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.