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A Dream: Lying on a slab, in a mortuary. A pillar covered with names. Racks of skulls. A symbol. A woman. A ghost.
I awoke, on a slab, in what was obviously a mortuary. As I levered myself up, I caught movement from the corner of my eye. A floating skull. No, I realized, a floating, talking, skull as it spoke.
"Hey, chief. You okay? You playing corpse or you putting the blinds on the Dusties? I thought you were a deader for sure." I was confused, and had trouble focusing on what the skull was saying.
"Wh...? Who are you?"
"Uh... who am *I?* How about *you* start? Who're you?"
"I... don't know. I can't remember." I realized that I didn't remember anything about myself.
"You can't remember your *name?* Heh. Well, NEXT time you spend a night in this berg, go easy on the bub. Name's Morte. I'm trapped in here, too."
"Yeah, since you haven't had time to get your legs yet, here's the chant: I've tried all the doors, and this room is locked tighter than a chastity belt." I needed to orient myself, and find out from the skull where I was.
"We're locked in... where? What is this place?"
"It's called the 'Mortuary'... it's a big black structure with all the architectural charm of a pregnant spider." Could I have died? Did that explain the lack of memories?
"'The Mortuary?' What... am I dead?"
"Not from where I'm standing. You got scars a-plenty, though... looks like some berk painted you with a knife. All the more reason to give this place the laugh before whoever carved you up comes back to finish the job."
"Scars? How bad are they?"
"Well... the carvings on your chest aren't TOO bad... but the ones on your back..." Morte paused. "Say, looks like you got a whole tattoo gallery on your back, chief. Spells out something..."
I looked down at myself, and realized the truth about the scarring. They covered every visible bit of skin. There was a tattoo on my arm as well, the same one from my dream. I wondered what was on my back, though.
"Tattoos on my back? What do they say?"
"Heh! Looks like you come with directions..." Morte cleared his throat. "Let's see... it starts with...
'I know you feel like you've been drinking a few kegs of Styx wash, but you need to CENTER yourself. Among your possessions is a JOURNAL that'll shed some light on the dark of the matter. PHAROD can fill you in on the rest of the chant, if he's not in the dead-book already.'
"Pharod...? Does it say anything else?"
"Yeah, there's a bit more..." Morte paused. "Let's see... it goes on..."
'Don't lose the journal or we'll be up the Styx again. And whatever you do, DO NOT tell anyone WHO you are or WHAT happens to you, or they'll put you on a quick pilgrimage to the crematorium. Do what I tell you: READ the journal, then FIND Pharod.'
"No wonder my back hurts; there's a damn novel written there. As for that journal I'm supposed to have with me... was there one with me while I was lying here?"
"No... you were stripped to the skins when you arrived here. 'Sides, looks like you got enough of a journal penned on your body." The skull wasn't being that much help.
"What about Pharod? Do you know him?"
"Nobody I know... but then again, I don't know many people. Still, SOME berk's got to know where to find Pharod... uh, once we get out of here, that is."
"How *do* we get out of here?"
"Well, all the doors are locked, so we'll need the key. Chances are, one of the walking corpses in this room has it."
"Walking corpses?" I queried.
"Yeah, the Mortuary keepers use dead bodies as cheap labor. The corpses are dumb as stones, but they're harmless, and won't attack you unless you attack first." The thought of killing, for some reason, made me uneasy.
"Is there some other way? I don't want to kill them just for a key."
"What, you think it's going to hurt their feelings? They're DEAD. But if you want a bright side to this: if you kill them, at least they'll have a rest before their keepers raise them up to work again."
"Well, all right... I'll take one of them down and get the key."
I approached one of the zombies mindlessly moving about the room. The corpse stopped and stared blankly at me. I could see the number "782" carved into his forehead, and his lips were stitched closed. The faint smell of formaldehyde emanated from the body.
."This looks like the lucky petitioner here, chief. Look... he's got the key there in his hand." I didn't need Morte's help to see that. It was holding the key tightly in its left hand, its thumb and forefinger locked around it in a death grip. I probably needed to hack the corpse's hand off to free the key.
I must have a weapon to get the key. I searched the drawers in the room I was in until I came up with a scalpel. Morte, who was following my every move, chimed in.
"All right, you found a scalpel! Now, go get those corpses... and don't worry, I'll stay back and provide valuable tactical advice."
"Maybe you could *help* me, Morte."
"I WILL be helping you. Good advice is hard to come by." I felt sudden anger towards the jabbering skull.
"I meant help in attacking the *corpse.*"
"Me? I'm a romantic, not a soldier. I'd just get in the way."
"When I attack this corpse, you better be right there with me or you'll be the next thing that I plunge this scalpel in."
" Eh... all right. I'll help you." I approached the zombie again.
"I need that key, corpse... looks like you're not long for this world." Several thrusts with the scalpel quickly turned the creature into a now unmoving corpse, and I used the key I had obtained to open one of the doors of the room.
"Some advice, chief: I'd keep it quiet from here on - no need to put any more corpses in the dead book than necessary... especially the femmes. Plus, killing them might draw the caretakers here."
"I don't think you mentioned it before... *who* are these caretakers?"
"They call themselves the 'Dustmen.' You can't miss 'em: They have an obsession with black and rigor mortis of the face. They're an addled bunch of ghoulish death-worshippers; they believe everybody should die... sooner better than later." I wondered about the caretakers.
"I'm confused... why do these Dustmen care if I escape? "
"Weren't you listening?! I said the Dusties believe EVERYBODY'S got to die, sooner better than later. You think the corpses you've seen are happier in the dead book than out of it?" Once started, I found I was full of questions.
"The corpses here... where did they all come from?"
"Death visits the Planes every day, chief. These lummoxes are all that's left of the poor sods who sold their bodies to the caretakers after death."
"Before you said something about making sure I didn't kill any *female* corpses. Why? "
"Wh - are you *serious?* Look, chief, these dead chits are the last chance for a couple of hardy bashers like us. We need to be *chivalrous*... no hacking them up for keys, no lopping their limbs off, things like that." I couldn't understand where Morte was leading.
"Last Chance? What are you *talking* about? "
"Chief, THEY'RE dead, WE'RE dead... see where I'm going? Eh? Eh?" I could now understand, but I had difficulty believing.
"You can't be serious."
"Chief, we already got an opening line with these limping ladies. We've *all* died at least once: we'll have something to talk about. They'll appreciate men with our kind of death experience."
"But... wait... didn't you say before that I'm *not* dead?"
"Well... all right, *you* might not be dead, but *I* am. And from where I'm standing, I wouldn't mind sharing a coffin with some of these fine, sinewy cadavers I see here." Morte started clacking his teeth, as if in anticipation. "'Course, the caretakers would have to part with them first, and that's not likely..."
Morte continued, "Look, chief. You're still a little addled after your kiss with death. So two bits of advice for you: one, if you got questions, *ask* me, all right?"
"All right... I'll... try to remember that."
."Second, if you're *half* as forgetful as you seem to be, start writing stuff down - whenever you come across something that *might* be important, jot it down so you don't forget."
"If I had that journal I was *supposed* to have with me, I'd do that." I felt a touch of anger at whoever had removed the journal.
"Start a new one, then, chief. No loss. There's plenty of parchment and ink around here to last you."
"Hmmmm. All right. It couldn't hurt... I'll make a new one, then."
"Use it to keep track of your movements. If you ever start to get cloudy on important things, like who you are... or more importantly, who *I* am... use it to refresh your memory."
The next room had more of the zombies. They were wandering about, most obviously on tasks set by the Dustmen. One in particular, though, caught my attention. The male corpse was lumbering along a triangular path. Once it reached one of the corners of the triangle, it paused, then turned and staggered towards the next corner. "965" was tattooed on the side of its skull. As I approached, it halted and stared at me.
"Heh. Looks like someone forgot to tell this sod to stop walking the Rule-of-Three," Morte commented.
"What do you mean?"
"These corpses don't have much left in the attic, so they can't do more than one task at a time... when they're told to do something, they'll keep doing it until someone tells them to stop. This poor sod probably finished some task, and they forgot to tell him."
"The 'Rule-of-Three.' What did you mean by that?"
"Eh? Well, the Rule-of-Three is one of those 'laws' about the Planes, about things tending to happen in threes... or everything's composed of three parts... or there's always three choices, and so on and so forth."
"You don't sound like you hold much faith in it."
"It's a load of wash, if you ask me. If you look for a number, any number, and try to attach some great meaning to it, you're going to find plenty of coincidences."
I left the corpse tracing its triangular path and moved into the next room. In the center of the room was the first living person I had seen, obviously one of the Dustmen. He was writing in a huge book.
The scribe looked very old... his skin was wrinkled and had a slight trace of yellow, like old parchment. Charcoal-gray eyes lay within an angular face, and a large white beard flowed down the front of his robes like a waterfall. His breathing was ragged and irregular, but even his occasional coughing did not slow the scratching of his quill pen. The book he was writing must have contained thousands of names. As I approached him, he did not look up from what he was doing.
Morte interrupted, "Whoa, chief! What are you doing?!"
"I was going to speak with this scribe. He might know something about how I got here."
"Look, rattling your bone-box with Dusties should be the LAST thing --"
Before Morte could finish his rant, the scribe began coughing violently. After a moment or two, the coughing spell died down, and the scribe's breathing resumed its ragged wheeze.
"And we *especially* shouldn't be swapping the chant with sick Dusties. C'mon, let's leave. The quicker we give this place the laugh, the bet --" Before Morte could finish, the scribe's gray eyes flickered to me.
"The weight of years hangs heavy upon me, Restless One." He placed down his quill. "...but I do not yet count deafness among my ailments." I wondered if he could help.
"'Restless One?' Do you know me?"
"Know you? I..." There was a trace of bitterness in the scribe's voice as he spoke. "I have *never* known you, Restless One. No more than you have known yourself." He was silent for a moment. "For you have forgotten, have you not?"
"Who *are* you?"
"As always, the question. And the wrong question, as always." He bowed slightly, but the movement suddenly sent him into a bout of coughing. "I..." He paused for a moment, caught his breath. "I... am Dhall."
"What is this place?"
"You are in the Mortuary, Restless One. Again you have... come..." Before he could finish, Dhall broke into a fit of coughing. After a moment, he calmed himself and his breathing resumed its ragged wheeze. "...this is the waiting room for those about to depart the shadow of this life."
"This is where the dead are brought to be interred or cremated. It is our responsibility as Dustmen to care for the dead, those who have left this shadow of life and walk the path to True Death." Dhall's voice dropped in concern. "Your wounds must have exacted a heavy toll if you do not recognize this place. It is almost your home."
"Shadow of life?"
"Yes, a shadow. You see, Restless One, this life... it is not real. Your life, my life, they are shadows, flickerings of what life once was. This 'life' is where we end up *after* we die. And here we remain... trapped. Caged. Until we can achieve the True Death."
"True Death is non-existence. A state devoid of reason, of sensation, of passion." Dhall coughed, then gave a ragged breath. "A state of purity."
"Perhaps you can explain why the Dustmen want me dead."
Dhall sighed. "It is said there are souls who can never attain the True Death. Death has forsaken them, and their names shall never be penned in the Dead Book. To awake from death as you have done... suggests you are one of these souls. Your existence is unacceptable to our faction."
"'Unacceptable?' That doesn't sound like it leaves me in a good position."
"You must understand. Your existence is a blasphemy to them. Many of our faction would order you cremated... if they were aware of your affliction."
"You're a Dustman. But you don't seem to be in favor of killing me. Why not?"
"Because forcing our beliefs upon you is not just. You must give up this shadow of life on your own, not because we force you to." Dhall looked about to break into another coughing jag, but he managed to hold it in with some effort. "As long as I remain at my post, I will protect your right to search for your own truth."
"You say that I have been here more than once. How is it that the Dustmen do not recognize me?"
"I am a scribe, a cataloger of all the shells that come to the Mortuary." Dhall broke into a fit of coughing, then steadied himself. "Only I see the faces of those that lie upon our slabs. The dark of your existence lies safe with me."
"Do you know who I am? "
"I know scant little of you, Restless One. I know little more of those that have journeyed with you and who now lie in our keeping." Dhall sighed. "I ask that you no longer ask others to join with you, Restless One -- where you walk, so walks misery. Let your burden be your own."
"There are others who have journeyed with me? And they are here?"
"Do you not know the woman's corpse interred in the memorial hall below? I had thought that she had traveled with you in the past..." Dhall looked like he was about to start coughing again, then caught his breath. "Am I mistaken?
"Where is her body?" I asked, even as I wondered how I knew her.
"The northwest memorial hall on the floor below us. Check the biers there... her name should be on one of the memorial plaques. Mayhap that will revive your memory."
"Are any others interred here who journeyed with me?"
"Doubtless there are, but I know not their names, nor where they lie. One such as you has left a path many have walked, and few have survived." Dhall gestured around me. "All dead come here. Some must have traveled with you once.
"How did I get here?"
"Your moldy chariot ferried you to the Mortuary, Restless One. You would think you were royalty based on the number of loyal subjects that lay stinking and festering upon the cart that carried you."
"Your body was somewhere in the middle of the heap, sharing its fluids with the rest of the mountain of corpses." Dhall broke into another violent fit of coughing, finally catching his breath minutes later. "Your 'seneschal' Pharod was, as always, pleased to accept a few moldy coppers to dump the lot of you at the Mortuary gate."
"Who is this Pharod?"
"He is a... collector of the dead." Dhall drew a ragged breath, then continued. "We have such people in our city that scavenge the bodies of those that have walked the path of True Death and bring them to us so that they may be interred properly."
"Doesn't sound like you like Pharod much."
"There are some I respect, Restless One." Dhall took a ragged breath and steadied himself. "Pharod is not one of them. He wears his ill repute like a badge of honor and takes liberties with the possessions of the dead. He is a knight of the post, cross-trading filth of the lowest sort." He paused a moment, frowning at the thought of Pharod.
"All Pharod brings to our walls come stripped of a little less of their dignity than they possessed in life. Pharod takes whatever he may pry from their stiffening fingers."
"Did this Pharod take anything from *me?*"
Dhall paused, considering. "Most likely. Are you missing anything... especially anything of value?" His voice dipped as he frowned. "Not that Pharod would take exception to anything that wasn't physically grafted to your body, and sometimes even that's not enough to give his greedy mind pause."
"I am missing a journal."
"A journal? If it was of any value, then it is likely it lies in Pharod's hands." I now had another reason to find this man.
"Where can I find this Pharod?"
"If events persist as they have, Restless One, you have a much greater chance of Pharod finding you and bringing you to us again before you find whatever ooze puddle he wallows in this time."
"Nevertheless, I must find him." I said, annoyance edging my voice.
A slight warning creeped into Dhall's tone. "Do not seek out Pharod, Restless One. I am certain that it will simply come full circle again, with you none the wiser and Pharod a few coppers richer. Accept death, Restless One. Do not perpetuate your circle of misery."
"I *have* to find him. Do you know where he is?"
Dhall was silent for a moment. When he finally spoke, he seemed to do so reluctantly. "I do not know under which gutterstone Pharod lairs at the moment, but I imagine that he can be found somewhere beyond the Mortuary gates, in the Hive. Perhaps someone there will know where you can find him."
"Earlier you mentioned my wounds. What did you mean?"
"Yes, the wounds that decorate your body... they look as if they would have sent a lesser man along the path of the True Death, yet it seems as if many of them have healed already." Dhall coughed violently for a moment, then steadied himself. "But those are only the surface wounds."
To my questioning look he replied, "I speak of the wounds of the mind. You have forgotten much, have you not? Mayhap your true wounds run much deeper than the scars that decorate your surface..." Dhall coughed again. "...but that is something that only you would know for certain."
For the first time, I considered Dhall as an individual, rather than as a talking information source. I felt a trace of concern.
"You sound ill. Are you not well?"
"I am close now to the True Death, Restless One. It will not be long before I pass beyond the Eternal Boundary and find the peace I have been seeking. I tire of this mortal sphere..." Dhall gave a ragged sigh. "The planes hold no more wonders for one such as I."
"I do not wish to live forever nor live again, Restless One. I could not bear it."
I stood for a moment, considering him and reveling in this new found feeling of 'concern.' But I needed to find a way out of the Mortuary.
"So be it. Farewell, Dhall." As I turned to leave, Dhall spoke.
"Know this: I do not envy you, Restless One. To be reborn as you would be a curse that I could not bear. You must come to terms with it. At some point, your path will return you here..." Dhall coughed, the sound rattling in his throat. "It is the way of all things flesh and bone."
I moved towards an exit at the far side of the room, nearly bowling over a female zombie.
This female corpse was making the rounds from slab to slab in the room. Her hair was knotted into a long braid and looped around her neck like a noose. Someone had stenciled the number "1096" onto her forehead, and her lips had been stitched closed.
Surprised, I mumbled "Uh nice braid." The corpse did not respond, doubtless not even knowing I was there. As I made to move on, Morte spoke up.
"Psssst. You see the way she was looking at me? Huh? You see that? The way she was following the curve of my occipital bone?" I tried a joke, as far as I could remember the first I might ever have tried.
"You mean that blank-eyed beyond-the-grave stare?"
"Wha - are you BLIND?! She was scouting me out! It was shameless the way she WANTED me."
"I think you and your imagination need some time away from each other."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. When you've been dead as long as I have, you know the signals. They may be too SUBTLE for you to pick up on, but that's why I'll be spending MY nights with some luscious recently-dead chit while you're standing around goin' 'huh?' 'Whatzz goin' on?' 'Where's my muh-muh-memories?'"
"Whatever, Morte. Let's go."
As I moved on into another room, I noticed another of the Dustmen busy at a bier. She was a slight young woman with pale features. The sunken flesh around her cheeks and neck made her appear as if she were starving. She seemed intent on dissecting the corpse in front of her, prodding the chest with a finger.
I moved up to her, and said "Greetings."
The woman did not respond... she seemed too intent on the body in front of her. As I watched her work, I suddenly noticed her hands... her fingers were talons. They were darting in and out of the corpse's chest cavity like knives, removing organs.
"What's wrong with your hands?" I muttered, but Morte must have heard me, because he replied.
"Eh... she's a *tiefling,* chief. They got fiend blood in their veins, usually 'cause some ancestor of theirs shared knickers with one demon or another. Makes some of 'em addled in the head... and addled-looking, too."
Determined now, I tapped the woman, to get her attention.
The woman jumped and whipped around to face me... I could now see her eyes, a rotting yellow, with small orange dots for pupils. As she saw me, her expression changed from surprise to irritation, and she frowned at me.
She didn't seem to hear my attempted greetings, instead leaning forward, squinting, as if she couldn't quite make me out... whatever was wrong with her eyes must have made her terribly near-sighted.
"You -" She clacked her taloned fingers together, then made a strange motion with her hands. "Find THREAD and EM-balming juice, bring HERE, to Ei-Vene. Go - Go - Go."
I moved off, smiling to myself at her reaction. I tried to put her out of my mind, but couldn't shake the conviction that I had by implication undertaken a task, a task I didn't feel right about ignoring. Fortunately, a quick search of the biers and tables in the immediate area turned up the necessary items. When I returned to Ei-Vene, she was still dissecting the corpse's chest with her talons. Again, tapping her to get her attention, I gave her the thread and embalming fluid.
Without missing a beat, Ei-Vene snapped the thread from my hands and hooked it around one of her talons, then began sewing up the corpse's chest. She then took the embalming fluid, and began to apply a layer to the corpse.
Fascinated by her work, I stood and watched her. Within minutes, she was finished. She clicked her talons, then turned to face me. To my surprise, she extended her hand and dragged her talons along my arms and chest. I stiffened, playing my part as a zombie, ignoring Morte's comment, "Looks like you have a new friend, chief. You two need some time together, or...?"
As she traced my arms and chest, I suddenly noticed she seemed to be examining my scars. She withdrew her talons, clicking them twice, then bent forward and examined some of the tattoos on my chest.
"Hmmph. Who write on you? Hivers do that? No respect for zomfies. Zomfies, not paintings." She sniffed, then poked one of my scars. "This one bad shape, many scars, no preserfs."
Her talons suddenly hooked into the thread I had brought her, and lightning-like, she jabbed another talon into the skin near one of my scars. The sensation was curiously painless as Ei-Vene began to stitch up my scars.
When she was done, she sniffed me, frowned, then stabbed her fingers into the embalming fluid. Within minutes, she had dabbed my body with the fluid... and strangely enough, it made me feel *better.* Morte couldn't resist a comment.
"This may be the second time in my life I'm thankful I don't have a nose."
Ei-Vene put the last touches on my body, gave me another sniff, nodded, then made a shooing motion with her talons. "Done. Go - go."
I stumbled around a bit more, then found a stairwell down to the ground floor. I saw another of the Dustmen, who I approached. To my dismay, he regarded me with an alert, stony gaze, saying "Are you lost?"
"No." I quickly replied.
"If you are not lost, what is your business here?"
"I was here for an internment, but there seems to be have been a mistake. " For one brief, giddy moment, I wanted to continue, to say the mistake was I was the internment, but I wasn't quite dead.
"Who was interred? Perhaps the services are taking place somewhere else in the Mortuary. "
"That could be. Where are these other services taking place? "
"Several internment chambers line the perimeter of the Mortuary. They follow the curve of the wall on the first and second floors. Do you know the name of the deceased?" Trapped by my own prevarication, I could only give one answer.
"Yes," I replied. The Dustman was silent, obviously waiting for more. I had to make up something.
"The name is uh, Adahn. "
"That name is not familiar to me. Check with one of the guides at the front gate they may be able to direct you better than I. "
"Very well. I will do that. Farewell." I moved away, glad that the Dustman seemed so eager to return to his interrupted duties that no suspicions had been raised.
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