The eye sees from above. Ice. No horizon, just the flat forever of Winter. Dull light illuminates ridges, wrinkles and panes of frozen glass.
Outwards and edges. The glacier slowly shatters into a million fragments, icebergs sent drifting across an azure sea. Further and further the travelers depart from each other.
The watcher is impassive, ego-less. They realize they are part of the ocean, already drowned. The cold is a conduit, the icebergs fellow travelers in the sea of dissolution. The cycle promises that, even if they dissolve today, they will rejoin the glacier and the process will start again.
Something black tears open the perfect blue ocean. It rises as a mountain. Midnight slopes and glassy indigo facets run along this growing crystal, and its eyes open. From the frozen mass of dark ice dozens of red lenses wink alive.
Pain comes as the viewer falls along the razor edge. It splits the sea and splits the man and memory comes bubbling out with trumpet calls and spell-screams.
The constant has always been chaos, the blue, the ice, where humanity dances the mad jig of life. Buried amongst the roiling sea, each is part of the disorder which appears eternal and still from within the cycle. Memories, undifferentiated and unknown, rush by and it is only the nightmare edge which guides the psyche as it hurtles towards a greater frame, to the question. An Answer, unknowable and sublime, waits beyond.
Out from blue the Fencer awakes with a shout of disappointment. Fragments of his journey within the Blue Which Flows cling to his mind, notions of chaos and men, riddles. He lets out a ragged sigh. Beside him the Trumpeter comes to life.
The room has grown cold and they are freezing. To one side they notice the emperor jelly quivering at full height within its pool, to the other stands a ragged actor along the gilded beach. Following his eyes across the shore of gold they see it and all becomes motion.
As the Fencer and Trumpeter grab their weapons Jaal dashes for the crown. Splashing, they give chase as he struggles over the slippery jewels and coins. Just a moment too late.
Jaal took the Regalom in his hands as the two travelers came to a stop. He held it now, everything he could imagine and express. Care must be taken for the device was spiritless and idiotic, capable of only the brute mechanics of the wish. Such power seemed worth all danger.
What to wish for, as if there could be an end to desire. No more nobles, not more magic, for starters. He paused in his thoughts to consider his attackers, friends, until recently. He donned the crown.
The Fencer tensed, waiting for some sign of weakness, a long blink in which he could slip his deadly sword. Jaal was a romantic and therefor untrustworthy, especially considering the overwhelming nature of the Regalom. Power was an addiction few could overcome. The swordsman’s mind still lingered with dreams. For some reason notions deep within his stolen memories considered the cycle of icebergs.
Laughing, the young revolutionary tossed the crown at the swordsman’s feet. The Trumpeter laughed as well, giggling and nodding at the man. They shared the joke of power denied. Even the Fencer smirked and, looking down, saw it was his turn.
Using his sword, he lifted the enchanted crown, which slid down the blade and clanged against the weapon’s guard. How it shone, taking in light and giving it back with added glory. Platinum and sardonyx gleamed bright amongst the dull necessities of Winter, brighter than all the other treasures which surrounded them.
Here was the Answer, in his hands. He had only to put it on and demand the truth from the world and he would know its grand secret. Their laughter died, leaving only the sound of the Blue trickling from above.
The crown radiated power, but it was the power of words, of chaos and meaning. There were a thousand ways to interpret each sentence and so many more linguistic mazes in which to confuse meaning. How would the crown twist his goal? Could even a magician create a perfect puzzle to entrap meaning?
He lifted the Regalom off the blade with his right hand and dropped his sword. Holding the thing in both hands he never felt so heavy. Tipping it he looked through the circle the crown made, a portal to a new and terrible venture. Again his memories bothered him with vague unease.
So many skulls had been worn by the Regalom, and each who passed through became twisted and monstrous by the thing’s beauty. His scalp itched at the thought, so he set the artifact down.
Taking up his sword he struck. There was no chance for the others to stay the atom-edged blade as it descended upon platinum geometries. A cloud of sparks, cold, bright and silver, billowed up to the sound of screaming metal.
The thought which came to each mind was that this had happened before, far back when the last high kind had been slain in the great conflagration of magic which reordered the whole of Nysul. One absolute met another to the sound of catastrophe.
Silence then, a slight pain in the ears. Before the Fencer lay the shorn remnants of the Regalom. Turning, he looked to the Trumpeter.
“It was full of words,” he explained.
“Ah,” said the Trumpeter, understanding.
“That was someone’s priceless heirloom,” frowned Jaal, mostly annoyed that his ears were ringing.
“Just skulls and dead men anyhow.” The Fencer was troubled, unsure of his actions.
“Quite the risk,” added Jaal and to that the swordsman laughed. He felt insane to have given it up, and it pooled up in his stomach like a weight.
There were still more enchanted traps, monstrous treasures, metallic organs and golden eggs all around, part of the Blue Which Flows. Each could be as tempting an artifact. Attended by these remote organs, the emperor jelly glistened like soft ice in its pool of thought. Though greatly recovered, it seemed less animate than before. That all-permeating presence was distracted, turned away, inwards.
With no weapons to harm the thing, and no means to combat it, the men were defeated. If the conqueror knew of victory then there was no sign from within the mindless protoplasm.
Words followed them through the jeweled abyss. Up and up they spoke, rebellion was their companion and revolution their tracker. Something had been let loose with the destruction of the Regalom and it haunted their waking minds like a dream does, drifting in almost incomprehensible, coyly provoking thought and consideration, vanishing as the mind turned.
The ancient tunnels were dead and still, though much changed since their descent. Frozen in whatever maze the Blue had formed before its strange silence, they had to forge new paths. Above these the crypts of the grand estate greeted them cold, dark and dead. No ghosts populated the copycat castles and when they found the armory the whole company of golden armor lay scattered in the confusion which, they began to realize, was the truth of the grand seal now, replacing the dictatorship of the emperor jelly.
When at last they approached the surface mines and found the way collapsed under mountains of red stone, their tired faces dropped in the flickering light of their one lantern. They were entombed now, like so much treasure. The underworld was their only home and in it they would go mad with plots and conspiracies.
Into the shadows of the past they receded behind the curtains of old stone. Flickers in the dark, the ghostfire jewels sputter alive, and the walls grow soft.
Alone, the page waits to tell its story.
The Graff Akauw stalked through the lowest ravine of the great cleft at high speed. His war plumage of pale peacock feathers jostled with every step his war giraffe took and the sun gleamed off his white mail and polished lance in a splay of prismatic brilliance.
Carefully he guided Aguillon over the frozen stones. To hobble the creature here would be certain death but he smiled beneath his visor at the challenge.
Sounds had been heard in the cleft for several weeks, deep, pealing cries from the stone. Some claimed it was the old high king returned, or worse, the high queen, while others championed a return of gods, spirits, ghost or whatever past specter fit their fears. All the Graff knew was that it would make great sport, whatever it was.
Though much covered in frost and debris the grand seal remained, black and inviolate, swimming with the sorcerous writing which kept the old and magical at bay. Part of the noble wished to possess the forbidden treasure. He shook it off as an idle whimsy of the past with the next freezing gust of wind.
Aguillon was careful as he clopped onto the black disc. From there the rider looked about. The old mine shafts and primitive dungeon entrances were all sealed now, mouths closed to history. In his youth he played here, imagining all sorts of monsters.
Then came the cry. It rumbled from bellow, close, very close, and loud as a nightmare. The sound rose up from the stones, sending boulders dancing across the slick surface of the seal and causing rocks to fall from the enclosing cliffs above. Reaching its peak, there was an answering crash below and to the west.
Comforting his beast, a creature well-trained for war and chaos, he strode closer to that side. Wind hummed through the ravine and a bit of silver snow fell despite the narrow sky above showing blue.
Something licked through an ancient wall covered in petroglyphs. Something black. It cut through the stones with ease, etching a rough circle, then vanished.
The Graff waited in silence some dozen meters away and readied his lance. The weapon was all slim steel, with a narrow, razor-sharp blade suitable for all forms of mounted combat. Without taking his eyes off the wall he fetched his shield and took up his reigns again.
Quiet exploded with a metallic roar. Tons of rock went streaming out, the forerunners of a great cloud of dust. From this spilled three figures.
Stumbling blind through the debris they cursed one another. With a sigh the Graff prodded the closest with his lance.
The fellow wore outlandish garb, crude leathers close fitting and unsuited to the bitter cold. He was all covered in red dust but when he bared his eyes upon the offending noble they showed cold, grey, full of energy. At his side was a black icicle, like a sword.
“Who are you?” asked the Graff.
“Fencer, who’s that?” babbled another, taller fellow as he tried to wipe all the dust from his eyes.
“Well, that was easy enough,” smiled the knight.
“I’m sure you’ve had plenty of ease in your life,” sneered the Fencer, who judged his better by his trappings.
“Certainly,” rattled the armored man. “Who’s that?”
He gestured to the third and least conspicuous figure as he tried to slip away amongst the debris.
“Nobody of consequence,” smiled the third man with a voice full of sugar.
“That’s not so true anymore.” The Graff relaxed his weapon and leaned against his steed’s neck.
“What do you mean?” demanded the third man, hope gleaming in his eyes.
“We’re all the same now,” said the Graff who lifted his visor to reveal a man on the declining edge of his prime. He had a grand mustache and a runny nose. “The same with daggers in our backs or nothing in our belly. Feasting on each other’s minds and worse. Not proper by my account.”
Without the narrow view afforded by his visor Akauw took stock of the three. They were lean, malnourished, and very much beset by even the dim light of this ravine, as if they hadn’t seen the sun for a great while. Even still something else hid behind their souls, a poisoned history.
“How long have you been down there?”
“No telling,” replied the Fencer with the cold tone of a duelist.
“Been a month since the Children went to work on the nobles,” explained the Graff. “Some still hold on but there’s not much point. The old magic is finally gone, some spark which lingered now doused. Most point to the death of the Duxess Emphyr but I’d wager it was something deeper, stranger.”
“What about you?” asked the Trumpeter, polishing the instrument of their escape.
“Me!?” gasped the knight. “Why, I’m Graff Akauw, Protector of the western bastion, and, if you’ll excuse me, I have a snuma or idealist to hunt.”
With that he snapped his visor down and galloped off and out of history.
It had been a month. Jaal’s joy quickly turned to confusion. The Children of Nysul, at the moment of their victory, were no more, vanished, like history. Instead they found bands of cannibals and snuma worshippers, egalitarians and anchorites. One old hall was full of kings, self-proclaimed, who offered mountains of treasure for any strong arm who could wield a sword beside them, or watch their back while they slept. In essence nothing had changed and only chaos was a constant.
“What did you think would happen?”
The Trumpeter was earnest with his question, without malice or patronization. He shared Jaal’s hopes. They stood on a middle cliff above one of the Children’s old safe houses carved into the rock. There they had spent some days regaining their strength and scouting the politics.
“In truth I never thought it would happen,” nodded the young man. “The struggle itself had meaning and if it was magic which put the whole harmful enterprise into place then it was magic which would undo it.”
“You changed your mind down there.” Some veneer had fallen away from the Trumpeter, or maybe this was just a temporary calm in the musician’s storm of madness.
“I realized I couldn’t do any better with the crown,” said Jaal. “I mean, maybe, I’m not sure. I just made a decision. Surely the benefits would’ve been sublime, but the horrors we saw, the terrible possibilities held fast in that mindless blue thing, that was too much to contemplate.”
“No better than the cold,” added the Fencer as he ascended from hidden steps carved through the rock. “I regret it, not taking the thing. Did you see the strange fire which danced up when I struck it? Words which burned the air. I sure regret it.”
There wasn’t much more to say. Haunted by the ghosts of the depths they made ready to decamp the next day. Jaal wanted to catch up with some old conspirators; the Fencer and the Trumpeter just wanted to leave.
Something had changed in the badlands, they felt it as they moved amongst the ravine peoples and cliff dwellings. The presence, the Blue Which Flows, had receded like a tide from the spirit of the place, leaving only red stone, blue sky and chalky white snow.
Avoiding the worst of the roving bands they fell in with a group of hunters based out of the old Duchy of Emphyr. There the revolution had come closest to the ideals of the Children and enough remained to keep the halls clear of slavery, bandits and undercooked despots.
They entered and felt the tensed swords and untrusting eyes. In the old throne room they met the victorious rebels. Only distrust seemed to be their triumph. While accepting their old friend Jaal in with their mouths, their eyes told a different story.
This was their place, they had won it and they would keep it, like a crown worn. Jaal was an artifact of past ideals and a dangerous hero for what he had accomplished. His choice was simple: either stay and face some accident or move off into the cold. So it was that he followed the outsiders as they made for the highest cliffs and the outside world, their quest failed and done.
“When we were eating cave moss and rationing lamp light I could think of nothing but seeing the sky again.” Jaal said this from one of the jagged red sheaves of stone which leaned out over the great rift. The land below had become a stranger to him.
The Fencer’s agitation had grown through the days. He kept looking back, down, as if he could spot the jellied monster festering at the core of the land.
“I suppose we both left things undone,” nodded the actor.
“It doesn’t matter, the page is lost,” grumbled the Fencer. “But that thing will regain its throne in time, though perhaps not for generations. The beast too, she still curses this plane, as tends to be the way with magic.”
The Trumpeter’s laugh shocked both men from their windy sorrow.
“Give us some peace, Trumpeter.”
Ignoring the Fencer the musician flipped something golden in his hand. It was a huge scale, like from a mighty, armored fish. Jaal had never seen it before as the Fencer grappled for the hand which held the thing.
“The fish?” he demanded of his companion.
“Real, in some way,” smirked the Trumpeter. The Fencer buried covered his face in reply.
“I let her slip from me once again then.”
“Not true,” said the musician, sobering, tapping the swordsman’s head. “She’s no more lost than before. This, this was someone else’s, and I held onto it as we awoke. I’d not worry too much about the emperor jelly or the Hunting Thing. Every king needs a queen and the like. So what if we’ve lost a page and a crown to the past. We have a new treasure and there’s no telling how dangerous this gold future will be.”
The ramifications blossomed in the Fencer’s mind. So much had been lost, but through accident a balancing of forces had occurred, a nuanced triumph, of politics and dreams. All he would’ve found in the Regalom were his own answers born from nothing air, fables and legends to distract himself from the true and absolute Answer. That treasure waited in the future.
If Jaal shared this pyric victory then he didn’t say. He was gone, vanished into the land he knew so well.
In coming years a vagabond dramatists became well known in the badlands. Covered in vibrant silken scarves, only his eyes showing, he played pantomime and epic to the varied cults and tribes amongst the ruins. He told of ancient despots and heroes, flipping them on their heads, dressing up as current chieftains and oligarchs and tweaking the nose of power. Then he would be gone, before the swords came, and even then it was said that he was a nimble fighter himself.
The young, the outcast, those who had fallen outside the new hierarchies, these were his cold audience and in their smiles there was fire. The towns burned down every night in minds imprisoned by the Riddle and they warmed their souls beside such glow. The mighty feared and in chasing after characters, after ghosts of the stage, they never grew into the same organs of terror that the old noble beasts became.
A man out on the ice. He hunts the prey, which is also predator. She hunts his mind, a mighty beast of muscle and claw and fang. Yellow eyes crown her as queen.
Amongst the ruins a lone noble, armor shining, spear readied, quests for the vexing monster. And she gets closer, ever closer, in his mind. Down, in the lower ravines too cold for prey, the ruin of ruins, the Graff Akauw confronts the realm of shadows. A single door has been opened, cut through the stone by the work of water and blue ice, its depths holding the great secrets which is his, by birthright and blood.