“I was about ten seasons old or so, when it all happened,” mused the Trumpeter to the old heretic Aglyss as they marched towards the high, unreal spire of Haga Ephos in the burnished morning light. “It’s difficult to be so sure of such things as time that far south, the cold makes even the sun and moon move sluggishly at times.”
“Yes, yes,” grumbled the old man petulantly. “But do you remember what happened?”
“Me?” responded the Trumpeter before considering the distance and the supposedly triple-cursed mountain, “No. We didn’t have separate shamans or witches or the like on the Wondering Mountains.”
“So they said about us,” continued the Trumpeter glibly. “No, each man would claim to be a great and powerful sorcerer, capable of cursing his enemies, making their eye pop out of their sockets. The women were a bit more subtle about it. Up front, none would claim power, but amongst themselves, well, my father always did complain about witchcraft and the like.”
The two erudites of the group lagged behind as they made their condemned way to the far off village of Phos, there to receive their collective punishments. Ahead of the stragglers walked the sullen Marked Woman, bound Hue, their enforcer Omya and the Fencer, somehow eager to lead the expedition to justice.
“So you were spared all the loss of the Uplifting?” asked Aglyss.
“Oh, well, we did lose a witch,” admitted the Trumpeter, who watched his friend’s progress with interest. “Say, what caused the great sundering?”
“Sol,” responded the old man with strange brevity. “How do you not know this?”
“Oh, I know quite well, but you see, my friend up there, the Fencer, he comes from a decidedly backwards place, of which he is the singular representative on Winter, and it is for his sake that I ask.”
“Shouldn’t I tell him directly then?”
“Well, you see, it is a custom of his people to not let such cursed sentences land on their ears, so I provide the necessary filter for information and in this manner his propriety might be kept intact.”
“He came some fifteen years ago,” began Aglyss, content with the musician’s reasoning. “The stories differ and while I never beheld the creature himself one element remains the same through many tales of his deeds; that of his incarnadine hair, red, like that of our condemned friend Hue up ahead. Sol challenged each mage and witch and warlock and spirit and monster and demon and god. Some he destroyed in his hunger for magic, others, being wise and terrible old things, left, to go to the floating world of Summer and serve this new voracious master. He was a dragon, you see. The gods, though, they chose to be broken rather than bow to this eater. They were consumed by the great beast, devoured, making his scaly belly fat. Now, the divine absence has been filled by the great and mighty spirits of a new pantheon. Would it please you to know that Simurs of the Blighted Eye looks favorably upon you my fellow?”
Another layer of mystery added to the strange mix of myth and fact which the Trumpeter had come to acknowledge as being more accurate than any truth. Turning over the mysteries, the musician let his mind wander as the old priest went on and on about imaginary friends, noise he used to fill the vacuum of a disenchanted world.
Up ahead the Fencer was contending with his own troubles. Haga Ephos was like no mountain he had ever seen and this mystery bothered the swordsman.
The superstitious villagers had allowed him to carry his enchanted sword, Dhala, not out of any sense of generosity but because it would’ve been a greater sin to allow the cursed weapon to remain close to their homes, and besides, they saw the benefit of sending such a poisoned gift to the hated village of Phos. Only one enforcer of their punishments traveled with the mismatched band, the brave called Omya, who competed with the Fencer in leading the group to the towering edifice of Haga Ephos.
The mountain wasn’t a natural structure; of this the Fencer was sure. It was tall as one, and wide as one, but it was alone, a singular peak on the balmy plains of the accursed north, by his judgment of things. As the group made their way over slight hills of coarse purple grass and through snow-carpeted valleys verdant with natural growing ice-wheat the image of the spire grew in clarity.
“What’s that shimmering stuff on the slopes?” asked the Fencer to Hue, who had been silent since their travesty of justice the evening before.
“Don’t bother with that murderer,” spat Omya who shadowed all of the Fencer’s movements.
“The falls,” Hue responded curtly, without making eye contact with the southern swordsman.
It was afternoon now, cloudless, revealing the amethyst sky and allowing the sun to glint off distant ribbons on the mountain. By the show of prismatic glory the slopes must be covered in frozen waterfalls. The Fencer pondered these things and moved up ahead, wagering that Omya would follow, as she did.
“What murder is this?” he asked quietly, gesturing back at the crimson youth when he was sure he wouldn’t be heard.
“He drowned a fisherman as he pulled in a mighty heaven fish,” she said with all the truth she could muster. “This trespasser must’ve been consumed with jealously and pushed the victim into the sea. When the man’s daughter arrived the devil made it seem that he was trying to save the fisherman only to lose his grip at the last moment. He’s a sly one, don’t listen to his lies.”
The Fencer nodded. He knew perfectly well the machinations of community justice and rubbed at his neck appreciatively.
Clouds joined their procession as Haga Ephos grew in stature. A foggy gloom sprang up, dowsing the lands in hazy enchantment; the heady perfume of magic grew with each step north. By the time sunset came a strange thing happened.
Thunder broke the travelers’ silence as those with a skill for it sought about for a proper place to camp for the night. Sorcerous lightning arched violet through the charged air, obeying principles other than the meteorological. Then it rained.
The Trumpeter and the Fencer cowered from the chilled stuff falling from the sky while the others, all used to the occasional squall or thunderstorm, made a proper lean-to.
“Which of you brought this aqueous curse upon us?” gasped the Trumpeter as he wrung out his tangled hair. The Fencer echoed the sentiment with his eyes but was too prideful to admit his shock. The rest laughed, even Omya.
“It’s rain,” said marked Uiha with a smile as she began to clean the fat snow hares the warrior woman had felled throughout the day. As a practical worrier she had collected enough dead brush and knotty wood as they had traveled that day to make a fire in the dry recess of the lean-to.
Evening passed into a quiet, humid night. A potent fog, bleeding light, told of dawn when the Fencer awoke. Omya tensed as he sat up and gathered his things.
“You didn’t sleep?” he said, a little amazed.
“How can I surrounded by god slayers and lesser murderers?”
“Well, now you’ll be exhausted when I make my escape today.” The Fencer wanted to grin but that would give away the joke. Also, he was thinking of actually freeing himself of this ridiculous punishment, though he was becoming increasing curious about high Haga Ephos and the mysteries of the equatorial lands. Omya set her lips with grim understanding, ready for violence as the company began readying for the day’s journey; they would make Phos by sunset, unless there were complications.
The lands grew stranger as they progressed north. The streams, fed by runoff from the distant mountain, took on an iridescent quality and Omya refused to drink the waters. The foggy atmosphere itself boiled with shapes at the corners of their vision, but when looked at directly nothing but the gauzy mists could be seen. By mid day the fog was gone, replaced by the increasingly purple sky, giving a sense of perpetual twilight. Stars peeked at the travelers and a tone, like a single, distant note being played, rose slowly with each step.
“You want to see the town too,” stated the Trumpeter into the Fencer’s ear. Omya watched the two like a hawk but right now the old priest was trying his ministry and she was in denial of everything.
“Why else would I go along with this march?” said the swordsman.
“And the others?”
“That’s their concern,” lied the Fencer as he watched Hue mutely tumble over the terrain. The brave wouldn’t allow the youth’s arms to be unbound from behind his back.
“I understand completely.” Inwardly the Trumpeter made ready for the chaos that was sure to follow their advent into Phos. He was, however, unprepared as the source of the gradually increasing sound drifted over a western hill a few kilometers distant.
The silver cube floated a few meters off the ground, reflecting the world around its burnished sides. The scale of the thing was difficult to gauge in the strange light, growing in size as it drifted obliquely towards the company. Like the hum of a lost spirit the cube’s song grew louder.
Despite a few shrieks of superstitious alarm and giddy excitement from certain persons, Omya and the Fencer fought the scattered party past the rise of a hill in order to avoid notice, presuming its senses were ordinary. They all peeked out over the rise, except the marked woman, who judiciously stayed out of sight.
The cube now floated still in the afternoon air.
“Let’s converse with it,” said the Trumpeter against his own best interest.
“And risk further punishment?” responded Omya, aghast.
“Do you know the thing?” asked the Fencer directly to Hue.
“There are many strange entities that wander the lands around Haga Ephos,” he said after some hesitation. “The ground, the air, the light, even the motion of time itself is awash in a noetic flux. These magical radiations give birth to entities and attract others from the mundane south and the banal north.”
“It’s a foul, cursed place,” nodded the warrior woman with emphasis. Her knuckles showed white where she gripped her spear.
The Fencer sighed. He stood at an uncertain point. While in a reasonable world the cube might just be a freak occurrence and would pass by or stay stalled and therefore not molest the travelers, he knew better. And even if it did accost them there was no means of understanding what would happen then. Would it be violent? Would it be intelligent? The great puzzle box hung in the air, reflecting potential in all directions.
The Fencer got up and continued on their original path. A spear tip touched his back. The cube was seen to continue on its path then stop, all in concurrence with the Fencer’s movements.
“It seems a meeting is fated,” smiled old Aglyss.
The Trumpeter looked at the Fencer, who shrugged, and then began moving on his own, much to the excitement of Omya. She darted ahead and faced both travelers with her weapon.
“It’s either him or me,” said the Fencer. “That box moves along a certain path towards a destined meeting. I would march directly towards the thing. If it is fated that we meet at the presumed angle up on that hill some kilometers distant, then we will miss each other and another taboo will be followed. If it turns to meet us then it is not fated that we should meet, but instead the occurrence of the principles choosing to face each other.”
Hue’s laugh broke across the hills and mingled with the hum of the cube.
“I find your reason flawed, yet unassailable,” the crimson man said as Omya sought inwardly for some resolution to the situation.
“We’ll all go,” she began, lowering the point of her spear. “We are all hostage to your wager here.”
The party moved on towards the floating mystery. Some were eager and leaned forward slightly with each step, while others held themselves with more reserve, considering. Trailing the group was the always practical, always observant marked woman, using all her life’s bravery just to come along.
With their first step the silver cube approached. When the sun’s light struck its surface a brightness leapt up, blinding. It wasn’t long before they met atop a gentle hill where the balmy equatorial wind fussed at a coarse netting of purple grass.
The sterling thing was a few meters to a side and sang in the air. This close it was seen that the reflections granted by its polished sides were imperfect, translucent, as if some quality of the surface both reflected and admitted images, all things mingling within.
For the first time in many weeks the Fencer saw himself, cobalt hair tossing in the wind, grey eyes seeking the painful truth of this mystery, amongst many. There was the coarse scar on his neck where he was once collared by the ignorance of his community and he wondered at the violence-worn seal skins which clung to his form.
They each saw themselves, clearly, despite the full company being displayed atop each other. Omya, with her plumed garments, lacquered armor, ritually tied black hair and fierce countenance, stood next to Uiha, her vivid blue birthmark contrasting her generally subdued and dark features. Hue, all red, his crimson wrappings showing the dirt of their travels, troubled outwardly by the same secrets which caused turmoil within. Aglyss leaned on his walking stick in shock at his tattered robes and ancient form, wondering where all the years had gone.
With the party enraptured by the sound and the vision, the reflecting cube began its work, silently, without discomfort, until the inhuman intelligence recognized a discrepancy in the scene and turned its invisible attentions. Nudging the Fencer, who merely blinked in response, the Trumpeter’s eyed darted about half-mad with plans and possibilities offered by the thing in the box, in his hands he held an instrument of the same silver as the cube which now regarded him.