Thursday, December 20, 2012

VII. The Jeweled Abyss

Dust scents, and old, dreamy fumes drifted up from the jeweled abyss.  The dark opened up like so much memory before the men.  Stronger smells then gusted through, provoking memory, and the two travelers feared that the Regalom broke their minds once more.  Only this was real confusion brought on by unhappy remembrance.  Not the truth of it, like vision returning to a blind man, but the raw enchantment of terror.
            The Fencer fell back, some instinct pushing him away from the opening they themselves had cut through the rock, while the Trumpeter sagged at the threshold, half swooning against the frame. 
            Smell provokes the mind’s past more strongly than other stimuli, and what welled up now from those sealed depths was a gust of alkaline nostalgia.  Sharp and basic, bizarre chemistry frolicked beyond the broken wall.  Amorphous hints of what awaited flickered through their minds.
            “What is the matter?”  Jaal watched the two with confusion.  To him the smell was simply strange, not deadly.
            “Nightmares bottled for centuries lurked down there,” gasped the Fencer, taking in the relatively fresh air of the natural cavern.
            “Wonders you mean,” said the shadow man.
            “We’ve been here once before,” explained the Trumpeter, having repacked his jumbled memories.
            “Industry,” replied the musician.  “I searched the walls for the proper sound, my instrument being a hearing device as well as a religious experience.  Upon finding the thinnest section it was easy enough for my brutish friend to carve us a way in with his atom-edged blade.”
            “Completely avoiding the seal all together.”  Jaal nodded appreciatively.  “So, there is danger below?”
            Fragments of strange spaces, old things, dead things, and things which had forgot they were dead haunted what little they could recall of delving into the past.  That smell, that alkaline pang, brought forth the most fearsome thoughts, but as for truth all they had were memories drowned in pale blue.
            “I'll need rest before taking a step inside,” said the Fencer, to Jaal's disappointment.
            “Excuse me?” demanded the actor.  “I stand on the threshold of my entire land’s birthright and you expect me to rest.”
            “No,” sighed the Fencer.  “I am going to rest, you can wander to your death for all I care.”
            For once the Trumpeter agreed.  Memory was a sobering experience.
            Turning, their light glinted off strange skin lurking back down the narrow hall.  Unstringing his blade at a leap the Fencer had his icicle at the thing before the other two were even fully aware of the girl in shadow.
            When they caught up the Fencer held Dhala’s point against gold-lined flesh.  Hnah regarded the upstart blade as a nuisance but did nothing to provoke its wielder.
            “What are you doing here?” asked the Trumpeter while the Fencer relaxed his weapon.
            “I escaped,” she said with a shudder. 
            “And came here?” 
            “After you.”  In the gloom her skin seemed like moonlight run with burnished circuitry. 
            “Where is our latest mad queen?” asked Jaal.
            Hnah didn’t answer immediately, as if she didn’t realize the question for a few heartbeats. 
            “Back with her crown,” she said softly, now noticing the rough cut door.  The girl approached and ran her hands along the sharp edges of the frame, drinking in the strange spaces beyond.  “What is this?”
            “The tomb of the last high ruler of the badlands,” said Jaal soberly, watching this noble with suspicious eyes.
            “Might be ours as well,” said the Fencer as he walked back to the old camp.
            There was no kindling so the Trumpeter produced a vial of fire and with a careful hand set a drop upon a small pile of stones, which combusted and burned warm.  A bit of magic from an old friend, he explained.  With all set to rest in the large room where the two travelers made camp some weeks ago the actor told them of old Nysul and the Sealing.

In the glittering and many-fabled days of old a high king ruled the whole of the grand cleft, the badlands and the surrounding tundra.  Nobles other and lesser ruled under him and so on into feudal obscurity.  Nysul was his name, as was the ruling queen before him, their lineage stretching back to illiterate prehistory.  Their responsibility was power absolute and in his time that monarch became giddy with alchemy and prone to consort with things not of this plane of existence. 
            Terrible powers framed that era of politics.  Knives and assassins had no place in a world where a harp being played in a court kilometers away might flense an enemy into wet red mush.  Every night swelled with conjured horror and there was no day, for all the true governing was held in the depths of the earth, in dark grottos cut by the design of sorcerers.
            Through this process of drama an arsenal of magic was forged.  Imagine a hundred artists competing at feverish creation.  That notion approximates the weapon-hording of that era.  You were nothing without a blade of legend or some other bauble to command the Lattice’s attention.
            By nature magic is a superior instrument, providing capability beyond frail humanity.  But when used in tandem or conflict a chorus of resonance is born, producing emergent effects exceeding even those enchanted imaginations which forged them. 
            Memory fails here.  None know the truth of the calamity.  It is said that the high king, grown paranoid by age and poisoned spells, was so bedecked in artifacts that he breathed magic and left demons in his wake.  Raw spirits tumbled through his halls and the grand palace became a place of otherness.
            With the land vomiting forth horrors the lesser nobles banded around the notion that each of them was superior to their current despot and made plans and fell upon Nysul’s palace.  Legions of monsters and champions wielding foul weapons descended to the lowest channel of the grand cleft, all eager for glory.
            There was no battle.  A thousand contingencies reacted upon this breaking of the feudal contract, and those hit a thousand more.  Spells themselves engaged in political chaos, each focused on a certain clause, ignorant of others, cascading from potential into a curtain of historical light. 
            Many kingdoms were ruined, others ceased to be, perhaps to have ever been.  The king and his conspirators vanished along with the grand keep at the bottom of Nysul.  There, where the oldest and most profitable mines once fed the mighty demesne, nothing remained above the surface, and the catacombs below were strange with years of magic and the sudden catastrophe.  As the thaumaturgical cloud receded it left skeletons and artifacts, masterless implements awaiting enabling hands.
            So the Sealing was framed.  Sobered court magicians sought out the remaining devices of deadly wonder and divided them to each remaining kingdom as a sign of their nobility, kept locked in their vaults, never to be used.  Yet the most terrible relics were not to be trusted.  They were interred within the untamable wilds of Nysul's dungeon.  Workers set traps for any would-be thieves and a legendary mage known as Crow etched the seals which remained to this day.  There the vaults have slept with dreams of power.
By the telling’s end the Fencer had drifted off.  As a creature of action he had little need to know the why of things.  There was only that one big question, that Answer to the Riddle of Winter, a thing so large it perhaps took up all the inner space he had allotted for pondering.
            The Trumpeter, on the other hand, couldn't sleep now.  He was bothered by the story.  It felt wrongly shaped.  Not the facts, which he couldn't argue with, but the telling.  It was well delivered and expertly metered. Jaal was an actor in need of a stage.
            And that was the tickle which wouldn’t let his brain rest.  So rarely were his adventures scripted in such a manner.  It was all too proper.  No, that's wasn't it.  It was that the story was told instead of shown, the specifics drowned out by the general.  This granted a false sense of enlightenment without preparing them for the particulars below.
            There was one snippet, that magus Crow, he stood out from the words.  He sounded famous, but in this world of isolation it was difficult to for even knowledge to travel the frozen wastes.
            Looking about the musician realized he was alone in this worry.  The others slept, even Jaal, who fell to dreams with the falling action, speaking, eyes closed, from the dark recesses of the mind. 
            Shrugging away his worries and covering his mind in a blanket of exhaustion the Trumpeter joined them.  Curling up against the hard stone he cradled the trumpet and slipped into a place of high, painted cliffs.  A place with no longer existed.

Much like the mushy pulp of brains from which they sprung the Trumpeter’s dreams were fluid and changing.  One minute he was the sound from an extinct bird, the next a bodiless eye set above a land writhing with giant worms.  It was as if his inner being was constantly trying to challenge itself, and always failed.  Dreams bored the man, whose waking mind conjured far more tactile troubles.
            At first he was home again, high up on the painted peaks of the Wondering Mountains.  This was before they were evaporated by the Stranger’s silver spell.  Then he was the slick wet of rain, as he imagined it, like a narrow waterfall spread across the land.  And then a desert, dry, hot, strange, made of silver.  Bubbles spread out at his feet and he knew this liquid, like a return home, the sort of thing from which fears are distilled.  This soaks the sterling grains.  Not water, some syrupy, blue gel like memory. 
            What was that?  His inner voice asked the world beyond the dream.  A subtle change, like a barely heard note, played through his many minds.
            Waking quietly, as he had grown used to, the Trumpeter found no undead assassins or huge protozoa or jilted employers ready with knives or whatever.  There was dark and there was quiet.  It was something subtracted which perked his senses.  Jaal's place around the camp was empty.  No sounds in the faded glow of the nearly extinct fire, no footsteps, yet something menaced with the strength of plans undone.
            Rousing himself he made sure not to awaken the Fencer.  The man met such surprises with violence.  So, placing one silent foot after the other, the Trumpeter made for the only exit which merited exploration.
            In the dark he felt his way through the natural curves and bends to the flat cut corridor.  Coarse stone rasped against his fingers until suddenly meeting open air.
            Within the space beyond lay the gloaming tomb of Nysul.  A pale radiance, almost like stars, glimmered inside, just barely brighter than darkness.  As his eyes adjusted the Trumpeter could smell the lingering waft of pitch and once he could see, dimly, noticed fresh scratching upon the floor.  Someone had been through recently with a torch. 
            Curious memory beaconed to the musician.  Therein lay the mystery of their actions in the badlands, the magic-soaked truth of it, the missing page in Clea’s journal.  The Trumpeter hesitated at the threshold, casting his mind within, while looking back guiltily in the direction of his sleeping compatriot.  

The Fencer dreamed a garden.  Sodden blossoms danced with each heavy drop of eternal summer rain and the monk-sculpted boughs of the idil trees swayed amongst the winds.  Through these all a cunning path of lichen-touched brick wove arcane circuits of the soul.  The two had been chasing each other for eternity.
            Where the various paths, many paths he should remember, where these met a great circle formed, its purpose to provide a spiral vision of the inevitable center of things.  Across this koan-like surface they would stare at each other, the hunter and the hunted, each swollen with emotions without number, blades forged from the mind.
            The Fencer who was not the Fencer stared at his memory-self across the stones and found nothing there.  The place of the dream was empty, a dark cut-out void where the other should be. 
            He awoke into aches and numb joints and the cloistered dark of a cave.  Behind him the dream faded and he became himself, as much as he could remember. 
            Breathless dark surrounded.  The kindled stones had burned to cinders.  Cold and silent, he waited a few moments but the sense that others were around him, sleeping, never came.  He began to feel about for the dead bodies but remembered the torches stolen from Jaal’s cache.
            Flashing bright as he lit the brand all was cast in amber.  Three empty spaces explained the silence.  The girl, Hnah, was gone, as with the Trumpeter and that Jaal fellow.  Taking up Dhala in his other hand the Fencer searched the underworld. 
            Jagged and dark the entrance to the great vault yawned expectantly.  A notion brought him to this place right off, knowing the madness of his fellows and the Trumpeter’s in particular.  Taking one last breath of sane air he stepped through the gap of stone. 
            The little tunnel exited a meter above a slanted gallery, one long sheet of pale blue marble sounding out as he dropped upon it.  Along the wall in front of him ran a fresco depicting all manner of exotic flesh.  Creatures and humanity cavorted upon lacquered metallic waves of crimson pleasure.  This stretched in both directions, along the incline to his right and the descent on his left, on and out into the dark.  The wall behind him held the viewers.
            Eyes stared at him, at everything.  That whole panel glared, hyperreal and unblinking, so finely made that they seemed alive, though huge and uncanny. 
            Hastening to get away the Fencer took the downward path and was rewarded with blood.  The ramp came to a sort of landing where the whole passage veered at a tilt.  A pool of fresh red blossomed and ran down the slanted stone into a groove, as if made for sacrifice.  This trail led on into the Nysul's labyrinth. 
            Making to follow, blade held first, the air whirred.  Dhala moved upon instinct and the weapon rang from a sudden attack.  A meter long whip of goopy flesh recoiled off the ice.  An appendage grew unnaturally from the wall, writhing to a bulbous tongue.  This hid a dagger-sized lance of chitin and poison which blurred as it darted in for another strike.
            This time the Fencer met it with his atom-edge and the thing split apart to reveal itself as living stone.  While it thrashed about in pain, but not death, he fled along the bloody path.
            The gore led to a dead end, where it disappeared behind a wall.  Then shifting his look, he saw that his eyes lied.  The stone behind was false, an illusion of a reset surface cunningly wrought to conceal another turn.  The blood was the key, it just kept going.
            Past this false angle he found many more.  Gem-encrusted vaults and brazen chambers yawned strange and alien.  No human hand wrought this place, it was born of magic.  A sense of wrongness, of not being at home amongst his own skin, defined the great vault.  Something watched.
            The halls grew mad, the walls tapering up at odd angles to form a narrow ceiling.  Before him the slight whimper of a human voice sounded almost comforting. 
            The noise brought him into a trapezoidal room.  The slanted walls were garnished with all kinds of portraits, noble faces peering out from centuries with bland decorum.  Ornate sarcophagi lay scattered across the floor.  Next to one the girl Hnah cowered amongst her blood. 
            She put a pale finger to her mouth, shivering with quiet pain.
            The Fencer began to speak but the word stretched from his mouth into a horrible being.  Rushing noisy whispers echoed and fell upon the swordsman.  Leaping aside the air screamed as an invisible attacker tore through the air where he just stood.
            Without rest the unseen assailant continued on towards the Fencer.  His icicle blade met the onrushing thing but it effortlessly flowed over the weapon. 
            Old instincts pulled the man aside but his shoulder opened up.  His skins there disintegrated and his flesh became a bloody sponge.  It felt like a burn, but there was no heat or chemical, just noise, a hideous tone.
            Darting after it he fought for some body to slay, but found only air, and this grew louder.  With each swing and lunge the attacking force was amplified, like currents stirred up with each powerful stroke of an oar.  In short order the Fencer streamed blood from numerous strange wounds.
            Then all at once he gave up.  He stood still, holding even his breath.  The attacker rushed in like an avalanche but faded to a whisper and then silence.
            Slowly he began to move, and as he did the noisy beast whined back into existence.  Carefully he made no sound other than the slight rustle of clothes and the spare rasp of boots on marble.  The thing attacked again, billowing like a strong wind, but it had no more force than that.  When he reached the doorway, it left him. 
            “If you are quiet it won’t bite you,” said the Fencer to Hnah.
            His words blossomed monstrous within and he wasn’t sure if the girl heard him.  But she did move now.  One of her golden thighs showed a deep gouge and she limped in obvious pain.  Biting her lip to keep hushed she slowly made to exit.
            Halfway out she leaned upon her wounded leg in just the wrong way.  Crashing to the floor she screamed out in pain.  The noise, reflecting off the strange angles, fell upon her.
            There was no time to go to her aid, and even then the Fencer knew his blade was useless against the thing.  His memories had nothing to offer here.  All the Stranger’s skill was helpless in the face of this monster, so the man acted off a guess.
            His blade sunk into the marble with easy grace, it was the turning which was tricky.  He had to curve the strike just so.  Dhala made the ancient stone scream, joining cries of the wounded princess.  Then the cut was complete and with a heavy bang a wedge of marble the size of a footstool fell.
            All at once the noise stopped just as its sonic blades tore into Hnah’s gauzy drape.  The room went quiet, without magic.
            “The noise is gone now,” said the Fencer as he crouched next to the girl.  “The room was a trap.  It’s dead now, I killed it.”
            Hnah understood better than he.  The enchanted angles of the burial chamber took up whatever sound entered and refocused it into a lethal echo which rebound upon the cause.  By altering the shape of the room, even in a small way, the place lost those special harmonics. 
            She looked at him fiercely despite her wound.  It took a great deal of self-control to keep from crying out.  Something else did for her.
            In the depths a huge mouth yowled to the heavens.  The walls shook, the air reverberated.  All the mortals felt it in their bones.  It was in response to the echo chamber going silent. 
            Then eyes flew in around the corner and the bleeding survivors felt they had gone mad.  Set in bodies of liquid stone these monsters trilled through the air like hideous jellyfish.
            Above them all the great cat waited and heard.  High Queen Hope crouched in shadow, watching the cavern with unceasing interest.  Her ears perked up with the cry and she wondered after her servant.  Her curiosity resonated. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

VI. The Adamant Seal

High Queen Hope played with her wealth whenever the royal mood took her.  The chosen watched on as her hunting majesty took to her bones.  This sound rattled through the halls, gilded, bloody spaces, and on down into the crude tunnels below where the remaining subjects made furtive expeditions for food and water.  For now the cat was entertained.
            Glor’s platinum scattered forgotten under this skeletal wealth, one made by the creature’s own industry.  She sorted and stacked and considered the bones with the same intensity as men revere precious coin. 
            Considering these lesser treasures brought her to the greatest of them.  Hnah sat in prim repose at the base of the throne, her metal inlayed flesh merging with its opulence.  The cat stalked close with eyes fixated.  Something made the girl shine better than any of the precious metals which she wore, and more satisfying than all the hunts and kills.  The snake tongue licked out for a taste of the girl’s value, tickling her cheek and running down her arm.
            Two guards loped in on all fours, galloping across the stained marble with news for their queen.  Glor began to cry silently, tears gently rolling down his broad, powerful face.
            “News,” said one, crouching at attention.
            “Tell me,” demanded the snake as the beast continued to watch the girl.
            “Attackers, out in the canyons,” said the other.  “More shadow men.  They fell upon your servants at their task.  One joined them on their way to the great cleft.”
            High Queen Hope didn’t respond.  The improper world was the one she wouldn’t accept. 
            “This is how I am the more generous ruler,” she began.  “I accept the word of my underlings and pay them in full.  I can change if I want.  I only have to say so.  A hunt suits my immediate fancy.”
            She gestured to the bones and the men fell upon them, gnawing on their hollow reward with desperate hunger.
            The beast then turned on the girl and said, “climb atop my back.”
            No need for compulsion, Hnah took to the beast with glee.  Its semiliquid flesh rippled and pulsed under her.  She could take up handfuls of the cat’s skin and it caused no hurt.  This was lucky because she had to hold on tight as the creature bounded out of the throne room and down into her kingdom.
            “What are we hunting?” asked Hnah as they hurtled through shadow and lamplight.
            “Two things like entertainment,” replied the beast.
            “The wanderers?”  The girl was confused.  “They are on a royal mission of your own design.”
            “In my wisdom my mind has changed,” said the snake head, a little annoyed.  “I mentioned this before.  In any event they perturb me with their absence.  Theirs is a sort which cannot appreciate the value of service.  Educating them will be a lesson in doing what I want and not exactly what I say.”
            Cold, empty halls greeted them.  The living dared not show themselves to the monarch and the dead were already accounted for up in the throne room, guarded by her royal advisor Glor.  At last they burst out into the badlands.  Dawn had just come to Nysul glowing rose and cyan, little drifting clouds marking the northern sky.

“You are both very bad men,” explained the figure calling himself Jaal of Night. 
            He wore two qualities.  One was fierce and deadly, the swordsman of many games.  The other more cosmopolitan, and therefore less trustworthy.  Like many city folk he strung words along with grace, but the outland swordsman felt this might just be another feint.  It was difficult to determine where the duelist in the man ended and the orator began.
            “I’ve been called worse,” nodded the Fencer.  “I’ve done worse.”
            He remembered now.  Fragments of bloody raids and desperate searching.  Before them opened the great cleft of Nysul, below them yawned the black gulfs hidden beneath the earth.  Amongst the rocks characters loomed, savage nobles and metal-etched princesses.  Their faces and bodies blurred and jumbled into troubled memories without order or sequence.  But, for now, they were free of the Regalom's command.
            “There is a delicate balance to Nysul,” explained the man as he took stock of his broken sword.  “I’m not speaking of the play of royal powers or the leveling effect of the red demon’s visit.  No, there is an older compact at work.  Was, in any case.”
            “The vaults,” realized the Trumpeter.  He had been trying to piece together his mind again.  Those events which occurred outside of the Regalom’s effect were still theirs, but under its heavy word history became a smear of images, thoughts and feelings.  And this effect seemed to bleed into events of close proximity.  Their time with Bzer the Opulent tantalized like a dream and the creature Hnah now merged with unrelated twins from their wandering past.
            “Yes, our great birthright,” nodded the man, who waxed distant at the thought.  “The Sealing was a work of peace.  Our eldritch devices, those mighty expressions of royal havoc, were interred in places of hidden grandeur within each kingdom, yet still served a purpose.  To have a vault was to be a noble, a symbol greater than any crown or palace.”
            “In this way the play of Nysul was formalized and given boundaries.  No longer would whole nations vanish into screaming mist or become hives of demons wearing the skins of men.  Magic was still used, but it was nothing compared to the works of the past.  Politics became more like a duel and less like total war.”
            “Funny how that works,” mused the Trumpeter.
            “This careful balance of power you have destroyed,” smirked the man as he meticulously cleaned each grain of sand from his cloak.
            Undeterred, the musician followed his thoughts out loud. 
            “The magic of the past always seems so much greater.  Were olden thaumaturgists that much more powerful?  Or are we just seeing things through the distorted lens of time?  I mean, it feels of truth, but why?  Does magic itself feel nostalgia?”
            Neither man had an answer and the Fencer didn’t bother to care.
            “How have we unbalanced this already chaotic and desperate land?” he asked, considering his blade and the growing chill of Winter’s night.
            “For one who holds onto his mind so tightly you certainly have let the Regalom pry your memories loose.”  The man’s smile was insufferable.  Obviously he deserved the scar he wore.  “You broke into a vault.  Not just any, the one below, the Great Vault.”
            “What makes it so great?” argued the Trumpeter.
            “It is the lowest and oldest amongst the badlands.  Hidden behind its seal lie devices too potent for any icebound hand.  Such things were to await eternity in the tomb of our last high king.”
            Jaal smiled at this, his dark eyes gleaming even as his lids became narrow slits.  It was a warm smile, one well-practiced.
            “I don’t see how any of this leads you to attack us and then talk us to death,” said the Fencer.
            “An astute observation,” began the man.  “I represent a certain secret society which aims to resist the decayed nobles left to us by time and circumstance.”
            “The Uplifting?” asked the Trumpeter, completely taken in by this man’s storytelling.
            “No greater harm has been done to this land,” sighed Jaal.  “We simply wish to throw off the shackles of the insane remnants of nobility and make a new way amongst the rocks.”
            As they spoke he led them on.  Neither man realized to where at first, it was the way Jaal had, like a gracious host.  His mansion was the badlands, and this the grand tour of that estate. 
            Jaal introduced them to a hidden bolt-hole amongst the rocks.  Crude, ancient stairs wound up to a carven room whose walls gleamed with petroglyphs.  Stars cast their pale rays through a gap in the ceiling.  They were near the top of a forlorn butte, another secret amongst the vaults and ruins of Nysul.
            Wrestling a boulder aside their host revealed a cache of supplies.  In short order they had a fire going, kindled from giraffe dung and a few gnarled logs, in its warmth they feasted on salted giraffe and klee berries.  Jaal rearmed himself with another elegant long blade stolen from the surplus of royal armories.  Neither traveler objected.  Winter had once more failed to take the Fencer and the Trumpeter. 
            Perhaps it was some lingering effect the Regalom had on their brains, or maybe it was poison or plain exhaustion, but morning was the next reality the men knew. 
            Light cascaded down from the hole in the roof and the fire was nothing but embers.  Neither man remembered falling asleep—no dreams marked such passage—but time was gone and with it the man of night. 
            Like true and reasonable souls they pillaged the cache for as much food and supplies as they could carry.  Under protest the Trumpeter convinced his peer to take one of the red badland cloaks, along with the food, water, gin, flint and steel.  A whole armory they left behind.  Nysul had no end to fine weaponry but their own implements were more than adequate.
            Feeling their way down the dark stair bright morning blinded them as they exited the cave.  Warmth spread through their bones.  It was into this same morning that High Queen Hope rode with Hnah, chasing after her fickle noble cause.

Snuma stalked the shadows, a common resource amongst the narrow ravines.  As hunting cats they should’ve been nocturnal, but these were disinclined to act sensibly.  No reason was left for the icebound as to why.  It was simply the way of the badlands.
            None remained who knew that in ancient days a great magic had been worked by a fickle empress.  Felines amused her and yet refused to perform as she wished.  The beasts seemed entirely unconcerned about her royal person and this, she believed with great passion, wouldn’t do at all.
            Calling in her court magician she conspired to create a cat fit to her mood.  A meticulous list of elements was composed and input towards a great spell.  The resulting creatures were indeed active during the day, but this was only one of many fearsome aspects.
            Those potent words she described to her magician all came true in the flesh, but the thing about words is that they don’t stand alone on the page, and neither are they isolated in the living matrix of a magic beast.  Somewhere in the process the commands she gave resonated, creating a larger creature, ferocious and intelligent.
            The empress was devoured by her personal felines, which went on to colonize the badlands.  Winter’s cold kept their hunger and numbers in check.  Still, they were a notorious hazard of Nysul, like the cold and politics.
            One heir to this legacy waited in the gleaming dawn, its snowy fur catching the light and burning bright.  It saw the Fencer and bristled, let out a snarl, then raced off. 
            “Ah, you scared it,” said a voice hidden in the rocks.
            Jaal emerged, sheathing his sword as he let out a long sigh.
            “That one will speak to the others.  Now they’ll be following us in our task.”
            “And what would that be?” asked the Fencer.
            The Trumpeter was taken in by the appearance of another, inner cat.  Such a beast rode through the dark jumble of his memories.
            “Is the way of snow pumas,” shrugged their inconstant host.  “Please, I know you have more questions but we have to make time this day.  My allies tell me interested parties follow our movements.  We can speak as we walk.”
            The Fencer stood fast.  He was inclined to disbelieve this man.  No reason for this other than his own, which was cold and given to opposition.
            "These allies would be more masked men?" asked the swordsman.
            "We are the Children of Nysul," Jaal said grandly.
            The Fencer and the Trumpeter were unmoved by intrigue, theirs were more existential goals.
            “I can show you your sins,” added the host, sweeting the deal.
            With cold eyes the Fencer hid his urge to slay this man.  His teeth were too white, his smile too well made, even his scar was more ornament than injury.  Yet the outland swordsman wore a calm and more public face, and with a more ready step, took them along their guide’s path, down into the grand cleft of Nysul.
            They walked for a time amongst the pink light of early morning, gradually evolving into pale, cold yellow.  A companion, one of those snow pumas, kept pace along the ridges and cliffs above.  It was a marvelous beast, rippling with muscle, twice the size of a man, and nimble amongst the rocks.
            “You see, you’ve brought up a device best left to the ages,” began Jaal as he led the way through ravine, slope, crag and drop.  Layer after layer of red stone opened up to them, seemingly without end.
            “The Regalom?” asked the Trumpeter, helpfully playing the foil.
            “That is the trouble in question,” grinned the man.  “Somehow you and your friend managed to gain entry to the Great Vault and there found the crown of perdition.  Now it’s been tossed like a bone into the den of wolves we call nobles and we all might be torn to pieces.”
            As they spoke another hunting cat joined the first, watching with narrow eyes, pacing the men step for step.  For now they were curious.  The Fencer stopped.
            “What's the matter?” asked Jaal.
            The Fencer took time to answer, never letting his eyes drop from his fellow predators.
            “A funny thing for a man to be this cordial to those who just slew his own,” said the swordsman, finally turning to look at their guide.  “I now remember our battle in the ravine, some of the blood at least.”
            “Oh that,” frowned Jaal.  “It is nothing much.  Life here, perhaps everywhere on Winter, has little worth.  We are bones waiting for our day in the sun.  But us Children have a cause, and to die in the cause is better than thrashing about for survival or royal whim.  I bear you no ill will, to answer the unstated question.”
            The Trumpeter drank in this sentiment with relief but the Fencer was disinclined to move.  The man seemed earnest and this seeming made the outland fighter wary. 
            “Do you want me to?”  Jaal was all serious now.  “I could succumb to tribal rage at my lost brothers and sisters.  That is the Riddle, is it not?  All ignorance and reaction, stupidity and sorrow.”
            The Fencer softened somewhat.
            “I had to be sure of your intent,” reasoned the swordsman. 
            “Just as I must be sure of yours, but actions speak louder than veiled words, and words will speak loudest when we reach the bottom of things.”
            At this they traveled quiet for a time.  The Trumpeter collected stones as souvenirs, particular ones, though the other men could find no sense to his assortment.  Transfixed on this addled task of salvage Jaal and the Fencer kept eyes each on the other and their growing cat problem.
            Gaining in number, the snow pumas grew to a whole hunting mass.  A good half dozen followed close, never venturing within a stone’s throw.  The men felt that if they wandered off alone they’d find the beasts more eager for company.
            Yet the creatures never attacked.  Powerful scents kept them at bay, a marker none of the mortals could smell.  Heady reeks clung to the two strangers.  It was the odor of a higher predator, something poisonous and enchanted.  They knew not to compete and when the first notes of armored feet sounded ahead the great cats disappeared into the noontime light.
            Jaal donned his mask while the noisemakers showed themselves, men and women of tailored steel.  The first figure, a woman encased in plate and chain, noticed them before they could slip into the shadows and called out.
            The Fencer and the Trumpeter paused.  It was too bright for violence, though the swordsman could be encouraged to make an exception. Dhala waited to dance in his hands. 
            “That’s exactly as they wish,” said Jaal. 
            The moment her eyes touched the enchanted blade the warrior woman hissed and bared her weapon.  Swords were drawn and arrows notched.  A full dozen fighters faced the three with the ancient tools of despotism. 
            “More sorcery,” spat the swordswoman.  What was left of the white enamel of her breastplate shone in the sun.  “You’re those trained lackeys of Glor.”
            “Hardly trained,” said the Fencer.  “I have no master but reason.”
            She had an eye for his blade and he knew that it would take more than words to disinterest these steel-wrapped highwaymen. 
            "Then I suppose you stole all those golden-haired beauties just out of whim?"  The woman was herself fair haired.
            Painful memory caught both travelers.  Such a crime was theirs, but they inwardly protested.  Words had compelled them to commit these barley remembered deeds.
            “Tell us yours,” added the Trumpeter.  “Tell us your own politics and maybe we can all be free out here with our words.”
            “Duxess Ephwyn commands my blade,” said the fair officer but her mind was on the Fencer’s magic sword. 
            “And she would like to command mine?”  A wry smile played across his face as he eased his stance.  This was less a sign of peace and more one of contempt.  “Do you know our third fellow here besides me?”
            The question caught Jaal off guard.  He had hoped to be invisible in this dispute.  Despite the mask he seemed surprised.
            “Just another faceless member of a revolutionary cult.”  The woman remained interested in Dhala.  These people hungered for magic.
            “Was a good try Fencer.”  The Trumpeter knew the outcome before them and was amused at the course of words leading there.
            “You act like you don’t understand the trouble you’ve caused the kingdoms of Nysul.”  The woman advanced, blade drawn. 
            “That’s because we don’t, though some have told us,” began the musician.  “Glor wields a foul sorcery which has addled our brains.”
            The soldiers let out a bitter chuckle.
            “Easy enough for you to claim,” said the warrior woman.  “He probably told you to say that too.”
            The Fencer struck without warning, his icicle blade ringing cold through the air.  Before the woman could blink her sword was sheared in half and she scrambled backwards to avoid his advance.
            Soldiers raised their bows to answer but a gusty note quieted their arrows, snapping their strings and sending them tumbling back to the tune of metal.  Jaal poised as serene as stone, never bothering to draw.
            The captain hit the wall of the ravine and ducked away from death.  Dhala carved the stones in search of her head, cutting through the rock as if it was paper.  She drew her second blade, the one of honor, and faced the man.
            Dodging another strike she lunged into the Fencer only to find the icy point of nightmare waiting for her.  A last minute parry saved her heart, but added a thick notch to her sword in the process. Just a touch from her opponent’s vorpal weapon was enough.
            Her men were recovered now and rushed in to lend blades to their captain's cause.  The Fencer smiled at such attention and met their plain steel with his ancient glass.  Parrying several at once their weapons froze and shattered, were struck from their grasp or carved into ribbons of metal.
            Despite this the woman continued to struggle.  Some force, some reason, kept her in the fight, one she couldn’t hope to win.  Another strike and this time, after the parry, he drove his blade home.
            It was just a little cut, not more than a few centimeters on her left cheek, a signature.  The woman stopped her attack, overcome with sudden shivers.  She fled and all as one, her band raced back to whatever ruin they came from.
            Applause sounded through the canyon.
            “Seeing it from this angle I have to say your swordsmanship is intimidating,” said Jaal.
            “It’s not entirely mine,” replied the Fencer but didn’t elaborate.  “You’re a fine warrior yourself, very fancy.”
            “Was the way taught to me,” explained the masked man.  “My training was for the stage, to play the noble there for the amusement of my royal betters.  Then the Uplifting came.  No more time for plays, so I learned how to apply drama to more practical ends and my blade has followed suit.”
            As he told his story they followed the same trail as their attackers.  Afternoon blazed for now, meaning the cold was sharp but fleeting.  The only clouds were those caused by their breath and their only company the snow pumas which reconvened once the Duxess’s soldiers had gone.
            Armored tracks led through stones layered like fine, cinnamon cakes, to a far canyon, one which reached up and away, to a portion of the badlands the travelers hadn’t been to, or so they thought.  Jaal diverted them on and down.  Layers of the earth gave way to reveal the great cleft.  They took a narrow ravine, the walls tight and shadowing, casting them in chill dark. 
            Just when they thought there could be no end of the stony maze, and with the sky telling of impending night, they landed upon the lowest and most ancient bedrock of Nysul.  Emptying out of their confined passage they walked out into a vast world, like some abandoned, lidless hell.
            Huge walls of staccato red stone soared on either side, marking the course of an ancient river.  It once flowed some hundreds of meters wide and by the marks on the rocks had risen to great heights back when the world was warm.  A sea of polished stones now waited for the waters to return.
            “There should be ice,” noted the Trumpeter.  “Where has it gone?”
            “Eaten,” explained Jaal.  “The nobles had a taste for it.”
            “That’s insanity,” said the Fencer.  “Eating ice cools the blood and weakens the body.  If you did that out on the Sound you’d die of the shudders.”
            “Our kings and queens had heat to spare in the elder days,” shrugged the actor.  “This way.”
            Stones of variety and character marked the passage indicated.  Huge faces carved by savage hands watched from the stone, others expressed designs and reliefs either on purpose or by accident of erosion and time.  The mind couldn't determine the truth of this one way or the other.  The walls leaned over the men, who were small in this place of monolith beauty.
            One bend took them over a half hour to navigate, being large enough to inter a giant's elbow.  Stars showed down from the skyward gap of stone, and along the cliffs the dark eye caves their slow transit.
            At the far end of the curve the canyon open up even wider and there waited a space free from pebbles and gravel.  Grey, impervious stone rose gradual as a reef.  Though bare it felt like something, some structure or entity, should lie here.  All they found was the vault.
            It was a good ten meters in diameter, a circular disk of strange black metal.  Set into its matter a design showed.  This profusion of nodes and lines, arcs and rays, composed a symbol which tickled the minds of those looking upon it.  Logic programmed this sequence of images in the unfathomable langue of the occult. 
            The Fencer felt he had seen something like this before.  Perhaps it was in dream.
            “The Great Vault,” nodded the Trumpeter, his mind ablaze with the symbol.  He would stay here and try to puzzle it out until he died, if it weren’t for his more reasonable company.
            “Somehow you managed to pry this open,” explained Jaal.  “Beyond this seal the Regalom lay safe.  But there is no sign of intrusion.  The adamant remains undisturbed and inviolate.  So, tell me, do your minds have any memory of how you managed this theft?”
            “I wish I knew,” said the Trumpeter.
            “No,” added the Fencer as he began to stalk to the caves.
            “Where are you going?”  The man took off his mask and followed, anger and concern on his face.
            “Night soon,” said the swordsman.  “We’d best find shelter.”
            He pointed to the cliffs and their caves.  The shadows welcomed cold and uncaring.  Behind them the snuma had gathered, cutting off any kind of escape.  Night would make them bold.  Jaal felt his mask slipping, his house in disarray.

            “We’ve a safe house not far from here, but I’ve brought you too far and lost too many allies just to spend another night with your less than pleasant company.”
            He began to draw his blade but the Fencer stopped him with a glance.
            “Perhaps you’d prefer to stay out here, in pieces?” 
            Jaal answered by sheathing his weapon and muttering.
            The trio made for a nearby cave, one which was a difficult climb for the snow pumas but not too high.  Passing by easier fare they worked up to a narrow slit of darkness bored out by some long forgotten creature. 
            Striking a torch they found their little niche to be a full passage, reaching further past their imaging.  The meter-wide cave led on and down.  Following its maze-like path took many minutes but eventually rewarded them with a larger cavern complex, including a spacious room glimmering with calcium columns wrought by ancient waters. 
            “Two beasts rested here in the past few weeks,” noted the Trumpeter, "and a third wandered through after a time." 
            Marks of a camp, complete with a fire, proved this true.
            “No sign of fuel,” said their guide.  “How can that be?”
            He was right.  The stones themselves had burned, but there was little in the way of ash to tell what had provided kindling.
            “Come along,” said the Fencer.  “I have a feeling that this path might show more.”
            Jaal went on without protest.  These men were stranger than the fictions he was used to, and far more complicated than the average Child of Nysul.
            This underground had promise, somewhere below the level of the riverbed.  Tunnels ancient, some natural, some cut by curious hands, opened up. 
            The Fencer led the way according to his hidden method.  Such intuition paid off.
            In another narrow tunnel new deconstruction opened darkly.  Some force recently carved through the ancient and implacable rock, breaking into a pillared hall beyond.  Flickering marble arabesques glimmered in their torchlight.  One pass of their light revealed an ocean of gold and precious stones stretching beyond sight. 
            “This must be the Great Vault,” whispered Jaal with appreciable dramatic inflection.  No understatement because beyond showed a realm out of a magician’s imagination, the very air humming with magic.
            Above them danced the hunting beast, the queen of everything.  Upon her back rode her best and only friend, a creature of legend in the form of a gold-etched girl.  They came sniffing in the night, tasting travel on the heels of those they hunted.  The noble wore her crown, and hungered after those who rebelled against her words simply by being alive.