Sometimes it was like water, so light and viscous that it vanished down into shattered earth with gravity’s pull or evaporated upwards in a mist. At others it was thicker, an electric ooze, kin to slime molds and alchemical abominations. It ran.
The subjects didn’t see the following liquid, though in some respects it was everywhere, in the air, inside them, suspended like a spirit of invisible molecules in this domain, this prison. Charged with a noble enterprise it often glowed with the power, magic of a noble sort. Dominion was its name.
After and after it flowed, from the uppermost halls where its faint radiations made life from art, to the throne room armies where, like a general, it commanded forces of gold. Now it raced from the misty vaults down, into insane depths, leaving things like ghosts behind to play out the royal memories. It ran like water, quickly stalking.
The Fencer and Jaal had no notion of this thing, though they had met many of its guises. No, they chased after something more immediate, but perhaps no less dangerous. Into the dark went a treasure girl, a princess etched with her own daydreams, and they tumbled after like suitors and fools.
Gold light from the Fencer’s scarab lit the curved ramp leading down. Black stone shimmered. Smooth walls glistened as if wet. The polish of ancient, exact hands passed by in an endless arc, though both invading men knew that no human being had ever inhabited in these mad halls. Secrets wore such palaces.
Suddenly space yawned open as they entered a room. They trotted to a stop on tilted panes cut from the surrounding crystalline matter. Each step they took produced a strange and deep resonance.
Jaal almost lost his footing on the uneven floor descending in various angles to a flat, pentagonal center. All that surrounded them burned with the beetles light, illuminating the whole. They stood within the confines of an enormous gemstone. A few facets were blank, dark exits, while most were panes of royal amethyst. Tracing the crystalline walls upwards the eye became lost in a maze of building light.
A complementing blast echoed through the bright chamber. This cry from the depths they had heard time and time again, a massive voice speaking words, then sentences, now arguments, trembled through them. The direction was clear as it led to a darkened exit on the other side of the room, from which trouble emerged.
The Trumpeter ran in and tumbled down the sudden ramp. He landed in a heap of silver and scarf and woolen coat, his eyes terrified, his mouth triumphant. In his hand there was the thing of all their troubles, the gleaming platinum crown known as the Regalom. The Fencer drew on him immediately.
“No, no!” sputtered the half-deafened musician. “I am not illusion or phantom. I am real. It is real!”
She watched as they argued. Her darkened path had brought her blind to this place. By touch the room seemed even more enormous.
By chance she found a running ramp set at a shallow angle. It ran in a zigzag up the wall only a dozen centimeters wide, but in her desperation she took it. Now, with the light on, they couldn’t see her for all the brilliance that one little insect brought to the room.
From her darkened triangle she nocked an arrow and waited.
“Where’s Hnah?” asked the Fencer without taking his eyes off the hated crown.
“I was about to ask the same from you.” frowned the Trumpeter.
“We lost her,” explained Jaal, his long face considering the treasure.
She’s right here, Hnah thought to herself, bringing her weapon up and setting her sights on the cloaked man. Who was he?
Vague impressions, which she knew were the fractured remnants of memories gained during one’s time under the Regalom’s power, welled up as she gauged the man. The two outlanders were known enough and she understood what must be done with them, but this other, this pale and slender creature with a face full stories, he was something new.
He wore the garb of a traveler, but one of ideals rather than roads. His cloak was pristine black on one side, while the other, inner part was reddish orange, the very color of the badland stones. The man was mostly hidden within this dramatic covering, but he kept one fold back, his arm free to draw the sword which hung at his side. Next to this hung a mask.
She smirked at the symbol of Nysul’s Children, self-styled liberators and agitators of the common classes. They kept to the shadows, watching and whispering. Perhaps it would do well for there to be one less revolutionary.
Another roar and another memory. The girl bristled, letting the arrow go slack. In that noise profound hate bloomed.
The Fencer drew and faced the darkened facet from which the Trumpeter had spilled. Jaal followed suit.
“The High Queen now faces an authority greater than even her,” laughed the musician, but he was wrong.
Leaping from the darkness came the hunting beast, her eyes blazing yellow, her muscled frame seeping blood. Lolling from her cat mouth the many-eyed snake tongue glared.
“Traitor!” it declared. “Traitors all of you! When my empire is complete there will be no music, no swords, nothing but prey.”
The Fencer met her charge. His blade sought her heart but she reared back just in time, lashing out with stone-rending claws. The swordsman ducked under the scythes and threw himself back as her great snake head lunged several meters from her mouth to snap at him with venomous fangs. This left them to stalk each other in a wide circle, readying for the strike.
Jaal was in no hurry to join them.
“Toss me the crown and we can end this,” he urged the musician, who stared at him as if he was speaking another language. “Or use it yourself. A word will stop all such blood and violence!”
Recovered, the girl considered her targets. There was this cloaked man, some operative or pawn in the games of power which were played in Nysul. There was High Queen Hope, whose visage filled her with unfocused loathing. Then there were the other two. Outlanders, both of them, bringers of trouble, it was they who riled the nobles from their frozen decadence and started this whole business with the crown.
Hnah’s aim passed from the Trumpeter to the Fencer and back again, unable to decide which she despised more. She had many arrows but it would be the first which was special. Yet circumstances demanded only one. She took a bead on the musician and drew back the ancient artifact she only vaguely remembered acquiring.
The Trumpeter made his choice. Taking off at a run he fled back down the way he and the great cat had arrived. Bellows and noises still quaked from that place.
Rage cooled, fear left them, leaving only bewilderment. Both the queen and the Fencer were stunned, if just for a moment. Then they were gone, all chasing, growling, yelling after the tangled madman as together they ran back into the Mouth of Nysul. That voice howled from the depths in a language unfit for common ears.
The room went dark without the scarab’s light. In this void the princess considered her options. To venture down would be treacherous and without profit. There were only men of various awful kinds down there. Even if she triumphed and returned there was nothing to look forward to except the dust and the cold and her books, her father’s schemes and the vile looks of Phelegome’s subjects She wished more than anything to be back in Arandlia where cotton grasses spread over the hills and golden trees quivered in the still warmth.
Decided, she knew it would do no good to dream here. The drop was precipitous and there was no telling what might lumber out from the passage in which she stood. So, with a mind hungry for the true world, Hnah felt her way along the narrow, triangular corridor.
Sweet thoughts buoyed her soul. Promise led her through the dark. She would be elsewhere soon enough, one last time. A mummy here and a goddess to the notion of paradise, in the mind, beyond the physical.
Abandoning the conspiracy of Winter she imagined the path she could only touch. Her mind was full and ready for the unreal. Having lived half her life in an empire of thought—surviving joys beyond the endless ice and pondering the veiled mysteries of the Aranites—Hnah had no fear of the unknown, only distaste for that which wasn’t hers. Since the memory of her passage into the grand vault was lost to the Regalom’s powers she was left with only mystery for company.
Excited and with a blank mind she skipped into the unknown dark. Blind wonder filled the girl. To leave the weight of known people and pale, dead worlds and fly into the clay of untold wonder was her great addiction.
After a few minutes the stone walls gained some features. Little etched grooves running in strange circuits like the metal lines she wore on her skin. Then pocks and craters intruded on this regular landscape. Her fingers traced the remnants of powerful acid or bizarre magic. Into her mind drifted legends of old Nysul, the last High King, becoming shapes which bubbled in the dark, unseen, drifting just out of touch.
The room occurred all of a sudden. One moment she was pondering the increase in violence done to the wall, the next something narrow and whip-like brushed against her. A mass of soft, tiny wires suddenly took hold of her and she was wrenched off her feet into a space which was all cloying hair. Fine, tickling filaments coiled around each limb, her neck, her torso and face. There she was suspended while being tugged this way and that.
At first the struggle was easy enough, like a gentle wave tugging at her, but soon the unseen tide grew insistent, with the cords pulling stronger and stronger, and not all in one direction. With the hairs digging into her flesh she felt her joints and skin strain ineffectually against the hideous cilia.
Lights burst in the dark. Visions came. Dazed, her mind mumbled that it was a delusion of oxygen, a lack of it, but soon voices could be heard and splashing and a world of chaos was revealed to her.
The room she hovered within was all overgrown with a sea of hair-fine tendrils and the floor covered with a noxious teal liquid from which more of the feelers extended. This splashed and erupted as people threw themselves into it. Steam rose where the stuff touched their flesh and they went still.
Despite this more struggled after the princess. With knives they tore at the cilia which held her. Interested, the hairs turned their attentions on some new attackers, dragging them down into the pool. But there were too many, and with their help she was freed.
On a path of bodies she stumbled. Water from the pool splashed upon her and burned with white hot pain. Acid. This place was a kind of stomach and it hungered. Below the surface the flesh of the dead took on a bluish stain but soon went to muscle and bone as the royal labyrinth digested its meal.
When she was free there were few left of her saviors. Why they would lose so many, just for her, never crossed her mind. Pain was more immediate and besides these were common laborers by the look of their muscled, bare backs and bandaged hands. Some even carried digging tools which they had used as weapons against the hungry tendrils.
Hnah carefully inventoried her wounds. New lines matched her golden circuits, fine cuts from the wiry hairs. She pressed a few on her arm and blood began to weep from deep, thin lines. The scars would be interesting. Adding to this the gouge on her thigh had become agitated and the slow throb of its pain came with every beat of her heart.
None of the men said anything and parted in a hush along the hall to reveal a woman in stately garb. She was older, old for Winter, her pale face of graceful features framed by hair pulled back into an elaborate assembly. She wore a gown from the old days, from before the Uplifting, shimmering with sorcerous ingenuity. Over this she wore a coat of snow puma furs. In one hand she held a long, thin sword of bright steel.
“I should know you,” pondered the woman, tapping a gloved finger against her painted lips.
Hnah felt a vague recollection but was preoccupied with her disheveled appearance. It was one thing to be a mess in front of loathsome outlanders, but this was a peer. In her dreams she was always perfect for the occasion, another reason that dream was greater than reality.
“Hnah of Phelegome,” decided the noble. “Daughter of Bzer the Ornate. You were small when I last saw you. At Doathre’s court I believe, for…his ceremony of the seal. Not much use now, is it?”
“Who are you?” asked Hnah.
“Oh! My manners, where are they?” The noblewoman brought her hand up in the proper manner of salute which was in fashion some two decades ago. “The Duxess Emphyr, newly re-throned.”
This noble, sculpted by generations of careful politics, was attended by silent, awestruck men and women in various states of death. Some wore grievous wounds, most were bandaged and bloody, and even the best were haggard and gaunt. Yet some kind of silver gleamed in their eyes, some spirit which animated flesh despite the tireless, riddlesome cold of Winter. Though it was taboo Hnah couldn’t help but sense a religious intensity in those eyes.
“I’m Hnah, twice princess of as many realms,” she said and grew calm. This was a game she knew from her many books and her many dreams. This was politics with a bloody edge.