The Fencer couldn’t say the precise reason for such dread as he beheld yet another manifestation of the world’s 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 wasn’t sure exactly of the future towards which these various elements condensed, in his mind, like reagents in an alchemist’s 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 Winter’s 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 Fencer’s contemplation lasted but a second before the Trumpeter emerged.
It was only due to the Heart’s peculiar lightness that the mad mountain man’s 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.
Icle’s laughter, cold and ebullient, provided antiphony to the grinding crush of the Heart’s 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 Trumpeter’s 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 geode’s core.
“Move you brainless twit,” screamed the Fencer as he rushed to his companion who didn’t 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 man’s 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 Fencer’s sword memories bent and flowed as he faced this most unpredictable fighter. Wary of Dhala’s 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 didn’t press those openings he did find. Too late did the defender’s instincts warn him of the trap. Punctuation of this fact came when his back touched the point of another guard’s 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 ruler’s sword in half.
“That doesn’t 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 Vael’s 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 would’ve 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. “It’s all Clea’s 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. It’s single arm flexed, sinuous, many-jointed and unreal. Claws sharp as diamond scraped across the defender’s 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 Clea’s magic, all the past uncertainties within the Fencer melted from his inner fire. He tested the thing’s defenses with a few careful slashes and thrusts; despite the demon’s 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 thing’s alien movements, and it took all his concentration to see he wasn’t decapitated or split down the middle. The creature’s 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.
“Don’t come down! Don’t come down!” screamed the guard once he freed himself from the tangling Trumpeter. “It’s 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 thing’s 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.
Dhala’s edge caught right between the middle digits of the demon’s eight-fingered hand, into which the Fencer cut deep. Through the entity’s 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 demon’s 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 Trumpeter’s teeth chattering while the lone guardsman ran off howling nonsense about the terrible weapon in the Fencer’s 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 Trumpeter’s 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, that’s 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?”
“I’m 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 woman’s 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 can’t be this way, I’m the untrustworthy one. I’m the one who does foolish things at a whim. I’m 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, I’m not even sure I have. This could be another of Icle’s little mind games for all I know.”
“I think you’d 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 would’ve 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. “I’m not sure what that man stands to gain or what even might happen, but Clea paid for this moment, and I’d hate to waste it.”
“I suppose,” was the Trumpeter’s glum response, more so because of the Fencer’s morbid reasoning than any disagreement he had with the idea. “I bet you nothing will happen, it’s 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 Vael’s 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 Glym’s 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.