Afrax brought his khopesh down through the rotten skull of the dead thing. It kept moving, gushing chemical ink as he hacked it into quivering pieces. Another took its place, and there would be more.
They had been in Ruin only a few short hours. Dawn had come an indeterminate and cloudy white, revealing burnt tenements and survivors. Their contact, an innkeep, took their money and prepared rooms, but Afrax noticed the wily man tuck the silver into his own pockets rather than the safe box.
Unable to sleep he had gone out to get the lay of the town. People everywhere were paying what they had to various armed and armored toughs. This was the north quarter, far from the troubles to the east, and still the palace-tribes felt the need to pay for safety.
Few were leaving. Ruin had a certain gravity, a permanence which had deep roots even though the founding mages were long gone. The nature of a ruin seemed to be the memories it held, and for these memories people were content to pay, even with their lives.
He found some word of the two travelers, the enchanted sword, the silver trumpet. Where they had gone was a matter of debate but most pinned the current troubles on a tribal dispute caused by their murderous actions. Rumors of baby-eating massacres and unnecessary decapitations followed the outlanders. These horrors provided an easy excuse which permitted collective forgetting concerning the unknown nightmares plaguing Ruin. These troubles may have no reason.
Hell revealed itself at noon. When the sun should be brightest the various pits and gaps and tunnels swelled with liquid night, the smell of harsh chemical salts coming with it. From this sea rose a tide of dead things and never-been, walking corpses, floating corpses, molded flesh weeping acid, bone entities and shadows narrow and hungry.
The tension of the previous hour broke into madness. He now fought his way through the liquescent dead, back to the inn where already a terrible fight was underway. Three of his men were dead and he arrived in time to see a shadow slip into the wide gash along the innkeep’s corpse.
Upstairs his fellow conspirators had done the smart thing and were bottling the creatures on the stairs. For a second Afrax considered fighting his way up to them, but his sword needed more clearance to be effective. So he went outside and found the lean-to where the firewood was kept. He clambered up, followed by some of the thronging dead in their unhurried, inhuman way.
Just then something corpulent and bloated fell upon him. Filthy, brackish blood spilled over his polished scale mail. Flabby hands grasped him and suddenly Afrax felt light as a feather. He fell upwards, struggling with the dead man who clawed after his throat. Just being near it he felt slowed. The world and sky beyond changed places and toppled end-over-end.
It bit down on his right arm while its claws held him fast, but with his left he freed a dagger from his belt. Everyone seemed too slow, as if time itself died near this creature. As he was taught he focused on the silver. The dark swordsman drove the blade into the corpse’s lower belly and slowly pulled upwards, against unnatural fatigue, splitting up to the thing’s sternum.
Now the world spun out of control as whatever force buoying up his attacker escaped with a gasp. They fell, and as they fell its grip loosened enough that he was able to draw his sickle-blade and bring it up against the thing’s arms, neatly severing them both.
The hideous corpse fell away in a spinning froth of black ichor. To his surprise Afrax fell only a short way, enough that the air was forced out of his lungs. He gaped in the cold afternoon air, watching more of the floating dead play about the sky.
Recovering at last he discovered he had landed on the inn. Quickly he climbed down to a window and rejoined his men. Some were dead, some were turned, but the remaining held fast, strengthened by the dream of their master. It was just in time as they looked out the upper window, which was taller than the low shanties in this district, and saw a whitish figure appear upon a tall ruin. The air around the Necromancer went into gloom as he directed a negative energy with a hand passionate for the work. And men died and the sound of shadows threatened to overwhelm them all while the sky went to ink without stars.
Now they knew the Necromancer’s power for what it was, a broad spectrum energy to which hate and fear and pain and loss descended but never quite reached. This emotion was the metallic salt they smelled on the black crystals, and the ink pouring from the veins of the dead. It was the silhouette which slipped into the living and made them mad corpses bent on chaos and the power behind the null field surrounding the marrowmere. Fueled by this madness the creature in the Lake of Blood and Bone, the Ossus had been grown as an engine of expression. Ultimately it was the consequence which lay beyond the dark door of mystery, the risk of the negative unknown, biased entropy without name, and yet it was familiar to all who felt it.
The emotion hung heavy in the air, which was illuminated by the dark crystals. A sort of radiance outlined their form here, as if the air itself died on those surfaces and in that death light was released through some metaphysical proportion.
In this light the travelers saw the room, a cavern formed not by the natural action of water but through an ancient upheaval such as an earthquake. From this break in the crust an outcropping of the Lattice emerged in rare physical form, a splay of crystals humming with power.
The room had long ago been found by a now lost people, carvings and pictographs revealed this. It was roughly ten meters wide and perhaps a bit more in height. The dark runoff of the city leaked in from many tiny fissures and pooled at the base of the crystal, becoming the ink, glistening and concentrated.
This was the source which haunted Ruin. The reason the things so empowered committed reasonless violence was that they were filled the feeling held within the black fluid, that nameless woe which they shared with those they caught.
Each living being there suddenly realized this anathema. Even Lumnos, with his lost memories, felt it, though perhaps amnesia lessened the horror. They readied their weapons to destroy the thing. The Lattice and the black magic were just the ink, it needed a pen to wield it.
Zeklos appeared, and before the wordseller could say a word the Fencer was off at him and the Trumpeter raised his instrument. Blots moved across the boy’s form and he smiled at the coming violence.
The Fencer sprang forward with his glassy barb but with a single arcane gesture a languid bolt of glistening obsidian caught the swordsman in the belly and hurled him against the far wall near the carven door. The flood of energies continued and the outlander cried out as the stuff covered him eagerly.
Then the Trumpeter began to take a breath but the boy spilled more of the hideous energy into the instrument which acted like a funnel. The musician fell coughing out great gouts of darkness.
The Phyox twisted after combat but Lumnos held firm, trying to read the situation. That others might die bit deep into his heart, but there was also another value he was working with, a strange one.
Zeklos turned towards Lumnos next, but just then his eyes cleared, and the ink faded from his form. He stood as a pale, unwritten parchment man.
“I know you,” he said with wonder growing. “You sent down the books.”
“What?” began the wordseller out of fear. “Oh yes, that was me.”
“I kept the ones I could,” said the boy. “The others just wished to eat them, but I kept it for the shapes. In them there was a sense of things lost like memories.”
In the darkness it seemed that they were alone. At the edges, in the shadows, the Fencer and the Trumpeter may have lived or died, but there were glimpses of those with naked steel circling around.
“I can’t remember,” said Lumnos. This was the first time he had told anyone.
“The memories were small at first,” explained the boy, speaking of his own experiences as if they pained him. “In time they grew and grew. I remembered large houses, carved for no other reason than the pleasure of the art, and time in the shape of an enormous room, and power. They were just fragments, bits of something crystalizing within me.”
Then a change went over the pale features, a darkening of the pores as the ink of the Black Lattice welled up again. Yet his face was still innocent, like an open book.
“I stood at the height of my power and yet with all my peers we fell. It was Theb’s weakness or Sysyn’s disharmonious energies. The red mage was singular in his command of the nous and though we tried to turn his power against him he worked his Art in such a play that even combined we were destroyed, our souls sent hurtling into the Lattice once more. Except me, I had a contingency.”
Zeklos looked again and a further bloom of realization played out on his face.
“I remember you.”
“As you have said,” began Lumnos but he was interrupted
“I remember you from before, my memories remember. You kept our words, my books in that huge room.” The boy’s voice fought through years of chaos and ignorance, past the gulfs which lie beyond death. “It is all in the Palimpsest. You don’t remember, do you? I hate that, all that ignorance, blotting out the eons, making us all animals against the cold and ice. But worse still I loathe where the fates have taken me, a ruined city full of squatters and opportunists where once the grandest dreams were forged.”
The boy seethed with the Black now and it longed to do violence, as it did above in the city proper. His will was the inky stuff boiling up. To call it revenge was too weak a word.
Now Lumnos saw him, both of him, the boy and the magician, the Rottie and the soul within. He was a creature divided, doubled, a painted compromise between blank space and pigment. In looking he almost knew the whole ream of drama at whose source he now stood.
The women chose that moment to strike from the shadows where they had been plotting in fear. They raced each other, Laxa wishing to best the Fencer’s bravery while Belleneix wanted to be like the swordsman in prowess and deed.
A narrow blade shot through the Inky Child, one of Laxa’s longswords. He turned, slowly comprehending, just in time for Belleneix to stick him in the heart with one of her bits of steel. No blood came forth, and no death.
The boy exalted his hands upwards and with a look of mad joy on his face spoke a word which became an inky cloud while the air burned at the touch of his magics.
The black spell caught Laxa full on and her scream was that of a burn victim. But the spell didn’t take hold. From beneath her clothes a symbol ignited, from one shoulder to the opposing hip, where it then coiled down her leg. Hideous magic seared painfully away from the warding brand. She lay at the edge of two opposing energies, the strain and radiations thrilling through her until she collapsed, breathing smoke.
Belleneix didn’t fare so well, the same cloud of Black consumed her. Lumnos heard her stumble back into a shadowed recess in the room. There was the sound of weapons dropping to clatter on the stone.
“Please!” demanded Lumnos, struggling to restrain the Phyox, eager for its command. “Please stop. I wish to know the why of these things. What value is there in this program of madness and death?”
“What proportion do you demand?” smiled the child thing as it turned from its recent sport. “Moral, ethical, reasonable, logical, I can find a rhetoric for each of these, for they are but air on a cold, uncaring realm. I have been shown the beauty of this twice, once by magic, once by life. For all my wonder I was cut down by crimson Sol for the vice of my freedom, and then below, born again, I had no power. For this crime was cast into the festering pit, where the worst things from above, from a whole city, trickled down to me. My only knowledge was filth, and if not for the reclaimed soul I would be as dead as any other Rottie.”
Lumnos’s talent took hold and he knew. Through the words he saw the life of a child of the Rot, forced to live in squalor while those more fit played games for the sake of colored bits of silk. Reincarnated from a mage lost in the Uplifting he was reborn as a parchment man, blank and new, but soon lost to the rapacity of Ruin. On him was written the word which encapsulated the wholeness of this experience, which lurked in the fluid and empowered the unsettled dead. In him was a bottled feeling waiting to be expressed through the hideous ink.
“But what of Summer?” the wordseller asked.
“What is that?” In this the boy was true in his ignorance. He felt over the word as a strange and unique thing.
At the edges of his sight something moved, but his attentions were focused, working at the problem before him. The vaulted hegemonies of Black and White crowded him on either side. He couldn’t see clearly in the gloom, his eyes were getting old. Just then a light arrived. It stalked through the ancient carved portal. Contrasting against this brilliance the dead and the living showed in stark relief.