Thursday, January 31, 2013

X. A World of Gold

Old and buried, forgotten, dreamed of, lost and desired, treasures taunted the eyes of visionaries, the rare few peeking out over the lost civilizations of Winter in search of something more.  In elder days, not long gone, there were creatures of power, magicians and entities greedy and creative.  Lost now, uplifted to whatever cycle old Sol had set turning through the sky, and in their absence the promise of what they left behind glittered.
            The often lost Trumpeter sloshed through a warm pool of crystalline water, golden leaves bobbing in his wake, a few catching on his coarse woolen coat.  This strange bathhouse meandered through an artificial grotto whose walls were all gold scales and whose floor and basin were of one continuous piece of ivory.  Either magic was the cause or he trudged across a carved tusk so large that its mere implication made the lone man hunch over for fear of what loomed above his imagination.  Despite all fear he travelled on, alone, because he had found the way down.
            At that first hall, where the hideous sanguine fresco stretched at a slant, up and down, he had chosen to ascend.  This place had its own madness and he could read his own kind. 
            Not long after a maze of stairs presented itself and there he had found the marks.  Along the walls or set on the floor chalky scratches showed sign of where the two men had come before.  Perhaps it was some old inkling left unmolested by the Regalom which tipped his mind in this direction, following messages from the forgotten past.    
            Initially he had left in search of Jaal but it was curiosity which carried him down the polished stairs and through echoing chambers set with ghostly jewels.  A treasure of treasures beaconed from the depths.
            He rose up out of the water, leaving the pristine bath fouled by the red dust of Nysul.  Through an ovoid portal he entered a dune sea of gold coins.  Here the jagged obsidian walls glinted in the torchlight. 
            Annoyed by the endless treasures he set out at a run, kicking up riches, his clothes sopping.  Kingdoms could be bought and sold for what rested here, but the musician felt his prize to be more nebulous, too sublime for gold, rarer than diamond. 
            After a few more displays of its wealth the underground calmed its opulence and opened up more interesting quarters.  Jutting off from the halls were bare rooms with fake windows, useless like the eyes of blind cave fish. 
            That was one thing the Trumpeter had discovered about the grand vault: it wasn’t natural.  That wasn’t to say that monsters and strange magics abounded, though they did, it was instead the realization that the very structure of the labyrinth was unreal. 
            No human mind or intelligence designed this place.  It was sculpted by the phenomenal pen of drastic, unearthly trauma.  If Jaal’s story was true, and the old High King went to his peace through the sudden loosing of terrible magics, then what set the halls and designed the rooms was nothing less than linger shockwaves of a mad and polychromatic sorcery. 
            The hall he walked turned into a dead end, a fused plug of petrified bodies clogging further transit.  At the base a half concealed chalk scratch showed.  Perhaps, he wondered, the place continued to change.
            Tracing his path back was proof enough.  The cavernous golden bath was now a small fountain room, coins choking the recycled waters.  No exit remained.
            At least there was no lack of choices.  More rooms and halls lay in almost every direction.  Ramps down, stairs up, the corners choked with diamonds, the lintels thick with gold dust. 
            Picking a new path he took out a chalk stone and marked his way, if not for his use then for the dungeon’s amusement.  Besides, he was happy to realize that all that ivory was merely the result of a fickle magic than proof of a titanic beast.
            So his paths went for hours, often stopping, requiring backtracking and choice.  He found a series of true windows opening into darkness and saw a huge space beyond.  In there he thought of stars but knew the flickers to be blue lamp light, combustion provided by some strange oil or energy, illuminating structures in the abyss like a lost city which never was.
            Crashing with excitement through a set of double doors a silent court gasped open.  Ringed with stone seats, a central structure took the place of a stage for this hemispherical chamber. 
            By the jagged angles of the ceiling and the ascending court of audience benches, this was some kind of music hall.  But instead of a stage the central point blossomed up with geometric abstractions, like the shrine to an alien god. 
            Courted by opal statues, wreathed in brass polished fine, the center of the shrine held a large, diamond shaped opening.  This chute went down into the dark and from it a slight movement of wind whispered at regular intervals.
            Looking back up to the far wall the Trumpeter spied huge circular orifices set there, like ears ready to catch whatever music this contraption allowed.  He was about to venture down the shaft when it spoke.
            What came out was a voice beyond words.  The noise was so tremendous that it sent the musician reeling, half-deafened. 
            The air listened and twisted, the huge words speaking reality.  He had heard this voice before.  In fact, its howl had brought him this way.
            Out of nothing came a shimmering notion and the Trumpeter watched eagerly for what could be joy but was almost certainly terror.

The struggle came to life before their eyes.  Where the liquid blue ran the statues animated, clanging down from the wall in search of the living.  Golden beast and golden soldier joined together in this cause, their metal joints screaming with each impossible movement.
            Without a thought the Fencer smacked the first knight’s spear away and carved its head from its shoulders.  Still more came, animating fluid drooling from their bassinet helms and pocked eyes.  Even as the swordsman struck one down the stuff within leaked into another, joining the fray.
            They ran then.  Jaal was first, being the most sensible, with the Fencer next.  Only when the swordsman turned to flee the lost battle did Hnah notice their plight, her mind half-lost in another world.
            Racing against the fluid the walls came alive at their passing.  A chorus of gold followed without words, all seeking the death of those who would trespass in Nysul’s domain. 
            Crashing back into the throne room Jaal was the first to the exit but reeled at the threshold.  Beyond swarmed jellied horrors watching with many eyes.  A mass of tendrils reached gibbering before the man threw the door shut on them.
            “How did the throne become righted?” asked Hnah but the men didn’t hear her or notice that the chair stood upon its dais once more.  Theirs was the horror of the trapped.
            “Might we slip by that horde?” considered Jaal.
            “That army more like,” fumed the Fencer.  “And no.”
            “Helpful,” smirked the actor with his long mouth.
            “I’m not the one who slunk off in the dark,” spat the Fencer, growing increasingly angry.
            “I told you my reasons,” replied Jaal, meeting the man’s anger.
            A strange liquid clang called them back from the edge of violence.  The sound had the quality of steel dropped into a shallow basin of water, tiny, eloquent in the way it told of their coming doom.
            “Only one way then,” said the Fencer, who went to the huge sealed portal behind the throne. 
            As he thought, the enormous bulkhead was locked by a huge and potent mechanism.  Sprawled across its surface a huge ice lion commanded the door.  Its paws played with the lock, which showed an annoying array of circular rings punched with various nonsensical characters.
            Rage sparked as he drove Dhala up to the hilt in the metal.  The iron screamed with cold and the lion surface trembled but the whole thing held.  It was far thicker than the meter or so of blade and there was no time to hack the thing to pieces.
            “Careful,” said the girl on the throne.  “You may damage its workings.”
            “Only doors which open work,” replied the Fencer as he freed his weapon.
            From the hall came the close sounds of metal-shod feet and the clicking whir of golden serpents.  The burnished army rounded the corner, the figures on the walls joining the ranks of the unstoppable horde.
            They were trapped.  On one side a mass of staring horrors waited, from another a marched an invincible army, while the last was sealed, like so much hope and wonder and horror and nightmare in the cloistered badlands of Nysul.  No wonder no caravans traded with this place.  It was a maze with only death as the solution.
            Laughing at the black end the Fencer raced to meet the golden warriors at the threshold.  There was nothing left to do but play the full extent of his memories.  Besides, reasoned his tempest heart, he might just destroy every last one of the automatons.
            The first rank shredded at the touch of his weapon.  Coils and streamers of metal flew about.  More crushed in after, swordsman and spearmen, flail-users and axe-men, all reaching, swinging, lunging after the living man.
            The Fencer used their numbers against them, tangling each other with their chains and poles, twisting their weapons together with a parry and then cleaving half a score with one easy swing of the blade.  Chiming with golden cries the air took on a strange smell.
            That odd reek which greeted their passage down was now realized by all the living present.  Alkaline and sharp, it was like holding a copper coin in the mouth, only here one couldn’t spit it out.
            “Was the fifth family the Darkuja or the Blessennel?” asked Hnah, whose loud voice managed to find the swordsman through the conflict.  If there was an answer he didn’t hear it.
            Joyously he waded into the golden horde and made a wreck of such treasure.  Through heart-seeking blades and the crush of armor he wove like a stream between rocks.  Where he passed the automatons fell apart into the wreckage of some ancient battlefield, the result of their long years of frozen war.  Yet the Fencer was imperfect, he only half-remembered, and through sheer numbers he began to feel the prick and sting of the inevitable.
            Eight spears sought his heart and though he parted seven around him the eighth grazed against his thigh.  Eager to gain advantage more of the armored things charged but found only ruin at Dhala’s edge.
            Amongst the play of dead metal and his own blood the Fencer retreated and ventured a glance behind him.  Jaal and Hnah toiled at the door, at the puzzle mechanism of rings at the right edge of the giant disk. 
            Just in time he turned back to the golden horde.  A flail whipped around his sword and cut itself to pieces.  Annoyed, the Fencer impaled the offending knight’s head.  Another empty shell hit the floor showering blue ice.
            He was by the throne now, strangely righted despite the earlier battle.  Leaping upon its seat he laughed while carving through attacker after attacker.  When the moment was right and he was surrounded he stepped upon the backing and the whole thing fell.
            The crunch of gold was satisfying as the mighty chair fell upon the surrounding things.  Hnah protested as some of the warriors now threatened them with attention, but the Fencer had ears only for joy at his own death.  In a way it would absolve him of his demon and the endless quest for the Answer to the Riddle of Winter.  It was, after all, his treasure, one which possessed him as much as any other.
            Then the side door melted and from its glowing remnants a strange horde of grasping, looking appendages entered without proper deference to the man on the throne.  Eyes swam along the limbs and where they looked the air rippled with rays of pink, violet and scarlet.
            The Fencer couldn’t help but watch with a smile.  This world was insane, not just this place.  Winter’s cold was a protection, a barrier separating the icebound surface from hells driven by such engines as these sprawling things before him.  All their looking and prodding was meaningless lead to just one fate: death. 
            He had been fighting automatically and with realization stopped.  In that moment of silence, of giving up, a voice arrived.
            “It’s open!” shouted a man with a throat trained for the stage.
            Looking out from his tangled warfare the Fencer saw this to be true.  On silent hinges the huge vault lay open.  Not completely, the two meter-thick door showing a tiny waning sliver of space.  Jaal was quickly and industriously shutting it.
            The Fencer leaped from the toppled throne and a flurry of blades and bludgeons tore at his feet, which landed bloody and heavy on the mural-set floor.  Stumbling after he just barely managed to fall to safety as the metal lid swung shut with a deep and resonant clang.
            From his place on the cold floor, part of some trapezoidal room heaped with treasure, the Fencer saw Hnah sprawled not far from him.  She shook her head as if in a daze.
            “Oh her,” said Jaal, following the swordsman’s gaze.  “She wouldn’t let me shut the door.  I thought you wouldn’t be coming, being too enamored of your new friends.”
            “I was partially busy and partially dead,” sniffed the Fencer.  “You threw her clear and were leaving me behind.”
            “Better only one die than all,” reasoned the actor.  “I did call for you.”
            Cold and hot at the same time the Fencer’s anger built as he sat up.
            “It’s your fault we are here in such chaos as it is.”
            “I told you my reasons.”  Jaal made a stern and narrow face, lifting his chin defiantly.
            “Lies,” judged the Fencer.  “There’s something more personal at stake here.”
            It was infuriating to speak with the man.  From the Fencer’s simple, barbaric standpoint this fellow was a consummate liar.  From birth he had been trained to not be himself, to wear masks, to play games of words.  All things the southern swordsman loathed.
            “True!” Jaal answered and then let out a hurry of emotions, his mask breaking a bit.  “Also false.  There is much at stake here, everything really.  What we find in these depths might change the course of the badlands, remake them anew, but I am here to find Denovin.”
            “A fellow Child of Nysul,” said the actor speaking of his ill-described conspiracy of mask-wearers and assassins.  “He vanished amongst the caves after your descent, never to return.  I believe he found something key and prime amongst the moving elements of our land.  To find him is to find everything.”
            The Fencer continued his silence, now out of worry.  With his mind and past jumbled he feared his own actions.  He had little patience for men of politics and conspiracy.  Perhaps he had found this Denovin when in the great seal last, perhaps he was the cause of the man’s absence.
            Instead of dwelling on this he took an accounting of their new room.  It was a treasure place, with heaps of gold, platinum, gemstones cut as coins, coins cut from petrified nobles, and jewelry so copious that no other garment would be need if one were to be decked fully in such glitter.  Fat arches sustaining the ceiling and led on into a darkness which contained moving lights.  These turned out to be luminous scarabs which toddled about, sorting treasure into piles according to some instinctual aesthetic.
            “You’re hurt!” 
            Hnah found her senses with an exclamation.  It was all he could do to let her see to his lacerations and gouges.  Such was her concern that she didn’t seem to notice that her own deep leg wound was bleeding again and when the Fencer looked into her porcelain face it was almost panic that he saw, not concern. 
            Now the depths were furnished by uncaring riches.  Either of his new companions were after something else, some other treasure in these vaults.  The darkness was all endless mystery and compounded danger.  Lost hours weighed upon the man and he thought he might rest for the dangers to come.
            Something spoke, that voice from the depths, all tremor and reverberation.  Whatever words it spoke, if it did, were lost on ears as small as theirs.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

IX. They Dream Up From Nothing

Confinement corrupts all things, magic no better than a meager prisoner when locked away.  In the mad dungeon of Nysul, at the very heart of a land ruled by arcane status, the old artifacts and wards bled alone for centuries.  There the stones sweated forgotten spells and the air was humid with dweomers. 
            It was magic which truly ruled, wearing a sequence of women and men on thrones, their gilded faces crowned by power.  And the magicians thought they controlled those foolish icebound who dreamed of power, but it was power itself which ran the fear moving all creatures along the bend of time.  Left alone, with no human mask, the old magic had gone strange and hungry in the vaults.
            The first of the membranous things rose above the Fencer.  It stood some five meters tall, the same across, a square of quivering red plastic.  Stretched taught it enveloped the swordsman.
            A black icicle ripped through its body, strange blood freezing along the sword’s edge.  Mouthless, it shrieked trembling and fell away, leaving the man to sway on his feet.
            Its touch absorbed something from the Fencer.  Not blood or water or the other mechanical essences of life, but draining something nebulous and divine, leaving weakness at its passing.
            More fluttered close, a collection of larger sheets undulated across the floor like laundry caught in a wind and smaller tufts flitted through the air, gauzy and colorful.  They descended upon the icebound man in a terrible pattern.
            A glint of sunlight pierced an onrushing monster, which caught alight and burned gold screaming.  Hnah gasped at such beauty and nocked another stolen arrow to her ill-gotten bow.
            More things loomed over the Fencer as he shook cloudy weakness from his mind.  His demon was lacking and doused, but cold was also his strength.  So with a cool mind he brought his nightmare blade up to pierce this living veil.
            He punctured another of the larger sheets and tore it apart in a frenzy.  But as he slew this one thing a dozen smaller flyers fell upon him, spackling like wet paper.  They sought out bare skin and upon finding it trembled as they drank in the wellspring of his being.
            Staggering under this metaphysical assault he ran Dhala’s edge along his afflicted side.  All it took was a light touch and the creatures fell in half and pieces, screaming, going white and brittle. 
            Out of the corner of his eye glimpsed little rays of light bloom through the enchanted darkness.  This was no throne room, it was a place to hide and count coin.  Visions of miserly Glor welled up from memory as well as older thoughts hunting his soul.  Each notion of ancient days given life as a strip of color, eager for strength.  They smelled musty and forgotten.
            Taking their chance the larger membranes rippled over the man while the smaller turned their interests upon the archer.  Many eyes dilated to focus on the Fencer.
            Moving back he cut the first sheet creature in half but another fluttered behind.  It enveloped him while his blade was still extended and twisted tight around. 
            Fear and suffocation.  Looking through the creature’s membranous body was like staring at the sun through shut eyes.  A fibrous realm of feathered veins and capillaries spread like the map of a hideous pink land.  He could see fluid coursing, translucent muscles flexing tighter and tighter, the workings of impossible life.
            The spirit escaped him in gulps.  While the vampire curtain pulled tighter and tighter the only part of the man outside its grasp were his hands and the sword they held.  Twisting as best he could against such inhuman strength he turned the black weapon upon himself.
            Jealously the creature clung to his form even as its many anterior eyes watched the deadly sword cut through the stone floor, then touch upon the lowest edge of the curtain.  The creature moaned and shuddered but held on, microscopic mouths drinking desperately.
            Up came the slow blade.  A common sword wouldn’t have the force to cut at such an awkward angle but Dhala’s atom edge parted the gauzy creature like a whisper through silence.  As it did the thing puckered and spasmed, wrenching the man trapped inside.  His shoulders felt alternatively crushed and torn apart and the folds around his neck threatened to twist his head clean off his body.
            Soon the cold came.  The Fencer felt the familiar chill through the smothering flesh as it locked up and died.  Frosting crystals filled his vision as the blood and fluids within the creature froze.  Before long he was mummified in the dead thing, unable to breathe.
            Something pushed him and he landed with a shatter.  Bits of the creature scattered across the bare stone floor, mingling with the turquoise lion running upon the royal seal.   Gasping for breath, the man was up quick, sword at the ready.
            Only Hnah remained.  She had a few strange patches on her pale, inlaid flesh where the gauzy small ones had touched her, but was grinning happily. 
            “Aranites have impervious souls,” she explained.
            “I didn’t ask,” he replied, looking about.  No creatures remained, only frozen tatters and tufts of burnt flesh.
            “Gold Arc proved most effective,” she added without noticing his lack of interest.
            “Gold Arc?” he asked absently, checking both exits for sign of further danger.  “Do you hear that?”
            “My weapon,” she gushed, mostly to herself.  “A lost treasure of the hidden kingdom.  Only those of the most royal blood may wield it.  Fortune can’t explain such a coincidence; it was destined to be me.”
            The massive vault door was beyond his ability to move so he went to the far opening.  A brightly lit tunnel lined with golden statues stretched out, lit by eternal lamps set ever ten meters.  Lining the hall the statues were all knights of fabulous armor and legendary serpents locked in a moment of warfare.  The echoing floor was checkered alabaster and jet.  From the darkness beyond an irregular sound of metal-on-metal rang like chimes. 
            “Thoughts,” she said with understanding.  This gained his attention.
            “Those things, thoughts, living thoughts wearing bodies spun from enchantment,” she said, checking her beloved treasure.
            “How can you know?”
            “I don’t,” she blinked.   “I understand.  A few touched me and tasted my soul, which is what they were after.  Psyche and soma without nous.  So they hungered, so they drank.”
            Though he had heard these words before they were nothing but noise at the moment.  The swordsman was set on another, more visceral course of action.  Taking up his weapon he stepped through the circular portal.
            “Where are you going?” she said following after, having barely heard any of his responses.
            “I hear trouble,” he explained without looking, “and where there is trouble we have a good chance to find the Trumpeter.”
            Behind them they left the chamber to its pale gloom.  Its only furnishing, the toppled throne, waited in the dark patiently, thinking.

The High Queen finished off the last of the lemur-men with her jaw around its throat.  Already the furry humanoid’s body swelled from her poison, going plump and fit to burst, forcing the air from its lungs in a final sigh.
            These granite caves were proving more entertaining that she had first thought.  The gall of her underlings to fail, to remain in the secret dark, brought the ruling beast after them in a foul mood, but all enchantment waited bellow. 
            Rushing eddies of emotion had trilled through the great cat as she entered one of the lower caverns, being that she was too large to follow the mortals through their upper way.  Surely the caves must all link together and if they didn’t then she had only to say a word and the secrets of Nysul would reorder themselves to suit her path.  It was only the sensation of return which she was unprepared for.
            Almost imperceptible cues perked the Queen’s ears as she entered.  Irradiated perfume wafted up from fissures of cold, dead stone, and she could taste humidity on the air.  Memory lay coiled along the narrow rock, riven by snow melt before the nobility ate the entire frozen river and changed the course of the cleft. 
            Giving chase she discovered more smells waiting, the musk of lemur-man, the heady cologne of snow puma and other, stranger remnants.  But behind all this was the familiar pang of first memory.  Somewhere down here, in the depths, lay the glowing pool, the occult waters which fed it rushing through some underground stream towards unknown ends.
            She let the dead creature go.  Around her were signs of the battle.  A small clan of lemur-men selfishly lived here and by their pallid complexion and bizarre physique never left these endless caverns.  Obviously they had drank from the same waters a she, though were less blessed. 
            In her excitement she had failed to ask them any of the questions suddenly pressing upon her mind.  No matter.  The crown she wore gleamed.
            “Where is it?” she asked.
            The dead lemur-man at her feet, puffed and torn, quivered but did not respond.
            Furious, the Queen batted the corpse which fell apart into a mass of bloody fur and tissue.  Poison such as hers puckered the flesh from the bone.  Her rage sated she realized her error and stalked over to another subject, one missing only an arm and much blood. 
            “Where is the glowing pool,” Hope asked.
            Only the creature’s lips moved this time, showing the jagged teeth for which the species was so famous.  This was no hoot or howl, and though the species was too eager in its vices for true language this one spoke just enough Baranti to answer.
            “Follow the glint of silver,” it rasped, “until you find the hall of columns.  Amongst the gold and rust is a narrow fissure.  Beyond its shadow lies the pool of dreams.”
            The thing sighed back to stillness.  Just to ensure silence the Queen tore its head from its shoulders.  Jealously she moved on past her carnage, towards the seat of her power.  Along the walls, sparking up through some unknown physical property, veins of strange silver led the way, on and down, into depths untouched by man, the cradle of monsters.

The passage before them took its turns at right angles, a wholesome change from the slanted madness of the upper galleries.  At times it diverged in two opposing choices, but invariably these paths would converge once more.  Along all the walls continued the war of gold statues.  Armored men fought scaled beasts and each other in endless sequence.
            The statues themselves were obviously hollow, delicate things, grates and pocked holes showing on each form.  Somehow the travelers thought that High King Nysul would have statues of solid gold, however impossible and useless.
            Contrasting with this frozen war rang the sound of true combat, growing louder with each step taken.  Steel echoes sang clear peels through the halls.
            The Fencer raced ahead, ever eager for confrontation, while a less enthusiastic Hnah followed, her eyes catching on the splendor of this elder place.  Soon their footsteps joined the echoes of combat.
            Turning a corner they found two figures at the play of swords.  One wore golden armor akin to the war-bound statues, the other was all shrouding cloak and familiar mask.  They struggled towards death with blades drawn.
            Hnah began to speak but the Fencer hushed her.
            “One distraction and Jaal dies,” he hissed.  Watching the combat he didn’t catch the look of disinterest on her face.
            For a moment the swordsman took measure of the struggle.  Both men were savants of the blade.  Jaal was more nimble and quick, striking twice for every one that a normal lout with a sword might manage.  The knight’s greatsword was only a fraction slower and used its reach and superior defense to its advantage, keeping the duelist at bay and counterattacking with vicious arcs.  Their battle raged across the hall, mingling with the war of statues.
            Jaal lunged in and in response the knight dodged back, bringing its sword down in a golden blur.  The actor blocked and then ran the blade along his opponent’s to strike the neck.  Without worry the armored man caught Jaal’s hand in its cruel-edged gauntlet.  Effortlessly the masked man dropped the longsword to his other hand which took this opportunity to go for the armored belly.  With a savage kick the armored warrior pushed them apart.  The two stumbled back from each other, readying their stances and prepared to meet again. 
            The Fencer’s eyes narrowed with revelation.  Leaping up fast as a shiver he went amongst the play of blades, much to Jaal’s consternation.
            “Not fair at all,” said the duelist.  “I saw him first!”
            It was no use.  Dhala’s nightmare edge cut through the greatsword.  With a shrill clang the larger part of steel fell to the ground.  Somehow this was a disruption, a noise which grated against the ear, like the cry of a child, or the shriek of a monster out from dead black night.
            The Fencer’s strike continued, eviscerating the armor in a flurry of blows.  More stomach-churning noise, more discord amongst the magic halls.  The halved knight fell and sounded out as hollow as an empty steel drum.
            “What is it?” huffed Jaal through his exhaustion. 
            The facts lay splattered upon the checkered marble.  Unwholesome blue fluid spread out from the body.  There was no man in the armor, just this empty shell, perforated the same as the other actors in the still-life surrounding them.  Fear sprang from this realization.
            “We should be gone,” whispered the Fencer, watching the play of gold for sign of animation.
            The blue stuff twitched and in a liquid lightning bolt invaded another of the statues, which began to move and ready its golden long spear.  Expertly it spun the haft and sized up the Fencer with inhuman shadow slits for eyes.
            Behind, the walls shook with words once more.  So deep was the voice that there was no telling what was said, or by what.  The depths yielded up monsters.