Ruin was true to itself, a shattered remnant of cultures, languages, people, places and things. Its original name was dead, slain in the grand Uplifting, a casualty of the hyperreal contest of magics between the red demon Sol and the polychromatic magicians which once ruled the city. The label of Ruin emerged later from the smoking remains.
Those who didn’t belong to one of the palace-tribes or tower-peoples were outcasts and when they died, often through violence but more commonly through neglect and disease, their husks were tossed into a great crater on the western edge of the cityscape, a place steeped in snowmelt and speckled with tunnels and fissures. As a matter of necessity great quantities of lye were tossed down from above by passersby, this practice becoming a sort of replacement ritual in this metropolis of lost magics and decaying sorcerous towers. The smell from below had a sharp, sinus tearing edge to it, occasionally giving way to the reek of ground up people and maggot mounds. New arrivals said you could taste it.
Lumnos the Wordseller kept his shop on a cliff overlooking the Rot. From his vantage point it wasn't possible to see down into the pit, all he saw was sky. Most days the smell was blown away from his front and the lye covering prevailed the rest of the time, but he kept the place infused with sandalwood and frankincense all the same.
He chose this location for its isolation from clan drama and the sanctuary is provided from the city as a whole, a world within. The local virtue he cherished most was their complete disinterest in reading and for the most party they left him alone. Until today. Now the Rot had invaded his home, the second such violation in past hours.
Remnants of peaceful days clung to his brain like petals to a flower in a high wind. Such comprehension fought against the death field around the corpse. Actions died, breathing stilled, and a cold, putrid finality expressed itself unseen through the room. Floating up as an obscene raincloud dripping black blood, the thing itself was merely a vessel for a deadly magic.
The body flowed towards the Fencer, bone snapping, flesh rupturing as it twisted through the air. An ideal was posed in such a movement, alien, a reduction to necessity, of which a human form was incapable. Driving before its physicality was a palpable aura of morbidity, of stillness, and this field touched the swordsman with sudden, violent results.
Riven apart, the magics broke away and howled like a wind across dead plains, at the edges a sound like metal tearing. Instantly the man became a gleam of action, his blue-black edge of ice leading razor-like into the rotten corpse.
The body fell to pieces, but the parts kept moving while sputtering gouts of sodden dark. Lifeless energy twitched through the fiber and the thing’s inky blood spilled through the air with a life of its own. Teeth clicked and its arms and legs tore at the swordsman’s clothes, spattering him with gore. The Fencer responded with a flurry of ripostes; hacking off limbs, shattering bone, scattering blood.
Yet whatever spell had animated the thing in the first place continued to work. Each piece, perhaps each molecule, still had motion and activity, and a blackness poured from within. Splintered bone gouged the man's flesh, cut through the animal leathers he wore, and brought out fresh red blood.
Lumnos stared in grim wonder, incapable of moving. His talent for observation was also a curse and he took in every detail despite his heart’s screams to look away.
At last the Fencer broke the darkness, his foe reduced to a quivering mass. He then stumbled huffing to the door where he took in great lungfuls of relatively clean air. By the time he wandered back, cleaning his face with a wide, loosely bound book concerning the etiquette of the Ymethian Empire, the thing had stilled into true death.
"I've never witnessed such a thing," Lumnos said softly. "Now let me see. A marrowmere, if I’m not mistaken."
The Trumpeter eyed him suspiciously, still half hid behind a bookcase. "How do you know?"
"Sounds like witchcraft," added the Fencer.
"Necromancy," corrected Lumnos, not realizing the danger of his words.
He found himself closely facing the icy sword. To see it up close added color to its darkness. There were depths of midnight and indigo amongst the obsidian and through the metallic crystalline pane crimson lights peered out as eyes. From it a terrible cold emanated.
The Fencer held the weapon half-decided on a strike. The southerner's eyes were cold and grey.
"I'd be careful what you say," reasoned the swordsman. "Words spoken by those with the talent for magic are dangerous and in the stories warlocks often keep volumes of the written stuff around. Words of power, words of death. I'd not be surprised by a second spell today. So, if you want to keep your head, then please explain what just happened."
The brigand was at the end of his peace, that much was clear from his even tone; the last resort of the agitated. Even the Trumpeter, who seemed so carefree and harmless, stood by, sharing the suspicion.
"Why would I attack my own shop?" the wordseller ventured.
"Magic follows no reason," explained the musician. "We've seen a mage's whimsy at work, like a child felling mountains with a tantrum or a jilted lover burning down a village, theirs is a boundless heart."
"Why would I steal my own book?" This was a bolder rhetoric sprung right from the pages of the arguments he often read.
"We only have your word that it was in there," said the Fencer, showing that his mind could be as sharp as his sword.
"Leave him Fencer," said the Trumpeter. "This one's a loss."
"No," said Lumnos, to the surprise of all three. "What if I can work the Art, what then? Kill me? We both know that a magician's death only brings a greater curse than they ever managed in life, but I suppose that's Riddlebound ignorance for you."
In the tense moment which followed the Fencer eventually let his sword drop. Being a difficult soul he never let that violence in his eyes entirely dissipate and his depth was such that Lumnos could never be sure if he was truly safe. This was a man of trouble.
Outside, hidden from sight, a person with a bit of silver listened on with keen intent.
Cast a mind to the winds and no stranger complex of buildings will be imagined than the leaning tangle of Ruin. Tall and huge, the structures rose as colossal expressions of the power of their builders. The magicians of old kept massive stocks of people, servants, guards, test subjects and artisans. They liked to stack their people like a miser stacks coins, with room upon room, floor upon floor, great tenements and dormitories reaching hundreds of feet into the air to profess the grandeur of their architects.
All the past dreams of stone leaned away from the aftermath of the Uplifting, great towers of strange architecture, repetitious, functional, like spinal columns protruding from the corpse of the city.
These were home to new inhabitants, descended from the old, palace-tribes composed of former servants who had organized themselves into groups conforming to their old allegiances. It was as if a hundred years of history had been concentrated into fifteen. Sysyn and Theb were dead or departed, but under their name factions still made war with each other for pride and resources. Ruin existed in a state of constant conflict, small fires which kept the place from succumbing to the inferno of total anarchy and as such was considered civilized on the plains of Winter.
The three men moved about the streets near the biblio in search of a Magpie, those who accounted for what little law there was to be purchased. Lumnos was fairly certain that neither man believed he had worked the sorcery from before. Cooled down, the Fencer was almost sane. The wordseller realized that quick and bloody edge of mind the swordsman possessed, that which had almost killed the wordseller, also made him an awesome fighter. He sighed, thinking this was the way of life on Winter.
At street level the squalor was pungent. Families huddled in rooms fit for kings, marble sprites and carven daemons staring out at their unwelcome guests. In their decadence the wizards had left no bit of space untouched by art, as they saw it. Now people lived in these gutted palaces as an afterthought.
They traveled through garbage, their feet brushing up against broken swords rusting where they had fallen, an occasional bone or body. Those in the houses nearby watched suspiciously for tribe colors. This neighborhood was a bit to the side of the great clans and their conflicts, and the people were wary of those bringing politics.
"I still don't understand how you freed us of the dead thing’s magic," pondered Lumnos, trying to ferret out what knowledge he could from the tight-lipped swordsman.
"It broke across the blade," he said simply.
"Dhala," explained the Fencer, peering around a corner where a bunch of ragged children played a street game with colored stones stolen from the dome of some academy.
"Bottomless cold," translated Lumnos.
"Not quite," the Trumpeter said. "That's from the rude dialect of the ice traders. I heard legends of them in my youth, met them in the flesh when we ventured north. Languages drift like hazy clouds, shifting, eventually becoming unrecognizable."
"Then what does it really mean?" asked Lumnos, fascinated by this unkempt scholar's words.
"The cold between stars." The Fencer didn't even turn to say this, but kept moving through the city floor like it was a deadly forest full of potential ambushes.
"If even that's what it really means," mused the Trumpeter petulantly and all three fell into the silent search for an authority of sufficient economy to see the affair back at the biblio through.
They found a group of Magpies, cops-for-hire, lounging about a small cafe situated on a terrace. The view below once included a courtyard lagoon warmed by the benefices of magic. Now the pool was full of black, icy slush.
There was no official law in the city, the tribes mostly kept order in their neighborhoods while outsiders were at the mercy of those willing to put up a strong arm for a bit of broken silver. It was a system ripe with corruption and allowed for the occasional recreational witch hunt.
Six persons in poorly kept but ornate armor were in the midst of a laugh. About their persons they kept shiny tokens of their successes. One was white skinned, shirtless, a man well versed in the cold. Black hexagonal patterns lay across his skin, unlike any tattoo. Lumnos caught the Fencer's hand as it went for his weapon.
"Haven't you seen a parchment man before?" he hissed quietly, trying to head off trouble. The Fencer twitched with violence.
"I'm a savage, just like you said." he whispered back, never letting his eyes leave the man's face. For his part the pay cop was now interested in the commotion.
"He's a person like you and I," explained the wordseller. "They are born with blank sheets over their bones and their lives are written on their skins, telling their stories in color and shape. A man with much blood on his hands, a killer or soldier, might turn red, while blackness tells of a certain mystery, the hexagons order and reason. He might be the very sort of fellow we need to sort out our troubles."
"You there," shouted the parchment man. "Is there a problem? If so, how much will you pay me to stop what you've intent to start?"
To this there was much laughter and even the Fencer let his guard slip a bit. His calloused hands rested on the unbearably cold pommel as they approached the mercenaries.
"What are your fees?" asked Lumnos after purchasing for them the requisite preamble round of tyev, a sharp liquor made from evergreen sap. They told him and negotiations commenced. Two recused themselves due to taboos forbidding them entering that close to the Rot, including the parchment man. Another was disqualified for accepting only Sysynite script, as Lumnos would have none of such fake money.
At last the issue was settled, just in time too as the Fencer was growing increasingly agitated by the intricacies of commerce and the Trumpeter’s constant polishing made it clear that he itched to play his instrument for the audience.
Beylim Tahn was an incongruous man for a Magpie. Slight, with the features of a snow fox and the mustache to match, he seemed to be a bureaucrat holed up in a coffin of ornate armor. Scrounged from the vaults of the thaumaturge Nyriax, he said proudly when asked by the Trumpeter. He wore no helm, only a ridiculous little cap to ward off the cold, and behind him trailed a tattered cloak.
Back at the shop things were much as they had left them; glass, corpse and cold. Twitching his mustache Beylim took things in nose first.
"Rotties been in here," he sniffed.
"Who?" asked the Trumpeter.
"Feral children who live down in the Rot," explained Lumnos to the outsiders. "But what would they want with me and my books, that book?"
A thought appeared and he wished it hadn't. He hoped that none of the others noticed or would make the same fanciful deduction as he.
"Creatures live down there?" asked the Fencer, incredulously.
"Indeed, a fair number of the unwanted things. I toss them my surplus when I have it and they eat the books, pages, binding and all."
"You just toss away books," said a jealous Trumpeter. "I'd like a book."
Suddenly Beylim stood up, his cap falling off his head.
"Murder!" he gasped, seeking out Lumnos accusingly.
"The man was dead when he arrived!" the wordseller responded.
"That is Fulim, a Nyriaxom, and he's been chopped to pieces on your floor." The mood of the room descended into something wild and acrimonious. The Fencer and the Trumpeter could sense it, the politics of family against outsider, with Lumnos as the target.
"That's nothing to me," he said, then added hastily, "I mean, I'm not engaged with any of the street tribes. This isn't political."
"I'm a Nyriaxom," stated Beylim, grimacing under his mustache.
"So I gathered by your colors," said Lumnos, unable to see the trouble approaching.
"This man was my brother," continued the Magpie. "Been missing since this past evening. Yet the body seems at least a week dead."
Now the armored fellow began to take stock of the books, looking for suspects. They were alien devices to most as few were the readers who survived against the harsh expediency of Winter. He was meticulous in his foolishness.
The two travelers looked on, waiting to see what kind of trouble would arrive. Dhala hung in loose readiness, the Fencer’s hand eager to wield. As always when bored the Trumpeter polished his sterling instrument. The Wordseller felt their separation from events and envied them.
"What are you implying?" he asked, desperately breaking the silence posed by the mercenary.
"Nothing but that my family will be made aware of this," he said and began walking off.
"You can't leave," exclaimed Lumnos. "I paid you!"
The man turned and stiffly produced the pouch of broken silver which bought his services just short minutes ago. Casually, without taking his eyes off Lumnos, he emptied the contents to mingle with the drying blood and the broken glass. "No you didn't," he said.
The Wordseller slumped to his chair, unreason weighing him down.
"At least that is over," he sighed.
"I hardly think so," said the Trumpeter. The Fencer stood just outside the entrance, watching the fickle guardsman leave.
"Why, what do you know?"
"I know the way of family and community, however defined. They will come to reckon for their loss and given that the death was one of magic they may find necromancy to be amongst your inventory."
The Trumpeter just smiled in response.
"He's right, you know," said the Fencer when he had returned. "You thought the law could clear your name and untangle yourself from us and Clea. But the world wraps ever tighter like a heavy snow. I would know if you are a necromancer too."
"Of course not," Lumnos shouted as he fought amongst the drawers of his desk, looking for his flask of brandy.
"I'm a reasonable man and that declaration is good enough for me," said the Fencer, approaching. "However I would judge those Nyriaxoms to be creatures of ignorance and superstition, looking for expedient cures for the unexplainable."
"What are you getting at," said Lumnos levelly after taking a pull of the harsh alcohol.
"I'm sure in your books there is tell of what befalls necromancers. My people would hold you beneath the ice until you joined it. The Trumpeter's mountain clan cast undesirables down into the forbidden lands. Winter is not kind with unwanted magic and is above all unreasonable in its punishments."
"Just like the Riddle says," said the wordseller flatly.
"I pose an Answer," said the Fencer, fighting back a smile. "We'll help clear your name with your accusers if you'll aid us in tracking down the Alabaster Palimpsest."
Just as with the Riddle, there was only one true response, Lumnos realized. The two travelers were grinning as they demanded more hospitality for their irrefusable services.