Part 72: The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 8The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 8
I hated the fetid smell of wererats.
It was the musty stench of an old cupboard, stale with the dust of mold spores and old dried-up vermin droppings. At the very least the wererats were intelligent enough to not live and eat where they defecated, but it was little consolation when I did have to make my way back through their caverns. How Lothar could trust them, I'll never know.
The planks of the wooden bridge creaked under my feet as I crossed, and I suppressed the urge to take a few test hops on it to see if it would splinter under my weight. Even if the Dabus came down here to fix things up it'd be a matter of putting patches on a mass of rags and trying to pass off the travesty as wearable garments.
They said the Planes would always turn, but seeing Sigil going to hell in a handbasket for as long as it existed, I wasn't sure if this was a good thing.
"Have you retrieved the particular skull the master wants?" Mantuok chittered. His whiskers twitched.
"Yes," I grunted, "from the wererat Soego."
"Give it to me, and I shall take it to the master. Your services are no longer required."
A muscle in my cheek twitched. "No, I think I'll take it to him myself."
"You misunderstand..." Mantuok's claws clenched and unclenched, and his tail began to sway. "It was not a request. Give me the skull. We do not wish trouble... here of all places, biped. Such troubles even one such as you would be hard-pressed to deal with."
I looked him straight in the eye. The man-rat towered over the others, his fur was laced with pitch-black streaks and his armor was first-rate. There was something dangerous about him, a cunning and terrifying ambition beyond what a lycanthropic wretch could normally muster. He hated me, that much I could tell, from the way his gaze seemed to bore holes into my skull.
"Look, Mantuok..." I said carefully, "All I'm doing is trading one skull for another. Getting a friend of mine back."
"I do not give a whit for you or your friend!"
I reached into my pack and grabbed Soego's head by the mane of hair. Part of me expected it to pull out, loosened by the decay, but while it slid a little in my fingers the grip was still firm, "Take it to your master. Just know that I'm leaving the moment I get Morte back... you can work under Lothar all you want. I'm not interested in playing fetch-servant under that old graybeard's heel."
I tossed it to him. Mantuok rolled the head in his paws and sniffed at it critically. "Many, many places in catacombs, biped, no? Many places where one may be walled in for all eternity and screams are never heard. To one of those places shall you be taken and left to suffer." He turned to his fellow wererats. "Stab the biped until he falls. Take his corpse to the catacombs and bury him alive."
My eyes widened, "But- I am not trying to usurp your place here! Lothar has no need of me!"
Mantuok's squealing cackle pierced my ears, "Stupid manling. Being Lothar's trusted hand was only part of the matter. I kill you regardless."
His fangs were long and yellow, and a slim tongue flicked out to wet his muzzle, "Because I hate the way you smell."
"You diseased wretch!" I growled. Annah's punch-daggers snapped into her hands, Dak'kon's blade was drawn with the soft sound of silk against steel.
"It is no disease!" Mantuok laughed as the wererats began to surround us, "It is a blessing! I am far greater than you, a thing more a corpse than a man!"
"As my betters," I sneered, beginning to goad him, "I suppose it is your privilege to squat in sewers, feast on filth and the occasional deader to stay alive, and dress in resplendent rags with your naked scaly tails dragging in the muck behind you? You're vermin, shadows of people, desperately wishing to be human. Pathetic!"
"No, we- we are your superiors!" foam flecked his muzzle as he snarled, "We are predators. We hunt bipeds. You are food for us! Mewling prey!"
"You're target practice for me."
I tell you, four hundred pounds of rabid wererat diving at you is something you'll never forget.
That juggernaut of armor and fur barreled into me, lifting me clear from the floor and slinging me against post of the bridge. Wood cracked, I could feel a long shard of the splintered wood impale my viscera. The smell of ozone filled the air, left behind by screaming bolts of eldritch fury. I could hear the sound of battle, the squeal of rats as they fell and the clang of crude steel against karach.
I coughed. There's that taste of blood again.
Gripping my beaded dreadlocks, Mantuok smashed my head into one of the planks of the bridge. It splintered under me. He lifted my head, angling enough to crack me into another plank. And another.
There was an upper limit to how many wooden planks the human skull can endure, and I was reaching mine. My eyes rolled lazily in their sockets, the world spun. I could feel the thrum of raw power far beneath me. It was that green swirling energy in the depths of the chasm, crashing against the stone and pulsing with a deep, hungry light. As if from a long tunnel there was the distant hiss of Mantuok's voice, his breath reeking of rotting meat and old cheese.
"What treasures do you have, manling? What objects of power might I pry from your miserable, half-embalmed corpse?"
"Before ogling other people's treasures," I groaned, "You'd better protect your own."
And with a thrust of my leg, I brought my spiked kneepad into his crotch.
Mantuok drew a sharp breath, his beady red eyes shrank back as a shrill, small whine leaked from his maw.
Quick as a whip I drew the dagger from its sheath and stuck him, right in the throat. Mantuok reeled back, confused, castrated, trying desperately to staunch the flow of blood with one paw as he tried to grope for his axe.
I stuck him, in the slim border between one plate of armor and the next. Too shocked to claw at me Mantuok could only kick a little as I grabbed him by one tall spine of his opulent helmet, driving him head-first into the post behind me. Flesh and bone smashed repeatedly until his face was a ruined mass and the post was painted a fresh new shade of red. I wasn't sure if he was alive or not, but I took some small measure of satisfaction when I booted his worm-tailed ass into the chasm.
"Everything all right?" I said as I stumbled a bit trying to stand up properly. Already Annah and Dak'kon were looking themselves over for wounds and cleaning their weapons.
"Ach, jes fine yeh sod. I dinnae know if we coulda faced tha big one fully armed, but yeh egged him on right yeh did," Annah smiled.
Dak'kon glanced at the bloodstained post. "A great tragedy. To begin one moment a king, and end it as a corpse."
"Mantuok can gripe about tragedy when it's not being stuck in him every twelve hours." My foot bumped against something, and I looked down. It was a thick tome, sour with the smell of decay. When I picked it up the leather seemed to crawl under my fingers, as if it were uncured human flesh left out in the sun.
And yet... something whispered at the back of my mind to open it. It wasn't the familiar tingle of a nascent memory bubbling to the surface, but something more... enticing.
"Are yeh all right?" Annah's nose wrinkled, "Yeh don't look good."
"I'm fine," I grunted as we walked, shaking off the urge to open the book then and there, "All I want to do is get Morte back. The void he's left is putting me in a mood, I think."
"Well I'm jes sayin' yeh should probably give a sit and heal up a bit, aye?"
I prodded the side of my head where Mantuok had introduced it to the bridge. My fingers came back wet with blood.
"It's nothing... probably a bruise, maybe a skull fractuyeuplu nyyyehtzouppppay-"
There go my speech centers.
And there goes my motor control.
By the time Annah and Dak'kon were able to drag me back to Lothar's lair, I had healed up enough to form coherent sentences again. Moving was a bit of trouble, but even if I stumbled a bit Dak'kon was good enough to help prop me up.
Bones of the Night (music)
Of course, Lothar didn't have the courtesy to be there when I returned, and Morte had been removed from the shelf.
With a grunt I sat down. "Well, I suppose we wait then."
I looked up, "Annah? Did you say something?"
She blinked, "Nay. Are yeh addle-coved enough from th' blows ta th' head ta be hearin' things now?"
I looked up to Dak'kon, about to ask the same. No, if he wanted to get my attention (and he never did) he wasn't the type to psst at me.
I looked up to the shelves.
The skull's voice was low and raspy, the sound of flint and steel. "I... I think I've seen you before, stranger."
I hobbled over. The fellow was well-polished, though yellow and snaggle-toothed. "Where have you seen me?"
"Curst. Gate town to Carceri."
I blinked, "Curst? Gate town? Carceri?"
"What are you, clueless? It's a gate town, on the rim of the Outlands, the doorway to the prison plane of Carceri. It's a place of backstabbers and traitors, and it's full of schemes as a baatezu's undergarments. Being right next door to Carceri's apt to change a burg's nature; I wouldn't be surprised if the town were about to slide over."
"Slide over? What do you mean?"
"When a gate town's beliefs get too much like the plane it borders, the force of that belief is enough to make its bordering plane swallow it whole. Happens all the time - at least when the Anarchists are involved." He spoke this last with a grim kind of pride.
"Hey I know about you! You're that faction that's trying to throw Sigil into chaos."
"Well... that's an oversimplification really," his voice bloomed as he spoke, "We are a secret society, cells of members who work alone or through directives passed through the network of informants and leaders-who-remain-hidden. Our goal is to tear down the power structure, to free people from the lies of politicians and powers, to let all lead their own lives of their own volition. We work in secrecy - worked in secrecy - and changed our routines constantly to avoid infiltration. My time was decades ago, and so all the secrets I knew are no longer valid, except for the faces I can remember - and even those must have changed by now."
"You sound like a paranoid bunch," I replied dryly.
"If a society you belonged to thrived on intrigue, infiltration, and the hatred of the established power-mongers, you'd be careful too. It's not paranoia when they really are out to get you. In our line of belief, someone involved in a triple-cross is an amateur."
"You mentioned you saw me once. In Curst."
"Hmm? Oh, that. Yes. Long, long ago. I remember someone painted with ugly and scars."
"What was I doing there?"
"What were you doing there?" the skull chuckled, "You were babbling something about some berk trying to kill you and wandering into all the wrong places. Well, you were obviously barmy and all, so me and some of my friends rolled you. Stuck a shiv in you and divvied up your stuff. It was right after that that I was betrayed, but not before I hid some of that stuff."
It was hard to be angry over a crime against me that occured centuries ago, to another incarnation. All I felt was a vague sense of unrest over knowing only those scant details.
"Well where's my stuff then?"
"I ain't telling," the skull said petulantly, "Maybe someday I'll get a body back and go for it myself, and maybe I won't, but right now it gives me great joy to see you wondering. Good luck finding it."
"Ah, don't let him get to you. The useless sod never achieved anything in life and now he's just trying to get under your skin," came another voice. The skull rested on an adjacent shelf, and it had a deep voice and a jocular tone, "Greetings. I am Stern, one of the great practitioners of personal peace through intensive redirection of hostilities."
"You mean you're a wizard, an assassin, and a poisoner," the first skull hissed.
"However you choose to define it, Grimscalp," Stern turned his attention back to me, "I was the best of the lot, so it's said."
"Then how did you wind up here?"
"Funny you should mention that. I had a black book given to me in order that I might puzzle out its secrets. I unlocked its powers at a terrible price - one I would gladly pay again! - and sharpened my edge considerably. Little did I realize that the book would betray me to another - a mewling rat-thing that overwhelmed me in a wave of rodents and tore the flesh from my living bones. The rat went through a series of disciples, each of them betrayed by the book, until it wound up in the possession of the rat-man Mantuok. If you find this book, accept its powers and be rid of it before you suffer the same fate."
The urge to toss my pack to the ground was overwhelming.
"...My thanks. What can you tell me of Lothar? I need to speak to him."
"What can I tell you of Lothar? I will tell you nothing. Even this bare existence is better than the oblivion he promises should I speak his secrets."
"You can tell me..." I said sweetly.
I got the distinct impression that Stern's skull was sneering at me. "And gain merely your friendship? Bah. There is nothing you can offer me, no service nor item, that will impel me to betray Lothar to you. Begone!"
"Now hold on, if you won't tell me about Lothar, what will you tell me about the other skulls?"
"Of the skulls that will speak to you, I can offer no good words. Their experiences have not been shared with me; indeed, we have spoken precious little until your arrival. Perhaps," it said with a smirk in its voice, "there's something special about your very presence."
I wasn't sure if he was referring to the Stories-Bones-Tell, but I didn't care to pry any further.
The third skull I spoke to exhaled languorously and spoke in a sultry voice, "Why do you disturb my rest? There has been so much happening of late, and while I welcome the sensation, I must confess to desiring the sense of quiet."
"Tell me about yourself."
"I am... I was... Ocean-before-the-Storm, a Sensate. Now, alas, I am merely decoration."
Something itched at the back of my mind at the word. "A Sensate? What's that?"
"A Sensate is a member of the Society of Sensation - one of the factions of Sigil, located in the Civic Festhall in the Clerk's Ward - which holds that the universe can be understood and manipulated only through the senses, and therefore we should accumulate as many varied experiences as possible. I believe I've reached the quota on sitting on a dusty shelf - my boredom threshold is low."
"Can I do anything for you?" I asked with a touch of sympathy.
"No, but you're kind to ask. Once I threw myself off the shelf and shattered. Next thing I knew, I was back on the shelf and we were all glued here. When Lothar tires of me, he'll dispose of me."
"I know the feeling. Well, of the first thing I mean. What are you doing here?"
She sighed, "Why, I sit on the shelf and gather dust until one of Lothar's rat minions takes it into his head that I need brushing. I answer questions for Lothar, and... that is the extent of this miserable existence."
"No, I meant, 'How did you get here?'"
"It's a long story, and I'm not supposed to say anything to you about it until you've completed a task for Lothar."
"What could he possibly do to you?"
The skull stared at me, and I got the impression it was shivering. "There's a remarkable amount of pain one can feel without nerve endings. Not all pain is physical, and not all emotions mental. Those are sensations I do not care to duplicate."
She sighed, "Well, it's quite all right. I've gotten accustomed to it over the years."
"Well, I do have the skull Lothar wanted. If you would please indulge my curiosity..."
She paused a moment, but continued with a slow, careful tone, as if trying to savor the experience of speaking to me, "It's a long story that has to do with Ravel Puzzlewell, the night hag. Would you like to hear the whole story?"
"Very well. I was working in the Civic Festhall - the headquarters of the Sensates - in the sensoriums. Ravel Puzzlewell, may the powers curse her black soul, had been coming there to find answers to riddles she had encountered. She was a masterful solver of puzzles - those that left our best minds baffled were but gauze to the force of her reason - yet she had found difficulties that required outside answers. I heard that she was there to unlock the secrets of Sigil itself.
"Horribly ugly, she was, taking no pains to use her magic to disguise her form - as I've heard she does, or rather DID, from time to time - and that fiendish exterior frightened off many a potential factioneer. Still, I had to ask her what she was about, and whether she could teach me what she knew."
"That sounds like it could have been a mistake."
"It was. She offered me a bargain, for she dwelt and dealt in riddles. If she were to answer my question, I must agree to answer one of hers. If I missed the answer, my life was hers. I agreed. She told me she intended to unlock the puzzle of the Cage, to open it to all who wished to enter - powers, fiends, celestials, modrons, and slaadi, not to mention any inner-planar beings who chose to come along. The most important part to her was that all should know that the mystery that had baffled them for so long was unraveled by Ravel.
"She asked her question. I could not answer it, though she assured me the answer was plain as the nose on her face. My fellow Sensates found me screaming in the sensorium when they arrived the next morning. I begged them to kill me, and they complied. None even suggested that I relish the new experience, so horrible was it. And... here I am. Now I must rest."
I was hesitant to ask, but I needed to know. That sense of familiarity welled up, like a bloated boil in the back of my mind. "What was the question?"
She was quiet for a moment. When she did answer, her voice was tired and sad, "It was: How does one change the nature of a man? I thought hard on her answer, and said, 'With love.' She said all people love themselves too much to be changed by something as simple as love. And then she... she... I must rest now." In the back of my mind, I could almost see a hook-nosed figure with ebon skin asking me a similar question... but I couldn't remember my answer.
We only waited a few moments more before a thunderclap and a billow of smoke heralded Lothar's arrival.
He set his steely gaze on me, unsurprised at our presence, "Have you come to reclaim the chatterbox yet? Its endless yammerings weary me."
I nodded, and pulled the severed head from my bag. "I have the skull of Soego, the wererat Dustman missionary."
Lothar took the head of Soego from me and examined it carefully. His gnarled old fingers pried apart loose lips to check Soego's teeth, lifted the lids to gaze into pale, vacant eyes. "A Dustman missionary and spy, eh? This will be satisfactory." His fingers twisted through an arcane gesture. "Your friend will be waiting for you above ground, where you came in. Now leave, I have work to do."
As much as I wanted to see Morte again, Lothar seemed to be one that could offer answers, "Now hold on... you collect the memories of the dead. Perhaps you can help me find the answers I seek."
Lothar's lips thinned, drawing a long crease across his aged features, "Very well, scarred one. Perhaps we can talk. Come."
At the other end of the room, Lothar cradled the head over a cauldron, bubbling with an opaque green soup. His fingers kneaded Soego's rotting cheeks, tugged open his mouth. "There is wisdom in bones, scarred one," he said reverently, "Brain matter rots, hearts wither, souls sublimate into nothing. But bones endure, carrying in their ivory-pale curves secrets best left forgotten, regrets and loves unnamed. Memories that sank deep into the core of a man are fossilized for as long as the skull lasts."
He ignored me, and his eyes opened wide in recognition, "Ah... I see. A man who lost his lover to a predator's cruel fangs, who sold his soul for her return, and whose body was torn asunder by creatures of ravenous frenzy. I have heard this tale before... from a foolish young bard on an isle a world away, who sang his lover's name even as the waves swallowed him."
He dropped Soego's head into the cauldron with a splash, "Well, this one will reveal a few Dustman secrets, at least."
The mane of raven-black hair swirled among the green foam like seaweed. It bobbed a moment. The foul broth trickled into the open mouth, driving a small spider out from its nesting place as it flooded. It dashed along the forehead, needle-like legs circling the perimeter where boiling-hot soup ate away at the edges of that shrinking island of flesh. Eventually that pale haven was consumed as the head sank and the spider flailed, scrabbling at nothing as it died with agonized futility fueling its final twitches. It only took a moment for its body to dissolve, and in the bubbling green foam its slim legs drifted as flotsam on the surface of a pond.
Annah wrapped her arms around herself as if chilled, too nervous to draw a circle over her heart to ward off harm as she usually did. But despite her superstitions and her fears she crept close at my heels as Lother led us upstairs.
His bedroom was decorated much as I expected, a cage craft from a creature's rib cage. A wall lined with animal skulls. He sat down in a chair craft from several tusks, his staff still in hand. "Keep it quick, scarred one. I cannot tarry all day."
"Why am I immortal?" I asked, crossing my arms.
Lothar looked me over, then cocked his head as if it were a simpleton's question, "Your mortality - your soul, if you will, that which allows you to live and die - is gone from you. It was stripped from you by magical means, by the night hag Ravel Puzzlewell. Your mortality is the key to your existence - when you find it, you will find your answers."
"I've heard a little about her. Tell me about Ravel."
"Ravel Puzzlewell is an enigma, even among the night hags. Some would call her barmy; others say she plays a deeper game than any can see through. She is evil, through and through, making the fiends you'll see in the area seem positively divine when compared to her," he said this plain-faced, as if he didn't notice the irony, "She is out of the reach of men now, thank the powers, for she was mazed by the Lady of Pain."
I blinked. This... was going to be difficult. "Mazed? How do I find her?"
"Mazes are like pocket dimensions... small places between places. To reach one, you need to find a portal and a key. I do not know where the door or the key are. Perhaps you should seek some of your old acquaintances - you have certainly left a trail of them behind. They will find you, no doubt - pray they mean you well. Perhaps you should visit the Civic Festhall - they have many answers there."
"What did she do?"
Lothar sighed and stared past me, resting his head on a knuckle. He spoke with casual authority about this Ravel, as if she was once an old acquaintance, perhaps a rival, "She was a maker of toys and puzzles, a solver of problems that didn't need solving. She decided that Sigil, the Cage, was the largest puzzlebox of all, and set herself to undo it - to let in the armies of fiends at her disposal, no doubt, to upset the balance of the city and turn the entire burg into a charnel house. Pray to any power you hold dear with thanks she did not succeed."
When I was satisfied with my answers, I returned to the parlor and made my way up that grim ladder. It was good to see color again, the splash of multihued light dappling the floor. I turned my back on Lothar's parlor, leaving that abominable world behind as we left.
A distant scream echoed from below. It was an incoherent sound, perhaps a woman's name filtered through the depths of cruel green waters.
I ignored it.