Remembering little of the black gulfs and drugged mystery of the dreams he dreamed, the Fencer was pulled into wakefulness by cries in the morning. Outside the cylinder dwelling, up the path leading from the town to the cliffs of the great lone mountain Haga Ephos, old Aglyss had been found. He hadn’t made it far.
The Phosians chewed with morbid interested on this breakfast theatre, jostling their colored selves against each other for a better view of the man. A hundred meters up the well worn trail cut by Tellers over the course of generations, those seeking to learn from the ancient Jhem above, an early riser found the corpse. Some unbearable quality of the Fencer’s soul, or that of the weapon he carried, caused the crowd to part.
The old man’s throat was crushed, his tattered robes splayed out, like his tongue which protruded lewd and purple from his weathered face. Old blue eyes strained towards distant gods. Now they would never know if his powers were any more real than the words used to describe them.
“We told him, we told you all, to stay indoors at night,” frowned Hue with a perplexed look on his face.
“Sometimes that’s enough of a reason,” said the Fencer. He never knew the old priest well, but he felt a certain bond with this fellow traveler. “Say a place is forbidden, someone will venture there. Sequester a people on a far island; there will be some who spend all their time in effort to leave the place. To declare a riddle impossible to solve is to provoke those irascible hearts that can’t bear the touch of such an absolute.”
“I take it you still wish to risk the ascent?” asked Hue, considering the Fencer’s philosophy. He was different from the rest of his fellow Phosians, a hybrid of their unique endeavors and the reason which the Fencer so cherished.
“In a way,” began the swordsman before becoming distracted by the exodus of the villagers.
The spectacle of this one old, tenacious and possibly crazed man, was used up and more interesting diversions lay elsewhere. In ones and twos and groups and clumps the polychromatics left the scene. Even the Trumpeter, who had borne silent witness to the dead man whose company he so thoroughly enjoyed, drifted off on the current.
From the path above the Fencer fumed. “Where are you off to?” he shouted down at his companion.
“There are entertainments to be had,” declared the Trumpeter defensively. “This particular golden-haired young lady is said to be capable of a certain trick of the body which must be experienced to be believed and I intend to be a very eager audience. Are you offering other fare?”
In response the Fencer lifted his hand upwards. Behind him loomed the vivid spire of Haga Ephos, whose peak rose higher than even the Wondering Mountains far to the south. In the morning light the various cliffs, ridges, escarpments and rises spoke in splintered glory, with sweeps of ice and ancient snows. Untold mystery and horror awaited.
“Oh I see; another mad plan.” The Trumpeter’s tone became angry.
“You can’t go now, it takes time to proffer the services of a Teller,” explained Hue with increasing worry.
“I have no intention of waiting on the grace of any such professional,” responded the Fencer flatly.
“You intend to scale Haga Ephos blind, unaware, unguided?”
“That’s exactly what he intends,” sneered the Trumpeter. “Another mad dance, another crazed sortie against the unseen forces of mystery. Well, I’ll not be going to another frozen hell while the warm confines of such welcome hosts remain available.” A flood of resentment spewed from the musician, all without the aid of his signature instrument. The Fencer flushed at the challenge, but quickly set his jaw against the pronouncements of his suddenly fair-weather friend.
“These Phosians know nothing and are nothing,” said the cobalt-haired swordsman. “They preen and parade themselves in competition for an unattainable obscurity. As brainless as birds, they build nest after nest, all colorfully festooned and useless. Upon these slopes lie the answers to untold questions, but all they do with the knowledge is line their homes and paint themselves with wit bereft of wisdom. Look, they can hear me, and still haven’t the pride to defend themselves from my insults.”
“Is that such a terrible thing?” answered the Trumpeter with stunning reason in his voice. “Perhaps this is the answer to Winter’s Riddle; to accept what comes, do what one can, and deny brute violence and ambition!”
In cold light, gone a bit grey with a passing cloud, the Fencer considered this most sound argument. A warm breeze hit him, a flash of vast gardens, inhuman creatures, half-remembered dreams, and he knew how to respond.
“Maybe you are correct,” admitted the Fencer, and watched as the Trumpeter’s eyes grew wide in shock at his accepting tone. “But I’d wager the answer is more than mere survival and distraction. Or maybe it is these peoples’ answer and not my own. Whatever the case these Jhem might know more, if they are truly from the time before the snows. One more climb, one more local custom broken, fairly typical for us.”
The Trumpeter worried at a fingernail but had already made up his mind.
“I’m going too,” said Hue as he bounded down the path to get his things.
“I said, I don’t want a Teller,” replied the Fencer.
“Oh, I’m not going as one,” smiled Hue. “There are answers I seek too.”
They buried old Aglyss on a foothill leading to the great spire. The Trumpeter remembered certain gods and verses muttered by the proselyte and when in doubt made up words which sounded fair. Then, with strings of smoked fish, pouches full of nuts and dried fruits, they set off for the heights, the Fencer grumbling about the time and Hue explaining what he could about the venture before them.
They made the first Jhem by midday. Cresting a narrow, cliff-faced path the trail broke out upon a great frozen pool, several hundred meters across. At the far end, against higher stretches of the mountain’s stone, a spindly frozen waterfall gleamed. The last of the morning haze obscured this spectacle in gauzy folds of dreamstuff.
Hue led them along the trail which curved around the pool and turned away near the falls. Their guide made to continue past and up, but the Trumpeter, overcome by his curiosity, ventured towards a shadowy shape within the cascading glass.
“I’m not sure you’ll care to hear what that one says,” recommended Hue, but already the young man was realizing what little effect sense had on the mad musician. He and the Fencer shrugged and followed after.
Long ago, before Winter and the cold, someone or something had sat itself down under the coursing rush of these falls and froze with advent of the cold. What would possess any sentient being to do such a thing was beyond reason, so in some measure all three of the wanderers present could understand the act. The ice was borne from agitated waters, and it was unclear what lay inside due to the lattice of the ancient crystal. The Trumpeter reached out and touched the great icicle and a crystalline presence filled the minds of all three onlookers.
Fear was the first response the mind has to unsettling proximity with another, and as the Jhem entered their souls they felt centuries of cold terror weigh down. There was no physical movement from within the icy falls and only the reactions from the others confirmed the truth of the phenomena beyond simple delusion.
The quality of the being presented to the band was that of keen intellect, sharpened and cooled by millennia of constant meditation and adamantine discipline. It told its story in measured fashion.
“The world dies, the soul cools, there is nothing but folly in preserving any part of the wisdom which led to this moment,” began the voice. “Still, my brothers and sisters have decided and so I will join them, though I choose to do so in my own way, in hopes that I will be the first encountered by future unhappy generations. I am Aduz, and all is foolishness.”
This was not a discussion; no dialogue would be possible, despite the bluster of the Trumpeter and the keen approbation of the Fencer.
“There is the question of memory,” continued Aduz with the metric voice of a mantra-teller. “It is perhaps all we have, and is also a weight constraining enlightenment. While there is arguable merit in total recall of one’s journey through life, it is the rediscovery of other in space and time which evokes a parallel discovery within the self. If we had perfect knowledge, not only of our own memories but of others as well, then there would be no reason for discovery, and worse. In relying on some instrumentality to hold our knowledge for us, up for easy recall at a moment’s notice, then the basic functions of memory, of carving the future from the past, would halt, and stasis, like an eternal winter, would be triumphant. Such has been said about writing as well. In following this line of inquiry there are certain constraints.”
They waited through the silence that followed in varying degrees of eagerness, but nothing came. The Jhem’s presence receded, leaving the audience to contemplate the cool air for themselves.
“What constraints?” asked the Fencer incredulously.
Hue shrugged. “That is all this one says. These are not beings with whom you can converse; they say set phrases, speeches, diatribes. They have the presence of sentient beings but it appears that whatever process has immortalized them, has also taken away any chance of dialogue.”
“What a scam!” exclaimed the Trumpeter, who hated stories left unfinished. “I demand an argument!”
“I think we’ll have more than enough of those,” responded Hue coolly, watching the Fencer’s as he investigated the frozen tomb, untying his sword when it became clear he couldn’t see within. “There was a reason I didn’t wish to speak to Aduz. Now we’ve lost daylight and will have to return to Phos sooner.”
“Return?” asked the Fencer, no longer considering hewing the creature out of the waterfall.
“It is not safe to stay on the slopes past dark. How many times must I impress that upon you travelers? Was the death of your friend not enough?”
“Your frozen neighbor over there has enlightened me,” smirked the Fencer as he returned to the ascent. “I’m not interested in discussing this.”
“Then you won’t have my help,” stated Hue flatly.
“How far have your Tellers made it up the mountain?”
“Most go up for half a day in order to return before the horrors come out at night. Legends hint of Tellers past who would stay out for a few nights in order bring back greater secrets, but other than Eluax none have the mettle for it anymore.”
“I would say that it will take at least four, maybe five days, to reach the summit of your Haga Ephos,” reasoned the Fencer, nodding in conference with the Trumpeter, who confirmed the estimate with his mountain eyes. “That would mean that even your legendary Tellers have never reached the heights of the mountain, or spoken with the icy things which may still be up there. I intend to do so. You can choose not to come with, but I am set on this course.”
“Are you going along with this madman?” asked the crimson man of the musician.
“Why wouldn’t I?” This seemed the most impossible question to the Trumpeter, already ignoring that morning’s altercation.
Sighing his resignation, Hue’s shoulders dropped and he gestured for them to continue. His lot had been thrown in with the two and even now, despite the deaths of Uiha and Aglyss, he felt that his only means of escaping the binary communities lying beneath the glimmering countenance of the great mountain was to follow along and see how survival might be possible for troublemakers such as these two.
Morning became afternoon and a wet wind rose with the climbers. More frozen falls and ponds and lakes, cut from the dense stone appeared before them. Occasional snowmelt coursed past, proving that the ice they had found was of unnatural origin. Voices waited. Stories waited. And others followed, all the way from the frozen bottom of the world.