Thursday, April 28, 2011

XIII. Dawn Falling

            The Trumpeter wasnt entirely displeased about falling to his death.  The only kinds of ends he feared were those due to old age and disease, such ignoble demises rankled his theatrical sensibilities.  Plummeting from a petrified giant as it lumbered towards a doomed venture under the misguidance of an ice-mad despot and his white-haired witch was properly dramatic for his needs.  If only it was a clean fall.
            He hit the titans shoulder and the old instincts came back.  A lifetime spent in the mountains served to prepare the Trumpeter for a fall down a cliff, the fact that this cliff moved simply added an element of challenge. 
            The pain jarred his bones and knocked the wind out of him.  He managed to latch his bony fingers onto a stony fissure, from which he swung frantically in the air, inertia from the things movements jerking him this way and that.  A morning sun danced in his confused vision of clear sky, white ice fields and grey mountains. 
            The giant was only roughly human-shaped.  Perhaps when the world was warm and Zerimot met Glym for their deciding confrontation he had been more human looking, but the years had passed and the giant was changed.
            Just as he was changed within, perhaps the lumbering monster was transformed without by the natural action of the eons.  Zerimot now stood some hundred meters into the air.  It was difficult to describe a head apart from the body, which was elongated and strangely muscled with stone cut by ice and time.  It stooped at an angle, the weighty fortress on its back tilting a bit.  Several limb-like appendages had unfolded from repose, these uneven manipulators spread out, providing balance and support.  With each step the distant mountains trembled, perhaps Summer had reason to fear.
            Considering this, trying to climb back up towards the alabaster fortress perched on the creatures shoulders, the Trumpeter only managed a controlled fall further down the arm.  About the elbow he clung, limbs shaking with fright, as the giant progressed across the ice.  Something chimed nearby, light glinting off the face of the monster.  The things inhuman construction afforded no clear view of its front, which, for the Trumpeter, demanded curiosity.
            Finding the proper moment amongst the jostling tons of living stone he ran out along the forearm.  He pressed for speed but kept looking over at the monster where more and more of the strangely lit face showed as he neared the wrist.  Then the titan wobbled and tipped towards the Trumpeter, who froze. 
            With so much mass Zerimot couldnt help to find trouble on the uneven bedrock of Winter.  It leaned onto one of its arms for support, which happened to be there one which bore the Trumpeter. 
            The little man tumbled free, followed closely by the weighty arm crashed which into the icy land.  He only just scrambled clear of death.  In panic the Trumpeter ran ahead of the giant and turned to face Zerimot.
            He beheld the clock, which beamed platinum and burnished white in reflection of the morning sun.  The great time-telling disc seemed a single eye set into the monolith face, while the great chains and hanging weights splayed from an imagined mouth to become a veil, or perhaps tentacles.  Down the front of the creature the brass fittings, many still spouting steam from the tapped veins and life channels which had once given the device function, protruded like exposed organs.  The giant noticed the man before it with a jangling turn of its head.
            The Trumpeter began running moment he felt its great eye upon him.  While he moved with a cowards quickness, he always felt within reach of the great arms.  Glancing back he saw the painfully slow strike arc and descend silently on the air, then to crash loud as an earthquake on the crust of Winter.
            Atop the fortress Icle smiled in her closed-eyed meditations. 
            Now is the moment we have been waiting for, said Vael evenly as he drew his sword.  Take us to Summer.
            The moment the Trumpeter fell out of sight into presumed death, the Fencer and the turncoat guard Thir redoubled their attack on Vaels summit of power.
            Though reinforcements streamed up from the giants back the Fencers new found will was prevailing, with the help of Dhalas atom edge.
            He stepped over the steaming remains of the last man to challenge him as a trio of guards leapt from a cubic tower onto the swordsman.  Swinging his blade in an upward arc, he ripped one to pieces and stepped clear of the other two.  A clatter behind told him he was being surrounded, a favored trick by this company.
            Not willing to play their game he lashed out with Dhala, not towards the guards but through the alabaster wall of the tower.  Timed with a sideways lean in the giants step the huge block fell against the two men, providing a ramp which the Fencer used in a scramble towards the top. 
            The wandering swordsman was on the uneven crown of the keep now, as described by the square tops of many towers, ramps and stairways.  Here he leapt from tower-top to roof, meeting Vaels men with his blade, and leaving them quickly, rarely killing, sometimes maiming, often disarming them with a clean cut from his sword as he sought the focus of his clime, the despot himself. 
            Of Thir was no sign, though with his uniform it would be difficult to notice the rebel guard amongst his former comrades.  The thought that he mightve rejoined his old faction was a distant buzz in the back of the Fencers mind.  He had too much bottled up to take much note; he fought with the fevered passion for clarity concerning all that had transpired since he had first decided to foil Yogos coup on the road to Nock.
            Closer now, Vael gestured to his archers, who ceased their volleys, though a few missiles had struck home.  The Fencers only reaction was to cut the shafts clear with a whisk of his weapon and ignore the blood steaming around the edges.  Then, to the swordsmans surprise the ruler hopped across a few cubic garrets and took the fight to the Fencer himself.
            “It is a funny thing for you to try to cause all this trouble for me,” smiled Vael.  “It’s almost as if you’ve become an agent of Summer yourself, doing your best to keep the two worlds apart.”  The Fencer didn’t respond, though the words were troubling.
            Like a machine, like a windstorm, the long, silver blade of Nocks ruler met the Fencers strange mixture of desperation and skill.  Like Wolgloss, this man knew not to allow his weapon to meet Dhalas murderous edge, but unlike that bewitched duelist Vael had no space-bending powers to aid him, only the skill of many years growing up on the unforgiving face of Winter.  This turned out to be an advantage.
            The Fencer stumbled back under a flurry of feints, his opponents weapon sparking in the morning light.  Vael used the Fencers heightened senses against him, making the swordsman jump at a flick of the wrist or a shuffle of feet.  He was merciless in pressing this advantage.
            The Fencer was backed off one tower and onto the broad flat roof of another a meter or so down.  He rolled out of the way as Vael dived to finish him.  The keep rocked back and forth with the uneasy stride of the giant beneath them, both men looking to use this motion to their advantage.  Down below, the mountain reshaped the land.
            Zerimots one remaining head was feeling quite odd.  It considered the situation, the cold, the ice, the dry, morning air.  In the distance mountains stood like frost-speckled lost relatives.  They seemed so distant.  The giants thoughts werent its own; there was a strangeness inside and a weight on its shoulders.
            A vast, rocky arm reached out over the broken area its stride just shattered and the land rose up.  A plateau was born.  Ice broke with the upsurging of rock.  With its power of stone and gravity the giant began building a monument reaching to the heavens, a grand stair, and wouldve continued sculpting except for the presence of a survivor.
            The Trumpeter scrambled down from the jagged pinnacle of stone he had clung to when the giants fist battered the world moments ago.  An odd sensation, like having the world shift ever so slightly under ones feet, came to the mountain man.  Pondering this, the high-up clouds changing, growing slightly closer, he managed to let a living mountain sneak up on him. 
            Zerimots old distaste for the small, living things of the world had changed over the ages of geologic meditation.  Now it hated these men reminiscent of Glym, that magician with cold eyes who had imprisoned the giant so long ago.  Theirs was to live and die quickly, to behold the grandeur of things such as Zerimot and be afraid.  At the same time he struggled with another need, an errant imperative, to continue the formation of the plateau, which was now only a few hundred meters in height.  No, he must strike dead the little thing, and on this matter the secondary thoughts concurred.
            Coat flapping in a biting wind the Trumpeter only just noticed the silence of the giant as it once more raise a massive arm in an arc of violence.  He ran, but quickly reached the edge of the plateau. Looking out over the steaming remains of Nock, twitching a smile, he braced himself for the onslaught.
            Things were going badly for the Fencer above.  Vaels experienced swordsmanship was winning the dawn, having nicked and cut the Fencer enough that the gnarled man from the bottom of the world was showing his fatigue with red.  It was only the swordsmans magicked blade which drew out the confrontation, forcing his opponent to play safe, avoiding all contact with the nightmare thing.  As the anger in his veins seeped through his numerous wounds the Fencers reason returned to him and his thoughts reflected upon a new gambit.
            “Don’t mistake me for a creature of the floating world above,” he said.  “We are after the same thing; I’m just more reasonable about my methods.”
            With a savage swing the Fencer forced Vael back and then took this opportunity to flee.  He turned and leapt upon the cubic roof of a narrow tower, and then jumped down to a lower, broader structure several meters below.  Pain greeted his landing but he was happy enough when the self-made lord followed.
            Just as the armored man alighted on the first tall, thin structure of alabaster stone the Fencer cleaved the tower through the middle, at an angle, causing the edifice to slide and tip over due to its own weight, bringing Lord Vael down with it. 
            The better swordsman managed to avoid the crush of masonry but landed next to the Fencer, off-balance and lacking the surety which had been the theme of the duel so far.  Vael managed to parry the first few swings of the black icicle but even his masterfully forged blade could not withstand such punishment.  Dhala sang through the weapon, shearing it into a glint of silver.
            Now the Fencer held the advantage, but felt strangely uneasy about pushing it.  He advanced on the armored man, who defended himself well with the half blade which remained, backing up the stairs behind him without looking, ascending to the very top of the keep once more. 
            A sense of proportion, that was what kept the Fencer from going for the kill.  He knew that it was at the moment of greatest momentum that the situation invariably changes, reversing the play of power, making everything go topsy-turvy.  He felt justified when one of the onlooking guards tossed his lord a fresh blade.  This was the sign he was looking for.
            Then, to the Fencers absolute astonishment, Vael just looked at the mans sword and tossed it down the stairs, keeping his broken weapon as his sole means of defense.  The lord was sensitive to the same dramatic tension as the Fencer.  A few of the despots men chortled knowingly as the creature lurched and bobbed beneath them.
            Along a long balcony the Fencer pursued Vael, who now showed a different strategy.  It was a frustrating thing to feel each step towards victory transmuted into a fall towards defeat.  The young lord played a dangerous game, allowing his adversarys weapon through his guard, ducking and weaving about to avoid being maimed or decapitated.  At the same time he still managed to attack, only mere slashes, which the Fencer readily avoided, but this still meant that the duel was far from decided.  He noticed they were making their way towards the topmost tower among the square architecture of the fortress, to where Icle sat in meditative perfection, smiling into her mysteries.
            Down on the new plateau the Trumpeter had no means of escape and decided to engage in a bit of desperation.  He imagined that the veiled face of the giant was smiling as he flourished the instrument. 
            With all his might the mad musician breathed out a great blast of noise and mayhem from his sterling trumpet.  The monstrous peal of sound echoed off the encircling mountains.
            Though unharmed by the noise the giant did hesitate in mid swing, a strike which wouldve certainly pulverized the little man and his noise maker.  Zerimots crystalline mind resonated with the quality of the music.  Deep in his memories there was a hint of familiarity.  Still, being an uncultured sort, the giant redoubled its brutal attack.
            While the Trumpeter fled around the artificial platform which the giant had raised up to strike at floating Summer the Fencer engaged in a sprawling melee with the despot of the now petrified city of Nock.  Both of them, the Trumpeter and the Fencer, were feeling the press of destiny, or some other such agency, on their bones.  The Trumpeter sensed that it was only a matter of time before the giant squashed him and the Fencers heart sank as reason made it clear that despite all his advantages the canny duelist he faced would emerge victorious.
            Then a cry went up in the clear cold air.  Icle showed red from a sword blade protruding from her chest.  Thirs victory shout silenced even the Trumpet for a moment and the giant hesitated in the middle of delivering another earth-shattering blow to the musician who cowered under the approaching doom.  Vael stopped his sword scant centimeters from the Fencers throat as he turned to see his most valuable ally topple, still smiling.  In all the chaos, slipping in between the moments, the turncoat guard had snuck past all his fellows to strike at the heart of his displeasure. 
            That witch was using you my lord! shouted the young guardsman.  Now you are free!
            You idiot, began Vael with signature cool and calm.  You have no idea what youve just done, but I expect were about to find out.
            Before the Fencer could press this sudden distraction on the part of his enemy the world tipped and went mad.  Men and swords and dusting snows were cast about like toys and sand as the giant was wracked by massive convulsions.  Dead Icle tumbled back in a show of red and white, Thir screamed as he lost his footing and fell down the side of the living monument.  Vael slid out of the Fencers reach, out of sight in the play of masonry which was coming apart, toppling, and the Fencer himself soon lost his grip on the balcony. 
            The Trumpeter, now saved from becoming pulp, was no less terrified for his life as the mountainous creature thrashed and clawed at the fortress on its shoulders.  Flailing figures spilled out from the crowning fortress on the things shoulders.  The shouts of men falling to their death struck through the chill wind. 
            Now free from the ancient network of sorceries began by Glym and utilized by Icle, Zerimots will was his own and he set about with a volcanic rage to destroy all those who had dared control a giant.  He could feel the slight and inconsequential masses of the little men upon him, infesting the ruins of his second head.  At the same time he weighed these creatures more sublime qualities, the weights and forces which described their souls.  Though he felt some had potency this only increased the pleasure of turning these forces to orbit his own weighty purpose.
            Reaching out a diorite hand, Zerimot pulled gravity tightly around him and all the little things danced to these strings.  The giant was foremost interested in bringing to a finish the song which the man with the trumpet had started.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

XII. Zerimot

            The giant remembered when the world was warm, when insignificant feathery things flocked around, vying for a place on its hide.  Even then its own past was a hazy recollection of pressure and weight and some other, more nebulous energy, a nagging mystery.  Right now, though, the trouble was breathing.
            Zerimot, the name returned from its crystalline brain, bringing with it self awareness.  In regarding itself, it discovered its new face, which sounded and jangled as the whole creature worked free of its resting place.  Inside, the creature felt all carved up, worm-eaten.  Glym’s Labyrinth did not sit well.  It tried to look about but found that someone had hollowed out its second head and small things wriggled within the carven walls.
            With a heave of stone the giant, which had once been the singular cliff overlooking the city of Nock, pulled itself upwards into the dawn light which broke over the eastern peaks.  A blast of steam responded from the caldera.  Arms like massive buttresses broke from the ground, smashing centuries of carefully wrought waterworks and homes.  Zerimot pulled upwards, towards freedom, revealing a vast intestinal tangle of brass tubes and platinum fittings spilling down the ancients front.
            It remembered now, as its various faculties slowly lurched back into activity.  A man in cold, a small thing, he came with a look of joy in his ice blue eyes.  This was after the Winter arrived, though time was a concept which had little relevance for a giant.  The cold mage bound him with a word of power at the conclusion of a fierce contest.  There had been violence and Zerimot knew he had been badly wounded by the sharp cracks of frost wielded by the mage.  It remembered buckling into the caldera, then darkness.
            This creature of lost years and ancient stone staggered upwards, pulverizing homes, snuffing lives, first carelessly and then in revenge.  Upright, a thing of inhuman symmetries, it looked about, platinum clock face knocking, counterweights chiming.  Down below the little things panicked.  More of them, it thought.
            Without a mote of feeling in its heart Zerimot reached out a titan hand, the townsfolk became as stone.  Petrified residents of the once prosperous city stood or ran or rested, forever in that moment.  Its heart beat once more and a hemispherical swell of gravity drew loose matter, broken masonry, calcified victims, from all around to join with the lumbering thing and repair its ancient wounds. 
            The Heart beat, another, and another.  Strange thoughts began to fill Zerimots head as the giant lifted its face to the heavens, searching.
            With the things first great lurch the Fencer and Trumpeter, returning to face Vaels foolish plan, were almost tossed back across a huge room by the motion of the first step.  The Fencer drove his enchanted sword into the smooth floor and both men held on until the room’s angles were more acceptable.
            Inside the central chamber all was activity as gouts of steam and swells of heat coursed through the awakening behemoth.  Vael gathered his men into Icles magic circle just as the two adventurers arrived.  Seeing them, the warlord smiled, and nodded to a handful of his most trusted men.  The noted four left the circle just as those within vanished in a blast of cold.  They approached the Fencer and the Trumpeter with weapons drawn.
            Watch that blade friend, said the lead guard, a man with a lean look and a relaxed stance.  The Fencer couldnt decide if this swordsman was talking to his peers or himself.  Certain palpitations from the geode soon gave cause for other worries.
            The beating of the reclaimed Heart was not a physical effect, as that of a man or beast.  The stone did not flux or move in the fashion of muscle, but instead exerted surges of nuanced gravity which pulsed through the arterial corridors and reclaimed the laboratories of Glym as organs for the giant.  The life which spread through the awakening beast was strange, cyclopean, of an ecology long vanished from the face of Winter.  Now revived, the giants innards would soon become inhospitable.
            The Fencer made a start of hostilities but these opponents gauged him well; alone each would fall to the vagabonds superior skill, recklessness and atom-edged blade, but together they could keep their heads. 
            The Fencer moved on one man but suddenly found his flanks threatened by the others.  He tried backing up to guard his sides but in doing so he was left with no means of attack.  Three steady hands paced around the southern swordsman while the last guard took his time with the useless Trumpeter.  The moment was heavy with blood yet to be spilled.
            Its foolishness to stay and die here with us, recommended the Trumpeter.  If my friends blade doesnt kill you then the coming eruption certainly will.
            If I didnt want a short and interesting life then I wouldnt have signed up with Vael, shrugged one tough. 
            A shudder punctuated the sentiment as a first great undulation of force swept through the melee.  Taking advantage the Fencer sprung forward on his leftmost opponent, who managed to defend himself but lost his sword in the process.  Making the most of this opening he sprang past the guards.
            He sprinted back through the narrow passage leading to the long room which had almost been the death of him a few minutes ago.  The deep gouges where he had driven Dhala still showed on the polished stone floor.  Looking back showed three guards following, including one who had drawn a long dagger to replace his shorn blade.  He kept running but readied his sword.
            Back in the chamber a strange mist had entered from one of the minor vents to swirl about the Heart.  The Trumpeter wished to ponder this mystery, but the lout with the sword seemed insistent.
            You sure you wish to die here? asked the mountain man keeping his instrument between himself and the swordsman.  I can think of better places.
            Ill be content with a sword fight in the lung of a giant, said the guard with a wry smile.
            For Vael?
            For Icle?  The guard twitched at the mention.
            If she was simply a witch that would at least make her a human being, said the man bitterly, considering.  She’s not different than this monstrosity we ride within.
            Youd die for her then?
            I see your tongues game, but still I follow Vael.
            I get the sense that Vael is following Icle, leading all of us to the same sort of death, reasoned the Trumpeter, driving the idea into the mans heart.  He wavered.  Help me sort this thing out, who is really leading whom, and then you can kill me as many times as you want.
            The room turned sideways as the massive creature leaned to clear its ancient repose.  The Trumpeter and his opponent hit the wall will a painful smack of limbs against stone.  A worrying thought took him and the musician scrambled for the same exit as the Fencer, racing through while the world righted itself.  His fear came to relief.
            There, in the long room, the Fencer was pulling his sword clear from where he had braced it against the topsy-turvy interior.  At the far end the crumpled and unmoving guards lay where they had fallen from the giant’s movements.  These great motions continued as the environs within the creature became increasing stultifying and hot.  The surviving guard entered and saw the lot of his compatriots.
            With a quick motion the Trumpeter stopped his companion as he lunged towards the survivor.
            Our friend here has made a decision which I wholly endorse, said the Trumpeter with a nod to the confused guard.  Isnt that right?
            While the living mountain took its first tentative steps, this noble retainer considered the possibilities and the nightmare certainty in the Fencers hand.  He nodded, perhaps only to buy a few more minutes of life.  His thoughts and secrets were his own.
            A name then, demanded the Fencer, aching to take the conversation to Vael.
            Thir, he responded warily.
            Then show us the fastest way to wherever Vael is, Thir, gambled the Fencer, not knowing if this quarry was even close.  The armored despot might as well be in Summer for all he knew.  With a grim nod the guard led the way.
            It was rough travel as they headed upwards through the tilting galleries, with emanations of the Heart haunting their movements.  The gravity it had exerted on light, unclaimed objects before was now multiplied and scattered erratically about.  At times the desperate men felt their feet drag backwards towards that terrible beating stone, or were pulled forward at dangerous speeds.  Each room was different.  In some they fell towards the ceiling or were crushed to the floor.  Still, they pressed on through the chaos.
            Up through the galleries and arcades they fought, across polished floors, under the rough beauty of crystalline ceilings, and rough-hewn rock walls.    Many passages proved to be conduits for life essences, meaning scalding steams or boiling mud or tasteless, scentless gasses which made spots dance in the mens eyes as they strove towards the summit.  At one point the Fencer nearly tipped out over a tall room as the halls of Glym leaned with another of the giants movements, only Thirs quick aid saved him from a terminal fall. 
            Their reward for surviving these challenges was that with each step taken or floor reached the ambient pull of the Heart weakened slightly, the rooms regaining some form of sanity.  By the time they achieved the lower vaults of Vaels cubic fortress a certain excitement had replaced the drudgery.         
            Up to this point they found no guards ready to stop them, no traps, no ambushes.  The dungeons seemed so small compared to when the Fencer had first seen those cold, lost rooms, all with purposes unknown except by their maker Glym.  No, their carver; the giant had reclaimed a body much renovated by the victorious archmage. 
            Shafts of morning slanted through the windows when they reached the ground floor.  Here the first guards were met, unready for assault of any kind, most simply holding on for dear life, though a few put up enough resistance for the Fencer to loose his sword.  Thir tried to call them to his side, but this only added confusion.  Bodies fell where negotiation failed.  As they ascended the dedication of the guards grew.
            Against the pale stone halls of the fortress, all cut from Zerimots second head, the combat raged.  Along a wide stair they met a score of swordsmen willing to die for their leader.  The Fencer used the tilting madness to his advantage, cutting down two just as the giant took a step, then pushing another bunch over the railing, almost falling himself.  The Trumpeter blasted with his noisome weapon, dazing those he could and bludgeoning any who failed to appreciate the performance.  Thir kept their flanks clear, watched behind for any reinforcements, and was all too eager to fight his former comrades for the sake of attacking Icle. 
            Around a corner, along some desolate, snowy hall a bowman surprised the three with an ambush.  The ancient memories buried in the Fencer brought his sword up in time to block the first volley of arrows with the flat of his blade.  Gaping, the archer retreated and let the others know who approached the crown.
            Another loss for Vaels forces waited in the hall of the frosted throne.  The Fencer tossed the men about, split their weapons, and carved their armor with wide leisurely swings.  Not since that first melee with the Lemur-men on the Wondering Mountains had he such conflicts free of treachery or witchcraft; never before had he and his memories been so in tune with each other.  Being wise men, the guards quickly backed away to allow for the unstoppable swordsman. 
            At last they found Vael and Icle, guarded as always, atop the keep.  Vael wore a smile to match the sun which peeked over the distant mountains in losing competition.  Icle rested serene, eyes closed, her body in the same meditative knot as when the Trumpeter first spied her.  Behind them the ruined city of Nock lay like a great wounded sore on the land.  Uncaring, the giant strode slowly towards the unknown.
            For a second they all rode together, only the vast engine of the giants movements sounding in the hushed morning.  Perhaps this too was a force being exerted on those in the creatures cloying orbit.  Then a guard cried out and Vaels harsh gaze fell upon the unwelcome guests and the noise of conflict rang out again.
            These guards were the true best, once adventurers and bravos in their own dramas, now given direction by a man with winged dreams.  Their puissance took the Fencer by surprise and the three fell back as more defenders leaped from across the cubic array of roofs to join the fray. 
            A sudden tip, a lunging blade and then the fall.   
            The Fencers stomach fell with the Trumpeter as the mad musician dodged from a strike and found no purchase as the giant leveraged back in stride.  Sunlight struck the mans burnished instrument and then he was gone.  The Fencer couldnt help think of the irony of the fall, after spending so many nights hearing about the way in which the vanished mountain people hunted wild goats.  The cold he suddenly felt in his heart met and mingled with Dhala and he loosed himself upon the defenders like a demon.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

XI. Just a Rock

            In the slivered second before the Trumpeter came blasting out of his hiding place, the Fencer beheld a certain violation of natural law as the massive Heart of stone was brought to the great geode of the chamber.  Most in the room, Vael, Icle, the guards, they were all intent on the activity of transplant, expectant of some event of which the lone outsider had no knowledge.  So his eyes were free to notice that the Heart floated, as if weightless, when levied past the lip of the geode.  His own heart rattled a bit at the sight.
            The Fencer couldnt say the precise reason for such dread as he beheld yet another manifestation of the worlds vast and varied sorcery.  Perhaps it was the culmination of a long series of events, from the sterling energies unleashed by the enigmatic Stranger to the bottled magic of Clea, or whomever she truly was, through to the meticulous illusions woven by the pale witch Icle.  He wasnt sure exactly of the future towards which these various elements condensed, in his mind, like reagents in an alchemists alembic.  This future ticked closer, reaching the point of reunion, gravity itself reaching out to welcome the return of the prodigal Heart.
            Summer floated in absolute rejection of Winters icy sphere just as the Heart did in its cradle.  There lay the resentment of magic and witches and creatures of legend; they floated free of the hardships of Winter while the rest of the world foundered in the cold, minds locked by frost.  The Fencers contemplation lasted but a second before the Trumpeter emerged.
            It was only due to the Hearts peculiar lightness that the mad mountain mans plan had any weight.  Swinging from his hidden perch, he kicked the boulder and sent it tumbling against the company, sending a score of men shouting and scrambling. 
            Icles laughter, cold and ebullient, provided antiphony to the grinding crush of the Hearts regression.  The Trumpeter swung himself free of his hiding place but became tangled up in his scarf, while Vael drew and guards struggled with the wayward stone, and the Fencer, knowing the game which was being played, turned his head, covered his ears and opened his mouth.
            Drawn from the recesses of the Trumpeters long coat, his instrument, all silver and bright from the shine he gave it while waiting for his moment, blasted out a perfect and clear note through the chamber.  Careful not to overdo things, not wanting another cave in, the musician strove for the perfect balance of restraint and brain-addling noise, with much success.
            Even Vael was smote by the pealing sound, sword dropping to the occult floor, guards a shambles, Icle shrieking in pain, her giggles done.  The victorious Trumpeter took a bow and then began wrapping up the wounds he received from the geodes core.
            Move you brainless twit, screamed the Fencer as he rushed to his companion who didnt notice, having stuffed his ears as a precaution.
            The guards were recovering and Vael was up, sword in hand, ready, if a bit deafened.  The Fencer made to cut the mans blade, but the canny ruler flipped his sword back to avoid the swing and then lunged into the blink of vulnerability he found.
            Quickly the melee pushed the Fencer away from the Trumpeter, who unplugged his ears and began fretting with his scarf.
            The Fencers sword memories bent and flowed as he faced this most unpredictable fighter.  Wary of Dhalas vorpal properties, Vael kept his opponent on the defensive, only taking openings which precluded the involvement of the crystalline blade. 
            The Fencer wondered why the armored lord didnt press those openings he did find.  Too late did the defenders instincts warn him of the trap.  Punctuation of this fact came when his back touched the point of another guards sword. 
            Whirling to strike this new opponent, another needle-prick jabbed, and another, and another.  The guards were well practiced at cooperating amongst themselves, and he found himself without avenues of violence.  He seethed.  Vael smiled, and the Fencer cut the rulers sword in half.
            That doesnt change the fact that you are caught, recommended Vael, as he frowned at his mutilated weapon.
            I know, said the Fencer wryly, it just makes me feel a bit better.
            Then the Trumpeter, forgotten by the coordinating guards, brained the armored ruler of Nock with his trumpet, which rang with the force of the blow.  In that second between the loyal guards seeing and reacting to this unforeseen turn, the Fencer reduced their blades to ribbons of glinting metal.  The two travelers left then, hurrying down the halls of the upper reaches, together for the first time since the assault on the Inn.
            The tunnels and laboratories were lousy with Vaels soldiers.  These men fought for control over the escapees, but wary of the Fencer long blade of death and nightmares.  They tried to herd the two men towards dead ends and away from means of egress, but time and time again the Trumpeter, who had made a study of the inner paths, knew a short cut or an alternate route around whatever force awaited them.  And when he ran out of ideas the Fencer simply applied force.
            This way, said the Trumpeter, gesturing to a slanted chute in the corner of the great spoked room where they were trapped.  Every one of the many exits sported men in bright armor, eager to get the jump on the wayward guests.  The Fencer noticed the Trumpeter’s hesitation, so with a sigh he dove down head first.
            A smell of blood assaulted his nose, and for a second he thought it was his own from an unnoticed wound only to realize the truth when he spilled out into a scene of utter carnage in the lower laboratories. 
            The Fencer watched the thing dance in blood as the Trumpeter came down and immediately began a mad scramble back up the chute.  It towered, partially visible now, gorged on the viscera of a score of guards which lay about uncanned, their armor shredded like paper.  More force than matter, the demon wouldve been invisible but for its last meal.  The Fencer eyed the far exit and licked his lips.
            What is it? he asked no-one in particular.
            A demon of clarity! rasped the Trumpeter as he gave up his mad attempt at escape.  Its all Cleas fault.
            This almost distracted the Fencer enough that when the silent abomination swept across the corpse-littered floor to attack it was only by the grace of his memories that he was able to bring Dhala up in defense.  Its single arm flexed, sinuous, many-jointed and unreal.  Claws sharp as diamond scraped across the defenders nightmare blade. 
            The first guardsman in pursuit of the escapees collided with the terrified Trumpeter and the two went down in a pile at the base of the chute.
            Alone with this remnant of Cleas magic, all the past uncertainties within the Fencer melted from his inner fire.  He tested the things defenses with a few careful slashes and thrusts; despite the demons complete disregard for its own safety the air around it swam with unholy energies which boiled and rebuffed each attack.   
            It went on the offensive again, hungry lunges tearing through the air.  The Fencer found it difficult to predict the things alien movements, and it took all his concentration to see he wasnt decapitated or split down the middle.  The creatures claws were sharp enough to gouge the diorite floor or open up great wounds in the sides of the chamber where the Fencer had backed up away from this most terrible foe.
            Dont come down!  Dont come down! screamed the guard once he freed himself from the tangling Trumpeter.  Its down here; the demon!
            Breathing hard, the Fencer could feel himself tiring.  The creature had no vulnerabilities, such as a mortal man, its ribbon body was eyeless, the only features being the scores of mouths which opened and closed like gasping fish maws lined with needle teeth.  At one point the swordsman almost slipped on some gore and fell into the things attack.  Only his swordmaster reflexes brought his weapon up in time.   
            While the Trumpeter fought to keep the guard from getting himself killed needlessly by the thing, the Fencer wagered one last attack.  Waiting for the thing to raise up its great arm for another stone-shattering blow, the swordsman presented himself an easy target.  Fast as a thunderbolt the creature brought down its claw, mouths howling with satisfaction. 
            Dhalas edge caught right between the middle digits of the demons eight-fingered hand, into which the Fencer cut deep.  Through the entitys pseudoflesh the sword cut to the sound of a hundred howls.  He cleaved through as much arm as he dared before twisting the momentum of the strike towards the primary trunk, grabbing the blade itself with his off hand to steady and provide force for this savage attack, which struck through the warding miasma into the demons core.
            There was a sharp pop and a gasp from the air.  All the heat from the room fled, drunk by Dhala with the glee of a nightmare.  Feathered frost showed on the demon, frozen in its death throes, its many mouths silenced.  The effect dominated the room, encasing all the dead guards in tombs of ice, setting the Trumpeters teeth chattering while the lone guardsman ran off howling nonsense about the terrible weapon in the Fencers hands. 
            The swordsman staggered back, drawing the sword free from the thing in ice, which promptly fell and shattered.  A new fear of his weapon came with the weariness and it was only by the Trumpeters help that he left that place which smelled of frozen blood and charnel magics. 
            The two took a different route through the laboratories and vaults which Glym had burrowed through force of will those long centuries ago.  By the time they reached a proper vantage point overlooking the town the Fencer was steady enough to walk on his own.  Steam piled by, seemingly in tune with the burbling muck of a white mud pit running along the far side of the room. 
            I think I can manage a way out for us, pondered the Trumpeter as he leaned from the arched window and observed the nearly flat surface of the cliff.  Nock lay below, but the steam was so thick there was no sign of even a world out there, let alone a city.
            Where would we go? asked the Fencer, though his attention was focused on his weapon, turning it so the various facets glinted in the ambient light.  He was half expecting to hear the clunk and clatter of pursuing guards, but so far their peace was unbroken.
            Away from here, thats what you wanted, yes? said the Trumpeter, a bit confused.  I mean, not to be too harsh, but your witch is dead, the local ruler is insane, and our employer is probably out of the city by now.  Unless I missed something, we fled Ahgren for far fewer reasons.  Please tell me reason is still a virtue you hold to?
            Im not sure, responded the Fencer sullenly.  He now noticed two sets of tracks on the dusty stone floor.  One was that of an armored man, who approached the mud carrying some burden.  The second followed the first from the pit itself, though in this cursory examination there was no sign of the womans bare, mud-caked footprints entering.  
            Not sure?  The Trumpeter almost lost his footing on the ledge outside.  When he had righted himself he stomped back into to the room, all glares.  You cant be this way, Im the untrustworthy one.  Im the one who does foolish things at a whim.  Im the one who wanted to see what happened when they put that rock into place.
            You did?  But why all the chaos and fanfare for escape?
            Because I thought you wanted to escape!   
            I guess I did, began the Fencer, but, I mean, Im not even sure I have.  This could be another of Icles little mind games for all I know.
            I think youd know, frowned the Trumpeter.
            Also, I kind of wanted to see what would happen as well, admitted the Fencer who grimaced.
            Then why, oh why, did you escape with me?
            I thought you wanted to escape.
            It wouldve been a pity to waste a good ambush, I have to admit, said the Trumpeter as his mood and focus underwent another of his jarring shifts.  Silence dragged on between them.  Down below twelve knocks sounded up through the steam.  The Fencer stood up.
            I have to see it.  Which was true, he was tired of being ruled by secrets, of not knowing.  In this one, small case he might see some vestige of the magic world which had been lost in the Uplifting.  Im not sure what that man stands to gain or what even might happen, but Clea paid for this moment, and Id hate to waste it.
            I suppose, was the Trumpeters glum response, more so because of the Fencers morbid reasoning than any disagreement he had with the idea.  I bet you nothing will happen, its just a rock after all.
            The Fencer shrugged as they left the strange mud room overlooking the curtain of steam.  Expecting to find the way guarded by scores of Vaels men eager to prove their mettle, the two were surprised to find all the galleries and corridors empty.  They were almost to the chamber of the Heart when this peace was broken.
            With everything in place, all preparations taken care of, all his men safely stationed in the keep, excepting a handful of his most trusted retainers, Vael ordered the Heart put into place.  Part of him knew the two would be back, for they shared something, the three of them.  A madness to see what had been lost, that might be it, he wagered as he watched the great petrified muscle being levied into place, past the jutting crystals, to float and lock into some central well of power.  For a second there was nothing but the usual cold and light of Glyms ancient dwelling, then the earth breathed.
            A first breath, after many centuries of quiet death, entered the halls once more, which cracked and quivered like muscle.  The steam, now meeting the life force which it had once powered, returned to proper circulation.  A wash of heat entered the whole of the tunnel system.  Vael smiled with the satisfaction of knowing he was soon be that much closer to Summer.