There is little difference between life and death. The living claim to grow, to eat and breathe and multiply, but under Winter’s heel they grow still, eat and breathe empty snow, and push their progeny into the ice, where stillness, ubiquitous and profane, holds them fast. Death, in this dichotomy, appears the more dynamic of the pair. In his pages Lumnos read of the deceased and in his mind they lived on through interpretation, as they surely did to each one hearing or reading stories, those mummies of the past. In many ways the dead have a greater energy, one verging on immortality.
Lumnos pondered as he waited. His intuition had sent the assorted archmages into a cloistered meeting across the square. All around his companions rested uneasily, watching for signs of trouble. The wordseller kept busy with his thoughts.
Necromancy, that was what bleached Loce spoke of through the madness of Dhala’s seething poison. Always a taboo, it could be that the Art of death broke down the desperate boundaries the living put up against the dead, and so earned fear and hatred. If his suspicions were correct then Lumnos knew the secret of these white corpses who claimed the names of lost sorcerers and the reason behind the Inky Child’s actions. He wondered if the realization would bring enlightenment or devastation.
In the underworld gloom the living and the dead seemed the same as they moved or sat, paced or dozed in the half-dream of exhaustion, this hush grey light. That rare salt smell was even stronger here. Minds wandered until the dead came back with a pronouncement.
“Your intimation has merit,” sighed the creature calling herself Theb. “Normally we wouldn’t bother with the unskilled words of an icebound but in our present circumstances we have little choice. Besides, there is something to your way of observing which makes us curious.”
The Fencer gave a start but the Trumpeter grabbed his arm and held the man back. Suspicion showed on the swordsman’s face, directed at Lumnos. Subtle powers played amongst the words.
“I believe the Inky Child is a necromancer,” began the wordseller, pacing amongst the sigils and designs on the floor, “and you have all been conjured up from the realm of the dead to provide the knowledge this creature seeks. Excuse me, where are you going?”
The two corpse children had picked up their chalk and were about to leave the square.
“On a vote of two to three Zoxx has been nominated for this discussion, while we have other plans,” said the boy known as Sysyn curtly.
Lumnos watched as two sources of invaluable knowledge wandered off into the dark city. A distant, repetitious clanking could be heard, meandering through the towers. Resigned, the pale girl approached and sat down amongst the binding circles, a few spare twitches animating her features.
“Very well,” said Lumnos, clearing his throat. “You are not who you say you are, at least in appearance. There is your body, and there is you, whichever spirit does the speaking. I have seen umbirae enter dead bodies, we have seen this, with the difference being that in all other cases this produces monsters of hunger and stupidity.”
“The fallen would lay still until a shadow fell over them and then they would get up and be a thing like those we see down here,” said Laxa, confronting her fear, facing down the events which had sent her to hide in the ruins.
“How is this done?” Lumnos leaned over the dead girl for emphasis.
“I don’t know,” said Zoxx sadly, looking out over the topography of circles and magic which surrounded her.
“What do you mean you don’t know!?” Lumnos burst at the seams. “If you are Zoxx then you were a thaumaturge of almost limitless wisdom. I have three of your surviving treatises on the soul and then there are the stories where you spun a sky demon into a floating castle and animated a lake into a rampaging poison elemental. What do you mean you don’t know?”
“I like to think I’m that person in those books, that did those things,” she said, not meeting his gaze. “But I cannot remember writing them, or what they might contain. I can only remember what the Inky Child has asked me. It’s strange, it’s as if I don’t exist until some question pulls the knowledge out from some other source and then I realize what I always knew and it is a part of me once more.”
“A fine enough excuse,” said the Fencer, eyeing the wordseller.
“I don’t say so because of a wish,” she responded. “I say this because it is all I know. I am bits and pieces. This body is not mine; I don’t know where mine got off to. And worse…”
The girl trailed off, unwilling to finish the thought. A tremor ran through her, compounding her misery.
“Worse is that smell,” complained Belleneix, twisting her nose up against the metallic stink in the air.
“Like you have any notion of clean air,” said Laxa with a smile. “The Rot has surely deadened your nose.
“I am trying to converse with this nice, confused person,” growled Lumnos with all the civility he could muster.
“I have a nose!” Belleneix responded savagely, twisting hers up for emphasis, “and this stink, far stranger than the Rot.”
“It is the Black Lattice.”
The wordseller’s head swam, as if he had just stood up too quickly.
“What?” he asked through his confusion. The Phyox quivered at his side.
Belleneix shook her head, whipping her hair about. Her expression was negative but Lumnos had no clue what she was negating.
“Wasn’t that the term the Abjurist used?” said the Fencer.
“But in what context?” replied the Trumpeter.
At that moment the Rottie girl sighed and changed everything by dashing off into the darkness. With a shout the others followed, desperate to keep the girl from causing more trouble. Lumnos wished to stay and speak more with Zoxx, but the rush of companions swept him along. He had become tangled up in their lives as a fish in a net. He took one last look at the dejected creature amongst the magic circles before giving chase through the gloomy city.
Now he realized it was a copy of the city above, known as Ruin. Towers and dormitories, castles, domes, palaces, and apartments, all these were carved from the basalt, with only rare bits set or built. Were there nobility amongst the miners? Stratifications of power, wealth and privilege? Questions ran with the man, as they hush-shouted after Belleneix, whose laughter heralded the train of worn-out travelers.
They came to a place of great devastation, the careful work of centuries blasted and pulverized. Some parts of tower still clung to the ceiling, hanging silent tons of rock overhead. Lumnos had never seen the like of these buildings before, except maybe in that white spire they had taken refuge above. Here the girl stopped, and looked about considering.
“Bored of the smell?” joked the Trumpeter but she hushed him immediately.
“I wouldn’t play your instrument here,” whispered the Fencer.
“And why is that?” demanded the musician, his loud voice echoing up through the remnant halls. The structures above groaned like sleeping giants.
“I think my case is made,” said the swordsman. Indeed, the weight above seemed perilously ready to collapse on any offending noise.
“Is the Rot,” gasped Belleneix.
It was true, the natives realized. The reason this neighborhood was unfamiliar was due to the fact that all knowledge of the place had been destroyed in the Uplifting. Here the location was less devastated, though still broken. Further ahead the walls of the great chamber met. Something glimmered.
Clanking metal-on-metal approached and they hid from more of those machine things. Soon a convoy of the bobbing, wheezing, grinding appliances trundled past, lumbering under the weight of their burdens. In each hopper, barrel and basket, the jet black crystals they had seen in use by the Necromancer’s thralls clinked and jostled. Already black seeped from the mineral and from these vast, unplumbed intelligences peering forth. Even as the metal noises receded off into the distance they hid from those soul-drinking eyes.
“It lies ahead,” said Laxa, first out of the shadows to show her bravery. “Whatever our troubles.”
“Smell too,” said Belleneix. Then, turning to the Fencer, she chastised him while playing with the knives in her belt. “Why did you let the metal things walk?”
The swordsman took his time in answering, staring evenly at the girl with his cold, grey eyes.
“It may come as a surprise but there are limits to the worth of violence,” he said at last.
An unsatisfying answer but she kept quiet as they ventured past the ruins.
“Shouldn’t we go back and finish our conversation with Zoxx?” asked Lumnos, but all were intent on the mystery ahead.
The wall of craggy basalt opened up for a span of a few hundred meters and in this gap a gigantic darkness waited, full of shadow in the half-light. Metal glinted beyond. Curious, the Trumpeter produced a taper and from this tiny flame splendor echoed.
Filthy and disheveled, the assorted persons stood before a vast door, all of silver. It gleamed in the light, mirroring the taper’s flame in multiples. Along the floor and high up on the ceiling, meter-thick grooves showed the machinery along which the ancient door slid. Now the sealed portal was open, thrown off the rails, each half shoved aside by some terrible force. Beyond, more silver shone unclearly, a treasure structure full of terror and the reek of metal.
“Beyond this gate lies the Silver Labyrinth,” said a voice from behind them. It was the Emperor, she shone white in the shadows, some air of grandeur to her pose, speaking of what had been lost. “Mind the shadows.”
Across the floor certain slants and angles showed purest black, even against the taper’s light. Unnaturally, these shadows were cast without source, stretching across the ground in jagged tangles.
“I have the feeling that should a living being touch them they would not live much longer.” Her voice was sad, not for the living, but for herself.
“Was this place the Argent Lord’s?” asked Lumnos, glancing about for some telling sign.
“Indeed, it was,” she said, savoring the reply.
“It is,” corrected the Trumpeter. “Unless this is an illusion then the matter remains, is real and solid.”
“What has the Inky Child been asking you?” asked the Fencer.
“Mostly numina, the mechanics of spells, the shape of dreams,” she sighed wistfully at the thought of magic. “But also all there is to know about the Argent Lord and his delvings.”
“What is there to know?” Lumnos asked.
“That he hid behind a mask of silver, fair and beautiful. From silver he built a wall around his being and all other things, it was the sterling face he showed Winter, behind which untold secrets lay hid. Like the contours of a person’s mind he set his most prized notions behind a labyrinth, this one of silver. Rare things were mined up beyond, but the specifics are unknown to me.”
Agitated by the conversation the two girls tested the shadows. Laxa jabbed one of her long swords into the dark and it ran up her blade so fast she flung the weapon back into the room. When it came to rest it was clean again. Of the black there was no sign.
“It moves with a life,” she uttered, crouching beside her sword for a long while before picking it up.
“Who knows what may come from the Black,” muttered Lumnos.
Taken by the thought, his eyes happened to land on Belleneix, who was already bored with the shadows. For a second she smiled, showing her unsettling teeth, but then her mood changed. The smile fell, to be replaced by a look of violence. He followed her eyes and knew why.
While they discussed a host arrived. Groups of pale dead bodies crept to the broken towers edging the devastated area. There were Sysyn and Theb, as well as others. When several dozen of the unsettling creatures were present the heartless girl gestured imperiously at the travelers and the pale bodies began to stalk slowly towards the living guests.
“Treachery!?” spat the Fencer as he loosed his nightmare blade.
“They wish to use your life for their own,” said Zoxx guiltily, cringing from the Fencer’s blade. She then spoke an enigma. “I personally have my own reasons.”
“No, stop!” shouted Lumnos, but he was too late. The indigo sword fell, cleaving the dead girl from her shoulder down, only coming to rest in the stone beneath their feet.
In second death Zoxx sent up a choking cloud of white. Now they all knew that strangely familiar smell for what it was: lye. These were bodies from the rot, taken by the Necromancer and used as vessels for the strange life he conjured from beyond. Something else dripped from the body halves, something black.
“Further in!” quipped the Trumpeter excitedly while Lumnos stood in shock. “There will be damned dead things and white children on us in seconds. All those machines, all those nightmares!”
The Fencer nodded and the girls followed along, eager to emulate or compete with the swordsman. The Trumpeter dragged the wordseller along. As they turned towards the silver gate another trouble presented itself.
On the floor, centered between the broken doors, a curious collection of black shapes now stood, crystalline puzzle pieces pressed together to form a rough rectangle a few meters high. A child stepped from it.
His body wore the unmistakable mutation of a Rottie. One of his arms was noticeably longer than the other, each frail and spindly, ending in mismatched fingers. His frame was lean and gnarled, garbed only in a loincloth. Yet this creature seemed quite different from the dark figure they had seen that first time beyond the lake of blood and bone. Now his skin was chalky white, only his long, ragged hair contrasting with the color of starless night. It was clear now that he was a parchment man, his skin untouched by experience. His eyes glimmered.
As he approached a mystery was resolved. He left inky footsteps behind him on the stone. Absently he scratched on arm, and like a sponge his flesh wept the black stuff.
A sinking sensation struck all present. The pale creatures behind wailed at the sight of the Necromancer. The Fencer readied his weapon and the Trumpeter lifted his instrument to the ceiling. Noise and trouble fought against this demon boy’s aura of death.