Many were the enameled kingdoms rising form the icy wastes of Winter during the time of the magicians. Each witch and sorcerer was a wondrous facet cut from the frost of blood and hardship. Where these jewels planted themselves amongst humanity gaudy nobles sprung up like snow flowers, using the powers of magic to tip the Riddle in their favor. While they claimed control of their sorcerers they were in fact possessed by their possessions. Such was freedom’s glare that only a ruler could command such joy, carried aloft on the backs of their less rapacious icebound peers.Courts aplenty existed in the old days. Their kingdoms were only as large as their armies were loyal. Protecting each heart of gold was some castle, keep or desmense, filled to the brim with riches and swords. Here royalty played games in the shadows of the magicians.
Not all mages wielded power on the ultimate level. Rare were the immortal researchers driven to mad excess by their inhuman expressions of the Art. Those with middling skill or talent could carve out a place at the side of a throne, working as a strong arm for the sake of this queen or that empress. It was a game to them, one which provided a playing space and pawns to move according to their arcane whimsy. In this manner the brutality of the icebound was amplified through the lens of magic.
No place was more infested with royalty than the badlands of Nysul. In those red rocks a wealth of gems and ore had been mined up since before memory. So easy were the pickings that more guards were needed than miners. Various kingdoms erupted, drunk on wealth, girded by magic. They played at war and marriage amongst the crags and strata.
Now they were fallen. The Uplifting upended the feudal courts. Old halls which once rang with civilization now contained mere successor states, pale remnants awaiting a tyrant’s arm.
One of these estates had been home to a grim warlord obsessed with the more gritty aspects of an already harsh life. His dreams were tormented by demons and on the walls of his cavern abode artisans chiseled leering faces and sinuous nightmares, so that all could share in his vision. That these sendings were caused by a rival kingdom’s magician was never uncovered, and so his dreams watched on through the dynasties on the glowering stones he left as inheritance.
A wave of mad humanity swarmed the Fencer and the Trumpeter, echoing those mad demonic visages leering out from the amethyst walls of the geode chamber. Some action, some word spoken by the hapless travelers had provoked such a response from the savages. As this violent wave crashed a spinning top of a man called out to them.
“Denounce me!” he cried as the Fencer brandished his icicle blade. The attackers gave way before its chilling aura, but pressed closer in its wake, readying their resolve.
“Tell them I am no noble!” continued the old bearded fellow as the Trumpeter sent out a blast of his horn, blowing back a score but making the brittle roof groan alarmingly.
“Say you hate me! Curse me! Damn the name of Bzer the Opulent!”
“I don’t know who you are exactly, Bzer or otherwise, but if you don’t stop prancing about I’ll be more than glad to cut you down with the rest of these miserable wretches,” seethed the Fencer. This turned out to be the right thing to say.
“Hold!” declared one grimy miner wielding a shovel. “They’re not with his Opulence.”
Murmuring and unsure the crowd stopped its assault.
“That’s right,” said the old man. “My agents all carry the sign of the demon. Through such an idol I command their hearts and minds. These two are just filthy commoners and adventurers.”
The rowdies glared menacingly at their unwanted ruler but said not a word to him. It seemed they merely wished to divest Bzer of any loyal subjects, the man himself being merely wizened, bent and bad smelling.
“All I needed to do was threaten you?” asked the Fencer, confused by such politics.
“It is enough in most cases,” sniffed Bzer as he led the way from the crystalline sphere. Twisting halls beyond led into darkness where the ruler felt his way through the winding passages by hand. On occasion a guttering oil lamp glowered, marking intersections. The travelers became lost in short order, constantly looking back in fear that the mob might return.
“Why don’t they just rid themselves of your tyranny in the usual fashion?” The Trumpeter gestured with a cutting motion to his neck.
“Oh, well now, it could be that they want to,” mused Bzer. “I’m an unwanted mummy, the son of a despot, had a magician at my side for a while and everything. So, let’s say they leave me to the ice or use my skull for kickball or the like. Then there’s this big open gap at the top of the pile of smelly icebound, and everyone one of them knows it; and every one of them wants to be at the top too.”
The Fencer noticed their path had leveled out for some time as they traveled through darkness unbroken by lamps. He no longer felt any offshoots to the passage either, at least as far as his hands knew.
“Now, we live on the edge of things out here,” continued Bzer, his voice the only thing in the dark. “I don’t know how it is back in cushy Nock or, that other place. Goodness, I can’t remember the name of that city with all the magicians and alchemists and the like.”
“It’s called Ruin these days,” explained the Fencer with a frown only he knew.
“That’s right, I knew that,” huffed the old man. “I mean to say that life is harsh here and if they spent all their energy fighting over an empty crown then they’d be dead men and these halls would go cold. They just need someone to despise and that person is me. As long as it means my head stays on my neck I don’t mind.”
“You could always dole out ancient treasures or stores,” said the Trumpeter. “Alcohol never goes out of fashion. You’d rule again.”
“At that cost?” Bzer was offended. “I think them not worth it, not until they shape up a bit. I’ll have to get some hard respect from these people before I’ll be giving them handouts, thank you.”
Angry, he led them on through the cold dark. As the temperature dropped the two men knew that they were far out from the central cluster of twisting passages and the human warmth found there.
Then a square of pale light intruded, and another and another. Windows, open to the dead chill of night on either side, cut through the red rock and smoothed by the centuries. Outside the clouds had passed and a moon with attendant stars shone on, illuminating a vast swath of the badlands.
On one side the view fell down into the shadows of the great canyon, while on the other an array of buttes and plateaus showed the opposing incline. They walked through what appeared to be a naturally formed arch. A dry riverbed streaked some hundred meters below, while their path seemed to lead to a tower-like outcropping rutting from them main crag.
“What is this place?” asked the Trumpeter.
“Phelegome,” said the Bzer as he unlocked a door and in moving it aside revealed a warm and golden light. “My kingdom.”
Their feet hit polished amethyst, tiles of the stuff leading out into a room of many angles. The walls were affixed with squares of precious materials set in scattered patterns, giving the whole place an otherworldly feel. Huge windows set with stained glass formed most of the walls, while the pleasant light they had first seen proved to be from polished mirror lanterns suspended from the ceiling like chimes. A grand stair promised more such chambers in the floors above.
For all this grandeur the place seemed to function as a store room. Barrels of this and sacks of that, stores and wares and steel and seed. Here were the treasures of Phelegome, seemingly unguarded, protected, perhaps, by the same reasoning which kept Bzer in his place.
They walked in, steps sounding like music on the crystalline floor, when an arrow sang for the Fencer’s skull. Untold centuries of intuition and skill wound through his brain and moved his body in a flicker.
The missile hit the flat of Dhala’s blade, froze and shattered. In this same motion he went for the stairs. At the top a girl stood, high enough that they didn’t see her coming in. She glimmered in the light as she pulled back for another shot.
“Well done!” exclaimed Bzer, and for a brief second none knew to whom he spoke. The Fencer hesitated and the girl’s draw went slack.
“I didn’t even hit,” she said with disappointment through ruby lips. The Fencer was still unsure of the situation, through the girl’s stunning appearance may have had something to do with that.
She wasn’t so much beautiful as bizarre, with porcelain skin, too perfect blue eyes and charcoal hair done up in a series of elaborate braids ending in rings of jade. She wore a gauzy mass of pale blue folds over a form-fitting body piece of darker material. The arms were tightly wound to allow for her archery, the bow in her hand being a treasure of such technology. It was difficult to determine where her jewelry ended and her flesh began. Her body had been glued with gemstones and pierced by precious metals, giving the seeming of some fantastical creature and not a human being.
“I’m Hnah and would be princess if not for the misfortune of time,” she declared before her father could speak.
“This is my daughter,” was all he managed to add.
The cold of the place seemed to fit her and she moved down the steps and past the Fencer so she could command the center of the room. Looking close at the two travelers she judged them with ‘hrms’ and ‘hahs’ as if they weren’t actually there but were instead art objects for purchase.
“Why did you bring them here?” she said with a bored finality.
“We brought ourselves,” interjected the Fencer from where he still stood on the stairs. He hadn’t put his sword away yet. All felt colder under its glare.
“Oh they’re just some wanderers,” said the old man dismissively as he headed up the stairs.
“I suppose that is a demotion from assassin,” nodded the Trumpeter. At these words the old man’s ears perked up.
“Politics?!” he breathed out with barely contained excitement. “Were you sent to kill me?”
The daughter’s eyes gleamed along with the old man’s.
“We were,” explained the Trumpeter. “But now we’re better.”
“May I ask who sent you?” continued Bzer, steepling his filthy fingers.
“King Glor,” the musician stated, searching his mind for the proper name.
“You don’t seem too sure of that,” noted Bzer.
“My mind is as broken glass,” explained the Trumpeter. “All the pieces are there but too jumbled to really sort through well.”
“There is a sorcery at work,” stated the Fencer coldly. “My mind has been affected too.”
Here the old man took on a new form. His eyes, somewhat mad, always gleaming intelligent, grew hard and cold. It could be the mention of forbidden power, the kind which brought the Uplifting and so much calamity to Winter. Yet there were other mechanics at work behind those eyes, in that brain which had some vestige of the imperial and a lingering hope for power.
“It is the Regalom,” said Bzer. “Its power has an unfortunate effect on the brain.”
“That name does ring familiar,” realized the Fencer. “But what is this thing and what is its power?”
“It’s a crown,” said Hnah out of turn. “If you wear it your words must be obeyed.”
For a grim second Bzer seemed ready to assault his daughter. His back straightened, revealing a tall frame, gnarled, old, but knotted with muscle. Then he calmed, either reason or conspiracy prevailed.
“Yes,” he said sweetly, “that’s it. Though I don’t understand how he wears the thing now. It was sealed in his vault, like all our treasures, so we would not destroy ourselves at our games.”
“Vault?” questioned the Trumpeter, but already he and the Fencer felt a familiar heft to the word.
“Like that circle of stone in that great geode room,” realized the swordsman.
“Indeed, that is ours,” explained Bzer, referring to no one else but himself. “Each kingdom has such a vault. They act as tokens of nobility. Before the Sealing magic threatened to destroy us all. Wisdom led us down a different course.”
“I am cold here father,” said Hnah, bored with a story she already knew.
“Then let’s entertain our assassins in more opulent chambers,” and he led the way up the stairs, into what turned out to be an extension of the old palace of Phelegome, an old second home, now the seat of rule for the unwanted king.
These had been seasonal chambers, these halls set with precious stone and crystal, these rooms etched from the red rock, furnished by exotic cushions and couches. Every inch was set with artistic endeavor. The walls shone, lamplight reflecting off panels of obsidian, amethyst and alabaster, accented with gold and silver.
The outer palace, as it was called, was a vertically arranged affair carved from a pillar of Nysul stone. From the central, spiral stairway halls jutted off into the rock. There were eleven apartments in all. The lower three were the storage entrance, the servants floor, and the kitchen. From that cold cooking area the servants would have a long climb, some hundred steps, to reach the dining and lounging rooms, these sprawling to a main hall which also led back along the arch to the fortress proper. Above guest and sleeping chambers spiraled out, leading to the master bedroom at the top, a place the guests weren’t shown this day.
Obviously old Bzer and his daughter had the place to themselves. Bottled up where the commoners could find them when needed they each had a small kingdom to themselves.
In his dotage the tyrant had become a sort of bachelor, his areas being full of hoarded tools, rusted blades and food gone bad. He kept every little thing because it might bring him power.
His daughter’s apartments were pleasant, as befitted her station. There were books everywhere, gossamer and silk clothes, gems and precious materials such as she wore on her body. Hers was an isolated fairy tale, a place of dreams and no substance.
“Aren’t you afraid of your subjects coming in here, robbing you of these riches you just leave about?” asked the Fencer as he took in the full breadth of Bzer’s decadence.
“Some have tried,” hummed the old man. “I’ve caught a few, Hnah too, sent them over the balconies or filled them full of arrows. Not sure why they all don’t come this way and pry up all the treasure like they did to the main palace. Just something odd about the way commoners think. Maybe it’s the Riddle.”
To his credit the Fencer reigned in his excitement towards the subject. His whole being was devoted to discovering the Answer to Winter’s Riddle and usually he left no passion behind when the topic came up. Yet, in these old halls of the nobility, he felt a certain need for restraint.
They supped at a vast table cut from an ancient tree. There were no chairs as these had been used to barricade the upper entrance. Instead, they sat upon the dead wood and picked through tins of smoked trout, pickled radishes, wine-soaked klee berries and cheese the color of blood. Fine stuff though it made the travelers’ stomachs rumble, being too rich for their simple bellies.
“I appreciate this place and your hospitality, but I’ll grow agitated soon,” the Fencer stated when had his fill. “We have unfinished business with Glor, though we’ll have to gain the details from the man himself.”
“I quite understand,” nodded Bzer. “Hnah, go with them.”
The princess was startled by this command. Throughout the meal, which she picked at with long, gem-encrusted fingers, she seemed far off in her mind.
“Into the badlands?” she asked, making sure.
“Yes, you may be of some help if Glor does have the Regalom in his possession.”
Her face pinched with consideration, as if she was prying loose some truth to her father’s words.
“I suppose it will be a fine diversion,” she said with a sigh.
“How about the color green?” added the Trumpeter with such skill that it seemed that he was adding to the existing conversation rather than creating a whole new one out of thin air.
“I’m not sure I follow you but I do find viridian a calming tone,” explained Bzer.
“How about the name Clea?”
At this the Fencer glanced over at the musician, but said nothing.
“That witch!” exclaimed Bzer. “She came here, claiming big sorcery like from the old days. She said she could plumb the vaults without breaking their seals and some even believed her.”
“I was a little girl then,” noted Hnah distantly.
“What happened to this witch?” asked the Fencer.
“Her lies came and left,” spat Bzer, bitterly. “Clea had some magic with her, but I felt she was more words than power. I mean, if she was such a great magician why did she stay with Glor?”
This question itself slowed the old man’s rant. He didn’t let the quiet last long. They had preparations to make and rest to have. When it was finished, then they would be ready to return to Glor’s palace and regain the thoughts which had been lost to them, or some suitable repayment.
After some sleep on cold cushions and a breakfast of dried bread and giraffe meat, the two travelers were blindfolded. It was necessary they were told, and it would bypass much trouble back in Phelegome.
Down and down they were led, through a narrow stair. Centuries seemed to pass and then bright sun assaulted their eyes. Reeling from the sudden loosing of their blindfolds the two men staggered about in daylight. They stood some ways off from the red column of rock. Above them, far up, they could see the outer palace.
“Come along,” said Hnah, hefting her bow and leading the way. “I was about to get bored.”
She led them into the very stones they had passed by the night before. Eerie how it all seemed a different world during the day, even the path was changed, with the smoldering remnants of a camp fire along the way.