In another time he was a different man in the same place. His dreams were of an enormous room of grey stone. In this cube the entirety of his life was contained. The cube was empty. On the floor was a loose piece of stone which wasn’t there a lifetime ago. He pried this up because he was curious. Peeking down, crouched and hungry for knowledge, he spied a city miles below, fair and spindly, pin-point tower and green garden. A place where energy lived and the living tried to be otherwise. A pyramid of black metal lay outlined as a square, massive to the point of incredulity, it sat near one edge of the island. And this was an island, and clouds were the sea.
“I don’t trust you,” said the raw voice uncertain of her words.
“Apart from the two outlanders I don’t think anyone here trusts each other,” said another female voice in response.
“The book man trusts,” said the first to the sound of hollow tapping.
“He should trust to his books and not others’ foolishness,” retorted the second.
Sleep became pale light and Lumnos realized two women were talking about him. Belleneix and Laxa went quiet and thoughtful as he roused, the Fencer and the Trumpeter still slept with that easy way of travelers. Something clattered out of his hands as he sat up. He had been holding the Phyox sword and for some reason this made him think of that dream, that grey room, that city on the clouds.
“A funny thing about trust coming from a woman who attacked her kin,” he said to Laxa, gathering his bearings. He was in a lost catacomb in search of a necromancer because, well, because he had made the mistake being burglarized.
“They’ll have no cause for argument when I’m Hegemon,” shrugged the Theb, speaking of her eventual rise to the highest position in her tribe.
Mutual distrust had kept the two guards attentive that night, mostly in regards to watching each other. Laxa had here weapons spread out before her and was quietly sharpening them, which, considering the sheer number, had probably occupied her all night. Belleneix had engaged in more grisly activities.
All around the dead lay in careful piles, stacked in alcoves and sorted into nooks. Blessed scripts were plastered to each shroud, telling of a religious age. One of these had been disturbed, shroud torn open, bones scattered across the ground. That hollow sound to which he had awoken was Belleneix tapping a rib bone against her teeth. Around her lay a few other pieces, a skull, and a femur, while the others slept she had been scrounging.
“I’m hungry,” she complained.
This was the defining comment that morning. Each was feeling the strains of the past day. Between Laxa and the travelers they had enough salted and dried fare, but water was in short supply. There was talk of drinking Clea’s potions, but the Fencer grew cold at this suggestion and the group bickered after other plans.
At last Belleneix declared she had the solution, even though only a few seconds before she had been complaining about how they were all doomed now that they were underground and near the great evil full of shadow. Following the faint lights of the crypt, ancient reservoirs of something like phosphorous glowing forever for the dead, they came to a sealed door. The Theb guards above must’ve been liars, this vault lay untouched and forgotten, with no means in for doad or marrowmere.
Breaking the seal, they opened the door to the sound of grinding stone. Outside a half collapsed corridor reached into darkness. A stolen goblet full of the white, glowing powder lit their way as guided by the cannibal girl.
“Harder finds now that our bodies are stolen,” she commented in the same fashion as one might remark on the weather. She kept one hand on the stone wall as she moved.
“I just can’t follow your meaning,” said Lumnos with honest curiosity. He had never met a Rottie with so much to say.
“We used to have so much,” Belleneix said wistfully of the Rot and the corpses therein, ignoring Laxa’s laugh. “But then darkness and the bodies began to move. They took their own, stole from us. Careful things, only us Rotties saw. Then they came for our lives, all dripping stuff that was not blood. I climbed up to the terrible city, to ribbon people and money-takers and those steel Magpies.”
Despite her broken words this explained much, the source of the raw materials for the marrowmere and the doad, the displacement of the Rotties and the chaos which had set fire to Ruin’s ready tempers. All those palace-tribes and ribbon braves had fallen into such a complacent cycle of life amongst the crumbling towers that the addition of roving bands of cannibal children and random undead ignited hidden tensions into a blaze of chaos. In a way this reminded him of the Uplifting.
Something freakish trembled along his left side and he looked and saw the Phyox flex, growing a few more hexagonal scales on the guard, a zigzag pattern suddenly running down the flat of the blade. For a brief second he could sense its plastic mind and those feelings it held in its ceramic flesh. It went still quickly, leaving him with the impression that his thoughts weren’t all his own anymore. Perhaps his dreams as well, though he dismissed this as paranoia; he was reading too much into things.
They passed from the ancient halls into a sewer which had been dry for many centuries. Belleneix led them downwards, her hand on the walls. At last they came to another sealed portal, this one loosely and hastily bricked up.
Cutting through the barrier exposed a great darkness, a void of without sides or bottom. Laxa and Belleneix fought with each other in order to be the first one down as the Trumpeter unwound a long rope, fastened it, and let it fall into the infinite black. The voices of the two women found no echo in the dark. They descended.
Their pale light illuminated a theatre of some sort. Remnants of cushions and a stage revealed themselves, as well as glimpses of friezes and reliefs depicting nudes. Lingering pigments on the walls spoke of frescos where bodies cavorted at the whims of a very decadent mind. Many were the secrets hidden and lost, forgotten by the world, their makers destroyed.
From this private auditorium Belleneix took them at a quick pace, eagerly, without saying why. Secret chambers turned to dry aqueducts, where a passage down presented itself she led on. At last she brought her hand off the wall, and, after gauging whatever it was she felt there, moved quicker into the dark, the rest racing to keep up.
Lumnos felt the mysteries of the Black beyond each door not taken, each arch left in shadow. So many were the hidden things beneath Ruin! Layer upon layer, like the rings of a tree, secret and history, story, horror and drama, all from the past, the forgotten past. It made him almost sad, like the sorrow of a tragedy, but really the feeling was more nuanced, a nameless agitation. It wasn’t like him to be all sentimental. No, once again he felt that he had been compromised in some way.
The Rottie found them a cistern full of fresh snowmelt. There were many of the kind, she explained, fed by cunning traps from up above, run through filters, stored and forgotten. She had been testing the walls for condensation, realized the wordseller.
They rested and filled their flasks, drank until sated and wondered aloud about the dark. Each had a reason to be there, flawed and selfish as they might be. This close, Lumnos could sense their motives. Laxa’s ambition, Belleneix’s hunger, the Fencer’s nuanced determination and the Trumpeter’s curiosity, these all seemed as open books.
He examined the Phyox, yet he could not read the alien weapon. All he knew was that it could shift and change, though maybe not to his desires.
Floor after floor, down ramp and tunnel, stair and shaft, they hunted the lower depths. Of bodies they found many, the underworld was populated by them. Some moved, some lay still.
The first doad band they encountered carried a great number of corpses, more dead from the Rot to be put to the Necromancer’s use. The Fencer cut one down and the others paid no mind as they shifted their burden to carry these new pieces. He destroyed the rest then, but it left him unsatisfied. Not a one fought back.
Now they traveled in silence, fearful to hear what may wait in the dark. The tunnels themselves had shifted, this Belleneix was sure of. Tracks on the ground spoke of great movements of the dead, and these increased as they entered the mines.
The most ancient carven tunnels gave way to the coarse-hewn rock of exploitation. Here was the honeypot which had brought all those ancient magi from the far corners of Winter to build the city which would come to be known as Ruin. Like worms they bored through the earth, using human beings as labor because magic and the technologies of magic were costlier than lives.
Cold black grew in some corners and passages, devouring light, spreading patches of foulness. Just looking into those depths dragged the will down. The travelers sought other avenues.
Bodies, preserved and inanimate, stood posed as sculpture in various rooms and along some halls. The Phyox trembled at these still-life communities. There was some sorcery at work here, some occult significance to the ordering and placement.
Behind them snuffling sounds made it clear they were being followed. Doad most probably, though it was never clear where a marrowmere might be drifting about, in search of whatever quality it sought in the living. They kept moving, seeing the strange wonders of the underworld, fearful at what such mysteries might portend for the mind of the creature they hunted. With some haste they moved down whatever passages they could find.
Noise erupted on the third level, great clattering symphonies. They fled, but echoes followed. Their light might give them away, but the thought of stumbling through the utter black was enough to risk the danger of discovery.
Ahead, a great whirring erupted just around the bend of a tunnel. It started off as a whine, but grew and grew, becoming a hum and then a scream. Backtracking, the sound of something huge ground against the rock walls and grew closer. So blocked, the Fencer grimaced and laughed, and pushed ahead, towards the whining monstrosity in the unknown place before them.
It was a huge machine, one of the engines used by the miners to grind and crush rock. Silenced when the magics were taken in the uplifting, it now ran on darker fare.
The thing was the size of a mammoth and it stood on four metal legs trembling with the strain of its shrieking heart. On its back was a giant hopper where coarse stones might be dumped from the steel walkway above. Stone would then cycle through its innards, with the refined ore tumbling from a chute in its front. It was a cunning work of machine precision, showing the ingenuity of the ancient masters. It lurched and lived, something black jostling in the hopper, and that salty, metallic smell they had first tasted in these depths returned.
It moved towards them with obvious hostility and the Fencer met its charge, the steel limbs moving in a parody of life, terrible shrieks of pain coming from each joint and bolt.
Dhala cleaved what accounted for its face which emitted a spray of sparks and spattering black blood. Laxa and Belleneix joined him, striking at the legs and joints, their ordinary weapons doing little against the shuddering beast.
It struck back. Flailing with its legs it caught Laxa on the side of the head and she fell senseless, blood streaming. But its main target was the Fencer, which is sought with a broken steel tongue used to lap up wayward stones. Terrible weeping stuff, spattered out over him and he flinched to keep from being blinded, then it reared up, intending to bring the whirring madness of its guts down on the man. If the crushing weight didn’t kill the swordsman then the spinning gears certainly would.
Lumnos went to his companion’s defense. He lunged into the exposed underbelly and the Phyox was wrenched from his hands by the spinning engine. That little needle of white stone most certainly would break under such gnashing metal. Instead the gears jammed and the thing tore itself apart.
The engine exploded. Yellow sparks showered, gears flew into the stone walls and sunk in, sending out sprays of rock. A gritty, black fluid spattered all present. The machine monstrosity’s pieces went still. Amongst the remains the Phyox gleamed, unhurt.
They were all well enough for the encounter, except Laxa who had a nasty gash along her scalp and complained out of pride as the Trumpeter saw to her wound. They had only a minute before the following thing reminded them of its presence.
It trundled out long steel nose first, its body that of some sort of bench along which a sheet-like tongue rotated slowly lengthwise, stained with more of that black inky fluid. It looked at the destroyed machine and whined, spinning the rotating sheet faster, eager to suck in more bodies for its unwholesome process.
Belleneix took that moment to leap upon it, hacking at the metal workings. Her blades cut the long rotating tongue which shredded itself apart to reveal cunning metal rotors spaces like teeth along the body, some five meters in length. Then it began to thrash.
The travelers scrambled to get away from the bucking, shrieking metal beast. The Rottie girl laughed as she sent sparks flying with the blade she held in one hand, the other holding on for the life for which she apparently had little concern. The machine reached up with its many free legs and tore at her, cutting deep with its narrow hooves. Still she laughed, laughed like she had seen the Fencer do back in the corridor before charging into danger.
A particularly terrible twist of its metal flesh shook Belleneix loose and she tumbled into a corner, crying. The swordsman ended the struggle with a single sweep of his nightmare sword. Choosing his moment carefully he leaped in and split its tiny engine in two, more of that black stuff sputtering out. It died, twisting, shuddering.
Its death was great and the strength lent it by the unwholesome sorceries of the underground realm stove deeply into the wall, which buckled, causing the ceiling fell.
A flash of brilliance erupted from the murky sea of black pooling upon the stone floor. All present flinched useless against the hundreds of tons of rock crushing down, and didn’t see the mutable white flood the wrecked machinery with thousands of fastidious tentacles, moving in a blur. They only uncovered their eyes when death failed to come.