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 bonfire’s flames. Mad shadows flickered against the tall mud-spackled roof of the great hut. Old memories not entirely his own flooded the Fencer’s 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 didn’t 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 man’s 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 didn’t 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 Trumpeter’s 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 Fencer’s sword had cut it.
The golem’s advance rumbled the ground as the Fencer got to his feet and regained his breath. The man’s 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 Fencer’s 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 weapon’s 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 Fencer’s 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 Fencer’s heart jolted with terror as he realized that some portion of the weapon’s 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 monster’s 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 Stranger’s crooked smile at the fact returned to swordsman’s 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 thing’s attention and it turned its lumbering form away from Hue to the prize in the Fencer’s 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 golem’s construction, but that was all he needed. The cold was here, a dilution of Dhala’s 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 youth’s 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 golem’s 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 wasn’t intelligent but it did have a force to it, an emotion, a need, dark and twisted. Like any tool it didn’t matter which hand possessed its atom edge, but now the Fencer had been able to exert his influence over the thing’s matter. He smiled into the face of the woman who held her spear to his chest.
Hue wasn’t going quietly. He struggled with the warriors until they put enough guards on him that he couldn’t 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 would’ve continued his critique if the chieftain hadn’t 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 Fencer’s cold grey eyes. Some aspect of guilt clouded the traveler’s 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.”
“I’m 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.