Part 68: The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 6The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 6
Bones of the Night (music)
Light filtered through multihued slivers of glass set in the window, lighting up the broken-down hut in half a dozen colors. It held an ephemeral sort of beauty, and for a moment I savored it in childlike awe, watching a single mote of dust drift among the rays: first blue, then red, then violet as the night.
Annah hissed and nudged the grim ladder with the toe of her boot. The way down was paved with death: bones from dozens of creatures, picked, boiled, and polished clean so that they shone with colors pooling at the edge of the purple patch. Each handle was clammy at my touch, and the parlor beneath smelled earthy, and ancient as a tomb.
We descended in grim silence, and with each step I grew more anxious. There was power here... I could feel it thrumming in the air and ringing in my soul like a glass struck with a silver spoon. The chill of the grave kissed my skin, lapping away pinpricks of nervous sweat like the tongue of an old lover that had been spurned for too long. Long-faded memories lay buried here. It was a tomb for dead dreams.
We must've gone down ten, fifteen feet beneath street level when we reached the parlor proper. Dozens of shelves lined the walls of Lothar's home, and on each shelf sat hundreds of skulls. Many were humanoid, a few were twisted and feral, a cross between the bestial and the demonic. I could even pick out the angled jawlines of a few githzerai skulls.
In one corner a cauldron bubbled, and on the worktable beside it sat a batch of severed heads that had yet to be cleaned. The fire offered little heat, and by the time that smell of boiled death reached me it was already cold and impotent.
"Ch-chief?" a frightened but familiar voice whimpered.
"Morte?" I scanned the shelf, and was drawn by the familiar twitch of his hazel-gray eyes.
"Thank the Powers you're here, chief. Get me outta here."
I blinked and reached up. Damn... top shelf, I'd have to get a stool or... "What are you doing up there?"
"Those wererat vermin nicked me and brought me here! Come on, boss... we got to get out of here! This place is bad news!"
"Why don't you just float down?" I growled, and motioned to Dak'kon and Annah to help me drag an adjacent divan over.
"I tried!" Morte whispered in a quiet panic, "Look, just get me down before-"
Gray smoke drifted along the floor and in a moist crack that sounded like splintering sinew, a withered old man stepped forward.
His face was weighed down with wrinkles, a long gray beard trailed down his chest. Lothar's robes were the color of old blood and one hand was curled around a curved staff rattling with several skulls. His eyes flashed with power as he addressed Morte. "Have we visitors, skull?"
I pulled myself away from the seat and placed myself between Lothar and the shelf.
"Oh... no." Morte whispered furiously to me. "Do NOT offend this blood, boss... he'll dead-book you faster than you can spit."
"Should I worry about that?" I muttered out of the corner of my mouth.
The old man ignored Morte and pursed his lips a moment before he spoke to me. "Greetings, traveler. Who might you be to enter Lothar's humble salon without invitation?"
"You've kidnapped my friend," I growled, "Give him back. Now."
His eyelids crept up at my tone, "Kidnapped? Your friend? I have done no such thing. Where is this friend?"
Morte spoke up. His voice sounded miserable, scared, and deferential with a whine that that of a dog that had been kicked too many times. It was obvious that, in Morte's opinion, this Lothar character was no one to cross. "He means me. Look, sir, just let me go and we'll let this go. Water under the Ditch, hey?"
"I did not give you permission to speak, skull!" Morte quailed under Lothar's grim voice. His lip curled into a cold grimace. "Hmph. You stride into my parlor, arrogant with chest bared. Where others grovel and plead for supplication you have the gall to demand of me as I stand in my home. Just for that I should tear your soul asunder and grind the last scraps of your dying consciousness beneath my foot." He glanced at Morte, "However, the skull you speak of has been a thorn in my side the full day it has been here. Standard spells have been impotent in silencing the thing. It pesters me."
"Ach, sounds like th' skull all right."
"Scarred one, if you wish the skull back, you must fetch me a skull of greater value from the catacombs below. I will not bargain for something that is already mine. Accept or not."
"He was never yours ... or anyone's... to begin with. Your men stole him off the streets!"
"Your ignorance is astonishing," he scoffed, "You truly know very little about very little. Now: Fetch me another skull to replace him or say goodbye to your friend."
"Just let him go."
Lothar's hands tightened on his staff. "The skull is MINE. If you press the issue, I will take yours as well."
"You can damn well try..."
"Boss, don't push it! Let it go!" Morte yelped.
Lothar nodded, "The skull speaks wisely. Heed it."
I growled, but Morte might've been right. He was shifty, annoying, and was an impressive liar, but I could feel the power rippling from Lothar in waves. "Very well, then. How do I find a greater skull?"
"Move aside the divan in the center of the room, and pass through the portal on the eastern wall in the chambers below to the catacombs. The portal will remain active for your return. In the catacombs lie many skulls. One of great value lies within the interred crypts of the Dustmen, beyond the Drowned Nations. Bring that skull to me - as my wererat minions have failed to do - and I will see to it that your friend is returned to you. Perhaps I shall even answer some questions for you."
I shrugged nonchalantly, "I've been to the tomb you speak of. It is empty."
"What is the meaning of this?" Lothar hissed in frustration, and I took no small measure of delight in savoring his consternation, "The tomb was so well trapped, so well defended from scrying magicks, that it was a challenge even for me! There must be some explanation for this, and," he drew out his words angrily and slowly, "YOU will provide it to me. Go through the portal in the chambers below and seek the answer."
I chuckled, "It was my own tomb."
"Your tomb? YOUR tomb?" He eyed me carefully, and for a moment I gulped thinking I had spoken too much. The man might just have the magic to tear my skull free and keep it polished and picked clean on his mantle, "We shall investigate this more carefully. Fetch me another skull, then, as you seem attached to yours, and we shall see what answers I can provide. Our agreement shall be as before. Do not try to deceive me with just any bone, either - I am something of a connoisseur. Return when you have something of value to me."
I sighed in relief.
The tunnels were rank with the smell of old filth and offal. The scent was sharp, like a foul aged cheese in a cold basement. Mildew-yellow stone undulated in crests beneath my feet so that the hard sole of my boots see-sawed between the peaks and troughs with each step.
I should've recognized the stench of wererats.
It leaned against a support post for a small bridge. In one hand it held a skin of wine with streaks of blood marring the leather; it had likely been looted from some poor sod that had crossed the creature's path. Finishing off a deep swig the wererat wiped its muzzle and looked at me with feral red eyes. There was a cunning danger about it, and the voice that issued from its mouth was oily and insinuating. "So...a biped comes slinking into the nest of Lothar's servants. What do you want, man, and where do you intend to go? Step lightly, intruder, and speak the truth to Mantuok."
Dak'kon's hand rested casually on the hilt of his sword and Annah crossed her arms, looking remarkably casual while her hiding the fact that she was ready to pull out her daggers.
I stood bold enough to seem a threat, but not so haughty as to be issuing a challenge. "Who are you?"
"I am Mantuok. I am the voice of Many-as-One and the emissary of Lothar, Master of the Bones. I speak here and you answer. What do you want here?"
I cocked my head. "You work for both of them? Doesn't that test your loyalty?"
"And why should it, hm? The Master knows the secrets of power, and the Many know the secrets of the city. Perhaps someday I shall play them against each other and become the greater for it," a sharp bucktoothed grin split his features, and I knew that this was a dangerous wererat was more treacherous than all the others I had come across. "Many-As-One sees many advantages in such an arrangement... and the conversion of the Buried Village dwellers can help to extend the reach of Lothar and Many-As-One. All benefit, yes? Now... what is your purpose here?"
"We're on a quest for Lothar. He needs a skull retrieved."
The rat-man ducked his head at the mention of Lothar and hissed at us. "Send a hairless one to do the job of the Kin? Impossible!"
I shrugged, "Nonetheless."
Mantuok hissed at me again. "Begone, then, and return when the skull is in your hands." He paused and looked at me suspiciously. I could feel his simmering hatred burning into my back.
I never thought I'd have to crawl through this dank maze again. At least I had someone to fill the silence other than Morte and his yammering.
"So, Annah. Tell me a little bit about Pharod."
"Ol' stutter-crutch? He's me Da... well, not me real Da. He found me when I was a wee girl..." Annah shrugged. "'Ee needed a Collector to crawl inta places the rest of his fat gullies couldn't squirm, so he took me under his crutch."
I nodded, "I didn't think you and him looked much alike, anyway."
Annah's eyes narrowed, and her tail began to lash back and forth, stirring up small clouds of grave-dust. "And what do yeh mean by that, then?"
"I meant that he doesn't look much like a tiefling."
"Aye, he doesn't... and if yeh knew one thing about tieflings other than what yeh'd heard from any half-grinnin' Hiver on the street, yeh'd have the sense to know that none of us tieflings look a-like, jig?" She shook her head. "No hope for yeh, that's for dead-sure."
"I didn't mean that as an insult. You both look so different. I mean Pharod's... so... Pharod, and you're not."
"Oh, now what coulda tipped yeh off to that? My hair? Me skin? I can't think of anything else..." Annah slapped herself lightly on the forehead, then sneered sarcastically. "Maybe it was the tail? Oh, aye, that might have been it! Yer so much sharper than I am, yeh are. A real gem."
"What in the hells is your problem?!" I scrubbed my fingers through my hair in frustration. I could feel the heat flooding my face as my voice rose, "I make a simple statement, and you twist it like a dagger!"
"A dagger's a dagger, so it is," the flick of her tail accented the snap in her voice.
"All's I was saying is that you and Pharod look nothing alike. The two of you don't have much in common. It's hard to see any resemblance between that ugly, stooped, greedy, smelly gutter-troll and you."
Annah's face flushed a deep red and her coarse brogue grew to a fiery hiss. "Oh, is that so? And how do yeh see that?"
I've eyed Annah. I'll readily admit it. For the most part it was a matter of paying attention to her hands and worrying whether or not this firebrand was about to suckerpunch some poor berk or unsheathe her punch-daggers. But it was hard to avoid noticing her confident poise, the self-sure quirk of her obsidian lips. Flame-red hair framed a face begemmed with sharp green eyes. The curves of her alabaster flesh were held in delicate rein by tight demonhide. Annah was water when she moved, possessing a feline grace that other girls could only ever clumsily feign. That fluid sway of her hips was natural to her, and it drove her body like the flame in the heart of a star.
"I think you're pretty!" I snapped.
Annah just stared.
"So- uh... that- that's all I meant," I stuttered, "When I said you and Pharod look nothing alike."
Annah nodded, still staring at me. She didn't even blink. I looked around, and Dak'kon had discreetly scouted ahead of us.
Annah suddenly leaned in, and clasping her hands around my head she pulled me close, biting me sharply on the neck, giving a soft hiss. Rather than pulling back, she pressed closely into me and whisperd into my ear. "D'yeh fancy yer chances?" Her tail began to lash slowly back and forth, but the rhythm was more hypnotic than angry.
I could feel Annah's heart beating fast in her chest, and the color rising into her cheeks. Her skin was smooth and soft against mine. The tight embrace she held me in was pressing the heat of her body into mine. "I want tae tell yeh something, an' yeh can't poke fun at me."
I licked my lips. "All right..."
"Do yeh know I like the way yeh smell? Oh, aye - it drives me barmier than a Chaosman, it does." She sniffed up the side of my cheek and gave a low, eager hiss. "I see the way yeh look at me, and I like it. Yeh've got hungry eyes, yeh do. It makes me a-fire."
My breathing quickened and my jaw fell slack at her caress. Slim fingers traced white-hot lines along my flesh, searing an electric tingle along my scars.
"I want tae bite yeh, soft-like around the neck..." She teased the side of my neck with her teeth, never breaking skin, and with every whisper, I could feel her breath along my ear. Her hand slid up around the back of my neck, and tightens, and I could feel her nails digging sharp crescents into my skin. I gasped, the pain sobering and drawing me out of that lusty haze and into Annah's grip. "I want ta drag me nails along the back of yer neck, and force yeh to kiss me."
"Oh powers above..." I whispered.
"Do yeh know I can smell yeh from fifty paces, that smell of fermaldyhe pouring offa yeh like one of them dustie shamblers. Maybe if yeh cleaned yerself up some, yeh'd be a right prize." Her eyes flashed. "I'd make passion with yeh so hard yeh'd be knocked off the spire." Annah stepped back then, her tail flicking lightly against my leg, and gave me a hard stare. "So... d'yeh fancy me?"
Oh what the hell.
In a flash, I wrapped my arms around Annah's lithe form. Her eyes widened in surprise, and before she could squirm free I wrapped my lips around the nape of her neck, grazing my teeth along her firm, lily-white skin. I milked a gasp out of her as my tongue raked along her flesh.
Annah tensed suddenly, and hissed. Pushing my shoulders and clawing like a cat, she tore away from me. "I was only teasin' yeh, yeh scarred vampire! L-l-leave off!" Despite her protestations, however, her face was flushed, and she was breathing heavily. "An' watch yer mitts next time!" She crossed her arms. "Yeh makin' me red, yeh are!"
Standing there sobered, I blushed. The air in these halls was colder than I realized as they lapped the lingering warmth from my skin. "You bite me, I bite you.," I grumbled. "If you don't like it, then don't DO it."
"I'll do what I please, so I will." Annah sneered; she still seemed to be a little flushed. "Yeh jest keep your mitts offa me, yeh hear?"
"So many skulls..." Annah sighed. She sounded a little louder than normal, a little bolder, as if she were forcing her voice to sound casual. "An' he needs a bone-box that's special. Like findin' a gem-speck in a desert."
"Surely a skull that would meet the Bone-Master's needs could be found in these grim halls," Dak'kon intoned, running his hand along a coffin. A touch of annoyance laced his voice. He knew that something had happened between the two of us, and knew that that was why Annah and I maneuvered to keep him between us, "Hundreds of the dead, each unique among the rest."
"Aye, a hundred flavors of dust there are. Yeh jes don't know. All th' wealthy bubbers have private tombs, some off-Sigil in th' Outer Planes. All that're buried here are muddy Hivers an' lost souls."
I nodded with a grunt, trying to focus on the matter at hand. Reaching out with the Stories-Bones-Tell discipline, I could hear the sigh of plebian pasts. All the bones that lay here had struggled under common lives, and the old creaks of that burden echoed through each body even after it lay down, fatigued and weary for the only true rest these poor souls would ever find.
"Besides, most o' these coffins 'ave been overturned an' looted. I've waded about in 'ere before. After a scrape or two with a ghoul I slunk back out," Annah's lip curled,
"What do yeh hope to find here?"
"Nothing. That's why we're headed to the Dead Nations."
I pointed down one long hallway that branched down from our path. At the end stood those old iron gates. I strode down, pushed them open with an ominous, heavy creak.
Annah tensed at the sight of dozens of undead toiling to keep their nation of bone and gauze intact. There were skeletons replacing old tiles in the mosaic floor and dusting the walls. Zombies pushed desecrated bodies for re-wrapping to preserve their quiet dignity. Ghouls had half-eaten wererat corpses slung over their shoulders to present to their brethren. Their mouths and claws were bloodstained, and their eyes seemed sated, if only for the moment.
"Come along," I beckoned to Annah, "It's safe. They won't hurt us."
Her eyes were wide as saucers, but she slowly approached and padded silently behind me.
"Ahhh the manling returns," Acaste hissed, "Bold as brass and proud. And so succulent..."
Standing face-to-face with her I squelched the small giddy urge to spill the secrets of the Silent King. 'He's dead as a doornail!' I'd say with mixed glee, and loose the ghouls against the rest. I would never betray Stale Mary or Hargrimm of course, but it was strange how such secrets could tickle at the back of your mind.
"You have your offerings, bitch-queen," I growled, pointing at the wererat corpses that lay at her feet. Small dead cranium rats had been added to the pile, "Now leave us be. We wish to speak to Hargrimm."
The old skeleton-priest stood in the central chamber, proudly watching over his people. But he turned when he saw me approach, and a timorous flicker in those cold eye sockets dulled his regal edge. Perhaps he'd felt the same temptation before.
"Greetings, Hargrimm. We seek your aid."
His eyes seemed displeased at my return, but he forced his voice to sound sincere. "Thou hast returned. And to what purpose, I ask? There is nothing for thee in the Dead Nations."
"We are in need of a skull. One that is unique, its history and life of value above that of the common citizen."
Hargrimm's fingerboned tightened on his staff just a little, "I care not what thy purposes are, but this one willl not allow the desecration of placid graves for thy selfish purposes."
"I have to do so to save a friend. The chattering skull, remember? One of your own."
"Dost thou speak of the one who vexed the fair female zombies of our nation? The one who pestered them as they toiled and invaded their skirts with greedy eyes and a slavering tongue?"
"Oh good. You do remember."
The crack of the staff against the tile sent a thundering boom through the halls, "Thou hast done much for the good of our great nation, Nameless One, but such is not an excuse to commit a crime against the heart of the Dead Nations!"
I bowed, somewhat abashed, "I'm sorry, Hargrimm. I know it was much to ask... I'll leave you to your duties now."
"What now?" Dak'kon said, looking up at me.
"Well. Now all that's left is Stale Mary. Unless you'd like to try talking to the Silent King again."
When you watch the elderly walk the streets, backs hunched and faces sagging, you know they have little time left. Each old crone was a withered flower waiting to shed its last petal, and any day you'd expect to hear word of her collapsing and whispering her last breath. Each day ticked by, one closer towards that half-expected tragedy when you would have to begin mourning, missing the matronly touch of their hands and the softness of their words. It was how I felt towards Old Mebbeth, who healed my hurts and taught me the Art.
So it was strange to think that matronly Stale Mary, mending her shambling charges and laying the sleeping ones to rest, could potentially outlive you.
"It's good to see you, Mary, but I come on a dire quest and I hate to ask this of you. My companion has been kidnapped by a powerful man who demands a 'greater' skull for my companion's release. What should I do, Mary?"
I sighed, "It's Lothar, the Master of Bones."
She stood swaying there, as if in a daze before she spoke again. "Uuu nuuuu hnnn... prrrrvuhhhlll. Dnnngruuushhh. Hllldz sklll frnnn." I know him. Powerful. Dangerous. Holds skull friend.
"Yes, Mary. I know I can't take any of the skulls in these catacombs. But- I need your advice. I need a skull that would be fitting for Lothar."
She stood silent, gazing past me. For a long moment Stale Mary seemed to consider the problem, and finally with a slow, careful nod, she gripped her head in both hands. "Tuh-tuh-tuhk muhhh ssskuhhl..." Take my skull.
I was aghast. "Take... your skull? But that'll kill you."
Mary slowly shook her head side to side - her splitting lips formed what might've been a sad smile. "Kuh-kill? N-n-nuuuh. Mmm uhhhlrrruhhhdy dhhhud." Kill? No. I'm already dead. Her hands remained at her temples, awaiting my reply.
I pressed my hands against hers, parting her arms. "No, Mary - I just can't. I'll find another way."
Mary nodded. "Y-y-yuh hhhuf uhhh kinnnd hhhuhhhrt." You have a kind heart.
It was such a simple solution standing right in front of me, but how could Stale Mary have thought that I'd have been able to bear it? Did she think it would've just been one more regret set atop the pile, one more scratch along the pillar? We had limited options, truly. We could take one of the lesser skulls and hope that Lothar finds it fitting somehow, or steal a choice one from the Mortuary if we could somehow get past the guards. There was murder, or... perhaps even switching out the Silent King's skull for another. I cringed in disgust at the thoughts... so cold, calculating, and practical... they floated through me as if they weren't my own.
"Suuughhhh..." Soego... Mary gurgled.
I blinked, "They- the ghouls. I thought they'd destroyed the body."
She shook her head, slowly, "Nnnh ulll. Hrrrgnnn uuuz zzz wrnnng. Nvhhh hrnnn duhd nuuuhshngz." Not all. Hargrimm used it as a warning. To never harm the Dead Nations.
"I-" I almost kicked myself for not thinking of it earlier, "I would be in your debt if you could help me. I think Lothar may accept that as a solution."
Mary nodded, and trudged off to speak to the Triumverate.