Thursday, June 30, 2011

VIII. Painted Smoke

           Molten brass clung to the horizon as the equatorial night descended upon the lands sprawling about Haga Ephos, whose face regarded the descending day long after night had come to the furtive men below.  The Fencer and the Trumpeter, creatures born from the polar south, were well versed in eternal day and never ending night, and didnt think much of the frantic dusk and the dreamy twilight.  They wouldnt be facing the strange things in the dark though, that would be a matter for Omya as she fled.
            The brave crashed through a frigid stream, the sharp pang of the mountain waters barely registered against the cold in her hands.  She slopped to shore and made for the far hills which dwindled with the light.  In her haste she churned up some of the new growth along the banks.  From the coal black earth a rich living smell arose, contrasting with the ubiquitous scent of snow, along with nightmare memory.
            Omya had held the horrid weapon in her hands.  She had to; it was the only way to enforce her duty.  On the bank she tried to work feeling back into her hands which were bloody and stripped of skin where she had held the sword.  A heady, perfumed smell took her, that of a garden, but she had little knowledge of it.  Mind-altering incense too.  A woman with golden eyes and amethyst hair.  Omya ran from the visions.
            A deep blue took hold of the sky, starless with the humidity.  The west showed a fire which was then doused by the turn towards night.  A sequence from orange, to rose, to purple, played out across the heavens, a few clouds alit with the receding sun.  It wasnt until she was thoroughly lost, huddled on a blanket of snow hidden in the shadow of a tall hill, that Omya came to her senses and regained her composure.
            The trek to Phos had shaken her faith in the customs of her people.  She didnt want to be in that cursed town for long, but neither did she have a place back in her own village, having failed in their duty.  No, that wasnt so much it.  Doubt troubled her faith in a life lived under the shelter of taboo.  It just wasnt fun anymore.  So she clambered to the top of the hill under the indigo night, and quickly flattened herself against the crest.
            A camp of men lay not far off.  These were cunning travelers who hid their fire in the lean of a well-chosen ravine.  Guards watched the countryside but Omya was at home in the middle lands and they did not see her. 
            More strangers, she thought, and an odd smile crept onto her face.  She receded back down her hill and sought out the materials needed to craft a new spear.  When she was properly armed for her station she would sneak up on these unknowns in hopes of listening in on their plots and schemes.  She now had schemes of her own and so Winters Riddle continued its play.

            While Haga Ephos still blared gold and ruby in the closing light the Fencer regarded the slopes.  A wayward thought had brought him here.  There really was no plan, other than getting away from the petty ruins of civilization down south.  In a way he felt better the further he removed himself from the lands of his vanished people.  And then there was the Riddle.
            Inside one of the homes the Trumpeter celebrated with the Phosians.  There was no particular cause, but little inducement was necessary to earn the painted decadents hospitality.  Loud stories were being told and the Fencers ears burned at what was certainly his own good name besmirched by his traveling companions untrustworthy narration.  He decided a course of action and entered the nearest home; a wide collection of stone cylinders clustered together in yet another example of eccentric local architecture.  Riddles swam in the noise between people.
            There seemed to be no particular purpose to any of the Phosian dwellings.  All were strange, unique, just as their dwellers desired, but none held to any specific design, or least not one which the Fencer could determine.  There was no central lodge, such as in his lost village of the narwhal hunters, or the dichotomous hovels and mansions found throughout what passed for civilization.  It seemed that the bounty of the land or the mildness of the environment equalized Phos.  The swordsman felt little inclination to attribute any egalitarianism to the residents themselves.
            He was greeted at the door with a drinking flask of colored glass by a green-haired woman.  Shuddering past this ghost he worked his way towards the Trumpeter who sat amongst a gathering of eager ears. 
            Within the main cylinder the air was hazy with the smoke of many pipes.  The euphoric cloud made a mystery of the buildings insides.  The Fencer found himself stumbling over cushions and half-mad Phosians, couches and their altered inhabitants.  Glimpses into other rooms showed hints of pools and sculpture.  The crowd pulled at him to stay and tell of his travels, but he wanted to be sure his good friend wasnt telling anything he shouldnt.  Besides, he had need of answers himself.
            It was a simple thing to addle the Slavemaster of Tualaut, explained the Trumpeter magnanimously.  He wasnt a great lover of music, so with a cunning note I dazed him long enough for his thralls to turn against him.  It wouldve all been so much easier if I had had my proper instrument.
            The collection of reclining Phosians cooed in appreciation.  They had no idea of the reeking mess of the slave pits the two had been forced to trudge through, or the plot which led them to Tualaut, or the actual manner in which the Slavemaster had been toppled.  The Fencer was angry at their ignorance, at how they laughed and drank when those had been terse days soaked with death and blood.  It angered the cobalt-haired swordsman that to them this was just simple entertainment.
            What next, what next... pondered the Trumpeter.  He wasnt smoking, but his head was light on the heady air of attention given by his colorful audience.  Oh, there was a time when we killed a mountain.
            The Fencer broke the circle of listeners and stopped the telling there.
            It is past time for good sense in what is said and what isnt, admonished the Fencer as he advanced on the Trumpeter.  The tall musician melted away from his companion into a mound of cushions, at which point the swordsman turned on the assorted listeners.  And for the rest of you soft-brained, warmth-addled, sybarites, the Slavemaster would make easy cattle of you all.
            The reaction to this statement, made to feed some proportional need in the Fencers heart, was not what he had hoped.  They laughed in the sentiment like smoke from a pipe and applauded with a hungry enthusiasm, asking for more.  In anger he almost kept on with the speech, but better sense set him down on a cushion where he downed the strong spirit held within his colored flask.
            Now that it was safe the Trumpeter emerged from hiding in order to continue telling stories.  Most were lies based on half-truths, at best, and never captured the terrible wonder of the actual events, or the emotions which so often fought at the Fencers soul in the remembering.  Maybe it was the bizarre liquor or his own troubles which began turning his stomach, but the man with the nightmare blade suddenly stood up, silencing the storyteller.
            Tell me about your damned mountain, he demanded of the crowd, though the only replies were giggles and disinterest.  These were a people who were not well versed in giving.  A different tactic was in order.
            Im sure none of you are so confident in your own knowledge as to be able to answer questions concerning matters outside the fat lands which surround you, he began sourly. 
            Why need we know anything? responded a purple-haired creature.  We have the Jhem to know things, to remember for us, and the Tellers in order to speak with the Jhem.
            Then which of you are Tellers? smiled the Fencer, which soon fled from his face as all those present declared themselves to have that title, with various degrees of volume.
            Which of you, began the swordsman, now armed with an idea, is the greatest Teller.  The most unique Teller?
            All as one they pointed out of the throng of listeners, into the hazy depths of the room, toward a figure sitting just at the edge of sight near the place where the host kept his colored glass and potent alcohol.
            Leaving the Trumpeter to his stories the Fencer went to sit down by the smoke-bound figure.  Up close the man proved to be as fantastical as his peers.  He was short, bald, and lean, as if cut from soft stone, and by the color of his flesh this would seem to be some deep ochre, an earthen shade tinted with an undertone of red.  His only garb was a simple loincloth, common enough in this warm land.  He didnt lounge on his cushion, or drink, but sat as an ascetic would, watching the newcomer with enigmatic eyes.
            They tell me youre the best for the Telling, explained the Fencer as he prepared himself for more Phosian histrionics.  What is your name?
            The local indulged a smile and responded with, Akul.  Inethis alu set.
            Thats quite a long name, blinked the Fencer.
            Umqa rele budhi cysam, weregant hox kalamanaut.  Akul, or whoever the ochre man was, took an easy breath of drugged air.
            A grimace and a sigh were the swordsmans only responses.  He had travelled near half the world in the past year or so, and many strange tongues had landed on his ear in that time.  It was difficult enough to learn the Lyft, the core speech which most men of most civilized lands spoke, but it had served the travelers well.  Even here the backwards superstitionists and decadent Phosians used an approachable dialect.  Not this man.
            This is Eluax, explained Hue as he sat down next to them.  The Fencer hadnt seen the crimson man since entering the dwelling, the haze in the air obscuring many things. 
            Why is it that the more north I travel the more insane men become? pondered the Fencer angrily.
            I couldnt tell you since my only excursion from this town and its surrounds landed me in that seclusion hut with you and the others, Hue said thoughtfully.  Its a bit like a riddle.
            The Fencer glared at the young man.  If Eluax had comment he kept it to himself.
            Or like a joke, added Hue quickly.  Eluax here is our greatest Teller.  He ascends the highest, stays out the longest, listens the closest and remembers the most.  When I was a child he brought back the secret to making the blue ceramic which takes ten years to bake but which can cut through the toughest stone.  Just a few years ago he returned from the heights with a story of the ancient conflict which gave the continents their shape.
            And you can understand him? asked the Fencer.
            No, not anymore, frowned the young man.  Some time last year he returned from another outing unharmed physically, but incapable of speech, or incapable of any speech which we could understand.  He still goes up, but if hes speaking to any of the Jhem there is no way for us to know.
            Eluax regarded the conversation with the cool approbation of one who is being spoken about.  The Fencer had the sense that the man could comprehend only the feel of their words.  Somehow he had lost even the understanding of his native tongue. 
            What are these Jhem? asked the Fencer, already constructing plans.
            They tell us stories, began Hue.  One of the stories they tell is that they were an order of monks which flourished in the time before the coming of Winter.  When the ice came they anticipated our current era of barbarism and sought to save their knowledge for future generations by freezing themselves on the slopes of Haga Ephos.  Another story...
            So you go up and talk to these frozen dead men? interrupted the Fencer, trying to cut to the heart of the matter.
            We have half a conversation. 
            The Fencer was already up and heading towards the door.  His old stubborn demon had flared back into life and demanded the secrets which rested on the slopes of the looming spire above.  He batted away a hand which grasped his shoulder and turned angrily into the even face of Eluax. 
            Dont go out now, said Hue, who had also followed him to the heavy door.  Things prowl the lands and even venture down into Phos.  Day is safe enough, Ill take you up then.
            It wasnt the words which cooled the Fencers heart and made him sit down pondering into the night.  There was something intense about the look in Eluaxs eyes.  Some quality of warning, beyond the hazards intimated by Hue, played across the incomprehensible mans face.  As the hours passed and sleep came in with the drowsy opiate smoke, imagined horrors crept about in the night.

            Sputtering from lost dreams the Trumpeter awoke and clutched at his face.  A wrinkled visage sought his attention.  They had fallen asleep on the cushions and couches in mid-revel, drunk on spirits and the heavy smoke of the Apra leaf.  Visions threatened.
            Nows our chance, intoned the harsh whisper of the old priest Aglyss who had drank and dozed as much as anyone.  No light entered through the tall, narrow window slits.  Night still held.
            A chance? pondered the Trumpeter, searching for his trumpet.
            Havent you heard of the Jhem? began the old man with religious enthusiasm.  All the wisdom of the ages lies frozen up on the slopes of Haga Ephos, secrets of the gods and magicians alike.  How can anyone sleep with such knowledge resting above their heads?
            The Trumpeter considered the argument.  The old priest made a fair bid for the musicians attention, not so much for the knowledge itself but the scope of the challenge.  They had been warned not to go out in the dark.  Still, the value of the things on the slopes was legend, the province of a people who lay sprawled around him in the throes of decadence, and so was equally dubious.  More than half of him was tempted to venture out.
            He rolled over and found the Fencer, propped up against the curving stone wall, as close to sleeping as the man ever managed.  At his side Dhala drank in the darkness.
            You go without me, said the Trumpeter, who closed his eyes, and knew not whether the old man argued with him more because sleep came fast on the chemical laden air.

            It was a simple business to find a copse of tall nyreph trees, and only a slightly more difficult task to break the blade of her dagger free from its hilt.  It was dark by the time Omya had finished her heavy-bladed spear, but the project was good for her; it kept wayward thoughts at bay.  Finished, fatigued, hands burning, soul aching, she moved invisibly through the hills back to the foreigners camp, where she hid herself amongst some klee bushes and munched silently on the bittersweet berries the plant provided.
            Down below, cunningly hidden from casual view in the space between hills, the men slept, with one of their number keeping watch.  They were a mismatched lot, but a certain cohesion bound them to each other, something like she felt between the damned Fencer and the damned Trumpeter. 
            The wind had been gusting, the sky coldly lit by a yawning moon.  A sudden change tumbled in on the air, the smell of damp fur, old blood, and rotten meat.  With a hoot terrible things seemed to bleed from the darkness and assault the men, who sprang up from sleep with steel in their hands.
            While the foreigners were fewer, they were coordinated and skilled fighters.  Still the surprised was devastating, and the defenders bled for their troubles onto the half-frozen earth. 
            Omya watched in horror for a few seconds which seemed more like hours, not from the violence, which was something she was hardened against, but in the growing determination within her to help these strangers.  A great weight pushed her forward, into battle.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

VII. Phos

           Around the middle band of Winter the cold and ice recoil, as if in fear of past secrets, ancient civilizations, and warm breezes heavy with the perfume of gardens lost to the march of time.  This equatorial zone is the narrow meeting point between two continents, though few on Winter have the luxury of contemplating the geology surrounding them, survival demanding their full attention.  Still, in this warm place, where the snows would melt occasionally and rain fell from humid, cloudy skies, a few persons give thought to the world of the past, of Winter before the ice came.  Here the strange mountain Haga Ephos rises alone and imposing, awash in strange radiations, full of secrets. One of which showed on the horizon as a sort of haze through which a rainbow arched.
            Do you see that Fencer? asked the wide-eyed Trumpeter as they marched over the final kilometers to the village of Phos.
            Magic, stated the Fencer superstitiously.
            Its called a rainbow, explained the red-haired youth they knew has Hue.  At times, when the sun is out, it appears over the town.  Some claim it is cause for my peoples strange colors.
            Another curse for a cursed land and a blighted people, huffed the warrior woman Omya who insisted on walking ahead of the group searching for trouble.
            The travelers regarded the polychromatic phenomenon.  A fog swam up from the place where Hue claimed his village lay, adding a touch of dream to the vision.  The colored bands themselves wavered slowly from obscurity to clarity and back again, showing the seven known colors, with hints of those otherworldly shades emergent only in the copious flux of magic.  Such alien hues had been evident in the Gimbal Cross and in the chaos of the Strangers Art.  The rainbow vanished as the air cleared and the spire of Haga Ephos stood bright in the noon light.  They would make their destination a bit before sunset.
            There are some things you should know about Phos, sighed Hue with a fatigue, not of the journey but of the goal.
            Ive seen many lands and they are all the same at heart, said the Fencer, looking to Omya for emphasis.  All bands of desperate, brain-chilled survivalists doing their best to maintain their hollow existence.  They are addicted to hardship and begin to believe in inflicting more of their want on any who pass by.  There is no reason for this, except Winters Riddle.
            Omya had turned now to face the hateful words but Hue continued before any trouble started.
            The only passion Phosians ascribe to is singularity.  Each tries to make themselves a most unique individual.  Constant conflict ensues, as various members engage in novelties and challenges in order to prove themselves.  Our colors go a long way in this regard, or perhaps are the cause of this affliction of the mind, but in any event this forms the basis of our society.  I wouldnt have even conceived of any other sort of community except my little adventure to Omyas village has granted me some degree of contrast.
            The band passed over a low, round hill, coarse purple grass crunching under their feet.  All the company seemed intent on Hues telling, except Omya, who had struck out further ahead when his description began, possibly to avoid, or gain the semblance of avoiding, the young mans telling.
            We can engage in this game because so much is provided us by the land.  Fish are plentiful, wild grains, fruits and the like grow only a short distance from town, and runoff from the mountain grants as much fresh water as we need.  Many Phosians are indolent, except their constant posturing, with only the Tellers engaging in what could be called work.
            At this Hue grew thoughtful and quiet.  The Trumpeter gestured for him to elaborate but Omya interrupted.
            They commune with the dead things on their ensorcelled mountain, she said.  Obviously she hadnt escaped the conversation.
            If there was any chance of the crimson man explaining things further this put a stop to such hopes.  Omya also went silent, not that the other travelers cared for her opinion.  Still, that outburst showed an interest in spite of her taboo-driven ways.
            The afternoon faded from brightest yellow to languid orange as the sun drove itself into the west.  Snow was rare, what they did find was tucked away in the valleys and narrow ravines dug through the soft earth by intrepid streams coursing down from the looming, mountainous goal.  Buzzing things rose up from their steps to sting at exposed flesh, flying fast and eager on the humid air.  Once or twice the Fencer found tracks of those same vicious irtosk birds which had provided such a memorable entrance to Omyas village.
            Their arrival was sudden.  Just past one more hill a great opening in the earth yawned before them.  A valley stretched between the prominence they suddenly found themselves on and the reaching gold of Haga Ephos rising a few kilometers away.  Some trick of the landscape allowed the mountain to sneak up on them.  Immediately below a large lake sprawled, hidden from the south by the hill.  The reason for the water was clear; a sapphire stream, having tumbled down from the enchanted slopes of the mountain, ran through a kaleidoscope village to pool at the base of the hill.  Surging thousands of decaliters from pure snow melt tore at the earthen structure.  Someday the whole of the rise would wear away, leaving the lake free to inundate the lands to the south, an interesting prospect which tickled the curiosity of the Trumpeter.  The many streams they had passed were fed by cracks in the prominence.  The Fencer, however, was no so easily entertained.
            So soon? he demanded of their guide, who was seemingly just as surprised.  The warrior began loosing his weapon, sensing a trap.
            My apologies, I was distracted by the lovely stature of our keeper, smirked Hue towards Omya, who immediately took issue.  It was an obvious attempt to sidestep inquiry.
            An argument ensued while Aglyss and the Trumpeter scuttled down the side of the hill towards fresh souls and virgin ears in the village.  By the time the Fencer had dowsed the fires of conflict, having gained no grasp of what it was Hue was hiding, the fear of what the Trumpeter was capable of descended upon him.  He urged the quarrelsome pair towards the town of Phos under the late afternoon gold.
            Once down by the lake, a thing of perfect blue and crystalline clarity, the true rise of the mountain showed itself.  The stone jutting from the soft earth was the color of cake icing, soft to the eye but terrifically resilient to the touch. 
            Upon approach the village dwellings themselves showed diverse, decorative, decadent and, in a way, familiar to the Fencer, evoking those half-understood memories he had inherited from the Stranger.  Some were wooden structures, lacquered and laminated by an unknown process; others were cut from various stones culled from the area, while more uncanny houses gleamed with crystal, glass or even metal construction.  Beyond these the slopes of Haga Ephos rose into distant glamour, a thousand colors streaming from the glassine falls of the upper reaches.
            When they arrived they were surprised to find no trouble brewing.  The two early arrivals had already ingratiated themselves, engaging in refreshments and raucous conversations.  These, at least, were hospitable folk.  The people with whom they conversed were many times more colorful than their homes could even aspire to.
            The green haired women struck the Fencers mind first, to be replaced by red, purple, orange and blue varieties.  Eyes of crystal, ruby, amethyst, gold and sapphire, accounted for only a fraction of the gemstone eyes turning to fathom the new arrivals.  Yet these were a questionable people.  What was affectation by dye or appliance mingled with the natural?  Many wore their skin painted and patterned in a dizzying display.  The Fencer was entranced by the argumentative vision before him, so much that he was unprepared for what was a certain conflict. 
            The Fencer wore his enchanted blade in a tangle of knotted cord wound cunningly around those few dull edges of his weapon.  Many brigands and louts had grabbed for the sword only to find their hands cut to ribbons.  It took practice to untie the thing, or at least thoughtful observation.  Which is why the Fencer was surprised when Omya pulled Dhala free with unerring dexterity.
            You know your charge and your punishment, said the warrior woman breathlessly from the descent into the village.  Id rather not have the sun set on me in this damned place so lets be quick about it.
            The Fencers face became a hard, dead thing.  His eyes, glossy and cold, glared out, his whole body still as a sea monster lying in wait. 
            More mad traveling companions, laughed the Trumpeter alone against the descending cold of the confrontation.  She intends to have my bellicose friend here decapitate your fellow Hue.  Phosians, show her that you cant allow such harm to befall a peer.
            The Trumpeters smile faded as he noticed the mood of the townsfolk.  They looked on in humor and bemusement, not the least bit concerned for their fellow villager.
            I see you are far more clever than I gave you credit for Hue, smirked one tall, blue-skinned man marked with tattooed eyes all over his form.  You were so banal before your vacation and I thought you gone forever out into the bleak wastes, but it is clear that you are cleverer by half.  Its a daring plan, to set out by yourself and journey to those damned superstitionists in the south, and more so to bring back a clutch of travelers, all for this drama.  A good show; one to be remembered.
            Hue sighed, not willing to even acknowledge the remark.  He rubbed his ruby eyes and then froze with sudden realization. 
            How is your executioner supposed to fulfill his duty when he has no weapon? reasoned the crimson man.
            Omya, all nerves and steeled resolve, though for a second and then threw her own blade at the Fencers feat.  Dhala froze her hands but she didnt complain at its touch.  The remains of her spear could, in theory, be used for the grisly task, but the blade had seen much wear against the elements and any cutting it did would be difficult and painful.
            The Fencer never took his eyes off the woman as he made slow, purposeful movements towards the offered weapon.  The sure madness of the situation disturbed him, not for the cruelty itself, or the stupidity of the laws being enforced, but how the whole scene reeked of Winters Riddle.  Blind, naked thoughtlessness, committed by one person against another, from one people against so many others.  The colorfully deranged Phosians looked on, an audience eager for the sight of blood and spectacle.  Above them, the strange slopes of Haga Ephos loomed as sure as the plot which ensnared the participants.  Unwilling to accept the absurdity of the situation, the Trumpeter nervously polished his trumpet.  Aglyss muttered to his imaginary pantheon.
            The Fencer picked up the wooden haft and took the bearing of the weapon.  It would make a poor throwing implement and by the look in her eye Omya was more than willing, and capable, of using his nightmare sword against him.  Her superstitions were driving her.
            Would you like to know why it is called Dhala? he offered as he made ready to enact the punishment commanded by her ignorant chieftain. 
            I have no interest in false knowledge, she stated coldly.
            In the language of my people, who were quite as superstitious as your own and are nothing more than dust and ashes now, it is the cold of colds.  It is the force between the icy stars which seeps in through the polar skies to reduce men to mere engines of survival.  Mindless, reasonless, ignorant in the face of the questions posed by the world.
            Hue looked worried at first, but gradually the same resolved fatalism which had often possessed him returned and he knelt down in acceptance of his ridiculous sentence.  The audience murmured in satisfaction.
            I met the creature which created the thing shortly after I found it in a place forbidden to my people, continued the Fencer, still watching the brave and the thing she held distastefully in her hand.  He was a sorcerer.  He had the marks, like some of those who watch us now, and that weapon was but a shard of a single nightmare he had dreamed before time began.
            A flicker of irresolution crossed Omyas face.  She gripped and re-gripped the blade.  Her hands were sticking to the super-chilled ice of the thing, not having developed the Fencer’s calluses and resistance. 
            I have seen that sword cut through several lemur-men with a single swing, and those who live through their wounds find their minds haunted by nightmares, ensorcelled by powerful enchantments to never rest in peace again, yet to often fall into deep slumber.  There was one man, a traitorous rogue, who I had the pleasure of maiming.  He lived through his wound, but the cut poisoned not only his mind, but his body too, so that he spread the foul emanations of the weapon through his hateful actions.  I often wonder what the thing is doing to me, what poison flows from it into my veins.
            The Fencer was about to go on from there, lifting the heavy spear blade while describing how the sword had felled a giant.  It was the last line he had to play in the gambit and was the closest thing to a lie, as that particular point was disputed by the Trumpeter.  With a hiss of pain and a grimace of disgust the brave ripped her hand free from the bloodied weapon and tossed the thing down.  She then ran off as the sun set and purple evening swept in over the land.
            The Fencer discarded the ruined spear and reclaimed his namesake.  In a way he was just as disgusted by the thing as she was and it troubled him somewhat that he wanted to regain it at all.  These thoughts coursed through his mind as the villagers laughed and the travelers breathed sighs of relief which turned to mist on the quickly cooling night air.