Friday, May 31, 2013

XXI. The Answered King

They waited a moment and caught their breath and yet the jellied emperor didn’t destroy them.  Not out of any sort of noble mercy or fear of crown or blade, but for reasons unknowable, held secretly within its pale, gelatinous fa├žade.
            “I wouldn’t walk too close to your better,” said the Trumpeter as he tended the Fencer’s wounds.  Jaal didn’t listen.
            The actor pondered close to the thing, which stood many meters high, shorter now than when they first saw it through the veils of electric fluid.  The Blue Which Flows had lost some of its stature.  Though its cubist walls held, it was bowed out, softer, warmer perhaps.  It did nothing.
            This was power’s true form.  Without mind or soul it collected and gathered, grew and grew but never did anything.  It built no bridges or keeps, hunted no seals on the frozen sound of the far polar wastes, or played a song or told a tale on a stage.  All it could do was grow crowns and gold, organs of power and control.  Impotent and obscene, the Blue Which Flows existed only to spread its influence through the badlands.  In so doing it fueled itself.
            “To think I may have drunk some of this entity,” wondered Jaal aloud as he walked the perimeter of the creature in an attempt to see what hazy secrets it held within.
            The Fencer’s chest felt like bursting.  Not from the wound—a common occurrence for a man of his tendencies—but with realization concerning the ruling thing.  All that might and not a thought to guide it.  Surely the Riddle worked like a devil on the hearts of men.
            Standing up he sloshed through the now warmer fluid which filled this central pool.  Potent mist took the place of the cold, and so they could all feel more through this conductive medium with each breath they took.  The alkaline smell stung their noses as fragments of ambition flickered in as their own thoughts, and each man glimpsed the worries of the other.
            When he stood before the jellied emperor the Fencer focused his mind, trying to cut through the noise to the thing itself.  If it could steal their thoughts through the slime then maybe he could do the same.  Yet there was no mind to the thing, just the hum of untold empires and greedy dreams, woven together into the abomination’s pseudoflesh.  Here was something for the Uplifting and it was the icebound who paid for this omission with lives and blood. 
            The cold man’s eyes narrowed as he parted the psychic cloud.  This was the thing’s true treasure, the dreams and thoughts which it gathered and used but could not make itself.  Those who were dissolved in its matrix were forever a part of the Blue’s inner sea where it referenced and conspired.  Those monsters they fought before were born from such minds, given life through the charge carried within.
            Thousands of years and thousands of brains, souls suspended like ink, never returning to the Lattice but held within some artificial accident of magic and history.  True power had no dreams of its own but like an amoeba devoured everything it could reach.  It was the kingdom.
            He drew before the others could say a word.  They brought him back his sword while he recovered.  It was the sort of thing which seemed natural for him to have.  Pain cascaded from his chest.  Flecks of blue mist crystallized on the nightmare blade as he lifted it over his head in a reverse grip.  Dhala poised ready to plunge.
            They might’ve left before this and gone their own way.  The jeweled abyss couldn’t go on forever, there had to be a world out there, harsh and icy cruel.  The wastes lay in every direction, but speckles of civilization curled around fires here and there.  The Blue Which Flows couldn’t be everywhere and the seals which held it so far would certainly hold through their short lives. 
            These thoughts flooded into the Fencer, his own misgivings and worries feeding back into his brain, along with those of his companions and others lost to the Blue.  He wavered for a moment but the icy thing in his hands cleared his mind and he struck.
            Up to the hilt the nightmare ice plunged, the thing’s gelatinous flesh proving surprisingly resistant.  Immediately the warming trend ceased.  The sagging emperor regained its composure, taking on a royal raiment of frost as its crown-like crest splayed out jagged and glorious.  Something nibbled at his toes.
            Outer cold shot through them all at this moment.  The fluid they stood in did not freeze, but instead flowed easier and quick.  The sword’s nightmare chill hit them all as flashes of ink-flooded golden eyes impressed like unwanted dreams upon their minds.
            Jaal and the Trumpeter were quick to leap out, piling onto a forlorn bar of treasure.  The Fencer withdrew Dhala quick as he could and stepped back from the emperor which gleamed with newfound facets. 
            Now he understood.  As this placed warmed the emperor’s processes grew sluggish, its manufactured dreams less concrete.  Yet when wed to Winter’s cold it conducted those stolen thoughts as lightning.  With ease it could now engage in more complicated processes to produce monstrosities according to its fickle edicts.  It became no more intelligent, just hungry.
            The Blue Which Flows rose up from the pool, as the pool.  The passive fluid became an active hunter.  It ran electric and eager, taking in heat from those it could catch, and with it the thoughts of those same victims.
            A deadly wave splashed for the reeling swordsman, who broke it with a crash.  Even directly the stuff didn’t freeze, but sent a wash of icy fluid soaking him to his bones.  So dispersed the stuff lacked motion, but eagerly drank in his warmth. 
            There was no fighting this absorbing demon and he turned to run to the glittering shore.  Each lift of his legs was agony, part from the bleeding wounds in his chest, part from the cold he slogged through.
            He glanced back.  The jellied emperor itself didn’t move, but its blue blood served as its limbs.  As the cold radiated from the epicenter the stuff came alive, grasping at him, pulling him down.  Immersion meant something worse than death yet each step toward the coins and safety was slower than the last.  The Fencer grew numb as the struggle left him.
            Song burst and a crash echoed.  Blue rock by the ton fell in front of him.  Warding away the splashing fluid he discovered a chain of islands now ran before him and he clambered up gratefully as tentacles of blue grasped after.
            Sodden and shivering he turned and saw the Trumpeter dance madly on his little island, almost knocking Jaal into the waters.  Around the gold and silver base they stood on forms in the pool showed sign of interest in the two trapped men. 
            If they were caught they would be dissolved into the liege and consumed within its noble body, becoming one with the land and its foul dominion.  Off in the maze of the mind a thing laughed, huge and echoing.  Another monstrous appendage of the emperor jelly no doubt.  Yet the Fencer could do nothing.  His blade was worse than useless, the sword only fueled the thing which had so strangely been in decline and his rage would soon be its as well. 
            The monarch reached out, elegant feelers grasping at them, at everything.  Like a miser gathering treasure the mindless collector wished to add them, their thoughts and dreams, to its hoard.  Jaal slashed at pseudopods, but they regrew in seconds.  Even at this distance the swordsman knew the look of consternation on his friend, the Trumpeter’s face, as he weighed the balance of using his blasting horn at such a close and dangerous range.    
            The Blue Which Flows towered triumphant.  Cold, alien thoughts coursed through the air, which became alive with ball lightning and electric fire.  Each one a mindless command for more and more.  Against these edicts the Fencer hefted a useless blade, strange memories tickling in his mind.  It was as if those sword master truths held a sublime understanding of this moment.  He weighed the moment, sifting through the possibilities.
            Jaal drove his sword into one of the blue waves but let go with a gasp as a jolt of electricity stung his hand.  Decided, the Trumpeter brought his instrument low.  The actor flinched but could do nothing to avoid the coming song.
            Sweet notes spilled from the silver-mouthed horn.  Not near enough force to shatter stone or even push aside the clinging waters.  Yet the Blue quieted. 
            Those molten forms reaching for their heat ceased their hungered movements.  A flashing radiance played through the medium as it drank in the tone and its appendages swayed in appreciation. 
            “You see,” said the Trumpeter, turning from his playing to grin madly at his fellow islander, “I have witnessed a certain tone to this creature’s being, much as the mutant cat thing said of its energy.  It does appreciate more of itself.”
            Jaal was apoplectic.  As the musician explained the Blue Which Flows regained its composure.  Eager tentacles coiled up for them by the dozen.
            “Stop,” said a cold voice, and they did stop.  The tentacles froze in mid-grasp and the men became locked into their smiles and frowns.  Only the emperor remained free to wobble and gleam.  
            The Answered King stood high on the shattered stone, the Regalom upon his head.  Somehow he had kept it through all his troubles.  He was certain he had dropped it when the Hunting Thing mauled him and it was the furthest thing from his violent mind when foolishly attacking the Blue Which Flows but there it was, hiked up on his right shoulder this whole time.  Now he wore it properly. 
            His mind wandered and those appendages he had commanded fell. 
            “No!” he declared, but against his wishes the gelatinous thing flashed and its pool responded.
            Frustrated he turned to his friends and said, “Ignore the last thing I said.”
            Instantly they reanimated.  Confusion took the place of their previous argument.  Though no longer stilled their minds were muddled by the Regalom’s lingering effects.
            He almost called out to them, a natural, human expression, but stopped short.  Realizing that he would only command them further the Answered King cooled to a narrow edge of reason.  Every utterance under the crown became law, though not always as the speaker intended.  Words, like power, had a life of their own, existing in ecosystems beyond his comprehension.  Like Riddles.
            Now his attention fell on the jellied emperor.  It quivered in response, and about it the servant fluid began to undulate towards this pretender.  The thing had no worry, only the wish to consolidate all power into itself.
            “Die,” said the warrior king but the thing disobeyed.  A sinking, horrible sensation came to the mortals but the edict made no corpses. 
            The thing must not be capable of death, he realized, and so the word was useless. 
            “Cease to be!”
            The gelatinous hulk faded from sight but regrew in an instant.  At first there was a shadow, then a stringy lattice of ice-like matter, then the whole returned.  The Blue Which Flowed quivered and was.
            Something of its nature, he wondered to himself.  This immortality would not do.  His word was law, his command the motion of the universe.  Like the endless waves of the icy sea his will wore down all resistance.  Such rebellion galled every noble fiber within.
            The Blue came writhing, amorphous at first, but increasingly solid and recognizable.  Crawling up the stones came Glor and Bzer and Hnah, all frosted blue sculptures of power. 
            With a snarl the Answered King lunged at the first and brought his icy blade through Hnah’s neck.  Her matter offered little resistance but the chill in the room grew greater.  The matter of the jellied emperor contained most of the cold, but each drop now stung and burned with the frigid oblivion that lay between the stars. 
            So enchanted, the flashes of thought grew to a staccato.  The living were drenched in frames of light and the Blue’s servants moved fast as nightmare.
            Other thoughts flashed as well.
            The Answered King leaped back and his darkness struck.  Just as the chilling avatars of the Blue were upon him the block of stone beneath them fell away from the main body of rock, cut free by Dhala’s atom edge.  Down they fell to rejoin their master’s flood. 
            “Fencer!” cried the upstart musician.  “What game is this we play?”
            The Trumpeter smiled, having only vague notions of why they fought a gigantic block of jellied power.  Jaal hesitated, trying to find his part in this and wondering after his sword.
            He almost responded with some natural recommendation, but knew it would become his thrall’s whole world.  Fearfully he realized part of him desired such control.  With each moment that part swelled like the sea.
            “If I were you I wouldn’t touch the waters,” he said at last, “they might freeze you where you stand.”
            In these few seconds the Blue had thought a million stolen thoughts and they all erupted out.  Serpents, beasts, horrors and behemoths, fused and plastic, spilled forming from the cold will of the emperor jelly.  Strange hums of power whirred through this matrix, telling of barely contained energies.
            “Heat us a way out!” shouted Jaal suddenly, realizing some fragment of the drama.
            The azure wave fell buzzing.  It cast no shadow as electric light spilled from every atom composing its being.  A thousand faces opened their jaws to consume the men, one of whom spoke.
            “Summer,” he whispered and the world echoed.
            Balmy warm and humid bright the legendary became real.  It was no place, not like the word, but drifted as a concept felt from the very bones of the Fencer’s memories.  Memories he had consumed, memories which were part of another, stranger history.
            The wave lost cohesion as it spilled over them.  Demons became sludge and kings were melted down with the more common dreams.  Jaal and the Trumpeter were caught splashing towards the treasured shore while the Fencer lifted his chin to face his peers.  
            When it hit the Blue Which Flows held only a hint of Winter’s chill and even that was dwindling.  With it thoughts coursed within the azure sea, the mad plans of despot, the epics of warrior kings.  For a moment they felt consumed by this living matrix.  Yet as the flood receded it held no more power than a tale told beside a blazing fire, where all things were just words and the mind made of them what it will.
            The Trumpeter sputtered to shore, sopping with dreams.  He then helped Jaal up, who grimaced at the awful class stuff soaking him. 
            “I am covered in atrocities,” he grumbled.  Still, there was an energy infused with the Blue.  The stuff was power, the thoughts and fragments mere assortments of atoms within the solution.
            Looking across the pool the crowned thing sagged, almost melted in the balmy haze.  The mist was greater now and through it all things seemed unreal, given to impression over actuality.  They knew to dislike the thing, despite the fractures the Regalom had given their minds.  Yet the Blue survived.
            Of greater importance was the Fencer.  Not the Answered King, who was but a title, but the man himself, the one they knew.  He didn’t rule upon the collapsed rock jetty anymore. 
            Searching about they found him in the shallows just a little ways up.  He bobbed on the heavy liquid, dreaming or dead.  The wave had pushed him all the way here, depositing Dhala with the rest of the treasure.  Quickly the Trumpeter bundled the demon blade up lest it encourage the Blue any further.
            “He lives,” noted Jaal as they dragged the man upon the coins of the shore to dry, careful to avoid the various enchanted sword blades and enormous gems.  “But where is the Regalom?”
            They couldn’t spot it.  Perhaps the crown had sunk into the pool, or lay further up the island.  A wave of such size and force could have left it anywhere and it would be difficult to spot amongst the treasured organs grown by the Blue Which Flows.
            Perfect warmth billowed through them as they searched.  Clouded by mists, calm descended upon the treasure hoard at the bottom of the jeweled abyss.  Lush smells, alien blossom, otherworldly leaf, seduced their noses, overwhelming even the Blue’s alkaline pang.  It seemed like it would never end.
            In this strange heaven, carved out of such a terrific hell, the two men slowed in their searching.  It had been days since they last slept in this sunless underworld and now that fatigue capsized their minds.
            Jaal fought it by staggering to his feet, resisting the urge to curl up amongst the gold and gems.  The Trumpeter succumbed a few meters from the Fencer, who already drifted in the elsewhere land of sleep.
            The actor just couldn’t rest easy here, next to the purest distillate of his mortal enemies, the nobles.  Through the thing’s conductive fluid he felt the same ugly, brutal tyranny he had been born into.  To destroy it would be to destroy the foundation of feudal order of Nysul.  Such a dream he dreamed while waking and standing.  So he did, and stalked the treasures in search of the crown which might make all such dreams real.
            While stalking he met a thing.  It towered out from one of the many narrow channels and passages which led from the maze of the mind.  Through the blue stone came a blue giant and his name was Dominion.

Friday, May 17, 2013

XX. A Royal Beast

Cold blue linked them together in a feudal web.  Through this shared chill they felt bits of other, motes and whispers and subconscious murmurs, the kinds of thoughts which arise with each moment and stimulus.  They shared their minds through the connecting liquid, a power which pulled them all closer and closer to the Blue Which Flows.
            So they felt inkling possibilities jolt into realization as Princess Hnah donned the Regalom.  She might turn them all to loveliness or turn their hearts to gemstones.  Flashes of red pain, statue forests of dead dreams, terrors from the jeweled abyss, these they felt as she imagined them.  These shocks of other infected their being, glimmering through the conducting fluid which now glowed with activity even as they shivered from its cold.
            “You were always my favorite,” blurted the Trumpeter, hugging his instrument for security.
            The girl took little notice of him as she judged each of the others present.  Her eyes grew pained and her breathing intensified.  While they knew fragments of her thoughts she also knew theirs.  Like ripples on a pond they bounced notions back and forth at a nearly subconscious level. 
            The Fencer tensed, waiting for his chance to strike.  He felt some small part of her intentions and hesitated.
            Jaal wore a bitter smile.  She was a noble, and his sworn enemy, part of the ghoulish rule of the badlands since the elder tribes first settled here.  Just another organ of the monstrous, quivering emperor.  He also knew her thoughts and didn’t hesitate.
            At last she turned upon the Blue Which Flows.  Its gelatinous matter flashed like a mindless thunderhead.  Jaal lunged and then she vanished.
            Her mouth moved, they realized, something hushed and private said in the moment before blade and oblivion. 
            The crown fell with an azure splash, leaving them only with tufts of pink clouds and wonderland echoes resonating in their minds.  Jaal’s sword struck only air.
            “She ran off!” declared the Trumpeter angrily.
            “No,” said the actor, reaching for the crown.  “If she had I’d think the Regalom would go with her.”
            He found the Fencer’s nightmare sword before he found the treasure amongst the blue.  Carefully he stepped away.  He was already shivering enough.
            “Was just going to hand it to you,” he explained.
            “I like to do things for myself,” replied the Fencer as he took possession of the glittering Regalom once more.
            Somehow, coldly, amongst the flashes of thought, they knew the actor was right.  The impression she left was that she had gone elsewhere. 
            “She spoke, but it was so soft and in my attempt to save us couldn’t hear it over the splashing,” said the actor.
            Distant groans spoke from beyond the veil of clouds and azure falls.  Huge notions walked just out of sight, looming soon at the will of the thoughtless power of the abyss.  What dreams it would show them.
            “I thought I heard it too,” wondered the Fencer, for once distracted from the immediate and dangerous.  He demanded more than these bare fragments doled out by the cold.
            “Arandlia,” explained the Trumpeter. 
            The others looked at him as the word rang true.
            “She ran off,” said the musician again.
            “She went to that imaginary playground she formed in her head?” frowned the swordsman.
            “Or she simply made its reality unquestioned for her.”
            It was a cold proof, made more so through the chilling medium of the Blue Which Flows.  Power of such absolute nature was frightening to contemplate.  Upon the heads of past masters the Regalom’s edicts were about control and change, not creation.  It was difficult to accept High Queen Hope’s rule as lucky, but it seems her excess was limited only by her imagination, the same with Glor.
            “But there are no other worlds, no heavens, no hells,” Jaal reminded them.
            “Not now,” reasoned the Fencer.  “But maybe then.”
            “When Arandlia existed, tucked into some crook of history, fitting like a puzzle piece into the bizarre map of the world.”
            The Fencer was out of his depth.  His world was cold, harsh, crystallized in a state of entropy.  There was no escape, only foolishness and survival.  Magic, however, held a hideous exception.
            He had seen its workings, mostly small atrocities, but at times witnessed spells which were huge, almost incomprehensible.  Contemplating the crown as a tool of the whim drew fear from his heart.
            The noises from outside grew horrible.  Claws rang upon the precious mountains and the room groaned under the weight of invisible titans.  There were wing flaps, eye gleams, and hellish voices speaking with inhuman tongues.  Anything might scuttle, leap, inch or come running out from the mist.
            Each man grew cold as they pondered the nightmares to come and the nightmares grew in strength.  The air lit up with strange, electric fire and the Blue Which Flows twitched and flexed excitedly. 
            It reached in with claws of diamond, parting the waters of a massive cataract.  Following came a head, that of a great serpent.  Scales of ice steamed cold even in this realm and the pattern is wore murdered heat and life.  The thing had to duck and they only saw part of its massive frame through the clouds.
            “I was like them once,” stated a familiar voice full of poisoned honey.
            Ice cracked and shattered as the Hunting Thing tore loose from the spikes which held her.  She seemed no worse for being impaled.  The huge wounds in her chest closed as her flesh flowed whole.  Greater now, the behemoth cat was a serene collection of liquid purple flesh, obsidian claws, black diamond horns, eyes of topaz, and a tail glowing with power.
            Her speaking part, that emerald serpent with many eyes, which acted as both tongue and viper, lolled out of her mouth hungrily.
            “Just a notion drifting across the ice and snow.  Given no more life than what was necessary for survival.  In short order I was born and soon would die.  Until I drank of the noble waters.”
            The Fencer turned, blade ready, but in his eyes there was the worry that death could not come to the mutant cat.
            “Cold thoughts and fears, built of blue,” riddled the Hunting Thing.  “Yet nothing inside which is true.”
            With a crash the scaly thing spilled out from obscurity and they saw its totality winding back into the far edges of the cavern.  There more horrors boiled and frothed.  Caterpillar demons twitched their bloody antennae while eye-covered orbs soared overhead.  Each strained their eyes and screamed into the air, faster and stronger and stranger each moment.
            “Our fear grants them aspect and strength,” realized the Fencer.  “Trumpeter, stop thinking.  Jaal, stop imagining.”
            This was easy enough for him to say as insane tons of nightmare spilled towards them.  Howls and beams of light reached through the mist after the mortals.
            “It’ll do you no good,” smirked the Hunting Thing.  “Only I can command them.”
            “Then you should do so,” cried the Trumpeter before sending out a blast with his horn.
            The ceiling above the lead beasts buckled and fell.  For a moment dust and spray covered sight of the demon things and the echoes of collapse drowned out their screams.
            As they settled the clouds grew appendages, long tendrils with many small apertures along them.  These began to sing.
            In response the stones which had just fallen, some in huge blocks, others smashed to blue slivers, floated upon the air and drifted close.  As they neared forms bulged and fell from the granite.  Each was a statue being, some tribal, carven idol, and they waded through the pool towards the men.
            Behind all these came the horde, flowing around this temporary stop like a river.  With them were all the dreams of the depths.
            “The Regalom, if you will,” bowed the beast, whose head offered a place for their generous gift.
            Laughing mad, the Fencer considered the device.  In flashes of electric thought the platinum crown showed his reflection, distorted, warped, just as it would do to his soul if he should wear it or fall under its spell once more.
            “Why should we accept a secondary ruler?” he argued, framed by serpents and cerulean ghosts.  “We all know who the High King, or Queen, is here.”
            They didn’t see her move but suddenly she was there, a rolling wave of thick blue following the course of her movements.  The wave splashed over the Fencer but did little to douse his glee.  He laughed into her face, just inches from his.  The beast surrounded him, her tail telling her displeasure with each electronic strike it made upon the strange waters.
            “Explain yourself,” she rasped.
            Jaal and the Trumpeter quietly backed away only to find themselves in the company of the azure horde.  Unwilling to wait for conversation the mindless guardians dove upon the mortals who faced them with steel and silver.
            “I wouldn’t condescend to such a noble beast,” the Fencer said calmly.  “It would be an insult upon your royal character.”
            The Trumpeter’s notes blasted imagined demons and historical tyrants to dust and relics.  Cloud-things were dispersed and wondrous dreams once treasured by the rulers of Nysul were trumped by his dreams of song and pealing wonder.
            “Then let me command you to loosen your tongue,” hissed the Hunting Thing as her serpent tongue wound around his neck three times, then arched back ready to strike.  “It would do us both good, for reasons which should be thricely obvious now.”
            Here Jaal found his joy, as he cut down legions of the hated nobles from the past.  Claest the Proud?  Stabbed through the heart.  Bhewhyn Lemur-Killer?  Chopped in half.  High King Ewtagal, who put down several bloody insurrections and defeated his own traitor magician?  Decapitated.
            By the dozens they fell, but there were always more.  The hated past, the feared return of the despots, made each confrontation more terrible than the last.  Inhuman features grew from their legends until he was fighting the warped nightmares of history. 
            “I will do my best to comply,” smiled the Fencer, his cold eyes locked into the beast’s.  “No matter who wears this crown there will always be this thing below.  Its quivers and pulls all minds.  Upon its gelatinous head gleams true rulership.  All the kings and queens of the badlands, yourself included, are but extensions of its being.  Like all subjects who are part of the monarch, so too are monarchs part of this superior being, mere organs of the body politic.”
            The beast growled and the air crackled with her displeasure.  Frantic jolts lit up the swelling horde of nobles and the desperate mortals, now locked into the jellied power machine at the base of Nysul.  Jaal heaved exhausted as more of his hated betters reached for him and the Trumpeter’s playing weakened with the effort of so much music.  The Fencer's grin weakened. 
            The Hunting Thing freed the swordsman and turned.  Her horns and claws and strange, jagged flesh wound past the Fencer with a feline grace.  He had his moment to strike then, but waited, sensing a building charge.  The air groaned.  Her tail crackled. 
            Feeling this too, Jaal and the Trumpeter broke off from their combat.  The blue nobles and their strange dream things didn’t follow.  Stillness took them back to statues as they listened to the tone coming from the Hunting Thing.   Each man felt this terrible energy through the cold proximity of the Blue Which Flows .
            It was all sound for seconds which seemed to stretch on for hours, then a flash.  A spark.  The charge became visible as a nimbus of pale blue around the beast.  Her tail and tongue acting like the poles of some magician’s appliance she built the charge to crescendo.
            “Quick, up here.”
            The Fencer found himself shaken from the awful beauty he was seeing by the Trumpeter.  He let himself be led to a pile of treasure where they ascended, standing upon the narrow island like polar bears on a tiny iceberg.
            At the peak of some particular wave of energy the cat howled.  With its bellow a vivid tone buzzed through the air, eclipsing the roar.  Lightning danced through the assorted denizens of the jeweled abyss.  For a frozen moment they stood as a blinding fountain.  When their eyes cleared the men saw nothing more than echoing flashes in the waters and clouds of vapor where the horde once stood.
            The waters spoke their passing.  Through that conductive medium charges raced.  The Fencer’s being, ever attuned to the cold, noticed that the stuff seemed less cold now, however slightly.
            “So are they born, so they die,” decreed the Hunting Thing.  Stray bits of blue fire trailed from her horns.  The smell of ozone hung in the air.
            “That is all they are, lightning?” asked Jaal, disappointed that he might be battling fictions.
            “Of a kind,” explained the beast.  “The charge animates those bits of water and dust which conspire in almost every portion of air, compounding them into exotic forms of matter as decreed by the Blue.  That same charge may be disrupted through superior nobility.”
            As the three men watched, none of them willing to step from their little island of treasure, the beast approached.
            “The Regalom, now,” she said.
            “Already told you,” began the Fencer, “you’ll not gain an atom of satisfaction from it while that jellied monstrosity rules all.”
            “I can argue with it,” she replied.
            “This you’ve tried already,” he continued.  “Now it doesn’t even have a mouth with which to converse.  It doesn’t hear you, or even know you exist.  It alone exists, conducting the thoughts it has gathered into more and stranger arrays of power so that it might draw upon the peoples of the badlands and, in time, further realms.” 
            The Hunting Thing’s cat eyes bored holes into the Fencer while the serpent observed the jellied emperor with its many lenses.  Without breaking sight the swordsman pushed the Trumpeter off their perch.
            “Unkind!” shouted the musician after the splash.  “My, isn’t this stuff not as cold as I remember?”
            While trying to discover why the man had just done Jaal met a similar fate.  Down went the actor with an impromptu cry.  Quickly he was up, blade in hand.
            The creature’s cat head turned, confused by this behavior.  Strange rays of light came from the serpent, caressing the Blue Which Flows.  Now the absolute ruler seemed to sag, half melted, almost in defeat. 
            Winking off the rays the serpent whipped back to face the Fencer, alone on his little island.  A low growl began in the Hunting Thing’s throat.
            “A trick,” it murmured.  “You think I’m foolish enough to throw myself at that pretender monstrosity.  I know it, even more than you.  This blue is my blood, hence why the ice did not slay me, and it is mine.  A raw nobility turned to my will.”
            “Never has it occurred to outwit you,” smirked the Fencer.  At once the two, drenched men were happy to not be on that island.  “My reasons are simple, quite unlike your rarified tastes.”
            “What reasons?” demanded the Hunting Thing, whose muscled tensed and whose tail wildly suggested the coming violence.
            “To survive.  Not just endure, but overcome, princess and emperors, snow and ice.  I owe you nothing.”
            She lunged into his feint.  The island went up in a shower of blue spray and golden coin, but her claws found no man.  He was upon her back, blade first into her side.  Then he was off before she bellowed in pain, strange blue blood freezing upon the wound.  Her body became a tangle of razors.
            At her flank he had his choice of openings.  Something crackled in his right ear.  He ducked under the buzzing orb at the end of her tail.  Stray licks of current stung his right side and it went numb. 
            Her victim staged by the whipping appendage the Hunting Thing wheeled on the Fencer.  Her mass sent up a wave of conductive fluid which overwhelmed the man as he frantically tried to back away.  She followed, the snake head lolled about to taste victory.
            “I’m endeavoring to decide your fate,” it related immodestly.  “Now there are any number of royal terrors which might befall one of your lack of stature.  Each of my eyes conducts a different mode of enthusiastic particles which happen to be inimical to life.  But I intend to feel your death through our shared medium.”
            At this the beast’s tongue sunk into the blue waters even as its hulking body followed close on the defeated man.  Behind him loomed the liquescent hulk of the Blue Which Flows, watching or not, perhaps senseless to the drama playing out before it.
            She held all power now.  Life and death lay balanced upon her black diamond claws.  Forces swelled her, healing all wounds, even those brought by that tickling, nightmare sword the little man wielded.  That shard of agency, of the capability to carve free from power, galled her noble sensibilities.  The Hunting Thing, no, High Queen Hope, was the final and most terrible merging of an apex predator and royal pedigree.  What tastes hungered.
            As she loomed, and the chilling solution weighed him down into the azure pool, the Fencer scrambled on, half-numb.  In desperation he threw his weapon away, where it froze against an island of platinum and jade.  Now weaponless, he labored to regain his footing.
            Jaal moved to flank the beast but found a hand in his way.  The Trumpeter hushed him and watched, pursing his lips and readying his instrument.
            “That’s it, stand tall my tasty rebel,” purred the High Queen as her serpent self rose from the blue.  “I will devour your legs first, so use them while we allow it.”
            Against the noble absolute the Fencer’s face, set in a grim edge of pain and determination, relaxed.  A smile bloomed, a knowing thing.  High Queen Hope bristled at the sight.
            That smile.  Part smirk, part grin, fatigued yet unbowed, icy, like Winter’s shroud.  Sublime too, she felt as much through the conductive fluid.  There was a reason for the smile, the reason of Winter, sharpened against the world’s cold, unyielding surface.  Here was a smile born of the ice eon and she knew it too, for it was her smile.
            “That’s not for you!” the serpent shrieked and the cat did roar.  The chamber trembled and the humming build of her strange electricity grew.
            They shared a thing and it boiled in her.  Both born of cold and sorrow, desperate survivors of Winter’s Riddle, now struggling again, as always.  Commoner like queen, and magic no better than the mundane.  In truth they were the same, beasts of the land wandering according to their wants, daring out from their crude existences towards greater things. 
            She raged and fumed, hissing poison, growling with the dynamo buzz of a hundred thunderbolts.  Vast paws cleaved the conducting fluid which made them share so intimately.  Desperately she wanted to be alone in her perfection.  Crouching down she readied to lunge, her head full of executions, each tooth and claw a guillotine.
            Enough time had passed.  The Fencer flexed his fingers and felt his toes.  Jaal moved too late, the automatic stumble to an unstoppable action.   
            High Queen Hope caught the commoner swordsman even as he dodged to the side.  Some bit of lethargy weighed him down and her right claw took him partway in the chest, spinning him like a top.  Then she crashed, a noble into another.
            While the High Queen had played the Fencer had arranged for a royal war.  He had set the Blue Which Flows at his back and played the beast’s rage all for a single moment, half won.
            She thrashed within the massive jelly form as it greedily sucked her up.  Shocks and jolts shot through the liquid crystal, through the blue waters, into each man.  They knew her rage exactly. 
            But such frantic movement only sped the process of accumulation.  Her lightning was the first to go, grounding into the fluid in a wink.  Next the gelatinous thing took all her changes.  She went from a hulking titan to a jagged murder, dwindling to that first sleek beast they met in Glor’s throne room, until even that went away.  They were left with a purple snow puma, a runt, which watched them with huge, frightened yellow eyes until it faded, becoming a shadow hidden within the frosted interior.
            The Fencer didn’t notice his wounds at first.  The creature’s claws were so sharp that they left only lines, lines which filled with blood by the action of the victim’s own heart.  Deeper still his ribs had felt her touch.  And his whole right side now bloomed with pain.
            Once the spectacle of the Hunting Thing’s demise was complete his  companions took him to the gem-encrusted shore and bound his wounds with bandages stolen from the Children’s safe house.  Each time around his chest he had to stifle a cry.
            “We should be off soon,” said the Trumpeter at last.  “Can’t imagine one noble treating us any more fairly than another.”
            “No,” grinned Jaal.  “Can’t you feel it now?  It’s warmer.  A change is here and I’m the mood for revolution.”
            The Fencer said nothing.  Mostly it was the agony each word sparked in his chest but also because he too felt a shift in the season.