Thursday, July 28, 2011

XII. Divisions and Permutations

            The Trumpeters trumpet smashed deep into the belly of the Fencer, whose face shot red with the strain of remaining upright despite the pain.  With a terrible ache in his middle the swordsman could do little but ward off the manic blows of his one-time friend. Rage glowed in the musicians eyes, a rage echoed in the Fencers own.
            Hue and painted Eluax watched in disbelief as the two brawled.  While the Fencer was certainly the better fighter the Trumpeter had madness on his side.  His unpredictable movements did much to fuel the hostility in the Fencer.
            When his pain eased the swordsman leapt at his friend with his enchanted blade.  Dhalas point clanged off the sterling material of the Trumpeters instrument, one of the few objects capable of resisting the nightmare weapon.  In the light of the alchemic fire the two cast tangled shadows on the fragile ice of the high mountain lake surrounding them.  Behind them a wall of sheer rock framed the drama like a stage. 
            Truth was the matter here, or really the lack of it.  Within the dual falls frozen since the advent of Winter rested a pair of ancient monks tasked with remembering a bit of wisdom from the lost era before the ice.  Each claimed to know the truth behind the endless cold, to answer Winters Riddle in final and absolute terms.  Each claimed great things of the past, blaming strange magics or lost gods.  There was a power to these voices, a weight lending itself to belief in the veracity of the claims.  This was the source of the current conflict between the Fencer and the Trumpeter.  Both thought they had found the truth when the telling was over.
            It all makes sense! exclaimed the Trumpeter.
            Which part? asked the Fencer, already convinced as to which story was truth and which was fantasy.
            Its all so unreasonable, said the musician, and such unreason would surely spring from the ruins of reason, improperly implemented.  Ive heard stories of Loom, far off in the north.  Why, even Clea mentioned the place in her journal.
            Mention of a tragic and complicated affair set the Fencer on edge, as did the Trumpeters manic rhetoric.  Though she never once mentions alchemist kings, vats of frozen corpses, or weather magic of any kind.  Other than it not making any sense, then yes, yes I see your point.
            Oh, and you would subscribe to the fairy tale of the little drowned girl? snapped the Trumpeter.
            It bears the ring of truth, which you, as a supposed musician, should be able to hear clearly.  There is a malevolence to the cold, the ice, to Winter as a whole.  Surely this is evidence of an intelligence behind the cursed snows.
            As surely as there is no intelligence behind your argument! spat the Trumpeter.  The Fencer bristled at the remark.  All those mad, dead narwhal hunters would believe that same thing if they werent too busy killing each other and conspiring to hunt their own.  Or would you hunt me now, by that look in your eyes?  I guess thats the Riddle; why does a narwhal hunter believe that some dead water sprite controls the snows when the truth of things lies with the wild magics of a lost civilization?  Oh wait, I have the answer; they’re all dead!
            The Fencers answer was to draw his weapon and attack. 
            There was a certain weight to the matter being resolved between these dueling truths.  Both of the stories told by the frozen Jhem were strange enough, interesting enough, to be true.  But as Hue watched his two companions fight it seemed increasingly that this was about entertainment.
            The crimson man was sensitive to this due to his upbringing in the village of Phos.  There, at the base of the great mountain, the people, bereft of any need to struggle in life, spent their time struggling over elaborate fictions.  Each unique, a fascinating jewel, and those who lived such fictions became rich in terms of novelty.  Hue had once fled from this unceasing struggle but now he jumped into it.
            The Fencer had the Trumpeter on his back and rose his black icicle up in preparation for a finishing strike.  As the glimmering weapon lifted, so did the Trumpeters trumpet.  The thundering note emitted shook the swordsman with such violence that he cast his weapon away.  In retaliation he viciously batted the offending instrument out of his friends hand.  Silver notes clanged out of the thing as the man of scarlet raced towards them.
            Ice creaked and elegant fractures appeared on the surface of the frozen lake as the Fencer smashed the Trumpeter’s daft head over and over against the crystalline surface.  His opponent had his long-fingered hands around his friends scared throat in an effort to twist the air out of the man.  It was unclear who would kill whom when Hue dragged the swordsman off.  Eluax had to pry the Trumpeter’s fingers from his friend’s neck.
            We were finally getting something decided, choked the half-asphyxiated Fencer as he searched around for this sword.
            Dont you see? asked Hue, desperately gesturing towards the silent Jhem within the ice.  Theyre just like the Phosians!
            Like them? responded the Trumpeter quizzically as he extricated himself from the ochre man’s grip.  As in they are dressed garishly and quite mad?
            Each Jhem has a story to tell and each is unique, began Hues reasoning.  Their stories often lie in contrast to the others.  For what purpose?  Each of my fellow Phosians lives a life specifically designed to be other than that of his neighbor’s.  For what reason?  It isnt for themselves; its to elicit a reaction from those viewing them.
            The group’s tone became thoughtful as tempers cooled.  The Fencer began putting his faculties to test on this new development.  He didnt even move to retrieve his weapon as a sign of good faith. 
            So, not only could either story be true and the other false, but each might be false? he asked rhetorically.  That means everything that we’ve been told by the Jhem could be lies.
            Hue nodded but the Trumpeter spoke up first.  but not all, I mean, the one about the Chemists of Loom still has an air of truth to it, said the musician to the growing displeasure of the group.  Doesnt it?  If not then how are we to determine the truth from the lies, fact from fiction?
            None of them had an answer, except possibly Eluax and he wasnt offering it.  He endured the argument in silence, waiting near the fire for the partys next move.  The clouds, low hanging grey things, drifted by close above in silent consideration.
            After some long minutes the Fencer began to make camp near the warm blaze of the alchemic fire.
            What are you doing? asked Hue.
            I now have my doubts about the ascent, began the Fencer as he untied his few bags and pouches.  And we have a source of warmth, and two cold mysteries to thaw here.
            The implication was towards the two Jhem beneath the frozen waterfalls.  Eluax immediately lost the usual smile from his face.  None of the others noticed.
            How long is that thing supposed to burn? asked the red-haired man.
            Not sure, said the Trumpeter.  The last one we tried never went out as far as we could tell.  Brought some unwelcome company though.
            Let all the Lemur-men come if they want, said the Fencer.  I wish to think on some matters here and see no reason to pass up a bit of warmth on the damned lying face of Winter.
            The rest seemed to accept this reasoning, except Eluax, whose anxiety quickly became known.  At first he seemed to plead with them and point further up the mountain, showing a relatively clear path for further ascent.  The Fencer would have none of it and so the mans ministrations became more anxious, to the point where he began pulling at them, all to no avail.  When afternoon waned in the sky, golden, western light burning up the clouds and touching off the frozen waters of Haga Ephos like stained glass, the Teller attacked them.
            He went for the Fencer first.  His small form was on the swordsman before the man could draw, yet his compact frame held a terrible strength.  He dazed his target with an open hand blow which only by virtue of the Fencers instincts to roll with the strike wasnt a clean knockout.  In a flash the surprised man had his weapon out and ready.
            Eluax feinted past his target to stand close by in the blind spot of the left-handed swordsman.  The Fencer whirled to face his attacker but the man used this motion to lift and toss his target, spinning him like a top into the air only to then crash down on the ice.
            This first exchange was over in a flash.  Now Hue and the Trumpeter rose to meet the sudden traitor. 
            Advancing from behind, the tall mountain man quietly tried to get within range to brain the Teller.  Shuffling backwards a few steps Eluax drove an elbow into the stomach of this assailant, then turned on the doubled over man and struck at his temple.  The Trumpeter fell to the ice with a heavy thump and a silver clang.
            Head spinning, the Fencer lifted himself up in time to see Hue get the same treatment as he tried to restrain the suddenly manic fighter.  Desperately the swordsman tried to shake the dizziness from his head.  Then the painted man was at him again.
            With all the energy he could muster he brought his nightmare weapon down on Eluax.  Calmly the man caught the blade on each side with his hands, then screamed.  The noised echoed down and out the mountain.  Stumbling back the ochre man looked at his frostbitten hands with wide-eyed terror.  The Fencer chose not to give up this opportunity. 
            The Teller raced over to the blue-white bonfire and the swordsman gave chase.  There the small man thrust his hands into the roiling blaze and grimaced with insensate pain.  Using this moment the Fencer made a careful approach.
            Just as he was about to strike Eluax made a low sweeping gesture with his immolated right hand.  The world blossomed into burning pain from a handful of choking, super-heated dust.  For a half second the Fencer felt the embers burn before a dull pressure on his neck drove the stars from his eyes and all went black.

            Hushed spices on velvet black told of awakening.  A few glimmers of pain flashed at the edges of the Fencers sight as he swam to consciousness.  Noises worried the edges of his mind, but he was far too intent on regaining his faculties to listen. 
            He rolled over and saw the form of the Trumpeter and Hue outlined in moonlight cast from outside.  Underneath he felt the rough stone of a cave floor, some shallow grotto worn into the side of Haga Ephos.  The Trumpeter made a motion for quiet.  Ignoring this, the Fencer shifted to see the other side of the place.
            Eluax rested at the edges of the cave mouth, pale radiance carving the small man into a pondering, stoic statue.  Then the full shape of the noises outside became clear.
            It was a sort of light shuffling, a rustling, like that of worn parchment or linen.  Something or things moved outside in the night.  These motions prickled the distilled memories the Fencer had eaten so long ago.  H swordmaster thoughts recognized the outer sounds as those of careful and dangerous men, assassins trained in subtle arts, people who could battle the fiercest things with only their bare hands and unwavering discipline.  With a shock he realized this was the same way the traitorous Eluax moved.
            The Fencer went for his enchanted sword Dhala but found nothing.  Where is it, he demanded, but the Trumpeter hissed him quiet.
            Cant you hear those things out there?
            Indeed, and this is why I wish to better defend myself, he retorted and then turned back to glare at Eluax.  There is also a need to rectify the issue of our assailant.
            These are the things those lemur-men were fleeing from.  Lemur-men! exclaimed the Trumpeter with such volume that the whole party started and looked to the door for trouble.  Even my Trumpet is out there by the fire but despite the great blasphemy of it all I would rather wait for morning than to brave whatever is out there.
            What is out there? asked the Fencer, but no mere words answered.  Hues large eyes grew with shock and the two travelers knew then that they had spoken too loudly.  Looking back, the painted man at the opening had receded so far back into shadow that he was now invisible.  A slight rustling came from beyond the illuminated portal and then a figure crossed into silhouette.
            It was the black form of a man, a small man, perhaps shorter than the compact Fencer.  He had on some kind of full body outfit which showed irregularly, making the figure seem banded or lumpy.  The shadow thing paused there, as if searching.  In the Fencers mind a great and unreasonable dread sunk into his soul, just as the powerfully cloying reek of ancient spices and oils grew to almost unbearable potency.

Friday, July 22, 2011

XI. False Ice

            A man is strangled to death.  The particulars of his death are irrelevant in the face of the facts.  The Phosians take to superstition well and the treasure hunters stand as stone guardians while that high-speaking warrior woman from the far village makes clear the way for all involved. 
            Cold winds whip into the valley.  Winter reaches a little farther in and the villagers huddle against the warming fires of taboo.  Water basins left out ice over, feathered crystals latticing across their surface. 
            Even near the equator such cold isnt uncommon, but the warrior woman explains that this isn’t a natural cold.  Evil wanders the land.  The dead man, a traveler like those who came in with the woman from the far village, was certainly strangled by the night things which roam the slopes of Haga Ephos, but this wasnt mere happenstance.  Here the woman sets the crowd straight.  Entertained into belief the Phosians accept this gross ignorance of experience. 
            The brave, in her well-worn reed garments and hair tied into a series of ceremonial knots, gestures upwards to the slopes of the great mountain.  There the cause of this death can be found, a group of violent taboo-breakers who have angered the powers of the magic mountain and must pay like remittance as the dead priest.  And the village is eager to play the game of hate on the outcasts above; one with a sword, another a trumpet.

            The mountain seemed to go on forever.  Only a single day out from the base village of Phos and the thawed waterfalls below gave up a potent mist, obscuring the surety of ground.  Above, clouds gathered amongst the spires.  There was no end in either direction but the way was warmer than most the travelers had bested.  It was easy enough to put one foot or hand in front of the other in order and haul themselves into the future.
            What are you looking for? asked Hue of the Trumpeter, the Fencer being up ahead of them some ways.  The musician startled at the question; he had grown adept at hiding his sky searches.
            Just a something, he pondered, refocusing on the climb at hand.  The Fencer was insisting they take a difficult way, the reason being that previous explorers would certainly, and reasonably, take the path of least resistance.  Now they clung to the pale vastness of the western face, the only borders being gravity and sky, as they searched for greater knowledge.
            When either man tried to engage the Fencer about a larger plan the swordsman he grew angry, aloof, and silent.  That last quality being something he had been engaging in since their first meeting with a Jhem, one of the frozen ascetics of the mountain.  It did not help matters that they had another non-speaking character with them.  This wasn’t exactly true, Eluax would happily talk to any of them, but only he could understand what he meant and even that might’ve been a stretch.  For this reason the Trumpeter was glad for the scarlet mans company; at least he had someone to talk to.
            Its quite a something, he continued.
            And this something is?
            It is the biggest thing we can think of.
            The world?
            Not in terms of size, if you would let me finish the thought.
            In what way then? grimaced Hue as he hefted himself up a particularly nasty rock protrusion.
            In the way that it contrasts with what we know, riddled the Trumpeter.  The faint sun, the common clouds.  Cold, snow, ice and terrible death.  Hungry creatures and worse men.  Winter, you could say.
            Summer? answered Hue without much thought.
            The Trumpeter acted troubled by the response, made warding gestures and signs against the evils of the red demon, but really he was jealous that the man guessed the answer to the riddle so quickly, and maybe more that the answer itself didnt satisfy.  So he took a cue from the Fencer and grew silent and brooding.
            Wasnt that it? asked Hue with confusion as he climbed after the Trumpeter who had decided to move ahead with some speed.
            They made slow time up jagged rocks, precipitous overhangs, and met no more Jhem.  By afternoon the skies cleared and the whole land below emerged as white snow and purple grass, pale blue where Winter flora spoke out against the rolling hills.  Far to the east the ocean tumbled, clothed in retreating haze.  Above them Haga Ephos waited like a dead relative, or a forbidden temple.
            Shortly after their lunch of dried fish they clawed their way onto a high basin.  Once a lake fed by two thin waterfalls from above, it was now a frozen sheet of ancient ice, the falls turned to pillars, each housing a shadow obscured by their natural sarcophagi. 
            Have you heard tell of this pair? asked the Fencer once all four men were up. 
            Never, said Hue, considering the two Jhem before them. 
            Then maybe now we can gain some unspoiled answers, smiled the Fencer.  He wanted to question painted Eluax on this matter but the gibberish-speaking Teller kept whatever he had fought from these heights secret. 
            The group walked out across the frozen pool.  There was a hollow, cracking note to their footsteps, but their attentions were held by the two shadows and the stories they would tell.  With a sudden crash the ice broke, plunging the Trumpeter into the frigid waters below.
            The Fencer cursed and dashed to the frothing break but found no musician in the water.  Then a deep thumping rose from beneath.  Through a rough window of frozen pond the wide-eyed Trumpeter fought for breath and attention. 
            Dhala drew and flickered dark through the shadowed air of the basin.  The musician, fear peaking, pushed off against the ice and back into the depths.  Three vorpal flickers struck the surface and the inner pressure of the water popped free a large triangular sheet of frozen pond.  The Trumpeter surfaced as a gasping, sopping tangle of silver and heavy wool.  The Fencer put away his weapon and with Eluax’s help dragged the man to the safety of the shore nearest the falls.  Hue, stunned through all this, backed into one of the frozen falls and that is when the voice came.
            We are the Jhem, said the inner presence of the thing within.  You may know this but it is right to go about things in the proper fashion and so I repeat this basic statement as proof of the veracity of what is to follow.
            While the crystal-perfect thoughts resonated in their heads they rushed to the sheer rise of stone which backed the entombing cataracts.  The Fencer grimaced at the prospect of the slow death for his friend the Trumpeter who kept sucking air in frantic gouts while huffing out with quacking shivers.  With his wet clothes sticking close to his skin the tall musician looked like a drowned tundra wolf.  The swordsman began frantically searching his gear.
            The voice of the long dead ascetic continued on without care for the drama playing out.  It is my task to remember the frame of the world that is as compared to the world that was.  Like the sudden storm bringing deadly flood or the plagued survivor casting the merciful city into bloody mayhem the cold came and never left as would have been right and proper.
            The Fencer at last found what he was looking for; a glimmering vial carefully wadded up in cloth to prevent accidental breaking.  With all his might he cast the potion into the corner of the rock some meters away.  Instantly a blast of terrible heat blustered against the men and a blue flash blinded them.  When their vision cleared, the voice of the imprisoned Jhem continued in contrast to the sapphire bonfire.  It blazed so hot as to make the temperature almost unbearable even this far away.  Quickly they peeled off the Trumpeters many layers until at last he sat annoyed on a large flat stone wearing nothing but his loincloth, soaking up the heat from the alchemical fire.
            The curse of eternal winter was the result of hubris, continued the Jhems litany.  Now the Fencer took note of the words.  The whole group of men awaited the continuance of the story. 
            The swallows told the tale to me, as I meditated upon the eight-fold mysteries, of the Chemists of Loom and their greatest feat.  It was already known that the alchemical rulers of that whole continent had filtered out the secrets of the natural cosmos and could brew triumphs through their alembics and wands.  They had conquered disease, poverty and death.  Theirs was a people who submerged themselves into vats of spiced liquids and through a shared liquid network and the interaction of their peculiar tinctures existed in a communal state of great harmony.  They knew each others thoughts, secrets, hopes, dreams, lusts, hates, and so were able to concentrate the propitious aspects of their society and sublimate the rotten bile of corruption and disharmony.
            The audience stood enraptured by the telling.  Even Eluax, who usually seemed lost in his own epiphanies, crouched down, fully comprehending the inner voice.  The secret of Winters Riddle flowed out like a mantra, illuminated by the blooming fire.
            Yet, like all men who do not understand the flux of the living world, the Chemists sought to change the planet to fit their mould.  Convinced that their fellows across the globe were living in error they sought a great change through the natural motion of the weather.  They seeded the high skies with pungent fires and built massive alchemical devices to disperse their benefices into the world system.  In this way all things would be linked.
            They would at last know failure.  Though their compounds and mixtures did reach all things there was an unforeseen reaction.  Perhaps it was the salinity of the oceans, or the conspiracies of ravens, the lichen clinging silent and green to the high mountain rocks or even some quality of the Lattice itself, but the plan failed.  The world did change, but not as planned.  Ice began to form at perfectly normal temperatures and then the climate followed.  Animals died, plants withered, and a great and terrible cold, like something born of the dark places between stars, crept in from the polar regions, in to kill the world.
            The swallows tell me, as the night grows colder and colder, that the Chemists now try to find a cure for the ill they engineered.  But their continent freezes, their people turn to ice and their vast web of knowledge fragments and dies.  Perhaps they will find a cure, or at least stop the reaction they precipitated, but now the future seems sure and we brothers make ready to save what knowledge we can for the mere chance that others will survive the ice to hear our telling.  
            Voluminous shadows leapt up from the men, all motion to their stillness.  The tale stole deep into their hearts.  They had no means to verify the Jhems claims, but the power of the voice, its presence in their minds, lent the story a weight of verisimilitude  Then, even as the first presence receded into the cloised ice and Hue was about to speak, Eluax touched the second.
            We are the Jhem.  In the long centuries before the coming of endless Winter we meditated upon the mysteries through discipline, ordeal, practice and letters, all seeking a most perfect and true knowledge of the world around us.  In our labors we discerned many secrets, and this wisdom we meted out to the peaceful and the just, those seeking knowledge and those in need of it.  When the cold came we began a different calling.
            The world has known many vices and of these the worship of angry and petty gods is most indulged.  The Order decries such creatures as false and base, powerful, yes, but on the whole petulant, lustful, offering nothing to their cults and taking much.  Of pantheons there are many, outnumbered only by the local spirits and god kings on their thrones.  Their wars were such that mortals died in droves for the pleasure of deathless masters and these most high beings simply laughed, or spoke not at all.
            The paradox of these inhuman beasts was that their actions were all too human.  Scholars would point out that many deities emerged from mortal ranks but wisdom would hope that divinities should be of higher virtue than Wrenk of the Terrible Arm and more noble than the venomous Mother of Serpents.  This foolishness led to an escalation in their squabbling, yielding, as their actions caused more deities to arise in answer.   In the end emerged the Frost Maiden.
            The northern tribes were few and terrible.  They murdered their own when their troubles werent enough, perhaps needing such manic violence to survive on the polar continent.  Harsh lives breed harsh people, and to supplement their tragedies it was customary to drown unwanted daughters as a sacrifice to the blind hate of underwater powers.
            The scholar notes many such tales, and perhaps the origin of the Frost Maiden should be seen as a composite for the overall practice of female infanticide.  In any event there was a peculiar case, with specific drama, treachery, and deceit, resulting in the death of a single female child.  Shortly after this a terrible storm froze many of her community dead in their homes.  The survivors, sure that the girl had returned to revenge herself, began blaming all unlucky occurrences, ice storms, poor hunts, murders, on the dead girl.  Rumors spread and the whole region fell under the spell of a new and terrible being.
            Whether their combined faith gave birth to the Frost Maiden or simply some previous local deity took advantage of the title and grew in power remains a point of curiosity.  I would note the recursive nature of the murder blamed on the victim.  Regardless, a new and active god began a reign of terror which bound most of the frozen north in a web of superstition which totally dominated the lives of the inhabitants.  They wouldnt set out on their oil-skin boats without first dumping the bones of their enemies into the sea, and no woman was born who didnt carry the inked mark of the Maiden with her to the grave.  She wouldve remained in this fashion, a powerful yet local concern, but a traveler came.
            It isnt known who he was, or what he was doing so far north.  It is fair to assume he was a treasure hunter or outcast of some sort.  On occasion the Frost Maiden herself would emerge from the frozen depths to engage her hungers.  The two principles met and in order to save his life the treasure hunter made a desperate case for logic.
            “’Im to die for simply trespassing on your waters, and those waters reach far south and in fact connect with all other such oceans and continents; why do you choose to persecute me, here and now?  If you are a deity, as terrible and powerful as the locals say, and if you are as angry and unpleasant as you seem to be, why dont you seek greater revenge on the world as a whole?  It would be the surest of follies to waste your time with a single interloper such as myself.’”
            Debate concerning this line of thinking is best saved for another more fit in the arts of rhetoric and discourse.  Yet history has no such time.  What happened to the treasure hunter may never be known, though knowledge of this story seems to lend credence to the rumor that the propagator is also the survivor.  In any event the cold came.
            The Frost Maiden, hate-mad and terrible, in a fury commensurate with the notion of winter itself, bent the world to her will and covered all with ice.  The mechanisms of deific power are beyond the scope of this meditation and how she was capable, despite all the other gods and demons, to drench the world with her sorrowful chill remains unknown.  I once again point to the recurrence model of a cycle between the effect of the cold and the power of the deity.  Perhaps none will endure the endless winter, or maybe some quotient of other gods will stave off the full extent of the Frost Maidens curse.  In any event here is where I will stay, until the world falls to nothing, as is the proper end of things, according to my intuition.
            If the first Jhems story brought illumination then the second inverted the effect and left confusion.  Both stories held that weighty imprint of a masters voice.  The exact claims of either could neither be verified nor refuted.  In all those present various qualities gravitated to this truth and that.  The Fencer and the Trumpeter had their favorites and each was exuberant with the knowledge that the Answer to Winters Riddle now was certain, to each of them.