As he slowly dissolved into the slime creature’s sweet smelling jelly Yenovin had time to consider how life led him to such an end. At first the creature’s touch had been the most painful frost, but gradually a cool anesthesia enveloped his body. A state perfect for calm reflection.Old days came back with a child’s tint. The light in the Badlands of Nysul was different then, thinner, the shade of memory, the sky a paler shade of blue. Only the rocks were the same red color and through the canyons of the stuff varied regal keeps popped out vivid and magical, full of feudal pomp and artistry.
Yenovin was born a vassal of Queen Ensere. At five he remembered a change taking place. Laslal, the court magician, vanished after the coming of the red demon. Without her thaumaturgist the monarch dwindled and when the looters grew bold enough they found a sack of bones upon her golden throne.
After the Uplifting life entered a play of predation and survival. Yenovin hunted the wild creatures of the badlands for food and scuffled with others over the remaining supplies pillaged from various royal storehouses. Most of the kingdoms lingered on as crumbling eggshells full of bitter humanity. Now they all led savage lives, raiding each other for resources, nobles no better than commoners.
It had always been that way, he realized under the conductive effects of the slime creature’s jelly. Just that before society wore a mask of jewels and knights and princesses. Now the raw brutality shone through in honest drab colors.
This was why the Children of Nysul formed. They gave a new life to the young man of barely twenty seasons, a way to fight against both the tyranny of the lingering regimes and claw back the treasures of the elder days.
A fire guided his heart to this tomb where the outsiders ventured. That same fire burned even as he slid into the cool matrix of the thing which caught him in the lower halls. Achievement and victory lingered in his brain. As his mind merged with the strange intelligence within the ooze he took with him the knowledge that the old seals could be broken and that magic would play free and vivid in the badlands once more.
The world had no end of blue. Even the clouds hinted at expanses far beyond the pale skies. Hnah led the way as if the other two weren’t there. The Fencer kept up but the Trumpeter lagged, taking in the red badlands by day, trying to piece together a mind broken by the hypnotic effects of a magic crown.
“Why the hurry?” asked the Fencer, who kept trying to meet the princess’s eyes.
“Oh!” She jumped nearly a foot in the air, surprised as if she had no clue who they were. “Do not sneak up on me like that.”
“Such hurry. Is there a race?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said tersely, annoyed that she had to pay attention to the world around her. “The sooner we are done then the sooner I can be back in Arandlia.”
“Where is that?” Strange names always gained the Trumpeter’s attention.
“It is a place which exists in my head,” she said with a wicked grin.
“I see,” said the musician slowly before changing the topic. “You’re like a jewel, you know, all those gems and metal bits. Like some women I once knew. Sisters really, to make it less confusing for you to understand me. There were two of them. One had the beauty horribly tortured into her by a madman after the image of the first, who was a kind of animate statue.”
Hnah stopped as if she had spotted some sort of trouble. The men looked all about for signs of ambush or beasts but found only cold light drifting through the barren rocks.
“That is most fantastic,” she said, a smile thawing her otherwise pinched and cold face. “I am a creature of fantasy too.”
“How is that?” asked the Trumpeter, much to the exasperation of his companion. The Fencer tromped ahead to scout, leaving the two mad birds to warble at each other.
“I have discovered that I am an Aranite. My golden lines and gemstone skin to prove it. It is from my kind that humanity sprung. We are magical things, but our powers are slow to emerge, springing up over centuries.”
The names she used seemed mystic enough and the Trumpeter’s wildly inclusive mind was eager to accept the strangest of notions. Though, at the edges of thought, he felt certain he had heard the words before. His mind wasn’t working properly.
“How is it that Arandlia exists within the lovely but relatively small confines of your skull?” Innocently he tested her, because the Fencer always called him a fool for believing. The Trumpeter was inclined to believe in the most unlikely truths.
“The mind contains vast spaces, land which exists in a different mode than this harsh and savage realm,” explained the princess. “As Winter cooled the Aranites translated their island continent into a shared dream, one which only they could enter. Some live there always, dreamers within a dream, while others venture outside, into cold wakefulness, and must find their way back. Doing so takes practice and concentration, which I have yet to master. My visits home are precious few.”
“I love this notion,” exclaimed the musician. “Yet, how did you get to be marooned on the rough side of dreams?”
“Don’t you see?” she grinned. “It’s obviously a mystery posed by some drama due to the circumstances of my birth. My father probably keeps a great secret from me or the red demon himself cursed me out of jealousy. So much lies within Arandlia it is difficult to pin down the exact excitement.”
The Trumpeter was happy to continue this line of madness but the Fencer intruded. He had found some tracks up ahead, the likes of which he had never seen before.
Following him they saw as well, hoof marks of some kind. Their span was quite large, some thirty centimeters across, forming a u-shape, the prongs ending in deep toe depressions. By the look a half dozen beasts had come this way.
“Carnivorous giraffes,” said Hnah with a tired sigh. “I was hoping for something new, something exciting.”
A new scent, strange and awful, clung to the ravines and canyons of Nysul. Though humanity was unable to smell such reek with their inferior noses there were those things which could. Even this alchemy on the air wasn’t enough to dissuade the predators in their hunt. In Winter’s harsh realm it was often necessary to put aside criticism and merely accept phenomena as they presented themselves, as entertainment or food or warning.
In elder times giraffes were grazers, adapted to nibble upon the choicest tree tops and hanging plants. But with the cold they changed and in the snow blood was more common than leaf. Flesh had a winnowing aspect. Where there were once great herds of the beast roaming the lost savannah there was now only the few which survived by chance along the grooves and canyons of Nysul. Now they hungered after the hunt, excitement coursing through their powerful limbs, their necks now suited to plucking off heads.
They knew the canyons well and various members split from the pack in order to cut off any chance of escape. Long tongues they lolled in the air hoping for blood.
The main group of beasts rounded the far corner of the ravine in which the travelers strode, wary, having already noticed the prints. Besides the far entrance and this one there was only a small offshoot canyon, a dead end. Three bipeds in curious garb; easy pickings.
Now the outlanders saw the beasts whose marks they had noted for some time now. The tallest of the giraffes stood almost six meters high, the vast majority of that being neck. Their fur was ruddy and long, with remnants of savannah patterns to remind them of an elder world. Atop the long, powerful neck was a narrow, tapering jaw full of vicious teeth. Heads braying with delight the beast savaged the air with the short horns which protruded from atop their skulls.
“Oh,” sighed Hnah as she notched a missile and with a bored expression sent a lazy arrow towards the oncoming hunters. It fell short, throwing up a plume of dust and dry snow.
“Pull as if your life depends on it,” spat the Fencer, “because it does.”
“She’ll just end up in her fairy world after death,” noted the Trumpeter as he raised his instrument to collapse the canyon down on the onrushing things.
“Don’t,” said the Fencer. “You’ll bring a red tomb down on us all.”
He was right. The stones were blasted by ice and wind, ready for a tumble. Against the beasts they had a chance, while there was no way to fight an avalanche; they had tried before.
“Don’t yell at me,” said the sullen girl of gems and gold as she readied another half-hearted arrow.
But this time she did pull harder and set her eyes to the fletching. Loosed, the missile found the broad chest of one creature. It faltered in blood but kept coming. Sight of the red, steaming fluid excited Hnah and by the time the band hit them one had fallen, full of arrows.
The Fencer split the first one’s head from snout to neck as it leaned into the kill. More thundered past, rearing up to strike at the Trumpeter with powerful forelimbs and force the giggling Hnah creature back as she tried to gain enough room for another shot.
Covered in frost the first attacker’s body fell to the stones as the swordsman spun to face another. This one had more cunning and whipped its head about in feints, looming over the little man who struck out again and again but met only air. Then a sudden charge caught the man’s arm with the giraffe’s horn and a long line of blood erupted.
Banging on his instrument the Trumpeter kept a pair at bay, the sounds ringing in their ears funny and strange. The girl slunk behind him, thinking of her fantasies and staring at the Fencer’s bloody arm. That swordsman felled his second attacker, cleaving its triumphant neck from its body, as he staggered back in pain.
There was no escape in that direction. Behind them another band of carnivorous giraffes kicked up dust as they charged. With no other course available the trio backed into the box canyon opening at their side.
Regrouping with their fellows the giraffes stalked slowly after their prey. With no escape available to the prey the hunters had all the time they wished. The swordsman would tire, the archer would run out of arrows and the man with silver would hurt his hand before long. They ran long tongues over jagged teeth in anticipation.
From desperate confinement the travelers wandered backwards into beauty. One moment they were surrounded by the uncaring red rocks of the badlands, the next these very surfaces opened up to them a whole new possibility.
Cunningly hidden, a vast carven structure loomed out from the rock. Set at an angle so that only those who happened this way saw its face the structure watched the canyon with finely etched baroque features, cold windows and darkened portals staring out from time.
Sensing some change in tone the giraffes started into a gallop, kicking up plums of dust and snow. With no other course available to them the travelers raced into the lowest opening, a great arch. Here was another palace of Nysul, cold and abandoned.
Into the darkness they stumbled as the crash of hooves echoed behind. This lower level was vast and open, an enclosed courtyard of fantastic dimensions barely shown in the gloom. Stairs and columns rose into the dark above. From here they saw no rooms, only areas which were once gardens, pools and lounges.
The sounds behind grew louder and the three noted their mistake. The portal they had taken was quite large, two stories tall at the least, and the beasts followed with ease into the ruin, eager to finish the hunt.
Far off in the dark a stairway glimmered. Two of them made for that strongpoint but across open ground they had no hope of outrunning the powerful quadrupeds. Perhaps sensing this idiocy the Trumpeter stayed behind to catch his breath.
“Why have we stopped?” complained Hnah who found running for her life great fun.
The Fencer hesitated as soon as he noted the lack of madman. Very little could be seen of the musician as he heaved in great lungfuls of air, but behind him the light from the door showed several carnivorous giraffes stalking in, eyes gleaming cold.
“Don’t you dare try to make a deal with those things!” the swordsman screamed, unbelieving that the man might be staying behind in order to buy them time.
Proving such sentiments wrong the Trumpeter raised his instrument towards the way they had come. This was clear, the sterling instrument gleaming bright even in this dark place.
Sound erupted and the ceiling applauded. Cold tons of extravagant masonry tumbled from above, starting with the arch they had come through, then ripping across the arches. The whole roof rippled and caved.
In clouds of dust they heard the hideous screams of the predators as they were crushed by the falling palace. The Fencer took Hnah’s hand so he wouldn’t lose track of her in the cloud. The girl stood gaping, her gemstone features already caked in dust.
The interior world of the forgotten palace became both brighter and less clear. With a portion of the roof gone light streamed in from outside, but the particles of destruction shrouded the scene like a fog. Here they wandered towards the light.
Above them came ominous sounds, a groaning, cracking, stone buckling noise. The palace cried out for an encore from the Trumpeter. At any moment the roof might collapse from the song.
“Shouldn’t we be making for the darkness?” she said, showing a vestige of self-preservation.
“Most reasonable, of a sort,” noted the Fencer as he plowed on. “But my demon is provoked and if this is the end of the Trumpeter I need to note his passing.”
“He surely died in all that rock,” she exclaimed. This was no reason not to search though, she was encouraged at the thought of blood.
Soon they stumbled across ruined stones and shattered beams. Glimpses of ancient grandeur peeked out from the rubble. Blood was there too. Half-buried hulks of giraffe flesh loomed out, the dead already entombed in spattered cairns. None of the creatures moved and this was some relief.
Cracked open, the palace took in the Winter wind and soon the fog of dust became dwindling curtains. Pure sun peeked through the clouds above, warming the cold ever so slightly.
Amongst the devastation they found no sign of the Trumpeter, not blood or scarf or instrument. About to give up they moved across a flat panel of fallen stone which survived mostly intact. As they walked a whimper came from one end. It was propped up by some other bit of debris and the Fencer marched across the surface to the growing worry of whatever lay beneath. At the edge he crouched down and leaned over to see.
“Oh good,” said a wavering voice. “You aren’t a giraffe.
Through some bit of insane luck the Trumpeter lived, untouched beneath the rock. No debris held this sheet up. Instead it was the musician’s instrument, which pushed back the massive tons without notice or complaint.
“A particularly troublesome spirit must be watching out for him,” noted Hnah. It was a blasphemy to invoke the superstitions from before the Uplifting but this royal seemed to relish breaking such taboo.
“Would it disturb you more to consider that he managed it all by himself?” asked the Fencer.
With the Trumpeter freed they rested atop the wreckage while the Fencer wrapped up his wounded arm. From time to time more of the upper works fell, punctuating their conversation.
“A forgotten palace,” mused the musician.
“Orlac Pale Dragon,” muttered Hnah automatically. She was elsewhere.
Curiosity aroused the Trumpeter scrambled over to the girl.
“I heard that,” he said.
“Oh.” She wheeled a guilty eye on the too-close outlander. “He was the last ruler here. This is, this was, the Faint Castle. There, you can see the inner works a bit now, all of white marble within. He was a small noble, but made himself larger through mystery. When Sol came to Nysul he simply vanished.”
“The Uplifting,” nodded the Fencer.
“The Boredom would be a more proper label,” sighed the girl. “These ravines used to be full of ambition, war and intrigue. Now it’s just a few pale shades scratching themselves in dark ruins, remembering elder days.”
Hnah drifted then and the two travelers thought they might lose her to that other world she spoke of. So the Trumpeter gave her a blast of Winter.
“Why did you have to do that?” she complained beautifully.
“I have some questions concerning Arandlia,” began the Fencer.
Shocked that the swordsman would take an interest in the girl’s mind the Trumpeter began to pace. Things were to go contentious very soon, and angry.
“I will explain.” She said this with the arrogance of a storyteller.
“An excellent start,” smiled the Fencer wryly. “How is it that another world exists outside of Winter when the Uplifting surely destroyed all our heavens and hells?”
“Sol had no power over the misty realm,” replied the girl confidently glittering.
The Fencer stared at her for a few heartbeats.
“You said before that Arandlia once existed on Winter, where?”
“I don’t think that’s very important,” smirked the girl.
“What does it matter where it’s from?”
Again the swordsman considered her response. He didn’t wear a kind manner, or play along with her whimsy.
“Fencer,” interjected the musician, “We are wasting daylight and I’m not crushed. No need to make trouble.”
Except the swordsman kept gnawing on problems presented, so he pressed Hnah again.
“I think you’re lying.”
“I’m fine with that,” she chirped.
At this the Fencer grew concerned. He stood up greatly offended, trying to fit the notion of happy unreliability into his icebound head. There was no profit to the girl’s imaginary world, as he saw it, only pointless escape and self-delusion.
“Fencer,” said the Trumpeter again, a man well acquainted with delusion, “shall we?”
An unsatisfied nod sent them on their way. Behind them the ruins still cascaded, the last noise of silent ambition. With afternoon burning away they moved quickly, hoping not to meet any more of the badland’s predatory fauna.
Hnah guiding them, occasionally talking about coming this way as a child for a grand ball, they quickly reached their destination. Moor was its name, the kingdom rock containing Glor and his remnants of ambition.
The travelers held only confused memories of their repeated visits to this place. Such was the nature of the Regalom, the crown which commands. There were hints of other worries, of something other than men which prowled those halls. The fact that there were no guards at the entrance should probably have been a warning.
“Obviously, with us at our task there would be no need for a pair of swords here,” said the Trumpeter with more hope than reason.
Saying nothing, sensing danger, the Fencer entered, blade drawn. Within the air was only slightly less cold.
A pair of bodies lay savaged in the guard room, smelling of frozen blood. They had been torn apart by some kind of beast. Strangely they wore balmy looks upon their faces and neither had a weapon drawn. It was as if they had simply allowed themselves to be slain.
Venturing into the further halls they accepted Hnah to guide them, for their memories were no help here, each door and passage being vaguely familiar.
She took them through the most ostentatious path, through the agora, along the royal causeway, towards the estate of stairs. Quiet ruled the passages, though on occasion a very human noise, distant and muttering, drifted towards them like a phantom. This ruin was haunted by the living.
More signs of violence claimed their attention. There was some sort of gathering in the great hall, then sudden panic. Individual tracks separated off from the group and these were pounced upon, kills punctuated with red. From the stains the victims were then dragged elsewhere.
“Look at this,” said the Trumpeter, gesturing to some marks in the lose sand which often covered the floors. “A large beast did this, some kind of hunting cat.”
Such a creature hunted their minds as they moved further into the palace. First they trudged through the lower warrens where survivors huddled behind barred doors, then to the marble of the royal works where blood trailed upwards to the lair of violence. Upon their first footstep they felt the presence of something listening to them.
Gone were the pompous guards and lingering nobility. A wafting smell of death greeted their every step.
“I do not like this place,” whimpered Hnah, who was instantly silenced by the Fencer. In response a laugh echoed from above, the seat of power here in Moor.
Knowing no good sense they ascended. The pleasure chambers had been transformed into a charnel house for those slain below, dragged here as if to a lair.
At last they found the throne room. Glor waited for them, glassy-eyed, missing a hand. On the throne sat the new ruler, a familiar creature, the hunting thing, and on its head sat a crown fit to obey.