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"Enough of this, Ravel. You took my mortality from me, and it has caused more harm than good. I would take it back now - you have had it overlong, I think."
"Ravel *cannot* give such a thing to you, my precious man, for Ravel has *nothing* to give... I never possessed *you* or your mortality... though I wished to keep them both in my garden as selfish affection's keepsakes, trace the patterns of your flesh... but such things Ravel could not bring herself to do..."
"Yeh *loved* him!" Annah broke her silence - she sounded astonished. "Yeh *loved* him, yeh did!"
Ravel gave a low, wide smile. "Is that so hard for you to believe, fiendling...?" She cackled softly to herself. "Does Ravel being Ravel, and thus, a myth, not *deserve* to carry such a feeling in her black-brambled heart...?"
"No creature is undeserving of such a feeling, Ravel." Grace spoke softly. "The histories do not paint such a compassionate picture of you, however..."
"Tchhh! The past is past, and histories care little for a-speaking the truth of it..." Ravel frowned, then her voice dropped slightly, threateningly, as she studied Grace. "The feeling *brushed* me, yes... and now *hold* your silvered tongue, Abyssal daughter. I need not your soft words to cloud the air here - the man and I shall speak, and you shall bow out of this. I shall attend to you shortly."
"Enough, Ravel: If you don't have my mortality... where is it?" I had found Ravel, but now I needed to find something else. I had a feeling it was not going to be easy
"*I* don't know, sweet thing. But if I were you, I'd get it back quick-quick. No telling what horrible things someone could do to you if they held your mortality for RANSOM." Ravel *clicked* her talons together. "It would like be holding someone's sweet, succulent soul... a puppet dancing on someone's strings, would you be, and a most sad puppet, too... two? Know where it is, I do not."
"Hold a moment... you say YOU don't know where my mortality is. Do you know someone who DOES know where it is?" Ravel smiled horridly, her tusks gleaming.
"Clever, clever, *clever* you are... yes, there is ANOTHER who might know the things that Ravel does not..." Ravel's eyes dimmed, as if she stared at something in the distance, and her voice slowed. "A... fair-skinned one... must you ask. An angel, a deva, one who soars on the wings of morning and with his hands, is the architect of horizons. He lies, lies beyond my keeping, in another cage, in another prison... in his knowing is the knowing of what you wish to know. Ask him your questions, listen to his answers, use them as guides."
"Where can I find this angel?"
"In a-leaving this prison, to *another* cursed prison will you arrive... though it may not appear as such to casual glances. Step a-lightly, and find the golden link in the ever-shortening chain. The light shall give the dark of the matter, and new paths shall open to you."
"Delightfully cryptic... though not surprising. Thanks."
Ravel cackled. "Of the past I am not held to particulars... you are fortunate to receive *anything,* o caustic one!"
"Oh, am I? It's just that the chain of who knows what and where they are never seems to be a smooth series of links."
"Ahhh..." Ravel smiled, holding up one of her talons. "And that is why you must keep each link safe, for if they are not smooth now, imagine what the chain will be like when MORE links shatter... time and death are not as *patient* with others as they are with you."
"What are you saying?"
"What if one of your precious links was to *die?* And what if you forgot yourself again? What would you do then? Where would your stolen mortality be, then... it would be LOST forever, for there would be no one left to ASK how to reach it. Tracing your path would become harder... mayhap IMPOSSIBLE..."
"I have some questions about YOU, Ravel Who are you? Where did you come from?"
"I? Ravel am I, a maker and breaker of puzzles, a solver of what *cannot* be solved, a mind raveling and unraveling until the threads of thought are tied up like knots in a drunken man's hair." Ravel picked at one of her jagged gray hairs, wrapping it around her finger. "It is enough, enough it is."
"But *what* are you? Some have called you are a 'night hag,' whatever that is."
"Night hag...?" Ravel gave a ghastly smile, her yellowed teeth like needles. "I am but a *woman* who has sorely... soarly? Soarly missed her beloved creation. Some have named me crone, gray lady, Yaga sister, night hag -- but MYSELF is my name, Ravel, Ravel who puzzles well, providing conundrums to decipher and laying impossibilities low."
"MANY things are said about we gray ladies. A race are we 'night hags,' but an *individual* am I. Some call us evil of Old, stalkers of mortal dreams, the kindly ones, ugly, hideous things whose homes lie in the dark places of men's minds." Ravel's eyes narrowed to reddish sparks. "But that means NOTHING to me... what would one such as YOU call one such as I, pretty thing?" My answer was flattering, but not without truth for all that.
"I find you beautiful, Ravel. Not perhaps to the eye, but your mind seems sharp and vibrant."
"Tchhh! Do you think I care for such truths?! A hex on inner beauty, no matter how long it may last the flesh. Think you ugly am I...?"
"Ravel, you are *not* ugly..."
"Yet ugly I need *not* be, pretty thing. My shape is but water to my will, and I may re-weave its fibers to a more pleasing tapestry..." Ravel glanced at Fall-from-Grace, then smiled and licked her lips. "Yes..."
Ravel had... melted into Fall-From-Grace, taking on her demeanor, her features, her clothes... "Is this shape more pleasing?" Ravel smiled, her teeth now a brilliant, perfect white, the lips with just a *hint* of red. "So cultured and breathtaking?" She motioned me to come closer. "Come, my precious man, *my* lips do not burn with Abyssal torments. Lay your lips upon mine." I looked around me, at my companions, but I was committed. I would do much more in order to reveal the secrets locked in Ravel's mind.
I touched my lips to Ravel's. Despite her new form, her lips were dry, like sand, and as my lips touched, I felt a sharp pin-prick, like kissing a row of barbed seeds. I drew back, licking the blood from my lips. Ravel mirrored my gesture, made even more horrifying in her new form. A drop of my blood remained on the edge of her mouth, and she smiled evilly.
"You bit me."
"And you bit me, so long ago, 'twas not a kiss then, but a bite to the heart..." Ravel smiled. "Do not be surprised, my precious man. There is no harm done... except, mayhap, to the ones you travel with." She chuckled lightly, and I suddenly became aware of Grace's and Annah's gaze upon me; outwardly, Grace seemed composed, but I had a strange feeling something had *changed* between the two of us. Annah's eyes had narrowed to slits and her tail was flicking dangerously back and forth.
"Resume your normal shape, Ravel." She flowed back into the form of the hideous night hag.
"A difficult man to please are you! Pah! And wonder do they why there are no males of our kind!"
"What other shapes can you... *have* you turned yourself into?"
"Maybe some, Mebbeth none." Ravel seemed confused
by the question. "I've not a-membered such, I've neen, I-vene,
Ei-Vene, mayhap? Neither smarta nor Marta... so many threads and
branchings, so many Ravels... always stitching and mending and
growing are my forms."
"Mebbeth? You were Mebbeth?"
"That may have been one of my names... yes?" Ravel looked more confused, her black-veined eyes becoming misty. "Names are *difficult* to remember..." Her voice became faint. "Like calling across a great distance..."
"Mebbeth was kind to me and helped me, Ravel. That means YOU helped me. I thank you." As I mentioned Mebbeth, all the color seemed to bleed out of Ravel's face until she was gray and ashen -- literally. It was like the color just... vanished.
"And who might ye be, hmmmnnn? Does yer path bring you back to Ol' Mebbeth's door, child...?" I echoed the reply I had given to old Mebbeth, only a few days ago.
"Yes, it does... Mebbeth... I, uh, came to learn more of the Art. Can you teach me any more?"
"Pah! I am but a midwife, child, such power as the Art commands is much beyond me..."
"I... don't think so. I think you may have more to teach me than you may realize. Much more."
Then came the question like an echo: "Ye want to learn the Art, ye do? *Why* do ye want to learn such things?"
Echo: "Because I may need it to solve the mystery of who I am."
After a moment, Ravel... Mebbeth... nodded. "The Art may help, it may not, and ye must not rely on it ta solve all o' yer problems." She sighed. "Child, it's most like only going to add another chip to yer pile o' questions..." She leaned in close. "But if ye'd know, then listen..."
Mebbeth... Ravel... whispered something, and I felt *different,* changed somehow. She told me something horrible, something about how the Planes worked, but my mind had shut out her words, and I could not recall them. Just thinking about them set my heart pounding... Ravel told me something I was not sure *anyone* was ever meant to know. She was watching me, studying me.
"You were Ei-Vene? In the Mortuary? Ei-Vene helped me, Ravel."
Almost unconsciously, Ravel's hand reached out for me, and just for a moment, I swore they were Ei-Vene's talons...
Ravel's left hand plucked a hair from her head, hooked it around her talons, and lightning-like, she jabbed another talon into the skin near one of my scars. It was barely more than a pin-prick, but it looked like she was about to start stitching me up. As it was with Ei-Vene, the sensation was curiously painless, but the thread and stitching seemed to be going much deeper, almost INSIDE me, without actually going beyond the surface of the skin. In moments, Ravel's talons drew back, and I felt... better, stronger. Ravel muttered in Ei-Vene's voice, "Dum zomfie..."
"You were that barmy seamstress in the Buried Village? Marta? Marta was barmy, Ravel, but she was not unkind and not unhelpful. If you were her, then you mean me no harm. I thank you." As I said her name, Ravel's face seemed to *shift*... her blue skin sagged, until she was wearing the same sour, curd-faced expression I saw on Marta's face.
"C'mon, now... don't be all-difficult on Marta..." She raised the talon of her index finger like a scalpel and advanced upon me. "False, nasty, corpse." Ravel's filthy talon jabbed into my abdomen, then pulled it brutally downwards in a saw-like motion... but there was no pain. I watched as my skin peeled slowly back from her touch -no blood issued from the wound. "Look at this, Marta... look at this..."
Ravel's free hand dug into my chest, where she looped my intestines up like yarn, and *plucked* them from my stomach... as she did, my stomach sealed up, as if time was going backwards. Marta... Ravel... held up my intestines like a trophy. "Pretty, pretty, eh, Marta...? One shouldn't swallow such a thing, no, no..."
"Uh... can I have those back, please? I might need them later." Marta... Ravel... nodded slowly.
"As well he should, shouldn't he, Marta? Yes... yes, he should, Marta. Powerful magic to be found the guts of an immortal, yes... not like teethies... or eyes..." Ravel's features shifted, moved, until I could no longer see Marta's face in hers.
"Why did you help me, Ravel?"
"I cannot help BUT help you, my precious man... and that will always be true, no matter how many Ravels there be... on this, they will agree."
"What is this place?" I asked, curious about the brambled garden she had created.
"Once a maze of lifeless stone it was, featureless, but a small black seed was wound in my hair when I came to this place, and it grew strong amongst the stone, flourishing, flourishing, until it ran thick throughout the maze like the unraveling hair of a crone... and so this maze of another becomes MY garden."
"Why were you imprisoned, Ravel?"
"I tried to help a Lady and a-kindly she did not take to it." Fall-From-Grace broke in with a question.
"The Lady of Pain? You tried to *help* her?"
"My offering of help was unwelcome. I *tried* to set her FREE; Sigil is the CAGE, a City of Doors and Locks, is a prison for her. It must be, mustn't it be? Why else call the city of Sigil 'the Cage?' And who is caged? The Lady! A prison so small for one so great. Unjustness, wrongness, intolerable to torment a woman thusly!" Morte added his own comment.
"I think I know who should be in a cage "
"I tried to break the Cage, let the Lady go free." She made a shooing motion, her expression becoming pained as she scattered invisible birds. "Shoo, shoo, o pained woman, let Sigil's ring be broken so you might fly far from its filthy streets and the stupid dabus that dare not speak in words for fear their thoughts would be overheard!" Ravel's hands slowly stopped their 'shooing' motion, and she gave a slow sigh.
"Before I could finish, I a-found myself here, and my memories none the better for the trip... much has slipped away, much forgotten, yes it was... is? Was?" Ravel smiled with her yellowed teeth. "The dwindling of memory has become a comfort to these old bones. Much have I forgotten... I am fortunate in that I still remember you."
"Ravel, but... WHY did you try to free the *Lady of Pain* from Sigil?"
Ravel's voice dropped, almost reprimanding. "I resent anyone, even a Power, being imprisoned and think that all, everyone ...whether stones, shores or quiet bladed ladies... should be FREE. Some have said more fool, I. Why risk such a thing, they said?" I had heard many reasons why Ravel attempted to break the cage that was Sigil, but none had suggested this motive. I wondered if Ravel had always had a capacity for compassion within her blackened soul, or if somehow the improbable love I had awakened inside her had made room for other, kinder, emotions.
"There are some things I cannot bear, and no apologies will I make, my precious half-man - yet... when I cannot let matters well enough alone... many are the lives and dreams that are a-left in pieces on the ground. If I had let you be, mayhap much better would your life be..."
"Is that what you were trying to do when I met you so long ago? Were you trying to set me free?"
"Quite possibly, possibly quite. Life's chains and fear-of-death may have gripped too-tightly on the man I new... knew? Knew then, hmmmm-hmmmm?" Ravel picked at one of her jagged gray hairs, wrapping it around her finger. "No liking for chains and cages does Ravel have..."
"Ah, so I was caged somehow? Or chained? It sounds to me as if your memory is stirring, Ravel..."
"Yess..." Ravel blinked for a moment, and her black-veined eyes became duller, as if she had been struck with a heavy weapon. Her talon tightened around the gray hair, so tightly it looked like she was about to tear it from her skull. "Mayhap... you were a-trapped? But it was no normal cage that held you..."
"Do you have any idea *what* held me?" Ravel looked confused, and her face *twisted,* as if she was fighting an unpleasant thought.
"I have forgotten... mayhap a promise...? No, no..." Her finger tightened around the gray hair, and to my surprise, there was a *snap* like a twig breaking, and Ravel tore the hair from her head. A trickle of black blood wormed from beneath her skull cap, and she hissed in anger.
"Ravel...? Are you all right?"
"No MORE will I say..." Ravel's face wrinkled in pain, the talon covered with the blood-tipped gray hair - even plucked from her head, it looked jagged and stiff. "I do not know, and no knowing shall I share!" She stared down at the gray hair wrapped around her talon, and then she hissed, and flicked it to me. "Take this, and leave the past where it lies, half-man!" If she could help me no more in the mystery that was my past, perhaps there were others things I could learn from her.
"The legends claim you are a powerful mage, Ravel. Can you teach me some of the Art?"
"Does Ravel know the *Art?!* Is your mind gone a-way of the mortality, a thing all up-and-lost?! I have forgotten more of the Art than *you* shall..." She jabbed me with one of her talons. "Ever." She jabbed me again. "Know."
"Can you teach me some of the Art, then?"
Ravel narrowed her black-veined eyes, studying me. "Mayhap I could be persuaded by one such as you... though any other would NOT have such a chance, nor the boon I offer. Are you a rudimentary student in the arts or am I facing a tried-true-and-tired... attired? A-tired master?"
"A master in the arts, beautiful Ravel."
"Flatterer... and yet your words warm me." Ravel's voice changed, alternating in pitch, like someone plucking a stringed instrument. "Much have I learned tending this garden. Charms and incantations, distilled from the barbs..." She began to hum slightly to herself. "...rhyming, swaying ways of the consonants constants and motions that bring the briars to your aid... listen, the branches will speak of it."
As I closed my eyes and listened, a great trembling passed through me, as if dozens of barbed snakes were burrowing beneath my flesh. Just when I thought the pain was more than I could bear, I suddenly, instinctively, began humming, the same tune that Ravel did... and the pain ebbed. In the distance of the maze I could hear the clicking of the tree creatures, as if responding to my call. Ravel watched me with a curious light in her black-veined eyes.
"Such *power*..." She gave a soft hiss, as if in wonder, and her lips peeled back in a smile. "It a-touches all that hear it. You are powerful, my precious man, so powerful... one day even the Planes may bend to your will..."
"I do not wish such a thing, Ravel. There are many who would walk that path, but not I." Ravel nodded, then nodded at my hand, which to my surprise, held a number of black-barbed seeds.
"Take those seeds. Use them as you will... and to this, I grant an additional boon." She plucked a hair from her head and took a handful of the seeds, placed them in her palm, then crushed them. A small trail of blackish blood ran from her hand, but when she opened it, there was no wound... only a necklace of black-barbs, woven around a lock of Ravel's gray hair. "Take this; it is *of* me, and it will serve you well." I appreciated all Ravel had done for me, but my quest was still unfinished.
"Thank you for the information you have given me, Ravel; I must leave now."
"Hold..." Ravel's voice dropped to a low hiss, like that of a serpent. "The most important question you have YET to ask, my precious man. Has it occurred to you yet?"
"Yes... I need to know how to leave this place. Do you know the answer to this question?"
"I know the branchings of this place, the twistings and bendings and burrowings. Though there are no leaves here, one may take their leave when they wish it."
"So you DO know how to leave?"
"Wrap your hands about you like branches, make them encircle your chest like a cage. Step from the edge of the maze into the darkness, and into another cage your body shall go - a simple leaving, but there is NO return when that final step is taken, so TAKE heed and TAKE what you need before you take the step. Which edge, which? One of the edges knows, not I. The remembering of which has failed me, and the edges of the maze have had little to say on the matter."
"You've known how to leave? All this time? Then... why don't you leave?"
"Why stay when one can leave is your question to me?" Ravel broke into a crooked smile, displaying a row of fangs. "I turn the question upon its head and send it a-scurrying back to you. The answer lies not in the staying or leaving, but in the causes and reasons, my precious half-man."
"Don't you *want* to leave?"
"It is *a* want, a once-want, but not a now-want, and more and more a not, naught, knotted-want. What do I need that lies beyond my brambled walls? It is a cruel, jagged world beyond the edges of this maze, and Ravel has pulled *enough* of its shards from her skin."
"You have done me a great service, beautiful Ravel. Thank you for hearing my request and sharing your knowledge with me." Ravel gave a crooked smile, all tusks, and then gave a soft cackle.
"Ah... it is *I* who thanks you, my precious man. Long has it been since such sweet flattery has been brought to this maze... I wish to grant you a boon, my songbird." I attempted to speak, but she put out a hand. "Shhh... I would tell you a secret... Close your eyes, and I shall let you see the nature of the multiverse..."
I closed my eyes, and as I did, I felt a sharp, stabbing pain in my right eye. My eye... *one* of my eyes... opened... and I saw Ravel before me, her blood-red eyes gleaming with delight; one of her talons was extended, and was tipped with my blood... and an eyeball. Mine.
"What... did... you... do...?"
"A boon I have granted, songbird. A twist of perception, a tap into the branches of the mind, a tap into the roots of Ravel's knowing have I granted you... a piece of me..." She took the eyeball, and I watched in disgust as she pulled forth a black seed and placed them both in her left palm. With a grotesque smile, she crushed the two of them with a sickening *crunch.* "Ahh..."
"Give... it back..."
"Of course, precious man..." Ravel opened her palm and my eye lay there, seemingly untouched, staring at me. She placed it between her thumb and forefinger, then before I could react, she stabbed it into my empty eye socket.
"A piece of me lies in your good eye, precious man. When you see the Planes through that eye, you will understand MORE than you once did... wiser you will be, and more experience of the Planes and their turnings will you understand... and that is all."
As I was about to utter my farewell, I suddenly felt a crawling sensation in my skull - and I noticed that Ravel's black-veined eyes had taken on a strange, predatory fire.
"You're not going to let me leave, are you Ravel?"
"A perceptive question - yet it not the real question." Ravel's voice took on a strange whisper - very sad, that sent a faint echo through my mind. "The question is do you *wish* to leave me, half-man?"
"Fair Ravel, you helped me when I came to you so long ago, and you have done so again. I shall not forget what you have done. But now I must leave - I have to know more about myself."
There was a terrible *shimmering* in the air around Ravel - and the sound of snapping twigs and cracking tree limbs, and the horrid sound of the trees *bending* and *splintering*... Ravel's lips peeled back and her voice became shrill, like a howling wind.
"What do YOU know of KNOWING, half-man?! KNOW this: KNOW you will stay here until the END DAYS in my brambled garden, never to leave, and you shall LOVE me, as you were MEANT, as you PROMISED!"
"I'm afraid I would be poor company, Ravel. And I cannot stay in any event. I'm afraid you must allow me passage."
"I shall NOT let you leave -I have the power to KEEP you here, and I shall USE it. My black-barbed maze shall NOT allow you to travel beyond it while I LIVE, my precious, *precious* man..."
"Ravel, I don't want to fight you... don't do this. Allow me passage, and I shall return to visit you. You need not be alone in this place."
"RETURN?! RETURN as you CLAIMED you would so LONG AGO?! No... no, you shall not LIE to Ravel TWICE! No more CENTURIES will I WAIT for you..." Ravel's lips peeled back, and her talons seemed to grow, grow into fiendish claws. "Here in my garden you will STAY, and a-wander the Planes you will NO LONGER...!"
"Ravel, calm yourself, there's no NEED for this..."
"You have forgotten your PLACE, HALF-man. Humility is in order."
Some of Ravel's tree-creatures appeared around us, and she herself began chanting a spell. The mystical understanding of her maze Ravel shared with me allowed me to twist some of her servants to my will, setting them against those who remained under Ravel's control. This left me and my companions free to deal with Ravel herself.
I suspected that Ravel had been weakened by her long centuries immured in this black-barbed tomb, for her spells, although potent, could not fully shield her from my magic and my companion's weapons. After a short, brutal fight I stood over Ravel's body. I had searched for a legend, and found a much more complex person than the evil hag of the tales. I also realized my search had become that much more urgent, for if I lost my memories no future incarnation would be able to benefit from Ravel's wisdom.
I also realized something new had entered the maze while we battled Ravel. Shadows surrounded us; somehow my enemy had found me even here. I quickly snatched a few items from the body before me that might be of use, and then we turned to fight the shadows about us. Even as we slew the formost, more moved in from behind. I led the others in a mad dash to an edge of the maze, and then along the edge until we found the portal Ravel had mentioned, slaying more shadows along the way. We reached the portal, entered, and in an instant were transported somewhere else
Ravel's corpse lay upon the ground, surrounded by what looked like a tangle of tree limbs, but which a short time before were woody creatures. A barbed specter glided forward, stopping by the corpse. Not-corpse, as it spoke.
"Off with ya. Dead I am." The specter replied in a booming voice, as though reverberating across the planes.
THEN DEATH'S KINGDOM HAS SEALED ITS GATES TO US BOTH. ARISE, CRONE!
"Sh. Sh. Sh. Away with ya. I'm dead and no traffic with the living may I have."
I CARE LITTLE FOR HOW YOU DIE. BUT I WARN YOU FOR THE LAST TIME, ARISE OR I SHALL SLAY YOU WHERE YOU LIE. The crone that was Ravel staggered to her feet.
"I had thought that dying at his hand would fulfill the requirements the past put forth."
YOU CANNOT HAVE THOUGHT THAT ONE WOULD HAVE A CHANCE. YOU WERE INDULGENT TO LET HIM THINK HE WAS SUCCESSFUL.
"Powerful this incarnation is. And kill me he could of, but for a few tricks which I posses. Fortunate was I."
FORTUNE ABANDONED YOU THE MOMENT I FOUND YOU. HAS YOUR LIFE PREPARED YOU FOR WHAT IS TO COME, HAG?
"I am not afraid. Not of the likes of you, ragged thing. Weak Ravel may be, but a few tricks has Ravel learned over the years. And I have known you would come." Ravel prepared a spell. "Witness Ravel's anger."
Both beings cast spells at one another, but Ravel had already been severely weakened, and soon she slumped to the ground again, this time broken beyond repair.
NO LONGER SHALL YOU TROUBLE EXISTENCE WITH YOUR PRESENCE, WITCH.
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