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.
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.