“I let you wander about Nock with a magic blade at your side without being brought in by the lamplighters,” continued Vael as they passed through galleries and passages illuminated by the lingering enchantments of their former master.
“You are most kind,” said the Fencer, calming down, focusing on the memory of his cold weapon, currently held by a worried looking guard who kept it wrapped in cloth and held away. “If you wanted to continue along that line of courtesy I wouldn’t complain at all.”
“You are my guest; I wouldn’t think of abandoning you until the proper social forms have been observed,” said Vael, obviously enjoying himself. Up and up the lord took them through the dungeons and into the keep proper.
The Fencer wondered what these ‘forms’ might entail. There was little precedent for torture back in the village of the narwhal hunters. If you had a grievance with someone you either worked out your problems or there was clear, simple violence. Life in Ahgren, and now in Nock, added whole new layers of complexity to human interaction.
He sighed audibly as they entered a prominent room of extreme cold; an ornate throne molded to the far wall added a familiar touch. The thing seemed grown from some peerless white stone, the surface of which showed a collage of snowflake-feathers and icicle veins. The arctic breath of Winter sailed in through the open arcades which made up the walls on either side. Through these portals distant mountain tops graced the cloudy night sky, giving some sense of altitude.
Here they let him redress in his sealskins while Vael explained things. The alabaster girl’s eyes danced with excitement as she played with the Fencer’s old iron collar.
“The world is empty,” the young lord began. “There is no magic left, Sol saw to that.”
“Who is this Sol that you addled northerners talk about?” spat the Fencer. “Everyone with a spark of memory knows that the Red Demon took all the witches and monsters and dragged them to a place beyond the stars. The Uplifting.”
“Everyone doesn’t know that and I’m not sure you do either,” pressed Lord Vael who seemed a good fit in the snowflake throne, his bleached pet sitting on the floor at his left side, grinning.
It was true; his reason demanded he treat it as such. The Fencer had been very young when the event occurred and only vaguely did he remember that green-haired witch who lived in a cave halfway up the Wondering Mountains. There came tales of the red demon casting down gods, enslaving magi, causing the earth to swallow up priests. Yet, considering how isolated and xenophobic the village was, it certainly didn’t fit. Still, the witch vanished at that time.
“Nobody does,” the man on the throne finally pronounced. “Each city and village, each band of nomads and tribe of brigands, they all have different stories to tell of the Uplifting. All, as far as I determine, mix truths and falsehoods to varying degrees.”
“That means not all the magic is gone,” stated the Fencer feeling the lean of the conversation. Lord Vael opened his mouth, not out of surprise but more because this southern outcast had jumped ahead of his finely choreographed reasoning by several steps.
“Which brings me to this weapon,” said Vael, catching up.
“Of mine,” continued the Fencer.
“It’s a thing of magic,” Vael said. “Though I don’t know much more.”
“I don’t understand it,” said the alabaster girl, speaking at last.
“It’s cold,” smiled the Fencer. The guards had let him go at this point, but stood just outside of easy reach and yet close enough to draw and be upon the prisoner should he abuse his liberty. “I call it Dhala.”
“If it was of cold, I would be able to understand it,” stated the girl who looked up at Vael. “He lies.”
“Not much we can do about that,” responded the man in the throne who smiled in return. The girl closed her eyes.
“Where did you learn to swing a sword?” asked Vael.
“I ate a butterfly, or so the scholars in Ahgren tell. Looked like a snowfly to me.”
The guard closest to the Fencer had been having trouble with the cold and now a full body cough wracked through him. In one motion the fencer drew the doubled-over man’s sword and was out the closest arch in the arcade.
Once again he returned to the familiarity of Winter and its freezing breath. He clambered down a facade of archway-laden floors, there being many more layers to the fortress than he remembered seeing from his journey into Nock. Shouts from the guards followed on one side, night stars shone on the other.
Men in armor waited at the cubic tumble of roofs that was the architecture of Lord Vael’s fortress. A ledge nearby them looked out over the hundreds of meters leading down to slumbering Nock. Strange, they seemed to be two of the men he had left dumbfounded back in the throne room. The Fencer leapt the final few meters, much to their surprise.
The first opponent tumbled off the edge after a few savage swings; the second attempted a vicious lunge but merely charged off under his own power. Their screams fell away into the steam clouds of the city below.
From above, framed by the blocky strength of the palace, Lord Vael laughed. The Fencer glanced down. The city was suddenly concealed by a boiling veil of steam so potent that it seemed the whole palace floated on clouds. A similarity to Summer rung out in the adventurer’s mind as he jumped from block to block and roof to roof, looking for some path out of the crazy jumble of towers and balconies. Lord Vael simply receded back into the throne room, and stepped out of a darkened portal next to the Fencer.
“Sorcery!” exclaimed the swordsman, readying his stolen blade to meet the steel his captor brought down on him.
“Oh, quite,” said the ruler of Nock. “So this is the cold you spoke of before?”
Indeed, the world was growing colder and stranger ever second. The stars glared from their heavenly perches and grew red and hungry as the sky froze. A terrible cold, that cold which the Fencer felt when he grasped his Dhala, tightened around the throat of the world. In this absolute and unnatural temperature he could feel his movements slow, his thoughts freeze.
At first he played the game of swords perfectly with the lord of the keep, meeting strike for strike, but as the affliction progressed he went increasingly on the defensive. Vael never weakened, never faltered for a moment. His was an experienced hand, always a smile on his face. Victory was as certain as the chill in the air.
Then a cry from above. There was the girl and the Trumpeter, smiling while he pushed the struggling witch out the high arch. Her scream was silenced when she hit some buttress of masonry and shattered.
The Fencer blinked back to the throne room, Lord Vael seated, the girl at his side, all the guards and all their swords in proper hands. Night time shone deep blue outside the arches of old Glym’s fortress.
“The mad musician is in the keep, find him!” shouted Vael as the same illusion which had overcome the Fencer melted from his mind.
“He was close enough to be a part of the Diorama,” added the girl.
The Fencer felt he should be thankful to hear that the Trumpeter was still alive and causing trouble but the potency of the hallucination he had just experienced filled him with dread. Every breath, every cut and bruise felt true, even now he rubbed at the place on his arm Vael had cut open in the duel. Even more frightening was the cold, the sensation of Dhala which had filled him so utterly. It was as if reality itself was being undone and remade.
“So that is what you meant by cold,” said the girl thoughtfully. “You have many words for that phenomenon, which is why I didn’t understand the sword before, but now I do.”
“But do you understand it fully?” the armored lord asked. To this the girl was silent and thoughtful, a bit petulant by the look in her eyes.
“Just as you accused,” continued Vael to his guest. “Sorcery.”
“You keep dangerous company,” said the Fencer, gauging the position of the guards once more. He walked over to the arch and saw that the scale of the keep had been much exaggerated by the dream he had just experienced. “I understand it is customary to behead witches and bury them at crossroads.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Vael.
“How many mages do you keep in your employ?” The Fencer met the man’s cold eyes with his own.
“Icle accompanies me for now, that is all,” responded Vael trying to feel around the Fencer’s question.
Strange, thought the swordsman, the despot seemed to be telling the truth. Clea’s death was making less and less sense.
“She is not like us, not in the normal sense of the word, not even like those from Summer. When I claimed the keep after Sol destroyed Glym I pulled her from a vat deep in the laboratories. She is made from snow and her heart is ice. Along with these attributes she has certain talents.”
“Who was Glym?” The Fencer had to buy more time for the Trumpeter; at this moment he had to trust in his friend’s capabilities, it was the only way to freedom he could envision.
It was at that moment that a frightfully tall man, head shaved clear, wearing a garment of frost appeared in the room. He moved his hands and with a shrieking sound the guards, Vael, and closed-eyed Icle froze, along with the very air around them.
The Fencer didn’t miss the chance. Careful to avoid the jagged protrusions of ice he snatched up his sword and spun to face the legendary Glym.
Under the focused attentions of the long lost mage the Fencer felt an intense fear. The air screamed as all heat bled away from the man’s very presence and a countenance both serene and jagged played upon his face.
“Once I was abandoned but the cold that was supposed to kill me became me,” said Glym with a voice balanced and hypnotic. “I lived as a wild beast for a time but then the master came. Over the decades he taught me some portion of the signs and motions of the Art, then I killed him for the rest. I built my home in this place because a great power was here, one I intended to harness, though the process would take centuries.”
All the while the magician spoke he moved with slow steady steps towards where the Fencer stood. The swordsman gripped and re-gripped his blade many times. He could feel the words worming into his mind, chilling him. Only some stubborn quality within himself or the black sorcery of his weapon kept his mind from growing cold and still.
“Now you have something most curious,” said Glym. “I would have it.”
Sensing the sorcerer’s tug on the blade before the effect could fully coalesce the Fencer took the telekinetic momentum and pushed forward. A sudden wall of ice stopped the cunning lunge inches from Glym’s heart. With a swing the Fencer collapsed the whole barricade and circled about his foe.
An upraised hand and a bolt of alabaster frost crackled through the air, sending the swordsman reeling back, out of the room and down a grand stair. The energy of the attack wriggled, bending and lashing out like a venomous serpent.
The castle grew deathly cold. When the Fencer at last rested at the bottom sounds of ice forming filled the air with shrieks. Glym looked down from the top of the room.
“What you hold is most unprecedented; a bit of Winter’s nature which eludes my classification,” he said.
A trinity of desire struck the Fencer as he scrambled weakly on the icy floor. First Wolgloss had wanted Dhala, then Vael desired the weapon, and now this ancient sorcerer, the master of the very heart of Winter demanded the thing, this cursed thing. So often he wished to be rid of it and yet he could never bring himself to lose such a useful item. With it he was the Fencer, without, well, he had no thoughts on the matter. There was even a hint of gratitude as he considered how it had saved him from the Lemur-men back on the Wondering Mountains. What a curious place the object occupied in his heart while it seemed such a covetous treasure to those with ambition in theirs.
The fortress of Glym contorted as it grew by the power of the mage’s will. Outside, the sun rose early, reflecting off a thousand new spires of frozen glass. Fell creatures wandered the hallways where the icy remnants of Vael’s men stood in silent, impotent sentry. Glym was returned.
“Sure, you can have it,” said the Fencer, at last getting to his feet where he tested to make sure his head was still on his shoulders. An idea had formed and he wanted to be sure the gamble he was about to take was sound. “For my freedom and that of my musician.”
Glym nodded and the Fencer handed it to him. If he believed in any gods or demons he would’ve prayed to them at that point; instead he bit his lip and cursed the Trumpeter for getting away.
“How interesting,” said the ancient mage as the icicle sword touched his waiting hands. “Like the immaculate cold of the space between stars but contained, crystallized, of Winter, yet...colored by something else.”
By now the Fencer was up the stairs and heading to the throne room. Some portion of his psyche wondered that it would be the same when he returned, but the frozen court which attended the room waited as they did upon the advent of Glym.
“There is something curious too,” continued the sorcerer’s drifting voice as the Fencer went to his gruesome task. He now struggled to break free a resident of the throne room. “I see a lady of rainstorm hair and golden eyes. She holds the words of the world in her mouth and the mountains fear for their truth.”
Lugging his frozen burden down the stairs to where Glym stood enraptured by the enterprise of discovery the Fencer saw that a change had undergone the mage. The man of brilliant whites and pale blues was now stained by the frozen nightmare of Dhala. An entity of amethyst tentacles and golden proto-eyes boiled from the mass of his form while his lips kept chanting with the exuberance of knowledge.
It wasn’t a moment too soon that the Fencer hefted up the frozen form of Icle and hurled it upon the unsuspecting archmage.
Like a puzzle being unsolved the pieces of shattering Icle and molten Glym scattered across the great hall of the fortress while outside the arched portals spires and minarets tumbled. The sun cracked, the tundra heaved and in a hurricane of violence the world of Winter ended in the blinking of an eye, Icle’s eye.
Again the company stood in the throne room. The lord of the keep, thawed and thoughtful, leaned back in the seat of frost. The guards congratulated themselves on not dying this time as Icle’s sorceries melted from the minds of those in the room. The girl herself removed her slight hand from where it touched Dhala in front of her.
“It’s too much for me,” admitted the alabaster girl with a sigh. “Cold is the power which is locked inside the sword, but the matter itself is that of a nightmare made physical through some form of alchemy which is beyond my experience. The nightmare is potent, strange, personal, in this proximity there is a pathos which trembles with a strange strength. I feel hints of a woman of power. If I knew whose nightmare it was...”
“I do,” said the Fencer, another gambit on his mind. “But first, tell me how you work this enchantment of yours.”
“It’s a simple thing, for me at least,” began Icle after a nod of approval from Lord Vael.
The Fencer did his best to soak in the girl’s words, though the topic was strange, difficult to grasp. He considered it necessary though, on my levels. He hoped for the illumination of certain mysteries which had dogged him ever since he was chased from his village. Also there was a chance that he might win his freedom or buy enough time for the Trumpeter with this ruse. And then there was Winter’s Riddle itself; he could never ignore some path of esoteric knowledge which might lead to a solution, either personal or global, to the cold, with no better example evident than his nightmarish weapon which lay on the ground in front of the throne.