Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Crown of Many Skulls I. The Rule of Winter

They were halfway through the frozen badlands of Nysul on a glorious quest of murder for their lord Glor when the spell lifted.  Just a breath ago they had been zealots for the cause, struggling through the arid cold to slay Lord Bzer and bring his head back as a trophy.  Now the two were themselves again.
              The taller man was known as the Trumpeter, for he loudly proclaimed his whimsical heart from the mouth of his sterling horn.  In his long woolen coat he hid a great many treasures, junk, others would say.  Wrapped up in his endless ceremonial scarf he seemed the image of a mad priest, if there were gods anymore.  These things he contemplated with gleaming blue eyes set in a scruffy face framed by long and wild blond tangles.
            The other fellow was less ostentatious, except when angry.  Then the Fencer was a demon and violently punctuated his spirit with the blade of crystallized metal slung at his side.  He was cut from the very stuff of winter: ice and stone, cloud and sky.  These features set him apart from the usual entities on the southern continent of Barant and he was more than glad to tell of his lost people, those savage kin-slayers who couldn’t accept reason.  At the moment he too was struggling to come up with an accounting of their recent actions.
            “I abducted all the fair-haired women amongst the rocky kingdoms for that ragged despot,” realized the swordsman.  “Why?  Shouldn’t a person go find their own?”
            “Sounds pleasant compared to standing atop the tall cliffs looking through my instrument,” shivered the Trumpeter.  “Glor must’ve thought it was a spyglass or the like.”
            “Glor,” seethed the Fencer.
            “All he did was ask us to do these things, and we did them,” realized the Trumpeter. 
            Recollection was a rough task.  While some events stood out in the mind, their larger memories felt broken apart and displaced.  Whatever power had commanded their actions had harmed their minds, leaving them unable to fully understand what had happened or why.  Left with floating icebergs of scenes the cold world of Winter made even less sense.  Yet it was certain that these troubles began in the badlands and now the two sought to end them there.
            A fit of personal exploration suddenly possessed the musician.  Struggling with his coat he began to turn out all his pockets in search of something.  At last, after disgorging all manner of petrified hands, magic potions and scraps of paper, he found his memory.  Victoriously he began paging through a green-bound journal.
            “It’s gone!” he gasped.  Only now did the Fencer pay attention, as he had little patience for letters or other such fantasies.  “Ripped right out of the book.  I just can’t seem to remember what was on this page.”
            “My mind is all broken up too, a jumble of rocks and canyons and the petty people living in them.”  The Fencer hefted his sword and looked about cautiously.
            This was not without good reason.  At the moment they were being watched by hungry eyes.  The badlands of Nysul were rife with snuma and carnivorous giraffes.  It was a dry place, with little ice but chald: puffs of water vapor flash frozen in clumps which tumbled about.
            Above them the sky was uniform grey but their eyes knew the subtleties of clouds and currently they had only a few hours before dark and dangerous cold set in.  Turning back upon their own tracks they went in search of answers.
            “I was glad to be asked to play,” noted the Trumpeter in search of noise.     They struggled up a sandy incline towards the higher prominences.  Behind and all around, for as far as the eye could see, reddish rock broke up from the ground in massive blocks shattered by the wearing ice of Winter.  Between these ravines stretched, joining a massive canyon down below, shrouded in mist. 
            “Glor made me hunt down some political enemies,” added the Fencer glumly.  “I marched them over those cliffs at sword point.”
            The Trumpeter stomped ahead angrily upon hearing this.  “You never have any nice stories to tell,” he shouted over his shoulder.  “Why can’t you have better things happen to you?”
            “Need I remind you of the Riddle?” said the Fencer at last, not really loud enough to reach the Trumpeter.  Rare were the good things on the icebound planet known as Winter.  Though complex and difficult, the Riddle, as he understood it, was the summation of all worldly troubles and the savage humanity those engendered, unchanged by magic or charity, immune to kindness, addicted to acts of senseless brutality. 
            Thinking of this, his goal, the Answer, and the monotonous sky, the Fencer’s mood grew dark and he ached to use is weapon on Glor.  He had no absolute knowledge of this villain, but he would do for some sword practice.
            By evening, the sky gone strange and red with indirect sunset, they had arrived back at Glor’s stronghold.  So intent were they on this revenge that neither man noticed the hunter behind them, a thing versed in patience and unafraid of men.
            This place had always been Glor’s home, as it had for his ancestors since his family scion had won the place in a bloody coup.  Through all time the court magician had guided the course of things, propping the old monarchs up until his mathematics decided otherwise and he aided the rebellion with that most decisive of powers: magic.  So things went until the Uplifting.
            Now the savage remnants of a nation squatted in their last stronghold.  Carved from a massive piece of red stone, it had once been a sight to behold, but with the guiding hand gone it seemed cracked and troubled, smoothed over by dust storms and abandoned. 
            Many holes stared out from the rock, some bored by natural action or wildlife, others cut by ancient hands.  A few ornate structures spilled out into the air, latticed balconies and overhanging rooms, expressions of the lavish palace.  Atop it all sat a sort of keep, crowning the dominion.  The architecture was fine, baroque work, layered upon itself to produce extravagant textures.
            Fragments of memory led them to a narrow entrance sunk into the rock.  In the dwindling light they could see two men with long spears guarding in full livery.  The travelers plotted from the shadows.
            “Do we go in through this obvious way or chance a different route?” asked the Trumpeter.  His intent leaned towards the more interesting path, perhaps directly up the cliff face.
            “Give me your scarf,” replied the swordsman.
            “I cannot, on spiritual grounds,” frowned the other man.  “You know it is part of my sacred vestment as ordained by the tradition of the trumpet.”
            “Your coat then.”
            “The scarf it is.”
            With this the swordsman selected a properly sized rock and wrapped it carefully in the tattered wool.  Severed head in tow they approached the front gate.
            “We have returned!” declared the Trumpeter through his instrument, producing an incomprehensible booming.  Startled, the men dropped their spears and fled inside.
            Following, the smell of drunken humanity greeted them.  The rock housed a hidden city.  In here Glor’s ancestors kept their stock of peasants, soldiers, slaves and artisans safe and at their disposal.  Now only remnants populated the halls.  Each night the lord would release a certain quality of loyalty-ensuring wine and declare a bright future.  Dancing sounded in the old days.
            The invaders entered the shadowy interior.  There was no sign of guards, nor the cries of alarm which usually preceded the pair.  Perhaps none cared to hear about invading armies when they could revel through carven splendor. 
            Even more so than without the world within was a work of art.  The tall, narrow entry hall cut directly through to the agora, where the greatest happiness sounded to the tune of bells and drums.  Various other, lower passages provided diversion from the general concourse, which welcomed them in with more civilized temperatures.  The red stone contained a certain mineral which gave off a scent like that of cinnamon when warmed, spicing the air.
            Creeping to the great central plaza—a giant room ringed with balconies and furnished with varied blocks of stone for meeting and eating—the travelers saw that the old practice was underway by the light of luminous plants grown along the ceiling.  Ragged men and women in various states of undress danced and frolicked.  Even the old and young did these things. 
            The Fencer stared in horror as an elderly woman leaped in ecstasy from one of the balconies.  Swaddled infants twitched to staccato notes bleated out at a frenzied pace by musicians with bulging eyes.  All made merry, but in such a way which spoke of insanity and fever. 
            Deciding on another course the two turned just in time to see the guards slinking back to their stations.  Instead of worry or alarm those two men snapped their fingers and hummed along with the music. 
            Already the hunter had crept inside and hid in the dark nearby while listening to the heartbeats of her chosen quarry.  They smelled like interesting men. 
            Taking a side passage they went according to the direction which seemed the most ostentatious.  Following an auxiliary passage they reached a modest concourse, which meandered amongst empty living quarters until it met with a tiled hall.  Long tatters of former glory praised the noble past and the jagged pattern of the tiles pointed towards offices of polished marble and stairs without number.
            Dozens of avenues opened themselves up at this point, but only one led to Glor.  Here the two men stopped and scratched their heads at the possibilities.
            “I feel like I’ve been through here before, but for all the fragments in my mind I can’t seem to make a whole picture,” grumbled the Fencer, pacing.
            “Something has happened,” stated the Trumpeter, speaking of other things.  “There has been a change of feeling in this place.  It is not as it was the last time we were here, just hours ago.”
            “Sensible for once,” laughed the Fencer.  “I feel it too.  The merriment back behind us, that’s new and insane.  My first assumption is that we are somehow the cause.”
            The Trumpeter puffed his cheeks with thought but quickly exhaled.
            “I give up,” he said.  “I am clearly innocent and, since I’m feeling charitable, so are you.  It must be magic.  It must be a treasure we found or need to find.”
            Over their prattle footsteps clearly rang from another room, yet such was the acoustics that neither could be sure from whence they came.  Taking to an abandoned room they waited and watched. 
            A guard passed by in brightly painted armor.  Like with certain birds this uniform displayed grandeur, that of his station in service to Glor and the royal line.  He wore a blue enameled breastplate over a gown of purple chainmail, this in turn covering a long skirt of padded, black leather.  The outfit seemed entirely impractical, except for the invaders, who found the noise it made helpful in hiding their own.
            Unaware of the two men, and moving with purpose, the guard ascended a stairway and continued on through the upper halls.  They followed close behind, and following them all stalked the hunter, amused and hungry.
            Now they realized they were in the upper palace.  It was colder and occasionally windows netted with geometric designs opened upon the rocks and sky of the badlands.  Cold Winter cut through the heady spice of the citadel.
            Up and up the man climbed without tiring, often preening his mustache.  If they didn’t know better they would say he was the noble of this place, and they didn’t know better, except feeling he lacked something, a quality of rulership.
            Lit by censors burning brightly and the weak strains of ending day the palace was full of beautiful remnants in various stages of decay.  It had an abandoned air, a ruin inhabited.  The smell of perfume and spices empowered the upper chambers, places of blue and gold, chipped yet still wondrous. 
            The guardsman stopped at what seemed like his destination.  Up a short ramp and through three layers of silk curtains he moved with almost religious reverence.  As he did so he began to lose his garments, starting with his long cape, then his hauberk, the chain skirt and as he fumbled through the last curtain he struggled out of the leather gown, the veil closing behind him.
            Peeking through the two travelers saw a harem composed entirely of blondes, mostly women, but with a few fair men in the group.
            “You have an incautious eye,” noted the Trumpeter.  “But I admire your attention to detail.”
            The Fencer’s heart seethed at the thought that he had abducted all these beings and his companion had to stop him from making trouble. 
            “We must find the source, or all we will do it give ourselves away.” 
            What the musician said was true, but as he watched the man—now left with only a loose gown of linen—his old demon return to him.  Leaving, they didn’t see the guard, or the fair brothel’s disinterest in him, as he continued on through the room, to a door hidden beyond.
            Sword in hand the Fencer led the way, checking each and every door, looking for a particular kind of trouble.  Then the way became clear.  Each hall was a square, with a stair leading upwards, all to a central point.  Silently, they stalked up towards the throne room.
            Here a man mused on the checkered tiles, counting through a pile of stunningly whole platinum coins, humming to himself.  The two moved with care, lest they sound out over the floor and disturb the accounting.  The reason was the thing he wore on his head.
            The gold of its frame was pure and luminous, forming a circle which would fit any head it graced.  From its uneven spires shone opals, radiant and cool, set in crystal, cut by the breath of the gods.  They knew it held power, vague memories told them so, and so surprise was necessary if they were to remove it and thus have an even conversation with the tyrant they knew to be Glor.  Behind them came the hunting thing, which tasted the air excitedly. 
            In slow motion they worked across the hall, listening to his numbers.  The coins were ancient, as were all works of civilization on the frozen world, and could purchase all the flesh and power one might need.  Never turning around, the man’s music continued, until he grew disappointed.
            “I wish I had a musician,” he said idly to himself.
            The Fencer sensed the Trumpeter stop.  Turning, he witnessed absolute terror as the man placed his instrument to his lips and began to play the sweetest notes.  So stunned was he by this insanity that he let the bundle he held in his hands slip, the scarf unfurling, dropping loudly on the tile.  Unspooling from the woolen vestment the rock tumbled forth, rolling to the noble’s feet.
            In a moment the Fencer had his weapon unslung and the nightmare edge sought the man’s throat. 
            “Put that down!” bellowed Glor, and the Fencer did so, seeing the crown.  Dhala clattered like no material found or forged on any world.  The sound it made was a perfect accompaniment for the breaking of the mind into a thousand puzzle pieces.
            “Treachery!”  The tyrant’s eyes lit up as he said the word, though he was careful not to make it a command.  “I think my instructions were clear enough concerning Bzer the Ornate.  Now, my servants, tell me how it came to be that you would pass off a stone as a skull and murder for compliance.”
            Both men began to speak at once, eyes darting to the opal crown, but their words were lost as the hunting thing emerged from the shadows.  Having gained a taste for the men involved it was now hungry enough to make for the kill.

No comments: