Myriad lines charged the air. Like harp strings they gleamed and rose in gradients, marking altitude, flashing as if plucked. They resonated, illuminating strange clouds, a flat island, and an azure sea from which bizarre rock formations rose. Through the haze thousands more chords shone.
Against one vivid, azure wall sat the cat. The wall was unique. Sleek and monotonous, it was the only structure on the island, her island. Face amongst paws, the creature’s yellow eyes watched as two men trudged ashore. The waters were clear, cold, each of them shivering with the energy it imparted.
Recognizing the beast for what she was the Fencer went for his sword only to discover he was unarmed, the Trumpeter as well, and even the vials of Clea’s magic they kept for emergencies were strangely absent. They couldn’t tell if the cat was smiling.
So they froze against each other, staring. Their eyes and this land quiet and still. Strange clouds wearing faces, clumps of bodies, billowed in and billowed out. In time a procession came.
Stately beings of regal angles and heavy, rich furs marched past on some errand. Each wore a crown and a few even seemed familiar. A warrior draped in snuma skins, a queen garbed in living ice, a crowned scholar, each part of a moving court.
These peers complained about this interruption of their journey in a whine of conflicting noises until they marched right into the crystalline sea. With a flash they were gone, their movements no longer disturbed.
Through all this the cat was still, unmoving, unblinking, unbreathing. Yet the beast was the first to break this purity, vanishing around the short blue wall only to reappear along the other side again. Beyond the island strange ruins towered, flashing up from time to time in the electrical pangs running along the upper cords. Suddenly they realized she had been speaking.
“…your clothes, your skin, your lungs,” she grumbled at them. “Drenched in the stuff. Like we speak through the air by disturbing the unseen matter within.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t follow,” explained the Trumpeter.
Both the men approached the beast, who was small for a snuma, maybe less than two hundred kilograms by her look.
“Just one drop is all it takes,” she smiled. “You were part of us weeks ago.”
The sky played and a wave came, frothing waters full of beings and objects. With a splash these were deposited on the shore all wriggling and arguing, ready for crusades and glittering with value.
“You’re dead,” said the Fencer, “and I’m dreaming.”
“We’re dreaming,” corrected the Trumpeter through the haze of the place. There were no clouds or mist, but a shadow lay over everything, making it seem unreal and gauzy.
“Wrong on both counts,” purred the Hunting Thing. “An old custom attributes many lives of various number to cats. I can honestly say that I’m finding this to be one superstition worth believing in. I live, although in a different mode, and you do not dream, but have now become part of the Blue Which Flows.”
Terrible things revealed themselves with each flash of the sky. Those illuminating thoughts lit up hideous structures composed of calcified notions, fused mummies of souls, ideas laid like sediment. Structures of such stuff loomed from the sea as spindles and plinths, crags and cliffs.
The Hunting Things’s island was different. Sleeker, a bare pane of smooth plastic just a few feet above the water, it stretched out behind the wall, the only upward symbol on the whole place. This space was just the start, it waited for her command.
“Who needs a crown?” she spoke, her voice different, a deep grumble from her throat. She then went down to the shore and pulled an emperor screaming from the wriggling mass. While they watched she began to devour the hapless thing.
“How is it that the least kind things manage to cheat death?” growled the Fencer. “It must be some avenue of the Riddle manifest despite the equality of cold.”
“Ah,” uttered the Trumpeter, as if he had sudden understanding, though he didn’t elaborate until the Fencer grabbed him by his coat.
“Don’t you see?” fussed the musician, slapping the swordsman away. “She has the talent, some high-functioning mutant with capabilities beyond the icebound. In short, a thaumic cat, whatever name more cleverly describes this beast.”
The Fencer considered this, trying to put his companion’s warbles into an idea he could manage.
“A mage,” he said at last, something close to a whisper. “It only stands to reason that beasts might be given the same curse as men, for in this world there is little difference.”
He looked out and saw the swarming hive of old Nysul’s nobles. There were honeycomb churches full of jittering kings and mounds crawling with emperors. It seemed the horizon danced, but this was simply the compound movement of thousands of thoughts and notions, minds and monarchs, moving together. The clouds were composed like mass graves and ruins made from the pressed bones of subjects and time. Only the sea was clear, starkly so, linking all these things together, charged with bolts of lights which ran through the ever present chords.
“Like the workings of some huge harp,” wondered the Trumpeter, drunk on dreams.
“Those are the striations we see within the emperor jelly’s matter,” sighed the Fencer. “Its slime runs according to some striated logic, giving it strength and solidity, while charging the liquid with an animating magic.”
“The Blue Which Flows is a useful idiot,” said a well fed voice from behind, “but only I could make this space.”
The Hunting Thing stalked forward.
“There’s nothing here,” smirked the Fencer.
She roared and though it wasn’t the stone shattering bellow she had been capable of at her height, here it ran through the men like a knife. All that was primal and fearful in the beast overwhelmed the brain, staggered the heart.
“It is a foundation,” she said when sure of their attention. “From here I might build the future. You’d do well to understand that because your bones and blood will be my stone and mortar.”
“Not true,” complained the Trumpeter. “It is only thought and idea which has form here.”
“Quite right, subject,” nodded the Hunting Thing, gaining some airs of her old queenly self. “For that is what we are here and on yours I will gladly feast.”
The beast snarled and braced. Some ten meters separated her from the men but she could clear that in a second and have her fangs at their throats. The Fencer readied himself to wrestle this creature of the mind. Then a wave came and he was lost.
She sputtered to shore all green and beautiful, like an emerald cut from the heart of a poisoned mountain. Clea composed herself, whole and alive.
For the better part of an hour he waited for them to rest at last. Boundless energy animated those two outlanders but as with all mortals they had to sleep. Desperately, Jaal stayed awake, ostensibly to keep watch, but in truth this was an act.
Somewhere amongst the treasures it lay, a diamond amongst rubies, a crown amongst crowns. Yet it was as different from these other treasures as the travelers were from the people of Nysul. The Regalom came from outside, brought here, interred by the green witch several seasons ago for reasons unknown. Perhaps the Trumpeter’s book held such reasons.
Yet, all was clouds. Dreamy warmth had bubbled up from the Fencer’s word. Hazy entities tumbled through the chamber speaking with the occasional flash. As the clear might of the Blue Which Flows ebbed the dispersed remnants lived on and through that medium power spoke in hushed tones. The crown was lost amongst the fog.
What things he would do with it, thought the actor. Joy and purpose kept him standing, awake and tall, with the prime face of a false king and the giddy energy of a waking dreamer. He wouldn’t simply rule or command. No, a pure act would follow donning the Regalom and Jaal of Night would bring a new day to the badlands.
But, just as the Fencer and the Trumpeter fell to dreams it came, lumbering as gigantic as history and its weight was death. Dominion was its name, the clouds said so.
Parts of the aether told its story as the ruling skin arrived. Jaal knew to fear it before he could see. Scrambling behind a golden dune he hid amongst the clouds.
Dominion stopped to the sound of jangling coin. A few seconds drifted by. At the shore lay the two travelers. Perhaps they had awakened or maybe their sleep was unnatural and they dreamed on. If only he could find the crown, Jaal thought, he might meet this ruler as a peer.
With a gasp the clouds fled. Through the clear air he saw it, a giant of blue, akin to the emperor jelly, with a single massive eye on its featureless bulb of a head and this eye watched him, unblinking. In one, partially finished hand it held a sphere of glowing, condensed gas.
“It is everything,” said a titan’s voice within the man’s head. “The orb is the cosmos which I hold and am in turn held by.”
“A nice thing my liege,” said Jaal, standing up from where he crouched against some platinum. “I appreciate your handling of this cosmos.”
Now it strode forward, on towards him. If he had remained by his sleeping companions it would’ve walked through them like so much liquid. Even the heavy gold and gems it tossed aside like so much water, making a chiming splash.
“To what do I owe this honor?” said the actor, who bowed and looked about for some sign of the Regalom. Every moment was drenched in cold fear.
“There is a great unsettling of the land,” spoke the giant without mouth. “The order of things is undone. The weak are burdened with strength and the strong are enticed with weakness. Confusion takes the place of the balance of kings. Even the true ruler now must change.”
“Are you this ruler, if I may ask?” Jaal retreated a respectful distance from his better to gain more vantage, his eyes dancing across the endless collage of gem and jewel.
“I am simply Dominion, the frame of power. Only the Blue Which Flows rules Nysul as the ultimate authority. There is no title which exists yet to describe its superlative throne.”
The thing was balancing, judging, weighing the moment of things upon the scale of whatever harsh and fantastical monarchy from which it had been born. Jaal seethed inwardly at its presence, a bully with a body of magic and a lust for crowns.
Tension built within the clear air, now growing colder as Winter retook its rightful place. It seeped in from the stones and from the cold wastes above. How long it had been since Jaal had seen the clear skies of Nysul. Thin triangle sheaves of patterned clouds up in the pale blue, framed by the red rock and the crumbling citadels of half-dead nobles. Centuries seemed shorter.
“What do you propose to do?” Jaal continued his search, moving about the moneyed dunes, careful not to betray his greed. He acted afraid, which was easy considering the circumstances.
“There is a threat of words,” it replied. The thing had no volume other than declaration, as if the whole badlands were listening.
“I know just the rebellion of which you speak!” said the young man in reply. He cajoled the titan, displaying the hoard about them. “I followed two thieves as they sought to plunder the depths. Each carried devices above their station. One an enchanted weapon, the other an invulnerable instrument of silver notes. Plundered from their betters most likely.”
Each mentioned prop was punctuated by a jab of his finger into the air. When speaking of the outlanders he let a harsh angle of distaste flavor his words. Jaal paused to let the performance sink in, but the faceless giant was difficult to read. A tough audience.
“They pillaged a mighty crown from one of the lower vaults and brought it to the surface. In their ignorance they lost control of its power and sowed chaos amongst the nations of Nysul. Undaunted, they endeavored to steal more items of power from the Great Vault.”
“What is your business here then,” demanded Dominion, barely letting the actor’s words finish.
Jaal paused a moment, he was sure it would be his death, then smiled.
“I am Orlac the Younger, Heir of the Pale Castle, Prince of Nysul,” he began, putting on a costume of history. “As part of the blood of this land I felt it was my duty to cease their troubles.”
“You lack a sword,” it noted.
“I have my wits,” he replied.
“Your clothes are tatters,” it observed.
“Clothes don’t make a noble, ancestry does,” he shot back, casting his face into sharp features, lifting his nose from atop a treasure heap. “I seek only to restore that which was lost and taken.”
Silence responded. It would know his lies, no matter how many truths he buried them under. The air was full of other languages, avenues of communication. That was the nature of the Blue, whether as a cloud or a pool or a jellied monstrosity it allowed for pure transmission of thoughts and feelings.
Then Dominion regarded his orb. It contained all. Cold returned, but the air remained clear and at that moment Jaal realized something which almost broke him to pieces with laughter. This monster would know his falsehoods except it had gathered the cloudy medium of the Blue Which Flows into its hands. By luck the clear air was both barrier and salvation.