I wasn’t done with the trees, with the Field of Lament. Their first sight, the invaders, would be of the weeping salt-faces of the dead oaks that leaned crooked from the grey fields. The flesh-like vines would start as cracks of brilliant red in the world of absolute grey, and grow to overtake the landscape as the intruders proceeded on, wriggling across the ground like varicose veins.
Bound beneath scarlet kudzu, the trees on the sixth island looked almost like enormous hearts, bundles of arterial tissue palpitating with slow, rhythmic pulsations.
And on the seventh island, a mirror lake. An island full of poisonous flowers. Yes. But it needed more. I needed to offer something that would turn horror into beauty.
I began to weave threads of silver, winding them up towards the sky in twisting formations. A lattice slowly formed, each strand unconnected, but from a distance an illusion would form; from a distance the tricks of perspective would hide the gaps between the silver threads that spiralled up into the sky, and they would mesh together to form an enormous silver tree, its trunk rippled with spiral knots and its long, serpentine limbs tipped with thorns.
But they would come closer, drawn by the way it shone - I laid blots of eternal flame encased in rough yellow quartz beneath the surface of the lake, to ensure there would always be a fiery glimmer lighting the base of that beautiful tree as its limbs stretched up into the dark of the cavern ceiling - and soon they would see the truth.
They would see that only the front of the silver strands were gleaming and beautiful. The backside, the inner side, was black as pitch and lined with jagged serrations. Teeth. What had seemed so beautiful at a distance, a shining tree of riches, would come apart as they approached, the illusion breaking down, leaving it a disparate mass of writhing tendrils lined with thorns. The unfurling, grasping tentacles of some vast beast, a maw waiting to swallow them.
Horror into beauty, and then back again.
I wove a second tree within the first, again a lattice-work illusion, this one meant to be seen from very close. Taking shape only if the intruders had the courage to step within that maw, within the hidden teeth of the beast. This one I made out of wooden tendrils, sprouting with nectar-rich flowers. The luminous butterflies would cling to it. The poison flowers rose up the illusionary trunk.
And within was the pillar of stone I had originally carved as my own nest, before the hasty retreat. Two serpents coiled in a helix up to hold a small alcove in their mouths.
Waiting within that alcove was a shard of Fortune, the Sun God’s own luck.
Above, I saw Trivelin come to the edge of the ravine. A platoon of guards stood at his back, but they all fell away, leaving him to descend the chasm’s slopes alone. His feet slipped and stumbled against the uneven ground, rousing the spiders from their dens.
I didn’t pay much attention. I was curiously examining the shard of the Sun, trying to understand how such a powerful piece of spellcraft had slipped into my Dungeon without my knowing. The patterns within were complex, the entire thing simply a bundle of spellwork that shifted in constant, thrumming rotations, as energetic as fire. It was impossible to make sense of the characters that blurred together within the golden light.
It was far, far too powerful to simply slip past my notice. Even if a god had sent it down from the heavens, I should have at least felt something.
There was one conclusion I could make a rough stab at, which was that it had been somehow condensed into being. That rather than arriving by an outsider’s will, it was the manifestation of something that had always been here, given shape and form.
Which suggested that spellwork ran deeper than I had thought. It wasn’t simply some form of human artifice, but conducted itself at unseen levels, all around.
It was fascinating.
By the time I got around to paying attention to Trivelin, the kobolds had found him.
And he was teaching them drinking songs.
With cap in hand, Trivelin swung his fist back and forth to bang out the meter of the song, his audience perched around him in rapt attention as he warbled;
“So he can have his gold and glory,
Oh, he can take his time,
I don’t envy him his stories,
Or the treasures he might find.
He can keep his gold and glory,
I’ll take what he leaves behind!”
And pinning his hat to his chest, he stomped his foot down and tilted his head up, doing his finest drunken bellow for the final line.
It’s the adventurer’s wife for meeeee!”
Dead silence followed the off-tune belting of the final syllables. Trivelin glared at the fascinated little newtlings around him, and then, realizing they really had no clue, clapped his hands together. The scaly little beasts followed suit, and he glowed and bowed and thanked them all for the applause.
That was when the grim, gigantic spider with the human body welded to its scuttling lower half arrived. Dark chitin framed the edges of a pale, delicate face with stern eyes, blue lips, sharp teeth. “You shouldn’t encourage them.”
“I’m sorry?” Trivelin raised an eyebrow.
“You should be. They will sing that song for weeks.”
“Cute little buggers though.” He patted one atop the head, giving the scaly muzzle an affection tweak. It snapped at him.
Hastily drawing his fingers back, Trivelin followed as the strange spider-thing gestured for him to. It led him upwards, the common spiders with their darkly glittering suits of armor falling back, like courtiers waiting on a king.
“I have heard you have become Lord-Protector over Caltern.”
“Frankly, I need protection.”
He had come to understand his position thus; Suffi had made a deal with the Dungeon, and Eyfrae had offered the city to the first who could bind it into Contract. Paying up on this deal, however, was not particularly interesting to her. Enter Trivelin, her escape clause. His deal with the Dungeon was close enough to the terms of the wager to be hastily pushed into the waiting position of Lord-Protector.
Being a human, and a man, helped.
Or ‘helped’ as it were. Considering the likely end of his tenure was a knife in the back, and his rule was almost certainly going to be limited to giving a few speeches and signing many, many tricky bits of paper, Trivelin felt he had been ‘helped’ right into the jaws of a beast.
“You have made promises on the Dungeon’s behalf.” The spider said. Its tone was dark beyond disapproval.
“Well, I didn’t mean anything by them. I never do.” Trivelin grinned brightly, comfortably in his home territory of trying to justify his own lies. “But you have to promise them something. They’re jackals. Timid as a mouse if you feed ‘em, but oh, once they get hungry they start seeing how there’s more of them than there are of you.”
He paused as he was led through the glass doorway to the gardens, and stared up at the massive breach in the ceiling. Golden sunlight fell, shriveling the sensitive mushrooms beneath. “That-” He said finally. “Is an excellent example.”
Trivelin stood in a room of glittering glass, trying not to lose himself in the infinite reflection bouncing from one wall to the next, down and down in an endlessly recurring loop of tiny Trivelins all staring back at him-
He shook himself free. Words were forming on the glass, written in frost.
A HUNTING GROUNDS CAN BE ARRANGED. I WANT NO LESS THAN TWENTY SOULS A MONTH.
“Twenty is a bit high-” Trivelin began, but Cabochon laid his hand on the man’s shoulder. He couldn’t help but notice that every finger was more or less a blade. “Twenty.” He repeated. “I can do that.”
What did it matter to him? He intended to be gone by the time they ran out of murderers, rapists, and other real lowlives. By the time they started feeding innocent people down into the dark - and they would, in the end - he intended to be long gone.
“But you have to help me. I mean, I can’t be Lord-Protector. Gods! Can you imagine me donning a pair of spectacles, pouring over paperwork by candlelight, signing decrees and orders and, ugh, proclamations?”
“No! For gods sake, I’ve been in and out of prison cells this whole month, and look!” He lifted his considerable paunch and let it fall, to wobbling effect."Soft living will be the death of me. A week of living the high life and I won't be fitting through doors."
That was what Trivelin feared most. That someday he'd pause, just for a moment, and not be able to get moving again. That he'd stop to idly enjoy the world and find the spark had gone out of him. It wasn't that soft living didn't agree with him. It agreed with him too much, and threatened to pull him down into a small and mediocre life if he ever let it catch up to him.
“One month.” He said. “One month, I’ll make sure this city comes to your doorstep begging for favors, I’ll arrange everything just so for you- but at the end of that month you help me escape.”
IT CAN BE ARRANGED. I HAVE A SHIP FOR YOU.
“A ship?” Trivelin felt his fortunes turning.
A SHIP AND A CREW.
“There is one condition.” The spider whispered in his ear.
SUFFI MUST DIE.
And there it was. The tide going out again, leaving him worse off than ever and flat fucked.