The ancient tiled space arched into a tunnel, occupied by the usual obscenities of idle hands. Though lacking education and culture the Rotties still scratched out that all too human need for expression. Swarms of graffiti. Art from the depths.
Smudged stick figures swam in sooty darkness beneath a plateau of squares and rectangles, where higher beings dwelt. Most of the figures had exaggerated sexual characteristics pointing and bulging from their otherwise generic forms. Some were Magpies in grey chalk, others just body parts smeared with brownish red fluid. There was a familiar play of drama, of hunts and coins and stories, some of which might only have sense in the mind of the artist. Amongst the cacophony one particular hand stood out.
Crammed low along the ancient waterway an uncommon tableaux spread as revelation, trees and flowers and fantastic creatures not seen in the city of Ruin. Hash marks occurred frequently and Lumnos understood these to be mathematical expressions, strange little calculations processing unknown ends. Together these bits of soul rhymed a secret, glimpsed a spirit, and ensorcelled the eye. Here was a Rottie different than the rest.
Then a change came over this aberrant narrative. In recent activity black charcoal dominated: invading the other stories, crossing out their fertility goddesses and long men, growing calm with a strange, new direction. That was where the white square appeared, the thing which most probably represented the Alabaster Palimpsest. Its symbol rose above all other things.
“What does it mean?” murmured Lumnos. His mind was trained to understand other trained minds. Here he was out of context.
“A tribe, like any other,” commented the Fencer. “You see here and here, these are tales of conquest, of things gained. Here the Rotties make a foray into the city proper and steal from a building of orange.”
“That would be the Theb palace,” explained Lumnos. “Orange is their color.”
“From the Thebs then,” correct the Fencer tersely. “In any event that sort of thing is all over. Others depict desires, like broad women and these grossly overcompensating males. Also, given the preponderance of red, I’d say they don’t much care for the Magpies.”
“How can you make any sense of this mess?” Lumnos was more than a little jealous.
“I’ve seen the like before, back in my village. Ignorance, or at least desolation, truncates the human hand to a few raw stories. So lust and achievement, gain and conquest, these are what stands out to lives whose only recourse is survival, ice and death. We can only warm our hands in another’s blood.”
“Yet this hand is different,” he continued, pointing out the tall green things, the colored growths, and the huge beasts, of which no city-dwelling Rottie could possibly have knowledge. “These are trees and flowers and other things, I’m not so sure of, fantastic creatures perhaps, or imaginings.”
“How could you possibly know those are flowers and trees,” responded Lumnos incredulously. “Such things haven’t been found on Winter since before the ice.”
“I’ve seen them,” said the Fencer with bitter aggression. “Are you saying I haven’t? Would you deny me my memories?”
“Not as such…” drifted the wordseller, suddenly very aware of this man’s violent tendencies.
“I’d like to say something sensible,” stated the Trumpeter. “What’s to happen next? Outside there is a legion of savage children waiting to gnaw the flesh from our bones; only their fear of this tunnel has preserved us this far. Above our horizontal woes there are the angry palace tribes and those dead thief takers, courtesy of the Fencer. To go up in public is certain to incite the mob.”
“Why not explore further into the tunnels,” said Lumnos tentatively, being met with incredulous eyes. “I’m serious. Many cellars connect with the old underground and though I’m sure that most landowners have sealed theirs off from the marauding Rotties it stands to reason that there might be a means up into one of the old, dried lagoons or storehouses. From there we can wait for nightfall and make for my shop. With your coin and mine I’m sure we can purchase the cost of enough Magpies to tip the law in our favor.”
“You are certain of this gambit?” asked the Fencer with careful words.
“Not absolutely, but it’s better than being stuck in this sewer.”
“And it means we may find the Palimpsest after all,” wagered the Trumpeter, already scouting the darkness.
The Fencer pondered the pictographs a few seconds longer. Lumnos could tell there was something in that display which bothered the man; it was the same for him. His uncanny perception pricked up when he saw those spindly depictions. An emotion lay within the chalk, something pent up and rotten. The wordseller followed after the musician before the Fencer could turn and see him watching, and from behind he heard those seal skin boots follow shortly, off into the waiting dark.
Holding a flickering taper produced from his voluminous coat pockets the Trumpeter was first to discover the mad place yawning before them. Through long years, back into histories sorcerous and forgotten, these tunnels stretched. Branches lead to other places, galleries and sewers, dungeons and storerooms, all long since abandoned. They took what stairs they could, but after a certain point all further ascents were blocked by tumbled rock and meters thick concrete, and so they continued, often having to delve deeper because no other avenues presented themselves.
Signs that the Rotties traversed the underworld were quite evident, from cast off bones to wall scribblings, but it seemed that they rarely plumbed these forlorn places, not while there was a steady fall of resources out in the Rot. That cemetery was rich with trash, warmer, with some glimpses of sky. The tunnels provided only dust and tatters. If anything they used these corridors as a highway, moving about the city unseen, just as the travelers wished to now.
At a tunnel junction full of high, blank shadows the Trumpeter stopped and held up his hand. There was something of interest on the ground. When Lumnos caught up he could see it was a sword, of Hsen make most likely.
“Violence?” asked the Fencer, crouching down to get a feel for the weapon, which was light, long, narrow and double-edged.
“I don’t see any blood,” began the Trumpeter, “nor lye, nor the scuffs of struggle. If this was just left here then the Rotties would’ve certainly claimed it.”
“Which means it’s recent enough to be unmolested by the locals, but strange enough to make me think that whoever lost this weapon was the victim of mystery instead of any sort of prosaic trouble.”
The Trumpeter and he exchanged a knowing look but said nothing to betray the suspicion they shared. Lumnos filed this away for further review, then gave a start as something sharp and metal was thrust in his hands.
“Know how to use this?” asked the Fencer, nodding to the sword he offered.
“Well, in theory,” said Lumnos gingerly thinking about the weapon. “I’ve made a study of the various martial forms and can recall sufficient quantities of the stuff.”
“Can you use it?”
“I believe I can point the sharp end in the right direction.” Apparently this was good enough because he found the Hsen blade in his belt and the two travelers bothering him for directions. Thus armed he directed the group towards the south, gauging the direction by the growth of certain rusts and lichen.
“Do you notice what I notice?” asked the Trumpeter a bit too loudly, his voice echoing along the strange high ceiling of their current gallery.
“I haven’t seen a living thing since we entered,” nodded the Fencer. “The place is clean.”
This was true, thought Lumnos, who knew there should be rats and other crawling things which lived at the bottom level of the city’s ecosystem. Those plant growths they followed were old and dead, crumbling to dust. This wasn’t always the case. Just a few weeks ago he hired the services of a rat catcher to weed out a nest from his cellar where their incessant chattering had made for some rough nights.
Home, came the next thought, with all its old books and dusty shelves, long nights spent on forgotten histories of nations who left no other mark on the face of cold Winter than a few bare ruins greedily broken down by masons and bandits looking for shelter. It seemed that he had spent his whole life, what there was of it, drenched in words, hidden from the icy eye of the world.
Their course led out into a massive chamber and here it was clear that not all was right with the underworld. Entering at the base of the cylindrical room, which was about a hundred meters in diameter, they discovered a jumbled assortment of masonry, not broken or ruined, just out of placed and strangely fused. Stairs curved along the wall, coming from nowhere and going the same. Ramps led to various dark-eyed exits, some so ludicrously steep that no living being could expect to ascend such an incline. Along the single central pillar a few rooms hung, attached to this stone column as purposeless gibbets and oubliettes. Fact was that none of the structures held reasonable function, instead serving to create an unnerving space, expressing the work of an alien hand.
When Lumnos’s mind had come back down from the puzzling heights he wandered over to the Fencer and the Trumpeter, who sat as statues before an aperture at the base of the central pillar. Across this portal a film of black glass stretched, caught the eye and wouldn’t let go. They stood and stared at their glossy reflections. These were their souls, now taken.
The wordseller’s mind still had a bare spark to it, but it was fading fast. A tingling sensation, not unlike horror, grew and grew within, making him feel almost weightless. He tried to work his hands, but could only manage a slight twitch, better than the rest of him, which was already still as death.
So he focused on his hand, the arm, drawing upon the raw knowledge of anatomy gained from his books. Straining against some sort of enervation he managed to put all his will towards one last movement, a desperate gamble of ultimate concentration. Wavering like a snowfly, he reached out and knocked the sword from the Fencer’s hand.
Falling, the weapon’s point buried itself into the ancient stone. It tilted and fell on its side and all Lumnos could do was watch; his body had at last succumbed to the enchanted black. With a clatter and a clang it threatened to come to rest at the edge of the portal down, but held just enough momentum to breach the edge, waver and then fall.
The black glass film broke with a liquid splash and a dozen waiting, bloated bodies floated upwards in obscene defiance of gravity and nature. Buoyed by some terrible spell, they tumbled end over end, breaking like a wave against the men as they recovered their spirits, pawing at them with talons made from broken fingers and sharpened bone. Some of these things burst upon the strange architecture of the room, popping apart in a spray of weightless black fluid, stuff reeking of magic.
Groaning from distended mouths, the dead things attacked as a chaotic mob of grasping flesh. At first Lumnos thought to puncture them with his weapon, but a stream of bubbling night spat out from the wound. Startled, he dropped the Hsen sword and backed up, almost falling into the newly cleared passage down.
While the Trumpeter cowered from the looming nightmares the Fencer took a quick look at the spilling undead and leaped, vanishing into the lower darkness. The black within one thing slipped out the seams of its host and made a strange double diamond shape. The living men had their tongues swelled up in their throats. Staggering, the Trumpeter dashed for the opening and clumsily knocked Lumnos down as well.
Together they fell into the lower dark, skidding along the slanted chute. A great unknown opened up and swallowed them.