“There are structures all must obey. Confining chaos within their social symmetries, built on tradition, sculpted by breeding, they exist to support pure notions which tower over the individual.”
The Duxess didn’t strike Hnah as the sort of person who gave speeches. She was a person of walls, confined for almost two decades by the swords of her ruling military junta, and now all those years came spilling out. The princess couldn’t help but be entranced by these words, this love song to the blasphemously divine monolith of kings. It was a fantasy castle she too wished to inhabit.
“That jealous mage Sol could never understand this, for all his power,” growled the reposed monarch as she sought chamber and tunnel, her underlings fanning out at her command to test for traps and horrors within these lowest organs of the grand seal. “So he came and stole our birthright and set kings among commoners and soldiers amongst courts, but you know this.”
The Duxess passed an appraising eye over her protégé. The girl was fine and exotic, though dressed more like a concubine than one fit for marriage. The wounds would have to go, though.
“There are others down here, outlanders,” began Hnah, trying to deflect this attention. “Carriers of magic. One a sword of inky ice, the other a sterling trumpet which speaks song. Something more, a Child walks with them.”
“Strange company,” noted the Duxess, moving on once. “I heard from my ruling lieutenants of southern barbarians fitting such a description. They followed in the green witch’s poisonous footsteps and kept their secrets poorly. After our birthright, I’ve discovered.”
“The Regalom,” nodded Hnah.
It was fair and welcome to bask in the cold perfection of this woman’s gaze. Never had she a confidant this side of dreams and it was like her soul, wrapped up in unseen and constant tension, relaxed in Emphyr’s presence.
“Out of place for them,” sneered the pale noble mouth. “As I said there is an order to things and my blood boils at its disruption.”
“For commoners?” asked Hnah.
“For men,” pronounced the Duxess. “You see the mass of human beings is split down the line. Men are supposed to be blustery strong and direct in whatever competition they engage in, and it is only competition which should concern them. Like the peacock their eyes are for color, for seeing blades and blood and not understand a drop. Theirs is to fight and die for the sake of future generations. You and I, on the other hand, are meant for more careful things.”
All this made sense to the girl. Back in her tower of Phelegome she and her father lived in different worlds. He had his supplies and plans and bachelor ways, while she had her comfortable clutter of books, and jewels and silk. Such a natural distance.
Even within her being there was such division. In her dreams there shone comfortable rays of pink sunshine and gauzy knights of soft repose, but Winter was all sharp angles and cutting winds, thoughtless and ugly. This frozen world was a man’s place. The lack of proportion galled her and sudden, heated anger spread across her face.
“They have done us one favor though,” mused the Duxess as they passed into a more natural cavern glowing with luminous mold. “They showed us the way down. By foolish accident our birthright, sealed beyond our reach for so long, now might be ours to wield again.”
More than just human ears listened. Along the wall ran ancient cracks, and in some of these secret places slunk the blue which flowed. Dominion was its name. It was the whole of the Badlands but ruled in exile within this forlorn place.
Now the seals were broken. The stuff vibrated with the notion. It couldn’t hear exactly, but instead read the invisible resonances of the mind as it altered the Lattice.
What it knew here all if it knew, everywhere. Every cloud and pool, every eye and monsters, connected by a continuity of matter. Even now it fought great battles in the depths.
Light and strangeness greeted them. The tunnel through which they raced shot through a seam of crystallized precious metal, like the dream of a wealthy man manifest and natural. Seas of platinum, encrusted with topaz and citrine deposits, glittered by against geologic reason. The men saw none of this in their haste.
Light and strangeness. Hypnotized and blinded Jaal and the Fencer held their hands up for shade, squinting as they invaded the room. The mind recoiled, except that of the Trumpeter, who had seen it once before.
The Hunting Thing roared behind them and encouraged speed, but against the looming brilliance they were at a loss as to which encounter would be more deadly.
Luminous assassins leapt at their entrance. A scintillant cloud, like a jagged octopus, reached out with vorpal rays. These things the Mouth had created with its words to do its will and slay those entering its domain.
The Fencer’s instincts and memory took over. He was a mote of shadow against a white hot sun. The lick of dark flame he held in his hand shot at the nearest attacker and the room dimmed as the lightsome silhouette froze and faded.
Better able to see now, they found themselves in a huge, partially natural cavern. From floor to ceiling, from wall to wall, at all angles ran harp-like arrays of metal cords, all abuzz with resonant energy. A wind seethed from a far exit, exciting the instrument, producing music which became real.
All this in a moment, the next brought the thrashing mutant cat in pursuit of her precious crown.
An unreasonable beast, she set her sights on Jaal and brought all her obsidian fangs and claws to bear on the slim man. He wore a mask of worry as he fussed with a clasp at his shoulder. She lunged and found darkness.
The actor’s cloak tangled against in her horns and teeth, clinging to her face. The revolutionary only just managed to loose his garment before she struck. Now he fell back and drew his weapon, assuming it would do no good against her enchanted hide.
The Trumpeter began to speak but the room spoke over him. A blast of air rushed in from the tunnels beyond and struck the metal cords strung across the stones. Those thin beams of silver burned white, into a quick bloom of violence. Massed figures fell with glaring weapons upon the confused men.
Tearing away the cloak she saw them. The Hunting Thing roared her displeasure, tensing at the sight of the bright horde. The Fencer took this time to strike.
Noisome light and cold shadow sought the cat-thing’s heart. With a swipe of her claws she condemned the luminous ghosts to tatters and tasted the swordsman at his work. Her jaws open, the snake tongue twisted around the man in a flash. So entangled his weapon stopped some centimeters from the despot’s heart.
As she smiled and the serpent rose to strike those very light motes flew like a school of fish into her side. Her howl was one of pain now.
Jaal danced amongst the thrashing to find her heart, but no clear opening could be found amongst the obsidian claws.
More sound and more light. New forms joined the dance. A trinity of conflict ensued, man against magic and beast, beast against traitors, sound against cold silence and usurper’s paw.
With a word armies of congealed light flooded the room, only to be cut down by claw and sword. Neither cat nor man could gain the upper hand. They were left to fend off the others and strike at their hated targets at times of opportunity.
In this the Trumpeter slunk at the edges. Near the far exit which had brought him and the High Queen to this place initially he lingered, thinking to run. Part of him dared not sound his instrument for fear that it would agitate the cords and produce even worse things from the playing. A worse part wished he would do so.
Annoyed with the stalemate the Fencer dodged another lunge by the Hunting Thing and took a swing at a run of three cords strung from the floor to one of the half-finished walls.
A screaming sound, the high scream of strings, wailed and then broke into a cacophony as each snapped against Dhala’s atom edge. Where the Mouth produced automatons of light the nightmare blade produced clouds of hungry dark, roiling indigo and blots of midnight blue. These spattered about and began to hunger mindlessly after the living and the bright.
“Not a good idea!” declared Jaal uselessly as he parried the testing appendage of one shadow thing while another slunk up his flank.
“They will only play once,” reasoned the Fencer and he set towards another massive harp, dodging luminous spears and tangled dark.
Yet his creations fell upon him in a syrupy mass and against these the creating weapon was useless. Now they took on a bright color, a blue like rainwater, and began to throttle the helpless swordsman. Now they grew golden eyes to watch.
Jaal backed out of the duel he was having with a persistent bit of light and went to help, only to be batted away by a playful paw.
“No, this I want to watch,” grinned the Hunting Thing as light and shadow attacked her with little effect.
The Trumpeter could only watch his friend be wrung up by some permutation of the very weapon the man wielded, which gave him his name. Hefting his trumpet there seemed to be no right note to play. Then a gust hit him.
He turned and saw the room fill with breath once more. The Mouth of Nysul spoke and its edicts glowed real to combat these unruly shadows. Two classic forces, light and dark, met and mingled, cancelling and vanishing, but it wouldn’t be enough to save the Fencer in time. It was enough now.
A lungful of air, a puff of cheeks, and then a sound. It was felt more than heard, though certain inhuman creatures might be able to discern the note the Trumpeter played then. He had only one audience.
Down the unknown causeway of the Mouth’s wind tunnel his note rang, deep and energetic. The entity’s breath was stopped and then pushed back in a wave of concussive force. The halls echoed, stone cracked and shattered and in a bone jarring crash the passage collapsed. The last breath the Mouth took was full of choking dust.
The echo of this song rang all the harp-like chords strung within the voice room and produced a bewildering array of shapely things, bizarre song beasts and further wonders.
High Queen Hope was the first to shake herself from this stunning performance and saw the opportunity granted. She tore into the bright remnants and shadow guards. They seemed sluggish, as if cut off from their animating force. When these were vanquished she turned on the new strange entities which sang as she rent their half-real flesh into motes and gasps.
“No, those are mine!” protested the Trumpeter as his creations were murdered but the beast cared only enough to purr.
The musician raised his instrument but she was too quick. He flinched as a darting stream of green scales and then it was her tongue which wielded the Trumpet. It only had a moment to consider its catch.
With the blast’s help the Fencer had fought free of his strangler. Its weakness was that it grew too real. He could do little to a note except stifle the player, but he was a demon against anything of muscle or form. He tapped his blade against the tongue’s green scales, gambling that it was an appendage which the creature would sorely miss.
“Perhaps some politics are in order,” said the terrible cat with new appreciation for peace.
“No,” spat the Fencer. “No more damned words and weighted deals. We are going to reason through our present difficulties without crowns. What are you doing here cat?”
Punctuating this the Fencer removed his blade from the tongue, which watched carefully with its many eyes. In payment she sat the trumpet upon the ground near the fearful Trumpeter. At that point the beast crouched upon its hindquarters and became thoughtful.
“I’m here to lend aid to your quest,” she stated.
Jaal laughed and leaned smirking against a wall.
“I bet you’re wondering how they escaped your command.”
Like a true cat she let not a motion or a glance betray her feeling on this subject. Sphinx-like, she regarded this question with indifference.
“It is this place,” he explained and despite all their knowledge the two outlanders felt the truth in his words. “Can you not feel it? Strange power, bottled since the time of old Nysul, saturates these halls. There will be no greater threat to your rule.”
“I am no longer Queen,” sighed the Hunting Thing and glanced at the crown.
“Because of what lies below.”
Jaal pronounced the words slowly and carefully, giving them weight to catch the ear and have them sink down into the narrative he was spinning.
The Fencer turned to the man, not sure if he should follow those lies towards the truth of whatever bubbled at the depths of the badlands. That was where the conversation was headed. With his mind half mad from the Regalom’s command he only had a partial history to determine his course of action. Memory, as always, was proving untrustworthy.
“I have suffocated the thing,” declared the Trumpeter proudly, as if that settled all matters and they could go home. Never mind that he was the most intent on plumbing the mysteries before.
“Only quieted it,” said the beast with a turn of her head. “In time it will surely grow a new voice.”
“Then let’s find its soul together.”
It took a few blinks for those present to realize the Fencer’s full meaning. In that time he had settled his weapon in its cords, took stock of his wounds, and drank some water from his flask.
“Always skipping ahead in the conversation!” An exasperated Trumpeter readied to follow.
“Wait a moment,” began Jaal, “Its soul?”
“It stands to reason that we have encountered aspects of a single intelligence in this place,” sighed the Fencer. “Those eyes and tombs and ghosts, all parts of a whole. What commands them? The mind. And what empowers the mind? You have your answer.”
“These mazes go on for as long as a brain is strange,” said the Hunting Thing with a yawn.
The Fencer stopped to consider this. He had simply decided to explore every last nook and fissure until he found what he was after, which wasn’t the same thing as he had stated.
“I can make our journey much faster,” she added turning those huge, yellow cat eyes on the Fencer.
“By smell and taste,” she said, and then got up. Swollen with magic stuff she stood as high as the Trumpeter at the shoulder. The Fencer smiled.
“Very well,” was all he got out before Jaal interrupted.
“Hold a moment. We’re not brining this despot with us. She’s just after the crown.”
“This is true,” said the Hunting Thing. “But I won’t take it for now. What profit would there be in this place? First we rectify the usurpers, then we will see about granting you all places of power in my new court.”
None trusted this creature of fickle violence but they said nothing as she strutted out of the room and into the passages beyond. The Trumpeter pondered the Fencer’s actions and bit his lips to keep from voicing concerns which he knew would be out of proportion for the moment.
In the crystalline room once more she sniffed and crooked her head this way and that. The great pads of her feet thumped along the perimeter while the men could only watch and sniff the air themselves.
“How can you smell anything through that reek,” said Jaal, testing their tracker.
“That soul you seek,” said the Hunting Thing, taking precious royal time to glare at the actor. “That is it. It saturates this place.”
“Then all we have to do is follow it to the source,” reasoned the Fencer.
“That is the problem,” she continued. “There is too much of it. We are close enough that it dominates my senses. However I have another scent. Several humans smelling of dust and sweat, as well as two others, women of station by the perfume.”
“Two of them?” The Trumpeter smiled at their multiplying fortunes.
“Follow them,” said the Fencer.
At this the beast looked around and at last up into the heights of the room which were mostly lost to the glare caused by the lighting beetle. This way, she said, and took a side passage none of them had ventured through before.
Down they went, into plans, into conspiracies formed with a cat-like grace, into the final vaults. The men felt unseen tunnels and hidden rooms just on the other side of each rock and wall but could do nothing but continue down the path they had chosen.