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I awoke on a slab, in an irregularly spherical room. The room was made of a faceted, grayish metallic substance; filaments colored red, purple and blue laced about the walls.
I levered myself up off the slab. There were three figures in the room, who I recognized, since they were me.
The figure to my right resembled me, but he carried himself more like a force than a man. I had seen him before in the sensory stone Deionarra had left for me. I had named him to myself as the practical incarnation.
The resemblance was there in the face of the figure directly in front of me, but hard to see. His back was hunched, as if he was perpetually afraid of being struck. He was watching me warily, and he hissed as I looked at him, his hands clenching, as if wanting to strangle me. His arms were horribly gnarled and scarred, as if they had been dunked into a stream of acid - and his left arm looked like it was holding on by a thread, literally. I had seen this incarnation before, in a trapped sensory stone left for me, or as he saw all other incarnations, a 'body-thief.' I had named him to myself the paranoid incarnation.
The man to my left also resembled me, but his face seemed... calmer somehow. He gave a slight smile when he noticed the direction of my gaze, and he nodded, as if in approval. I didn't think I was familiar with this incarnation, but based on his manner I decided to call him the 'good' incarnation to myself.
"He has awakened," said the good incarnation.
"*Finally.*" the practical incarnation exclaimed, "I thought I would die again waiting for him to rise." The paranoid incarnation eyed all three of us before speaking.
"Perhaps... perhaps you will STILL die. NEVER forget I WATCH you THIEVES, you KILLERS - KILLERS ALL, all THREE of you..."
"Have a care *how* you speak to me," hotly retorted the practical incarnation, "you deranged wreck. He was fortunate to reach here with all those traps *you* scattered throughout the Planes. I swear, if I could have crossed the years to put you out of your *misery,* I w-" The good incarnation cut him off.
"The two of you, be silent! Let us make sure he is all right and save the arguments for later."
"Wh... who are you all?" I asked. My lips hadn't caught up to my inner thoughts, since I recognized two of the incarnations before me.
"By the hells, he's lost his memories! Damnation! He's useless to us now!" The practical incarnation had been enraged at my words. As always his first thought of others was how useful they would be as tools.
"Calm yourself. He's only disoriented, as were we all. Give him a moment to get his bearings," the good incarnation calmly replied.
"You are all THIEVES... wearing MY body... MY body, and you will give it BACK!" The paranoid incarnation wildly glared at all three of us. The practical incarnation turned, unleashing his anger on him.
"I am at the limits of my *patience* with your howling! Be silent, or -" Once again, the good incarnation intervened as a peace maker.
"This arguing avails us nothing! Give him his space, leave him be." The practical incarnation turned to him, unwilling to give up any control of the situation.
"Time is no longer in our favor. I will not stand here and squander another moment while our adversary is no doubt hunting for us. We waited long enough for him to awaken - I will speak to him *now.*"
The practical incarnation turned to me. His eyes were watching me carefully, and as I studied him, I felt him studying me. He spoke.
"So... it has come to this."
"Who are you?"
"I will not surrender my name to you or any man." The man's voice was rough, like mine, and it rang strangely in my ears. "As for 'who I am,' you should be asking yourself that - you are one of *my* incarnations. You made it here, with my clues to guide you."
"We - we are separate incarnations? How is that possible?"
The incarnation was silent for a moment, then his expression changed to contempt.
"If there is anything I have *hated* about you, it is your countless questions - your desperate fumbling for meaning and answers." The man's voice was like a hatchet, and anger flickered across his features. "The time for questions is past. Now, you will *listen* to me. I was the first to breach this Fortress, and whatever it is that awaits us here was somehow able to defeat me. It will not best me a second time."
"Who are these others?"
"Other incarnations - reflections of ourselves. I will have them merge with me after I deal with you." He glanced at the hunched incarnation, who was howling when I first arrived. "Or kill them if they refuse; it is of no matter. They are not necessary."
"You... sound as if you intend to fight whatever it is that lurks here." The man gave me a strange look, then studied me.
"Of course. That's the only reason we're speaking now. I'll need you to be the shell - but your mind must be *my* mind. Do you understand me?"
"You mean you intend to possess me?"
"Yes." He glanced around at the spiked walls, then turned back to face me. "We cannot leave this place in pieces. Only one may leave."
"How are we to become one?"
"You must surrender your will to me - your knowledge and skills: whatever little you've managed to accumulate in your life may prove useful." He sized me up again. "It ultimately will be but a fraction of my power, but it might have it uses."
"Why won't you merge with me?"
"With you?" He gave a short laugh, almost like a bark. "Because there is no gain in such a thing. You have lived a fraction of the life I have. I will not entrust my will to a neophyte such as yourself."
"Yet you came here previously... and were defeated."
The man frowned. "I was taken unawares. And I did not anticipate that my companions would be split from me upon my arrival... what happened after that... is confusing."
"So even if I were to surrender to you, then we could still fail?"
"Unlikely. I'm the only one who possesses the knowledge necessary to succeed - this moment is the culmination of centuries of planning. Many have suffered and died for us to be here... their sacrifices must not be in vain." The last sentence unnerved me - it was delivered like a speech, and there was no passion behind the words.
"You are the one who saved Dak'kon at Shra'kt'lor. The one who imprisoned Vhailor. And the one who led Deionarra to her death." The man's eyes narrowed.
"What of it? All of it was done with a purpose."
"You gave Dak'kon the Unbroken Circle of Zerthimon. Why?"
"The Unbroken Circle? That collection of lies? Yes, it was a week's work to forge such a thing - it was necessary to make it so he would cease doubting himself."
"You *made* it? But you told him -"
"Perhaps they carry some truth - I know not. I know that they were tedious writings, but the words were enough to give him faith." He must have taken the look of bemusement on my face for puzzlement about why he saved Dak'kon.
"Your ignorance astounds me." The man looked incredulous. "Can it be that you not know what he carries in his hand? That blade he carries is shaped by his *thoughts.* Such a tool, when used properly, could slay the multiverse itself..." The man looked lost in thought, then his face sneered in disgust. "Though obviously, the gith became separated when we arrived in the Fortress, and I was unable to make use of his blade." The man frowned. "Unfortunate."
"Are you the one who taught Ignus the Art?"
"Ignus?" The man stared at me, then frowned. "Is that a name? Who in the hells are you talking about?" Of course, I realized. This incarnation had 'died' over fifty years ago. Ignus had been taught much more recently than that. I must not have fully recovered yet from the trap which splintered me, and brought me here.
"What was the purpose of imprisoning Vhailor?"
The man shook his head, as if weary. "Vhailor was becoming... tiresome." He gave a humorless smile. "Those Mercykillers dogs will hunt you across the Planes themselves in search of 'justice' - and Vhailor was an especially persistent hound." The incarnation's voice dropped slightly. "And he was much too close to justice for my tastes."
"Why was he hunting for us?"
"Oh, any of countless reasons, some of which lie with me - and others, which lie in the *hands* of other incarnations." He flicked a glance over at the paranoid incarnation. "There have been many lives that have been blackened by incarnations with damaged minds. Some of us have created... problems. I believe in solutions."
"Was he a threat?"
"Oh, yes - or else I would have simply killed him." He nodded. "There is some link between him and justice itself, and that gives him power even over immortals such as us." The man gave a slight smile. "Especially if our injustices are great... and ours are of the blackest sort."
"Why did Deionarra have to die?"
"Deionarra? That girl had little sense of the Planes in her, and that was what I needed her for. You see, the Dustmen have it right - sometimes when you feel too much passion, you cling too tightly to life to let go. And neither did Deionarra - as I hoped she would." The paranoid incarnation interrupted at these words.
"That WOMAN - that GHOST?!" The hunched man's eyes welled up in fury, and spittle flew from his mouth. "She TORMENTED me for years, pursuing me, hating me, and YOU WERE THE ONE THAT KILLED HER?!"
The practical incarnation barely even glanced at the howling one, and merely sneered.
"*You* blaming me for anything is laughable." He turned back to me. "It wasn't out of malice - though she did become tiresome. It's just that when I arrived in the Fortress, I didn't intend to stay. I just wanted to get in, sacrifice her, then get out."
"Why did you do such a terrible thing?" The good incarnation had asked the question softly, sounding pained, but it could have been my voice, with the same pain in it.
"I needed someone to be my eyes here on the Negative Material Plane, to serve as a scout and try and find out who my killer was. Only the dead can survive here for long - so Deionarra had to be sacrificed so that she could become something other than she was. A tricky business, but it worked - she helped you, didn't she?"
"You didn't have to kill her."
He looked at me silently for a moment, then his sneer returned. "And that is why you will be defeated if you confront our killer. It is because you are WEAK. And you do not see that some things are NECESSARY."
"You *dare* call *me* weak?! You orchestrated all these 'grand' plans for defeating this invisible enemy, and you got your ass handed to you ANYWAY, and some poor girl was murdered because of it. Maybe if you'd done your job the first time you were here, this wouldn't even be a problem!"
"You DARE *lecture* me?! Women have always walked our path with us - whether Deionarra or Ravel or any other woman, and they have suffered, and it was always their CHOICE. Deionarra would have died for me if I'd asked her to. There was no CRIME." I wanted to yell at him more, but there was no point. I was looking at the ghost of this incarnation; his deeds were done, in the past, unchangeable.
"Tell me about Xachariah."
"The archer? Well, old sodden Xachariah could see things with his 'eyes' that I couldn't - and he could hit them with his arrows, too."
"Well, I was walking into this Fortress blind in some ways - I didn't know what my killer was, so I needed someone who could see things I couldn't in case the enemy was beyond my visual range." He snorted. "Xachariah ended up dying too fast, though, so he wasn't any use in the end."
"You built that tomb beneath Sigil, didn't you? The one with the traps?"
"I'd almost forgotten - yes, what a waste that was." The incarnation seemed irritated. "Obviously, *that* didn't work. And it cost a lot of blood and coin, too."
"Worthless!" The paranoid incarnation broke into uneven laughter, but it was more gleeful than mad. "It was EASY to breach that child's trap. I found it... and CHANGED it. To make it HARDER. Changed the WRITINGS." The practical incarnation frowned at him; he looked like he was barely restraining himself from attacking the other.
"Yet *another* thing you will answer for..." He turned back to me. "Though I suppose it doesn't matter. It was shortly after the failure of the tomb trap that I decided to carry the battle to our killer rather than wait for him to show any longer."
"Were you the one who pried Morte off the Pillar of Skulls?"
"Is Morte still *alive?*" The incarnation stared for a moment in disbelief, then he started laughing. "Ha! That piking skull couldn't be trusted farther than I could throw him - claiming he had information when he didn't, *then* I had to go through the torment of prying him off the Pillar of Skulls, then he *feigned ignorance* once he was off of it." The incarnation scoffed. "I humored him, since he'd told me everything I needed from him."
"Oh, yes." The man smiled. "Once a liar, always a liar. It takes a stronger mind than the skull's to give me the laugh, though."
"Were you responsible for the tattoos on my back? The ones I read when I woke up in the Mortuary."
"The directions?" He nodded, irritated. "Of *course* I was responsible - I knew there was a *chance* I might fail here and lose my memories. I wanted future incarnations to benefit from some... guidance. So I had the directions stitched on my back, since such things - like *journals*..." He snarled, as if angry at himself. "Tend to be lost so *easily.*"
"The directions were kind of vague, though..."
"Are you a *fool?*" The incarnation looked exasperated. "The directions *needed* to be vague - I couldn't *spell* out exactly what was happening to us, so I left a signpost. What do you think would have happened if a Dustman had read them? Or someone even more barmy? How *quickly* do you think we would have been buried alive or cremated?"
"Were you the one who asked Pharod to get the Bronze Sphere from the catacombs?"
"Pharod?" The incarnation thought for a moment. "Oh, yes - the trash king with all the 'tough' bloods that thought I was easy prey..." He smiled slightly, as if recalling a pleasant memory. "After only a little bloodletting, I struck a bargain with him - he would see to it that if his men found me, they would take me safely to the Mortuary - and, of course, I needed the eyes and hands of his men to scour the catacombs beneath Sigil for me."
"A sphere made of bronze. Ugly. Feels like an egg to the touch, and it smells of rotten custard. Right?"
"Yes. I told Pharod it was the only thing that would save his miserable life... what a sniveling little dodger he was." The incarnation smiled at me. "You see, the old bastard was destined to end up on the Pillar of Skulls when he died, and he was desperately trying to weasel out of it. So I told him that there was an item beneath Sigil that would 'save' him from his fate, if he could only find it."
"But it *wouldn't* save him - it was just something you wanted him to find."
"Of *course* it was useless to him. One cannot dodge fate so easily." He looked at me, irritated. "However, nothing motivates a man faster than telling him what he seeks will save his soul from eternal damnation. I intended to take it from him after he found it. It just that searching for it myself would have taken... too long." He smiled again. "And why should I do it, when I could have someone else hunt for me?"
"Actually, he ended up tricking *me* into finding it for him. Why was it so important?"
"Important? Do you not know?" The incarnation became silent for a moment. "Do you have it with you?"
"Yes, I do. I brought it with me."
"You *have* it?!" The incarnation's eyes flared. "Then your life had some use after all!" I watched his eyes flicker, as if thinking, calculating. "When we merge, I will see about finding a means to unlock it. Perhaps all is not lost..."
"What is the sphere? Why is it important?"
"It was a dead sensory stone." The incarnation was staring through me, as if seeing something far away. "Do you know what it contained?" He smiled ruefully. "It held the last experiences of the *first* of us. When we were one man, and not a string of incarnations." His voice dropped. "If there had been some way of unlocking it, I would have been able to see inside his *mind*..."
"And see why this all happened?"
"Yes..." The incarnation's face had become somber. "It is the answer I have always sought. Why this happened. Why we became immortal." He sighed. "And I fear we shall never know." The good incarnation interrupted.
"Perhaps there are no answers in such a thing. Perhaps there never was."
"*I* don't deal in the realms of perhaps and maybe." The practical incarnation sneered. "I seek answers. It is what has allowed us to get this far." He looked at the good incarnation with contempt. "If we had left life in *your* hands, we wouldn't have even a fraction of the truth we now possess. And in that truth, lies *power.*" He turned to me. "You will realize that when we merge."
I turned away from him, to talk instead to the 'good' incarnation. A look of concern was on his face, and he spoke before I could.
"Are you all right?" I nodded to thank him for his concern, but asked a question of my own.
"Who are you?"
"Have we *ever* had a name? Or was it just the first of us?" The man chuckled softly. "Know that I am your ally in this - I, like these others, have died my death in your mind, and this figment is all that remains."
"But who *are* you?"
"Ah..." His smile faded, and he looked at me with concern. "This must be disorienting for you. Let me try and explain - I am one of your incarnations. I was once lost, now I am here again."
"How is that possible?"
"I - do not know. Whatever you touched within the Fortress has brought pieces of yourself to the surface." He paused for a moment, thinking. "One of the others may know the means of how this came to be - but it is beyond me."
"If you are a part of me, there are things I must know."
"I have had countless lives. Why are there only three incarnations here?"
"I do not know. Perhaps we were the three pieces that were somehow still present in your mind."
"I do not know for sure, but I would guess that when we die, traces of the former personality may remain in your mind - and I know that sometimes we may make ourselves felt."
"When you are about to place yourself in danger, or were close to a realization, for example, I found that I could stir, help prod you in the right direction."
"So *you* were that crawling sensation I kept feeling in the back of my skull?"
"I would be at a loss to describe how it felt to you, but it is possible, yes."
"I came to this Fortress with allies... but they have been separated from me."
"Then I fear your friends are already dead." The man looked pained. "This place bears a hatred for the living."
"Do you know why I wanted to become immortal?"
"No, I do not. I think it was done out of fear. Perhaps one of the others knows, but not I."
"What makes you think it was done out of fear?"
The man smiled slightly, but there was no humor in it; if anything, it was a sad smile. "What man wishes to die?" He shook his head slowly. "But only the first of us will ever truly know the reason that brought us to this state."
I considered asking him about merging back into me, but I hesitated. He was my only ally here; it would be better to try the others first.
I turned to the paranoid incarnation, asking who he was.
"KNOW that you will NOT last long in this place, THIEF!" Spittle flew from the man's mouth, and his face twisted in a maddening grin. "MAZES AND REGRETS AND DEATH are all that ARE HERE..." The practical incarnation glared at the paranoid incarnation, then turned to me, a sneer again on his face.
"You are wasting your time speaking to that one. His thoughts are all angles and spite and nothing more. Stop wasting time - there is much the two of us must speak of."
"THIEF!" The paranoid incarnation's hands twisted, as if strangling the other. "I will feel the bones of your neck SNAP beneath my fingers... take my BODY back." He turned to me. "You wear my body like a CLOAK, and you SHAME me..."
"I am no thief. I stole *nothing* from you." I replied.
"YOU STOLE EVERYTHING! I AWOKE ON THE STREETS OF THE RING CITY, AND ALL WHO SAW ME KNEW ME!" He took a rasping breath. "All that you had done, all that you had harmed - they were waiting for me, blaming me, hurting me, until I couldn't TAKE the voices any more..." His fingers grasped at the air. "And had to make them SILENT."
"What do you know of the other incarnations?" I asked.
"THIEVES. They are THIEVES - all of them. And THIEVES will DIE."
"Do not *threaten* me, you fool" retorted the practical incarnation, "I warn you. If anyone is the thief, it is you - you sought to steal our chances to settle this matter by sabotaging all my work!"
"You are the THIEF! You stole my body and my life!" This was going nowhere. I decided to ask about deeds I thought he had done, to confirm my guesses.
"The Sensory Stone trap - you're the one who left it for me, weren't you?"
"Yes..." He smiled, low and evil. "Simple trap. Trap for someone who can't die - MIND trap."
"You're the incarnation the Lady mazed, aren't you? I found your journal in the Lady's Maze."
"Simple escape, simple trap, broke her maze with ease, I did. I could have made it tighter, deadlier." He smiled. "She knew nothing of what it takes to trap ME."
"You're to blame for killing the Linguist Fin, aren't you?"
"There..." He seemed confused for a moment. "There were MANY that I killed. There were many that needed to be silenced." I felt pity for him at that moment, and I also thought I saw a way to sidestep his paranoia. I would speak to him in the language of the Uyo; he had murdered Fin to make sure there would be no other living speakers.
Language of the Uyo: (Let us speak in private, just the two of us.)
As I spoke the language of the Uyo, the incarnation's eyes widened, and he stared at me. After a moment of silence, he replied in the same language.
(Only I know the language of the Uyo. How do you know it?)
(You are correct: you are the only one who knows the language of the Uyo. So if I know the language of the Uyo, I must be you.) He was silent, staring at me.
(It is these *others* who are not you, for they do not know the language of the Uyo.) He nodded... slowly.
(I hear you.)
(This place confuses one's perceptions - we are both you, and now we must become as one.) He looked frightened.
"I..." To my surprise, he reverted to normal speech... and all the inflections to his voice were gone. It was calm, level, and much like my own. "I... no longer wish to live like this."
(You no longer have to. You have suffered much. You were born into a world where nothing made sense, where strangers claimed they knew you, they blamed you for things you knew nothing of, and they tried to hurt you.. All the pain and worry and torment of your existence; I will wipe it away.)
He looked at me - and I watched as the incarnation lost its mad gleam, and his eyes became more like my own.
(I will protect you now. You will know peace. For that is all you ever wanted, isn't it?)
The incarnation relaxed at my words, his eyes dimming as he locked gazes with me. There was the faintest of whispers, and he fell to the black stones - with his collapse, I felt a crawling sensation in the back of my skull...
And there was a FLOOD of memories, and strength, and emotions, and - I steadied myself, dizzy for a moment, then my vision cleared, and I was myself once more.
I turned to the practical incarnation. He affixed me with a stony gaze. He looked like he was sizing me up for weaknesses. I gave him a simple statement of truth.
"I intend to merge with you."
"So be it, then." His eyes became gray like mist, and he gave a slight smile, as if in anticipation. "We shall see what your mind has in store..." I was sure he felt I had recognized my own weakness, and surrendered. But I had found my own strengths on paths he would have sneered at. Besides, these other incarnations had had their day; I was the one who must meet the keeper of this fortress.
I locked gazes with him... his eyes were like stones, and they started to drag me down... but then I started to resist him.
As I swam in the corridors of his mind, the first emotion I encountered was surprise - and his eyes widened. He was not absorbing me; my will was stronger, and it was consuming *him.* I felt him desperately trying to pull back, but he could not - he was too weak, and my will blocked his retreat while drawing him deeper into my sub-conscious.
"This is the last time we shall ever speak. Return to death, where you *belong.*" He looked incredulous for a moment, then he disintegrated, and I felt a RUSH of knowledge pouring through me, fighting to the surface... it was almost too much to absorb at once, and I found myself disoriented. So much knowledge - so many experiences, that -
...and as quickly as it occurred, the rush subsided, and I steadied myself. The bits of knowledge swirled about in my mind, and I would have to make sense of them later. For now, only one piece of knowledge was important - that the incarnation did NOT know how to leave this place.
"Dammit..." I muttered. There was no longer any trace of the two incarnations I had absorbed in the room. I turned to the remaining incarnation, but I hesitated. Almost everything I had learned about my past lives had involved suffering, and torment. I desired to speak to this incarnation, to learn of pleasant things I might have done. More, I felt as though this incarnation were a friend, and I longed to pour my thoughts and fears out to him. But my friends doubtless needed me, and before me was only an echo of a past life, an echo I needed to merge back into myself if I ever hoped to escape this trap.
He smiled as he noticed I was done with my thoughts, and spoke, his voice carrying a faint echo. "Yes?"
"Before you said that when we die, traces are left in the mind. That's what caused you all to emerge. Right?" I continued before he could answer. "So, is it possible that the first of us - the real one of us, before all the incarnations, might still be buried somewhere in my mind."
The expression on the incarnation's face flickered for just a moment, but it was like a window, and I suddenly realized who it was I was speaking to.
"*You* were the first of us." The incarnation's eyes took on a haunted look, and his gaze turned away from mine.
"I know what you are thinking - but it is not the case. You think that knowing the mind of the first of us will somehow help you here, in this place. It will not."
"But why - I have so many questions that YOU can answer. Why did we become immortal? Why?"
"Because if we die, *truly* die..." The incarnation looked up at me, and his eyes were like steel. "Death's kingdom will *not* be paradise, not for us. If you spoke to these others that were here, know that a fraction of the evil of their lives is but a drop of water compared to the evil of mine. That life, that one life, even *without* the thousands of others, has given a seat in the Lower Planes for eternity."
"But you seem so much... calmer. More well-intentioned."
"I became that way, yes. Because for me..." His voice took on a strange echo. "It is *regret* that may change the nature of a man." He sighed. "But it was too late. I was already damned."
"I found that changing my nature was not enough. I needed more time, and I needed more life. So I came to the greatest of the Gray Sisters and asked her for a boon - to try and help me live long enough to rectify all the damage I had done. To make me immortal."
"And Ravel did. But when she first tested your immortality and killed you, you forgot everything. *Everything.*" He looked broken at my words.
"And the Planes have been dying ever since. The crime is great, and the blame is mine."
"There are so many questions I have for you - who are you, what was your *life* like? Who-" The incarnation shook his head, cutting me off.
"When I become no more, when I merge with you, you will have the answers you seek. It may take some time to sort them out, but they are there." He smiled ruefully. "It is difficult to communicate a life with words."
"Very well, then... we shall become as one. Are you ready?"
"One last thing... just this..." The incarnation paused for a moment, searching my features. "Before I return to oblivion - there is something I would know."
"I can spare a little time for this - what do you wish to know?" He studied my eyes, his expression somber, before asking his question.
"Did you *live* your life - the brief life you have had? In the end... was it worth it?"
"It seemed so.... short. What little I experienced, I enjoyed, and I do not wish to forget it." Despite the pain, I would never willingly give up the memories of my comrades, others I had met, even the streets of the Hive held a certain preciousness to me.
He nodded at my words, and I thought to see a slight lessening
of tension in his features, as though my words had eased a burden
he had carried; then he collapsed, the life running out of him
and into me. As he fell to the black stones, I felt a crawling
sensation in the back of my skull, making me shiver, and I knew
the incarnation was no more.
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