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.