Now, the Trumpeter didn’t know that what he was seeing and feeling before was unreal. The fine-cut architecture of the upper apartments looked clear and true, the sounds of the Fencer battling his way to freedom rang out loud, and that smell of frost and ancient magics held just as heavy in the fortress of Vael where he pushed the alabaster witch from the arch as it did in the fortress where he hid from the redoubled efforts of the guards. Imagine his disappointment in seeing Icle shatter only to find out, in a blink, that she was whole and lived. Still, this act of violence had broken the mind trap and he had gone fleeing into the depths of the palace, a score of guards giving chase.
In order to sequester himself away from such scrutiny the Trumpeter could’ve fled into the cubist quarters of the palace itself, that part of the fortress which rose above the diorite cliff overlooking Nock, but he chose to keep going down into the great rock, to the passages he knew. It probably wasn’t much safer down there, but his mind spun in strange revolutions most times and only revolved faster and faster after encountering the Diorama.
When the galleries became lit by that strange ambient radiance once more the Trumpeter knew he was back in the laboratories. Amongst the empty arcades and corridors his mind found the space it needed to resolve certain mysteries concerning the city, the fortress, the witch and the steel despot on his throne of snowflakes. The Trumpeter would often stop with sudden understanding only to be spurred on once more by the cries and clatter of the guards which harassed him. Between these forces of revelation and persecution he soon became lost.
New passages beaconed, twisting, turning things more organic than constructed. Strange, considering the architectural progression upwards of natural caverns into worked rooms. A sound of confined steam and a beating nock, like that of the city’s clock, resounded from this new way. At last, in a room directly below the grand arcade, where the Fencer had been caught and the Trumpeter discovered the alabaster witch meditating, his revelations culminated.
By now the walls were almost completely crystalline, veins of chalcedony and amethyst shooting through the more crude quartz and cubic metal. The chamber was festooned with brass fittings, conduits for the natural forces being fed up to the clock above. The thing wasn’t too far off by the sound. Dominating the center, inset against the coarse rock, was a partially exposed sphere of an enormous geode, within which vivid redness gleamed. The Trumpeter didn’t have long to consider this as he sought about for a place to hide from the guards only a few seconds behind.
“There is a shape to all our minds, like a gem, and everything we know or think or feel is a facet,” began Icle as if she was explaining the simplest thing in the world. “I reach out and pluck facets.”
“You can’t do that with stone,” said the Fencer abruptly.
“Of course not, it’s just a way of speaking.”
Inside himself the Fencer grumbled at this travesty of simile, spoken at him as if he was a child without the reason to turn about words and judge their value, but he let his temper cool.
“These facets grow, like the crystals down in the laboratories, all funny shapes and lovely colors,” she continued, lost in the telling. “And that is where you were, in a new mind, an empty shell, something known as a Diorama. I grew the place, you populated it with what you knew, and I filled in the rest. If I could I would make entirely new minds with thoughts I liked and shapes that pleased, or simply replace the worn, Winter-addled brains which surround me with creations of my own...”
“I think he understands now,” recommended Vael.
“Not at all. Not one bit,” started the angry Fencer.
“Oh, there is much, much more to it than that,” said the girl with a smile.
“Like how it all falls apart when you die in them, like in a dream?”
“I can’t die-” began the girl but Vael tapped her shoulder, cutting her off.
“You say you know whose dream that is,” said Vael, pointing to where Dhala lay on a white cloth in front of the throne, red eyes smoldering from the black crystal of the sword.
“I only met him once and only for a short time,” said the Fencer as he thought back to those few minutes after he murdered the mute and released the Stranger. In his mind the man stood out with a frightful clarity. “He wasn’t much out of boyhood but quite tall. His hair had the mark of the gift, like a clear sky at dusk, and his eyes were crimson. If I were a superstitious idiot from my village I would call him a god and like a lost deity this person, this entity, was quite powerful indeed. He threw me about like I was a bit of flotsam, could vanish without a trace and, well, I couldn’t see properly because of the brightness.”
“Now look who’s failing the language,” chided Vael, sensing a weakness in the narrative. “Go on.”
The Fencer pursued the memory and was in the forbidden lands again. A sorcerous cloud, part of the imprisoning magics which had kept the demon safely tucked away for so long, drifted apart to reveal the endless tide of Lemur-men bearing down on them. He turned to glare at the Trumpeter, whose music had summoned the horde, but with a jarring paradox realized that his companion was gone.
“Not exactly like you imagined it?” said the unwelcome voice of the Stranger. “She’s changing some things.”
Turning, the Fencer saw the horrible man once more, the blue hair and red eyes, but here the creature was different, exaggerated. Here he was taller, lankier, hungry angles and long, claw-like fingers. From an inhuman face large eyes stared out and his mouth widened into a laconic smile. The shifting gown had become a cloak of blinking eyes.
“This is where you convince me to save you and your friend,” said the Stranger. “I raise my hand, like this, and make it all go away.”
“After a fashion,” began the Fencer, realizing the surrounding fiction. “Events are conspiring differently than I remember. This is because what we sense, the time and place, are like a cloth of memory worn by a statue; the flesh beneath isn’t real.”
“Real enough for me,” smiled the Stranger, at peace with the simulation. “A Diorama is built from the mind, in part from memory; tell me, what do you remember of me?”
The Fencer glanced back at the incoming horde of Lemur-men in order to avoid those crimson eyes, that unsettling image of a creature more magic than man. Yet even here he was disappointed. Where there should’ve been a horde of hopping horrors from the Wondering Mountains only two figures approached. One white. One silver.
“Yours was inhuman strength, and destruction, I suppose.”
The images of Icle and Vael grew closer. Shafts of cloudy radiance broke through the dwindling azure cloud of disassociation roiling above. On the first iteration of this scene he had received some measure of relief in seeing the rare sun, but now the Fencer felt unnerved by the presence of the Stranger, in the whole constructed travesty of memory. He only hoped that he could point the youth in the right direction when the time came.
“Yes,” said the Stranger after a moment, a hint of sadness in his voice. “Do you know what else?”
“No, I’m not sure.”
“Then I can do anything.”
The thing of dusk and red parted the clouds with a sweep of his hand and let the full jarring brilliance of the late sun into the dream. By the time the two arrived the sky was clear and bright.
“So this is he?” asked Vael with his hand on his sword.
“Don’t speak as if I’m not here,” spat the Stranger getting off to a good start.
“Then what about the blade in the Fencer’s hand?” asked the armored man, switching strategies. “It’s of you, is it not?”
“It is nothing, a merest nothing. Here it is but a copy. I could make a thousand of those things and happily too; I’ve had enough of nightmares.”
“Something feels strange,” stated Icle. She listed to one side as if drunk on the dreamscape.
“Not to worry,” said Vael with a smile to his vat-grown accomplice, “He just said that he is nothing. This Diorama is formed from the sword itself and all things in it, himself included. Only we have matter outside this nightmare.”
Carefully, quietly, the Fencer had begun to distance himself from the meeting. The parties involved were so intent on their conflict that they didn’t notice. Besides, he had already seen the outcome.
“I’ve always been fond of paradox,” smiled the Stranger. “Tell me snow maiden, what can you do? Or show me, yes, that would be far superior.”
“I don’t take my directions from hallucinations or from dreams,” said the girl with an inebriated grin.
Quick as a mountain wind the Stranger lashed out. Icle ducked instinctively but she wasn’t the target. Vael only managed to free a few inches of his sword’s steel before his head spilled into bloody mist. The Fencer turned just in time to see the duel.
The Trumpeter had seen the Fencer venture similar schemes, as it was an act which could only be dreamed up by such a savage and inchoate mind. Now the musician had a use for such a gambit.
He ran from the great chamber and its empty sphere using one of the side ventricles to loop his pursuers back around to passages he remembered. He was beginning to grow winded, it being so long since he had much of a rest, while the guards at his back seemed hardy and fiendish runners. With tired joy he at last discovered the sort of room he was looking for.
It was a simple thing, full of porcelain vats like those he had been forced to bath in back at the inn. Despite such amenities the chamber’s important traits were its length and the limitation of two exits, both long narrow tunnels.
He took a chance and brought the whole train of guards back through this designated spot, closing the loop. When he was clear of the passage and sure of pursuit, due to the curses being flung, he took a deep breath, turned, and sent a blast out of the trumpet.
With a pitch-perfect thunderbolt of noise the passage collapsed in a haze of stone dust and rubble. If the men were to follow, they must first retrace their steps back along the full circuit, leaving him plenty of time to ease back into hiding.
The Trumpeter did a little dance of victory and almost had his head chopped off. One of the damned guards had turned around and lay in wait amongst the shadows!
Apoplectic with infantile rage the Trumpeter did little other than duck and scramble to get away from his attacker. It was all so unfair. The plan should’ve gone perfectly. With an inward sigh he supposed he had to do something about the man trying to kill him.
The guard was frustrated enough; a lifetime of abuse had made the Trumpeter a slippery opponent and no matter how well-aimed the thrust or swing the swordsman only met air and the tangling scarf worn by the yelping loon. The Trumpeter even felt a twinge of sorrow when he brained the fellow with his instrument; the man had tried so hard.
Freed of pursuit, for the time being, the musician set about to orchestrate a new plan. Double checking the routes linking the geode chamber to the upper works of the fortress, he made note of alternate paths to take if need be. Then he set off on another gamble, confident the Fencer could get himself out of whatever trouble was being dreamed upstairs.
In more formal settings magicians would settle disputes of power with an exchange of baleful energies. These duels were a show of creativity, wit, intellect and decorum. But the truth of the practice was more visceral. When mages unfurled the full tapestry of their will the results were messy and beautiful. Strange new life would emerge from the mingling of unfocused energies and whole lands had been destroyed, changed, or brought into existence through collateral magics. The Fencer had no chance of escape.
Before her master had even hit the icy ground, Icle pulled the cold from the snow and the rage from her heart. All things were weapons when properly manipulated and she mixed these two parts into a wave of thrashing, feathery blades which tore at the space where the Stranger stood.
At the same moment, the blue-haired magician vomited out a swarming, eyeless horde. Acid from their dripping tentacles caused the ground to smoke and an acrid stench stung the air. The basin was a flurry of obscene movement as these first conjurations deflected each other. Already the next moves were being worked; no time could be spent with the past.
Icle sculpted a bolt of ice which dove at the Stranger’s heart but with a word he turned it to a pale worm which hungrily turned back upon the girl with its leech-like mouth. At a command the air around the alabaster girl combusted in smoke and flame, shattering their first creations, which still fought upon the ice, but she rose unharmed from the explosion on a mountain of shimmering ice. All this in a second, as fast as thought, raw cunning meeting cool thought, emotion crashing against intellect.
Awful things fluttered in the air, born of half-finished spells, purest will and most terrible nightmare. Finding himself beset by hungry things, which clutched and clawed and bit and gibbered, it was all the Fencer could do to stay alive, if such a state mattered in this place. He had made it to the slopes of the basin and used the advantageous height to hew and chop the more insistent abominations, but he knew he wouldn’t last long against the massed contents of imagination spilled onto the canvas of even this mock reality.
The Stranger was at play in this world of mutable forms. He had grown here into something far beyond what either Icle hoped or the Fencer expected. While Icle was competent and forceful, the Stranger was unrestrained and imaginative. His was a blast of perfumed blossoms which twisted gravity about them to shatter Icle’s protective mountain, and the moaning arthropods which ate light only to spit it back out as great gouts of blackish flame.
As they plucked various qualities of the world apart in their frenetic war the sun was turned into a spear of fission-heat and the moon into a shield of purest force. The stars rained as tears and the mountains bled.
At one point the Fencer managed to scamper up the steep incline of the mountains, leaving most of his mindless attackers behind, only to have the range rise up beneath as the Stranger pulled the whole surface of the world upwards, like a man tugging at a tarp. Up and up they went, past the clouds, past the atmosphere, to where the cold lay, the true cold of the outer dark. Dhala.
Here the monstrous Stranger smiled in the surreal dusk of the nightmare while the Fencer and Icle struggled for breath under a starless black void.