High Queen Hope played with her wealth whenever the royal mood took her. The chosen watched on as her hunting majesty took to her bones. This sound rattled through the halls, gilded, bloody spaces, and on down into the crude tunnels below where the remaining subjects made furtive expeditions for food and water. For now the cat was entertained.
Glor’s platinum scattered forgotten under this skeletal wealth, one made by the creature’s own industry. She sorted and stacked and considered the bones with the same intensity as men revere precious coin.
Considering these lesser treasures brought her to the greatest of them. Hnah sat in prim repose at the base of the throne, her metal inlayed flesh merging with its opulence. The cat stalked close with eyes fixated. Something made the girl shine better than any of the precious metals which she wore, and more satisfying than all the hunts and kills. The snake tongue licked out for a taste of the girl’s value, tickling her cheek and running down her arm.
Two guards loped in on all fours, galloping across the stained marble with news for their queen. Glor began to cry silently, tears gently rolling down his broad, powerful face.
“News,” said one, crouching at attention.
“Tell me,” demanded the snake as the beast continued to watch the girl.
“Attackers, out in the canyons,” said the other. “More shadow men. They fell upon your servants at their task. One joined them on their way to the great cleft.”
High Queen Hope didn’t respond. The improper world was the one she wouldn’t accept.
“This is how I am the more generous ruler,” she began. “I accept the word of my underlings and pay them in full. I can change if I want. I only have to say so. A hunt suits my immediate fancy.”
She gestured to the bones and the men fell upon them, gnawing on their hollow reward with desperate hunger.
The beast then turned on the girl and said, “climb atop my back.”
No need for compulsion, Hnah took to the beast with glee. Its semiliquid flesh rippled and pulsed under her. She could take up handfuls of the cat’s skin and it caused no hurt. This was lucky because she had to hold on tight as the creature bounded out of the throne room and down into her kingdom.
“What are we hunting?” asked Hnah as they hurtled through shadow and lamplight.
“Two things like entertainment,” replied the beast.
“The wanderers?” The girl was confused. “They are on a royal mission of your own design.”
“In my wisdom my mind has changed,” said the snake head, a little annoyed. “I mentioned this before. In any event they perturb me with their absence. Theirs is a sort which cannot appreciate the value of service. Educating them will be a lesson in doing what I want and not exactly what I say.”
Cold, empty halls greeted them. The living dared not show themselves to the monarch and the dead were already accounted for up in the throne room, guarded by her royal advisor Glor. At last they burst out into the badlands. Dawn had just come to Nysul glowing rose and cyan, little drifting clouds marking the northern sky.
“You are both very bad men,” explained the figure calling himself Jaal of Night.
He wore two qualities. One was fierce and deadly, the swordsman of many games. The other more cosmopolitan, and therefore less trustworthy. Like many city folk he strung words along with grace, but the outland swordsman felt this might just be another feint. It was difficult to determine where the duelist in the man ended and the orator began.
“I’ve been called worse,” nodded the Fencer. “I’ve done worse.”
He remembered now. Fragments of bloody raids and desperate searching. Before them opened the great cleft of Nysul, below them yawned the black gulfs hidden beneath the earth. Amongst the rocks characters loomed, savage nobles and metal-etched princesses. Their faces and bodies blurred and jumbled into troubled memories without order or sequence. But, for now, they were free of the Regalom's command.
“There is a delicate balance to Nysul,” explained the man as he took stock of his broken sword. “I’m not speaking of the play of royal powers or the leveling effect of the red demon’s visit. No, there is an older compact at work. Was, in any case.”
“The vaults,” realized the Trumpeter. He had been trying to piece together his mind again. Those events which occurred outside of the Regalom’s effect were still theirs, but under its heavy word history became a smear of images, thoughts and feelings. And this effect seemed to bleed into events of close proximity. Their time with Bzer the Opulent tantalized like a dream and the creature Hnah now merged with unrelated twins from their wandering past.
“Yes, our great birthright,” nodded the man, who waxed distant at the thought. “The Sealing was a work of peace. Our eldritch devices, those mighty expressions of royal havoc, were interred in places of hidden grandeur within each kingdom, yet still served a purpose. To have a vault was to be a noble, a symbol greater than any crown or palace.”
“In this way the play of Nysul was formalized and given boundaries. No longer would whole nations vanish into screaming mist or become hives of demons wearing the skins of men. Magic was still used, but it was nothing compared to the works of the past. Politics became more like a duel and less like total war.”
“Funny how that works,” mused the Trumpeter.
“This careful balance of power you have destroyed,” smirked the man as he meticulously cleaned each grain of sand from his cloak.
Undeterred, the musician followed his thoughts out loud.
“The magic of the past always seems so much greater. Were olden thaumaturgists that much more powerful? Or are we just seeing things through the distorted lens of time? I mean, it feels of truth, but why? Does magic itself feel nostalgia?”
Neither man had an answer and the Fencer didn’t bother to care.
“How have we unbalanced this already chaotic and desperate land?” he asked, considering his blade and the growing chill of Winter’s night.
“For one who holds onto his mind so tightly you certainly have let the Regalom pry your memories loose.” The man’s smile was insufferable. Obviously he deserved the scar he wore. “You broke into a vault. Not just any, the one below, the Great Vault.”
“What makes it so great?” argued the Trumpeter.
“It is the lowest and oldest amongst the badlands. Hidden behind its seal lie devices too potent for any icebound hand. Such things were to await eternity in the tomb of our last high king.”
Jaal smiled at this, his dark eyes gleaming even as his lids became narrow slits. It was a warm smile, one well-practiced.
“I don’t see how any of this leads you to attack us and then talk us to death,” said the Fencer.
“An astute observation,” began the man. “I represent a certain secret society which aims to resist the decayed nobles left to us by time and circumstance.”
“The Uplifting?” asked the Trumpeter, completely taken in by this man’s storytelling.
“No greater harm has been done to this land,” sighed Jaal. “We simply wish to throw off the shackles of the insane remnants of nobility and make a new way amongst the rocks.”
As they spoke he led them on. Neither man realized to where at first, it was the way Jaal had, like a gracious host. His mansion was the badlands, and this the grand tour of that estate.
Jaal introduced them to a hidden bolt-hole amongst the rocks. Crude, ancient stairs wound up to a carven room whose walls gleamed with petroglyphs. Stars cast their pale rays through a gap in the ceiling. They were near the top of a forlorn butte, another secret amongst the vaults and ruins of Nysul.
Wrestling a boulder aside their host revealed a cache of supplies. In short order they had a fire going, kindled from giraffe dung and a few gnarled logs, in its warmth they feasted on salted giraffe and klee berries. Jaal rearmed himself with another elegant long blade stolen from the surplus of royal armories. Neither traveler objected. Winter had once more failed to take the Fencer and the Trumpeter.
Perhaps it was some lingering effect the Regalom had on their brains, or maybe it was poison or plain exhaustion, but morning was the next reality the men knew.
Light cascaded down from the hole in the roof and the fire was nothing but embers. Neither man remembered falling asleep—no dreams marked such passage—but time was gone and with it the man of night.
Like true and reasonable souls they pillaged the cache for as much food and supplies as they could carry. Under protest the Trumpeter convinced his peer to take one of the red badland cloaks, along with the food, water, gin, flint and steel. A whole armory they left behind. Nysul had no end to fine weaponry but their own implements were more than adequate.
Feeling their way down the dark stair bright morning blinded them as they exited the cave. Warmth spread through their bones. It was into this same morning that High Queen Hope rode with Hnah, chasing after her fickle noble cause.
Snuma stalked the shadows, a common resource amongst the narrow ravines. As hunting cats they should’ve been nocturnal, but these were disinclined to act sensibly. No reason was left for the icebound as to why. It was simply the way of the badlands.
None remained who knew that in ancient days a great magic had been worked by a fickle empress. Felines amused her and yet refused to perform as she wished. The beasts seemed entirely unconcerned about her royal person and this, she believed with great passion, wouldn’t do at all.
Calling in her court magician she conspired to create a cat fit to her mood. A meticulous list of elements was composed and input towards a great spell. The resulting creatures were indeed active during the day, but this was only one of many fearsome aspects.
Those potent words she described to her magician all came true in the flesh, but the thing about words is that they don’t stand alone on the page, and neither are they isolated in the living matrix of a magic beast. Somewhere in the process the commands she gave resonated, creating a larger creature, ferocious and intelligent.
The empress was devoured by her personal felines, which went on to colonize the badlands. Winter’s cold kept their hunger and numbers in check. Still, they were a notorious hazard of Nysul, like the cold and politics.
One heir to this legacy waited in the gleaming dawn, its snowy fur catching the light and burning bright. It saw the Fencer and bristled, let out a snarl, then raced off.
“Ah, you scared it,” said a voice hidden in the rocks.
Jaal emerged, sheathing his sword as he let out a long sigh.
“That one will speak to the others. Now they’ll be following us in our task.”
“And what would that be?” asked the Fencer.
The Trumpeter was taken in by the appearance of another, inner cat. Such a beast rode through the dark jumble of his memories.
“Is the way of snow pumas,” shrugged their inconstant host. “Please, I know you have more questions but we have to make time this day. My allies tell me interested parties follow our movements. We can speak as we walk.”
The Fencer stood fast. He was inclined to disbelieve this man. No reason for this other than his own, which was cold and given to opposition.
"These allies would be more masked men?" asked the swordsman.
"We are the Children of Nysul," Jaal said grandly.
The Fencer and the Trumpeter were unmoved by intrigue, theirs were more existential goals.
“I can show you your sins,” added the host, sweeting the deal.
With cold eyes the Fencer hid his urge to slay this man. His teeth were too white, his smile too well made, even his scar was more ornament than injury. Yet the outland swordsman wore a calm and more public face, and with a more ready step, took them along their guide’s path, down into the grand cleft of Nysul.
They walked for a time amongst the pink light of early morning, gradually evolving into pale, cold yellow. A companion, one of those snow pumas, kept pace along the ridges and cliffs above. It was a marvelous beast, rippling with muscle, twice the size of a man, and nimble amongst the rocks.
“You see, you’ve brought up a device best left to the ages,” began Jaal as he led the way through ravine, slope, crag and drop. Layer after layer of red stone opened up to them, seemingly without end.
“The Regalom?” asked the Trumpeter, helpfully playing the foil.
“That is the trouble in question,” grinned the man. “Somehow you and your friend managed to gain entry to the Great Vault and there found the crown of perdition. Now it’s been tossed like a bone into the den of wolves we call nobles and we all might be torn to pieces.”
As they spoke another hunting cat joined the first, watching with narrow eyes, pacing the men step for step. For now they were curious. The Fencer stopped.
“What's the matter?” asked Jaal.
The Fencer took time to answer, never letting his eyes drop from his fellow predators.
“A funny thing for a man to be this cordial to those who just slew his own,” said the swordsman, finally turning to look at their guide. “I now remember our battle in the ravine, some of the blood at least.”
“Oh that,” frowned Jaal. “It is nothing much. Life here, perhaps everywhere on Winter, has little worth. We are bones waiting for our day in the sun. But us Children have a cause, and to die in the cause is better than thrashing about for survival or royal whim. I bear you no ill will, to answer the unstated question.”
The Trumpeter drank in this sentiment with relief but the Fencer was disinclined to move. The man seemed earnest and this seeming made the outland fighter wary.
“Do you want me to?” Jaal was all serious now. “I could succumb to tribal rage at my lost brothers and sisters. That is the Riddle, is it not? All ignorance and reaction, stupidity and sorrow.”
The Fencer softened somewhat.
“I had to be sure of your intent,” reasoned the swordsman.
“Just as I must be sure of yours, but actions speak louder than veiled words, and words will speak loudest when we reach the bottom of things.”
At this they traveled quiet for a time. The Trumpeter collected stones as souvenirs, particular ones, though the other men could find no sense to his assortment. Transfixed on this addled task of salvage Jaal and the Fencer kept eyes each on the other and their growing cat problem.
Gaining in number, the snow pumas grew to a whole hunting mass. A good half dozen followed close, never venturing within a stone’s throw. The men felt that if they wandered off alone they’d find the beasts more eager for company.
Yet the creatures never attacked. Powerful scents kept them at bay, a marker none of the mortals could smell. Heady reeks clung to the two strangers. It was the odor of a higher predator, something poisonous and enchanted. They knew not to compete and when the first notes of armored feet sounded ahead the great cats disappeared into the noontime light.
Jaal donned his mask while the noisemakers showed themselves, men and women of tailored steel. The first figure, a woman encased in plate and chain, noticed them before they could slip into the shadows and called out.
The Fencer and the Trumpeter paused. It was too bright for violence, though the swordsman could be encouraged to make an exception. Dhala waited to dance in his hands.
“That’s exactly as they wish,” said Jaal.
The moment her eyes touched the enchanted blade the warrior woman hissed and bared her weapon. Swords were drawn and arrows notched. A full dozen fighters faced the three with the ancient tools of despotism.
“More sorcery,” spat the swordswoman. What was left of the white enamel of her breastplate shone in the sun. “You’re those trained lackeys of Glor.”
“Hardly trained,” said the Fencer. “I have no master but reason.”
She had an eye for his blade and he knew that it would take more than words to disinterest these steel-wrapped highwaymen.
"Then I suppose you stole all those golden-haired beauties just out of whim?" The woman was herself fair haired.
Painful memory caught both travelers. Such a crime was theirs, but they inwardly protested. Words had compelled them to commit these barley remembered deeds.
“Tell us yours,” added the Trumpeter. “Tell us your own politics and maybe we can all be free out here with our words.”
“Duxess Ephwyn commands my blade,” said the fair officer but her mind was on the Fencer’s magic sword.
“And she would like to command mine?” A wry smile played across his face as he eased his stance. This was less a sign of peace and more one of contempt. “Do you know our third fellow here besides me?”
The question caught Jaal off guard. He had hoped to be invisible in this dispute. Despite the mask he seemed surprised.
“Just another faceless member of a revolutionary cult.” The woman remained interested in Dhala. These people hungered for magic.
“Was a good try Fencer.” The Trumpeter knew the outcome before them and was amused at the course of words leading there.
“You act like you don’t understand the trouble you’ve caused the kingdoms of Nysul.” The woman advanced, blade drawn.
“That’s because we don’t, though some have told us,” began the musician. “Glor wields a foul sorcery which has addled our brains.”
The soldiers let out a bitter chuckle.
“Easy enough for you to claim,” said the warrior woman. “He probably told you to say that too.”
The Fencer struck without warning, his icicle blade ringing cold through the air. Before the woman could blink her sword was sheared in half and she scrambled backwards to avoid his advance.
Soldiers raised their bows to answer but a gusty note quieted their arrows, snapping their strings and sending them tumbling back to the tune of metal. Jaal poised as serene as stone, never bothering to draw.
The captain hit the wall of the ravine and ducked away from death. Dhala carved the stones in search of her head, cutting through the rock as if it was paper. She drew her second blade, the one of honor, and faced the man.
Dodging another strike she lunged into the Fencer only to find the icy point of nightmare waiting for her. A last minute parry saved her heart, but added a thick notch to her sword in the process. Just a touch from her opponent’s vorpal weapon was enough.
Her men were recovered now and rushed in to lend blades to their captain's cause. The Fencer smiled at such attention and met their plain steel with his ancient glass. Parrying several at once their weapons froze and shattered, were struck from their grasp or carved into ribbons of metal.
Despite this the woman continued to struggle. Some force, some reason, kept her in the fight, one she couldn’t hope to win. Another strike and this time, after the parry, he drove his blade home.
It was just a little cut, not more than a few centimeters on her left cheek, a signature. The woman stopped her attack, overcome with sudden shivers. She fled and all as one, her band raced back to whatever ruin they came from.
Applause sounded through the canyon.
“Seeing it from this angle I have to say your swordsmanship is intimidating,” said Jaal.
“It’s not entirely mine,” replied the Fencer but didn’t elaborate. “You’re a fine warrior yourself, very fancy.”
“Was the way taught to me,” explained the masked man. “My training was for the stage, to play the noble there for the amusement of my royal betters. Then the Uplifting came. No more time for plays, so I learned how to apply drama to more practical ends and my blade has followed suit.”
As he told his story they followed the same trail as their attackers. Afternoon blazed for now, meaning the cold was sharp but fleeting. The only clouds were those caused by their breath and their only company the snow pumas which reconvened once the Duxess’s soldiers had gone.
Armored tracks led through stones layered like fine, cinnamon cakes, to a far canyon, one which reached up and away, to a portion of the badlands the travelers hadn’t been to, or so they thought. Jaal diverted them on and down. Layers of the earth gave way to reveal the great cleft. They took a narrow ravine, the walls tight and shadowing, casting them in chill dark.
Just when they thought there could be no end of the stony maze, and with the sky telling of impending night, they landed upon the lowest and most ancient bedrock of Nysul. Emptying out of their confined passage they walked out into a vast world, like some abandoned, lidless hell.
Huge walls of staccato red stone soared on either side, marking the course of an ancient river. It once flowed some hundreds of meters wide and by the marks on the rocks had risen to great heights back when the world was warm. A sea of polished stones now waited for the waters to return.
“There should be ice,” noted the Trumpeter. “Where has it gone?”
“Eaten,” explained Jaal. “The nobles had a taste for it.”
“That’s insanity,” said the Fencer. “Eating ice cools the blood and weakens the body. If you did that out on the Sound you’d die of the shudders.”
“Our kings and queens had heat to spare in the elder days,” shrugged the actor. “This way.”
Stones of variety and character marked the passage indicated. Huge faces carved by savage hands watched from the stone, others expressed designs and reliefs either on purpose or by accident of erosion and time. The mind couldn't determine the truth of this one way or the other. The walls leaned over the men, who were small in this place of monolith beauty.
One bend took them over a half hour to navigate, being large enough to inter a giant's elbow. Stars showed down from the skyward gap of stone, and along the cliffs the dark eye caves their slow transit.
At the far end of the curve the canyon open up even wider and there waited a space free from pebbles and gravel. Grey, impervious stone rose gradual as a reef. Though bare it felt like something, some structure or entity, should lie here. All they found was the vault.
It was a good ten meters in diameter, a circular disk of strange black metal. Set into its matter a design showed. This profusion of nodes and lines, arcs and rays, composed a symbol which tickled the minds of those looking upon it. Logic programmed this sequence of images in the unfathomable langue of the occult.
The Fencer felt he had seen something like this before. Perhaps it was in dream.
“The Great Vault,” nodded the Trumpeter, his mind ablaze with the symbol. He would stay here and try to puzzle it out until he died, if it weren’t for his more reasonable company.
“Somehow you managed to pry this open,” explained Jaal. “Beyond this seal the Regalom lay safe. But there is no sign of intrusion. The adamant remains undisturbed and inviolate. So, tell me, do your minds have any memory of how you managed this theft?”
“I wish I knew,” said the Trumpeter.
“No,” added the Fencer as he began to stalk to the caves.
“Where are you going?” The man took off his mask and followed, anger and concern on his face.
“Night soon,” said the swordsman. “We’d best find shelter.”
He pointed to the cliffs and their caves. The shadows welcomed cold and uncaring. Behind them the snuma had gathered, cutting off any kind of escape. Night would make them bold. Jaal felt his mask slipping, his house in disarray.
“We’ve a safe house not far from here, but I’ve brought you too far and lost too many allies just to spend another night with your less than pleasant company.”
He began to draw his blade but the Fencer stopped him with a glance.
“Perhaps you’d prefer to stay out here, in pieces?”
Jaal answered by sheathing his weapon and muttering.
The trio made for a nearby cave, one which was a difficult climb for the snow pumas but not too high. Passing by easier fare they worked up to a narrow slit of darkness bored out by some long forgotten creature.
Striking a torch they found their little niche to be a full passage, reaching further past their imaging. The meter-wide cave led on and down. Following its maze-like path took many minutes but eventually rewarded them with a larger cavern complex, including a spacious room glimmering with calcium columns wrought by ancient waters.
“Two beasts rested here in the past few weeks,” noted the Trumpeter, "and a third wandered through after a time."
Marks of a camp, complete with a fire, proved this true.
“No sign of fuel,” said their guide. “How can that be?”
He was right. The stones themselves had burned, but there was little in the way of ash to tell what had provided kindling.
“Come along,” said the Fencer. “I have a feeling that this path might show more.”
Jaal went on without protest. These men were stranger than the fictions he was used to, and far more complicated than the average Child of Nysul.
This underground had promise, somewhere below the level of the riverbed. Tunnels ancient, some natural, some cut by curious hands, opened up.
The Fencer led the way according to his hidden method. Such intuition paid off.
In another narrow tunnel new deconstruction opened darkly. Some force recently carved through the ancient and implacable rock, breaking into a pillared hall beyond. Flickering marble arabesques glimmered in their torchlight. One pass of their light revealed an ocean of gold and precious stones stretching beyond sight.
“This must be the Great Vault,” whispered Jaal with appreciable dramatic inflection. No understatement because beyond showed a realm out of a magician’s imagination, the very air humming with magic.
Above them danced the hunting beast, the queen of everything. Upon her back rode her best and only friend, a creature of legend in the form of a gold-etched girl. They came sniffing in the night, tasting travel on the heels of those they hunted. The noble wore her crown, and hungered after those who rebelled against her words simply by being alive.