Sunday, April 29, 2012
This month's Winter's Riddle release is a collection, all three previous books edited and combined into one volume named Echoes of Nightmare and Song. This was how I originally pictured the first release, fully describing the begging of the Trumpeter and the Fencer's journey north, into danger and wonder. In addition the collection includes an all new story, "Syzygy," which tells a tale of the Uplifting, as well as sporting an all new introduction and original art by Justin M. Lewis. If you haven't obtained any of the previous releases, this is the one to get, and if you have it should provide enough new material to warrant a look. The Riddle continues its tale in snow and blood, catching the minds of those who stare out over the ice.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
Her name was Laxa and she sat in stillness, gathering her tongue, her eyes dancing mad at the prospect hidden within the smoke and chaos besieging the city of Ruin. Lumnos watched her and knew this, knew her bloody mind and the rivals she had killed for glory and pride. Now she was on the verge of trembling.
She wore the tattered remnants of a fine noble's outfit plundered from some archmage's dressing room. The singed tunic fit close, the black tights now torn by the violence of the past hours. A shark-tooth hemmed cloak was held about her neck by a cord of woven azure. She carried numerous trophies of her success: platinum anklets jangled by the half-dozen, her wrist home to a tangle of silver bracelets, and her right hand bore enough rings to be considered armored.
These were important artifacts left behind by the vanished magi. Each was a work of art, bearing religious or historical significance, now reduced to the value of a life spilled for the purpose of prestige on the stinking streets of a broken city.
Most important of all her prizes, though, were the scores of ribbons she had wrapped around one thigh. The common practice of the palace-tribes was that only those wearing proper colors could be part of their blade-games and to lose one's ribbon was considered a great shame and a potent gain for the winner. Much blood had been spilled over colored bits of silk.
"It started when the Rotties came out of their hole," she began, fidgeting with her tight knot of honey-colored hair. "They were in a fever over something, eyes white and wide. They'd attack anything that moved. Happened so quick that they filled most of the coward's quarter with blood, not that we cared, but that's what started the first fire."
The Fencer kept watch through a gap in the wall, staying in shadow as looters and braves prowled the ever-darkening streets. The Trumpeter watched the woman tell her story through the warped reflection on his silver trumpet.
"Then the Sysynites slew Lans and Qord," she continued. "I can only guess one with our colors let the first blood, but I can’t be sure. We smelled fresh meat, so did the Nyriaxoms. Coin bought some justice from the Magpies but in the thick of things they began taking sides with whoever paid the best and quickly. Before long, it was difficult to even consider color before killing as we hunted in bands, chasing after shadows."
A bitter turn to her mouth broke the telling. She trembled at the edge of a great precipice, just as the city itself worried over the unknown horror seething up from the Rot. In this shrunken world things of power hid in ignorance, so that when magic came again it so overwhelmed the senses that the only possible response was shock.
"But as the dead fell down there was no counting them," her voice croaked. "If one watched, a shadow would come crawling against the sunlight and enter in without touching the flesh, and then the thing would fly up and decay quick, as if dead for a week or more. Sometimes the shadows wouldn’t even wait for death."
"Still, these things wore our colors and because of this there were cries of witchcraft. I've heard tell that the things first crawled up from the Rot. Theirs is madness. Sometimes they lie in place for hours, seeping rotted blood, or maybe a shape of night will protrude outwards and any looking upon it have their eyes go all blurry as their souls leave. If we fight them they don't die, they just giggle and spill and then, with a touch, we die."
"Why do you think this is happening?" asked Lumnos when it was clear she had nothing more to offer but a distant look. The Fencer began to interject but the wordseller hushed him quiet.
"I think the magicians are back," she said guiltily.
Lumnos sucked at his teeth appreciatively. There was an unspoken fear in Ruin that the old masters would return, find their houses full of squatters, and then take their revenge. It was a common way to scare children at night. Indeed, the absence of magic created whole new pantheons of superstition. The wordseller felt otherwise. He had seen uncanny Sol at the top of destruction. There would be no return.
"I think I'll scout a bit," said the Fencer as he readied to descend back down to the moaning streets.
"Do you think that's wise?" Lumnos asked.
"We've been nearly a day without food and have little water left," he reasoned.
With a thump Laxa produced a heavy sack she had hidden in the debris.
"This should even our obligations," she said coldly.
The Trumpeter leapt upon the offering, savaged the bag open and began sorting the finds voraciously. Laxa tried to help but was slapped away for this affront.
Inside there were a number of large tolem tubers, a collection of tiny, sour apples, and a half-dozen clinking bottles of water.
"Scavenged from this ruin," she explained.
The flames in the next room were coming close and so they moved further down the hall, to a large sitting room where once a whole family had lived. There they crunched on the starchy roots and tried not to consider the charnel reek coming from the bodies they had toss into the fire to make room. Lumnos didn't eat as his stomach was all twisted up, knotted by the intractable problem before them.
Their only light came from outside, from the waxing moon and the glimmer of fires still dancing over the troubled city. Then a greater brilliance gleamed from within the structure itself. It moved closer up the passage, sending ribbons of light through the numerous gaps and holes. Lumnos blinked and there was the Fencer, pressed next to the door, waiting. Glimpses of the thing could be seen through the fire-eaten gaps in the wall.
Standing a fair bit over two meters it was roughly like a man. Its form had a smoothly contoured white, clay-like texture. Naked and sexless, its few features were its long hands and sleek face. There, a score of tiny eyes peered from the matter, while its head was crowned by a number of flat, horn-like structures sweeping back. It drifted, toes just above the ground, looking about as stray matter, picked up and moving of its own accord through the hair, attended it in flight. In silence the visitor drifted near and, after considering, entered their room where the Trumpeter cringed and Lumnos stared and Laxa took up one of her narrow swords.
A shout from the Fencer brought the attention he sought and up came wicked Dhala towards the things midsection. The blade stopped with a clink at the flesh, which grew an ablative film of blocky hexagonal scales.
The Trumpeter was first through the hole in the wall, shrieking about ghosts and demons made from pearls. Others followed quickly, the visitor's strange head watching them each leave as it tapped the offending weapon away. He grumbled but the Fencer came too, incensed that his cursed weapon left not even a nick on the things pristine hide.
As a group they raced from room to room, dropping down floors when they found a hole burned through the treated masonry. It, whatever it was, followed, drifting in silence, but also confusion.
On the third drop the timber they clambered down broke while the Trumpeter hung from it, sending up a gout of hot embers and knocking the wind from the man. It seemed the light from the creature was all around, drifting closer with alien interest. Yet, as it gained on them, able, as it was, to levitate and move quick as thought if needed, this thoughtfulness also lead to hesitation, approaching, only to pull back at the last second.
On the ground floor it seemed that the moon was up brilliantly, but as they stumbled out the grand hall an unwelcome truth barred the way.
Stretched around the building was a cylinder of light, with them in the hapless middle. Lumnos stood in awe at the construction, how, on close inspection it was composed of overlapping designs of curious script burned into the very air.
"You are mad, cursed men and you've brought an even more terrible spirit upon me," shrieked Laxa, leveling her weapon at the Fencer, while in the background the Trumpeter brought up his instrument towards the surrounding light.
Then it was with them. Lashing out, the Fencer hit the bare flesh of the thing as the outer white seeped away down an arm. Dhala graced through the wrist and a very human hand fell to the ground.
In stunned silence they watched the suit come apart at well hidden seams, revealing a long, lumpy face, silver eyes, a countenance set with pain and discipline.
"Do I have to pay with more than a hand for the pleasure your conversation?" this man inside the creature said to the whole of the group while the alabaster fluid suit he wore swam over the bloody stump. They counted long seconds in silence.
"I am the Abjurist Loce. As a curiosity I have returned to the City of Lost Names, but it is with concern that I speak to you now. Out of darkness a thing of the Black Lattice now conjures up his own heart and soon the floating world of Summer will send powers to deal with this threat."
"Then why should we care?" grumbled the Fencer. At the sight of blood he had lost all fear of this man.
"Summer has no care for those who fall under its baleful eye," responded the man in white. "Some cures are worse than poison. I, however, do care. This place was once my home and by chance I've been brought back here through the actions of certain trespassers."
"If you care then you should do something," continued the Fencer in debate. He wore a hatred of the man on his face.
"I will not," Loce stated.
"Then leave. I'd rather contemplate in true dark than false light."
"What are you saying?" said Lumnos in utter shock. "Here is a living mage, here on Winter, and all you can do is assault him, with words now that your sword is useless."
"Summer's Puzzle," grinned the Trumpeter.
All this while Laxa stood transfixed. She had always imagined sorcerers of legend to be perfect and metallic, made of greater stuff. Loce had the silver hair and eyes, but his face was long and ugly, a harsh face full of Winter. The inhuman leanness of his limbs was contrasted with a very human roundness to his belly, he was stooped too. She cared not for the man but for his magic.
"We live by our designs and mine is apart from the violence one does to another," began the mage in the living suit. "I will determine no course as my heart must be free, but I will say that deep below there is a boy, and in his hands is a book, which is like holding a mirror to a flame; whatever light it casts grows stronger; whatever darkness too."
"You hindered us from leaving," pointed out the Trumpeter.
"Small sacrifices," smiled Loce for the first time in decades.
Lumnos's tongue kept curling towards words but the press of the moment, the urgency of the smoking air, these things paralyzed him. The wonders this man could explain, the truths he knew, the mysteries too, the sheer weight of these thrilled the wordseller into silence. If only he could get a word in, then the loss of his shop might be worth it.
Loce vanished and took his light with him. They were left in cloudy midnight, quiet for the briefest second before the shouts arrived. A glowing pillar gains attention and the Fencer cursed their visitor.
They ran from a motley of palace-tribesmen who jousted after these presumed witches with thrown stones and promises of exciting death. Passing through the day's tragedy, skeletons of brick and stone, column and plinth, rose up along the avenues, some still burning, some soaring untouched. Light streamed from these settlements, the best to combat the darkness and its horrors. The populace was on edge and alert.
The scope of Ruin had grown, accentuating its name, burnt and crumbling, gutted and sacked. What a house of cards, thought the wordseller. Chaos reigned, cruelty breathed a life of its own, yet there was a taste of fatalism to the day's carnage, that things intended to fall apart. Violence, as Loce had put it, in a broad sense, and Winter did provoke violence against any person or structure which dared violate the cold death of its icy face.
Their pursuers soon gave up, leaving them with a frantic search for shelter in a darkened block of town.
Rounding a bend in the street, shadow things leaped upon the Fencer from the high window of an empty tenement. More followed. Blades flashed against the attackers, who yowled and screeched as they tore into whatever flesh they could find. To his surprise Lumnos found he had drawn his sword.
Sliding down a mountain of debris it came quiet and quick, leaping like an animal, it talons reaching out. Lumnos lunged into it, just as he had seen the Fencer do against Loce, hoping that this would go much better. The blade veered through the thing's mass, popping organs, tearing meat, glancing off bone. He hadn't the senseGLERGURAH to pull his weapon out quick and as it collapsed it took his sword with it.
The ambush was short-lived. Soon as they had come they fled from tougher fare, a handful lying scattered and still on the cobbles. The Trumpeter lit a taper.
"I don't want to see!" screamed Lumnos, but his eyes betrayed him.
A dead Rottie flickered into existence at his feet. Its, no, his eyes shone glassy, a stream of glistening red coming from a ruptured belly. The boy couldn't be older than ten cycles, but in those years he had grown tough and gnarled, and he had obviously spent much time filing his fingers to jagged points, his teeth to saw blades.
"Move you weepy worm," barked Laxa. The rest were in a hurry to get away from the place before more arrived. Some of them had taken wounds, cuts and bruises from the onslaught. The Fencer's right side showed a long gouge from a dull knife. Lumnos staggered, but they wouldn't let him leave the sword behind and he almost vomited unsheathing it from the body.
For a time they ran through deep pools of city shadow. Occasionally civilized light promised higher up, out of reach. Lumnos wasn’t exhausted yet, but he stopped at a wide abandoned square. In the middle a dead fountain some hundred meters in diameter watched with its statues and snow water.
“You best have more life in you old man,” said the Fencer as they stopped with him.
“We are running nowhere,” said Lumnos between breaths. A distant cry from a dry throat sounded through the city.
“Nowhere would be safer,” reasoned Laxa. “Why bring this brittle man anyway?”
“Running begets more running,” he said. “No, we need to take a course along the mage’s wisdom.”
“Wisdom!” laughed the Trumpeter. “He spoke in shades and left us to guess the color. I still wager we should leave, pride or shame, city or ruin.”
“I agree,” said the Fencer, but he watched the wordseller closely as he commented.
Obscene shapes drifted in the sky above, their presence betrayed only by the occasional angle of light from the moon. Yet, fear came from below, a tension, like a meniscus being broken, letting in a strange flood.
“I can remedy pride, safety, and curiosity in one swoop, if you’ll listen,” he said with particular cunning. He had seen the solution between the shadows. “We will need a guide, someone who knows the way down.”
“A Rottie?” blinked the Trumpeter.
“A strong one, an older one,” mused the wordseller.
“But we just slaughtered half a score!” said Laxa, eyes wide with disbelief. He could only imagine the froth her mind was in right now, right at the edge.
“Then there will be blood enough to track them by,” said Lumnos against the black lower depths haunting the air.
Thursday, April 19, 2012
Lumnos had been here once before. It wasn’t like waking up, or snapping back from a daydream. He had walked out of one black chamber and into the vast libraries belonging to an archmage whose name had been erased from history. Outside the world screamed with magic. It was exactly like entering a room and then forgetting the reason, with the further trouble of blanking everything which had come before. Null and void, the darkened room behind held only insoluble mysteries.
There is a state which can barely be described, a feeling of falling upwards into sunset and gold, of blissful being apart from ego amongst blooming cloud. It dwelled at the edge of the wordseller’s memory of that first time and he wondered if there were others who felt the same. Then a cold wind would hit him and he’d remember Winter, pale grey and cold and without the kindling of memory to fuel any sort of fire. The world was always stepping into a bright and forgetful room full of ruins.
As the echoes of the Uplifting faded chaos built quickly on the city with a forgotten name. Only in time did the wreckage take on the slight poetry of Ruin. No, at that moment the host of servants, test subjects, laborers, concubines, guards, thieves, artisans, witnesses and other assorted barnacles clutching to the entire economy of magic realized the blank page which they’d been given and rushed into fill the vacuum in accordance with natural law. The looting went on for weeks as the city sorted itself into palace-tribes and Magpies and isolated booksellers.
Yet in that spare moment before the tides of time crashed down Lumnos was alone with a great and potent wisdom. He attacked the shelves, grabbing all the books he could, as if he had an inkling that the bright afternoon peace wouldn’t last. Many of the tomes were blank, their arcane secrets and noetics wiped clean by the red demon’s whim.
Outside the city teetered on the edge of destruction. While most fled from the epicenter of the conflict Lumnos trudged towards it, reasoning that he was best away from those who might steal his salvaged paper identity. The smoldering rift he found would be known as the Rot.
A strange radiance flung itself up out of the pit, which had been torn up from below, yearning tatters of brick and concrete reaching up for the magic, now lost. There were colors which he would never see again, along with a smell of harsh alchemies and incense distilled from rare thoughts. No buildings survived this close to the destruction and on a mountain of shattered statuary he saw Sol himself.
The man seemed a long-limbed worrier shrouded in the tattered red. The wind was down, so his long crimson hair hung heavy, hiding his features. He seemed lost in thought, meditating over wreckage and mysteries. About him a number of exact duplicates lay dead and his body showed signs of fire, frost, and other violence, legacies of the sorcerous contest recently won.
The amnesiac froze, locked into the uncanny moment. Then something was decided. Sol pulled the strange light spilling upwards into a tightly wound continuum and vanished. Later Lumnos would say he seemed both sad and angry, animated by a strange fire.
Haste allowed no time to ponder this vision and it was some months before the wordseller became acquainted with the world enough to understand who he had seen that day. Time was best spent building that spare first book shanty which would house his stolen library and the other things which he had taken from that unknown palace of his awakening, a structure which would later be consumed by chaos and looting.
He managed to piece together a life at the margins, outside the palace-tribe games, where he could cater to his own mnemonic lusts, imagining pasts and studying futures.
Before it was destroyed he took one last trip to the soon-to-be gutted library. He found there was nothing more to take, many works already lost to illiterate savages and cunning thieves. The palace burned as he searched for some last scrap of information to add to his collection. In an upper study he found a great variety of inks labeled in other tongues, indistinguishable from each other at a glance. He tried to take them anyway but fumbled one, the ink spilling across the bare floor, trickling down some stairs. As he fled the ground he swore the flames took on a strange color and foul taste.
That smoke burned just as bitterly then as now. Hands smoldering, they seemed someone else’s, claws of a distant and unnecessary body. His mind moved from room to room, seeking for some sort of proportion to describe his calamity. His well-catalogued mind was gone and he was left only with what he remembered on the uncertain pages of the brain.
“All of it so lost,” he gasped as the Fencer yanked him from the blaze and the trumpeter moved to cool his hands with some sort of ointment.
“Readers are so damned dramatic,” complained the musician as he fought with the man to keep still.
The Fencer said nothing as his mind whirled after some strategy against their situation. The results were damning and he frowned at the broken cloud sky plumed with soot.
“What am I to do now?” Lumnos asked, his senses coming back into painful clarity.
“Whatever you wish!” exclaimed the Trumpeter a bit too excitedly.
“Nonsense,” replied the wordseller.
“There is none,” said the taller man, now bandaging the burned hands. Whatever was in the ointment was a miracle, the pain of the burn diminished to only slight warmth.
“What are we to do now?” interjected the Fencer after gauging the shrouded horizons.
“You mean you don’t know?” gasped the Trumpeter, letting his patient’s hands fall.
“Fleeing is out of the question, my demon refuses, but the problem of Ruin seems insoluble.”
“What of the Riddle?” asked Lumnos.
“What of it?”
“That too is insoluble. What do you do then?”
The two travelers chewed in the silence a long moment before replying. Here was personal space, matters of nuance, perhaps things which were hidden to the men themselves.
“We just keep moving on,” came the Trumpeter’s reply.
They were interrupted by things in the sky. Before, they had seen dark shapes amongst the burning clouds of ash billowing up from the fires. At the time they dismissed them as blackened clothing tossing about the warm air. Now one shape danced their way.
It was another of those floating corpses, a marrowmere, and it seeped something black as it tumbled towards them. Around it the air shuddered with its stultifying aura.
The Fencer met the corpse perfectly with an upwards swing of Dhala. The dead magics surrounding the thing vanished, yet quick as a nightmare it reeled from the blade, drifting back just enough that only the tip found dead flesh. Like an obscene costume the bloated woman unzipped to reveal a thing of narrow black.
Wriggling from its skin suit, it showed the same as the silhouette which tried to enter Lumnos back at the unknown palace. Now it drifted about, out of range, gauging the three men.
The wind picked up fiercely then, blowing the ashen clouds away. Then a sudden gap above brought in some sunlight. The marrow shade writhed at its bright touch and this awful sound, like the hissing pop of a broken eardrum emanated from it. Then the men realized this was the sunlight screaming, fleeing from the thing’s dark matter.
Thus framed, Lumnos saw into its blackness, just as it saw into his blank soul. Hungering after this metaphysical connection it fell towards him. Flashes of understanding preceded the invasion, which never came. A sound arrived.
The Trumpet’s peal struck the creature, overwhelming its null flesh, turning it into a shower of quickly dispersing motes and the corpse it wore disintegrated in a bloody spray. There was a sense of relief, like the world gained an ounce of solace from the rending of the dark.
Unfinished noise sounded over the whole of Ruin, blowing out house fires and upsetting clouds of birds feasting upon the spoils of chaos. Echoes sounded from the tilted apartment towers and leaning palaces. The audience waited for more.
Struck dumb by this play of noise, Lumnos allowed himself to be dragged away by the two travelers. Music was a far more powerful thing to the ears than it had ever been in his head. He had read the theory, and did his best to conjure up the sounds which once graced the world under the patronage of the magical elite, but there was an immediacy to the noise he found overwhelming.
They went through streets full of missing bodies. More dead things drifted in the atmosphere, the clouds returned, the smoke continued. Struggles between palace-tribes grew louder. Alarmed, he realized they were heading to the Nyriax district.
“Are you mad?” he protested, trying and failing to break free from the Fencer’s guiding hand. “They’ll put our heads on poles outside their aquamarine-encrusted demesne!”
“If they find us,” reasoned the Fencer. “They seem to be so fully engaged in their war sports that I find it unlikely. Besides, I know a place which is unfit for habitation, making it the perfect ground for us to plan out our troubles.”
Ahead of them several massive tower blocks burned with slow flame. Coughing, the wordseller decided to see the truth of the man’s words; after all, he had nowhere else to be.
Loce shifted according to finely tuned machinery, metaphysical, gears made of logic and dream. Such reasoning had brought him this far and he was too gone in his philosophy to change now. The snow-pale Phyox he wore trembled at the stink of icebound air, gone was the green of limitless heaven.
This thing of white moved hidden through the clouds of smoke and found the Rot. Here energy swelled like a throbbing sore. Marrowmere, buoyed up on dark magics, drifted semi-randomly, falling upon the hapless and the unaware, those bewildered by the sorcery gripping Ruin. The creatures gave freely of the darkness possessing them. Worse still, other things would soon slither out of the depths.
The magus waited and watched, feeling the pull of action and the stillness of duty. Magic beaconed, always there, at the edge of those faculties his life was bent towards understanding. With but a word he might seal the horrors from below, and there was hesitation in the black energy, as if it too sensed this. Yet he knew this temptation and kept a still tongue as he pondered a more oblique strategy.
The way back through the city proved mostly clear as the men sought out the blue-washed towers belonging to the Nyriaxom. Red conflict spilled across the deep shadowed avenues, proof that whatever madness possessed the city had already done its work here.
The Fencer stepped over the body of a child riddled with brightly painted arrows in search of whatever place he had in his mind. At times the smoke drifted in soft and pungent, so they had to grope their way coughing along the side of a listing tenement, at others the Winter wind stripped everything bare, revealing the city’s troubles in stark clarity.
Eventually the swordsman ushered them into a still burning apartment block larger than most villages. The ground floor was littered with corpses and the places where corpses had been.
“What are you trying to do?” complained the Trumpeter, but Lumnos quieted him.
“Hush, his way, however insane, is true to his promise. I can’t think of anyone who would venture into this abandoned husk of a building, but it will burn slow, as whatever methods the builders used ensured against fire.”
He laughed a bit as they meandered up the grand stairs, “Funny that even so the fires will burn on, unopposed, men dancing in the streets at the sight.”
“I don’t think that’s very funny,” grumbled the Trumpeter.
“Really, you?” wondered Lumnos. The second floor had too much blood, so they kept going.
“Ruin is a sad place, yet it seems to have a life of its own,” mused the Trumpeter. “Now things grow dark, as that which is below boils up.”
The fifth floor seemed to their liking. Abandoned, yet only smoldering in places, they set about to find a place to rest and think. A plan was needed and some clarity too, if there was any to be found in Ruin. With tired limbs they scavenged for food, cleared debris, and then the Fencer got a knife to his throat.
The Theb had been hiding in some giant armoire too heavy to steal. She took her chance just as the swordsman went by.
“I think that’s a very bad idea,” said Lumnos to the wide-eyed woman.
“Oh, the things she’s seen,” grimaced the Trumpeter.
The Fencer was lax and silent, his hands loose at his sides while she moved to keep him between her and the others.
“Where are your colors?” she asked, frustrated that none of them wore proper signs.
“None of us are with the palace-tribes,” began Lumnos. “But I’d keep that knife on the man just the same, he’s not one to take an insult lightly, and that sword at his side is enchanted; it’ll cut right through you, freezing the blood before it even hits the ground.”
It would’ve been a risk for anyone else but not for the wordseller right then. She was a creature of certain honor, the kind where a color worn meant everything, and was more concerned with blood feuds than simple murder. That, after all, would be uncivilized.
“Then, who are you?” she asked.
“Three homeless vagabonds,” declared the Trumpeter and Lumnos’s head fell. It was true, he was as rudderless as the two southerners, perhaps more so.
Their host wore an armory of weapons, two long, thin swords, paired katars, a wicked flail, and so on. Most were wrapped with ribbons of bright yellow, but not all.
“That’s Nyriaxom,” Lumnos said, pointing at the flail.
“True,” she said evenly. “Some were won in the recent troubles, while such honor still mattered.”
“It doesn’t any longer?”
“Not when the dead walk,” she said coldly, but this calm mask hid terror. Like the underworld from which the men had just escaped her true fear lay hidden below the surface. At any moment she might break, just as the black energy had from the festering pit of the Rot.
Thursday, April 12, 2012
The cubist catacombs grew into a sewer, of the sort rushing with snowmelt and other effluvia flowing down towards the nightmare depths the three men now fled. The water was black with filth, oily, run-off from a city full of troubles. The Trumpeter argued they should take a course towards the source of the dirty water but Lumnos could still smell the pang of lye coming from upstream and the Fencer continued making his own path upwards in that bullish way of his. They ascended to a dungeon, then a cellar. The cellar was full of wine and dusty furniture, so they sat and drank before venturing any further. Good preparation for what they found above.
The pantry the climbed into was the size of the hetman’s lodge back in the village of the narwhal hunters, or so the Fencer mentioned as they wandered the maze of tightly packed bare shelves looking for a way out. When at last they did, the kitchen proved large as a village, with three red brick ovens and a spit over which one could spin a mammoth over flames. All quiet now, dusty with memories.
They were in an untouched palace vast and ancient, its beauty intact but abandoned, baroque sprites dancing under veils of cobwebs, carven alabaster goddesses clothed in dust. The smell of ancient incense plumed up as the men collapsed with exhaustion on the faded cushions of a sitting room just off the main gallery.
For a time none of them spoke, though their eyes often wandered back the way they came, fearful of what might have followed. Lumnos wasn’t given to exercise, excepting that of the mind, nor was he a prolific drinker, and in short order he had had too much of both. Here came another terrible visitor; introspection.
Suddenly he realized his life lacked the sort of symmetry he found so pleasing. How long had it been since the break-in at his shop? A day or two? Though his social primers often exhorted the benefits of a gregarious lifestyle the wordseller’s recent experiences were proving the virtues of isolation. Not only had he been subject to a particularly troublesome burglary, but he had fallen in with a pair of unwashed ruffians, met the Rot in a way more intimate than any soul should have to endure, and witnessed an awful dark magic in the realms below Ruin. He looked about for anything to take his mind from these compounding problems.
Without realizing it his eyes rested upon the Fencer’s weapon. In the black glass he felt a certain mood reflected. Just looking at Dhala brought a terrible sense of cold. An obvious work of magic, neither fully metallic nor crystalline, it had that legendary sharpness, one capable of cutting through enchantment and stone with equal ease. Against those doad it burst their flesh with the slightest caress, broke the soul mirrors and dispelled the stasis of the marrowmere.
Lumnos pondered how such a thing had fallen through the grasp of the Uplifting, when all other artifacts and wonders were drawn up to high Summer. Perhaps, it was sharp enough to cut through history itself, or, and this seemed more reasonable, the broad face of Winter held a scattering of such secrets and that tales of the infallible red demon were just that, tales.
All of this was merely academic. He was jealous of the blade and not the wielder. It was a true expression, dark and terrible, beautiful and cold. He had read enough to know the pen when he saw the thing. If it was a nightmare, as the Fencer mentioned, then its power was proven by existing in the waking world. Lumnos had read a thousand thousand stories, so many by dreamers, and yet none could hope to bring as visceral an experience as this jagged shard of indigo and midnight.
“Ask him again,” demanded the Fencer and it was then that Lumnos knew that he had been spoken to.
“You’re a liar,” grinned the Trumpeter, directing his teeth at the wordseller.
“That’s not a question,” sighed the Fencer.
“What is this now?” fumbled Lumnos as he brought himself up. He could feel the wine pooling in his feet.
“Whose house is this?” asked the Fencer, looking him square in the eye.
“Well, by the look of that statue over there and that Snellish urn…” Lumnos blustered in search of time to collect his thoughts and then realized the import of the place. “Think of the books which must await here!”
The Fencer rolled his eyes at this exclamation while the Trumpeter laughed like a hyena.
Surely it was a mistake. All such palaces were clogged with named palace-tribes banded together against those wearing other colors. The rooms were full squalling children and fire pits and armories for their savage industry. It had often galled him to know that these works of architectural splendor were treated as little more than villages, where the inhabitants ignored the function of the old masters and scratched themselves amongst the squalor.
On the next floor they looked out from a series of windows along an upper hall. A heavy, quiet snow fell, punctuated by bursts of blue followed close by muffled cracks, rare electrical grumbles from the roiling clouds above. Thundersnow. Through the hazy white snowfall the towers of Ruin listed.
“I think I know our place,” explained Lumnos, noting the styles of the nearby palaces and the colors painted by unskilled hands to denote tribe and name. “We stand at the edge of the palace of Zoxx, where the lean sons of that name paint themselves white before seeking the heads of the Sysynites. It is a continuation of the old magus’ struggle from before the Uplifting, perpetuated for the sake of proportion.”
“How far are we from your shop?” asked the Fencer, trying to make out figures through the snow.
“Quite a ways,” stated Lumnos, who began to say more but grew quiet. Instead he withdrew from the window to seek the mystery of this unknown palace before it became despoiled by his uncouth companions.
Over a dozen bedrooms lay scattered through the five floors, each built upon the notion of the square, the center an open stairwell where sorcerers could levitate in defiance of natural law. A good quarter of the palace was a single, multi-story library hosting empty shelves. There were dry fountains and pleasure quarters smelling faintly of lost spices. A shrine to an ancient god stood wreathed in dark, no windows opening into that place. The statue of the god had the body of a man and the head of a beast, several flanges protruded from its narrow skull, trapezoidal ears with narrow basses and wide ends, and its muzzle was long and hooked, its eyes narrow and enigmatic.
The empty palace felt strangely inhabited, as if at any moment the wizard would return home to find three unwashed icebound squatting like bedbugs. Perhaps, the two savages from the mythic south whispered, the place was haunted.
They did not find the sixth floor, those bare, dustless spaces once reserved for the original inhabitant. They found no master bedroom with its gold and turquoise attendants. In a bare side room a white thing materialized from a ring of light.
The Fencer tracked the wordseller down and said, “Tell me where this is?”
“Ruin of course,” replied Lumnos, avoiding the question.
“I know that skull of yours is stacked with bits and words so let’s be clear between us and let me know what you know. Whose palace is this?”
Lumnos gaped like a fish out of the water.
“I see that you don’t,” said the swordsman, relaxing a bit.
“I cannot see how that is possible,” said the wordseller, amazed at his own ignorance.
“You never leave your shop, so it seems very possible to me.”
“But something of this stature, so well intact…”
“Magic,” stated the Fencer.
The Trumpeter arrived wearing three different sets of silken robes, clanking with jewelry and smelling of perfume.
“I never want to leave,” he chuckled.
“Just wait for the owner to return,” smiled the Fencer.
“As if they could find me in this monolith.”
It was the sort of place where one could become lost, an ensorcelled space, cut off, hidden in plain sight, gathering quiet dust, waiting, perhaps.
Wandering their way back down the stairs, the light from outside brightened as the storm took a breath. Now certain cries could be heard outside and from the east a plume of different clouds, black clouds, billowed into the air. Behind them something slid out from the shadows without a sound.
“The streets look so dead,” muttered the Trumpeter.
Winter hushed as a black silhouette tried to insert itself into Lumnos’s spine, the place which coursed with the most alluring energies. The ensuing yawn-like feeling blossomed into a splay of dark thoughts within the man. Suddenly he hated his companions, feeling it from the bones. Stranger emotions swam in and sank to the bottom of his soul.
Then a glimmering dark studded with crimson whirled past his sight. There was a rending sensation, a deep loss, and then a brilliant return of the self.
Merely fractions of a second had passed. The Trumpeter stood agape and following his nervous blue eyes Lumnos saw a scintillate darkness leaning away behind him. It seemed a thin figure of two dimensions, like a polished shadow, broken now, dwindling like night on dawn. For mere seconds it flickered and then vanished, leaving an unwholesome discoloration on the marble floor.
It had been the Fencer’s doing, and Dhala’s, that had freed Lumnos, shredding the ghostly thing before it could enter all the way into Lumnos’s being with a single attack.
“You have a cut,” said the swordsman, making no effort to help. That was the Trumpeter’s job, once he got over his fear.
“That was an umbirae,” stated the wordseller. “It’s all coming back now. I’ve read too much and it can be a trouble to sort through my mind, but these things, these dead things, are all built of dark memories and foul, forgotten necromancy. There is an art to their construction and a pain as well. The creator of such draws forth a very peculiar shade of black.”
The others didn’t respond and considered such words. Their thoughts turning to silence.
It took some minutes to staunch the bleeding, even though the wound was shallow. In that time Lumnos watched out the window and saw the city’s troubles. Bands of colored street-tribes moved like ships in a fog, just barely visible, marauding their way to cries of violence. White ravens thronged the rooftops, watching for their chance to feed. Other predators moved on two legs and crouched in doorways.
He failed to notice that he was alone, mesmerized as he was by the snow-shroud visions, until he turned to illicit the Trumpeter’s opinion. It was funny though, he could’ve sworn he felt a fellow presence there with him.
He found them below, filling their pockets with jewels, their packs with wine, and the air with plans. The Fencer had found a leather tunic which he was cutting to fit the one devoured by the Rotties.
“If we’re up against the south wall, as I think, then we are a single climb away from freedom,” mentioned the Fencer as he broke open a priceless mahogany coffer and took out fistfuls of coin.
“That’s presuming the wall-clans are too busy with their troubles to bother us,” replied the Trumpeter as he donned yet another necklace of ivory and gold.
“What is this plan?” demanded Lumnos, once again feeling that intense pang of abandonment. Socializing was such pernicious disease.
Silence was their first answer, but eventually the Trumpeter sighed, perhaps because of the weighty treasures under which he labored.
“Have you seen a magician at work?” he asked finally of the wordseller.
“Not as such, though I’ve read many a--”
The musician interrupted. “We have seen them turn a mountain to glowing silver mist and been lost in a series of mind games each more terribly real than the last. If that is a necromancer down below that has designs on this city, and every word you speak seems to prove this point, then he can have it, and the Alabaster Palimpsest too, for all we care.”
The Fencer added silent agreement. They weren’t afraid, they were experienced in these matters, and though they dared much, foolishly, they knew a certain limit. Lumnos didn’t.
It took a few tries, the lock was old, but he managed to breach the foyer and finally the outer doors. He returned to Ruin with a fire inside his heart growing steadily.
The outer yard was spare and trimmed back, as if the owner had left on their own terms and not through the violence of the Uplifting. The gardens, probably home to a variety of Winter flora, were neatly covered. Flower boxes hung from most windows and now he could see that the palace had a domed sixth floor. Not that he cared, for his thoughts wound homeward.
As soon as he left the grounds, laboring the massive front gate open, a fuzzy sense overtook his mind. Shaking this off, he wandered through the abandoned streets of Zoxx. Blood flowed from the windows and the white-painted bodies left behind were tended by crows. Some of the buildings burned.
Moving quicker he found signs of conflict between white Zoxx and yellow Sysynites. Street clashes, more than the usual brawls and honor killings, this spoke of open war. There were still many inhabited buildings, shuttered against the mayhem, bristling with the spears of the defenders.
He lost himself amongst the towers and found more dead. Rotties lay amongst the corpses, some of the buildings having been ravaged by their kind. There were skeletons picked clean by human teeth and Rotties pierced by ribbon-fletched arrows.
On one street a frothing warrior wearing tattered blue rounded the bend at the wrong moment, a group of toughs trailing behind. With one hand he slammed Lumnos so hard against a tenement door that he could feel the wet chill of blood as his recent wound reopened. The man’s other hand held a short stabbing blade which he intended to introduce to the wordseller’s belly. Then the youth opened up.
An indigo line flickered up through the dagger, through the torso, exiting the back of the neck in a ribbon of blood as the body fell to pieces. The Fencer moved on, into the band of Sysynites, felling three with a single leisurely swing. On his face a look of bitter fury, not at them, at something else, but they would surely do as a focus for his rancor. The rest of the blue-clad thugs fled as their fellows steamed their heat into the cold air, the Trumpeter blasting notes behind them.
“You’re hurt again,” said the musician when his performance was over. “You’ll be full of holes before the day is through.”
Lumnos had been too stunned by what he had seen in the boy’s face. That’s all he was, a child, grown in limb but not in mind, the mind was full of fear leaning towards madness. The wholeness of this realization came unbidden just before he was to be stabbed, the talent of his impressing such absolute knowledge into his brain. It was as if the boy had been possessed. Now, looking down at himself, the wordseller saw that the point of the sword had just barely pricked him in the belly, breaking the skin but not the innards.
“Why did you two follow?” he asked finally.
“For a lettered man you do much without words,” said the Trumpeter enigmatically.
“We should be off,” stated the Fencer, trying to head off the conversation. “I smell blood in the air and the hunger for blood.”
“You shamed him,” explained the Trumpeter. “Like you went out to hunt narwhal, leaving him behind.”
They followed the wordseller without further question as he once more crept through the streets of the palace district. He felt a twinge of regret, having brought the two men further into his troubles, but then again he reassured himself that the majority of this expedition was their fault to begin with.
Canyons framed by tenement walls cast some streets into gloom. Up above the sun ventured forth and that dreamy mix of snowfall and sunlight mingled at high angles, sometimes cascading in sheaves down the avenues, at others merely touching the high towers with a layer of gold. When in shadow the precipitation seemed the ash from funeral pyres, while in light glittered metallic, accentuating old and sorcerous Ruin.
The beauty of this was lost in the chaos. Each street held its breath, awaiting more violence. Along one avenue in front of them silence blossomed into a raging street fight with whooping street-tribes leaping at each other with ribbon-flanged spears. Blue against yellow, the mass of the conflict moved on, one side retreating, dancers amongst a play of blood. Yet a few men splintered off, entrepreneurs of trouble.
Lumnos and the others watched this mayhem from the carven shadow of a gutted apartment block but left just a second too soon. A single fellow, drunk or perhaps livid manic on one of the stimulants popular amongst the city-tribes, took note and approached.
Fear gripped the wordseller, not for himself or his friends, but for the man. This proved unfounded. With a simple gesture the Fencer filleted the bright spear and knocked the fellow down. Women and children crept out of the towers and robbed the unconscious man as the travelers left him behind. It seemed the swordsman was as capricious with granting life as he was dealing death.
Ashes stung their nostrils as they went ever northward along the eastern neighborhoods, the sun at their backs casting long shadows. Corpses were found, some hollow, some old, some painted white with lye and festooned with charms, ironic considering the empty heavens. There were places in deep shadow where blood told of the dead, but from which red sodden footsteps shambled or droplets fled. Amongst the dead were the Rotties, at peace at last, though it seemed their final moments were spent in a frenzy, eyes wide with a fear they couldn’t leave behind, or maybe forget. Traveling on, clouds of soot gathered.
Lumnos broke out into a run. Cries from behind told him to stop. He heard others, hungry souls, the feral, the dead, shrieking after, but he had to see. A lump in his stomach knew what he’d find.
Ahead, the crater of the Rot smoked as if fresh from the fires of its creation. The rim, once the home of other shops and those wishing to put aside the endless street wars, now displayed a number of gutted black faces, puckered doorways and jigsaw timbers. His own shop still burned.
When the Fencer and the Trumpeter caught up they had to tear him from the conflagration and bandage his hands. The tears in the wordseller’s eyes weren’t for the dead and damned of the cold city, or the nightmare welling up from below, but instead for what had been lost. A thousand books burned to ash in the chill air. It was like losing one’s mind for a second time, watching the knowledge burn. The proportions by which he had led his quiet, erudite life were capsized into the sea of unknowing, into the jumble of noise and sensation which was the Riddle.