They knew the gelatinous thing already. Through strange corridors they had glimpsed its quivering form darting from plot to plot. It animated the strange life of the grand vault and through illusionist passage even appeared to some who wandered the lower ravines and caverns outside the prison for all treasures. Yet the Blue Which Flows carried a deeper familiarity, so close, they realized, that its slimy touch had graced them without their knowledge.
Red years pressed down by the thousands upon the Badlands of Nysul, ice and snow crushing all things beneath their cruel weight. Such was the pressure that in the lowest depths rude elements were compacted to gems and strange matter where the Lattice reached up from the unknowable core of the planet. These treasures brought men and war, depositing their bones like sediment, grave after grave, dynasty after dynasty.
In elder days they had no word for king or crown. They danced with innocence amongst the early frost, but such is the Riddle that mutates souls. Nobles crystallized within those tribal communities and set about to frame kingdoms according to the dreams they dreamed. Dreams that welled up from below.
Runoff from the upper world trickled down to the roots of the earth and pooled in the depths where the Lattice sang. There grew the ruling dream.
This magic coagulated and flourished and the chieftains dreamed of it, of what it promised, and it, in turn, dreamed for them the things which lay beyond their minds. Mages flocked to the badlands. Power distilled itself into crowns, into a weave of treasures and demons, all unknown and secret for many cycles until, at last, there was too much wonder.
The Nysul disaster echoed through the carven ravines and snow-danced plateaus. That wave of power broke and rolled back into the sea of the Lattice. But in sealing away those treasures they bottled up much magic and those things lay unquiet and human minds never ceased to dream of them.
Stone is not as still and dead as many think. The adventurers now knew this danger intimately. Always tension, always the threat of quakes and fractures, of things loosed from stone-bound prisons. Time never ceases its revolution and so the pressure continued, stronger, stranger, with a voice, or at least a soul, fracturing the vaults which seeped humid dreams down to the Lattice point, there further swelling that which ruled. The Soul of Nysul, the Blue Which Flows.
This emperor jelly grew implements of power as organs, parts which budded from its syrupy matter. These became the royal artifacts of the high kings and queens. Even now half-formed crowns of gold dictatorship gleamed in the strange electric glow. Coins grew like scales upon the floor, some as small as fingernails, others full of value. There were scepters and miters, gauzy vestments and weapons edged in enchantment, all waiting to be wielded against each other. The growths had a pattern, a sort of outward spiral which ended in the vast sea of pent-up wonder, like sand building up on a river bend.
Upon the Fencer’s shoulder the gold-light scarab nervously worked its almost mechanical legs, searching for some kind of absolute security. How unfortunate, he thought, to yearn for the impossible.
He raced around the central pool and lost sight of the Hunting Thing. His cold eyes danced from coin to coin, from mountain to mountain, back to the emperor jelly quivering upon its throne of gravity.
The Blue Which Flows was some dozen meters tall, all of a kind of frosted, azure gelatin. This slimy mass was cut at odd angles into a bizarre polyhedron or monument. It had the appearance of mineral or ice but its walls bent and flexed and the swordsman knew it to be flesh of some sort. Upon its top was a grand device, like the plumage of a singular bird. This crown gleamed with the very crystalline matter of the Lattice.
Yet this pristine entity contained a flaw. A shadow floated within its form, half the silhouette of a man.
Tiny claws in his shoulder tensed even before he heard the clink of coin to his left. He spun Dhala’s edge into this unknown adversary but stopped at the throat. If Jaal felt fear his actor’s mask didn’t show it.
“Never mind me,” he quipped through obvious shivers, “just wanted to get a closer look at our true ruler.”
“You know this thing?” asked the Fencer as he lowered his sword.
“I’ve felt it,” said the actor and picked up a golden sword from amongst many. “Now this would make a fine show. But I would always know that it was an appendage of something else.”
“Guess that’s the nature of power,” shrugged the swordsman as he watched the others scramble to meet them over hills of organic treasure. “We never see its true face.”
While they watched the quivering mass the Trumpeter joined them and Jaal traded back his wondrous sword for one of plain steel. Out there somewhere was the Hunting Thing and Princess Hnah.
Then she arrived, stalking through the streaming curtain of living blue. Strange waters played off her crown of tangling horns and rippling flesh of reactive purple. The Hunting Thing seemed to grow even larger, taking in the bizarre radiations for her own strength, a noble beast swollen with power. She took her time, watching her prey with eyes like yellow half-moons.
Suddenly she stopped and tensed. Following her eyes led past them, to the far dunes of gold and silver. Standing atop one mountain was Hnah, golden bow in hand, her gossamer gown stripped down to the base body piece from the edges of which strips of diaphanous material trailed in a draft. On her face was neither happiness, nor sadness, but stern determination.
Splashing brought the lookers from this binary. Jaal had set off across the pool, leaping from one island of treasure to the next, racing for the Blue Which Flows.
Tension broke and the air buzzed with energy. The Hunting Thing dashed through the pool, sending up a spray of heavy droplets which caught the light in a bizarre rainbow. Rays plucked from Hnah’s bow fell with the fluid but the mutant cat raced on. The Trumpeter put his instrument to his lips as the Fencer chased after the actor, who now wore his mask.
Gaping at everything, nimble with many years of stage training, he was too quick and found the thing first, only to stop short. Over the din of the waters the Fencer listened.
“...you hear me?” cried the masked man at the shadow within the emperor.
Then the Fencer saw it, the half-dissolved torso of a man. Only one arm and part of the head remained. Naked, stripped of clothing, it lay near the surface of the thing, the rest of its features turned to jelly. It had no wounds, only transitions of flesh, pink skin and red muscle dwindling into icy blue.
Within the Blue Which Flows hung a young man with fair hair trailing still and blue eyes locked on nothing in particular. He was dead, a corpse, until he moved and spoke. Bubbles frothed from his mouth and no words fought over the din of splashing fluid. Then a voice spoke through more sublime channels.
I’ve found it, said the melted youth.
“I can see that,” said Jaal, his mask indeterminate of whether this was good or bad. “Can it be tuned to our goal?”
There is none. Rasped the unheard voice. I feel so cold, yet it has gone beyond pain, to clarity. Truth lies stretched across the land, touching all things unseen.
“What do you mean there is none?” demanded Jaal, who then turned to the Fencer. “Help me get Denovin out of there.”
Then I die, said the youth.
A silver cry echoed out. Looking back they saw the Trumpeter heaving for breath just as a huge block of palace struck. Fragment frozen in that moment, the water leaping out before the crash. The trumpet had spoken and the Hunting Thing was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps she was under the block, crushed, as if that would do anything to stop her ambition.
From where I am now I can see all things crystalline, continued Denovin, his face dwindling. Power is a mindless thing, driven to purity by the uncompromising structure of the Lattice. I’ve held onto my mind for as long as I could but soon I’ll fade into its embrace.
Jaal wore the look of his mask well as waves from the distant battle sloshed against his feet. In that moment the turn of his head, the consideration of his shoulders, they were the tribal enigma, neither cover nor concealment.
“I can’t have come all this way for nothing.” The actor’s words wore naked trouble.
Do not take it, said the silhouette.
Once the waves died down a beast presented itself from behind the massive block of dreamy palace. She wore a jagged grin and her snake tongue lolled out, blinking.
The Hunting Thing charged through the blue pool and in response the Trumpeter scrambled away, to the top of a treasure dune. There he turned and played and she laughed as thousands of tons of ceiling dislodged and fell upon her.
Flesh shimmering the titanic blocks hit an invisible field projected about the beast, shattering and falling aside. This was another skin of hers, gone all magic with the flooding blue.
“You see things clearly now?” asked the Fencer, keeping his eyes on the beast’s play.
My thoughts gain layer and order, whispered the dying man. His strength failed, his voice gaining an electric whine at the edges.
“Have you met a green-haired witch?” In his words all his hopes.
We remember, realized the remnant. She came seeking a place and told our being to stop with the language of chemicals.
“She had a book and in that book was a page,” continued the swordsman, bringing his weapon up.
Content with one victory the Hunting Thing turned her head and saw them conversing. Slowly at first, then with growing violence, she galloped through the pool towards the Fencer and Jaal.
We touch the page, said the thing within. The emperor jelly quivered and a charge shot through both men. The Fencer hardly noticed.
“What is on the page?”
A crown of power, a thing from outside. As he dredged up these memories from the great liquid intelligence of the Blue Which Flows Denovin faded further and faster into the thing. Now there was little left but muscle, bone and organs. A grim visage of skull, an eye watching them with stark understanding.
The beast was almost upon them, huge and insane, the air around her crackling with blue lightning.
Not of our rule. Denovin’s voice continued into the realm of whispers. Some other maker, some other place, it commanded us and we did its will, but cannot remember much more. I need more clarity to understand, I need…
The telepathic voice rasped to an even buzz which lingered in their minds as the Hunting Thing crashed upon them.
Dhala locked with the mutant cat’s horns, pushing back the Fencer, forming a huge gouge in the pool. He slid several dozen meters before the beast whipped its head around. Turning the blade just so sheared off several adamantine growths and brought a roar of pain.
The Fencer’s limbs grew numb from both cold and current. The matter he sloshed through was a medium of communication, all parts, all whole, entangled with the entirety of the Blue Which Flows. Those electric jolts and zings were motes of information transiting its mindless perfection.
“You aren’t so gifted as I,” noted the tongue. “I drank of this stuff and grew mighty and changed. All you are is a man with the fortune of a sharp edge.”
The beast’s flesh became as metal and the air cried out in electronic pain. Humming current grew and the Fencer realized too late what was about to happen. He charged, lest he fail to meet his fate head on.
Lightning rose up when he was about halfway to the creature. A storm erupted around her, conducted and controlled through her array of horns and spikes. It grew to a bone-jarring treble.
The sun intruded. With a shriek all the power was loosed too soon. Gasps of ball lightning were born and exploded in flashes.
Thrown back but relatively unharmed the Fencer propped himself up from the fluid. On the shore stood Hnah, nocking another arrow.
The snake tongue hissed and turned its blinding glance upon the girl. Beneath her the gold smoldered. Hnah raced against the sudden heat, her bare feet smoking as she descended. In a second the metal immolated, in something less than that she stepped into the soothing liquid.
“The Regalom, if you please,” rasped the serpent, turning its attention back upon the Fencer.
“What more power do you need?” he asked.
“Fire and lightning are useful subjects,” reasoned the beast, “but the word is the thing which endures the cold.”
The Hunting Thing leapt. Her whole form seemed to flow forward with desire to become High Queen Hope once more.
Stepping back the Fencer readied his weapon and struck a moment too soon.
Dhala carved the azure liquid in a wide arc. The splash rose up in a jagged spray and froze. Yellow eyes narrowed as the beast fell upon the spray of icicles. A dozen lances pierced her noble flesh and so huge was the iceberg that she stuck there, impaled, half in the pool. The humming dynamo of her heart ceased and she went still.
“Is she dead?” The Trumpeter wasn’t sure. His smile wanted to be jubilant, but something within was also sad. In such intimate confines, connected by this flowing medium, he knew there were aspects of the beast which he would miss, despite all the blood.
“She is, but there is a greater foe.” The Fencer gestured to the hideous jelly at the center. Through the battle it had done nothing, and this pondered in his heart, troubling and unfinished. “Perhaps it is the Riddle itself.”
Jaal remained by the thing, uncaring, distant. He searched the inner matter for signs of his friend once more but found nothing in that frosted interior.
“Who was that?” asked the swordsman, but as he arrived strange thoughts blinked into his mind. He saw the dissolved man whole, wrapped in the two tone cloak of the Children of Nysul. The image was still and the memory wore a smile frozen on his face.
“Denovin,” said the actor, who had uncovered his face now and wore the truth of worry. “He was a fellow Child who went missing a week or so ago. We were always looking for ways into the vaults and I guess he found it.”
“This thing’s empire is full of holes,” noted the Fencer. “Over time the brittle prisons opened up sly passages. He must’ve found the way down and became trapped.”
“So weird,” he continued. “This crown is from elsewhere. What was Clea doing in this place? If only we had the page.”
“If only we had the page we’d be making the same mistake which lost us our minds,” laughed the Trumpeter. He was doing his best to mask the sorrow he felt for the Hunting Thing. Perhaps he would compose a song.
“Maybe,” sighed the Fencer, who then turned back to Jaal. “Is this the treasure which you seek? Your birthright?”
“Birthright? Yes.” The actor brought his face up to glare at the Blue Which Flows. “But it is a lie. Politics and treasure are organs of this hideous thing. To think its base impulses have lapped against my life makes my skin crawl. Bone and blood are its only legacies and it doesn’t even give the satisfaction of being a villain. It only reacts to stimuli according to a strange merging of factors.”
“Did the play of crowns come from it or is it the result of the actions of sorcerous politics?” The Fencer felt bits of this as he stood, soaked in its thinking fluid.
“Does it matter?” replied the actor, to which the Fencer nodded.
Hnah was with them now, saying nothing. So intent they were on the confused ecology of the badlands.
Jaal felt the tension of the whole land falling upon him here, like a grand stage balanced upon a needle’s point. Any motion at the edges would unbalance the whole.
Within the jellied creature sudden flashes occurred. A buzz, a smell of ozone, the humid clouds rolling through its grand chamber echoed its message. Out there huge, deadly dreams billowed up from its mindless imagination.
The Fencer cursed and readied his weapon for whatever came lumbering out of the curtains of slime. The others were less inclined. Jaal stewed and the Fencer daydreamed. Only Hnah had her bow out, her eyes clear. Strange for someone who only lived in this world half of the time that she would fight to keep the worse half.
He imagined the things which would come, the shapes dead kings and queens left behind for the Blue to gather into its ceaseless flood. These would be juggernauts, these would be dragons, all the kinds of legendary death which might salvage this thing’s play of crowns. Though Sol had come and taken their magic and Crow had sealed the most deadly of artifacts away, it infected the minds of those above and sent them and all their subjects howling into this well of skulls.
With these thoughts weighing upon him the Fencer was unprepared for the sudden assault.
Hnah made to lift her bow to get a bead on the first blue devil but the motion shifted. Sweeping her weapon up she caught the Fencer’s leg and sent him sprawling. The crown was loosed and splashed freely upon the pool.
In the cold all there watched as she dropped her golden weapon and took up the device. Through an unnatural clarity they all witnessed her first edict as High Queen.