“What marks are those,” whispered Belleneix, pointing at a spot where the pale cave radiance cast a beam of light along the stone floor. They had just caught their breath from the battle with the lake thing and hid in the darkness provided by the old, dead apartment block.
The Rottie girl spoke in regards to an inky footprint without partner or trail, nothing to describe from whence it came or where it went. A cold bit of fear came with the sight of the small footprint.
“A child’s,” began the Trumpeter, who was hushed for his volume, “like that of the creature we saw on the far shore we now tread.”
“Does this grow our mysteries or condense them?” murmured Lumnos.
“Vapid tongue-waving,” huffed the Fencer. “I have a growing conviction that the child is the necromancer we seek.”
The pursuit they were convinced would follow never came. Climbing to the high rooms and looking out showed the vast entrance to the tunnels beyond the lake of blood and bone to be teaming with marrowmere and doad, but none of these abominations walked or drifted their way. For some minutes they stood at the edge of the hideous and frozen waters, watching, but finally, after some internal determinate was satisfied, wandered off, returning to their charnel tasks. Despite the loss of the lake thing the necromancer’s program churned on, tantalizingly vague, like that single footstep down below.
“Black and white, good and evil,” mused the wordseller.
“What is that down there?” asked the Trumpeter, pointing further into the city, down to the avenues below.
“I don’t see anything,” replied Laxa definitively.
“The fluid inside those marrowmere and doad is of utter black, and the umbirae are themselves shadows of purest jet,” continued Lumnos, thinking out loud, somehow needing to trouble the minds of everyone else with these words.
“Wait,” said Laxa, “I do see it, something whitish.”
“And then there is that crystal which weeps the very same darkness, I’ve never read its like before. Not jet, not obsidian, not carbon or naphtha, nor any other mineral or oil describes the inky depths of that strange substance. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Too many words,” admonished the Fencer, who went to see what all the activity at the window was about. “There’s nothing down there.”
“You said that before even looking,” laughed the Trumpeter. “Look again.”
“And then there is the White, because duality needs its partner,” continued Lumnos, considering the components of his recent troubles. “For an avatar I propose that mage Loce and this strange blade creature, this Phyox. Yet in broader scope the White lacks that same insidious pregnancy of the Black. I’m missing something.”
“Be quiet for our arguing,” snapped Belleneix, and her sharp words finally closed the verbal book the wordseller was writing on the air with his tongue.
“This is important business,” he said indignantly, getting up because it seemed the proper sort of thing to do when one’s words were questioned. “If I can arrive at the heart of the matter then we might know our adversary and what we may do about him, her or it, as the case may be. What is that?”
In his rage he had gone to the window and there looked down into the shadowy streets where something looked back up. At this height it was difficult to say, but he was certain that a pale, white humanoid peered at them, half hidden by the corner of another tower block.
“You see it too?” exclaimed the Trumpeter.
“Of course, but what am I seeing?” asked Lumnos as the Fencer dashed down the stairs, the others close by, racing towards the white thing amongst the black pavement.
The wordseller followed as close as he could, the way down being far easier on his joints as the way up, but curiosity got the best of him. He discovered many more of those footprints, as if something airborne had followed their trail, setting down randomly. He jerked his head upwards, thinking he heard a noise, but there was only shadow there, broken on occasion by the pale underworld phosphorescence spilling in from the windows.
By the time he finished descending his noisome band was in the midst of violence. The Fencer stood above a whitish figure that scrambled awkwardly to get away. The Phyox trembled.
He blinked and a stray thought became a sudden movement. There was a clang of unwholesome metal on inviolate stone. He held the Phyox blade in his hands, parrying the overhand strike the Fencer had brought down on the stranger.
“Those books have rotted your brain,” huffed the swordsman. This was a coping mechanism. Never had another’s weapon survived Dhala’s atom edge.
“It’s another of those dead things,” explained Laxa, gesturing with her own sword.
Lumnos glanced down, and indeed the girl thing seemed all ghostly pale, with ashen skin and colorless eyes. From the top of her head unhealthy hair spilled in thick waves. She moved with a certain twitch, like one affected by the palsy.
His resolve wavered but then redoubled with a word.
“Why?” asked the white creature. “Why?”
The Fencer sighed and let his sword rest while Laxa hesitated, gauging the situation. Everyone waited for the girl to say more, except Lumnos, who always had more words.
“Now, now, my dear,” he began, extending one hand out, not realizing he still had the white blade in his other. “I apologize. We have had a trial in coming here and are not fit for civilization at the moment. When in our right minds we wouldn’t think to harm you.”
He saw now that she wore the tattered remains of a stately gown, faded to an almost imperceptible pink. Against the cold smell of dead stone she gave off a slightly acrid scent, something just at the edge of description.
When he finally put his weapon away she let him help her to her feet and asked, “Are you usurpers?”
The question astounded most but the Trumpeter was prepared.
“If it is good sense, then yes we are,” began the musician, stepping forward, taking her hands, and looking into her pale eyes. “I would tumble a dictator just to hear them fall, in fact my friend and I have made it a habit. If you could only direct us to your despot then we might begin.”
She threw his hands aside and he almost cried.
“More pretenders,” she spat, and stepped away to consider something. A twitch ran through her body.
“We are most serious about the trouble we can cause,” said the Fencer, backing up the musician’s strange, half-bluff.
“That I see,” she said properly, glancing back at Dhala’s indigo blade. “I had a pretender once. Split my empire in two, but it will always mine.”
“Can I have your name?” asked Belleneix. This meant something entirely different than the way the pale girl took it.
“I am the Emperor Zoxx,” she explained.
Laxa went for her sword but only drew it halfway, confused.
“Don’t you mean ‘Empress?’” asked Lumnos. The girl flinched.
“Why does everyone ask that?”
Raw confusion threatened the scene. The wordseller gaped, the musician pouted, Laxa was about ready to stab this being for her name, as Belleneix grew bored. It was the Fencer who calmed all this.
“There are others? Please, show us.”
It may have been some lingering aspect of the poison, or the discord of choosing action over contemplation, but Loce was finding it difficult to understand the energies fuming below Ruin. All he felt at the unfiltered seat of the world stage was potent, generalized negativity. A yawning hate, secure in its goals, justified, vengeful, all too human. It was a darkness which gnashed after the city, not just its buildings and peoples, but every aspect and element. Even this metaphor was incomplete, some quality missing from this word which did not exist.
Fueled by the Black Lattice he sensed from the second he returned to Ruin, this mystery both tantalized and disturbed the Abjurist. Old things welled up along its crystalline metaphysics. Old things which were better off buried under the rubble of the past. Bad memories. Power, odd and terrible, bled from this wound in the greater matrix which described the magic coursing through up from Winter’s heart.
Blue resounded to one side, western seas and clear skies, brilliant in the afternoon light. Along the other stretched the land, over which whorls of cloud systems moved at that pace which was invisible at a glance, change becoming evident only through the course of time. All of this below him, subjective, like a map of a far off land.
For a moment his heart remembered the state of white everything and peace, before the travelers had tripped the wards in his old estate, left as it was during the Uplifting when he joined Sol in his endeavor to split the world in order to save it. The red mage could spread his hands and a thousand infinities would open up, spaces which existed but were never colonized; places where dreams might jostle without violence.
Summer would soon arrive. This thought spurred the Abjurist into action. With a step he arrived back in Ruin, at the center of the city, where the great square told the glories of heroes long dead. He sought a way down.
The dark below the city revealed itself at his command. The stones and works shifted apart without breaking, providing a way down. He had to walk from here, the energies below too troublesome to risk anything more nuanced, and the Phyox was in another’s hands, so flight wasn’t possible.
As he descended the stones behind sealed up and he pulled his cloak a bit more tightly about him. It wasn’t that it was cold down here, in fact it was fairly warm, no, it was the thrill of the Black Lattice which made him shiver at the thought of all it might contain.
The Emperor showed them through the quiet streets of the miner’s city with many apologies that they wouldn’t be treated to gold cushions and drugged pleasure-slaves. It was vast, this carven metropolis, the work of centuries and the home of lost thousands. It was also picked clean, with nothing to indicate the teaming workers or their history.
She introduced them to two children, one with a slit throat, the other with her heart cut out. Each was as pale as she, with that same vague scent. They wore fine, tattered cast-offs with all the air of deposed royalty.
None of them were alive. Zoxx moved and spoke but failed to breathe, except to bring air across her vocal cords for speech. The sight of these other two, dead by their wounds, but still animate, confirmed their suspicions. Lumnos soon realized he was the only one willing to engage the creatures as an equal.
The Emperor introduced the boy as Magister Sysyn and the girl as the Grand Arcanist Theb. Their pale, white-on-white eyes were suspicious of the newcomers. The place where they met was a wide square between towers. Circles and occult diagrams lay etched across the slate floor. Each child held a bit of chalk.
“Watch where you step,” growled the little girl called Theb as she went back to her work.
“What is it you do here?” asked Lumnos, carefully moving about the designs.
“Research,” said Sysyn, “A competition of sorts. We are trying to find a way to ward off a particularly troublesome apparition.”
“The Inky Child,” explained the Emperor Zoxx, fear in the words.
“I’ve seen the thing from across that bloody lake,” said the Fencer warily. “All of black, in the shape of a child.”
“Who are these icebound?” asked Sysyn, the question directed toward the Emperor.
“I don’t sense the Lattice about them,” said Theb dismissively.
“This is because—.”
“This Inky Child, I will destroy it,” interrupted the Fencer, growing impatient with these undead.
The assorted creatures went silent for only a moment.
“Do you have any idea whom you interrupt?” huffed Sysyn as he threw down his chalk and stalked up to the much larger Fencer.
“A corpse full of words,” smiled the Fencer, who then he considered this. “Though I suppose that describes all things under Winter’s sun.”
“I am Magister Sysyn! For ten centuries have I worked the laws of the Lattice so that now I may peer into the minds of men and bend their thoughts according to my grand enchantments!”
“Tell me what I’m thinking then,” reasoned the Fencer.
All this time the Trumpeter strutted about the square, investigating the careful drawings and touching them up. This unnerved the pale people just as much as the Fencer’s aggression.
“What color do you claim?” Laxa asked, bringing politics into the fray.
“Sunglow yellow is worn by all my charges and topaz adorns my estates,” said the boy defensively. He was trying to glare a hole through the Fencer but had failed so far.
“Please!” shouted Lumnos, his voice echoing far louder and further than he would’ve liked. He felt a pressure on his mind, a knot at the edge of solution, though if a cord was pulled in a certain way it would only entangle the mess more tightly. “Allow me to organize our arguments. You claim ownership to names of great mages?” he began, but was instantly disappointed.
“I am Theb, but all these others are pretenders,” squeaked the heartless girl. “Zoxx isn’t even male. Should be ‘Empress’ at the very least, though I doubt that any sort of Zoxx could claim an Empire anymore.”
At this the Emperor hissed and lifted her hand into the air. The unmistakable workings of magic played through her finger movements, but nothing happened. Instantly the others all grew quiet and sullen. Zoxx twitched sadly.
“Have you found cause for our malady?” she asked the throat-torn boy, all previous rage forgotten.
“My calculations are ongoing,” he said, but all there heard the truth, that he had no clue.
Realization dawned on Lumnos. His mind opened up, layering that first vision of Zoxx, along with Theb and Sysyn. Wound and twitch, death and life, transposed across the broad spectrum of strangeness which had befallen him since he had awoken that night in his biblio to the sound of breaking glass, and that stray phrase poisoned Loce had said to him far up on the white tower.
“Please!” he sputtered, interrupting the dead mages for the second time. “Tell me, does the Inky Child ask you questions?”
A chill ran through the air and if the dead could tremble and go pale, these did, and from their wounds he could see slight trace of something oily course like ink.