As the metal woman emerged from the crimson fog Rel understood beauty at last. His words fled his mind, slipping of the Fairxi’s burnished skin like oil, and he was fine with such failure. This was art untouched by the Slavemaster’s hand, beauty unfettered. Even Iyali, so close a mimic to this jeweled creature, displayed subtle flourishes of her decadent creator. Now, in the Fairxi, the boy knew thunderstorms he would never see, hurricane seas he’d never travel, the vision of absolute things beyond his experience. Another emotion bubbled up inside him with green intent.
“She’s dying,” said the Fairxi to Rel, who had no answer. “There is little time left.”
The Trumpeter began fighting through his coat while the Fencer slouched against a wall nearby, dazedly staring off into his pain. Only his sword arm lived, animated by glassine Dhala.
Finding the right vial, the Trumpeter poured the magenta concoction down the concubine’s throat. She moaned at lost paradise but her eyes calmed and her breathing slowed to normal. Before the Trumpeter could exhale his relief the Fairxi snatched away the empty glass.
“Magic,” she chimed reverently. “Where did you get this?”
“An inheritance,” said the Trumpeter, splitting his attention between the two near-sisters. “Why are you so interested?”
“It reminds me of lost days.”
Scarcely had she said this when a bizarre series of tones echoed through the palace. Paradoxically this noise seemed both organic and artificial, as if produced on an instrument carved from still-living bone. It repeated with some variation, each time growing closer. The Trumpeter smiled down the dark halls.
“Do you see something?” said the Fairxi, following his gaze.
“Only hoping,” he said.
“What are we to do?” asked Rel as he crouched next to the Fencer, seeing to the arm full of needles. They were in disarray now, many pulled out, and others driven further into the flesh, probably to the bone.
“Why, anything,” explained the Trumpeter. “I suppose at some point we’ll have to mend the Fencer.”
The exhalation of alien notes repeated, closer. Before the Trumpeter could produce another healing vial the source presented itself.
Dead eyes hung from its central mass like wilted flowers. Necessary appendages grew from the thing’s cancerous gold flesh center, shot out silently and propelled the core along. It sang its little song and picked up speed once the assorted slaves and adventurers heard the notes. The eyes were leftovers of its past form, now the Servitor listened to the echoes of its own music to find prey.
“Back for an encore,” was all the Trumpeter could say before the thing crashed into him. In an instant it tore the silver trumpet from his grasp and flicked him against a marble wall with such force that what little sense he had was knocked out. Without turning the reformed Servitor beast whipped towards the Fairxi. Her being elicited such attention. What it met was competition.
Rel scrambled to attack with crystalline Dhala in his hands. How it burned, cold. The Servitor shrieked at the dark weapon’s icy touch. These notes flooded the air and followed the boy’s movements. Feeling the sounds it anticipated each swing and never did the icy blade meet the golden foe.
There could be no victory for the boy, only devotion. He looked back to see the Fairxi but she was busy about the Fencer. Rel felt a twinge as the monstrosity took hold of him.
With one move it flattened a pseudopod against his chest while a few more took off his arms and slapped the offending sword away. Pain and blood welled up as his golden prosthetics were ripped right out of the flesh. His scream joined the chorus.
Through this a blade of black ice fell like silence. Cut free, the floor seemed to rise up to meet him. There Rel curled up, hugging his maimed arms close. Through black-tinged vision he saw the Fencer battling the gold monstrosity. The man’s wounds unwound themselves, needles falling out, flesh knitting back with machine-like grace. This was the swordsman in top form, like he had been down below in the Winter estate when he battled the Slavemaster’s hordes. There was something of beauty in these movements, as if they came from a dream.
Under the flurry of sticking arms he flowed about, weaving through the assault. An opening presented itself and he dove at the core. Instantly a score of pseudopods grasped the blade. A thousand dissonant wails screamed from the creature. Where its flesh touched the nightmare sword black frostbite grew like mold. This was a Summer creature after all and unsuited to harsh Winter. It was nothing if not adaptable though.
With a metallic bellow it pushed the Fencer away and at range unspooled. Sunlight filaments glittered in the air and flickered, dancing up and after the swordsman. Where these wires touched stone opened up and marble fell apart like a hot wire through wax. With but a touch the hair-like strands cut through anything. Now the Fencer faced a thousand atom edges, while he held only one, and the odds grew increasingly in favor of his protean enemy.
It was beautiful, thought Rel, as the Fencer fought an increasingly desperate battle. It had started off so ugly, another fleshy monstrosity of the Slavemaster’s design, but through its programmed evolution arrived at increasingly refined levels of being. Even now it continued to develop, dropping frost blackened flesh in favor of more burnished strands of monomolecular grace.
How it retained any sort of intelligence was for only the Slavemaster to know. At last it was a glittering cloud of the filament stuff, so fine that it quivered with every breath of those present.
Rel noticed a strange tactic at play. The Fencer deliberately kept his blade away from the golden beast, dodging around as fast as he could from the tumble of matter-flensing cilia. He let the thing develop into an absolute offensive force and it leaped forward eagerly, changing into faster, more aggressive forms, sacrificing flesh and durability along the way. At any moment it would catch the man, who was limited by a static body. Grazing filaments already left a few red signatures on the swordsman, who smiled for some reason.
Knowing the right time, the Fencer ended the duel. He tossed cold Dhala at the thing. Down the blade fell into the mass of gold and all at once that quivering death machine stilled. The sword’s aura was harmful enough. There was a pop as even the air froze around the beast. Matter so fine froze quick and brittle, crumbling, dying into a pile of flaky remains. The sword sunk down to the hilt in the broken marble floor.
“We should leave,” said the Fencer before retrieving the blade with held breath. Even the tiniest mote of the dead Servitor would zip through flesh and skin and a full intake would certainly make for bloody lungs.
By now the group was all up and moving. Iyali blinked heaven from her halcyon eyes as the Fairxi helped her walk off the effects of the celestis. The Trumpeter nursed a bump on the head but was otherwise unharmed. Rel was the worst off, having to lean heavily and bloodily on the Fencer.
“What are we to do?” moaned the Trumpeter as they stumbled into an opulent sitting room where they might gather their thoughts and tend to their wounds. “Whichever our way there’ll be more of these games.”
“What does he mean?” asked the Fairxi as she looked at the boy’s maimed arms with her precisely cut eyes, delicately inspected them with platinum fingers.
“We should make for the top. If the Slavemaster is anywhere it is there. As long as he breathes we won’t know peace,” stated the Fencer, sidestepping the question.
“You know that’s not true,” said the Trumpeter accusingly.
“We’ve had our share of despots and adventures,” explained the Fencer who paced about. “We can go up and face increasingly twisted horrors as we ascend to his seat of power or we can flee bellow and deal with the hordes of the Winter estate.”
“Surely there are more options than that,” said Iyali who basked in her cushy natural habitat. She never took her eyes off the Fairxi.
“Indeed,” smiled the Fencer.
“The trick is making any sort of third way work,” complained the Trumpeter. “Winter adores binaries. Worse still, my mad friend has let himself become distracted from our goal. Topple the Slavemaster and what then? With the Fairxi in our possession we should climb out a window and take our chances out on the Glacier of Lamm.”
“With a wounded boy and a poisoned concubine?”
In response the Trumpeter groaned with fake pain and hid himself amongst the scented pillows. The thud and rumble of distant movement told them their peace was a transient thing.
“Do you have another of those healing draughts?” the Fairxi asked in regards to Rel’s arms.
“We do,” explained the Trumpeter hesitantly. “One or two more, but they won’t fix his arms. Old wounds never heal.”
“Why did you take his arms?” she asked.
Before he had the words out of his mouth she reached into his coat and produced Rel’s two golden arms. She turned to the boy, who felt his heart bound to the top of his head at such attention.
“Which is less desirable; transient pain or permanent infirmity?” Her eyes took up his.
“Infirmity, I suppose,” he rasped.
Before he could elaborate her metal fingers plunged into his wounds. Platinum mixed with blood as she redid the Slavemaster’s surgery in seconds, reattaching artificial cartilage to the proper muscles and tuning the fine machinery which moved the fingers and joints. Bright light and encroaching dark fought for the boy’s vision. The Fairxi seemed to blur, though perhaps that was just the pain. Before the others could stop her she was finished, red speckling her perfect form.
Instinctively Rel slid away from her and found his mechanical fingers helping. Pain arrived with each muscle movement, but it was a good pain, a pain which meant something. With these hands he might claw his way through the future. For some reason he was reminded of the dead girl Xyl and her fatalistic, toothless smile.
“How did she…” The Trumpeter trailed off.
“Magic,” explained the Fencer with a complex tone of voice, a strange mix of distaste and wonder yielding a flat result.
“Oh of course,” smirked Iyali from her cushion.
The Fencer slid his spare weapon over to the boy, the serrated blade jangling on the marble floor. “I think you can make good use of this now.”
“He’ll die without even drawing it,” said the gilded woman while she absently worked a spiral into the plush flesh of her cushion with what she considered the second most beautiful finger in the room.
“And why is that?” frowned the Fencer, temper flaring.
“I’ve seen the upper chambers, some of them at least, and you’re right, they do become stranger and more dangerous with each level. Up there the halls are thick with poisons to which only the Slavemaster carries antidotes.”
“Are you saying I can’t make it?” asked Rel, desperate to look strong in front of both the Fairxi and her snide copy.
“None of us can.”
“Except me,” contended the Fairxi with her even words. Iyali’s wry smile fell at the remark. “I do not breathe, I have no blood, poisons have no effect on me.”
“And you’d face the Slavemaster for us?” asked the Fencer.
“Yes,” the automaton said evenly as a smile crept across her face.
“Why would you do such a thing?” asked the Trumpeter. “Not to be rude but you’re just a doll, a body which moves according to another’s wishes.”
“And what do you wish?” She looked at Rel as she said this.
“Me?” he said nervously. “I want…I want to not be subject to the Slavemaster’s beauty anymore.”
“Then that is my wish as well.”
The company was silent a moment. Far off plots clanged and rumbled through the strange palace. The mad experimenter and his body riddle world whirred up a frenzy. There were games to be played, bodies to live and die, and strange flesh to entertain. Below and above, it didn’t matter, there waited beautiful horror, if the Servitor had been any indication.
“We’ll split up,” stated the Fencer at last. “Fairxi, I want you to ascend to the Slavemaster’s. We’ll go below.”
His words were inclusive. She wasn’t just an object anymore. The object had become a fellow subject.
“And what will we do there other than catch a cold?” groused the Trumpeter.
“There we’ll discover which has more power over the slaves, Winter’s Riddle or the riddle of the body,” said the Swordsman at last, moving off, not waiting for any sort of reply. He tested the air with Dhala’s atom edge; it sang.