“Isn’t this where you curse me, maybe even strike me for my musical stupidity?” babbled the Trumpeter from where he stood, awaiting his fate, holding the Trumpet in his hands like a body interred with a royal scepter.
“Not this time,” said the Fencer; cooler thoughts were suddenly prevailing. Weighing the heft of his sword against the hopping Lemur-men a decision was made.
“What have you to lose?” recommended the Fencer as he crouched next to the forlorn Stranger. After the shock of the Trumpet’s blast wore the youth remained in a moody slouch, staring at the incoming horde. “We are both dead men, but I could be a dead man who has found an answer to a very perplexing question. What is the answer to Winter’s Riddle?”
The Stranger eyed him suspiciously before replying, “No.”
The old monster in the howdah now gestured inquiringly in the direction of the three. As the onrushing madness increased in volume the Stranger grew calmer.
“It’s a most perfect dualism, Winter’s Riddle and Summer’s Puzzle,” he said without hurry. Over the shattered plain of ice the creatures hopped and scampered, each eager to be first and strongest, to wrench the sword from the Fencer’s hands and feast.
“You taunt me with Summer again, you must tell me! What is it? What manner of Hell or shade of Heaven? If this thing in my hand is a nightmare of yours then I will gladly give it back to you, blade first, before those things have a chance to take us.”
The Stranger gave a bitter laugh to the uncaring sky.
“I won’t tell you because I wouldn’t be so cruel. I wish I could explain it all, but in doing so you’d just be ensnared; that’s the trouble with Winter’s Riddle, even posing what the riddle is becomes a process of imprisonment.”
The horde that approached began to roar with the sound of so much movement.
“You tossed me across the ice like I was a pebble,” said the Fencer changing tactics and looking back towards the Lemur-men.
“I understand your intention, but just as your Riddle entraps you, so does my Puzzle.” The Stranger glowered at the thought. “The machinations of things, entities outside the context of your experience, have set certain phenomena in motion in order to provoke me.”
Considering this the Fencer shifted his weight from one aching foot to the other, gauging how many Lemur-men his new found skill would bring to hell with him. Even that was an empty hope; there were no hells anymore. A smell of sweet rotten meet and damp fur approached. Turning back to the Stranger an ember of old fire stirred.
“Perhaps there’s another trick to it.”
“What do you mean?” spat the Stranger, boiling.
“Maybe, just maybe, whatever powers which torment you anticipate this strategy of yours and count on it; through inaction you could be giving them exactly what they want.”
It was a clueless gambit, dropped into the seething cauldron of the Stranger’s soul. There was nothing to lose, there was everything to gain. A few seconds more and the unspeakable horrors would be upon them and this entire struggle, the flight from the narwhal hunters, the crossing of the Wondering Mountain, the creatures faced and the questions posed would all be lost in the gullet of a voracious monkey. At least now the Stranger was angry.
“Oh I get it, another trap,” sneered the blue-haired demon, standing up to face the Fencer. “You pose a considerable reversal, but what if that line of thought continues? Recursion. Endless recursion. A fine trick, but I don’t respond well to tricks.”
Failure crushed the Fencer’s heart down into the ice, cast into the spirit-tomb of Winter. All the hard won rage and aspirations falling into the same abyss of being which made his tribal peers dull-eyed and witless, sapient but not sentient. The days of adventure caught up with him and he staggered, ready to die and be the piece of carrion he had always feared he would be at the end. In such a state he failed to notice the Stranger’s smile.
Leaping up, catching their eyes, the visitors' and the creatures', maybe even that of the clouds and ice and mountains ringing round, the Stranger was in motion. Hands reaching, fingers searching the air, the moment tried to flee this puzzling mummery, but all was caught. Suddenly he reached what he sought. The Stranger’s hands weren’t tearing at open air but instrumentalities luminous and sublime, echoing in tessellation as far as could be seen.
Light and violence resounded. The dweomer blinded the Fencer and the sound of the magics deafened before even the first whisper of the spell was heard. One moment they were beset by a frothing horde of Lemur-men, the next was shattered by a mute, blind peal greater than the Trumpet’s blast. All was light. The world winked back in shades.
Ever curious, it was the Trumpeter who nudged the Fencer from where he had buried his face in the ice. Eyes lit by some fever, the madman’s words were lost in the receding roar of whatever hell the Stranger had unleashed, but this diminished over the course of seconds.
“Are you dead yet?” implored the Trumpeter. “Are we both dead?”
The Fencer shrugged him off and limped to his feet. Silver motes flitted upwards all around him and a great light clung to the space where the Lemur-men had only seconds before swarmed, along the path described by the Stranger’s gesture in that fragment of time before the blindness. So much had changed.
The motes were like those from a great fire, but without heat or sound they flitted in the air on unearthly currents. The ground glowed silver for thousands of meters, stretching onwards. Of the horrors from the mountains a few lingered but were quickly dissipating into more sterling embers to drift upwards on etheric winds. The haze banished, their thoughts their own once again, they saw the old cloud cover they knew so well melted, and gone, revealing a peerless blue sky arching above. A vast stretch of mountains was simply gone.
Laughter echoed from behind them and in turning they found the Stranger standing at the edge of the low hill where once he had taken root. From laughter came somber silence and consideration, a smile again, and then sadness, all within seconds which seemed as forever compared to the flickering devastation which had been pronounced. Lastly a balmy, decided look took hold of the young man’s face.
“In retrospect, you deserve much for freeing me,” began the Stranger as he walked out onto a ledge of ice which sparkled in the sunlight. “You wanted Summer and so I’ll give it to you; they can hardly choose to ignore my last act. They might have even foreseen it.”
On a gust of warm air it arrived.
A city broke from the lingering clouds like narwhals cresting a turbulent sea. In the cold sky the sun, now visible through the massive destruction of the Wondering Mountains, had crowned itself with the brilliance of a sun dog and in this light a thousand towers burned red-gold and blinding. Other structures arose and spilled, almost moving to some trick of the imagination, though perhaps it was no trick at all. A palace could be seen and a garden, vast and hilly. Fields stretched shimmering green and alive beyond the city limits to unknown lands beyond. A continent flew at a height the mountains would envy.
“That is Summer,” observed the Stranger. His eyes glowered and his smile was joy. A strength of passion, some intent or plan unknown animating him. The mood was petulant, childish and pure, and it had potency, like that of the brilliant sky. “I dare you.”
“I must see more of it,” whispered the Fencer as he gaped. A warm wind spilled across them all and on it rested the gentle scents of otherworldly blossoms and the sounds of chimes.
“What about your Riddle?” laughed the Stranger.
“Just as I remembered,” said the Trumpeter reaching out with hands to grasp the city. Indeed a more intimate and alien recognition was disturbing the Fencer at that very moment; the sword twitched.
“A challenge then; meet me there, in Summer.” The Stranger hesitated, about to say more but stopped, considered the two, one bloodied, one tattered, one reasonable, one erratic, both mad in their own way. He caught himself explaining too much, locking down the world. So, while the two took in the approaching wonder he twisted the air around him and was gone.
With the disappearance of the Stranger the energies of the moment passed from the unreal to the real. The cold was pronounced and dangerous, the wind cutting through them as it stretched in from the mountain gap. They had no food or supplies and a million tons of floating rock and terrible beauty drifted close. They made for the gap.
The silver remnants of mountain and lemur-man alike proved harmless if disconcerting. No agency followed them, perhaps whatever forces they had aroused were after the bigger fish that the Stranger represented. In the lee of the mountains they camped for the night.
Thoughts drifted in on the night air. The seasonal sun was gone so only bright clear stars provided silent conversation.
The flying continent was gone when they awoke. Morning revealed that whatever power the Stranger had set lose had reached far and the village of the narwhal hunters was only a few flickering huts of silver which turned to glitter at the Fencer’s touch and blew out over the great basin.
With nothing behind them the two settled on going north, another place of demons and foul creatures, but also one of cities and people and knowledge and stories. A challenge had been offered, and both decided to take the Stranger up on his words, what words he had given anyhow; he had left with that same riddle-maker’s smile on his face, like his brother, or whatever that body was they had left to freeze in that ensorcelled place.
The world of Winter told its riddle in snow and ice and death. Many perished simply from the hearing of it, many more droned through their brief existences, buried alive in the cold, slaves to their own survival. Even more became monstrous actors in the play of the riddle itself. A few, mostly outcasts, mostly the insane, listened closely to the telling, felt around the edges of the riddle, intent on a answer or at least a reason for it all. Across a plain of ice two began their answer with words of action and deeds violent and troubled.