Night had come and gone but to Afrax time was merely a swatch of black ink against which the play of hideous death jittered and danced. Hungry sounds, not for life, groaned with rapacious altruism and careened through the granite towers of Ruin in search of an audience. The dark things—the doad, marrowmere, umbirae and other, nameless, stained entities—brimmed with ink, sharing it, giving it, against the wishes of the will.
The mercenary bore witness to a hideous lifecycle. The invading marrowmere were the shock troops, floating in on insane winds, freezing minds, stilling hearts, shattering the most reasonable of defenses so that the quiet workers, those doad, could rend the victims in economical fashion. The slain were then receptive to the attentions of the shadow umbirae who ingratiated themselves into bodies who had lost their souls and could then pass as men for a time, though their unholy magics would invariably bloat the corpse and they would rise up to join the ranks of the marrowmere.
This systemization was all that kept Afrax sane that night. He was a great studier of situations, the dynamics between persons and the strategy of violence. Like any system this one displayed exceptions—there were beings which fit none of these types, clay-flesh humanoids full of acid, bone sculptures wielding shadow—but the activity achieved his goal: he lived.
Pulling his khopesh free from the skull of a shambling corpse he closed his mouth so that he wouldn’t taste any of the black blood as it gushed out from the saturated brain tissues. It wasn’t that the stuff was infectious, it was because it failed to taste like true blood and instead had the acrid tang of ink.
Beside him his last two conspirators fought, defending the upper reaches of an abandoned tower they had discovered in their mad flight through the city. The press of bodies had pushed them away from the west gate and now they were in the old quarter, neighborhoods bearing the names of dead sorcerers. Their structure was all white, strangely angled, with upper reaches destroyed by some recent catastrophe. Still, a narrow seam of stairs ran to the first landing and they thought to hold the door to the low balcony, high enough that the doad could only enter one at a time, but low enough not to attract the attentions of the terrifying marrowmere.
Khem, the brute, put his sword too far into a walking corpse and as it fell the weight pulled the weapon out of his hands. A dozen creatures surged up through the entrance and opened up a seam down his middle where a shadow might enter. He was dead before Afrax and Siwela could cut through the offending doad. All they could do was fend off the interests of the umbirae which attempted to wriggle inside.
More enemies spilled through the entrance as the slowing pulse of a marrowmere approached, catching in their throats. One of them kicked their lantern off the edge and the dark swarmed ascendant. They both thought of silver and the future it might buy.
Then a curious thing happened. The dead changed, their eagerness to share their terrible secret left, and they all lay down as if asleep. Now the dead were dead. The marrowmere fell, and the umbirae slid back into proper shadows. At this instant light erupted from every crack and seam in Ruin’s floor, the blast chiming out across the frozen plain of Samla. In blinding radiance the sky-shroud darkness boiled. When their eyes recovered the sun shone brightly where once there was only a testament of night.
Hypnotized moments pass and they awoke from the radiance and saw its source. Afrax raced down the stairs, kicking bodies off the edge as Siwela shouted after him. Never once hesitating he made for the blasted foundations surrounding the tower so he could have clear sky.
Clouds, boiling, thunderous things, of a kind which the cold weather patterns of Winter rarely produced, billowed across the heavens. Purple, blue and gauzy grey, they spilled from the south, against the wind and nature.
Siwela reached Afrax just as the clouds split and sun hit a thousand crystalline towers and floating stone. Canny birds nested and flocked amongst the lower eyries while water cascaded off the floating continent’s western side, pluming into snow where the warm cataract hit uncaring cold. Summer undressed in a rare display. Both felt pure fear for the upper powers acted only in case of dire consequence and left little behind. The dead were perhaps more fortunate they thought, as the shadow of all magic fell upon Ruin.
Just as strangely as it had come Summer left, gathering clouds, moving at an angle which soon showed no sign of passage, back into mystery.
Afrax and the swordswoman, having no words for what they had seen, knew they must report the impossible. There was a man who would want to know these things, as they had spied their master’s heart’s desire and he was loathe to share what he felt was his portion of glory.
The two conspirators moved quickly through the city reeling from its salvation. Black stains streamed down gutters and stippled the stones of ancient dwellings. They found their inn and took the marking coins from their dead fellows, those whom they could find. Setting a plan, it was decided to take to the icy northern roads and brave travel through the Gallery of Glass to Mt. Etrius.
Afrax stood at the western gate and watched Siwela wind her way down from the plateau city.
Light broke upon the lowest depths, inundating the Lattice room where it blinded those who stood at the end of their journey. It took Loce and the boy, Zeklos, the Necromancer, the Rottie, He Who Wears a Mask of Silver, whoever else he may be, blank as he was, skin of parchment. With them went a thousand questions and their attendant answers, like the court of an unknown king who, having visited in wonder, leaves nothing but dreams, and sometimes nightmares. The light, painful, glaring, full of color, left a dark lit only by the Lattice.
Unable to believe what he was seeing the Fencer opened his eyes wider and wider, hoping to catch something missing in the Alabaster Palimpsest, the focus of his quest and the only reason he came to the city of Ruin. While he stared the Trumpeter approached the Lattice, stepping into the pooling dark around the base in order to touch the crystals. He smiled at the disharmony he felt in the chiming stone.
“You know you can’t read, Fencer,” the musician said without looking around.
Lumnos, stunned by all he had seen, snapped back to the present just as the Fencer threw the book down and stalked to the stone-framed exit leading to the Palace of Chimes. Taking it up, the wordseller saw that all the pages were blank.
“What did you hope to see in there?” he asked.
“Clea’s journal states that the Alabaster Palimpsest holds infinite knowledge,” explained the Trumpeter, who now turned and leaned back into the splay crystals like they were some sort of throne. He was deliberately aggravating his superstitions as this was his means of dealing with trauma. “Surely the Answer to Winter’s Riddle must lie in those pages.”
“What did you see when you opened it?” demanded the Fencer quietly from the shadowed exit.
“I,” began Lumnos, “I saw a story written—the boy’s story—his whole life told as he would tell it, as if each page reordered itself in self-revelation. It led up to the very moment I picked up the book, though the narrative faded so fast that I could only skim the words.”
“Why is it blank now?”
“I don’t know,” began Lumnos, feeling danger in the air. “Perhaps such magic only responds to magic, and this whole situation was caused by the Argent Lord’s attempt to circumvent his demise. In reading it I somehow unraveled his dweomer, as if my eyes stole the power from each page. These can only be parts of the whole mystery, but in that whole there will always be unknown spaces.”
“That’s it?” The Fencer whirled, framed by the darkness beyond the threshold. “We leave with nothing but an empty book. I could’ve dunked any number of tomes into water and come up with the same thing. And what have you gained, scholar? Aren’t you infuriated by this empty room?”
“I now know why my store was broken into,” sighed the wordseller, settling on a rock. “I suppose there’s some satisfaction in that. The rest I can’t account for, not until I think on what I’ve read, but I will say that I know more now than when you two first accosted my peace.”
The Fencer glared hard at the man, but his eyes searched inwards, considering.
“You do realize that the Answer has been attempted by legions of learned men and peerless sorcerers, I’ve read their stories,” explained Lumnos. “Theories abound, and maybe under the heap of words they have found it, and nobody noticed. Like a snowflake the air around the Riddle has crystalized into a pattern both complex and beautiful. Or was there something else you were seeking added on top of this dream quest?”
“I cannot find her,” stated Laxa. While they spoke she had been searching every fissure and shadow with extreme care. “Belleneix, she is gone.”
They found only a single boot, the small one, the dagger she dropped, and a thin layer of black dust where she had reeled from the Necromancer’s magic. While they had argued about high thoughts the Rottie girl had been forgotten, out of body, out of mind, relegated to the past and mystery. Laxa looked at her companions with cold condemnation.
“I guess we miss something only when it’s gone. There’s an old truth to that but we can’t help but repeat the irony,” said the Fencer grimly and made to leave. There was only magic here, a power continents apart from their experience.
Exiting, they were surrounded by the ancient pictographs of whatever lost peoples first excavated this room. In a play of abstractions their stories played out bold and yet inscrutable, confused by the eons separating the storytellers and their audience. A sound of violence brought them all back to the present.
Dhala swept through the supporting frame like a wire through soft, wet clay. The ancient door bracing untold tons of rock buckled and groaned. Running away at full speed they only barely avoided the cave-in, a cloud of black dust following them halfway back to the silvery labyrinth. The others said nothing of this madness, a strange mood ruled their steps.
It was as if they entered a dream. The hazy light of the underworld was gone and in its place darkness, barely brightened by the Trumpeter’s taper. The light first shone off ancient stone which suddenly transitioned to a tunnel of silver.
They re-entered the Palace of Chimes to discover it a dead thing, quiet, no machine noises, no light glowing off its sterling interiors. Beauty interred, a tomb for old memories and escaping secrets.
In the trauma of the cave-in below, or Summer’s blasting light, or any number of other dramatic incidents recently passed, the ancient flasks bottling up the noxious emanations of the underworld had ruptured. It is said that the original powers of Ruin came here for the strange and wondrous things they mined up from the depths. The Lattice room was surely the grandest prize, but others soon became evident, dangerous substances for the icebound but most efficacious for a mage.
Turning some corners they would see a gaseous visitor wearing a plume of color. There were sullen violets, and dusky oranges, blooms of olive, silver and mauve, moving through the circular tunnels in such a way that they seemed animate.
The others despaired that they would never leave the labyrinthine palace alive but Lumnos knew the way up as surely as he had found the method down. He led them according to the crystalline growth of the silver walls, except when he decided otherwise. The others never knew, being too eager to avoid the colorful death which surely would claim them otherwise.
Near the place Idosa slept curled into balls once more, awaiting commands which would never come. The darkness worried the wordseller, but he kept to his hope until he found the room he sought.
A dozen sets of arms hung limp and lifeless, distended, fallen to the floor in an inhuman mass. Ecul ceased to function, its eyes rested and shut of the last conduit for secret knowledge.
“Are we lost?” asked the Fencer, glancing behind for the faintest wisp of strange smoke.
Lumnos smiled, it was all he had left.
“No,” he said. “This way leads up and out.”
Behind them the strange gasses and emanations, bottled light and invisible radiations, mixed and mingled in volatile combinations. Explosions sounded in the lower halls, blasting apart the minimalist expanses left by the Argent Lord. The last of his plans went to chaos and none of them wished to delve deeper to see what these associations produced. It was enough to reach the miner’s city where they could breathe more honest air.
White corpses greeted them in carven streets and basalt alleys. Those inhabiting spirits conjured by the Necromancer in his greed for memory were gone, leaving behind husks drenched in lye. They had no names now and there was no telling how many there were. The band moved through the city of the dead with but a candle against the darkness.
Lumnos’s eyes and thoughts lingered behind on that one light form which lay amongst the broken towers just past the great silver door. She had been split in two, but a memory lingered on her face, a death mask of relief, of going home. It was enough to be the Emperor Zoxx but once, anything more and the memories became a burden. Now she had stepped back into whatever dark room lay beyond.
From a high building they watched the hanging towers collapse in response to the growing tremors from below, burying Zoxx in a tomb of memories. Strange gasses seeped through the gaps in the ruins like smoke through an opium addict’s teeth. Clouds passed over the shattered tons of silver, a mask over a mask, time piling up.
The machine things were quiet here too, their motivating magic gone with the boy. They rested like corpses, fantastic beasts waiting to be deposited into the ground like so many fossils. Through the fatigue and madness brought on by exposure to the wayward fumes Lumnos wondered what future archaeologists might think of this patchwork underworld. He smiled at the fantasy, knowing that as long as the ice ruled the surface there was hardly enough civilization to inhabit ruins, let alone learn from them. Laughing quietly the others didn’t notice.
Somnambulist steps took them onwards. Some unspoken agreement to not spend another night underground kept them shuffling forward, upward, to whatever was left, that last great mystery of return where they would either find desolation, or merely Ruin. Of shadows there were many.
It wasn’t long before the Trumpeter was out of tapers and they were reduced to burning the garments of the dead for light. Strange chemicals made the rags wound around lengths of automaton metal burn various unwholesome colors, so their travels passed by first in cloying azure, then bloody red, then sickening white. Occasionally their flame would sputter or pop in reaction to a wafting gas. Poisons chased them through the depths.
Up they went, first through the mines where the doad lay in sleep and the stranger things from the Necromancer’s mind sprawled as fallen dreams, forever sealed away by the opening of a book. Perhaps some creations still moved. Once or twice the Trumpeter claimed to see a shadow twitch, or a figure move at the far end of a hall, but the rest responded in silence, leaving these things for the future.
Then there were the catacombs, which had swelled and shifted, side-effects of the grand spell that Zeklos wrote onto the unseen margins of the world. Incomplete and wild, the spell still hung as an unfinished mausoleum to the lost mage, whose memory was hopefully enough to resurrect him from the past but once. Chambers which were once square bowed out, grew sculpted eyes and expressionistic reliefs, simple tunnels grew scales, geometric shapes, dark patches stained by ink.
The sewers which followed seemed endless, seeping passages full of the inert black stuff of lost thoughts. So much had been said, but now the words were all the same, flowing away, into a further darkness of unknowing. Waterways choked with new dead, they stared, left out of the great festival. Endless rooms threatened their sanity. Only the Fencer kept them going with his crude determination, fueled not by where they were going but the disappointment which lay behind. He had already left Ruin.
Winter, indeterminate, light, morning or afternoon, greeted them as they broke through a rusted grate and stumbled out of a disused swimming pool. Cold sky watched them through a veil of featureless clouds.
The city lived. Bodies lay everywhere, but many were already being tidied up and cared for, listed, accepted, because there was no place for them. Ruin was coming to terms with the dead.
Survivors busied themselves in the aftermath, looting what new opportunities had been cracked open by the chaos. Old palace-tribes died but new ones were reborn with names like Impolom, Vaaex, and so on, fragments of an incomplete spell which they knew subconsciously. The Inky Child had made his will known after all, in a way.
Without the energy to do more than numbly observe the radical change around them the travelers set off for the western gate. There they hoped to find lodging if there was anything left in this mortuary wasteland. Swaths of stone stained by the ink rose as monuments to the latest chapter of the city’s history while more of the fluid ran down the gutters. Some things were forgotten.
At last they found an inn still running, empty, all the travelers having fled and the natives left to tussle in the ruins. Ordering some boiled food guaranteed to have been brought in from the countryside, as if that mattered, they took their places at a table full of carvings and graffiti. It was then that the blade descended upon the Fencer’s head.