Part 40: Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 7Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 7
It was most convenient that Dak'kon was walking down the hall just as I was about to fetch him.
"Great timing," I said to him, "We were just about to get you."
Dak'kon nodded, holding up yet another skinned, gutted cranium rat by the tail. "I am not so callous as to question the hospitality of these good people, but we do need more coal for the brazier. It seems that the zombie workers have forgotten again that we eat flesh cooked."
"If you're up for something a little fresher, the chief got us a mission to hunt down any stray packs of the buggers and put 'em in the Dead-Book," Morte chirped.
Dak'kon nodded to me and handed the rat to a slavering ghoul who had been eyeing the morsel, "My blade is yours."
Bolts of ice flew past us, embedding themselves into a stone pillar, a wall, the tiled floor. Despite their proficiency at elementary magics, the cranium rats had poor aim.
Fight fire with fire, frost with frost.
Small detonations of icy splinters and waves of cold blanketed the area, killing a few, softening up others. It was a simple matter, then, for us to mop up in closer quarters before heading back for lunch. I must say, freshly roasted cranium rat meat tastes much better.
"I found and killed a group of cranium rats in the rubble of an old passageway."
Hargrimm nodded, obviously pleased. "Thou have our thanks. May the Silent King watch over thee."
"So... can you speak to the Silent King for me, now?"
It held up its palm. "No. By the power of the Silent King, thou shall not leave this place." The intonation was beginning to get rather tiring.
I scrubbed a hand through my tangled black hair in frustration. "But... what else can I do to convince you that we mean you no harm?"
The skeleton priest hrmmmed deeply, the lights of its eyes dimming as it thought. "Soego. Rid us of that damnable Dustman, and I shall speak to the Silent King of thy freedom. However... I do not seek to have him assassinated. Merely give us a reason to remove him from the Dead Nations."
I had no love for the Dustmen, but this was going to be difficult. Soego had been spending a great deal of time in solitude, poring over musty old books on the philosophy of death and rhetoric. Perhaps he was trying to strengthen his arguments before he went to the pulpit again. With his gloomy prescence always in the kip, it would be impossible to snoop around freely.
Might as well explore this civilization a little more.
After shopping a little from a skeleton merchant, we walked down one hall only to bump into a skeleton shaking its head and giggling to itself. It guffawed and snorted occasionally, biting down on its bony hand to stop itself. The thing was old enough that no meat was left on its bones... only a few colored rags.
"Greetings, yes!" It sniggered, puffs of dust flying forth with each breath.
Well. This must be the one the other skeleton was talking about, "I understand you've got a difficult riddle."
It nodded, giggling. "Dost thou want to hear it?"
"Ahem! Now, 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 racked my brain once again. "It's... uh... hmm. Morte?"
"Aw pike it, chief. I all my virtues are invested in dishing it out. I'm no riddler."
Dak'kon mulled it over a moment, carefully considering the possibilities, "My apologies. Common is not my native language... such words are not known to me."
The skeleton burst into a fit of mocking, derisive laughter. It pointed at us with a skeletal finger, chortling and chattering as it clutched some imaginary gut.
Part of me wondered how that polished skull would look smashed up into a bunch of tiny, giggling bits. Much better. "All right, what's the answer?"
"Not a chance! Not a chance!" Seeing my dour expression only caused it to laugh more, chattering its teeth at me.
"Well... what if I stump you? Will you tell me, then?"
The laughter stopped abruptly. "What's this?" It cupped a bony hand to the side of its skull. "Do I hear... a challenge? Yes... yes... go ahead! But should thou lose, or leave half-way through, I shan't speak to thee again!"
If only he would make it so easy. "Very well. Let's begin."
I didn't know all that many riddles. Hell, sometimes I felt lucky that I woke up knowing how to speak the local language. Half the ones I used were simple things pulled out of the ass-end of a Dabus that every grubby child in the Hive should know. As the back-and-forth grew in difficulty though, I racked my brains trying to form a few good ones in between answering the puzzlers he gave.
It wasn't long until I came up with a good stumper.
"What is the beginning of eternity, the end of time and space, the beginning of every end, and the end of every place?"
The skeleton began to giggle derisively, but suddenly stopped. "Ah... er. Oh, dear."
Morte joined me in giving the bastard some mocking laughter of our own. Maybe I wouldn't have to turn its bones into wind chimes after all.
The skeleton hung its head. "I... don't know."
"Give me your first riddle's answer, and I'll give you mine."
It nodded. "It is 'tongue.' The first two sentences are unrelated, only there to trick thee. Remember: there are three words in 'the - Common - Tongue.' The third word is 'tongue.'" It sighed loudly. "Thy answer?"
I smirked, "The letter 'E.'"
"Aw, troll's leavings! Oh, well. Just don't tell anyone else the answer. Will thou promise me that, at least?"
"Why shouldn't I?"
"Because I enjoy the idea of them standing about, trying to puzzle it out for all eternity." It giggles evilly, holding a skeletal hand over its mouth. "Well? Will thou promise?"
"No," I said, and grinned again before leaving.
The puzzled skeleton looked up upon noticing I had returned. "Solve that dastardly riddle, yet?"
I grinned, "Yes. It's 'tongue.'"
It seemed incredulous. " 'Tis what? But..."
"The first two sentences are unrelated, only there to trick you. Remember: there are three words in 'the - Common - Tongue.' The third word is 'tongue.'"
"That's... that's... ooh! A devious trick! Why, I have no tongue, either!" It stopped, then laughed, dust billowing from its creaking jaws. "That's good, all right. I thank thee!"
"Be sure to think of a good stumper to get him back," I replied as I left.
It was down a side corridor where I met the second of the Dead Nations' Triumverate.
The musty-smelling female zombie looked exceptionally old, almost mummified. Her skin had the appearance of moldering, gray-green leather, and one of her eyes had fallen out, leaving a dark pit in her face. The other had shriveled to apparent uselessness, but her vision seemed keen enough for her to examine the wounded zombie in front of her. A long gash had been torn across its chest, and though its guts had been removed long ago in the process of embalming, an exposed cavity like that couldn't have been good. The female zombie had been sewing up the wound with utmost care and a motherly touch, as if she were caring for a child who had scraped its knee.
The zombie she was treating looked away, as if embarrassed, but she casually ignored his shame as she nipped the end of the thread with ancient yellowed teeth and tugged until it snapped. With that she rose, gave an affectionate pat on the zombie's face. Her lips creaked as if smiling, and she groaned, "B-be cuuurfuul urunnnd weeeraaatz."
The zombie nodded in response, and shuffled away.
The female noticed me as the other zombie shuffled past with a polite, if unintelligible "kscuzzz meee." She tilted her head and spoke with a voice that was slow and thick: "Guh-guh-guhreeetingz."
"Greetings..." I said, shifting a little. Odd how such tender affection could seem so unsettling.
She indicated herself and spoke again. "Suh-suh-stuhl Muhhhry." It sounded as if her vocal cords were festering away in some soupy mess at the base of her throat.
I looked around. Zombies shuffled back and forth, applying resins to the broken bones of the true dead and knitting together torn shrouds. There was a self-directed will to them, a liveliness that didn't exist among the zombie workers of the Dustmen. Each zombie worked as if knowing their tasks, and that meant they had to communicate somehow. I looked to Stale Mary, "How is it that you speak to these other zombies? I cannot understand them as I can you..."
The corpse took a step towards me, reaching her arm out to touch my flesh.
I looked down curiously, "What are you doing?"
She only moaned softly in reply, reaching out once more to touch my arm. Despite the ravages of time, there was still some vestige of humanity left in her gaze. I knew she meant no harm.
"Tch. I don't understand what they see in you, chief," Morte grumbled.
Stale Mary's nearly fleshless hand brushed gently against my forearm, and she spoke. "Luhhhssnnn." With that soupy gurgle, though, the word rang clearly in my head, like a whisper echoing within a silent chamber. Listen.
I stepped back, shocked somewhat, "How is it that I can understand you?"
I didn't hesitate when she touched me once more. "Spuhhhkkk tuuuh uhhh yuhhhh kuhnn. Buhuuhhh mhuuusssst duhh uhhht puhhhpuhhleee." Speak to us you can. But you must do it properly.
"Can you teach me?"
She smiled, the hardened skin of her face creaking like thick leather. "Yuhhh." Yes.
It didn't take long to learn the art of what Mary called 'Stories-Bones-Tell.' While I knew that there were magics to call, summon, and bind the dead so that they might be forced to speak true, this was a simpler skill, one less intrusive, that sought to listen to the echoes of an entity's essence that lay deep in its bones. It was a gift I grew to cherish, just as much as when Old Mebbeth had taught me the Art.
"Can I talk to any dead body?"
Mary nodded, "Suhmmm. Uhhhhers tuh duhhhud. Muhhht yuhhhh skuhhhh." Some. Others too dead. Must use skill.
She shuffled past me and picked up a brush, helping another zombie piece together the broken bits of a corpse that lay on a slab. Laying down a thin layer of the stuff, Mary clumsily plucked up a chunk of bone and pressed it against the resin before brushing another layer over it. One layer as glue, another as sealant.
I helped her arrange and place some of the smaller bits, the ones that her fingers were not quite dextrous enough to handle. "Tell me of yourself."
"Stuh-stuh-stuhhh Muhreee." Stale Mary.
I wiped off a bit of the resin that got on my fingertip. The stuff was well-watered and would've taken several good hours, perhaps even a few days to dry. Given how slow the zombies were working, it must've been a necessity. "How did you come to be here?"
"Duhhhhd luhhhnnn tuhhhmmm. Muhhhhmuhrrr guhhhnnn." Dead long time. Memory gone.
"I know what that's like."
She bobbed forward gently as if nodding, "Guuhhhd uuuhd zzzohhhhmmmb. Cuhrrr fuhhrrr kuh-kuwht whunnns. Turrr dehhd." Guide other zombies. Care for quiet ones. True dead.
While I didn't exactly approve of the defilement of graves committed by Pharod and his ilk, for a while I couldn't find myself caring much about the sanctity of the dead either. The spirits of the dead were gone, with no passions or cares of what would happen to their corpses.
Yet here were the Dead Nations, committed to preserving the dignity of the quiet ones. It was a strange sort of empathy that these undead held. The Dustman might've attributed it to a misguided instinct, or a spark of misguided empathy that still smoldered like a slowly-dying coal. The undead here saw themselves in their silent brethren, and Stale Mary was the grandmother that tied together all the shambling children.
Of course, some weren't quite so agreeable.
As I walked past, the rot-stink of the ancient-looking ghoul-woman was nauseating, even from a distance. Her gray-green skin was infested with tomb rot and festering sores, and her fingers, each capped by a long, curved talon, were covered in dried blood and filth. Her hair, thick with scuttling insects and worms, hung to her knees. It hid nearly all her face in shadow, save for a fanged, feral grin and a lolling gray tongue.
"Hsssst. What have we here? Some pretty meat, aye, a little tough gristle? Sharpen me teeth on yer bone and grow fat on yer marrow, hmmm? Hsssst."
"Damn. What is with you, chief? Why is it you're suddenly a blood with the ladies and I'm stuck all by my lonesome 'ere?"
I ignored Morte, "You must be Acaste."
"I don't have to be anything to ye, meat and bones," she hissed, "Ye watch yer tone with me, or no one will find ye in one piece again. Now, who are ye to come before me like a feast? Answer Acaste."
I began to step away, but the other ghouls at her side were slavering like bulldogs. If I ran now it might just spark that instinct to give chase. "I am... Adahn," I lied.
"Aaaadahn..." She drew her long, gray tongue slowly across her lips, yellowish drool trickling from the corners of her mouth. "Yes..."
"I don't suppose you could tell me a little about yourself."
"Go! Pester Acaste while ye still live, meat! Ask!"
"What are you doing here?"
Her chuckle came out like a hiss, "We fight, win and feed. Blooded ones such as ye become our food in the end. Ravenous hungers we have, burn the stomach, never full. We hunger all the time... and here ye are... hurry up, die and be still!"
I needed to look for a good opportunity to escape. Silent King's dictates or no, Acaste looked mad enough to not care, "How did you come to be here?"
"Wander catacombs, hunt and kill, crack open crypt and coffin, eat bones and dead-flesh. Come here..." Acaste blinked. "Here... strange place... Acaste stay among the weak, marrow-filled bones and herd of dead-flesh... can make noise, talk to them and they talk back."
Acaste frowned as if considering something, and started to look off into the distance. "But not easy prey. They are not still like other bones and dead-flesh are... they fight as pack and are many of them. Difficult to beat both, weaker separate, together strong, almost strong as Acaste. So we wait."
I didn't let her pause and consider going after other, tastier fleshy things in her vicinity. "What do you do while you wait, then?"
She snarled, "We say we fight for them, kill blooded ones when they come to take from us, hunt blooded rat things, kill them, eat them, leave bits of bodies we not eat as warning, say 'no come here or we eat you.' They make us protect here only. Hargrumm and Stale Maree say we not allowed to go kill blooded ones."
"That's all I-"
Acaste no longer seemed to be aware of me. She hissed, baring sharp, bloody teeth. "Hate them! Want to eat blooded ones! Hungry, we are... kill all blooded ones, tear flesh with teeth and crack bone, suck sweet marrow out of their warmth!"
I scurried away as she continued her rant.
"You know, she's rather pretty in that tie-me-down-and-hurt-me kind of way."
"She wanted to eat me!" I protested.
"I know! Sheesh, let me tell you though, only the shallow girls go after your type. 'Oh look at me and my big scary muscles!' 'I'm so scarred and mean-looking!' 'I've got legs! Look at me walk!' If you wanna get a girl that you'll really click with, I'll show you the ropes if we ever go to a real bar."
"You can forget about Mammy Marm's House of Many Mams."
If I was to leave the Dead Nations to continue my search, I was going to have to speak to the Silent King. Hargrimm had proved unwilling to help, Acaste would sooner see us all disemboweled and eaten, and while Stale Mary was as kind-hearted as they came, she was torn between her generosity and her duty to the Silent King. The King's own chambers were too well-guarded for me to sneak in and speak to him directly.
The only way I would be able to take another step towards escape (and finally get something to eat other than stale bread and cranium rats sizzled over a brazier) would be if I could get rid of Soego, and that was proving difficult.
Until one day I stumbled into the answer while I was taking my routine stroll down the halls.
There was no meat left on the bones of the ancient, animated corpse... only a few colored rags, which seemed to serve more as decoration than clothing. It was staring at the floor, shaking its head and tapping its chin thoughtfully.
It made no response, apparently lost in thought.
"I said, 'Greetings.'"
It looked up and, seeing me, sighed with a small puff of dust. "I've much on my mind, and would prefer to be left alone."
"Is there something I could help you with?" I offered. There was nothing to do here, so lending a hand where it was needed was no matter.
The skeleton sighed, "No. I've a difficult decision to make, 'tis all."
"What decision is that?"
It paused a moment, as if considering whether it should say. "To continue my... 'life'... here, or to die. To finally pass into the True Death I have been told of."
I clicked my tongue, "Soego's preaching, eh? I see no reason why you should give up your life. You only get one- well, in your case two chances after all."
It nodded, "I shall take thy words into consideration. Now, I ask thee to leave me to my thoughts. Farewell."
With that in mind, it was a simple matter to convince Soego to leave.
Putting on a blank expression and trying to look as bored and depressed as possible, I spoke to Soego as if it were one Dustman to another, "I met a skeleton -- in one of the hallways here -- that seems on the brink of seeking the True Death."
His reaction was a bit more energetic than I expected, "Oh! I will go speak with him, now!"
A full minute after he scurried from the room, Morte stood watching the door as Dak'kon and I sifted through his things.
"It does not seem right to go through the possessions of another," Dak'kon murmured.
"Necessity breeds many things, I'm sad to say." I flipped through yet another book, looking for hidden letters or documents folded between the pages.
Dak'kon looked up at me, his eyes sharp with sudden clarity, "Where was Soego when we first entered?"
I thought back, "The edge of that creaky wooden bed."
Dak'kon nodded thoughtfully, "And where does he always sit?"
I caught on quick, and began running my hands along the frame, "The bed. It's not a matter of comfort..."
"Habits often hide an agenda... one must know how to sift these patterns from chaos," Dak'kon intoned.
Upon closer inspection, the bed frame was constructed from one of those strange substances you only find in Sigil. It wasn't cold to the touch, yet the clang of knocking against it was hollow. The rippled pattern gave the illusion of a wooden surface- likely the product of spiral methods of annealing two metals. I ran a dagger along the crevices, careful not to scratch the surface too badly as I explored.
Wedging it in one spot I nudged the blade a little. The panel creaked. A little more force and it popped free, revealing a hidden compartment and a book.
I skimmed through it. The scribbles were messy from the outset, and in spots here and there the ink was blurry, as if tears had been shed during its writing. While much of the journal was illegible, there were enough details for me to piece together a little of what happened, and of what Soego really was.
"Chief! He's coming back!"
Immediately I placed the journal back, and clicked the panel back into place gently, silently, and picking up a Dustman book I scurried to one corner and pretended to read. Ugh. A Discourse on The Four Stages of Necrosis.
Soego was frowning when he returned, "It seems that the skeleton requires more time to think."
I nodded, "I hope you didn't mind I borrowed one of your books. It gets terribly dull here."
He shook his head, "Not at all. I've been here a few weeks myself. I find this solitude to be peaceful, but I can understand the sentiment."
I handed the book to him, "Well, if you need me I'll be talking to Hargrimm. Perhaps I can convince him to release me."
Soego's gaze hardened a little, and for a moment I worried that he knew we had been through his things. "Perhaps."
He said nothing else.