Within Summer’s comfortable grandeur Loce developed his dual philosophies of white and black. While sharing much with the binary thinkers who preceded him, he clambered up these past treatises in order to show others the nuanced difference between mystery and possibility. In the mysterious past the unknown had hungered in the dark of unknowing, preying upon people, a monster wreathed in shadow. Yet through his experiments white was revealed to contain all visual vibrations, yet hid none in its honesty. He was mostly ignored.
The Phyox was a grand expression of this ethos, a living thing created by the charging of inert strange matter with the purest white magics. It lived and flowed around him, inoculating the bizarre theorist from the violent mysteries which stalked the new world of magic.
Now he wore the white creature again and flew above a patchwork armada of gardens. Beyond the green realm there flowed a vast plain of clouds, as if the land was the top of some abrupt plateau, the surrounding lowlands hidden by storm and mist. His journey veered to one side and beyond the garden there was the City where darkened doors opened into mystery.
The Phyox trembled and Loce knew its fear, an unwanted failure of the second skin. He alighted on the Avenue of Cloves, where the air was thick with the smell of herbs, where visionaries went to stew their incensed thoughts. Each building was alike and new, ancient as forgetting, eternal, waiting to be destroyed.
Shaking confusion from his head, he wondered where all the people were and found a shadow stretched upon the ground. Up from it stepped a woman with ashen skin and raincloud hair, long and elaborately decorated. Her eyes were gold.
She was all wrong. He knew her, and he knew her again. There were two minds within him and both had met this woman before, though in vastly differing capacities. Loce couldn’t seem to focus on this other self, a child being layered over his own. He could only stare, past her gold iris, past the form as illuminated by the somber twilight, into the dark of the woman’s left pupil, into that swarm of mysteries. This dark violence suffocated him.
In the city a storm of light raged. It never stormed there without good reason. It was all he could witness before waking up.
His fever broken, his hand still missing but no longer infected by the vile poisons of the nightmare blade, Loce took account of the day and saw that the icebound city of Ruin survived. The white tower where he had been left overlooked the metropolis and flocks of white ravens took advantage of the view.
In his sleep he had instinctively woven a new garment for himself from magic, a cloak of grey fur reminiscent of the things rumored to hunt the ice plains of his boyhood. Pushing the past aside he leaned out over the edge of the balcony in search of the future.
Previous fires smoldered quietly in the noontime sun but there was no conflagration. The city lived, which was another victory. The dark hand from beneath had failed in its attempt to feed the city to itself.
Palace-tribes roamed in bands, setting their estates in order, their fear lessened in the light of day. Cries of city life drifted to his ears, vendors selling, children playing, people quarrelling, all echoes amongst the ruins. He allowed himself a smile. It might just have been worth it to break his vow of nonviolence against the flow of causality. Still, the ends remained to be seen.
Troubled by the strange dreams he had under the effects of Dhala’s poison, Loce worked the Lattice and flew through an angle invisible. His psyche and nous alighted on the world stage, breathed on by clouds, showing all the blue of sky and dead white of icy Winter, as if one could see the whole sphere of the planet from a single vantage. A grey smudge described Ruin below, like an inky blot.
From here the writing of the world might be illuminated. A proper sense of scale was necessary so that he might cast his mind along the conduits propitious for the results he sought. Yes, he risked the violence of action now, but soon strange Summer would act, making the Necromancer’s actions seem small and quaint in comparison.
In the underworld, beneath city, sewer, catacomb and dungeon, a light reframed the darkness. Those thousand tons of falling rock had been stopped, and Lumnos removed his hands from his eyes and saw that a new support held up the ceiling.
It was the Phyox’s doing. Even now the white entity, that living tool or weapon, worked to finish their salvation. From the broken steel of the machine-thing it had sculpted the supports and brace which arrested the cave-in, working in a splay of tentacles. Finished, it reformed into a sphere and drifted back to the wordseller, becoming a sword at his side once more. Corpse bits and a murky mixture of glistening black crystal and fluid were the only remains of the two metal monsters.
Lumnos picked up a sliver of crystal the size of a finger. It felt exceedingly heavy, and though the inky fluid fell away without leaving any wetness there showed smudges of the black stuff where the material touched, all smelling like salt and other, stranger chemicals.
“The Black,” he muttered. “Just as Loce mentioned.”
“What’s your meaning?” frowned the Fencer, eyeing the ceiling with suspicion.
“Sometimes I see shapes in the marrowmere, or the doad,” added the Trumpeter. “I’ve seen black shapes, like double diamonds, peek out from the dead flesh. There are silhouette things too, like the one which tried to step into you.”
“All of black, this inky substance, mixed in with the blood, hiding in flesh, moving like a skeleton, not in a physical sense, but still providing some kind of animating frame, some reason,” breathed the wordseller. “But, strange as Summer, I can’t say what it is or why it does the things it does. Ink though, hmmm.”
“All that noise, we must be moving away,” hissed Belleneix after she grew bored of watching the Fencer consider the strange things Lumnos and the musician were hinting at.
“So it comes from some sort of rock they mined up?” asked Laxa, but they had no answer. True, it could be something left over from the mining days, but if it had such properties then surely the red demon would’ve taken it away with the rest of the preying horrors he found. Such a puzzle.
They fled, but more quietly this time, down into the earth. They used no light, that strange, grey radiance provided just enough. The pale energies of death hung in the air so at a distance the rooms seemed brightly lit, but up close the gloom was only that of a waning moon. Each of the travelers seems made of stone, expressive granite statues without blemish.
Behind them came snuffling, clanking sounds as more of the machine things given semblance life inspected their violence. Herds of doad wandered too, busy at the Necromancer’s inscrutable work. Occasionally drifting marrowmere floated across a distant opening, gasping more air into their bloated lungs.
A few floors down a winding, claustrophobic passage the smell told them they were on the level with the city of the miners. The Necromancer’s lake of blood and bone filled the air with a rotten tinge. Following this unpleasantness they at last came to the city by tunnels which seemed to have completely changed since their last venture.
Before them opened the vast cavern, towers rising from floor to ceiling beyond the lake. No fire danced on the far shore, no tiny figure of black awaited, but still there was a presence. It had been growing the whole way down as they followed the city’s run-off, which dripped into the reservoir.
They watched as a massive engine with a hopper full of bodies shuddered its way to the lakeshore. A series of bellows in its undercarriage began to labor, wheezing and gusting. Then a terrible noise of fast metal on fast metal and the bodies began to disappear as the thing pumped out a frothing red and white mixture into the lake. Doad came lugging more raw materials, fresh bodies from their forays topside, and their little band, so safe in the far shadows where nothing bothered them, grew restless for violence.
“You should stop them,” smiled Belleneix to the Fencer with her white, little teeth. “You could you know.”
The Fencer did not know, but now his pride was kindled.
“Not now,” rasped Lumnos. “We can do nothing to save the dead.”
“But it must stop,” said Laxa, for once agreeing with the cannibal. “Who better than the one with the magic blade?”
“I could collapse the cavern,” added the Trumpeter helpfully.
“I don’t like being pulled about,” said the swordsman, but in his eyes he had that look of the demon again. Despite the girls, it was the scene which provoked him. Winter’s callous touch drove him to madness, this scene to the very edge. The two harpies threatened to push him over.
“You must see it’s like the Riddle,” argued Lumnos.
“In what way?” demanded the swordsman.
“In that through our action or our inaction those bodies will remain dead,” reasoned the wordseller. Then another thought took his mind. “Indeed, they are dead, but I am not sure of the thing in the lake. Its blood is red, not black, it thinks, as proven by the fact that is makes its thoughts known in our own heads. Perhaps it gains life and power from the composted flesh of the recently deceased.”
This proved the wrong thing to say, the words pushing the Fencer up and out of the trench in which they hid. He dashed from shadow to shadow, finally breaking out into the dim light to assault the abattoir engine at its work, doad turning towards him with ragged talons.
Along the uneven floor numerous mounds of ancient mine refuse lay in piles. The Fencer dashed up one, leaping over the ring of corpse creatures, as the bloody machine ground on, uncaring.
Atop the metal beast a number of secondary limbs tended the charnel hopper. One flicked like a scorpion tail against the oncoming swordsman, who blurred with sudden motion. A single sharp note rang out as the arm shattered itself against the flat pane of enchanted glass he raised in defense. Fragments rained about, the Fencer continued on, possessed.
Dhala arced upwards, splitting open the heaving bellows along the machine’s underbelly. Immediately the wheezing stopped and it began to shudder violently. Even so, it now lumbered with surprising quickness to face the offending little man, who barely managed to scramble out from between the legs which shattered stone with each step.
It turned its horrible, dripping red mouth, circular, like a lamprey or a leech, filled with grinding, rotating teeth used to spit out the grisly lake mixture. With a single kick it knocked the Fencer back into the doad he had just dodged past. They took him and tore at him. To Lumnos surprise he leaped out of the safety of the trench to come to the savage’s aid. It seemed to do no good.
Before he was even half way to the melee the monstrous machine dove into the crowd where they held the southern warrior and a pluming geyser of blood spewed forth. The machine rocked and trembled, bodies and parts of bodies tumbling out of the hopper in a mad and sloppy avalanche.
The Phyox lead the way, suddenly in the wordseller’s hand, pulling him along. It added grace to each swing. Where it struck the dead fell in pieces, black blood oozing.
Perhaps it was some effect of the strange matter life form, or his personal way of dealing with deathly fear, but Lumnos seemed to reside some feet above his body as the combat raged, drifting there, watching, some buffer between himself and the tooth-and-nail battle.
When over half the doad were felled he had yet to find the remains of the Fencer. Then he noticed that the machine beast wasn’t in the melee. Scanning about, he saw the monster’s end.
The Fencer stood, beaming, pulling out his blade from the bloody wreckage. As he did a sheen of frost covered the mountain of metal, the material screaming with the change in heat. Its shuddering stopped. The great and terrible snout on the thing had been cleaved all the way through to the body. That was the cause of the red geyser Lumnos witnessed before.
All this while his body was methodically cutting down the undead. This seemed to be some function of the Phyox, an economy of mind and body where the flesh worked efficiently in a purely intuitive state and the mind was unbound from physical distractions, able to observe and consider under even the worst strains.
The others were slower to arrive, but soon Belleneix and Laxa and the Trumpeter appeared, gesturing behind them.
“I hear the moaning marrowmere,” said the Trumpeter.
“And where were you when the bookworm and I did all the work?” demanded the Fencer.
“The Trumpeter said that it was customary for his people to be accompanied by at least two female bodyguards at all times,” said Laxa, smiling and amused.
The thing in the lake heard them and rose up sputtering and red, towering over a dozen meters into the air, much of its bulk still hidden beneath a sea of separating blood and bone fluids. It seemed to be a single massive muscle, swollen in certain areas to provide locomotion, puckered near the top to show a mouth full of glistening white teeth, while above, numerous eyes, huge and colorful, human, but on a titan scale, glared with obvious pain.
Its mind was full of hate, unfocused and potent. Thoughts preceded its horrible crawl from the cradling lake, seeping into them all. Belleneix fell crying, Laxa screamed and hid in its shadow. Lumnos was struck worst of all.
It may have been his already sensitive mind, though perhaps the Phyox was to blame, opening him up to such clarity. With a shock his dual state collapsed. He was frozen with fear, the Phyox shifting form uncontrollably.
The lake thing rose out of its lake and now they could see it was formed something like a giant snail. Its head was that of a blubbery, fat human, though with far too many eyes and no nose. Along its body rows of hands grew, some no more than flippers, others reaching out on long arms. On its back a shell of porcelain bone shimmered with an inner light. It cried and babbled and reached out for the Fencer.
The cunning savage had pressed his head against the flat of Dhala’s cold blade at the first tingle of psychic assault. He shrieked but kept his mind, turning to face down the mutant gastropod. It grew a crown of fleshy tendrils. One whipped into the swordsman, opening up his chest. Blood sprayed and he tumbled back, even as it lurched forward after its prey.
Then a note rang through the air, crisp and clear like the sun over an ice plain. The blood snail’s flesh ripped apart along its left side, showing its inner supports were a nasty mesh of bone material, itself flexing as if muscle. The Trumpeter played with his eyes closed, not wanting to see. The cavern quaked under the onslaught of his aria.
More than anything his playing cleared the mind of the thing’s hate-filled thoughts. Now it was only a distant menace, like a low and permanent hum.
As the group shook free of the effect the Fencer was already plunging his blade into the creature’s chest. Strange fluids poured from the wound as it flailed at the offender. He dodged about and took fingers and hands, cutting them off with quick, arcs of blue-black ice.
Howling to the sound of the trumpet, it redoubled its efforts, scrabbling with its foremost limbs. These fell to either side of the swordsman, hemming him in, scrabbling with pink flesh after the little human. While he hacked off one thumb the other grabbed him about the midsection as its brought its head down to better acquaint him with the drooling maw of teeth.
Just in time he fought his weapon free from its grasp and instead of a still-living treat the monster’s weight pushed the nightmare sword point-first into a vast green eye. To the sounds of painful, shrill screams the ocular organ burst, covering the Fencer in vitreous fluid before he was violently flung away.
As the Fencer groaned the blood snail focused on him once more, short an eye. Already the sword’s poison showed livid and purple on the creature’s wounds, but this had an unfortunate effect. The psychic projection grew in strength as those feverish nightmares caused by the toxin colored its singular mind’s radiations.
Lumnos stood and gaped. His mind was caught open and he was merely an observer, a reader of the tableaux before him. Laxa, now mostly recovered, stood before the monstrosity as it sought revenge on the swordsman. The Trumpeter struggled against the mental assault with his song. New flesh puckered fresh and pink where the monster had been wounded, taking away even what little they had done to it.
So intent it was on the one foe that it failed to notice another. Belleneix snatched up the Fencer’s sword, and though grimacing at the painful weapon, ran along its side, flitting past the arms which grasped after her thoughtlessly.
Laxa put her blade through the first searching hand, but the wound healed around the wound immediately before it wrenched the long sword out of her grasp. Shrugging, she merely took out another of her weapons; she had plenty enough to distract the thing.
The Rottie girl didn’t even flinch as she climbed the side of the flesh beast, using a few twitching fingers as handholds to lift her up before running along its back. She reached the glowing shell just as the thing opened up Laxa’s good sword hand with a wicked strike of its crowning tendrils. There Belleneix raised the nightmare weapon and plunged it in, shuddering with cold.
The bone froze and shattered, revealing a grey-pink mass beneath. The shell housed a massive brain, spiraled and looped, pulsating with vile psychic energies. The nightmare sword dove in and a squamous blast of terror filled all their minds. Lumnos blacked out for a moment then as his breath went short and he remembered another’s memories, fragments only, of suffocation and those golden eyes.
When he came to, mere seconds later, the scene was entirely changed. The Fencer limped towards the lake of flesh. Along the outer shore where the blood snail had just been, was now a mound of putrid slime, a few icebergs of broken shell floating along. The Trumpeter trotted after, tending to Laxa who was on the edge of shock.
Dhala had frozen the lake of blood and bone. Lumnos ran across its lumpy surface to Belleneix’s still body. He turned her over and she was giggling, shuddering cold, but giggling, her hands stripped raw and bleeding.
“Now I am best,” she said and meant it.
Dhala lay where it had fallen, blade half sunk into the frozen lake. The Fencer snatched it quickly. Marrowmere cried in the tunnels behind them.
They raced into the cold dark of the miners’ city and hid amongst the towers, vast shadows eagerly swallowing them up. In their haste they didn’t hear the soft footsteps following, white feet leaving black prints behind, when it chose to walk.