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 façade.
“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.