Winter dreamed up beasts from its quiet. Sol had hunted down the larger share of such monstrosities as he worked his Uplifting spell to be sure. A rain of tentacles met his great works, scaled horrors and wing-born myths by the score fell upon the upstart mortal. A legion, an ocean, of monsters, gone now, drunk down by history, becoming myth, becoming legend. But, at the margins, hidden in the ice, rare creatures, wondrous and terrible, still crept and hunted and consumed.The hunting thing was such a creature. It had been something else once, before it crept wounded and starving into a cave wherein it found a glowing stream. Unknown to the beast itself these waters bubbled up from the deeper parts of the earth where the Lattice thrummed, spilling magic. The spring carried up these radiations and imparted them to the beast, which became other.
Emerging from the shadows of the throne room it brought the dark with it. In the amber torchlight, shimmering in echo with the platinum coin strewn about, the hunting thing moved as a giant, syrupy cat. Instead of fur it was covered with a smooth, rippling liquescence, like a sheen of water colored a matte indigo. Four powerful legs brought it forward as claws tapped against the polished marble. Yellow eyes gleaming, it yawned open a mouth full of teeth and its tongue fell out hissing. Instead of a proper tongue the beast tasted everything with a long, green snake.
“Greetings,” said the serpent.
Glor had never conversed with such a creature. All the beasts he knew were men, the other nobles of the Nysul Badlands who contested about the ruins because they had nothing better to do. Sure there were snuma and carnivorous giraffes to worry about, but he had never exchanged words with them. A vague notion that his life wasn’t as interesting as it could be arose within for a second before the immediacy of the unwholesome cat brought him back to the present.
By all rights Glor was rightful king of the steading of Glor, once a noble palace of renown, before the Uplifting came and took all the fun out of things. He was large and on his largess he had built a bit of fat, as much as Winter tolerated. He had grown strong, lugging his own water, hunting his own food, braving the canyons and buttes along with his subjects, when they were willing to come with him. This had instilled within a great sense of distrust towards the lower classes: they had no sense of feudal proportion. Now that he had a means to enact the will of a true monarch he had set about to bring such symmetry back to their lives.
The truth was that he wished to be free of gravity. Actions had the bad habit of provoking consequences. As a rightful noble this would not do at all. Now that Glor wore his proper crown he would like to tell the world that he could fly, once he had dealt with the terrible things which confronted him.
“I will get to the point of immediate interest,” continued the creature, the snake head lolling out from between the enormous teeth. “I have taken a liking to you three for various reasons, though taste holds primacy at this moment. You should know this is an honor, as I rarely converse with my meals. Now, who wishes to be the first course?”
When none of the men volunteered it prepared to make the decision itself.
“Protect me!” yelped Glor as he backpedalled into his platinum horde. The creature tensed to pounce and the men readied their weapons. Silver trumpet gleams lit up the room while the cold dark of the Fencer’s blade sent a chill through all present. Then Glor changed his mind.
“No, stop,” he said, regaining his feet. “You two go on back to your task. I demand the head of Bzer the Ornate and while you are there make a survey of his vaults, the defenses and volume of his secrets.”
Then he focused his noble will on the creature before him.
“Oh pretty beast you can try me for your first course.” Glor smiled evilly.
Duty-bound the Fencer and the Trumpeter exited the room. While the snake head watched them leave the cat’s eyes were focused on its next meal. More hunting always thrilled the soul, but it was easier to do so with a whetted appetite.
The mind-controlled travelers left behind the throne room and its unknown feast. Halls of faded opulence passed by in a blur of stairs, spiced aromas, sacked rooms, patterns and lost nobility. Through the lower corridors they moved in shadow from lamp to lamp. Distant sounds of revelry broke apart into disjointed notes, though now the music made sense to their warped minds. From the shadows a man in a black, hooded cloak and mask watched them. He did not take part in the prescribed dancing and other revelry. Obviously he was a conspirator but they passed on towards the exit, their king had said so.
Guards hardly noticed their passing, as they were too busy meditating upon their master’s wishes. Outside the travelers met the cold of night head on, exiting from the very arch they had snuck in through earlier that evening. Black and endless, flecked with stars and snowflakes, Winter greeted them with a sharp edge of wind.
Their devotion warmed them and for some hours they trudged through the building snow, following the contours of the various canyons and valleys leading down into the massive rut of Nysul. Some of their previous tracks remained, along with the heavy paw prints of the hunting beast. Then, at the same point as earlier that day, they passed some invisible threshold and regained their minds.
“Where did all this night come from?” asked a bewildered Fencer, shaking his head, which only made the fragments all that more jumbled. He could recall returning, the vague shape of Glor, a beast which was their hungry friend, and a lot of happy dancing.
“I believe it fell from the sky,” replied the Trumpeter, seeking light and finding a torch in his pockets.
It was but a candle against the raging cold. During the day temperatures were well below freezing, but at night the badlands plummeted into such a chill that Dhala was considered family by the starless sky. The Trumpeter would keep for a while, wrapped up in his woolen coat and scarf. The Fencer was more used to the cold, having been raised at the bottom of the world, but even his resistance would falter eventually. Madness and cause could only heat them for so long and fast choices needed to be made or else they would join the snows forever.
In one direction the greatest number of tracks came and went. The other lead down into the Nysul proper, the great rift cut through the red stones millennia ago by a now deceased river. Another route led off at an angle, into the rocks, dwindling out of sight. This was the path taken by the hunting beast which, in their damaged minds, was either a giant snake or a house cat.
“That is not the prints of any kind of cat I have met,” noted the Fencer.
“I thought it was a giant snake,” wondered the Trumpeter.
Though curiosity demanded they follow the feline path and logic noted that the way back to Glor’s estate provided known shelter, it was adventure which took them forward over virgin snows. Bzer wasn’t Glor, and repetition was insanity. They could only hope some means of warmth would greet them as they plunged downhill, into the unknown.
Usually the pair kept to a monologue as they walked. The Trumpeter was always glad to converse with the air while his companion while swordsman was more likely to brood silently. His mind often wandered the far horizon, expecting green and finding only pale wastes. Now they had a puzzle to put together and used the words to keep their minds off the awful chill.
“We are here in search of one of Clea’s artifacts,” began the Fencer as he trotted down a slope, kicking up soft, powdery snow already spooling into chald. It was too cold even for snow.
“Yes!’ realized the Trumpeter, who eagerly sought out her green journal from his coat while still moving. “No! The page is missing, torn out.”
“By Glor?” asked the Fencer.
“I cannot recall.”
“Who is that man anyhow?”
“I think he is an emperor, king or sultan of some kind,” rhapsodized the Trumpeter. “I get the impression that he is generally king-shaped, with all the proper king bits and maybe some muscle. Also, he likes blondes. My gods!”
The taboo swear was punctuated by the musician suddenly stopping his journey to gape. The Fencer would’ve left him, but the taller fellow held the torch.
“The things he made me do! Trumpet lessons. Sonic demolition. Alcohol consumption via instrument. The man has no shame or proper musical taste.”
In quiet the Fencer shared this pain as he too recalled the chores set for him by the tyrant. It was doubtful that this Bzer person was any better, but they had some hope since they were sent to kill the man.
Their breath diminished as the cold gained purchase on their souls. Noses, fingers, ears, these went red and burned. The trouble would be when they felt nothing at all, warm death would arrive soon after.
Through black night they traveled. The whole world was a cave, the ceiling darkness, the walls, red, ancient stone. They were in the canyon proper now, though the grand rut led even deeper. Silence except for their footsteps, and no scent but that of dead rock and the cold. Then the world opened up.
The rock walls they had come to rely on fell away to reveal a flat, stone sheet extending into darkness. Here the canyon opened up in an expanse. Dimly they could make out other ravines as well as a drop to the northwest.
“Now which way?” complained the Trumpeter.
“I cannot remember,” said the Fencer. With the breaking of the mental control so too broke the careful directions by which they had operated. A single path led them this far, but now they would die of choice.
The Trumpeter tossed up his instrument. It landed clanging, unscathed and unmarked. Following the narrow aperture he seemed to make for north east, a random direction as good as any other.
“Wait,” shivered the Fencer. “Deep down our minds remain our own. Buried within is the knowledge of where we need to go, if only we could bring it to the surface.”
“I’ve read of ways of doing so, emptying the mind and such. Sadly mine is full.”
Sighing, nothing left to lose, the Fencer closed his eyes and shut everything out. For his part the Trumpeter said and did nothing, counting the snowflakes. The torch crackled.
“Douse that,” said the Fencer.
“But,” began the musician but he was hushed. He thrust the torch into the sand and everything went dark.
Cold ruled the mind. Winter’s Riddle hounded this world, baying for attention, warning of frostbite and hypothermia while encouraging the most savage revenge on Glor. Flashes of tasks, raiding homes, wide-eyed people, abduction and enslavement, flitted up from broken memory. Distractions threatened.
Keeping his eyes closed the Fencer brought out his weapon while the Trumpeter watched fearfully. He took out the blade and set its flat to his forehead. Ancient cold pinged out across existence, snuffing worry, hope and fear.
Into the realm of dark hearts the Fencer stared. Those awful things he had done at the behest of Glor still existed, but he found that his heart lost its care. Impassively he sifted through thoughts like so much rubbish, until he caught a glimmer.
A rude hole opened on a high, slanted cliff, smoothed by moving people. Dancing flickers leaped from its mouth in candlelit flashes. Up the flat pane of red stone leading to this a trail of stars clung to their fire. Cold stars, full of pure gleam took him, the prism walls glaring up to fill the world with brilliant death. Then this sight, this feeling, was wrenched from his mind.
Dhala went scattering across the stones in front of him. Looking up he saw the Trumpeter had knocked the weapon from his grasp.
“You’d gone blue,” protested the musician.
“Hardly had a chance to feel through my own head,” grumbled the Fencer as he stowed his weapon. Still he had come back with some notion of their destination. Whether he had seen it before or had been told it remained unclear. He made to leave and the Trumpeter complained not at all.
The wonderful thing about the dark silence was that they felt nothing could sneak up on them. Every cracking of the ice, every breath, footstep and cough echoed clearly through the canyon. But what started off as clarity became an acute pressure.
Simple footsteps returned as thunder, and breathing came back like ghostly sighs. The sound of ice breaking, a constant on Winter’s surface, made eerie music, atonal, dissonant and stuttered. While quiet ruled the rebel noise sounded out that much larger and distorted.
“I forbid you to play,” whispered the Fencer to the Trumpeter, who nodded fearfully.
Moving close to the edge of the drop they saw miles of rock open up below, fading into dark. Skirting this edge they moved according the Fencer’s vision.
Before an hour was up the northern wall of the canyon emerged from the dark, looming over them as they travelled closer. A break in this monolith barrier revealed itself as a ravine leading upwards and in taking this they were greeted by the stars before long.
At the top of the steep flow of glacier-worn gravel the clouds still blanked the sky, but closer down pieces of white fire shimmered upon the dark. With the torch doused they discovered the night surprisingly lit, as if by some luminescence so diffuse that only their subconscious could pick it up. Following the path upwards they saw a shimmering path stretch to the heavens.
A flat, angled plane of red rock greeted them. Up this surface a scattering of large quartz crystals gleamed within the stone, some vein exposed by time and polished by the movement of many feet. Following this trail led to a rude cave mouth opened at an angle, leading into the depths of the red stone.
Unlike the dream-cave this one was cold and dark but the Fencer trudged up the unwelcoming incline all the same. While visually imposing the slope was deceptive and the clime easy. If it were day the sight from here would show much of Nysul spread out, including the bottomless pit cut through the earth below.
Entering, the smells of tightly-packed humanity mingled with the cold. The way led down, into darkness. From the opening a rounded tunnel wound around until coming to a larger room cut from the rock. Here carven fiends lingered on the walls. In contrast a guard snoozed happily by a guttering oil lamp.
He was the opposite of the peacock guard they witnessed in Glor’s chambers. Remnants of armor and livery clung to his wiry, underfed frame. A spear lay next to him, forgotten. Disheveled and unkempt, the man’s only joy was in sleep, and maybe in dreams. He shivered at the cold air the two travelers brought with them but didn’t awaken.
Finding a tunnel leading on they took it, slightly envious of the sleeping man. Yet they were saved. Compared to the frozen surface this rough-hewn dungeon’s warmth was a welcome embrace, no matter the trouble.
That twisty, turning passage lead to a series of the same, all tangled together as if each had been bored by a huge and curious worm. They picked their path at random and shortly discovered the reason for such curiosity.
Their tunnel leveled and at its end a room opened. Here was light, more lamps of oil revealing shabby humans slumbering. Yet the floor was cut glory, some kind of dark sapphire. What they had entered was an enormous geode, the inner crystals long since cut free, the remaining mineral surface polished into gem-like facets.
The Fencer set one boot into the room and a dozen eyes winked open. The natives awoke bleary.
“Who are you?” asked one woman, rubbing warmth her hands. She wore the remnants of a ball gown.
“We are on a noble errand,” explained the Trumpeter with a smile.
At this she transformed. Gone was the fatigue and chill. In its place was a sudden rising of all bodies in the room to sudden, violent rage.
They fled, the two travelers, too perplexed to combat these savages. Through shadowed passages they ran, taking every turn they could. The cavern complex swallowed them whole, like a beast with a single mouth, a dozen throats, and an endless stomach.
Along their flight they met more of the locals, who shrieked and joined in the fun. There was more than violence in their wide eyes. Fear gleamed, as well as desperation, rage and hunger.
By the time they reached the largest chamber yet a good twenty forms hurtled through the dark after them. Some carried knives and daggers, while most sought to make violence with their hands. The sound carried up through the whole labyrinth.
The great room was huge and half-filled to its center. This geode had also been robbed of its jewels, yet a floor of shimmering white marble stretched across its midsection. Any number of doors led from this grand dome, but as they tried each one the Trumpeter and the Fencer found themselves backing off from groups of emerging savages. Feet ringing off the polished stone they put their backs against each other and sought out the middle of the room where they prepared the means to achieve freedom, or death.
An old man moved excitedly about the crowd. He was perhaps a thousand years old by the look. Winter had a funny way of aging people, and this man seemed to have undergone the sort of troubles which might turn anyone to dust. He wore little except his beard, though as he tore at the savages they saw he had a sort of open kilt wrapped about his waist.
The whole press of bodies leaned on to kill, cold eyes and mad eyes meeting them. But, just as blood seemed assured, chance came to the Fencer. A wayward memory made him look down.
At his feet was a disk some three meters in diameter. On it swam a heady symbol. Designed of perfect language and etched to withstand eternity a seal was revealed in the floor of the room. Curious as this was it offered nothing but distraction.
“What do you come here for!?” shouted the bearded man.
“On behalf of King Glor we come bearing light hearts and have been told to bring back more of the same, at least from some creature known as Bzer the Ornate.” The Fencer elbowed the Trumpeter but his message was understood all the same.
“I’m so sorry,” retorted the bearded man as he was bounced and tossed around in the mad crowd, almost as if they didn’t notice him. “I am Bzer. Bzer the Ornate. And these are my subjects.”
So stunned were the two by this forlorn admission of responsibility that the opportunistic mob took their chance and charged, all bodies and hunger.