Dust scents, and old, dreamy fumes drifted up from the jeweled abyss. The dark opened up like so much memory before the men. Stronger smells then gusted through, provoking memory, and the two travelers feared that the Regalom broke their minds once more. Only this was real confusion brought on by unhappy remembrance. Not the truth of it, like vision returning to a blind man, but the raw enchantment of terror.
The Fencer fell back, some instinct pushing him away from the opening they themselves had cut through the rock, while the Trumpeter sagged at the threshold, half swooning against the frame.
Smell provokes the mind’s past more strongly than other stimuli, and what welled up now from those sealed depths was a gust of alkaline nostalgia. Sharp and basic, bizarre chemistry frolicked beyond the broken wall. Amorphous hints of what awaited flickered through their minds.
“What is the matter?” Jaal watched the two with confusion. To him the smell was simply strange, not deadly.
“Nightmares bottled for centuries lurked down there,” gasped the Fencer, taking in the relatively fresh air of the natural cavern.
“Wonders you mean,” said the shadow man.
“We’ve been here once before,” explained the Trumpeter, having repacked his jumbled memories.
“Industry,” replied the musician. “I searched the walls for the proper sound, my instrument being a hearing device as well as a religious experience. Upon finding the thinnest section it was easy enough for my brutish friend to carve us a way in with his atom-edged blade.”
“Completely avoiding the seal all together.” Jaal nodded appreciatively. “So, there is danger below?”
Fragments of strange spaces, old things, dead things, and things which had forgot they were dead haunted what little they could recall of delving into the past. That smell, that alkaline pang, brought forth the most fearsome thoughts, but as for truth all they had were memories drowned in pale blue.
“I'll need rest before taking a step inside,” said the Fencer, to Jaal's disappointment.
“Excuse me?” demanded the actor. “I stand on the threshold of my entire land’s birthright and you expect me to rest.”
“No,” sighed the Fencer. “I am going to rest, you can wander to your death for all I care.”
For once the Trumpeter agreed. Memory was a sobering experience.
Turning, their light glinted off strange skin lurking back down the narrow hall. Unstringing his blade at a leap the Fencer had his icicle at the thing before the other two were even fully aware of the girl in shadow.
When they caught up the Fencer held Dhala’s point against gold-lined flesh. Hnah regarded the upstart blade as a nuisance but did nothing to provoke its wielder.
“What are you doing here?” asked the Trumpeter while the Fencer relaxed his weapon.
“I escaped,” she said with a shudder.
“And came here?”
“After you.” In the gloom her skin seemed like moonlight run with burnished circuitry.
“Where is our latest mad queen?” asked Jaal.
Hnah didn’t answer immediately, as if she didn’t realize the question for a few heartbeats.
“Back with her crown,” she said softly, now noticing the rough cut door. The girl approached and ran her hands along the sharp edges of the frame, drinking in the strange spaces beyond. “What is this?”
“The tomb of the last high ruler of the badlands,” said Jaal soberly, watching this noble with suspicious eyes.
“Might be ours as well,” said the Fencer as he walked back to the old camp.
There was no kindling so the Trumpeter produced a vial of fire and with a careful hand set a drop upon a small pile of stones, which combusted and burned warm. A bit of magic from an old friend, he explained. With all set to rest in the large room where the two travelers made camp some weeks ago the actor told them of old Nysul and the Sealing.
In the glittering and many-fabled days of old a high king ruled the whole of the grand cleft, the badlands and the surrounding tundra. Nobles other and lesser ruled under him and so on into feudal obscurity. Nysul was his name, as was the ruling queen before him, their lineage stretching back to illiterate prehistory. Their responsibility was power absolute and in his time that monarch became giddy with alchemy and prone to consort with things not of this plane of existence.
Terrible powers framed that era of politics. Knives and assassins had no place in a world where a harp being played in a court kilometers away might flense an enemy into wet red mush. Every night swelled with conjured horror and there was no day, for all the true governing was held in the depths of the earth, in dark grottos cut by the design of sorcerers.
Through this process of drama an arsenal of magic was forged. Imagine a hundred artists competing at feverish creation. That notion approximates the weapon-hording of that era. You were nothing without a blade of legend or some other bauble to command the Lattice’s attention.
By nature magic is a superior instrument, providing capability beyond frail humanity. But when used in tandem or conflict a chorus of resonance is born, producing emergent effects exceeding even those enchanted imaginations which forged them.
Memory fails here. None know the truth of the calamity. It is said that the high king, grown paranoid by age and poisoned spells, was so bedecked in artifacts that he breathed magic and left demons in his wake. Raw spirits tumbled through his halls and the grand palace became a place of otherness.
With the land vomiting forth horrors the lesser nobles banded around the notion that each of them was superior to their current despot and made plans and fell upon Nysul’s palace. Legions of monsters and champions wielding foul weapons descended to the lowest channel of the grand cleft, all eager for glory.
There was no battle. A thousand contingencies reacted upon this breaking of the feudal contract, and those hit a thousand more. Spells themselves engaged in political chaos, each focused on a certain clause, ignorant of others, cascading from potential into a curtain of historical light.
Many kingdoms were ruined, others ceased to be, perhaps to have ever been. The king and his conspirators vanished along with the grand keep at the bottom of Nysul. There, where the oldest and most profitable mines once fed the mighty demesne, nothing remained above the surface, and the catacombs below were strange with years of magic and the sudden catastrophe. As the thaumaturgical cloud receded it left skeletons and artifacts, masterless implements awaiting enabling hands.
So the Sealing was framed. Sobered court magicians sought out the remaining devices of deadly wonder and divided them to each remaining kingdom as a sign of their nobility, kept locked in their vaults, never to be used. Yet the most terrible relics were not to be trusted. They were interred within the untamable wilds of Nysul's dungeon. Workers set traps for any would-be thieves and a legendary mage known as Crow etched the seals which remained to this day. There the vaults have slept with dreams of power.
By the telling’s end the Fencer had drifted off. As a creature of action he had little need to know the why of things. There was only that one big question, that Answer to the Riddle of Winter, a thing so large it perhaps took up all the inner space he had allotted for pondering.
The Trumpeter, on the other hand, couldn't sleep now. He was bothered by the story. It felt wrongly shaped. Not the facts, which he couldn't argue with, but the telling. It was well delivered and expertly metered. Jaal was an actor in need of a stage.
And that was the tickle which wouldn’t let his brain rest. So rarely were his adventures scripted in such a manner. It was all too proper. No, that's wasn't it. It was that the story was told instead of shown, the specifics drowned out by the general. This granted a false sense of enlightenment without preparing them for the particulars below.
There was one snippet, that magus Crow, he stood out from the words. He sounded famous, but in this world of isolation it was difficult to for even knowledge to travel the frozen wastes.
Looking about the musician realized he was alone in this worry. The others slept, even Jaal, who fell to dreams with the falling action, speaking, eyes closed, from the dark recesses of the mind.
Shrugging away his worries and covering his mind in a blanket of exhaustion the Trumpeter joined them. Curling up against the hard stone he cradled the trumpet and slipped into a place of high, painted cliffs. A place with no longer existed.
Much like the mushy pulp of brains from which they sprung the Trumpeter’s dreams were fluid and changing. One minute he was the sound from an extinct bird, the next a bodiless eye set above a land writhing with giant worms. It was as if his inner being was constantly trying to challenge itself, and always failed. Dreams bored the man, whose waking mind conjured far more tactile troubles.
At first he was home again, high up on the painted peaks of the Wondering Mountains. This was before they were evaporated by the Stranger’s silver spell. Then he was the slick wet of rain, as he imagined it, like a narrow waterfall spread across the land. And then a desert, dry, hot, strange, made of silver. Bubbles spread out at his feet and he knew this liquid, like a return home, the sort of thing from which fears are distilled. This soaks the sterling grains. Not water, some syrupy, blue gel like memory.
What was that? His inner voice asked the world beyond the dream. A subtle change, like a barely heard note, played through his many minds.
Waking quietly, as he had grown used to, the Trumpeter found no undead assassins or huge protozoa or jilted employers ready with knives or whatever. There was dark and there was quiet. It was something subtracted which perked his senses. Jaal's place around the camp was empty. No sounds in the faded glow of the nearly extinct fire, no footsteps, yet something menaced with the strength of plans undone.
Rousing himself he made sure not to awaken the Fencer. The man met such surprises with violence. So, placing one silent foot after the other, the Trumpeter made for the only exit which merited exploration.
In the dark he felt his way through the natural curves and bends to the flat cut corridor. Coarse stone rasped against his fingers until suddenly meeting open air.
Within the space beyond lay the gloaming tomb of Nysul. A pale radiance, almost like stars, glimmered inside, just barely brighter than darkness. As his eyes adjusted the Trumpeter could smell the lingering waft of pitch and once he could see, dimly, noticed fresh scratching upon the floor. Someone had been through recently with a torch.
Curious memory beaconed to the musician. Therein lay the mystery of their actions in the badlands, the magic-soaked truth of it, the missing page in Clea’s journal. The Trumpeter hesitated at the threshold, casting his mind within, while looking back guiltily in the direction of his sleeping compatriot.
The Fencer dreamed a garden. Sodden blossoms danced with each heavy drop of eternal summer rain and the monk-sculpted boughs of the idil trees swayed amongst the winds. Through these all a cunning path of lichen-touched brick wove arcane circuits of the soul. The two had been chasing each other for eternity.
Where the various paths, many paths he should remember, where these met a great circle formed, its purpose to provide a spiral vision of the inevitable center of things. Across this koan-like surface they would stare at each other, the hunter and the hunted, each swollen with emotions without number, blades forged from the mind.
The Fencer who was not the Fencer stared at his memory-self across the stones and found nothing there. The place of the dream was empty, a dark cut-out void where the other should be.
He awoke into aches and numb joints and the cloistered dark of a cave. Behind him the dream faded and he became himself, as much as he could remember.
Breathless dark surrounded. The kindled stones had burned to cinders. Cold and silent, he waited a few moments but the sense that others were around him, sleeping, never came. He began to feel about for the dead bodies but remembered the torches stolen from Jaal’s cache.
Flashing bright as he lit the brand all was cast in amber. Three empty spaces explained the silence. The girl, Hnah, was gone, as with the Trumpeter and that Jaal fellow. Taking up Dhala in his other hand the Fencer searched the underworld.
Jagged and dark the entrance to the great vault yawned expectantly. A notion brought him to this place right off, knowing the madness of his fellows and the Trumpeter’s in particular. Taking one last breath of sane air he stepped through the gap of stone.
The little tunnel exited a meter above a slanted gallery, one long sheet of pale blue marble sounding out as he dropped upon it. Along the wall in front of him ran a fresco depicting all manner of exotic flesh. Creatures and humanity cavorted upon lacquered metallic waves of crimson pleasure. This stretched in both directions, along the incline to his right and the descent on his left, on and out into the dark. The wall behind him held the viewers.
Eyes stared at him, at everything. That whole panel glared, hyperreal and unblinking, so finely made that they seemed alive, though huge and uncanny.
Hastening to get away the Fencer took the downward path and was rewarded with blood. The ramp came to a sort of landing where the whole passage veered at a tilt. A pool of fresh red blossomed and ran down the slanted stone into a groove, as if made for sacrifice. This trail led on into the Nysul's labyrinth.
Making to follow, blade held first, the air whirred. Dhala moved upon instinct and the weapon rang from a sudden attack. A meter long whip of goopy flesh recoiled off the ice. An appendage grew unnaturally from the wall, writhing to a bulbous tongue. This hid a dagger-sized lance of chitin and poison which blurred as it darted in for another strike.
This time the Fencer met it with his atom-edge and the thing split apart to reveal itself as living stone. While it thrashed about in pain, but not death, he fled along the bloody path.
The gore led to a dead end, where it disappeared behind a wall. Then shifting his look, he saw that his eyes lied. The stone behind was false, an illusion of a reset surface cunningly wrought to conceal another turn. The blood was the key, it just kept going.
Past this false angle he found many more. Gem-encrusted vaults and brazen chambers yawned strange and alien. No human hand wrought this place, it was born of magic. A sense of wrongness, of not being at home amongst his own skin, defined the great vault. Something watched.
The halls grew mad, the walls tapering up at odd angles to form a narrow ceiling. Before him the slight whimper of a human voice sounded almost comforting.
The noise brought him into a trapezoidal room. The slanted walls were garnished with all kinds of portraits, noble faces peering out from centuries with bland decorum. Ornate sarcophagi lay scattered across the floor. Next to one the girl Hnah cowered amongst her blood.
She put a pale finger to her mouth, shivering with quiet pain.
The Fencer began to speak but the word stretched from his mouth into a horrible being. Rushing noisy whispers echoed and fell upon the swordsman. Leaping aside the air screamed as an invisible attacker tore through the air where he just stood.
Without rest the unseen assailant continued on towards the Fencer. His icicle blade met the onrushing thing but it effortlessly flowed over the weapon.
Old instincts pulled the man aside but his shoulder opened up. His skins there disintegrated and his flesh became a bloody sponge. It felt like a burn, but there was no heat or chemical, just noise, a hideous tone.
Darting after it he fought for some body to slay, but found only air, and this grew louder. With each swing and lunge the attacking force was amplified, like currents stirred up with each powerful stroke of an oar. In short order the Fencer streamed blood from numerous strange wounds.
Then all at once he gave up. He stood still, holding even his breath. The attacker rushed in like an avalanche but faded to a whisper and then silence.
Slowly he began to move, and as he did the noisy beast whined back into existence. Carefully he made no sound other than the slight rustle of clothes and the spare rasp of boots on marble. The thing attacked again, billowing like a strong wind, but it had no more force than that. When he reached the doorway, it left him.
“If you are quiet it won’t bite you,” said the Fencer to Hnah.
His words blossomed monstrous within and he wasn’t sure if the girl heard him. But she did move now. One of her golden thighs showed a deep gouge and she limped in obvious pain. Biting her lip to keep hushed she slowly made to exit.
Halfway out she leaned upon her wounded leg in just the wrong way. Crashing to the floor she screamed out in pain. The noise, reflecting off the strange angles, fell upon her.
There was no time to go to her aid, and even then the Fencer knew his blade was useless against the thing. His memories had nothing to offer here. All the Stranger’s skill was helpless in the face of this monster, so the man acted off a guess.
His blade sunk into the marble with easy grace, it was the turning which was tricky. He had to curve the strike just so. Dhala made the ancient stone scream, joining cries of the wounded princess. Then the cut was complete and with a heavy bang a wedge of marble the size of a footstool fell.
All at once the noise stopped just as its sonic blades tore into Hnah’s gauzy drape. The room went quiet, without magic.
“The noise is gone now,” said the Fencer as he crouched next to the girl. “The room was a trap. It’s dead now, I killed it.”
Hnah understood better than he. The enchanted angles of the burial chamber took up whatever sound entered and refocused it into a lethal echo which rebound upon the cause. By altering the shape of the room, even in a small way, the place lost those special harmonics.
She looked at him fiercely despite her wound. It took a great deal of self-control to keep from crying out. Something else did for her.
In the depths a huge mouth yowled to the heavens. The walls shook, the air reverberated. All the mortals felt it in their bones. It was in response to the echo chamber going silent.
Then eyes flew in around the corner and the bleeding survivors felt they had gone mad. Set in bodies of liquid stone these monsters trilled through the air like hideous jellyfish.
Above them all the great cat waited and heard. High Queen Hope crouched in shadow, watching the cavern with unceasing interest. Her ears perked up with the cry and she wondered after her servant. Her curiosity resonated.