Part 96: The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 4The Eye of the Nameless One: Part 4
My tongue dried like I had a mouth full of ash. My legs went weak, and I trembled with the effort to keep standing in front of Ignus, sheathed in fire and his char-black face split by a cruel grin of teeth yellowed and gray. It had been the pricking familiarity of it all that had kept me from making an ass of myself. If it hadn't been for that, the shock would've turned my bowels to water and my legs to jelly, and I would've fallen to my knees before Ignus like a supplicant... the same way I had treated him countless years ago.
Past the years and the changes that had bent and warped the two of us beyond recognition, there was still something between the two of us, a tension that had to be worked out.
There's a certain masochistic edge to guilt. Maybe you've felt it before... when the sin against another is grave enough, you yearn to put a blade to your wrists, to gouge out your eyes, as if that would absolve you of the crime. You want to flee from his gaze, to crawl into hole and die. Guilt seeks the shadows, which is all the worse that Ignus was made of radiant light.
So as much as I wanted power, as much as I needed it, it was that masochism that set my tongue that day.
"Ignus, your mastery of the Art... can you teach me any of your powers?"
"Ssss... Ignussss once knew much... no longer... Ignussss burnnssss... in sssuffering, Ignusssss learnssss..." A tiny flame gusted from his mouth, like laughter, and a stream of embers spat forth. "Ssssuffer... learn..."
As I was about to speak, I felt a crawling sensation in the back of my skull... and I was suddenly struck with the certainty, that the knowledge Ignus had to teach may permanently scar me... and as terrified as I was, I was satisfied with that.
"I am willing to suffer for such knowledge..."
"Ssssufffer...?" Flames flickered eagerly along the edges of Ignus' mouth, spiraling up along the melted ruin of his face. "Burnnnnn? Piecesssss of sssself are burnnned away... sssss... Ignusss... Ignusss may ssstill teach MUCH."
"I wish to learn, Ignus... can you teach me some of the Art?"
"Where flamessss once burnnned, one may ssssend them again..." Before I could react, Ignus' claw lashed out and clutched my finger, and with a greedy hssssss, he BURNED it. Clusters of cauterized nerves sent bolts of agony through my hand in their death-throes, and through the searing pain, I closed my eyes and SCREAMED...
My knees were trembling when I forced my eyes open. The burning mass of my hand was throbbing and charred from where Ignus touched it... he floated above, uncaring, cradling my finger, then snapped the tip off with a nonchalance that sent a chill through my bones despite the heat that came off of him in waves. All that was left was the base of the digit. He hssed, cinders and ash drifting from his mouth, and flicked the charred remains of me finger back to me.
"Erhkk... what... did... you... do...?" The saliva at my lips was salty and tart with the taste of bile, and the threat of my last meal coming up again.
"Teachingsssss..." Ignus cackled, the sound now strangely painful to my ears. "To learn, one must ssssufffer."
It looked like a slightly curled stick of coal, and flakes of black dust came off in my fingers as I turned it in my hands. I trembled, licking my lips, and replaced the charred digit back on the end of my stump of a finger, and the revelation came to me, of how to curse others with Ignus' infernal heat.
The flesh knit back slowly, with lingering, blackened scars that I knew would be permanent. I'll never play the piano again.
Ignus' eyes flared, and a cruel smile pulled his lips back. It seemed to hide secrets that probed from beneath the surface, cruel glee intermixed with the satisfaction of teaching.
"I... wish... to learn... more..." I choked, still shaken by the scarring.
"Ssssufffer...?" his grin widened. It wasn't enough for him to hurt me, scarring my eternal flesh like a giddy child drawing a pattern in smooth, wet plaster before it hardened. No, he wanted me to ask for the pain, to beg for it, broken and mewling for punishment. "Burnnnnn? Piecesssss of sssself are burnnned away... sssss... Ignusss... Ignusss may ssstill teach MUCH."
"I wish to learn, Ignus..."
"Yesssssssss..." In a flash, Ignus' claws lashed out and clutched my left hand, and with a mad cackle and a greedy hssssss, the flames engulfed it, too quick and hot for the flesh to melt away, or for the fat and blood and lymph to run down my wrist. It had all evaporated with a touch. Through the searing pain, I was dully aware of the screaming, Ignus' shrieks echoing mine as if he were mocking me.
My knees cracked against the floor as I knelt, panting. My cheeks were moist, my lips wet with tears and sweat and snot. I forced my eyes open to see the burning mass of my hand from where Ignus touched it... only a blackened stump remained, twitching, blood steaming from it. Ignus seemed oblivious to my pain - his attention was devoted to my severed hand. He held it with pride, rolling it in his claws as if he were admiring a trophy.
"Ig... nus... give... me... BACK... my hand..."
Ignus ignored me; flames from his hands encircled my severed hand like a wreath, slowly burning the last remnants of flesh from it, like a sculptor working clay, until only the fused bone was left. He gave a long, low hssssss and then flung his 'creation' back to me; I managed to catch it in my remaining hand. The flesh of my severed hand was re-knitting itself, slowly, painfully... it looked like it was regrowing.
"What did... you do..." I mewled to myself. The hand looked like it was truly dead: the flesh had been scoured clean, leaving only stark white bones behind dusted gray with ash. Though the tendons and ligaments were gone, the bones of the hand had been fused together in the heat. Something about it, though, seemed to pulse with an inner light like the lurid yellow heart of a dying coal, glowing beneath an ash-gray carapace.
It took a little doing to reattach the hand, some wiggling and pushing to get the heat-warped bones to fit back into the joints. I sighed then, leaning back as the regenerating flesh crawled along the enchanted bone like lichen populating new rock. When the joints began to loosen I knew I had learned more of the Art.
"I... wish... to learn... more..."
"Ssssss..." Ignus hurled himself into the air, leaving a hissing flame trail as he rises. "No more! Piecesssss of sssself are burnnned away... sssss... Ignusss... yet no more of ssssharing will Ignusss teach..."
"You need pieces of me in order to teach me? What about my eyeball?" I pointed to the eye I had removed and replaced earlier.
Ignus lashed out again, his finger like a spear... but he didn't strike for the eye that I pointed to; instead, he impaled my OTHER eye. There was no pain for a moment, only surprise, then I screamed as Ignus let lose a stream of flames into my socket. It seemed to eat into my skull and boil my brains... the hiss of burning flesh filled my nostrils and smoke clouded my vision...
I forced my eyes open through my bloodied vision - yet only ONE eye opened - I could barely make out Ignus, hovering in the air in front of me, his hands cupping a small orb of flame in his hands - my eye, seemingly untouched by the heat. As I watched, his hands covered the pearly orb, flecked with blood, and I felt a second burning pain in my eye socket in sympathy to the one he held in his hands...
And suddenly, even through the searing pain, I could see correctly again... Ignus opened his hand, and within it lay the ruined mass of my eyeball, barely recognizable, hollow and shriveled like a dried date or like the emptied husk of a walnut. He cackled, and with a breath of flame, the eyeball rose from his grasp and drifted over to me, like a flake of ash in the air. Flabby tears of vitreous humor trickled down my cheek from the empty socket. The scarring within my skull ached like a raw burn, but the familiar itch was there. My eye was regrowing, if slowly.
I crushed the charred husk in my hand and rubbed the soot onto each eyelid, and awakened the power of Ignus' Terror within me.
"I... wish... to learn... more..."
And here, then, was the twisted part of this entire exchange. Ignus not only hurt you, he was able to make you believe you deserved it.
Tiny snakes of flame spiraled from Ignus' ruined sockets, traveling up past his charred skull. "More teachingsssss..." The two snakes of flame circled around behind him, then flared into torches in his hands. "More sufferingssss..."
"If you need more pieces of me to teach... what about this strip of my intestines?" I dug through my pack, holding up the wet ropy mass of my guts that the old woman had torn from my body so long ago. Creepy as it was I couldn't bring myself to toss them away, and held onto them like a pair of old shoes.
Ignus cocked his head as I held up the intestines, then suddenly swooped in and snatched the entrails from my grasp. Holding it, he strung it between two hands like rope and hssssssssed to himself... the intestines steamed as he held them, turning black... and a slow, burning pain began to bloom in my abdomen...
Ignus strung out the intestines, handspan by handspan, and as he let each length fall from his grasp, it started rotating around him like a spiral, snaking in a slow pattern, each portion being roasted by his flames - there was a dancing pattern to the way the flames were touching the strip of intestines, slowly blackening them, until it looked like a long string of charred meat...
The burning in my abdomen made me wince, but it was nothing compared to the pain I endured when Ignus charred the other portions of my body. The burning guts spiraled in Ignus' flames, then suddenly guttered out, and fell into Ignus' hands. He gave a hssssss and threw them to me. "MUCH powersssss in an im'mortalsssss organsss..."
I held my charred intestines in my hands; they looked like a blackened rope. Ignus hovered above me, tiny motes of ash drifting from his burning, emaciated frame.
He watched and grinned as I slit my stomach open, gagging and nearly doubling over at the effort. He gazed down at me as the blood poured and the guts spilled out, and smiled as I stuffed the seared entrails into my body. Ignus stared as I drank in the power he offered, but the cruel, mocking glint in his eyes seemed as if they were watching a bottom-feeder nibbling on whatever small scraps he would offer.
It was well past Peak, though long before the fingers of dusk touched the sky. Restaurants and eateries filled as the light dimmed. Though establishments were numerous, the only way to get a table large enough to seat the six of us was to either arrive early, or to bribe the staff. Instead we took our food from a kiosk, richly-spiced meats baked and wrapped in paper.
A slender young man approached us, wearing a somewhat worried expression. Many of the nobles were garishly dressed, but this one wore a shade of lavendar that would've been wholly unflattering in a man. He stuck out like a gray hair.
"One thousand pardons, sir, but I am looking for a certain man, and I think you might be able to help me..."
"Oh? How so?"
"I am a messenger, sir, who seeks a man it's said cannot die... a scarred man, for whom death is nothing but the most trivial of annoyances. You match the admittedly vague description I was given, sir, and I had wondered if you were he."
I raised an eyebrow and wiped the juice from my lips. The thought of being hunted again seized my stomach and ruined my meal. Damn. It had been such a fine piece of meat, too. "Just who wants to know?"
"I am in the hire of a wealthy noblewoman, Jolmi Syrma, sir."
I sighed. Might as well confess, especially now that I'd given up on that Adahn nonsense. Besides, the enemy I faced would hardly announce himself, "I am the man you're looking for."
He nodded, then bowed deeply. "A message for you then, sir: Mistress Jolmi of the House Syrma, a lady of high standing, has sent me. Mistress Jolmi would meet you in the Civic Festhall, where she would make a proposal - of which I know nothing - to you. Should you choose to seek her out, she wears green silks, trimmed with gold, and has hair the color of blue steel. That is the extent of my message, sir... farewell."
My appetite never recovered, though I tucked the wrapped meat away for a later snack. It was a fine thing, however, to be called back to the Festhall. I had heard that there were training rooms where I might practice the Art.
A stern-looking older woman was in the inner court, eyes fixed on the entrance though they wandered back and forth periodically. Her gaze fixed upon my face as I approached her. "You there... might I have a word with you?"
"Yes... you're Mistress Jolmi, correct? Of House Syrma? I spoke to your messenger."
"I am pleased to meet you, then." She gave a slight bow, little more than a nod of the head. "I would make you a somewhat unusual proposal... though you must admit you are an unusual man. I will give you one thousand copper commons... for your permission to kill you. Are you open to discussion on the matter?"
I blinked, "But... why?"
Jolmi didn't bat an eyelash. "But why not? I thought it might be an interesting experience - paying someone for the privilege of murdering them. When I first heard rumors of your existence, how could I resist? So... what is your answer? Shall we discuss the matter in greater detail?"
"One moment... where did you here these rumors?"
Jolmi frowned. "One hears all sorts of things in the Festhall. How could one not eventually hear of a man like you? Again I ask: will you consider my proposal?"
Well, I didn't really need the money, but it certainly couldn't hurt. "Yes; let's work it out the details."
After a short discussion and a bit of haggling, it came down to the following terms: Jolmi would pay me two thousand copper commons; in return, I was to allow her to drive her dagger into my heart. She would wait for me to awaken, at which point she would give me the coin.
"Do you agree to this, then?" she said, her face smooth and calm.
"Yes... let's do it."
"Splendid," she said, and drove the blade into my chest.
Jolmi was a true connoisseur... her eyes drank in every detail, her nose perked as she breathed in the scent of my sweat: sharp and bitter with terror, iron with the smell of blood. She turned her head ever so slightly, listening to the involuntary grunts and gags as my muscles heaved around the blade.
The affair was over in moments... she'd already cleaned her blade and put it away by the time I recovered. After picking myself up off the Festhall floor, Jolmi handed over several rolls of copper coins while I rubbed my aching chest.
"Somewhat disappointing, I must admit. Ah, well... coin well-spent, nonetheless. Farewell."
I don't think I ever felt so cheap, though part of me mused that if I were a sensate I'd be savoring that experience.
Strange thing was, part of me did.
"Oh is this what yeh'd be doin' now?" Annah said with a wry grin, "Sellin' yer body to the Sensates?"
"Kinda puts a whole new spin on the phrase 'earning your money on your back,' eh, chief?"
"Shut up, you two."