Loce drifted amongst the corpses, those marrowmere floating upon the unseen energies of the Black Lattice. He too was unseen for the whispers of plain power he giggled through the safe, liquid Phyox. At the edge of death all things seemed possible.
The place where his hand once was burned dull and strange and in his mind played wayward thoughts. Loce never had talent with the healing way. As an abjurer he created barriers and laid down terminuses, conducted the flow of certain energies in certain ways and barred creatures entry or egress, but never could he transform one into the other, or make a man change his mind, not that he would choose to. It seemed that a hand would be a small price to pay for a city and a past, one he remembered fondly as a pivot around which his life had turned.
For some reason he found himself short of breath and the angles just at the edge of vision took on a vivid purple quality, hallucinations which fell back to reality more quickly than he could turn his head to see. The living Phyox quavered sympathetically. Neither being could witness the night heavens, and if they did they would see that the stars had turned to golden eyes.
His compromised blood moved strangely and for the first time since his youth he was not in complete control of himself. Before Summer and the Uplifting, before red Sol came with his promise of better futures, before even the city lost its name, that's where his feeling streamed, like light through a boarded up window. There he had been hunted for sport by the sorcerer-king Sitopsys, as was his passion and his lust, but through cunning use of his fellow prey had escaped, the sorcerer-king’s nine souls stolen, his kingdom fevered with revolution. Old days, full of blood.
Drunk on liberation he made a vow. Never again would he use others for his ends, do violence to their souls through the caprice of survival. Loce chose the path of abjuration so that he might forever ward away the uncaring vicissitudes of Winter, and gain victory over what his studies described as the Black.
Alighting near the Rot, the Phyox trembled at the stink, full of old, bad memories left to fester and brew. Scarcely a moment went by before the troubling energies came, things of mystery from the depths, hungry to wear skin, proto-souls acting out the wants of the world machine. Unholy thousands lay bellow, living sorcery, yet granted motion by the death energies.
At that instant the Necromancer below worked his greatest spell of conjuration and in response Loce committed a grave violation. By his word a dome of delicate warding lace sealed the Rot. Inside, the tides of Black plumed like octopus ink. A swelling and an eruption.
The powers below were too great, and nameless. That was the nature of the Black; not evil, not empty, but mysterious, from the open door to darkness limitless things spilled forth.
White purity broke along a seam. Black things spilled out, a tide which would flood Ruin. His soul reached out and built a new form around this break, a spherical bubble. Beneath, the Necromancer continued his charms, pushing on and up, breaking through again and again. To each of these Loce reacted with cunning shapes, spheres and orbs of complex light, merely the signifier of boundaries sublime and unseen. To the icebound watching on it seemed a strange tree grew up out of the Rot, all of White.
Before this dance of White and Black Lumnos watched the girl Laxa follow the ground carefully. Her dark eyes searched amongst the wreckage for promising blood and from time to time she blew a wayward tress of honey-blond hair from her face, an escapee from the tight knot at the back of her head. She moved a lot like the Fencer, ready for trouble, her nostrils dragon-like in the chill night air.
"I don't see why we don't just return to that mummified palace from which we emerged," complained the Trumpeter, who had grown bored with how much better Laxa was at tracking in this urban environment.
"Quite," said the Fencer wistfully.
"Fine then," said Lumnos. "Say, where was that door again? You know, the one which lead into that place. In which neighborhood?"
"Fah," puffed the musician since he had no sure answer. "All these parts of Ruin look the same to me."
"Or, what was the building like?" continued the wordseller. "The mode of décor? The wealth of its trappings? Can you describe a single room?"
"I remember ritual vessels in gold and topaz," began the Trumpeter, much to the surprise of the other men. "Some had the head of a pointed, needle-eyed hound, a motif I found common. But I take your meaning; I cannot remember much beyond a few resonant images. A kind of sorcery has stolen my memory, such are secrets and their wizards."
"Hush," hissed Laxa as she poured over the place of their skirmish with the Rotties, "I can barely see anything through your words."
There was no need, Lumnos was already quiet. It was a wonder about the Trumpeter, who seemed so addled, yet could remember far more of that sorcerer's palace than he. Strange minds, perhaps that was it.
"You know what you do is unnecessary," said the Fencer, breaking the peace. It took the group a moment to realize he was speaking to the palace-dweller.
"That's a cunning way of saying thanks," Laxa said as she took her eyes off her task and leveled them at the swordsman. She put her hand to her sword.
"Lumnos has his reasons, and the Trumpeter and I have our folly, but you have no need to do anything but retreat into your home or flee out onto the ice plains. Far safer in either case."
"I guess it would be strange for those with small minds to accept," she said against the presumption. "Now is a treasure trove where a fortune can be made. While the tribes have power and the days are calm and war is a mere game my prospects are few. But in this chaos much might be gained, I see that now, so I'll see it through, all the way to the bloody end."
"Then greed is your master?" Lumnos asked. "Why remain with us when you could be out looting the wrecks?"
"You brought a mage my way," she smiled. "I wager magic to be a fortune far greater than gold. Gold is just part of the game; I'm more in want of a trump."
"So," murmured the Trumpeter, "platinum?"
With a sigh she went back to her task, the others gone quiet at the knife-edged point of her ambition. The Fencer was obviously wary of their high-valued guide. Soon she paid her worth.
Faint red smudges of liquid on worn cobbles and tiny drops on dirty snow told the way of the Rotties. They kept to the ruins for the most part, going through the skeletal warrens so much like the tunnels which they were familiar with below. The Trumpeter admitted he wouldn't have found such a path. Laxa grinned with pride and moved off and ahead, faster and faster, less and less cautious.
The quarter they travelled grew familiar. Huge structures loomed up above them, simple, minimalist, cut to express a brutal aesthetic. Somewhere around here that hidden palace kept its secrets. Laxa sped around a corner and there came a sound of metal drawn and voices raised.
The swordswoman fell back into sight with glittering silver in her hands and a nasty gash along her left arm. Two men followed, swords in hand, painted braves of the tribe of Zoxx. Their weapons let out disconcerting whistles as they lunged after her.
A piece of horrible night descended through one man, whose blood froze as soon as Dhala cleaved him in two. His death was a mercy compared to the other who, while distracted by the Fencer, had his throat plucked by Laxa's long sword, and fell clutching after the blood which left him in a torrent.
"Great stuff," frowned the Fencer. "Now we have these pigment loons to deal with. A Rottie has more sense than you!"
Laxa was busily claiming trophies from her kill; his ribbon and his whistling sword.
"You need me," was the fullness of her argument.
"I'm willing to find another way," said the swordsman, readying his terrible weapon.
"Enough, children!" said Lumnos, a sternness coming to his voice. "You are both idiots, with violence as proof, so let us avoid any childish posturing and gong-banging. The summation of our needs would do better without. I have troubles enough in my head."
"You there!" came a close cry.
They were found. At the end of the block, lit by a pale lantern, stood a woman and a man wearing nothing more than chalky paint, ribbons and jewelry. They had their swords out, the wind whistling through a little eyelet punched through each blade. More Zoxx warriors arrived out of shadow, brought by that very noise.
Light interrupted. A dome of magic showed above the jagged tower-tops, blooming up in bubbles and orbs as Loce weaved his abjurations over the Rot. Lumnos found the Fencer coarse hand on his shoulder, pulling him into an alley as cries of wonder and cries of fear rose up from Ruin's people.
Laxa claimed she still had the way in her head, though it was a moment before she had enough thoughts to consider anything more than the wonder playing out over the festering pit. She led them along a shadowed path, through crumbling laboratories, defoliated libraries, and gutted palaces.
"There's no trail to follow," the Trumpeter commented, critical of all she did.
"Well, they certainly wouldn't go where the Zoxx make their homes, and while these lowland wrecks have enough space they are too open, too exposed during the day for a Rottie's taste," she said as she scratched her head with fatigue. "There's a tower up close by, tucked amongst the tenements, jutting up from a field of rubble. The Zoxx shun the place, being too far from the game streets to be of any worth, and far too tall."
Soon they all saw what she meant. It rose at least a hundred meters into the air, white as Loce's living suit and made all that much more ghostly by the strange fires to the west. It was square-based, but with many filaments and balconies jutting alarmingly from the structure's main body. Tall, narrow windows looked down on the city in forlorn memory, searching for the past. This visage flared up with each new spell woven above the Rot.
It seemed completely abandoned, but along the blasted avenue leading to the square they found sign of passage, dark spots on the whitish stone. Laxa, scratching at the blood, sniffed it and grimaced.
"Foul stuff," she spat. "Rotties, most probably."
The company drew their weapons and steamed out hot breath into the cold night air. Lumnos didn't draw, however, as he was quietly formulating their redemption while trying not to become lost in consideration.
The white tower threatened to overwhelm, like a thousand-foot ghost, like a body with its arms chopped off, caked in lye. There it stood still and dancing, naked except for ribbons of connecting cables and jewelry of filigreed balconies. It had sacrificed its arms so that it could do no violence, to show that it meant no harm, it welcomed.
Quietly was the only way to go. If the Rotties had sentries then the game would already be up, but if they seemed as terrified as they did, then there was a chance to find them before they scuttled off into shadows, into the mysterious black.
Inside, the tower proved even less sensible. Vast open spaces, scaled by stairs and platforms, reached into shadow. There were other floors but each was massive, each room a flask empty of whatever strangeness the building had been designed to contain. The trail led upwards.
Subtly, Lumnos worked his way near the front of their band, beside the Fencer, while ahead scouted Laxa; a worrisome proposition. He took a pull from his brandy flask to steady his nerves and dull the pain of what was to come.
A high, light platform defined the second floor, some forty meters above the ground level. Stairs stretched upwards, and balconies leaned out, all of that strange white stone reminiscent of Loce's armor. It was a spare place, high contrast, deep shadow black in places, due to the white magic outside. Lumnos caught a whiff of something foul just as the first silent body crept out from the dark.
He moved as a man possessed, filled by a plan he had worked out in silence the whole way up. While the Rotties showed dark and violent and the Fencer drew and Laxa sparked up eager motes with her naked blade, Lumnos was in front with his long, narrow sword.
Ahead was a tall, lanky girl, probably no more than sixteen cycles, but with a face narrowed and aged by the Rot's effects. She held a long, wicked blade in each hand, readied to pounce. They all had the look of animals to them. Then these eyes widened, amazed, because the wordseller was the first to draw blood.