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.