It was all folly, every last bit of it, from putting one’s 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 Winter’s 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 musician’s antics. A reek of old blood, sea salt and turtle filled the warm hut’s 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 Winter’s 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 man’s dry lips. “I have more!”
“Why don’t 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, that’ll 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, it’s faith that they’re after. With a bit of that you can behold whichever power you wish. There’s 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 didn’t 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 Fencer’s mouth watered at the rich taste wafting up from the pot.
“Do you think they’ll 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 companion’s 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 stranger’s 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 man’s 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.
“I’m not so patient,” said the swordsman, who had little luck with the magicians he had met over the past year and didn’t 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 I’m 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.
“We’re 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 you’re about to tell. Of your colors and why it would be against the Fencer’s 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 should’ve come here,” said the marked woman unhelpfully. The young man simply shrugged at the thought.
“You leave much out,” was the Fencer’s only pronouncement on the story.
“I’m 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 woman’s 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 one’s 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 didn’t 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 hadn’t 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 wouldn’t 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.
“Don’t,” commented the Fencer who was withdrawing within himself. Thought of his old quest made him taste flowers and see green.
“Winter’s 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 didn’t 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 hut’s 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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 Fencer’s demon, long dormant through cold travel and adventure roused him into action against the annoying prattle cloying at his ears. The Trumpeter’s antics worked, but not in the manner intended.
The tightly set wooden door fell apart under a few sweeps of Dhala’s 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, Winter’s 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 didn’t perspire a drop and the Fencer grinned at the confrontation, at the joy of denying the villagers of their new found god.