Thursday, May 26, 2011

III. The White Emissary

            They had seen them, the great and forgotten idols standing along the boulevards of crumbling cities, headless things, the noseless faces cut apart and used to build the uneasy structures in which former believers huddled against the ceaseless cold of Winter.  In the time before the Uplifting these gods in their temples held the world thrall to their will.  Hushed and reverent voices once spoke of the Mother of Snakes, Ormyre, Ythaes and so on.  Now there was silence. 
            In a town called Pale Dust, where every house had once been a temple and every household boasted a priest, the Fencer and the Trumpeter walked through ruins inhabited by bitter deniers of not only gods and spirits but magic and magicians.  So potent was their disbelief that the population grew to deny all they experienced and so they sat in their decaying stone hell, waiting to join the dust.
            The Fencer had known religion for a very short time and against the harsh contrasts of a life on the edge of survival he thought that this was simply the way of all things; people died and so did the spirits.  Vaguely, at the edge of memory, he did recall whisper strange entities, like the mutterings of a daydream, but they held no more status than the mad stories told by his companion the Trumpeter.
            Despite what the red demon had done to rid the world, or steal from it, those luminous entities called god or ghost, there was still strangeness to the cold of Winter.  When faced with the power and majesty of magic some chose to see divinity and devote some portion of their heart to the thing before them, just as this equatorial village had done with the towering monster which the Fencer now faced.
            People lay prostrate before the vision of the white giant shimmering within the crucible of the bonfires flames.  Mad shadows flickered against the tall mud-spackled roof of the great hut.  Old memories not entirely his own flooded the Fencers veins and he leaped through the crowd, nightmare blade scattering broken facet reflections from the firelight.
            The giant stepped back to place the fire between itself and the battle-mad Fencer but the man happily dived through the sheets of flame without a care.  The crowd didnt comment or even look up from their revere. 
            Now clear of the flames the Fencer saw the thing more clearly.  It stood nearly four meters tall, with a powerfully built torso on lean legs.  Its arms were long, disproportionate, just as the head was similarly smaller, lacking a neck, two large, glowing blue coals glaring as eyes.  The flesh of the thing had the granular look of hard-packed snow. 
            Quickly, the motes of his passage through the flames still thick about the man, the thing plucked up the Fencer in a stony hand full of long, powerful fingers and considered its find.  His weapon arm was pinned so the Fencer endured the scrutiny of those unblinking blue embers for what seemed like painful eternities as he struggled in its cold grip.  The idol pondered, then, without warning, it began to squeeze the life from the mortal in its grasp.
            The Fencer gasped out the last of his air, his mind swimming, limbs all rubbery and sluggish.  The mans bones creaked under the strain, but with a bloody slip he worked his weapon arm free.  Strangely, the creature simply watched the movement of the weapon with great intent as the Fencer brought the blade down on the well-sculpted wrist of the hand that held him.
            The strike didnt cut all the way through the icy flesh but in reaction the thing did fling the offending swordsman away, through the clay and rushes of the central lodge, out into the empty village.  Calls from the Trumpeters instrument sounded, along with cries of the others from the isolation hut wasting their freedom chasing after him rather than making good their escape.   The automaton or golem crashed through the wall after the Fencer.  In the light of a full moon its left hand showed a strange purple color where the Fencers sword had cut it.
            The golems advance rumbled the ground as the Fencer got to his feet and regained his breath.  The mans chest ached with each ragged intake of air but he was pleased to not feel the sharp pangs of broken ribs, an affliction with which he was well acquainted.  With enchanted Dhala readied he met the juggernaut’s charge full on.
            He blocked the first blow, which drove the Fencers ankles deep into the mud, and a quick second swipe caught on the jagged edges of the enchanted sword.  Not used to an adversary with flesh tough enough to withstand the weapons atom edge he was thrown off balance, his sword almost torn from his grasp.  A flurry of strikes wore down his defenses and at last a swinging backhand sent him flying, the sword scattering free.
            Heavy footfalls drifted through a haze of pain.  Campfires and pale moon radiance buzzed in the Fencers mind.  He fought against his dazed senses but was only partially cognizant of the snow golem trampling towards him.  Weakly, he rolled to one side.
            The thing marched past, ignoring the defenseless Fencer.  Reaching out over a patch of ground the crystalline form of Dhala heaved upwards by some invisible force and held still in the air in front of the monstrosity.  This was its true goal.  A deep indigo coloration bled from the weapon into the moonlit flesh of the golem.  The Fencers heart jolted with terror as he realized that some portion of the weapons nightmare was being freed.
            He grimaced and brought himself onto his feet with a hiss of pain and frustration.  At that moment an arrow struck the weapon and flung the blade out of the monsters reach, though the stain on its form remained. 
            Looking over, there was Hue with a bow he had snatched from one of the unguarded huts, notching another arrow to the sound of creaking wood.  This second shot struck the creature in one of its coal eyes but the unliving thing looked on without care.
            Worth a try I suppose, said the red man who glanced over to where the Fencer had been, only to find the swordsman missing.
            The golem turned about in search of its prize, the nightmare shard it was commanded to distill within its alchemic form.  Each granule of packed snow was a separate cell in the entity, each charged with its bizarre task now only half complete.  Yet the stain had affected the monster, which now grew murky pseudopod stubs along its left hand and arm.  The sword was gone.
            The Fencer hid with his weapon in the shadows between two huts fat with the decadent lifestyles of the equatorials.  For all he knew the villagers were still in the great hut, worshiping the empty space where the monster was moments ago.  The absence of a deity did not preclude such a practice.  He tried to gather what faculties he could against this unstoppable foe and was forced to contemplate his reclaimed sword. 
            Dhala was a nightmare crystallized.  All similar arcane expressions had been drawn back to their creator after his awakening, but this single piece of physicalized dream was kept in form by the will of the Fencer.  When all the other nightmares flocked back to their master he bound this shard to himself.  The Strangers crooked smile at the fact returned to swordsmans vision and he shrugged against the admonishment.  Against all other foes the weapon had proved effective, but this thing seemed to drink in the nightmare itself and grow strong.  An idea formed.
            He dashed from his hiding place shouting for the things attention and it turned its lumbering form away from Hue to the prize in the Fencers hand.  The swordsman took the fight to the golem this time, right up past its far-reaching arms, greeting the thing blade first.
            Again the weapon barely scratched the super-dense material of the golems construction, but that was all he needed.  The cold was here, a dilution of Dhalas terrible aspect through the substance of the monster, so he set his will and drew the nightmare back into its proper vessel.
            The terrible stuff fought back in reflections of golden eyes and amethyst drapes and coils of plasm like regal curves of high-station ladies all as one, staring, deciding, determining the world and it wanted to be free of its long isolation, to subject the dreamer to its vision of oppression, chilled to the bone, at her pleasure.  
            Never had he touched the essence of his weapon so directly.  The Fencer knew that some mote of the Stranger lived on in its frozen glass, an abandoned facet of the youths being and memory.  Potent psychic waves crashed down on the Fencer the instant that the blade touched the golem.  Still, he was victorious.
            The grasping tentacles and murky skein on the golems snowy matter rushed back into the blade.  Again the automaton showed pearlescent in the moonlight as it grasped the Fencer with both hands and began to pull the offending man apart.  With no strength left to fight he readied to die, confident that he had given his all, no regrets, except the noise.  The monstrosity evaporated in a smear of snow.
            When he could think again the Fencer propped himself up out of a snow bank.  Villagers crept from the great hut and stared in disbelief.  The old man, Hue and the marked woman worked their mouths but there was only a painful buzzing which seemed to play perfectly with the jubilant Trumpeter who cheered amongst the piled, blue snow, instrument gleaming.
            They were quickly surrounded by spear-wielding braves and herded into what was left of the great hut, the golem having wrung the fight out of the Fencer for the moment.  For the first time he had commanded Dhala to obey his will.  The weapon wasnt intelligent but it did have a force to it, an emotion, a need, dark and twisted.  Like any tool it didnt matter which hand possessed its atom edge, but now the Fencer had been able to exert his influence over the things matter.  He smiled into the face of the woman who held her spear to his chest.
            Hue wasnt going quietly.  He struggled with the warriors until they put enough guards on him that he couldnt move or else risk impalement.  The Fencer was jealous in a way.
            Your hospitality is obviously lacking, piped the Trumpeter to his guard.  We just saved your people from a visitation of the red demon itself and this is the thanks we get?
            The assembled crowd hissed the musician quiet and made warding gestures at mention of the Uplifting beast.  The Trumpeter wouldve continued his critique if the chieftain hadnt entered then, festooned with great plumes of the mighty birds the villagers worshiped and which the travelers had mistakenly made a trophy.
            A great and terrible breaking of custom has been visited upon us this day, began the rumbling oligarch on his throne of octopus hide.  It began when more outsiders arrived and slaughtered one of the precious irtosk birds, whose fortunes are intertwined with our own as a people.  Then, continued the chief, pointing at the Fencer with his bone rattle of office, it was revealed this man held a weapon forged of forbidden magic and colored the tint of bad dreams.  In sequence our warriors were shamed, our prisoners, all taboo breakers of the most severe sort, were freed, and when the lost spirits saw fit to return an idol to our presence it was destroyed by their foreign stupidity.
            By now the remains of the snow golem had been trucked in by women with baskets.  With a nod of the chieftain those present began to ingest heaping handfuls of the stuff in apparent attempt to become more intimate with the lost deity.  Hue laughed until a spear against his throat made the act uncomfortable.
            The Fencer had let his mind wander while the fat leader laid out his false and pompous claims.  He was too much reminded of his own life back in the village of the narwhal hunters.  Some aspect of memory kept him from condemning these people, while other faculties sighed inwardly with disgust as the litany of violations continued.
            At last the chieftain finished his elaborate speech, each villager enraptured by the titillating list of broken taboos, mores and wrong action.  It was a rare storyteller who commanded such excitement from their listeners.
            You, glared the heavily feathered man, who stood up in punctuation, are all now banished to the curst place known as Phos.
            The assorted townspeople shut their eyes lest a vision of the awful place enter their minds.
            Individually other punishments are in order.  For the one known as the Trumpeter, your name will be added to our roll of taboo words, a cause of ill favor by all who utter its festering syllables and all instruments bearing such a name will be destroyed.  To Uiha, for leaving the isolation hut before the allotted time and showing your face in public, you will be married, in absentia, to the cursed pillar of Haga Ephos and excised from your family here.  To Aglyss the heretic and his ninety thousand false gods, he will be forced to join with the frozen dead on the accursed northern mountain, whose name may be spoken only once every day.   And to the one known as the Fencer, for crimes illimitable and grievances beyond comprehension, I task you to travel to the village of Phos and there, in front of that mutant populace, execute the trespasser, blasphemer and murderer known as Hue and then quench the terrible form of your weapon in your own blood.
            Hue glanced over at his executioner when the sentence was passed and met the Fencers cold grey eyes.  Some aspect of guilt clouded the travelers respect for the tenacious crimson man, which managed to pass by the ridiculous nature of their crimes and punishments.  The youth from the forbidden village grew quiet.
            So we are to just walk ourselves to this evil-sounding place? asked the Trumpeter hopefully.  I know that I, for one, can be trusted to mete out to myself the full wrath dictated by law, custom and taboo.  I can even guarantee that these other people, terrible monsters all, will be given proper attrition.
            Im to help with such matters, said the female brave who had tangled with the Fencer earlier in the day.  My life sign is in an improper phase, so I am compelled to enforce the sentence and guide you all to Phos.
            They were forced out then, unprepared, carrying only the meager possessions they had brought with them.  Children jeered at their passing, women cursed with the enthusiasm of those on a high mountain capable of looking down on all others.  The night wore on, starless, exhausted, akin to the mismatched band which lumbered towards the dawn with penance on their shoulders.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

II. The Believers

           It was all folly, every last bit of it, from putting ones foot ahead of the other through each day, to fighting off a rabid ice lion on the frost fields of Lywyn.  At the time these struggles seemed to make a certain sense to the Fencer, as he fought his way towards the secret answer to Winters Riddle.  Now the passage of time evaporated his resolve, leaving only a scar on his neck, a magic sword at his side, and a madman in his ear.
            Enthusiasm brought the two men far north from their troubles in the temperate ice wastes and the rickety civilizations there, lands far warmer than the dark insanity of the polar abyss he had once called home.  There had been heady times, but now the idol of causes past was gone, making it more than evident that all such objects of worship failed after the Uplifting.
            For long months the two of them, the Trumpeter and the Fencer, wandered vaguely northward, following up any mote of information which might lead to the Answer.  Their quest for the unknown attracted mostly the wrong sort of attention, and so, after many adventures, they set off towards the equatorial mysteries.  Here, so the rumors said, was a place shunned by civilized man, despite the welcoming climate.  Strange things wandered the humid snow fields and there was talk of gardens and secret valleys, lush with ancient and forbidden life.  Death claimed any who ventured to this place; it had all seemed so promising then.
            The Fencer spat into the fire.  He sat on smooth flooring next to a square depression, a fire pit used for both cooking and heat.  Around him, the Trumpeter and an unclean woman with an unfavorable birthmark pranced about in some mutant folk dance.  They were held up in the isolation hut, which, by virtue of how crowded it was, spoke of their hosts dedication to taboo.  The other outcasts lingered about the shadows or leaned eagerly towards the large burbling pot which the marked woman tended when not distracted by the musicians antics.  A reek of old blood, sea salt and turtle filled the warm huts humid interior.
            You look like a man in want of a demon, grinned an old man, craning his long, lizard-like neck towards the cauldron.  He was a desiccated thing, but his eyes had that mad life which refused to be doused by Winters crushing cold. 
            I have enough, thank you, commented the Fencer, who had been cured of poignant silences by the depredations of the Trumpeter.
            How many? asked the leering epicurean.
            Hah! came the incomprehensible reply with such force that spittle shot from the mans dry lips.  I have more!
            Why dont you show them to us? responded the Fencer who began unwinding the cords from his sword to better greet such entities.  The fact that he still carried his weapon showed how fearful their hosts were of the strange and unusual.
            Oh, thatll cost you, said the old man, settling down to eye the dancing woman, eager for the food to be ready.  Not money, my demons react violently to graft.  No, its faith that theyre after.  With a bit of that you can behold whichever power you wish.  Theres Ichalos and Hjerimot, Akresh, Ulois, Bolymin, and well, lots more, lots more.
            Faith? asked the Fencer, a bit confused by the sales pitch.
            As the first and most high priest of the Adulation, it is my pleasure and joy to bring believers into contact with certain sublime entities, who return this favor with benefices quite undreamt of by the common dwellers of Winter.
            How did this pantheon survive the Red Demon and the Uplifting?
            Why, they didnt exist then, declared the old man.  These are new entities, new powers, avatars, spirits, eidolons, whatever you wish, that they are, with a little bit of faith.
            It was now clear why this man in his tattered frock had been sequestered away in the isolation hut, blasphemy being a fine way of becoming an outcast.  The Fencer, curious as ever, was about to continue the conversation but was interrupted by the marked woman.
            Oh, that is enough, she gasped and stopped dancing.  She crouched down with careful movements next to the fire pit to tend the soup which clattered as she stirred it. 
            Peering inside they could all see the porcelain shells of yeu snappers, vicious terrapins that bit at any offending appendage brought before their pearly snout.  Even the Fencers mouth watered at the rich taste wafting up from the pot.
            Do you think theyll let you back into the village once your affliction passes? asked the Trumpeter who leaned out from a support beam to take in full measure of the delicious vapor.  This confused the marked woman until the dancing man gestured to his face.
            Oh, there is no cure, she said solemnly, gaining the measure of the soup.  Yeus were naturally poisonous and it took a careful balance of spice and process to render their flesh edible.  The trick lay in cooking them with their shells.  I must be content to live out my time in this hut, looking after the many that end up here.
            Yours is a severe people, mused the Fencer.  I come from a similar community, though we were far too busy with punishing weakness or selfishness to care much about poor luck or nebulous qualities such as evil.’”
            It was a grand thing to be from a dead civilization.  You can make up whatever you wish and be the sole expert.  The Fencer lied; the village of the narwhal hunters had few pastimes so finding cause for a dispute was as simple a matter as in this village, and quite a bit more cruel. 
            You should leave this place! declared the Trumpeter excitedly, though a sharp look from the Fencer stalled his companions exuberance. 
            Where would I go? she said sadly.  The soup is ready.
            Dinner ended the conversation as the group busied themselves with the salty broth the marked woman offered.  From the shadows the last resident of the hut emerged.
            While the Trumpeter and Fencer stopped in mid-gulp the others let the strangers exotic looks go without comment.  He was a young man of lean proportions, scarlet hair, tied off in long, meticulous braids, rained down on his shoulders.  The mans unusual garb matched his appearance, being comprised of red wrappings wound around all his limbs, over which was worn a coarse crimson sleeveless tunic and a similarly colored cloak.  He wore no shoes or boots but had feet bound with many layers of the red wrappings.  His incarnadine eyes looked about the company carefully. 
            Despite their companions ignorance the two travelers knew this man to have the mark of the gift.  The Fencer began untying his weapon as the man took the bowl of turtle soup offered by the marked woman.
            You can kill me once my meal is finished, said the young man dryly to the Fencer.
            Im not so patient, said the swordsman, who had little luck with the magicians he had met over the past year and didnt believe he would find different anywhere.  Magi were devoted to his detriment at worst and eager for random destruction at best.
            Would it change things if I said that Im a mere human being, such as you, offered the man as he took a tentative sip. 
            It was possible that one could be born with the mark of the gift, the vividly strange hair and eyes, but have no spark of magic to command.  Some claimed that this was often the case, but to be safe most families engaged in an abandonment ritual designed to cull anyone who showed the visible signs, for fear that the Red Demon would return and take the loved one to the same hell all the old sorcerers and witches had disappeared to.  Other scholars noted that there was precedent for powerful espers and the like to bare no visible signs of magic, yet magic they had.  This did not change tradition, but it did make the Fencer stay his hand.
            Were listening, encouraged the Trumpeter setting down his half-finished turtle soup, curiosity being more filling.
            Listening to what? asked the wildly dressed stranger.
            To the story youre about to tell.  Of your colors and why it would be against the Fencers best interests to make you better acquainted with his frightful sword, known as Dhala.
            My name is Hue and I come from the town of the Phos, which resides at the base of the northern spire, a structure known as Haga Ephos.
            The marked woman spat and made warding signs at mention of the second place.  Even the Fencer was curious at this point. 
            Long years ago there was but one settlement in this region, but strife drove the people apart.  The village whose hospitality we now endure carries the traditions of one faction, and my home town contains the other.  The youth was stoic as he negotiated time for the telling around hungry gulps of his steaming meal.
            The cursed of Phos…you never shouldve come here, said the marked woman unhelpfully.  The young man simply shrugged at the thought.
            You leave much out, was the Fencers only pronouncement on the story.
            Im not a Teller, said the crimson man with a bit whimsy in his voice.  We live a simple life which is only occasionally complicated by those few outsiders which survive the net of taboo this community has set about the whole land.  Here, apart from the color of your hair and eyes, one can be abandoned for building any sort of water craft, ostracized for digging for tubers more than a meter below the ice, emasculated for meeting a married womans gaze after sunset, or maimed for wearing the wrong shade of indigo.
            Or for spreading the good word of the Adulation! declared the old man who was eager to join the conversation.
            It would seem the further north we travel the more mad the people become, blinked the Fencer, somewhat overwhelmed with the litany.
            In the absence of the old gods and the harsh bite of true Winter there is little to do but devise ingenious customs by which to entertain oneself and harm ones neighbor, philosophized Hue. 
            A vision, a memory, of being hunted across the polar ice returned to the Fencer.  He was the Outcast then, having abandoned his name along with his standing in that now lost community of narwhal hunters.  Though Hue didnt realize it, this was a similar judgment to that passed by the Fencer on his own village shortly after making his escape with the Trumpeter.  Absently he scratched at the old scars on his neck, marks of an iron collar which had once chained him to an obsidian block of shame.
            I was on to Phos next, began the old priest rhetorically.  If these damned ungrateful equatorials hadnt thrown me in with you all.  They say that the Tellers of Phos have a great storehouse of information from before the time of Winter and remember the green which purportedly covered the world then.
            Hue, determined not to comment, filled his attention by scrutinizing the construction of the hut.  The Trumpeter wouldnt let this curiosity go so easily.
            Scholars?  Here? he said with glee.  Who knows what truths they might illuminate or secrets they have locked away.  Fencer, some part of the Answer might be found in a jumble of festering huts within the minds of people wearing garish wrappings such as this inmate!
            Answer? asked the marked woman who followed the conversation with a look of fear, being of this current, taboo-rich community despite also being its victim.
            To the Riddle! spouted the Trumpeter who was up on his feet with excitement now.
            Dont, commented the Fencer who was withdrawing within himself.  Thought of his old quest made him taste flowers and see green.
            Winters Riddle, informed the scarfed musician who was making ready to leave the confines of the hut, despite the guards posted outside.  The others muttered at the strange and impossible goal.
            You were fool enough to slay an irtosk out of proper ritual and now claim the highest, most impossible quest possible? asked Hue, disbelieving.
            The Fencer didnt answer; he was far off, looking over the brittle face of icy Winter within his mind, a vision which a dream within a dream once showed him.  Some quality of the huts smell, part blood, part spices, recalled dead Clea, secrets safely hidden, blood pooling out to obscure the whole floor.  Now, in this place of taboo, stricken by circumstance, a captive, the answer seemed further off than even those dark days of starvation at the bottom of the world.  He couldnt place the locus of his worry, but worry he did all the same.
            In the background the Trumpeter filled the hut with enthusiastic noise and it was a small blessing that he merely fidgeted with the great silver trumpet he carried and didnt bless them all with a performance.  At this moment he was too busy rapidly discussing the great dream of their mutual expedition with the other prisoners.  At least someone still believed in it. 
            A spark, a flame kindled within him.  The Fencers demon, long dormant through cold travel and adventure roused him into action against the annoying prattle cloying at his ears.  The Trumpeters antics worked, but not in the manner intended.
            The tightly set wooden door fell apart under a few sweeps of Dhalas atom edge.  At first thinking they were to have the sport of slaying an outsider the guards bravado quickly changed to fear.  In the orange light cast by the central fire within the hut the figure of the Fencer was a violent silhouette and the nightmare crystal he held in his left hand glimmered amethyst and obsidian, accented with hungry eyes of ruby. 
            They fled into the night, shrieking of demons.  Perhaps there was a taboo against cowardice, mused the Fencer in his heart before setting off to the main village some hundred meters away.
            Forces within the man were always in conflict, reason against instinct, rage against thought, but while he usually managed to focus one or the other towards the task at hand, now he sprinted to the central hut fueled by a unique admixture.  When he first left his village all the world was a simple competition and he, as strongest and smartest, would emerge the victor.  But through experience he had grown complicated.  This decadence of reflection threatened to paralyze him, had even lead the two into this balmy, outcast land.  Yet the Fencer prevailed.  The notion was simple; though the seeker changed, the challenge, Winters Riddle and the forbidden answer, existed despite his mutation.  It was time to continue the journey, and to do that they would need to clarify things with the locals. 
            Strangely, the town was quiet and deserted except for the great hut, a large structure with a five meter arch leading in and frenzy of smoke billowing out into the chill night breeze.  Behind, the shouts of the Trumpeter and the other inhabitants of the seclusion hut cried after him.  Noting inhumanly large tracks entering the Fencer strode in expecting a cataclysm of his own making, but instead found astonishment.
            Within, the whole of the village was gathered, all the plumed warriors and the reed-gowned women and the chubby, healthy children.  They held still, enraptured.  The focus of this unearthly devotion stood amongst the flames of a central fire pit, a tower of white within the blazing central hearth. 
            It loomed, the Fencer lunged.  A great cry went up, sorrow and naked fear, into the night.  The bored people of the village had found a new entertainment, one which required less imagination than the ephemeral pantheon espoused by the dry old man they locked up.  In this thing their belief could be seen as a massive humanoid of tall angles, chiseled beauty, a thing of hard packed snow under such pressure that there was a hint of blue to the animated golem.  Despite the flames it didnt perspire a drop and the Fencer grinned at the confrontation, at the joy of denying the villagers of their new found god.