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.