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 ancient’s 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 Zerimot’s head as the giant lifted its face to the heavens, searching.
With the thing’s first great lurch the Fencer and Trumpeter, returning to face Vael’s 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 Icle’s 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 couldn’t 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 giant’s innards would soon become inhospitable.
The Fencer made a start of hostilities but these opponents gauged him well; alone each would fall to the vagabond’s 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.
“It’s foolishness to stay and die here with us,” recommended the Trumpeter. “If my friend’s blade doesn’t kill you then the coming eruption certainly will.”
“If I didn’t want a short and interesting life then I wouldn’t 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.”
“I’ll be content with a sword fight in the lung of a giant,” said the guard with a wry smile.”
“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.”
“You’d die for her then?”
“I see your tongue’s 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 man’s 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. “Isn’t that right?”
While the living mountain took its first tentative steps, this noble retainer considered the possibilities and the nightmare certainty in the Fencer’s 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 men’s 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 giant’s movements, only Thir’s 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 Vael’s 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 Zerimot’s 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 Vael’s 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 giant’s movements sounding in the hushed morning. Perhaps this too was a force being exerted on those in the creature’s cloying orbit. Then a guard cried out and Vael’s 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 Fencer’s 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 man’s burnished instrument and then he was gone. The Fencer couldn’t 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.