The Fencer felt manipulated by unseen forces and in realizing this began to doubt his own ability to change events, to set the course of things along his desires. A lucky fall, a chance encounter with a green haired witch, random employment concerning the heart of an ancient monstrosity, even plucking free his enchanted blade from the inky ice of the Wondering Mountains, all these turns of happenstance boiled the acid in his stomach.
The smell of blood, probably from his wounds, hit his nostrils but he was too enraptured with his hatred of fortune to care for any mere physical hurt. The giant loomed like destiny against the empty blue of the sky and the Fencer set off, Dhala in hand, to cut himself free of his fate.
Zerimot, now loosed from the arcane programme which had overwritten its mind, had slept for eons and was now ready to return to its proclivities, once the little men which infested its form were put into their proper place. Satisfied by revenge, it would then begin pulling the motes and fortunes of life into orbit around its own mass once more.
Free to use its powers with greater nuance, a finely tuned ray of attraction pulled the little fleeing creature with the silver horn to the palm of one lower hand. So intent on its prize Zerimot failed to see the other man who began climbing up one of its legs.
A flex of anger and the annoying musician was crushed between the giant’s fingers, but upon opening its hand to see the remains, nothing. Rage and molten anger fumed through Zerimot’s veins. Spotting the ragged man who crept along one forearm it went to swat the musician away.
A razor sharp pain stung the giant’s crystalline mind. The hand which swooped down for the kill was neatly lopped off by a terrible cold. A second man had darted in to defend the first. He held onto the rocky arm with one hand, a bit of metallic darkness in the other. Strange thoughts trickled into Zerimot’s mind.
The Trumpeter flourished his instrument in salute, while the Fencer responded by leaping onto the stump of the offending arm and climbing towards the body of the giant.
“I have an idea!” shouted the Trumpeter over the rumbling air. The Fencer’s verbal response was lost in the tumult but the musician could see the swordsman cover his face with a familiar gesture.
Distracted, a sudden whipping of the giants arm flung the Fencer back down onto the ice while the Trumpeter sprinted along the arm. Now focused on a new target the giant failed to see the mountain man quickly make his way to the monster’s torso, where he slipped through one of the many carven arches into the titan’s innards.
The violent lateral motion sent the Fencer skidding across the ice. The edge of the plateau the thing had conjured in order to strike at floating Summer was a vague gray describing the battlefield. He stood up with a side full of cuts and bruises, into the gleaming face of a charging giant.
The world shook and great fissures opened up on the plateau as Zerimot bore down on the little swordsman. With one motion a giant fist slammed down onto the waiting Fencer, with another its maimed stump called more stone to itself and its maimed hand was remade.
An echo reverberated across the basin. A thunderbolt of icy pain came in response. Dodging the giant’s strike, the Fencer hewed into one of the creature’s massive feet. Another seismic concussion sounded as Zerimot buckled under the wound. Strange magics spilled forth with the giant’s rage.
Though not magicians themselves certain creatures of wonder could manipulate the sublime instrumentalities which welled up from the core of the planet. Indeed, a giant’s whole function as living stone, as towering narratives, were charged by this atomic force. It could choose to simply petrify the man, just as it had done to Nock, but controlling the swordsman would be a far more satisfying victory. Now Zerimot brought the full gravity of its will to bear on this lone foe.
The Fencer ran past the overhanging doom of the giant’s bulk to buy time for his next ploy. Potent memories of the Stranger’s swam through his consciousness. Many times the blue-haired magician had faced entities as terrible, or worse, than this mountain monster. The swordsman couldn’t take comfort in this; it was just one more example of how he was manipulated by the forces which surrounded him.
Quickly nearing the edge of the new born plateau the Fencer stopped. A distant wall of frozen corpses ringed the ruin of Nock; even after death the magics of Glym bound the town like a noose. Dhala whispered cold and evil in his hand, another’s memories infected his mind, magic and mystery and long lost artifacts tugged his soul this way and that. All these things, every one a facet of his heart, told him to run, to slip down the escarpment while he still had a chance. Because of all this pestering he turned around to face the giant once more.
His moment of escape lost, the Fencer could feel the tug of the giant’s will on his bones now. The added impetus brought him over rubble and snow bank alike as he dashed for the creature, now regarding him with its disc of platinum, a veil of counterweights and chains clanging in the clear air. Zerimot pulled the little man to him like a stringed puppet.
The Fencer was ready for this trick and greeted the diorite hand which met him blade first, shearing off most of the palm, cutting up through the forearm. Even then, he knew not to stop.
Even as the swordsman drove through the living stone the giant pulsed, pulling more rubble back to itself, replacing old masonry with new. Zerimot bellowed and strove to bring one of its many crushing limbs to bear on the nettlesome flea which stung him so. With each cut more of the icy dreams and visions filled the giant’s diamond brain with a corruption of nightmares.
Within the giant’s body the Trumpeter fled, no so much away from one fate but towards another. Various steam hazards and poisonous gas emissions flooded the halls and galleries of Glym, which now revealed themselves as the colossal thing’s strange organs. Scalding rivers of super-heated water ran higher and higher, mingling with systems of white mud and jets of raw power. With each gravitic flare the musician found the floor become the ceiling, or the walls shift about, as the direction the force fluxed.
He fought through these perils towards the heart of the matter. Yearning for the honest cold of Winter he jumped a boiling stream and crawled over what was once the ceiling of a great hall, all the time jittery with fright should gravity change once more. In the spoked chamber where he first beheld that witch Icle a tiny vent sent forth a plume of violet gas. Bright spots bloomed in his vision as the Trumpeter coughed his way out and up, toward that most central of chambers.
Outside the Fencer fought against the giant’s overwhelming certainty, weight and gravity. The thing always drew him closer, which played into the swordsman’s mad plan. Still, he had the unwelcome suspicion that he was fighting another stalemate.
Every wound Dhala gave the monster was undone. No sooner had the nightmare sword lopped off a limb or cut deeply into the stone flesh than this same damage was regenerated by assimilation of nearby matter, drawn in by gravity, fusing and transforming to match the dense material of the beast through some incomprehensible alchemy. The Fencer could feel his inferior flesh growing tired in the face of the endless monolith.
He tried to catch his breath and was knocked clear once more for this mistake. The giant slammed down to finish the Fencer, but he dashed free, and up and onto the monster, once more bringing the battled towards the creature’s face. It was a symbolic goal.
Zerimot, trying a different strategy, a rare feat for a mind as stolid as its own, inverted its powers and the cloying gravity of its will became a repelling force. The ray bore down on the Fencer, who clung to a coarse arm with one hand, muscles screaming with strain.
For a moment he considered letting the accursed icicle go, to more easily hold onto life, or to die without its nightmare touch. Better to perish through honest endeavor than through compromised advantage. Then he sneered the thought away; it hung too pretty in his mind for further consideration.
Instead, with a gasp of effort, the Fencer slipped the blade in front of the stony arm and let go of his handhold. The force of the giant’s will shot him away, and with the advantage of the sword’s atom edge took most of that arm with him.
The giant reeled and in that moment the Fencer felt comforted by the knowledge that the titan felt pain as well, though this didn’t make the swordsman’s landing any softer. With the wind knocked out of him he coughed and sputtered while the giant’s vast form contorted with the effort of repair. These antics revealed the long sequences of brazen tubing worming their way up the thing’s belly and chest. A change of plan was in order.
This was what the Trumpeter was thinking at the exact same time. Originally the coward had thought of simply reclaiming his hiding place in the chamber of the Heart, or one of the many others nearby which he had scouted out what seemed like years ago. Steam and exhaustion sealed his heavy woolen coat to his body. Then, as he fought his way closer and closer to the chosen place, the hazards became more dangerous and pronounced. In places the very air was acidic and in others the heat so great that the stones themselves glowed. No, he would have to try something more desperate.
The mad musician felt lost in the halls, not from disorientation, but from the will of the giant itself. The thing’s gravity extended not only to the physical realm, but to the nuanced metaphysics of the human heart. It was a massive thing, a monument, an idol, alive and coercive. Kings had worshiped Zerimot in the time before the coming of Winter, or so the thought impressed itself into the Trumpeter’s mind.
More fully alive, still awakening, powers growing, the giant’s thoughts forced themselves on the little things around it. The Trumpeter spat in revulsion, this new magic not sitting well with his liberty. He continued on, singed, acid-eaten, steam-cleaned, in search of the center.
Thoughts, dreams, notions soaked the humid air and cascaded with increasing inertia as the Trumpeter made his way. It had been pulling its Heart back for ages, after Glym plucked it free and sent it far away for reasons lost to the Uplifting. Even in death, it was not dead, only the ages could wear away a mountain and not even a fraction of those necessary had passed.
The halls grew regular, familiar and deadly. The Trumpeter’s skin blistered as he approached the Chamber but this was nothing compared to the onslaught on his mind.
Looming before him like a lost god in full glory his goal seemed impossible. A great weight rested on his chest, against which all action seemed not only impossible but detrimental. It was only right that such an entity enjoy the obeisance of lesser things. After all, it would last the ages while even the memory of a man’s bones would pass from the earth under the endless perdition of Winter. In even the Trumpeter’s mad mind this pedagogy spored into truth. He stopped in the hall just outside the central chamber.
Against the morning rays the Fencer tried another desperate gambit. He waited for another strike and caught a lift on the attacking arm, bones jarring with the force of the near miss. Not staying long the man leapt from the appendage to the brazen intestines along the creature’s front and there plunged Dhala into the rocky belly.
One hand burning from the heated metal, the other freezing from the icy blade, the Fencer climbed upwards with as much speed as he could muster, each set pulling the ensorcelled icicle further up the giant’s viscera. Gouts of steam and sprays of biting liquids responded from the wound. The swordsman lopped off the fingers of the massive hands which pawed at him. Progress was difficult but soon the platinum disc of the giant’s face showed above.
Distant violence brought the Trumpeter back from drowsy daydreams of warmer times. The grand hall shuddered with pain, of this he was certain since he could feel the cold needle of the Fencer’s actions. Not wasting this chance he sprinted for the Chamber.
There the very walls themselves heaved and buckled with plastic force, pulling and pushing the varied forces and mechanisms which accounted for the giant’s life.
A hall crushed in on the Trumpeter, who screamed and flung up his arms in futile defense against the many tons of rock. He squinted at the end of his life but there was only a dull clang and darkness. He opened his eyes, surprised to still have them.
In his panic he had thrust the Trumpet up, and the instrument now held back the walls with no complaint from the silvery metal. If he wasn’t so untrusting he would’ve attributed this twist to divine providence. Instead, he pulled the instrument free and entered the Chamber of the Heart itself.
The way up the giant’s belly was a trial of pain. Scalding steam and foul vitriol turned the Fencer’s hands into bleeding claws, but still he held on. The grasping hands of the things, kept at bay by swings of Dhala’s vorpal edge, still managed to crush on more than one occasion. Only the fact that he clung to the monster’s body kept it from using its full force against him, yet the spiking pain of each breath spoke of many broken ribs. He persevered.
The final ascent to the Clock’s face showed brilliantly in the morning light. Dashing up the last few meters the Fencer brought his weapon up. As he thrust the point towards the platinum disc a great cone of force struck the desperate man, emanating from the eye-like center of the clock itself.
Deep inside Zerimot, in the innermost chamber of its being, the Trumpeter pulled himself through an atmosphere of scalding poison and buffeting force. Through the veils of steam the exposed Heart beat in slow succession within the geode of crimson crystal. Frantically he pulled at the stone muscle but was rewarded with only burned hands for the effort. It would take the power of Glym or another peer of the Art to remove the Heart now that it rested fully in its seat of power. The Trumpeter’s own heart beat with despair.
Like a thousand thousand tons the weight of Zerimot’s will blasted the Fencer as he was poised to bring Dhala’s crystalline point home. The power was like the fear of death, or the numbing cold of Winter, or any other of the absolute tropes which had confined the young man’s few years of life. He held on only by the potency of the weapon he held, its atom-edge cutting through even the intangible ray emanating from the platinum eye. Yet again he was left in stalemate, and he cursed this fate.
Then the Trumpeter, deep inside, blasted with his instrument, sending all this frustration and fear into one narrow report towards the Heart itself. The central organ shuddered under the deafening onslaught, but held firm.
The way was lost, the quest ended, all was empty hope in the face of the platinum giant. Zerimot’s thoughts threatened to become theirs, indeed it was inevitable as gravity that their stories become subsumed into the giant’s greater narrative. In response to this joy, this subjugation, the Trumpeter brought his instrument up to blare victory in the name of the giant.
The silver horn rose to the heavens and a deep peal echoed out. The wall of the Chamber, weaker than the Heart or its resting place, buckled and cracked, the arterial passages collapsed, choking the beating organ off from the proper flow of energies.
Distantly the Fencer heard the cry of the Trumpeter. When the overpowering beam of invisible force flickered he was ready, plunging his nightmare blade deep into the platinum clock face. The heated rock screamed as the unsettling cold of the weapon forced a sudden contraction of the material. Frost began forming across the giant’s front.
Ultimate heat met terrible cold. The great stone Heat palpitated and shattered.
With a broken Heart the giant fell, slowly, like a million tons of heavy memories and broken cities. Those of Vael’s men who had survived the violent purge hidden in the remains of the fortress now huddled against a final cataclysm. The Fencer was lost in the chaos. The whole creature pitched forwards, clutching its chest, to hit the plateau, breaking the edifice apart with ear-bursting noise.
A silence came upon the scene as the echoing destruction faded into the distance. Survivors of the guard poked their heads out of the ruins and wondered at their luck. Vael crawled from the upper works where he had busied himself gathering what sorceries he had collected before making his escape. Surprise showed on his face to see his immortal chariot destroyed.
“Sir, we found her,” said one guard with an arm broken by a falling bit of masonry. “Do you want us to take care of the arraignments?”
“No,” responded the dazed leader as he gathered his wits and set his mind to salvaging the situation. “I’ll take care of it. You find who you can and make ready transport for the treasures.”
“We’re leaving Nock sir?” was another guard’s query, exhausted at the prospect.
“I don’t see any other giants around, do you?” said Vael sarcastically. “Our purposes in this place are done. Contingency demands we move to Mount Etria, get to it.” The weary men were about to move but Vael stopped them with an afterthought.
“What of the two miscreants?”
“No sign sir, not a drop of blood, a bit of ice, or a shard of silver,” responded the maimed guard. “I wouldn’t count them out, even after all that shaking.”
“Nor would I,” stated Vael as he moved to a vantage point to look around, hoping to catch some glimpse of his most complimentary foes. He wanted to believe he could see two figures moving off in the distance, but with all the detritus thrown up by the giant’s fall these could be nothing more than imaginary phantoms. A vain hope that a dark glass sword and a silver trumpet would be found in the ruins touched at the edge of his consciousness, and he was loathe to turn the possibility of acquiring such artifacts away.
With a sigh Lord Vael hopped down and went on with a more pressing task. There were many grades of defeat and he held out that this was not so much utter as temporary.
On fields distant and icy two figures did move, painfully, beyond the sight of the former ruler of Nock. At first they didn’t see each other, each believing themselves to be the only survivor, but soon they met at the plateau edge and together they descended the riven cliffs down to the basin where the remains of Nock puffed with steam a kilometer or so away. They made for the far crossroads; they were done with this place.
“I don’t suppose there is much to say,” stated the limping Trumpeter sullenly as the moved with definite direction away from the chaos behind them towards no certain goal.
With the death of the giant a certain weight was lifted from their shoulders. To the Trumpeter this was the aimless freedom he so valued, but for the Fencer, who strode despondently next to him, this was a loss of direction.
In the Fencer’s heart the whole sequence of events, from Yogo’s conspiracy to the death of Clea, to the battle with the giant, was a profound failure. For everything he gained, he then lost that and more. Winter’s Riddle felt like a hollow goal, Dhala’s cold was constant and unchanging, and the Trumpeter’s friendship was erratic at best.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” asked the Trumpeter through the steam of his breath. The Fencer looked at him quizzically, to which the musician only smiled happily. “Well that’s good.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if you had found what you wanted, the answer to the Riddle, or simply the sweet embrace of Clea, then our little partnership would be over and done with. We’d no longer have a chance to see, well, whatever it is we’re going to see next, or run away from whatever trouble you bring down upon our heads.” The Trumpeter was exuberant as he related this revelation as it dawned in his addled mind. “That giant, for all his size and noise, was just another part of the Riddle; he was alive before Winter was Winter, a warm time, green things everywhere. I saw visions in the depths, felt what it was feeling. It’s a tantalizing element which should drive us forward.”
Questions. Mysteries. These were the things which the Trumpeter meant. The conversation with Clea, maybe only a day or so ago returned to the Fencer’s mind. She had said that questions were far more fulfilling than answers. He wasn’t sure of such wisdom, but yet some inner sense of proportion denied his sulking heart the ease of an ending.
His old demon flared and nodded to the Trumpeter who beamed despite having to drag the bloody remains of his crushed foot along. It was decided that nothing was decided, that the quest for the Riddle would move on.
At the crossroads east of Nock they found Firo waiting with a one-man litter of bundled linen. A red stain spoke of a grisly cargo.
“You were waiting for us?” asked the Fencer upon arrival, scrutinizing the man with his harsh gaze.
“Of course not!” declared the bearded treasure hunter. “A giant is a rare thing, and seeing one die is a shade rarer still. I was kind of hoping to see the state of affairs when the dust cleared and from that dust you two emerge like the proverbial phoenix.”
“Then what of her?” The Trumpeter gestured to the corpse which from which the smell of perfume and blood wafted.
“Well, you see I am in the curiosity business and most collectors wouldn’t know a true magician from a false one...” The Fencer cut the man’s unwholesome reasoning off.
“Now you’ll help us bury her.”
“This I can do,” retorted Firo without missing a beat.
So they cleared away what snow they could and with the help of the Fencer’s sword cut out a jagged, two meter pit. The men kept glancing over their shoulders to the furtive action surrounding the giant but there was no sign of immediate pursuit. At last they buried Clea, facedown, at a crossroads.
In this act a certain symmetry was reached. She had lived as a witch and now was being buried as one; it was probably what she would’ve wanted. Inwardly the Fencer hoped she would haunt the place, stealing the breath from travelers, as a continuation of her cultivated mythos.
The task done, her few possession divided between the two parties, they set off. The Fencer and the Trumpeter struck out north, towards the warmer climes of the frozen tropics where the promise of more civilization gleamed. Firo headed back south, to other lands, only because it was away from the other two troublemakers. Cold and hardship awaited the travelers, but these were companions with whom they were well acquainted.