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. Dhala’s point clanged off the sterling material of the Trumpeter’s 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 Winter’s 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.
“It’s all so unreasonable,” said the musician, “and such unreason would surely spring from the ruins of reason, improperly implemented. I’ve 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 Trumpeter’s 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 weren’t 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 that’s 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 Fencer’s 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 Trumpeter’s 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 friend’s 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 friend’s 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.
“Don’t you see?” asked Hue, desperately gesturing towards the silent Jhem within the ice. “They’re 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 Hue’s 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 isn’t for themselves; it’s 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 didn’t 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. “Doesn’t 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 wasn’t offering it. He endured the argument in silence, waiting near the fire for the party’s 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 man’s 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 Fencer’s instincts to roll with the strike wasn’t 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 Fencer’s 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.
“Can’t 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. Hue’s 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 Fencer’s 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.