“She was a pretender,” said the assassin as he cleaned the ruby liquid off his longsword, “I thought you should know that.”
“A pretender?” replied the Fencer through suddenly parched lips.
“A charlatan; not the real Clea,” came the answer. “Not the dread alchemist herself. No power. Nothing. Just practice and a few stolen potions, which turns out to be a poor substitute.”
Bewildered, moving without noticing the blood he trod, the Fencer searched for what to feel. The inn was empty and none of the regulars were around to provide gasps or rage. The city sounds were silenced, sealed away by the monstrosity of the event. Even his old demon anger abandoned him to the emptiness. No, he was not alone; the cold presence of his weapon was by his side, like the ubiquity of Winter’s Riddle.
“And who are you?” asked the Fencer looking for some advantage, buying a bit of time.
There was no response. He turned to face the killer and found two dark eyes regarding him.
“Who?” the Fencer asked again, but softer, colder.
“Wolgloss,” said the man through whatever sorcery he was attempting with that freakish gaze. “I hold no particular title and am at liberty in terms of actions. Justice and severity are my hobbies.”
The dark man tossed the bloody cloth into the fire. Despite his overall tone Wolgloss’s hair was light and his skin fair. His movements reminded the Fencer of Clea’s in terms of poise, but his air was hungrier, violent.
Cold reason swam in where confusion once lay. Too keep the man occupied, to keep this murderer close, the Fencer rounded to the same side of the common room table where the man stood. He made his hand stay far away from Dhala’s hilt.
“Tell me of Summer,” he said with even calculation. Wolgloss looked up.
“I represent certain interests.”
“You killed her for the Heart.”
“No, she killed herself for it.”
A chill purpose in his soul kept the Fencer from reacting angrily to the turn in the conversation. He let the dark man continue on down that road.
“She could’ve led a life of secrecy, utilizing the bottled wonders which were left behind by the true Clea, whom she killed,” continued Wolgloss. “No, she decided at some point in her life that she didn’t want what Clea had, she wanted to be Clea. So she practiced and studied her victim first, turning mere mimicry into an art. That is over and done with. Maybe the years she lived as Clea were worth it, but that is not my concern. I have none, only hobbies.”
“You are from Summer,” stated the Fencer approaching.
“I needed to be sure though, that she wasn’t the true Clea.” The assassin’s voice went distant. “So I stabbed her through the heart. A true magician wouldn’t have been taken by surprise like that or her heart would have been safely hidden away. This one proved her guilt by being killed.”
“Why did you cut off her head then?”
“Because that’s what you do with witches down here on Winter, is it not?”
Wolgloss’s voice strained with disappointment, almost sadness, but sparked into joy as the Fencer cut for his throat. He slipped between the moments and stood across the room, longsword out and gleaming. The Fencer’s strike fell through air and stone and wood with ease but caught not a drop of his opponent, despite the ruse.
“The interests above would like to see a curiosity like the Heart brought to safety, but I’m sure they will find that little bit of ice you hold far more interesting.”
While the Fencer entertained one darkness the Trumpeter waited in another. The pool he stood in up to his armpits, warmed by the thermal oddity of the basin, was comfortable enough, but the thing which entered the room made him shiver.
Through the steam he could barely make out the form, something large and long and low to the ground. Strands of bone white struck out and twitched. The overall image of a clot of massive hairs, moving with searching intent, impressed itself on the Trumpeter’s mind. He bit his tongue to tell it not to scream.
The thing came to the water’s edge and felt around with its long appendages but didn’t dwell long. Silent as a shadow it passed out of the room once more, quietly searching for the man in the water. He obliged by turning and slopping, as quietly as he could, towards the far, illuminated exit away from where the monster last lurked. Back on dry land he relit his candle.
Deeper down in the earth his journey became subdued, the Trumpeter moving with careful steps to keep what was left of the candle lit. There were long quiet galleries of steam and crystals. From above the city of Nock weighed down, all those people and buildings hanging over the explorer’s head while he traveled the underworld.
It wasn’t long until he found evidence of what he sought; a calcium tunnel showing the smoothing effects of many feet passing over time. The trail went down. Yogo was there, somewhere. The caverns changed.
The Trumpeter wasn’t sure where it first occurred, so subtle was the metamorphoses. The vaults and chambers now showed evidence of being worked. The cutting was so ancient that the volcanic environment had reasserted itself on these rooms, rounding their features, depositing growths of minerals through the work of water and steam. If he didn’t have a mad eye he wouldn’t have noticed at all.
As he journeyed, upwards now, the sedimentary action on the masonry became less prevalent and soon untouched rooms and passages built upon each other. The Trumpeter gawked at the old vaults of Glym, a place carved by magics and set with the rarified tastes of one with too many lifetimes on their hands. Voices drifted through the diorite halls. The indistinct murmur of a hushed conversation cleared as the Trumpeter snuck through the arches and porticoes in search of the Fencer’s revenge.
“Too warm in those damned tunnels,” responded the churlish voice of Yogo to an unheard question. “I like the cold, keeps me sharp. If you don’t like it don’t waste my patience with this idiot small talk.”
The other voice countered, or at least that’s what the Trumpeter felt in the tone of the unheard words. This other party spoke evenly, quietly, while the cutthroat let all the world know the full extent of his displeasure.
A gust of cold air blustered from the room the quiet musician approached, telling of an exit, or at least some chimney leading to the icy wastes of Winter. There was even the possibility of an opening hidden against the stark cliffs of the crag, which would mean that the Trumpeter now climbed secret passages within Nock’s central crag.
“Hah!” coughed Yogo in retort to an unheard comment. “Of course I’ll last long enough. The swordsman is already a dead man and I’ll be out tonight to finish off that floppy minstrel that follows him around. No way I’m leaving until then.”
The door yawned open on a bright pale room through which the passage became a walkway look down on the lower level some meters below. On the right side, that’s where the voices centered. The Trumpeter crept past the portal and was instantly engulfed in a bone-numbing cold. A frozen smell of spices and pungent oils stung the hidden man’s nose. He could see no source for the boundless chill in the air.
“I could fetch an apothecary to see to your hurt,” recommended the voice opposite Yogo with a dry calm.
“Keep your knifemen away from me,” growled the rogue.
“Everyone wants something,” explained the other as if trying to find some rationale.
“Yeah, and that’s giving back to the Fencer a little of what he gave me. Let me illuminate something for you; life is awful, I haven’t relished my time on this frozen ball of shit and someone’s gotta pay for bringing me this far. It might as well be those two.”
Yogo left the sentiment open, as if he would like to include more in this condemnation, maybe everyone. The Trumpeter edged out further, hoping to follow his mark and finish this job, his natural cowardice overcoming his curiosity. There was also the sorcerous nature of the surrounding architecture; only magic could explain the unnatural cold since, from his vantage point, there were no openings from which the chill could emerge naturally.
Two guards on patrol rounded the corner across from the Trumpeter and before he could say anything were drawing their swords. The madman was only able to sign for silence before the two were upon him. He ran, seeing that the room below was an odd laboratory of glassy decoration. Crystals bloomed from the wall.
Taking flight, the Trumpeter became instantly lost. A hall up felt like a ramp down and the rooms he crossed had the strange air of places abandoned and haunted by their long-vanished owner.
A cry erupted from Yogo far behind; the Trumpeter was sure his foe had no intention of letting these two guardsmen get the kill he so lusted for. Nothing could be heard from the other man. Quickly he vanished from thought when the musician realized he was running from guardsmen, denoting organization, and not the ruffians he presumed would be in a den of thieves under the single thumb of Yogo.
The mystery of these men, strong looking fellows with shaved faces and breastplates designed to look something like seashell, caused a temporary, yet disastrous, stop by the Trumpeter as he fled through a polished marble room. The two were on him quickly and never bothered to ask for surrender.
Wolgloss had one vice and that was speech. During the whole of his duel with the Fencer he constantly spoke, as all the bottled words he had to keep to himself as he stalked and observed people came spilling out. He would comment on each parry, dodge and thrust, applaud when his opponent nicked a limb and criticized when the Fencer grew angry and lashed out with emotion in a swing. To him the struggle was not about life-and-death, but was instead an academic exercise and a detached entertainment. He didn’t seem to care about the duel and this made the Fencer hot with rage.
The way the assassin fought went along the similar lines. In no rush to reach a conclusion he would dodge strikes with that space-slipping talent of his or would catch the nightmare weight of the Fencer’s weapon with his long blade in parry. He was careful not to meet Dhala’s atom edge full on as he batted away an unbalanced swing or used the fine point of his sword to push the Fencer’s whorled weapon to the ground or the wall. Many times he kicked a chair or stool into the Fencer’s legs. Each time this happened the Fencer stood back up angrier, listening to his muscle memory less while fighting worse and worse.
“Why don’t you do to me what you did to Clea?” huffed the Fencer as he stood back up after Wolgloss had tipped him off a table.
“I’m not interested in you,” mused the dark man. “Only the thing you carry.”
“Then you can have it.”
The Fencer tossed the blade in a wobbly arc and quickly snatched up the dust bin from beside the fireplace. When he looked up there was no need for his next ploy.
Wolgloss stood enraptured by the thing he had caught in his hand, cold frosting over the flesh which held it.
“My Lady,” he rasped. “My Lady of the golden eyes. Butterfly Empress. I never knew my place above and I thought I knew my place below but you have followed me. I see my gifts have gained me favor. Perhaps it is time to leave, maybe Summer time again. I shall gather my things. Where is my sword?”
The Fencer ran the man through with it, staining the white blade deep red.
The Trumpeter had watched the Fencer fight many times and figured it would be easy. It looked so simple to just not let the fellow, or three, with the sharp thing, or pointy thing, chop or stab you. His opinion of this changed quite quickly as the two guardsmen attacked.
They circled around, which wasn’t fair because he couldn’t keep an eye on both of them and it was all he could do to keep backing up, almost at a run, flailing their strikes away with the silvery trumpet. Metal rang through the chamber to be echoed by the cries of more men in distant galleries. More guards were coming. The Trumpeter winced as he tried a desperate ploy.
Throwing his instrument into the air bought just enough astonishment from the two surprised guards. The instant they thought the Trumpeter was giving up was the instant he needed to dive his hands into a coat pocket and pull out its contents. It was also not enough time to look at those contents as he threw them to the ground with the slight tinkle of glass breaking. He closed his eyes.
The cowering musician didn’t see the one guard break apart as the unholy mixture of the last remaining vials gifted from Clea erupted through the man. The carefully distilled potions now wove together, erratic magic coursing through the air.
The second guard swung at the barely visible form which rose up through the blood of his fellow. There was a chiming sound and his sword arm flexed painfully at the resistance. The thing in the air howled like nothing under the sun. Vast and hollow it sounded through the endless halls. A mutter of confused and distant guards responded.
Peeking out the Trumpeter saw the creature which rose through the blood of the dead man. It was tall and sinewy, but less flesh and blood than a frozen waterfall which could bend and sway with eager power, its one long, multi-jointed arm weaving at its side in an unfelt wind. The arm ended in an array of flaying claws, while the only thing recognizable as a head was simply an eyeless stub where various jagged apertures drank in the fear of the living. The whole of the entity was almost invisible, a most perfect glass sculpture, and though its form was defined where blood had splashed on it, this was quickly vanishing as the thing soaked the fluid up with the many mouths covering it, digesting to translucence.
The Trumpeter damned the witch for her gift as he turned to run away from this obvious alchemy of demonic strength and clarity.
The escaping spirit of the assassin, this Wolgloss, turned the fire in the hearth blue and froze the air. The body spoke of curious things as life left it, which the Fencer did his best to ignore. He dropped the murderer’s bloody weapon and it became a flock of red-stained doves. The body screamed as he wrestled his own blade out of its hands.
It took all the courage he had to search Clea’s corpse. From her sopping, bloody robe he stole all the bottled magics he could before stumbling out into the dusk. Steam clouds billowed through the darkening streets of Nock.
As his body cooled from the fight and the weight of what just transpired fell upon him, worry stalked the Fencer. He wore the look of a haunted man. He wasn’t so sure it was love for Clea, or hate for Wolgloss. Things were more complicated than that.
He made his way to the staging grounds, to where the Heart lay like a giant crumpled piece of paper. He jumped up on the sledge and cut the tarp free of the artifact.
All this chaos for a lump of rock, he thought, inspecting the boulder again. There was something organic about it, the way the veins of quartz evoked images of veins in flesh, how the thing seemed to have tone and striations which gave the semblance of muscle tissue.
Maybe he was just seeing things. The Fencer wished that the Trumpeter was around, though, as his reason seemed to dictate, that madman was most likely dead. He felt a need to resign himself to all the things he would never know, but just couldn’t quite manage it.
Fleeing the demon he had unleashed, the Trumpeter didn’t make it far before he found a filthy knife at his throat. Yogo chortled through rotten teeth. There was pain in the joy. The rogue kicked the musician in the small of his back and the scarfed man took a tumble with all his bits and pieces.
He had made it to a long terrace overlooking a bubbling mud pot. The room was carefully worked and must’ve once served the mysterious purposes of the mage Glym. Now it just stunk of sulfur.
“Must be my lucky day,” mused the one-armed brigand. “Now I wish it just wasn’t this damned hot.”
At last the Trumpeter could see his adversary clearly. The gnarled rogue he had journeyed with from Ahgren was the same, except a few pox showing around the collar of the rogue’s ragged clothes and the bandaged stump of a left forearm. It seeped a purplish blood and it was with horror that he watched Yogo cut into the wound, coating his blade with the foul ichors which oozed forth. Now the Trumpeter understood where the poison which had felled the Fencer had come from. That damned sword should’ve been left in the forbidden lands. He scrabbled away, making lots of noise.
“I don’t know what it is that you let loose back there, but it’s sure making things interesting.”
The far off cries of anguish and conflict only now became clear to the Trumpeter. The demon was at its sport and he didn’t want to play its game.
“After I’m through with you, I’ll have some fun with it, if I last that long.”
“What do you mean?”
“This poison from your friend’s sword runs thicker and thicker in my veins,” said Yogo, shaking his head, trying to clear his thoughts. “I see things. A beautiful woman whom I must hate, yet I can’t seem to escape her golden eyes. Witchcraft. Sorcery. I know my time is short, but I wanted to show you two to a bit of the same kindness. I always wanted to die in a brawl somewhere, or in the arms of sweet lady of negotiable affection, and, well, what kind of whore would take me now, no matter my silver. Just this damn bitch in my head.”
His lips rambled, entrancing the Trumpeter. The sounds of demon death in the halls receded away in the face of curiosity. Perhaps something in what Yogo saw could explain Dhala or the blue-haired magus, or any of the other strange and magical threats he had encountered since meeting the Fencer on the slopes of the Wondering Mountains those many months ago. Maybe there was even some hint of Summer.
A flip of the knife in Yogo’s hand brought the Trumpeter back to reality.
“Time to die. Say hello to your friend when he joins you in hell and tell him to watch his back; I’ll be there soon.”
It was a funny thing to say, especially since all the afterlives were gone now. Not a heaven or hell was left after the red demon came and ripped out the heart of the world. The Trumpeter puzzled on this and didn’t notice the horrid thing enter the room behind Yogo’s back.