Violence is its own environment, a field proved fair by the even fashion in which blood is scattered. All on Winter were welcome on its brutal red plains, an offer few could refuse. From plundering barbarians, to city street cutthroats, to those who giggled at the drawing of a blade or hunted pale elk on the tundra, this activity of destruction, violation and acquisition fueled what life vibrated on the unreasoning planet.
In these contests of savagery elements of skill and technology often confined the results. A fighter trained in the art of fencing had advantage over a tough who had just been given a blade the day before. The weapons themselves made a difference, as tempered by wealth, culture, and circumstance, but on Winter resources were scarce and most swords were remnants of civilizations enabled by the fractal dreams of the old sorcerer kings before the coming of Sol awoke everything.
Magic, all creation could be reduced in relation to that numinous Art. If one only had a spell they might change the world, and such was a common wish. It may be that the red demon worked the Uplifting to restore fairness to the lives of the icebound, making the old magicians contest with each other and leaving those with more mundane capabilities to carve their own destinies from the ice. Perhaps not, more often they only achieved the sight of their own blood.
The Fencer was more gifted than most, though it came with its own perils. His head was full of another’s memories, this Lumnos had sensed upon meeting the man, and in those memories lay a thousand duels, a knowledge of swordplay, a double-edged dream without context. At his side icy Dhala rested, atom-sharp, feverish, a weapon of unstated legend. All these fantastic attributes and treasures, none could save him from the circumstance of exhaustion and surprise.
As the khopesh arced from the shadows Laxa shoved the Fencer aside. The attack caught her instead, carving a wavering line along her forearm as she pulled back, spattering the warped wood of the table her blood. The strike went all the way down into the bench where they had just been sitting down for their first rest in what seemed weeks.
Without a thought the Fencer had his weapon in his hand and turned, guard up, to see a dusky-skinned swordsman suddenly flanked by a half dozen Magpies. Vaguely they had seen the mercenaries loitering outside but had been too exhausted to register their significance. It seemed the attacker recognized the Fencer, though he had no recollection of the scale-armored man with the steely, veteran’s gaze. This was an advantage he could not replicate.
“You could at least have the decency to wait until we finished our meal of questionable meats!” exclaimed the Trumpeter who scrambled atop the table in order to claim the moral high ground.
“Two days is enough of this city for me,” said the dark swordsman without smiling, without taking his eyes off the Fencer.
“I can tell what you’re after,” said the man with the enchanted blade. “You’ll not like it. Nor will your master.”
“Don’t know what you talk about,” said his opponent. “I’m Afrax, just a cunning bladesman looking to profit by that bit of glass you swing about. Easier if it comes to me without any more blood.”
By now the wide, low room, stained with soot and the smell of travelers, was empty of guests. The proprietor begged with them to stop. Violence had come to his humble establishment, looking to take what had been left standing by luck where so many others had perished or been made homeless by the devastations most recent to visit upon Ruin. But the scene swallowed all such sentiment into the abyss of tension and madness and the play of coin in the Magpie’s purses. They too were riding on the luck of surviving the recent apocalypse and were looking to cash in with a few swings of steel. Violence played its tune.
Lumnos tried to pull Laxa back from the fight but she snarled and drew with her left hand. The Magpies lurched to action only to take a blast from the Trumpeter’s silver instrument. The front of the shop exploded in a shower of wood and plaster. While the deafened sellswords tumbled backwards Afrax dodged aside, lunging for the Fencer.
With a blink the Fencer stumbled backwards from the assault, falling for the feint and opening himself up to khopesh blade. Then Laxa was there, darting in wildly. Afrax parried her thrust and drove both of their weapons to the ground with a harsh clang. She wasn’t prepared for the old brawler’s trick as he backhanded her while both her hands fought to free her weapon.
She stumbled and lost her sword, but her action was enough. Now the Fencer was in a full fury. A vicious swing sent Afrax leaping back, the man careful not to let his own weapon meet Dhala’s edge. Retreating, he joined ranks with the recovering Magpies, the whole battle moving out into the courtyard, though this was a bit too late for the innkeeper’s nerves.
Two mercenaries with spears sought to hem in the approaching swordsman but he goaded them into locking their weapons together and felled both with a single wide swing. They fell as ice and shattered on the ground, the weapon showing its power today as it seethed with his cold rage. The rest were less eager and more careful with how the sold their lives for a few bits of coin.
While the Trumpeter argued with the innkeeper and Laxa drew her flail the Fencer prepared to face the dark swordsman. A goddess watched over all. She stood on a base of marble, forgotten, headless, a body of artful proportions challenging all present with her weapon of the same stone. There was no telling which of the old divinities she was supposed to be, her name possibly lost forever by the will of the red demon. She stood out in Lumnos’s mind suddenly, his incisive faculties focusing for a moment on the pale marble. He couldn’t even say why he thought her depiction that of a goddess.
The divinity seemed to be pointing at him, past him, to the Trumpeter, who was arguing wildly with the innkeeper so he wouldn’t have to face the same danger as the Fencer. The musician talked as much with his hands as his mouth, becoming tangled with his long ceremonial scarf and sending his coat flapping like the wings of a particularly addled bird. There, in an interior coat pocket, something white showed amongst the wool.
Glancing back, Lumnos saw the Fencer lost in the full chaos of violence. Here was Loce’s worries given simple form through the spilling of blood, the taking of lives, the certain end of the possible and the beginning of unknown horror, revenge and misery. There was a thrill to it, an addictive grace, but it all seemed so pointless to the bookish man. Laxa joined this chaos, wielding the flail with her left, bludgeoning one fellow bleeding to the ground. In this the Riddle was told and it threatened to drive them all mad if nothing was done.
“You took it before the cave in,” said Lumnos, confronting the Trumpeter.
“What use is a blank book to anyone but a hoarder like myself?” began the musician but was stunned to find Lumnos’s hands invading his person.
“What is this?” asked the wordseller as he claimed a petrified hand from one pocket.
“Oft times a weapon, now leave me be.”
“Might I add that you play beautifully.”
This was just the right kind of mental bribe and in that stunned moment where the Trumpeter considered the full measure of his greatness Lumnos took the book, the Alabaster Palimpsest, and began to read in hopes of discovering ink on those blank pages.
Finding the Fencer too capable for their tastes the three remaining Magpies piled onto Laxa in search of easier pickings. She wasn’t much used to her flail and after swatting at their swords for a few seconds they had her surrounded and disarmed. Afrax kept the Fencer at bay, smacking the side of the enchanted blade with his khopesh to keep the southern swordsman off balance and occupied.
At first the book seemed all of blank pages, but then a change overtook them, as if in response to his viewing. Forms emerged, not writing, but images, actions, setting; a sequence of pictorial engravings springing up some hundred pages in. The depiction was clear as the very events shown on the page transpired whenever he looked upon the struggle.
The circling magpies lunged for Laxa, each wishing to claim her as their own for purposes of slavery or darker schemes. They caught only a surprise. Taking the hand of one she guided his blade into the belly of his fellow, while the third missed the girl entirely as she sinuously danced behind her partner.
Turning the page Lumnos saw her draw one of the Magpie’s daggers and plunge it through a gap in his armored back. With red blood on her hands she turned on the last man, who lost his will and fled back into the city, away from the coin he had been promised. These actions were difficult to make out because they were shown entirely in the background of the Fencer’s struggle.
The two men fought from two different worlds. The Fencer dreamed a strange understanding of the blade; dark butterflies appeared on the page to guide his atom-edged sword in strike after strike. Then there was Afrax, a veteran of Winter, a paladin of violence. He fought with a cause in his heart.
Lumnos skimmed as quickly as he could ahead but the images were intricate and detailed, penned by a hand which had infinity to describe the progress of a single second. Where the Fencer fought with his daydream heart, Afrax was content to let the man tire himself out, knowing that all victory took was a single strike. When Laxa came to attack him from behind he would notice and with a vicious turn open her up. Enraged, the Fencer would slip upon the ink which lay everywhere, lose his weapon, and turn his face in time to catch Afrax’s blade.
The wordseller looked up just as the girl moved to strike. He called out. Confusion ruled her face but she stopped. Shaking off his meddling she took quick stock of her situation as the Fencer attempted to trap Afrax against the statue. Looking up, she saw the sword of a goddess.
She cried out towards the Trumpeter and gestured to the broken visage of marble. The musician took to such an odd request, immediately playing a shattering note. The old goddess crumbled away. Freed from its stone hand the white sword landed blade first, sinking into the frozen earth.
Destiny wouldn’t be denied, despite Lumnos’s warning. In avoiding the spilled ink the Fencer slipped on a pile of the dead, burst marrowmere and silent doad, and fell amongst those corpses who he was soon to join. Afrax’s blade raised high, the man eager to be done with his task. The world conspired towards only one end, and then, just as suddenly as the accidental slip, one future became another.
The dark swordsman barely hesitated to consider the blade pierced through his back. It was enough that when he did strike the Fencer was able to scramble aside. Inky carnage spilled from where the khopesh struck the piled dead. Looking up he saw Laxa holding the red-stained stone sword once held by the statue. Afrax’s spirit left with a tremble. The page faded.
When they searched him they found no sign of silver, but the two travelers had a guess, one they shared only with each other, wordlessly. The innkeeper was purchased off with the coin they found in the man’s possession and any kind of reprisal from the killing of Magpies was left unsaid by the tired refugees which witnessed the battle of Goddess Square.
“Are there no end to the troubles you bring?” demanded Laxa, who was cleaning the blood from the white sword. The air around the Fencer and the Trumpeter was a haze of violence, of conflict focused to a point. This worry evolved in her brain, past the moment, breaking out into daylight realization. “Why was it that I came to this place even though I have a home back at the Theb palace? The highest room waits for me. I suppose it is easy to fall into the groove cut by you outlanders but now I have my own method of carving.”
“You were always free to do as you like,” growled the Fencer. “Caprice kept you with us. Any gain you might consider is but chance, as are any loses.”
She nodded and smiled and became a palace-brave once more. The last they saw of her was that white sword, a treasure abandoned in plain sight, now wielded for glory.
There was something in her words, Lumnos felt a cord of truth. The two travelers made trouble addictive, but there was more, a creative force, one which opened up the world around them to produce the strangest wonders and terrors which seemed to locked away on the Winter ice. Most magic had been bottled up on high Summer, and yet the past few days had drenched Ruin in inky spells.
The sky above was all dimple clouds and bleary sun. The cold wind, an element missing from their underground exploits, cut through them all, shoring up the scene, sending everyone home to warm their hands by fires stoked by debris. The Riddle washed in, closing minds, making the icebound think the city they had seen above had been an illusion. If anything lasted from the black magic affair it was the ink, even after the bodies were gone it would take some time for the snow melt to carry all the stuff away, leaving stains which would fade until the end of time. Some began to call the place Ink and this gave the palace-tribes something new to fight over.
They were gone within the hour, leaving Lumnos with only memories. The Alabaster palimpsest went with them, empty as it was, possibly never to be filled. Only the momentous and dweomeric could pen those pages, but the wordseller kept this reading to himself. That was the Fencer’s narrative he saw, drawn instead of written, as would fit an illiterate. Lumnos only knew this because he opened his talent to the book and it offered itself up. Maybe it wasn’t the writer who etched meaning onto the thing, but the energy of the reader. He wasn’t a mage though, and all this was speculation used to warm him against the cold unknown.
The Fencer and the Trumpeter were off to find the next treasure spoken of in that green catalogue they carried. They were also fleeing the past. No telling what kind of trouble followed in their wake, but if the dusky swordsman and the chained woman were any indication it was someone, or something, with a long reach.
Annoyingly, Lumnos’s sudden return to isolation didn’t fit well. He desperately wanted to have his interior, book-ridden space again, to scowl at anyone who entered his store, to hoard tomes, scare off customers, and consume the pages in an effort to fill up a mind left blank by the Uplifting. Yet he was having a difficult time adjusting to solitary existence once more. How perplexing.
He gauged his losses. Clea was a good client and would be missed, though he had little business to offer anymore. In better times she would arrive, perfume covering the scent of rare alchemies, to barter books and to read up on the lost magicians. It had always struck Lumnos as funny that she didn’t avail herself of the greater libraries which must surely exist up in high Summer.
All this thinking kept him company as he wandered the streets. Some ways were barred by armed thugs, toll-taking Magpies, collapsed towers and piles of the dead. In avoiding them he wandered, it was the only defense against the Riddle.
Near dusk he found his way to the Rot. It was empty. The Rotties were now proper townsfolk, though with different tastes. Such was the horror of the pit, the epicenter of the Necromancer’s spell, that none would descend into that place, not even the dead. Loce’s strange magics had bleached the place, which shone like a pearl. This beauty wasn’t enough.
Staggering tired, the wordseller began to claw through the wreckage of his life. His book store still remained, ruined. Cold cinders gave way to warm embers, some smoldering with the fire from days past. A page here and there was more memory than he held in his head, only fragments. Quickening his labor he raced with the sunset.
At last he found the floor and smashed open the boards with his heel. The safe beneath wavered with heat. It was a sturdy piece, purchased from Clea who had gained it in a particularly bloody auction. The tumblers, made from some magician material, had not warped in the fire and he used a handkerchief to enter the combination. Inside he found a future.
Abrupt farewells had been given, both in their own way. The Fencer tossed him a nod and a stern smile. Lumnos got the impression this was exceptional. He could admire the wordseller’s actions rather than his weak, bookish ways. The Trumpeter clasped his hands and shook him to let him know that if they were ever to return they expected to be treated like kings. He then let out a note and that was thanks enough. They took their secrets with them out onto the ice. It was a mercy of sorts since to remain would almost certainly bring more calamity.
Images of the endless ice, of snows with names which only those liminal people pushed to the edge of the world could speak, flew by like smoke from distant fires. They would go out, beyond, onto the pale blank skin of the world. Lumnos could barely imagine their future, no matter how much he read into the topic, but surely it would take them to their death, a wonder composed of both light and dark. He had no confidence in them discovering an Answer to Winter’s Riddle, as he had done his own survey of the question and returned with the notion that that it was insoluble. It would be enough for him to just remember.
In coming days great tumult would come to Ruin, though these were but aftershocks of the rising of the dead, that insurmountable trauma. In the chaos tribes fell and were remade. The newer, unallied groups would gain much, and the Magpies would be forced to compete with each other, unable to rely on the palace-tribes to sanction their antics. It wasn’t a reform, merely a shifting of elements.
Atop one tribe there was a new leader. In one hand she had a white sword. Though she was careful enough not to claim any sort of divinity, a legend grew that it was the blade of a goddess.
In this fashion Ruin—all its drama, dreams and action—circled around the glaring facts which had transpired to change it. Though he had changed so much none knew of Zeklos and his mad plan or the nameless Rottie whose nightmare had reached out from the abyss. Like the moon’s pull the effects were tangential, known only to a few.
Of the feats beneath the surface which inevitably lead to the end of the terror, of the Fencer, the Trumpeter, Loce, Zeklos and Belleneix, there was no notice. The coming of the dead was seen as nothing more than a change in the tide, which came in and then went out. Many toughs claimed the crown of victory against the strange dead, which became cause for all sorts of brawls and feuds. Amongst the tower blocks little changed.
One thing did bother Lumnos as he rebuilt his shop, a larger affair sprawling along the gleaming pit. Of Belleneix there was no sign. It was as if she had never existed, turned to smoke and lost in the dark. Of the companions only he seemed to note, but this was common icebound callousness. Soon she filled the whole underground of his mind, an unresolved shadow.
For days he chewed on this issue of proportion knowing it was foolish but incapable of drawing him from this addictive tragedy. She had been erased, smudged out of existence. Like the books she had been reduced to a memory of an image and already Lumnos was having a difficult time recalling her shape and voice.
Inside his safe that day he found a wide box full of platinum. With this he purchased a future. Maybe that was where he would spend his time looking now, as the past was a void. At times he would get a white card under his door and it would rouse old memories. Following them he would find a palace and in that place meet an acquaintance, being now changed by his journey, for tea, or some other such civilized thing.