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I assumed after finding this spy for him, that Hargrimm might be more inclined to let the three of us go. However, I had no desire to follow him in his confrontation with Soego, and decided to do a little more exploration of the Dead Nations.
I found a puzzled skeleton, who was considering a riddle he had been posed by another of the skeletons. Although I thought the answer rather obvious, I forbore from telling him, figuring he had little else to do to while away the time.
A little while later I came upon the one who had posed the riddle. It did not have the emotionless demeanor of the other skeletons. The skeleton was shaking its head and giggling to itself. It guffawed and snorted occasionally, biting down on its bony hand to stop itself. It was old enough so that no meat was left on its bones... only a few colored rags. I greeted it.
"I understand you've got a difficult riddle." It nodded, giggling.
"Dost thou want to hear it?" I nodded in turn, and it continued, "Ahem! Now, think of words which end in '-GRY.' Angry and hungry are two of them. There are but three words in the Common Tongue... what is the third word? The word is something that one uses every day. If thou hast listened carefully, I have already told thee what it is." Obvious.
"Of course you have. It's 'tongue.'" Even with no flesh, I could tell the skeleton was upset.
"Gaaaah! How did thou know?!"
"The first two sentences are unrelated, only there to trick you. There are three words in 'the - Common - Tongue.' The third word is 'tongue.'"
"Aw, troll's leavings! Oh, well. Just don't tell anyone else the answer. Will thou promise me that, at least?" When I asked why should I, it replied, "Because I enjoy the idea of them standing about, trying to puzzle it out for all eternity."
I looked about, and commented casually, "I suppose you are not as good at answering riddles as posing them."
"What's this?" It cupped a bony hand to the side of its skull. "Do I hear... a challenge? Yes... yes... go ahead! But should thou lose, or leave half-way through, I shan't speak to thee again!"
It waited for me to start. I realized that my confidence in answering its riddle didn't extend to telling ones based on only a few day's memories. I hastily made something up.
"Hmm. What is worth more? A pound of one-hundred-common, pure gold coins, or half a pound of two-hundred-common, pure gold coins?" It nodded eagerly.
"Easy, too easy! One pound of gold is *always* worth more than one half pound! Foolish, foolish!" It giggled. The skeleton crouched down and drew a simple face in the dust. Pointing to it, it spoke: "Uncles and brothers have I none, but that man's father is my father's son. Who is he, eh?"
"He is your son." I replied.
"Bah! Your turn." I stood silent a moment, then came up with another one.
"The maker doesn't want it, the buyer does not use it, the user does not see it. What is it?" The skeleton tittered childishly.
"Not true, not true! The answer is 'coffin,' and I certainly see mine!" It was ready with its own riddle. "What five letter word does even the greatest of mortal sages pronounce wrong?" Another obvious one.
"Hmm. 'Wrong.'" It shook its fist at me.
"Oooo, curses! Go."
"At night they come without being fetched, and by day they are lost without being stolen."
"Eh... hmm. Ah... stars! Stars, hee-hee!" I silently cursed, since it had been so long since the skeleton must have seen stars I thought it would have more trouble.
The skeleton cracked its knuckles. "I never was, am always to be, no one ever saw me, nor will ever see. And yet I am the confidence of all, to live and breath in this hallowed hall." This one was more trouble. What kind of specter? No, wrong path.
"The answer is... is... ah! 'Tomorrow.'"
"Waaah! Yes, tomorrow, indeed. Go, then."
"I shall. What is the beginning of eternity, the end of time and space, the beginning of every end, and the end of every place?" The skeleton began to giggle derisively, but suddenly stopped.
"Ah... er. Oh, dear." The skeleton hung its head. "I... don't know."
I smiled, since the riddle I had come up with was so similar to its own riddle it was troubling the other skeletons with. I asked if it wanted the answer to my riddle. It nodded.
"Very well. The letter 'E.'" I walked away.
I came to a corridor, and noticed only zombies were around. I asked one zombie for Stale Mary. I couldn't understand the reply, but he pointed down the corridor. The corridor was choked by rubble ahead. At the blockage was a group of zombies; from their stance, it was clear who Stale Mary must be. The musty-smelling female zombie looked exceptionally old, almost mummified. Her skin had the appearance of moldering, gray-green leather, and one of her eyes had fallen out, leaving a dark pit in her face. Her voice was slow and thick.
"Guh-guh-guhreeetingz." She indicated herself and spoke again. "Suh-suh-stuhl Muhhhry." It sounded as if her vocal cords were festering away in some soupy mess at the base of her throat. I wondered how she gave the other zombies orders.
"How is it that you speak to these other zombies? I cannot understand them as I can you..."
The corpse took a step towards me, reaching her arm out to touch me. I moved a little back.
"What are you doing?" She only moaned softly in reply, reaching out once more to touch my arm. Despite the ravages of time, there was still some vestige of humanity left in her gaze. I could see she meant me no harm.
I allowed her to touch me. Her nearly fleshless hand brushed gently against my forearm, and she spoke, "Luhhhssnnn." (Listen.)
"How is it that I can understand you?" She touched me once more.
"Spuhhhkkk tuuuh uhhh yuhhhh kuhnn. Buhuuhhh mhuuusssst duhh uhhht puhhhpuhhleee." (Speak to us you can. But you must do it properly.)
"Can you teach me?" She smiled, the hardened skin of her face creaking like thick leather.
Some time passed. She finished teaching me the skills required to speak with the dead, a process she called 'Stories-Bones-Tell.' I asked if I could talk to any dead body.
"Suhmmm. Uhhhhers tuh duhhhud. Muhhht yuhhhh skuhhhh." (Some. Others too dead. Must use skill.) I was sure she would be more responsive than Hargrimm.
"Mary, I need to speak with the Silent King. Can you help me?" She stared at me, and I understood she needed to know why.
"I need to leave this place, Mary. I've so much to do... and to be imprisoned here, simply for stumbling upon the Dead Nations... it isn't right. Please... I ask only for a modicum of compassion. Can you help me?" Stale Mary was quiet for a time, then nodded. She pointed to the first of the three portals along the northern wall.
"C-c-cluuhh ayyysss. Thuuuh uh Suhhhlunnh Kuh-kuknnng. Wwhhhuuuhbh uuhhhnd nuuuheehhh ahhhlllk-ku-kuuuhh. Bhu-bhu-buhhh uhn suuuhhh lhuuung ayyye lhhhuuuv." (Close eyes. Think of Silent King. Walk through northwest alcove. But only so long as I live.)
I thanked her, and walked to the indicated alcove. I closed my eyes, thought of the Silent King, and stepped forward.
I opened my eyes, and found I had portaled to a large chamber. It was dominated by a circular dais, raised a man's height above the floor. A throne was placed at the center of the dais, a skeletal figure occupying it. I moved forward. I saw that Hargrimm was also in the room, and he cried out.
"Stop this heresy! Do not approach the Silent King!" I ignored him, and continued forward, climbing the dais to confront the Silent King. Hargrimm moved forward to confront me.
"So, thou have come." The skeleton turned to gaze upon the massive throne. "What thou see here is the end of our culture." The figure on the throne did not move. I pointed to the throne's occupant.
"Is that the Silent King?"
"Yes. None must know that the King speaks only silence." I asked another question, forcing Hargrimm to confirm what I suspected.
"Why does he not speak? "
"He is silent because he has left this place. He abandoned us for the True Death... and left only this husk in his place."
"How long has this gone on? " A new voice answered me. Stale Mary had entered the room.
"Luhnnngg." (Long.) Hargrimm stared off into the shadows.
"He stopped speaking to us long ago -- he himself has left for the thrice-damned True Death." A trace of rage and despair trickled into his voice. "He has abandoned us here to suffer amongst the Living! We have become... the prey... of all that lives."
"Then who really rules? "
"Mary and I speak to the Silent King. We rule in his stead. We interpret the wishes of the Silent King based on what he said many long years ago. It has not been easy..." Hargrimm sounded tired; he sagged beneath the weight of an invisible burden. "Many questions, many questions do I have for him."
"Why don't you tell your people the truth? "
"I wish to preserve what we have created. I do not wish to die." Stale Mary spoke, her voice ponderous.
"Nuh-nuh-nor I." (Nor I.) Hargrimm told me more of his reasons.
"If our own people were to learn of this... or Acaste, leader of the ghouls, were to discover this deception... or Many-As-One, the hive mind of the cranium rats... all that we have created here would be destroyed. This husk is all that keeps the inner and outer enemies at bay. If the truth were spoken, our small civilization would become dust. I cannot force thee to be silent. But I would ask thee to look beyond thyself, to consider what would happen if thou spoke of what thou have seen here."
I briefly considered the opportunity presented to me here. If I offered myself as an immortal king to sit in the throne before me, I was sure the two of them were desperate enough to accept. But the Dead Nations could only be a temporary camp on my journey, not the destination.
"I only wish to leave, Hargrimm. Grant me this, and you shall have my silence." Hargrimm was silent for a moment.
"Thou may leave this place. Go, now... and I beg of thee:
honor thy word."
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