“It’s as if you could sculpt the stars.” The Trumpeter’s voice stretched for the right words. “No, that’s not quite good enough to explain.”
They had just knocked the Regalom off his head and now Jaal the revolutionary and the former High Queen Hope eyed the artifact held in the Fencer’s hand. Half the room was changed, reformed into a massive stairway leading even further down into the jeweled abyss. It had been carved by a single word. Strange cries rose up from the depths.
“Imagine that you had reason to believe that everyone and everything would listen to you,” the musician began again. “Not only listen, but do what you said. Your only limits were your own good sense and your imagination. Like having the world at the point of a sword and it knew it, something alive, at its core, knew it. You could make anything do anything.”
Hazy recollection invaded the Fencer’s mind. He had heard the Trumpeter say something similar in the recent past, but his thoughts were all jumbled from his time under the Regalom’s command. His brain kept its secrets from him in a broken maze.
The swordsman went suddenly to the passage which brought them this far and pondered its jagged turns and angles while his companions wondered what madness he was engaged in now. Then he strode over to the new way, the way down, which none had even considered because of the fearful magic which caused its birth. It might melt again and entomb them all in dreamy stone should they venture upon its steps.
Where the Trumpeter’s command struck the stone vanished, leaving a serpentine tunnel. Its walls grew and shrank, obeying the frozen acoustics of his voice as it twisted towards the soul of the grand vault. Uneven steps led down. Within, all manner of unsettling sculptures ran along the stone.
“Was my description not entertaining enough?” asked the Trumpeter.
“The Regalom affects the grand vault as well as the living mind,” said his friend. “Look, just as you said, anything will listen, but what are you saying? Words are inexact, they are not the thing itself, and so the will makes manifest through power’s charms the desires of words spoken by whatever addled head dons this platinum crown. A troubled sentence might yield untold devastation or even accidental freedom from the power itself.”
The Fencer glanced over at the hunting thing who responded with yellow eyes. It would do no good to get into a staring contest with a cat. He walked back to the group.
“So there must be a way through the words, the words are passages in this maze.”
His words were punctuated by a series of bloated wails from the steps. The group turned and saw things of mad imagination vomit forth from the newly made steps.
Statues of ancient kings and queens lumbered towards them, their well-carved muscles still, they moved by a number of stringy pseudopods licking out from the matter. Blue demons composed of assassin’s knives slunk up as stained-glass elementals shrieked towards the outsiders. Ghosts of laws long dead drifted, animate seas of treasure, and many-limbed mummies embalmed with official papers spewed from the final secret of the labyrinth. From that wellspring the place dredged up its forgotten dreams and sent them as a horde to stop the men at the threshold their goal.
The Fencer was ready, his mind cutting through each instant. Cold Dhala met the creatures at the top of the stair. The blade cleaved down through a mass of automatons and imps, leaving dead stone to fall with a crash as he carried on into the horde.
Where the crown went the Hunting Thing followed. She lent her claws and teeth towards their endeavor. With a sing sweep she reduced a collection of saints to dust while her horns gored a soldier in fantastical armor. Each movement of her well-muscled body brought devastation.
A sword-spider caught the Fencer unguarded as he felled another hippo-god and it drove its bladed limb into the man’s side. Noise interrupted, reducing the arachnid to jagged minerals. Moments of kindness such as that became lost in the churning conflict.
After saving his companion the Trumpeter kept playing and Jaal acted like a brave warrior and together the whole company faced the depths. Gravity pushed them on or maybe it was something else which pulled at them with such enthusiasm.
Their noise was too much for the room above. With an animal groan it fell. The collapsing rock chased them faster into their opponents, many of whom were crushed by boulders or drowned in debris. Dust filled the air and they fought image by image as phantoms made real loomed up in the haze.
The Fencer reeled from the bludgeoning limb of some never-born prince and felt something prick his lower back. He glanced and saw only hints of figures in the fog, then the noble was on him and he spun his blade into the thing’s neck. The golem fell but the true attacker had vanished.
Pressing on into clear air the four found an ovoid cavern without violence. The first wave was decimated, leaving them heaving for breath and coughing from the dust, but more things cried from below and the rumble of strange bodies echoed up the promise of battle.
“Which one of you was it?” demanded the Fencer.
The Trumpeter looked around for who his friend was speaking to. Obviously the dust had addled his mind further.
“Someone put a dagger,” the swordsman continued, then glanced at the mutant cat, “or a horn at my back.”
Nobody volunteered a confession. Each wore a mask of innocence.
“If you want this,” he said, hefting up the crown, “then you had better not hesitate, because I won’t.”
“Someone will have to wear it,” noted Jaal, checking his sword which had become notched and worn against their stone foes. “Our way back is lost. The Regalom might be our only means of escape. It might even-”
“No,” said the Fencer, cutting the actor off. “We’ll see the end of these steps through our own mettle, not the broken words of magic.”
Jaal smiled but in his heart he knew it was easy enough for the man with the enchanted blade to reason in such a way. They continued down.
The descent fought with itself. Whatever the Trumpeter had done to carve these tunnels and rooms was held fast with the lingering words of his edict. But it was a creation of his will and so wound about in strange loops, confusing them with junctions and side rooms. They had to puzzle through his mind.
And all of it seemed uncertain, like an iced over lake which saw much sun. Any moment it could shatter, entombing them at the mercy of the depths once more. Step and statue and rail quivered with tension. Another force exerted its will. It did so without a voice, they had silenced that. Pressure gripped them all.
Through a corridor of lumpy statues bearing musical instruments and childish faces they wandered through the electric blue. It was a warm shade and down here there the air was balmy and humid. They were watched.
At the far end, beneath and an arch carved with leering sprites, they were swarmed by a mob of babies. Each cherubic face smiled as they tore at the travelers with tiny stone hands.
These were met with cold sword and obsidian claw and flew up as a cloud of disturbed insects, held impossibly aloft by carven wings. Dhala cleaved through a dozen, matched by trumpet blast and cunning steel. Together they turned back the wave and reduced the progeny of the depths to blue ruin.
Charged by victory, they followed the current in the air into another large hall just in time to see the light pulse and come together. Sounds and ghosts collapsed to sparks. From the fog adversaries were born, flashing at the point where power became physical.
Out stepped half-formed things, bits and pieces of imagination and dream. Impossible conquerors and many-eyed beasts, furred lizards and giant lemur-men, erupted to do the will of the blue. None were complete, with arms missing or too many, parts which were translucent and useless, or syrupy and twitching.
Titans leaned down to pluck up the mortal creatures. Jaal pricked the first muscle-bound nightmare with his sword and it popped. There was flash, followed by a shuddering bang which echoed into the distant vaults. In response the other things quailed and joined this fate in a series of electronic blasts.
“We’re outpacing it,” noted the Fencer as he helped the actor to his feet. “What we now face is more energy than flesh.”
Jaal shook his head against the ringing in his ears.
“My arm’s gone numb,” he frowned. His body twitched in little involuntary quakes.”
“It must take time to form its monsters,” said the swordsman, his eyes alive with the possibility of victory. “The soul must be close.”
Thundering on the ground. In an instant the Fencer had his blade up to defend himself. The Hunting Thing charged but he wasn’t the target. In a blur the mutant cat was out of the room and barreling down the unknown passage ahead of them.
“What’s her game now?” wondered the shivering actor. To his surprise the outlanders raced after her.
“Can’t let her maul all the fun!” declared the Trumpeter who was first and quickest after the beast, the Fencer close on his heels, as much chasing his foolish companion as the Hunting Thing.
Jaal limped behind, his muscle spasms making it difficult to keep up. Out of sight, strange liquid followed them all.
Stone echoed under the Fencer’s feet, each step a note towards the end, the truth. Days might’ve passed since he slept. Time was an illusion in this place, the only chronology were the strange loops winding through the labyrinth, protecting the heart of things. His mind avoided confronting those hours, to do so would invite exhaustion.
Yet there was a wind at his back, or something like it, pulling him onwards, making his steps light and easy. Lightning danced through his limbs and he knew now why the beast had run; because it was joy. He soon outpaced the musician.
The Trumpeter’s path lost its words. Mighty spaces narrowed into rough-hewn passages and uneven stairs. Statues of excess were replaced with jumbled blue stone and all who passed through realized where the horrors which faced them came from. This stratum was all dream fossils and buried imaginings.
At last the way grew narrow. How the Hunting Thing’s massive frame passed through here was lost on the Fencer but he suspected magic. The alkaline smell which infused the grand vault assaulted his nose.
Squeezing past one last fissure he found the swollen heart of the badlands.
It was half a great room, interrupted about halfway through by a shard of some never-built palace. Quartz gleamed and dead battlements flickered with the ball lightning which coalesced from the air in pulsing orbs.
The room was inundated with liquid, great roaring falls of azure spilling down from above. The floor of the place was hidden beneath mountains of treasure which rose from the sky-toned sea like islands.
Gold flickered with ghost fire, silver answered and jewels sparked. Gems the size of houses refracted what lay behind them into bent wonderlands. Swords and armor jutted from piles of coin and mounds of artwork. Together the horde created a kaleidoscopic array which dazzled the Fencer just long enough.
Something huge fell upon the swordsman and together they fell down the gold-scattered steps into the sea of treasure. He didn’t hear the shouts from behind him or the buzz of the liquid light. All the Fencer knew was rage.
She took him by the shoulder, claws gripping his flesh. Jaws snapped after his skull and there was the sound of a whip cracking.
Instinct saved the man. The Hunting Thing’s jaws found only gold just as the Fencer braced himself and pushed the titanic beast off with both legs. Freedom came at a cost as her claws tore bloody ribbons from his shoulder.
“So that’s what she had in mind,” came the voice from above.
As the Fencer scrambled to his feet he saw the Trumpeter at the door and followed the man’s gaze into the sea of gold. There the beast stood between two treasure ranges, paw-deep in the flowing blue liquid. She grew and grew as the magic stuff inundated her being. The Hunting Thing smiled with new fangs of black diamond and tossed her head causing the light in the room to glint off her forward array of vorpal horns. From her the tip of her tail a searing light glared and the gold nearby went soft.
Out came the emerald serpent of a tongue, but the Fencer was ready. He didn’t see its new and splendid array of eyes, some glowing with until magic. By the time it spoke he was already past the first mountain of treasure and carefully traversing to the next, careful not to set foot in the strange blue fluid.
The Hunting Thing hesitated but then leaped after the man of difficult reason. For each ten strides he took she took one and climbed the gold eagerly after her prize.
Blood pounding in his ears he heard only distorted bits and notes of his friends shouting after him. Ahead was the massive curtain of fluid which fell from above. As he neared he felt a shiver pass over him.
The Fencer took the next mountain of coins and slid down the silver dune in a crash of precious metal. Glancing over he saw the beast was four mountains away, running alongside, splashing jewels like water and scattering coins like snow.
He leapt to another mountain and in his haste fell short. One leg dove into the strange blue sea and cold electricity danced up through his body. Unnatural as it was he climbed on, well-used to a frozen world.
Now the Hunting Thing was two hills away. Ahead roared the falls, slowly filling up the massive underground cavern, walls lost in the glowing haze.
Her roar heralded the charge. The Fencer didn’t flee, but turned, losing his hope and readying Dhala. Swollen and huge as a house the beast arced through the air, a splay of razor death, the air singing with her jagged claws.
A ray of sun cut through the cloud and etched a fine burning tattoo along the Hunting Thing’s purple flesh. Such was the force of the beam that she fell to one side of her prey. The Fencer reached the shore of the huge central pool and lost himself amongst the spray.
Each drop was freezing cold, colder than ice, an impossible water. The air buzzed.
He saw it then, amongst the curtains and mist. It bubbled amongst its treasure which it grew like buds from its liquid apron. Here ruled the Blue Which Flows.
There were two paths she found in her race to flee Dominion’s marriage. Emphyr’s terror scream still echoed in her skull and her metallic tattoos ran cold with the blue titan’s emanations.
Catching up to her staggered the last two servants of the Duxess. The spell that woman held over them was gone, leaving only the Riddle’s truth of survival and despair. One was a gnarled middle-aged man with a miner’s stoop, the other a handmaid with close shorn hair. Long locks were reserved for those of leisure.
One path led up, back into the maze of the mind, into the upper vaults, towards possible escape. Fresh air blew from its slanted ascent. At an angle from this a tomb entrance with a slanted and sealed door promised only more secrets from below.
When Hnah had her breath back she moved to that darkened portal. Ancient hieroglyphs marked the curses which would befall any trespassers.
There was a trick to these which the princess had read in her old books. Find the signs of sun and stars and…there, her fingers clicked on an ancient cantilever trap which removed the ancient locks by means of primitive, mechanical sorcery.
Glancing back she saw she was alone. The other two were gone, their faith in all nobility vanished without even a conversation. On the ground was a dagger bearing Emphyr’s insignia. She took it and ventured down into the tomb.
There was nothing for her in the cold upper world. Only through the outlanders did she find herself. She was promised to the thing which would allow her to rule the world in the manner she wished.
In the exit she found the blue cascade just as a swollen mutant leaped upon her most precious prize. Whether those doors above were truly of a tomb was yet for her to decide.