Part 41: Soego's TaleSoego's Tale
With hair brushed and teeth polished, a 14-year-old Soego straightened his clothes. True, they were ragged and threadbare, and utterly unremarkable stitched as they were from old drapes scrounged from a meek peddler in the Hive Market, but it was still his best shirt and he had to make an impression.
While he shared the abandoned warehouse with twelve other stray youths, he was the oldest, and with age came the privilege of privacy. Soego lifted a loose floorboard to reveal his stash, plucking a vial of perfume from among the stashed treasures he kept: a slightly tarnished bronze pendant, a small bag of fire lotus seeds he nicked, and a pair of old shoes he wore when he was ten (they were still fine, stout leather, and he didn't have the heart to let them go when he outgrew them). The fine crystal vial held a pinkish oil that glittered bright in the daylight that filtered through the windows. It was something he kept on an idle whim, the result of tickling a few pockets, but today he was thankful he didn't sell it after all.
True it was a scent for women, but a rosy aroma was better than the stink of grime and sweat so prevalent in the Hive. The previous week he had fairly bathed himself in it and it had drawn enough sniggers and teasing to turn him red in shame. Still, Soego was smart enough to know he had best not let that get in his way.
With two fingers dabbing a drop of the remaining perfume at his neck he was ready to go.
The crowd of youths joked and chatted as they sat in a circle before the Obelisk, or 'The Hangman's Pillar' as the boys called it to the consternation of many Dustmen. So many jokes had been made about the large stone erection, carved with the names of countless dead, that they had gotten stale years ago. Yet still the jokes were told if only to tweak some Dustie noses.
Soego had always been a slim boy, and in the alleys it was always a disadvantage. Here though, he found it easy to squeeze between a burly factory worker and a tall, toothless old man. Behind him one of the taller boys, a soon-to-be Backalley Shiv if rumors were to be believed, was punching his friend in the shoulder. That was the most violence the Dustmen would allow in this sanctum. Soego shifted, trying to nudge himself a bit more room. The old pews squeaked.
And there she was.
Her name was Seladril, a golden-haired aasimar with azure eyes and a milk-toothed grin. The loose Dustman robes ensured her modesty, but it was low-cut enough that it revealed a neck like a swan's. Seladril moved as if she were a force of nature: she swished like the wind kissing the summer grass, walked as if she traveled the paths of the stars that so many Prime Worlders spoke of. Yet it was not this celestial dance that guided her: rather, it was her natural will and charm that seemed to cause all in the planes to bend to her beckoning.
And it was that charm that drew the crowds to witness a Dustman preach, of all things.
She knew how to use her body to that effect. A flick of her wrist would catch the eyes of all the boys, and they would stare. If she lifted her arms just so, those drab, loose sleeves would slip, revealing slim lily-white arms bending like liquid porcelain, and the men would sigh.
Once a week she came to the obelisk. She would smile with each point, joke and fill the air with bubbly laughter between each hymn. But what drew young Soego was her eyes.
Limpid and bright like silvered sapphire, Seladril's gaze was so unlike the dull, dead beyond-the-grave stare carried by so many of her brothers and sisters. When she was silent, they were piercing as wistful half-forgotten memories at twilight. When she smiled, those eyes were bright and teasing like a woman returning courtship. And more than once, Soego noticed, those eyes seemed to fall on him more than on others.
"The True Death is peace. It is liberation from your suffering. It is the final restful sleep after a lifetime of toil. Passions are the anchor that keep you locked in this pointless cycle of rebirth, good people. If you only release them, you can know freedom."
"Aye? And what 'passions' might ye have sacrificed?" A satyr asked, his words slurred with drink and hot with lust.
When the laughter quieted down (and it always did, quickly, when Seladril smiled), the odd lecturer answered, "Well. If you goodfolk must know... before I first accepted the robes of an Initiate, I was quite fond of roses." The smile she held was meant for Soego, and him alone.
And once again, Soego blushed.
While interest in the bright young woman waxed and waned with the crowd over the weeks, Soego was one of the few that sat on the bench every week to listen to Seladril's lectures. While he had yet to be convinced of Dustman philosophy, he was one of those faithful to Seladril, at least.
And when he was 17, Soego took the title of Namer.
One of twelve Namers that Seladril had gathered that year (an astronomical number, by Dustman standards), Soego found himself grumbling with the others over mundane tasks and sitting through lessons on the five arts of embalming (and their many variants) and the stages of decay. Being continually quizzed and tested and beaten with a stick by a maggot-haired old crone was not the best way to spend one's youth. But still, like the other Namers he studied and fetched and worked with, to see Seladril glance at them with those deep blue eyes from down the hall was enough.
Each time those eyes twinkled in the distance was like the first time he had seen a portal open to the Blessed Fields, Elysium. A wind sweet with meadow-scent had caressed the long-stemmed grasses that bent in reverence under an azure sky, all framed in the silvered borders of the portal itself. It took all he had not to leap through and follow the travelers to that strange realm.
And one day, while he was hard at work cleaning the blood from a dissection slab, a swish of cloth behind him announced her presence. Soego knew the sound of those footsteps well.
"Scrubbing with the etch pattern of the metal is much more effective," she said in that voice, warm and musical like the song of silver bells.
"F-Factor Seladril," Soego stuttered. Turning to face her he bowed awkwardly.
She smiled, "I know you. Soego, yes? My you've grown into a fine young man."
He blushed, "I- I'm honored you remembered."
With a finger white as ivory Seladril ran a finger along the surface he was cleaning, and examined the light layer of dead black and scarlet dust that stained her skin, "It's been... what, a year since you first came to us?"
"Ten months, Factor Seladril."
"Tch. No need to be formal, Soego," she chided, turning to examine a zombie swaying in the corner. One arm was hanging limp from its side... the body was in need of some repair before it was put to work again, "You can tell I'm not like many of the other Dustmen."
"Go ahead and ask, dear," she laughed, "Don't be shy. Everyone else did... and my did they put me to the irons when my promotion to Factor was announced."
"Y-you..." Soego started, taking a moment to calm his stutter, "You don't seem like a regular Dustman."
Plucking through a tray, Seladril lifted a pre-threaded needle to her eye. Examining it, she nodded, half in satisfaction, half in answer to Soego's thought. She turned to stitch up the zombie's arm as she spoke, "I was a Sensate a few years ago, a good one too. And one day I had decided to experience what it would be like to be a Dustman."
The needletip punched through gray and partly dessicated flesh, looping back over into a fine, even stitch. Seladril's fingers, by all appearances much too delicate for such coarse and foul work, were nimble and practiced. With the other hand she raised the zombie's arm as she sewed, binding flesh ever tighter to flesh, "Like a good Sensate I gave myself over fully to the experience, and over time I learned and accepted the dark of life and death. Many of the Dustmen were skeptical. Some were openly scornful. I didn't blame them of course. Sensates can be so fickle when it comes to everything: taste, touch, feel, hear, smell... the quest to capture the passing phantasms of this shadow of life is all they will ever know. If I could feel pity for them, I would."
Muttering an incantation, she touched a finger to the zombie's arm, and with a flicker of black flame the wound sealed itself shut.
"Zombie 918, finish cleaning this slab," she commanded, then turned to Soego with a smile, "A young man like you shouldn't waste his time on such things. Come, let us discuss some lessons."
Soego gripped the edge of the slab just as the zombie began scrubbing. With the sudden leap in his pulse he was almost certain he was about to collapse at that moment.
But when a soft hand took his own, Soego swallowed. He knew he was stronger than this. This was his moment to impress, "But isn't it somewhat contradictory for you to be a Dustman?"
"Contradictory?" the edges of her lips twitched playfully as they walked out the arch.
"Well, yes," Soego's voice strengthened, "You obviously seem to be one who enjoys life. And you gather potential initiates by inflaming their passions, and urge them to kill those very passions that inspire them to join the Dustmen in the first place."
"Truly. You are as bright as I expected. There is much potential in you as a Dustman if you can be so direct. Few are so bold as to question one who outranks them," Seladril smiled in delight, "But I do not enjoy 'life.' I live it. That is all that can be expected of anyone, Dustman and living alike. No more, no less. And as for my place as a Dustman, well..."
Soego's breathing quickened when she gave his hand a firm little squeeze, "People hear the truth I preach. Some listen, many do not. But still I gather many to our cause even if they do so on a whim and leave us later. But their fates are of little concern to me... frustration and pity are also things a true Dustman must rid herself of. And futility must be embraced.
"Besides," her moist red lips curled back to reveal a sharp grin, "I tempt the higher-ups. I test and remind them constantly of what they must purge themselves of. It was probably why I was promoted to Factor so quickly... mixing with the weaker stock of Factotums would've done more harm than good."
Soego licked his lips, "I believe- I am ready to join the Dustmen."
Seladril's smile was still warm, "Patience, Soego. You still have much to learn."
Under Seladril's tutelage Soego's passions cooled over time. She was as warm as ever, as kind and cheerful. But in Soego's heart it was as if a bright summer day had clouded over, and the resulting gray pallor had leeched the color from the world. A dreary fog had begun to cloud his passions, usurping the light's rightful place.
And so when he was twenty, Soego put on the robes of a Dustman Initiate.
Seladril, his sponsor, smiled proudly during the ritual as he coldly handed over his last physical ties to sentiment and feeling. The bronze pendant he had given to her long ago in shy gratitude, but that pair of old shoes and the bottle of perfume would be destroyed in the furnaces that night, freeing him at last to walk the path towards True Death.
The other Factors nodded approvingly as they filed past him, faces flat and expressionless as stone. Seladril was the last to leave, and as she did she pressed her soft red lips to his cheek in a sweet kiss and whispered into his ear.
"I'll share one more secret with you, dear Soego: I am still quite fond of roses."
Something flickered in his chest then, a memory of a fading ember where there once had been a blaze as hot as a forest fire. But Soego obediently willed it away as Seladril had taught him, leaving only a cold, hollow numbness behind.
They still met for a cup of tea every week or so. His former teacher's soft laughter, so warm and merry, was in sharp contrast to the somber near-silence of the Gathering Dust Bar. Even if there hadn't been wards laid to mute noise and enhance meditation, another Dustman would've been embarrassed to be seen with a beautiful, lively young lady like Seladril.
But not Soego. Something stirred in him with each meeting. The days before they met were sweet with anticipation, and the days when she had to cancel seemed bleaker than before. It wasn't love, Soego knew… that was a boyish fantasy he had left behind long ago. It was something, but it wasn't love.
He knew that Seladril was still testing him. Even though Soego was still a lowly Factotum, his former teacher was proud of him, and had expectations as high as the ones she held for the other Factors. And so Soego began to spend the days after their meetings deep in meditation, though once or twice he allowed himself the vice of feeling, just a little.
In the meantime, cranium rats had been scrabbling through the Mortuary in greater numbers than he had known in recent memory. Traps were laid, only to be found sprung yet empty. Poisoned scraps were set out, but the pests avoided them. The Factotums growled in frustration, while those wiser knew patience. One day, one of the critters was bold enough to scrabble up to Soego as he chanted quietly to himself. A bowl of incense was smoldering before him.
Soego had been trained well, but still he felt a touch of annoyance, and quick as a whip he snatched the rodent. It squealed in his hand, struggling as he held it up and cocked his head in curiosity. What could the creatures be doing? There was no fresh meat for them here.
A few years ago Soego would've let loose a colorful string of curses when that rodent bit down on the fleshy part of his hand and drew blood. A few choice ones he had learned on the streets as a boy, too. But he simply winced and held it up sternly.
"Nasty little creatures, aren't you?" he muttered, and throttled the rat with both hands. It gave a short squeal before bones crunched in his grip, and blood spurted down along his fingers. Soego calmly dropped the mangled mass of fur, flesh, blood, and bone and resumed his meditation.
The wormy pink tail twitched once, and was still.
A knock sounded at the door to Soego's chambers. "Soego? I know you're here. You changed your assigned room."
The call went unanswered.
Another knock, "Soego? You'd better not have hung yourself from the rafters. I'd be quite cross if you tossed aside your training like that."
The door opened, and Seladril glided in with a tray in both hands, "Tch. You could've had the courtesy to tell me you couldn't come for tea last week. You never missed a chance to talk, and I waited for over an hour. Do you know how dull the other Dustmen are? Of course you do."
The blanket-covered lump lay still on the bed.
Setting the tray on his small desk, Seladril sighed. There were so few Dustmen, and even fewer Initiates each year, it seemed. The recordbooks had never told of a time when more than half the bedrooms were filled, "Now I'm neither innkeeper nor cook, but I heard you haven't been eating. Rumors of Red-Eye Fever."
Soego didn't move.
Seladril sat down on the bed and ran a hand along that lump, "Soego? I haven't said this to anyone in a long time, but you're making me nervous."
His words came out in a gutteral snarl, "Get out..."
"Soego?" she whispered. For the first time in Soego's memory, Seladril's voice was trembling. She began to pull back the sheets...
Predatory urges were never kind. They were merciless, inhuman, and bloody. If the simple need to tear apart and devour one's prey could be called cruel, then Soego could think of no words to describe the sheer brutality of his instincts.
Because they were not even kind enough to grant Seladril a quick death.
Her screams echoed unheard through the near-empty Mortuary, with the twisted irony that it was in the abandoned apartment wing that Soego hid himself in to protect others from his condition, and now no one could come to his teacher's aid. She struggled, clawing against Soego's thick, fur-covered hide, trying to shield herself from his long, yellowed fangs in that primal instinct to protect herself. Any other time Seladril would have embraced death, but she had long ago taken up the habit of setting aside her expertise and training for her pupil.
Soego wept long after her death rattle was drowned out by the rip and crunch of flesh and bone. He wept as he began to eat.
Three small heresies were committed by the Dustmen on the day of Seladril's funeral.
First, they expressed surprise. It was the shock and confusion of the brutal murder of a Factor in the heart of Dustman power itself. It was the awe that cranium rats were responsible- dozens had been found scrabbling over her body, swarming over her still-warm corpse in the hallway nipping and biting in a throbbing mass of black-brown fur. Softer, though, was the bewilderment that so many Dustmen attended who had considered Seladril a friend.
It was a closed-casket funeral.
The second heresy was greater still. As that casket was edged slowly and gently into the consuming flames of the crematorium, the Dustmen chose to remember Seladril's life. They remembered her beauty, her odd smile and warmth despite her devout commitment to Dustman cause and Dustman ideology. They remembered her for her grand work in guiding more initiates into the fold and for her unwavering belief in the final peace of True Death. Perhaps it would have shamed her cause, but the gathering chose to remember. And in a moment of weakness, one by one several Dustmen shed a single tear, and no more.
The third heresy belonged to Soego and Soego alone.
He chose to mourn.
"If I may ask… are you all right? You look... tired."
Soego managed a weak smile, and the corners of his mouth twitched slightly, "I have recently taken ill... minor fevers, nothing more. Sometimes they make sleep... difficult."
"Anything I could do?" the stranger offered. He was gray-skinned and terribly scarred, and if it weren't for Soego's heightened sense of smell he would likely have mistaken the man for another zombie.
Soego shook his head, "No, no. Thank you for the concern. I will endure."
"Hey chief! You gonna rattle your bone-box all day or are you coming?" the traveler's mimir called.
The stranger gave Soego a polite smile before he left, "Thank you, Soego. I hope you feel better."
Such a kind man, if a little naive and ignorant of Planar ways. Poor clueless sod.
"Tch," Soego chided himself for a moment, having forgotten to ask the stranger's name. But no matter... the Dustmen would see him again in due time. Death came to all in the Planes, after all.
With that, the weary Dustman closed the door.
"Good day." a familiar voice addressed him.
Soego looked up, "Remn." Like Soego, Remn had been an orphan adopted and trained by Seladril. Perhaps there might've been some rivalry between the two as a result (indeed, perhaps there already was) if Seladril hadn't been coyly disapproving of such nonsense.
"I know you were very close to our late Factor Seladril," Remn said coolly. There was suspicion in his eyes.
"Somewhat," was the response, just as cold, "We were friends, nothing more."
"Still, it strikes me as unusual that you chose to perform the autopsy yourself. And the embalming," Remn ran a finger along his chin. He had a habit of doing so every time he was deep in thought.
Soego toyed with the idea of gutting the fleshy morsel where he stood. Already he could feel the hot blood trailing through his fur, lapping it up sweet and thick and nourishing from Remn's veins, "She taught me well. I believed I would do honor to her by showing I wouldn't flinch to perform these final favors."
Remn made a clicking sound with his tongue, "And such pride undoes it, Soego. You are far too arrogant for your own good."
The hot slosh of guts in his talons, the crunch of bone hiding tender marrow within... "Is there something you wanted, Remn?"
"Ah. Yes, I had forgotten," Remn flicked his fingers as if dismissing the original thought, "You were the one who found the body, and you had assumed that she was coming for a visit since you had been sick."
"Yes. We all know that Seladril was very considerate."
"I was at the Gathering Dust Bar that evening, as well. When she came in she had ordered a tray with a bowl of soup and a cup of tea. For you, I imagine."
Soego could feel his eyes burning even redder already, "Very kind of her."
"How odd that the tray wasn't found with her body."
"Yes. How odd. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to lock up," Soego said. It was difficult to keep the snap out of his voice.
The next morning, Remn's body was found in his bed, half-devoured by cranium rats.
He had stumbled through the catacombs, tripping over ancient corpses and passing looted tombs. Such concerns were behind him now. He had fled the Mortuary and the Dustman ways. With each step Soego descended further into the maze of tunnels. He wanted to die here, but he knew it was impossible.
The Dead Truce protected him from the ghouls, zombies, and vargouilles that prowled. Unless he attacked one of them first, no undead would lay a talon on him. Soego may have had a death wish, one greater than he had when he was still a true Dustman at heart, but he was no fool.
He had thought, perhaps, that there was a chance the cranium rats would kill him. Indeed, he had stumbled onto several good-sized groups of the creatures, but they merely scattered in his presence.
Even though he meandered blindly through the tunnels, not knowing where he was heading, Soego knew that something guided him. There was an instinct to take one path rather than the other, and always he thought he heard a chorus echoing noiselessly as he came ever closer.
And when the wererats greeted him, he was not at all surprised when the sorry creatures guided him to their god.
It was a circular chamber, a nest of twigs and bones, with cranium rats perching atop the concentric circles they built. There were thousands of them, and where there lacked seats in this council of vermin the rats piled atop one another, whiskers twitching. Countless eyes glinted at him from the darkness, as if they were twin stars shimmering through the night.
Its voice sounded like the anguished pain of thousands, echoing through his skull, "WE HAVE BEEN EXPECTING YOU FOR A LONG TIME, BIPED. SPEAK SWIFTLY AND TRUE. YOU ARE IN THE HALLS OF MANY-AS-ONE. YOU WILL NOT LEAVE BUT BY OUR GRACE, AND THAT YOU MUST EARN THROUGH SERVITUDE."
"You've destroyed me!" Soego screamed, "You've taken the Dustman ways and the path towards True Death, then you've taken the one person who would've made life bearable!"
"SELADRIL'S DEATH WAS NOT OUR INTENT," the chorus of voices was less painful now, but cold and unapologetic.
"But why..." Soego croaked. Perhaps he could throw himself at the mass of rats. With their hive mind and magic potential they could surely have given him a quick death.
"THE PRIMAL URGES GRANTED BY OUR GIFT WOULD HAVE JEOPARDIZED YOUR SALVATION THROUGH TRUE DEATH, AND IN SO DOING DRAWN YOU TO US FOR THE CURE. WE WOULD STILL HAVE YOU SERVE US, AND WE CAN REWARD TO IN EXCHANGE."
Soego crumpled to his knees, his voice bitter, "What would a pack of vermin need from a Dustman? And what could you possibly offer in return?"
"YOU CAN WALK AMONGST THE UNDEAD FREELY WITH THE PROTECTION OF THE DEAD TRUCE. WITH THAT SHIELD YOU ARE TO GO TO THE DEAD NATIONS, SEEK OUT THE SILENT KING, AND KILL HIM. IN THE PROCESS, SOW DISSENT AMONG THE UNDEAD AND BREAK THEM APART. WE DO NOT TRUST THOSE WHOSE MINDS WE CANNOT SEE. WE DO NOT TRUST SILENT MYSTERIES. AS FOR REWARD... WE OFFER YOU SELADRIL."
Soego fought back the tears, "You are a fool, Many-as-One."
The hive mind was unimpressed, "WE POWER BEYOND YOUR UNDERSTANDING, BIPED. WE OFFER YOU SELADRIL."
"Fool!" Soego cried, "Even if her body were intact, even if you had a scrap of her flesh to work your magic, a Dustman cannot be returned to life! Just as the Dead Truce is unspoken law among Dustmen, so is this! Her soul is already beyond the reach of mortal magic!"
And Soego gasped, as he felt the fingers of a soft, lily-white hand curling into his own.
"WHAT WE OFFER IS MUCH SIMPLER, SOEGO OF THE DUSTMEN."
And Soego's throat sounded a hoarse moan, as he felt tender red lips brushing his cheek.
"WE OFFER YOU THE MEMORY OF HER TOUCH."
"I am still quite fond of roses..."
"WE OFFER YOU THE DREAM OF HER LOVE."
The slightest scent of roses filled the air. It was something Soego hadn't known he'd missed all these years. The scent conjured her smile, brought back the memory of those silver-blue eyes and her laughter like the song of silver bells.
Many-as-One knew Soego's answer even before he did, "AND SO OUR COMPACT IS MADE."