Sparks scattered as Afrax shattered his opponent’s sword with a vicious swing of his khopesh. The Ulosh fighter backed up, full of fear and anger, the icy hills of the upper Samla framing his powerful form. Sleeping waters stretched down past the men, towards the frozen delta, and Ruin.
“Not many places to run, you know,” Afrax said, his voice calm and even.
The Uloshian’s response was to go dead in the eyes and flick something out of his armored sleeve.
Afrax moved automatically, with no thought, as he had learned to do through two decades of struggle. He didn’t see what it was that the blue-tinged man held nor did he know what his fellow conspirators did behind him. Two steps and he popped his arms forward, letting the great sickle-blade’s weight do the cutting in one sharp snap. His opponent’s face and front erupted into red.
When the body fell to the ice a long, thin dagger slipped from the man’s hand and became a ship on a sea of blood. The stuff flowed downhill, towards the distant and troubled city. Afrax whirled.
“I lead now,” he stated in no uncertain terms. “So if there are any more part-time swords amongst us let’s work out our differences so that each may know the certainty of our goal.”
The addressed rabble was a mishmash of Winter folk, but all had hardship written great and heavy on their beings. They were armed for a small war, blades and other, more exotic weapons tucked and buckled and set into their armored skins. The only response they gave was an exchange of coin; a bet had been won and lost.
Without a word he set off for the southeast, towards Ruin. Afrax hated the cold. He flexed his hands and they cracked with pain from within their scaled gauntlets. He wore a full suit of the meticulous mail, which chimed in a comforting way as he set the pace.
His fellow mercenaries followed. Each man and woman in their band worked for the palace-tribes of Ruin, but they were rarely welcome in that city. No, their tasks sent them far afield, to nearby villages and communities where they secured goods and guarded caravans, bolstering what trade there was in the icy south. Each served different names, Nyriax, Zoxx, Theb, Sysyn, and so on, wearing that tribe’s color but they all truly served one master.
That morning they had found a silver coin dropped on their person in the night, the work of more subtle agents. The coins were whole, a rarity considering how common clippers were in the south. The only shared mark was the single shape punched through them, the shape of a tear, every one falling on purpose. They met at the agreed upon crossroads, discovering who their allies were, the captain holding a few lines of information concerning their task. Payment never entered their minds for they acted out of loyalty to an ideal.
Now the band was almost to the goal, the great and broken city of Ruin seating upon its plateau. An hour from the gates things had gone wrong. Through the bleary afternoon an uncanny light swam up and out of the buildings, charging the clouds of smoke and fire, bursting from the ice an unsettling white. Even the sun hid from this terrible ray.
Some of the men panicked, the long-instilled hate and fear of magic animating their superstitions. The captain had been one of these. Now Afrax led on towards their destination, any sign of worry hidden from his dark, scarred face. Those back in his home tribe knew him as a coward, but he now followed what he felt to be a greater cause than survival or community, and this was courage enough as they sought after two men and a dream.
White and Black played a game in the upper tunnels beneath Ruin. There the Necromancer’s forces had gathered, like a mass of information about to blossom into a new idea, bursting upon the hapless denizens of the city in a wave of realization. Now light had intruded, bringing with it indecision and reflection.
Lumnos wondered at the light which had driven them deeper underground, insulated as he was in the realm of a dead mage, the Argent Lord. The rest of Winter was a mystery above, hidden beyond this maze of silver. The walls were smooth, with a slight polish, so that murky reflections stared back with blurred countenances. He wanted to reach out and smooth the surface, but the clanging of metallic insects forced their way into his reverie.
“I don’t much care for that wall,” said the Trumpeter, gesturing back to the array of arms and eyes at the far end.
“That’s why I’m staying right here,” smirked the Fencer, blade readied for the coming noise. Laxa and Belleneix nodded, but each was uncertain that their weapons could harm the insects of living metal tumbling towards them from the opening in the ceiling.
The noise grew and grew, a metallic sunrise of sound. They looked around but saw no exits from the confrontation.
The first silver creature crashed upon the floor with such force that it bounced, sending a shockwave through the chamber. Still in the air it unraveled from its ball, each armored plate separating slightly along tiny seams, revealing a play of clicking limbs and two long, frond-like antennae. It moved aggressively towards the band.
By chance Lumnos looked away, because he would never admit to cowardice, and saw the wall move. One arm, a long and reptilian appendage, unfolded from its state of rest and gestured. The target, he realized, was the silver pill-bug. Another clanged into the room now, but the wordseller was enraptured. An eye opened up on the scaly palm.
There was no battle. The insects, now a good half-dozen of them, calmed and worked their antennae curiously.
“Come closer,” chimed a voice of such resonance that the chamber hummed, even though there was no sound. It spoke directly to their minds.
Though the silver beasts trundled dutifully over to the talking wall, it was clear by tone that the request was directed towards the outsiders. All turned to see its many eyes upon them.
“I am Ecul,” it continued evenly. “By my master’s design I am here to assist.”
“Master?” said Belleneix, curling her nose at the thought of servitude.
“Zeklos, the Argent Lord,” it responded balmily, petting one of the restless pill-bugs with a long and sinuous appendage. Each limb the thing wore was different, and each held an eye within the palm. “On his behalf I offer my apologies concerning the actions of the Idosa, they were merely acting upon defenses laid out by the design.”
Lumnos had never heard the name before, the Argent Lord had always been simply the Argent Lord, the title itself a mask like the one worn by the magus.
“What is this place and what is your purpose here?” began Lumnos, a torrent of questions already building. Just as with Loce here was a potential font of information and the wordseller grew anxious. He wanted to ask all his questions at once, a chaos of desire, of needing to know, to set aside past ignorance and understand.
“I fear we’ll lose our scholar to a new friend,” joked the Fencer, who relaxed some, but kept his weapon drawn.
“I am an arranger of information and an observer,” replied Ecul, who occasionally added gestures to the words. “This place is the Palace of Chimes.”
“How may we leave?” asked the Trumpeter. Instantly unseen portals irised open all around them.
“The palace contains many safety measures intended for defense and these may be orthogonal to the capabilities and health of the icebound,” explained Ecul, but did not elaborate, it simply added, “be careful.”
“What is beyond this place?” asked the Fencer, gesturing downward with his weapon.
“I do not know,” said Ecul, picking away some unseen blemish from its wall.
“Oh, so much help,” said Laxa bitterly.
“I do know that the outsider automata make constant forays into the realm beyond the palace,” Ecul added helpfully. “They bring up vast quantities of an unknown substance, returning for more and more. This is a recent development and as they are not creations of my master I have no power over them.”
“How can you not know what they carry?” demanded Lumnos.
“I have yet to be given a sample to inspect,” it said with a bit of sadness touching each of their minds. “I am so curious.”
Lumnos felt the fool. Though his revulsion at the oily crystal was grounded in experience, he should’ve, as an educated man, put aside his qualms and taken a sample when he had the chance.
“I can describe it in detail,” he offered, but there was no need.
Belleneix produced a small bit hidden in her belt and without a word handed it to Ecul. The wall creature took up the black shard carefully and its interest grew as the many arms extended inhumanly from the structure. A crowd of hands surrounded the sample, each eye observing it from a different angle, rotating and cycling through in meticulous observation.
“You kept that thing on you this whole time?” The Trumpeter was aghast at the thought.
“A funny thing,” she replied with half a smile. “My hands pick up all sorts.”
“What is it?” Lumnos asked Ecul.
“It is a broken soul,” stated the wall. “A small collection of them, several in this one piece. The Idosa say great amounts of noetic material are taken through the palace each day, which lends one to believe that there is some use for these things.”
“Noetic?” asked the Trumpeter, who swore he had heard the word used before.
“From nous. It is part of the soul,” began Lumnos. “A contentious topic, with many theurges claiming varied divisions and nomenclature. I’ve read many a treatise.”
“I know only those I possess,” offered Ecul. “There is soma and psyche, both of which exist with me and allow me to exist, as devised by my master, and then there is the nous, which I lack.”
“What is nous?” asked the Fencer, who was now patrolling the exits, testing each one as he sought some way out from the chamber of words.
“Derived from the triangulation of both soma and psyche through the medium of time, as mutated by certain radiations and numina, nous represents a mixture and an impossibility,” Ecul stated, though by the look on their faces the travelers did not comprehend.
“So, what does this mean, if there are lost souls in the rock?” asked Laxa with growing worry.
“I do not know exactly,” thought Ecul to each of them. “But a broken nous may wish to become complete. Emotions pool up, grow into strange blossoms, becoming masks cut from ink.”
“That isn’t a clear answer at all!” shouted Lumnos through his frustration.
“Sometimes the clear and direct answer is a lie,” explained Ecul. “Sometimes the truth can only be expressed obliquely, through poetry, in fragments and parables. Some truth flees from the observer through the act of observing, and one with eyes must take care with methods and mediums. Magic is such a thing. It is everywhere and all-pervasive, yet still it is other, occasionally anathema, often strange and dangerous. I’ve always felt it funny that there is a term such as magician.”
“Mad territory and too much of it,” complained the Fencer.
“Just my kind of dialogue!” beamed the Trumpeter. “Hand it your sword, Fencer, and I’ll hand it my Trumpet. We can spend all day here listening to the talking wall talk.”
“That’s my fear,” noted the swordsman. “We could learn everything but lose it too. How long until Ruin is overrun? Or Summer sweeps clean what offends their height? Might we all be taken to the red demon’s hell for want of action? No, it is time we carve our way through these tunnels armed with what we now know.”
“Ecul, what can you see, or sense, yes that’s a better word, what can you sense in the palace? Can you sense anything outside the palace?” Lumnos asked quickly, lest anyone interrupt.
“I said we are going,” growled the Fencer.
“I observe only this room and what I may be given,” replied the wall.
“I see,” began the wordseller, his mind working at a problem only he could see. “Control. Do you have control of any faculties beyond this room?”
Laxa drew a knife to emphasize the need to move soon. Lumnos didn’t notice or care.
“I have no power beyond this place,” said Ecul.
“But you can command the Idosa?” Lumnos followed a chain of hope towards a certain goal.
“I can,” was the reply.
Now the Fencer moved to silence the academic, but the Trumpeter interposed.
“Let us see where these words take us,” he said.
“Can you command an Idosa to command another?” Lumnos was close now, his eyes reading an unseen text.
“What would you have me do?” Ecul jumped to the end result of their conversation.
“I wish you to command each of these Idosa to attack any automatons bearing material such as that you hold now, and to give these same commands to each Idosa they meet,” stated Lumnos carefully.
“It is done,” replied Ecul, instantly and threw down the soul fragment lest the wall fall prey to the program now enacted.
The silver creatures had been lying still this whole time, only their antennae twitching in the air. Now they sprang to life and trundled off in different directions, one coming up to the group and waiting. Belleneix snatched up the evil stone and the silver creatures made no motion towards her; she wasn’t an automaton after all.
The Fencer lead and the Idosa followed, and between these two the whole group moved, some anxious about the future, others despondent about lost knowledge, and others with a mood all their own. The two travelers from the south guided their more civilized peers towards uncertainty. The silver insect kept pace with the slowest amongst them, which invariably was the Trumpeter, who preened and examined their new companion like a child poking a dog to see if it would react.
Halls of bright splendor opened up their picture galleries and sitting rooms, their dining halls and dungeon cells. All the Argent Lord’s work was like the Idosa, minimal analogues to natural forms, cast sterling and fine. A silver table would hold silver dishes, and a bed would crinkle like finely beaten metal as Laxa jumped on its cushions and declared it both soft and cool. Still, for all the comforts it was a sterile place and the Fencer kept the lot going, as did the rancorous sounds of other denizens moving about at the whim of either the Necromancer or Ecul.
“Are you certain of this way,” pestered Lumnos for the tenth time, the one where the swordsman finally snapped an answer.
“I have a method,” the Fencer pronounced. “We go up when I find a way, and towards the initial entrance when there is none.”
“But that will not lead us down to the mystery beyond the palace,” said Lumnos, as calmly as he could in light of the swordsman’s blade.
“We have business with the Necromancer, not mystery,” replied the Fencer.
“Reasonable,” mused the wordseller unhappily, “but let me share this. We have been wandering a good hour, while it took us not even ten minutes to reach Ecul’s chamber. Either your method is flawed, which I doubt, or this place is itself a maze, which I propose.”
“Then I have a test,” grumbled the Fencer.
He led them back the way they came, causing Laxa and Belleneix to complain about wasteful footsteps. They hadn’t backtracked long before the way became different, the gently curved tunnel descending and finally exiting onto the banks of a large pool which extended the entire width of the room and reached a good ten meters towards the far side.
The Trumpeter lazily pulled a thread from his ceremonial scarf and dropped it into the pool. Instantly a hissing, sparking confusion took place, lighting up the ceiling.
“Can these mages never keep a sane home?” sighed the Fencer as he tried to wish the acid pool away.
“I say we return to Ecul’s room,” added Laxa. “Or I might be able to track the passage of those metal things carrying the stones, I’ve seen some sign of them in our journey.”
The sense of being isolated and lost in the Palace of Chimes dragged their mood down. From each burnished surface vague reflections looked on as though observers through a hazy mirror. Even if they made for Ecul’s lair there was no certainty that they might not end their days walking circles in this place where the walls moved silently.
“I certainly wish Ecul had said something about this,” moaned the Trumpeter.
“We never thought to ask,” said Lumnos, as the sound of clanking metal came closer and closer.