Part 43: Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 8Puzzle-Box of The Nameless One: Part 8
"Did you know Soego's a cranium rat spy?"
Hargrimm drew close to me, smelling of dust and moldering cloth. "What is this thou speak of? What proof have thee that Soego runs with the brain vermin?"
"There's proof in his quarters, his journal. The entries aren't very coherent or legible, but from what I could gather he was bitten, became infected with lycanthropy, and ended up transforming into a wererat and killing a friend in the Mortuary. For some reason he made a pact with Many-As-One to spy on or kill the Silent King."
Hargrimm's voice was stern, but an undercurrent of skepticism ran through it. "We shall see; I shall gather Soego and speak to him of this matter within his chambers. Should this be true, I shall owe thee thanks."
We went to our cell with an escort of skeletons and ghouls, Hargrimm's staff clacking against the tiles as he walked. Soego had been resting on the bed once again, and sat up in alarm upon seeing the grim cavalcade.
Hargrimm's voice was a cold, emotionless hiss when it spoke. "Soego, what is this I hear of thee being in league with Many-As-One?"
The Dustman's eyes shrank back in shock, "What? That is a lie! Who would dare level such a heinous accusation against me?!" He scanned the group, and those red-rimmed eyes fell on me. He snarled, half growl, half chitter, like that of a rodent, "You!"
A crack of that heavy staff snapped Soego's attention back to the tall skeletal priest, "Dare thou lie to the high priest of the Silent King?"
"No! No, Hargrimm, I would never presume..."
"Where is thy journal? Let me see it. Prove thy innocence before the eyes of the Silent King."
"I... I..." he gulped, crestfallen and meek, "I beg for your mercy, Hargrimm."
"The Dead Truce shall protect thee here, Soego, but thou shall never leave these catacombs. Thou shall continue thy pursuit of thy precious "True Death" here, alone... for the rest of thy days. Farewell," Hargrimm laid Soego's sentence with grim satisfaction, with a nod stiff and sure as an executioner's arm.
Soego sputtered, "But... you... can't... nnnnARAGH!"
Robes tearing and eyes bleeding fully into a bright crimson, Soego transformed. His skin thickened into fur-covered hide, his teeth elongated into yellow fangs. A thick, wormlike tail snapped out behind him. Soego curled forward on all fours, shrieking in an inhuman howl as long whiskers twitched along his rat-like snout.
Hargrimm merely clicked its teeth, unimpressed, "Mark my words, Living; only the Truce protects thee. Do not cast aside thy only shield so thoughtlessly."
"I won't be caged!" Soego screamed, "Die!"
As Soego leapt at the priest, the two skeletons stood before their leader to protect it. Yet it was all for naught, as Hargrimm cracked the tiles with its staff. Raising one hand and snapping a command in an ancient, foreign tongue, a nimbus of light swirled around the priest. With a crack and a flash, a bolt of lightning shot down from the realms above and struck the man-rat, enveloping his body in a pale flash.
Soego was thrown back with a screech. Laid flat on the ground, he twitched and groaned in agony as the transformation receded. His torn robes revealed pale, smoking flesh.
And the ghouls set upon him, devouring him alive.
I turned away from the grisly sight, tried to ignore the crunch and juicy tearing of still-living flesh.
Hargrimm spoke with cold finality, "It is done, then. May the Silent King protect us from such filth in the future."
I'll never eat a cranium rat ever again.
Hargrimm was pleased when he spoke to me in the temple, "I thank thee for thy assistance. Soego's infiltration could have done genuine damage to the Dead Nations."
"I was just glad to help, Hargrimm. Now that me and my friends have shown that we are harmless to your people, can we talk to the Silent King?"
Hargrimm's response was firm and its voice cold, "No."
The shock to its response shivered through me, "But- we unveiled the traitor Soego! Surely we have earned your trust by now!"
Hargrimm shook its head, "No living creature may pass through the doors to the Silent King, and again, I would not allow an audience even if it were possible."
I growled in frustration, "Look, I've done nothing to harm your people, everything to help you, and exposed a spy sent by one of your most dangerous enemies. I feel I've earned a chance to plead my case."
Hargrimm tapped one finger bone against its staff, "I shall speak to the Silent King on thy behalf."
"You didn't trust me all this time. Why should I trust you to do the same?"
"Thou hast no choice."
"Quit pacing, chief. You're making me nervous."
With nothing to do, I found myself walking circles around the iron pews of the church. The ghouls had ripped apart Soego's body by now and I didn't feel like sleeping next to a freshly-killed corpse. I had gone over my spellbook countless times by now, and was too antsy to discuss philosophy with Dak'kon.
"I understand your frustration. However, the situation seems to be out of our hands. Rest, meditate, and do what you can when the opportunity is provided for you," Dak'kon added.
Despite the rare occasion where Dak'kon and Morte were were in agreement, I couldn't accept my powerlessness in the Dead Nations. I had done all I could, and now my fate was in the hands of Hargrimm, who had been distrusting since the first day and who had refused my request to appeal before their great leader and plead for my freedom.
"Dak'kon, you hail from the plane of Limbo, where the land itself roils and tumbles in chaos."
He nodded, "It is through knowing ourselves that the Githzerai bring order to the realm."
"You shape your own fates through will alone. I'm about to do the same."
Dak'kon crossed his arms and breathed deeply, "We know not what will happen if we enter the chambers of the Silent King. It is said that no living creature can pass through the doors..."
I shrugged, "Well, what's it going to do, kill me?"
I wasn't foolish enough to enter through force... setting the entire Dead Nations against me would be a poor way to begin a diplomatic effort towards earning my freedom. Hargrimm was an obstacle, Acaste was more predator than leader, but Stale Mary... her kindness had not been snuffed in death.
The ways of persuasion and charm were known to me in my studies of the Art, and it was through this lens that I focused my will. I softened the harsh, grating tone of my voice, straightened my stance, and softened my features so that I came to Mary as a true supplicant. This was no deception (could undead even be susceptible to charms and glamours?), it was a way of finding the right words.
"Mary, I need to speak with the Silent King. Can you help me?"
"I need to leave this place, Mary. I've so much to do... and to be imprisoned here, simply for stumbling upon the Dead Nations... it isn't right. Please... I ask only for a modicum of compassion. Can you help me?"
I shook my head, "Hargrimm will not allow me to speak to the King directly. I don't know if it truly intends to release me or my friends."
Stale Mary was quiet for a time, then nodded. She pointed to the first of the three portals along the northern wall. "C-c-cluuhh ayyysss. Thuuuh uh Suhhhlunnh Kuh-kuknnng. Wwhhhuuuhbh uuhhhnd nuuuheehhh ahhhlllk-ku-kuuuhh. Bhu-bhu-buhhh uhn suuuhhh lhuuung ayyye lhhhuuuv." Close eyes. Think of Silent King. Walk through northwest alcove. But only so long as I live.
"Hrrghunnn... uzz khnnnd unnnsss..." Hargrim... was kind once... She said it with the silent sorrow of lament. Mary's tone wasn't that of a mother or matron this time. It held the wistful passions of a woman, one who has had to watch from afar as time changed those she knew, and struggle hardened their hearts.
"I hope that you can rekindle that kindness someday, Mary. Farewell."
And so I stepped into the archway. The dim alcove was dry and empty, the dust of decades, if not centuries, blanketed the ground. It looked like no one had used the back door in ages.
"Here goes nothing," I muttered, and envisioned the Silent King: tall, proud, and regal. I imagined him as a mummy, a lich, a ghost, wearing crown, stole, or scepter. As I focused I could feel the air ripple, and there was the tickling sense that reality itself was twisting before me. With a gut-wrenching tug, the space before the alcove seemed to tear and ripple into a spiral of blue.
The chamber we stepped into was cold, dry as a tomb, and absolutely silent. Tall skeletal guards encircled the room, standing so stock-still that they could've been propped up to scare off intruders.
Dak'kon climbed the steps grimly behind me, and Morte looked back and forth as he floated. The silence was unnerving, and the way the skeletons stood sentinel was even more unnatural than undeath could be. I licked my lips. Perhaps this wasn't such a good idea after all.
The throne was set in the center of a platform, spaced with holes covered by an unnaturally hard, glassy substance. Deep in the pits below was a mass of shattered bones and grinning skulls. An eerie yellow light lit the chamber from below, the shadows danced upwards as if they were alive.
"O Silent King," I said, kneeling before the throne, "I have come to plead for my freedom. My mission through these catacombs is peaceful, and I do not seek to disturb the dead. All I want is to find a small golden orb, its surface vile to the touch. Please, if you would but-"
I looked up. Something was wrong.
The throne, built from the rib cage of a great beast with massive bones shaped and curved inward, kept the king's visage in shadow. I approached for a closer look, only to see a withering corpse. While it was impressive in its engraved parade-armor despite its coating of dust and cobwebs, the lord and master of the Dead Nations was little more than a dessicated shell.
"The Silent King... is dead..." I whispered.
Morte's teeth chittered, "I-I don't feel right about this, chief. If Hargrimm knows that we know his dirty little secret..."
"Such is the danger and power of knowing what is forbidden," Dak'kon intoned.
We turned to leave.
"HERESY!" Hargrimm cried, "Ye dare to approach the Silent King?!" With that its skeletal form lifted in the air and flew at me with supernatural grace.
The fingers of one bony hand elongated, and the talons dug into the flesh of my throat. With that firm grip on my neck Hargrimm tossed me into the air like a rag. My body flew, spiraling awkwardly until my head cracked against the glassy surface at an awkward angle. There was the sickening, awkward feel of my spine snapping and immediately everything from the neck down went numb.
The world faded, flickered, before it returned in full force. Cheek pressed against the cold crystal substance, I was treated to a full view of the terrifying drop down into a pit of spiky bones. That would've hurt.
Despite the damage I had suffered, my body was healing already and with a twitch I cracked my neck back into place.
Hargrimm hovered over me, a strange look of concern in its glowing eyes, "But- how...?"
"I'm immortal," I groaned, sitting up and twisting my head until it cracked into place. I thought I could feel a small shard of bone still lodged in the muscle in a funny way. I was going to have a kink there for a while, "It seems that I can't die. I'm trying to find a way to become mortal again, but apparently I need to go through Pharod first."
"Then thou shall never leave this place," Hargrimm commanded grimly, "Forever shall ye remain with thy companions, bound by every scrap of power I can command..."
"Stuuup." Stop. Stale Mary struggled to speak as she shuffled up from the bottom of the staircase.
"Stale Mary..." Hargrimm muttered, "This is thy doing?! Thou hast placed our nation in peril! This man now knows the most dangerous of secrets of the Dead Nations!"
"Nuuuugh. Uuuh wuuuh nnn ruughhht." No. It was not right. It was difficult for her to force out the words, but Stale Mary spoke with the conviction of a mother protecting her ward.
"Mary..." Hargrimm groaned, placing its face in one hand. "Thy compassion threatens us all."
"Cooompnnnn drruuvs uuuz tuuu prruuuhtk kwuuuht uuns. Coompnnn mmmkus uuus wuurth." Compassion drives us to protect quiet ones. Compassion makes us worthy.
Hargrimm loosened his grip on its staff and its shoulders slumped, as if calming down. "So, thou have come," It addressed me in a tired voice. The skeleton turned to gaze upon the massive throne. "What thou see here is the end of our culture."
"Is that the Silent King?"
"Yes," a musty sigh sent a puff of dust through the air, "None must know that the King speaks only silence."
I got to my feet, "How long has this gone on?"
Hargrimm stared off into the shadows. "He stopped speaking to us long ago -- he himself has left for the thrice-damned True Death." A trace of rage and despair trickled into its voice. "He has abandoned us here to suffer amongst the Living! We have become... the prey... of all that lives."
"Then why does he rule?"
"He rules because he must."
"But if he's dead... how?"
"We interpret the wishes of the Silent King based on what he said many long years ago. It has not been easy..." Hargrimm sounded tired; he sagged beneath the weight of an invisible burden. "Many questions, many questions do I have for him."
I looked up to Hargrimm. So this was the true power behind the Dead Nations. I should've been appealing to him instead of trying to meet an unseen king. "So you are the one who truly rules here, Hargrimm."
It looked to Stale Mary, "Mary and I speak to the Silent King. We rule in his stead."
"Why don't you tell your people the truth?"
The priest sighed. The ache of centuries living weighed upon it, and while Hargrimm seemed meek and defeated, I knew he still lived to work towards a greater purpose. "I wish to preserve what we have created. I do not wish to die."
Stale Mary spoke, her voice ponderous: "Nuh-nuh-nor I." Nor I.
"If our own people were to learn of this... or Acaste were to discover this deception... or Many-As-One, the hive mind of the cranium rats... all that we have created here would be destroyed. This husk," Hargrimm said, pointing to the slumped body of the Silent King, "is all that keeps the inner and outer enemies at bay. If the truth were spoken, our small civilization would become dust."
"Such a fragile balance," Dak'kon murmured.
"I cannot force thee to be silent. But I would ask thee to look beyond thyself, to consider what would happen if thou spoke of what thou have seen here."
I nodded, "I only wish to leave, Hargrimm. Grant me this, and I vow that you shall have my silence."
Hargrimm was silent for a moment. "Thou may leave this place. Go, now... and I beg of thee: honor thy word."
"I have one last question before I leave... have you seen a small, bronze sphere anywhere here?"
Hargrimm shook its head. "I have seen no such thing, here. Perhaps deeper beneath Sigil... search the drowned catacombs. Thou shall find the entrance to that place west of where thou first came here. Leave now, and do not disturb the dead. Mary and I have much to talk about."
Mary nodded, and she patted my cheek gently, "Muuuh unduuuh." Much indeed.