Thursday, December 6, 2012

V. The Mask of Night

Sitting atop the ridiculous high throne was the creature which had stalked the two outlanders from when they had first awoken from the Regalom’s grasp.  Now the old king had given way to the new and it sat upon its station attentive, divine and terrible.
            This was no snuma or hunting cat normal and native to icy Winter.  This was a mutant born from some lingering curse or thaumaturgical experiment.  It was long and sleek, having not fur but a membrane of dark purple liquid rippling over the course of its powerful muscles.  Its claws, when exposed, were nightmare scythes of black obsidian, fit to cut through steel.  Commanding all was its crowned head.  This temple of royal genius had the typical cat features: eyes of luminous yellow, a powerful jaw and broad snout, long ears perking up at ever sound heard.  But most terrible was its second head.  For a tongue the beast kept a long, green snake amongst its black fangs, and from this thing came words of intelligence and brutality.
            “My prey,” is said lovingly.
            The Fencer drew.  With no time to charge across the marble he threw his icy weapon at the beast.
            “Stop,” said the creature, but not to either man.  It spoke to the sword in the air and it did stop, hanging mere inches from the creature’s skull, held up by the power of the word. 
            The two strangers were dumbfounded while Hnah brightened with the play. 
            “A cat!” she exclaimed happily.  “I always wanted a grand beast.  Father would never allow it.  Said they were the worst of the underclasses, lazy and inconsistent.”
            “Quiet,” hushed the hunting beast.  Hnah found she could make no more noises. 
            The Fencer, keeping his own mind for the moment, decided against further action as he calculated a new strategy.  Already his hand itched for the return of his blade.
            “Why the change of succession,” asked the Trumpeter, genuinely curious.
            “The old king,” began the beast, glancing over at wounded Glor, “was inclined to think I could be used to his ends.  But my will triumphed according to the Play of Nysul.  A crown may be worn by a cat after all.”
            While they spoke the greater feline head looked around with careful eyes.  Suddenly it hissed and Dhala fell to the ground, the effect holding it undone.  The Fencer twitched but the beast shot him a glance which stopped any action on his part.
            “Where were we?”  It wasn’t really a question.
            “You were explaining how such a fantastical beast as yourself came into existence,” answered the Trumpeter.
            “Oh,” considered the monster.  “Like all good mysteries I don’t recall an ultimate source to my existence.   My earliest memories are full of cold, shadows, blood and hunger.  Then, all at once, I awoke.”
            “Awoke?” asked the musician.  Hnah mouthed the words too.
            “Yes.  I was in a cave, my head hazy with exhaustion as I drunk from a shimmering pool.  As I drank everything seemed to gain in clarity and in this clarity I realized myself.  Thoughts of honed reason emerged from my mind and notions bold and powerful arrived like sweet warmth.  It also gave me a taste for the exotic.”
            At this its tone took a predatory turn and the travelers began to feel the scrutiny of those yellow, hungry eyes.
            “It was your scent which brought me to this auspicious place,” it continued, stretching down from the chair and padding silently across the marble.  “Now you’ve returned to the maw of the beast, an act which our royal person much appreciates.”
            The Trumpeter punctuated his applause by rapping his instrument sharply.  A high, hollow sound rang out, catching the creature’s ears and attention.  At that very moment the Fencer pulled his dagger from his boot and brought the point to the thing’s eye.  Unfortunately the other head was watching.
            “Fall,” it demanded, and the man collapsed.  “What trouble you’ll be for me.  What joy, what excitement.”
            It stalked over to Hnah, who welcomed the attention of something as strange as what she pretended to be.
            “The daughter of Bzer,” muttered Glor, which caused the beast to glance up disapprovingly.
            “A princess,” it hissed.  “You’ll do to join me.  What talents do you have?”
            Hnah attempted to answer but could only mouth words from her emphatic mouth.
            “You may speak,” added the beast.
            “…violin, cello and harpsichord,” she explained breathlessly.  “I am versed in all kinds of stories, from the feats of Crow to the byzantine dramas of the Violet Realm.  I can stay silent in the face of humor and lie with a smile.”
            She smiled this endorsement and the creature did as well.  By far it wore the more terrifying of the two.
            “As the true ruler of all Nysul I have devised a cunning solution to all present difficulties,” it exclaimed and stalked back to the throne.  “You two will go where you found the Regalom and inter yourselves and your troublesome items there until it becomes convenient for me to visit your bones.  This glittering creature will become my pet and keep me company through the transition to my absolute rule.  I have a plan for this world.”
            “Who is my ruler?” sighed the girl eagerly.
            “Why, I am High Queen Hope.”  With this the recently crowned despot began to explain more but the two outlanders were already gone, out one of the many stairs leading form this seat of oft-changed power, taking their silver and ice with them.
            Under such a command their minds didn’t work properly.  Thoughtlessly they made their way down through the various blood-stained compartments and opulent halls towards an exit.  The crown compelled them out into the cold dark of the badlands.  From there they could descend into the very heart of Nysul.
            Yet before they left those hunted halls they were stalked once more.  A figure in a shadowed drape moved behind as silent as conspiracy.  When the moment was right, when the two reached the low tunnels carved through the rock below the splendid palace, then the shadow struck.
            Three powerful blades sought the Fencer’s back.  His uncanny senses sent him aside and he saw that it was a single creature with a lone sword which had struck so quickly it had seemed to be three.  It was a thing cloaked and hidden, with a face peeking out all hollow eyes and gaping mouth.  Small hooting sounds came from this aperture.
            Without a breath the swordsman had Dhala in his hands but in these close quarters it was too unwieldy to use well. 
            Going for the kill, the cloaked attacker’s longsword snaked towards the Fencer’s heart again and again.  With each forward lunge the swordsman gave way, pushing the Trumpeter with him until they arrived in a larger room, a crossroads of tunnels.  Stepping back to allow the man in the Fencer now had the room necessary to use his skills to the fullest.
            The cloaked figure lingered at the edge.  Those hollow eyes held some kind of intelligence because with a sudden turn it fled from a battle which could only end with its death.  If the two were in their right minds they might’ve given chase, but devotion to their Queen proved the greater motivator.  Once more they returned to their travels.
            Nothing else bothered them in Moor and outside they were greeted with declining sunset.  Already the cold had grown worse and without a blanket of clouds they had the prospect of a freezing night.  Such worries never entered their brains, so true were the Queen’s words.
            Their course would be long and exhausting.  The first leg of the journey was the same route they had taken to arrive at Bzer’s realm, but once they reached that great cold abyss they would turn downwards, into the gaping heart of Nysul.
            Shivering in moon-cast sheets of darkness they walked from shadow to pale radiance, and back.  Increasingly this light tinted the canyons false, as if made for some elaborate play.  The rocks were perfect in their reddishness, the gravel floor a river of soft black shade and muted snow. 
            An hour out they were attacked again.  A face leaned from one shadow into sight.  The two stopped, their thoughts difficult to piece together.  Had they seen this apparition perched on a high rock before?  A flight of arrows punctuated their confusion.
            One struck the Fencer and he fell unmoving.  Always the more lucky of the two the Trumpeter disappeared into the shadow of a low overhang.
            More creatures emerged from their hiding places amongst the rock while snipers above peeked out to look at their handiwork.  Each had a face slightly different than the others, some leering, some surprised, others grinning or ferocious.  Their features were ghastly, their mouths agape, and in their eyes there was only shadow.  They wore red shrouds to blend with the rocks of Nysul.
            Some waded through the shadows looking for the musician.  Others gathered around the Fencer’s body.  Just as they noticed a wisp of steam filter through his lips a piece of ice flicked out.  Leaping up the Fencer struck through the three closest, who fell to frozen pieces upon the gravel.
            He was unharmed, the arrows catching in his seal skins without doing much harm.  A bit of luck graced this man.  In return he graced through a few more with his cold razor.  They fought well with their longswords, but his was an enchanted blade which cut through steel and stone as easily as it sang through the air.
            At the same time a song broke through the deathly silent cold.  It struck as an explosion of noise, pulverizing the cliffs above and casting down the archers as they readied another salvo.  Amongst the dust and tumult the travelers lost track of their assailants.  When the wind finally blew clear they were left with nothing but the dead, in whom they had no interest.  Again they moved on without asking the proper questions.  Obedience was incurious.
            Even through the absolutism of the Regalom’s command they could feel the cold.  Winter wouldn’t be denied and soon they would shiver themselves to death.  The Trumpeter would be first, as he hadn’t nearly the resistance of the southern swordsman.  The Riddle seemed ready to assert its final freezing rule.
            Through the canyons they wound, silent as dead stone.  Cold drenched their minds.  If they could free themselves from the Regalom’s command there would still only be survival as their dictator.  The world was automatic and thoughtless.  Down their path led, into the dark center of things.
            Rounding a bend in the ravine they currently traveled a lone stood.  Like a spindle of night it waited, plastered with shadow, only the face clear and bright.  It wore a familiar expression and held out a black gloved hand to stop them.  This was the same creature which attacked them back in Moor.
            Their programming led them onwards into foul confrontation.  The thing in shadow quickly gave up reason and drew its hand back.  Again he was a pillar of night amongst pale moonlight.  Then a bit of steel shone.
            Quick as a whisper he unfurled.  The loosed cloak billowed into the Trumpeter while an elegant longsword dove its point towards the Fencer’s heart. 
            Only the swordsman’s other memories saved him.  Ringing metal sounded as the lunge was parried aside.  Now the duel began in earnest.  
            The Fencer swept his nightmare blade in a wide arc, forcing the assailant back.  The creature’s bulbous head never changed its look, yet its motions were full of energy, possessed of cunning.
            In dodging the swing the assassin dropped its defenses.  The Fencer lunged for the kill but had to snake aside at the last minute to avoid the sword which waited for him. 
            The creature’s blade struck in a blur of motion.  More nimble and elegant than the southern swordsman’s icicle edge it played the air in giddy feints, avoiding Dhala while seeking the heart.  The steel tongue seemed to lie in wait for each movement of the Fencer. 
            Now the foe went on the offense in a series of careful lunges.  With each one the Fencer tried to bring his weapon down on the offending blade but found only air.  The strange thing tried another trick, deliberately bouncing his sword off Dhala’s flat so the flex of the metal flicked back into his target’s chest.  A few lines of blood erupted through the seal skin tunic before he grew wary to this tactic.
            They faced each other now, whirling, each waiting for the other.  The assailant’s tricks seem to have run out, or he was simply saving the best for last.  The Trumpeter still fought with the cloak which covered him.
            If he wasn’t under the beast’s control the Fencer would’ve smiled then.  He charged, his blade high over his head, ready to be brought down in a mighty swing.  His opponent waited, sensing victory, and lunged at the perfect time.
            The Fencer’s blade fell, but stuttered.  Unnerved, the creature hesitated for a moment.  It flinched, and was lost. 
            Dhala struck like a shadow.  The creature was quick though, and leaped back at the last moment but lost his sword, which sheared apart with a clang. 
            The assailant fell back scrambling through the gravel, drenched in moonlight.  Steam billowed from its circular mouth.  The Fencer advanced, ready to bring his blade down point first into the thing.  His actions were indifferent.  They served only the crown.
            The Trumpeter freed himself from the cloak in time to see the end of the battle.  His fellow vassal of the great and noble mutant cat moved the last few meters to the thing on the ground.  Their battle had ranged all along the canyon, but now they were out further past the ambush, to a place which would’ve been familiar had they their own minds.
            The Fencer moved to finish but the blade never fell.  Cold and heaving he blinked and cursed.  The Trumpeter raced over and was similarly enchanted.  
            The man on the ground—now they saw it was a man—took off his mask to show a fine featured face given to hardship, like a priceless vase used to haul water.  He had a pale, narrow scar which raced along one cheek, over his nose, and across the other. 
            They now stood at the very place they had come to a few days ago, the first time they had shaken off the Regalom’s power. 
            “It’s the range you see,” said the man helpfully. “It only works so far.”
            “Who are you?” asked the Fencer.
            To which the Trumpeter added, “Are you man or devil?”
            “I’m Jaal of Night,” smiled the fellow with the easy grace of one used to it.  “And I can be as needed according to the mask I wear.”
            His words were no help out in the dark, where so much was unsure and hidden.  Behind strange crowns the powers played, and in their houses, ancient, some lost, were other powerful truths, held behind masks of symbol and acts of magic.

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