Part 93: The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 2The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 2
The warmth of Annah's body was pooling around my boots.
I'd seen and felt many ways to die: being impaled on blades, acid billowing into your lungs and gnawing your face to the bone. There were bodies peppered with magic missiles, flesh blasted to the bone with arcane fury.
I couldn't look this time. You'd think I'd never seen a girl gutted before.
"Please no please no please no..."
The ground was sticky beneath my heels.
Deionarra had died because she had followed me. Aelwyn was forced to drive me to my death, heartbroken and with regret etched into her soul. Now Annah.
Love isn't for creatures like me... it's the domain of mortals, where passions have the luxury of flaring and cooling with age, where old sorrows can be smoothed over and buried. For immortals, old regrets live on with perpetual breath, just past the corner of my vision and squirreled away in the shadows. They accrue like a bad debt, unacknowledged and unpaid. Eventually, those old ghosts are going to catch up.
"You... I... cannot..." Deionarra suddenly froze, and she spoke slowly, carefully, as if her own voice frightened her. "The truth is this: you are one who dies many deaths. These deaths have given the knowing of all things mortal, and in your hand lies the spark of life... and death. Those that die near you carry a trace of themselves that you can bring forth..."
As Deionarra spoke the words, a crawling sensation welled up in the back of my skull... I suddenly felt compelled to look at my hand. As I lifted it up and looked at it, I could SEE the blood coursing sluggishly through my arm, pouring into my muscles, and in turn, giving strength to my bones...
And I knew Deionarra was right. I suddenly remembered how to coax the dimmest spark of life from a body, and bring it forth... the thought both horrified and intrigued me.
I could feel it, the barrier between this world and the next, soft and thin like an oil slick floating on the surface of a pond. I didn't want to get closer to the body, but I had to search, probing for an edge along that smooth wall. I followed the ripples of Annah's death, listened for an echo in the silence.
Conscious goals rarely fuel exploration. At first it was morbid curiosity, and then it was intent, first one wave, then another, weakening as they passed. And there, my fingers felt it... a hole in that soft barrier, like the space left by a popped bubble.
It yielded when I pushed, wrapped my probing like cold jelly. There was a nothingness to what lay on the other side: a forgotten name, a lost shoe. It was the void between dream and consciousness, the mindless gulf that seemed so familiar and yet so foreign, like the lands beyond the boundary of an uncrossed river.
The portal was closing fast.
I called her soul back from the Silent Shore, pulled it from the Isle of Whispers where the unborn sing their lamentations. There was a snapping sound as the portal squeezed shut, as if I had pulled something from the jaws of a predator, and with it in hand I quickly wove Annah's essence back into her body, willed spirit and flesh to join again.
I let out a pitched yelp and jumped back at the first spasms.
Yeah, now that was damn dignified.
Annah coughed, her eyes snapping wide open. She shivered, pale and moaning as if she were in the grips of a fever. The wound was gone, but the blood still stained her belly and carpeted the ground.
"Don't talk," I said quickly, bending over to pick her up. She trembled in my arms, and her blood was cold and damp against my skin. The air smelled like salt and iron and the rawness of lacerated flesh, "Let's get you to Grace."
A few Sensates still milled around the halls at this hour, and music and sweet scents drawn from every plane still haunted the halls. It wouldn't do for any festivity or experience to pause in the Civic Festhall, but even when I carried Annah in most of the faction members didn't give me a second glance. When you trade in experiences of the most exotic, depraved, and sensuous kinds, few things could faze you.
"What... has happened?" Dak'kon said, his voice sharp as steel.
"Shadows," I growled, "What is this city coming to if shadows can haunt the streets and take us as prey?"
"I will take her," Dak'kon said, his voice almost insistent, but I pulled away when he held out his hands.
"I have to talk to Grace alone."
Dak'kon was a good ally, fierce and loyal and true to his word, but Grace was the only one I trusted at the moment, especially when I saw Morte just floating there, suddenly and inexplicably silent.
"Shiawase..." Grace murmured softly, her hands glowing with pale warmth as she prayed, "My faith lends me strength..."
Annah's breathing became smoother as the healing trickled into her veins, but still she remained silent. At best she probably thought she had been knocked out, or wounded terribly. I certainly wasn't going to tell her that I had, quite literally, snatched her from the jaws of death.
"I see your impatience," Grace said to me softly as she healed, "Is there something you would ask of me?"
"I need to talk about one of your companions," I grumbled.
"Which one might that be?"
Grace dipped her hands into the bowl of warm water, wringing out a fresh cloth. It was stained pink with blood, but it was still good enough to wipe away more of the mess. The Sensates had been punctual. Unasked, they brought hot water and some food to our rooms. "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."
A muscle in my cheek twitched, "Baatorian smell?"
"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."
"What were you saying about his being a mimir before?"
"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." She pressed her palm to Annah's forehead, another against her breast. The tiefling sighed, and the trembling slowed, and stopped as the warmth sank into her bones.
"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, shifting her hands and running them along Annah's sides, searching for hidden wounds. "He may be one, but he's unlike any I've ever encountered."
"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."
"What's eating you, chief?"
"Can you read to me what's tattooed on my back again?"
"Aw, c'mon, chief. Don't tell me you forgot again."
"I just need to refresh my memory."
"Bet I'm going to be hearing THAT a lot." Morte cleared his throat. "Let's see..."
'I know you feel like you've been drinking a few kegs of Styx wash, but you need to CENTER yourself. Among your possessions is a JOURNAL that'll shed some light on the dark of the matter. PHAROD can fill you in on the rest of the chant, if he's not in the dead-book already.'
"I will, I will, hold on." Morte paused for a moment. "All right, here's the last bit..."
'Don't lose the journal or we'll be up the Styx again. And whatever you do, DO NOT tell anyone WHO you are or WHAT happens to you, or they'll put you on a quick pilgrimage to the crematorium. Do what I tell you: READ the journal, then FIND Pharod.'
"Go on. What does it say after that?"
If Morte had eyelids he would've blinked, "What are you talking about, chief? There isn't any more."
The anger rose in my voice, "What about, 'Don't trust the skull?'"
"Oh... that bit at the end? Well, I figured it was wash, so I didn't read that line out loud."
"Oh, really? And what do you think it means? Do you think it refers to you?"
"I doubt it. I mean, you can trust me, right, chief?"
"Are you lying to me, Morte?"
"No! C'mon, what's your problem, chief? I haven't steered you wrong yet."
"Yet. I don't like the fact you didn't read me that line, and I'd like to know what else you've neglected to mention since we've been traveling together."
"Nothing! I've told you everything... well, ALMOST everything, but nothing, you know, dangerous."
"If there's ANYTHING else, I suggest you tell me now."
"Chief, seriously, there's nothing else. I wouldn't hold out on you."
"You said you're a mimir, right, Morte?"
"Yeah... a mimir's a floating encyclopedia. You put information in, you get information out."
"But aren't mimirs made of a silvery metal?"
"So? Maybe some are, but I'm not. And there's stranger things on the Planes than that, chief."
"I don't think you're a mimir, Morte. What are you?"
He edged away just a bit, cocked to the side suspiciously, "What's with the interrogation? What do you know about mimirs, anyway?"
"I know enough to think you're lying to me. First, that bit about the missing line from my back saying not to trust you, then this. What am I supposed to think?"
"Okay, I'm not a mimir, but I know a lot of stuff, so I might as well be one."
"What are you then?"
"I'm a floating skull who knows a lot."
A low roar built from deep in my belly. Morte was feeding me scraps one by one, and making me struggle for each. I might as well have been pulling teeth, "What about that Baatorian smell you have?"
His eyes seemed to pop out of their sockets, "What would YOU know about what Baator smells like? Unless - hey, you've been talking about me with that tanar'ri, haven't you?! What does she know?!"
"Well, she obviously touched on something - that is a Baatorian smell, right?"
"Well, yeah, but - well, yeah. So I smell a little. Excuse me."
"Why do you smell like Baator?"
He bobbed in a shrug, "I dunno, must've caught it from one of those fiends that we cross paths with all the damn ti-"
"What about the shadows?"
That did it. The blank stare paved the way for the pregnant silence between us, as if it swelled with the question 'What does he know about the shadows?' that both of us were wondering. A pink tongue flicked out to lick at absent lips, and when Morte spoke again it was as casual as could be. I was almost fooled.
"What? You gonna ask me about reflections next?"
My voice deepened into a low, dangerous growl, "Spill it, Morte. I know you've been hiding more than you've let on."
"Ch-chief I seriously don't kn-"
My hand caught him in the air, clutching the curve of his temporal bone. With one hard shove I mashed him against the wall with a crack, the sickening, hollow sound of bone striking against rock.
"Chief-" his jaw worked and his eyes darted back and forth in terror.
A few of the Sensates looked up from their seats momentarily, but seemed neither interested nor concerned.
"Annah died tonight because you hid something from me," I hissed, "Because you had some hidden agenda. Now tell me! What do you have to do with Baator?"
"All right! I'll tell you, just let me go!"
I released him and he shook a bit as he righted himself, grumbling. For a moment I held myself ready in case he tried to bolt, but to my surprise the words seemed to spill out of him, each one easier to come than the last.
"I was in the hells for a while. Kind of a long while. The stench kind of grows on you."
"You were in the hells? What were you DOING there?"
"See, well, there's this pillar on Avernus, the first layer of Baator; it's called the Pillar of Skulls, but it's more like the pillar of heads."
His eyes took on a distant look, as if he were seeing something from long ago, a thousand miles away, and several realms apart from ours, "To hear some bashers tell it, it's supposedly made of the heads of berks, mostly sages and scholars, who used their knowing of this and knowing of that when they were alive to stretch the truth a little... so much they might have hurt, or uh, killed someone by doing it. Well, when I died, I ended up there. Funny, huh?"
"Eh..." Morte fell silent for a moment. He didn't even give a mirthless chuckle. "Yeah, you're right; it's not funny at all. You see, I think I knew a lot of things when I was alive. And maybe when I did know something, I didn't always tell the truth about it. I'm thinking that when I bent the truth once or twice, I may have led to someone getting penned in the dead-book sooner than they should have."
"It was me, wasn't it?"
Morte looked at me for a moment, and with the way the silence stretched I thought it might snap. "Yeah. I can't say how I know it, chief, but I think so. I think you were the one that got me sent there; the last twig in the bundle before the whole load snaps. Thing is, I can't remember what happened - I don't even remember being human, or what my life was even like before I woke up on the Pillar."
"Why did you forget?"
"That's pretty much the way of things when you die, as I'm sure you're no stranger to. You just... forget. I figure I wasn't a sterling member of the community when I was alive... but hells, who is?" Morte sighed. "It's just that I can't help it. Nothing's worse than being honest all the time."
"Except being sentenced to the hells. That sounds a lot worse than telling the truth."
"Yeah... you're right. Again." Morte clicked his teeth; the way he did it reminded me of someone drumming their fingers. "I guess just all that good and evil and lying and cheating catches up with you - and when I got penned in the dead-book, it was my turn to pay the ferryman."
"So how did you escape the Pillar?"
"Well... you helped me, chief. When you showed up at the Pillar of Skulls, I pushed my way to the front. My obvious know-how and charm attracted your attention - you knew that I was the head that knew the most. So I cut a deal with you."
As Morte spoke, my vision bled into a fiery red, and there came a howling, a horrible screaming tower of voices, chittering, screeching, hammering, ALL of them begging, screaming to be freed, and Morte's voice: faint, almost overwhelmed in the horde. He sounded desperate, frightened, and pathetically, tragically lost...
"You. Skull. Speak."
The howling voices fall silent, and the tiny, red-lined skull, its cracked features cast in a hellish light, turns its eyes up at me. Blood and ichor has streamed across its features, and its teeth chatter, as if cold. "I... I c-c-can help you. I know w-w-what you seek... all these heads... all their knowing... just please, I beg you, free me. Let me help you. I'll tell you anything, everything."
My lip curls into a sneer. I had come a long way for answers, and I would not have all the lives lost and resources squandered because I had been cheated by Baatorian trickery. "Will you? SWEAR it, skull. SWEAR you will serve me until my End Days, or here you will remain."
"I swear. I swear... just please, please free me... I..." He mewls, swallows sickeningly, his pride almost a tangible thing. "I... beg you. Let me help you. Please."
"Very well," I nodded, and some vestigial feeling of mercy flickered, a dying ember of warmth in my chest, "I shall free you."
My vision slid, as if I were moving, and the howling, screaming cacophony began again, a nightmarish horde of howls and cat-calls and taunts and insults...
My hands slide into the filthy quagmire of the pillar, sinking deep into the biting of fangs, mandibles. They gnash at my flesh, tear at my scarred skin in fury as my fingers curl around the tiny skull, locking into place. I pulled, ripping it from its base like a thick-rooted weed, tearing it from the pillar like an old scab...
"It is DONE," I declared.
The bloody skull lay in my scarred hands, its eyes covered in ichor from the pillar, and its teeth chatter, once, twice. It is remniscent of a wailing newborn: helpless, naked... pathetic.
"I have freed you. Now your life... and your death is mine... Morte."
My vision swirled, the mists of the past drifting away, and Morte was still chattering on, casual as could be. "We talked for a while, chief, you and me, seeing whether the arrangement would work, and I think we both were really impressed with each other, so you invited me off the Pillar, and I've kind of been with you ever since."
"Uh... what happened then?"
"Well, I didn't know I'd lose most of the Pillar's knowledge once I was out of it... I mean, how was I to know, I'd never been off the damn thing... but you were pretty understanding about it..."
I blinked, "You lost all the knowledge you said you had...?"
Your vision swirled again, ripped me from the present in a surge of old memories. It made me dizzy, and my gut churned...
There is the crack and snap of bone, the thrum of the blows as they reverberate through my hands. My fingers bleed with the fury of the strikes, joints loosening down to the knuckle, but I'm too angry to give a damn.
Morte howls - howling in pain, screaming for someone to stop, to stop killing him... and my hand, lashing out, again and again and...
"DAMN you, skull, you LIED to me. I'll THRUST YOU BACK IN THAT DAMNABLE PILLAR AND LEAVE YOU TO DIE THERE."
There is the clatter of bone against what sounds like metal - a floor or a wall, and the skittering of teeth knocked free. Morte, conscious or not, had slipped free from my grip. I look down to my hand, his mandible torn free and still clutched by my fingers. Stray bits of bone litter the ground. There he lies in the middle of all this mess, a long crack branching out along the side, bone indented and one eye loose from its socket. There was no blood... indeed, Morte had none to shed, and somehow that made me angrier. Instead he lay there, begging wordlessly, mewling like a beaten dog for me to st-
"KNOW THAT YOUR SUFFERING ON THE PILLAR WILL BE NOTHING TO THE TORMENT I WILL MAKE YOU SUFFER."
My vision swirled, and Morte's cries ebbed, fading into his chattering rhythm. "So, you realized I still had my uses, so I took up with you and I've been with you ever since."
He had no reaction as I leaned against a wall, head spinning, trying to swallow the bile that was boiling up to the back of my throat. I managed to swallow, hard, though it would've been much easier with a drink of water, "Morte, what did I want from the Pillar? And how long was it that I freed you?"
Morte thought for a moment. "Well, as for how long, I don't know the exact count, chief - ages, I suppose. I've done all I could to help you each time, but..." He sighed, "It's not easy. And as for what you wanted at the Pillar, I don't know - once you pried me off, I couldn't remember."
"Morte, why didn't you SAY something when we were at the Mortuary?"
Morte suddenly stiffened in the air defensively. "Because I never know who you're going to be! Some of your incarnations have been stark, raving mad! One time you awoke obsessed with the idea that I was your skull, and chased me around the Spire trying to shatter and devour me... luckily, you were crushed by a passing cart in the street. Another, 'good and lawful,' you tried to thrust me back into the Pillar, because 'it's where I belonged.'" Morte smirked. "That's why. Besides, no harm's ever come of you not knowing..."
"So you've stayed with me all this time?"
"Well, yeah, chief. I said I would. Morte always keeps his promises." He paused. "Well, most of them. Heh-heh. There was this one chit on Arborea who --"
Morte's tone had changed - past the joke, I knew he was trying to hide something. Something about why he was with me.
"Morte, seriously, why are you still traveling with me?"
"Chief, I said it's because I promised, all right?" He looked irritated. "What else could it be?"
"I don't know. You didn't need to stick around after I freed you."
"Well, of course not, chief, but I-" And suddenly, his tone of voice struck a chord in me, and I knew why he's remained with me, all this time.
"You feel guilty. Because you led me to my death so long ago, isn't it? And you've been suffering ever since."
He chuckled, eyes rolling a little even as they looked off to the side. "Aw, c'mon, chief. Me, feel guilty? I'm Morte."
I shook my head, "No, I think that's it. When I came to free you from the fate you deserved, you couldn't help but try and help me. And when you could have left after I freed you, you remained. Because you felt indebted."
Morte was silent for a moment, looking at me. "Maybe. You know what's funny? At first, I don't know what the feeling was - it kind of slowly eats at you, y'know? I mean, at first I thought it was a side-effect of some enchantment that 'bound' me to you... but after a couple hundred years, I realized it was more than that... something deeper. I just felt drawn, connected to you, somehow. Maybe it's all your suffering, chief... your torment. I don't know. Maybe I felt... I don't know, responsible for whatever it is I did. What if something I did brought you to this state?"
His tone became more awkward as he for once thought before speaking, mulling over his thoughts and words, "Thing is, I don't think me - or whoever I was - really ever had to see the consequences of all the lying and cheating I'd done, and when I saw you for the first time when I was trapped on the Pillar, somehow, I knew that you were the one I'd betrayed. Once... long ago." Morte sighed. "And that's all I know."
"I see. Thanks for coming clean, Morte."
"Nah, don't thank me..." Morte bobbed in the air; and to my surprise, his voice seemed stronger somehow, more confident. He had shed old regrets and hidden secrets one by one like autumn leaves, and now some of the cracks and fractures in his skull had vanished, as if healed. "Nah, the thanks is all to you - I feel like I just had a Plane moved off my shoulders... so to speak."
I nodded, "Any day, Morte. Now look, uh, I've got to go do some stuff."
He nodded, but didn't object. It was as good a place as any to wrap up the man-to-skull chat.
As for me, I spent the next fifteen minutes hacking up my last meal in an alley.