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.
“It’s 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 people’s 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 Stranger’s 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.
“I’ve 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 Winter’s 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 wouldn’t have even conceived of any other sort of community except my little adventure to Omya’s 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 Hue’s telling, except Omya, who had struck out further ahead when his description began, possibly to avoid, or gain the semblance of avoiding, the young man’s 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 hadn’t 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 Omya’s 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 Fencer’s 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. “I’d rather not have the sun set on me in this damned place so let’s be quick about it.”
The Fencer’s 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 can’t allow such harm to befall a peer.”
The Trumpeter’s 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. It’s 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 Fencer’s feat. Dhala froze her hands but she didn’t 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 Winter’s 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 Omya’s 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.