Some texts describe the early creation, before Winter and the Riddle, as undifferentiated substance. This substance waited like clay for the hand of some luminal force to align it into cascading sequences of structure, which then reached out into a new and visible cosmos as matter. It had always seemed a fairytale to Lumnos, but he thought of it now as the Phyox, having offered up its dying master, collapsed into a ball of pale grey and waited for another hand to wield its protean flesh.
There were other narratives, he realized as he approached the maimed sorcerer. In such a state Loce failed the stereotype. Sure, he had the silver hair and eyes, those fantastic attributes of a magician, but he was decidedly middle-aged, gaunt, with ashen skin etched with scars and a long, unwelcoming face full of strange thoughts. He wore only a wrapped undergarment of linen and he shivered in the cold.
The wounded stump where his hand once joined his wrist nearly glowed with a strange, purplish infection. Fever raged through the magus’s body and he seemed to stare off at events transpiring on an unseen horizon.
Other thaumaturges noted that strange matter, that primal material from the beginning of time, was a purely alchemical creation and that it only existed through the magics of the creator boiling down a mountain or sifting out choice atoms from a desert. Still others credited an entity from beyond Winter with the arrival of magician’s clay.
If anything this merely proved the variability of stories, of information, of facts and the contexts which bound them like knots. There was so much which Loce could tell of these things, but he wore as a second skin, a second self to obscure his words, these were just masks, a series of useful fictions. Now his wisdom suffocated under a delirium. Fiction was too imprecise a word, yet there was no more time to ponder as Lumnos tried to aid the sorcerer from high Summer.
“They’ve died,” rasped Belleneix, staring down the ruined geometries inside the tower, still flowing with dust, obscuring her dead Rottie companions below. She wore a mix of confusion and whimsy which the Fencer didn’t care to answer.
“Hush,” commented Lumnos as he tried to get the sorcerer’s attention.
“The marrowmere and the doad will be out soon and so should we,” reasoned the Trumpeter, straining to get a first glimpse of the horrors spilling from the Rot’s unsealed mouth. He wanted to be the first in terror.
“Can I have a moment of help?” Lumnos asked his companions, who each was in a separate place.
“Can’t you just kill them all?” asked Laxa, trying to get the Fencer’s attention, but he was elsewhere, a place of grim anger, judging from the look on his face. “You’re the one with the evil sword.”
Laughter cut through the chaos and each focus found the trembling mage, his chuckles coughing out with each shiver, his smile from the sky. His voice had the power to bind demons and in this moment he bound each of them.
“There is no such thing as victory,” said Loce once the laughter had gone. “I thought to seal that hole for all eternity. I failed. It brought the darkness upon me, but in turn the Black lost the reigns of the depths. Now it coils up its powers, which have run far away, down old tunnel and lost dungeon. We have some time before its face is in order.”
“His brain is gone,” pronounced Belleneix.
“No, it’s this damn fever,” said Lumnos, eyeing the Fencer’s weapon. “It would take an idiot savage to bring my life into contact with a cursed sword. If it weren’t for that…”
“It only means that what I have done to him I can do to the thing waiting for us below.” The Fencer’s cold reasoning was irrefutable.
“You mean we aren’t fleeing from our certain death and are, instead, running full tilt at it like a child down a hill?” said the Trumpeter, laughter at the corners of his eyes. He was in on a joke nobody else thought was funny.
“If our criminal swordsman doesn’t take this necromancer’s head then I certainly will,” puffed Laxa, as grim and determined as the Fencer with whom she competed.
“All light and I won’t know it,” mumbled Loce, who then shot strait up. “She will find me here! Get off my chest, I can’t breathe, and if I had a sword of legend I could cut through this fate and all others.”
Another’s rage shot through the wounded magician like a lightning bolt. Then he became enamored of his putrescent arm and fell back to the stones breathing quick and shallow.
“So we are to continue with our plan to descend into the mines and defeat the Necromancer?” asked Lumnos in a manner which was both exacting and timorous.
“Not our plan,” smirked the Fencer. “Yours. You kept me here, after all.”
“What about the Alabaster Palimpsest?”
The Fencer gave no response because he was busy plotting a way down the ruined interior of the tower.
“What about Loce then?”
The Trumpeter replied by struggling with his coat pockets, and this got the Fencer’s attention.
“You would waste Clea’s legacy?” The swordsman looked almost hurt as he asked.
“Always more memories,” muttered the musician, who produced an array of luminescent vials. He chose one, seeming at random, and crouched down next to the sorcerer, who was a million miles away. “Besides, this cure worked on you as well.”
“Those were the Emerald Alchemist’s?” It was a rare thing for Lumnos to see true magic, each one a thing of mystery.
“Yes, and also yes,” noted the Trumpeter as he poured the liquid crystal down Loce’s throat. The man thrashed, eyes fluttering, and around them the air sang with lighted motes, half-formed warding seals, staccato bursts of magic from the sorcerer’s fevered mind. Coils and threads, as of writing, script luminous, jotted and coursed, flickered and vanished.
Laxa was struck, having crept close to witness the forbidden potion. A brand of white hot characters seared across her torso, from her shoulder to the opposite hip, where it coiled down here leg like a thunderbolt seeking ground. For only a moment did the glimmering prose flare up, then it darkened and vanished.
She fell with a cry which was more alarm than pain, but most eyes were on the magician.
“He will be well now?” asked Lumnos.
“After a time,” nodded the Trumpeter. “Dhala’s poison is pernicious and even magic seems reluctant to engage the stuff. Still, in some hours he’ll again be able to argue with the Fencer.
“No, I won’t,” rasped Loce.
“A speedy recovery,” mentioned Lumnos.
“I have no more arguments, your violence has won,” the magician continued. “I’m now tied to the play of grey, all shade and formlessness.”
He drifted, exhausted on his own words, still half-mad with the dream poison.
“We should leave,” said the Fencer, taking no relish in his philosophical victory. He had tried to help Laxa to her feet, but she waved him off.
“I suppose you are right,” said Lumnos. “He will be as safe here as anything, and he has his…thing to protect him.”
“Take it,” gasped the sorcerer as he shuddered again. The sphere of matte white drifted to the wordseller, where it transformed into a strange, double-edge sword. It kept the same color and up close it seemed all made from hexagonal plates or scales, giving it an artificial, geometric design. “I have no need of protection up here.”
“Another magic sword,” clucked the Trumpeter.
Then, summoning the last of his strength, Loce focused his eyes on the group and said, “It should be noted that the raw meaning of the term entails the gaining of wisdom from the dead.”
A puzzling statement, to be sure. The gathered rabble, readers and lessers, took in the words, but not the meaning. Before they could ask for some meaning from the pale mage he had drifted on like a passing cloud, towards dreams hopefully more peaceful than the ones inspired by the dark blade’s wound. Urgency pressed them to note that one of their number was missing.
“Our Rottie has left us,” laughed Laxa, but she was cut off by another.
“I’ve found a way down!” shouted Belleneix, who had slipped off while the Abjurist had been given his cure.
Whether she had attempted to escape her bargain yet again they would never be sure, but she had found that a rough and dangerous course lay at staggered intervals down the interior of the tower. Lumnos’s ankles ached just following the series of jumps proposed by the girl.
When all were prepared they proceeded down, though the Trumpeter was the last. At first the wordseller thought he brooded over the horrors presumably spilling out from the Rot, but no, his eyes were aimed upwards. No stars or sky were visible, thanks to smoke and cloud, but still he searched.
When pressed, and Lumnos’s curiosity couldn’t help but ask, the Trumpeter murmured something about watching the weather. A coarse lie, yet there was no reason to press the man. Down they went, hopping from stone to stone, descending a tower strangely left untouched by the Uplifting. The world was full of exceptions.
An argument broke out amongst the dark morning streets. There would be no sun for some time, and the sky seemed to be that utter black, that thing mentioned by Loce and which swelled in the belly of the marrowmere. It was an abyss which walked or glided, glistened and absorbed, and the mortals were eager to avoid thinking of what lay below them, even at the end of their quest to find the Necromancer and the things he had taken.
Going the way of the Rot was unthinkable, even though the Abjurist claimed to have defended that point successfully. There were rumor of other cellar entrances, but finding one unsealed would take time and an irrational urgency pressed them, the notion that the dawn was being held hostage by the dark should they not make haste. Desperate, they followed Laxa.
She took the band into the streets of her home of Theb. Many were the ruins, both recent and of the Uplifting, but many more tower blocks showed flickering lights in the cross-shaped windows and varied patrols of palace-tribe braves wandered, keeping the peace and muttering about the dead which float.
From these they hid, her own people, though the girl wouldn’t elaborate a reason. She set a path through hidden byways rarely traveled, towards a tall and imposing structure.
This was the center of the Theb district, the old manse of that great and missing magus whose named still reverberated through the history of Winter. Statues depicted the man; a tall and imposing figure with a regal, ageless bearing, a pair of sleek horns protruding from his long hair, rising above like a strange halo.
His central palace now served as home to hundreds of the most honored Thebs, led by the tribesman with the most prestige and name-ribbons. It was a large and rambling affair of marble colonnades, classical arches, porticoes and open rooms. Into this place the travelers flooded, like insects on honey.
The Fencer sheared the weapons from the nervous guards at the side gate, who ran off shrieking. Inside the halls, once the model for much of the city’s grandeur, they were met with households tucked into sitting rooms and gathered around fires built in seating pits and dried reflecting pools and dozens of terrified people, some running, some approaching, arms drawn.
The invaders were careful with their violence, disarming those who faced up to their weird assault and scaring off more with blasts of noise and outlandish behavior.
Laxa took them down the first stairs she found, a trap door propped open in the kitchen where at least a dozen Thebs made their homes, children peeking out from the disused, hut-sized ovens. Cries from behind spoke of a redoubled effort by the defenders, their fear melted by the passion for triumph; whoever bested the strangers would be great indeed.
In the depths few people waited, mostly pale outcasts, the old and destitute, those who could not, or would not, play the games of their palace fellows. These offered no resistance, only stares of wonder, and occasional smirks at the chaos befalling their betters. Several floors down the invaders found their means.
Two guards watched over a capped well, bored by their low-fame duty, and shocked by sudden opportunity. One threw his spear at the offenders but Belleneix nimbly caught the thing, and smiled her livid smile despite where the blade had cut her. The other lunged for the Fencer, who sidestepped his opponent and placed the flat of the blade against the man’s back. He shrieked and collapsed shuddering.
“Why are you doing this?” babbled the first guard under the scrutiny of Laxa’s sword point. “Those things are down there, I hear them sing in stolen voices and at times a raw shadow licks up between the seams on the cap. It’s suicide to open it.”
“Prestige,” she answered, full of pride. “Next time you see me I’ll be at the top of this palace.”
Despite the dangers the motely struggled to remove the heavy well cap. Up from the depths a gust of stagnate air gasped, but they threw a torch into the dark and it revealed only dry stone.
Lumnos was the last down and worried that the remaining man would try to stop them, or worse cut the rope which they hung down the pipe. Yet still he risked joining the group below. The things he’d do for knowledge.
The bottom of the well broke out into an older structure, a catacomb from another, more ancient strata. The well had never been used for its purpose, sealed since it had first been sunk in search of water.
From here the band could make their second foray into the mines, presuming that all such labyrinths down here were linked. But their day’s travel finally fell upon them like a watching cloud of gloomy crows. Behind came the noise of the cap being put in place once more and several heavy weights clunking down on top. All they had now was gloom.
Here they took a rest, though it was sleep which did the taking. Belleneix and Laxa took watch, being the least exhausted and most agitated. It was a surprise to Lumnos that he could slumber against their piping quarrels, as each tried to outdo the other in terms of accomplishment, most probably imagined. Yet he did fall, down, into the dark place of dreams.