When the armies of petty warlords and brigand chiefs became incessant in their activities the master of Nock, a fell mage known as Glym through the centuries, built a wall out of the attackers. The hairless magician in his garment of woven cold awaited the incoming horde of the vile and the desperate one morning. There was a snap of frost and thereafter future raiders looked elsewhere for plunder.
A powerful cold still clung to the twenty foot high battlement which ringed the Steam City of Nock at quite a distance. Even the Fencer, with his resistance to such an extreme, could hardly get within a few meters of the wall. In the failing light of dusk he tried to get a better look at the fused and frozen bodies within the ice. Just hints of forms locked together in an unsettling aesthetic.
“They say that this is the burial ritual of the town,” commented the Trumpeter sagely after finding his companion in grisly meditation. “Perhaps if we should perish in this place we’ll join the wall.”
The Fencer once more looked back at the sleeping dead.
“Maybe they could tell us their stories, or something concerning the Riddle.”
The Trumpeter winced.
“Wish you’d keep that to ourselves friend,” sighed the musician looking back across the icy way to the city’s inner wall. “But, then again, what fun would that be? We should return, payment is being argued over and the Driver even claims he’ll teach us what a hot meal means again.”
The Fencer shrugged and, with only a single glance back towards the quiet dead, the two men headed in the direction of Nock proper. Great clouds from the mingling of natural volcanism and melting snow bloomed with color from the lights of the boulevards and pleasure palaces. Piercing through the shroud of steam a diorite cliff jutted hundreds of meters into the air, upon which loomed the alabaster fortress of Vael, looking down on the city, windows like glowing eyes staring into encroaching night.
As the Fencer approached the congregation of laborers inside the inner gate the group fell apart, cadres drifting off to spend their bounty. Only the Driver stood there, counting something in the dim radiance of a street lamp.
“Ah, this is for you,” said the excitable man as he handed the Fencer a pouch full of broken bits of silver, an odd mangled coin in the mix. “A bonus for you, and you should receive further since you cut the haggling session the rest were belaboring me about. Must fear you or something.”
The long-armed man then handed out a small handful to the Trumpeter.
“What, no sinecure for the rear-guard?” protested the mountain man summing up his pay.
“Well, your friend’s bonus had to come from somewhere,” replied the Driver sagely. “But don’t let me leave you unsatisfied. How does company, a warm bed and a meal sound to you two? As a collective.”
The two let their employer lead the way as they had neither the grace nor knowledge to function in such as civilized a place as Nock. It was a fair marvel of paved streets, lighted houses, and cunning waterways designed to channel the melt which would otherwise turn the basin into a volcanic lake. Warm steam was in the air as well as the nervous tension of population. A heart beat in the dark.
“What is that sound,” asked the Fencer as the heavy chiming grew closer.
The Driver laughed.
“That is the Clock.”
“Clock?” asked the Trumpeter.
“What does it do with time?”
The Driver just smiled.
“I’ll show you after dinner.”
The sound of the chiming heart followed the trio through the city. Buildings towered tall and narrow. At one point the Fencer was accosted by a surly lamplighter on his rounds and there nearly was a fight. Some presence had him on edge and he couldn’t quite accept his southern isolation as the cause. Dhala hung heavy and cold at his side, especially in the warm air of Nock.
It had something of his village’s great lodge, the inn where they at last could rest their feet. There was a sense of community about the place. Yet even as they took their seat in the cooler corner, imperceptibly so from their rugged experience, the unspoken tone of isolation was evident in the singular peoples eating and drinking quietly by themselves.
Cities. Perhaps it was isolation which put the Fencer on edge. He wasn’t sure though.
“Call me Firo,” grinned the man the two had only known as the Driver before, his bristling beard exaggerating the wideness of his smile. “Are you really only going to go by the Trumpeter and the Fencer?”
“For now,” said the Fencer quietly. There was no reply from the Trumpeter who was glancing about the room with his thoughtful blue eyes. He was noticing that same isolation as the Fencer.
“It’s too bad,” frowned the musician propping his trumpet up next to him like a sleeping companion.
“Indeed,” replied Firo.
“Wouldn’t it be good to invite them all over to our table? Or take over that center one? We could feast together. Talk. Share stories. I know! I could play them a bit of something I’ve been working on.”
Both Firo and the Fencer hastened to replace the Trumpeter’s love of his own noise with a taste of the ale which by providence had arrived.
“I suppose you are quite right, not really the tone of this place.” Quietly the Fencer and the Trumpeter shared a moment where they remembered lives and places more close-knit and interdependent. It was a mixed thing to be on one’s own. The distant clock gave seven great knocks before receding back, almost out of hearing. It took several more minutes, well after the food had arrived, for the Trumpeter to really cause some trouble.
“So,” he began while shoving a slice of meat pie in his mouth, “what did we risk life and limbs to bring to this town?”
Firo was leaning back at this point, watching the two eat. He still seemed to be the boss.
“The heart of a giant,” he stated calmly and quietly, not moving or changing demeanor. The Trumpeter stopped chewing. Firo eyed them both for signs of hysterics.
A giant. An old thing from before the Uplifting, before all the magic had flown away. They were legends even before those recent events; creatures of size who sat upon the stories told about them, exerting a gravity through time.
The Trumpeter swallowed his pie. The Fencer downed the last of his ale.
“I’m going out for some air,” he stated too calmly.
“Your room will be waiting, though I hear the hosteller likes to lock up the place after, oh, when that clock thing sounds twelve times,” recommended Firo, not trying to stop the swordsman.
“Why?” asked the Trumpeter and it took the Driver a few blinks to realize was referring to the expedition for the heart. The Fencer left and a few sets of eyes followed him out the door.
“Oh, it’s what I do. I’m in the oddity business. I find things.”
The Trumpeter had gone back to eating with a sad look on his face.
“Aren’t you worried about your friend?” asked Firo looking towards the door.
The air of the inn seemed to pause thoughtfully while the bearded man homed in on the subject.
“I mean, aren’t you worried about him out there, alone, in the city?”
“Oh, no,” which only made things worse for Firo’s mind as it began looking to contextualize the Trumpeter’s first response.
“Also, he makes me sad,” sighed the Trumpeter. “He didn’t leave any of his food behind.”
Out and about the Fencer was surrounded by the warm steam city. He needed time to reason with himself. The thing he and the other laborers had dragged all the way from Ahgren was anathema, part of that ensorcelled world which broke the planet and then left them all to freeze amongst the ruins. No, not quite the right way to put that, he thought as he meandered through street after street. All part of Winter’s Riddle, the cause of all this endless ice and the heart pangs which afflicted the Fencer as he worked to construct some sort of answer. The sounds of running water followed him wherever he went.
Across town a lamplighter was murdered. A senseless act, but it made the perpetrator feel better after sneaking into the city through the secret ways. Revenge was on his mind and there was a prize to win also. Water babbled.
The Fencer saw her as she left the quiet chatter of another inn. A phantom gust of wind swooped down, parting the steam. A freak occurrence. A play of chance. Back home, before the Fencer was the Fencer and while there was still a village of the narwhal hunters to call home, very few things were attributed to simple chance. Gods and spirits were the arbiters of every action, and even after the Uplifting the utterances and attitudes remained. So now, seeing the wind fall on the woman, tossing back her full hood, revealing her hair to be the color of emerald, he inwardly blamed fate or some other proxy.
The woman was quick to bundle back up, pulling a thick muffler over her face and checking in all directions for witnesses. The Fencer remained hidden in a shadowy ally, not breathing, watching.
Part of his reason told him to run, since he had seen what one with the talent was capable of once before, but another, deeper reason made him quietly pull free Dhala from his side and follow the emerald lady as she moved quickly and quietly through the streets of Nock. The way grew familiar.
She stopped when she reached the staging grounds where the Heart lay on the sledge. Smoke from the riff-raff Firo had hired to watch the thing mingled with the curtains of steam. The Fencer tried to keep a close eye on every detail and movement the lady made. The bored men smiled when they saw her pleasant figure approach.
The emerald lady pulled something small from a pocket, holding it out favorably to the assorted rabble. She then tipped her hand in silence, the noise of the water running was too loud, but not loud enough to drown out the heart of the clock knocking away.
Their smiles grew and they collapsed into bliss. With a practiced bounce she was on the sledge in a clock-beat while the fencer circled around, climbed up a low shop, gaining height, fearful of the lady in the cloak.
She felt along the chains which bound the tarp around the cargo and when she found no loose flaps flourished a curved silver knife.
He could just stay still and quiet, wait for her to walk away, but he always discounted his first ideas. Well, most of the time he did. Maybe it was the old mores that made him do what he did next, which demanded the death of those with signs of the talent so that the crimson demon wouldn’t whisk them away to hell. Maybe it was something else, a bad habit he had picked up in the cities, or earlier.
The Fencer remembered the Stranger with blue hair.
Across town a murderer arrived with news and somewhere else a baby was born. The clock, knocking ever onwards didn’t stop for any of these things. Back at the inn Firo exchanged knowledge and madness with the Trumpeter. Secrets were abroad, and maybe that is why the Fencer chose that moment to leap upon the emerald lady, chancing that he could split her accursed skull open before she had a chance to reduce him, and presumably the whole city, to glimmering ashes. Maybe that wasn’t the reason at all; maybe he didn’t have one.
She turned, an arm lifted and the Fencer fell into a great wide viridian sea as the lady’s hood slid back and out and over the world.