Thursday, February 14, 2013

XII. Unquestioned Loyalty

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.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

XI. The Mouth of Nysul

All heard the words but couldn’t listen.  To the small and common, to the living and unstrange, its voice was huge and maddening, like screaming gusts through endless ravines.  Something about the voice blew like the Winter wind, that carrier of cold and death which sunk to the bones and turned even the bright day into a tomb.  Yet also need drove those tremor words, that much could be felt, and where its royal breath blew change came.
            Its words were magic and in echo ensorcelled those above with similar attunement.  Nobles heard it in their souls without knowing, coming across thoughts which seemed slightly out of place but addictive and powerful.  Out on the badlands they were emboldened at their work.
            The Duxess Emphyr, shivering in her furs as she followed her captain down through the ravines of the Cleft, felt the ground itself tremble at her feet and her will sparked up against the cold.  As they fanned out across the deepest ravine where a once great river flowed she watched as laborers hunched under the weight of their iron tools.  Ancient dungeons yawned open along the sedimentary walls and it was one of these which was to be sealed forever.
            Bzer the Ornate wandered Moor in a daze.  His crusading exuberance had been met the night before by a people awakening from layered nightmares.  Glor’s subjects and the maimed monarch himself blinked at the notion of invasion, of revenge.  Hearing this the Phelegomians took no lives and with consideration began to doubt their leader.  It was then that the voice rumbled up unheard and the two rulers began to sharpen their knives in private.
            All across Nysul mummified nobles moved at the game of politics.  Knights and warriors, courtesans and slaves, jumbled and placed for the most gain.  Warbands were summoned and sent marching to the Grand Cleft according to inklings of power.  All wanted the crown that rules and would take all steps to ensure that it was their head which wore such a thing. 
            The wind came and blew cold, stark dreams across the noble-infested badlands.  It howled from below, desperate to be heard, all throat and no ear.  And it was light, a body luminous and coalescent, spun from the words, set with their charge. 
            A man, a musician, fled from the unformed monster down the square throat into darkness.  No, at the bottom, gleams of energized mist swarmed to meet him.  All at once the voice went quiet.

Lack of trust brought the Fencer out from his dreams, not the voice.  He could sleep through the Winter wind so this growl was nothing in his ears but the unheard conspiracy of his companions was enough to awaken the man.  How long he was out, he couldn’t know.  To his surprise—and disappointment—the pair of hangers-on remained.
            Through careful lids he retained the appearance of sleep.  Hnah sat across from him on a pile of gold, the very image of untouchable noble beauty.  She watched him with uncanny eyes.  This wasn’t lust or want but need, not for the man but for the notion of him, like a cultist or fanatic.
            To the woman’s left a figure paced just out of sight, feet clinking on coins.  By mere sound alone this was reminiscent of a lion, pensive in its gilded cage. 
            The Fencer roused himself.  Hnah’s eyes flashed and now he confirmed that the footsteps were Jaal’s as the man walked off his thoughts.
            “That voice,” began the actor, “how can you sleep through it?”
            “Has it continued?” asked the swordsman as he grimaced with the pain of standing up.  The wounds incurred in the battle with the golden army burned cold across his whole body.
            “No,” considered Jaal.  “Not since shortly after you slept.  Been quiet for nearly an hour.
            “Do your secrets know what it may be?” asked the swordsman pointedly.
            “You seem to be under the impression that I’m holding things from you,” smiled the man.
            Hnah smirked as she took up her golden bow and arrows, lifting her head to catch the Fencer’s response.
            “Am I wrong?” 
            The Fencer took up his blade and checked his provisions to make sure nothing had been stolen.
            “Well, no,” laughed Jaal, “but in this place I don’t think any amount of history matters.  These caverns run strange with magic and change at a whim.”
            “Perhaps the voice is the mouthpiece of that whim,” said the Fencer as he picked up one of the luminous scarabs.  Its struggling light glinted off the gilded walls and made the further depths of the vault sparkle like a night sky.
            “It seems to speak when something is changed,” said Hnah, breaking her silence.  “When a beast is slain or a treasure taken or a door opened it gasps in response.”
            “Like an audience,” exclaimed Jaal.  “Only this one has power over its stage, and we are but actors.”
            This was the inverse of his intuition and the swordsman grimaced at the thought, that this tomb was more than a madhouse for ancient nobles.  The stone walls ran like skin, the arches and pillars acting as bones and the eyes were its eyes.  If it was an organism its functions and organs were far removed from nature and could only be explained through haunted reasoning, a biology of possession.
            Something metal clinked in his hand.  It was the scarab, forgotten for a moment, trying to gain purchase on his calloused flesh.  The Fencer placed the creature on his shoulder and it calmed, fanning its huge opalescent wings a few times to work out the stress of being picked up.  There it stayed, giving off a golden light.
            With this lantern the trio moved off into the dark.  Behind them there was no escape, though such didn’t cross the outland swordsman’s mind.  He was intent on finding the mouth of the voice.  Perhaps it remembered what he wished to know.

Blue light greeted the musician’s descent.  Condensation ran down the walls along with the man, whose feet slipped and scrambled after some purchase on the slick masonry.  At last he was forced to rely on his wiry arms to hold onto his rope which creaked with the strain of all the junk he stored in his pockets.
            He had lost sight of the creature above, that blazing form of word made bright.  In that last frantic moment as he tied fast his cord and scrambled into the unknown depths.  Eye’s ever upward he waited for it to peer over the lip of the mouthpiece, but it never did.  Perhaps it had business elsewhere, or maybe it waited for him below.
            Entering the cerulean cloud he lost all sense of a world beyond gravity’s pull.  Then the air cleared and his feet found ground.  He fought the rope off the carven cherub which held it.  There would be no going back, only through.
            Stepping out from some sort of chimney the Trumpeter walked into an enormous room.  The walls were collapsed ruins, slanted remnants which by chance had fallen just so, leading up to a ceiling veiled in fog.  Arches and windows gaped dark, choked with rubble.  His eyes searched for an exit.
            Silver coin and golden, ceremonial weaponry lay scattered across what seemed to be a ballroom floor, all marble and contrast.  At one end a natural pool formed where all the condensate ran and glowed with the same color as the cloud, illuminating everything ghostly.  Maybe it was the source.  A voice disagreed.
            Along the far wall a huge fissure ran through that massive sideways palace wall, splitting wide the relief etched upon it.  For so long had it gaped open that humidity in the cave formed stalactites and stalagmites like teeth.  From this aperture seething breath came and went, troubling the foggy air and rumbling the ear.
            Here was the source, the Mouth of Nysul.  The name seemed intrinsic, impressed upon the mind of whoever looked at that nightmare maw.  Here it waited and spoke.  Looking about the Trumpeter saw no ears.
            The pool beaconed.  Its waters were clear and glowing, obviously enchanted, terribly mysterious.  Here was just the sort of thing which could tug on his curiosity and make him do foolish things.  Yet it seemed a shame to mar those pristine depths by drinking or bathing.  Besides bathing was a pointless exercise when the dirt and grime of Winter was inevitable.  
            Close up he saw the waters depth, cutting a channel through the wall.  This was no isolated puddle but part of a larger system.  Water knew no boundaries and carried it secrets deep into the earth.  It would stand that it reached out beyond the Grand Vault and while difficult to fathom it was possible that other things had gained entrance to the tomb through this channel, or that emanations from the vault occasionally breeched the caves and tunnels which wormed their way through the lowest levels of the badlands. 
            Staring at the waters he saw a way out into the unknown lit by blue insanity.  If he were to swim that way there was no telling if he would burst his lungs or flounder in some underground sea, or worse, gain strange second animation through the enchantments lingering there. 
            Too insane even for him the Trumpeter ceased considering escape and moved onto other oddities.  At the base of the slanted wall housing the huge mouth the hoard of gold gave way to a hoard of bones. 
            Heaps and piles of cleaned men and women lay, as if part of the treasures here.  There were crowns amongst them and the musician bristled with sudden fear.  A thousand heads, a thousand crowns, old and beaten, at home with the rest of these pristine riches.  Trophies, he realized, showing sign of the noble violence which brought them to this place through the will and machinations of the old High King.
            The Trumpeter raised his head up so he wouldn’t have to see the broken skulls and shattered ribs, the small crowns fit for child kings, the shattered legs telling him that some were crippled here and left to die.  Even if this was just the inside of the old despot’s mind turned inside out it was a horror. 
            His eyes gaged the huge mouth.  At this range its warm breath brushed up against him, smelling of dust and old dreams.  It was the only other exit from this place.  There was no way back.
            It spoke without moving its lips.  The chamber rattled coin and bone and soul all alike.  The cloud above broke apart and he could see shattered tons of masonry forming a dangerous ceiling above.  A few loose stones fell clattering to the floor or splashing in the water.
            Again the words the Mouth spoke were impossible to understand but as they passed through the cloud there seemed shapes born in the eddies.  The Trumpeter watched as the words became real.
            Shifting horrors with wings of fog echoed out and up, forming as they went.  Other notions were less visible, existing only for a second before darting off invisible as the strange rays from a magician’s wand.  The Mouth spoke and the world listened.
            He almost didn’t hear it coming but the man had ears primed for the strangest sounds.  The splashing in the pool ceased but the waters within grew dark.  The surface was increasingly troubled by.  The voice ceased as if waiting to see what might emerge.
There is an unsettling fever to the ultimate return.  If the Trumpeter could find his mountains again or the Fencer his icebound sound they could share this moment of pure, uncanny recurrence.  But theirs was lost to time and magic and the narrow teeth of hungry lemur-men.  Only the High Queen was allowed such luxury.
            For all her troubles and trials, living at the margins of her kingdom, hunting like some common snow puma, had given her an honest grounding.  She understood the necessities of life.  So many were the reasons for her rule.
            But she was humbled now.  Before her glowed memory.  The lemur-man’s corpse spoke true.  Through narrow fissures gleaming with precious, sparking minerals she slinked, cautious and wary for this world of violence, coming home at last.
            There was the corner she slept in, weary and wounded from a band of hunters who sought her pelt.  Fearful things, they ceased tracking her as she wandered into the fearful depths of the Great Cleft, a place of witches and lingering curses.  It was the most primitive portion of the badlands, the first inhabited by people who became locked here by Winter’s ice.
            High Queen Hope stalked to the radiant waters and drank deeply again, this time with both mouths.  Thoughts kindled within her, new and more glorious plans given passion and fire. 
            She dove further into the pool, immersing herself, drowning in the power.  Regal notions infused her being and all her matter quivered into a blur.  Thirsty for more she swam down and within.
            The passage was clear, lit up brightly by the liquid she now knew to be distilled from perfect nobility.  Following it, breath held, she entered a larger channel.
            A powerful current surprised her, sweeping the beast and her dreams off her feet, sending her down rushing fissures and smooth-bored tubes.  Instinctively she scrambled for some footing and at last her sharp claws found purchase on the rock.  Some luck came then.
            With her lungs bursting she discovered another side channel which seemed calmer than the main concourse.  Quickly she loped along, vision flashing between darkness and purest need.  She rose, hoping for the surface.  If she could speak now she would make the waters recede and the world dance to her will.