As I lay bound to the upright table by bonds both magical and mundane, the bizarre sensation of hearing Reikspiel was almost reassuring, even if it was garbled by the malformed intellect of a goblin wizard.
I paused to consider the best response. Honesty was rarely the best policy in Mourngard. I saw no reason that things would be different beneath it.
“I… don’t know,” I struggled to say, my voice hoarse. I coughed, tasting blood. The force with which the daemon had been pulled from my soul had been quite real, and my entire throat was wet with phlegm and gore. “I am cursed to be the assassin’s soul-ward. He takes me everywhere. He shares little of his plans. I know that he shed blood and endured danger to reach you. But… that’s all I know.”
It felt good to speak Reikspiel again. I was almost surprised that I could; my ears and tongue were bound up with Black Khazalid by the Prophet’s enchantment, and it left my mind crowded with the concepts and subtleties of an alien language. At times I would still process a thought or emotion in Reikspiel, but I hadn’t spoken it aloud since my abduction.
So much time had passed already. I could remember a scant handful of nights with clarity, but yawning chasms of time seemed to open up between them. Worst of all, with a creeping mental rot, I could barely hold on to my memories of the time before the fortress.
“Riiiight…” said the goblin, stroking his jutting chin. “Well dis ain’t no orinerry place, ’ooman. I’s down ’ere fer a raisin. An dat snivellin’ agent ov da Bigjob ain’t just sposed to be swannin’ down ’ere when he wants ter. Iss dangerous. Bigjob an’ me - we ’ent ezackly mates.”
I surmised that “Bigjob” was the shaman’s name for Enmerkar.
“So before we gots any more chatter, let’s ’ear what da goon ’as to say.”
A ghostly green echo of the shaman’s hand slapped the magically-bound assassin’s scowling, unconscious cheeks, and his eyes groggily opened. Immediately he began to struggle against the larger arcane hand holding him in place, but the gnarled fingers did not budge.
“Mornin’ Ashy. Talk ter me, mate. Woss all dis den?”
“…let me down…”
The smaller green hand slapped the struggling hobgoblin about the face once more.
“Be raisinabubble Ashy, I carn’t do that, I’m busy wiv yer ‘ooman and you’s a backstabbin’ git. Talk ter me. Why’s you lot down ‘ere?”
“‘Shrooms? Wot shrooms? ‘Ooman didn’t mention no shrooms.” He jabbed me painfully in the face with his staff, and what I believe was the bat’s rotting backside slapped my cheek. “‘E played very dumb. Whatchoo need shrooms for, Ashy? Bigjob not fillin yer feed-bowl?”
“‘Ealin? Wotchoo need ‘ealin for Ashy? You gots da pox? Muscles wastin’ away cos yer ent fightin’ no more?”
“Back ter sleep, Ashy. No second charnses. Next time I wake you up, youse better be chatty.” The giant green hand opened, and Ashirk fell from his position against the ceiling, landing with a brutal clunk on to the ruined desks of the workshop, once again out cold. I felt the sharp pain in the back of my head and swam in and out of consciousness in sympathetic response. “Flippin’ ’eck ’ooman, how do you put up with ’im? I can see I’m gonna ‘ave to get serious.”
The shaman’s eyes rolled back into his skull, and - in a sensation eerily familiar from the haunted forge - the visual world dropped out into blackness. This time, the shaman was still visible to me, in the same ghostly green as all his conjurations. So too was Ashirk, though his unconscious form glowed only dimly. The thread connecting us shone with an iron, malevolent hue.
The smaller greenskin waved his staff around, and the bat-tip entered the ghostly form of my head. I felt a wracking, crawling pain as if fingers were searching around inside my head. Would these ceaseless magical violations never end?
This one was… different. Slapdash. Eager. Cynical. Haphazard. Selfish. The daemons and sorcerers had looked into my soul in a whirl of meaning, but this was more akin to a distracted guildmeister flipping through the pages of a reference tome, searching for a page he was sure was in there somewhere.
Frozen in ghostly place, the shaman wiggled his ghostly staff through my ghostly head, and as he did so, a whirl of images flared up through the blackness. We were in the passage outside his lair, then we watched the knife fight before the fire pit, then we were in the instant where my ankles had been seized by hobgoblins and I had been stolen like a coin-purse.
“Sneaky sneaky,” said the shaman, watching with interest. “Dey’s incorrigibubble.”
He waved the staff around again, and the images slid and spun in eerie, accelerated time. To my mute shock, the shaman continued to comment.
“C’mon… flippin’ ‘eck, gerra move on…”
The shaman sped his wrist ever faster, and suddenly we were in the haunted forge. My body was convulsing on the filthy ground, deep in the vision. I could not make out what was in the space where I had believed the daemonsmith to be, but it was a cold, shadowy void. The shaman inspected it closely, but try as I might to turn my bound, ghostly head, I could not see the true shape of the spectral presence.
“Intrestin’… you likes to get mixed up in all sorts, doncha ‘ooman? Oo look at me I’m da ‘ooman I durn’t know nuffin, it woz all Ashirk,” he said, putting on a falsetto voice in crude imitation of me. “Liar.”
With a few more shakes of his staff, he stirred my mind like a bowl of broth, and a fast-moving whirl of my sorcerous visions flew past. I tumbled through the sky, fell back to earth in Altdorf, witnessed Friedrich and Reinhardt wrestling with my belongings.
The shaman peered at this scene in confusion, drawing his staff out of my head and waving it around, causing ripples in the sorcerous recollection. He peered intently at Reinhardt, then Friedrich, then my memory was pulled violently in the guildhall. He seemed to find the guildhall fascinating, and again waved his staff around tapping things and prodding at the spectral apparitions of my former peers.
At last, the memory played on to the moment of visitation at my tomb. The shaman turned on his heel back to me, a wicked smile spreading on his face, and began laughing violently.
“Ahhhhhhahahahahaa! You absolute numpty! Worra wasta my time! Some sad ’ooman rubbish about a zoo! And yer cryin’! Brilliant! You done morked me ’ooman, you morked me good, you gerra visitation fromma ’orrible daemon-ghost an’ the most awful fing ’ee can show yer is yer name bein’ rubbed offa wall! Haaaahahahaahaha! Oh I’s gonna faint! “Pay da price” ’ee sez and then awl you gots is some sadness about a box o’ gubbinz!”
I stared at him emptily, my soul and body still bound to his table. His mockery stung. I could still feel the hole in my heart where the hope of return to my old life had been ripped out. But the creature I was becoming - the one born of Mourngard - agreed. This was no fetid spider-daemon wrapped around my soul. It was some tortuous blend of rage, despair, desire and the blackest hope. I would survive in this place. I would save the Sleeper, master the Menagerie, free myself of Ashirk and somehow - triumph.
The shaman’s laughter subsided, and the driving rain across my phantom tombstone beat on. In a moment, the obscene spectacle of the dead bat once again reached into my spectral head, and the rain too dissolved. With it, unnoticed even by the shaman, went the very last of my remorse.