Wrapped in snow puma furs the Duxess Emphyr watched her subjects at their toil. For at least a day the ring of steel and the fall of stone had been their music, collapsing dreams. She sat on a traveling throne near the Grand Seal, where her pavilion had been pitched and her guards posted.
The sheer cliffs of the Great Cleft, the most ultimate level of the Nysul Badlands, rose above, a jagged seam of sky letting in a bit of cloudy, morning light, along with a whistling breeze which fought against the sound of pick and hammer. Along the wall before her dark eyes and mouths gaped empty, some natural fissures, others bored by her ancestors. Petroglyphs marked the hands of the ancients, helpless in the face of destruction.
A band of laborers would be sent into a cave and from the shadows came the crumble of shattering stone and the chime of metal gouging at the supports. After a bit, maybe an hour, maybe twelve, there would be a hurry of activity as men fled the entrance, the ceiling close on their heels. With a thunderous cry the old mouth would be silenced.
Glancing aside the Duxess saw her captain at her command and thought of the old days.
Emphyr was young and powerful then, just as Sol came, red, terrible, quiet. Memory brought him forward as an engine crushing the past under his terrible tread. He took her magician screaming, half-finished spells dripping from his lips, and left to whatever hell had spawned him.
Power is what rules and without magic her subjects became unruly. Chaos threatened her realm. Her guards, seeing this trouble made a solution. They would rule.
The coup was effortless and the military dictatorship quick and efficient at bodies. The Duxess they kept as a sort of trophy, feted and plied with every pleasure except freedom or power.
“Would you like something to warm yourself?” asked her attending lady, holding a vial in a white gloved hand.
Another crash, another plume of dust. History sealed away bit by bit, second by second. The guards looked on, pleased at this punctuation of the new order. Soon it would all be lost as ice and snow returned to fill this place white and blue.
Looking up into the face of the young woman who offered the drink she saw those two well-known and knowing eyes look into hers.
“Blood,” was her answer.
The servants worked all at once. Hidden knives found seams in armor and tickled hearts. Laborers, shocked at first at the obvious command, took their tools and fell on the Duxess’s knights in a throng of muscle, dust and red. Emphyr had her request after all.
When things had calmed, and the dead were as quiet as the stones, she had her captain brought to her. The fair woman, the daughter of the original rebellious guard commander, seethed wounded and furious. Hair in tangles, blue eyes glaring.
“How long?” she demanded from her knees.
“Since the day,” hushed Emphyr and gave the order. The woman’s body fell and sighed once.
Politics have punctuation, sometimes festivals, other times carnage. Emphyr had played a long game but now felt it was time to exclaim herself in this cold air, the first she had breathed since she became a prisoner in her own castle. Before her many possibilities gaped. One of them certainly held the crown of all things for her, the Regalom, the final touch on her ascendancy.
That same cold morning Glor of Moor and Bzer the Ornate exchanged pleasantries over a breakfast they had hunted together. The fleet, grey mountain goat had given both old men some trouble, but together they worried the beast against a cliff and brought it back claimed with spear and arrow, like twin flags.
In the halls around them the peoples of the badlands mingled. Some brawls had started and ended without noble intervention and all reviled the upper floors which still ran red with the High Queen’s kills.
It had taken some convincing but the remaining guards and stalwarts prepared to set out in the cold to challenge the vaults. They had a collection of antique arms and armor, weapons bright and sharpened and ceremonial, now put to the test of their craftsmanship, memories of elder, better times.
“Your memory is untouched by the crown’s sorcery,” said Glor, scratching at his bandaged stump. The Queen had taken far more than she gave, despite her generous words.
Bzer nodded, old and addled, a total act.
“The others, Emphyr, Daothre, all of them are sending bodies to the Great Cleft in search of this thing. None of them, none of us, can have it. Summer’s reproach would be terrible.”
“Not them I’m worried about,” said the maimed king. “I wore the thing, I drank its power, but it was the true ruler, not me. By exercising my words its will was done, power without memory or thought, only consequence once the power is lost.”
Glor had grown grey suddenly, being some twenty years younger than the old duke of Phelegome. Not even thirty when the Uplifting came and left. Since that time Bzer reckoned that the boy-king hadn’t grown a year. It seemed that now all such maturity raced to fill in the lost time.
“No one should wear the thing,” nodded Bzer.
“No thing either,” said the other.
Together they set out at dawn to try for the Cleft before nightfall. Each man had his things, survivor’s equipment won and worn through the years. And in each case they had secret knives, should either man change their minds, or wonder at the motives of the other.
The Trumpeter clambered after his Queen, afraid of what she might say. The great cat thing, swollen with magic, easily climbed the steep tilt of the ruined wall. It seemed even gravity was fearful of such a beast.
Quick as he could the musician followed, scrambling up protrusions of brick and mortar, gaining foothold on stern marble women and grasping the wings of sculpted beasts. Though not as difficult as the Wondering Mountains of his home he took each meter with dread, knowing what he followed and fearing what awaited them.
Thankfully the livid blue mist swirled above the entrance they sought. He watched the Queen the whole way up and into those cruel teeth of calcite runoff, gleaming, strangely colored porcelain. The Mouth ran long and jagged for many meters to either side, but so short a ceiling that the tall man would have to stoop. Pulling himself onto the last ledge he now felt the breath of depths seethe past him with unsaid words.
The Queen’s form shifted, molten and plastic, to fit the low ceiling. Harsh gleams of blue light haunted the far entrance some ways off. It wasn’t dark here and the Trumpeter wished it was.
Silence loomed over their journey. The musician labored under each second. His tongue was always active and though he must stifle it for the sake of his Queen’s words the act sent all that energy inwards, growing the seed of worry in his stomach.
The ruse continued as long as he could fend off the possibility of her attention and words. He could only hope her name offered him the chance he sought.
Polished quartz and slate ran alongside their passage, cracked and molten, like a frozen sea of dirty water. It could only be from a dream, and the dreamer glowed before them. The light increased as they moved and with it came a sound, a slight vibration in the air, higher and finer than the coarse breath which seethed beyond.
Exiting through a similar gash in the stone they descended a short ramp into a bizarre cavern. No liquid action marked this place of harsh angles. The blue they saw was from a massive set of glaring strings which stretched at a slant from floor to ceiling, like the cords of an insane harp. The material was metal and fantastically bright, its light both cold and sharp. As the air came in from a further cavern it caught these filaments and produced the sound they heard before.
High Queen Hope snarled with one head and looked about with the other, taking in the symmetries involved and gauging what her rule would gain from them. Other, smaller banks of cords were strung here and there, making use of the room’s bizarre acoustics for the sake of music which the small musician was both eager and frightened to score.
“This must be its voice room,” said the Trumpeter, worried that he might be asked first and lose his mind because of it. “The wind is produced further in the unknown depths and flows through at such velocity that the chords are rung and so produce the voice we have heard. Its sounding board must be huge, perhaps the whole of the vault.”
The Queen turned on him, eyes like citrines, yellow and evil. Her lips never moved, except to express animal rage. The snake did the talking and it now looked upon the man with its many eyes, words on the edge of its forked tongue. That was when the Mouth replied.
The Trumpeter was only partially right. Wind of sufficient force and volume to provoke the noise he was speaking of would’ve blasted both invaders to pulp. The chords thrummed with their own power, some motion in the walls agitating language from those moonlight streaks. This, and the wind, produced the voice and carried it along. Here it was deafening.
Huge and resonant, larger than thrones, broader than armies, it sounded. While the mortal man couldn’t determine the words he knew a critic when he heard one. The Queen, however, did hear.
Words tumbled over them like an avalanche but the monstrous cat stood against the tide. Quiet, she said, and the sound died down. Listen, and it did hear, even if it had no ears.
The Trumpeter felt electricity in the air. The blue of the strings was no less bright and uncanny. Power here, like the enchanted pool and neon cloud.
“We are the highest now,” began the beast, rising to a larger state. “We will have no pretenders or regents, no peers or usurpers. Only subjects, the natural order of things. We are Nysul.”
Sound blasted in response, a trumpet of rebellion. The air’s gleam intensified and from this light more of the same stepped out. Like the thing in the theatre from which he had fled the Trumpeter stumbled away from creatures of ribboned light, knights in the employ of this fantastical place, hunting the hunter.
Delighted at this tribute the ruling cat went to play. Her black claws tore at the gleaming things to the sound of screaming metal. Blades struck her liquid flesh without effect, only to be shattered at a turn of a well-muscled paw. The air glittered with their luminous blood.
Yet a howl commenced from the High Queen. A sword of light had tickled too far, pricking her royal person. Indeed the surviving cohort, a band of glaring silver which seemed to dance as a whole, fought with puissance at the behest of old Nysul. This was an unwelcome surprise; the Queen loathed a fair fight.
“Darken,” she cried and the things died down to sunset glimmers and winked away.
Their damage had been done, however. The Trumpeter was emboldened. There was a way around her words, creeping places in the language where one could slip apart from the edicts of the crown. After all, she must’ve wriggled free of Glor’s grasp somehow. His only challenge was to be as clever a cat.
The elder voice spoke again, shimmering ripples of air like a disturbed sheet of water birthed more knights of liquid brilliance. These forms flowed into each other, dividing and recombining in a mercurial splay of lances, swords and flails, tabards, shields and banners.
“Vanish,” said the Queen, and they did, but the voice rumbled a third time and more and stranger champions bleed from its bright cords.
“Gone!” she roared, and more left room for the Mouth’s endless horde.
“Enough! Enough!” raged the beastly ruler. “Never!”
The object of her edicts had changed from the luminous soldiers to the Mouth itself. Yet even as she spoke so did it, and continued, a creaking tension filling the vocal room as they negated each other.
The Trumpeter was filled with emperor words, feeling like a rung bell, all vibration and anxiety. It would take only a simple aside from either power to blast his mind or his body to scattered, bloody notes. Perhaps what he needed was to change the tune. He hefted his Trumpet for reassurance and scanned the far corners of the room.
The light was met with the will, the air locked with tension, like a fault line along the meeting point between two stubborn glaciers. Suspended in the air was a kind of music, like a symphony tuning itself before the resolution of silence into noise. They were not the same kind of voice, these two, but they held power as peers and in the realm of empires and kings there could be no pretenders, only war.
Counting time, watching the crescendo, gauging meter, tempo and harmony, the Trumpeter added a note. With one long arm he snatched the crown from the mutant cat’s head as bright forces tore at the air.
“Treachery!” yowled the beastly Queen as the man dashed for the exit he had spied and would’ve given chase except a vast array of entities glared into being and she was beset.
No matter her troubles the Trumpeter worked his long legs as fast as he could, first through the fissured tunnel, then towards a rush of sound, another roar.
Behind him cried High Queen Hope in her rage, which shook the walls and brought down dust and fragments of ancient works. There was nothing but to chase the unknown. Drowning in stone the Trumpeter delved, the smell of the depths burning his nostrils.