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.