There had been cries from the caves, from the untold labyrinths beneath the Badlands of Nysul. Before the earliest kings, before the tribal chieftains who preceded them, the unlettered ancients carved through the red stone in pursuit of gods which hid from mortals. Now it seemed those lost years spoke, and the threat of strange spirits—impossible given the advent of the Uplifting—haunted each man, lord and servant.
Sometimes the noise was distant, a muffled rumbling from the stones, but at others a voice spoke from the grand vault. Far off and distorted, it was impossible to make out its words, but the tone had a fearsome weight, making all those who heard its reverberations feel low and subservient. A strange thing for two lords.
Glor trembled as another edict welled up from below, just as his men collapsed another tunnel. Dust clouds coughed out as the dread portal to the underworld was sealed.
Part of their work had been done for them. Upon the frosted stones there lay the bloody remnants of a coup. Soldiers and guards by the look. Former servants of Emphyr frozen in their livery. It seemed the Duxess had at last thrown off the oppression of her common handlers. Of any others there was no sign, just a royal pavilion with stove still stoked and pack llamas awaiting their handlers. Domesticated stock never lasted long where the snow pumas could scent them. Almost as if everyone from that party had vanished. It made both men uneasy.
Night stained the eastern sky. When they had arrived earlier that day about half the entrances were already sealed and after the day’s work only one remained.
The maimed king looked over at his ally. Bzer seemed even more energetic in the cold. The old man wore not but a loincloth and an old cloak. At his side hung a notched broadsword once covered in jewels. Like its master all that was left was gnarled metal.
Would he betray him now? Glor worried as he shivered. Their subjects had mingled along the way and he had reason to suspect the old monarch had won some Moorians over to the side of Phelegome. Glor had gained a few spies in the process himself, but was concerned over a gap in terms of treachery.
Another notion bothered him. The stones here were old with memory. He felt drunk on it. This place, where all courts grew, the seat of power of the high kings and queens of Nysul. Once that last tunnel was collapsed it was all over for crowns and nobles. Together they had resolved to make it so.
With his one good hand he felt the pommel of the dagger he had hidden in his bandages.
“Taklak!” he shouted suddenly and half the men at the tunnel took note and turned to see who had said the command word. For some reason they hesitated.
“Traitor!” bellowed Bzer the Ornate, turning upon his recent ally. “You turned your knife sooner than I. Didn’t think you had the blood for it.”
Neither man could do it, give up their birthright and the future. Once they would’ve settled their differences with armies whilst sitting upon gilded palanquins pulled by trained giraffes or even leading the charge, heads full of brave drugs and madness. But now they had only themselves, sharp steel and a handful of toughs. In this fashion they would resolve their conflict in the only manner which caused anything to change in the world; at the point of a sword.
Both men fell at once, knives protruding from their sides, expertly placed in their vitals by men who were in essence invisible to them. Glor didn’t notice the blond man until he was standing above him, clean shaven, wrapped in a reddish cloak. The wind kicked up and disturbed this covering, revealing the inner side to be dark as midnight.
“Children,” was all he managed to rasp out before returning to the Lattice.
Bzer clung more bitterly to life, enough to hear the clamorous roar of the last tunnel collapsing. Looking back he saw the workers had themselves made the choice. The old and horrible were sealed away. Only the commoners had the nerve to sever their ties with the past, not the nobles, whose beings were anchored through time with blood; theirs and others.
He thought through all his plans and contingencies. Damned if this wasn’t caused by human frailty. If only he never slept, if only he never bled, if only he was as the rocks, eternal and uncaring, true in strength.
A lingering thought fell across his cold, knotted brain. There was one contingency left, his weakest, but he held onto the hope that his jeweled progeny would succeed him.
After making sure that there were no tunnels this far down in the gorge the workers gathered their things. It would be dangerous to trudge through the night but they had no wish to bed down with ghosts. The two men they left on the red-stained riverbed where their blood would trickle down into the very secrets they could never achieve in life.
As if in tribute a tremor swelled from the depths and they heard the muttering voice of the abyss no more.
There are some lost rooms which never will be seen again, opening in the stone without tunnel or passage. Sinkholes, abscesses, bubbles of memory so completely buried into the slow chaos of geologic forces that mystery was too light a word. Occult was perhaps good enough.
In an eldritch place a page sat, torn and orphaned from its book. Though it had no thoughts of its own it was imbued with a certain alchemical life. Perfumed and etched in a fine scrawl, it waited to be read, perhaps all the more wonderful for having been lost.
Blue glowed throughout the maze. At the dimmest it was a faint apparition but more often swelled, brightening in the dark, illuminating everything with an electric radiance. They saw much of it, this deep.
The Hunting Thing paced ahead of them in the shadows beyond the reach of the scarab’s light. No doubt she was there, padding silently through the halls, scouting for the soul of this living tomb.
Quiet now that the Voice was stifled, except for some ominous crashes above. Only footsteps followed them through the vast strangeness of the secret vaults.
Many were the sealed openings they passed by. No door or lock barred these portals. It was a kind of inert black substance, a film which perfectly stretched across these gaps in the stone. On this matter glimmering characters flickered with the frenetic life of magic. Magician’s work, old Crow’s, who set the vaults forever locked with their secrets.
Through vast galleries they passed, leaving forlorn treasures to sulk forever behind those impervious veils. Many times their cat would come back out of the dark and lead them along another path, the way forward becoming too narrow or dangerous.
Crystalline growths often chocked the passages like spider webs, or the jagged walls became a kaleidoscope of mind-altering shapes and thus unfit for human transit. If this was a place where magic was supposed to be sealed then the prisoners now ruled their own prison.
They entered a large room. At the far end the wall leaned precipitously forward, overwhelmed with words carved into the eternal stone. A single square of similar characters lay at some focal point upon the floor, from which a sitting person might read the whole of the endeavor without trouble. Blue light bloomed within.
In order to keep the Trumpeter from rushing forward the Fencer took his arm for safe keeping.
“You’re the barbarian,” argued the musician. “At least don’t make me one.”
“Words are not what we need,” stated the swordsman. “This is of the mind. What we need is of the soul. Far stranger signs will mark such a place.”
“Perhaps these are clues?” The Trumpeter wrenched his arm free but made no move to enter.
“In this place?” asked the Fencer. “Those will be words of madness spewed from whatever lives down here.”
This only encouraged the musician who made a dash for his freedom, but the Fencer’s voice stopped him.
“You can take the next room full of words,” he bartered and the Trumpeter was content.
Such was the strange peace of this place. They had breached a certain sanctum, a seclusion. They found no entities, no guards or monsters. But this peace felt fragile. Unseen forces weighed upon each moment and might suddenly present themselves to the weak mortals who ventured this far. The Shadows were full of demons and the quiet a shroud for nightmares.
It was mostly corridors at this level, with few rooms to break their mad winding dance. To the casual eye one might call them natural, but upon closer inspection they were found to be more like broken clay left to dry, lustrous and colorful, full of bits and pieces of memory.
Fossils were embedded in the walls, but not the remnants of ancient sea life or hapless monsters. Here swam courtesans and soldiers, books, blossoms, silk and armor and more. They stared out from blue marble almost as if alive. These were the more sane passages.
Other corridors were textured by slick metals cast by magic and often led to shafts or blocks which were too large to be managed by a mortal, or too small. Other things, other forces, were the proper residents. The feeling of being out of place grew in each man’s heart.
The cat returned from the dark, eyes large.
“Not this way,” she rasped and moved quick and silent back the way they’d come.
Stopping to listen, the faintest of noises flitted in from the darkened path. The Trumpeter put his horn to his ear.
“What is it?” asked Jaal. The Fencer’s eyes watched keenly for signs of danger.
“A child counting and the clink of metal,” he said. “How could that be dangerous to our beast?”
“How could a child be all the way down here?” answered Jaal.
The Trumpeter chose not to invoke his privilege and they turned to catch up with the Hunting Thing.
She led on and on into this maze of prisons, past so many vaults and so many treasures. The scarab gripped tightly to the Fencer’s shoulder with fear. He felt it too, in the air, a presence, like a cloud he had witnessed once before in a mountain valley far, far away.
The only one who seemed the better for their journey was the Hunting Thing. She reveled in this atmosphere and seemed to grow larger, though perhaps that was just the light exaggerating her features. Eagerly she led on into nothing.
Another room, another thousand ways to nowhere. Some passages were jagged, polyhedral, others natural, smoothed by acid-laden things, and others carved by primitive hands and festooned with spells written in blood and chalk.
“This is pointless,” declared Jaal. “We have the means to make our own way.”
He gestured at the crown still held by the Trumpeter.
“Yes, by all means put it on,” said the Hunting Thing as she sniffed at each passage.
The musician considered his hand, as if it was a surprise to find the gilded Regalom in his possession.
“Why hasn’t anyone taken this from me?” he wondered aloud, to which the Fencer laughed.
“I can think of no safer place than with someone who would forget it.”
“I’m afraid survival was more pressing on my mind,” protested the Trumpeter who glared at this slight to his inconstant honor.
Like a dog with a bone the Fencer wouldn’t let go.
“Survival eh?” he smirked, the edges of his tired mouth curling. “I thought this was about something more than icebound need.”
This deep in the ground the pressure was great. Thousands of tons, centuries of history, all together bored down on the men. The Trumpeter felt this acutely and anger burned bright in his eyes.
“Are you going to put that thing on now and tell me to stop?” laughed the Trumpeter with a pat to this friend’s shoulder.
“Does more than that,” explained Jaal. “You can tell anything what to do and it must be done. Every command is forced onto the world like from the tongue of a god. You don’t remember, because you were under its spell, but I, I watched from the shadows as Glor made you his puppet time and again.”
The musician’s mind swelled. Walls of history leered down with petrified eyes, and his friend was off in his difficulties, all sword-sharp and unruly. A beast stalked, an actor talked, and all around there was a slight brightening of the ever present blue in the air.
Beyond them, past the immediate, the maze of the mind stretched on into death. They were at the whim of whatever existed here, whatever strange sentience haunted the great vault. Even now it coiled about him in the room. Its puzzles conspired to entrap them here, to be court guests to the vestiges of Nysul.
The musician’s hand trembled and the Regalom seemed to dance in the blue light.
Hnah stepped away from the growing pool of blood. Old rock drank eagerly as the liquid escaped down into cracks and fissures.
Part of the hall had moved. Some angled trap set amongst the bizarre geometries which defined the structure of this place. They hadn’t seen any motion but it was the only explanation. For all they could tell the laborer had simply walked too close to the side of the chamber and split apart.
“Another dead end,” mused the Duxess. They were down to only a few spare bodies. Still eager, their devotion was muted.
“I will find a device to bring him back,” said their monarch reassuringly. She rested everything on discovering the secret to entering the vaults. So many lined the walls here. “How about this path? Yes, I don’t think we’ve gone this way.”
There was a perfect grace to the woman’s manner. No matter the troubles she strode on, a thousand kilometers tall. Waves of perdition did little to stall her.
The etched princess and the few spare subjects followed down the collaged passage. She could spend days here pondering the jumbled strata and it was only the direction given her by the Duxess which pulled Hnah along so. There was a future to rule, after all.
They passed through a long corridor of worked stone. Blue fossils glimmering in their torchlight gave way at regular intervals to more sealed vaults. There were at least a hundred down this one avenue.
Emphyr lead the way now, confident, radiant, infused with a hunger for magic. She entered the next mist-shrouded room and teetered where the ground ended.
Their smooth corridor opened up into a jagged wreck of a room some dozen meters up, the ceiling lost amongst clouds of blue light. From the slanted walls sprouted thrones of all kinds and shape. Here was the grand locus of dead Nysul. Phantoms danced where their torchlight hit the mist. The whole place was hundreds of meters across and at the center something huge blinked and knew their minds.
Below even this secret throne room the others stood together in the haphazard nest of puzzles. Each way was wrong. Lost for hours, they knew they were eternally close to their goal, but even the Hunting Thing was unable to sort out the true scents from the false.
Mad seconds ticked on. Millions of tons of rocks and petrified dreams pressed down on the men. From the walls blue marble fossils all seemed to watch the lone man with the object to change their plight. At the center, the Trumpeter.
Yet a greater power played the will of this place. Its name was dominion. Its name was taken in with each breath, each image cast in electric light. It decreed and the Trumpeter disagreed and upon his head he sat the crown.
This changed the world.