Along shadowy fissures and warm subterranean pools covered by thick steam an apparition, part-drunk on blood and fear, stalked. Its memory addled by the chaotic and accidental magics of its making, this demon leaned towards the future with an occult hunger.
Another forgotten creature slinked through the galleries and arcades which defined the forlorn laboratories of Glym. At once hungry and afraid, cunning and stupid, this creature of nightmare purple and bleached bone white wandered as just another hidden entity in a world full of cloistered wonders.
Secrets thrashed in the dark, equally forgotten by their creators and victims, who had more pressing matters on their minds than the phantoms of perils past. They all crawled towards the future, some climax or conflict, with a hunger for resolving their rage or violent natures. These could only be sated by finding the twin sources of their current predicaments; the Fencer and the Trumpeter.
Other secrets rested as cold corpses, bodies cooling into legends, life narratives cut off and bleeding away their emerald potential onto the thankless ground of Winter. All part of the Riddle, you see, all part of the cyclic dance of enterprise and disaster, seen in the wall of frozen bodies encircling the Steam City of Nock. Despite knowing that old troubles followed the Fencer could almost feel warm clouds wrapping around him like a comforting blanket as his mind drifted towards slumber.
The illusion of warmth is a common side-effect of freezing to death, the Fencer knew this as his eyes grew heavy and his breath slowed. In a way it was acceptable; he could hardly take dying in a dream seriously.
The Diorama had gone insane during the duel between white Icle and the Stranger, the blue-haired youth who stood just a few feet away from where the Fencer now lay curled. With one powerful swoop of his will the magician had stolen all the heat and all the air and was none-the-worse for it himself.
The alabaster sorceress was bested, the realm of her making warped and twisted against her. Icle gaped with wonder. Even in defeat and death she had a capacity to appreciate, and be excited by, the rapture of such an end.
“It’s not much of a dream,” said the Stranger crouching down next to where the Fencer fought for air. Against reason his voice carried through the vacuum. “A real dream is more emotion than rules. Always hated Dioramas.”
The magic creature’s mood had tipped. Gone was the manic power, depression showed in its place. Perhaps it was due to the asphyxiation but the Fencer thought he saw the components of the Stranger’s form drifting apart, the eyes of his cloak setting off in different directions, his own facial features rebelling against the totality of his form.
“I could take it with me,” the mouth said while a left hand gestured at the black crystal of Dhala. The Fencer had forgotten about his weapon in this place of death and stillness. Using what little strength he had he tugged it a few centimeters closer.
“I understand,” was the last thing the Stranger said before the Diorama unraveled.
The ominous white of the cracked moon resting on the surface of bloated Winter blurred into starless black void. Bits of mountains and lost cities dwindled to a glare of white. The feeling of cold dissolved and all other senses were robbed of meaning. For a second there was a surge of bright clarity, a vision of tessellating light, which then fell away as a mountain wind came in through the arcades.
The Fencer awoke, after a fashion. Someone spoke but he couldn’t hear clearly through the lingering muddle of sorcery. Looking over he saw armored Vael, recapitated, bent over a still form.
“Damn it all,” was the first thing the Fencer heard, followed by more curses as the master of Nock attempted to revive his prized lackey.
Stumbling to his feet, which protested all needles and pins, the Fencer was greeted by two guards with sword-point cordiality. Vael grumbled with low displeasure then walked away from where Icle lay on the ground.
She was dead, of this there was certainty. Her eyes were half-lidded and a weak trickle of blood showed from the corner of her mouth. Something in the dream, or whatever she called those illusions she cast upon the mind, had redoubled upon her. It was poetry for a witch to have her powers used against herself, but eerie for a dream to be the death of a dreamer.
For all his rough thinking the Fencer couldn’t help but feel pity for the isolated creature; formed of snow and now to be returned, probably to become part of the necromantic wall about Nock and the cold she knew so well. It was then that he noticed Dhala in his hands.
“If you’re gonna start any trouble let Logac here have the first swing of it,” smiled one guard nodding to the other.
“He fights wild but I think I could have a go,” said Logac testing the heft of his weapon. Vael only seemed to employ the enthusiastic.
“The humor is reassuring,” said Vael, turning and smiling, strangely. “Take the young lady down to the proper chamber.”
This was done as Vael sized up the Fencer, still groggy from the dream, but ready to prove his mettle.
“Not mourning?” the Fencer asked petulantly.
“Not when there’s work to be done,” replied Vael, tossing a small white stone in his hand casually.
“The Giant’s Heart?”
“Is only part of it.”
“What of myself and the Trumpeter?”
“You are free to go.”
The Fencer’s tight grasp on the situation slipped.
“I thank you for cooperating with my curiosity concerning your weapon but I feel that thing is trouble enough and I have no desire for it. You are welcome to see what’s to be done with the Heart, for which so many people have died.”
It was true. From all the laborers who perished to deliver the accursed cargo, to the merchant and his bodyguards, to Clea and even Summer’s agent Wolgloss, the losses weighed heavily on the heart. It was often said, back when the legends still had merit with the tribes and villages, that the giants were so massive that they could influence even those whom merely heard stories concerning their titanic exploits. The lives and fortunes of heroes and communities were caught up in orbit around those hypermassive beings. Now the thought that the legends held some truth weighed upon the Fencer’s mind. If only the Trumpeter was around to tell him how foolish he was for feeling this way.
“Where is the Trumpeter,” he head himself asking.
“Not sure,” began Vael with a frown. “My best men have yet to find him. Maybe he ran off.”
“Yes, that’s probably it,” lied the Fencer. “I’ve decided. Show me this sorcery which involves the Heart; I have no place else to be.”
The Trumpeter was bored. He knew he shouldn’t be, what with all the guards hunting and pecking for him in all the sensible hiding places. The demon of clarity still hunted the lower chambers, he heard the guards grumbling to each other about it, and something else, a purple-white creature had been sighted in the steam chambers below.
Vael’s men were a tough lot from all over Winter. There were accents the Trumpeter couldn’t place as well as varied customs and biases. The impression they gave was that of a band of veteran travelers who only recently settled down to the task if running a prosperous city. Many seemed bored, and despite their obvious competence they failed to find the musician’s hiding spot.
The empty chamber, which he had chosen for its presumed importance, was full of good hiding places amongst the columns and mineral formations; these were the first places checked by the searchers. No, the Trumpeter had thought of this and then bent his enigmatic mind to the task of predicting this exact pattern, looking for a blind spot, which he found.
He named the empty chamber for the large spherical geode which dominated the center wall, a vast thing of crystalline, inward-facing beauty. The insides of the open vessel seemed completely covered with jeweled and jagged teeth but there certain secrets hid in plain sight. Behind certain portions of the inner surface various channels lay hidden, too small for a man to crawl through but just large enough to allow a wriggling Trumpeter. Weak currents passed through these openings. The large ventricle at the top was quite spacious, with a hidden stone lip where he could hide and watch the comings and goings. Getting there was a bit painful, but judicious use of his scarf allowed the mountain man to avoid the worst of the cuts.
Here he waited, expectant that he guessed the right of the situation, and that when the next layer of the plot was peeled back he would be there to play a little tune.
“How did Glym meet his end?” The Fencer’s mind had wandered as he was lead down into the labyrinthine underhalls of Vael’s fortress. Too many secrets. Too many intangibles that refused direct assaults by his reason on their occult fortresses. He asked the question out of frustration.
“Sol came,” was the only answer he received as they entered a last, huge natural chamber. Strange to see such an organic looking place above the laboratory level, separated from the steam chambers below.
The place was teeming with guards, some of whom struggled with a block and tackle before a great open geode. Fine trickles of steam wafted through the various small fissures and channels and a smell of old, petrified magic came with it. Despite Vael’s serene eyes his clasping hand spoke of a barely hidden excitement. That’s when Icle entered the room.
Part of him wasn’t surprised. The Fencer felt he had seen enough to know that he really didn’t know anything, especially concerning mages. Yet at the same time it was frightening to see the lithe creature of cold thoughts alive again. Galling also; he thought of Clea and the vast gulfs which separated those practiced in the Art and those who were, at best, denied by it. Winter’s Riddle riddled.
“Always a pleasure,” beamed Vael to his illusionist returned.
“How is she still alive again? Nevermind, more secrets and I haven’t the stomach to swallow whatever half-true fable you have in response. Or worse, another of your little mind games.” The Fencer glowered and felt himself grow cold inside.
“That’s just it,” said Vael, “I am in the secrets trade. The Heart, this keep, Icle, and so much more are things I have won from this icy world.”
“Only a fat chieftain sits on his trophies and talks loudly about it,” said the Fencer spitefully.
“Don’t get me wrong, I do none of this simply for the sake of hoarding,” began Vael passionately. “I’m after the same thing you are; Winter’s Riddle.”
“A fine joke.”
“Not at all,” said Vael, reiterating his feelings while the work around him continued apace. The eyes of his men showed that they too shared some of the man’s vision. Icle was busy scratching something on the uneven surface of the floor, a strange design of inlaid symbols which lead the mind to swim at their occult potential. “With these things I’ve collected I may take the Riddle to those who have the answer.”
Summer, the Fencer knew what the armored man meant. A vision of gossamer towers and warm fields of green rose up along with the scent of perfumed gardens and the ecstatic hum of magic. Magic. Silver. The Stranger. A scatter of memories arrived, as well as a chilling realization.
“It is doomed,” was his pronouncement. “I have seen what the talent does, you have too! Anger them and it would be as nothing to reduce your plans to ashes. Besides, one of Summer told me that even they, for all their wisdom and power, know as much of the Riddle as we do.”
“That was an aberration,” responded Vael curtly, looking to Icle for support on the matter.
“I’m not sure. Nothing is sure about that creature which the Fencer believes he saw,” said Icle, tilting her head in consideration as she completed her magic circle. “Never have I encountered a dream thing so potent, but that is the way of dreams; there is no metric to contain them, no measure of one against another. Yet, I wouldn’t count anything said or witnessed by such a creature as the truth, either within a Diorama or without.”
The Fencer wanted to respond to this. They were mad, the lot of them. And so was he. They wouldn’t listen, despite his reason, and even then he wasn’t so sure the intuition on which he based his caution was real. The whirl of secrets, of plots, drew him in tightly. The Stranger had said something about this: all plots were conspiracies.
He wanted to share this turmoil, make them listen, but a sound that had begun as a distant grating had developed into a close grinding. At last the source of the noise became clear when the petrified Heart, the mass which bound the Fencer and all the company of this present drama together by an inescapable gravity, was brought in by a gang of heaving guards.
There was silence as the assorted cadre and the lone swordsman watched as the artifact, just a boulder as the Trumpeter had once declared, was hefted up by a cunning allotment of pulleys and rope by Vael’s men. They were about to set the thing in its place within the geode when the Trumpeter made his presence known with a signature note of chaos.