The city bore a wound with no history, a gash extending some thousand meters long and nearly a hundred down into the underworks. The outer limit of the Rot, as it was known, broke into open sky, where the outer wall of the plateau on which the city of Ruin rested fell away to the frozen river delta of Samla below. This gap provided the only breath of light down in the festering dark.
The Rot showed the spare organs of the metropolis; pipes and tunnels, catacombs and sewers, these protruded from the city side, dumping their contents into the massive ravine, the bottom of which was a swamp of bodies. With the gods gone or dead, this served as the cemetery, as well as home for the Rotties.
While steam and mist often obscured the abattoir depths of the Rot these clouds would occasionally part to reveal a lively ecosystem. Feral children gathered in droves here, where they could pick through the corpses in search of gain. These abandoned creatures skulked amongst the black-mouthed tunnels. Only a few came topside to deal with the proper peoples; most were far too gone by disease and madness.
“Go down there?”
Lumnos was rapidly losing the capacity for disbelief. The two travelers, the Fencer and the Trumpeter, had both done and said things of such astounding absurdity that he was having troubles determining the extent of their madness; any possibility of sanity having long since vanished from any conceivable diagnosis.
“I don’t care to repeat myself,” said the Fencer evenly as he and the Trumpeter plotted a course down the jagged sides of the Rot.
At its edges the Rot splayed upwards in tattered, jutting cliffs. The stones and metal showed signs of intense heat, scars left by the terrible force which had erupted from the very ground itself. It was left to the imagination to determine why; any truth was lost in the Uplifting, leaving only mystery.
While they pondered Lumnos fretted, and while he fretted so did the city. Despite the tribal chaos there were certain community balances to the scale of human madness, normally. The usual tone of voices, which bounced across the manmade canyons between the various slum blocks and palatial towers, took on an element of the frantic. The cries of mothers to children and men laughing and vendors hawking fell away to a general mob murmur, originating in the temple district, then bouncing to the nearby tribal areas, the Thebs, Sysynites, the Nyriaxoms and so on.
Lost in his worries, the wordseller heard none of this as he counted the troubles of the day. Firstly there was his shop, his sanctum, violated twice by violence and once by the two travelers. Then there were the Fencer and the Trumpeter, whose addictive troublemaking had drawn him into an orbit of such fierce gravity that it seemed probable, even reasonable, that he should follow them through whatever madness they called a life.
Events of the past few hours trundled by, the only company on the abandoned streets surrounding the Rot. While never a popular destination it was often used by those dropping off a corpse or a few dreamy souls who would stop in reverence for a loved one down below. Today it was deserted. Sudden danger dawned.
“Whatever we should do must be done now!” exclaimed Lumnos, grabbing the Fencer’s shoulder to get his attention. The swordsman looked at the offending hand before facing him.
“Why do you say that?” asked the Trumpeter. The answer was readily apparent.
They saw a mob of dirty colors pass through the streets not more than two blocks off towards the palace-ruin of Nyriax. Figures in stolen silks moved door-to-door, searching, looking, calling out to each other and the sky. A hunt was underway, so said the nervous tension of violence sounding out through the streets.
“It could be that Beylim thug has riled his tribe against me, us,” he said frantically. “Or it could be word of those two Magpies you felled has travelled. There isn’t much law in this place but, to those who don’t pay for the pleasure of legal violence, they find out what life here would be like without the mercenaries.”
The pair moved with alarming speed. The Trumpeter slipped down the stones, nimbly guiding his long and lanky frame between jagged outcroppings and tattered metal pipes, riding on luck, always at the edge of a fall. His companion was more cautious, working quickly, but carefully down, testing handholds, watching his environment with a survivor’s eye. Lumnos kept up as best he could.
Though his true age was lost with the Uplifting the strength of youth had become the declining fortunes of middle-age. Bookish and sedentary, he was still peaked from the chase through the streets and huffed with the effort of clinging to the festering rock wall. His breath steamed out from the handkerchief he had tied about his nose and mouth before descending.
A horrid reek greeted their descent. Acrid lye stung their eyes and burned their noses. This was a mercy, because beneath the soapy pang hints of rotten blood and sewage emerged from time to time. They became powdered with white and the caustic stuff frosted their hands.
The way down proved easier than expected. Paths created by years of Rotties allowed for a fast escape from their pursuers. The noises from above were amplified and warped, even normal city sounds became hollow, resonant things from another world. Below, a scattering of strange eyes watched them.
The children of the Rot stood in quiet chorus as the men reached the bottom. Experience had changed them into creatures suited to their environment, with malformations openly displayed. Ranging from the very young to adulthood, though these were rare beasts, there stood an array of Winter’s peoples: chocolate-skinned Lomirans, pale Feszars, broad-faced ice hunters from the western coasts, and so on, across geographies known and unknown. All were broken and remade, spindly, sometimes lacking limbs, often lacking fingers, quick of eye, with lips cracked by the caustic lye which snowed from above most days. They wore the rags of the cast-off dead, bits of treated shroud, tunics bearing bloody signs of murder, tatters of all kinds. A few held bits of metal like the talons of vicious crows.
Yet, most startling of all, were the colors. Here was a girl with violet eyes and silvery hair, there a boy of gold and indigo. Fantastic colors lurked beneath the filth and squalor, signs of the gift and cause for abandonment by the superstitious icebound.
Clustered around the spot where the woman in grey fell, the Rotties froze the moment they saw the pair. Bodies carpeted the crater floor, festooned with skeletons, junk and trash, beneath which the sounds of trickling runoff from the city could be heard flowing away, out towards the Samla. There was no other choice than to walk upon the dead. White frosted everything, reminding of Winter without so sharp a cold.
Then one of the white ravens watching from on high fluttered and in that moment the Rotties scurried off into their tunnels perforating the crater wall, leaving the three intruders alone on the obscene wonderland. Like animals the children fled, and, with a similar cunning, plotted in the dark. One tunnel they shunned, and of this Lumnos took note.
Wasting no time, the Fencer and the Trumpeter navigated towards the still form of the spy. She lay on the slopes of a corpse hill, a few scuttling insects frolicked amongst the dead. Beneath her voluminous cloak, already tattered like a caterpillar’s leaf, they found her equally chewed. Hunger was a great equalizer down in the Rot, and it was a rare thing for a body to arrive so fresh.
Of bones they found few and of flesh, far less. The only whole body part left was her right hand and forearm, from which the chain still hung. It was affixed by a brace of steel screwed into the bones of her arm.
“That’s the work of the slave peddlers of the southern reach,” Lumnos said automatically, mostly to himself. “Steel keeps the property in their place, or so their theory goes.”
“The Slavemaster’s stock choose their chains,” said the Fencer absently as he searched through the bloody garments.
“An ex-slave most likely,” explained the Trumpeter through the muffling effect of his scarf. “Vael offered her a more fulfilling life.”
“You’ve seen much,” commented Lumnos, looking away from the blood, towards the caves and the children creeping back. He was trying to hold in his stomach.
“I’m interested in a wide audience.” Even though the musician’s mouth was covered the smile in the words was evident.
“Nothing,” spat the Fencer, trying to rub the smell out of his reddened nose. He would’ve said more, but he noticed the approaching Rotties.
They scuttled about, like the insects amongst the corpses. At first their movements were circuitous, cautious and tentative.
“Sweet,” said one little girl through thick, heavy lips the color of an opened belly.
“What was that?” asked the Trumpeter, trying to get her to continue.
“Don’t bother,” said Lumnos with an academic sigh. “All they can do is parrot the common tongue.
“Sweet, sweet,” she said, with a tone equal to the words. There was something eager to her movements.
“I find your explanations lacking,” said the musician. “She is definitely conveying as much personality and expression as your common caravaner or narwhal hunter.”
Sounds of flesh on dead flesh were the only heralds of the attack, a hundred running feet. They neither hissed, nor growled, for these were human beasts, and with the mob’s strength they descended upon the three men.
Lumnos cowered. Never had he seen such a thing, and his fear paralyzed him. A girl of about fourteen, long-limbed and long-nailed, grabbed him by his coat and pulled him down to the ground. All was seen, her fetid breath smoking through cracked teeth, the wheeling sky of dark wall and pale cloud, and the staggered rasp of lye-scarred lungs. Soon he was lost to their shrouded, hungry forms, searching through his pockets and scrapping after his flesh.
Light opened and something warm hit his hand. Above him staggered the lower half of the girl, which then tilted and pitched over, red. The weight of bodies decreased, and those that remained lay still, done in by the Fencer blade.
Ignoring a dozen nasty cuts seeping from his sealskins, the swordsman whirled through those threatening Lumnos, so fast that the blade left a blue-black smear through the air. A few of the Rotties died, but most were quick to scurry off, not far though.
Bleak eyes watching, the children played their lives detached from the violence and the death of their peers. It seemed of no consequence, except as opportunities to survive at another’s expense. Still, there was much to be gained from the hunting of men, validating the risk.
Heedless of danger, a score of the things blindsided the Fencer as he saved Lumnos. The black glass blade sung through several bodies, dancing with a life of its own. They hadn't the strength to drag him off his feet, so one produced a handful of lye and blew it in the man’s face.
Metal and teeth and nails poised in liquid ruby, rusty and broken, fell upon the coughing swordsman. As they did so a few laughed, the first noise they had uttered since the hostilities began. Lumnos watched them strip the man of his sealskin tunic and devour it as he writhed in pain.
Then, behind him, a hollow metal sound reminded him of the Trumpeter, who seemed to slip amongst the chaos without effort. There he was, a Rottie reeling from a blow given by the silver trumpet in the man’s hands. Insanely, he then put the instrument to his lips, other creatures still thronging.
The sound which came forth tore up into the sky and reverberated through the whole of the Rot. The white ravens and black crows fled in a monochrome cloud, while the children below went wide-eyed, quickly taking back to their caves. Yet the sound was working there too.
The walls of the Rot, long a static absolute, crumbled in places, fell apart at others. Huge plumes of lye and grave dust rose up, obscuring the honeycomb of tunnel openings, drifting away to reveal that some had caved in.
Music’s spell broke and as the fleeing Rotties slowed and turned the Trumpeter and Lumnos pulled the Fencer to his feet. The tin can sound of the city grew in response to the trumpet’s blast, drawing an audience.
Though fear of the noise drove the feral children away, they came creeping back once it had gone. The Trumpeter froze, but Lumnos knew a course to take. Across the sea of rot that single narrow half circle tunnel beaconed, the only one not populated by the Rotties. Once inside their pursuers stopped, stared, finally drifting off to sulk in the corpse hills.
As the Fencer lay resting, eyes closed, face pocked by chemical burns, the Trumpeter polished his instrument and Lumnos paced along the tile of what was once an aqueduct. Filth and leavings showed recent habitation and along the walls primitive art scratched out the expression of so many small hands.
“What were you thinking, you killed them,” said Lumnos, the realization of the brutal melee playing back through his mind.
The Fencer opened his red, puffy eyes, despite the pain and replied, “You can go back and try to reason with them if you wish to throw away my efforts.”
The wordseller prepared an unsatisfied sound but was interrupted by the Trumpeter, who rudely began going through his pockets. Before he could blink he was robbed of his flask of brandy, as well as one of the many clean handkerchiefs he carried on account of his perpetually runny nose.
By now the Fencer had closed his eyes once more and rested, breathing through the pain. He had no inkling about the torture he was about to endure. Without warning the Trumpeter applied a liberal splash of alcohol to the swordsman’s face. Despite the subject’s sudden start the taller man managed to wipe the remaining bits of lye clear before the swordsman tried to kill him.
“There,” he said matter-of-factly as the Fencer sought out his sword. For the briefest fraction of a moment is seemed like he’d use the thing on the musician. Then he stalked over and took a long pull from the flask before tossing it to Lumnos.
“How did you know it was his?” asked the Trumpeter indignantly.
“You don’t own anything that nice,” was the simple response.
“I need to know,” demanded Lumnos, breaking the flow of conversation. “What is it that you’ve dragged me down into?”
“A festering corpse pit,” explained the Trumpeter.
“No! Who was that woman in grey? What’s your business with Clea’s journal? I feel at the center of a blizzard right now.”
“You mentioned Winter’s Riddle before,” said the Trumpeter.
“What of it?”
“Curious and troublesome, we make our mark across the ice,” explained the musician as his companion stood in silent critique, running his hands along the fractured narrative on the wall. “It may be that our path is folly, and that we chase the lost hells to find a home for our own damnation. Yet for the great dead cold which yawns wide beneath us, our narrow path leads upwards. High aspirations, warmth and green, but I digress. Do you see the cold face of Winter from your folio haunt?”
It took a moment for the stunned wordseller to catch up to the question with the answer, “Perhaps, I…”
“What is its cause?”
“What? In the philosophical sense?”
“In none, the ice is senseless; hence the Riddle.” As he spoke the Trumpeter played a balancing game along the higher lip of the walkway which once ran alongside the aqueduct’s flow. “And it must be said that the Fencer is loath to allow for a world of such unreason, and so we search for the Answer.”
“What about yourself?” asked Lumnos automatically, still considering what had been said.
The Trumpeter was about to reply when the Fencer interrupted, “I found it, the Alabaster Palimpsest.”
Indeed he had, and in silence the three men pondered the iconographic depiction of a chalk white box, circled round and round with charcoal halos. They were as fixated on this discovery as the artist had been while working and reworking the image, refining it, that they didn’t note the dark excesses of the tunnel and the obscene black within.