Feelings swam through the warm air along with flower petals on a slow, heavy breeze. He had a difficult time holding the wooden sword because his hands were sweating so. Grey hung lazily where he stood like a man about to fall dead, but the practice sword in his hand was poised perfectly. A thousand times and blue and red-eyed they clashed against each other in a play of movements blurred down into fragments of an instant, each seeking the mirror’s heart. It was a matter of standing where the sword wasn’t and a struggle to presume life from death.
This duel morphs into other through an unseen alchemy; a thousand struggles overlaid on top of each other as a kaleidoscope of conflict. Blood red devolves into a fever of steel angles, their placement and their dance, a twitch of victory, an echo of loss. Shapes and faces and a bright open-wide world flickering at the edges into one loud bark of a trumpet’s blast.
The sound was cut off as the Fencer awoke. Half seen in the haze the Trumpeter was being dragged off into the azure gloom. The Fencer reached for his sword but it slipped through his fingers as it too was pulled away, all towards the same source; something unseen through the fog except for a swarm of red glowing eyes.
Dashing towards the staring horror the Fencer was met with his own blade which flickered and reached for its former wielder’s heart. He dodged past, surprised at this sudden deftness. He made it a few more paces towards the Trumpeter who struggled silently against some ropey mass around his neck, but again the nightmare blade whirled. Only a few inches separated his life from death, yet still he was miraculously left untouched, despite the speed of the strike. The Fencer had no time to consider how he was managing these feats as the mist cleared, revealing the hand which now wielded the blade.
A long and dexterous tentacle seethed through the air, elegant and otherworldly in motion, like no octopus or squid from the great bay. From its surface a million tiny cilia danced and trilled on the unwholesome appendage.
Magic troubled the air as the Fencer chased after his hapless friend. The Trumpeter kicked the ice as he was drawn closer and closer to the tower of glowing eyes in the mist. The air itself twisted with the heady stuff of dreams. Beyond reason, a nightmare thing reared up and struck at the weaponless man time and time again sending great grouts of ice into the air with each titan blow.
Another’s memories had taken hold of the brave ever since he had awoken, these warm flickers jostling alongside his own cold times. Thanks to these transplanted experiences he dodged and vaulted every serpentine attack aimed for him. Yet for all he felt, for every response to his rogue blade, there was a stalemate. The Fencer avoided each bone-shattering strike but without some means of advantage he would eventually tire and fall. It seemed nothing would break the cycle.
The horror brought the blade down once more to rend the Fencer’s left from right. Sidestepping this by centimeters the wary man was showered by dark and ancient ice. In this spray of blues and violets and dark, dark indigo, many pieces clattered and one of those he grasped, uncaring of the blood it drew as he made ready a final gambit.
It was a desperation, and wholly divorced from the cold reason the Fencer had honed in his sullen years as a narwhal hunter, to fling himself into the path of the whirling blade to save the Trumpeter. And this action also denied the shadow of memory he felt as his own, the expertise of a swordsman, whose life blended with his own through some incomprehensible alchemy. With a lunatic strike he pitched himself forward, gashing himself on the dark crystal blade of his naming, and past and through, striking with the stinging bit of ice he gripped too tightly in his hand.
The Fencer cut his sword free from his pretender, the tentacle’s eager cilia grasping at the ice knife he used to do the deed. Dhala spun through the air with the force of the strike. In an instant the sputtering pseudopod raced up the Fencer’s dagger towards a new prize.
The horror’s hair-like cilia began tickling their way into the muscles of their victim. The man caught his sword as it arched away and freed himself. Where the nightmare blade cut the protoplasm of the horror froze and broke. Cilia calmed and died, falling away. The Fencer could feel the air boil and froth, the disassociation of the azure fog reacting violently to the distilled and stygian black of the creature.
A certain madness took hold of the Fencer.
Beyond, the horror was massive, roughly egg-shaped, sitting on its side, in recline like a decadent upon a cushion. In its seeping flesh various internal mechanisms divided and bubbled. Though its plasm was darkly transparent the light of its many proto-eyes illuminated unwelcome galaxies of its alien physiology. Covering all was a countless and almost unseen mass of cilia dancing frenetically.
The Fencer saw only a glimpse of the thing before it lurched a swarm of tentacles towards him. The Trumpeter was nowhere to be found, probably absorbed into the thing’s eager flesh.
Together, his stubborn self and the strange other dream, met the onslaught. A dozen ropey reaching arms streamed towards his throat but his sword turned them aside as stumps. More came, growing stronger with each volley and generation. A swing here knocked the Fencer down, another whipped open a gash down his thigh, trickling blood which various appendages lapped up eagerly. The horror’s strength shattered ice, ripped apart stone, and wore down the Fencer who was weak from the long abuse of his journey.
So the young man leaped towards the obscene protozoan thing. Its ropey arms wrapped him tightly but he kept a grip on his nightmare blade. The icicle sword cut deep into the thing which emitted a scream of visions.
He was suffocating on a balmy summer night. Blue was the color of the air. Someone close, a family-type thing stood above his bed, drifting with power, gauging the perfect fear in his heart. The gold-eyed woman placed a mask over her face and became something else.
This vision impressed itself on his mind in such a way that it became his vision too, just as the memories of swordplay and a thousand duels had become his as well. In the slow embrace of the thing he had a few moments to examine the similarity of the phenomena. It could just be the last thing his mind would consider.
The black jelly of the nightmare thing’s flesh welcomed him in. The dark recesses became space and the red eyes stars. Solar systems of organs pulsed and glowed in dreadful procession. The fencer could feel the thing’s emotions, its desire to include him into its cosmology, to make him a part of the nightmare which defined and confined its being. As a nightmare it desired a subject to be a part of the experience, to be a victim of the phantasmagoria, and this line of reasoning drew him deeper into the thing where thought and flesh met.
Time spun away from him as he neared the nucleus. There the Fencer saw the crimson-eyed nucleus in the murk beckon and transform, becoming the gold-eyed woman of the nightmare who floated over his bed and suffocated him. Only her head could be seen drifting closer from below, gaining to become planet-sized. An inescapable gravity drew the Fencer down, towards one of her craterous burnished eyes and union with a fate stranger than the violence he always guessed would be his end. His vision was hers, the iris opening up to welcome him into the dominion of her perception.
Cringing at the last moment the Fencer stabbed out and the woman’s eye burst. A squamous blast echoed as the young man’s thoughts became his own again, mostly. Still entombed he fought against the weighty darkness and was rewarded with the satisfying snicker-snack of his blade cutting through the dying plasm of the nightmare thing.
With a sickly sound he spilled out of the protozoan monster onto the ice. Fragments of the nightmare, the feelings and the forms, clung to him as a wet goo while other fleeting emanations vibrated from the dying thing, gaining ephemeral substance through the magic of the place, only to be swallowed up once more by the mist. He had pierced its nucleus as he had sunk to the center and now it frothed in its death throes.
As it did the putrid nightmare stuff effervesced into the cloying blue atmosphere. This disassociating smoke had grown even thicker. Between the heady fog and lingering motes of nightmare the Fencer was taken completely by surprise as a something sharp and cold was pressed to his neck.
“Ok, let me think for a second,” said the indecisive voice of the Trumpeter from behind. “I need to make sure you are who you appear to be, though I know the real you is dead after being eaten by that...thing.”
“Who am I supposed to be, if not the Fencer?” asked the Fencer wearily.
“I’m still considering that,” responded the Trumpeter. “I mean sometimes you’re the Fencer and sometimes you’re the Outcast, and maybe right now you’re something completely else. Hard to say considering all the things in the mist.”
“I presumed you were dead as well since the Trumpeter I know couldn’t handle a few lemur-men, let alone a nightmare made real.”
“Oh, I cut my way free,” shrugged the loon, which was worrisome given present circumstances. Under scrutiny the object proved to be a petrified limb taken from the descent which had occurred so many miles and what felt like a thousand years ago. It had been sheared off at and acute angle, forming a potent edge. “See? I even have the marks to show where the vile thing’s tentacles throttled me.”
“If you weren’t so inattentive you’d see that my arms, legs, well, most of me carries the same marks,” said the Fencer coolly. “Are you content with this proof?”
“I am,” agreed the Trumpeter relaxing his grip.
“Then for your sake I too am content,” growled the Fencer.
The Trumpeter backed up a few meters, out of easy swinging range from his beleaguered companion. The atmosphere was thick and while there was small danger of losing their way in its gloom, due to the shadow of the great tree, there was increasing pressure to lose their minds from whatever sorcery lurked in the smoke.
In an objective sort of fugue they watched the body of the nightmare thing diminish and flux into the air. Even the ichor which covered the Fencer flickered away. At the same time more of the crimson-eyed things seem to move beneath the glassine ice of the basin’s floor. More creatures seeking the same prize that their sibling had failed to obtain. The Fencer felt like curling up and dying; in such a state he was ill-prepared for one last challenge.
A blur of movement and the Fencer’s arm whipped about in a defensive arc familiar to the transplanted memories he now claimed. The offender’s arms and head came off with the sound of a slaughtered seal. Weak, thin blood trickled from the stumps.
Their host lay dead and in death troubled the Fencer greatly. Many times he had seen tableaux like this, or at least his last meal had. He stood over the fool, chastising himself, strangely, for always falling for the same trick. A bit of broken ice in the mute’s weathered hand and a serene calm smile at play across his ruined face were at curious odds. There was no intention of victory in the ancient’s action, this was a perfect gambit.
The butterflies fluttered and the air cleared some. As the mute’s weak blood began to chill into ice the reclining tree gained life, becoming something fearsome and beyond the two travelers’ experience. The nightmare things beneath quivered, so that the whole basin filled with the scratching sound of cracking ice. In the Fencer’s hand Dhala twitched as if alive.
Into green, mossy bark and lush, broad leaves, the tree grew. A smell of verdant and imagined seasons pulsed in the air. Changing then, foliage brightening to yellow, to orange and gold. The tree’s boughs danced with the motion of the rebelling caged things which broke their prison in a massive chime of metal.
In a whirlwind of colorful, flapping wings the form of the tree relaxed and withdrew, not as boughs of wood, but as arms of flesh; roots shrinking to feet, the trunk dwindling to the body of a stately youth garbed in a gown of madness.
“One of them? But how can that be?” rasped the Trumpeter to the all too beset Fencer.
The swordsman’s weapon awoke. His mind flooded with the cold, the Dhala, all the world slowed to an absolute stop. He fought, with what was left of his mind, he fought the thing back. The Fencer, lost in his inner struggle, wandered off into the haze.
The Trumpeter couldn’t stop watching the transformation, seeing here, feeling a mote of what kept him tuned to the clouds above so many days and nights. He watched the dance of the flying things which rushed to swarm the figure now. These landed and stretched their wings flat across the man who welcomed them with open arms. They became a part of him, their forms blending seamlessly.
Then the ice burst and the nightmares came forth, not as an eruption of gelatinous abominations but as a swarm of black and crimson butterflies which joined their brethren to land and fuse with the man who after a few seconds of this wonder stood alone, a few creatures clinging to him in unfinished union. From the hair colored that of the deep and rare cloudless sky to smoldering eyes like cooling coals, what now stood, uncertainly, listing to one side, was an unblemished version of the mute stranger who had greeted and confused the two travelers.
The Trumpeter soon discovered he alone waited to greet this creature with the corpse of its dead twin lying as a pile of limbs and frozen blood.