“Let me help you with that,” was what the Fencer said as he leaped upon the closest bundle-carrying guard.
The strangely muscled creature flung his armful of drug-soaked rags in defense but the sword still found him. Catching just below the armpit, the jagged blade sunk in the guard’s torso and dragged out in a gush of red. Then the rest fell upon the lone attacker and were met with a maze of steel. They tried their torture media upon the Fencer but found each implement deflected or turned against them. The first fellow with the grand idea of tossing his stoker full of coals managed to set fire to the strange drugs carried by another, who combusted into a spectacular bonfire. The swordsman flowed around their attacks despite his wounds.
Covered by such chaos Rel snuck back towards the secret exit only to have a metallic hand grip his shoulder.
“We can’t leave,” frowned Iyali. “If the guards see us take the portal they’ll be sure to follow. We have to place our hope in that swordsman or begin making up excuses to placate the Slavemaster.”
“Ahem,” coughed the Trumpeter, gaining their attention. “I might have a faster cure than the lout with a sword.”
He didn’t wait for them to comprehend. In his hands the tall many carried a menagerie of things; a small cask of potent liquor, a packet of pungent incense, and a wide variety of euphorics and narcotics. All of these easily gathered from the great hall where so recently the Slavemaster entertained. While a pitched swordfight raged about he carefully measured out certain quantities and when he was sure of the mix tossed it onto the still-burning guard.
A great bulbous monstrosity of scarlet smoke plumed out. Rel and the gilded lady went blind from tears in the moment it took to cover their eyes. The noxious stuff insinuated itself, assaulting the sinuses and tickling the throat. It was a natural reaction to cover the nose and mouth but the unprepared guards fared poorly. Their perforated helmets did little to protect them and they fell writhing and senseless on the ground from the more advanced effects of the gas.
“My thanks for the pyrotechnics,” coughed the Fencer once the air cleared a little.
“I couldn’t let you steal all the glory,” smiled the Trumpeter through rheumy eyes.
“Now the whole compound will only have to follow their noses to find us,” smiled the Fencer in return.
“I endeavor to spread your fame,” said the Trumpeter helpfully.
The two travelers made to for the great doors but Iyali showed them the secret way out. Slipping off before more guards could arrive they stumbled through the hidden places of the Slavemaster’s abode. Every once in a while the Fencer let out a gasp of pain as one of his needles brushed against the stone walls.
Looking for a place to clear their lungs and catch their breath they took the first room they came upon. Statuary, polished, unfinished, grotesque and fair, dominated the sculptory they entered. There were no other exits, leading them to believe this was one of the Slavemaster’s secret chambers. How the several tonnage of marble, alabaster, jade and the like had been brought up lay beyond their ken as they slouched against bestial faces and ecstatic female forms uncaringly exhausted.
Rel’s eyes cleared and he beheld the visage of Iyali. There was some dilating property to the smoke and in the bright lamplight the woman seemed particularly radiant and unearthly. Perhaps it was the setting; she was as one with the myriad sculptures. An unnatural thing, she seemed barely affected by the noxious cloud, only sniffing a bit from a slightly reddened nose. The Fencer saw this too.
Curious of how the other man perceived and judged the woman Rel watched the swordsman, wondering what he saw in her. She seemed heavily augmented by the Slavemaster’s treatments and surgery. Her long hair was metallic, something like chrome, all piled and knotted, festooned with beads, pins and clasps. This framed a youthful face of soft features, sapphire eyes hemmed by golden lashes, and full lips of likewise many karats. The skin of her perfectly formed body had a platinum sheen to it and there was much to see as her silks were thin. He watched her claw away at the collar around her neck with those alloyed nails of hers.
His scrutiny didn’t go unnoticed and she stared back with eyes of crystal. Was this beauty? Did the Fencer think so? Could they each think differently on the matter? These thoughts came to an abrupt end.
“What are you curious about?” she said, turning her head accusingly at the Fencer, who flinched a bit as a man caught.
“My companion and I have a wager,” said the Fencer through his gloomy pain.
“Fifty bits of silver are on the line,” coughed the Trumpeter. “We disbelieve our jaded eyes. My friend here contends you are as you seem while my extraordinary senses imply you are a carefully disguised male. Perhaps you could determine the losses for my friend here.”
Iyali swayed a bit under the rapid assault of the Trumpeter’s wager but came up with grace and a smile.
“I don’t need to prove myself to you.”
“I’d be willing to pay, say, twenty silver for a positive endorsement,” contended the Trumpeter insanely.
“What use is money in a place like this?” she said bitterly, busying herself amongst the statuary in an effort to find more secret passages.
“Forget the wager,” mused the Fencer. “My contention doesn’t lie with the Trumpeter but with the Slavemaster, and unless you are a sorceress then you must be some creation of our surgeon host. And if you are a creation then might you not also be a servant, perhaps a spy?”
The gilded woman stopped at her task. Framed by a luscious agglomeration of cubic statuary she turned on her accuser.
“You may find it surprising to learn there are more than just thugs, tyrants and victims on the cold face of Winter. Today’s cutthroat might be tomorrow’s bandit king, and some of those thieving royals will last, becoming true sovereigns over time. My father was one such creature. He had a weakness for the fair things provided by the Slavemaster and was often a guest to these halls. A weak man ruled by his addictions, he soon became indebted to the proprietor and in payment sold me. For whatever reason I became a focus for my owner’s affections. Through certain chemical immersions my being has been fused with various metals, all towards some mad aesthetic. My father never defeated his lusts. Eventually he incurred such a debt that he went to feed the Slavemaster’s other guests.”
“Even if true it doesn’t make me any less suspicious,” said the Fencer.
“I suppose that story sounds reasonable,” sighed the Trumpeter sadly, realizing that if he ever found his possessions again he would need to find a way of losing his pouch of silver.
Rel wondered at the story. Most of the higher consorts had their minds as well as their bodies altered by the Slavemaster. They were pliant, dominated things, captivated by the will of their maker.
“Oh,” said the woman with sudden realization. She then went to a side wall and stamped about on the ground until a large door slid open with a grumble. Beyond, a larger passage lay. “That explains how all this stone is brought up.”
“But which path, if any, leads to our lost treasures?” fretted the Trumpeter.
“A better question lies in regard to the Fairxi,” said the Fencer, frowning at the cruel blade he had liberated from the guards above.
“What is this thing which drives the Slavemaster mad?” said Iyali.
“A machine created by a dead mage kept alive by powerful magics, now gone from Winter since the Uplifting,” explained the Fencer carefully. “It is an intelligence of extreme beauty sold to the Slavemaster for a great sum. We intend to reclaim it.”
“I think it is fine that we honor the spirit of your dead lover, Fencer, but a more reasonable move would be to find our implements first.”
“And you don’t know where either may be?” said the swordsman, confronting the suddenly thoughtful woman.
“The Slavemaster keeps his secrets tightly bound.”
“Then I propose we split up.” Before he could specify the Trumpeter interrupted.
“Come then my friend, I’ve just about run out of patience and we should leave these two arguers to their sly words.”
As he said this he took a startled Rel by the hand and whisked off through the larger passage, a second pressure plate sliding the wall shut behind them.
“Not the quietest pair,” grumbled the Fencer.
Without explaining what he was looking for the man then searched the workbenches. Iyali had no clue what the man was after until he picked out a chisel and handed it to her.
“For protection,” he explained before reentering the passage they came from and exploring further. Smiling, she put down the implement and followed. The swordsman, in his silence, resembled something sculpted from rock, worked by the cold hand of Winter and she was growing to admire this coarse and honest expression.
The Trumpeter smiled all the way to the first laboratory. He quickly stopped at what his mad interest revealed. Initially there was a briny smell, like sweaty clothes worn for weeks on end, but as they followed their noses it took on a greater size. The door itself was easy to spot; a bit of wall under which ruddy stains swept, like brushstrokes.
Here the Slavemaster kept living materials. There were vats of flesh burbling in nutrient slurries and pickled organs floating in obscene crowds. These things were still alive, kept so through means just short of magic. Eyes watched them with autonomic interest, and as if in agreement a guttural chorus of mouths groaned hungrily as soon as they entered the room.
“Why are we in this terrible place?” asked Rel, looking about fearfully.
“I have a theory about men of power,” said the Trumpeter, gingerly avoiding contact with every bench, vat and beaker. “They love to multiply their uncanny habits, to collect their oddments about them in such concentration that they create a talisman against the chill and hardship of Winter. Following this logic we should keep to the strangest of rooms, doing so will lead us to the treasures we seek.”
A scratching prevented any debate. Something hunted for the hidden button which opened the door. Quickly the pair made their own search for means of escape.
The thing outside was clumsy, the noise it made that of harsh claws on stone. As the tenor of the gibbering mouths rose in disgusting volume so too increased the frantic workings at the door.
The Trumpeter found a series of hidden safety levers behind a panel on one wall. Heedless of whether these were designed to keep something in or out he pulled free all the locking devices and together they scrambled into a darkened hall, the door shutting automatically behind. No chemical lights illuminated the darkness and they soon realize they were not in a hall of any kind but some sort of closet or holding cell. Thankfully it was currently occupied only by the smell of blood and burnt hair. For a time they were forced to listen as the thing in the next room clicked its way around the flesh room.
Then the noise stopped and with it a dread worse than discovery. Straining their ears they heard nothing like breathing, no sound of weight being shifted from leg to leg or whatever appendages the thing might possess. If it had left then there was no telling.
At last a sound came. The metal tips of Rel’s curved slippers jangled with the boy’s fright. Having enough, the Trumpeter slid the door open suddenly, ready for what might lay beyond.
Many eyes fell on him, unnerving but not new. The room seemed empty, as they had first discovered it, except the open metal cylinder on a bench beside the vat of mouths. A meaty reek emanated from the container and clumps of bloody chum trailed from it to the mouth vat. These were quiet now and upon closer inspection this tub contained not only mouths but esophagi, stomachs, and intestines, all tangled and bobbing like flotsam on a gelatinous sea. The mouths were no longer hungry.
Leaving in a hurry nothing but cold light greeted them outside. They continued the search. Rooms of widely differing nature opened up along the way. There were surgical theatres and cushioned sitting rooms, places all of one color for the Slavemaster’s mood and storehouses for bones. This was a hidden labyrinth tangled up with the already convoluted halls of the Summer estate. Rel had never seen nor heard of any of these places.
The Trumpeter, all energy and motion, pushed them on. He wondered out loud about hidden chambers and secret vaults, all full with what he imagined lay within the Slavemaster’s powers. His thoughts were grand, broad-minded and creative, all despite the tortures and starvation he had faced in the past. This energy was catching.
Together they followed the stranger rooms, places of disturbing art and grand decadence. They took to a method of searching for hidden exits which often yielded passages leading to even more exotic settings. Trick doors made their decisions for them on many occasions, shutting closed silently and not opening again. Often there was no choice but to forge ahead.
Finally, past a jagged-edged conservatory and a pool filled with scented oil, they found a sort of study. A bare, minimalistic place, it wasn’t difficult to find the silver and crystal implements. They lay on a desk with the travelers’ other possessions along with a number of papers, inkwells, child bones and other keepsakes of the Slavemaster. Of particular note was the narrow pipe from which an opiate smoke still wafted. They were alone, but for not for long.
This didn’t worry the Trumpeter. He entered the room without care and flourished his instrument, nearly hitting the low marble ceiling. Bringing it up to his lips his joy was thwarted by Rel’s fearful hand.
“How have you survived this long?” asked the boy.
“Good taste,” the musician informed.
“I’d regret that phrase in a palace full of cannibals,” said Rel, dousing the musician’s urge to play.
Rel then picked up the Fencer’s weapon. It was all a sort of crystal, but also subtly metallic in nature, whirling fans or plates flowing together to make a blade of facets. At a distance he thought the thing all black obsidian, but now he saw midnight blues and indigos within its murky glass. Crimson eyes, perhaps sphere cut rubies, peeked out, watching.
A terrible cold filled the boy, his heart slowed and a shudder passed through him like a death rattle.
“You’ll freeze yourself!”
Quick as he could the boy dropped the weapon.
“What is it?” asked a horrified Rel as he looked along his metallic palms.
“That thing is evil, it holds a terrible cold,” the musician explained. “Even the Fencer, who comes from a people almost immune to the polar chill, has suffered much in holding it.”
“I have no concept of evil.”
“A dream then,” corrected the Trumpeter. “It is a dream crystallized by magic, a very bad dream at that.”
Considering this Rel began sifting through the other objects. There was dried pemikan in seal skin pouches, bladders used for carrying water, dried biscuits hard as stone, a pair of purses each containing broken bits of silver and gold, an array of polychromatic vials, worn knives, tinderboxes, a fossilized hand, a journal bound in green leather and an absurdly long scarf. These were laid out with obscene precision and the Trumpeter took great delight in disturbing the arraignment as he gleefully reacquainted himself with his scarf. The man then took his pouch of silver and hid it in a sitting couch with a sigh.
“What are these?” Rel gestured to the assorted potions.
“Clea’s magic,” replied the Trumpeter soberly.
“And this?” The boy picked up the green bound journal. The writing inside was pure gibberish to his illiterate eyes.
“Clea’s journal,” the musician said with a sigh. “The cause of all this.”
“And what is that?” said Rel with a suddenly hushed tone. At first the Trumpeter followed it like a continuation of the previous dialogue and nodded along. Then, to his growing horror, he heard the noise; an all too familiar dragging and clicking. From the passage they had just taken it came, feverishly, hurriedly, a hunting mystery.
They knew the blood room was commonly used because the dominating design principle was still very fresh. Walls, floors, ceiling, all were covered with the bright red stuff. The smell was potent but still they entered as there seemed to be nowhere else for Iyali and the Fencer to go but back the way they came. In the middle of the room lay a white reclining bench, where one might relax amongst the gore.
“Why do you so readily enter a room full of blood stolen from your fellow slaves?” asked the Fencer as they made their way carefully over the slippery marble.
“Should that matter?” asked Iyali. “And, what about yourself?”
“I have a reason for doing what I do,” said the swordsman.
“Yes,” smiled the Fencer. “A goal with drives me against all adversity.”
“Then you will surely be overcome by the whole of the world,” she said.
“That is why I have a blade which can cut through anything,” he replied.
Tracks left from the far exit, telling of recent use. The marks were barefoot and male by the Fencer’s estimation. These led off into a series of triangular halls lit by scented oil lamps. Everything had a bright, stark quality from the white flames.
The footsteps ended at a patch of bare, slanted wall. Running his hands along the triangle point above the Fencer soon found a hidden catch and with a click was able to push a segment of wall up.
Iyali followed the swordsman into a big dark room. They stood in a sort of angled basin, any side of which might hide another door like the one they entered. Ringing around and around above were layers of seating, making the visitors the focus of some sort of audience chamber. Darkness shrouded these upper levels and from the center a huge array of tubes hung. This was some sort of apparatus, perhaps for feeding.
With a squeak something jumped onto the Fencer’s face. Blood gushed freely as his one good arm frantically clawed at the fleshy creature which exuded a heady, yet pleasant, odor.
Iyali stepped back from the melee only to have a half dozen of the bulbous things pile onto her. Being that her flesh was partially metallic they found none of the blood they were after and mewled with disappointment.
Unable to pry the thing’s five limbs loose the Fencer changed tactics. He squeezed the bulbous sack of a body until it burst, covering him with high grade perfume.
By the time he got to Iyali she had already clawed loose several of her attackers. The metal of her nails proved greater than their hunger. Together, she and the Fencer retreated through the doorway.
Red coals glowed in the dark recesses of this new chamber. It was a sort of nightmare playground or ruined temple, transplanted or dreamed up by the lord of the Summer estate. Here and there curled juts of metal waved frond-like in the gloom. Inhabitants, lean, pallid and red-eyed, clicked their talons with glee. They stood as tall as fear and flexed their six-jointed fingers eagerly, each digit ending with a hook as large as those the Fencer remembered being used to catch deep sea cod. During the ambush the door had switched on them, leading them to this place.
The closest thing leaped the last few meters towards these new guests with surprising agility. All it wanted was to see what the man’s bones looked like underneath all that skin. Foolishly it made a sweep along the swordsman’s strong left side.
Sculpted flesh met tempered steel. The creature let out a fluted howl. Others crawled into join the song even as the Fencer felled the thing, the muscle and bone along its side opening up to reveal a catalog of tailored organs. They were pickled within, preserved like a necromancer’s cadaver, all plastic muscles and crimson jelly.
Iyali watched the Fencer fight as a man possessed, by what she could not say. It wasn’t that she was surprised as the swordsman wove between two of the flesh beasts with ease just as his sword split them assunder. No, it was that he seemed so weakened by his time starving in the Slavemaster’s dungeon as well as wounded, and still fought like a demon. More of the chemical ticks chirped from the theatre they just left.
Something hissed and the monsters stopped their assault. From the curving metal pipes a spray of sickly sweet gas issued forth. They then gathered for their meal, ignoring the Fencer. The smaller creations, bloated with whatever chemicals the Slavemaster bred them for, waddled onwards and chased the two interlopers from the room.
Now they ran through a series of veils, a maze of mutant creations. Each room held ever stranger horrors in various degrees of hunger. There were many timid watchers and weeping balls of nerves, butcheries where body parts were piled high and holding cells for the tailored bodies of promising experiments. When at last they found a door to shut they could still hear curious tongues lapping at the barrier.
Cold steel gleamed in a subdued blue chemical light. This meant the room was currently not in use, yet with a simple additive each blue flame could combust into full-spectrum brightness. Brightening the place up, they took a moment to catch their breath in what turned out to be a surgery room.
The gilded woman was disturbed. Partially this was natural; behind them, somewhere out in the halls, terrible things stalked. Yet this mixed with a more existential quandary. She tapped her golden nails thoughtfully against the metal operating table, wondering if she had ever been lain out on that cold surface. How much of her life had been stolen in these secret places, washed away with amnesiac drugs. It was possible that those entities left behind were kin, of a sort, perhaps even progeny. Here the Slavemaster sculpted flesh and to him all was flesh.
The apparatus between floor and ceiling were carefully set according to his will. Just like her. He had controlled her in the past and the thought that he even now controlled her gnawed at the young lady’s mind like a cannibal on a bone.
“Come on,” rasped the Fencer as soon as he was certain that none of the scratches he received from the mutant hordes were dangerous. He held out his one good arm to Iyali.
“Don’t you ever stop?” she huffed tiredly.
“The great polar sharks never cease in their movements, for to do so is to die,” he explained, dragging her along. “I feel this sentiment is true for my life as well.”
Whether he was bragging or not the gilded woman went with. It was her mood that kept her going and her mood was a strange one. She held onto it in this warm palace of mysteries, in this manner she warded off the body-logic surrounding her.
Ornate halls framed their journey. Colossal was the accurate term. Here the Slavemaster’s hubris stretched itself out with a yawn of colored rock, carven spectacle and decadent furnishing. Perfumes and incense misted through the air.
At times they caught glimpses of the outside world through windows. It was another bleak day on the face of Winter.
The click of metal on metal warned the two. Slipping into a side room they avoided something which shuffled and moaned.
In this new room various curtains extended from floor to ceiling. And a voice came in through the veils.
“An unknown thing comes before me. Present yourself.” The voice was music, like metal ringing softly.
The Fencer didn’t respond as he swept through one curtained barrier to the next. These spaces seemed to be reserved for the Slavemaster himself, places where unfinished contraptions rested on pillows fit for kings and sketches of strange bodies lay like carpet.
“An unknown thing comes before me. Present yourself.”
Again the voice came and again the Fencer swept aside another layer of mystery.
“An unknown thing comes before me. Present yourself. An unknown thing comes before me. Present yourself.” Each iteration exactly the same as the last.
“Did you notice that?” said Iyali, pointing at the point where the floor met the curtain.
“Notice what,” flinched the Fencer as he tore through another hanging.
“An unknown thing comes before me. Present yourself.”
“There! You see? Every time you go through a curtain the voice repeats.
Enboldened, the Fencer fought quicker, the voice tumbling over itself to dutifully repeat the phrase each and every time. Then there was no need because the final veil had fallen.
Before them something metal and familiar say primly on a cushion of woven gold. She was something like Iyali, but more refined, pure. This woman’s hair was gold, her skin platinum, her eyes sapphire, none of this in terms of colorful language but in true being. Hers was a precious body cut and woven from the most opulent of materials.
“Who are you?” At last the message changed. The Fencer allowed himself a slight smile. He had no doubt; this was the Fairxi.