Amongst the smell of old death and strange, alkaline magic the Trumpeter observed ripples growing upon the pool of electric blue. Some frantic, primitive portion of his brain froze him more solidly than Winter cold ever would, and even the Mouth of Nysul seemed to hold its breath in anticipation of this new arrival.
What emerged from the waters was huge and muscular, a beast of fantastic proportions. Huge forepaws drew the hulk from the pool dripping, claws of black diamond tearing into the centuries-old stone like flesh. The beast’s chest and shoulders were swollen large, though the back paws and torso were equally menacing and built, leading to a tail tipped with a vicious club. Yet it was the head which made the Trumpeter almost cry out from the depths of primal fear. Massive jaws overwhelmed by an insane splay of fangs, dark as starless night, distracting from yellow eyes of pristine intelligence.
To call the thing a cat anymore was a difficulty, a half-truth. This was a monster feline of a whole new order, one of magic, crowned by a device of platinum and opal, the Regalom swimming in the light of that eldritch pool.
Truth, that this thing really was High Queen Hope, now trembled through the man, gone half mad by the notion that such a beast could become something more terrible than it was already. She must’ve been talking to herself.
The Queen rippled her royal purple flesh and considered her surroundings, the wealth of bones, the ruinous walls and the cloud of magic. Breath like bellows grumbled out from her frame and that inquisitive nose of hers twitched its whiskers.
Only so much time before he was discovered, thought the small man hiding amongst the bones. Instinctively he had crept amongst the hoard when the rippling began. Even now he didn’t curse his curiosity for getting him into this deadly mess, only wishing he had the Fencer there to prove louder and more violent than any monstrosity.
Inevitably the creature would find his hiding spot. Though he first hoped that the stench of magic would cover his trail he knew there was no such luck in life. Instead he pondered the events which had brought him this far, like a rare vintage.
They were on a mission for the Queen, after all, and though she seemed to not have the patience for hard work, even from others, she had no reason to think that her words had lost weight. That there was a range to her edicts was unknown to her, as it also had been to Glor, and maybe all who wore the crown. They didn’t understand the range of words, the only limiter to the Regalom’s powers.
“My Queen!” he declared and standing up in a tumble of bones.
The creature bristled. Its jaw opened, revealing a huge asp tongue of vivid green. Upon its head six eyes watched with keen interest.
“Hello, failure of a subject,” replied the genteel voice of the snake.
All rested upon words now, the Trumpeter knew this. If he were to allow her to ask him a question, to demand anything, to engage in any shade of command or fraction of request would invoke the powers of the ruling crown and then the man would be lost, his brain fallen under the heel of that dictator.
“The thing you seek is close,” he began, fighting with his inner muse to keep his words clear and concise, to not leave a single leak in each sentence which he sent adrift into the dark waters of the beast’s mind. “By thing I mean the home of the great treasure, objects of power akin to your item of station. There are swords of legend, and gowns of spun dream, royal jewels which grant wisdom, and relics of holy mages gone to ash and bones for your pleasure.”
He took a breath and the snake head looked about, as if searching for second opinion.
“The Fencer,” spouted the lost magician, his brain full of uncried tears and trembles. “Dead at the hands of a ghostly trap. His sword swallowed up by a bottomless fissure. With sufficient men we may salvage the device.”
Oh how it hurt him to play this game. The words were everything, each bought only a second of life, while one dropped note would mean death, or worse, servitude. Sweat mingled with irradiated condensate and poured down his neck but he dared not produce a handkerchief, it might be a sign of weakness.
“This is the Grand Vault,” noted the High Queen as she stalked about, senses ablaze, in search of every atom of power.
“It is,” he began, his heart bursting at her words, “but it is also more. Old magics have infused the stones here and it grows like a wild root beneath the ice, reaching down into the Lattice for sustenance. Engorged, it grows mad and dangerous in the halls. Abominations are plentiful and stones themselves are flesh.”
High Queen Hope prowled from one end of the room to the other, glancing up at times to the glowing cloud above in that jealous way cats have. She investigated the chute which brought the musician in and sniffed through the old bones. This led up the tall slope of the far wall where the gaping fissure of the Mouth leered at them with its stalactite teeth.
“The Mouth of Nysul, my Queen,” said the Trumpeter with well-intoned reverence. He felt he was becoming better at this game. Yes, he could see how it was like music. Perhaps he could shout through his Trumpet to better effect.
“It is a puzzling strange thing that we have noticed with you,” said the beast as she sized up the gaping maw above. “It is customary that our royal person speaks first and the subject responds upon command. We aren’t acquainted with the protocol of a subordinate preceding us in discourse.”
The Trumpeter heated the air around him like a sun. If he was lucky he would pass out before the question fell, but then again he wasn’t sure that unconsciousness was any defense against the Regalom’s command. Any moment she would ask and he would be lost, they all would fall under her carnivore rule.
A gust of cool air brushed up against the man, swimming through his sweaty coarse wools, and face and long, tangled blond hair. It wasn’t a breeze from some surface opening but sprang instead from a deeper source. The Mouth of Nysul inhaled while the same breath caught in the Trumpeter’s throat, too frightened to breathe.
They passed on in strangeness. The treasure horde led to a hall with many doors, each leading to many thrones, each different. One was a u-shaped seat without back, carved from ivory, set with skins. Another was stone, the same as the chamber, its back stretching up to the ceiling. Still more were cut from gems or primitive flint, well-framed and etched by artisan hands, or crudely gnawed from the rock and set with spirals and eyes. Each empty, each useless and the Fencer grew angry at these secret daydreams of the long dead.
Then the ruins began.
The walls gave way from common rooms and empty treasure to huge vaults of night and twilight and gleaming stars, jewels of the long dead. In these huge spaces they wandered like dolls set loose in a cathedral. Often they felt lost in the dark and a bluish fog drank up their feet and shrouded the ground.
Pressing on a huge place loomed. It was a palace, broken and half-made, with arcades along its tens of stories like the mouths of some protoplasmic beast. Ghostlights blinked like eyes, revealing the inhabitants.
People watched from that granite hulk, their eyes in shadow, their bodies broken like their dwelling. Parts of them, swaths of porcelain flesh, seemed corrupted and eaten away, frothing through the air in still, liquid expression. It was as if their bodies were fluid and some kind of unwholesome breath had ripped them apart with bubbles from within. They were more like paintings then beings, those inhabitants, expressionistic and unreal and though the Fencer hesitated his companions pressed him on through the lowlands towards a darkness they hoped had more promise.
Other structures waited. Each more fantastical, without reason or utility, the things castles may dream of if possessed by demons. The next was all spires and garrets, cone-topped, windows full of more sad eyes and strange spirits. A series of domes followed, and then a jumble of towers linked by high skywalks and glass facades.
Here the Fencer stopped. Turning, Jaal of Night, their guide and potential traitor, hissed at the man to continue.
“We’ve no time for ghosts,” he urged. “They’ll do us no good but death.”
“Perhaps it is clarity of a rested mind but I wonder at that,” said the Fencer, watching the ghosts watch them, the living. “The dead are from the past and it is the past’s mystery which enthralls us. Might they have knowledge of the Regalom? Of High King Nysul and his mad dreams in which we wander as victims?”
“They might also feast upon our souls or drag us down into the Lattice,” reasoned the masked man. He had taken up his guise as soon as the first ghostly lights spilled through the abyss.
Hnah had nothing to add to the conversation. She seemed bored and listless, always one eye on the Fencer for fear of losing him. So when he marched off towards the next palace, a fine manor set with marble lions, she followed after as if connected.
Despite Jaal’s protests the swordsman marched up the steps and reached for the door, which opened before his hand. Inside cold light danced amongst a hall set with banners to long-dead lords and through the lady.
She wore a formal gown which clung to her lithe shape before spilling to the floor in a train of moonlight, but though her face was fair and her eyes stirring, she was broken past this mask. Her back was torn apart, trailing off into the air in what they now saw were little clusters, or filaments of some unfinished shaping.
“Sawar,” she rasped, huge eyes taken up with emotion. “You’ve come back.”
“None of us are that,” frowned the Fencer, thinking this ghost to be mad. Yet there was no cold fear of the dead which he felt would come with speaking to such a spirit. Instead he felt completely out of place, an invader.
“The lemur-things are up again,” she continued, stepping aside as if to usher the strangers in. “My mother takes to the warpath tomorrow. It will only rile them and the Cleft will fall into their bloody paws. Speak some reason she will hear.”
The phantom admitted her guests and continued her plaintive speech. The door shut out cold Winter and inside the warm drama of war and politics glowed amongst the ghostlights. The three still stood outside, in the vaulted dark.
“These are no ghosts,” decided the Fencer. He was in a fume now. Such false places these mages made, all show and theatre, no truth.
“All the better,” declared Jaal happily. “But if not ghosts, then what?”
“Memories,” began the southern swordsman, “or fantasies.”
“As if there was a difference,” Jaal said.
“No!” The Fencer’s voice, rarely raised, echoed through the garden of palaces, coming back huge and hollow. “There must be a difference between the two, a hard line which can be cut, like meat from bone.”
“Sawar is true,” noted Hnah. “That was the last High King’s name, Sawar Nysul, though in his royal personage he was one with the name of his dynasty, his being the same as the land and palaces to which he laid claim.”
Sobered, the actor realized that there was more to this and took off his mask.
“Perhaps the old king lives on in some fashion here,” he pondered unhappily. “The last thing we need is more nobles.”
A paused silence descended, nothing but a faint draft reminding of sound. This place was a horde of all things, of gold and gems, of memories and dreams, of shapes from the past and impossible places set as gardens, all according to the will of something long sealed, gone bad like wine left open.
Hnah craned her neck into the darkness, pale radiance raced down her metal veins. She looked all around, hunting.
“This way,” she said and turned back to the Fencer who was intent on scowling at the dark. “There is greater dark over there.”
The princess pointed out into the void, the portion of this endless room which had no glow of palace or ghost. They had avoided it so far, thinking it lost and empty.
“Emptiness won’t do us any good,” began the Fencer but he was cut off by Jaal.
“No, I see her reasoning. The light shines from these castles but in the dark we might find the way out.”
With a shrug the Fencer hopped down the steps to prove them wrong. He had nothing better to do than think, which would gain him nothing in present circumstances. He had a hungry girl after him and a revolutionary with a face of lies. He hoped for fiends and trouble and violence to make some honesty out of this world of illusions.
Instead he found an oblique opening at what he realized was a jagged column supporting the room. Leading down at an angle entrance to the ramp showed slick and reflective in the golden light of the fantastical scarab which still clung to the swordsman’s tunic. Here the air became warm and the Fencer drew his weapon.
“A lucky guess,” he hissed but the girl took no pride in her find. All her being was tilted forward, leading on.
The ramp led down and down. Being some ten meters across it felt more like a huge, slanted room cut by diamond through sheer rock. The walls were all polished, showing veins of vivid minerals which gleamed with faint lights of their own.
“I guess we are past the mask now,” grinned Jaal. His voice lost all his usual inflection as he spoke. These were simple words.
The Fencer nodded with guarded approval.
“Those first halls teemed with gaudy treasures and hideous monstrosities, but since the vault door we seem to be in a more intimate realm. There are memories for show, and seats of power, and now we descend towards great secrets, the true vault.”
Hnah kept quiet, as she did so often after her escape from the great cat’s claws. That a resulting change had come over the girl was certain, like a calming blanket it covered her haughty nature. And now she stopped.
The two men watched as she swayed on her feet. Perhaps it was exhaustion or a gust of some noxious and unseen gas. She found the wall and leaned heavily upon it. When Jaal went to steady her she slapped him away with a reflex which was as much class-based as it was automatic.
“Don’t ever touch me with those filthy hands,” she murmured and looked up and around. She saw the masked man as if for the first time and scrambled away.
Hnah vanished down the darkened slope, the last sight being her metallic veins gleaming in the scarab’s light. Then a noise came from the dark below, the gust of words too large for their ears.