Thursday, January 27, 2011

VIII. Summer’s Answer

            Through the mist came the Lemur-king, an old knotted creature decked in tarnished jewelry, born on a howdah of opulent metal likely stolen from some vault of treasures on the slopes.  The Fencer could imagine them now, the galleries, the fossils of whatever lost city the ancient peaks described.  Those mountains held secrets, like the Trumpeter, like the Stranger, like the whole world of Winter.  Perhaps it wouldnt do any good to get angry but it seemed to be the only reasonable response to the hooting doom which flooded towards him.
            Isnt 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 Trumpets 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 Winters 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.
            Its a most perfect dualism, Winters Riddle and Summers 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 Fencers 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 wont tell you because I wouldnt be so cruel.  I wish I could explain it all, but in doing so youd just be ensnared; thats the trouble with Winters 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 theres 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 Strangers 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 dont respond well to tricks.
            Failure crushed the Fencers 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 Strangers 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 Strangers hands werent 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 Trumpets 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 madmans 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 Strangers 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 mans 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 Ill 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 Fencers 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-makers 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.  

Thursday, January 20, 2011

VII. The Scattered Prince

            Arriving in light and chaos, his clothes lit by a shifting cacophony of color and pattern, the Stranger, as the Trumpeter had named the arrival, rose uncertainly to his feet.  To call him an arrival was perhaps doing a disservice.  The petrified tree, from which he had most recently transformed, seemed as ancient as the Wondering Mountains, upon whose peaks the strange mountain man had lived his whole life.  Excepting the last few weeks.
            Even for the eccentrics of those mountains the Trumpeter was strange and given to strange moods.  It was one such mood which saved him those weeks ago when the slavering lemur-men fell upon a people already living at the extreme edge of existence.  While the Trumpeter mused, all those who had raised him, and shunned him, mocked him and cared for him, were torn apart and devoured.  Eccentricity saved the young man from a similar fate.
            It wasnt long before this tragedy that the Trumpeter had his life changing encounter while coaxing a flock of high mountain sheep to fall to their deaths.  The men of the Wondering Mountains were pacifists by nature, and shunned weapons, so it was through passive aggression that they made their livelihoods. 
            Each man would scout for a flock and when found would alert his fellows with low whistles.  A strategy would be planned, and credit for the find argued over.  A sole trumpet player would be selected to startle the quarry while the others arraigned themselves in order to guide the kill towards the intended cliff.
            With their stubby legs churning with fright the ewes would move as one shaggy mass away from the danger, eyes rolled up in their skulls, and up and over they would senselessly charge and plummet.  The rams jumping from rock to rock lead the way, fiercely pioneering their collective doom.  All of this to pealing blasts from the trumpet.
            The Trumpeter had been dreaming of such victory while scouting.  He was alone on the inky peaks, no sheep to be found, when the sound of music fell from the overcast sky.  The usual endless clouds were boiling over the painted peaks, passing so low that he could reach out and almost touch them.   As he did so the sound of distant and painfully beautiful chimes fell.
            Along with the sound there was a verdant, living scent which he had no name for and could hardly comprehend from the confines of his ice-bound context.  It was such a scent, a heady, perfumed aura, which sprang up as the petrified tree gained life and still graced the air when tree had become man.  More than this was a feeling, evoked through the passing clouds, which once again sprung up inside the Trumpeter when the Stranger stood and blinked away slumber from his eyes.  He thought he heard chimes again.
            Why is it so cold? rasped the Stranger who hugged himself against what the Trumpeter thought to be a balmy temperature.  This vulnerably lasted only precious seconds.
            On the shattered ice the cooling limbs of the mute bled weak blood.  The Stranger froze when he saw it.  Just then there was a movement on the higher ground where the tree once reclined.  A furtive shadow, blade in hand, crept quickly, without enough caution, behind the newcomer, who now tilted his head in azure astonishment.  A moment was seized and the Fencer dashed and leaped.  The nightmare blade hungered down in the air, quivering, almost molten in the Fencers grasp, eager to carve this wondrous victim.
            A whirl and an outstretched hand coiling knotted signs.  From the Stranger's hand a pulsing force caught both Fencer and hungry blade inches from victory, then a thrum of sound tossed the attacker dozens of meters back across the ice. 
            Stunned, the Trumpeter could only watch his friend fall as one of those tumbling rams; there was fury in his eyes, and maybe disbelief, before the Fencer receded into the haze.  The musician caught a glimpse of the blue-haired magician looking about for more, possibly unseen, possibly imaginary enemies, lips curling as he became aware of the purplish fog now boiling up aggressively.  With a violent slash of his arm he tore at the cloudy smoke and a low wind began to blow. 
            Striding now through the thinning air the Stranger, his face some mixture of wonder and torment, sought the place the Fencer had fallen.  Amongst a fractured chaos of ice the starved survivor of kinsmens justice and protozoan horror weakly climbed from a frigid pit.  His skin was cut and bleeding and he dragged his right hand as if it was a dead piece of bloody meat.  The sword of nightmares quivered where it had fallen upright, blade-first into the ancient ice. 
            The Stranger arrived and the Fencer could do little but roll over onto his back, exhausted with the effort of the short climb.  Above him stood a demon, if ever there was such a thing, its hair an azure tangle, its eyes soul-piercing, afire, and its clothes a frantic repetition of color and pattern.  The Fencer saw motion out of the corner of his eye but he was beyond any sense to react.
            It would be the second bravest thing the Trumpeter ever did.  Though, as he stepped between the blue-haired sorcerer and the helpless Fencer, he had hopes it would be the most ultimate show of character his life would produce.  The frayed musician faced the Stranger and said with quiet force, Stop.
            Why? responded the Stranger a bit surprised.
            Because why not?
            A smile crept over the dreamy face.  The argument didnt make any sense, but a comprehending glimmer entered the Strangers volcanic eyes and he sat down, chuckling softly, while the Fencer pulled himself together.  A change had come over the present company, an unseen dynamic shift, perhaps tied to the thinning fog which sloughed away in the increasingly potent wind.  But the magicians humor vanished quickly.
            Bring him.
            I can bring myself, said the Fencer who struggled to his feet, plucking his blade from its resting place with his one good hand.
            The three of them wound back to the center of it all, the heart of the basin where the petrified tree once sprouted.  Through the thinning cloud the Trumpeters thoughts finally escaped as the mind-altering sorceries diluted. Streaks of cobalt clouds brought the reminder that the frozen law of Winter still ruled.  Time moved slowly, well to the Fencer and the Trumpeter, at least.  Nothing could speak for the Stranger, and he chose to keep silent.
            When the tree had returned the new arrival took several minutes considering the body that so nearly mimicked his.  Temperature dropping as the haze faded, the fallen mans thin, weak blood continued freezing into patterns subtle and fine-etched, like crystal feathers.  On his face was the closed-eyed peace of a riddle teller.  The Stranger seemed the younger of the two as he meditated upon the corpse.  To the travelers he was just as enigmatic as the dead man.
            He tried to murder the Fencer, said the Trumpeter defensively.   Were you related?
            We were brothers, of a sort, was the response of the man who touched the corpses flesh, testing its reality.
            From my understanding its only the most troubled of families which engage in recreational imprisonment.
            The Strangers only response was to stand up from his mourning with a thoughtful look on his face; a flicker of a smile and the hint of a sneer began a series of moods through which he passed.  He looked at the two weary men and weighed their souls.  He seemed almost to speak at several points during these calculations but just as often reconsidered, as if some pressure was being exerted on him by an outside force, or that he was trying to chose his words most carefully.
            Which form is this? he finally asked, gesturing extensively to nothing in particular.  Whose is it?  All of it?
            Neither the madness of the Trumpeter nor the reason of the Fencer could make sense of the question.  The Stranger seemed to be considering everything with his request, everything under the clouds, every snowflake and glacier, every outcrop or rock and mote of air which whisked by as the cold gained in strength.  It was quite possible they were dealing with a madman, like the old thing.  They could be siblings in insanity but in different modes; the ancient mute a lunatic and the young decadent an egoist.
            A trumpet and a sword.  It was a statement and a consideration.  Why did you try to kill me unprovoked?
            I reasoned that whatever the old mute had wanted kept away was worth keeping away and that a man just roused from slumber would be unguarded.  The Fencer rumbled out the words with exhaustion.  Blood from his mangled hand dripped and froze.  The Stranger didnt even seem to care about this response.
            You have something of ours, my brothers and mine, said the Stranger as he stalked about, eyes searching across the ice for unseen enemies.
            Two things, corrected the Fencer.  While the blade I hold feels like a part of you, such as those abominations were, I also have a red, dust-feathered thing of yours.
            Of his, corrected the Stranger, red eyes searching in a different direction.  Of his, and ours.  The fluttering things: memories, dreams.  The black crimson ones: nightmares and fears.  Evocative really, expressionistic, these are the forms unseen qualities take when conjured via certain mechanisms."
             The mage sighed as his words got away from him.
             "Each of us was engaged in a struggle against ourselves, in our differences we struggled differently is all, and naturally came to a disagreement about how the other was proceeding.  Now do you understand my question?
            I feel and know things, the movement of a sword, the play of it, but there is more, wondered the Fencer, his guarded thoughts ignoring the Strangers question.  I know these things against a field of green, thickly cushioned by warm air, but I know it is outdoors and not some lodge or dwelling, though certain architecture haunts me too.  Colorful beings inhabit the edges of this dream, because I have no better words to describe them.  They are hazy, ancillary things to the dance of swords I remember.  But those are your memories, right?
            The Stranger smiled wryly and looked up through the now half departed fog.  It would be you then, this is all yours.  A man with a sword, carving out a bloody path through history in a savage place, in a savage time.  With stolen memories granted through strange alchemy you will rule- but he was cut off by the Fencer.
            No!  Its about Summer.  And the Riddle.  The fire the Trumpeter had first seen in the Fencer, back in his Outcast days, returned.
            Summer, responded the Stranger, the word drifting along to silence.  What about it?
            Everything, said the Fencer tersely.  If all those snowflies are memories then you know much, or so I reason, even though like all men who dabble too much in thinking your head is crowded and insane.  You mix knowledge with dreams?  What an addled way to go through the brevity of life.
            The Stranger opened his mouth in anger but shut it again in thought.  The Trumpeter watched on, delighted.
            Oh you wont trick me so easily, said the Stranger.  To act now would be to fall into the same old traps.  You might not even know that youre part of that game, but you are.  Go die cold and unknown, never thinking of Summer or at all for that matter.  Now Im sure youll stand up in a fury since Ive challenged you and whatever truths you live by.  All plots are conspiracies and you're just an unwitting dupe.
              Now the Fencer really did get up in a rage.  With his crystalline sword he made for the Stranger who had plopped down on the ice in a childish slump, his attentions withdrawn and inward-looking.  The air had cleared greatly and in this space the clarity of violence bloomed.  Perhaps it was this same clarity which compelled the Trumpeter to act.
            Once again the Fencer was prevented from doing harm to the Stranger, this time by a terrible sound.  The already fractured ice shivered.  Though still holding the sword high above the Fencer whipped his head towards the source of the noise and even the Stranger startled at the sound of the Trumpeter trumpeting.
            At this point, said the Trumpeter pursing his lips in the fashion he was taught to do after a performance, I think youre both being a bit unreasonable.
            Bewildered and eyes wide the Fencer turned in such a way that it was obvious his violent intent had not been diffused but instead had undergone a change of target; that was when all three noted shapes lurking in the receding bank of purple mist.
            Indistinct and erratic, the first possibility was that more horrors now oozed towards them on appendages strange and plasmatic.  Then a certain shape to the many figures emerged, like long necks, headless, waving in silhouette.  A hopping was noticed about the same time the first hoots of interest and hunger began echoing softly across the great basin.  The Trumpeter deflated.
            Oh why? he moaned.
            The Lemur-men came in leaping packs, and eager and brilliantly their eyes shone.  They made a tumbling sound, their voices too.  They hooted and jeered and fought with one another.  Chaos was their anthem and the basin soon resonated with this message.
            Those few survivors from the peaks had told their tale, in their savage language, in their stinking caves.  Told of a piece of night sky, winking with red stars which cut the life from their stupid and weak fellows.  Those with scratches from the damned thing piped of an endless cold which filled their bones, when they werent screaming in the nightmarish sleep which so often afflicted them.  Fear was in these stories that they hooted to each other, stories which eventually trickled up the ranks of their vicious society.
            Now rousted from the joys of cannibalism and fornication, the twisted old Lemur-king of the mountain was born towards this oddity which his vast and informal extended family spoke of.  Some whim had taken him.  Ostensibly he wished to see his strongest and most cruel subjects tear each other to pieces, but in truth the reason for his actions escaped even him.  The curious fear which had always kept their kind away from the shrouded center of the basin diminished along with the mist.  Still, it was a strange mood, a curious one, and the Lemur-king felt pushed ahead by forces great and occult.