hollow with lack of a tongue or flesh to speak with. But it was rich with command and as it spoke, the other undead obeyed. Cautiously, I walked forward to speak to it.
He looked down on me, with what seemed to be pity in those glowing red eyes. "Thou have come too far, traveler, and trespassed into the Dead Nations, realm of the Silent King! Will thou submit peacefully?"
"Submit to what authority?" I asked carefully.
"'Tis the will of the Silent King that all who pass the gates into our Nation become prisoners of his lands. Will thou submit?"
Looking back to my allies for support, I saw Dak'kon fingering one lip in thought, and Morte bobbing up and down in a frantic nod. Well, we had no other choice after all.
"Very well, we will submit."
The skeleton sounded satisfied, "Come, then... we shall show thee to the Chapel. Know this: thou shall be free to wander these halls, but not to leave the catacombs. Thou shall be a prisoner here until thy death; should thou later arise as we have, thou shall be free. Praise the Silent King; his will be done."
For prisoners, we were treated fairly well. The skeleton guards walked calmly alongside us, with none of the shoving or verbal abuse you'd expect from your average disgruntled military dropout. The tall skeleton leader himself trusted us enough to leave us with only the those two, though the slavering ghouls all about really made even the slightest additional security precaution little more than a formality.
Even our cell (if it can be called that) was built with the same graceful stonework that composed the main hall. It even lacked a door, and no guards were posted to watch over us. Yet while it furnished well enough with long-unused blankets laid out on the floor, the grim colors and dim lighting made the place seem more like a final tomb than a room for "guests."
A familiar voice greeted me, "Ah, another member of the living. Most are slain by the ghouls, this far into the catacombs; you are fortunate."
Sitting on the edge of a stark wooden bed was a man in Dustman robes. At his side rested a few books, covers gray with age but kept well enough that even the leather at the corners showed little wear. Tomes of Dustman wisdom. The man used a slip of paper to mark the spot he was reading before setting down the book and looking up at me with red-tinted eyes. "You're Soego," I said in surprise, "from the Mortuary. What are you doing here?"
He merely stared at me flatly, "Your memory serves you well. I am no longer stationed in the Mortuary... instead, I have become a missionary in these parts."
Soego looked past the entrance arch as he spoke, "Yes, I came to these catacombs after hearing rumors of undead that were aware in these parts. I hope to save them."
A zombie shuffled in as we spoke, carrying a tray laden with whatever scraps of food they could scavenge here. She set it down on the edge of the bed, bowed her head, and gave a moan that might have been 'Enjoy,' before leaving.
"Save them?" I murmured as I poked around the tray. A crust of stale bread, a cup of clean water, and a skinned, gutted cranium rat for each of us, though the latter was uncooked. Yech.
Soego nodded and looked at the tray. He seemed to be eyeing the rat, half in disgust, half in yearning. "Yes, a unique civilization of sentient undead. Such a thing is unusual, even in Sigil. But nonetheless an abomination in Dustman doctrine." He swallowed and turns away from the tray, "Passion ties them to this false life. I hope I can teach them to forsake these passions and leave this false life behind and reach the True Death."
I knocked a piece of the bread against the woodwork and the echoing cracks emphasized my words, "Why have I been made a prisoner here?"
"I do not know. Ask some of the 'citizens,' here."
I nodded, "Perhaps I shall. After we rest up, that is."
Soego nodded, "I offer some advice before you rest. Do not attack any of the undead here in the catacombs; they will not harm you so long as you remain peaceful. Should you prove hostile they will defend themselves, and there are... many of them."
Over the next few days we lay back in rest, recovering from the near-fatal damage we suffered in our explorations. When Dak'kon wasn't meditating he practiced the graceful, fluid forms with his blade with the sureness and knowing of a master. Morte flirted with a few of the zombies for a few hours, but seeing as how many were uninterested in reciprocating (indeed, they could do little to communicate aside from unintelligible groans) he quickly became bored and spent most of his time chattering and pestering me.
Granted, his presence made our detainment bearable, but it was distracting when I was trying to focus on studying the items we had collected. And indeed, on the second day I made a startling discovery.
The severed arm we plucked from the corpse in the midden heap was my own.
The gray pallor and the mass of scars should've given it away, as well as the haunting familiarity I felt for the thing. There was no way to tell how long it had lain there, or really what had happened that I would leave a severed arm to the depths of these catacombs. Again I felt the need to deliver it to Fell for analysis.
"What do you know of this 'civilization?'" I asked Soego later on.
He thumbed through his book, "They have been here many centuries, I think, taking care of those that have passed away in their halls. Such devotion to duty is no longer necessary... it is almost a crime."
Morte growled, "You just want to kill them. Sentience threatens the Dustmen."
"Tell me about the Silent King."
He looked at me, eyes peering over the edge like an intrigued predator, "I have never seen the Silent King. I wish I could tell you something about him, but I have never seen him. Presumably, his throne room lies beyond the crimson doors, but I cannot gain entrance... Hargrimm, the skeleton priest, will not let me."
He sighed, "A stubborn one, but admirable in his piety and devotion to duty. He is my strongest rival here, and he has kept this civilization together for many years. His passions stem from his piety and devotion to duty... admirable qualities, but misplaced."
And when we finished chatting, he left to proselytize the word of the Dustmen for yet another day.
On the third day we had recovered enough to venture out and take a look at this nation ourselves. While Dak'kon remained in meditation, Morte and I stepped out of our cell.
The heart of the Dead Nations was a temple of iron and stone. The familiar, ornate stonework was well-kept and polished here. Whereas the rest of the Nation was built in chaotic and desperate patterns of violet and blue, the floors were tiled in beautiful, ordered precision, as if the temple was built first and the rest of the Nation had to make do on the scraps of color remaining. While the temple was dark, dismal, and hollow as a tomb, there was a humble shadow of faith here that spurred the dead as much as faith bolstered the living.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" a skeleton chittered to me as he walked past with an armful of scrolls.
"Creepy, more like. I'd sooner see a Dustie ballroom dance in the Mortuary than one in this dump," Morte ducked down and cocked his head in an attempt to look up a passing zombie's skirt, "Though I wouldn't mind being proven wrong."
"But look around, Morte," I gestured, "We're talking about a fledgling civilization born from death. They're a people who refused to die and in the name of duty banded together to protect the ones that weren't strong enough to do so." As we wandered down the halls skeletons and zombies walked and shuffled about, busy at their tasks, deep in thought. Occasionally I heard a few ghouls snarling about better protection against the incursion of cranium rats. It was no metropolis, but the Dead Nations were thriving, "Doesn't that amaze you at least a little?"
"Eh," Morte rolled his eyes dismissively, "I know you're still kinda green here, chief, but trust me. Once you've seen one necropolis of undead standing guard over an ancient and forbidden maze of catacombs you've seen... 'em... all..." his speech slowed down as a female zombie who still had most of her long, white hair shambled past. "Excuse me."
I sighed and walked ahead. Whatever he said to her, it earned him a smack across the jaw which sent him flying into a pile of rags. "Wooo! Someone call the mortician! We've got a live one here!"
"'Mawgry?' Nay... 'anhungry?' Nay..." a nearby skeleton muttered to itself, occasionally pausing to scratch its skull. It was old enough so that no meat was left on its bones... only a few colored rags.
It nodded a greeting in return, but didn't reply.
"I was hoping you could tell me where I could find the Silent King..."
The skeleton looked up at me and grunted in frustration. "Not now! Forgive me, but I've the most horrid riddle on my mind and I can't puzzle it out!"
"What's the riddle?"
It seemed surprised. "Oh? Going to give it a try, art thou?"
I shrugged, "Yes, go ahead."
"Very well. This is from a chortling buffoon of a bone-bag thou may well find nearby. It refuses to give me the answer, and it's killing me!"
"Go on, then..."
It nodded. "Think of words which end in '-GRY.' Angry and hungry are two of them. There are but three words in the Common Tongue... what is the third word? The word is something that one uses every day. If thou hast listened carefully, I have already told thee what it is."
I rubbed my chin in thought. "It's... uh... hmm."
"Stumped as well, eh? Let me know if thou should find the answer... and best of luck should thou try and get it from the chattering fool which gave it to me!"
"Whew," Morte whistled as he caught up, "I hadn't seen so many fine slabs of cadaverous flesh ever since the Perelandrous Plague hit the downtown brothels. And they're spunky too!"
I rubbed one temple, still trying to work out the puzzle in my mind, "I'd rather not hear about that."
"Then don't ask, chief."
As I continued on, eventually I bumped into the tall skeleton that had ordered my imprisonment. It wore what appeared to be ancient priest's robes, heavy and ornate. In one dessicated hand it carried a large, impressive stave, capped with intricately carved horns, dangling pendants, and a gilded skull.
The skeleton, its eyes aglow like two burning embers, looked me over... but made no reply.
"Are you the Silent King?"
It shook its head, turning with an eerie grace and pointing eastwards. It then turned to me once more.
"Are you Hargrimm?"
It nodded solemnly, the pendants suspended from its stave tinkling softly. There was something disquieting about its silent, piercing gaze.
"Why have I been made a prisoner?"
"'Tis the will of the Silent King. The Living who are caught here are made to languish in his halls until they join the quiet ones," it said in that musty, ancient voice. It was rich with command, and trimmed with a formal eloquence that was impressive, if not archaic.
"Could he be convinced to allow otherwise?"
After a short silence, its jaws creaked open: "'Tis doubtful, but perhaps. Mysterious are the ways of Silent King."
"May I speak with him?"
It held up a bony palm. With a creaking groan and a puff of dust, its jaws opened to speak: "No." Its voice, deep and resonant, echoed for a long while in the vaulted chamber.
"But why not?"
Its voice boomed throughout the chamber and its staff cracked firmly against the tile: "No living creature may pass the doors that lead to his throne room; nor would I allow thee an audience even if such a thing were possible. Thou shall not see him."
This was a troubling situation. "But that's unreasonable! I need his permission to leave."
It held up its palm. "No. By the power of the Silent King, thou shall not leave this place."
I sighed, "What can I do to convince you?"
"Firstly, I would know why thou are here."
I made a ball with my fingers, "I'm looking for something. A small bronze sphere."
It shook its head. "I have seen no such thing. Why dost thou seek this object?"
"For a man named Pharod."
The skeleton drew back. It looked up and away, as if peering at the surface. "Blood still beats in his black, worm-ridden heart? That wheezing sack of flesh still sends his pack into our homes to raid and pillage." It faced me once more. "Thou were wrong to come here... we tolerate no such desecrators within our borders."
"But I'm not of his pack..." I protested.
Its voice was firm and razor-edged, "Why, then, are thou here, invading our homes on a fetch-and-carry for that miserable soul?"
"I'm finding the sphere for him in return for information I need. There is no other loyalty between us," I said firmly and honestly. Hopefully Hargrimm would accept that.
It looked me over carefully, tapping its chin with a bony finger -- click, click, click. "Thou do not seem the sort to follow such a man. Perhaps you speak the truth. Perhaps... your presence here is tolerable."
"Tell me of the Silent King."
He straightened up proudly, "Our lord and vision, he who makes the law and protects us. Thou would do well to start no trouble here, stranger, for the Silent King's eye is everywhere and his justice, swift."
"Why is he called the Silent King?"
"He speaks no more than necessary to guide us. Praise to the Silent King."
"Tell me of yourself."
It indicated its stave and robes. "I am called Hargrimm. I am the high priest of the citizens here. I spread the word of the Silent King to his followers." Its eyes took a faraway look as it recalled the distant, musty past, "I passed away long ago, and found that beyond death lies only oblivion... fortunately, I was able to step back at the last moment from the brink."
I raised an eyebrow. "Step back?"
"Yes, I awoke here. I wandered the catacombs for untold days before stumbling into the throne of my lord, the Silent King. He spoke to me, and from that fated meeting the Dead Nations was born."
"You mentioned followers. Who else is here?"
"We, the skeletons. Other undead - zombies, and ghouls. There were once shadows, but they have long since fled. Sometimes, one of Living spends the last of its days here. Also, far to the east live many cranium rats."
Hargrimm placed a hand against its bony chest, "We skeletons tend to the quiet ones, the true dead, and obey the word of the Silent King. Our work here has gone on for centuries. The zombies... they serve the Silent King and the Dead Nations as laborers. They work beneath the guidance of Stale Mary, the most intelligent and wisest amongst them."
"Tell me about Stale Mary."
Hargrimm's voice had a tinge of warmth as he spoke of her. "She is the most intelligent of what some call the 'rotting herd,' those zombies which populate the Dead Nations. Unlike many of us, her heart did not depart at the moment of death. She was a compassionate soul in life, and is just as nurturing in death. That is as much as can be said."
I glanced to the side and watched as a small group of ghouls huddled together, growling and whispering in the dark. Unlike the zombies and skeletons, who meandered about freely to perform their daily chores, the ghouls seemed to stand apart with a silent dissatisfaction.
Hargrimm caught my gaze. "You are most perceptive. I do not trust the ghouls either, or their matriarch, Acaste. They watch us with hungry eyes, and would doubtless devour us all if our numbers and the word of the Silent King were not a shield against them." It paused, as if thinking. "They are forever ravenous; without us holding them in check, they would run rampant in the Buried Village and the warrens of the cranium rats, killing all, then return to devour all that is here. And Acaste... she is the matriarch of the ghoul pack that has come to our halls. She is strong and extremely cunning."
There had been a thought nagging me in the back of my mind, a long-buried instinct ever since Hargrimm mentioned it. It was the predatory pair of eyes in the dark that glanced over your shoulder, the hidden sin that you had nearly forgotten and was flitting at the edge of your memory with fangs of regret. It was the fear a lone stag had of hungry wolves at night.
But I had to ask, "What of the shadows?"
Hargrimm shook its head, "We know not. It may be that they wander elsewhere. We rarely leave this place." It paused, as if unsure whether to go on. "Once, many shadows dwelled among us, but they come to our halls no more. They left long ago - and we know not where they went. Some say they wander the planes."
A chill ran down my spine, "They wander the planes?"
Hargrimm ran a bony finger along its jaw in thought, "I asked about it once. Mary says that she has seen their fate in visions. She claims they have all been drawn to a wrecked fortress that drifts within the Negative Material Plane, a graveyard of regrets from where they cannot escape."
A fortress... a prison crafted of sorrow and regrets. I blinked. "Mary... Stale Mary?"
Hargrimm nodded. "Yes, Stale Mary, may the Silent King watch over her. She was a seer in life, ages past, and still receives visions, at times."
"A fortress on the Negative Material Plane?"
"Yes." The skeleton priest shook its head. "Sheer foolishness."
"Tell me about Soego. I've met him before at the Mortuary, but there's something odd about him."
"He tries to convince us to give up this 'pretense of life,' as he calls it, and pass into the True Death. He claims that it is our passions that anchor us to this life, and we must let go of them and our duty. He wants us to die..."
Hargrimm growled. "Some listen to his words, but none have chosen to surrender themselves to his beliefs. Those that did would be forever silenced. Our numbers would dwindle, and all that we have here would be destroyed by what surrounds us. Soego may believe he is doing right, but is, in truth, causing great harm."
I clicked my tongue. Speak of the ta'nari, and he'll come. At that precise moment Soego decided to walk the halls, chanting a dirge in mourning of the misguided throng about him. A few skeletons and zombies turned to listen, even a few ghouls paused and looked up. One or two looked ready to rip his throat out but stayed their claws.
Ugh. Evangelists. "Why do you allow him to stay if he's such a pest?"
Frustration leaked into Hargrimm's voice, "We can not force him to leave. He knows we cannot harm him. The Dead Truce... no undead may injure a Dustman unless first attacked. Also, the Silent King wishes no slaughter in his halls."
A pregnant silence followed the wake of Soego's passing. "You must understand that I must leave. I have duties to perform, and I need information so that I might know myself. What can I do to convince the Silent King to release me?" I said, breaking the tension.
Hargrimm turned to me calmly and considered me for a moment before speaking. "Prove to the Dead Nations that thou mean it no harm. Acts of goodwill. Perhaps then I shall take thy petition to the Silent King."
"Great. More errands," Morte sighed, "Keep a list, why don't ya?"
I looked up to Hargrimm. "Is there some task I could perform for you?"
He nodded. "Yes, perhaps. Occasionally the ghouls will miss small packs of well-hidden cranium rats that have come to spy here. Shouldst thou come across any, be sure to slay them."
Well this ought to be easy.