An ocean of clarity. A sea of thoughts. The Fencer drifted, shipwrecked over a surface of silver-flecked liquid. In this place he could see everything, what little there was, which made understanding everything all that much easier. There was something in the depths. No darkness clouded the sea floor, which was clear as glass, and there he saw a skeleton. He had seen many similar ones after a successful hunt, such bones being ubiquitous in the village of the narwhal hunters. Only this whale skeleton was much larger and had no prominent tusk. Maybe everything wasn’t so simple after all.
“What are you doing here?” demanded Firo as he accosted the Fencer who had come to the staging yards to stand in front of the Heart while plumbing his own. In his hand he held one of Clea’s vials, a tiny whale skeleton resting at the bottom. He put the potion away but didn’t answer immediately.
“I’m feeling a lot better,” said the Fencer at last.
“That’s just great; you can help drag this thing up to Vael’s fortress.”
“Clea’s dead,” said the Fencer, looking the Driver in the eyes, searching for some hint of guilt. There was none. “Wait, you said the Heart is going to Vael?”
Firo chewed on his beard thoughtfully as he worked out this new development.
“Yeah, made me a real honey-coated offer.”
“Which doesn’t make sense,” said the Fencer, continuing the thought. “I can understand murdering a foreign merchant to cut down the competition just fine. I can allow for the insanity of the city-minded to reason killing one’s own lieutenant as a pragmatic way of diverting suspicion. I can even accept a cunning lord who would hire an agent of Summer to assassinate another resident of that land in order to obtain his desire. If these conspiracies are true then why bid higher in the end?”
“Worries me too,” said Firo.
“What kind of man is this Lord Vael,” asked the Fencer, attacking the idea from another angle.
“New. Lean. Hungry, but not like a lot of these despots and brigand kings which pop up wherever there’s enough people to build a house. He’s a thinker. Nobody knows where he comes from. Took over Nock shortly after old Glym met his end against Sol.”
Firo guided the conversation quietly as they walked to the far side of the sledge, away from the guarding ruffians.
“Have you seen the Trumpeter?” asked the Fencer.
“Not since he wandered off after Yogo.” Firo began to fuss with the chains around the Heart. “Talked to some merchants who saw him walk out of town. Must’ve thought now was the time to get out while he could.”
The Fencer frowned. This also didn’t make any sense, but then again, that was the Trumpeter. He’d have to track him down when all this Nock business was finished, which would be soon. The heat was beginning to get to him.
Though all heavens and hells were supposed to have perished with their gods and devils the Trumpeter was sure of his place in the underworld when the centipedal thing felt its way into the chamber. All the signs pointed to hell; heat, demons, the dead come back to life. Horrified, he gaped like a fish, to which Yogo just laughed.
It was all white, this thing, and very, very long, stretching out of the entryway and out of sight. Its segmented body was the color of bleached bone, along which a great fan of hair-like legs rippled with hideous industry, propelling it forward. A spray of ten meter long feelers directed its course, searching for the man who had gotten away, back at the cave pool.
The Trumpeter backed up, which brought him closer to the ledge and the mud pot down below. Glooping noises shrouded the creature’s movements. Yogo didn’t notice as he meticulously considered which of his sharp things to use on the Trumpeter. The thing paused, tasting the air, and then dashed for the kill.
A mad look flared in Yogo’s eyes as he whirled to face the multipede. His selected knife burrowed between a segmented plate as the creature’s body coiled shut around the one-armed man.
From the Trumpeter’s vantage he could see the venom-dripping fangs of the creature punch into its victim, blood spattering from the force of the attack. Yogo wasn’t to be undone so quickly.
Staggering, the weight of the subterranean hunter dragging him down in a frantic chorus of legs, Yogo tipped backwards and stumbled. Again and again he stabbed into the thing as he fought to free himself and the monster responded with more frantic and horrible action. With a laugh he at last pitched over the edge, dragging the two of them into the molten pool of white mud down below.
The liquid bubbled into sudden purple; the Trumpeter fled.
He was lost now. Galleries and halls flooded by all filled with fear and pale light. Occasional dead cries and red splashes greeted him. After a time he had to rest and some sense returned with each gasp of the chemical-laden air.
A wide circular hub of a room radiated out in all directions. Arched portals led like spokes into the continued vast holdings of Glym’s laboratories. Chutes and ducts from other levels channeled certain unseen and sublime energies into this conflux. The Trumpeter would’ve spent a bit more time gawking but the white-haired girl sitting still as a statue of enlightenment at the center of the room distracted him.
Cold and snow once more. Along the perilous path up the less severe side of the cliff overlooking Nock the Fencer journeyed in secret. He was bundled up with an extra tarp around the Heart; certain ploys managed the feat without the laborers and ruffians pulling the sledge knowing anything about the man getting the free ride. Firo, animated as ever, talked the men up the mountain.
The hidden man never looked out, not daring to spoil the ruse, so he didn’t see the frozen corpse of Illem as the troupe made their ascent. It was the custom of her people that they should be left where they fell, so the warrior woman lay where Yogo stuck one of his skewers underneath her arm and into her heart. Those dragging the giant’s Heart did their best to look away but none of them could help wondering at the strange allowances Vael made for his servants.
The sledge stopped and the shouting of chilled men made it clear they had arrived at the fortress. There was a fuss over the placement of the cargo as Firo whined about payment. The argument grew heated when the conspirator flung snow at Vael’s sallow bursar. There was a tromping of booted feet on the snow and the signature cough of the Driver; now was the time for the Fencer to make his move.
In the near dark he slipped from the bundled position he had painfully maintained the whole trek and crept into the warren of Vael’s palace.
It was a stark place with many yawning passages and shadowed portals. The former tenant was quite indifferent to the cold, even welcoming in Winter’s breath, as was shown by the many airy windows. The various cubist openings and doorways spoke of the strange occupants which once shambled, wandered or oozed at the whim of the mighty archmage. Most chambers now lay abandoned.
The Fencer skulked through the cold, nighttime blue of this labyrinth, his fingers guiding him. A few times he stumbled down a set of steps cut for limbs a factor larger than his own, and at others was forced to climb ascending stairs of the same magnitude. He followed the left wall and at last slunk out onto a frozen terrace.
Down below, along the way to Nock he saw the furtive movements of the laborers making their best time away from the fortress. This surely was a testament of Vael’s hospitality, or at least his severity. A last light dwindled in the west, to be echoed by the twinkling of stars and the blind, open eye of the moon gazing down thoughtlessly.
Turning to head back into the maze he saw a watchman on a nearby tower. The shadow of the guard dove into his gatehouse with quick intent. Cursing, the Fencer quickened his pace.
There were already men on the chase; he could hear them barking orders and shuffling. Lantern lights spread through the dark like yellow ghosts. Haste replaced all caution as sound and discovery loomed.
Quickly one, then another, then all of the passages available to him were cut off by the sounds of approaching of searchers. He was lost and all the windows offered only empty sky. Drawing his sword, the Fencer thought about how he would do this all much better next time. Then an idea caught him.
Stepping out onto a dead-end balcony which overlooked the far northern mountains he cycled through his pockets. He passed over several of Clea’s potions, each a fearful unknown. One to make him great and one to make him dead.
At last the one he selected showed silver. Inside the vial a tiny whale skeleton drifted at the bottom of an empyreal sea. Shouts of confidence and discovery sought him as he downed the liquid, whale and all.
They would fine his seal skins, they would find his sword. The few possessions he carried in a coarse sack would be pawed through and some stolen. Even the potions he took from Clea would be left behind, but the guards would discover no trace of the Fencer as they charged out onto the moonlight balcony only to find air and cold night.
She was quite young, probably near the Fencer’s age, and likely just as boastfully mature. She wore light garments woven from alabaster snows; her hair was wild and gave the impression of feathers. Overall the Trumpeter likened the girl to one of those Winter owls which he had seen on the long trek from the Wandering Mountains. She would be unfriendly if disturbed, her white eyebrows said as much in their arch, and so the musician waited.
Finding a portal leading away from the giant spoked room he made himself comfortable in the shadows, but soon returned, too agitated to sit still. Lost to distant spheres she never took any note of him.
He spent several minutes only a meter away from her slight frame. Part of him wanted to reach out and touch her shoulder, get her attention, but he always withdrew the questing hand. He had learned better, but oh how his curiosity burned. So he looked closer at the situation.
Certain incomprehensible elements in the room puzzled him. Questions of utility and context loomed in his mind. This grand axle certainly wasn’t a living space, despite the balmy temperature afforded by the steam, and there was no evidence of its use as a chapel to some long gone religion. Perhaps it was simply a grand hall and served as the hub of transport back when Glym was alive, but he doubted it. Mages were strange entities and each had a strangeness unto themselves. Magic, that was probably it.
This thought came into consideration and it sent the Trumpeter scampering with realization as to the girl’s nature. This was just as well because the movement of men in armor grew close and he only just returned to hiding, in fear and torment, when the first guards walked through an opposing arch, followed by a man who soon expressed a voice familiar and chilling.
The Fencer found himself in a cyclopean world of plateaus and bottomless pits. He fought over the right angles of his environment, climbed cliffs and dropped into basins. Huge sounds, expansive and thundering, echoed. He was quite thankful when he found the needle.
It must’ve been a fine thing in its day, composed of whalebone and topped with a wicked point. It made a fine pike.
Clea’s magic had left him free of pursuit as well as naked and weaponless. The Fencer now stood an inch or so tall. The world towered.
After skirting around the general confusion that his disappearance left behind the Fencer stuck to the corners to avoid being trampled and set off in search of Lord Vael and answers. In a way he was glad to be free of his nightmare weapon, and yet he felt more naked without it than he did being actually naked; little attention was paid to embarrassment in such a close community as the village of the narwhal hunters.
With the needle he found some remnants of ancient gold thread. This he wound around himself into a sort of harness or burial knot, then set off, looking for a way down.
At the top of the giants’ stair he was beset by a spider. This predator, to which he would normally never give a second thought, suddenly charged from the dark as a behemoth. The Fencer drove the needle up to the eye in the arachnid’s head, but never before had he been left so jittery by a struggle. The strength and flutter of those hairy legs shivered him to the bone.
The trip down the stairs was exhausting and interminable. Perhaps time went differently in such a state, he sighed at what he might never know. Perhaps he would never even return to his true size; such was magic. Still, he was grateful for his liberty, provided by the dead once more.
Descending into the depths he discovered a world of pale lit rooms and corridors, all part of a grand and echoing dungeon of sorcerous architecture. The light made him feel vulnerable but at least it was warmer down here. The rats agreed with him.
A fat, white fellow appeared at the far distant horizon of the Fencer’s current room. It sniffed the air. Hastily attempting to leave only excited the vermin and by its movement the man was certain he would never be able to outrun this adversary.
It was a funny, if disconcerting, spectacle to see the activities of a familiar rodent puffed up to monstrous proportions. The twitching nose pulling at two fans of whiskers stopped short of confrontation, considering. The Fencer readied the needle just in time for the rat to suddenly lunge forward.
So used to swinging Dhala around he brought his miniature weapon across the rodent’s nose but the point did little to slow the rat. Then it was on the man, scraping with its pink claws and gnashing its shovel-like teeth. Using the needle as a bar the Fencer did his best to keep the thing’s bite away while it savaged him with its claws. At last he gripped the rat’s throat with one hand while the other drove his tiny weapon into the rodent’s belly.
A flurry of movement dragged the man into a whirl of blood and claws and fur and death. He was deafened by squeaks. Then, just as suddenly, he scrambled clear of the dying rat, which thrashed in its last throes of life, the needle still in it.
Retrieving his pike, covered in cuts and bruises, the Fencer continued his trek into the laboratories of Glym. In the distance he thought he heard the booming voices of giants. About that time a strange, indescribable feeling came over him.
The armored man who entered the room didn’t wake the alabaster girl at once. The Trumpeter would call him a thoughtful sort, like the Fencer but without the temper. There was something of Clea about the man too, a kind of practice and nobility to his movements. And did that guard have the Fencer sword?
The Trumpeter’s thoughts concerning the armored man froze. Indeed, the weapon, held in a cloth by an uneasy guard who entered behind the rest, was the Dhala thing of black crystal and crimson eyes.
Such was the viewer’s confusion that he didn’t notice how the armored man walked once around the sitting girl, observing the invisible focus of her concentration, appraising the progress of her meditation, until he finally reached out and touched her shoulder. At the moment her pale blue eyes opened he snatched something from the air in front of her as it winked into existence.
“We have the Heart,” he said before she could get a word out, “and company. We’ve a guest loose in the palace by means of some witchery, though he left his things behind when we he escaped. Puzzling.”
“Things?” she asked with a voice somewhere between a sigh and a cold breath.
The man gestured the guard carrying the Fencer’s blade over to the girl. The Trumpeter had calmed a bit now that he knew his companion had a chance of living. He sympathized with the guards who shifted uneasily in the girl’s presence. Certainly they were thinking what he was; that she was a magician or a witch, someone with the talent or the curse or whatever you like to call it. The musician sunk further into the slight alcove where he hid.
All at once there was a cry from which the party had arrived and familiar shouts. Sounds of violence brought the company’s attention and at last the source was dragged into the room.
A naked Fencer was brought in by a half dozen guards, most showing signs of abuse. The swordsman’s body displayed deep scratches from some unknown beast but his eyes still had that reassuring madness.
He shouted at them, trying to be heard above the confusion, but the echoes of the chamber only distorted what he was trying to say into incomprehensibility. The alabaster girl giggled at the absurd tableaux while the armored man commanded the whole group from the room.
When he was sure it was safe and quiet, the company moving several rooms away, the Fencer chuckled a bit to himself as he snuck after the party. As he began work on several gambits for the Fencer’s freedom the Trumpeter was already savoring the fact that he wasn’t the one who needed rescuing after all.