Winter revolves in a play of white and black, life and death, twin binaries orbiting the experiencing mind so that it seems the whole world vibrates, in danger of shaking apart. In old Ruin there is civilization and barbarism, holding hands, exchanging gifts, blood, whatever else might make for an economy of opposites, while bold exponents raise their victories so their ribbons might ply the air to determine the winners and losers of the Riddle. All their drive and ambition achieves nothing against the backdrop of endless snow. They crouch in dust and wish at being the lost gods, only then would the proportions be right.
White and Black, the game of words, of thoughts scribbled, with either pale chalk or dark ink, marks a difference in contrast against the other, the open page, the blank slate. We hunt for opposites in relief because it frees us from mystery’s court. Look, see the play of stars on the field of the night sky, know there is something other than darkness.
There is no end to the snow and cold, the white expanse of Winter’s shroud. It is not death, but many do die; it is not always, for there was once the warm times. Gliding over the frozen skin the sun casts a thousand kinds of shadow across the textured surface. Colors spring up, topaz, periwinkle, azure and aquamarine. A multitude of plants grow, the snow lily with its sylph hair roots; the tolem tuber carving out a place in the frozen ground. And cunning peoples find their way too, such as the Fencer and the Trumpeter. Theirs is the compromise of adaptation.
The duality of White and Black fragments into a thousand shades, colors erupting, bright or muted, the total spectrum of experience growing. It is as if Winter’s Riddle can’t abide the notion of the binary, of opposites which would compel a simple framework for experience. The meaning of the ice age hides in the many, ignoring Summer, freezing the past, conjuring chaos and then holding it fast into adamantine still-life.
Lumnos’s talent was that he could read the play of White and Black, but like all expression it was an artifice, a tool used, a process. He too was a blank slate, filling himself with ink where his memory once was. Now he read this on the book before him, watching the letters vanish as they had from the mind of the man who stepped in from the darkened room, when the Uplifting had come and erased what had once been.
“When I was hungry I would climb to the upper city and hunt for rich food sometimes. Corpses were our proper fare, but I felt a dull ache come over me when I ate the dead flesh. Sensing my unease my fellows laughed and jeered at this squeamishness. So I would flee the animal stares of the Rot, as much to get away from the eyes as to fill my belly with what I could steal from rubbish bins and gutters.
Near the edge of the pit there was this odd house made from dead plant flesh—wood as I discovered—and in it lived a strange man who would feed us tough, dry scraps from time to time. He carried himself like he was from another world and rarely left his house. He always seemed disappointed.
One night, after hearing enough cannibalistic babble, I ventured above, cautious for the metal sounds of Magpies and the violent swagger of the palace-braves; both enjoyed the sport of killing us Rotties who clambered up from our natural habitat. The sky was clear and the second moon turned everything pale blue.
Down below I had left my scribblings on the tunnel wall, yet even though I couldn’t see them they followed me, in my brain. Where do these things come from, these shapes and characters? They are something like those we find on the leafy things the strange man gives us—those pages—but to me they mean the world. If I do not make the marks on the wall I will go insane.
Tonight my madness took me up again, but I found I wasn’t hungry, or really my hunger had taken on a new and alien aspect.
The door would not work, so I broke open the window and set about my task. Following some urge I raced down a narrow passage between two shelves. At the far end there was a latch behind a certain book. Opening this I knew my desire pulsed beneath the floorboards. The lock on the safe spoke to me and it opened. There was my heart, the one not in my body. Taking it I ran from the dwelling and opened it and there on the blank pages words took form, and I knew these and they were mine.”
“It had not been so long since I was at my games of power. The world was colder, a ruin, like the city whose name even I had no recollection of. My upper estate lies as bones jutting furtively to the sky, my lower holdings long gone to abandonment, a place where fractured sewers dribble down the offal and detritus of the broken metropolis I had shepherded from its earliest beginnings. Beyond my second palace my nous chimes silently in black light glory, awaiting my return.”
“Yet I am changed. My mask is gone and now I wear a child of flesh. We are one. Through my ancient contingencies I have been reborn, but this corpse boy is stunted and full of heavy resonance, the kind which pulls the nous into a strange and terrible place. We are full to the brim with the energies of the Black Lattice.
This holy grotto beyond the Palace of Chimes resounds with human darkness, its glory perverted by the natural order and the Riddle. It has spoken to me and its waves and emanations are now mine. Bodies dance. I am set free. Now that the others are gone who can stand against…whatever I have become?
These have been the thoughts written across my soul, just as I write across this nameless boy, a fusion of space and substance, emptiness and order. I slosh about and am more than one and together we will both get our say. As predicted opponents arrive with magic hidden in the seams, assassins of circumstance. I must speak my heart, it is a flood of ink and I will write my will across the ice so that all will know.
The funny man has opened the book. Their swords and magics, these I could defeat, but now they know and my heart is unwritten.”
Lumnos once again stood at the body-strewn base of the ruin, beyond which lay the pit which would one day be called the Rot. Smoke and cloud cast a world in late afternoon grey. Surrounded by dead doubles Sol, the red demon, the architect of the Uplifting, sat at the summit and considered his problems.
Great stress brought the wordseller out of time, his mind filled with what he read, the words piling up into a horizon of significance. Under such duress he witnessed the past in greater detail, these first memories as vivid as the childhood he could only imagine.
Now he noticed the smoldering figures here and there, ashen statues in the shape of defeated mages, their fear and rage writ large across each face. Here was Sysyn, Theb, Zoxx and the rest who chose to follow pride into that last conflagration with the red demon. He knew them well from their carven legacies, but there were others who remained secret from his studies. One wore a mask. Now he saw them, now he didn’t, as they crumbled into motes and the motes into nothingness.
There was something else Lumnos noticed for the first time as Sol pulled up the strange magics from within the pit. For an instant he wore a smile on his face, an enigmatic amusement, something unethical, like laughing at another’s misfortune. It lasted for a flicker and then the crimson-robed man was gone.
This memory hung, moving and yet still, the way a page can remain unturned, the words breaking the linear line of action to conjure up the past in a frieze of expression. Several tons of history connected like a puzzle. There was Zeklos and the Ink, the Argent Lord and Sol’s actions on the mountain of clones, the blank ice of Winter and the Black Lattice, meeting together at odd angles as the pages in the Alabaster Palimpsest lost the last words.
The struggle in the Lattice room descended into madness. Cast brightly in prismatic light from the reborn crystals Laxa and the Fencer fought against Loce. The fusion of mage and strange matter interposed before the Inky Child, the cause of so much death and destruction, and warded him from the assault.
Where their weapons struck the Phyox’s flesh rippled into hexagonal scales, hardening to armor then fading back to a normal semi-liquid state. They fought with the rage of those who have lost their goal and were lashing out, desperately trying for the blood of the child. A certain inertia kept them at it, a downhill momentum which had led them through the haunted catacombs and mines to this place and time.
Loce struck out at Laxa, who nimbly sidestepped, running her blade along the arm. Strange sparks showered out as blues and purples. The Fencer blocked a similar attack from the clawed other limb, but instead of taking advantage of the opening, kept his blade pressed against the otherworldly skin. Frost screamed across the surface and the magus smashed the swordsman away, opening up red along the man’s arm.
This was a changed being they faced in Loce. A willingness to use violence was now evident, made all that more dangerous by the strange strength lent him by the Phyox. He could shatter bone or toss a grown man with ease. He was quick too, muscles moving with a harmony and grace the icebound couldn’t match. All they had was their experience, hard won from Winter’s harsh environs, and a strange tool in the shape of Dhala’s nightmare edge.
Like a whisper Laxa ducked under the next swing and ran her blade along the line of eyes, which sealed over with protective hexagons, as predicted and anticipated. At that moment the Fencer swung for Loce’s neck. A hand grew out and clutched the blade which cut through into the white limb even as that flesh crystallized into some adamantine substance. With a scream ice immediately began to envelope the changed magus in a sculpture of inky frost.
“Fencer stop,” said the Trumpeter. “Stop!”
“Look at the boy!” shouted Lumnos, who had closed the book.
The swordsman didn’t stop, but did glance over. There the Inky Child, the Necromancer, was bound fast in some kind of solid cube of light. It was both physical and luminous, a block of richly tailored magics. The boy lay in stasis, his form obscured by the hazy stuff, symmetric limbs drifting. The Fencer stopped his attack, but not for anything either man said.
“He is not who we took him to be,” said the wordseller. “Not anymore.”
Loce broke free in a shower of ice and the fighters amongst them grew wary, raising their blades, uncertain of a future which might contain their own blood.
“The book cast him in that shade of dark magic,” explained Lumnos, distilling the purest essence of what he had learned in his reading. “The book wrote that spirit upon him, a Rottie born with the power of the Art. An old mage broken by the coming of Sol did this to him through some history left written in this text. The tome itself holds much knowledge, but it is also a pen, and this strange troublesome stuff the ink.”
Lumnos grew pained, trying to express what it was he had understood from the many disparate elements laid out before him, which for a second had come together to form a mosaic truth. Now he found his words halting, as if the medium for what he wanted to say did not exist. Like the ritual the boy had carved into the very skein of reality, there was something here, complex, nuanced, which even time might not unravel.
“It is said that magicians may be reborn. Perhaps this one wished to retain memory and somehow survive with his pride knowing he might fail against red Sol and his Summer dream. Perhaps the boy is the reincarnation of such a mage, or maybe the Palimpsest’s provided some vector of possession, in either case the results are the same. Yet the old magician did not overwrite the Rottie, the two splashed into each other and by the power they found in this crystalline chamber, or conjured from the dead, felt such a thing that they marched their heart upon the city of Ruin, for sins past, present and yet to come. The book you see, it holds memory, conjures the stuff up for each reader.”
“Now Summer comes,” said Loce, a mouth forming on his smooth face.
“There is tell of the floating world vanishing whole towns to take a single witch away,” said Laxa grimly. “From all the noise this boy has caused we are doomed by wonder rather than evil.”
The Fencer strode over to the wordseller and took the book from the man’s hands. Opening the Alabaster Palimpsest he achieved his heart, the reason for coming to Ruin, for accosting Lumnos and engaging in this whole mad endeavor.
“Fencer,” said the Trumpeter, fighting a battle for sense which had already been won by a trophy, “The boy, he’s still.”
Concern played across the musician’s usually manic face. The many parts of the scene weighed upon him and he twisted the Trumpet around in his hands.
“Why did you aid the Rottie?” the Trumpeter demanded of the Abjurist with a surprising sternness.
“Because I have changed,” said Loce.
“That isn’t a full reason.”
“I have no love of violence and the child is already defeated. He too is changed, as am I, but change is often compromise rather than a flipping of opposites and so now he goes to the place made for us.”
“Summer,” mused the Trumpeter. “But is it a heaven or a hell?”
“I’m not so certain anymore,” smiled Loce.
“What was the purpose of all this?” asked Laxa, breaking into the discussion. “To find some book?”
“You cannot understand how many lives you have saved this day,” explained the stained man. “By stripping his power, even temporarily, you opened him up to Crow’s Eye. If Zeklos still drove the hordes above or had finished his ritual of expression then this understanding light would be replaced by a single terrible spell. This spell would fall upon Ruin like a cloud without warning. Heavier than air it would resist the wind for hours and then blow away, leaving nothing but a forlorn remnant. Even the bodies would be forgotten. And this is only their opening salvo against the chaos which a single unbound mage might cause.”
Lumnos stood quiet, soaking up all the words like a blank page. He had scores of questions but he waited, willing to see where the strange play of characters would take them next.
“Now we go to the place set aside for us by Sol,” continued Loce, gauging the block of pure light encapsulating the child for signs which only he could understand. “For my part I will tell them nothing of your sword, your trumpet, your part in these events. There is little care for the icebound, but I am the last person who should be telling you that.”
“What of the place itself?” Obsession showed through the Trumpeter’s words.
Loce considered this, changed as he was it was difficult to read his expressions.
“I’m certain anymore,” he said at last. “Summer is strangeness, where the mind makes their own heaven or hell, and through power or conspiracy inflicts these things on others. I suppose this is the violence I realized, what I assumed was the Black was really the binary distortion between unflinching equals. He will have to make a compromised decision, as I have done.”
“But what of the horrors?” demanded Laxa. “He is a nightmare and walks, has blood on his hands, and the powers of Summer will let him play as he wants?”
“It is a strange place,” was all Loce said.
He made to go, to vanish as he had before, but Lumnos started up, stuttering.
“A question,” he blurted. “Whether originating from the book, or from his soul, that nous which I’ve learned of late, who was the boy before?”
“He wore a silver mask once,” Loce replied thoughtfully. “Though that is a truth I have only just realized.”