Loce’s light was diminished but the dark held its own wisdom. He was coming to understand that not everything profited by illumination. As he stood, having fled vast leagues from his altercation with the swarming things of the Black Room, he stood and watched as those rays his form emitted faded along a gradual scale of time. There was a doorway in front of him and he watched it slowly grow in darkness, the frame widening, stretching, the mystery opening.
Contrast provided what the past fifteen years had failed. Up in Summer, gilded, warm, other, he had honed his magic to a pure ray, but it was only a honing of an edge which was already atom-fine. The White became all. But in recent troubles his mind expanded into a larger world of Winter spaces, violence, death, and the boiling presence of the Black. The result, this realization, took the place of his hand.
Magic infuriated the Icebound because it lacked reason of a broad, common sort. Too each mage the methods and expressions of the Art were fickle, perplexing, or downright inconsistent. This was true, yet there was a genius to Magic as it stretched in unseen light up from the core of the planet and into the cold dark between the stars. Forces sublime react to the same and so there was no agreement of power between those who wielded it and the thing itself. There were arguments for dedication, blood, calamity, and myth, and with each of these instruments a magician mingled with the Lattice for the sake of changing the all.
Loce reached out through the darkened door with his maimed arm and found something on the other side, a glistening mirror of dark reflection. He had no fear for his soul, as his being was written over and over with wards and mystic seals. Pulling back he had a hand again, one of darkness, though not unwelcome. Already there were tiny pinpoints of light within.
A moaning disturbed the air behind him and with it came a voice full of someone else’s hate.
“Another one,” said the child at the edge of the light. He glistened, his skin covered in broken souls.
“Confrontation is pointless,” noted Loce. “You are confused, consumed, but I can show you the sky. There is a place for our moods and abilities.”
The Inky Child hesitated and it seemed that his countenance brightened as he brought his malformed body into Loce’s light. It seemed that whatever force possessed him was unprepared for mercy. But, just as quickly, his mood went black. “I don’t wish a cure, I merely want to share. Where these shadows go so does my heart. From the past I dream of night without stars.”
A black dream spilled from his hands and bled across the air as quick lightning. Loce drew on what power he had left and a bulwark of shapes interposed, but it wasn’t enough. Ripping through the ward like a spear, the spell struck the Abjurist in the side as he spoke desperate countermagics. He fell and writhed with another’s pain.
The spell boiled inside him, overwhelming and colonizing. His thoughts became another’s, emotions and impressions, all of dejection, loss, negativity and death, flickers of lye-caked bodies and a hole of sky punched through a broken, ruined world. Loce squirmed on the ground clutching his broken side.
Wet footsteps approached on the cold stone floor. There would be no escape this time and he hoped through the pain that his actions might give the icebound time to find the heart of this trouble, for the boy was just a vessel.
Something glimmered close and he went to it, deep down and inside. Loce walked a path down and into the mystery which lay at the threshold of dissolution.
The boy found the body and it was already dead. He looked around, like a predator or a child searching for their friends, and what he saw were his forces arrayed and ebullient, ready to reach upwards, to Ruin, to whatever might be in the light of day, to let them all know.
A chorus of metal sounding on metal rang through the travelers. The far edge of the room, from which the heralding noise arrived, lay in darkness, out of their taper light and beyond the wide basin of acid.
“We should maybe be going,” said the Trumpeter, leaning away from the impending thing. To go back would be to become lost in the ever-shifting maze of silver tunnels which the Palace of Chimes wore like a mask.
“No,” said the Fencer with weapon drawn to meet whatever came their way. He had no reason, but Lumnos did.
“Might be a challenge,” reasoned the wordseller as he tried to read their next moves. “And with challenge comes the promise of reward.”
“Fictions,” smiled the Trumpeter.
“It is one of those metal creatures, full of the Black,” noted Laxa, choosing her heaviest blade to use against the thing’s armor.
Belleneix said nothing as she sought a place of calm to face the terror from the depths of Ruin.
From the dark came a thing which moved like a wave, rippling and dull in the light. Fast as a shot it charged on its thousand legs, of a design similar to the Idosa, yet more functional and brutish. It was a millipede, standing about a meter in height, but it stretched off and down into shadow.
Racing towards them they thought it would fall into the acid, but its paddle-legs moved with such speed and precision that it bolted across the surface with a wave or ripples. Before anyone was ready it was on them and where it moved black ink dripped from whatever it carried inside its armored plates.
The Idosa was the only one ready for this feat. It met the millipede fully unraveled, mercury tentacles and slicing legs. Silver eyes faced dead, unfeeling metal. They fought to grinding sounds, occasionally punctuated by chiming rings when a strike glanced off, or twisting crunches when their armor was breached. They chittered, feelers waving frantically, all so quick before the living could do no more than blink.
The Fencer charged in first, but by chance the automatons tumbled just then in their death dance, smashing into the swordsman and sending him flying. Laxa and Belleneix laughed and followed in, searching for a chink in the thing’s armor, their blades finding done. Lumnos was with them and though he brought down the Phyox on the dark grey creature there was only the sound of ringing metal.
The Idosa was outmatched. Its body was simply unable to compete with the attacker’s shear mass. Though it had ground up much of the millipede’s front, the automaton gained full purchase on the silver pill bug and with a twisting, sickening pop ripped the servitor apart. Silver shards and mercury flew everywhere and without pause the thing moved on to the living.
As the Fencer scrambled to his feet the machine swung its body across the floor, sending Laxa dodging away while Belleneix took this opportunity to leap on its shell. Lumnos found himself backed against the acid pool by the action, hemmed in by the thing.
Now it rose upwards, spiraling after Belleneix and the wordseller had no choice but to scramble onto the machine, his hand soaking up the ink. While it sought to crush the girl against the ceiling Laxa charged into the workings exposed by the Idosa. Its height gave her an unfavorable angle, but still she stove her blade deep into its whirring organs, which groaned and twisted. Immediately legs by the dozen descended on the girl.
Lumnos felt himself slipping. He didn’t need to look, he knew the acid lay behind, so clear and yet so unwelcoming. In response the Phyox twisted and changed, becoming a short, stabbing blade much like a short lance. With the last second of his grip sliding away he lifted the weapon and drove it against a heavy armor segment.
The automaton heaved as it was impaled by the white weapon and in that moment of distraction the Fencer pushed Dhala deep into its innards. There was a high tone and a shiver and suddenly frost lay across the ground and over their clothes. The monster heaved and fell and only by holding onto the Phyox did Lumnos not end up in the acid.
“Excellent!” exclaimed the Trumpeter who had been taking notes on the battle form the safety of the doorway. As the others sorted out the nasty cuts received he sprang up, onto the millipede thing and ran across, nodding to the wordseller as he did. The automaton’s body still stretched off into darkness and when he was safe on the far side he called back, “We have a bridge!”
Carefully the group crawled along the machine creature to the other side. The exit there bent downwards, which was meaningless in this maze of passages as they had lost all bearing of depth. Still they hoped this was the way, but each of them was divided whether to return to the upper works where they might face the Necromancer or to delve deeper, to whatever mystery lay behind the Palace of Chimes.
The way grew bright, the walls polished, reflecting their tired, hardened faces, clothes plastered with bloody wounds, weapons ready. Entering a large, half-circle chamber an array of choices fanned out before them. Huge paintings alternated with each doorway, landscapes of warmer times, fictions. In the center of the room stood a single chair, ornate and delicate.
As the others pondered Laxa walked up and sat in the seat, mocking the poise of a landed lady as shown on the many works of art filling Ruin’s market after the Uplifting.
“What now?” she asked.
The Fencer shook his head at the choices and said, “I just don’t know.”
While the Trumpeter and Belleneix checked each door, sniffing for smells, listening for sounds, Lumnos noticed something about the wall.
Looking close he saw a pattern to the silver of the palace, which, he realized was all cut from a natural vein, a single crystal.
“I think I know a way,” realized the wordseller out loud.
“The way back?” specified the Fencer, sharp and exacting.
“Yes,” Lumnos replied evenly.
“How is this you suddenly know?” Laxa asked with a bit of suspicion in her voice.
“We have not been in the most stable of situations since, well, since my shop window was smashed,” explained Lumnos. “And memory isn’t a pool of ink one just pulls knowledgeable from at a moment’s notice. Sometimes you have instant recall, and sometimes you walk into a room and forget your intentions.”
“I’m very interested in becoming lost, so I say we follow his lead,” grinned the Trumpeter as he stood next to a landscape showing a path leading to an ancient, flower-covered shrine. Green stuff reached up out of the painted ground, and beyond all this was a city of high towers.
“Lead on then,” said the Fencer.
Crystals grew in certain ways, each material having its own pattern and formation. Silver had its own crystallography and on the walls it showed to one with a trained eye. Through this method Lumnos took a certain passage and led on.
Many of the palace rooms had those same baroque qualities the builders of ancient Ruin found so fashionable. It seemed, at first, that the palace was all jumbled together, disjointed placement sat a silver pool and pleasure area next to a featureless cube, but in time they noted discrete areas. There were those relegated to living and comfort, those meant for research and study, and then there were foundries and workshops where the Idosa and other things were made. These last showed much sign of recent use, as if the forgotten automatons had simply put themselves back together and went to work. Through all these places there lay many chambers devoid of obvious function, and these alien spaces constituted a fourth and unknown variety, hidden by the passage of time and as inscrutable as the face behind the Argent Lord’s mask.
“Now that doesn’t make much sense,” noted the Trumpeter to the air.
“What? What doesn’t make much sense?” demanded Lumnos with sudden worry.
“Just the division of labor,” yawned the musician.
“Oh,” said the wordseller, relieved. “Oh…I see your meaning. The Idosa follow Ecul, and the automatons are filled with the power of the Necromancer, but why?”
“Madness, magic, that sort of thing,” sighed the Fencer, waving off the conflict.
“How is it that the Inky Child doesn’t control the palace and its inhabitants so thoroughly? That is the question. Damned it all, why didn’t I think to ask that very question when we were with Ecul?”
“Because there’s really only one place where we might truly gain such insight and it lies with the boy’s heart,” said the Fencer, driving them all on down the silver corridors.
Noises of combat, the metal on metal of Idosa rending down the Necromancer’s automatons, had long faded at this point and the group fell into a sort of fugue where they traversed the infinite gleam towards unknown ends. A hush and a fall, and Lumnos was swallowed up by a blink in the floor. This unseen opening revealed a sort of metallic organ, inside of which a whole man might fall into mystery. An array of rending limbs whirred in hungry anticipation.
His fall lasted but a second. Something else swallowed part of him. With cries of alarm from his companions echoing he realized the Phyox had acted. His whole left side was in the device, no longer a sword, but a sort of half-suit or brace, which had anchored itself to the ceiling, leaving him scarcely a meter above the death machine.
Belleneix was the first to help and together with the Phyox pulled the man back up into the hall. Just as Lumnos was about to panic about the device of his salvation it reconstituted itself as a sword once more.
Circling the death trap the group became more careful about their footsteps. They descended past the last of the workshops, into a tangle of tunnels. Many were the dead ends, strange plugs sealing the realms beyond. By the look of them these flasks were used in sorcerous work, containing various emanations the nature of which was lost on the icebound. In legends the first settling magicians came to the plateau which would house the future Ruin for the treasures mined up from the underworld.
Noises came and their course aimed for these sounds, which were screams and shudders. The smell of the black crystal arrived, salty and metallic.
Entering into a huge room a massive battle between Idosa and automaton raged, more proof that this was a house divided. This may have been the staging area for the Necromancer’s mining machines for the place was vast, a good hundred meters on a side and full of half-made things.
Engines roaring with strength a huge metallic beast thrashed, covered in silver Idosa. Many more devices roamed about, attending logical and unnatural functions, reacting to threats in predetermined ways. Idosa felt about for prey and trundled quick and eager when their antennae touched something interesting. Machine things continued to do their master’s bidding, and a great amount of black crystal lay about, waiting to be processed and transported, poured over the dead to make them move or fed to the thing in the Lake of Blood and Bone, but the incessant silver creatures kept the war going. Broken pill bugs, pools of silver, twitching, whirring machines, these lay strewn about as combat waged between two intractable sides.
The Fencer and the women raced to draw their blades. They were so eager to join the fight against the tide of machines without end.
“Are you mad?” rasped Lumnos as he grabbed the swordsman’s shoulder.
“Through this difficulty our path lies,” said the man with a grin. “You said it yourself, rewards and such.”
“That’s not reasonable,” said Lumnos and he pointed down a tunnel close by. “There, we have a means out while these things sort through their differences.”
“Don’t listen to the coward,” said Laxa. “We can bend the battle our way and be done with the foul devices.”
The Fencer’s eyes told of quick, brutal calculations as he weighed and measured each option. Trust was at stake, the prestige which forms in small groups, of band and tribe. This obviously made him uncomfortable, deciding for a group did that. He was used to his own way and little else.
“We should save our arms for the confrontation with the Necromancer,” he decided.
They left, Belleneix and Laxa grumbling, flitting from one shadow to the next, allowing the metal war to determine its own course. Lumnos felt only worry as they descended further into mystery.
They joined a larger tunnel, which soon was joined by more and more. He hoped the others failed to notice their descent, which was gradual. No more rooms opened up, and it seemed that the various paths through the Palace of Chimes winnowed down to this single concourse. A bit of liquid turned their even mood into a storm.
Lumnos watched it unfold and bit his tongue. The Trumpeter was the first to notice, but he didn’t say anything as he wrapped his scarf about him a few times so it wouldn’t drag. Then Belleneix, though she didn’t seem to quite know what it was that she saw. Her mouth opened and it was over.
“What is this foul black stream?” she cried and it echoed through the tunnel.
There was little time between the Fencer’s realization and the blade being placed at the wordseller’s throat. Laxa’s breath showed in the cold, deep air. The shimmer of the silver walls was much diminished in these ancient recesses.
“I’ll give you a single chance to explain how we are heading to the entrance when no such stream flowed towards that honeycomb of doors,” said the swordsman.
“I…” began the wordseller, but then the blade flashed. He shut his eyes, feeling the cold, feeling those red eyes look upon him from the depths of indigo and black. No pain came and the cold diminished.
Opening, he saw that the Trumpeter had smacked the Fencer’s weapon arm away and now had the attentions of all three warriors for his trouble.
“Just not reasonable to put the pressure on a friend like that,” he said, fearless for once.
“You said it was my choice, this plan, well I am keeping with it,” declared Lumnos. “The growth of these silver crystals tends in a certain way, revealing the path down, as well as up, if you must ask. Down is where the Necromancer’s place of strength lies, where the black crystal comes from, where the Alabaster Palimpsest must be.”
The Fencer eyed him coldly.
“It was the only way, not telling you,” continued the wordseller. “Now we are at the wellspring. We can’t turn back.”
“What are you waiting for?” frowned Laxa. “I’ve been eager to spit this useless merchant for a day now. He is all full of words but none of them will do us any good. They certainly didn’t help all those dead mages.”
“No,” said the Fencer, no less harshly. “We are not bound to the cruelties we grew up with. I can change my mind. Show me the wisdom of your deception wordseller.”
Accepting a smile from the Trumpeter Lumnos moved on. The flow of dark fluid continued. It wasn’t, as he realized, of the Black, but instead seemed to be run-off form the city above. Traveling further through the silver cave that metal gave way and deep bedrock took its place. Ancient carvings from a forgotten culture lay scrawled across the walls, much like the lithographs strewn about the sewers by the Rotties. Cracks brought in more of the effluvia, and soon they followed a stream of concentrated waste, smelling of lye, ash and more nameless things.
They reached an arch. This had once been a crossroads, but cave-ins long ago had sealed off the other possibilities. The portal was high and wide and primitive, cut from the rock by uneven hands giving it a wobbly, uncertain appearance. Through this the dark stream flowed. Strangely the air was light and he had no need of a taper. The source would soon become clear.
Through the gate a vast opening, like an amphitheater stretched. They entered and saw it. Down below, past cataract steps, a massive protrusion of crystals so black that to look on it was to become lost in a glistening void. The Phyox vibrated and kept their souls in place. The air around the structures gave off a dead pale radiance, the same which they had often encountered in the underworld. The source was clear but not the reason: this was the Black Lattice.