Part 92: Fake UpdateAnd now for something entirely different!
I needed to wash my hands.
Just the feel of the leather surface of the tome made my skin crawl. The cover was loose, surface fleshy like uncured human skin left out in the sun. When I lifted the cover, a slight nauseating stench exuded from the pages, like a bloated corpse dredged from a warm lake.
I hadn't touched the book ever since I plucked it from the ground, Mantuok's blood still warm on my hands. Even if the blood had seeped into the pages and wet them long enough to decay, it wouldn't have smelled like rotting meat.
"Master..." the pages whispered. I paused, dropping the tome in surprise as I looked around to see if anyone could see. Nope, the study was empty. Few Godsmen spend their time in the libraries.
I touched the book again, and the voice returned, stronger this time, "I greet thee, master. How may this humble tome serve you?"
"You can talk?"
"That I can, master, in many different languages. Only you should take care that none see us conversing, for they cannot hear me. And, master, speech is but one of my powers."
"How did Mantuok come to possess you?"
"The diseased rat-mage unearthed me in the catacombs, my master. He pried me from the grip of my former master, now long since dead. He brought me to his nest so that he might learn from me. His power was limited, however... it was difficult to speak to him, and he understood little of my teachings." The tome hissed as it spoke, serpent-like with acrid disgust in its voice at the mention of Mantuok. I found myself sneering as well... a vile rat-man could never understand the value of something such as this.
"Tell me about yourself."
"The question you ask is not a simple one, my master, but your servant shall seek to answer it as best it can. I am a codex of moments-now-forgotten, ideas-now-lost, and thoughts of other times and other worlds. Within my pages lies the lore of forgotten civilizations. In essence, my master, and this is the only thing of import: within my pages lie POWER. This Power can be yours... my master." Its voice was honey-sweet when it spoke to me, and I was sure that if it had a tongue the tome would've been licking at my boots.
"I am intriguied," I said coolly, "Tell me of your powers."
"These are Powers, my master, that can improve your life immeasurably. Unfortunately, the laws that bind me...they demand a small service in recompense for these Powers."
"A small service? Like what?"
"The service required is a trifling one, my master. I would barely mention it if it were not for the sake of the laws that bind me to these pages..." The book paused. "To unlock my Power, you must sacrifice but a small bit of yourself, my master. You must spill blood upon the first of my pages. This act will serve to strengthen the chain between us and allow me to help you reach your full potential. It is a small price to pay for the spells that will come to be at your disposal."
I scoffed, such a trifling matter. "All right. Here."
I nicked the tip of my finger and allowed a healthy dribble of blood fall on the pages. A strange chill settled in my bones, and I felt empty and hurt. At the same time, there was a feeling of triumph, and a new spell came to mind that I immediately recognized. Blindness. Little more than a cantrip, but it may prove useful.
Besides, drinking from the font of knowledge so easily was... empowering.
"This is your Power now... master. Know that this is but the first Power that lies in my pages."
The days passed quickly, as I was opened to a new awareness. How could I have been so blind, I scolded myself.
I was filled with a sudden sense of clarity. At the top of my balcony I could see easily what was useful and what was not, what was gold and what was dross. What gave power, and what sapped it.
Moreover, I began to realize that enemies were everywhere.
"Are you well?" Dak'kon had intoned, "Though you have no name, I have come to know you well, and something is different."
"You are not ill," Grace had said as she lifted her hand from my forehead, "But I detect that there is something missing. Perhaps you need some rest, or a stroll through the Ward. The entertainers may invigorate you... and a new caravan has come from Parafel with fine new goods."
Even Morte seemed worried. "Come on, chief. You and me, when's the last time it was just the two of us painting the town red, eh?" he chittered.
Annah remained silent, and distant.
If I did look haggard (moreso than usual, at least), it was because many of my hours were spent in solitude, lifting what wisdom I could find from my new servant.
"I bestow this advice: Be wary of those you keep close to you. Never take them fully into your confidence, and never dilute your strength by sharing it. Many emperors I have known have done such, and I do not wish you to suffer the same fate."
"If they claim friendship, then let them prove themselves. Words carry little weight compared to action. If friends they be, then they should be willing to die for you."
"Show no weakness, do not admit error, do not show hesitation. These things tell others that you are uncertain, a stone that is unbalanced and may be toppled." I felt a slight tightening in my chest then.
"Beware mercy. A turned back is no defense against an assassin's knife."
"Beware the common view of love. Love must often be cruel in order so that it may rise above the merely sentimental."
"Separate yourself from small-minded fools and the weak by recognizing that you have a destiny. This alone gives you authority to tread where others would fear to go." A faint sneer curled up the corner of my mouth at those words. I quickly repressed it.
"There are two secrets to becoming great. One is never to reveal all that you know."
"To become powerful, you must be willing to sacrifice: whether it is parts of yourself or things precious to you. Power is a bargain: One must give in order to receive."
"Honor and virtue are concepts that kill men and kill the spirit. They are only abstracts that drive men to strangeness and death. Be true to yourself and obey only your own will." My blood seemed to move more sluggishly as the book spoke, as if it had chilled within my veins, or as if my heart had hardened.
"Do not suffer one who has hurt you to live. To do so is an open admission of weakness."
"The soul of man is a sea of emotions. Often man struggles to bring order to these emotions, but it is a false order. Man's natural state is chaos, and it is a state that should be surrendered to."
"Know the meaning of mercy, use it to your advantage... but do not practice it."
"Nurture fear in others, for only fear rules men. Nothing else leaves deeper scars."
"Extend a smile and the hand of friendship to your enemies. When they clasp your hand, strike them with the dagger in your other hand, else they will surely do the same to you."
"These are my last words of advice. Weigh them carefully. Remember that you can expunge anything you find undesirable. You need only have the will." As the book spoke those last words, a chill weight settled on my heart. I felt somehow tainted. Clearheaded, but tainted.
It was then that it made its second offer.
The voice of the tome seemed saddened as it spoke to me, by the dim light of the candle. I was alone in my apartment, as always, and hung onto every word. "Unfortunately, master, the laws that bind me demand a greater sacrifice in return for greater power. I would grant these powers to you freely, but as you can see, I am bound."
"What is the sacrifice?" I asked, my voice a melange of eagerness and annoyance that the book would dare hesitate.
"The second sacrifice is that you sell one of your companions into durance, bondage, slavery. This will signify the binding between you and the power - your companion represents the Power placed at your disposal. There are those in the Clerk's Ward, I am given to understand, who will aid you in this quest. Seek out Vrischika the importer."
Well, that's easy enough.
The air was sharp in Vrishika's curiosity shop, as if the smoke from the incense had thorns. Beneath it all I could detect the faint smell of blood that gave those thorns iron tips, and the slightest stench of sulfur-smoke that lent them cruelty. There was a certain elegance in it that I didn't quite appreciate before.
"Interested in purchasing a slave or servant, Vrischika?"
Vrishika's full, black lips curled into a smile. "I'm always interested in acquiring more help. Standish - the lazy dullard - helps me around the store, but I could use another body for my manor. Who were you offering? I'll pay five thousand coins, if they're decent."
I had thought about it for a while, and the choice had been clear as of last night. "Dak'kon, the githzerai."
Dak'kon was silent, his hands tightening until I could hear the knuckles creak. Then his words come out like a blade, cold and firm and edged with every fiber of his being. "It is not my will to be this woman's slave."
"You don't have much of a choice in the matter, do you, slave?" I said with a raised eyebrow. His body tightened at the word, and his coal-black eyes widened and dimmed as if he had taken a mortal blow, "Will you buy him, Vrischika?"
Vrischika narrowed her eyes at Dak'kon, eyed his body like meat. She tilted her head, examining his muscle, his posture, and looked into those dark eyes, suddenly dark but still bearing a dangerous edge. I half-expected her to tug open his jaw and examine his teeth. "Hmmm... a githzerai, eh? And a zerth, too. So long as you understand that you'll never see him again... I'll pay five thousand copper coins for him."
"Never? I understand. Take him."
Dak'kon's lips parted, his eyes widened in as much horror as I had ever seen him express as the Vrishika counted the coins out. "Never did I think..." His coal-black eyes examined my face for a moment, then dropped to the floor as he shook his head. "It is a cruel path my hasty words have led me down. My path... Dak'kon's path..."
"You have no name anymore, slave," I said simply, "You are old and weak, and I've learned all I needed from you."
He fell to his knees at those words, his hands trembling. He did look old: the creases in his face were more pronounced, his voice creaked like old wood as he attempted to murmur a prayer to Zerthimon, perhaps a wish to strike him dead then. The fire in his eyes flickered and faded, and was gone, and his shoulders sagged as if the weight of them were too much for his body. I had sucked dry every useful drop of knowledge and life from him, and I needed him no longer.
"Your blade has shattered, Dak'kon," I crouched down next to him, my voice low as a whisper, but I knew that those words would ring in his ears for as long as he lived, "Your karach is as mist."
He turned away from me in silence.
Vrishika handed a bag to me, heavy and with coin. I squeezed it, satisfied by the weight, and stood watching as she passed a slip of parchment to her newest slave. "Here... this is the address of my home, in the Lady's Ward. Go there, now... try and flee, and I'll have a pack of fiends so far down your throat you'll be begging to come back to Sigil and serve me." She then turned to me. "And you... my thanks; I'm sure he'll prove entertaining. Enjoy your five thousand commons... farewell."
There was nothing remaining of the zerth in that githzerai when I left the shop. He still knelt there, staring into nothingness with dead, black eyes, limbs frail and limp as a corpse's. It looked as if a breeze could've broken him in two.
The fierce screech of a scolding tongue, and the crack of a whip were cut off as the door slid shut behind me. In my pouch the book murmured to me in a low, pleased hiss.
"Master, have you completed the second sacrifice? There is an air about you that says you have. You have done well; you are a swift learner. Listen to these words and learn still more." The book spoke some unintelligible syllables and a burning sensation spread within my chest, and I learned the Adder's Kiss.
I smirked. I didn't need this to prove to anyone I had a cruel tongue.
Annah held one arm tightly, as if cold. She padded over to me, her heels soft on the tiled floor. Ever since that messy business with Dak'kon, Annah had been walking on eggshells around me. She held her body stiff and tight, shying away when I approached even as she stared, eyes meeting mine. Her gaze was begging to feel warmth again, the kind of heat that her fiend blood alone couldn't kindle.
"What's this now?" she asked hesitantly, "What's this yeh want o' me?"
"I'm just concerned, Annah. You haven't been yourself lately."
"Yeh haven't been yerself either," The moment the words were out she bit her lip and glanced down nervously at my shoes, as if she wished she had said nothing.
"I know this is about Dak'kon," I said tenderly, smoothing out the coarse rumble in my throat so that the words came out sugar-sweet, "You don't need to worry about him."
Annah shifted a little, waited as if she was worried if she needed permission to speak, "That- that was jes' cold, it was. Seein' him like that, and his eyes..." she moaned, "I'll never forget 'is eyes. It haunts me dreams, it does."
"I'm jealous," I chuckled, "There should only be one man in your dreams." She took in a sharp breath, surprised that I was suddenly next to her. Yet she didn't pull back when a rough, callused knuckle caressed her cheek. Her skin was pearl-white and smooth as silk, warm to the touch.
"Did you like Dak'kon?" I murmured, leaning in so that my breath blew against her hair. "As a travelling companion?" I added, as if it was an afterthought.
"Well- well no, but-"
"Then all is well," I said, pulling her closer, "Dak'kon was useless, anyway. Worse than useless. I saw how you used to look at him, standing at my side, never leaving my sight. You and me could never be alone together with him around."
There. Her heart skipped a beat, and she swallowed. That had dredged up some hidden guilt, made that shameful fantasy real.
"I didn't need Dak'kon, Annah. I have no need for useless things," I murmured, "I need someone to be useful."
Useful, she mouthed the word.
"Your father is dead. The buried village is in chaos," I shifted, turning until I held her from behind. One hand caressed the bare cleft of belly revealed by her vest, and she trembled at my touch, "You have no one to go back to in your old life. But I need you, Annah."
Her lips trembled, working as if they pleaded for a name. Any name she could pin to me so that she could whisper it in my ear.
"Will you be useful for me?"
There was no pause, just a breathless answer given with eyes half-lidded and heart beating until the blood boiled in her veins, "Yes. I'll be useful for yeh."
"Thank you," I smiled, my lips brushing her cheek, "That makes me so happy."
The sound of Annah's pulse drumming in her ears deafened her to the sound of my dagger being unsheathed.
"You offer me cantrips and castings for novices," I had snarled, "I could've walked into a parlor and purchased what you offer, then wiped myself with the scraps. You'd better have something more to my liking, servant."
"Oh I do, I do!" all pretense of its sniveling, its bowing and scraping had been nearly gone, and it spoke with barely-restrained glee, "I promise you this: magic beyond your ken, and beyond the power of most mortals lie in the next pages. Oh, you will be the envy of archmagi, I promise you this."
It no longer addressed me as 'master,' but that was of little concern. I shook the tome furiously, nails digging into soft, fleshy hide that bound it. "Then give it to me!"
"You must have patience! You have already shown yourself willing to do what it takes to achieve this power," the book had hissed, a little too snarky for my liking, "and you must realize that you WILL pay for this power."
"What do I have to do?"
"Do you have companions you are willing to betray?" it had asked as if revealed a toothy smile.
"How about Annah?"
"I care not who, as long as you show yourself willing. Go now and do it." It almost sounded like a command.
My fingers clung loosely to the hilt of the dagger, soaked in blood from blade to pommel. The heat that stained my hands was slowly trickling away, dripping to the floor in small red splashes.
There was a lesson to be learned, surely, and I mused on it as I sat on the edge of the bed and stared at Annah's body. I meditated as I watched her grow cold.
A thief's reflexes are much sharper than you might think. Drunk on ecstasy as she was in my arms she could still feel something was wrong, twist away just as the blade buried itself in her chest. I had missed her heart completely, and Annah began to struggle.
I had seen how quick she was with the blades, how deft. They were unsheathed in an instant, and she could've swung back and slashed my throat in a blink of an eye. She could've left me gurgling on the tiled floor, my blood mingling with hers. There was no reason Annah couldn't now be crawling towards the door, crying out for help even as she slowly bled out from the wound.
But she hesitated. Oh, how she hesitated, punch-daggers trembling in her hands as if she didn't know what to do. She just lay back in my arms, trying to make sense of it all, trying to dig herself out of the hurt of betrayal. She couldn't bring herself to kill me, even if slashing my throat meant nothing in the long run.
She could've saved herself easily.
"Excellent," the book moaned in rapture, "Excellent. Never have I felt treachery as deep as this. I can taste it. You have proven yourself a worthy student. This, then, is the final spell I can teach you." It muttered some strange syllables, and a strange howl swelled in my heart. A smile curved at my lips like the blade of a dagger, and I knew a word of power, an utterance that can unravel reality and sever the strand of life with just a whisper.
It felt good ringing in my head. I felt giddy, as if I were keeping a secret I must not let out.
"Ch-chief?" The voice at the door was small and afraid.
"Ah, good thing you're here, Morte," I nodded, not looking up, "I'll need you as a witness. The thief had somehow broken into my rooms, tried to rifle through my belongings. I had to defend myself, of course."
His voice was furious, and he trembled in the air with rage, "I can't believe this... you've sunk pretty low before, chief, but this just takes the cake. I'll see you in Baator, you banged-up, short-stemmed, back-stabbing, ungrateful, pock-marked, dung-biting, greasy-haired, snaggle-toothed sorry piece of amnesiatic garbage! Mark my words, you piking sod, keep on this way and you'll be dead for good soon enough... and oh how you'll get yours, then!"
My eyes rose to meet his, then, and I spoke in a soft voice that seemed to turn the air into ice, "Watch your words, Morte."
"You-" he worked his tongue, his eloquence suddenly failing him. Morte seemed so unsure now, so afraid to speak up, "You killed her. And you might as well have killed Dak'kon."
"Yes. And I liked Annah. And I valued Dak'kon," I tested the tip of my dagger with one finger, "And as of now, I still like you. If these things had to happen to people I liked, imagine what could happen to someone that suddenly became an annoyance."
For the first time, all Morte could do was stare at me silently.
Within the past three days I had been killed twelve times. It was a record for me, really.
I had been gutted by the Harmonium, mauled by an abishai while walking down the street. Thugs had jumped me at night, and one of the chambermaids had even slit my throat as I slept. Each time they stole the tome from my pack and fled, but only long enough for me to recover and hunt them down again.
"Things seem to have gotten a lot more dangerous," I mused, running my finger across the foul-smelling leather of the tome. I had been getting used to the smell of decaying flesh.
"Y-yes, master," it meweled nervously, "It is good then that you have me, to watch your back."
I chuckled, "Drop the act, my servant. I know what you are."
"Oh yes," I sighed, flipping through the book's pages, "You are a parasite. You corrupt the weak, drive them into abominable evil. You delight in corruption and feed off of wickedness, and when you've done as much as you can to see them swell with power and bloat with their sins, you lead them to their deaths, and go on to the next host."
"But-" the book sounded afraid, "How long have you known?"
"All along, since the moment I first touched you," I chuckled, "But you're not as clever as you think you are, little tome. For one, I am immortal. You can't get rid of me that easily."
"For another, I am no weak-minded idiot who is so easily seduced by power," my finger tapped the cover, and I rested my chin in the palm of my other hand, "No, I knew what you were. You led me nowhere. I chose to take the path I did, and you gave me all the power I wanted."
"But-" the tome whimpered, "I can still serve, master. I have had many owners, know many of their secrets and their ways. I can still be your ally, your loyal servant!"
"No, you can't. I've drained you dry of all your magic, little tome, and I have no use for you anymore," I channeled a simple spell through my fingertips, and smoke began to waft from the page that I touched, "And I have no need for useless things."
The book shrieked as it was consumed by fat tongues of flame. Smoky black fire bloomed around the edges, ate away its pages with ravenous hunger.
I fed my past into that flame as I watched it burn. Memories of Morte, who was now little more than broken shards of teeth and bone lining the bottom of a bin after he tried to turn me into the Harmonium. Memories of Fall-From-Grace, who politely declined to continue traveling with me, saying she had experienced enough of betrayal and hatred. Memories of Dak'kon, now more broken and nameless than I was.
And lastly, I burned the memory of Annah, who gave her heart to me so that I might plunge a dagger in it. She still rests on a heap in Ragpicker's Square, you know. The Collectors won't touch her, nibbled by the rats and fat with worms. And yet they leave the eyes, staring off into space, still bright with unshed tears.
I tossed the ashen heap off the balcony, and the black flecks fluttered off, carried by the breeze that passed through the ward, clean and sweet as it could be in Sigil.
It was going to be a beautiful day.