“The place in which I woke was full of dull afternoon light. I say ‘woke up’ but it was more of a realization. I realized myself, that I was alive, and that I couldn’t quite remember the past. That’s because it had been taken.”
The Fencer, the wordseller, and the Trumpeter inhabited the broken space of the biblio uneasily, like squatters waiting for an authority to throw them out on the cold streets. Cradling a steaming coffee cup in his hands, the Fencer sat against a bookshelf, considering the ceiling while the Trumpeter played about with the broken glass.
“Lumnos wasn’t my name. I don’t remember it you see. That first palace was once the estate of some magician or sorceress, but their name is gone from all memory, like myself, like Ruin.”
“Maybe you were the magician,” reasoned the Fencer.
“I don’t believe so, I didn't feel at home,” considered Lumnos. “I think I was a servant, someone specialized and educated, like an artisan or maybe a scholar. I was in some sort of library, but didn’t have much time to ponder my situation. Soon the looters came and I fled into a city reinventing itself.”
“You and Ruin are both in the same predicament then,” stated the Fencer.
“An elegant analogy but one which doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny,” Lumnos said, adjusting things on his desk to be more orderly. “. Ruin may need to find a new way but I just need to remember. Knowledge haunts my mind. Histories, theories, rhetoric, mimesis, these I had, but no personal experience tied these matters together. Liberating, in a way, just myself and information.”
“Just the city and its people? Just a world and its ice?” The Fencer glanced over a he said it. Obviously this was a matter in which he had a potent personal investment.
Lumnos decided to switch the focus of discourse.
“That was the day the Uplifting came to Ruin, took its name and its mages, leaving only crumbling reminders listing in that amber sunlight. Made the Rot too. It was a smoking crater at first. Probably some spell or whatnot. In any event, I gathered all the books and coin I could and hid myself away as the populace worked out its troubles. Managed to say outside of it all, until recently.”
“Why Lumnos?” asked the Trumpeter from his game of glass. “Why not just ‘the Wordseller?’”
“You didn’t care to know my name until now, what does it matter at all to you?” countered Lumnos, a bit miffed that his well-researched and historiographically appropriate name was being called into question.
“Just symmetry I suppose,” pondered the Trumpeter, immune to rancor and immersed in minutiae.
“Quiet,” commanded the Fencer softly. “You said that was the cause of the Rot; what was there before?”
“Unknown. Obviously Sol destroyed that knowledge as well.”
“Finished,” declared the Trumpeter and the others gathered around to see what was now done.
The entire glass front of the store, smashed to pieces in the robbery and spattered by the decayed blood of the marrowmere, was now put back together. While they spoke the mad musician had carefully found every last bit of glass larger than a sliver and had fit them all back in place on the floor. It was a grand puzzle.
“See here.” He pointed to a smudged shard. “There’s most of a footprint there, like those on the floor leading to the safe, bare.”
The Fencer scratched the barely visible smudge and sniffed.
“Lye,” he said. “Looks like one of the Rotties was involved, just as Beylim said. How do we get down in there?”
“I still can’t believe that one of them would have such specific designs on my property,” sighed Lumnos, wishing he could turn back time.
“And we wish that the Alabaster Palimpsest hadn’t been stolen mere hours before we arrived,” parroted the Trumpeter.
“Why do you wish that thing?” asked the wordseller but the swordsman gave no response.
His face had gone all hard, icy, those grey eyes focused ahead, with the senses elsewhere. There was a clink outside, something like metal on stone, and then he was off, drawing his weapon with a flourish which cut through the doorframe like a scissors through paper. Evidently he missed his target because he vanished to the south at a sprint. The Trumpeter followed closely with a laugh and, for some reason, Lumnos went too. Their madness was catching.
He was a young man when the Uplifting left him alone in that library, but not anymore. Middle age pained his knees as he raced after the two adventurers. Beyond them he could barely make out a flurry of grey, a sheet racing in the wind.
A piecemeal slum gave way to the temple district, where once opulent houses of worship nestled against each other, cushioned with gardens of Winter flora meticulously tended by the faithful trying to placate their jealous, insane gods. Now it was a slum where those not of a named family squatted under deistic frescos and massive carvings. It was a place for travelers and those who wished to stay hidden.
They pounded through the streets, past stalls selling spices and pale produce, blankets, coats and rusted weapons. Lumnos saw everything in flashes: a wide-eyed vendor, colored dunes of saffron, chili, and clove, coarse wool robes, bright gems stolen from a temple.
“Eleven!” he shouted, bidding for a Magpie using the normal parlance. Eleven bits of gold would get you quick justice. They were all over the temple quarter looking for foreigners to prey on. At last he found a few, but they were quite busy.
Rounding the corner long after the Fencer and the Trumpeter, he half stumbled into a battle between three Magpies and the travelers. There was no sign of the grey cloaked figure, just a scatter of gold and a frantic melee.
Two of the mercenaries, one in a set of plate mail, the other in a grand array of silks, wrestled with the Trumpeter for his instrument while the third loomed over the Fencer, whose sword lay amongst the gold as he shook his head clear from some trauma.
“Forty bits!” shouted Lumnos.
“Not enough,” said the man with his blade held with both hands set to deliver the death blow to the Fencer, but in fact it was.
Distracted for just the barest fraction of time by the wordseller’s offer the Fencer took advantage and smashed his hand into the assailant's windpipe. Sputtering, he fell back as the swordsman picked up Dhala and moved to aid the Trumpeter.
The fellow in silks had a sharp eye and fell back immediately, producing a splay of knives from the folds of his clothes. The other continued to struggle with the silver trumpet and its owner, chuckling as he did so.
The Fencer and the knifesman circled for a second, their feet grinding against the ancient cobles of the intersection, occasionally sliding over a gold coin. With a sudden underhand gesture the Magpie threw a trio of blades at his opponent and charged with more. The Fencer didn’t flinch as he sidestepped two and ran his sword along the man’s middle, who fell, shivered and died.
The larger man in heavy armor laughed in triumph as he finally wrested the trumpet from the Trumpeter, but his smile vanished seeing his business partner dead on the ground. Without taking his eyes from the brute the Fencer pulled the dead man's third knife from his right shoulder and let it drop to the ground.
As Lumnos watched, the huge man unchained a bronze mace from his belt, less a weapon than a piece of statue found in one of the temple ruins. It was the size of a child but he swung the heavy thing about effortlessly in eager arcs. The Fencer waited, holding his blade forth with both hands.
Then, at a proper moment he dove under the man’s reach. Down crashed the mace. Barely dodging the blow, which was faster than the brute seemed capable of, he made a lunge to the side, but found the weapon waiting. He struck out, severing the solid metal neatly in two. The mercenary blinked in disbelieve as the Fencer ran him through.
No sooner than had the man fallen than a sword gleamed in the stilted light filtering through the high buildings. The first man had recovered and while attentions were elsewhere had gotten the jump on the Fencer, who was the obvious threat.
“Murder!” shouted Lumnos but it was too late for the Fencer. Then a noise rang out like a peal of brass thunder. Possessed of a physicality, this note rippled through the Fencer and his assailant, who dropped his sword and covered his ears.
The Trumpeter helped his companion to his feet and said, “Our true quarry has gotten away, we must be quick!”
Lumnos didn’t respond. Through the whole combat he had been merely an observer, frozen in place like the defaced statues ringing the intersection. None of the attackers had even noticed him. He was a non-entity.
Crystalline realization took hold of him and that focus to detail, to reading a scene, looked down the path the Trumpeter was indicating as the Fencer gathered his wits and his sword.
“They went this way,” shouted the musician, pointing down an ancient avenue cornered by narrow temples to obscure gods.
“No,” said Lumnos calmly. “No, they’re heading back, to my store I’d guess. They’re after something and this would be the perfect time to get it.”
For some reason the two followed him as he raced back the way they came. He was certain the grey-cloaked figure would take a circuitous route, confident of the gold they had spilled. Lumnos could hear his heartbeat in his ears, smell the lingering incense from offerings long gone, taste the grimy snow slopping wetly under his feet. Caught by the moment, he felt like he could run forever.
The two younger men proved faster and soon were ahead. They caught the figure at the lip of the Rot. The Fencer lashed out with his blade and almost took the grey-clad person by surprise, but with a few canny leaps they were a good four meters back.
In the flurry of movements the cloak had slid back to reveal a broad, female face framed by a tangle of auburn. A snake spilled from her left hand and clattered on the broken stones. It lashed out, flicking the trumpet from the Trumpeter’s hands and leaving a seam of red where it touched the Fencer. She waited then, her movements those of a well-trained fighter.
Taking advantage of his forgetable mien, Lumnos began to circle. Now he saw that it was a chain which hung from her sleeve, held by a thick brace of metal around her forearm. Just as the Fencer moved to strike she whipped the thing in an arc along the ground, spraying them all with filthy water and grey snow. The swordsman staggered back half-blinded and the wordseller fretted with his sopping clothes.
“She smells of silver,” noted the Trumpeter after reclaiming his instrument.
“Lord Vael has enough toys,” said the Fencer to the woman in grey. “He can learn to share.”
“And you can share the Answer's bits and pieces,” she responded, the Baranti words, the common language of the southern lands, fumbling from her lips. Here was a person from some far distant corner of Winter. She backed up slowly to the edge of the Rot, the great opening reeking of death.
“But we all know where the Answer leads,” she said fearlessly, pointing upwards to the sky. The Trumpeter and Lumnos fell for this ruse.
Her chain hissed out for the musician’s throat but a black blade interposed and the silver cord fell to jangling pieces. She coughed a bitter laugh and without looking, stepped back and fell.
When they reached the ledge they saw a convergence of tiny things far, far below. The Rotties swarmed like ants on a drop of syrup.