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After another night at the inn, we made our way back to the Buried Village and the catacombs. As we explored we began to run into zombie warriors, and the bodies of skeletal warriors, that is, skeletons who had become warriors only after they were dried bone. I thought we might be getting close to the 'Dead Nations' the stone face had told us about, and I pushed forward, knowing we were entering an area Pharod hadn't penetrated.
We pushed open one door, and stopped, surprised. A large gathering of the undead were waiting for us. One, a skeleton in robes with a fancy staff, spoke.
"Stop! Thou have come too far, traveler, and trespassed into the Dead Nations, realm of the Silent King! Will thou submit peacefully?"
"Submit to what?"
"'Tis the will of the Silent King that all who pass the gates into our Nation become prisoners of his lands. Will thou submit?"
I wasn't at all sure of our chances against the numbers in front of us. Besides, as long as the undead were talking, it was possible I might learn something useful. I agreed to submit.
"Come, then... we shall show thee to the Chapel. Know this: thou shall be free to wander these halls, but not to leave the catacombs. Thou shall be a prisoner here until thy death; should thou later arise as we have, thou shall be free. Praise the Silent King; his will be done."
They took us through several passages, and an ancient chapel. From there, another passage led to a room. To my surprise, the room they left us in contained another living person. Someone I knew, who greeted me.
"Ah, another member of the living. Most are slain by the ghouls, this far into the catacombs; you are fortunate."
"You're Soego, from the Mortuary. What are you doing here?"
"Your memory serves you well. I am no longer stationed in the Mortuary... instead, I have become a missionary in these parts."
"Yes, I came to these catacombs after hearing rumors of undead that were *aware* in these parts. I hope to save them. Passion ties them to this false life. I hope I can teach them to forsake these passions and leave this false life behind and reach the True Death."
"You want them to die?"
"I wish them to transcend this plane of existence, divorce themselves from passion. It can save them." As I turned to find somewhere to rest in the room, he stopped me.
"A moment of your time before you go. Do not attack any of the undead here in the catacombs; they will not harm you so long as you remain peaceful. Should you prove hostile they will defend themselves, and there are... many of them."
There was little in the way of furniture in the room, only a metal table which I sat upon. I realized this must be were Soego slept. Looking at the side of the table where my feet dangled I saw a panel on the side which was slightly ajar. Wondering if Soego might be using it to store his things, I resolved to check in to it when he was not around. I remembered his suspicious actions in the Mortuary, and questioned if what he had told me of his reasons for being here were the full truth for his presence.
But enough of Soego for now. I left the room, looking for the skeleton who had talked to us when we entered.
I found the skeleton in the chapel we had passed through before. The skeleton wore what appeared to be ancient priest's robes, heavy and ornate. It carried a large, impressive stave, which was capped with intricately carved horns, dangling pendants, and a gilded skull.
I moved in front of it, to get its attention. The skeleton, its eyes aglow like two burning embers, looked me over... but made no reply. I asked if it was this Silent King in whose name we had been imprisoned.
It shook its head, turning with an eerie grace and pointing eastwards. It then turned to me once more.
I asked if I could speak to the Silent King.
It held up a bony palm. With a creaking groan and a puff of dust, its jaws opened to speak: "No." Its voice, deep and resonant, echoed for a long while in the vaulted chamber.
"But why not?" Its voice boomed throughout the chamber.
"No living creature may pass the doors that lead to his throne room; nor would I allow thee an audience even if such a thing were possible. Thou shall *not* see him."
Seeing that this line of questioning was going no where, I tried another tack, asking why I had been imprisoned. The skeleton replied in its resonant voice.
"'Tis the will of the Silent King. The Living who are caught here are made to languish in his halls until they join the quiet ones."
"Could he be convinced to allow otherwise?" After a short silence, its jaws creaked open.
"'Tis doubtful, but perhaps. Mysterious are the ways of Silent King."
"What can I do to convince you?"
"Firstly, I would know why thou are here." I answered honestly, since I had no reason to think the skeleton would care, that I was searching for a bronze sphere, to which it shook its head.
"I have seen no such thing. Why dost thou seek this object?" I explained it was for a man named Pharod, which caused a small problem.
The skeleton drew back. It looked up and away, as if peering at the surface.
"Blood still beats in his black, worm-ridden heart? That wheezing sack of flesh still sends his pack into our homes to raid and pillage." It faced me once more. "Thou were wrong to come here... we tolerate no such desecrators within our borders." I started to speak, reconsidered, then continued, not making any excuses.
"Just what do you intend to do, then?"
"We shall execute thee, as per the law of the Silent King. No tomb-raider is to be allowed to live, here." I replied with the first thought that came to mind, that indeed had been with me since we were told we would remain here until our deaths.
"But I cannot die." It stared into my eyes for a time before replying.
"This presents no problem. Thou shall remain here, beneath the Silent King's gaze, for all eternity. Perhaps one day thou shall see the folly of thy ways, and make an effort to be of use to our fair civilization."
I decided to look around more of this Dead Nations before continuing this conversation, or in fact before deciding how I was going to leave.
I found three types of undead within the halls.
First were the skeletons, which although the longest in their peculiar state, seemed to have best retained the faculties they had when alive, if very few of the memories. One of the skeletons I questioned was talkative when I asked why I had been imprisoned. The skeleton touched its chin, tilting its skull slightly upwards.
"The ghouls are permitted to feast upon all those found robbing the catacombs. The Silent King felt it would be best to let other intruders - those caught wandering and made prisoners, such as thyself -- languish here to lapse into our care, rather than be devoured by the ghouls. Thou may wish to ask Hargrimm, our high priest - it is he who speaks to the Silent King. "
Ah, so Hargrimm must be the spokesman who had imprisoned us. At least now I had a name. I asked about Hargrimm and the Silent King.
"Hargrimm, our high priest. It is he who speaks to the Silent King, giving us our lord's word and law. He is here, in the antechamber of the Silent King's throne room."
"Our lord and master is called the Silent King because he speaks only in times of dire need." The skeleton gesticulated as it spoke, old joints creaking and popping as it did so. "Ask Hargrimm, our high priest, of him. He can tell thee more."
I asked about the types of undead in the halls. The skeleton nodded.
"We are the oldest of the undead here, the most free of flesh. We make an effort to serve as guides and mentors to the others, maintaining a healthy community here."
"The zombies. Strong, but slow of mind and body, they have retained more of their humanity - their emotions - than we. They serve our community as workers, laborers, under the guidance of Stale Mary, the most caring and intelligent of them."
"Stale Mary is slow, but caring, and wise. She acts as a mother of sorts to the other zombies. She may be found in a chamber west of where thou first entered the Dead Nations."
"The ghouls are strong, violent, and ravenous creatures led by their ghastly matriarch, Acaste. They serve the community - the Dead Nations - as guards... but are an unstable element. Fear of the other undead's numbers, and of the Silent King, keeps them in check. Without our great lord to command them, we... as well as our charges... might fall prey to them, one day."
I asked him what he meant by his charges.
"The silent ones... the dead who do naught but sleep. We protect them, watch over them as they rest."
"Who would disturb them? "
"Many." He ticked them off on yellowed, dust-covered finger-bones as he spoke. "Hungry, uncontrolled ghouls, rats, and most of all... the living. Those from the buried village - servants of a man named Pharod - often descend into the vaults of the Dead Nations, disturbing the silent ones. I do not know why, nor do I care... my only concern is that we stop their foul laboring."
The zombies I could barely understand; apparently they still tried to make their physical, rotting vocal apparatus work, not having learned the skeletons' trick of speech without palate or larynx.
I approached a ghoul with hesitation. The drooling, yellow-eyed ghoul reeked of blood and carrion. It picked at its crooked fangs with long, filthy talons, constantly snuffling the air around it. Its flesh had turned a sickly green color, and was covered in rot and weeping sores.
"Eh... " Morte commented as I got near, "don't know if you want to be talking to that... thing."
"Why not, Morte? "
"They were once humans... they, or their ancestors, feasted on corpses, and this is what they've become. Pretty nasty stuff, chief... they're little more than animals, really. *Dangerous* animals."
I tried to talk to the ghoul, but Morte was proved right. It would not answer, and seemed only barely capable of preventing itself attacking me.
I continued talking to skeletons we met, since they seemed to be the only ones who might be of help. I talked to one who actually seemed to be considering Soego's preaching on True Death. Here was an opportunity too good to waste.
I hurried back to tell Soego that I had met a skeleton who was considering the true death. Soego headed out to see him.
As soon as he left the room, I pried the panel off the side of the metal slab. Inside I found a book. The book proved to be Soego's journal. It detailed his being attacked by a wererat, his eventual regression into lycanthropy, and his flight from the Mortuary after unwittingly slaying and devouring a friend. Looking for a hiding place, he came upon the Warrens of Thought and agreed to serve Many-As-One, hive mind of the cranium rats gathered there. He was now here in the Dead Nations in order to spy on the undead for Many-As-One, who hoped to one day control this part of the catacombs.
I replaced the journal and panel, and set out to find Hargrimm.
I told him what I had learned of Soego, and that the proof was
contained in a journal in his quarters.
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