Where Loce’s light cast its feeling rays the underground revealed itself clean and grey and dead, cleansed by the scouring energies of the Necromancer and his brood. The opening to the outside ground shut suddenly, healing like a wound behind the sorcerer in order to prevent more infectious light from spilling in and violating the mysterious dark. Now the Abjurist was alone with the starkly illuminated arches and tunnels, the caves and cisterns, shining bare stone.
He pulled his dreamed-up cloak about him a bit tighter, not because he was cold, but because he was so used to his second skin. He would like to say that giving the Phyox away to that icebound scholar had been a cunning move on his part, but in truth he had been delirious with whatever poison lived in the cold man’s blade and was surprised to wake up almost naked on that balcony. Loce suspected the Phyox had chosen to go, a troublesome loss, as it was his means of directly confronting the world of Winter. Without its powers he was uncertain of his ability to combat the dark, but still he delved, further and further.
Pernicious dark seeped beneath Ruin, fully colonizing each crook and corner, fighting against Loce’s illumination, a globe of brilliance which exuded from his person, a sacred barrier between himself and harm. Without the Phyox he only had so many eyes and couldn’t see the long shadows following stretched and silent along the floor behind him.
Striking all at once, a company of amorphous shapes fell upon the Abjurist’s light and drank deeply. He whirled and there saw them, limbless torsos wriggling worm-like through the air. Each could form a sort of aperture or mouth, and with a kiss this organ diminished his light and the dark grew bubbling.
Loce fled, the things mewling hungrily after. Soft, hollow noises followed, voices without life speaking the raw strangeness of the Umbirae. Passing through a square portal he discovered himself atop a split landing, steps leading down in both directions. Behind, shadows raced.
He reached to the Lattice, careful not to touch the Black, seeking the White. Striking the proper motions, the words which carried the burden of meaning, a spell was worked and the way behind grew a seal luminous. The crying stopped.
A minute passed but Loce couldn’t take his eyes off the sealed door. At any moment his magic might fail and they would be upon him again, devouring his manifest soul. Finally he pulled himself away.
Neither path down displayed promise and Loce wasn’t about to risk his mind to divine which way lead where. Things were waiting for his mind. He chose and hoped.
After a thousand steps he entered a room of black, glistening things. Many cries went up and echoed. Turning to run, the way behind betrayed him as the steps became a waterfall of black fluid, jagged arms and legs struggling out from the tar, staring without eyes.
Shadow stuff and Umbirae, marrowmere and doad, these rose by the score within the vast hall into which he had foolishly wandered. A trap! The floating marrowmere clung to the walls and ceiling in a tangled mass, their bodies twitching uncontrollably. The doad smeared themselves with the dark fluid, moving easier. There was much motion from the dead, as if they were excited for the illusion of life. They greeted Loce and his light like cannibals at the prospect of company.
And a million possibilities spilled out from this one dark moment, as dead flesh and never-been careened close and eager, snuffling if they had noses, sighing with hunger. From the walls dark arms stretched, shadows cast upon the very air, while glistening eyes rippled open along the undead fluid, soaking up Loce’s rays, causing the stuff to bubble and multiply. In their myriad ways they consumed him, like a crowd does the stage, the performance enthralling.
Loce had no way to fight these things. All his studies were tied towards shielding the self so that he may do no harm or tamper with fate or control destiny. Now this philosophy threatened him, as even his great bulwarks of power would finally be undone by the dark. The mage of light felt his being fall into the shadow mysteries, to where unborn things, roused by the Necromancer’s art, waited.
He raised his one good hand and with all his Art undid the seal he had placed on his soul so long ago. It was an ultimate failure of his ideal, determined entirely by black circumstance, but what came forth was brilliance to which the sun was second.
Below this the travelers faced the Inky Child, the Necromancer, as he stood poised at the moment between the Fencer’s sword and the Trumpeter’s trumpet, while all the time Lumnos’s mind struggled after some device by which he could change this fate and avoid the conflict. He knew their path had lead this far, but he felt like it could be better written in a different direction.
“He doesn’t have it,” sighed the Trumpeter.
“What don’t I have?” responded the child.
“A book we lent by proxy,” continued the musician, much to the discomfort of the others. Laxa was a danger here, ready to leap first before the Fencer to prove herself, just as Belleneix might dash ahead, competing for glory. If the words stopped there would be blood.
“You mean, my book,” the child replied. He was all inky now, dripping the clean, black stuff, leaving a footprint with each step he took towards the group. “It has informed my will and answered my soul’s question. If you are after it then I’m sorry to disappoint, if you are after death, then I am prepared to grant satisfaction. You have felled the Ossus and that adds to the weight of my cause and only slows the inevitable.”
He raised one hand and those with weapons drawn dashed towards the child. Dead reality rippled out from the slight form, like the sullen aura of a marrowmere, only many times more potent. Their souls began to leave their bodies.
With a shock like being dumped into freezing water the effect ended, the boy looked up and they all saw a great moaning light spill in from the far cavern, from the city of the miners, or beyond. This brilliance dawned all at once, as if a massive shutter to the place where suns were forged was opened.
Then they knew the sound came not from the light but from the tongues of a thousand dead throats and other less human apertures, quaking at the sight of the glory. Together this cacophony echoed strange and alien, the sound of souls blinking through horror.
The light faded and as it grew dark they all looked at each other one last time. Whatever pale luminescence filled the air before had vanished, and slowly the unnatural sun set into darkness, a black, absolute and natural. With a flicker a small flame brought them back from this abyss.
Cradled in his long, worn hands, the Trumpeter held another taper. Their eyes glistened at the sight. The boy was missing, only his footprints remained. Everything else was quiet.
They fled from the memory of noise and light, towards the silver shining at the edge of the little flame’s radiance. Beyond the doors they found a number of tubes, all round, all large enough to accommodate several persons. These twisted off into mystery. The choices seemed irrelevant.
“Which way do we go?” mused Lumnos, thinking that surely there must be some method to reason out an answer, but Belleneix had other plans and leaped into one without a care. With hushed shouts they followed her and her laughter.
This was the silver labyrinth, as named by the pale thinking dead of the miner’s city. That it was a creation of the Argent Lord was not in question, but this was the only fact which Lumnos had. Never had he heard of this place, like something out of a dream, orderly and serene. It featured in no history, no lore or legend or biography. Stories told that the silver mage hid his face behind a mask of sterling metal; it seemed he hid more, much more.
As the following troop rounded a bend they watched Belleneix trip through some unseen barrier. There was a twang and along a seam in the wall a sudden panel slid silently into the girl. Her weapon was up in her hand and she braced against the opposing side. The metal screamed and her laughter turned to a whimper as she strained to keep the door from cutting her in two.
Unyielding steel forced the dagger against her palm, letting loose a stream of blood. Those nasty teeth of hers set against pain.
Dhala cut through the offending metal with a scream and the remnants began to quiver. The group fled quickly from the unwholesome device.
“Why did you run off?” demanded Lumnos, a second before the Fencer demanded the same thing.
“We almost had death,” she smiled, her mood brightening at the prospect, even as she took one of his handkerchiefs to stop her bleeding. “But we live. How can’t we smile at that? Maybe laugh?”
“The young lady has a point!” declared the Trumpeter and he raised his trumpet to his lips. Everyone there watched in horror, except Laxa, who snatched the instrument from the madman.
“Silver,” she stated, looking around at the tunnel. Indeed there was a resemblance. A whole dungeon of the stuff, a king’s ransom, more wealth than any present could imagine. “Is it the same?”
Considering this the Trumpeter regained his device and softly struck it against the hall. A warm tone ensued and he shook his head.
“No, this is real silver,” he decided, gesturing to the wall.
The construction was solid, as if a perfectly smooth hole had been bored through a giant vein of ore. The design minimal, without adornment or device, and though it had lain dormant for many years there was no sign of dust or waste. Nor was there any evidence of the machine things, which had come from beyond the great door and surely must’ve originated their journey here. Perhaps this was the wrong tunnel. In many ways they now moved through the mask of the Argent Lord. To what, they had no clue.
The Fencer bullied his way into the lead, with Laxa close behind, both keeping their weapons drawn. By the flickering taper they saw a host of mutant reflections shimmer off the walls and floor. Echoing forms heralded their careful footfalls and followed close on their heels.
A cubic room opened up, some thirty feet on a side. They lumbered out of the opening. Though the floor seemed evenly polished and level Lumnos stepped out and there was a click.
“What was that?” said Laxa nervously.
“I seem to have found an anomalous bit of floor,” grumbled the wordseller, eyeing everything for trouble. He hadn’t long to wait as distant pinging became audible, growing to a thundering ricochet.
From one exit—the room having one on each side—a sphere of silver burst in at such velocity that it should’ve continued down the portal opposite, yet instead it collided off center. Clamorous peals rang so sharp that all winced and tried to cover their ears, while the sphere ricocheted and would’ve bounced about causing much carnage if Lumnos hadn’t thrown them all into a corner his geometry told would be safe from the ball’s play.
The thing unfurled, revealing itself as some kind of insectoid creature with a segmented shell. Limbs extended from its underside, wriggling with a living grace, all of silver, even the hideous head festooned with a maw of varied and terrible mandibles.
It lunged at stunned Laxa, who barely managed to put her blade between it herself. The thing’s back opened up and from between the plates an array of feelers flew out and disarmed the girl. Hungrily it began to devour the sword it claimed.
Lumnos’s mind flew about trying to categorize the thing. He couldn’t tell if it was alive or some kind of cunning artifice, perhaps a mixture of the two, or neither. The form suggested one of the ancient insects from the warm time, but never had such grown so large.
While he considered the party fought. The thing hungered for more of their precious metal, though it seemed equally interested in flesh. Belleneix and Laxa gave it fair attention with their blades, but their blows were turned aside by its carapace. It took the Fencer’s weapon to sunder the thing.
With a single blow of the nightmare sword he felled the creature. Out came a gush of milky, silvery fluid, while its body twitched angrily at being cut in two. Its legs ended in nasty blades, small but sharp enough that a single graze could debone even the largest man. These scraped against Dhala and strange sparks flew. Still, there was no respite from their troubles.
More noises started, same and distant, trouble rolling in from all directions. Considering his instrument the Trumpeter placed the narrow aperture to his ear.
“This way,” he declared and fell through the hole in the middle of floor.
Lumnos, not willing to wait for more of the terrible insects, was second. The initial fearful lurch of gravity eased and bent, gracefully, then acutely, turning to speed. A turn caused him to slam into one silver side, knocking the air from his lungs. Up and down, side to side, he took on the motion of a crazed snake until another portal spat him out at great velocity.
There was no death. He fell lightly into the air of a long room. One side held an array of protrusions. The Trumpeter took his hand and pulled him to his feet.
“Magic,” realized the wordseller, considering the forces involved.
“So much of it, and certainly not the Necromancer’s style,” nodded the Trumpeter as he readied to move each of their fellows from the cushioning bit of air. They all arrived safe, but worried at the noises following.
“I sense a score or more!” The Fencer pointed back up the tube ringing with those demon pill bugs.
Then they saw the wall, its arms lax and waiting, so many of the silver things. One second and the wall winked open its myriad eyes, taking account of the newcomers as trouble rolled upon them with the sound of thunder and cacophony.