One was a solution of clarity, another gave you the strength of crystal, and the third turned you into a demon. No, that wasn’t right. Maybe it was a potion of demonic clarity, a filter of crystalline insight and the last a vial of might. The Trumpeter couldn’t make up which of the strange little glass cylinders of liquid did what, but he wasn’t about to go back to the inn looking like a fool in front of that witch Clea. There were standards to maintain.
So he loitered in Nock for a bit, caught some gossip from a baker early to the task and paid a painted girl for some information. Yogo wasn’t well liked, but he was tough and feared by the underworld of the city, as well as those of cities elsewhere on the southern continent. A few had word of how the miscreant had escaped the lamplighters the night before, though this revelation proved unpleasant.
The Trumpeter could only drag his feet so long and finally, despite his worse nature, he was facing the steaming apparatus of the clock. By now the pre-dawn bustle was on, merchants and artisans busying themselves about the streets and gossiping. Around the base of the crag, where the clock looked out and hundreds of feet above the alabaster fortress of Lord Vale pondered the town, here he found the numerous vents which his informants claimed was the place where Yogo had slithered into after poisoning the Fencer.
As he had learned, and as he had guessed, the town was situated on a place of geothermal activity, hence the warmth of the streets and the steam clouds. Old Glym, the exceptionally strange magus who once made this volcanic basin his home, had chosen this location because of such phenomena. This was only strange because he was renowned for being a master of the cold of Winter, as the frozen wall of enemies outside of town would attest. Mages; always so weird. Guess that’s why there were gone now.
The vents leading down were hot and narrow. Steam billowed up with a hint of silver. Intertwined with the workings of the vents themselves were the brass tubes and fittings funneling power into the machinery of the clock. The Trumpeter stared down the exit Yogo reportedly had taken for long minutes, procrastinating, and then left.
He walked out of the square and then out of the gate. On the no-man’s land between the inner gate and the grisly outer one he turned off the icy road to begin circling the town, into which he could see owing to the decline of the basin. Dawn edged up blue and cloudy.
The Trumpeter was quite angry. People might relate how he had ran off; this was simply not true, but he had to move quickly before the Fencer felt better and came to steal all the glory. He presumed there would be some. Also he wanted only to do the best for his friend and maybe for that witch too, he wasn’t really decided on her yet. Too perfect. Something was up. The steam made him break free from his ruminations.
As he had suspected, great gouts of hot air could be seen escaping from a prominence of rocks about a kilometer out from the main road. He had seen it when they had first arrived but at that time it was just a bit of trivia in the back of his mind while there was important food and rest to be had. Looking out across the basin he could see the faint haze of other vents here and there.
“I’m no fool,” he stated to nothing in particular and considered an empowering blast from the trumpet, but, deferring to the imagined voice of the Fencer, thought better of it.
At the jutting stones it took some effort getting to the vent and it was only luck that it was big enough to allow for his tall frame. His last sight of the topside world was that of the gold-edge horizon spilling light and long shadows across the basin, cutting through the clouds, casting sharp contrast onto the great crag in the center of the town which, if the Fencer let his mind wander a bit, reminded him of a massive humanoid form hunched forward, leaning, with a fortress on its back and a clock for a face. Then the Trumpeter was down into the warm underworld of the basin on the trail of a cutthroat named Yogo.
Again the dreamed of being two people at once. As a warm breeze passed the world came to an end. All the people falling as he held on to part of the black pyramid. Through the wind and tears, down the impossible slant of falling masonry, the Other stood laughing, wind and gravity fearing him so greatly that they fled from his very presence. In the air his azure hair was as wild as his heart.
The Fencer, who was someone else in that place, felt the cold tug at him from within. If only he could get close, he could win this time. He would win; he knew it; he believed it. There was a sense of déjà vu and frustration. But really, he didn’t have the words to describe the all-towering rage he felt towards that laughing thing. He looked down and his sword coiled cold and agitated, tentacles grasping him with an anticipation all its own.
Shivering awake to morning sounds of the city the Fencer grasped about for his missing weapon but quickly exhausted himself. He barely had the strength to pull the blanket back over. With a head full of other dreams, heavy with secrets, he fought against the remaining dementia of his wounds. Clea watched all this with a tired beauty.
For a while she sat and watched her patient from the small table by the window, which was partially open to let the warm gusts of Nock’s unusual air in. Appraising each movement he made, each blink and shudder of recovery, it was no surprise that the Fencer began returning the stare.
“Sorry, it has been a long night,” she said without real apology. The Fencer noticed how she palmed a single vial when he seemed to regain his senses.
“I don’t think I’ll ever understand you,” he said calmly. “I don’t know where to begin with the questions and I’m sure you won’t be offering up any answers.”
“Questions are more fun anyhow,” she smiled. “I like coming up with a question and just sitting on it in my mind, pulling it apart, putting it back together, twisting it around, discovering little avenues of enlightenment. What wonders, great and small, you can find that way. The same can be said of mysteries and secrets.”
He snorted and looked out the window, only seeing hazy steam against cold blue sky.
“What’s so wrong about that? What do you have against secrets?”
“I don’t expect someone like you to understand.”
“What do you mean ‘someone like me’?”
“Summer,” he said turning his pale eyes back to her.
“Oh.” Her eyes went down to the scarred wood of the table. “It’s a secret to me too, really. There’s a reason I don’t go back much. Just feels like I don’t fit in; I seem more at home on Winter.”
Now it was the Fencer’s time to be pointedly silent. “What?” she finally demanded.
“I’d say you enjoy Winter more because of the power you hold over us Icebound.”
“Strange,” she commented, leading the conversation down a new secret passage, “with that magic blade and your head full of magician memories, I’d say you’re not really Icebound yourself anymore. If you’re so keen on truth why don’t you tell me a little story about those?”
While the Fencer sighed and told his tale the Trumpeter was fending off trouble of his own. The musician thought often of his friend as he scrambled down the steam-smoothed chimney he had entered and these musings continued while spelunking the calcium halls and crystal galleries of Nock’s volcanic underworld. He wondered if the Fencer was recovered and if the swordsman understood just how against nature this whole expedition was for the Trumpeter. He took special note of hiding places along the path he made, until one such hiding place produced the vicious thing he was now fending off.
He was several hours into his journey and possibly lost. His folly in not bringing along a source of light, apart from a single candle nub, was apparent. Still, the ceiling often broke into little cracks and windows through which ice-filtered light illuminated the underworld. Further down in the halls certain crystalline structures glowed with the natural magics of such a place. In one such grand hall, deep, deep down, he was jumped by one of the very terrors he was looking to avoid, and from a good hiding place no less!
It was once a Lemur-man, or its distant ancestors had been. Centuries of underground living had encouraged milky-eyed blindness and albinism. The Trumpeter had little time to analyze the thing as it shrieked so. Proper Lemur-men hooted.
A few swings of his trumpet did little to dissuade the adversary, despite landing a few wallops with the peerless instrument. Surely blindness prevented it from understanding the import of the man it was trying to devour. For a moment the Trumpeter felt pity.
He quickly abandoned thoughts of using the trumpet for its noisome purpose and the idea of stabbing the thing with his petrified dagger felt too abrupt. So, with scarf all a tangle and coat tails flapping, the Trumpeter began his reckless escape. This would either give him time to figure out a cunning stratagem or the creature would grow bored and leave.
The Trumpeter hadn’t long to wait. Only a few rooms over and up his scarf tangled his legs and down he went onto the uneven floor of a room lit by a few cold rays from above. He struggled over to his back just in time to see the hateful albino Lemur-man hop into the room. Despite its blindness it obviously hunted by the smell of genius and the Trumpeter contemplated covering his eyes in a dual attempt at blocking any more brainwaves from reaching the creature and saving him the horror of watching his doom approach. Then it was leaping on him, a ghastly cry of hunger issuing from its snout while its eyes lolled like a shark’s.
The Trumpeter grabbed the first object that his scrambling hands could find in his coat pocket and tossed it before rolling away. Like the growth of ice over a lake, but much quicker, the Lemur-man’s skin went to chalk and then diamond as the little vial struck and broke. The monster shattered where it landed, jagged shards everywhere. Once more the traveler was alone in the caverns.
Searching his pockets he discovered he was short one of Clea’s vials but up a wedge of cheese he had stolen from the inn’s kitchen during all the chaos earlier. Munching on this find he pondered where to go next since he was probably lost.
“I guess that narrows down the possibilities,” he said, looking over the other two potions.
As the day progressed the Fencer felt his strength coming back, with the unnatural aid of Clea’s magic. The hours passed pleasantly. He told of his journey beyond the Wondering Mountains and Clea spoke of Yogo’s return, the Trumpeter’s mad plan and, at last, the Heart. Every time he tried to glean some bit of personal history or secret of Summer from the emerald lady he found the conversation on some other track.
“That’s quite a story.” Clea seemed a bit wide-eyed after hearing of the Stranger’s capabilities.
“You still don’t know who that might be?”
“No, I’m certain if I encountered a person, an entity, like that I would remember such a meeting. If I lived to tell about it, that is.”
Now at a dead end, the Fencer worked on the various issues at hand. An afternoon quiet settled in.
“I suppose you’ll be winning the Heart now,” he finally said.
“Depends on how determined Vael is,” she responded, eyes distant. “He has deep pockets and some blood is involved.”
“No, that warrior woman who represented him, Illem, never made it back to the keep. A patrol found her entourage dead about the same time that we were attacked. They say it’s the way of her people to let them freeze where they perish. We could always verify this for ourselves.”
“Hmmm,” was the only vocal recognition he gave. Inwardly his thoughts were more complicated.
Knives abounded and a plot hung lazy and heavy over the steam city. Apart from the dead, almost all the principles seemed capable of orchestrating the violence surrounding the big rock. Yogo was certainly in on it and Corinze was out. Perhaps Firo had some design intended for the Heart or was just trying to drive up the price. Vael was distant, had even suffered a loss, but the way of rulers was beyond the Fencer’s tribal understanding so he allowed a conspiracy here by default. Even Clea could be behind the events of the past few days. She had the guile and the resources, the attempt on her life had failed too. It was all so tangled up, full of unknowns, just like Winter’s Riddle.
“Your demon again?” Clea asked, breaking his concentration. She was very sensitive to the stops and starts of conversation.
“Something like that,” he responded and shifted in the bed towards getting up. “Yogo is the key to this; I know it and I should go help the Trumpeter find him.”
“Feeling well then?”
“Yes, I can’t stand being cooped up here any longer.”
“Well, I’ll see to it that you get some hot food from the kitchen. Almost everyone has cleared out after last night’s festivities so I think we’ll have the run of the place.”
Clea went to the door and then turned, smiling back at the Fencer, who couldn’t help but smile a little in return as he began to dress.
For what seemed like days the Trumpeter wandered the various tunnels and rooms of that strange subterranean realm. He quickly became bored by the austere beauty of the place. Devising a system to actually find his way seemed to be the only cure.
Following the heat and the steam was the trick. Most of the rooms began to narrow and grow cold in one direction, while increasing in size and temperature in the other. A bit of travel along the edge of this phenomena described an arc and therefore some central point. With a sigh he resigned himself in this direction.
The way grew warmer and warmer. Condensation dripped off the stucco walls. It seemed he was delving deep into the earth, the shafts of light which had guided him before ceased; most probably he was under Nock itself by now. Distantly the clock’s beats were felt. A sound of water moving approached. When he needed light he used his tiny nub of candle, a memento of his time in Ahgren.
The flame, shielded as best he could with his hands, showed an increasingly aqueous realm. Funnels poured melt down all around. Along some walls a sheen of run-off flowed continuously. Eventually the Trumpeter happened across halls shared with coursing streams and rooms dominated by underground pools. Heat and steam increased. At times the noise was almost deafening.
In the weak luminescence of a crystal lined room, a quieter place than most he had just passed through, some sound at the edge of hearing made the Trumpeter take note. Something followed. Looking around there was no way out of the room except across a clear pond. His heart pressed for a better solution. The sound grew and the distinct rustle of inhuman limbs approached.
Wading out into the water, into the darkness away from lighting minerals, the Trumpeter felt groundless and afraid. He cursed the waters for rippling, and then shut his mouth as the sound entered the cavern. Only at the last second did he think to douse the candle he still held cupped in his hands.
The Fencer kept smiling after Clea left. Despite all her secrets she still held that element of life he thought most important on the icy wastes of Winter. In the face of the intractable questions posed by Winter’s Riddle, she thrived. Maybe she was right. Questions offered much. What would he do if he should solve the Riddle to his satisfaction? He was considering this question, as she had recommended, when the silence came.
The inn had been quiet all day but this was different. A sound of something softly landing below triggered those latent instincts gifted him by the magician’s butterfly back in the forbidden lands. He just knew something was wrong.
He didn’t bother lacing up his tunic before picking up his sword from where it peeked out from beneath the wooden bed frame. Alert, he made his slow way out of the room.
Empty halls greeted him, lit only by the soft grey of the passing afternoon flitting in between the shuttered windows. None of the usual sounds of travelers from the main room, meaning the place was empty, just as Clea had mentioned. Careful not to make a creak the Fencer snuck down the two floors to the common hall where the crackle and flicker of a fire told that at least someone was around to tend the great fireplace. Then he saw her.
For once she was without poise. Her body lay splayed out, a perfect and familiar stab wound through the heart, her head decapitated by the man who now stood by the fire.
The Fencer had seen him many times over the past few days but only now realized this. He was there when the Heart had arrived, just another well-dressed city person. That first night in the inn, when Firo, the Trumpeter and Fencer sat around talking, he was drinking alone across the room in that way which made the Fencer thoughtful and prone to reminiscence. When Clea and he visited the clock yesterday this man was there, dressed in simple blacks, a sword at his side.
The Fencer’s eyes quickly went back to what had been Clea. So many secrets. He half expected her eyes to blink open and smile once more, her body to restore the lost head and be whole again. Such were the ways of magic. She didn’t. So many secrets.