The Secret of Secrets
It's like the wind knows who I am, who all of us are. And these pale men and women we kill, these packs with their pale bodies given hints of amphibian things - their frog smiles tell us they know too.
I hate it here. It's like all my thoughts are on the outside, like I'm traveling through the cavernous expanse of what I keep so deep I don't ever have to look at it. I buried so many things, now I feel I've been buried by them, forced to traverse through my own subconscious.
The wind, it whispers to me about myself, and I wonder if my companions can hear what it says about me. But of course they can, because I can tell by the looks on their faces that they know I can hear it saying so many things about them.
~Pandemonium, Day 16~
Five set out, and four remain. And maybe that is too high a count - perhaps four remain in flesh, but presence of mind is anybody's guess. We don't look at each other, because eye contact might open the door to questions, might show the others that not everything the wind is saying is lies.
If nothing else, everything I hear about myself sounds just about right.
I think that this estrangement is why Jaeh is dead. Thankfully dead, as Gorvan is such a good shot, hitting her through the eye while she was carried away by furred, bloated sub-men with leering faces stinking with the heavy smell of sweat on genitalia. They laughed, and though I do not speak their language I know what they were saying:
As if that will keep us from having our fun.
~Pandemonium, Day 17~
It's funny they call this a series of caves, of tunnels, carved into stone by unseen hands. It's funny because it makes it seem as though caves and tunnels are things, when really they are nothing, lots of nothing where there would be stone, ice, bone.
And that makes me wonder - is Pandemonium, is it really a place? Or is it just so much emptiness, great voids separated by thin membranes of stone. Warm stone, in the case of where we are camping.
Its hard to sleep when it feels like you're sleeping on skin. Or rather it would be easy save for where we are. You don't want this place to remind you of lover or mother.
You just don't.
Lucky for me, this collection of hollows reminds me of myself.
~Pandemonium, Day 18~
I saw Jaeh today. She asked me to follow her. Told me she could help us find a way out, in a direction completely different from our compass.
I think she was real, that she was telling the truth. There was a way out of hearing the wind telling me who I really am.
Gorvan thinks, or rather knows I'm crazy - if he is listening to the wind in the same way mammals do. But then, I know what Gorvan did to those children, to cubs, in the Beastlands. Self-defense I suppose, or the wind admits, but I know he thinks of how freeing that was - the killing of young.
Even reptiles have their guilt. If a reptilian aasimar can cry, I don't know. It looks like he might, but if so the wind dries off his tears.
None of us has brought up what the wind told us about the others. Seven years together, diving into Perdition: taking on scavenging and rescue operations into the Lower Planes. Bebilith spinners, vaath tongues, maelephant tusks. Lost crews, members valued enough to be sought out. Meaning that they were politically important or sometimes even loved enough.
We do our best for the spouses and parents who scrape together what little they have, taking a bet foolhardy to drunk gamblers. We try, and once in awhile when Xaos distracts the Odds with a smile we succeed. Imagine being there at one of those reunions, when someone is hugging someone they thought was damned.
I wish someone out there loved me enough to hire someone like me, but if that were the case the wind wouldn't be able to dig so deep.
~Pandemonium, Day 19 or 20~
My time piece has stopped. The glass cracked, though I didn't drop it. I would say it was damaged in one of the skirmishers we've had with the petitioners, but I checked it hours earlier and it was fine. I can't believe how angry this little mystery is making me.
So assuming we don't die-or-worse here, we will at least be in these tunnels for twenty days. Not so bad, but Abilah has a nervous twitch that seems to be giving way to blurting out random curse words, Gorvan is miserable, and Samane - well a winged elf from Aborea is poorly placed in the tunnels of Pandemonium.
We crossed into a tunnel that had a thin stream of water - or rather a perfect cylinder of liquid, threaded through its center. The Styx, traveling through a part of the plane where gravity grew lightheaded and you could choose what was floor and what was ceiling. It's the most fun we've had since coming here.
When no one was looking, I almost took a swallow of river. That way the wind would be talking about someone else, and I could listen as if it were exposing a stranger.
I can't believe I almost drank of the Styx, though apparently Gorvan almost did the same. I think that was what made him realize how bad the wind was, that he was willing to dive into oblivion before he tried to answer to what the wind told about him.
The story, when it comes from his mouth, instead of from the wind, well it doesn't seem so horrible. In fact, the more he talks, the more I see how the same story, the same crime, changes when you can hear the words catch in the throat. When you see so much regret it means you barely recognize a friend as his face contorts in the camp's firelight.
But we weren't supposed to talk about the past, not about this stuff anyway. It was an unspoken pact. We were all soldiers, all Blood War veterans - no one else would come here, accepting anemic pay to find young ones foolish enough to try and buy glory or even a better life for their families. Anyone foolish enough to follow in our foot steps. No one else would pick this way to atone.
The funny thing is, nothing the wind said was a lie. Which means they know the truth about me, and unlike the aasimar men have harder hearts and thus have truer sins.
Abilah told her stories, and again the wind had told only the truth. So many creative tortures, if only she had kept her ministrations to fiends the wind might not have had any hold on her. I remember keeping an eye on her while she had taken first watch - me kept awake by the sound of water dripping off stalactites, her knife straying over and over to her wrist.
Gorvan looked like he was going to vomit, but at the end of the story he embraced her. Forgiveness comes naturally to him, though I haven't had my turn yet.
You know we never had this problem the last few times we were here? But this time we'd been given a compass pointing to what was supposedly the greatest treasure in all this damned stone maze work.
We never had a problem with Abilah, she had an iron concentration in her small frame, a focus that allowed her to throw lightning or fire even if she took an arrow in the side. Yet now, after her confessing everything we already knew thanks to the wind, she seems so fragile and small.
I no longer think she's going to make it. At least her mind won't.
Today we fought people who were dead, long ago buried or burned on a pyre in places far from here. Places where the wind has the laughter of mortai, or even better where the wind is just wind.
I'm shaken up, because everyone we fought, every corpse we just left behind a few turns back, were people I killed long ago. They were stronger, faster - had to be for the children and pregnant ones to be a threat - but they were all mine.
I could pretend I see their faces every day, tell you they haunt my dreams, but truth is almost all of them were buried under several cave-ins of my mind, blasted under the rubble of copious drug use.
But still, everything the wind said was true, every body accounted for. Samane hadn't confessed either, thankfully, so we had a stalemate while the compass took us further toward...whatever prize we were promised.
Zones of truth, serums and the reputation of the Planar Trade Consortium aside, is it possible we were set up? Maybe, but right now it's hard to be mad - feels like all of life is a set up. You wander, and you think an open sky means you aren't hemmed in, you think being able to walk in any direction instead of being lead by carved out passageways made by some forgotten gods...you think that makes you free.
Lucky for me, I grew up as an urchin in Sigil, so I knew better. You only have to look up to see your prison curving up around you. The City that leads Anywhere, but goes Nowhere.
I think this whole plane is alive.
Samane's confession was a soddin' joke, worse yet she wouldn't cough it up until we fought her ledger of corpses. Innocent bystanders killed in surgical strikes, and there were barely enough to fill a small tavern. It would have been too easy if some more of mine hadn't shown up on horseback:
Young men of Tir Na Og, falling before my blades, my laughter the last thing they heard as they went down.
It was easier this time - horses are not meant to tread these passages. Though there were moments where the sweat ran into my eyes. These tunnels are are getting hotter, and the wind is dying down.
The only good thing is that, according to the wind, there were some of Gorvan's and even Jaehe's in there too. If confessing meant your dead don't show, I know they would have tried to force me, all in the name of my release and chance to bask in their forgiveness. But being released from sins in this manner, it might as well be given with a crossbow to the absolver's head.
It's nothing I'm interested in - sickens me they took the easy road at first opportunity. Though they all seem to think it has helped them, unloading them, not realizing how much they are rationalizing. But I still don't think this is the place where we would be forced to confront the evil we've done and hidden away, at least not so that we could be given some kind of redemption. What is it about the place we're trying to find that would do this?
I'll cut through an army of these regurgitated lives before I give up my sins to these once friends, now fools. Given my past, I'll probably have to.
Realizing that Samane's confession made it easier for her to commune and retrieve her healer's magic, I have to say I'm glad she confessed. I even get a laugh when we cleave through the reimagined yet still paltry Outland villagers she accidentally killed pushing back the Blood War's boundaries to the Lower Planes.
Doesn't she realize that the fiends would have killed those berks anyway? Only cutters survive on the Wheel, and even then as likely as not you become an exception to prove that rule.
I know better than to point any of this out, as the other three have gone mad with claims of being unburdened, loads lightened, trying to coax stories they already know from the wind's whispers. As if getting a man to speak of past killing is like trying to get a child to eat peas or cabbage.
What I give them is what they need - what they *really* need. The mages I rode down, the assassins I played against and won, the angels we might meet on these cavernous roads. To be on the look out for the smaller victims hiding in the protrusions of what is now warm pulsing, stone.
Is that the smell of fruit on the wind?
The caverns are getting brighter, and Gorvan and Samane almost died facing down one of mine. A deva sorcerer wielding spellfire. Whatever these things are, they aren't undead and they are unaffected by the light of Good.
Does this mean we are murdering these people a second time? Abilah sobs in her dreams when asleep, and her mutterings are worse. She doesn't twitch, she shakes, though the others taking care of her seems to comfort her. I knew she shouldn't have confessed, it broke her. You can't let that stuff out in a place like this. Now she is starting to believe that her victims are alive again even as the wind assures us they died with the requisite missing teeth, or eyes, or...other things.
I took down an easy one, a kid. One of mine whose death I could almost recall, but this time I left him alive and trussed up tight. We wait for awhile, and nothing happens. I can almost keep time again by the sweat dripping onto the fleshly stone. He just stares at me in anger, with lambent eyes and fangs he never had the last time he was alive.
As obvious as it is, Abilah won't accept that this thing is a fabrication. We leave it alive, the other three unaware that I poisoned it before we continued on. Or at least no one said anything, and I can't read their stares for all the hate they have in their eyes. Is that, in the end, how the saved feel about the stubbornly damned?
There is soil amidst the stone, the wind carries smells of somewhere tropical. Another thing about the wind is that it began to repeat the crimes of the others hours ago - only mine continue to be new.
I try to keep them as informed as possible, thinking of dangers we might face. My biggest worry is before we finish this Abilah will refuse to kill these things, these projections from our guilt. To think I used to pride myself on taking down magi and god-kissed with relative ease.
Am I still proud of what I've done, and who I've done it to? The children I'd bring back - in some real way - if I could, and most of those you'd call innocent or Good. But confessions and absolutions are beyond me, because they are beyond the rim of the Wheel as well.
Who absolves in this place? The hosts of all the Heavens - where were they while I lived in the gutters of Sigil? The gods, with their ridiculous cosmic games?
The only ones who can absolve me are the dead, and they seem to be coming back only to snatch out my throat. But for some reason Gorvan is convinced that my confession will end these nightly attacks. Samane even suggests some forceful coercion, to which I smile and ask if Abilah wants to play the game of torturer once more...
Thankfully soon after this come the yeth hounds, rescuing me from the dangerous discomfort of my once friends. Imagine my surprise and delight - creatures completely untied to the past, demon animals whom we can kill with no compunction. An enemy to bring us together, and there are enough of them to offer challenge, to force us to rely on each other.
To be what made us rescuers, what made us capable of diving back into this blackness again and again.
Samane even rests on my shoulder for support, both of us breathing heavily, all of us proudly looking over the corpses and taking in the sweet scents of fruit on the cooling wind.
Then Gorvan points out that they were running from something or someone, wherever it is we are heading.
It is warm and the wind is almost gone, barely able to continue telling the tales of lives I've taken from the Multiverse. There is sunlight without a sun. I think I am beginning to understand where we are going.
Now I know the plane is alive. Alive and awake. In fact, I think I know why I'm here. I could almost laugh, and even as the attacks dwindle but grow more ferocious the joke becomes clearer.
My greatest hits won't be coming to collect, and we are going to win the few fights remaining anyway. I don't become careless - never have, but a lot begins to slide away.
It becomes easy meeting their eyes, letting them see I bear them no hate. I know what their thoughts perhaps haven't given voice to, but will when the gentler secrets arrive for them and not for me. Pandemonium is insane because it takes what is buried in all of us here and perhaps across the wheel and makes it into a cavern. The subconscious becomes conscious in this place of Xaos stained with Evil.
And how do you deal with that? How do you deal with becoming a wanderer lost in the things you were hiding from? The confessors have their mutual absolution to pull them through. This binds them, and more importantly it separates me.
Really, that's only fair, given they are only here because of me. Poor Jaeh.
I'm here because I won't be party to it. I could save myself by joining them, but I won't. Maybe I'm too proud, but I just won't. And the Planar Trade Consortium, they knew that when they sent us here, they knew I wouldn't.
This isn't about retrieval, this is about delivery.
I put my hand on the curving stone and caress Her. Soon, you'll have it soon. After, you have to let them go. After. I look at Abilah and smile reassuringly, and that smile stays when she retreats from my hand like leprosy had already taken some fingers.
I know she'll make it. She has to, they all have to. It will take three of them to put down the one who won't recant his crimes, the one who makes them saints in comparison. It's always the same with the saved I find -
Having known mercy, they'll be hungry for justice.
So I take the role of leader, and Gorvan yields it gladly. Being reptile makes it harder to control body temperature and there is little magic to spare. Berk tires easily from the heat now. Need to get them to the stage, and hope they'll be allowed to leave after the reenactment is over.
When I tell them it will be okay, they believe me even as their growing hate for me does not give way against relief. It's not even hate exactly, it's the necessity that comes with who they now are, and the fact that the wind still isn't done laying out who I really, really am. Or at least who I was.
Given that we are passing the threshold of where the "dead" rise, the wind can now start on the living cursed by my touch, my orders, my presence. Soon it will tell them I had a son once. We left "him" somewhere in the darkness behind us.
Will we be in the gardens by then? Will we hear bird song, or will it be silver and gemstone? How will it look, all those beautiful secrets shepherded here by the wind? The secret loves, or at least the secret depths of them. The buried joys, the forgotten but extant hope a teacher feels for students long passed from her classroom. The innocence beneath the hardened shell of life.
All the things that come to Pandemonium because they too are buried along with the minds' chained horrors, and this shining dross is what Its Evil is ashamed of. All the buried things that are neither dark nor repulsive. The secrets it brings here to keep from Itself, that is the Secret of Secrets.
I wonder exactly how long it lasts, the relief that comes from murder, from betrayal, in this hallowed destination of ours? What will be the weight of my death, how much quiet will my blood, spilled by my friends in this hidden Heaven, buy?
Because that is what Pandemonium seeks against this paradise it cannot expunge, this horrid shame inside itself that it tries purifying with madness inspired killing. Attempting to prove to itself that this Good cancer inside itself can be cured by making the absolved take on the weight of new murder, a passion play that more than likely has been repeated since the plane was carved out into this mad thing from perhaps more innocent stone.
There is something in that, knowing my death serves as a temporary balm to this insane creature we tread through. That for a little bit of time it can pretend the disease isn't there. That one man's death can bring at least a little absolution.
“Come, that I may teach you about secrets no person has ever seen. For
there exists a great and boundless realm, whose extent no generation of angels has seen..."
-Gospel of Judas