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The next day I headed back to the square, and followed the path to the trash-packed arch. The junk I was carrying did, in fact, open a portal. I entered, and reappeared on the other side of the small building the arch was part of.
I followed the footprints in the dust a short way to a door, which led underground. I hurried forward, only to realize there were a group of collectors just inside the doorway. I looked around for my companions, but I had distanced Morte and Dak'kon. Figuring that an air of confidence was my best strategy, I moved forward, only to be blocked by one of the berks, who held a naked blade. The others closed in around me, all with drawn weapons. I drew my own weapon, but there were too many to guard against, and I quickly went down, half a dozen blades piercing me. My last thought was, don't let it end this way.
I awoke on a blood-stained table. On one side were Morte and Dak'kon. I realized I could recognize them. All my memories since wakening in the Mortuary seemed to be intact. I didn't doubt for a moment that I had died beneath those blades. But whatever had affected me in the past, this time death hadn't erased what I had learned.
I got up from the table, and saw someone else was nearby. She was a blockish woman dressed in a heavy burlap robe. She lumbered about the room, her joints popping as she bent to pick up objects from the various tables. Her hair was bound back from her head with a bone hairpin, and she had a sour, curd-faced expression. She was mumbling to herself in a sing-song voice.
I attempted to get her attention. The woman didn't appear to hear my greeting - instead, she stumbled back to one of the long tables and began picking at one of the corpses.
"C'mon, now..." She clicked her teeth. "Don't be all-difficult on Marta... he's bein' difficult isn't he, Marta...? Yes, yes he is..." From what I could see, it looked like she was digging teeth out of the corpse's mouth... with only her hands and fingernails. When that didn't work, she pulled out a splintered wooden chisel and a mallet and *thwacked* at the gums until the tooth snapped free, then put it into a bag at her waist. I tried again.
"Uh what are you doing?" At the sound of my voice, Marta leaped away from the corpse, startled, and gave a piercing shriek.
"Aighh!" She caught her breath, then hissed angrily -- at the corpse on the table. "If dead you were not, ye mights have said somethin' earlier, false corpse, nasty corpse, yes! Haves you no *shame?*"
"I am the one who spoke, not the corpse." Marta squinted and turned.
"Eh? How's you get over there so fastus?" She mumbled to herself. "Marta, how dids he do that? No glimmer, no glimmer."
"This gravebait's blind and near-deaf." Morte commented.
Marta was still mumbling to herself, something about *corpses* and *gratitude,* which I didn't quite catch.
"Who are you? " I asked her.
"Marta, dids this one asks whose I was? Aye, he did, he did..." She started humming. "Nobody but mine, I am Marta, Marta the Seamstress... hmnnnn... Mar-ta - the - Seam - Stress... Mar-ta - the - Seam - Stress..." She turned away, back to the corpse, singing her name to herself.
"What are you doing? " Marta turned back to the corpse with a huff.
"I'm trying ta gets this berk to give up his stitchies and his teethies, and he isn't recoop-erating, no, no..." She wagged her finger, as if lecturing a small child. "Stubborn as stone, isn't he, Marta?" She pouted. "Yes, yes, he is..."
"Stitchies and teethies? What are you talking about? "
"Gotta pulls the stitchies out, the teethies... eh, Marta, perhaps you could gives me a hand... I *have* beens giving you a hand, old battie... no needs to take that tone with me... pulling out the stitchies and teethies, yes. And the thingies inside."
"I think she means organs. I hope she means organs." Morte said. Marta repeated, "Thingies." Morte glanced at Marta. "Yes, 'thingies.'" He then turned to me. "It's all semantics."
I asked her, "Marta, why are you pulling out the corpse's teeth and stitches?"
"Put 'em aside, Marta, that's what I does here." She scratched her head. "Aye, Marta, we do... stitchy-thread and teethies are precious, can be turned into jink-jink. 'Strip the corpses we bring ya,' they tell Marta: 'Pull out teethies, stitchies, thingies inside the corpse, strip 'em cold and then we'll sell 'em to the Dusties.'" A peculiar thought entered my mind, from behind that imagined wall which hid fragments of memory from past lives.
"You look for things inside the corpse? Can you dig around in my body for anything?" Marta squinted at me.
"Hmnnn." Then she nodded. "Marta can do that, cancha Marta? Yes, you can." Morte eyed me.
"I am *not* going to watch this. "
"Where? Where..." Marta was studying me, as if looking for the best place to crack me open. I had a premonition.
"Check the intestines... anything could be lodged in there."
I lay down upon the table, and Marta stood over me, a rusty knife at the ready. There was a stabbing pain as she sliced into my abdomen, then cut brutally downwards in a saw-like motion, exposing my innards. Despite the pain, I watched in silent, morbid fascination as she plundered my organs, humming to herself...
"Ah!" There was a wrenching pain as Marta lifted up the ropy mass of my intestines, blood and other fluids streaming from it. "Look at this, Marta... look at this... I see, I see, cut there, cut there..." Marta made a small, deft incision in the side of one of the intestines, and I heard a *tnnng* as something small and metallic struck the floor.
Marta dumped the soupy mass back into my torso, then reached down, picking up the object... a ring, it appeared, and she flicked it to me.
"Pretty, pretty, eh, Marta?" She nodded. "Yes, Marta, one shouldn't swallow such a thing, no, no..."
"Th - thanks... was... there... anything... else...?"
"Nothing more, more nothing, eh, Marta? Should we try someplace else, Marta?"
"Nuh - nuh - no, I had some other questions Who tells you to remove these things?"
"Fat-faced gimme-pig Quint, n' the other crutch-hobble, hobble-crutch Fair-odd Pharod, innit that right, Marta?" She gave a queer smile, and nodded. "Aye, it is, Marta..."
"Pharod? Where is he?" Marta shrugged.
"Where's Pharod, this one asks? He's heres, Marta, isn't he...?" She nods. "Aye, Pharod is heres, Marta. One of the buildings here, he is..."
I left her to her charnel work, exiting the room I had found myself in. I discovered I was still underground, but in a mostly open area beneath Sigil. There were enough people about to constitute a small village, and as I soon learned, that was close to what it was called. Buried Village.
I moved about the village, noting things as I walked. I nodded to myself when I saw only one building had guards in front of it. That must be Pharod's lair.
I boldly walked in, ignoring the guards. The interior, although much larger than any of the other buildings I had seen here, was as junk strewn as the village outside. There was only one person inside. Before me was an elderly man leaning heavily upon a crutch; his left leg was twisted, as if he tried to walk two directions at once and paid the price. His maggoty-colored skin was bunched heavily upon his skull and was flecked with liver spots. He was mumbling and smacking his lips as his eyes made a circuit of the room.
I called out to him.
"Aha!" The man's eyes lit up as he heard my voice. "Tisn't my steady crop of jink come to Pharod's waiting arms again! Greetings, corpse." He smiled a wicked grin. "Have you come to ask Pharod for another jaunt into the Mortuary walls?"
"Pharod, I've come for information. I've been told that you know something about me."
"Know somethin' 'bout you...?" The light in Pharod's eyes dimmed. He studied me, mumbling slightly as his eyes flickered up and down my frame. "Corpse...? No? Yes?" His eyes met mine. "Ah! No..."
"Look closely... do you know who I am?" Pharod studied me with a dead-even gaze.
"Tisn't a mummer's fair, corpse. No time for games, no time for Pharod to play the wheel... what are you asking such questions for?" I didn't trust this Pharod, and perhaps a lie would have been a better a strategy. But this was too important, and on the chance he would play me straight, I asked what I wanted straight out.
"I have forgotten myself, and I was told to seek you out. That you would know something of me."
"Eh..." Pharod licked his lips; they made a rasping sound, like dry parchment on sand. "Now who told you such a thing, corpse?"
"Well, no one *told* me, exactly. There were these tattoos on my back... they told me to seek you out, if I ever forgot myself."
"Ah... so little said, so much told..." Pharod fell silent, and suddenly, I had a feeling that Pharod was dissecting me, like a corpse on a Mortuary slab. "I know much you would know. Much, yes. Much, indeed..." Pharod smiled slowly, the folds of flesh on his face peeling back like a curtain.
"What do you know of me?" Pharod licked his lips, then settled himself upon his crutch like a vulture.
"No, no... not free, the question you ask." His pasty-white hands tapped the edge of his crutch. "Much I can tell you, but the telling has a cost." Pharod tapped the flagstones with his crutch and sneered. "This village is not all that lies buried beneath Ragpicker's Square."
"Chambers, vaults, corridors... filled with the dead, all a-sleep in their coffins. Somewhere in those halls, somewhere there, lies something miss-placed. Something mine."
"What is it? " I asked resignedly.
"A small thing, a trinket, such a trifle..." As Pharod spoke, his words started echoing, as if two people were speaking... I knew I'd heard them before... from my own lips.
I finished his sentence, "...it's a sphere. Made of bronze. Ugly. Feels like an egg to the touch, and it smells of rotten custard. Am I right?" Pharod fell deathly silent for a moment, then nodded.
"Yes... how much do you hide from me, corpse?" He chuckled. "Did you return to see if I remember what it is I want?"
"Why don't you get one of your Collectors to search for it?"
"Because the corridors need no more dead from this village." Pharod *tsked.* "Strong, fast, clever... these are qualities my villagers do not have. They go below -- they do not return." Pharod glanced at me. "Perhaps the dead will welcome their own, hmmm? That is what *I* think, corpse."
"Do you know where this sphere is?"
"Ah..." Pharod's sigh was like shifting sand. "And why do you suppose I ask you to look for it, corpse? I do not know *where* it is. I know it is buried deep, far deeper than any villager has ever gone." Pharod *tsked.* "It may be in the catacombs where the waters run deep, deep..."
"Very well... I'll do it. But I want to know what I'm buying with this trinket."
"There's a lot of knowing rattlin' around in my brain-box, corpse." He held up a withered finger. "One of them is this bit of wisdom: everyone *wants* something, whether they know it or not. There is much I know about you... much that you would *want* to know..."
"Very well," I agreed, "I will see about finding this sphere for you... in exchange for what you know." I felt trapped. He knew something about me, and I could only hope he would tell it if I returned with his 'trifle.'
"Very well, a deal struck, a deal made..." Pharod *cracked* his crutch sharply against the flagstones. "A sphere for a peek inside my brain box. Now, corpse -- there is no time to waste. Go to the gate at the south and east and tell those slumbering fools to open it for you -- make haste, make haste." I still had questions, and ignored Pharod's sudden desire to get rid of me.
"I once heard a tale of a man named Pharod. A king of rags." Pharod's left eye widened, though I couldn't tell whether he was doing it, or whether the folds of skin just peeled back.
"That so? Sigil be a berg of tales, it is, but any tale involving Pharod can't be one these ears wouldn't want to hear." He looked at me with mock suspicion, then grinned. "Become a tale-teller have you, corpse?"
"The tale is a strange one. It tells of a man of position and wealth who had everything, then discovered he had nothing." Pharod's grin froze on his face, and his eyes took on a strange, fiery gleam.
"Are you certain you wish to tell this tale, corpse? May be you won't like how it ends, eh?" I ignored the implied threat.
"The man was such a liar, a cheat, that he twisted himself into a corner. He discovered that when death would come for him, it would take him to a terrible place."
Pharod's grin died, and he licked his lips. He looked... frightened as I continued.
"He was determined to avoid such a fate, so he desperately looked for a way out of it. He would cheat fate as he had cheated others."
Pharod's face twisted, as if he had swallowed something unpleasant.
"He found an answer... or he found a place to look for the answer. He was told to search the trash of Sigil for that which would let him escape his fate. Now, Pharod... perhaps you can tell me how the story ends." Pharod's face broke into a snarl.
"It has NO ending! Not for I!" I watched as blood filled his features. "Now a tale do I have for YOU, corpse!" Pharod's finger lashed out at me, bent like a herder's crook.
"A corpse comes to Pharod's Court, ripe with stench and promises, claiming he would FIND that which Pharod needed. But will he keep his word? Promises too easily broken, corpse! Do you deny it?! Say that you do, for it means that you've lied to me, and I will *die* because of it!"
"I will search for it, Pharod. When I find it, I will bring it. No promises have been broken."
"Lies that lead to the death of another are the blackest thing..." Pharod tapped his crutch, wheezing slightly. "You'd best keep your word, corpse, else the Planes will grind you like a miller's wheel."
I had another question I wanted answered by Pharod before I left, although I suspected I already knew what he would say.
"I heard you have found a wealth of bodies, Pharod. Where do they come from?"
"Does a mage tell the secrets of his craft? So it is with the Collector..." Pharod frowned, studying me. "Perhaps I will tell you... but you must promise that it is for your ears only."
"What I hear is for my ears only." I vowed, with the silent proviso that it would only be while Pharod yet lived, which by his age did not look to be much longer.
"Very well..." Pharod tapped the flagstones with his crutch and sneered. "This village is not all that lies buried beneath Ragpicker's Square."
"Chambers, vaults, corridors..." Pharod gave the faintest of smiles, and his eyes gleamed like gold. "Places, black as pitch, filled with weeping stones and the precious dead, all a-sleep in their coffins. Sleeping..."
"Where do all these dead come from?"
Pharod affixed me with a lopsided stare.
"Corpse, corpse... everything dies. Life is so short, but death lasts for so very, very long. Many people, many deaths..." His stare traveled past me. "Such a waste for their deaths to be useless in a Dustie's arms, eh?" Pharod smiled, greedily.
"Not all the dead that goes to the Mortuary gate is fed to the furnace, corpse. The Dusties bury some of the dead in the city's bowels. Under the village... so near, so close... is such a place. I would have been a fool not to see opportunities..."
"So you rob the catacombs of the dead the Dustmen placed there, sell them back to the Dustmen and they bury them again?" Pharod nodded, then chuckled lightly -- the sound was like shifting sand.
"These catacombs are as deep as a Dustie's pockets."
"And as deep as the greed of man."
"Oh, yes..." Pharod sneered. "And the greed of man is something that shall always be counted upon when naught else is left, eh?"
I still didn't know the dark on the Buried Village, and decided to ask Pharod while he was being so expansive on any subject that didn't concern me.
"Well, now, there's a story..." Pharod licked his lips again, then shrugged. "But to tell true, the story bores me. The short of it? It's a piece of the Hive that got bricked over one day, a piece-o-Sigil got penned in the dead book."
"What do you mean? "
"Y'know them floating goat-heads that serve the Lady, them dabuses? Well, no matter if you do or not -- they go all 'round fixing, breaking, burying, building all the time. D'you follow?" I nodded, so he went on. "Well, as the chant goes... and a dusty chant it is too, being so old... them dabuses just damn well bricked over a section of the Hive one day and all bodies just forgot 'bout it. Dump a lot a trash onnit, and soon, nobody even knows it's here." Pharod smiled. "Wicked, no? A piece of Sigil all-forgotten?"
"How did you find it? "
Pharod *tsked.* "I still have my eyes, corpse, and I still have my ears, and when you have enough sense to tie the two together, then finding the dark of any matter is not as hard as some make it out to be."
Having satisfied my curiosity on all points except those that
were of importance to me, I left Pharod in his shadowed hall.
I decided to spend the night in the Buried Village, knowing that
Marta would allow me to sleep in her hovel. Next day was soon
enough to start on Pharod's quest. Besides, dying is not something
one recovers from in an afternoon.
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