Thursday, February 24, 2011

IV. Heart of Poison

            The Fencer liked to believe in the honesty of his upbringing, of hardship, sacrifice and perseverance in the face of Winters brutality.  When out hunting Narwhal it was absolutely imperative that each hunter coordinate properly with the others or else the entire expedition might fall through a sheet of weak ice, or fall prey to the bulls who liked to attack unseen from the depths and impale the unwitting on their lances.  The village was gone some months now and in that time the last survivor had been beset by secrets, both within and without.
            Once he had been starving at the bottom of the world.  The red snowfly didnt seem to struggle in his grasp as he freed it of its golden cage.  Fluttering towards some unknown height he devoured the thing.  The Fencer never had full measure that creature he ingested in such desperation.  He found he couldn’t even explain the matter to the Trumpeter in totality, despite the mountain man being his constant, if erratic, traveling companion.
            The secrets came soon after.  Memories of another time and place gathered.  Not fully formed visions or even dreams, this haunting of his mind took the form of experience, of knowing things without having learned them.  He knew how to hold a sword.  Where to stand against a left-handed opponent.  So on.  Occasional flickers of duels against numinous creatures and otherworldly people he recognized as family broke onto the Fencers consciousness.  But these werent the Fencers.  Still, he knew what to do with a blade in his hand.
            The boards outside the room creaked.  With a flicker Dhala danced through the wall, cutting the door in half.  Two bodies hit the floor, wet and heavy.
            More ruffians, the Fencer noted as he stepped out carefully through the wrecked portal.  Each held long, pointed blades capable of piercing through the walls and doors of the inn.  Clea was silent as she quickly slipped on her clothes; carefully replacing her magics with the same practice with which she had set them out.  Shouts.  Noise.  There were more attackers.
            With deft, sure strokes the swordsman cleared the top floor.  A tumble of bodies, cries and murder in the night.  Two assassins reclined in death outside the Fencers unused apartments.  Each wore a slim heart-wound.
            Descending the narrow stairs, the Fencer stepped over the body of Corinzes prime man who had been backed up against the steps.  On this floor the melee was still in full force as bodyguards fought off the varied assassins.  Only a few oil lamps glowed.  Mad shadows danced to death against the wooden walls.
            A swordsman slipped in through a side window and had his blade shorn off by the Fencers weapon.  He tossed himself into the melee in an effort to escape and quickly vanished.  Indeed, the mass of murderers were already fighting to withdraw or just plain ran.  Some laughed like animals.
            Corinze was dead; all this bodyguards couldnt protect him from a length of steel being driven into him through the wall from a side room as he cowered in a corner.  Many of his retainers had been asleep since there were so many others around to diffuse their responsibilities.  These sleepers died along with their master.
            The press of combat along the narrow halls and stairways made it impossible for the Fencer to close with those running away.  Frustrated, he gave up.  Things seemed over.
            Clea was back up top, scarf over her mouth, standing over another mob of assassins when the Fencer found her.  They slept with their eyes open, dreaming impossible things.  She meant well when she called him over.  She couldnt have known to close the window.
            A familiar bit of metal sunk into his shoulder as the Fencer moved to inspect the enchanted men.  A laugh outside.  Clea flattened against a wall, out of shot.  What was left of the door to Cleas room creaked.
            Again, those devoured memories twitched and Dhala plunged through the timbers.  The wood parted like paper but with a familiar cry, and a clang, the strike landed on something metal and unyielding. 
            What was that for? demanded the Trumpeter holding the murderous icicle at bay with his instrument. 
            Where the hell have you been? countered the Fencer, pulling his blade free and clearing the way for his untrusting companion to exit, which he didnt.
            Theyd never think to find me here, said the Trumpeter, checking for blemishes on his holy trumpet.  There were none.  This excuse didnt explain how the mad musician had slipped past both Clea and the Fencer, but there was a lot going on and the Trumpeter knew how make use of chaos.  Probably not the time to be reminding you there are no more hells.
            Instead of thinking too much about this the Fencer merely coughed a curse and went to peer from the window, out of which Clea was already sticking her fool head.  Steam clouds and the night smells of fresh water and oil lamps mingled.  A few figures struggled across the rooftop topography in retreat.
            It wasnt the strange memories that possessed the Fencer to climb into the window frame, to crouch there, measuring the meters to the next roof.  Surrounded by secrets and plots his old demon seethed as he leaped from the inn to the top of the adjoining building and raced after the fleeing assassins in search of answers. 
            The dagger still lodged in his shoulder spoke of something he had left undone out in the snow.  Whether it was the failures of his own mercy or the stubbornness of Yogos life didnt matter.  The Fencer would finish things before that thug got too out of hand.
            After the first jump travel across the murky rooftops of Nock grew easier.  Buildings crowded the avenues so only a little bravery and a lot of momentum was needed to send a body from tile to brick to shale and slate.  The water condensing from the steam clouds made things a bit slippery but the Fencer was used to the ice and this provided means to gain on his assailants. 
            At first the murderers slowed, thinking they were free of pursuit, but the loud sounds of the Fencers boots on tile sent the fleeing men into a desperate scatter.  Some slipped down drain spouts or hid behind gargoyles.  Others panicked and leaped hastily; the sounds of bodies landing on slick cobbles and cries of pain drifted through the hazy steam along with colored smears of lit windows and street lamps diffusing through the mist.
            The Fencer ignored the rabble, even running right past some youthful brigand who huddled in the corner, begging.  He had one goal in sight which bobbed and jumped with strength and skill ahead.  In many ways the swordsman was back in the Wondering Mountains, here scaling cliffs and navigating ridges of a more human construction.  This time he was the pursuer.
            The lamplighters were out in force now, clubbing those assassins they could find.  For good measure they bludgeoned just about anyone out walking the streets that night. 
            The heartbeat of Nocks namesake grew stronger the longer the Fencer chased his quarry.  With each knock of the clock he seemed to find his strength ebb little by little, while the sword in his hand grew colder and colder.  Running out of buildings at the great square he descended to the cobbles, a slight quiver in his leg.
            For a moment the Fencer was distracted by the visage of the clock, luminous platinum features beaming, and that moment was enough.  It was a foolish instinct which made him bring up his offhand defensively.  Both his instincts and his devoured memories chided him as the pain surged through his right hand.  His quick reactions caught the dagger before it could find his throat; palm first.
            More laughter, now from the clock itself it seemed, or streamed, a light from its balmy face.  A cold light, telling of the hours of the days, measuring out plots and death.  A cold air took hold of the Fencer.
            Beneath the face the wide open grinning man with one arm stepped out of the shadows.  The Fencer shouldve known him, but something awful was creeping into his mind from both recent wounds.
            The man sauntered confidently closer, despite his unbandaged left arm, cut clean away a bit below the elbow.  In the light of the many lamps around the square strange blisters and pox showed purple and black around Yogos severed arm.  Something familiar in that scrawl of inky veins. 
            The Fencer listed, trying to walk, fighting against his poisoned blood, his old demon and his borrowed memories all leaning towards confrontation, but his body was weak.
            A turn of the head from Yogo and then the rogue scrambled back towards the rock face below the clock, to where the great steam apparatus of the mechanism gushed and hummed.  As he swooned the Fencer though he heard a trumpet blare.
Back at the inn, a tizzy of motion.  The innkeep looked on with a tilted mouth at the exodus of clients from his normally prosperous establishment.  A half-dozen bodyguards counted amongst the dead, along with their mortality obsessed master and a score of wayward men paid for this task of violence. 
Rumors already moved through the late night streets of Nock; for so long they had been protected from without by the lingering sorceries of that old man of the mountain, Glym, that there was no precedent for such a concerted attack from within.  What of Lord Vael up on the cliff?  Almost in answer sell-swords and wastrels prepared to depart the city the next morning, anticipating certain reactions by the young despot.
            Complaining loudly, the Trumpeter returned with the Fencer.  The man was delirious.  He cried out at floating cities and blue-haired gods.  This was the sort of thing which earned ostracism among more rural sensibilities and banishment amongst the cities.  He went on to mutter something far worse.
            Yogo is still alive? frowned the Trumpeter as Clea helped him get the Fencer to a bed.  Firo, untouched by the attack, managed the operation because he couldnt help himself.
            Nobody could survive out on the ice like that. responded the Driver, but his tone was uncertain.
            The Fencer made to get up, hands searching for his blade which the Trumpeter had kicked under the bed and out of reach.
            Who? asked Clea as she pushed the wounded man back down onto the bed.
            A conspiratorial rogue I employed to help move the Heart from Ahgren, explained Firo.  He attempted a coup, presumably to sell the thing himself, but these two wanderers maimed him and left him to die out on the ice.
            Pardon, but you dont seem all that worried about my friend here, admonished the Trumpeter.  He was giving the woman a very lukewarm glare.  Despite your, uh, relationship.
            Im not worried, she said as she removed the Fencers tunic and revealed his wounds, frightening things showing latticed marks of virulent purple and black, welts of red peeking out like eyes.  The Trumpeter put his hand over his mouth.  Clea simply poured one of her concoctions down the delirious mans throat. 
            The Fencers eyes continued to loll in his head but his breathing eased.  Clea made a worried sound.
            Something is wrong, she said.
            Poison? asked Firo.
            Im not sure.  It could be a disease.  The woman made a good and studious face, but didnt offer up any sudden solutions.  I think that elixir is working, just slower than it should be.  Hell need some time to come out of it.
            Well, Ill get going then.
            The Trumpeters remark was so sudden and out of place that Firo and Clea gaped for a few seconds as the tall musician checked his pockets and then made to leave.
            Where, asked Clea, shaking away the shock.  The Fencer laughed.
            Its simple enough.  The Fencer wants to find whoever he was chasing and Im going to do it for him.
            I dont want to be unkind, but weve conversed much over the past day, began Firo as he fretted with his beard, and Im not sure youre up to this.  I mean, The Fencer is the one with the magic sword and the more violent tendencies.
            A compliment without peer, was the Trumpeters only reply.  He stepped from the room and the others followed him through the inn, attempting to appeal to his reason.
            In the end they failed and the Trumpeter tramped off into the pre-dawn mist of Nock.  He carried something special with him, three special somethings to be specific.  Clea had described them carefully, which he found boring, and pedantic, but he was getting good at putting on his Im-listening face.  One of these gifts was a crystallizing solution, another a vial containing the strength of a demon, and the third was some potion of clarity.  As the musician walked carefully through the darkened streets toward the clock, where the Fencers garbled directions took him, he was having a hard time deciding which liquid was which.

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