Thursday, March 29, 2012

Pale Blank Skin VI.

            Lumnos was well acquainted with hierarchies of black.  He’d been lost in the unknowing dark once before, escaping with only a self, and no a past.  If he looked back, through the years of books, there it was, a screen beyond that lost library wherein shadowy mysteries lay.    
            The Trumpeter’s taper went out with their fall, scattering to quickly cooled embers.  The depths howled up from the tunnel, which was steeply angled just so that they didn’t dash to pieces with the fall, but hurtled ever faster into the yawning dark.  In dreams and nightmares and rare magician fantasies the bottomless pit held a ubiquitous existence in the minds of many.
            Childish fear, relegated to story books and hearth tales, imparted the notion of an abyss where one might fall forever.  At the time, knowing it only as a literary device or the ravings of a mad poet, the wordseller never understood what was so fearful about such a fall, since his rational mind knew it was the stop at the bottom which was dangerous.  Bottomlessness should therefor preclude any such danger, and the terror which came with it.  Now that he felt his own weight moving at speeds he couldn’t help but calculate he knew the truth of such terror, and found it quite reasonable.
            Black, as a color, had another connotation: death, though this was by no means universal.  Certain cultures painted red as the morbid shade, others white, but for the most black signified the mysteries beyond life, as if when one shut their eyes everything ceased to be.  And black magic was the working of death itself, or maybe death was merely an expression of sorceries so ancient and nuanced that it had come to be accepted as part of the natural order.  So much had been lost into the darkness of the Uplifting, and from that very darkness, that unknowing, Lumnos had stepped those sixteen years ago, pondering a world without a past.
            A strange odor greeted them in the dark.  At first he thought it was the tang of the lye clinging to his sinuses, but as it grew in strength Lumnos knew it to be different.  Maybe it was a growing madness in him, but he could only describe the scent as that of salts complicated with traces of heavier metals, chemicals rare and dangerous.    
            The reminder of harsh gravity broke the wordseller’s careful thoughts.  His heart lurched with fear towards a sudden and brutal end.  He could list off the names of the bones as they broke and muscles as they tore apart.  Yet, in a confusion of shouts and clangs, the slope eased, and the Trumpeter and he tangled up in a whirling ball.  Together they were spat out onto a flat stone floor and collapsed at the bottom in a heap.  There was light here, faint amongst the dark.
            Regaining his senses, the wordseller found the Fencer watching him.  A tiny chemical lantern, dangling by a chain from his fingers, cast pale light.
            “You seem unconcerned for my wellbeing,” groused Lumnos as he struggled out from the incredibly heavy musician.  His sword lay there waiting, kicked down in the confusion with the marrowmere.
            “I’m no mother hen,” replied the swordsman.
            “No, you’re a savage.”
            The Fencer smiled.  “So pleased we can agree on something.”
            “You left us up there with those floating dead men!” raged the Trumpeter when he finally realized he had survived.
            Dhala fell down here,” he said casually.  The blade once more hung at his side.  “The dead were bunched up at that film we shattered, released when the spell was broken.  I see no sign of more.”
            He swung the light about slowly, revealing a cavern gnawed from the rock.  Iron support structures propped up a million tons of solid basalt.  A few dark exits opened here and there.
            “You’re an educated man,” began the swordsman.  “What is this place?”
            “Doesn’t satisfy me,” growled the Trumpeter to his companion, still hurt by the betrayal.
            “Here, well, oh,” began Lumnos as he sorted his thoughts and tucked the weapon into his belt.  “I remember certain tales of Ruin’s settlement, though it held a different name then, the city’s site chosen for the plentiful veins of rich, strange materials the sorcerers found efficacious in their Art.  I only know what I read, but I believe those delvings continued until the Uplifting.  Perhaps these are the mines of legend.  If we look about I might understand more.”  
            “That smell?” demanded the Fencer.
            “The underworld is full of strange emanations, some poisonous, some explosive,” replied Lumnos.  “That chute we just exited was probably sunk for the very purpose of venting such troubles.”
            “No,” interrupted the Trumpeter as he stalked the room in savage disagreement.  “This is a different smell.  From my tenure beneath the steam city of Nock I can say this is not one of the typical noxious gasses.  It has a different tenor, metallic, with a hint of the sea.”
            While the Trumpeter rhapsodized about the smell of rock the Fencer stalked off towards the nearest opening.
            “Where are you going?” asked Lumnos, not relishing the idea of being left in the dark.
            “We can’t go back the way we came, too steep,” reasoned the swordsman.  “If this is a mine then there must be a proper tunnel to the surface.  Even if sealed it should provide an avenue of escape.”
            This plan was a rational mask, behind which the Fencer hid other motives.  These were difficult for the wordseller to sort out.  Pondering, he joined the other two in searching this lower realm. 
            The Fencer, wishing to keep his hands free for murder, lent his lantern to the bookish third man, who was surprised to discover it to be a household design, a fixture.  The Trumpeter was more than happy to relate how it had been stolen from a whorehouse which had provided less-than-adequate service.  Lumnos feared for his books should these two men with quick hands enter his shop again.
            They wandered the tunnels and saw the works of a mine.  Picks and shovels lay abandoned in many of the little nooks and dead end passages jutting off from the main concourse.  Litters of broken stone lay here and there waiting for transport.  Amongst the drab basalt faint glimmers of metal ore shone in the pale light they carried.  The scope of the place was immense, revealing centuries of work.  A legion of men once toiled here, yet they found no bones.  The place was incredibly clean and thankfully free of any of those terrible dead things. 
            There was a purity to the darkness beyond the lantern light.  In the fall from above Lumnos had pondered the stygian black, but there was another component to looking into the abyss.  Just as in the obsidian mirror above, the emptiness scrutinized him, as if his old being, whoever that was, stared back, out of time, out of unknowing, towards the creature holding the lantern as he spelunked into the future.
            “I’ve just remembered something,” he said with sudden enlightenment.  “There was one mage who plumbed the depths further than any other.  He was called the Argent Lord, as silver was the source of his mundane wealth, yet it was rumored that the precious metal merely financed his more exotic underground projects.  He kept a city of workers beneath the ground, where they might toil more efficiently.”
            “Oh, or perhaps this is the realm of the Darkling Dwere,” quipped the Trumpeter excitedly.  “Here they carved out the crystallized bodies of things interred many eons ago, when the world was warm and green.  From these things they learned the magic of the ancients and controlled all cities from their secret tunnels stretching across the world.”
            Silence followed this telling, until Lumnos sputtered a reply.
            “I’ve never, never heard of these things.”
            “That’s because,” the Fencer began, glancing back to show just how annoyed he was by the exchange, “they don’t exist.”
            “I thought that since we’re making stories up I might as well add a legend I had heard myself,” said the Trumpeter.
            “I know what I remember,” protested Lumnos, his voice echoing off the walls a bit too loudly.
            “You know what you’ve read,” corrected the Trumpeter and then almost fell to his death.
            Distracted by this disagreement the three had tarried at a wide opening along the tunnel.  Through this portal, a jagged semicircle of dark grey stone, a vast and shadowy room opened up.  Lost in their words, they meandered through the opening.  Across the floor shadows played.  In the dim light they had failed to notice the pit. 
            Cut from the rock at perfect angles it yawned over a dozen meters on each of its cubic sides.  Down in the black stone a sorted mass of white bodies lay.  The Trumpeter teetered but Lumnos caught him, the musician’s scarf unraveling just enough that it brushed up against the dead.  In cold silence the things stood up.
            There was a word for these sorts of things and it popped into the bookish man’s mind without provocation.  Doad, the dead which move, quick and desiccated things animated by tragedy or black magic.  Winter froze some spirits in their bodies and even death couldn’t free them.
            Plumes of lye dusted up from the squirming mass and brought with it the smell of the Rot.  These dead moved with inhuman speed up the sides of their charnel bower, clambering like fat, blanched ticks, jostling each other in senseless motion. 
            In the few seconds before they clambered over the edge the men saw many more of these same square openings, what they had taken to be long shadows at a glance, laid out in a precise grid, the total of which was lost in the cavern’s dark reaches.  Then the dead were upon them and the Fencer drew his weapon, unwilling to flee this horrid place.
            They were all a sort, similar in build, ethnicity and age.  A collection of pale maidens from the ice hunters of Ghazerech clawed after the men.  These were a common group in the city of Ruin, long ago lured into the service of the sorcerer lords and their mundane successors.
            The Fencer cleaved a full arc with one languid swing of Dhala.  Darkness crackled out of them, part blood, part something else.  He cursed at the foul emanations using the name of a now useless hell, shrinking back as a tide of dead women hurled themselves upon him. 
            He fought in retreat and suddenly Lumnos and the Trumpeter were part of the deluge, the swordsman using them to cut the numbers pressing upon him.  The wordseller in particular took this turn badly, standing there, forgetting his sword, as he tried to determine some scheme to the tide of sisters, all so similar, reaching out with blackened nails to tear him apart.  They had the Trumpeter by his scarf as he flailed about with his silver instrument, braining their thoughtless heads which showed no sign of pain or abatement.
            Then a hidden trigger in his mind switched and he wrestled free from the noxious women just enough to draw his blade.  He split the first one which lunged at him, dividing the skull into equal parts.  From her corrupt brain matter a spilling of black shapes trilled him with horror.  Yet he wasn’t frozen by fear, as he had in all the past combats.  Now his heart leaped up in his chest beating wildly.
            Something bumped up against him, and he almost attacked this new assailant before realizing it was the Fencer.  Together they were able to keep the horde off each other’s backs and managed to free the Trumpeter, whose neck ran scarlet from dead nails. 
            The doad were too many.  More and more dead faces flickered into sight from the swinging of the small lamp, which Lumnos had somehow managed to hold onto all this time.  The Fencer cleaved one apart while another gnawed on his right side. 
            “Run!” he said, shaking off his dinner guest and pointing back out the main tunnel. 
            The Trumpeter made the scholar leave the fray, hollow sounds echoing from his instrument as he used it to topple they pale creatures which followed.  At first it seemed that the Fencer meant to purchase time for the other two, but as the horde sensed the retreat and slavered after, it was increasingly clear he meant to purchase time for himself.
            “That scoundrel!” yelled Lumnos as he realized this.
            The Trumpeter pushed him on and laughed.  They rounded the corner leading to the main concourse with a dozen corpses following silent and quick.  The way forward flickered in and out of existence, lit only by the jostled lantern.
            A low sound, like air being forced out of a bellows heralded a flash and then a rocking explosion.  Violet tresses of flame arced from the opening they had just left behind and trailed a shape as it flew heavily against the far wall of the main tunnel.  The Trumpeter stopped, staring.
            “He told us to go!” argued Lumnos, shaking his sword with jittery excitement.
            “I’ve never seen fire quite like that,” was the best reply the awed man managed.
            That fire had consumed most of the doad, leaving only a few to give chase.  As the dead things lurched about, drifting, flesh working in death as it never could in life, the smoking form picked itself up, using the wall as support.  One of its sides glistened black.
            Lumnos led the attackers by shifting at the last moment to his right, narrowing the column to a manageable few, if only for a moment.  He lashed out with his sword, catching the leader under the ear and shattering its spine.  The next leaped upon him and he brought the narrow point up through the soft spot under the jaw.  It sagged as its brain burst out from the top of its skull.  Two quick motions brought their numbers down to ten, but it wasn’t enough. 
            The rest forced him against the wall.  He wanted to look into their eyes, to get some sense to their beings, but they had none, pale irises wavered in their sockets like soap bubbles in a bath.  What the living men struggled against was not the bodies, or any kind of self, but an animating energy, darkly possessing, an abyss which never looked back. 
            He widened his eyes, hoping to read some truth in this madness, but then something warm and oily blinded him.  He writhed on the floor, unable to consider that he was now free from the cloying grasp of so many sorted women, or the sound of bone shearing neatly or the dead being put to rest. 
            Something grabbed him and he tried to lash out, but a heavy foot kept his blade stuck to the ground. 
            “Hold him still while I get his eyes,” said the Trumpeter.
            A hand like a gnarled tree limb pulled him down and held his arms while another set, far more furtive and graceful, cleansed his sight with some sort of stinging solution.
            “That stuff flew out of those things like tears, but now it’s like tar,” complained the musician as Lumnos blinked back into the gloomy caverns. 
The crackling of flames almost masked the shuffles of still more things in the dark.  Around them lay the seeping remains of the corpse women, no piece larger than a hand or foot, and they all quivered, covered in the grimy black fluid which had been the cause of his blindness.  No wonder that the Fencer’s whirlwind attack had spattered them all with the noxious stuff.
Violet light flickered from the cavern behind them, a strange, languid sort of fire.  It exerted a powerful influence on his mind, for reasons which could only be described as enchantment.
The blackened thing from before was the Fencer, singed by the fire and thrown by the resulting explosion, but this had done little to stagger him and his cold grey eyes peered off towards the flames, keen with lost feelings.  At first Lumnos thought the man injured, but the liquid running down his side came from a belt pouch and smelled strongly of chemicals, not blood.
“Are you hurt?” he asked anyway, curious.
            “Me?” the Fencer said, following the scholar’s gaze to his side.  “Well, I feel as best I can after meeting that wall, but my flank certainly is tingling right now.”
            “Were those…” began the Trumpeter.
            “Clea’s magics, yes,” stated the Fencer, who suddenly saw what he was looking for in the dark. 
            Spilling from the curtain of violet flame a shadow shape emerged, all black, as in silhouette, but as it turned it never gained any other color.  It had no eyes, no features of any specific sort, just a glistening glass sheen, like a pane of obsidian, animate and angular. 
            “What profit can there possibly be in staying?” mused the Trumpeter, but already the Fencer was off, running further into the mysteries and away from the thing, Lumnos not far behind.
            They had lost their lantern, shattered in the fight with the doad, but a strange grey light seemed to cling to the walls, an illumination which grew slightly as they went.  This dusky radiance revealed a tunnel growing larger and larger, worked to a fine polish as proof of importance.  Like an artery it once hosted droves of miners, those who were the blood in these veins of ancient stone. 
            Portals opened up on either side, ranging from equally massive passages to small niches where tools might be kept or where a tired laborer might rest outside the commotion.  Then they found the city.
            Surrounded by a lake, the city of the Argent Lord, rose up to meet even the mighty heights of the single cavern in which it grew.  The buildings were all of stone, carved in place by the first generation, and built to last them all.  Now the widows and doorways were dark, looking out as blankly as a corpse, none of which were in sight.  Something slight and black reclined by a small fire on the far shore, but that didn’t draw as much attention as the lake.
            How they never smelled it until now was unknown, but in that vast reservoir, once used to provide water for the hidden city, a sea of jellied red and chalky white lay in semi-congealed horror.  The white stuff was bone matter, the red, marrow, all churned up into a slurry.  Its nature soon became clear as a massive hand lurched up, dripping, and began pulling itself to shore, something still hidden in the charnel muck, or made of the stuff, something from the depths of a dark mind. 

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