Nooj meets a surprising opponent
At the Core
Nooj woke suddenly, sweating on his cot in the Crusader camp ground. From the clarity of the light and the freshness of the air, it was early morning. As it should be. He had awakened before the booming of the huge gong at camp center called the others to their duties, even before the hangers-on had unrolled themselves from their musty cocoons of discarded clothing and had begun their long day of scavenging. These short nights made it difficult to sleep late even when such was possible, so he yawned, stretched, scratched and began gathering up his thick heavy mane before the memory hit him.
There had been a battle the day before; he distinctly recalled the event. He and the others of his command had been assigned the duty of clearing the entrance to a weapons depot which they intended to empty and had engaged the enemy, both human and fiend, in vigorous action. As he sat on the edge of the cot, automatically braiding and coiling his hair in the traditional elaborate manner of his class, his mind was engaged in ferreting out what was bothering him.
Around him in the six-man tent, others began to stir as the light brightened and the sudden echoing roar of the gong aroused those who had still slept. There was no time for meditation or solitary thought any longer. The soldier's day had officially begun. With an irritated sniff, Nooj stood up and pulled on the parts of his uniform he had taken off the preceding night.
Once finished with what passed for breakfast, - Nooj later attributed his life-long lack of interest in food to his early exposure to Crusader cuisine - the various sectors formed themselves into compact groups before their respective commanders and waited for orders. Because they had so distinguished themselves the day before, Nooj's group was given the relatively relaxing assignment of guard duty today. He would have time to try to identify his discomforting thoughts after all.
He seemed to have had a nightmare in which he was a spectator in his own body. Nooj was quite aware this was one of the more common dream experiences, having had the sensation numerous times in his past. But this was a uniquely vivid vision in which nothing seemed hazy or oblique. He had seen himself holding a defeated enemy motionless on the ground, kneeling on the man's chest, and seen his own hands using his own dagger to precisely and delicately carve cursive designs in the man's face. Unbidden, the image rose before his eyes again. There he was, the tip of his blade scrolling through the skin, scalloping the nares and earlobes, outlining the lips, studiously concerned with exactitude as the man's ever decreasing screams more irritated than distressed him. The only emotion he felt when the glow of life abruptly vanished from his victim's eyes was disappointment. He had wanted it to continue for a very long time.
The recollection was so detailed and so realistic that he stood up abruptly, mumbled an excuse and retired behind a nearby wall to vomit. As he wiped his mouth, he wondered what combination of bad food and little sleep had inspired such a horror. He was an honorable member of a decorated and respected squad, about to be promoted for his gallantry in battle. Why should he be thinking such atrocities? It was not as if this were the first time. He had had other such dreams, with less explicit particulars. No, this was just a symptom of exhaustion; he had been on duty without pause for a long time. Best to put behind him the thought of torturing an enemy soldier to death for no purpose - and enjoying it.
He turned decisively. He would not think about this any longer today. Tomorrow was a day of recreation for him when he could leave his post for twenty-four hours and visit the nearest town or city to get drunk and release the accumulated tensions. This nightmare had probably been produced in anticipation of tomorrow, as a definite sign that he should not postpone his furlough as he had already done several times before. As he looked up, his sharp eyes spotted a form sneaking toward his position and with a single shot he cleanly dispatched the would-be saboteur.
It was not precisely a town and certainly not yet a city, this place on the coastline. But it was large enough to afford privacy and small enough to be eager to please. That made it nearly perfect for the purposes of fighters on leave from the business of killing. There were any number of drinking establishments, some with sleeping quarters available, all with cheap alcohol of various flavors and degrees of proof. Down the narrow alleys were little alcoves in which women and men sat behind sheets of glass, blatantly advertising their sexual specialties. Illicit drugs were easily purchasable by anyone who cared to make the effort. There were arenas in which fights to the death could be arranged either for amusement or to settle a lingering dispute. Gambling was so universally available one was likely to stumble over a craps game in the street. In short, it had everything a Warrior - whether male or female - could possibly want in the way of recreation. It was a very popular vacation destination.
Nooj had been here before. He had, as was his custom, made inquiries to find the most honest landlord who served the least toxic liquor and had made arrangements with the man to supply his requirements. Thus, it was to this establishment the newly-made Captain turned his steps without even troubling to glance at the other attractions of the town.
"I see they're made you a captain, sir. Finally paying some mind to your qualities?" The landlord was an obsequious man who knew from experience his customer paid handsomely and in advance.
"More likely running out of candidates." Nooj did not care for small talk. "I want the usual room with the usual supplies."
"And the door locked from the outside until tomorrow morning at eight? The usual? Want me to send in a woman later tonight?" the host leered.
"No. Just like the last time." The captain turned to the stairs. "Make sure the door is locked. I will, as usual, cover any extra damages."
"Yessir. I'll bring up your drink meself right now."
When the publican hauled his flabby body up the stairs with the apron load of bottles, it was to find Nooj already out of his uniform and in the loose robe-like garment he had once told the man was called a 'yukata'. One was kept here for him at his request, always freshly laundered and ironed.
"Thank you, that will be all. Please lock the door until the morning." He saw the man out with his usual grave formality.
"You sure you don't want no food this time?" the man called as the door shut. Nooj did not bother to answer.
With solemn care, he lined the bottles up on the dresser. There were several types of liquor there, all ones he had developed a taste for after experimentation. He placed all the green glass together, then the brown, finally the clear. Then he tried alternating the colors, then a haphazard mixture. Finally, he closed his eyes, selected a container at random and twisted off the top. The first swallow always made him gag. It seemed to be a reflex because after the first, the others went down with ever increasing ease. Since the purpose of this exercise was to reach unconsciousness, the taste of the means was not important, only the effect. He did not understand why he did this, just that it seemed to have become a necessary part of his life in the past few years.
There was an established ritual to these things. He needed to reach a certain level of intoxication and maintain it for as long as possible, only permitting himself to pass out when the false dawn appeared in the western sky. So far he had yet to achieve that goal, generally being flat out on his back not long after the midnight. However, a man needs a goal or what's a heaven for?
Nooj pulled the only chair in the room up to the window and threw open the sash to let in the cooling night air as well as the noises of the street. That way he could fancy himself a part of a festive group instead of the solitary self-isolated mortal he was. When he would have reached a sufficiently maudlin state in his progress, he knew he would likely sing along with the equally drunken fools outside his room lending his off-key baritone to the cacophony. It was partly in order to preserve his dignity at such moments that he had ordered the door locked from the outside. There was another reason as well, but he could not quite bring it to mind.
He seated himself in the chair, propping his heels on the window sill and draining the bottle in his hand. With a sense of starting the evening off right, he threw it through the opening into the street below where its small explosion blended into the other sounds of merriment. Since he had taken the forethought to bring a fresh supply of liquor in his other hand, Nooj did not have to disturb his position in order to continue his drinking. He could feel the familiar fuzziness rising in his head and welcomed the first signs of approaching forgetfulness.
Halfway through the second bottle, the voice began. He had been waiting for it. At first, there was only a murmur like a creek in the distance, then as the sound came nearer, the murmur became a babbling as of voices heard in a temple, mindlessly reciting endless, meaningless prayers. Finally the sound resolved itself into a voice, one which uttered understandable words. One of which was his name.
"Nooj. Greetings, lad. I'm back." It sounded like an older, hoarser version of his own voice. "Right on time. Your vision is beginning to blur, so slow down and share your drink."
As he did every time this happened, Nooj looked around and saw no source for the voice. The first time, he had been upset, thinking himself edging madness. Now he better understood or at least he thought he did; there was a kink in his brain which let him talk to himself when he was just exactly drunk enough.
"Who are you this time?" he asked, not sure if he spoke aloud or only in his head.
"Oh, just the same old you, only older, just like all the other times," the voice answered and Nooj could swear he heard the syllables vibrate against the membranes of his ears. Again, he turned his head to look around the room, almost upsetting the tipped back chair.
"So, what are you hunting, the same old prey?" Nooj swung around to face only the empty room.
"Yes, the same old prey. I hope this time you can stay conscious long enough for us to hash it out. You do know what you've been doing and that it is no dream, don't you?"
"Yes, I remember how it felt, running the tip of the blade just under his skin, watching the pattern grow, hearing him scream - but he died too soon. I am thinking about doing it on the chest next time; that should last longer. Or do you think the genitals would be more satisfying? Or should I peel the skin off instead of drawing patterns. How would the face look without the skin?" Nooj swung up the bottle for another long drink only to have it snatched from his hand. His bleary eyes widened as he watched the bottle seem to empty itself into nothingness. No, not nothingness; there was a shadow where there had been nothing before.
As he watched with what concentration he could muster, the shadow glided over to the dresser and picked up fresh supplies. Nooj could not remember if he had experienced this particular hallucination before. Things tended to get less than clear after the second bottle was killed.
"No more for you for a while, lad. We have some serious talking to do and I don't want you to pass out like you usually do." The shadow, now shaping itself into a somewhat more substantial figure, limped heavily over to the bed and sat down, leaning its indistinct head over a cane held upright between its legs. It set the fresh jug on the floor beside its feet. "Ready to talk?"
Nooj stood up and with a gait hardly less clumsy than that of the phantasm, made his own way to the bed, falling rather than sitting beside the other. "I want a drink; I need a drink."
"Not quite yet. First I want you to remember precisely how it felt to torture the poor ass to death. I want you to remember so clearly you won't be able to deny it again when you're sober." The increasingly solid figure of the older man quenched his thirst and held the liquor out of the reach of the younger.
"I don' want to remember," Nooj whined. "Tha's why I need the drink. Honorable men don' do things like that."
"Which tells us where you fit on the honor scale and why you have to die, why you want to die, why you're hunting death with more enthusiasm than you've ever hunted Sin." The figure leaned back against the wall and lectured, "There are two things you must learn before you can go: one - you must admit you are Taydrcaagan and two - you must admit why you do those things which make you Taydrcaagan. I intend to start with the first."
"Do what you want to. Just pass me the bottle." Nooj sprawled across the pillows, piling them up so his head was supported against the frame of the bed. "Why are you using Al Bhed? Are you one of them?"
"Hand you the bottle! You sound like a puling child. Oh great Warrior - so you want your bottle? Well, you can't have it right now. You're going to listen and learn a few things first. And you can call me N." The now almost solid figure mocked its auditor. "I am not Al Bhed. I use the term in that language because it is softer, sweeter, less harsh than Common. Would you rather I called you Deathseeker? No? I didn't think so. Now on to the essentials - I am what you may consider your future although that isn't quite right since I am mutable and true futures are not."
"Do I have your complete attention?" the still shadowy shape which called itself N asked rhetorically, standing and striking an orator's pose with the bottle in his raised hand. "To begin - you've been so proud of that body of yours. It has gotten you everything you want. Do you think you can keep it like it is until you manage to find that death you claim to be seeking? Fool! Look!" N pushed up his sleeve to display not a flesh and blood limb, but a clumsily constructed garishly enameled prosthesis cobbled together out of metal and ceramic, terminating in a grotesque hand formed from rods and cables. He then swept back the skirts of his robe revealing a left leg of similar construction attached to what remained of his thigh by means of a sheath apparently riveted to the living flesh. "Look!"
"Don't," Nooj raised his forearm to cover his eyes, considerably sobered by the sight. "Why are you showing me this? What does it have to do with me?"
"What does it have to do with you? You're the stupid self-centered oaf who does this to me! I'm just pointing out to you that you won't always have that pretty body to get you out of trouble. How fast do you think I can run? Never mind, you'll understand when you sober up a little more. Got to keep you at that fine razor's edge where you can still hear me and still use what brain you have now. You'll get smarter as you age - if you age. Now, close your eyes and watch your hand move on that poor devil's face with your cunning little dagger. Feel the way the tip slides under the skin with an audible 'pop' and then how easy it is to draw a smooth line in red. Don't pay any attention to his screams; he has no appreciation for the aesthetic pains you are taking. Be careful, don't spoil the symmetry. If you get good enough, you'll invent an original design and wherever it is seen, men will say, "Nooj was here - that is his mark." Won't that make you proud? Now, to the finishing touches - the shell-shaping of the nostrils and the earlobes and the removal of the lips. Is he dead already? Too bad - you'll have to do better. You don't want them to die until the last of the pattern is done. Tsk, tsk."
Nooj pushed himself upright, his eyes staring. "Stop! I admitted I did it. Why do I have to relive it? I won't do it again - I remember and I won't do it again."
"Oh yes, you will. You can't help yourself. It's become a habit with you, along with some other things and that is why you keep insisting you want to die." N drained the second bottle and limped over to fetch the third. "Here, you can have a drink. You probably need it after your little memory lesson."
Nooj drank eagerly, almost choking as the liquor burned its way down his throat. He tried to hold on to the bottle but N wrenched it from his hand as easily as though from the infant to whom he had compared the young Captain.
"That's enough. I can't have you getting too drunk to think this through with me. ... Where was I? Oh yes, the reasons you are pretending to want to die. Don't bother to protest. I know you think it's real but you haven't lived long enough to consider what dying really means. You want to die now because you are afraid. You're afraid because your less savory habits are bound to come out if you keep getting more and more careless. You used to be quite adept at hiding what you were doing when the fog of battle gave you cover. Now you're getting careless and people have started noticing there are some strange looking dead bodies to be found in the areas where you were leading the charge. Soon they'll start talking and adding things up and then where will you be, Captain Honorable? What if you're caught in the act? Have you prepared your explanations? They will drag you out in shackles one bright morning, stand you up in front of the assembled troops, read the charges against you in all their revolting details and then they will put a rope around your neck and pull it across a convenient cross-bar and let you dangle, strangling and beshitting your breeches before you die. Will it comfort you to know you will most probably have the greatest erection of your life just at the end?"
Nooj lunged at his shadowy adversary, "No! No! That won't happen. I'm going to stop. I don't know why I was doing it in the first place. It was an aberration. I won't do it again." His shaking hands made no contact with the figure.
N laughed, "You can't stop; it's become an addiction and you know it. That's why you know it would be better to die now before you're caught, whether you actually understand death or not. You're more afraid of disgrace than of death because you can understand disgrace. Now we're getting somewhere. You're Taydrcaagan because you see no alternative - and there isn't one. The more interesting question is why you started down this path to begin with. Want to explore that?" Another bottle hit the floor.
"Not without a drink," Nooj struggled to his feet and staggered his way to the dresser and more liquor. Twisting off the top, he tipped the bottle and let a copious amount run down his gullet; this time it neither burned nor choked him. "So, tell me, gracious mentor, why am I such a sinner?"
N leaned back meditatively, "One might make a pretty play on words with the idea of a sinner seeking Sin. With a an eye toward slaying or embracing? ... Never mind. I'll do that some other day when I'm bored. But now, the question before the house is why this creature, Nooj, has begun acting as he has, what has impelled him to this sorry pass. Do I hear any suggestions? No? Then I shall offer a thought. You came into this Crusader band determined to be the best, to outshine every other young fool on Spira. And you have - so far - but you're not sure you can hold the pace, so you grow more and more pressed and your mind begins to drift and you try to ease the pressure and ... Am I on the right track, Deathseeker? Does any of this sound familiar to you?"
Nooj started to lift the bottle, only to feel it taken from him by the other who emptied it with one long draft. "You're drinking all the supplies. I ordered those for me," the young man complained with a droning querulous tone.
"Like you do on every furlough," the hateful voice went through him like a cold wind. "If I let you drink as much as you want, we get nowhere like on every other furlough. Answer my question."
"Yes. No! You lie as usual, it's no effort for me to surpass these idiots. They're no competition. You know I was promoted yesterday?"
"So I observed before you tossed your uniform in the closet and pulled on that yukata. You do have a good body, lad. Too bad you won't keep it." N raised his hand to quell the angry outburst from the younger man. "I won't be diverted. So it isn't the standards of the others which bother you, eh? Could it be you are uncertain of living up to those criteria you have set for yourself? Are you not up to your own benchmarks? Is that what unhinges your mind and makes you a monster? I do wonder which came first - your lust for death or your drive toward perfection. Maybe they were both present at the creation, eh? And fed upon one another. Your own moral code won't let you kill yourself with your own hand and it won't let you survive if you are not what you fancy yourself to be. You've established a situation in which you can't possibly win. The better you are, the higher you'll raise your standards. So you have to arrange for someone or something to kill you. I'm beginning to see why you have to have this escape from your own convoluted mind now and then."
Nooj looked at his tormentor and laughed, "There is no way you could possibly be more wrong. You spin these elaborate rationales for my behavior and ignore the obvious one which is right there in front of your eyes. Yes, I did what you say I did, that and more. And, you're right about one thing - I won't stop, I have no intention of stopping. I just said that to try to get you to leave it alone. But, no, you have to keep picking at it, making unnecessarily complicated chains of reasoning, trying to find out why. I know why! Want me to tell you?"
N was startled; things had never come to this point before. He nodded slowly, "Yes, tell me if you're so sure. What set your feet on this road?"
"Boredom. Nothing more complex than that, N. Sheer boredom." Nooj seemed almost sober again as he smiled a twisted smile and lifted the fresh bottle he had taken from the dresser. "One day in the middle of a battle, I realized there was no longer anything interesting about cutting off the heads of weaker men and gutting fiends who had no chance against me. I might as well put on a butcher's apron and work in an abattoir. I was bored with the simple act of dealing death so routinely with a single stroke. So I thought I would elaborate. They were not my equals, these adversaries, so I could do as I wished. I started by killing them with several small blows rather than one quick one and then I found I could prolong death even more for them by ... Well,you know. I have come to like watching the light flicker out in their eyes and to enjoy seeing the knowledge dawn on them that they cannot escape me."
"Don't you know what risks you're taking if you're found out?"
"Yes, I suppose so. I don't think I've ever considered it. It doesn't seem to matter. I have a craving for risks; it's like some men and that nepenthe you can buy on the street corners. I need that feeling of danger touching me. I'm not me without it."
"So now you're addicted to death? I guess it was inevitable, given the way you've always lived."
"Not to death so much as danger," the younger man corrected. "Although I suppose you could say it's developing into the need for death. I don't relish that picture you drew for me earlier with the rope and all." His voice had grown more hesitant and a slur was creeping in. "You're right about one thing, I'd rather die than be disgraced."
"Words are always deceitful things." The shadowy figure mused, more to itself than to the other. "You are seen as Deathseeker because you crave danger and you deliberately create danger out of boredom. Then the very danger you have made turns you into Taydrcaagan in fact as well as cognomen. This is a huge joke, you know."
"I know and I know I can't think right now. Leave me alone. Tomorrow I have to face the enemy again." Nooj rolled his head back trying to loosen his tense shoulders, his eyes slitted against the light. He dropped the empty bottle to the floor.
"You stupid boy. You're too young to have to deal with this but you got yourself into it and I don't see any way out. I suppose you must keep trying, hunting for some way to escape this trap. Your best way out is for Sin to eat you, but he won't; he'll just take a bite or two. Oh well, I guess I'm stuck with the problem if you keep your hide intact long enough for me to meet Sin. Think you can exercise a little more caution for a few more years? Long enough to let me be transformed into a half-blind, half-machina cripple?"
Nooj slumped down to the floor, back braced against the wall, hands loosely clasped in his lap, "I don't know, N. Leave me alone; let me drink until I can sleep." His voice was flat, all the anger bled out of it. "I'll agree to anything you say if you will let me drink and sleep. I am so very tired. Let me alone."
N stood over the drooping figure, looking at him with reluctant compassion. "The games you've been playing have dragged you in too deep, lad. You're still just a boy and you've got yourself tangled up in the grown-up world. You should have been more careful - or less bored." He handed Nooj a bottle.
"And change my identi'y? I am the fines' Warrior this world's ever seen. I make m' own path. I'm Nooj, th' Deathless, the one who does not die." He accepted the drink without looking up and clutched it to his chest to keep the other from snatching it back. With shaking, awkward fingers, he unscrewed the cap and began sipping, taking only small amounts at a time, peering up at N belligerently as he did so.
"All right, I won't argue with you any more. Finish the bottle and sleep. We'll meet again the next time, if they haven't hanged you first. Ah, Nooj, it does appear your fate is either hanging or becoming me. I'm not sure which is the worst." N was growing steadily more insubstantial. He looked at the young man, sprawled unconscious on the floor, the liquid from the last bottle trickling under his cheek, mixing with drool from his slackened mouth.
N shook his head sadly, "Until next time, lad; we've made some progress. At least you didn't break up the room this time."