Author's Note: So, out of the blue, here's another chapter! That I haven't properly proofread! Hooray! I struggled a bit with describing the Nameless One's confusion, so hopefully the writing isn't too… janky. I tried to keep most of the important conversations intact, but did have to cut out quite a bit of stuff to avoid a solid 10,000 words of just talking. Because man, there's a lot of talking.
Also, the sentences in italics are inner thoughts. Hopefully that's obvious :-)
The Skull and the Scribe
Death, for the person experiencing it, was simply was an absence of thought. An emptiness, a lack. The deceased were lucky, in a way; they got dead, stayed dead, and didn't have to deal with the consequences. Fallen friends, shallow graves, rotting corpses and all that. Death was, really, one of the few things that a man could rely on – the great equaliser, the great motivator, the ultimate oblivion. No escape from it, unless you were a god (or a zombie, though that didn't really count).
Of course, there are always exceptions to a rule. Deep within the city mortuary, amid a sea of silence and flickering torchlight, from nothing came… something.
A myriad of sensations; darkness, confusion, cold, pain. A twitch. Sparks. Gentle prickling, a warm red glow, a slow beat. The flicker of dreams in the back of the mind, there but not-there. A sudden brightness. A feeling of wonder, of panic, of wrongness, of…
Deep within the city mortuary, a corpse bolted upright, and took one shuddering, rasping breath. And another. And another. A scarred chest rising and falling, as it always had.
The corpse – no, the man – looked around, taking in the stone slabs, the grooved floor, and his dead bedfellows. The stench of formaldehyde and decay wafted through flared nostrils, but even that was too much. He leant forward, sickness swirling in his stomach, trying to make sense of the sudden influx of feeling. The confusion was utterly overwhelming. And somehow, when he looked inside his head for answers, there was nothing there. Panic welled up inside him.
I'm in a dark room, with a bunch of dead men. That was a thought. That was real. But the questions he should've been able to answer, like who am I? Or where am I? came up empty. No memory, no identity, just the moment.
Think. Breathe. He couldn't help but wince as he heard the way his skin crackled, dry and corpse-like, as he saw the mess of tendons and old wounds that were his legs, as he felt the greasy hair that fell across his forehead.
Bones cracked as consciousness returned. There was somehow an aching sense of familiarity to everything – to the dark room around him, that he still couldn't really see, to the smells, to the way his leathery fingers felt perched upon the stone.
I am… Nameless. The man looked down at his greying, half-naked body and forced his muscles to move. He locked his arms and lid off the mortuary slab with a soft groan, feet touching the floor with a sudden chill. His head swam, his back ached. He ran a hand over his face, feeling the protruding chin, the thick brows, the rough cheeks and greasy hair. Mine. Confusing, but also familiar. No memory, but that strangest sense of-
The man looked up, his shocked gaze locking on to the only other animated thing in the room – a skull. A grinning, white skull, floating in the air before him.
"You okay?," it said, teeth clacking. "You playing corpse or you putting the blinds on the Dusties? I thought you were a deader for sure." The skull did a little bounce and spun around.
"Uhh…" The man closed his eyes for a moment, but the skull was still there when he opened them. "Wh…? Who are you?" he said eventually, voice rasping as he tried it for the first time. Think. Breathe.
"Uh… how about you start? What name is unfortunate enough to have you as its owner?" the skull retorted, eyes rolling. And it did have eyes; great big green ones, with red veins lacing the surface. At least the whiteness of its bone gave him something to focus on in the dim chamber; something to hold on to.
"I… don't know. I can't remember."
"You can't remember your name? Heh. Well, NEXT time you spend a night in the berg, go easy on the bub." The skull chuckled. "But I still need something to call you, berk – 'corpse' and 'deader' are getting old fast."
The man thought, trying to ignore the strangeness. His mind was still frustratingly empty, no matter how hard he searched for an answer. And that… scares me. He looked around the room again, gazing at the distant walls, the shadowed ceiling, the tables full of bubbling, foreign apparatus.
A name. If I had one, I can't remember it. My skin is grey, my hair is black, I have a belt and boots and loincloth, but none of that is... None of that is me. All I know is that I am nameless and that my mind is filled with questions.
Also, talking skull.
He wiped a hand across his forehead, and looked up. The skull was waiting patiently, staring at him in an endearing slack-jawed sort of way. "I am… Nameless. Out of all the corpses in here, in guess I'm the nameless one," he said slowly. It sounded stupid.
"Nameless, huh? Not very original, but I guess it'll do." The skull paused. "Well, Nameless, the name's Morte. Morte Rictusgrin. I'm trapped in here, too."
"I guess it's… nice to meet you, Morte." Even if you are, for all intents and purposes, a talking bone – that's all I've got right now. "Trapped?"
"Yeah, trapped. Since you haven't had time to get your legs yet, here's the chant: I've tried all the doors, and this room is locked tighter than a chastity belt."
"We're locked in tighter than a… where, exactly? What is this place?"
"It's called the 'Mortuary.' It's a big black structure with all the architectural charm of a pregnant spider."
"I can see that." The floor, an uneven stone mosaic of green, red and grey, gave that away on its own. So did the other stone slabs arranged around the room, most of them supporting their own dead bodies. The walls were lined with dusty, cracked shelving and flickering torches. "But, 'the Mortuary?'"
"It's the closest thing to a morgue you're gonna find in this berg. Berks haul dead bodies here, bury 'em and if you're really lucky, you get brought back to life as a slave. So if I was you, I'd dig up the nearest exit and give this place the laugh."
"If I woke up in a morgue… am I – dead?" I feel terrible, but definitely not dead.
"Not from where I'm standing. You got scars a-plenty, though… looks like some berk painted you with a knife. All the more reason to give this place the laugh before whoever carved you up comes back to finish the job."
Nameless looked down at his stomach, and saw a myriad of long slashes and cuts. Almost every muscle in his chest, in his legs, in his arms bore half-healed wounds and deadened scratches. I'm almost glad I can't remember where he… I… got them.
Dizziness threated to overwhelm him again, darkness creeping into the edge of his vision. He was cold, hot, alone in darkness, in a body both strange and achingly familiar, surrounded by slabs, skulls, mortuaries, a blankness at his core.
No. MY body, MY scars. Get your bearings, focus on making that jaw go up and down.
"You alright, chief?" The skill was looking at him quizzically.
"Uhh… no. Yeah." Nameless clenched his teeth, focused on the feeling.
"The carvings on your chest aren't TOO bad," Morte continued, "but the ones on your back…" he paused. "Say, looks like you've got a whole tattoo gallery on your back, chief. Spells out something…"
Nameless reached over and tried to feel the skin around his shoulderblades; ragged ridges of scar tissue passed beneath his fingers. "Tattoos? What do they say?"
Morte bobbed around behind him. "Heh! Looks like you come with instructions. Let's see… it starts with…" The skull cleared his throat, even though this was technically impossible. "'I know you feel like you've been drinking a few kegs of Styx wash, but you need the centre 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.'"
"Pharod…? Does it say anything else?"
"Yeah, there's a bit more," he muttered. "It goes on: '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.'" The skull paused. "That's it."
Nameless winced. "No wonder my back hurts; there's a damn novel written there." I still feel… lost, but at least that's something to go on. Something to hold on to, other than the subtle aches and the walls and the ceiling and the floor, which still have an alarming tendency to bend whenever I turn my head too quickly.
"So," he said eventually, "as for that journal I'm supposed to have… was there one with me when I was lying here?"
"No, you were stripped to the skin when you arrived. 'Sides, looks like you got enough of a journal penned on your body." Morte clacked his teeth appreciatively.
"Then what about Pharod? Do you know him?" Because despite having that name cut into my back, I don't.
"Nope… but then again, I don't know many people. Still, some berk's got to know where to find Pharod – uh, once we get out of here, that is."
"And how do we get out of here?"
"Well, that is a good question. Sand's running through the glass for you, chief. The Dusties find you, they'll attempt to correct your resurrection 'problem' by tossing you in the crematorium. If you keep playing dead, you'll go to the crematorium anyway. A modron's choice, eh? What to do?"
"I don't know. Who are these 'Dusties?'"
"They watch the place here. You can't miss them... they have an obsession with black and rigor mortis of the face. They call themselves 'the Dustmen' and pretend they're a faction, but they're just an addled bunch of ghoulish death-worshippers." Morte shook his head. "Steer clear of them," he warned.
"They can't be that bad, can they? I'll explain the situation to these... Dustmen. They'll let us out."
The skull's tone was mocking. "Oh, good idea, chief! Why didn't I think of that? 'By the way, Sir Dustman, I died and woke up on a slab in your little Mortuary. Can you please help me?'... They'll 'help' you all right. They'll look at you for a few seconds, call the guards and pop you in your own private kiln."
"Okay, okay. I won't talk to them. Wherever they are." Nameless blinked, trying to get the names and places straight in his mind. Mortuaries, Dustmen, Pharod, me. The hyper-sensitive feeling from his first awakening was slowly fading.
"Yeah, well, just trust me. It doesn't matter how tough you think you are or what you say to them, they'll get you – and you ain't strong enough to break out of a walled-in tomb or survive the heat of the Elemental Plane of Fire. Waking up from the dead bad news as far as the caretakers around here are concerned." Morte flew upwards so that their foreheads were almost touching, skin-to-bone, enunciating every word. "Don't – be – an idiot."
Up close, the way Morte's eyes spun in their sockets was… slightly unnerving. "Fine. So I guess you have a plan?"
The skull nodded. "From where I'm sitting, it's obvious you need to get outta here. I mean, you may not know why, but outside you can at least start to find that out. Me, I can afford to wait – the only danger I'm in is dying of boredom. But we could lend each other a hand."
"Makes sense." Which is a nice change. I seem to be asking all the questions, though I suppose that's only appropriate.
"It may not look it, but I could help YOU, and you could help ME. I haven't got hands, so I'm in a bit of a quandary; you're missing what's in your cranium, while I got plenty of experience and know-how to get you out of this dive. We cooperate, and we both come out a head. Deal, berk?"
"Awright then. Now, c'mon, let's give this place the laugh. The doors outta here are locked, so we'll need the key. Chances are, one of the walking corpses in this room has it."
"Yeah, the Mortuary keepers use dead bodies as cheap labour. There's a couple of 'em lounging around in the far corner. It's a charmed life… except for the near-constant application of formaldehyde and stitching your limbs back on when they fall off."
Now that he looked more closely, Nameless could make out a few moving figures trudging slowly through the shadows; three of them, on the farthest side of the dark chamber. "So would these workers let us just take the key?"
"Maybe, maybe not. The corpses are dumb as stones, but they're harmless, and won't attack you unless you attack first." The skull managed to do a pretty good imitation of a shrug, despite being empty air from the jaw down.
"I don't really want to kill anything just for a key." I don't think I COULD kill anything right now.
"What, you think it's going to hurt their feelings?" Morte drawled. "They're DEAD. But if you want a bright side to this, if you kill them, at least they'll have a rest before their keepers raise them up to work again."
"Well… all right. I guess." This whole thing gets better with every passing moment. Nameless sighed and brushed down his crumpled loincloth, adjusted the bony bandolier that looped over his shoulder. He took a few small experimental steps and didn't immediately collapse, which was a good sign, though the conversation with Morte had made his throat even drier than before. He steadied himself against the slab he'd woken up on, and took another look – a real look – around the mortuary chamber, now that the initial confusion of his… awakening had faded, somewhat.
The room was roughly wedge-shaped, almost like a slice of pie, with a curving outer wall and a short inner balcony that looked out over a deep, dark pit. The walls were made of pitted stone, pale pink and grey, reinforced with rusting, scrap-metal arches that buckled under the low ceiling. Desks and shelves, piled high with old papers and jars of all shapes and sizes, were scattered amidst fat stone pillars and dim torches that cast everything in a weak yellow light.
His slab lay roughly in the centre of the chamber, and many more of the slabs lay nearer to the outer wall. The walking corpses tended to them with slow diligence, shadowy figures that groaned softly as they bent down to take care of some unknown task. Deep rails snaked all over the multi-coloured, tiled floor, allowing the slabs to be moved around the mortuary. A couple of spiked metal gates served as exits, and as Morte had said, they all looked firmly locked.
Yeah, everything hurts, and you have the pallor of very sick man, and you're wearing clothes so old and filthy you might as well be naked, but at least you're alive. Even if, like everything else, you don't know why.
Nameless cautiously stepped over to one of the other slabs, this one with a corpse still on it. Morte bobbed after him.
"Hey. Zombies are the other way, chief."
"I know. I just want to see…" he trailed off.
The slab was thick, carved from solid granite. The corpse upon it – a naked, pale young man – appeared to be in the middle of a dissection, almost as if someone had tried to turn it… inside out. A machine at the head of the table had peeled off the forehead to give direct access to the skull, while the stomach had been sliced open, flaps of skinned stretched out and pinned to the sides of the slab, revealing a mess of flesh and intestines and gore. Blood slicked the floor, dripping down the sides, pooling in the stony crevices.
The device doing the dissecting looked like some sort of sewing machine, a squat black thing laden with hooked arms, tubes, and spools of metallic thread. A few open barrels lay beside it, containing a murky liquid that smelled like a cross between vinegar and formaldehyde.
Nameless looked up. Many of the other corpses in the room had been mutilated too. Some were covered in bloody cloths, while some were completely gutted. The smell was…
"Hey. Better keep your eyes off 'em," Morte muttered. "Just thank the stars you didn't end up like that, alright?"
Sickness was bubbling in his stomach, and his mind was threatening to go blank all over again. He took a deep breath, and tore his eyes away. "You're lucky you don't have a nose, Morte," he grunted.
"Yeah, well, I miss being able to smell. There're quite a few nice vapours floating around, you know?" The skull made a sniffing noise. "Also, you might want to check those shelves for a weapon of some kind. A hammer, maybe. Or a pipe."
"…Just in case?"
"Just in case. Those corpses are as slow as molasses, but getting punched by one of them is like being kissed by a battering ram."
"Okay then." A goal. That's good. Nameless trudged over to one of the shelves by the nearest wall; it was squashed in between two fluted pillars, and was filled with – stuff: crusty bandages, inkpots, quills, jars of petrified body parts, ancient scrolls, and much else besides. Near the bottom of the shelf were a couple of drawers, and he pulled one open, kicking up a cloud of grit and dust; inside, yet more jars rattled about, on a bed of yellowed papers.
He walked over to the next shelf along, looking for something useful amongst the abandoned mortuary supplies. Looks like no one's touched this stuff in years. Then, suddenly, something glinted in the corner of his eye – a metal cup, filled with long, hooked scalpels, all faintly stained with dried blood. He picked one out and held it up to his eye.
"Will this do?"
"It's probably the best you're gonna get. Better than nothing, anyway," Morte muttered.
"Right. Let's get the key, then."
The zombies were gathered around the curved wall of the chamber, where most of the mortuary slabs had been placed. There were three of them that Nameless could see, limping, shambling figures with vacant stares and whispery moans. As he edged closer, he could see that they had obviously been dead for a very long time; in places, their skin had peeled back, exposing chalk-white bones. Tattered rags were draped around their waists and shoulders, billowing gently as they walked.
One of the zombies was separated from the others, bent over a table that held another strange machine. Its movements were slow and jerky thanks to the rigor mortis that had taken hold in its flesh, and someone had chiselled the number '569' into its forehead.
"Hello?" he asked softly.
His voice was met with silence. The corpse kept working, oiling the machine before it with thick grease.
"Uh, chief… they can't hear you, all right? They're dead."
"But you're dead, Morte, and you're talking to me."
"Yeah, but I'm special. Death couldn't kill my zest for life. These corpses here…" Morte rolled his eyes. "They probably didn't have much personality to begin with."
"I… see." Doesn't appear to be carrying a key, anyway, and it doesn't look like it would be able to use one if it did. All its fingers a broken, like someone smashed them with a hammer.
What IS this world that I've woken up in?
He moved on. Another of the corpses was standing by one of the empty slabs, cleaning it off with a brush; its head lolled back and forth on its shoulders with an unpleasant twisting motion. Wrinkled skin sagged from its arms and legs. The thing might've been a woman in some past life, though now it was barely recognisable as human.
"Ooh, judging from the angle of the neck, it looks like she might've been hanged."
"That's very helpful, Morte."
Nameless leant forwards, looking for any sign of a key hidden in the zombie's robes. The corpse stopped and stared blankly at him. The number '782' was carved into its forehead, and its lips had been stitched closed. The faint smell of formaldehyde emanated from the body.
There. A small brass key was held tightly in its left hand, thumb and forefinger locked around it in a deathgrip.
"You'll have to hack that thing's hand off," Morte announced, almost gleefully.
"Yes. And don't worry, I'll stay back and provide valuable tactical advice."
Seems like it's not only a very chatty skull, but also vaguely cowardly and psychotic. Just the right sort of… thing… to have as your first new friend. "Maybe you could help me, Morte."
"I will be helping you. Good advice is hard to come by."
"I meant by attacking the corpse."
"But I'm a romantic, not a soldier. I'd just get in the way."
Nameless felt his irritation rising, felt the stress of the last ten minutes – of his life – start to bubble to the surface. It came out as a soft growl. "When I attack this corpse, skull, you'd better be right there with me or you'll be the next thing that I plunge this scalpel into."
"Eh… all right. I'll help you," Morte said quietly.
The zombie stared at nothing in particular. Nameless noticed that his hands were sweaty, and brushed them off on his loincloth. He took another step, holding the scalpel tightly in one hand. Then he darted forward with all of the strength he could muster and chopped at the thing's wrist; the scalpel bit into dead flesh, grinding up against bone and sticking there. Snick!
The zombie roared. It leant back and swung with one flapping arm, its fist catching Nameless in the stomach and sending him flying. The breath exploded out of him and he skidded across the stone floor, blackness blossoming in his vision.
BREATHE! He looked up, saw Morte dive at the zombie from up above, smacking his forehead into the corpse's skull with a resounding smack! It reeled backwards, stumbling into one of the slabs. Nameless forced himself to his feet. He watched the zombie warily as it tried to right itself, limbs thrashing with surprising speed. The hand with the key in it was almost severed, just hanging on to the arm by a few threads of muscle. Nameless ran forwards, clumsily dodged another blow, and managed to grasp the hand with his own. He leant backwards, trying to pull it off-
The hand and scalpel separated from the zombie's body with a sickening rip, and it moaned as Nameless scrambled backwards. It lashed out at air, and the corpse's head turned from side to side, staring with eyes that couldn't see. But after a few more moments, it seemed to… sigh, and began limping back to its usual position.
Nameless cautiously watched it go. None of the other zombies had seemed to notice the attack; they were still working silently. The hand in his… hand felt dry and dead, little more than skin and bone. He exhaled heavily and sank to the floor, leaning against the cold stone walls of the mortuary, and dropped the scalpel to the floor where it landed with a soft clatter. It isn't even bloody. What type of necromancy drives those corpses onwards?
Well, for that matter, what type of necromancy drives me?
"Good work, chief," Morte said brightly, floating down to his eye-level. "And good work me. That zombie doesn't know what hit it – literally. And did you see that dive-bomb move?" The skull paused. "Hey. You alright?"
"Yeah, that was…" Nameless forced himself to swallow. He stared at the key in his hand. Its shape, its texture, were-
Suddenly, something stirred in the back of his mind. A feeling, neither good nor bad, but just… inevitable; as if things were happening, distant things, out of control. An image of forest trail, trodden many times before, but still barely visible through the trees.
And then it was gone. Nameless glanced at the newly-damaged zombie – still scrubbing down the slabs, though even more jerkily than before – and then at the skull floating before him, wondering. "This place… it feels familiar. Like I've come here before, but – more than that. It's hard to explain."
"Maybe you have," Morte said non-committally. "Lots of people visit the mortuary. Usually not by choice, I'll admit."
There's still the question of how I got here, since I'm definitely not a visitor… though every question just seems to lead to another. But I still need to catch my breath, so I may as well try and figure this stuff out. No one's going to step out of the shadows and just give me all the answers, judging by that litany of scars across my back. "And earlier, you said people haul dead bodies here. Is that how I got here?"
Morte was silent for a moment before replying. "Yeah, I guess. Maybe some waster thought you was a deader and dropped you off. Yer corpse act sure had me fooled... maybe you should find the berk who dragged you here and put the questions to him, eh?" Morte nodded. "Not bad thinking for a recently-dead guy... good to see your brain-box is still in one piece."
"But why would somebody bring me here?" Nameless shivered as he felt a sudden breeze against his bare chest; a pipe along the intersection between wall and floor hissed with steam.
"Some people in this berg collect deaders off the street and sell 'em here for jink. Not a great way to make ends meet, but when yer living in the chamber pot of the Planes, yer options are pretty narrow."
"Jink? What's 'jink'?"
"Eh... money. Jink is money. Don't they have that where you come from?"
"I don't remember where I'm from," Nameless answered, frustrated.
Morte whistled. "I know, I know you keep saying that, but you man – you are out of it."
"Yeah. I wish I could remember, but I don't. I can't."
"By every god and his mother..." Morte seemed curiously disappointed. "Well, chief, more than likely your memories just took a dive into your brain-box. With any luck, they'll come up for air soon, trust me. Musta been some night you had."
"Yeah, some night. It still hurts." Like my muscles were stretched out and wrapped around a razor-wire fence. "But still, if only dead bodies come here, does that mean I… was dead? And that I woke up? That I'm undead, or something?"
"Don't know. You're talking to me... and as you've probably noticed, the walking dead around here don't usually do that. As I see it, the Dusties made a mistake and you weren't dead. Simple." The skull paused. "Let's just get out of here, okay?"
Nameless pushed himself to his feet, cursing his scarred and greying body. He took one last glance around the chamber, eyes flicking past the dissected bodies and the splintered stone slab that had been his 'birthplace'. It looked so unimportant, so… innocent. Just another slab in just another room of the deep, dark Mortuary, where skulls floated in the gloom and the only sound was the shuffle of long-dead feet.
The key only fit into one of the gates in the room, the one in the outermost corner. But that was good enough; Nameless pulled the doors open with a grunt and the screech of metal. Beyond was… another room, this one also wedge-shaped (he imagined that the mortuary was circular, sliced up into even sixths or eights by its interior walls). It appeared to be lighter, and more open, and cleaner than the previous chamber, with a relatively polished tiled floor and a distinct lack of exposed body organs.
There was, however, another host of zombies scattered around the room, trudging around in that sluggish way of theirs.
"Ah, chief? Some advice: I'd keep it quiet from here on."
"You're just full of advice, aren't you Morte."
"Yeah, but I think you need it," the skull murmured, floating through the open gate. "There's no need to put any more corpses in the dead book than necessary… especially the femmes."
"'Especially the femmes'?"
"Look, chief, these dead chits are the last chance for a couple of hardy bashers like us. We need to be chivalrous… no hacking them up for keys, no lopping their limbs off, things like that. Not if we can help it."
"'Last chance?' What are you talking about?"
"Chief, THEY'RE dead, WE'RE dead… see where I'm going? Eh? Eh?"
Oh gods. A psychotic, cowardly, LECHEROUS skull. "You can't be serious."
"Chief, we already got an opening line with these limping ladies. We've all died at least once; we'll have something to talk about. They'll appreciate men with our kind of death experience. I've had a lot of time to think about this, you know."
"I'm sure. But didn't you say before that I'm NOT dead?"
"Well… all right, you might not be dead." Morte almost sounded embarrassed. "But I am. And from where I'm standing, I wouldn't mind sharing a coffin with some of these fine, sinewy cadavers I see here." He clacked his teeth, as if in anticipation. "Course, the caretakers would have to part with them first, and that's not likely…"
"Okay." Deep breaths. "Ignoring your weird desires for the moment, these caretakers… they're the Dustmen, right. Or Dusties?"
"Yeah. And killing the workers might draw them here. They believe everybody's got to die, sooner better than later, and that includes you. You think the corpses you've seen are happier in the dead book than out of it?"
"No. It seems like a terrible… existence."
"Death visits the planes every day, chief, and these shamblers are all that's left of the poor sods who sold their bodies to the caretakers after death…" Morte trailed off. "Let's check out this room, eh?"
He floated onwards, and Nameless followed. This room was a little wider than the previous, though the walls bulged inwards in some spots with strange, bulbous curves, bordered by odd stone cylinders that looked almost like fountains. Carved stonework skirted the ceiling, together with more torches; now that he looked more closely, Nameless saw that the torches weren't burning wood but lived through some sort of magic, balls of yellow fire held within stony fingers.
More grooves ran through the floor, meeting up in the middle of the room in a circle of brown stonework. There were only two slabs visible, but these were much longer and wider, and seemed to sit of rotating metal bases – bloodstains, rust and other remains covered their surfaces.
There was another metal gate on the far side of the room, and they began making their way towards it; one of the zombies turned and stared as they walked past. The left side of the woman's face looked as if it had been caved in with a club, and her flesh sagged in bruised, swollen clumps over the ruined skill. '626' was sticked onto the corpse's right cheek, just below the eye.
"Psssst," Morte hissed. "You see the way she's looking at me? Huh? You see that? The way she's following the curve of my occipital bone?"
Nameless sighed. "You mean that blank-eyed beyond-the-grave stare?"
The skull stopped in its tracks. "Wha – are you BLIND? She was scouting me out! It was shameless, the way she wanted me."
He glanced over at the corpse, which was resumed its trudging in aimless circles. "I think you and your imagination need some time away from each other. I'm the one who woke up from the dead today, and you don't see my going crazy over some rotting woman."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. When you've been dead as long as I have, you know the signals. They may be too subtle for you to pick up on, but that's why I'll be spending MY nights with some luscious recently-dead chit while you're standing around goin' 'huh? Whatzz goin' on? Where's my muh-muh-memories?'" The skull chomped his teeth.
"Oh come on, Morte, stop it. There are more important things to worry about, like those – those Dustmen."
The skull sighed theatrically. "You're right, of course. Can't blame someone for trying, though-"
There was a sudden scraping noise. Nameless turned, and saw another zombie coming up behind them, paper-thin, wispy skin draped across her frame, '394' on the forehead, scratched with a charcoal pencil.
"I soooo want to lie in her coffin," the skull breathed.
The skull whirled to look at him. "Yeah? What?"
"Oh, never mind." Let's just get out of this damned place. Nameless strode over to the gate and inserted the key. It unlocked with a soft click, and he pushed it open with straining muscles.
Beyond was… another dark room, and another slice of the mortuary. This one, however, has absolutely filled with slabs, all lined up in rows along the stone floor, amidst creaking shelves and desks piled high with parchment. Most of the slabs bore bodies, some of them draped in dark cloth, some of them mummified and wrapped in bandages, some of them naked and bloody, while others still were missing entire limbs. More of the corpse-workers tended to the dead, cleaning skin and stitching wounds, and the ceiling, high above, seemed to be filled with malevolent shadows. It was a terrible sight, yes, disgusting even, but by now his new-born mind was almost used to the sight of pain and torture-
"Powers above, that's one HELL of a book."
And at the thinner end of the room, sitting on a chair of snake-like, entwined bone, was a man. Before him was the largest book that Nameless had ever seen (not that I can remember seeing any, up to now, but I know enough to realise that book is absolutely enormous), perhaps two metres tall and three wide, its vast, crinkled pages bound by a leather cover as thick as his arm. The book leant back on a metal stand that bent under its weight.
"What is it?" Nameless murmured.
"If I were to guess, I'd say that's the book where they scratch the name of every poor sod that's unfortunate enough to get dumped off here." Even Morte seemed slightly awed.
Well, I was dumped off here. Then could- "Could my name be in there?"
"Eh, well… I guess. To find out, you'd need to rattle your bone-box with that floating Dustie over there. I'm not sure that's a good idea."
"I think I'll risk it. It's only one Dustman."
"You sure, chief?... It might-"
Nameless ignored him. He approached the book, and the scribe behind it, with more than a hint of trepidation. Nothing else about the Mortuary had been remotely welcoming or helpful thus far. But I need answers, and these could be the first real ones I find. A name besides Nameless would be… nice. A story of life, beyond the vaguest hints of dreams and a self-mutilated letter.
Suddenly, Nameless found himself beside the man, and the elderly scribe coughed gently. He looked very old, with wrinkled skin that had a slight trace of yellow, like old parchment. Dead charcoal grey eyes lay within an angular face – a non-human face, as the ears narrowed to points. A large white beard flowed down the front of his black robes like a waterfall. His breathing was ragged and irregular, but even his occasional coughing did not slow the scratching of his quill pen. The first properly-living thing I've seen in this place. Besides me.
The book was even more imposing up close, and contained what seemed to be names, thousands – no, millions of names, all scratched out in the same spidery black script. As he watched, the scribe leant forwards and wrote another, adding to the list of the dead.
"Uh… greetings," Nameless said, his voice loud in the silence.
"Whoa, chief! What are you doing?" Morte yelled.
Nameless looked at the skull funnily. "I'm talking to the Dustman. Didn't you say that was-"
"Yeah, but I didn't think you'd actually DO IT! After everything I've told you, it should be the LAST thing—"
Suddenly, the scribe began to cough violently. After a moment or two, the coughing spell died down, and the scribe's breathing resumed its ragged wheeze.
"—and we especially shouldn't be swapping the chant with sick Dusties. C'mon, let's leave. The quicker we give this place the laugh, the bet—"
Before Morte could finish, the scribe's grey eyes flickered upwards, and he turned towards the intruders with a rustle of robes. "The weight of your years hangs heavy upon me, Restless One." The scribe put down his quill, and leant backwards in his bone-chair. "… but I not yet count deafness among my ailments."
Nameless couldn't help but jump at the voice, and at the panicked "Oh gods, oh gods" whispers of Morte coming from somewhere behind him. But – "'Restless One?' Do you… know me?" he asked, feeling a sudden surge of hope.
"Know you? I…" There was a trace of bitterness in the scribe's voice as he spoke. "I have never known you, Restless One. No more than you have known yourself." He was silent for a moment. "For you have forgotten, have you not?"
And just like that, the hope fades. "Yes, I have… forgotten, whatever that means. But who are you?"
"As always, the question. And the wrong question, as always." The scribe bowed slightly, but the movement suddenly sent him into a bout of coughing. "I…" He paused, catching his breath. "I… am Dhall."
No surge of recognition flashed through Nameless' mind, no sudden memory; it was still sadly, unfortunately, infuriatingly empty. "Then perhaps you can answer a few more questions for me. There is much I wish to know…"
"Very well. I have… time," the scribe answered, with a short, barking laugh.
Nameless thought for a moment in the gloom of the mortuary, dwarfed by Dhaal's enormous book. The scribe waited patiently for him to speak.
"What is this place?" he said eventually. Let's start at the beginning.
"You are in the Mortuary, Restless One. Again you have... come..." Before he could finish, Dhall broke into a fit of coughing. After a moment, he calmed himself and his breathing resumed its ragged wheeze. "...This is the waiting room for those about to depart the shadow of this life. This is where the dead of Sigil are brought to be interred or cremated. It is our responsibility as Dustmen to care for the dead, those who have left this shadow of life and walk the path to True Death." Dhall's voice dropped in concern. "Your wounds must have exacted a heavy toll if you do not recognize this place. It is almost your home."
My… home? "I've been here more than once? I have died more than once?"
"Yes. You have been brought here many times before, Restless One. I had hoped that this time would be your last, considering the wounds you had sustained." He sighed. "They look as if they would have sent a lesser man along the path of the True Death, yet it seems as if many of them have healed already." Dhall coughed violently for a moment, then steadied himself. "But those are only the surface wounds."
"Ha! I knew there was something weird about you, chief?" Morte exclaimed, voice echoing from the receiving-room walls.
"Only surface wounds? What do you mean?"
"I speak of the wounds of the mind. You have forgotten much, have you not? Mayhap your true wounds run much deeper than the scars that decorate your surface...but that is something that only you would know for certain."
Nameless shivered as began to realise exactly what his body had been through, what his mind was hiding from him. I die, I am brought here, and I wake up. Not just once, but many times, through many lives. And each time, I forget, because of the endless scars. It's not just amnesia, it's years of pain and death erasing themselves over and over and over…
He focused on the scribe before him. "How many times have I woken here, Dhall?"
"I could not say. But that is still too many, Restless One."
"Restless is as good a term as any..." Dhall drew a ragged breath. "Something keeps you here, does it not? Something that must be resolved, some passion that must be quenched before you can reach the True Death?"
"I don't know. Perhaps. But surely, if I have been here many times before… even if you do not know me, you must know something of me?"
The scribe shook his head. "I know scant little of you, Restless One. I know little more of those that have journeyed with you and who now lie in our keeping." Dhall sighed. "I ask that you no longer ask others to join with you, Restless One – where you walk, so walks misery. Let your burden be your own."
"What? There are – there are others who have journeyed with me? And they are here?"
"Do you not know the woman's corpse interred in the memorial hall below? I had thought that she had travelled with you in the past... Am I mistaken?"
"I know nothing about her."
The scribe made no response, and simply stared in silence.
"Where is her body?" Nameless asked, even as he wondered how he knew her.
"The northwest memorial hall on the floor below us. Check the biers there… her name should be on one of the memorial plaques. Mayhap that will revive your memory."
Nameless made a mental note to search the so-called memorial hall. Perhaps that will finally reveal something about my past – about my MANY pasts. I wouldn't mind getting some good news, for a change. "You said there were others, too."
"Doubtless there are, but I know not their names, nor where they lie. One such as you has left a path many have walked, and few have survived." Dhall gestured around him. "All dead come here. Some must have travelled with you, once."
"Well… I suppose I can't fault your logic." Nameless sighed. "And how did I come here?"
Dhall snorted in contempt, as if he found the memory repugnant. "Your mouldy chariot ferried you to the Mortuary, Restless One. You would think you were royalty based on the number of loyal subjects that lay stinking and festering upon the cart that carried you."
"I arrived here… on a cart?"
"Yes. Your body was somewhere in the middle of the heap, sharing its fluids with the rest of the mountain of corpses. And your 'seneschal' Pharod was, as always, pleased to accept a few mouldy coppers to dump the lot of you at the Mortuary gate."
"Pharod?" Morte interrupted. "That's the guy you need to find, right?"
"…Yeah," Nameless murmured. "Who is Pharod?"
"He is a... collector of the dead. We have such people in our city that scavenge the bodies of those that have walked the path of True Death and bring them to us so that they may be interred properly."
"It sounds as if you don't like him much."
"There are some I respect, Restless One-" Dhall abruptly collapsed into yet another coughing fit.
"I don't think this guy's feeling very well, chief," Morte whispered.
The scribe ignored him, steadying himself in his chair. "As I said, there are some that I respect, but Pharod is not one of them. He wears his ill repute like a badge of honour and takes liberties with the possessions of the dead. He is a knight of the post, cross-trading filth of the lowest sort." Dhall scowled at the thought. "…A thief. All Pharod brings to our walls come stripped of a little less of their dignity than they possessed in life. He takes whatever he may pry from their stiffening fingers."
Well, I guess he was never going to be a very nice man. But – "Did this Pharod take anything from me?"
"Most likely. Are you missing anything... especially anything of value?" His voice dipped as he frowned. "Not that Pharod would take exception to anything that wasn't physically grafted to your body, and sometimes even that's not enough to give his greedy mind pause."
"I am missing a journal."
"If it had the slightest value, it likely lies in Pharod's hands."
"Then where can I find him?"
Dhall paused, considering. "If events… persist… as they have, Restless One, you have a much greater chance of Pharod finding you and bringing you to us again before you discover the ooze puddle he currently wallows in."
"Nevertheless, I must find him."
"Do not seek out Pharod, Restless One," the scribe warned. "I am certain that it will simply come full circle again, with you none the wiser and Pharod a few coppers richer. Accept death, Restless One. Do not perpetuate your circle of misery."
"I HAVE to find him. I have to know." Annoyance crept into Nameless' voice. No identity, except one that was formed when waking up from a mortuary slab, nearly alone in the darkness, overwhelmed by the strangeness of the world. Too many questions, brought on by lives so distant they may as well belong so someone else, with the answers all so far away. "You talk of stopping a cycle, but how can I stop it without knowing how – how it came to be? About how it happens? About what it means?"
Dhall was silent for a moment. When he finally spoke, it was with some reluctance. "I do not know under which gutterstone Pharod lairs at the moment, but I imagine that he can be found somewhere beyond the Mortuary gates, in the Hive. Perhaps someone there will know where you can find him."
"And how would I get to this… hive?"
"The Hive is what we call the city district that lies outside the Mortuary. The front Mortuary gates are the most obvious exit, but they will not let anyone other than Dustmen pass... one of the guides by the front gate has a key to it, but it is unlikely he will open it for you unless you are… extremely persuasive."
Outside the Mortuary, into the city. Into the world. The very thought of open streets makes my head go-
Think. Breathe. You know what you are, now, and you know what you have to do. "One last question," Nameless said. "You're a Dustman. According to my friend" – he gestured at Morte – "you should want me dead. Why are you… talking to me? Helping me?"
And then, suddenly, for the first time since he'd woken… Nameless felt something other than the primitive emotions of anger, and confusion, and hope. It startled him. He felt – gratitude, of a sort. Concern, at the scribe's ever-present cough. New emotions, swirling around within.
It was… refreshing. And strange.
"I am a scribe, a cataloguer of all the shells that come to these halls." Dhall coughed again, then took a deep breath. "As long as the stream of corpses flows through the Mortuary, I shall remain at my post. And only I see the faces of those upon our slabs. The dark of your existence lies safe with me. As to why I help you…" The scribe smiled grimly, cracked lips revealing ancient, yellowed teeth. "Within the order of Dustmen, it is sometimes said there are souls who can never attain the True Death; death has… forsaken them, and their names shall never be penned in the Dead Book. To awake from death as you have done suggests you are one of these souls. Your existence is unacceptable to our faction."
"'Unacceptable?' That doesn't sound like it leaves me in a good position."
"You must understand, your existence is a blasphemy to us. Many of our faction would order your cremation if they were aware of your… affliction. But forcing our beliefs upon you is not just. You must give up this shadow of life on your own, not because we force you to." Dhall looked about to break into another coughing jag, but he managed to hold it in with some effort. "As long as I remain at my post, I will protect your right to search for your own truth. Whatever it may be."
"Whatever it may be…" Nameless trailed off. "Thank you, Dhall. For telling me all this, and for all the previous lives I've had where you've told me the same. You've been – a great help." He stood there awkwardly for a moment.
The scribe bowed his head. "Before you go, know this: I do not envy you, Restless One. To be reborn as you would be a curse that I could not bear. You must come to terms with it. At some point, your path will return you here... It is the way of all things flesh and bone."
And with that, he turned back to his book. His robe swirled around his feet as he leaned forwards to examine one of the enormous yellowed pages; he dipped his quill in ink, and scrawled yet another name into the annals of history. Dhall coughed, throat filled with dust and decay, squinting in the torchlight as he always had, waiting for death.
Across the other side of the room, concealed by deep shadows, a new slab had been wheeled in by two of the zombie workers. It ground along one of the floor rails with a high-pitched screech, and held the corpse of an old man who – unlike many of the Mortuary's other guests – seemed to have died of relatively natural causes. The magic-burning torches on the walls blazed as bright as ever.
Escape the Mortuary. Search the Hive. Find Pharod. Simple. Nameless picked his way between two empty slabs, feet slapping on the stone, making his way towards the gate that led to the next chamber of the Mortuary where Morte was already waiting.
"By the gods, chief, that was a long one," the skull groaned as he approached.
"Useful, though. You hear what he said about Pharod?"
"Yep. And I also heard all that weird 'resurrection' guff; looks like you can expect a couple o' fun deaths in your future. Almost makes me wish I'd picked someone else to follow around."
"Well, why didn't you?"
Morte snorted. "Most of the corpses stay dead. That makes them pretty hard to escape with. "And no more talking to the Dusties, d'you hear? Most of them aren't as nice as old Dhall back there," the skull warned. "But anyway, forget that. Look what I found!"
Morte floated over to one of the desks next to the gate, which was stacked high with vases and spools of thread and rough iron bars. One of the drawers beneath it lay open, and inside was the flash of gold – a small stack of coins, in fact, perhaps two dozen of them. The skull nodded happily. "Not exactly a fortune, but the stuff does make the Planes go round. We'll need some once we get outside. But I don't exactly have pockets, so…"
"Ah." Nameless scooped up the coins, which clinked merrily, and poured them into one of the pouches that hung from his threw a glance over his shoulder, to check if Dhall had noticed them, but the scribe was still focused on his work.
Nameless realised that he was still holding the Mortuary key in his hand, and unlocked the third gate. It swung open on stiff hinges. "Onwards?"
"Onwards." Morte led the way, flying into the gloom. Nameless followed close behind, the barest hint of a smile upon his lips, thoughts finally clicking into place within his ruined mind.
I think Dhall actually gave me more answers than questions. And I'm even getting used to my wonderful near-dead body. His muscles were aching less and less, and the sight of his scarred, callused, skin, the harshness of his voice – deep and rasping – no longer made him shudder. His old, meagre clothes seemed almost normal. The flashes of familiarity he'd felt were building into something cohesive, something that overcame the general… wrongness… of the world. I can put one foot in front of the other. My friendly floating skull doesn't seem too strange. I can almost make sense of what's happening from second-to-second.
Still so lost, and so many questions, so many that it's constantly threatening to bubble over and drown you in twitching muscles and pain and dark... but you are alive, and that's all that matters.
All that matters.