Part 85: The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 17The Whisper-Mad Tome of The Nameless One: Part 17
"Pikin' sod... probably couldn't keep 'is bone-box from rattlin' ta save his life," Annah grumbled, downing her ale in one gulp. The barkeep looked up from his ledgers and raised an eyebrow.
His lips thinned, "Hrmn. Been a while since I've heard that rough Hiver argot."
"Ach, mind yer own," Annah grumbled, tapping the counter for another.
"Yeah! Mind your own!"
"Who said yeh could tag along, skull?" the clink of stolen coppers dulled the snap in her voice.
Morte clicked his tongue, "Hey, that Hamrys guy just couldn't shut up. You couldn't leave lil' old me to endure that yammering with everyone else, can you?"
"Th' two o' ye would make a fine pair, yeh would."
"I don't like the competition. Besides, the chief can take care of himself. And if he can't, well... we'll sew him back together and he'll be right as rain in an hour or so."
Annah sipped her ale. "I know when I'm bein' followed, skull. I have to. And yeh have that glint in yer eye like a sod who wants somethin'."
"Oh I'm just wondering."
"Wonderin' about what?"
In the back of her mind, Annah contemplated gouging his eyes out. It was possibly the only way he could hurt... that and his tongue were the only fleshy bits left of him, a pity really. Silent, blind, bumping into the walls. She sipped her ale silently, mulling over that nice, happy image.
"So you gonna tell the chief?"
A muscle in her cheek twitched, "About what, skull?"
"About- you know..." Morte said coyly, waggling what was left of his eyebrows.
"No, I don't, skull. If yer gonna say somethin' spit it out, or shut up an' leave me ta my ale already," Annah's voice softened to a mumble as she put her lips against the rim of the mug, "E'ery minute that passes I need a lil' more sauce in me."
Morte snickered, "Come on. It's the oldest story in the book. Boy meets girl, girl stabs boy, girl and boy share knickers for a night and have awkward pillow-talk in the morning. It's soooo obvious."
Go for the eyes go for the eyes- "I don't know what yer talkin' about!" she growled, her voice rising in pitch, "Do yeh think I like travelin' with him? Do yeh?! 'is life's a right mess it is, all scarred-up an' ugly like 'is skin."
"Thank the Powers he has a nice personality."
"One o' these days, skull, I'm goin' ta wire yer jaw shut," Annah snapped, downing her drink. She slammed the mug on the counter, "Do yeh have anythin' stronger?"
"You do whatever you want, tiefling," Morte's lighthearted tone dropped, and Annah looked up. For a moment he seemed- different somehow, "I've been with the chief a long time. I know a lot him, and a lot about women, and trust me when I say this: he's not your type."
"Oh this is rich, it is."
"I mean it. Romance isn't for mortal folk. When you're young it's all about finding the right sod, going through this one and that, never quite finding the perfect one. And as the years go by and you start to sag all you can think about is that you don't wanna be alone. At that point you'll grab any berk you can find and you sink those talons into him... and that's the one you'll stick with for life."
Annah fell silent.
"Face it. For mortals, love is all about being desperate. You just don't have the time that he has to escape it."
Annah's lip curled into a sneer, "Every word yeh say just gets stupider, doesn't it?"
"Hey, fine, your choice. But if you do happen to do a sheet-warming session you'll let me watch, right?"
"Shut up, skull!"
"That- that girl!" I grumbled.
"You make it sound like an invective," Grace said with a sideways look.
"Sorry, it's just that I've never expected her to steal from me."
"Not at all... I am sure she only did so out for the practicality of the moment."
I twisted a finger in my ear, trying to dig the last bits of that useless prattle out, "That Hamrys could bore a stone. Though perhaps you think otherwise. Would you like to see how he does in the Brothel, perhaps?"
For a moment Grace's expression was unreadable, "Hamrys is simple enough to understand... while I'm sure there would be some benefit if he were to sit down with my students, it is likely to be one-sided," she drew an ivory finger along her chin in thought, "With Ecco perhaps."
"Ecco? Is that the silent prostitute?"
Grace nodded, "Though I trust that neither she nor Annah, nor Hamrys are truly on your mind right now."
"Am I that transparent?"
"On occasion... though instances of clarity from an enigma such as yourself are a rare delight," Grace smiled.
I sighed. It was a relief to finally find someone to talk to about this, "I wanted to talk about our companions..."
"Who in particular did you wish to discuss?"
"Morte is most peculiar... I have seen a great deal in my life, but nothing quite like him. He behaves somewhat like a mimir: Granted, there's no denying he is knowledgeable, but he has a certain..." She sniffed the air and wrinkled her nose. "...Baatorian smell about him."
"Yes. But he's not a baatezu... at least of any variety I've encountered. The smell alone, however, makes me treat the skull with caution."
A ta'nari... and a baatorian... thing. As much as we've been through together, the pieces were beginning to crumble. What lay beyond I didn't know, but I could almost taste the mildew rankness of betrayal. "I've heard the term 'mimir' before. What else can you tell me about him?"
"Mimirs are encyclopedias of knowledge. The owner may ask them questions, and if they possess the knowledge, they will inform the user of what it knows."
"And Morte is a mimir?"
"I don't believe so. Morte lacks the silvery metal that mimirs customarily have. And he seems to have an attitude of his own. Such qualities are not present in conventional mimirs." Grace shrugged slightly. "He may be one, but he's unlike any I've ever encountered."
I grumbled, "I don't believe Morte is a mimir, either."
"Perhaps there is some test to verify his authenticity... but I would not do one if you value him as a friend. If you do, then you must accept what he has told you."
When we found them, Annah was deep in the bub. Without a word she tossed the satchel of coins at me and steadying herself on the bar she tried to stand. I caught her as she stumbled... Annah must've had quite a few. She really wasn't a stumble kind of girl.
"Gerrof! Get OFF!" she snarled, ripping herself away from me, "I can stand on me own..."
"What's with her?" I murmured to Morte as we went on our way.
"Angry drunk," he said, bobbing with a shrug, "Probably just another mug away from shattering the bottle against the wall like a sopped-up harlot."
I chuckled, but beneath my grin I knew he was lying to me again.
Sebastion smiled at our approach. "Good day, cutter. It's good to see you again."
I cut to the chase, "Actually, I want to talk to you about Dimtree."
He stared at me for a moment and then sighed. "What about Dimtree, cutter?"
"He wants to be released from his curse."
He gave a surprised look and then waved me off. "I find that hard to believe, cutter. Dimtree doesn't have the mental power to desire anything." He frowned for a moment. "Did that idiot Hamrys put you up to this?"
"Think about it, Sebastion. Hamrys doesn't know Dimtree is a zombie, let alone who created him. Right?"
He glared at me in thought. "Hmmm. Hamrys is a lackwit. I doubt he could figure out who could have done this." He sighed and shruged his shoulders in exasperation. "Hamrys could not have sent you. I guess poor Dimtree is more aware than I intended. A pox on me for my stupidity!"
"Why did you create Dimtree anyway?"
"Oh..." He laughed, shook his head, and then tried to adopt a more serious composure. "Hamrys loves the sound of his own voice, cutter. He would wander the market for hours, bending people's ears to his endless prattle. Businesses were failing. Dimtree provides him a willing companion to listen to his many tales and, more importantly, keep him in his shop."
"So, will you release him?"
Sebastion looked at me for a moment with conflicting emotions crossing his face, then sighed and threw his arms up in exasperation. "I cannot, sorry." He gave a pleading look. "I want to, mind you, but I cannot. I fulfilled a contract by creating Dimtree and I cannot break it, right or wrong. I am a man of my word, my reputation demands it."
"I understand your dilemma and agree with you. Could I release him instead?"
"That would be difficult..." He turned and began to look through a nearby box. After a moment he removed a book which he set down in front of me. "First, you'd have to have some magical aptitude. Second, you'd have to be able to properly speak the words you find on page twenty-three of this book."
"Last, you'd have to touch Dimtree just as you feel the power of the words culminate within you." He turned his back on me and rummaged through another box. "I couldn't allow you to read that book, however. It'd be tantamount to my breaking my word through the actions of another." He continued poking through the box, ignoring me.
My eyes darted across the page that Sebastion indicated, fingertips zipping along the lines and acting as a guide. My mind was as sharp as ever, and after only reading it once, I knew how to free Dimtree from his purgatory.
I gave the coffin pillow a couple of squeezes. Fluffy down, yet with solid support, and silken to the touch. I had to admit, Hamrys didn't disappoint, and I wouldn't have minded laying down on this for eternity.
Hamrys smiled when I entered. "Good day again, cutter. Did you get the pillow you were looking for?"
"Yes. I've dealt with the trouble at the warehouse and got the pillow."
He smiled and nodded. "Well done, cutter. As I said, you may keep whatever you recovered from the warehouse as your reward. Thank you for your help."
"Gee, I sure would like to learn about coffins!" a chipper voice exclaimed outside, "Yep! Nothing I'd like better to hear some blowhard yammer on about coffinology until the Planes grind to a halt!"
"I, too, wish to know this foreign art... it is the tradition of the People to cremate our dead before scattering the ashes to the pebbled winds of Limbo."
"I do find that the topic has much potential. I've yet to experience the subject."
"Yeh are all a bunch o' daft sods, yeh know that?"
Hamrys lumbered out with a muttered "Excuse me," leaving me alone with Dimtree.
The zombie turned to face me slightly as I approached. I could feel a sense of expectation in the air about him. "You... find master? Dimtree release?"
"Yes, Dimtree. I know how to release you now."
Dimtree turned to me fully and gestured, "Please friend..."
I paused to gather my thoughts and then carefully spoke the words Sebastion taught me. The grim power over life and death thrummed through me, tickling my flesh and sending a cold chill deep into my bones. I reached out and touched Dimtree lightly on the forehead.
"Rest well, Dimtree."
There was the feeling of something being plucked and snapping within him, and with a sigh the zombie collapsed at my feet. I thought I almost heard a fleeting thank you, friend as he fell to the ground.
Moving a dead body is much harder than you'd expect. It isn't the weight alone that makes it tough (though really, a hundred and fifty pounds of flesh and bone is a task in itself). No, it's how the weight is distributed. You have to deal with the flopping limbs, the way the head gets in the way when you try to get a solid grip. Worse still was how the blood had pooled in Dimtree's legs, and how so much of the weight lay there.
This really was a two-person job.
"I cannae believe that actually worked," Annah chuckled, still a bit tipsy as she wandered in.
"Hey chief, we pointed the blowhard down the street. He should be wandering around for a couple of hours."
"We'll send them our condolences later. For now, help me move this body."
We dumped Dimtree unceremoniously into one of the caskets before closing the lid. Hopefully the embalming fluid meant he'd keep for a few days, and by the time Hamrys found him going south he'd have forgotten about this entire affair.
I just hope the next deader they send to talk to him isn't quite so conscious.
"I have the pillow for you," I declared, waving it as I approached Nihl Xander, "Let's get on with it."
He took it, his lips tightening. His eyebrows rose a little as he examined the pillow, satisfied, "Any time you're ready for the dream key, scarred man, give the word and I'll pass it to you."
"I'll take it right now."
He paused, as if gathering errant thoughts. "Close your eyes and stretch out your hand," he said. "You have to feel this key before you see it or it won't function."
I closed my eyes, and felt a touch in the palm of my calloused hand. At first I could barely feel it, but it rapidly grew in solidity in moments, until finally Xander spoke, "Open your eyes." When I did, I looked down to see a simple black feather in the palm of my hand. "My work is finished," said Xander with the satisfaction of completing four generations of work. "Use that key on the leftmost door of the Foundry and the dreambuilder will open to you. I must go now... I have work to attend to."
I blinked, "A feather? All that work for a feather?"
"It's the final safeguard on the Dreambuilder, sod," he said with a huff, "D'ya think I'd want just anyone waltzing in? I ain't stupid. Do you want something else or can I get back to work now?"
"I'll leave you to your work then. Thanks."
"You sure about this, chief?" Morte chirped, "It looks kinda... spooky."
The archway was sealed, blocked off by an inky black film and framed with sinuous curved stone. In the periphery of my vision I could almost see the crests swirl and dance like fickle motes of dust in the air, but the moment I focused on that movement it ceased as if it never existed. The darkness, solid and unyielding, made no noise as I tapped it with the tip of my dagger.
"I think I can trust Xander," I stepped back to take the arch in fully, "If this thing was supposed to hurt me he wouldn't have made me jump through those hoops."
"Four generations of devotion is a noble endeavor," Dak'kon said softly, "Githzerai honor may stretch that far, but this is the first I have seen such toil from humans."
"Go on then," Grace added softly, "But take care... dreams have a poor habit of coming true."
Annah was silent, but she hid her dark lips behind a curled ivory finger.
I stretched my hand out with the feather-key in my grip. The moment the feather brushed against the surface the darkness rippled. The watery sheen beckoned, tugging gently at the feather until my hand was enveloped. The space at the other side was neither warm nor cool, and there was a feeling of emptiness at the other side. Not the emptiness of a missing piece or the disappointment of an unfilled box... I mean that the nothing behind the veil, the screen behind the mirror echoed with unbridled potential.
I stepped through into my dreams.
It was with a vague nimbic sense of falling that I floated to the shore, the singing of the fish in my ears. It is the sound of water and motion and the tug of the tides like a million little soft strings. There were twenty of them each. It is soothing.
I dig at the beach with my hands, neither land nor sea but someplace in between. There should be a door here, beneath the moist sand as it trickles between my fingers. He said there would be one. There is a door beneath every beach.
The sky is gray with unkempt clouds and the wind is cool against my brindleskin. Waves wash their languors against the beach and wet my boots. I do not like it when my boots are wet.
Blue dress blown on the winds. Silken gown like waves and hair pale as the clouds. Skin ivory white and on the beach she dwell, cold hands that reach heaven from hell.
I can feel her coming.
I am afraid.
Wind blowing blue gown. Pearl white woman, dead pale like fishbelly skin.
She is coming.
I unlock the door and descend, the song of the fish behind me.
It is under the hangman's noose that I danced the hempen jig. Not I am the one tonight.
The voice breaks the silence, cold and wretched and crackling like rolling gravel.
"You dream again? Again! Again!"
The door clicks and locks behind me. There is the vague sense of being trapped, unseen eyes staring at me from behind no matter how I turn. My fingers itch to claw at the walls, the screams seize up in my throat. My legs are frozen, leaden, still as stone.
Calm down. Calm down.
The only way to escape would be to let it take me. My body felt strangely light and airy as I let myself go, like I've lost control of it. The winds will blow me where they will.
Valiant intruder shell-breaker wall-piercer. The walls curl in around me, twist and braid until the rope lashes the space around me, cut off from reality in my own bubble.
No. Not my bubble.
Walls twist and curl and sprout like plants, wiggling in the air with new and eager life. Walls creak but hold still as roots pierce planar mortar and placental space.
I recall old advice I was once given.
Beware the shadows of the woods. Do not walk the space where trees cast their dead.
I know I've stepped in the wrong spot and I pause. It is silent, but I know that the air shivers and rattles and laughs at my error.
Creatures of nightmare pull themselves from the ground and walk, rip at my flesh with black barbs. Cold numb pain dances along my flesh as my head rolls back in contentment. Yes yes yes.
Sound of wood and fury, creaking wood and the squeal of branches. I spiral deep into the darkness.
The ground smolders beneath my footsteps, and ashen smoke curls along the cracks of the forsaken earth. Overhead the sky is red as blood, pierced with crackling black sin. In the distance a storm bubbles and brews, and within the hour the rains will come: fat droplets of despair that pierce the skin and weather the soul until hope and happiness are gone.
Rattling teeth. Jabbering screams.
The tower of skulls babbles at me, but I cannot understand the words. I want to understand, to sort the voices out from one another and unveil the secrets held in each precious curve.
And just as I hear a familiar, pitched cry coming from within, a clattering from behind distracts me, and I turn to see a battalion of blood-fanged fiends.
The pain is quick this time, and the night cloaks me again.
She holds me against her, the warm press of her flesh, the soft perfumed scent of her hair. I can feel her smiling against my chest, and I return the gesture.
We float in the white void, she and I, weightless and dancing like the intertwined veins of a leaf on the wind.
And it was with a deep sense of duty, with boundless purpose that I wrapped my hands around her skull, and twisted. There is the crack of bone, the gush of spinal fluid and crushed neural tissue. She dies quickly, the soft smile never leaving her lips.
All, all I've killed them all. No sound of flies or wriggle of warm maggots in sweet sores and wounds. The sour stench of offal and flesh, raw and cold. There is nothing here to take them nor consume but blood-hungry roots.
A cold wind wails through the maze, whipping my ruined flesh with countless accusations. The guilt pierces, tears me up from within like a bellyful of razors. The ashen, coal-dust taste of shame on my lips.
Vines curl and ground swallows like a water dirge, and the cackling voice breaks in once more in perfect clarity, like the snap of bone or the creak of old wood.
"Oh, my pretty little puzzle, you have killed them and so many more that I have lost count of them all."
My voice is trapped in my throat, not even the softest whine escapes.
"Come to me, my poppet... come to Ravel in her black-barbed maze. Come dream with me."
And then I awoke.
When sensation and warmth began to flow through me again, I stirred from my spot on the floor. The nightmarish visions were fluttering away already, like the brush of a moth's wing. Much of the sights and sounds were half-remembered, already slipping through the cracks of my mind and into oblivion.
I sat up, contented. There was a crick in my back from lying on the cold floor, but it was a good little knot, the kind that you twist and it pops from your joints and leaving you all the more satisfied.
"Well? How was it?" Annah asked as Dak'kon helped me up.
"I think... I just met Ravel."