She awoke on the shore and remembered. There stood the Fencer, whose real name she never managed to pry from his lips, those grimly set lips. Placed within his strong features, framed by cobalt hair, they spoke of a dream she envied.
“It can’t be,” smiled the Trumpeter, who then lost all sense of joy at the reunion. The Fencer approached in uncertain silence, his hands agitated at the loss of his blade.
“You are defeated,” grinned the Hunting Thing, which sat down to watch.
“I’m not real,” Clea said at last. “Or, at least, I’m only as real as you remember.”
“So I can chop off your head and you wouldn’t mind?” asked the Fencer, testing. The sorceress flinched.
He observed this emerald creature. Her lithe frame wore a diaphanous shift, her limbs wound with ribbons, her long hair still wild from her awakening upon the shore. All of this, her eyes and hair, like from the legends—from memory—shimmered crystalline green, a vibrant code which separated the icebound from those who worked magic.
The swordsman took her by the shoulders. She felt solid enough. Her eyes followed his. A slow, terrible longing rose from his heart, like ice thawing.
“What’s the purpose of the journal?” demanded the Trumpeter, breaking the silence.
The Fencer shot him a deadly glance but the musician just shook his head. He really wished to know.
“I,” she began with difficulty, “don’t know.”
Some hours passed, it was difficult to say. Without day or night time seemed a lost world sunk this endless sea. Ruins interrupted the view, jutting through the hazy distance. The reunited couple set camp down the shore while the musician had a staring contest with the cat beast, which kept guard over this low, flat island’s only feature: a monolith of slick, blue matter some five meters high.
“Who is she?” asked the creature, adjusting itself without blinking.
“A ghost,” replied the wild man.
“What sort of ghost will you have?” continued the creature, speaking in the mind, as they all did here.
“A continent,” he said, quite bored.
The monstrous snuma fought a blink. A tremor went through the thing as it recomposed itself.
Down the way the two were reunited but unhappy. Clea lay back and watched the sky shimmer. Chords of gleaming metal, or the like, wove through the cloudy atmosphere in layers and bands, parallel to the ground, occasionally vibrating as if struck. And the Fencer watched her, unable to relax, sitting close, afraid to touch this sorceress he had known only a few short hours, but whose legacy had sent him across the far reaches of Barant.
“You don’t remember why you kept the journal?” he asked again.
“Show it to me,” she replied, now more confident. “Why else does one keep a journal than to remember?”
“It’s lost,” he explained, “and there are certain pages missing.”
“Maybe they left because they were no longer useful.”
Conversation was a puzzle with her, just as he remembered it. Her moment of innocent confusion now gone.
The Fencer frowned and lay down close to Clea where her warmth met his and she was all flesh and blood and immediate. He couldn’t feel her heart beat, but she couldn’t find his either, and when they spoke it was with their minds and not their mouths.
While the swordsman drowned in confusion the other couple glared through each other, madness against beast.
“You said we were beaten,” mentioned the Trumpeter. “Why?”
“Oh,” sighed the creature, “the past is the surest weapon; it always aims for the heart. Ha! You lose!”
The Trumpeter had turned his head to see his friend. Beside his dead lover the Fencer lay framed against a horizon of cloudy memories and liquid communication, islands of fossilized dreams and the flickering hives of the long dead nobles of Nysul. The sky strummed its noiseless tune, like a harp playing creation into being.
Rising, the Trumpeter made for the shore while the beast chortled and began to clean itself. Down amongst the shoals the water gave a shock of cold as he touched it. Ideas like fish swam in close and a low, easy wave lapped against the island.
Growing strange, his eyes watched the blue chemical sea in action. To drown here was to be drowned in memories. All of Nysul’s history, lies and all, waited within. The clouds ruins were simply part of the inner system of the Blue Which Flows.
“What is that thing?” asked Clea just as the Fencer was about to fall asleep. The witch gestured towards the monolith and its keeper.
“A cat who would be queen,” he murmured without opening his eyes. Hell or a dream, he would make the best of it until it killed him.
“It’s coming closer.”
Clea stood to greet the ruler while the Fencer refused to move.
“What do you want, cat?” he asked when her padding stopped.
“Are you well acquainted with your treasure?” demanded the Hunting Thing.
The man grunted in answer.
In this moment resided a crystalline peace set between warmth and cold. The Fencer knew that the sky was false and the beast a menace, but kept the moment anyway. It couldn’t last. Suddenly, he was surrounded by green.
He snapped upright to stare out across the sea. Nothing ahead, nothing to either side, he demanded an explanation from the horizon and what he feared it harbored. There, a ghost haunted the place beyond the clouds.
In his moment of clam he hadn’t heard the cat pounce. Clea lay in its embrace, weakly fighting back. With a cry the Fencer struck the thing and it released the woman with a snarl.
“Fencer! Fencer!” cried the madman from the distant shore. He had caught a fish which gleamed with gold.
There was no time. A monster tensed, blood on its muzzle. At their feet the emerald alchemist seemed dazed, her throat open to reveal tendons and bone and shredded vessels steeped in red.
The Hunting Thing moved as a blur, streaking the air purple, yellow eyes searing tracers. Grappling the Fencer, together they rolled across the harsh stone. Hands held back fangs as legs and claws struck and tore. The combatants and their thoughts melded into a ball of rage and cold predation.
Struggling free, the beast put a few paces between itself and the Fencer. There was a confusion of blood on each of them. The snuma charged and the man just barely dodged away. Looking about there seemed no object he might use as a weapon.
Again she charged and again he dodged aside, but not quickly enough. One claw opened up a red line from his right shoulder down all the way to the back of his thigh.
“It’ll be ok Fencer!” smiled the musician while Clea sputtered on the ground. Now the air glittered with the light reflecting from the Trumpeter’s strange fish.
Clouds billowed closer and the sea rushed like blood in the ear. The cat grew indistinct, her thoughts merging with her prey. The green witch laughed despite her throat and she got up without much difficulty.
“Clea, Clea do something!” demanded the Fencer, his wound screaming cold along his body.
“What can I do?” she laughed, painted with blood.
“I knew you as a witch, an alchemist,” he began, following the hungry eyes of the Hunting Thing with became lost in the growing haze. “You can do anything.”
Though he couldn’t see it so well the Fencer could hear the creature’s growl as it circled through the cloud to strike. Any moment it might come, a ghost out of the fog.
“I can’t,” Clea said, with sorrow in her voice. “It told you.”
He focused. To one side laughed Clea, to another gleamed the indistinct glory of the Trumpeter. Choosing, he slunk through the cloud towards the gold.
She followed in a leap. Now transformed, the Hunting Beast was an arc of pure color, a splatter of cat-shaped ink whose jagged edges sought the swordsman’s throat. He split apart into victim and victory. His hands at the beast’s throat, twisting her neck, under her claws, blood pooling into a sea.
Impossibly slow, time itself bleared away as fragmentary possibilities. One last curtain and gold waited. A twilight man. A coronation. She fled back to death and the cold returned.
“So you are rightful sovereign of Nysul,” pronounced the giant known as Dominion. Jaal wondered if it was a question. No, a challenge.
“Where is your crown?”
Definitely a challenge.
The mortal didn’t answer immediately. He considered the monstrous titan’s words as might a man of unhurried ambition. Thoughtfulness was a luxury for the rich and powerful and as a noble he had an obligation to waste time.
“That is why I am here,” he began at last. “Along with stopping these two miscreants at their burglary I came to be anointed. The upper nations are thrown into chaos, you know this. My own realm is an empty tomb full of thrones which beg for even a ghost to keep them company. Here, in this…realm, the last emperor held the seat of power and even today power radiations from this place. It fits tradition to rule according to an implement of the past.”
He moved as he spoke, circling the monster, circling upon the highest rim of treasured dunes he though reasonable. While his voice was steady, direct, his perception was keyed all about, searching for the Regalom and salvation. That power he spoke of, that was fear.
“Miscreants,” said Dominion.
At first Jaal didn’t notice but the word tickled into his mind. He wasn’t being spoken to. Glancing back he saw the thing eying the sleeping forms of the Fencer and the Trumpeter.
It was a wonder they could sleep at all. Dominion’s words boomed in Jaal’s head like an avalanche. Theirs was a deep, strange sleep.
“I’ve caught them,” said the actor with as much bluster as he could manage, “and I’ll try them in my domain.”
Dominion strode towards the helpless men. Shivering, Jaal followed as fast as he deemed a noble would. Inwardly he sighed with relief as the giant stopped short.
Above them Dominion loomed like the sky, that single eye glaring angrily from its cerulean head. Just a step and they would be crushed under the weight of empire, more individuals smashed against the state. Dominion considered them and now Jaal saw that the mighty being was hollow, with seams around its side showing within. There a dead face, that of the infamous Duxess Emphyr, stared out, half-absorbed.
“Their minds lie within the Blue,” it said at last, glancing over towards the jellied emperor. Shaking free of the dead woman’s gaze Jaal saw the ultimate tyrant was recovering. It seemed to have regained some structure, standing taller, its protoplasm crystallizing.
“The true ruler of the badlands? Them, in that thing?”
“Yes,” said the grim tyrant. “They are within the eternal court, where all past nobles of Nysul go to dream and wait for the restoration of empire. All who drink of this land have a place within the feudal body.”
Jaal’s heart beat furiously. Hatred filled his limbs. If only he could destroy the thing, all this royal nonsense could stop. The Children would forge a new day through such revolution. It didn’t matter which kind, they had enough of ghosts, of unfinished magic, fighting with each other for scant prey. If they had any madmen it would be of a new sort.
“You are glad?” asked Dominion. For a moment the young man had let slip a smile.
“What better place for justice,” he replied, composing himself.
“Indeed, their minds may never return,” it stated and began to move about the dunes of treasure. “Now we must find the blasphemous object you speak of, so I might destroy this threat to order.”
Nodding, the actor fell upon the golden hills. Wealth beyond imagining grew here, all organs of the most terrible and quivering thing pulsating at the lowest point of the badlands.
Jaal scattered away a layer of gold only to reveal silver. He kicked through a tangle of jewelry and toppled a chest full of platinum. Amongst that pale metal he saw a flash of red and scrambled, only to pull up a handful of rubies.
Tossing them away he sighed and took stock of the cavern as a whole. The edges of the room had taken on a haze from the cascading waterfalls. Soon he wouldn’t be able to hide his true nature from the giant any longer.
Going back to the hills he saw Dominion off in the distance and shuddered. There was no defeating such a thing with violence. It was too unreal to kill, to noble to murder and too watchful to surprise. He had his countrymen to blame, in a way.
An hour passed, maybe more, time indistinct amongst the growing fog. His hands bled from pawing through precious metal and his back ached from stooping. Frustrated, he went to see if the miscreants still lived.
They slept, barely breathing, their souls elsewhere. The emperor jelly was almost returned to its full stature, its strange fungoid crown now lustrous and metallic.
Jaal began skipping coins across the liquid while his mind worked to free himself from assured death, or worse.
Plink, said the coins. It didn’t sound quite like water. Then he saw the gleam.
The platinum Regalom sought his attention from the shallows. It was an enchanted thing, sure enough. It wanted to be worn, it wanted heads, skulls. Ancient magics demanded attention and use. Perhaps the last emperor, who had so covered himself with sorcery, had been just as much a victim as he was a fool and despot.
Jaal made to go for the thing, but stopped short of the bluish pool. If he entered, Dominion would feel his thoughts and know his scheme. He had to have a wish in mind the second he waded in and there was little time. Plots like fevers shook through his brain.
“Have you found it?” asked Dominion. It was only a few meters away and its booming psyche startled the false noble.
“No,” he began, but then stopped and hoped it wasn’t already too late. “Not until you woke me from my fatigue. Sometimes all it takes is another set of eyes. There it is, in the shallows down there.”
Jaal pointed and it saw and without hesitation waded out to the crown. There the liquid came up to its chest and from the blue rose a thing of beautiful platinum and red stone, gleaming, eager for more skulls.
“It buzzes strangely to my spirit,” grumbled the giant as it strode out of the pool. “Not of Nysul. Power though, strange, built of words and therefore infinite. Language of the stars, dark matter against white space, towers laid in succession.”
As if in response the Blue Which Flows quivered. Truly, Dominion seemed stunned by the device, somehow able to sense its power in a way none of its mortal wearers could.
“Aren’t you going to destroy it?” smiled Jaal.
“Join me and we can rule beyond the Blue, beyond Nysul,” it said after a long pause.
The monster indicated the seam along its side, just large enough for a person to clamber within. By now the Duxess was fully digested.
“How would we do this?” The false noble made no move towards the terrible aperture.
The giant didn’t respond.
“You place it upon your head,” explain Jaal and the thing did so. Power hung silent in the air as imperial clouds drifted in. “Now say, say what you wish for. Speak it true, protect us, all of Nysul, from that which is most terrible. The crown knows the spirit of language and will make the world accordingly.”
Again Dominion was silent, as if frozen by the awful possibilities. Jaal knew the toxin of power well. It was a heady narcotic, but its results were deadly.
“What do you desire?” he asked simply.
“To defend Nysul,” came its automatic reply. Now nature and desire were at odds. It wasn’t a wish or a demand, so the words held no change.
“Then speak it as a pure dream of language and the Regalom will remake the future according to your poetry.” The actor smiled, his act going away.
“I wish that I might control the badlands, the empire, the whole peoples and realm of Nysul in the most perfect manner. I. Myself. Alone,” blared Dominion who then vanished, the crown falling with a clatter upon the golden shore.
The orb of clouds exploded in freedom, blasting the chamber and rumbling the ceiling. Massive blocks of stone fell into the azure pool with a splash. In this confusion the actor lost sight of the crown.
“You just have,” said Jaal of Night as he considered his wager won. “Now you rule alone.”
He gave himself a smile, and a smirk, and then a laugh. There wasn’t much echo as the chamber was once more filling with azure fog which soaked up his voice. With one despot gone he moved to take the crown and finish the dynasty. There it was, shimmering through the haze.
The Fencer and the Trumpeter roused with shouts, like men from nightmares. Voices high, there was a disturbance to the cloud around them. For the briefest second monstrous and beautiful shapes adorned their dreamy heads and the air cleared, as if fearful of these phantoms. Then they saw Jaal.
He snatched up the crown against the nightmare blade, against the silver trumpet, and he placed the thing upon his head.