<=Previous | Contents | Next=>
I needed to talk to Morte, after the experiences of the Pillar of Skulls. I took Morte aside, and asked him again how he ended up on the pillar. Morte had already regained his insouciant manner, despite what I had just put him through.
"See, well, there's this *pillar* on Avernus, the first layer of Baator; it's called the Pillar of Skulls, but it's more like the pillar of heads. To hear some bashers tell it, it's *supposedly* made of the heads of berks, mostly sages and scholars, who used their knowing of this and knowing of that when they were alive to stretch the truth a little... so much they might have hurt, or uh, killed someone by doing it. Well, when I *died,* I ended up there. Funny, huh?"
"Eh..." Morte went silent for a moment. "Yeah, you're right; it's not funny at all. You see, I think I knew a lot of things when I was alive. And maybe when I did know something, I didn't always tell the truth about it. I'm thinking that when I bent the truth once or twice, I may have led to someone getting penned in the dead-book sooner than they should have."
"It was me, wasn't it?"
Morte looked at me for a moment. "Yeah. I can't say *how* I know it, chief, but I think so. I think you were the one that got me sent there; the last twig in the bundle before the whole load snaps. Thing is, I can't remember what happened - I don't even remember being human, or what my life was even like before I woke up on the Pillar."
"Why did you forget?"
"That's pretty much the way of things when you die, as I'm sure you're no stranger to. You just... forget. I figure I wasn't a sterling member of the community when I was alive... but hells, who is?" Morte sighed. "It's just that I can't help it. Nothing's worse than being *honest* all the time."
"Except being sentenced to the hells. That sounds a lot worse than telling the truth."
"Yeah... you're right. *Again.*" Morte clicked his teeth; the way he did it reminded me of someone drumming their fingers. "I guess just all that good and evil and lying and cheating catches up with you - and when I got penned in the dead-book, it was my turn to pay the ferryman."
"So how did you escape the Pillar?"
"Well... you helped me, chief. When you showed up at the Pillar of Skulls, I pushed my way to the front. My obvious know-how and charm attracted your attention - you knew that *I* was the head that knew the most. So I cut a deal with you."
As Morte spoke, my vision seemed to bleed into a fiery red, and I heard a howling, a horrible *screaming* tower of voices, chittering, screeching, hammering, ALL of them begging, screaming to be freed, and Morte's voice... faint, almost lost in the horde. He sounded desperate, frightened, and... pathetically, tragically *lost.*
Echo: "You. Skull. Speak."
The howling voices fell silent, and I watched the tiny, red-lined skull, its cracked features cast in a hellish light, turn its eyes up at me. Blood and ichor had streamed across its features, and its teeth chattered, as if cold. "I... I c-c-can help you. I know w-w-what you seek... all these heads... all their knowing... just please, I *beg* you, free me. Let me *help* you. I'll tell you anything, *everything.*"
Echo: "*Will* you? SWEAR it, skull. SWEAR you will serve me until my End Days, or here you will remain."
"I swear. I swear... just please, *please* free me... I..." I watched as Morte sickeningly swallowed, his pride almost a tangible thing. "I... *beg* you. Let me *help* you. Please."
Echo: "Very well. I shall free you."
My vision slid, as if I was moving, and the howling, screaming cacophony began again, a nightmarish horde of howls and cat-calls and taunts and insults... the feel of my hands sliding into the filthy quagmire of the pillar, the biting of fangs, mandibles, and my hands locking around the tiny skull and ripping, tearing it from the pillar like an old scab...
Echo: "It is DONE."
I looked down at the bloody skull in my scarred hands, its eyes covered in ichor from the pillar, and its teeth chattered, once, twice. It reminded me of a wailing newborn, helpless -- and in the eyes of the man I once was -- pathetic.
Echo: "I have freed you. Now your life... and your death is mine... Morte."
My vision swirled, the mists of the past drifting away, and Morte was still chattering on. "We talked for a while, chief, you and me, seeing whether the arrangement would work, and I think we both were really impressed with each other, so you invited me off the Pillar, and I've kind of been with you ever since."
"Uh... what happened then?"
"Well, I didn't know I'd lose most of the Pillar's knowledge once I was out of it... I mean, how was I to know, I'd never been off the damn thing... but you were pretty understanding about it..."
"You lost all the knowledge you said you had...?"
My vision swirled again, making me dizzy, and I felt my gut churn - I heard the cracking, snapping of bone, and Morte's howls - howling in pain, screaming for someone to stop, to stop *killing* him... and my hand, lashing out, again and again and...
Echo: "DAMN you, skull, you LIED to me. I'll THRUST YOU BACK IN THAT DAMNABLE PILLAR AND LEAVE YOU TO *DIE* THERE."
There was the clatter of bone against what sounded like metal - a floor or a wall, and the skittering of teeth knocked free. I could hear Morte, mewling like a beaten dog for me to st-
Echo: "KNOW THAT YOUR SUFFERING ON THE PILLAR WILL BE *NOTHING* TO THE TORMENT I WILL MAKE YOU *SUFFER.*"
My vision swirled, and Morte's cries ebbed, fading into his chattering rhythm. I had doubted Morte, but he had been the most faithful of all my companions. All those years with the 'practical' incarnation, and then the incarnations that followed, those that didn't reject him outright must have always been suspicious. He could have left at any time, but he hadn't.
"So, you realized I still had my uses, so I took up with you and I've been with you ever since."
"Morte, what did I want from the Pillar? And how long was it that I freed you?"
Morte thought for a moment. "Well, as for how long, I don't know the exact count, chief - ages, I suppose. I've done all I could to help you each time, but..." Morte sighed. "It's not easy. And as for what you wanted at the Pillar, I don't know - once you pried me off, I couldn't remember."
"So you've stayed with me all this time?"
"Well, yeah, chief. I said I would. Morte always keeps his promises." He paused. "Well, most of them. Heh-heh. There was this one chit on Arborea who --" I suddenly realized that Morte's tone had changed - past the joke, I realized he was trying to hide something. Something about why he was with me.
"Morte, seriously, why are you still traveling with me?"
"Chief, I said it's because I promised, all right?" He looked irritated. "What else could it be?"
"I don't know. You didn't need to stick around after I freed you."
"Well, of course not, chief, but I-" And suddenly, his tone of voice struck a chord in me, and I knew *why* he had remained with me, all this time.
"You feel *guilty.* Because you led me to my death so long ago, isn't it? And you've been suffering ever since."
"Aw, c'mon, chief. Me, feel *guilty?* I'm Morte."
"No, I think that's it. When I came to free you from the
fate you deserved, you couldn't *help* but try and help me. And
when you could have left after I freed you, you remained. Because
you felt indebted." Morte was silent for a moment, looking
"Maybe. You know what's funny? At first, I don't know what the feeling was - it kind of slowly eats at you, y'know?"
"I mean, at first I thought it was a side-effect of some enchantment that 'bound' me to you... but after a couple hundred years, I realized it was *more* than that... something deeper. I just felt drawn, *connected* to you, somehow. Maybe it's all your suffering, chief... your torment. I don't know. Maybe I felt... I don't know, *responsible* for whatever it is I did. What if something I did brought you to this state?"
"Thing is, I don't think me - or whoever I was - really ever had to *see* the consequences of all the lying and cheating I'd done, and when I saw you for the first time when I was trapped on the Pillar, somehow, I *knew* that you were the one I'd betrayed. Once... long ago." Morte sighed. "And that's all I know."
"I see. Thanks for coming clean, Morte."
"Nah, don't thank me..." Morte sighed; and to my surprise, his voice seemed stronger somehow, more confident. Some of the cracks and fractures in his skull had vanished, as if healed. "Nah, the thanks is all to you - I feel like I just had a Plane moved off my shoulders... so to speak."
Whatever else happened, Morte had repaid the debt he felt he owed me. More, I think that his telling me this allowed him to believe the debt had been paid, or at least the final payment would come due at the end of my quest.
I now turned my attention to Fhjull. I approached where he was working at one of the tables holding his alchemical equipment; he turned to me, and spoke.
"Feh! So you've returned! And what did the Pillar speak of? Did it answer your insipid questions?"
"Tell me about Trias."
"That skulking pseudo-child of light! That contemptible... aggh... I mean no harm to him and his treacherous, lying, no-respect-for-the-law ways! Feh! He is a deceiver, mortal, and you should trust him in nothing. I mean this, of course, with all due charity and..." Forked-Tongue spat on the ground, "... kindness. His deception has cost me an eternity... unless he should die." His toothy grin was surprisingly hopeful.
"How do I get out of this crater?"
"Feh... does this mean that you shall leave me to my solitude once again? Then I proclaim, with as much delight as possible, that the portal lies under the arse end of this creature's bones. It will return you to that groveling hovel town of Curst, from whence you came, and I can think of few more befitting ways for you to travel."
Fortunately for Fhjull, I was as anxious to leave as he was to see me gone. As we hurried from his home, I could hear him talking to himself below.
"Feh! No matter
Something familiar about that one."
<=Previous | Contents | Next=>