Vast halls opened up before the agitators and their allies, those unwilling to be chained to the Slavemaster’s strange tastes any longer. These passages were mostly of polished pink marble with walls tapering upwards to narrow strips of ceiling. Dreams flourished in these spaces, sculpting the contours of the mind along their slanted sides. A presence inhabited these rooms of gold leaf etchings and cushioned sitting parlors, indoor pools and laboratories full of quivering experiments. Bodies had built this place and this theme of flesh expressed itself through art and servant, stone and furnishing, all grandly telling the will of the Slavemaster.
“Maybe we should explain ourselves?” huffed the Trumpeter as the Fencer edged around a corner in search of guards.
“It seems obvious enough that you’re after the Fairxi,” said Iyali bitterly.
“In part,” explained the Trumpeter, “but in truth we lust after her knowledge. The Fencer has a matter to settle between himself and Winter.”
Rel had been lost in a sea of thoughts since leaving the Fairxi to her most dangerous ascent. Even now she waded through poisons to cast down the tyrant, at the boy’s command. In her he had found beauty but now feared losing it, her, and this gnawed at his heart. The Fencer’s goals revealed, he also felt caught up by the swordsman’s drive. Powerful goals carry their own strange forces, repelling some, attracting others. Rel was encouraged towards his own ambition.
A cry brought them all back to their immediate situation. Rel, leading them, was the first around the corner, the first to see the long, wide hall. At the far end, brightly lit by white chemical fires, a score of guards waited like hungry birds, decadently plumed and armed. Mutated muscle twisted as these men tensed for a fight, observing all through their strange helms pocked all around with tiny holes.
Inertia and the Fencer’s bloodlust drove the moment. Bodies crashed in, heedless of their own safety, a half dozen falling to pieces on Dhala’s point. These were madmen, fearless by right of physical superiority. Each fought like a lemur-man, whirling with bladed enthusiasm, lunging to redden their blades in bids risking all for the favor and glory of success. Under this onslaught the Fencer found himself falling back as even more spilled from deeper halls like swarming insects.
Before long they had retreated to the twin openings at the intersection. All of them fought, twisted muscle and curved blade met Trumpet and platinum hands.
The crushing humanity, or close approximates, separated Rel from the group, pushing him down the hall from which his group first emerged. His last glimpse of the others was of Iyali, straining her chemically altered arms around the neck of guard so hard that the basket helmet he wore snapped at the collar and tumbled off. The man’s head was covered in eyes, which lulled and went dead as she buried her metal fingernails into his aorta. Rel saw the many irises fall on him before death.
Cut off from his companions, the majority forced down the far hall, he was left with only his attackers for company. Alone, facing three fully grown men, vat-grown at that, Rel gave a vicious swing and then fled. Part of him was running away but another part, a part with grand dreams, ran towards a very potent ambition formed from silver, gold and platinum.
Knowing he couldn’t outrun the mutant guards for long, Rel sped to one of the closest rooms. There he tumbled through layer after layer of veils and stumbled over plush couches and half drunk bottles of wine. The men who followed were larger, nimble, but brutish, and they fought against the drapes long enough for the boy to dive into a particularly large pile of silk cushions and there hide himself.
“Little boy,” called one of the guards softly not more than a few meters from where Rel now hid. “Little Boy!”
The man had a high voice, syrupy and evil.
“Your friends are dead and so should you be.” Rel could hear the grin from within its cage. “But not before we have a bit of fun, a bit of nice fun.”
Somehow Rel wasn’t afraid. He knew the Slavemaster’s creations and wasn’t surprised when they grew bored and went off clutching leftover wine and half-eaten scraps from forgotten entertainments. In light of his ambitions all fears paled in comparison.
After his week of running errands, fetching, and finding things for the Slavemaster and his guests the boy knew of the host’s methods and his wares. In a nearby lab he found what he sought.
There was a particular drug which the master of the estate had named mermaid. Imbibing the tasteless stuff caused the throat to swell shut in a manner similar to an allergic reaction. It had an added effect of prolonging the value of air taken in just prior to ingestion, so that those poisoned suffocated after many minutes rather than a mere few. Rel took a vial of the pale blue poison with him, as well as a dirty red potion and a cold philter containing what appeared to be water vapor.
Thus armed, sword in belt, heart leaping up the back of his throat, the boy ventured to the grand spiral stair leading to the tyrant’s private quarters above. At the top of the gilded monstrosity depicting all manner of decadence and sybaritic excess waited the double sealed trap door, unlocked, welcoming those wishing to challenge the master of bodies.
At the threshold Rel thought back to those below; the Trumpeter and Iyali, the Fencer and the unknown bodies of the underworld. Perhaps they were all dead, just as the guard had claimed. For a moment his old heart pulled him downwards into sympathy, but like a sail caught on ambition he was pulled upwards, to the most beautiful, the most desirable. He was after the Fairxi and he would do anything to save her from the Slavemaster’s poisoned touch.
Downing the mermaid chemical his first reaction was to spit it out, and would’ve if only his throat wasn’t completely sealed. A terrific knot clogged his trachea and together with his lovelorn heart served to bind him to this course as he clumsily plowed through the traps and into the first level of the Slavemaster’s forbidden chambers.
A sea of red greeted the boy, who at first thought this to be some side effect of the poison. This cloud was so thick that he could almost taste its strange mixture of blood and cinnamon. Some portion of his drugged mind even felt buoyed up.
Stumbling through the crimson mist the air thinned a bit, revealing this floor to be a vast single room. Strange and curious shapes loomed up from the marble ground, rising as specters, half-seen and alien. These leaned down on the boy, their spindle-arms and geometric protrusions searching for his flesh. He cowered but the assault never came. The sculptures stood harmless in the sanguine sea.
Far more frightening was that there was no discernable means upwards and Rel grew frantic. Secrets hid in the curtained red, doors keeping him from his desire. Then through his watering eyes he saw a dense billow of the red smoke and in this he found the second stair.
Through another set of double trap doors he emerged into a humid blue dreamscape. Here the ground was a metal grate under which a bubbling layer of liquid coughed up the aquamarine haze. The stuff had a tendency to settle heavily, and with harsh lights blazing above gave the impression one was amongst the clouds. Figures moved off in the distance but the boy ignored these statues.
Unwilling to be treated as such these hallucinations of his oxygen starved mind presented themselves as reality. Towers of alabaster flesh lurched through the haze in a melted confusion of legs and limbs. A dozen blue tongues mewled after the boy and clambered in pursuit.
Rel had only a mute response. His legs worked with a dreamlike slowness, reminding him of Gurfulging-inspired nightmares. These creatures had a polymorphous quality; they could be several things at once, fused like corpse-piles. They were the inhabitants of nightmares, showing scaled limbs, frog mouths, pale flesh fused and trembling. They lifted him like a doll with a score of rubbery appendages dripping strange slime. A like many tongues tasted the sweat and fear running off his body.
Awkwardly he loosed his sword and cut into the beast. It paid not the slightest bit of attention to this. Its homogenous flesh closed around the blade greedily, accepting anything. Out of desperation he clawed at the thing with his hands.
Where his golden fingers touched the moving collage of muscle the flesh sloughed away, bubbling and hissing. Tens of mouths let out piping screams. Rel fought loose, ripping one of the creature’s arms off in the process, and the thing scampered away on its uneven legs. The other creatures who had circled in curiously saw the glint of the pure metal and hesitated.
The way up showed clearly—a minimal series of pegs spiraled upwards around a central column towards a narrow portal above—and the boy raced for it. If the Fairxi had come this far and been destroyed by the creatures here her body might lie beneath the copious fog shrouding the ground. Though her form was in part gold this fear was great in the boy’s mind. Still, the more immediate threat of suffocation was greater.
With each step taken, every heartbeat even, he consumed the supply of oxygen being slowly meted out by the mermaid poison coursing through his veins. Even now his mind strained with sparks and patches of dark unconsciousness.
Flashes greeted him at the next floor. Some small wisp of blue mist from bellow had followed him through the small transition room and reacted violently to the chalky green fog it encountered. Obviously these were visions driven by asphyxia. More and more phantasms arrived with each step; color after color, light and dark, blending smoothly with the deadly beauty of these poisoned vaults.
Rel wasn’t sure how many steps he ascended. The rooms narrowed, becoming less grand but no less artistic. He saw sitting rooms more opulent than any in the quarters below, set as if to entertain the lost gods, swathed in poison. There were floors of bodies, perhaps those who had attempted this very feat of assaulting the Slavemaster’s seat of power or maybe simply let loose to die on these floors and satisfy the mad tyrant’s macabre aesthetic. There were treasure houses floating in vats of acid, vast sums of mineral wealth mined up by the Winter slaves left to dissolve. With each floor the madness of the place concentrated itself upwards.
In a room of golden mist, flakes of the stuff collecting on his skin, he thought he saw another statue at the top of a long balustrade. She moved and his heart leaped, forcing more black into his vision. He called out but no sound came from his swollen throat. Only when he collapsed at the bottom of the stair did the girl turned and regarded him with sapphire eyes.
“What are you doing here?” asked the Fairxi, perplexed and staring.
Rel could only gape an answer. Her machine understanding was limited and it took a few second for her to realize he was suffocating. With her help they exited the last door and out into the Slavemaster’s secret chambers.
Cold Winter beat against the glass surrounding the room. A nighttime storm blustered outside the windows but here, inside, it was warm. Lush greenery filled the arboretum, from small plants to huge trees. Even the Fairxi paused with calculating wonder. In Rel’s poisoned mind it was like a dream.
Flickers and shadows mingled amongst the leaves. Here spirits swam and gods lived and endless magic danced about an enchanted grove. These were birds and butterflies and other lost beings fluttering in the warm air, things for which he had no words. He collapsed, and then pain spiked through his skull as a cold shock of breath arrived.
“I must be dreaming,” said the familiar voice of the Slavemaster.
Rel found that he could breathe again. A moment blossomed. Surrounded by living memories of a fairer world, touching the platinum skin of his adoration, he only wished he could stop time. But the warmth was an illusion. Winter lay behind the mask; something cold and hungry and starless black. He saw dead Xyl again. As if in response to this black body riddle the Fairxi left the boy and went through the greenery in search of the Slavemaster.
When Rel got up a pair of glass vials clinked of off his fingers. One was empty but the other, full of some awful red liquid, was still sealed. He snatched this one up and followed the machine girl.
They found the man at a desk of wire and glass. Stray cushions lay scattered about, populated with books and wine bottles. Behind the man rose a strange apparatus of tubes and valves. A drug making machine. The Slavemaster himself was standing when they found him, alert. He still wore the gown of green scales, now buttoned up to his neck, at his side he wore his jeweled scimitar and in his hand he held a strange reed. His eyes lit up when he saw the Fairxi.
“Never could I have plotted this,” he said, full of wonder before noticing Rel. “But there is a spoiling presence.”
In response the Fairxi approached. She desired him, Rel could see that now. Even her, an automaton, fell under the sway of the Slavemaster’s presence. The boy raced to stop her.
Just as he tugged on her platinum arm she batted him away. Rel sprawled like an open sack of dirty laundry. Looking up he was just in time to see a grand betrayal.
The Slavemaster pointed his reed at the boy but the Fairxi brought her more perfect hand down on the arm. There was a snap and the tyrant let out a bark, more of a laugh than an expression of pain. She was on him fast then. With a smooth gesture she pulled the Slavemaster’s weapon loose and swung it into the man’s middle.
A dull clang responded as her target took the force of the blow and rolled with it, gaining some distance and tears.
“You can’t be doing this just for me,” he smiled. “It’s too good to be true. What have I done to deserve such drama?”
The man was feverish, he spoke drugged words. Or maybe he too was overcome by the Fairxi’s beauty.
Realization dawned within the boy. The Slavemaster was himself a slave to his own body logic, the lusts and aesthetics which drove him.
The Fairxi didn’t comment. Hers was a cold grace with a direct goal, Rel’s goal.
She didn’t have much of a chance to implement it. With his remaining good hand the Slavemaster drew forth another reed and blew out a cloud of cloying black fluid.
The scream the Fairxi let out was something like the Trumpeter’s instrument, high and bright as sunset clouds. Blinded, she thrashed about.
“I had to,” sobbed the Slavemaster, before turning his attentions on the boy. “And how did you get here? Am I cursed to have a body of beauty and a body of deformity partnered against me?”
Only when he approached a few feet closer did he recognize Rel as the boy he had spared, the boy who had betrayed him once already. Rel now saw that under the man’s torn vestment bands of metal flexed with each movement made by the Slavemaster. It seemed he was prepared. And now he took up the scimitar from where the machine girl had dropped it.
“You,” he said, nodding. “You want her too. That’s all we are; wanting machines, fueled by blood and spit, tears if you’re a broken thing. Those travelers talk of their Riddle and I say I have a better one, unsolvable, always said, always listened to: bodies.”
These words spilled like poured wine from the Slavemaster’s mouth as he unbuttoned his gown, revealing a body suit made out of overlapping alloyed ribbons. A brace of the poisonous reeds hung against his side. Choosing one he eyed the Fairxi.
“Please don’t hurt her,” pleaded Rel as he struggled up, still half poisoned and short on breath. The Fairxi was a precise thing and the blinding liquid unbalanced her. She still stalked the Slavemaster but with a fevered incompetence.
“But that’s what bodies are for,” beamed the tyrant. “Most, at any rate. It’s only natural that pleasure and beauty be a rare commodity. It must be siphoned from others and collected by those most capable of appreciating it. I believe acid should do in this case, but which one?”
Just then a terrible blast echoed from below. Windows shattered, cold wind whipped in, and all the little colorful things flitting and singing in the enclosed forest startled up.
The boy dashed to the Fairxi and almost lost his head when she took a swing at it.
“It’s me!” he cried.
“I’m trying to do as you wish,” she said, wavering a bit. He tried to wipe away the blinding gunk but his gold fingers just smeared the stuff around. “I’m trying, trying.”
“As you wish?”
Rel turned around at the evil voice. The Slavemaster was mad with jealousy now.
“As you wish? As you wish? What about what I wish?”
A score of terrible things erupted from the golden hall below. They were slaves by the look of them, all dying from the poison clouds. Tufts of the stuff plumed up as they emerged from the trap door. Evidently that explosion had cleared the lower chambers because soon after, pushing through the corpses, living beings arrived.
Quickly the place flooded with the rebelling slaves. Any sign of the Fencer or the Trumpeter or gilded Iyali was lost in the crowd. It seemed their gambit had paid off. Blasted survivors crashed in on the Slavemaster’s lofty seat. They trampled the plants, ate the animals, and smashed the rare bits of art they found along the way. But when they faced their owner himself a change rippled through the crowd.
“This certainly isn’t what I wished for,” commented the Slavemaster.
With the sound of a trumpet the two travelers fought their way to the front of the press of bodies.
“Why so quiet?” complained the Trumpeter before he had full view of the situation. “Do I need to make all the noise myself?”
Though they had risked much to fight their way this far the slaves were caught up in the murky jade of their master’s eyes. His was a power subtle and ingrained. It was body logic, a knowledge that when the world is reduced to its core actors these are nothing but flesh and blood satisfying base urges. And the Slavemaster tended these urges; he made them work in the broken context of icy Winter. Each of the slaves entertained a certain desire or dream to achieve that same dominance, to rule bodies and seek pleasure. Few were those who diverged from this path.
The revelation bubbled in Rel’s head, a thing fueled by the drugged effects which would never leave him. He knew the solution, the answer to the body riddle. The tyrant saw this in the boy’s eyes.
“I suppose there’s no greater freedom than truly knowing what you want, eh?”
Then, at the Slavemaster’s command, the mob turned on the strangers. The Fencer and the Trumpeter were drowned in a press of bodies. Smiling, the master of the vast estate approached the Faixi, sword at the ready. What reasoning he had for it would never become clear but the intent was easy enough to guess. That’s when Rel acted.
He threw the vial of noxious scarlet at the man. Sensing murder the Slavemaster turned into the missile which struck his metal armor, breaking open the flask and showering red death all around.
A few of the closest slaves succumbed with their master. Those afflicted turned pale in seconds, the bloodlike substance grew as their bodies shrunk, leaving them exsanguinated husks. The air escaping the Slavemaster’s lungs shrieked, drawing the attentions of the crowd.
Iyali stepped gracefully through the pressed bodies. She had been lurking at the edges, awaiting the proper moment. The Slavemaster was dead; they were all free, for that moment at least.
The spheres of red pulsed with life and broke out into a swarm of sanguine insects which flew from the room, out the shattered windows, and into the vast cold of Winter.
As morning broke a feast was held in every alcove and room. Former slaves now carved living quarters from the old master’s excess. All were welcome to eat the terrified guests, to taste the wines and drugs spilling from through the halls. While the Trumpeter made the best of it he seemed just as unsettled as the Fencer. A new master watched the two with interest.
“What is to happen now?” asked the swordsman when he found Rel basking in the attentions of his new subjects.
“I think I’ll make this place mine,” he murmured from his cushion.
“But you’re just a boy.”
“The very same who defeated the old tyrant,” smiled Rel. “That is what the freed say. Besides, you aren’t much older than me. It’s only our circumstances which differ. You adventure, I toil. We can’t deny our upbringing or our bodies, or our fortunes in this time and place. Circumstance has granted me this inheritance.”
“So nothing changes?” Rel could see that the swordsman’s jaw was tightly clamped down.
“There’s nothing out there and everything in here. Despite his excesses the Slavemaster was a genius. Even now the Fairxi is going over his things, trying to plumb what secrets he kept record of.”
“What of the Fairxi, or Iyali for that matter?”
“I’m sure they will do what they truly wish.”
The Fencer grew keen to the boy’s mood. Here was a tyrant in the making.
“I think I’ll have a little talk with that automaton,” said the Fencer, getting up from his cushion, which was quickly colonized by more revelers.
The boy followed, but didn’t give a reason.
They found her at the top of the palace. The gaseous rooms below had all been cleared by the revolting slaves. Despite the travelers’ efforts people simply pressed onwards through death. Bodies littered the ground, growing cold in the Winter air. In the chaos of the rebellion all the doors were opened and the various gasses mixed with volatile results. The ensuing explosion had burst the outer walls, clearing the heady clouds.
The Fairxi was busy going over ledgers, scrolls and errant scraps of paper, all cribbed with the flowing pen of the Slavemaster’s hand. Her living twin haunted the edges of the room, taking some interest in the remnants of her maker’s work but mostly keeping her sapphire eyes on her brighter sister.
“What are you two doing here,” asked the Fairxi without looking up. More so than ever she looked her machine self, eyes whirring, thoughts clicking.
“I’ve something to ask you, something which brought me all this way,” began the Fencer who placed his enchanted sword noisily on the desk in order to get her attention. “You are the creation of a powerful mage, one of those lost in the Uplifting. Narenaree had many secrets, all magicians do, but there is one I would like to know the truth of beyond all others. Have you heard of Winter’s Riddle?”
Her perfect face was guileless.
“What do you mean?”
“My mind has its limits,” she stated. “When Rel told me his wishes I began cycling out my old knowledge for new. This new information is quite bloody, I don’t really have a proper way of expressing it.”
Maybe it was the hastily sealed windows, or some emanation from the icy blade Dhala, but the room went cold around the Fencer. Rel shivered.
“Someone I once knew found and brought you to this place.” The Fencer circled around the desk while speaking, growing close to the Fairxi. “She risked much in salvaging you. She was a magician, and an alchemist, and she had green hair like something out of another’s dream. And she’s dead now, which is probably why I came all this way to hear nothing.”
The Fairxi fastened her gemstone eyes on the Fencer as he told the story. There seemed to be more but he didn’t offer it.
“Why are you telling me this?” she said, perplexed.
“You seem to be curious about a lot of things,” smiled the Fencer. Rel grew suspicious.
“And you, you wish to stay as well?” the swordsman asked, suddenly turning to Iyali.
The gilded woman laughed and considered the offer coolly.
“I’m a creature of the Slavemaster too. I’m not sure I could survive out on big cold Winter. Besides, I feel something gnawing at my soul.”
Her eyes kept drifting back to the Fairxi with well veiled emotion.
“You’re all dupes,” laughed the Fencer.
“What do you mean by that?” asked Rel.
“He means that we’ll be going soon,” said the unannounced Trumpeter from where he peeked up out of the portal below. “Nothing left to do. Nothing left to see. Thanks for the hospitality and good luck in your games.”
With this jest he covered the fact that the Fencer had gone for his sword. A madness aimed at madness churned beneath the man’s icy exterior. Rel smiled; he almost had him. That was the body riddle talking, with force and blood. The Trumpeter was far more difficult to predict.
Iyali laughed and played with one of the jeweled clasps which festooned her hair. From one she popped a strange blue marble of stone. This she gave the Trumpeter so his services wouldn’t go unrewarded.
The travelers didn’t stay long. Unwilling to eat of the Slavemaster’s stocks, or engage in the clannish games brewing amongst the crowd they took their chances on the Glacier of Lamm, as had the Keeper and those noble guests which had survived the purge.
Rel watched them go into the dark of the following night. A piece of him went with. He wondered if by morning they might see the palace, a thing which no living man had seen.
Though he had learned much in the week since watching the Gurfulging die out under the sun there was still so much that he couldn’t describe. Understanding the nature of bodies had made everything seem so absolute but when he thought of the Trumpeter’s notes or the Fencer’s swordplay he was again tempted by a more sublime notion of beauty. What lay beyond the mask required a new language. It was a sort of riddle, a cold, strange riddle.
Shaking off these thoughts, he returned to the endless festival where lovely form and ugly mutation jostled against each other in a play which would eventually end. This was the body riddle, a distraction, and an addiction too. Something primal leapt out from him into the mix. For a second it seemed that bodies were everything.
Then a few of the senior guards brought him word that the food stores were running low. Who next was to go into the stew? They said this hungrily, licking their lips.