Pondering the aggravating physicality of life was a frequent preoccupation for Lumnos. He had always sought some animating spark with which to illuminate the harsh mysteries of the body, its seemingly cruel and deterministic values. Reduced, the human being was nothing but skin, flesh, bone, all charged with noxious chemical humors. He concluded to himself, in his isolated scholarship, that the true beauty of life lay in the actions of the form and less in the form itself.
There was, of course, an easier resolution to his dilemma, which, now that he thought of it, was like the most insoluble Winter’s Riddle. All cultures and peoples know that the charging flux—also known as spirit, soul, or nous—animating their bodies came from deep within the earth. Occasionally one could see these emanations reaching up into the Winter sky. Souls came from this inner realm and return there upon death. Legends pondered the mysteries of this thing, known as the Lattice, but such pursuits were the province of mages and those with long memories, and Lumnos was disadvantaged on both accounts.
Seeing the bloody titan hand rising from the sea of offal he froze in awe. The thing’s bloody grandeur thrilled his spine and took his eyes. Even as the clumped up mass of marrow and bone matter rose the Fencer prepared himself.
The disgusting hand fell, shattering the ancient stone floor but missing the nimble swordsman, who dodged aside. Splattered by bone fragments and rotten blood the Fencer moved to attack the single limb before the rest of the wretched giant could find the shore.
Suddenly the swordsman toppled, his sword clattering to rest, his breathing quick and erratic. A monstrous face breached the surface of the marrow lake just enough to spew out a mewling cry. Psychic waves spilled out from the thing, a hateful sea of thought.
The hand rose again slowly. The Trumpeter broke Lumnos’s fugue and together they dragged the Fencer away, out into the grey tunnels beyond, anywhere but with the bone pulp monster and its small black attendant. The creature across the lake looked up, a living inkblot.
That distant figure had a tighter hold on the wordseller’s attention than the massive thing in the lake. Casually it stood up beside its little fire and took note of the commotion. Its skin was black, of the sort which takes on a sheen under most angles of light. Partially it reminded him of the silhouette being stepping from the violet flames, but no, this was a far more physical creature, moving as if alive. He was sureREHMETH it watched with curiosity as they made their escape.
The dead of all sorts were active now and their silence followed after the men. They floated and skimmed, trailed bleeding and plumed white with dusting lye. Whatever force animated them provided no semblance of life, wearing each husk like a mask, dancing in search of partners.
Roused from his recent psychic shock, the Fencer led them into a side passage, denying the certain curve of the tunnel which seemed to bend back on itself, describing a circle. The path they now took pointed towards the center. From all around the sounds of strange things playing in the dark echoed.
An array of sorted bones greeted them in one chamber. Still at first, they leaped up once the swordsman took a step inside, becoming abstract works of bristling ivory. In their geometries a black energy boiled up cold, hunting after the man with the sword. This blood stuff bolted through the air, but the Fencer held his ground, and struck the liquid. A terrible hiss, like hot blood poured over ice, and the fluid froze in a rippling effect stretching back to the source, fusing the bones and bile into a single obscene sculpture, quivering.
Fleeing further, they kept to the main tunnel, followed by that salty, metallic smell which they now knew came from beyond the lake of blood and bone. They raced not against forms but the outer dark contained within.
A sliver of fortune glimmered. They found a stair guarded by a score of doll-like bodies. The Fencer cleaved through the first to confront him but its form accepted the violence without much damage. Its body was just a mélange, something like clay, but also like flesh. Its features were generalized and simplistic. From its drooping sockets flowed acidic tears.
Thankfully these dead were slow and none of the trio had the weakness to act upon the fear, so common in this place. To tarry would be to abandon life.
The stairs were a single helix spiraling into the upper shadows. Its steps carved from the rock in a utilitarian fashion, minimal, massive, cold. Only darkness waited above, a fine remedy for the almost-gone radiance illuminating the horrid dead city.
When they were a good few meters above the floor, surrounded by rock, the Fencer suddenly stopped.
Before the others could protest he took his atom-edge sword, hewed out a collection of boulders from the wall and set aside his weapon. When the first of the weeping dead showed he heaved a massive piece of broken rock upon it.
The thing burst like an overfull waterskin, and while its fellows were untouched by the acid, the liquid gleefully ate through the stair. Stone after stone fell upon the uncaring things, and soon the structure groaned under the denuding flow of their combined secretions. Centuries of careful engineering collapsed into a confusion of rock and dust. They huddled in the dark, not knowing if they too would be entombed. When the men were in total dark they knew the way behind was sealed, though there was no telling what kinds of insanity waited above.
When they were sure nothing followed, guided upwards by the flickering light of the Trumpeter’s taper, words became necessary. Exhausted, no landing in sight, they collapsed on the steps, taking in as much of the dead stone air as they could to replace the tainted stuff from below.
“Necromancy,” muttered Lumnos in a voice just loud enough to break the general silence of contemplation.
“A very specific kind of evil,” noted the Trumpeter.
“I’ve read of it in my books,” continued the wordseller as the knowledge coalesced in his mind. “Many stories tell of the fearful energy of death, though that specific black Art uses the dead for the purpose of divination. Arcanologies describe mages capable of breeching the noisome strangeness of the Lattice and calling forth remnant souls so that they might gain forbidden knowledge and subvert natural destiny.”
“I can’t believe we’d have that sort of luck,” fumed the Trumpeter as he gave his trumpet a very angry polishing. “We live charmed lives, Fencer, and by that I mean witches must surely float above our heads while we sleep, weaving unsettling magics into the tangles of our hair, filling our lives with calamity. Always more magic. I never should’ve sat in that emerald throne.”
“I saw our necromancer,” stated the Fencer, still intent on Lumnos’s words.
“The stained fellow on the other side of the lake,” nodded the scholar.
“A creature made from pulverized bone,” shuddered the musician, conjuring the far more terrible thing they had seen. Besides such a giant the supposed necromancer seemed a mere shadow.
“So much for Sol,” said the Fencer with a wry smile. Indeed it seemed that the Uplifting was incomplete and that the Red Demon had left behind something capable of magics demonic and inimical.
“Perhaps that creature has been sealed away down here for eons and is only recently freed?” countered Lumnos. “Who knows what was lost when Ruin gained its name? Perhaps that thing has been boring its way through the earth since creation and we happen to live at the rare moment of its return. Your complaint about leading charmed lives would be true then, that’s for certain. I can’t even begin to calculate the probabilities.”
He gave no time for them to respond to this. His mind was busy now with correlations and leaps and bounds of reasoning.
“But what of it?” he continued. “Soon he will disappear, for that is the fate of all such magic expressions in the frozen lands. Summer’s agents alight on any sign of the Art. The newborn monster is slain; the magical child whisked away, the lost treasure reclaimed by those with the power to determine what is, what may, and what cannot be.”
“I’m not so sure,” began the Fencer but the scholar cut him off.
“I cannot be sure,” the wordseller said angrily. “That is the problem. I have no hard place to rest my mind, no past to stand on, only knowledge, only my books. So, now that I’ve seen one of the Art, my thoughts flutter like lost butterflies in search of what, I can’t be sure because it is beyond my understanding, but still I search. Do you know what they do to those with sign of the talent in Ruin?”
Stone faces were the only response.
“They cast them down into the Rot as infants. I can’t be sure what happens to them there, which may be bliss compared to knowledge. There. My last wise virtue is lost, and I’m left only with the horrid possibilities of my imagination, unreasonable as you two. That is Winter after all.”
The Fencer didn’t speak as he drew his sword, which glinted with strange, purple fire in the dark. His eyes were mad.
“And so you also fall under the Riddle’s spell?” said Lumnos as he took off his glasses in order to see less of what would happen next.
The Fencer stood there still as a statue. The Trumpeter moved back into the dark like a furtive animal.
Punctuation came as the swordsman let his weapon sink into the stone with a thick sound of parting rock and he slouched down petulantly. When Lumnos donned his lenses once more he saw the swordsman was smiling behind the hand he rested his face on. It was a troubled smile, but the look of murder was gone. This savage defied the wordseller’s best readings.
“You are quite the opposite of an exorcist,” grumbled the Fencer.
“By what definition?” Lumnos asked, trembling now that he realized how close he had come to death.
“By your ability to conjure forth my inner demons,” grinned the mad swordsman.
Lumnos had let his words get away from him there. It seemed he had a demon of his own, shrouded by the dark light of forgotten pasts, or maybe it was by his isolation, an incubation of lettered passions. Where his knowledge failed he grew as rancorous as the Fencer.
Now the Trumpeter slunk back. In his pockets he had discovered a bit of fine hard cheese stolen some months ago in another land. He divided it and they sat in the dark, chewing the sharp tasting stuff, reminding themselves there was more than death.
After some hours they reached what seemed to be the normal underworks of the city. The way up provided many offshoots into older and more desolate mines, but all shared that same spare and clean look. There were no rats or insects, only the wide open dead silence. Lumnos had great sympathy for those workers who had to trudge down all this way to the underworld and wondered where they had gone in the Uplifting. Were they left to survive in the depths without the aid of magic? Perhaps they were corpses in the necromancer’s thrall.
He caught his two companions checking their gear, not their weapons, as preparation for battle, but their provisions and tools. Their silence told of plans to flee the city and its plots. And this rankled his heart, not so much that they were ready to leave behind yet another Winter city, effectively abandoning their troubles, but that he cared at all. These were not books, these were whimsical beings, as inconstant as any other, and yet he couldn’t help but feel a pang of disappointment at their actions. This violated some sort of symmetry.
Still debating this, the wordseller didn’t notice the bodies clustered and ready. A firm arm dragged him into shadow.
“Did you look into it?” rasped the Fencer, not letting go of the man’s mouth.
Lumnos could only shake his reply.
“I did and felt a pang,” continued the hushed swordsman.
Carefully he glanced around the corner and so did the wordseller. There they noticed a crowd of bodies writhing energetically against a mostly obscured black glass screen. Another of those soul mirrors. They had come up on it in the dark. Like greasy insects the marrowmere gathered, as if for warmth. This was a bit of luck, because if not for those bloated bodies they would once more be caught by the ensorcelled glass.
The offshoot in which they hid continued off into unknown darkness, while beyond the barrier surely lead to freedom. There might even be sunlight, though they had no way of knowing what time of day it was. Yet the danger remained that they might not best the horde or worse, lose their minds in the reflecting sorcery, a most certain manifestation of the necromancer.
With a phlegmatic moan something once human dislodged from the host and drifted their way. It was decided; they ran off into the unknown, searching for another means to escape the cold hell, not knowing if such was possible. The only certainty was that from below a smell followed, strange salts conjuring forth energies sublime and mordant.