Their ears were unwilling at first but there was little else to hear on the vast empty days of shadow and cold filling the halls of Phelegome. Now he rode on their backs, figuratively, his pent up frame curled in on itself and hidden so they couldn’t see the old benefits of their labors. Bzer the Ornate was on the march again.
They trudged across the upper plateau overlooking the grand cleft, he and his subjects. Though they were filthy, malnourished and occasionally mad they had no lack of weapons which they would soon be aiming at Glor’s platinum-lusting heart. All because of a princess. It was just like the old days.
Hnah had been a difficult daughter, but Bzer was now set to reap dividends from her gold-etched hide. The people were incensed at the flagrant violation of their domain, at the unfettered avarice of Glor of Moor.
The two travelers hadn’t been servants of their unwanted-yet-necessary king after all, but revealed themselves to be agents of that hoarder from across the cleft. Bzer was too old, too weak to prevent the kidnapping. Bravely he defended his child but was wounded, there was blood, the old man had seen to that. He was ever-willing to sacrifice for his domain.
All that was needed was a gentle push to aim his people’s noble hatred at an enemy of his design. It had been a simple matter to frame this drama according to his plans. Bzer had a whole hat-full, just waiting for opportunity. Contingencies for long dead enemies still swelled within his brain and plans of glory for an impossible future yet remained, frozen on the icy horizon.
Afternoon remained when they set out but now the night-cold drew down. Yet for all this they seemed in good spirits. The way was clear, the wind calm, and soon the carven entrance to Moor would emerge through the veils of red Nysul stone.
So enrapt was the aged despot that he took no notice of the people he used. They were ragged mummies of potential gain, atoms of the feudal enterprise. They trudged on with their weapons, their minds his without need of a crown which commands. He never noticed the man in the cloak, his mask hidden by his uncovered face.
As the Duxess Emphyr watched on in her mica-framed pleasure chamber two captured giraffes fought for her pleasure. She took none, being well-bored by the play of blood.
The creatures leaned against each other, attempting to topple their opponents, and in pursuit of this flailed repeatedly with their well-muscled necks. Strikes landed dull and heavy, sounds which in the past had satisfied the Duxess for some years but she now found the thuds lacking excitement. Even when the creatures mauled each other with their short horns and the blood ran out and they cried their high, hollow moans of bestial pain she found her mind wandering.
One of her exemplars entered, a fair-haired captain bound in fluid armor which had been a sign of terror to the whole Badlands in the Duxess’s younger days, and which now remained as a memory of better times. She smiled a little at the nostalgia, keeping it well hidden behind the smoked quartz of her ceremonial fan.
The soldier entered, bowed, set her weapon aside and approached the throne. The Duxess sat up, sensing politics.
“My Opaque Lady,” began the exemplar with practiced decorum, “News from the cleft. A band of scoundrels bearing one, perhaps two, devices of wonder have descended to towards the heart of Nysul.”
“More magic,” mused the tyrant. News of the Regalom was spreading quickly through the badlands. Swords were being sharpened and nobles roused from their frost and drugs.
“Glor’s men,” explained the soldier.
“The ones who braved the Adamant Seal.” The matriarch shaped the words with excitement. A whole childhood she had spent dreaming of the forbidden powers within the great vault and now it seemed she might gain the depths of her heart.
“We’ll be following them once we’ve mustered enough workers,” began the captain.
“Why would you do that Kandala?” Emphyr was hurt by the notion but had little say in the matter.
“One forbidden magic has already riled the tensions of our neighbors, any more would bring us to a familiar nightmare. You do remember Nysul, the reason for the Sealing?”
Through all this the captain couldn’t read the Duxess’s expression. The woman kept her mouth, and her thoughts, guarded behind that crystalline fan. This was the Palace of Veils, but she wished to know her lady’s heart.
“So you saw these foreign beasts from afar?” The Duxess moved the conversation elsewhere. “Your swords are missing.”
Not missing, thought the captain, destroyed.
“As I have said they have magic.”
“Then what good will more swords do?”
“I have no intent to combat these madmen. They are under Glor’s spell and in league with the Children, who now show their true colors in a desperate gambit for forbidden power. I had never thought them to be a cat’s paw for the ruler of Moor but I have seen it with my own eyes.”
“Then what, if anything, is your plan?” asked the Duxess from her isolated depths.
“We sealed such things once and I intend to return the abhorrent objects, and the men who wield them, to the cold depths. This time without magic.”
The Duxess gave the command and the two beasts were felled by a volley of arrows. Their contest left unresolved. Bleeding onto the onyx floor they huffed out their last seconds of life. By then the captain and her royal charge were gone, off in search of new amusements. Though none could see it the Opaque Lady smiled on the inside and framed plans set in stone.
With the monstrous cry still echoing the Fencer rose to meet the floating eyes. These hideous lenses raced along the path he had taken to this place amongst the grotesque and livid jewels of the great vault. Now he knew why the sculptures on the watching wall seemed so real.
Upon seeing the two struggling humans the creatures stopped and stared. Their pupils dilated and from within the black something like starlight twinkled. Energies gathered.
Instinctively the Fencer raised his weapon. An angry crimson ray glanced off the enchanted ice with a shower of sparks. Unwholesome energy washed over the man.
Pushing the girl behind him he readied for another volley and wasn’t disappointed. Each of the three flying horrors glared with strange magic. There was little room to dodge in the hall and only his uncanny instincts moved Dhala to deflect each bolt.
Diffused and hideous refractions perverted the air where those beams struck. Their magics compounded and a shimmering curtain of distorted space hung like a gaseous cloud. From within this a moaning emanated, a song from inhuman lungs. The singer gained life as it crawled out of nothing and the blur of its flesh was a mercy hiding its true shape.
Seeing this the swordsman felt his soul bleed out from his skin, which felt as parchment, thin and unnatural. Only his cold ally kept his mind within the boundaries of his body.
Desperately he awaited another volley while the distorted monster crawled towards him. Eyes glared and he was ready, rolling beneath their beams, dodging past the blurred monster. He leaped up and with a glint of indigo cleaved one eye in half.
For the briefest fragmentary second all the things it had ever seen bled out and faded into the Lattice. Lost memories gobbled up by enchantments undead and far gone from their original casters now gushed out as a force.
These flooding powers pressed the Fencer against the wall and up into the ceiling. Nausea and euphoria battled his senses.
At the edge of the universe a blurred star hungered with unseen fangs while a blue nebula full of crimson stars flickered at the horizon but didn't care to intervene. Insane visions replaced all notion of reason.
Reaching with hunger in its million-ton hands the star grasped while the eyes set in the black heavens watched, vicarious in their harm. Even the cold of space couldn't save him.
And a fleet of ships were the answer. Darting lances of gleaming metal pierced the thing’s uncertain surface and old blood sprayed out as a torrent of butterflies. Its scream was that of uncaring Winter, a bit of wind, nothing else.
Dull pain echoed through his chest as the Fencer fell to the ground. The magic unleashed by the dead eye had finally run its course. Yet more arrows such as those which slew the blurred thing flitted above his head. From the doorway wounded Hnah loosed her missiles.
The first one spun its target just as the eye emitted another awful ray. The beam swept over the Fencer's head and burned a deep into the stone. Marble bubbled and the swordsman almost swooned from the heat. Thus pierced the abomination burst into more unformed magic.
A deep note rang and strange lights danced upon all the metal present. Storm winds rushed about as the seeing thing uttered its death light.
Still half mad all the Fencer could do was crawl away. Another arrow and another avalanche of pent-up magic. These things weren't users of the Lattice, but what they had seen the old days, fragments of old drama. This last death the swordsman watched, trying to catch a thousand secrets with only a few blinks of the eye.
When at last the corridor was clear nothing remained of the floating eyes. Just the blurred corpse of the incidental creature upon the stones. This child of magic seemed unable to decide its own flesh and so existed as shape without space and light without color. Its blood was simple enough, a fine dusting of red, like the feathers from a butterfly.
Hnah stood victorious, a bow of shimmering gold lost technology in her hands. The curve of the weapon was set with complex pulleys and gears in such a way that it provided some mechanical advantage to the archer. Yet the device was out of place, the girl unarmed just moments ago.
She had taken it from one of the sarcophagi in the adjoining room. There was no longer a guard, leaving the treasures vulnerable to thieves and the desperate.
Yawning open, the despoiled coffin revealed a plastic human being. So much of its living flesh had been replaced by chemicals and resins that the remaining caricature rested unchanged through the centuries. He had been a hero of some elder time, now bereft of the weapon and missiles for use in the world beyond. To think, all those heavens, gone for good, not even tombs such as this to mark their passing.
“A fine thing you have there,” said the Fencer, with as much thanks as he could muster. “Better hope it carries no curse or ill-will from its master.”
“We should go,” rasped Hnah. Her thigh was still bleeding, so they set to bind the wound closed with a portion of the corpse’s shroud, the smell of strange oils filling their nostrils.
“We should go now,” she insisted.
Lost in his plans the swordsman was meticulous with her bandage.
“I take it you don’t mean to leave for the depths?” he asked at last.
“No! We should make for the surface,” demanded the princess. “Those other two are dead men.”
“Jaal is too clever to be buried and I would never be fortunate enough to be rid of the Trumpeter that easily.”
The Fencer considered ransacking the other tombs, his eyes dancing over the splendor of the dead.
“Only you have that blade,” she argued. “The others have nothing to withstand this place and its enchantments.”
“No,” he said out loud, perhaps to break into the process of demands flowing from the girl’s mouth or to answer his own inner question.
“So you will not come with me to the surface?”
The Fencer’s silence was its own reply, he hated to repeat himself.
“Then I will come with you until you change your mind.”
Confused by her sudden change of heart the Fencer watched as the etched-noble tied the ornate quiver she had stolen to her good thigh and took up her ill-gotten bow.
Testing her resolve he set out the door and took the path running past the room and into the unknown. She followed, more intent on him than the course of their journey. With a sigh he tried to put his companion’s strangeness behind as he delved further into the great vault.
Turning like the girl’s mood the dungeon revealed itself like the coiled lumps of a mad brain. The passages ran slanted and angled at odds with reason, with architecture or utility. Spherical rooms appeared along their path as if from a dream, complete with curved furnishings clinging to the basalt walls and precious ink frescos gleaming metallic and insane. Past these they entered a Pyramidal chamber perforated with doors leading to a dozen burial chambers, silken death traps, and bone-riddled pleasure pits.
The stones themselves slept uneasily under their blanket of magic. The two trespassers felt unseen, inhuman eyes upon them. As they chose another door from the pyramid room, it opened into a realm of gold and state.
Pennants and royal banners proclaimed Nysul’s eminence from the slanted walls. Along the floor thick rugs sprawled ornate and crimson. Upon a center dais stood a carved wooden throne. Facing this was a circular portal to darkness while behind, framing the unseen monarch like a halo, stood the face of a great round vault door, shut and sealed against eternity.
The Fencer was first in, using Dhala to taste the air for danger. Hnah came behind with arrow nocked. Such a distraction. He didn’t trust this princess; if she could imagine herself to be another creature then what care for humanity might this other have. Such worry evaporated as the flapping began.
The banners waved, but there was no draft, and the rugs became unruly. The mimicking creatures kicked over the throne and now the two mortals could see that these weren’t furnishings, but entities of bizarre evolution. Their flesh held only enough semblance to cloth or weave to confound a first glance. The rugs billowed up and watched with their many fractal eyes. The pennants were loosed, flying like colorful handkerchiefs set loose on a breeze. That breeze led hungrily to the two survivors.
Hnah took a painful step backwards and said, “There are other routes we may take.”
In reply the Fencer dove into the room to meet the curtain creatures. He had enough running and with a demon in his heart sought to cleave a way through all opposition to the vaulted seal to his left. It was no longer a matter of finding the others, but finding the reason of this monstrous and insane abyss.